How Italy’s agriturismo movement gave rise to The Isabella Experience
Women entrepreneurs in Tuscany are scarce. This pastoral region of Italy, beloved by tourists, is alluring because of its uniquely beautiful landscape, its fine food and wine, and its stubborn adherence to tradition. It isn’t renowned for its embrace of outsiders with fresh ideas about how things ought to be done. Which is why Isabella Moricciani’s story is worth hearing.
At 50, Isabella is the life force behind The Isabella Experience, a hospitality concept she honed at Cretaiole, an alluring inn situated just outside Pienza, which was her first foray into Italy’s famed agriturismo movement more than 20 years ago. She has since built her enterprise into a thriving business with four properties and a new restaurant attracting guests from around the world. It’s one thing to run a small bed and breakfast, it’s quite another to create a unique hospitality concept that combines many diverse aspects of a Tuscan holiday and is so enticing it gets the attention of one of the world’s top travel experts.
Her success, Isabella said, is based on her laser focus on her mission. “I’m not selling beds, I’m selling a concept, a way to spend a holiday in Tuscany,” she explained. “If you come here, you have an experience, a week of special encounters. It changes your life.”
Isabella, a self-styled “city girl” who was born and raised in Milan in Italy’s industrial north in what she describes as “a family of entrepreneurs,” came to Tuscany, specifically the glorious Renaissance village of Pienza, back in 1997 on a vacation trip during the Christmas holidays. With her brother’s recommendation, she stayed at Cretaiole, a 14th-century farmhouse on the outskirts of Pienza that Luciano Moricciani, a local farmer, had converted into an agriturismo, a combination inn and working farm.
The agriturismo movement in Italy formally began in 1985 when the Italian government initiated tax breaks for struggling farmers who could host travelers on their properties. Luciano had opened Cretaiole in the early 1990s to take advantage of the tax laws and add to the family income. Along with his wife, Liliana, and son Carlo, Luciano raised livestock, chickens, and produce, planted olive trees and vineyards, and built a nice side business attracting mostly Italian tourists to the working farm. On her visit, Isabella, a creative and ambitious young businesswoman who was the assistant to the executive director at Campari, met Carlo and the spark was immediate. They dated long distance for a while until Carlo convinced her to relocate to Pienza, where they married and began a family. Despite serious trepidation, Isabella joined the family business and quickly started suggesting changes. She envisioned transforming the inn into a vibrant, enticing tourist destination. “The family did not really know what I was doing,” she recalled. “There was a lot of resistance.”
Though Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the rural areas remained conservative and traditional, which made Isabella’s undertaking an ongoing challenge. Pienza, designed by the Renaissance humanist Silvius Piccolomini (who became Pope Pius II) is so beautiful, set against the backdrop of the breathtaking Val d’Orcia, that famed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli filmed part of his 1968 masterpiece, “Romeo and Juliet,” in Pienza.
“Cretaiole was my gem,” Isabella said. “It made me discover my passion for hospitality.” From the start, she did everything, from cleaning rooms to acting as the concierge for guests. Luciano had focused only on Italian tourists but Isabella saw that as limiting. Fluent in four languages, including English, she wanted to attract Americans, Canadians, and other Europeans. She upgraded the accommodations and added a host of activities that made the guests feel like they were part of the family. She and Liliana began pasta-making classes in the idyllic courtyard, teaching how to create the local favorite, pici, by hand. They held group dinners under the stars featuring food and drink produced on the farm. She offered tastings of the olive oil and grappa from the farm, and she led guests on expeditions to nearby Etruscan ruins. She learned of the best restaurants in neighboring villages such as Montepuciano and Montalcino so she could offer recommendations. And she listened intently to what travelers wanted. The word of mouth began to attract more visitors, many of whom came back again and again.
My wife and I first visited Cretaiole in 2003 and promptly fell in love with the rustic accommodations, the bucolic setting, and the Moriccianis. We had heard about the wonders of Tuscany, but we had not expected this personal, hands-on experience that Isabella presented. Like others who visited, we enthusiastically sent friends and family to Pienza.
Cretaiole’s popularity grew, eventually attracting the notice of Rick Steves, the popular travel writer and host of his own American Public Television travel show. A glowing recommendation from Steves caused interest to skyrocket. The resulting requests were more than Cretaiole could handle. At that point, Isabella’s entrepreneurial roots kicked in and she began to buy other properties, branding her business as The Isabella Experience. She has added three more lodgings in the area, including her newest, La Moscadella, a former 16th-century monastery near Castelmuzio. One of the high-end properties rents for 8,500 euros (about $9,500) per week.
“Isabella has created a kind of Tuscan cultural boot camp,” said Steves, who publishes travel guides along with his television series. “Creating the best agriturismo experience is finding a balance between roughing it and the farmhouse B&B equivalent of ‘glamping.’ The accommodations may be rustic but the banquet of cultural experiences — hikes, art, cooking, connecting with her family — is first class. That’s my kind of travel.”
For Isabella, the key to success has been attracting the kind of travelers who revel in this kind of experience. “Booking.com doesn’t bring the right people to us,” she said. “I want people to come and have a cultural immersion with us. They find that the dolce vita is here.”