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"This is like a dream,” said our local guide Olivera Stojovic, her face lighting up as she led us to the inconspicuous entrance for the Vasari Corridor, a passageway that travels across Florence’s Arno River, connecting the Uffizi Gallery to the Pitti Palace.
The corridor, commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in 1564, served as a gateway for the Medici family to travel secretly from where they worked to across the river where they lived. Over the years, it has become home to an impressive art collection, though it’s still not open to the general public. An exceptional section of the one kilometer-corridor occupies the top level of the Ponte Vecchio bridge, offering a privileged view to those fortunate enough to secure a tour of the exclusive corridor.
Visiting the Vasari is one of the special experiences that Tauck materialized for us on our “World Cities... Florence” trip, a six-day itinerary that is part of the new World Cities collection. Currently operating in Florence and London and expanding next year to Paris and Rome, World Cities itineraries offer small groups a more satisfying look at destinations that deserve more than the usual two or three-day tour.
“The purpose of launching World Cities was to go deeper into destinations for people who have traveled more and been to a lot of these places,” said Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck. “Similar to some of our Tauck Events, World Cities itineraries were designed to do things that allow you a more immersive experience.”
The program is an off-shoot of Tauck Events, single-departure itineraries highlighted by special experiences — such as a private dinner at the Vatican Museums and an after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel.
More flexible for bookings, the World Cities itineraries offer several departures a year, meaning that they are easier to tack on before or after another Tauck program or private travel in Europe.
About half of the guests on my trip had visited Italy before — some, including me, had even been to Florence, and several had traveled on Tauck’s other, more comprehensive Italy journeys.
“My first Tauck trip was six years ago, and we visited Tuscany and Umbria,” said Jeanette Goryl from Cookeville, Tenn. “We didn’t feel like we saw enough of Florence, which is why we came back. We didn’t go inside the Basilica (di Santa Maria del Fiore) that time. We went in the Florence Baptistery — the big things.”
Having since traveled with Tauck to Italy two more times, Goryl and her husband considered coming back to Florence on their own.
“I was trying to put it together — I thought train schedules, schlepping our bags — and then our travel agent showed us the Tauck brochure for this itinerary and I thought ‘that’s exactly what I want to do, and they’ll plan it,’” Goryl said. “There are places I would come back to on my own, but Tauck makes it so easy. And I think they get the best local guides — I really do.”
Like Tauck Events, World Cities itineraries focus on a specific theme each day. In Florence, our themes were “The Renaissance,” “Da Vinci and Couture,” “Secrets of Gardens, Cooking & Wine” and “Art & Architecture of the Medici.”
Organizing our experiences thematically provided good structure for real learning, as did our top-tier local guides. We constantly referred back to our time at Il Duomo di Firenze with Rocky Ruggiero, an American expat who was recently featured in “Great Cathedral Mystery,” a PBS Nova special about the Duomo.
And most of the time, education had an experiential or behind-the-scenes component. We visited the Opera del Duomo studio where works from the cathedral are restored. Another day, we learned how to make ribollita soup, tortelli di patate mugellani (potato dumplings), peposo dell’impruneta (beef pepper stew) and mille-feuille (a Napoleon pastry) before eating al fresco in the Torrigiani Gardens, Europe’s biggest private garden in a historic city center.
Meals were consistently special occasions, somehow elevating the already enjoyable experience of eating Italian food. The welcome dinner was held in a living museum called Alle Murate, where the oldest fresco of Dante was discovered in 1950. The last dinner was held at Lo Strettoio, a beautiful hilltop restaurant that overlooks the city — a special recommendation from another Tauck tour director who had her own wedding reception there.
Of course, our accommodations were also quite special. Located behind Piazza Della Signoria, Hotel Bernini Palace was once a hat factory, and old relics from its centuries-old history, as well as grandiose touches such as chandeliers in rooms, make for a sophisticated stay. The old charm of the hotel is perhaps the best part, but the big-for-Italy rooms, the free Wi-Fi access, the nightly treats and the morning buffet breakfasts didn’t hurt either.
Terry Portwood, our tour director and a Florence expat from the U.S., made sure we had an enjoyable experience, managing our expectations and dealing with potential problems before they materialized. On the only day where we left Florence and got on a coach (albeit, a decked-out, half-empty one), she warned us several times that the day ahead was a long one. When uncharacteristic traffic deterred our plans to return to our hotel for a quick break, she polled the group on their preference and even offered us the opportunity to stop at the hotel and take a taxi back to the group when ready. No one left.
Perhaps it had something to do with what we did and how we did it: we traveled to Leonardo da Vinci’s hometown of Vinci; ate an organic, alfresco lunch overlooking the Tuscan hillside at Da Delfina in the village of Artimino; and made our own leather key chains at Florence designer’s Jennifer Tattanelli’s leather goods factory. No one was going to risk missing out on our visit to Villa Bardini for a private tour of the Roberto Capucci Museum and a catered outdoor dinner.
After going through Capucci’s gown collection, our guide — the designer’s relative — opened the doors to a small balcony overlooking the city. The sun was lowering, adding a gilted glow to the classic burnt sienna skyline. A hush seemed to descend on the group as we took it all in. For the first time, we were seeing the big picture of the city we were exploring bit by bit. Terry leaned in.
“We’ve never done this before,” she whispered. “This is really special.”
World Cities Launched: 2014 with eight London tours and 10 tours in Florence
Maximum number of guests: 26
New Cities for 2015: Rome and Paris
Florence Dates for 2015: Eight tours from March 23 to Nov. 2. No dates in August. More dates may be added.
Dan Mahar Says: “We will expand the World Cities collection. Over time — 10 years out — many cities will have these experiences, both in Europe, and the U.S. and elsewhere.”