Happy New Year !

Happy New Year to our new friends and our old ones ! 

More than ever, in 2018 we are longing to share our Italy with you ! We have so many new discoveries to carry into your travels, so many charming hotels and villas, and a multitude of gifted, passionate guides to introduce to you.  We have new food artisans, new walking paths and new museums.

More than ever, in a country that is suffering because of an excess of international tourism, we have this year a mandate to promote lesser known, less traveled regional destinations including — one of our great passions — the lesser known UNESCO heritage sites, and many lesser sampled, eclectic, diverse cuisines. 

We made our name by listening to you.  We are as unhurried as we were when we began. Conversation and co-planning is what makes our planned trips so unique.  We speak with our clients often and would have it no other way.  
 
Our company, the very first of its sort for Italy, is now 28 years old.  Delightfully, many of our earliest clients are still traveling with us.  A number have now retired from their professional lives. For them and for those who do not need to come to Italy when families do — during school holidays, from May to August — our call out is : don’t.  Travel between mid October and Easter, when much of Italy is at its best.  
 
We will leave you with a photo of an Amalfi sunset, photographed last night.  Not to be here now is criminal.  There are so many villas and hotels there that would love to have you right now as their guests.  This area in four months will be ablaze in people, but now it is not. 
 
Today at the Sistine Chapel I was one of a small handful of visitors. 
 
At the Uffizi later this week, I will have great paintings to myself for a long time. 
 
Accommodations costs are a fraction of high season rates, and guides, restaurants and artisans have leisurely time for you. 
 
Here’s to a joyful year of Italy travels, 
 
Marjorie 
www.insidersitaly.com

Christmas in Rome

One year, a beloved repeat client wrote us : “we really need to come to Italy this Christmas to get away from the shopping malls, the relentless commercialism and the way the holiday ends with Christmas and then everybody goes back to work.  More than ever, we need Italy”.  We brought him to Rome and he and his wife were so enchanted — by 14 full days of heartfelt celebration, by the family nature of the holiday, by the absence of tourism, and by the wondrous variety of foods on holiday tables — that he since then comes back year after year.  In his words : “in the years we have been coming to Italy for the holidays, we have found quiet, reflection, beauty, companionship and freedom from the need to buy”.

Much of Italy is at its best at Christmas.  So much so that there is no other place we would ever want more to be. 

This photo blog shares Rome as we found it last night, just past 8 PM.  (Between March and November, only at 3 AM would Rome look like this.)  The streets were deserted as Romans added final touches to, or sat down for, the beloved Vigilia (Christmas Eve) dinner.  No one was out shopping.  Stores all closed in mid-afternoon.   Other things were much more important. 

There is a sanctity to the two weeks of holiday celebration here.  Our travelers immerse themselves into it fully.  

Next year, you should be here too.

Auguri ! 

San Luigi de Francesi, the mass of San Nicolas with beautiful music


 

Vigilia Dinner with Sixty

This evening my lagotto Teddy and I stopped in the foyer of the apartment building of my history teacher who lives a block away, so as to leave a Christmas card in his mailbox.  The hour was 5 PM, the sky darkening and streaked with pink as sunset claimed this Christmas Eve.  

All year I wait for this evening, because there is in Rome a special stillness that I love on Christmas Eve, as nearly every Italian family sets itself to the serious task of preparing Cena della Vigilia, Christmas Eve dinner.  Traffic slows to a halt.  Everyone seems to be at home.  Apartments, many with balconies decked with festive lights, are brightly lit, especially in their kitchens.  The traditionally meatless Vigilia is the kick-off for the Christmas time feasting season, and precedes Christmas Day lunch (which has its own culinary canons), Santo Stefano lunch (Boxing Day lunch), New Year’s Eve (more specific rules governing what you should be eating) and then a hearty lunch menu on New Year’s Day.  The sixth holiday meal is on the day of Befana, or Epiphany.  

The only elements that bind all of Italy in terms of constancy of menu are that dome-shaped panettone will appear for most of these feasts — and that seafood is the focus on this evening’s Vigilia menu.

Earlier today I had joined neighbors and friends is queuing patiently at the market fishmonger, watching with interest as clams…

eels and countless other varieties of fish were selected by eager customers.  

The fishmongers’ scale no sooner recovered from wild bobbing until another fish was popped onto it and then swiftly passed to the two longtime fish cleaners, younger men in long white aprons whose job it is to scale, clean and rinse the fish.

Tightly packed with parsley into brown butchers paper, fishy parcels disappeared into market baskets and bags.

And here that very fish was now in skillets, in pots, in ovens.  Teddy and I ventured into the foyer and stopped fast in our tracks, so tightly were we engulfed in the scents of 60 apartments apparently cooking fish.  My teacher’s building dates from the early 1930s; the two stairwells, each with 30 apartments, converge where we stood.

