Friday, February 26, 2016

Discovering the Exclusive Side of Italy

Excerpted from 
By Cynthia Dial

Imagine touring the Vatican’s private hallways with a seminarian and by happenstance meeting the Pope, attending a private party for Il Ballo del Doge, the Venetian masquerade ball during Carnival, or watching Siena’s famous Palio horse race from the balcony of a princess’s private apartment. Do you see a pattern here?

Amalfi Coast
This is luxury at its VIP peak – the type of exclusivity I specifically sought on a recent visit to Italy.
“I know Italy like my pockets,” said Giorgio Dell’Artino, owner of Dream Italy. “We are probably the smallest tour operator in the country, but my services are never a combination of two numbers.”

Like a matchmaker, Dell’Artino has made a career of pairing his country’s guests with their dreams. High-profile examples include Bob Dole’s tour of World War II sites, Rick Steves’ research visit and comedian Jeff Foxworthy and his wife’s hot air balloon ride over Tuscany before landing in a sunflower-blanketed field for a picnic.

Traveling north from Rome to Tuscany you can see the countryside change from the bustle of one of Europe’s primary capital cities to the leisure of a rural region – rolling hills, precision-perfect cypresses, rows of ancient olive trees and lines of productive grapevines.

In the area known for Brunello di Montalcino wines we bypass Castello Banfi (one of Italy’s biggest wine producers) in route to a small, family-owned, top-quality operation – Poggi Rabino. Here it’s not uncommon to encounter the owner, Edward Corsi, and his mother-in-law and family nonna, Roberta Marzocchi Salvadori, to talk wines over a tasting of their vinos.

Nonna Rogerta Marzocchi Salvadori
Frantoio Franci, a family-run olive farm in Montenero, is renowned as Italy’s most awarded olive oil producer (more than 300 awards) since its 1996 debut on the commercial market. Upon opening a bottle, owner Giorgio Franci affectionately remarked, “You can smell Tuscany.” Beyond learning the art of olive oil tasting (note: slurping involved), our treat was meeting founder, 86-year-old Fernando Franci, who shared that his biggest regret was not learning English.

Fernando Franci
Lunch at Il Grappolo Blu, a typical trattoria, best showcased the region. Found off a tiny walkway in the town of Montalcino, it seemed a secret, though not to Dell’Artino, a friend of the owner, Luciano.
Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is built on three hills. Undisturbed by World War II, it’s a treasure, whose bi-annual tradition, the Palio (a bareback horse race three times around Piazza del Campo), represents the region’s hottest ticket for the city’s locals and its guests.

However, it is underground Siena – known by many but experienced by few – that most captures my attention. Closed to the public, I’m privileged to be escorted into the town’s library and enter through an obscure locked metal gate to descend beneath the city into its ancient aqueduct system and underground passageways. My sole regret: lack of time to follow the path to its end where you ascend from a manhole-like cover, popping up into the central square. 

“Buongiorno, are you ready for your tour of Tuscany,” greeted Dell’Artino before opening the door of a fire-red Ferrari (one of the 18 luxury-car fleet, including Maseratis, Lamborghinis, McLarens and one of the world’s few Bugattis, available to Dream Italy). As president of Fai-Confcommercio, the biggest union of limousine drivers in Italy, he has access to more than 1,300 drivers throughout the country.

Tuscan tour by Ferrari
As we zipped along Via Chiantigiana, the motor route between Siena and Florence, we dissected the region’s Chianti Classico wine zone, detoured to the tiny town of Vertine (an intact, walled Etruscan village dating back to the 10th century) and stopped in Panzano in Chianti, home of famed celebrity butcher, Dario Cecchini, who serves up freshly-carved beef as classical music plays and patrons sample cured meats and red wine. 

Dario Cecchini
From wending through the countryside to soaring above it, the day concluded in a hot air balloon ride over Siena. High above the Tuscan countryside, we observed the city at sunset, heard dogs barking and tracked a spooked wild boar running beneath us. To borrow from the local language, it was magnifico

 Hot air balloon ride over Siena
Once again on the road, our course was a day’s journey south to Matera, a city known by few but treasured by all who pass this way. So remote is this destination – no airport, no train and no freeway (simply a secondary road) – it is not a place you happen upon. However, its upcoming recognition as the European City of Culture in 2019 ensures future international acknowledgement, making my discovery perfectly timed.

The setting is distinctive. Its ancient town called Sassi di Matera (stones of Matera) is known for its cave dwellings, caves in which its populace once lived in poverty. Now the place to be, Sassi showcases layer upon layer of history within its layer upon layer of caves (many modernized current residences and many converted into one-of-a-kind lodging). 

“Be prepared to be impressed,” I’m forewarned as I open the door to Room 1004 of L’hotel in Pietra. Though I expected Matera’s lodging to be less than traditional, I did not foresee such luxury within a converted 12th century Benedictine church built into and over the caves. Designed to emanate the spirit of the town, the suite is multi-levels – showcasing a cave-ensconced bathroom (a partial Plexiglas floor partition reveals a long ago cave dwelling) and its upper bedroom level opens to a window-fronted sitting area featuring the sounds and scenery of Matera.

View from Room 1004 of  L'hotel in Pietra
To best appreciate the town’s many facets, stroll it. Pass through the alleyway that is featured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Wander into Piazza del Sedile, site of the Conservatory of Music, where melodies of practicing students waft from gaping windows. Be one of the first to step inside Matera Cathedral. Closed 11 years for renovation, the church opens to the public in March. 

As all good things must come to an end, what better route to return to Rome from Matera’s southern Italy location than the Amalfi Coast. Multi-colored terraced towns on one side, the Mediterranean far below on the other, you’ll share the narrow, winding road with buses, bicyclists, motor scooters, even pedestrians. Best illustrated by our dialogue – “See that island? It’s Capri,” and “Do you want to stop for gelato?” – its offerings are like no other. 

Driving through such cliff-perched towns as Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento, my just-passing-through trip served only to whet my appetite for everything Italiano. “You must come back to Sorrento for a cooking class. It’s in the garden of a private villa,” tempted Dell’Artino. “It is the only one not in the kitchen of a professional school, so it is very special – especially its views of Capri.” 

All too soon, road signage bade me farewell. “Arrivederci, Goodbye,” I read as we veered from the coastal road back to reality. 

Photos by Cynthia Dial

#travel #giorgiodreamitaly #traveltips #luxurytravel #travelingcynthia


  1. Fantastic! Beautifully written Cynthia! I enjoyed every minute as if I were traveling this route. Your commentary was real to life and I enjoyed it. Thank you so much and I look forward to more.....