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Secret hotels of Italy

By Kate Appleton, BudgetTravel.com
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Fri September 23, 2011
Rolling slopes planted with Nebbiolo grapes at Tenuta Montanello showcase the scenery of Piedmont.
Rolling slopes planted with Nebbiolo grapes at Tenuta Montanello showcase the scenery of Piedmont.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Italy's Piedmont region is full of old farms and wineries
  • Reap the benefits of the slow food movement by staying at one of the farms
  • Rustic farm homes are eco-friendly and still luxurious

(BudgetTravel.com) -- Wouldn't it be easier if Italy were just a bit more boring? The art, the history, the landscapes, the pasta -- seriously, you're always going to feel like there's more to do (or eat). If actual relaxing is on your agenda, the Piedmont region may just be your answer.

Tucked into the northwestern corner of the country, Piedmont pulled the short straw when it came to major Italian attractions. This is nothing but farm country, home to countless hazelnut groves, Barolo wineries, and truffle-studded fields, a place where folks have so much time on their hands, they created Italy's slow-food movement.

Most tourists don't bother with Piedmont, and those who do have little choice but to stay in unpretentious, family-run inns that serve meals made from what the owners grow and raise themselves. No crowds, authentic farm-to-table cuisine, endless Barolo -- wait, that doesn't sound so bad after all. In fact, it sounds like heaven. Leave it to Italy to make even life in the slow lane completely irresistible.

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Tenuta Montanello

A winery with a glorious view and a storied past

Fifth-generation winemaker Alberto Racca left an office job in Turin to return to his childhood home at Tenuta Montanello, releasing his first Barolo in 2001. About 140 years earlier, his great-great-grandfather had founded not only the winery but the first cooperative of local producers. The 99-acre estate has an enviable hilltop position overlooking cascading vineyards in countless shades of green, punctuated by the crenellated fortresses of medieval towns like La Morra and, yes, Barolo, just visible in the distance.

Guests wake up to this view each day and taste the estate's wines at their leisure. It's a treat to chat with Racca in the cellar -- where his Barolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Langhe Nebbiolo wines are slowly coming into their own -- way out of earshot of any tour groups.

An adjacent building offers five rooms with a polished country look: cotto tiles, plaid bedding, antique wood furnishings, and curved metal headboards. A ground-floor room is wheelchair accessible, and an apartment caters to families; Racca shares two other apartments with his wife, Monica, and their two young children. Everyone can make use of the communal breakfast room -- decorated with framed historic maps, a cabinet painted in a harvest motif, and fresh lilac sprigs -- and pluck a fig or two from the yard.

Via Alba Monforte, 40, 12060 Castiglione Falletto, Cuneo province, tenutamontanello.it, from $86

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Casa Isabella

Heirlooms and art in a renovated hillside house

When architect Monica Barattieri and her husband, Alessandro, couldn't take the stressful pace of Turin any longer, they knew where to turn: Asti province, about a 75-minute drive to the southeast and their favorite weekend getaway. A farmhouse on a gentle slope surrounded by vineyards for Barbera and Cabernet won them over within a week.

The couple left the brick pillars, walls, and floors intact but spent four years on painstaking renovations -- enlisting the talents of friends and raiding their family closets in the process. So there's a story behind almost everything in four-room Casa Isabella, named for Alessandro's mother. Her photo rests discreetly on a mantle in the living room, which is painted in pleasantly muted shades of lilac and peach, with a ceiling-high stack of books about the region and design.

Alessandro's grandmother contributed the kitchen's 17th-century oil paintings of fruits and vegetables, while Monica's grandparents supplied a bedroom's gleaming art deco headboard and matching armoire and dresser. The masterpiece is the top-floor suite, outfitted with a sink that was once a church's holy-water basin, a modern soaking tub directly below a huge skylight, and a 19th-century barocco piemontese sofa in ornate burgundy brocade. Divided by a deep-red and gray partition, the sleeping area showcases a friend's hand-stitched bed linens.

Although hiking paths and day-trip-worthy towns abound, Monica understands why some guests don't venture far beyond the house and its pool, garden, and bocce court. After all, she's more than happy to hang out there, too. "Anyone who comes here to stay with us is looking to find the downtime that they normally don't have," she says. "That's what we want to provide."

Via La Pietra 5, 14049 Vaglio Serra, Asti Province, casa-isabella.com, from $171

Cascina Sant' Eufemia

A rustic farmhouse where everyone is welcome to get their hands dirty

If there's a hospitality gene, Chiara Andreis and Paolo Nasi were born with it. The husband and wife share a down-to-earth nature that puts visitors at ease, even while juggling the upkeep of a hazelnut orchard and vineyard. They work alongside Andreis's parents -- and anyone else who wants to lend a hand, particularly during the September and October grape harvest.

Whatever the season, the couple gets to know guests over breakfast spreads of local cheeses, salumi, and homemade pastries in the large kitchen, or while lounging by the log burner in the homey living area, formerly a cattle shed. "This work is very nice because you don't have time to visit the world, but you learn different things from people who visit you," reflects Nasi.

