I’d been to Italy on two previous occasions.
It’s one of those countries that feels instantly like home to me; warm natured and welcoming of visitors, while holding strong to it’s authenticity, traditions and distinctly delicious cuisine, not to mention skilled artisans, culture and identity so ingrained in its cobbled streets and rolling Tuscan hills. It’s a destination that highlights the value of the individuals you may meet, and their stories, as wherever you go you find them and the passion with which they live their lives, and practice their craft.
All things that I delight in, yet they leave me slightly protective of my favourite places, torn between promoting them in a bid to offer the support they deserve and need, yet wanting to keep them safe and protected, never to be ruined by too much tourism. A dilemma familiar to by many conscious travellers.
Which means that an invitation from Trafalgar and the TreadRight Foundation to join a media trip to Italy and Austria that would showcase their commitment to sustainable travel practices, was one I was thrilled to accept. It offered an opportunity for me to gain a deeper understanding and take lessons in travel that matters; as we explored each destination, its history and culture, through enriching experiences, while recognising that it is our responsibility to help protect the areas we visit and the world around us.
Travel Today, Sustain Tomorrow.
Trafalgar are known to lead the way in sustainable tourism partnerships and on every one of their trips, work hard to ensure that each place they spend time in is positively impacted. A difficult balance to strike and one that takes much commitment, yet in turn is inspiring their onboard guests to adopt the same philosophy.
TreadRight by background is a not-for-profit foundation established by The Travel Corporation, which through Trafalgar and the other brands gives financial support to sustainable tourism projects around the world. Their ethos is ‘invest in local communities, preserve the environment and partner for a better future’.
There could not have been a better suited theme for this trip, as far as I was concerned. Adding to the goodness, we were joined for the first few days by TreadRight’s sustainability ambassador, Céline Cousteau (granddaughter of famed Jacques Cousteau), as well as global CEO Gavin Tollman. With 2017 the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism, this was to become an anchor travel experience, one that gave me lessons to take forward as I ever centred my own travel focus around this essential practice.
Arriving into Rome from the UK, Malaysia, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, the group of just on 20 global media checked in to the Grand Hotel Tiberio where our Travel Director Tony Emmerson was waiting to greet us. Without delay, after dropping our bags and checking in, we headed into the city for a walking tour with local specialist Ilaria who took us to some of the eternal city’s iconic landmarks; the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain among the highlights, St Peter’s Basilica as our backdrop, cobbled streets and bustling street cafes alongside gold-tinged buildings further adding to the ambience.
Dinner that night was with Chef Fabio Bongianni, a local Italian and friend of Trafalgar who hosted us in his private apartment on Tiber Island, a space that formerly belonged to film director Michelangelo Antonioni and once played home Marlon Brando. Here with Celine Cousteau and CEO Gavin Tollman for company, we ate our way through numerous courses of Italian delicacies and home made pasta, before receiving a gift of his Fabiolous Cooking Day book while limoncello and Amaretto were served. Fabio even showed us a passion-filled scene from the Italian movie L’Avventura, which was shot in the very room he now cooks in.
What a start, and yes, this is how you unlock a city and it’s living and lasting treasures.
Next we were in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, and possibly my favourite region in Italy, where we spent the morning with Marta at the Museum-Workshop of handwoven artistic textile. Here Marta is the 4th generation of women passionately preserving the ancient tradition of weaving, using looms from the 17th century and a practice handed down over thousands of years.
Set in an old church, she talked us through her work with an infectious passion. Marta puts her whole self into the art, a tablecloth taking as long as 20 days to create. We learnt about the history of the craft, bringing an emotional respect to her artisan story and its grounding significance as well as how the TreadRight Foundation supports her.
After that a walk in the rain through the beautiful old city, and time to take in the views across the mountainous region as the clouds cleared. That night, before being tucked up in the Sangallo Palace Hotel, we all enjoyed the sunset from the elevated position of a hilltop town.
Marta Cucchia who follows a passion handed down to her by her great-grandmother and on antique wooden looms creates traditional patterned textiles as seen in the great work’s of arts from the 17th Century.
Scenes from our next stop in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Siena where a local specialist pointed out some of the main sights to us before allowing free time for exploration. I took to the centre of the medieval city with it’s intricate cathedral, red brick buildings and fan-shaped square. In the heart, Piazza del Campo is the site of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, a slender 14th-century tower with sweeping views from its distinctive white crown.
Here we stopped for a pastry and coffee at a side street cafe, some people watching too, before walking through the shops selling items typical to the region and further indulging in some home-made gelato.
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption.