My card in hand, I sniffed deeply.  Teddy, a truffle dog with an outstanding sense of smell, did the same.  All of the building’s cooking fragrances were funneled into the very spot where we stood.  We discovered that if we moved to the left, near the artificial Christmas tree, we had a different heady odor (the combined smells of the left stairwell) and if we moved to the right were offered a different scent combination.  All rich fish odors, but with nuances. 

Teddy licked his chops as I set about trying to catalog what I smelled. Seafood — with shell, without shell, boneless, with bones — carried by onion, tomato, garlic, cloves, lemon.  White wine. Parsley.

Seafood does not appear just once on the Vigilia menu, but numerous times — generally in no less than three different courses (often more) each requiring a unique preparation.  I watched a man stride briskly in through the doorway and to the stairwell on the left.  He was carried a net bag of clams.  

Scents of potatoes, celery. Lentils. Rosemary ! More garlic.  Such an elixir !

Eventually, Teddy and I looked at one other, then reluctantly departed for one last walk before full darkness settled. But as we crossed the square and proceeded toward the park, I continued to enjoy the fragrances …and realized that through just five minutes in the vortex of the Vigilia kitchens, Teddy and I had become two potpourris.

Saffron, there was saffron too, I told Teddy.  And we entered the park gate, the unbidden, appreciative guests at 60 Vigilia tables.  

Buon Natale ! 

Marjorie 

 

Philosophy of Travel

We’ve written on our philosophy of travel before. In an increasingly globalised society —  one where wearying sameness produces irreparable cultural damage and makes your trip so much poorer —  we will, again and again, offer you experiences that are wondrously diverse from what you will find at home.

Insider’s Italy plans special trips that are the exact opposite of shallow, easy, fast-paced travels.

And in 2018, we reaffirm our travel philosophy :

1.  We do not book large US style hotels, ever.

Chianti Classico inn

Nearly every one of our hotels is an historic inn that has kept local character, architectural details and spirit. Every single one has taken special interest in sourcing local and national materials in tiles, fabrics, furniture, stone. Many of them are eco-conscious. Many are associated with agricultural estates.

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Sicilian Olive Oil agriturismo

In your travels we want you to celebrate the differences in ways of life.  Your hotel — or your villa — will feel Italian — or more specifically Venetian, or Sicilian, or Tuscan or…

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Umbrian Villa

2. It is usually hard to plan an American city vacation without a car.  In Italy, conversely, we book city hotel locations such that you can do nearly everything on foot.

Without exception, Italian cities are fascinating in their urban planning, architecture, colors and life. Walking is a delight.  Walking allows for discoveries you can never make otherwise.  Our own self-guided walking tours — filled with Insider’s details — fill the Plans we write for you.

3.  Even in the countryside, we encourage limited or minimal use of a car. When inns or hotels are not accessible by public transport, and we do book cars for our clients, we also suggest maximum use of public transport and walking trails.  We suggest use of smaller cars with highest fuel efficiency.

We have guides for many countryside locations, including on these historic Campania region walking paths.

Their expertise lies as much in geology and local history as it does in flora and fauna.

On horseback in the Abruzzi with Francesco and his horse Dollaro

Here our special friend Gio cuts up his own Slow Food presidia tomatoes for you for a morning merenda and pours on local, new season oil.  You will enjoy this during a long stop on one of the world’s very greatest walks, which he leads for our travelers.

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4. We Americans are obsessed with change and speed.  Insider’s Italy travels instead generally focus on exploring a small area in depth — and moving as little as possible.

Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens

Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens

Our clients travel slowly, stay a while, and enjoy every experience without accelerating on to the next destination over the hill.

5. We recommend local artisans, small scale food producers and others whose work is socially enriching and whose professions need support if they are to survive.

Florence Paper Store

We lead you to a magician with local leathers who produces timeless products of great elegance and style, and who is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

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Traditional artisinal Tuscan fabrics

Please encourage farmers who refuse the American model of factory farming and visit an organic dairy that makes what must surely be the best buffalo milk mozzarella in the world.

 

Responsible, with the other water buffalo ladies here, for the best mozzarella in the world

Responsible, with the other water buffalo ladies here, for the best mozzarella in the world

Instead of directing your spending power towards touristy chains that have a negative effect on a city, let us help you to invest in the health of small enterprises and the living fabric of the place.

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Hand made ricotta and caciotta

A typical example of the sort of discovery we love to share is Casolet, which is one of the most exciting cheeses we have ever eaten.

Casolet

This raw milk cheese, which has been made since Roman times, is produced in very small batches only in the Val di Sole, in Trentino Alto Adige, 90 minutes northwest of Venice, and is rich, vibrant and pungent, with a remarkable buttery finish.  Nowhere in America will you find a cheese like this — it is not exported –- and sampling it with a local apple (indigenous varieties unknown in the US) is a Slow Food paradise pairing.

Learn an Italian artisan technique yourself.  Let us guide you into the homes of small artisanal producers eager to show you how traditional foods have been made for centuries.

Learn to make Cristina’s magnificent, tiny gnocchi (cooking in her own kitchen, with her own potatoes, which you have picked yourself..)

