Six Ways to Do Italy

Forget the where, let’s talk how. Here are several ways to experience one of the world’s most beloved destinations

1. Arts & Crafts
Get your hands dirty in Italy

In a quiet corner of the Cannaregio District in Venice, near the old Jewish Quarter, a maid was clearing the tables in the upstairs breakfast room of Domus Orsoni when I first heard it. Snap, crack, pop.

For a moment the staccato rhythms sounded like milk being poured over cereal. Instead, the sound emanated from a brightly lit room downstairs, facing a garden. A dozen workers were skillfully breaking sheets of colored glass into tiny squares of opaque smalti, the tiles used for creating lush mosaics. Next door was the foundry that produced the glass. A warehouse was lined, floor-to-ceiling, with hundreds of colors of glass, ready to be cut into tile.

Although Venice is famous for glass, the foundries were moved to the neighboring island of Murano in the 13th century (for fear of a fire sweeping the city). But in 1888 Angelo Orsoni built his foundry in Venice proper. More than a century later, and defiantly proving that craftwork can still thrive in this canal-laced city, the foundry is producing tiles pretty much the same way, while Lucio Orsoni uses the time-honored techniques of his great-grandfather to create exquisite mosaic pieces.

More recently the Orsoni family opened the doors to their factory in two new ways: By debuting a five-room pensione and by hosting one- and two-week courses in the creation of mosaics, aimed at students, hobbyists and architects.

The guestrooms are beautifully contemporary, with intricate mosaicwork throughout. The Masters in Mosaics classes provide immersion into an old art form, taught by working artists, and include a lecture by an archeologist who provides a historical and cultural context and leads field trips to nearby Torcello and San Marco, both renowned for their sublime mosaic-work.

Everyone, it seems, wants to travel to Italy today. But for those who have already done the Rome-Florence-Venice circuit, there are new ways to experience the country and its phenomenal history of art and music, culture and culinaria.

“People going back want a deeper experience,” says JoAnn Locktov, a U.S. spokesperson for Orsoni. “They want to really connect with the country by participating.”

Locktov thinks art courses are a natural progression beyond eco-tourism and agro-tourism.

But immersion into the country’s art doesn’t necessarily require a hands-on approach.

Known to millions of radio listeners as an opera commentator for NPR, Fred Plotkin hosts an annual in-depth opera sojourn to Italy through Smithsonian Journeys. The company doesn’t provide agent commissions, but its offerings are unique enough to satisfy a clientele that doesn’t want a cookie-cutter experience.

The June 2007 trip will include six operas in three Northern Italian cities. What makes the trip special is that Plotkin gains access behind the scenes at places like Verona’s famed outdoor arena, where “Aida” was first performed, and newly revitalized La Scala, site of seven Verdi premieres.

“We hope to have dinner with James Conlon, the new music director of the L.A. Opera,” says Plotkin. “He’s doing an all-star production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Bologna ... This is what makes my seminars different.”

Universities are an excellent source of educational tours. Consider Italy’s Musical and Scientific Treasures, an MIT tour to be led by the university’s professor of music, Ellen Harris. Four nights will be spent based in Parma, with visits to nearby towns to trace the development of Italian music, including violin-making in Stradivarius’s hometown of Cremona and following in the footsteps of Verdi in Busseto. Another four nights will be spent in Florence, including a visit to the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci.

But food vacations continue to be the big seller in Italy. A unique tour is offered by Tuscan Way, which combines two popular components of the Italy vacation: the villa lifestyle and a hands-on cooking experience.

Tuscan Way’s four- and seven-day trips are built around four different residences in Tuscany, ranging from a villa situated in an olive grove to a medieval five-story house in a hill town. At each, four to 10 guests (depending on the location) sit around a table to plan the day’s main meal, shop for ingredients, choose the proper wines and then prepare a rewarding meal of Tuscan peasant food in a relaxed family setting.

For those who aren’t certain they want to commit an entire vacation to one theme, Actividyz an offshoot of the villa-rental firm the Parker Company sells a la carte half-day trips across the country.

“A lot of people want to take a cooking class but don’t want to make the commitment to a weeklong tour,” says spokesperson Julie Carnivale.

The tours range from risotto-making in the Veneto to Tuscan ceramic painting classes. They’re also agent-friendly: They can be booked easily through the company’s Web site and are commissionable. Guests provide their own transportation to a designated meeting point (many of the clients are staying in the parent company’s villas and have a rental car). Carnivale expects 30 to 35 tours to be offered in 2007.

With tours catering to virtually any interest, Italy’s tourism industry is deftly proving itself to be as varied as the country itself.

