Europe

Saturday 26 July 2014

The Italian insider

Learning to make pasta from an Etruscan chef, eating freshly made olive oil or being serenaded at dinner – Italy is the perfect romantic escape.

Clare Cullen

Published 31/05/2014|02:30

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Bright spot: A street scene from Burano
A glassblower at work at the Murano glass factory
Master gelato maker

Learning to make pasta from an Etruscan chef, eating freshly made olive oil or being serenaded at dinner – Italy is the perfect romantic escape.

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The Giro D'Italia has drawn worldwide attention to the rolling Italian countryside, but there is so much more for the adventurous traveller than just the majestic scenery, as I discovered when I had the pleasure of exploring Italy with the help of luxury tour company Insight Vacations.

We were greeted by the Insight Vacations tour bus upon our arrival in Rome. The luxurious coaches look like your average bus from the outside, but inside seats have been removed to ensure each holidaymaker travels in the utmost of comfort, with acres of legroom. The coaches even boast 4G wifi – convenient for the Instagram addicts on board.

Our first adventure gave us an authentic taste of Rome with dinner at a traditional restaurant where we were serenaded by an opera singer, accompanied on the piano by her adoring husband. She regaled us with the stories of love, lust and heartbreak behind each song she sang, finishing the spectacular set with the classic 'Time to Say Goodbye'.

We left the restaurant filled with both the delicious Italian cuisine and excitement for the odyssey that lay ahead.

Throughout the tour our guide, Belinda, delighted in taking the group for what she called "little strolls" – gorgeous, leisurely walks through the Italian countryside to admire the scenery. Each little stroll would introduce us to something new, a person or place off the beaten track, unique to the tour.

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She showed us a side to Italy normally hidden from tourists and travellers. Belinda lives in Italy with her husband, but she may as well have been born there such was her passion and patriotism.

In each port of call we also had a local tour guide who gave us an insider account for every site we encountered – from the restricted corners of the Vatican to the hidden meaning behind church carvings.

Throughout our travels we encountered vibrant, captivating characters. In San Gimignano we met Sergio Dondoli, an award-winning master gelato maker with a world championship title under his belt. He told me of the time British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited his shop and he served him a mix of three gelatos – one of which was green, to symbolise Ireland.

He thanked the Prime Minster for his involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process and now proudly displays a thank you letter sent from Mr Blair on his wall.

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In Orvieto, we were treated to a pasta-making class by an Etruscan chef Lorenzo Polegri. We learned how to make pasta from the raw ingredients and then feasted on the results, complemented by some of Italy's most delicious wine.

Throughout the trip we were given small gifts and mementos of our stay, which was a personal touch unique to the Insight experience.

In Modena, we visited the Ferrari museum – a must-do for car fanatics. We took a tour of the museum where the guides told us all about the priceless cars within. We learned the history of the brand and saw historic models dating right back to the very earliest Ferrari. We were even granted a peek (no photographs!) at the latest – already sold out – model, retailing at over €1m.

Italy is famous for its love of food and wine, and we were given every opportunity to sample homegrown Italian cuisine. Olive oil, bread and wine in particular were a big part of our culinary experience. In Spello, we were taken to a family-run olive farm where we ate a batch made especially for us.

In Fonterutoli, we visited one of the most iconic wine estates in the country where we learned the history of winemaking and watched the bottling process.

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Italy is a haven for the budding photographer, with unrivalled scenery and exquisite light. In Venice, during the winter, the streets flood and the lights of the buildings play gently on the reflection of the water, creating a moving portrait of harmony between structure and nature in the quiet hours of the morning.

There, we visited Burano, a wonderfully colourful island with some of the most beautiful cottages reflected in the water. Residents walk around in brightly coloured rain boots, fitting in perfectly with the vibrant surroundings. We also took a ride on the gondolas and were serenaded as we cruised through the beautiful 'streets'.

We then took a taxi-boat to the famous Murano glass factory where we watched a glassblower create a series of stunning glass figurines from what began as an orange ember.

Insight Vacations provides a luxury experience designed for the seasoned traveller looking for something extra. Their connections and insider knowledge of the locations provides an unparalleled holiday. They pride themselves on creating 'experiences', tailored to each individual traveller for the trip of a lifetime.

Likewise, the hotels across the various packages available are luxuriously comfortable. Their flawless attention to detail ensures each traveller is relaxed and fully rested for the new adventures that unfold each day.

Revved Up

The Ferrari museum in Modena is a must for car fanatics. Visitors can learn the history of the iconic brand... and drool over the cars on show.

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Need to Know

Clare travelled on an Insight Vacations escorted tour of Italy. Its eight-day Italian Intermezzo tour starts from €1,499 per person.

Included in the price: premium hotels in central and scenic locations with a highlight stay at Insight's signature hotel, the Villa Piccolo Castello, in the Tuscan countryside; tour director and local tour guides; many meals, including authentic dining experiences; travel by luxury 40-seater coach with business class legroom; VIP entrance to sites, including the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, plus exclusive entry to the Bramante Staircase and much more.

For more information on Insight Vacations' 12 Italian itineraries and over 100 journeys throughout Europe, visit insightvacations.com or call 01 775 3803.

Insight Vacations arrange flights at the best prices available at time of booking.

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