Or mosaics, with Arianna in Ravenna.

 

6. The docent guides we suggest are all locals and are deeply involved in their field : these are architects, restorers, painters, educators,historians…

Children are encouraged to look closely, ask questions, investigate at their own pace

Children are encouraged to look closely, ask questions, investigate at their own pace

Walks are on foot, and purposely slow paced so that you can speak, ask questions, and develop a real understanding of the subject matter.

Frank, one of our favorite docents, is an Italian Renaissance specialist who grew up in Rome

Frank, one of our favorite docents, is an Italian Renaissance specialist who grew up in Rome

7. We do not recommend fusion or nouvelle cuisine restaurants — but only traditional, regional favorites.

We will introduce you to the best Italian home cooking, the kind you will never find outside of Italy. This is direct, free of artifice, and is a celebration of seasonal ingredients.

This boat belongs to two fishermen, who are both brothers and cooks. They will come and collect you and take you to their superb “trattoria”, accessible by sea and footpath only.

Pasta alle scoglie

Italian cooking is at its most successful when direct, uncomplicated, free of artifice in taste or appearance.

Salvatore. The wine he’s drinking and the vegetables you see are all his own.Our ideal restaurant is probably family-run, and directed with passion and humility. The best restaurateurs in Italy today come from a strong regional or local tradition.

Slow Food : all ingredients (including olive oil) are the owners' own or are locally sourced -- and there is nothing on the menu that is not regional or seasonal or traditional

Slow Food : all ingredients (including olive oil) are the owners’ own or are locally sourced — and there is nothing on the menu that is not regional or seasonal or traditional

7. Our Regional Eating guides, and market guides for most locations, help you to understand what is local and in season in each location so that you do not miss superb, strictly regional delicacies that you will not find at home.

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Artisanal breads

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Organic/wild herbs and kitchen ingredients from Sicily’s Monti Iblei

Vittorio -- having taught Nathan how to catch a fish -- now teaches him how to bone one.

Vittorio — having taught Nathan how to catch a fish — now teaches him how to bone one

8. We encourage off-the-beaten-track regional travel.  Please let us guide you to the Trentino, to Basilicata, to the Abruzzo… to regions where traditional life continues.

Castel del Monte

Our hotels and inns here, as throughout Italy, are all selected to offer a very high level of comfort and four- and five-star standards.

Two hours east of Rome, we recently saw an elderly local lady balancing on her head — with great grace —  a copper urn that she was carrying from a fountain to her home.  As a child, I would see this in Rome. Traditional sights like this are gone from every major Italian city, and you will not find them either in Tuscany.  Let us guide you to regions that are more off the beaten path.

9. In June ’18, for the seventh time, we are joining the centuries-old transumanza, or transhumance, for three days of walking with the sheep. For perhaps 3000 years nomadic herders and shepherds have been moving their sheep from winter to summer quarters on paths that are so well beaten as to be visible from the air.

Transumanza

This three-day experience is not for everyone (camping and homemade traditional country meals, including just-made sheep’s milk ricotta and fresh pasta) but for others an experience like this is a celebration of Italy’s “differentness” and rich agrarian history and will be the highlight of a trip.

The point we make is this : throughout your travels, please consider partaking in situations that are unlike anything you will find at home and that are unique to the fabric of Italy.

10.  Please consider traveling as we do, with Slow ideals. You will be part of a small but significant revolution. And your trip will be so much richer for it.

At rest, on the top of the world : The Path of the Gods

At rest, on the top of the world : The Path of the Gods

Taking Kids to Italy

Does any other country have as many names for children as does Italy ? First you are a creatura (a “creature”), then a bimbo or bimba, then you are a bambino or a bambina, then you are a ragazzo or a ragazza.

Does any country have as many ways to make a child feel welcome ?

Taking off in Viterbo

Insider’s Italy’s children clients are made immediately aware of how Italians make children feel : valued.

In front of one of the most celebrated landscapes in Tuscany, after an Insider’s Italy Walk

Children in Italy are from the beginning treated as real, precious people, whose needs and desires are of paramount importance.

The world stops for children in Italy in a way that it does not anywhere else we know.

Tag at Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port city

Italians bend over backwards for children, with waiters bringing high chairs before you ask for them, keeping bread baskets consistently filled with bread sticks and focaccia, proposing succulent, healthy children’s menu offerings (and bringing them well before adults’ dishes), often cheerfully cutting them up for young diners. Waiters lift small children up to admire the dessert table. Storekeepers often have some little present to hand a younger child. Vendors in open markets offer children tangerines and figs. All across Rome, children are given complimentary slices of fragrant white pizza.

I was lucky enough to be an Italian child, born in Rome.

Me in Venice, in 1967

My son and daughter have from their birth had Italian childhoods.

