Traveling solo, I joined a group on Country Roads of Italy, an escorted motor coach tour from specialist Insight Vacations . What a wake-up call it was. The trip bore absolutely no resemblance to the old jokes, clichés and the 1969 movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” That was all about a flag-bearing tour guide whisking groups through a blur of countries, herding them past highlights with no more than a glimpse, checking in and out of mediocre hotels in the middle of nowhere, eating off menus especially designed for groups, then getting back on a bus. You can still pay for that kind of experience. But why would you?
These days, the best tours are all about meeting local residents in their own settings. In the case of regions such as Umbria, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and the Veneto, this means being driven by Carlo and guided by Belinda on walks along country roads that a visitor would not happen upon if traveling independently. Even for the rare independent traveler lucky enough to find country lanes that no guidebook points to, introductions to such people and places are impossible. Insight Vacations delivers the inside track, known as signature experiences, for example:
Our favorite Italians
Did you know that Italian architect Donato Bramante won a papal-led competition to kick off the re-design of St. Peter’s Basilica in High Renaissance style? When he died in 1514, Raphael took over, followed by Michelangelo. We got close to this 16th century superstar lineup with VIP access, which means skipping long lines to gain access to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. High inside a tower which is closed to the public, we lingered for views from Bramante’s double helix staircase, a marvel designed without steps.
Riding the funicular to the summit of an ancient volcanic outcrop, our eyes were opened to the medieval Cathedral town highlights pointed out by local art historian Marco Bellanca. Without Marco’s interpretation, we would have overlooked the apocalyptic frescoes on the Duomo’s ornate honey-colored gothic facade. Nonetheless, we were somewhat relieved to leave 15th century demons for 21st century pasta-making. Author and TV Chef Lorenzo Polegri, known as The Etruscan Chef, runs a cooking school at Ristorante Zeppelin. In a private classroom, we feasted on our own freshly made tagliatelle topped with emerald green olive oil that had emerged from the cold press moments prior. Toasting our newly learned culinary skills with Orvito Classico, Lorenzo saw us off with an autographed copy of his cookbook.
In San Gimignano:
We’re standing in the beautiful bricked Piazza della Cisterna in San Gimignano, encircled by ancient Tuscan walls punctuated by the surviving14 of the original 70 medieval towers. Admiring remnants of the city that flourished until the plague’s Black Death struck in the mid-14th century, we’re entertained by Sergio Dondoli, a convivial world champion gelato maker. Free samples turned out to be a veritable ice cream meal, all thoughts of lunch put aside as we indulged in spicy chocolate with sour cherries, cream with saffron and pine nuts, pink grapefruit and sparkling wine, Bronte pistachio…to choose five is a delightful challenge. Luckily, Sergio offered personal guidance.
Imagine a guided tour through the cavernous underground where fermentation, blending, aging, bottling, labeling of famed Mazzei Chianti wine takes place. Better still, winemaker Leonardo Cappelli escorts us from the heart of the Sangiovese vineyards and vaults to the farmhouse table where Marquis Francesco Mazzei, the 24th generation owner of the estate pours our first tasting: Vermentino di Toscana to accompany the zucchini flan with pecorino cheese fondue starter. Followed by Fonterutoli Chianti Classico paired with pasta in a wild boar sauce, we were in awe of the legacy, the meal and the movie-star presence of Dr. Mazzei.
Rethink your journey
You don’t have to choose between being shepherded around with a group of people you don’t want to spend time with and doing all the research, planning, driving and schlepping yourself. Plus, if you’re traveling solo, you’re all set on an Insight Vacations trip. Here’s why:
1. Opportunities to meet locals means authentic once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
2. No need to plan your own hotels or trip itinerary.
3. No driving, maps, getting lost, wasting time, no suitcases to schlep.
4. Art historian experts as tour directors are better than any guide book.
5. Plenty of free time included.
6. Insight Vacations uses luxury motor coaches with business class legroom and free Wi-Fi.
7. Insight Vacations books smaller groups.
8. Airport transfers, dine-arounds, tipping are included.
9. Sociability for solo travelers and age-appropriate pace for mature adults.
10. Save money – incredibly enough!
Baby boomer bonanza
Get out your calendars, fellow baby boomers, and find time for Tuscany. Thinking back on the walk up a wildflower-bordered path leading to Frances Mayes’ villa in Cortona, I calculate that she wrote the international best-seller “Under the Tuscan Sun” at the age of 56. As the youngest of the largest generation turn 50 in 2014, it’s a good time for that dream vacation to Europe that wasn’t so dreamy last time round, or was just too long ago, or somehow slipped through the cracks altogether.