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Europe’s Rural B & Bs, Agriturismos and Vacation Home Rentals

Find Your Best Home Base for Back Door Travel

Bed and Breakfasts and Agriturismos Abroad

After a walk through the happy muck of pigs and lambs of the Gori's form, we sit down with Signora Gori and her family to a classic Tuscan table—a sense of harmony, nothing fancy, and no hurry. Most of the food has been produced at the farm with patience and care, in keeping with Italy’s—and now the world’s—Slow Food™ movement (www.slowfood.it).

We sip good red wine, dip our bread in extra virgin olive oil, and savor each slice of prosciutto. Full and content, we enjoy playing at a backgammon board that has provided after-dinner fun for 200 years in this very room. Surrounded by musty family portraits, alongside a few guns used in Italy's 19th-century fight for independence, we raise our wine glasses to good living—Tuscan style.

Agriturismos in Italy, gîtes in France, and Ferienwohnungen in Germany offer the chance to step away from the intensity of city life and into the earthy elegance of the countryside. These rural B & Bs—typically on working farms—provide a great home base, ideal for couples or families traveling by car.

Some agriturismos are simple and rustic, while others are downright luxurious, offering amenities such as swimming pools and riding stables. The quality of the rooms varies, but they are always clean and comfortable. Most places serve tasty homegrown food. Some are vegetarian or organic. Others are gourmet. You may sit down at the table with your host family or cook up your own dinner in your kitchenette. You’ll find agriturismos that offer cooking classes or horseback riding lessons and those that simply set you free on the surrounding hiking trails. It’s up to you to sort out how much action you want and to find the place that suits your style.

Choosing the Right Spots

How do you find the right spots? The same way you’d find a good rental in the U.S. Ask friends, look through guidebooks, check out newspaper real estate listings, and surf the Web (see listings below). Before you look, identify what you hope to experience and where you want to go.

Fortunately for Americans, the British are some of the most avid seekers of rental property in Europe. That means most places show up in English-language catalogs and Web listings. Of course, if you speak another language you can find more alternatives to the sites targeting big-buck North Americans.

Keep in mind that Europeans, who have more experience with weekly rentals than most American travelers, often reserve their favorite place a year in advance. Still, Europe is full of rental opportunities. With a little work you can find one that’s right for you.

Listings on the Web typically fall into three categories: catalog listings from established rental agencies, local or regional listings from cooperating property owners, and individual owners listing single properties. Each source has merits. Established agencies often offer more choices. They check out the properties and provide ratings and reviews and often allow easier payment options such as credit cards. But if you deal directly with the owners you’ll probably pay less.

Generally, Web listings don’t fully disclose the exact location of the property; you’ll get that after you pay. Keep in mind these Web sites are marketing vehicles for the listings. What looks secluded or grand in a photo may actually be next to the local garage. If you have doubts or questions you can usually resolve them via email.

Ten Tips for a Successful Rental

More than anything, you need to be flexible and independent. Once you’ve checked in, that may be the last you see of the owners. Of course emergency contacts are always available.

1. Avoid peak season to sleep cheap. Rental prices follow the old rule of supply and demand. You’ll pay more to visit popular vacation regions when the Europeans take their holidays in July and August. For instance, a Tuscan farmhouse that rents for as much as $1,900 a week at peak times can go for as little as $600 in late September or October.

2. If you want amenities, be willing to pay for them. A private pool can add substantially to the cost. Consider when you’ll be going and whether you’ll use it—at the height of summer, a pool may be worth every extra euro.

3. Rural apartments can be an excellent lower-cost option. Often the owners have renovated an original rambling farmhouse or medieval estate into a series of well-constructed apartments with private kitchens, bathrooms, living areas, and individual outdoor terraces. For one or two people, these can cost less than an entire villa or farmhouse. They usually share a common pool and other amenities.

4. Most properties rent on a traditional Saturday to Saturday time period. You will probably be unable to rent for a different or shorter time, especially during peak seasons.

5. You will need private transportation, such as a rental car, to fully enjoy—or even reach—a rural rental property.

6. Go with the property owner’s suggestions. The rental property usually comes with an "instruction manual" containing information on how to operate the appliances and suggestions for local restaurants, shops, and sightseeing. Discover authentic eateries and activities you might never stumble upon otherwise.

7. Shop at local mom-and-pop grocery stores. Once you get to know your grocer, he’ll treat you like a local—personally selecting the ripest fruit and freshest salad fixings. Part of the fun is collecting all the goodies; the other part is creating meals with them in your fully-equipped kitchen.

8. Explore your neighborhood. An early-morning walk as the sun rises will probably find you in the company of the farmer as he trims his grape vines, or the neighboring Italian grandmother tending her small garden. Go ahead—interact, even if you don’t really speak the language.

9. Start planning your next visit before you return home. Explore rental properties you notice, visit real estate agencies, and ask local residents and ex-pats for recommendations.

10. Slow down and enjoy. One of the joys of staying for at least a week in one location is you can develop a true dolce far niente (sweetness of doing nothing) attitude. If the rain is pattering outside, grab a book from the in-house library and curl up on the sofa. While your time in the countryside may not be action-packed, staying put in one spot leaves you open to the unexpected pleasures that come when you just let the days unwind without a plan.

Rural B & B and Rental Resources

Here are some of the websites featuring rural B & Bs in Europe. U.S. telephone numbers are listed when applicable.

Agriturist, www.agriturist.it. Over 1,700 farms throughout Italy—listings in Italian and German.

Agriturismo Italy, www.agriturismoitaly.it. Farm holidays.

Farm Holidays, www.it-farmholidays.it. Rooms and apartments at 300 farms in Tuscany, Umbria, and elsewhere in Italy.

France by Heart, www.francebyheart.com. Vacation properties in France.

France: Homestyle, www.francehomestyle.com. Vacation rentals in France.

Hideaways, www.hideaways.com. Rentals worldwide.

Holiday Home, www.holiday-home.com. Rentals in 40 countries.

In Italy Online, www.initaly.com. Agriturismos and other listings.

Italian Villas, www.italianvillas.com. Home rentals in Italy.

Rentvillas.com, www.italyfarmholidays.com. European rentals.

Villas International, www.villasintl.com. Europe and beyond.

Thanks to Rick Garman for his help with this article.