On the terrace, Amalfi

And when they were born they joined our family staff, as they have participated in every single but one of our research trips. Nathan Louis began his Insider’s Italy travels at the age of three months, with a week in southern Tuscany. Isabel started her travels at six weeks, to the southern Riviera and Lucca.  Our research trips occur generally every two to six weeks and are Italy-wide. Through necessity coupled with interest, we have become experts on planning child-friendly, upscale Italian travels.

Dancing among the lentils and wildflowers at Castelluccio

With the ease that comes with familiarity — my own memories of childhood Italy-wide travels —  I have a real feel for what children, teenagers and young adults will enjoy.

Testing out an Insider’s Italy walk designed for children near Atrani

I have always made discoveries that will delight the young

At the Tarquinia museum

..and consider how to make travels easy and enjoyable for their parents.

Studying 9th century mosaics in Ravenna

We use docents and guides (for tours, workshops, classes, walking, bicycling, cooking adventures) throughout the country — from Venice to Sicily and many places in between.

Our beloved guide Francesca in Florence, whom all children love so much

We book each one of them personally.

With our guide in Florence at the Opera del Duomo museum, a children’s favorite

When there are kids in the party, we personally tell them about the children, including their ages and their special interests : our guides and teachers plan experiences that go far beyond children’s expectations.

Insider’s Italy kids learn to make frescoes in Florence

Mosaics in Ravenna

Pressing grapes in Lazio to make into wine

Renaissance paper in Orvieto

How to make gnocchi in Amalfi

Making gnocchi in Amalfi in a private family cooking class

How to make extra virgin olive oil (hand picking and pressing olives, and then sampling the minutes-old oil)

Insider’s Italy children learn how acqueducts are constructed…

The Acqua Vergine in Rome

By climbing on them.

The 21st century child and 19 century BC aqueduct

We provide the experiences that will make for memory after memory, substantial, remarkable experiences for a child to remember all of her life.

Our Insider’s Children’s Reading List and children’s language program suggestions help kids prepare too for their Italian adventures.

Choosing art supplies in Florence, for a day of painting and drawing

We book hotels/inns/villas directly only (and have stayed in or know intimately every accommodation we book.)

One of our favorite villas for families with children

Hotels we most often book by number, often choosing particular rooms for their suitability to families with children.  Nathan Louis and Isabel also make me consistently aware of the appropriateness of our villas and hotels to families with children.

“What do our children eat in Italy ?”  Insider’s Italy to the rescue on this one, with oodles of detail on how to find and request child-delighting delicacies on any restaurant menu, and what other wonderful sources to explore for picnics, snacks and treats — including our own favorite organic goodies (and where to find them.)

Isabel and her organic Insalata Caprese in Tuscany

And we simplify the lives of our clients with children.

Sampling superb gelato on Lake Bracciano

So many of our travelers — most of all, perhaps, busy parents — are over-scheduled, overstressed, overtired  – and don’t have the time to undertake their own research. Our Ultimo service is of special value here — all you need do is buy your air tickets — as we meticulously tailor plan every detail of your trip, working around your interests and preferences.

Children love Paestum for the archeology, the opportunity to run around so freely or for the world’s best mozzarella ?

Parents are delighted to delegate travel planning to an expert who will take into account the interests and needs of every traveler.

“Should I take a stroller to Venice ?  If so, what kind ?”  ”My daughter is eight, is she too young for the Cinque Terre trails ?” ”Is the Amalfi coast suitable for an infant?”  ”What can I show my teenager in Florence that will really engage him ?”  Insider’s Italy has the responses to all of these. Either we have confronted the situations ourselves as parents or I can draw for answers into the archives of my own youth.

Running through the Baths of Caracalla in Rome

One of our clients’ children wrote  : “You may not quite remember me, but almost nine years ago my parents used your service to plan what still stands as the most memorable trip my family has ever taken. Although I was only twelve when we spent those incredible eight weeks in Italy, it was then that I fell in love with the country, everything from the culture to the language to the food. I have since studied Italian in college and returned to Italy twice on my own. I traveled to Tuscany on a high school program in 2001 and spent the summer of 2003 in Florence studying Italian.”

Posing as an Etruscan

Thanks to this young woman’s parents, with whom we co-planned an Italian itinerary, one young woman’s life was changed.  We recently planned her suprise engagement party — in Rome. And then a few years later, a 16-person family trip in which she introduced her two year old son to Italy. 

Meeting the Befana

It was always my hope to have children in Italy.  To have them with us as we make our discoveries is an experience beyond any I had hoped.

 

And then to share those experiences with other children and their parents is for me one of the great joys of Insider’s Italy.

 

My Christmas with the Animals

The circumstances were such that I was in Rome without dear children and husband this Christmas : they went ahead on a family holiday to Washington.  I spent Christmas with my very elderly mother, whose presence I felt continuously and whom I love so deeply, but who was asleep almost the entire day.  So while I was emotionally very much with her, my real physical connection on Christmas was with the animals. 

