Hands-On Italy

Specialized tours give clients a glimpse of the real Italy through its craftspeople.

By: David Swanson

FLORENCE, Italy Carlo Saitta sat hunched over the tray of cellulose glue ready to reveal the secrets behind the creation of marbleized paper.

Formerly a vendor at Florence’s San Lorenzo market, in 1990, at the age of 50, Saitta decided to master a craft. The techniques he uses today were learned by trial and error, and by careful examination of 200-year-old examples of the art form.

“I studied and read and taught myself, using modern materials and ancient techniques,” he said.

The designer paper is used in bookbinding, greeting cards and for wrapping paper, and the best of it is suitable for framing. But like many crafts handed down through generations, the intricate process is being lost.

“Today, there are no more than 10 of us creating decorative paper in Florence,” said Saitta.

A visit to Carlo Saitta’s hideaway shop is one of several stops on the Artisans of Florence tour offered by Actividayz, a tour operation offshoot of The Parker Company, the Massachusetts-based villa-rental representative that specializes in Italy.

Creating Actividayz was a side project for Julie Carnevale, vice president of sales for Parker. “A lot of our villa rental clients would say, ‘I want to blend in with the culture, I want to live like an Italian,’ or ‘Where can I get someone to show me authentic Italian cooking?’ ” she said. “We started to realize that these things are difficult to book from the U.S., and it’s hard to find a collection of activities that covers all of the country.”

Parker began working directly with tour guides and the owners of farm estates to create a series of tours, which debuted in 2002. In all instances, the goal is to get the visitor inside the Italian experience, and to uncover places like Saitta’s shop that would be hard for outsiders to find.

All of the excursions most of which last four to five hours were designed by Parker, and run the gamut from truffle hunting to cave exploration, from playing chef for a day in an authentic trattoria to easy walking tours of lesser-known cities like Lucca.

Carnevale said the cooking classes have proven the most popular of the offerings. I had a great time on the Cookin in Chianti tour, which is offered at the home of Mario and Elena, who live on a 20-acre vineyard on a hillside within eyesight of Siena. Their farm, the Fattoria di Corsignano, is a winery and cooking school, and the couple rents out a villa and apartments through Parker.

Elena conducts the classes, and the menu varies depending on what’s in season. We started with relatively simple dishes crostini, a Tuscan pate of pureed chicken livers, sausage and spices and then moved on to cantucci, a biscuit spiked with vin santo, the sweet wine of Tuscany.

The main course was a slab of pork filled with apples and sent to the oven to cook slowly, along with pumpkin-filled ravioli.

The meal was delicious.

I didn’t learn great new culinary skills (although I did discover that crafting ravioli takes a bit more time and energy than I’ll want to devote at home), but the hands-on participatory experience in a Tuscan kitchen was a warm encounter with Italian life.

Sharing our meal with my new friends showcased the heart and soul of Italy. And bringing home bottles of Corsignano olive oil and Chianti was a small way to treasure the memory.

Agents should note that a car is usually required in order to reach meeting points for Actividayz excursions (many are not within easy access of a train line). All of the activities are conducted in English and include lunch or a light meal (a few include dinner). Most tours are $75 to $90 per person. Actividayz has a 10 percent commission policy.