As Franco Rondini stands on a ladder, picking cherries, I ask him if he is harvesting them for tonight's dessert. "No," he says, with a signature shrug of his shoulders, "just eating lunch." I laugh, grab a few cherries for myself, and saunter through the field to our apartment. Franco may be busy running his Umbrian agriturismo with his wife Bozena, but he epitomizes the Italian view of life in taking time to stop and literally enjoy the fruits of his harvest.
Umbria, Tuscany's lesser-known neighbour, is known as the green heart of Italy. What better way to see it than by staying on a farm? In order to encourage small farmers to stay on their land, Italy has created a system of agriturismi, or agriculture tourism. Working farmers may augment their income by hosting guests, allowing tourists to experience life on an Italian farm and sample locally grown food. Agriturismi can vary from hobby farms with a full-scale hotel, to large farm operations with a few rooms rented out.
We stayed at Casa Rondini, on the western edge of Umbria. The Rondinis harvest saffron, olives and grapes, all three of which they use to create locally sold products. They also have almond, fig, cherry, and kiwi trees on the property, from which Bozena creates the most delicious desserts and jams.
Our self-catering apartment, one of five on their property, makes the perfect location for a month-long visit to the area. Our two children love the garden and the animals — a lazy cat, pet rabbits, chickens, and Gilda the donkey, who brays if Franco doesn't pay her enough attention.
The farm feels remote — the view from our porch is of poppy fields and olive groves. Yet we are only a seven-minute drive from the freeway, making it a great spot from which to explore the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany. After a morning spent doing schoolwork with the children, jogging through the nearby dirt roads and farms, collecting eggs or patting Gilda, we hop into our car and head off to discover a new town.
Montepulciano, in Tuscany, charms us with its Etruscan wine caves, complete with medieval cannons and suits of armour. We devour the local pecorino cheese, made from sheep's milk. Sunset in Assisi, after a rainstorm, brings out the contrast between the white and brown stones of its architecture. Next time we'll be sure to arrive earlier, to fully enjoy Giotto's frescos in the basilica.
We make three trips to Orvieto, a charming town built on a mesa of volcanic rock. On one visit we watch a parade of locals dressed in medieval costume weave through the narrow streets. Each quarter of the town decorates its streets and door fronts in its colours, adding to the pageantry. On another day we watch a live chess match in front of the gold-gilt Duomo. The players, once again dressed in medieval finery, move according to the directions of a jester. Though we can't understand his jokes it's clear it is very funny, as the Italian audience roars with laughter.