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The animals. I have never spent Christmas so deeply in the presence of animals.  They were my family on Christmas, a cream colored lagotto romagnolo called Teddy, with round brown eyes and tight curls and a mouth that turns up always as a smile. Teddy licked my face when I first awake and was at my feet when I went to bed.  He was sweet, loving, funny and undemanding and never more than a few feet away. There was a four year old tiger cat, self contained and desirous of hugs and stroking, called Mistral. And two sister guinea pigs, each three months old, as round as they are high, called Posy and Aly, who sing for their meals and have seen very little of the world outside of their big cage in the sunny window. 

Every time I sat by my mother, Mistral, with an elegant leap, jumped upon my lap, and coiled himself around my knees. He purred and purred, sometimes reaching out a long paw and yawning, all the while purring. I rarely have so much time with Mistral, and to sit with his self containment and warmth gave me such a sense of well being. I peeked into his ample ears, which I had never done before, and marveled at the tiger striped fur that ends half way in, there meeting the coral pink of the inner ear. I saw a little star of whiteness at the very bottom of his chest.  And I noted how his purrs are as rhythmic as our own breathing, and how each purr drew me in and eager to hear the next.

I had never spent hours with Aly and Posy. Normally they are fought over by my two children, and carried away speedily by one or the other where they are positioned on desks to watch over homework or in the hollow of the shoulder where they immobilize themselves themselves as the child reads. Today I set them free on the dining room table to explore —  and, with no distractions, I watched them. Really watched them. I  watched the tiny fingers that reached for a slice of pumpkin, watched how they chew carefully but hurriedly and how they reach for the next morsel while the first one is still in their mouths. I watched them jump over branches of fir tree wreath and chase one another round and around and around the table, Posy shedding a bit of her silky black fur as she did so. I turned them over at look at their round tummies that extend from their shoulder all the way down to their tails and make up surely most of their weight.

We listened together, the animals and I, to the Queen’s Message on BBC radio and to Scandinavian and English Christmas carols, and everyone except Mistral, who showed no interest, had panettone together — Aly and Posy, each a raisin and a bit of orange peel, and Teddy and I.

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When we are surrounded by people, those we love, or not, our lives are absorbed by conversation. With the animals I talked hardly at all. They talked, in their way of being, with me, and I realize that I must make time to listen to them by finding a place in my life where I can be silent and fully in their presence so that I can observe them with concentration undiluted by people.

Many Christmases have been special, but this one, in the all-day presence of the animals, is not to be forgotten. I hope in the coming year, those of us who love or care about animals — and plants, and oceans, fish and birds — can find time often to simply be entirely with nature, and take it in for the wonder that it is.  

Home

When I returned back to Rome, after nine days by the sea in Marblehead MA, I was in the first hour taken by three things.  

First the smoking. Exiting the airport into the sticky Roman air, I was among knots of people who were standing about, smoking. Some smoking alone, some smoking while talking on their phones, some gesticulating while smoking, some in knots with other smokers and non smokers. Some kissing and hugging while smoking. The odor of lit cigarettes filled the air, and hit me by surprise after having seen not one cigarette in all my days away.  

The next impact was the confusion to find a taxi. Groups of people awaiting taxis were scattered along a 50 meter stretch of pavement outside the Arrivals terminal. There were three taxi signs, but there were no taxis at any of them.  Suitcases piled high in carts were spilling on the ground. No one moved much, in the intense heat, but just waited, each in their self selected spot.  After some time a swarthy man arrived with the word “Taxi” emblazoned on a vest. He positioned himself in the middle of the street opposite the #3 Arrivals door, with cars careening left and right around him, turned around and raised one hand at some unseen location far ahead. Within a minute a taxi creeped up. And then another. And then several. Passengers massed messily into a shapeless bunch and surged towards him, and with surprising efficiency, and speaking only Italian and the words “where you go”, he began a fast dance of pointing at the driver he had selected for each passenger group, opening taxi doors, shepherding in passengers, opening trunks, slamming trunks, closing taxi doors, all to repeat. 

The third was when I arrived home. I climbed out of my taxi to find by the curb my friend Dario, the restaurant owner. He was removing from a refrigerator bag at the back of his motorino three well wrapped aluminum pans. “Micio !”  “Micio, micio, micio !”  “Micietta !”  “Vieni Micietta amore di Papi !” From behind the jasmines emerged two shiny-coated, overweight cats, which darted to Dario and began a chorus of meows, rubbing against his legs, their tails erect.  Dario carefully removed the foil, commenting as he did so on my slight tan and how elegant I looked. (I was anything but.) He then placed the pans on the street, flicking a clam or two into the center of one dish. “Spaghetti alle vongole, senza guscio e senza peperoncino” he said as much to me as to himself as to the cats. Spaghetti with clams, without hot pepper and without shells.  “Filetto di merluzzo”. Cod fillets. “Acciughe sfilletate.” Deboned anchovies. The cats sat plumply, each one before one plate, and feasted. And then, as if pre-accorded, each moved a cat pace over to the next dish.

