When in 1989 I began Insider’s Italy, clients would tell me about the destinations they intended to visit and would ask me what I thought of their hotel choices. So often they had selected a disappointing collection of faded luxury hotels and were approaching their itinerary unimaginatively. And so Insider’s Italy was born, a personalized travel planning company for independent travelers.
I began the company with the idea of treading lightly, this in a country that ranks fourth among the world’s top tourism destinations and where so much of its tourism is unsustainable in both the short and long run.
Our founding premise is that travelers should immerse themselves, as much as possible, in all aspects of being in Italy – for example, by taking language instruction before departing from home, utilizing our background reading lists and closely reviewing the detailed maps provided with our travel materials – but most of all, should intelligently consider destinations, accommodations, food sources, shopping and transport.
Chianti Classico Agriturismo
For a growing number of our clients, ‘intelligently’ has come to mean not just vacationing in very comfortable style, but traveling in a way that is socially responsible and environmentally and land-sensitive. Our assumption has always been that our clients are educated, responsible visitors who view their role as travelers as part of a more holistic picture and will do all that they can to avoid exploiting any geographic location, wherever it might be.
As part of our services, we prepare in-depth and unique daily itineraries providing insight and unusual background information. With our personalized Travel Plans, we try to bring together the locale and our client in a manner beneficial to both.We are making a personal mission of promoting an “alternative” tourism wherein clients can reduce their footprint and minimize unnecessary overconsumption while supporting effective land use, respecting fragile, over-visited areas and partaking in sustainable, land-supportive activities while they travel.
The selection of bases is the first way we intervene to shape an environmentally aware traveler’s trip. To reduce reliance on fuel-based transport and to urge a more satisfying, relaxing trip, we encourage clients to consider a limited number of bases and to explore each base in greater depth. In environmentally fragile areas like Positano or Cinque Terre, we suggest that travelers stay elsewhere and visit them on expeditions by foot, boat or train. We have always urged travelers to explore off the beaten path, favoring lesser-known, often more rewarding destination over the more traveled ones.
Slow Cities are high on our list as top destinations. Citta’ Slow is Slow Food’s sister movement; what Slow Food means for the table, Slow Cities means for the town. Dedicated to the concept of “considered living” and improved quality of life, a Slow City must be under 50,000 in population and committed to community, environmental preservation, sustainable development, and a variety of conservationist-minded statutes and laws. In our clients’ itineraries, we include as many Slow Cities as we can. And we steer clients, when possible, away from cities already reeling from urban problems based on unsustainability to charming, lesser-visited cities.
“Slow City” Orvieto
We encourage visits to Italy’s World Heritage Sites and World Monuments Sites (many unknown to most Americans) hoping that our travelers will become stewards of these fragile and irreplaceable locations. Whenever appropriate accommodations are available in their proximity, we suggest visits to some of the 21 national parks that cover about 5% of the Italian landmass (and are home to Europe’s largest number of animal species, close to 60,000.) Additionally, regional parks, wetlands, marine protected areas, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) refuges and other protected areas, many postage-stamp sized, offer havens from mass tourism.
Mass tourism has a destructive effect on monuments, museums, and cultures. We encourage off-season traveling. We also encourage the use of not-for-profit walking-tour companies operating in four cities and several historic sites. These exemplary tour companies shape their private seminar-style tours so to have a minimal footprint on the city, avoiding overcrowded spaces except when necessary.
The selection of hotels is another way we assist environmentally aware travelers. When we books hotels in city locations, in our core service called Antipasto, they are always in the heart of the city center so that nearly everything can be done on foot with no need for taxis or public transport. For countryside locations, villas are often the best choice. A number of our favorites offer a combination of solar and geo-thermal panels, recycling bins, pools that sanitize with salt and not chlorine, low flow faucets and low flush toilets, a water recycling system, avoid landscaping chemicals and excessive nighttime lighting and provide organic help-yourselves vegetable gardens. Others are on properties that are fully organic or biodynamic. Exemplary is one of our villas, a remarkable luxury-quality property belonging to an anthropologist and herbalist. From the property you cannot see a single road or telephone pole. There is no light pollution and no sound of distant traffic. Guests have full access to trails for hiking and riding as well as to a working farm with pigs, cows, beehives and sheep, an ancient cork tree forest and an organic garden. Under construction is a small, magical observatory. In the photo below Nathan cooks with the owner.
More than half of our recommended small owner and family run hotels are on or next to agricultural estates. While grapes and olives are the most common plantings, others support fruit trees or small flocks of sheep. A few of these inns are hand-picked four-star agriturismi, mostly family run estates whose primary purpose is agriculture but that also offer accommodation for discriminating guests. Finding these is complex, as the majority of Italian agriturismi are rustic and unsuited to those seeking a high level of comfort.
One of our discoveries is an exceptionally comfortable nine-room agriturismo near Greve, one of Italy’s loveliest “Slow Towns”. The historic farmhouse is surrounded by 74 acres of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes plus four varieties of olives that are hand-picked during the months of October and November (guests are welcome to help.) Bottles of the estate’s wine and oil await guests in their suites.
Central to the philosophy of Insider’s Italy travel is the enjoyment of food and wine. Clients often claim that a central reason for traveling to Italy is to eat. In my choice of restaurants, trattorie and osterie, as with my recommendations of markets, food artisans and agricultural products, we champion the holistic cycle of growing and eating locally sourced foods.
Insider’s Italy’s detailed reviews are for restaurants that are locally acclaimed. The focus is mostly on Slow Food, an Italian but now international, 21-year-old movement whose philosophy is rooted in preserving the social, economic, and cultural aspects of local food production and consumption while honoring a traditional, sustainable way of eating. Further celebration of the land comes in our gastronomic festival details : we direct clients to certain areas specifically because of special seasonal events such as peak season for asparagus at Bassano; white truffles in Alba, blood oranges in Sicily.
Insider’s Italy organizes visits to culinary destinations, such as Parmesan dairies, a wood-fired bakery in Puglia claimed to be Italy’s oldest bread shop, an outstanding olive-oil producer in Foligno, where Shaw picks up her own cold-pressed aromatic oil and Insider’s Italy’s preferred artisan “panettone” bakery near Trevi. Opening doors to these small-scale artisan producers is an introduction to a world that is difficult for tourists to find for themselves. One special favorite is our organic buffalo milk dairy in Campania, which may be home to the world’s best buffalo mozzarella. Below is one of the lovely water buffalo.
Cooking classes are of special interest to many clients and Insider’s Italy is beginning work with a group of Italy wide home cooks who offer classes within their own kitchens and instruct from their own menu based on traditional, local, seasonal ingredients.
Planning transport is an Insider’s Italy service. We urge travelers to utilize public transport as much as possible and restrict their explorations to their immediate environs. This is easy in a country that is so concentrated in its points of interest.We provide almost every client with train schedules and the Insider’s Italy how-to guide to Italian trains. In Tuscany especially we coördinate personalized walking and biking half and full-day tours.