Camper vans

Down on the farm

La Vigna

A retreat in the country

After my Italy trip I’m keen to extol the virtues of life on the farm.

Fear not, I don’t mean milking cows and delivering lambs (although I’m sure there’s some niche holidays that probably offer this experience), but staying in holiday cottages, apartments and on farm camp sites.

Before heading off to Umbria I wasn’t sure how best to book accommodation in the countryside.

In the past, I’ve found that searches for holiday villas have often thrown up: 1) expensive cottages catering for 10-12 people, 2) town centre apartments in slightly cramped alleyways with no outdoor terraces, or 3) houses which only offer a full week or two week stay.

Looking for smaller properties which offer accommodation for two/four people can be tricky.

But the good news is that an increasing number of farms are offering a wider range of accommodation (catering for small and larger groups).

Better still, many are now willing to book a short or odd-numbered run of dates, perhaps because of the recession and a drop in demand.

Wine and food

I’ve been a long-time fan of Italy’s Agriturismo holiday stays.  These are high quality farm and country holidays at a variety of prices in different regions across Italy.

One of the good things about this form of agri-tourism is that you can sample the farm produce.

My first experience of agri-tourism was in 2004 when we stayed at a vineyard on the outskirts of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

Tuscany

Tuscany – view from the vineyard apartment

Not only did the spacious apartment have great views over the surrounding countryside and the city’s medieval towers, but every morning we threw back the shutters to smell the fruity grape mulch from the vineyard.

It was harvest time so there was plenty of activity and the wine producers were keen to demonstrate their wines in the tasting room nearby.  Needless to say, we bought endless bottles of red and white wine which we drank throughout the holiday.

The only downside to the location was that it was too far to walk into San Gimignano so we were reliant on the car but this was a small price to pay for the solitude and authentic countryside experience.

Last month we were back on another vineyard this time in Umbria – close to the picturesque hill top village of Saragano, south of Perugia.

La Vigna farm and vineyard is located in a sensational setting with breath-taking views and scenery.  It is also close enough to local shops and restaurants which means it is easy to ‘mix and match’ cooking at the villa or enjoying meals out in nearby villages.

Il Torriere in Saragano

La Vigna in Saragano

It was a thrill to have Devis, who works at the farm, show us the vines, and explain how they also make olive oil. He gave us a guided tour of the wine production area with its oak and stainless steel barrels. Although he spoke only Italian we caught the drift of what he was saying (thanks to a  lot of wild Charade-style gestures).

Tasty Tony

Tony relaxes down on the farm

We couldn’t resist buying several bottles of the excellent quality red wine (the boss said he couldn’t charge us the full price so each bottle only cost 3 Euros).

It was a real treat to drink the vineyard’s wine sitting on the terrace overlooking the vines and the winery where it had been made.

The owners also left us a complimentary welcome basket on arrival with local food, wine and olive oil from the farm.

And there were almost daily trips from the farm workers to drop in fresh eggs, free of charge. The eggs tasted great, even if they were slightly odd shapes and sizes, but I guess that’s what ‘authentic’ really means!

We were lucky to have the run of the whole place as nobody else was staying that week but the three apartments were spaced out – and each had its own private sitting area as well as the shared pool.

I’d certainly recommend this type of holiday to anyone looking for peace and quiet – but you’re also within easy reach of historic towns and villages if you decide to go sightseeing.

The Umbria Villas website provides a good overview of all the farms and vineyard accommodation including photos and virtual tours of the properties.

Il Torriere in Saragano

On the terrace at La Vigna

Tammy’s top tips

  • Spend some time researching the property and looking at its layout and facilities. Consider if it has a private terrace, sitting area, a pool and good views over the surrounding area. Look at the small print in the description of the villa.
  • Choose a property in a rural location where there are reasonably short driving distances to places of interest and local shops & restaurants.
  • Don’t expect full mod cons. Most country farm villas don’t have air conditioning so keep the property as cool as possible during the daytime by closing shutters or getting a decent air flow. Not all have televisions.

Traditional self-catering

I’ve also stayed in more traditional holiday lets in France and Spain where villas or apartments offer the standard suite of rooms, an outside terrace and sometimes a swimming pool.

The problem is that it’s harder to identify good quality but affordable villas or apartments for smaller groups of 2-4 people.

Back in 2002 I booked a two-person apartment on a fruit farm in Provence close to the Roman town of Vaison de la Romaine.

Provence villa

A week in Provence

Again, it combined the best of the countryside with proximity to a small town.

But bear in mind that some fruit farms can attract insects so we did have a bit of a wasp attack problem sitting outside on the terrace!

I’m a big fan of Flipkey (linked to Trip Advisor) which has a good range of worldwide villas with useful consumer reviews. 

Top tips:

  • Make sure you book through a reliable agent or check the track record of the person who is letting out the property. Some may ask for payment in full by bank transfer which I found simpler than I’d imagined. This will cost an additional £15-£30 in bank fees.
  • Some villas will  ask for an additional deposit or security bond which you’ll get back on leaving at the end of your stay. 

British farm trips

Kendal

The circus comes to the farm – Kendal

In the UK we’ve stayed on many farms in the camper van and again it can be an interesting experience – which doesn’t cost too much (often between £5-12).

It can be a bit of an adventure if you’re looking for something beyond the standard tourism experience.

Once I woke up to find the camper van surrounded by turkeys – and on another trip sheep took a fancy to using the truck’s bumper as a rubbing post at night.

On a farm in Kendal we arrived to find a circus setting up in the field next door with an elephant grazing over the camp site hedge.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many certified locations (CLs) run by the Caravan Club on farms in the UK. 

There is a limit of five vans on these sites so you’re guaranteed peace and quiet plus a room with a cracking view.

Many farms also run self catering cottages at a variety of prices.

We stayed at an alpaca farm in Cheshire last year which provided good standard accommodation plus close-up views of the animals.

I’m now a bit of an expert on these camelids, having read multiple editions of Alpaca Monthy in the farm cottage!

Alpacas

Alpacas in Knutsford – strange but true

Top tips

  • Shop around on the internet for holiday cottage lets. Once again, check the small print and the full list of facilities.
  • Join the Caravan Club if you have a motorhome or camper van and fancy a trip to a farm site CL. Not all sites have full facilities (hook ups/electric, showers/toilets) or a hard standing so check before you book.
  • In bad weather avoid muddy fields unless you have someone who can pull you out of the bog with a tractor!

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