I stayed to watch for some time, leaning against my suitcase. “Bentornata cara“, said Dario, raising his eyes from the cats, smiling at me, and beginning to roll a cigarette with his fishy fingers. Welcome Home. 

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Meaningful Travel

In these fraught times, it seems to me that the best thing to do is to travel, and to immerse yourself in what is most meaningful to you.

For me, meaningful is walking high above the sea.  On a spectacular path selected in part because tourists are not on it.

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Or in the mountains.

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Meaningful is walking in Tuscany, when the light is best, and the path is all your’s.

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Meaningful is a long lunch at a restaurant run by two passionate fishermen..

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who cook only what they fish.

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Meaningful is spending unhurried time in the presence of the majesty of Greek temples. The more the world moves toward acceleration and data, the more meaning there is in silence, stillness and spaciousness.

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Meaningful is reading in a beautiful location.

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Meaningful is taking cooking classes in someone’s home..

Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina's own celebrated potatoes)

Making gnocchi (with Cristina’s own celebrated potatoes)

and having one of the best dinners of your life with them.

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Meaningful is being with someone you love, dining by a river for three hours, drinking prosecco and eating superb stuffed tortelli.

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Meaningful is a destination when it is not exploited by over tourism, and when you can enjoy it crowd-fee without draining local resources.

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Meaningful is sitting in an olive tree that is 1600 years old.

Playing in an olive tree that is over 1000 years old.

Meaningful is preparing well to see something very beautiful, and then enjoying it without jostling crowds.  We book special guides and docents and make arrangements for out-of-hours visits.

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Meaningful is visiting a garden that could only be Italian, and could never be more beautiful than it is the day you are there.

Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens

Meaningful is renting a villa of your own that is historic and lovely, and with a garden that is a wonder, and having a full week there to appreciate every detail.

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Meaningful is admiring beautiful handmade things…

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and learning how they are made.
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Meaningful is not being in a rush, and prioritizing the quality of the experience over the quantity.

The trips we plan are never, never, never rushed.

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When I began Insider’s Italy in 1998, we were the first travel planning company for Italy. We are the only travel planners for Italy where three generations of a family are involved : my mother, whose memories of Italy pre-war still add so much to the history segments of our destination guides; me, born in Rome, the founder, with as co-principal my wonderful husband Robert (photographer, business manager, villa expert and historian) and now our children, 11 and 13, Italophiles, experienced and passionate travelers, always eager to find destinations and experiences that kids will love.

Don’t wait any longer.

A dear client wrote me yesterday : “We enjoyed the trip you planned for us in 1993 intensely for four years even though the trip was only 14 days as I recall.  I still consider the money we paid you to be one of the best investments I ever made and we all talk about that trip to this day.  In many ways, I used you as my measuring stick when I interview the agents for any  trip to a non Italy destination.”  

Please tell us what meaningful means for you.  Complete our survey at http://www.insidersitaly.com/travel-planning-survey/  And just as we have for 28 years, we shall plan a trip for you that we are quite sure will exceed your expectations.

Tanti cari saluti

Marjorie

www.insidersitaly.com

 

Letter from Rome

All over Italy, the swifts, swallows and martins fill the morning and evening skies with their melodious cries. It is spring in Italy and how absolutely magnificent it is.



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I wish you were here, to enjoy the strong dollar.

And here.

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I wish you were here to try wines from producers you may not know, because Italian wines have never been so good.  I would love, in the introductions to vineyards I will give you and in the bookings I will make for you in Slow Food osterie and exceptional classic ristoranti to have you see why Italian wines still largely resist the temptation towards homogenization of taste and standardization of sensory characteristics.

Italian wines taste.. Italian, and exceptionally diverse.  Thank heavens — and maybe not by chance, since can there exist anywhere a population of people (and of winemakers) temperamentally as varied as the Italians ?

Finding these wines outside of Italy can be very difficult. My philosophy of Slow travel, and a preference for unsuperficial travel, and for developing real relationships as I myself adventure, means that I will help you to really understand the land, the vineyards and the people that combine to form the Italian terroir.

I wish you were here to take personalized wine classes with special friends in many Italian cities – as suited to those new to Italian wines as those who wish to expand on their knowledge.  And try wines with our friends who own vineyard estates, like this one.

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It is gratifying to enjoy wines on the actual property where they are produced, and to talk to the winemakers directly about their own wines.

Not long ago I explored an ancient Roman city where sheep, rabbits, cows and one horse were wandering.

I was two hours southeast of Rome.  There was no fence, though there were four beautiful Roman gates. I had for lunch a pasta shape — sciappette — that in 37 years of living in Italy I had never heard of before.

The waiter brought out his mother, the cook. She took me into the kitchen and showed how she made them, out of durum wheat and water, pronging the shape with a iron fork.  She showed me too how she made a pasta sauce I had never seen before, of her own garden’s fava beans, wild fennel greens, pomodori appesi (that she air dries in her larder), ricotta salata, garlic and olive oil.

A friend in New York told me once : “what I can’t stand is to think that Italy is existing without me”.