Since Cascina Sant'Eufemia's 2005 debut, he has kept track by updating a map with flags pinned to guests' countries of origin. When one family from Denmark made a repeat visit, the kids piped up about Andreis's memorable apple fritters -- and she promptly enlisted their help in making a fresh batch. Want to ditch the car? Just ask to borrow a bicycle.

In keeping with this informal approach, accommodations are comfortable, spacious, and modest. Three rooms and two studios range from the rustic yellow room, with exposed wood beams and a staircase leading up to a loft bed, to the elegant blue studio, with lace-trimmed sheets and a skylight. Andreis and Nasi also tailor dinner recommendations to match varied tastes. Most of the time, they send guests to locavore restaurants that ascribe to the slow-food movement, which was launched just a short drive away in the town of Bra, in the heart of southern Piedmont.

Loc. Sant'Eufemia, 3, 12050 Sinio, Cuneo province, cascinasanteufemia.it, from $86

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Tetto Garrone

An ecofriendly labor of love where florals go mod

When Tetto Garrone celebrated its opening in 2009, host Fulvio Faccia told the well-wishers, "You should be proud of this building because it speaks to the talents of the community." Two teams of architects, builders, ironworkers, and electricians, all from Roata Rossi, had worked for three years to renovate the two-story brick structure, combining traditional materials with innovative ones like the photovoltaic roof panels that produce electricity.

They divided the second-story hay barn into eight large rooms that open onto a balcony. A science teacher by day with degrees in biology and agriculture, Faccia had the inspired idea to fashion each room around a local fruit, including damaschino (a kind of plum) and cotogno (quince). His mother, who owns the property, and a cousin sewed the drapes, pillows, and tablecloths, mixing and matching floral patterns.

The resulting look is cheerful and crisp, with contemporary touches like oversize hanging lights with linen shades and sliding-screen closet doors. The most enchanting room features warm purple walls and a high ceiling with original exposed beams. They called the room mure, or mulberry, whose leaves fed the silkworms that were cultivated in this southwestern corner of Piedmont until the 1950s. There's even a mulberry tree amid the hazel, walnut, and chestnut orchards that ripen each July.

Tetto Garrone's garden is also Faccia's handiwork, and its yield appears at the breakfast table. A typical morning begins with his mother's hazelnut cake, fresh pulpy peach or pear juice, soft local cheeses, and bread with two kinds of homemade jam. You'll likely have the pleasure of having your meal interrupted by Faccia's adorable kids, Pietro, 6, and MagalĂ­, 4, before it's off to school for them and out to the countryside for you.

Via Campagna, 45, 12100, Roata Rossi, Cuneo province, tettogarrone.it, from $107

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Villa Ile

A grand farmhouse run by a traditional yet groundbreaking host

Ileana Allisio is a pioneer in many fields: She launched the first agriturismo in the region in 1985; she was the rare woman to make a career as a winemaker; and before all of that, she honed her design chops as a successful interior decorator.

These days, Allisio's style is imprinted on the four guest rooms at her Ville Ile: There's the romantic, rose-pink Room 3, which has an ornate baroque armoire (a family heirloom) and balcony doors just begging to be thrown open onto the garden and the outlying vineyards. Room 1, which is larger and done in muted blue and yellow tones, also opens onto the balcony and showcases paintings by her son Alessandro alongside a local artist's black-and-white sketches of the river Alba.

Allisio's own paintings line the staircase down to the living room and breakfast area; the engraved china cabinet was a wedding present given to her husband's grandmother. Villa Ile feels like it hails from an earlier, more courteous time, when a host would give each guest an individualized gift (perhaps a book you'd discussed or a bottle of wine you favored), make you just the breakfast you desired (crepes one day, for instance, toast with homemade jams and fresh butter the next), and remember you with a card come Christmas -- all of which, it turns out, Allisio does, naturally.

Str. Rizzi, 18 -- 12050 Treiso, Cuneo province, villaile.it, from $111

La Traversina

A quirky retreat with a communal table for home-cooked meals

Rosanna Varese's grandfather gambled away most of his fortune, but he managed to hold on to the ivy-covered farmhouse at Piedmont's eastern edge that has been in their family since 1714. The quiet estate, secluded in the woods, hasn't changed much since then.

"This house was absolutely in my soul," says Varese, who spent childhood summers here and opened it as an agriturismo in 1989. (Today, however, there are no children -- or televisions -- allowed.) Varese is the warmest of hosts, often greeting guests with a glass of local Cortese white wine and canestrelli biscuits.

Along with her several cats and a sheepdog with dreads named Ollie, she frequently welcomes an eclectic group of world travelers. "Sometimes we have five or six nationalities sharing the table at dinner," says Varese. "After a second glass of wine, we're all friends."

Another staple is her accomplished regional cooking, including dishes such as homemade pesto with twisted trofie pasta and melanzane al forno, eggplant topped with huge meaty tomatoes from her garden. The special strain of tomato has been in her husband Domenico's family for decades and can weigh over two pounds.

The couple has filled the main house's four rooms and three adjacent apartments with a hodgepodge of goods from their travels: rugs from Turkey and Morocco, china from French flea markets, and Indonesian batik wall hangings. The mellow vibe is completed by yoga classes, offered free to all guests.

15060 Stazzano, Alessandria province, latraversina.com, from $129

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