David Swanson

2. Active Pursuits
Get moving! Italy’s great outdoors is calling

From hiking the Dolomites to biking Tuscany and walking the famed trails of the Cinque Terre, Italy is the perfect country for the active traveler. The scenery is beautiful with colorful vineyards to rugged mountain peaks, there is no shortage of sights or places to visit. In fact, the idea of adventure travel is itself very loose. One can spend a day riding a Segway around Florence (anyone who is familiar with Italy’s traffic, will know the adventure element in that) or a week camping.

In Italy, the question is not where adventure travel can be found, but more importantly how. I remember schlepping my backpack around the country many years ago, guidebook in hand, staying in youth hostels and relying on tourism boards to clue me in to the great hiking trails in the area.

For the more affluent traveler, however, who wants an organized trip and someone else to handle the logistics, adventure-travel tour operators are the way to go. As an adventure enthusiast myself, I have been on many organized active tours and the camaraderie found after scaling a mountain in the driving rain or biking up a hill of Herculean proportions is, to me, a main reason for this type of travel. The bond that develops on organized adventure trips has led to lifelong friendships forged on rugged terrain, thousands of miles from home.

The first thing your clients need to do when booking an adventure trip in Italy is be honest about what shape they are in. There are quite literally hundreds of trips from which to choose, so finding the tour that matches a traveler’s physical activity level is key. Nobody will enjoy a vacation spent in agony because the tour is well beyond their physical threshold (not to mention that holding up the group is a sure-fire way to annoy fellow travelers). Another important choice to consider is the type of accommodation travelers expect. Many adventure outfitters will offer camping or mountain lodge overnights (the latter offering very basic amenities). Personally, I think half the fun of adventure travel is “roughing” it, but even for adventure enthusiasts, a comfortable bed and private bath, along with a gourmet meal, is what they are expecting after a full-day of hiking.

Whether the traveler is looking for hiking, biking or a relaxing walk, traveling with kids or traveling only with women, staying in posh hotels or simple inns, Italy is the perfect destination for explorers looking to get the blood pumping. The sampling of operators below offer a wide range of physical and scenic experiences.

Mountain Travel Sobek
This tour operator attracts a younger clientele with many of their guests between the ages of 35-65. MTS also tends to focus on more off-the-beaten-path itineraries. From seven days of moderate hiking in the Dolomites, staying in mountain inns and hotels, to extreme hiking on varying terrain from Bavaria to Italy, staying in guesthouses and mountain huts, MTS offers a variety of hiking options, often targeting the active traveler in good shape. However, they do offer trips for those new to active travel. Their six-day Hill Towns, Vineyards & Castles of Piemonte itinerary offers easy day hikes combined with local wine-and-food tastings.

Accommodations for that trip are hotels; no roughing it required. Generally, though, MTS is a great pick for clients in good physical shape, who want to experience Italy in its rugged splendor.

Country Walkers
Primarily attracting clients between the ages of 45-80, Country Walkers’ focus is on soft adventure. Offering tours all over Italy, most itineraries are on the moderate to easy physical scale (some tours do indicate that there may be challenging terrain). What makes Country Walkers unique is that they provide several tours specifically targeting women. Whether it’s the sole female traveler or groups of friends, the women-only trips are quite popular. The women-only itinerary to Cinque Terre is on moderate to challenging terrain, while the Tuscany and Umbria trip is rated easy to moderate. In general, the women-only trips are similar to those open to both sexes, with extras like spa treatments or cooking classes thrown in.

Accommodations for all Italy itineraries range from luxurious hotels to seaside villas and farmhouses.

Targeting the 45- to 65-year-old traveler, Backroads is unique in that it appeals to travelers with an array of physical levels. While tours are rated on a scale of 1-5 (easy to extreme), within each tour travelers have a daily option of easy, moderate or extreme routes. Additionally, the company offers multi-sport trips in Italy. Their biking/walking Sicily as well as biking/hiking in the Dolomites provides a great opportunity for those travelers looking for some variety. Family itineraries, with varying minimum-age levels, are a great way for mom and dad to have fun with the kids. Finally, their two-tier system of accommodations premier or casual inns allows travelers to decide between luxury accommodations or more quaint lodging.

Judy Koutsky

3. Downhill Adventure
Ski the Piedmont in the footsteps of Olympians

The gold medals have gone home, the sports paparazzi have left and hotels and ski resorts in Italy’s Piedmont District are once again eager to share their snowy treasures with tourists. Literally at “the foot of the mountain,” Piedmont is in the northwestern corner of Italy that abuts the French and Swiss Alps. Turin, the capital city and site of Italy’s first parliament, hosted the XX Winter Olympics this winter and showed the world it is a gold-medal ski destination.