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Don’t let Italy exist without you. Come.

Some of our very favorite villas have openings for the summer and autumn, including in May and June. Has there ever been a better time to come to Italy, and enjoy a special house with family and friends ?

Every single one of our villas is managed by its owners or by friends of the owners. There will be a warm, thoughtful person to greet you on arrival, and who will always be available for questions small and large. Without exception you will arrive as a friend, and will leave as a close friend.

Every one of the villas in our portfolio is historic, converted with sensitivity and sophistication into a restoration that balances the integrity of traditional elements, such as oak-beamed ceilings and vaulted terracotta ceilings, with modern comforts, including outstanding bathrooms and kitchen.

Gardens are always a highlight, with flowering plants, fruit trees and/or vegetable and herb gardens.

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Pool are always set on their own terrace, with pergola or umbrellas for relaxing and dining.

And everything is so charming (including the owners’ homemade crostata) and enjoyable that you may find it hard to go sightseeing.

Do you like festivals and fairs ? In a few weeks I will watch with joy tens of thousands of rose petals falling through the oculus of the Pantheon.

Come with us in late June to Bevagna, an undiscovered location that provides a real feeling for daily life and interests in an historic Umbrian town.

You are unlikely to see any non-locals here at any time of year except during the last ten days of June when the town puts on, primarily for its own benefit, a re-enactment of the occupations and street life of the medieval period.

Most of the town’s citizens don historic costumes or good reproductions of them, and, split into their four historic districts, or gaite (each dedicated to a saint), undertake a realistic representation, in the vernacular language of the period, of buying/selling and other day-to-day town occupations.

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Three leading medievalists judge the four districts’ efforts and present one gaita with a much-prized award for the most realistic representation of Bevagna’s existence six hundred years ago.

Padova ?

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Spello ?

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Towns of exceptionally quality of life !  Would you not love to explore them now ?

Walks ?  Do you like to walk ?  Our clients walk up and down all of Italy, enjoying guided and self-guided longer and shorter hikes, often with children, sometimes more challenging, but always at a pace that allows full appreciation of extraordinary scenery, wild flowers and, most of all, the place.

Walking on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast

Walking on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast

Central to our planning is leisurely enjoyment of where you are at that moment.

In early July bring the family to see a vast plateau of wild flowers (growing among them, with a silvery flower, are the country’s best lentils, from Castelluccio) and to dance among them (the only real response to such Italian beauty.)


Two weeks later come to Abruzzo and join a tradition that is fast disappearing (your presence, and mine, and that of our collective friends and family will keep it from happening) : the Transumanza, or seasonal movement of sheep from winter barn to lush summer pasture and then back again.

I will walk through some of Europe’s most dramatic scenery, ending at 4100 feet.

Travel and Leisure contacted me, and asked what I loved most about Italy. I said “regional difference” and that when Italy was unified in 1861, it was likely that two Italians living 200 miles apart would be unable to understand much of what the other said.

To take the train from Bolzano to Sicily (an extraordinary 14-18 hour train trip through ten regions) means hearing a dizzying number of Italian dialects as passengers get on and off — but more amazing still (and without leaving your train window) experiencing an ever-changing tableau of architecture, station styles, trees, agriculture, vineyard trellising techniques, colors of shutters, ways of hanging laundry… Consider in the alternate, the contrast between Italy’s tiniest comune, coastal Atrani, and Alto Adige’s Rovereto (here its lovely 17th century Piazza delle Ocche.)  One trip to Italy is like a visit to many different countries. 

Italy is slightly smaller than New Mexico.  Can any other country bring you the diversity represented by these two next pictures (Modica and Venice) ?

Please let us help you to mix your regions, and bring as much diversity into your trip as you can. This is a principal joy of travel in Italy.

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Come and sleep in a beautiful mountain chalet at 3800 feet, take a few steps from your doorstep, open your eyes fully and take in this view.

Come and sleep in a Sicilian family farmhouse and awaken this view.

Two sides of Italy. Italy has thousands of sides. If you were to return twice a year for all your life I could continue to show you new worlds and new ways of looking at places you think you may know…

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Up and down the peninsula, I have friends whom I would love to have you meet, and whose special offerings I think you would greatly enjoy : Rome market/culinary walks and food artisans, private biking excursions in Tuscany’s’ glorious Valle d’Orcia, visits to special artistic and archeological sites that are closed to the public.

Come and learn about olive oils from a charming man in Puglia who makes them, with trees that are in some cases close to 2000 years old.

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Come and learn from Giuseppe, in Sicily, why his olive oil is the best in Italy.

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I have personal shopping docents for only-artisan ware for the wardrobe, house and kitchen, and you will always meet and buy directly from the artisan.

Consider visits to the Vatican museum after hours (when it is closed to the public). Consider exploring the Venetian lagoon on an historic flat bottomed boat, swimming in crystal waters of the Lagoon and feasting on a succulent traditional menu prepared on board.

What fun !

