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Deep roots make for better wine. And they also make for a better tour operator. I put two and two together over lunch at Podere Le Ripi, a biodynamic Tuscan winery where owner Francesco Illy — of the Illy coffee family — explained what makes his Bonsai Rosso di Montalcino special.
Back in 2005, he aimed to plant the densest vineyards in Montalcino — and perhaps the world. Wine consultants told him he was crazy — that the vines would never survive — but his crop thrived. They produced deeper roots, a more concentrated grape and a better wine.
Hearing the winery’s story from Illy himself was the cherry on top of an extraordinary visit. We had already enjoyed a lunch catered by a Michelin-starred chef, toured the vineyards with winemaker Sebastian Nasello and walked through the new cellar, an architectural marvel proportioned according to the golden ratio and featuring a majestic oculus recalling the Pantheon.
It was a handpicked excursion from Access Italy, the luxury tour operator with which I was traveling through Italy. Access Italy became a Virtuoso preferred supplier this year, but the Italian family-owned business has been perfecting its product for decades, constantly cultivating new connections — from celebrity winemakers to career doormen at Italy’s top sites — that enable it to carve out unique experiences for its A-list guests. Indeed, the family behind Access Italy — founder Angelo Amorico and his sons Simone, the CEO, and Marco, the president — have personally arranged and guided travel for clients such as the Obamas and repeat customer Oprah Winfrey.
Throughout our trip, we experienced the many manifestations of this special treatment. One of the most spectacular iterations was in Rome: We arrived at a still-closed Pantheon with Simone, who excused himself from our group to exchange a few words with an elderly man in a camel coat.
That man — an unassuming employee of the Pantheon — gestured for us to follow him. We walked to the right of the Pantheon and arrived at a majestic side door. As the man unlocked it, our vivacious guide, Matilda, told us that most people never see what immediately awaited us: a small chapel, with two red pews and an altar decorated with golden pieces. We then walked through a simple brick corridor for the finale: the Pantheon itself, completely empty save for two employees sweeping the floors. Still a free attraction, the ornate pagan temple is one of Italy’s most popular sites, averaging about 7 million guests per year.
In Vatican City, we also bypassed an epically long line and were ushered through a side entrance that brought us in front of Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse, where Pope Francis lives in a modest suite (he famously refused residence at the papal apartments).
We entered Studio del Mosaico Vaticano to meet the pope’s mosaic artists and see firsthand how they create works of art that are given as gifts from the pope to visiting world leaders.
Even more special was our visit to the Vatican Grottos beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. We passed numerous papal tombs and chapels — as well as quite a few tour groups — before entering an empty hallway, which we followed to the Chapel of the Madonna of Bocciata. We climbed a few steps to a dark nook that features an excavated wall containing a box believed to hold St. Peter’s remains. The visit unfolded like a surprise, and I couldn’t help but pinch myself: Millions of people come here to connect with the spirit of this Catholic saint, and there I was — as a close as humanly possible.
After successive superlative experiences, I now had ridiculous expectations for the rest of my trip. How could Access Italy’s excursions in Tuscany and Florence — two places where I’ve spent considerable time living my best life — be better than what I had already done?
Cue the laugh track: In Tuscany, we stayed in Val d’Orcia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at Monteverdi Tuscany, a property embedded in a medieval village with panoramic views of rolling hills. (The other properties we stayed at — Hotel Eden and Four Seasons Hotel Firenze — provided equally memorable visits that enhanced our experiences in Rome and Florence, respectively.)
We visited Podere Le Ripi, as well as Tenuta di Trinoro, another unique winemaker. A rebel in the land of Brunello, the super-small-batch winery uses French grapes (instead of sangiovese) to make wines that receive 100-point scores from Wine Spectator. Since Access Italy is on a short list of companies able to bring visitors here, we were the only people on the grounds besides employees. As such, we were treated like family and offered generous pours in the owner’s home as well as lunch, prepared by his chef, a lovely local woman. Serving hearty portions of steaming pasta, sauteed chicory and rustic apple tart, she was the Italian nona I never had.
On our way to Florence, we made a stop in Siena. A few days before, I had casually mentioned to Simone that I had always wanted to see Siena. He told me “no problem” — and left it at that. I thought we’d just drive by some of the sights; instead, our car came to a halt, and we were asked to get out. Stationed at the sidewalk was Veronica, another lovely Access Italy guide, who would walk us to the ornate Siena Cathedral and Piazza del Campo, home of the town’s famous palio (horse race).
Access Italy’s ability to change plans and create surprises based on clients’ real-time reactions — coupled with a catalog of unique, intimate experiences and best-in-class hotel stays and dining experiences — makes the operator well-equipped to wow even a seasoned Italy visitor.
In Florence, we capped our trip off at Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, just after meeting with master artisans who replace and replicate the building’s outdoor statues. But instead of only viewing it from the outside as many tourists do, we were guided inside, past the frescoes and up a staircase — not to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome with the crowds, but to a midlevel wraparound terrace, where we enjoyed a private passeggiata (leisurely stroll). As I took in the panoramic views of the city, I couldn’t help but notice the visitors below, cocking their heads in our direction.
It’s possible they were wondering how we had gotten up there — so high, so close to the heavens and so far from the crowds. Instead, they should have been thinking about the depth of our roots.
Access Italy recommends calling (1-888-499-5513) or emailing ([email protected]) as the first step. Provide details about the clients' requests and interests. The company’s response time is within 24 hours. Travel advisors work first with an Access Italy Destination Specialist to design a customized itinerary for their clients. Once all is booked, the reservation is followed by the company’s Customer Care Team who will also take care of the clients while travelling, providing all the necessary advice and assistance they might need.
Access Italy provides a price breakdown; does not charge credit card fees; and can book hotels, apartments, and villas.
The DetailsAccess Italywww.accessitaly.net