With the refurbished Sandro Pertini International Airport serving 20 regional cities and 14 Italian hubs, access to the medieval capital is easy from U.S. gateways, typically requiring a transit through London, Rome or Florence. Turin spent more than $1.2 billion on a sweeping urban-renewal campaign prior to the Olympics and added 2,500 rooms to the existing 7,700. The facelift shows not only in a wider choice of accommodations but in massive public works like the new Porta Susa train station and smaller flourishes, including updated signage at the National Cinema and Egyptian museums.

The ski slopes lay an hour west of Turin (or two hours from Genoa, Milan and Geneva) by train, bus or car. Here, in the Susa Valley, is the gateway to the famed “Milky Way” a string of seven ski resorts: Sestriere, Bardonecchia, Sansicario, Sauze d’Oulx, Claviere, Cesana and Pragelato.

Sestriere, built in 1937, is a purpose-built resort similar to Vail, Colo., and offers the widest range of accommodations. While lacking old-town charm, its 146 pistes were a smash with Olympians. From Sestriere, recreational skiers with the popular Vialattea Pass ($40 daily) can connect to five adjacent resorts via catwalks and lifts the classic European village-to-village ski experience. Snowboarders will want to challenge the pipes and groomers at nearby Bardonnechia, which hosted the snowboarding events.

With Olympic white gold in abundance (nearly a quarter of the runs in the Milky Way are groomed with artificial snow) you might have to remind your clients that there’s more to Piedmont than just downhill adrenaline.

“We like to say that you come for the skiing, but stay for the charm,” said local tourist officer Roberta Rossetti. “Don’t forget to enjoy all the other delights Italy has to offer, like Prosecco and prosciutto.”

Jad Davenport

4. Come Home
Rent a villa and feel like a local

It’s a seductive image; the rambling villa in the Italian countryside, French doors thrown open to the Mediterranean sun, a garden filled with flowers, olive and lemon trees and why not a grape vine or two. There will be birds and butterflies, a swimming pool if it’s summer, a roaring fireplace if it’s winter. The villa will, of course, be only a short drive from one of Italy’s famed ruins or medieval cities, or at the very least, close to wineries or the purveyors of some artisan cheese found nowhere else in the world. How infinitely more romantic than staying in a hotel the perfect way to transition from tourist to traveler.

You can easily make this dream come true for your clients, with a few caveats. Villa rentals are for the fairly adventurous, a proposition best suited for people who are self-sufficient and can roll with the punches. For instance, the more romantic and rustic in appearance it is, the more likely the villa is to have tragic plumbing, with fluctuating heat and water pressure. Your clients will have taken the villa on for at least a week, and if they find it disappointing, they can’t simply march back down to the front desk and ask to have their rooms changed.

Fortunately there are some top-flight companies that handle only the best in villas, frequently checking the properties they list and maintaining stringent requirements. Rentals range from luxury apartments to small villas to grand houses sleeping up to 25. At companies like Abercrombie & Kent or Wimco, many of the listed villas come with almost as many amenities and services as hotels. Lease Abercrombie & Kent’s Borgo Bernardini, a 19th-century hunting lodge outside Lucca, and the price includes a concierge/manager, a chef, plus additional staff to maintain the 12 bedrooms with private baths and the gorgeous grounds. Rentvillas, which has offices in Ventura, Calif., has a category offering castles. On their Web site, it’s possible to read reviews written by guests who have stayed at each of the properties. Take their Castel Lorenzo, a 15th-century villa in Vorno (outside Lucca) it sleeps 22 and the price includes a chef, two meals a day, two more staff for upkeep and a house full of frescoes and antiques, along with a pool. That will set your clients back around $42,000 for a week, but fully occupied by a group, it becomes a bargain compared to luxury hotel prices.

Most of the companies offer commissions, and Villas of Distinction also offers discount airfares on partner airlines Delta, United and American Airlines, as well as car rental discounts with Hertz. For companies that do not offer commissions, agents can add their own service fee or adjust the price.

Laurel Delp

5. Flex Tours
Freedom and expertise are key

While there’s nothing wrong with traditional guided tours, there’s a new breed of tours that are designed to combine the flexibility of FIT travel with the expertise and ease of escorted group travel, and one of the leaders in this “flex tour” market is the Monograms program by Globus. On a recent Monograms tour of Rome, I was able to experience firsthand the program’s mix flexibility and service.