From here we joined the Lenzi family for a Be My Guest meal and a Chianti and olive oil tasting on their Tuscan wine farm Fattoria Di Petroio, which is located on the ancient road between Siena and Florence. The Pallini-Lenzi family has owned the property since the 19th century and Gian Luigi Lenzi, who is an esteemed academic and doctor who works as a Professor of Neurology in Rome, and his American wife Pamela are actively involved in wine production, producing about 4 000 bottles of Chianti Classico annually.
Pamela was born in Seattle and arrived in Florence in 1965 to continue her studies in Italian language, but also to find the roots of her beloved Italian grandparents. She immediately fell in love with Tuscany and consequently a Tuscan and chose to remain and make Italy her permanent home.
A decadent lunch in their cellar and long chats about romance and dreams, was followed by a walk through the gardens and time spent with their glorious dogs.
That evening we checked into Relais La Cappuccina – a Trafalgar Authentic Accommodation built on the site of a Capuchin Monastery it was constructed in Art Nouveau style by a local nobleman. Here we gathered around the pool for sundowners overlooking the towers of San Gimingano.
San Gimingano, Italy
The truly spectacular San Gimignano was next on our route, catching a first look at sunrise, we spent the morning walking the beautifully preserved medieval village that was once home to 72 towers, with 13 still standing tall today. This is a Tuscan rooftop village at its most wonderful, with wonderful art, leather works, charcuterie, cheese, pastries and olive oil for sale. As well as fine wines from the region.
Also on the main square you’ll find the world’s best gelato at Gelateria del Dondoli. The lifetime calling of Sergio Dondoli, his flavours on offer include saffron and creamy spice. There’s also one called Michelle, created especially for Michelle that’s delicious. Heaven really, as the man himself will engage you with his passion for doing things right.
Before heading to Venice, we made a bonus stop to meet Princesses Natalia and Irina Guicciardini Strozzi – who are said to be direct descendants of Mona Lisa and have inherited over a thousand years of tradition and history which they proudly preserve at their Tenute Guicciardini Strozzi estate outside San Gimignano. We took a ride up to the top of the land, before descending 15m underground into the belly of their wine production and barrel maturation cellar, before settling around a table to sample their fine wines and hear stories of the Pope drinking their wine and how Natalia as a top ballerina who once danced around the world.
Venice needs to be seen. No book, movie or photograph could have prepared me for the beauty of this city. It’s surreal in every way and I am so grateful to have immersed myself into it. To have walked the streets and cruised the Grand Canal at sunset, admired the art and intricate detail as I worked my way through the narrow streets and across some of the 450+ bridges, fed the pigeons on Saint Marks’ Piazza and marvelled at the candy coloured homes of Burano.
Arriving to check in to the Bellini Venezia Hotel for two nights, we headed to dinner by private water taxi as the skies turned orange and the light softened on the historic buildings that lined the grand canals. The next day had us walking the streets and crossing bridges in a bid to see as much as possible of this city, understandably known to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Our Local Specialist took us to a centuries-old food market and through the narrow ‘calle’ or streets. We saw how the locals shop for food and learned more about the regional cuisine, admiring the beautiful architecture and visiting Marco Polo’s house.
Did you know that there are 118 islands in Venice, over 400 bridges, hundreds of secret gardens and 500 gondolas, when once there were 10 000 or more.
From there a boat trip to Burano Island, famed for its coloured houses and lace making tradition, where we enjoyed a traditional meal before taking time to photograph the bright mix of colours that makes it so picturesque.
We crossed into Austria and the alps were covered in a sprinkling of snow, the fields bright green and the air crisp and fresh.
Just outside Villach we visited Kloster Wernberg, which is home to 60 sisters in the order of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood in their Monastery with a history of important missionary work in South Africa, Congo, Peru and beyond. The sisters are active worldwide in education and in youth work and see their order as pivotal to improving the lives of women and children around the world, as well as having a commitment to peace and justice and a responsible approach to the environment. A Catholic women’s order, they were founded by the Austrian, Franz Pfanner Trappistenabt in South Africa in 1885. Yet another connection for me.
Our Trafalgar Travel Be My Guest experience here included insight into their essential work in the local community – specifically with the influx of refugees, on their substantial farm and with the retreats and sustainable practice workshops that they offer here. Lunch was served in the Angel Hall, with 20 angels watching over us, after which we were joined by more of the sisters for chats, laughter and a walk up to their shop to buy some of their produce.
Staying in Romantik Hotel Post in Villach, I took a walk along the river and recognised the privilege of being in a whole new country.
Our trip built up with one destination more inviting and beautiful than the next, our last night having us at the magnificent and historically significant Schloss Leopoldskron outside Salzburg. We took a walking tour in the city which is the birth place of Mozart and home to the impressive Hohensalzburg Castle that sits atop the Festungsberg. There was a bridge covered with love locks and coffee shops that served the most delicious apple strudel.