I was taken aback by a comment made by guidebook author Rick Steves : “Sorry, but Rome is not a great place for little kids. Parks are rare. Kid-friendly parks are more rare. Most of the museums are low-tech and lack hands-on fun. The good news for kids?  Pizza and gelato.”

Pizza and gelato ?

Yes, pizza (bianca and rossa) and gelato in Italy are very good.

Insider’s Italy kids are rarely bored in Rome; and never bored are those whose parents have requested our fullest service, Ultimo, which offers our most comprehensive degree of travel planning (you need only buy air tickets, and tell us all about your interests).

I returned from a major Sicily research trip — many of you have commented on our photos on Facebook (check Marjorie Shaw’s Insider’s Italy) — and I am eager to help you plan an Insider’s itinerary (give yourselves 10 – 14 days) for this most incredible of islands, a world completely unto itself.

Sicilian hospitality is exceptionally warm, archeology is in no region more interesting, and cuisine (including some of the best olive oils I have ever tried, and the most varied seafood) are among myriad reasons to come here.

In fact two clients will soon be taking cooking classes on an olive oil estate which is a charming four-star agriturismo — and in the afternoon exploring ancient Greek city and temple sites and swimming on small, undiscovered beaches where turtles lay their eggs and sometimes dolphins visit.

Shall I give more reasons still to come to Italy this year ?  Contact me and I shall. Or better still, complete the no obligation survey, tell us a bit about yourself and travel dates, and I will write you a proposal.

David, a multiple time client whom like many has become a dear friend, wrote me : “This past trip reminded me how foolish I was to take so long to revisit Italy.”

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Please don’t wait yourselves.

To visit or to revisit.

Just come.

Cari saluti

Marjorie

www.insidersitaly.com

Celebrating Differences

Today I was pondering the imminent opening in Milan of Starbucks, Italy’s first of that American chain. That Starbucks has arrived here, in a country with such a worthy tradition of superb coffee, makes me sad, and leads me back to our List of Insider’s Favorite Cafes in Milan, many of them historic and each offering not only extraordinary coffee in the Italian style but a traditional, cordial welcome from owners and staff.  We share this List with every client traveling to Milan. 

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Starbucks will not be on our list of Milan Insider’s Favorites.

Travel offers profound exposure to places and experiences different from those at home. With the globalization of the world, travel, if mindlessly planned, denies you that sublime pleasure of the constant difference. When traveling with children, especially, or if on a first-time trip, please be vigilant and ensure that every day is one that celebrates the difference and keeps you far from the familiar sameness. 

We are lucky that in Italy, with 20 different regions, the variety is endless — but still there are soul-less chain hotels (including luxury ones) and spiritless restaurants that could be nearly anywhere.

Start by choosing hotels that could be nowhere but in Italy.  Our collection of well over one hundred special establishments offers location, history, style and spirit that could only be Italian.  These range from a lovely suite in the largest organic fig orchard in Europe; to a tree house suite suspended over lavender fields; to calming, boutique accommodation in prehistoric caves that are part of a Unesco World Heritage site.  You can sleep in the home of the Mona Lisa (and enjoy some of Tuscany’s best wines from vineyards you see outside your Renaissance window.)

We love finding accommodations for you, and it is very rare that we have not stayed at least once in any hotel or inn where we will book for you.

Here we further highlight four favorites, where we hand pick your rooms and book directly with owners and managers.  Your welcome is warm and sincere — and you could be no place on earth but in Italy. 

This is the dining room in one of our Abruzzi favorites, 100 minutes east of Rome.  By staying here, with accommodations scattered across what was a ghost town, you are supporting conservation and local development projects.  Accommodation is charming, staff (all from the village) kind, and attention to detailing remarkable. Here is the dining room with lovely local linens — and sublime local cuisine.  You could be nowhere but in Italy. 

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This is a bench where our guests like to spend lazy hours gazing across the Valle d’Orcia of southern Tuscany.

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This could only be Italy.  Accommodation here, in a fully renovated historic farmhouse, is stylish, with furnishings that are wonderful examples of contemporary cutting edge Italian design; owners are warm and solicitous, and the only sound you will hear is of sheep bells in the neighboring fields.

Two hours away your world changes again.  Here we are in Umbria, in another elegant hotel that could only be Italy.  What you see (view from the inn’s windows) are their organic vineyards that produce wines that Slow Food, reputable critics and we consider the best in the region. Accommodation is in a 13th century pilgrim’s inn, is contemporary, and terribly comfortable; lavender and iceberg roses fill the garden spaces and circle the pool. 

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And finally, one of the hotels our clients love most, family owned, family run, historic and immensely charming.

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Service is at highest level, and nothing is ever too much trouble.  From the sfusato amalfitano lemons that occupy nearly all of the terraced garden space, to the Italian warmth radiated by every member of staff, to the all-traditional dining at their seaside Al Mare restaurant.. you could be nowhere but Italy.

Shall we begin our planning ?

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www.insidersitaly.com