“Put it in the tourist apartments!” was the solution when any ugly, cheap, useless piece of furniture or décor was found in the tower or barn or basement at Poggiarello. It was the early 1990s, and agriturismo was a new vacation idea, devised mostly by the English, who wanted to spend time on a working farm, joining in planting or pruning or harvesting and cooking for themselves, while enjoying Italian country life at the fraction of the cost of a hotel. We were a long way from the designer-decorated, Jacuzzi-outfitted, air-conditioned standards of a typical Tuscan house rental today. At the time, the Italian government offered funding to property owners who would restore buildings and open an agriturismo. Needless to say, anyone with an empty chicken coop found a way to access the money, and within a few years, guest houses opened all over the region.
My first trip to Italy was as an agriturismo client, so when I eventually moved to Poggiarello, after a season supervising the business, I set about re-vamping it. We sandblasted the ceilings, painted decades ago when white-washing was considered “sanitary,” to reveal the 300-year-old chestnut beams and scrubbed the floors with caustic soda to remove the red paint from the old terracotta tiles. In one room, the floors kept foaming up a layer of white dust, which we eventually realized was salt. In here, prosciutto and salami had been aged, no doubt. In a painful decision, we removed the huge old hearths from the kitchens—we had summer guests, and I was sure they would appreciate dishwashers more than a fireplace you could sit in and cook. We re-tiled the kitchens and converted the huge shower rooms into two bathrooms and a laundry nook. I taught my Italian family to refer to our guests as ospiti or amici instead of turisti, and insisted we host a weekly aperitivo for the English families that were invariably our guests.
And so began a decade of hosting many of the same people each season, our children falling right in with one another after a year of growth, all of us chatting poolside in the long summer afternoons. The cocktails became dinners, and the adults sat late into the night at our courtyard table, while the children ran through the garden catching fireflies or played hide and seek in the tower.
We converted the stables into two more cottages, and decorated them with furniture we found by canvassing antique shows for tables, vitrines, and dressers, and Sienese prints and ceramics. We put in new appliances, but stopped at air conditioning. Old houses have thick walls—that would have to be cool enough. The agency begged for screens, but my husband balked: “They leave the doors wide open all day long!” My mother-in-law would still go into the houses while our guests were out sightseeing, turning off lights and commenting on foreign housekeeping ways. I had rented beach houses with her and knew her vacation standards: she brought two prepared roasts, five liters of olive oil and her own iron, so it was useless to explain the concept of letting it all go.
One afternoon, a fellow by the last name Comporti called my home phone, and asked about apartment rentals, but our rule was no Italians: they would feel too at home and be loud and intrusive. A few days later, an American woman called, and booked the two weeks Comporti had wanted, under the name Harrison. Perfect, I thought, and her kids were the same age as mine. It turns out she was Comporti’s wife, and they lived in Florence. They brought a bunch of Italian friends, and indeed, stayed up all night drinking wine by the pool, playing guitar and letting the kids run wild. And I had never seen the apartments left in a worse state. But we became fast friends—he was charming, and had a keen sense of humor; she was smart, beautiful and fun (she had dropped out of Dartmouth to come to Italy and run a bar) and a devoted, relaxed mother. Later, their daughter was baptized in our chapel. Stefano, the husband, would speed away every afternoon in their jeep and come back two hours later. One day, I asked him why they had chosen Poggiarello for their vacation–after all, they had Tuscany the whole rest of the year. “It’s close to a skeet shooting range,” he said.
For some practical tips on travel in Tuscany, see http://www.thetruthabouttuscany.com/tuscan-holiday-tips/.