Everywhere there were familiar scenes from the The Sound of Music movie, which was filmed here. I loved our hotel, set in the country and overlooking a lake. An 18th century former family estate of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and a member of the Historic Hotels of Europe it is beautifully romantic, with a modern flair in the cafe and lounges.
At Schloss Leopoldskron we took a tour with the charming manager Daniel Szelényin, wearing his hand-monogrammed mohair socks under his short Bavarian lederhosen. He told us how our visit, and Trafalgar’s support, helps fund the hotel’s continuous care and periodic restoration and how in the 3,5 years he’s been there, his focus has been on training the staff and implementing effective conservation methods.
He brought to life the magnificence and history of the grounds and buildings before we paused for a last glass of Champagne overlooking the lake, heading through to our last dinner together in the dining room. After that I couldn’t wait to retreat to my beautiful warm room, finding it one of the best styled of all those I’ve stayed in.
Last Look Before I Leave.
As I boarded my plane from Salzburg to Frankfurt and home, I realised that once again my time with Trafalgar had rewarded richly. I’d been allowed experiences I would unlikely have been able to give myself, and met inspiring families and individuals who are the heartbeat of their villages and cities.
I’d taken valuable lessons in how travel can have a positive impact on the communities we visit, while discovering the best of their culture, art, food, hospitality, architecture and scenery enhancing every bit of the way.
As conscious travellers, it remains our responsibility to help protect the places we travel to and the world around us, while creating friendships and partnerships that ensure a better future for all. How grateful I am to have seen this done in such beautiful places.
‘TreadRight. Tread Light. Uncovering immersive tourism partnerships that ensure a better future for all.’
Personal highlights and reflections.
- The way our Travel Director Tony was there to look after us throughout, equally informative and professional, filling in the details as we went, answering a hundred questions, offering daily treats, ensuring smooth hotel check-ins and that the many special requests were met. Yet having that balanced with local specialists in each city, unlocking their insider details.
- The fact that even though we were travelling as a group, we were allowed much free time to explore on our own, or find a place to be introspective about the experiences we were enjoying. Reaffirming that it is possible to enjoy ‘solo travel’ within a group.
- The Be My Guest experiences, meeting and eating in the homes of locals, will always make for lasting and meaningful memories and offers an invaluable depth to the country. Make sure that when booking your Trafalgar trip, one or more of these are included.
- Staying in Venice may be more expensive than staying on the outskirts, but there’s an undeniable magic to walking the streets late at night, taking in the views of the water taxis and gondolas on the canals first thing in the morning, and having the luxury of this dream city to yourself (well almost), before all the day visitors arrive. FUN FACT – Venice saw 30 million commuter tourists in 2016, and 4,5 million overnight tourists. Now that is significant!
- A trip in a gondola can cost as much as 100 Euro for 20 minutes, which means that a shared water taxi may be the more affordable way to cruise the canals.
- There is now WIFI on the Trafalgar coaches, so while on the road between stops and attractions, you have time to touch base with the world – or in my case share your love for it – without having to search out a cafe or restaurant to accommodate this need. I found this meant when I was back walking the streets, listening to my guide or stopped for a fabulous hot chocolate (more likely prosecco), my focus was entirely on the moment. The ‘admin’ done.
- Of course meeting Céline Cousteau and learning more about the essential work she does with TreadRight and through the films she makes and stories she tells. And feeling proudly South African on the night of her presentation when she showed a video of her visit to Bushmans Kloof, and all in the group wherein awe of the beauty of my country.
- The incredible Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop in Venice, which is a treasure trove and home to three very characterful attention seeking cats. As well as the library in the historic palace at Schloss Leopoldskron, built by Max Reinhardt and floor to ceiling beautiful books with leather couches and warm tapestry carpets adding to the charm.
- Meeting the sisters at the Kloster, it brought home all those convent school days.
- This was my second Trafalgar trip and I am even more won over to the idea of a guided holiday with a group, there are so many perks. Not only is travel hassle free with all activity and restaurant bookings are taken care of, but things like check-in at hotels and those little reminders about dietary requirements and special interests, are all taken care of and you have the privilege of pure immersement into the experience.
- The people you meet, always. In the country, and in the group.
‘Strangers leaving as friends. That’s what a Trafalgar gives you.’
**Please note that this itinerary was specifically designed for our media group and is not available as a standard Trafalgar itinerary. However, they have amazing Italy and Austria options available here. I encourage you to take a look and consider a #JoinTrafalgar holiday.