Monday, November 18, 2013

Why I Love What I Do…

I consider myself very fortunate. Not everyone can say that they really love their job, but I can! 

When I started my business as a vacation planner a few years ago I based it on a few solid principles:

1) to tap into my capabilities and interests
2) to do something I was truly passionate about
3) to share my knowledge and integrity with others
4) to be my own boss (not a small thing)

It didn’t take long to realize that this was something I REALLY enjoyed doing. Luckily, it also turned out that I was quite good at it!

Organizing tailor-made vacations gives me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of interesting clients, who are a great source of personal enrichment. Locally, I have had the privilege to meet quite a few like-minded people who have since become my closest collaborators. Despite all the difficulties in the industry, there are still passionate individuals out there who are willing to invest a huge part of themselves in what they do, and working with them is inspiring.

Rita at work!
Marilena - my assistant.
Chef Francesco
Ellen (front right) with a great group of clients.

The process of building my business has also taught me a lot about myself. I have learned (or perhaps been reminded) that I am very tenacious. Italy is a wonderful place, but to live here you need to be pretty determined, and quite resilient. Unfortunately, over time you can lose sight of the enchantment, and sometimes risk downright disillusionment. It is a country that will capture your soul and try your nerves with equal intensity. So, it’s no wonder that Italians tend to be creative people - because the “art of getting by” is an essential part of life here. Those of us who have chosen to make it our home have had to become just as resourceful.

I have worked hard to open doors (many of which are often kept locked, because fundamentally many Italians are defiant or skeptical when you approach them initially). In most cases I have first needed to prove myself. There have been challenges, frustrations and setbacks but also moments of great satisfaction and unexpected success. I can honestly say that it has been one of the most exciting times in my life.

As I strive to convey the beauty of Tuscany to others, I am constantly reminded myself of what it was that made me decide to stay. Yes, becoming a full time resident is very different than coming here for a vacation. Daily life anywhere has its difficulties. Yet, if you remember to step back once in a while and practice what you preach, you will realize that you really are living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is this conviction that makes me credible. I am not trying to “sell a product” I don’t believe in. When I plan someone’s itinerary, I put myself in their shoes and work to share with them my own love of the territory and its treasures, so that they can come away with that same special feeling I had when I first discovered this extraordinary place so many years ago. 

Italy is struggling at the moment: with its economy, its national identity, its government. There are many reasons to be concerned. However, if we all try to make our small contribution to find the good and make it better, there is truly unlimited potential here. So, in the bigger scheme of things, this is my tiny effort to help build the image of a place I believe in, which has touched me profoundly and become a part of who I am. Italy does that to people, even when it tests your patience and your stamina; in the end it always works that subtle magic and you are once again under its spell! 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Should You Visit or Avoid Tuscany’s Tourist Locations?

Just the other day I was privy to a discussion about whether or not one should encourage clients to visit the most famous “tourist locations” in Tuscany. While it is true that the crowds and commercialization of several of the region’s most renowned towns have diminished some of their charm and authenticity, it is also true that they have become this popular for a reason. So even for those of us who pride ourselves on helping people to discover the real Tuscany,  the answer is not quite so straightforward.

San Gimignano - photo:

I always suggest for my clients to include some off-the-beaten-path experiences in their itineraries. There are still places, unknown to the masses, which allow you to discover a more genuine side of Tuscany – less exploited and very authentic. Although, as the world becomes more and more fascinated by this small Italian region, and the number of visitors increases (including those who return several times seeking to expand their area of exploration), even these “secret” places are becoming fewer and fewer. 

San Gimignano off season - photo: Auro Giotti

Yet for the first-time visitor, the question often comes up, “Should we go to Pisa (or San Gimignano - for example), or is it too touristy?” While other clients premise the argument with, “I figure we should go to see what all the fuss is about, right?” Inevitably, my answer is always, “Yes, it's touristy, but if you can deal with that, then yes, you should go.” And in the end, I am happy to say that almost no one regrets it - especially if they are lucky enough to visit in low season, when the payback is extreme.

San Gimignano's skyline in Autumn - photo: Auro Giotti

Unfortunately, during peak season the risk is very high that you will encounter the barbaric invasions at some of these sites – but missing the chance to visit them is really a shame. No matter how many photos of the Leaning Tower you see, they will never convey the impact of actually standing next to it (or climbing to the top). It’s true, the town of San Gimignano has become a tourist mecca – and in the summer you are hard pressed to remember that you are in Italy. Yet, if you can look beyond the crowds, it is really a place of incredible beauty and amazing character. For those lucky enough to visit after October and before Easter, I challenge you to tell me you don’t like San Gimignano!

San Gimignano courtyard - photo: Carlo Boccacci

So, in the final analysis, if you are coming to Tuscany for the first time, I do think you should include some of the typical tourist sites in your itinerary. As a general rule for sightseeing, the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons - but if you have to come during high season, avoid these popular places on weekends and holidays - as then you will also find Italian tourists! Ideally, one day you’ll be able to come back during the slower season and enjoy these places again under different circumstances. One reason for my conviction comes after a client recently commented on their day in Pisa, “I never expected it to be SO amazing! Looking at the Tower from up close, I was awestruck. History came alive for us, and I don’t regret the visit (or even waiting on the lines) one single bit. In fact I am so happy we went!”  And I’m glad I didn’t tell them not to bother!!