When I arrived in Rome I was given the name and 24-hour phone number of my “local host.” This is a cornerstone of the Monograms concept, which is now in its third year. The local host is a resident of the city being visited and he or she is available to the client 24 hours a day for advice, special assistance and additional tour bookings. It’s like having a concierge, tour guide and reservation agent rolled into one all on-site. The idea is that more and more travelers want the inside knowledge of a local guide, but don’t want to feel like they are being forced into a cookie-cutter experience.

“The most significant component of the design of Monograms is the human contact. We really want to ... provide a resource for the customer there in person, at the hotel, in the city, who can really be a facilitator for the customer on the trip,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing. “That human contact can really be a benefit, especially in a foreign country &. Someone to say I’m going to manage all the logistics for you so that you can manage your vacation.”

Maresa, my local host, did everything from arranging a tour of the Vatican museums to suggesting a good place for dinner. The group I was with on my day tour was comprised of Monograms and Globus customers (all arranged by travel agents back home). The Monograms clients picked that brand because they wanted a tour, but also wanted some time to explore on their own. The Globus customers, on the other hand, were too busy to plan every detail and preferred instead to trust the tour operator to arrange everything for them. Both types of customers were happy with the brand they chose proving there is no one type of customer when it comes to group travel.

Personally, I felt that the Monograms program gave me a good mix. Oreste, the guide arranged by Monograms, spoke excellent English and knew Rome inside and out. But a one-day tour left me with two days to myself to take an iPod walking tour purchased through iJourneys and to rent a scooter and feel like a true Roman as I zipped from piazza to piazza. Still, I always knew if I had a question, Maresa was just a phone call away.

Born also said agents rave about the ease of Monogram’s booking.

“Far and away the biggest point agents say they like about Monograms is that it’s hassle-free FIT,” he said. “It’s easy to manage, it’s commissionable and it can be trusted because it comes from Globus.”

Kenneth Shapiro

6. Drive Time
Clients take to the open road

Breathing in the Italian countryside from the serenity of your own car can be its own kind of paradise. Italy is a fantastic choice for a driving tour because of the intimate view this mode of transportation provides and the country’s excellent network of roads and highways is one of the most extensive in Europe, with nearly 4,000 miles of express highways and 180,000 miles of secondary roads.

Several companies offer both chauffeured and guided driving tours, as well as the opportunity for self-drive tours and car rentals.

AutoVenture, a small, family-run business, has been providing customized, independent tours for individuals and small groups for 35 years. They offer both chauffeur-driven and self-drive tours and currently offer three different itineraries, taking visitors to the most distinctive sights of Italy.

The Renaissance Road takes guests through Rome, Amalfi, Umbria, Florence, Venice, Lake Como and Milan. The Classico Road leads through Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como and Milan. And the Sicilian Road offers a one-of-a-kind tour through this unique Mediterranean Island, with stops in Palermo, Agrigento and more.

AutoEurope provides excellent and comprehensive chauffeur and transfer service or self-drive tours. And DestinationEurope, in association with AutoEurope, offers unique and individualized vacation packages to help travelers simplify their arrangements and enrich their driving tours. Self-drive tours feature in-depth, customized itineraries that can be modified to suit individual needs. There are Fly and Drive, River Cruise and Drive, Deluxe Hotel and City Stay packages to suit the needs of any road-tripper.

Laurie Baratti


1. Arts & Crafts

Orsoni’s Masters in Mosaics course is priced $975 for one week, $1,820 for two. Accommodations at Domus Orsoni range $130-$325 double. (pensione)

The Opera in Northern Italy tour with Smithsonian Journeys, June 18-27, 2007, is priced approximately $6,500 per person.

MIT’s 10-day Musical and Scientific Treasures tour will be offered March 23-April 1, 2007, and is priced approximately $4,800 per person.

The custom-designed and pre-set food tours from Tuscan Way range from $995 to $1,795 per person for four days to $1,990 to $3,590 for the seven-day experience (prices vary based on location and season).

Tours with Actividayz range $55-70 per person.

2. Active Pursuits

Mountain Sobek
Commission: 10 percent

Country Walkers
Commission: 10 percent

Commission: Rates range from 6-15 percent based on past sales and consortium membership (they belong to Virtuoso). For agents receiving the 6 percent commission, Backroads recommends enrolling in their travel agent specialist program, The Inside Track; graduates earn 11 percent commission.

3. Downhill Adventure




Sauze d'Oulx




4. Come Home

Commissions available

Vacanza Bella
Commissions available

Villas of Distinction (Creative Leisure)
Commissions available

Abercrombie & Kent
Commissions available

No commissions, agents add service fee

5. Flex Tours


iJourneys Walking Tours

Gueye Simon Scooter/bicycle rentals
In the Piazza Del Popolo

6. Drive Time

Auto Venture

Auto Europe