Student Blogger Study Abroad

Breakfast with Tuscan Cowboys – Study Abroad in Italy

A string of saddles are draped across a post. They vary in color from deep to light brown.

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Kevin Corrigan will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice program this fall semester. Kevin is a student at Denison University, majoring in Environmental Sustainability and minoring in Philosophy. Read on for Kevin’s description of his field visit to Maremma in Italy!

On Wednesday, Sept. 19th, we HECUA Italy students embarked on our first long field trip, a beach and ranch adventure spanning three days in Maremma, Tuscany’s costal region. Wednesday morning we boarded our bus and headed to the agriturismo where we stayed for two nights. Agriturismos are a common tourist accommodation in the region that allow guests to bunk in local farms where they are able to access fresh, home-grown food, terrestrial beauty, and a refreshing change of pace. Agriturismos are a popular moneymaker in Tuscany, as they provide accommodation in the countryside and connect inhabitants with the historically rich and beautiful Tuscan region, allowing them to relax and experience quintessential “Italia” as well as access sleepy towns, vineyards, and beaches that can be hours from major Italian cities. I think agriturismos are great as they foster a connection with the land and culture exponentially more than a hotel stay.

This agriturismo was owned by a friend of Filippo (one of our two program directors) so, thankfully, they were able to accommodate seventeen students and two professors for two nights. When we arrived we were greeted warmly and after an introduction and some time to relax, we were taken up to the top of one of the property’s hills where we could see the distant sea, mountains, and listened to the deep history of the region. The land, deeply rooted in agricultural history, looked down upon classic as well as organic farms. The soil was rich in minerals and content great for agriculture, but also with history. Romans and Etruscans had farmed and battled on these lands, our two professors, Filippo and Riccardo explained, and in the distance stood towers overlooking the coast that clergymen had built to warn townsmen of pirates. While we stood, we were prodded and snuggled upon by Luca’s (the owner of the land) curious horses, who roam the hill freely and majestically.

HECUA Italy student Kevin Corrigan wears a checked shirt and sunglasses as he stands near a brown and white spotted horse.

That afternoon we visited an organic dairy farm and were given a tour of the land, the milking facility, and of course: an introduction to the girls! We discussed the difficulties that come with organic farming under the Common Agriculture Policy; despite comprising 14% of agriculture in Europe, organic institutions only receive around 9% of subsidies—an injustice and a poor policy decision when considering quality, ethics, and sustainable development.

The farm was just up the road from where we stayed, and that night we cooked dinner on Luca’s stone grill and feasted as the sun set. While everyone in the program is getting along swimmingly, it is still early and it was a fantastic bonding experience as we all ate bread and cheese, grilled bell peppers, zucchini, and Tuscan sausage and drank wine. I think it may be my favorite meal here yet!

The next day, Thursday, we went to a Maremma beach and had a meeting and tour with the famous buttieri—a uniquely Tuscan cowboy—as we were shown the public 10,000 hectare ranch where massive steer roam only minutes from the sea. That morning, we drove by bus to the beach and arrived on a quiet sandy beach that merged the low-lying forest with the Mediterranean.  The slightly overcast day made everything a gray-blue and the scene was incredible. We dove in the water, ran on the beach, looked at shells, dove in and out of driftwood lean-tos, and watched local Italians enjoy a pleasant morning on the pristine Italian coast. It was tough to leave the beach, but after a bagged lunch eaten by the sea, it was time to head inland only a few miles to meet the buttieri.

Arriving was like a scene out of a Western. Beautiful horses galloped around their pens and wooden fences ran for miles into the horizon, disappearing into the mountains. The buttieri who spoke with us and gave us a tour was a rugged and burly Italian who was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the land and the buttieri. The land the ranch sits on, which is now publicly owned by the region, was once a wet and mosquito-ridden marsh which was converted into pasture and fertile farmland when Tuscany had battling ruling families and kings. Many settlers had died early on due to malaria, and in the summer the land was uninhabitable due to the bugs. He explained that like many other areas of Tuscany, the land was originally share-cropped and that was why there were old farmhouses scattered on equal plots over the massive ranch, as long ago each farmer was given a stable, a house, and a plot of soil to work. Today the buttieri raise cattle on the ranch and they’re damn proud of their roots. We were told of a showdown between Buffalo Bill’s band of traveling cowboys and the buttieri right on the estate we stood upon. The land’s rich and dynamic history only added to the experience of seeing the looming bulls sauntering around the fields under the blue Tuscan sky.

After a long day of swimming and touring, we retired to our agriturismo, rested, and prepared for a large dinner at a local restaurant. We all sat at a long table, toasted our hosts, and laughed as we ate great bread, pasta dishes, and for most—pizza.

Friday morning was warm and sunny and after a breakfast of delicious chocolate chip breakfast cake (I know it sounds crazy, but it was tasty!), milk from the dairy farm down the road we had visited, and of course, some coffee, we learned today we would be taking it easy and enjoying a morning at a beach in Grossetto before heading back to Montespertoli. There were few complaints! As we were preparing to leave, we learned that the pregnant cow we had visited the other day had given birth to her calf and we were invited back to see the new baby—a gaggle of awkward legs and shy innocence. It was pretty amazing, as I had never experienced anything like it, to see the calf and his mother so connected, so essentially human, as she made sure to protect him from us and the other cows, comforting him and nudging him up onto his own two legs.

The second beach day brought great body surfing as the waves had picked up a bit, as well as an arguably unsuccessful (but very fun!) volleyball bump circle and lunch consisting of fruits and panini on the sand. When it was time to head home to Montespertoli we had to be called from the water like kids at recess on the first warm spring day of the year. The field trip exceeded all expectations, from our accommodations which were welcoming, immersive and enriching, to the seriousness and ruggedness of the buttieri, and of course I was pleased at our amount of beach time! Tuscany has so much to offer, from vineyards and olive groves, to farmland, mountains, and surf; I was amazed by the land and the people we met on our trip and I hope that soon again, if not before the end of this semester, I will have the chance to see the beautiful Maremma coast once more.

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