World to the Wise Cultural Tours presents an unforgettable trek through three of the most enchanting countries in Europe!
Some of my favorite moments as a tour leader are watching the expressions of our travelers as they first encounter some of these wonders. There is a particular corner where I like to skip ahead just a little so I can savor the expressions as the group rounds the corner and sees the magnificent Eiffel Tower towering above them in all its glory.
It was our first time to visit the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra. We had become well familiar with other towns such as San Gimigniano, Sienna, and Monterigione, but we had somehow missed Volterra until we heard Rick Steves recommend it.
We found ourselves in front of a 2,500-year-old Etruscan gate and fascinated by a compelling story of saving the town from Nazi destruction during World War II, as told to us by our tour guide. But I had noticed something out of the corner of my eye: we had passed a small doorway on the steep street, out of which came a chink-chink-chink sound. In the window were a small number of alabaster sculptures and trinkets.
In addition to the distinction of being one of the earliest visitable towns from the ancient Etruscan civilization, Volterra is also a center of alabaster, a soft, light-colored, translucent stone mined in the area. Volterra is filled with shops containing beautiful alabaster creations, from simple items such as decorative wine stoppers and coasters to large, elaborate sculptures.
But this little workshop caught my eye for some reason, so I stopped to peek inside. There was an elderly gentleman working away at his bench, amidst a decades-old clutter of alabaster fragments and finished products. I had to meet this man. There were too many stories in that place for me to just walk on.
His name is Giuliano (pron. Juliano) and he is well into his 90’s. Two things about him struck me immediately: he looks much younger than his age, and his hands! His hands seemed huge in proportion to the rest of his slender, fit body, like MicheIangelo’s David’s — and they were as white as the alabaster he has been working most of his life. I asked if he minded my asking him some questions, and he welcomed me in with no questions asked. He has been working with alabaster for…wait for it…75 years. He was there during that Nazi threat, he was there during the Mussolini days, and he has been there since Tuscany became such a sought-after tourist destination.
A few weeks later, when my wife and I brought one of our tour groups to Volterra, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to Giugliano and hear some of his stories. I popped my head in to greet him. He was as cordial as ever, but it became quickly evident that he didn’t remember our conversation just weeks earlier. No matter, I thought — if he’s still willing to talk to us, we will still enjoy hearing him talk about his beloved home town and his craft. Since his shop is too small to fit more than three or four people, Giugliano came and stood in his doorway while I made my best attempt at interpreting his Italian into English for our group.
Since then, we have taken four more tour groups to Volterra, and you can bet we made it a point to stop and see Giugliano. And no, he doesn’t remember me from one time to the next. But he remains such a delightful person to talk to, and this way we can be sure that he doesn’t tire of answering our questions!
People like Giugliano are what makes travel such a deeply human experience. It’s one thing to admire the stunning Tuscan countryside and wander the quaint streets of towns like Volterra; it’s quite another to meet real people who are among the 12,000 who make their home there, to hear their stories and get a glimpse into how they see the world. You can be sure you’ll come away changed in some small way.
It was our privilege at World to the Wise Cultural Tours to partner recently with Journey Arts Collective in Brentwood, Tennessee to create a very special experience for a group of ten creatives from the greater Nashville area.
Led by Australian Brett Mabury, whose home town of Perth is where I started school as a five-year-old, the Journey group consisted of writers, poets, photographers, songwriters and musicians. At each stop along the two-week journey, Brett had prepared meditations and exercises for reflection that enhanced the already impacting experience of some of Europe's richest sights.
We began the adventure in Paris. Yes, we did take in many of the obligatory landmarks, but we also left space in the schedule for the travelers to explore on their own -- or sit and reflect or create. Our time also included a day trip to the Norman village of Giverny, where renowned impressionist painter Claude Monet made his home and painted his famous gardens for 43 years. We also enjoyed an evening with other creatives from the Paris area who are part of their own arts collective called La Fonderie.
Next stop was Lausanne, Switzerland, where I lived on two separate occasions for a total of six years. The weather that greeted us was unusually, incredibly mild and sunny, and we couldn't resist spending time by Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the Lausannois). Over a traditional Swiss fondue in a restaurant overlooking the
lake and the Alps beyond, my good friend Luc Zbinden shared with the group a little about Swiss culture and the challenges facing today's Switzerland. The next evening was spent with yet another group of creatives, this time hosted by Psalmodia, a music school with multiple locations in Switzerland and France and where I taught voice at one time.
We then made our way by train to the Italian region of Tuscany, a land that has become dear to my wife and me over the years. We base ourselves at a retreat center a half hour's drive west of Florence, hosted by the Ammirabile family and the caretaker, Luca. Staying here in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, with home cooked meals and warm conversation, affords an experience that is simply not possible staying in a hotel in a city where we know no one. We make day trips to places like Pisa, the Tuscan hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano, and of course the heart of the Italian Renaissance, Florence. Whether taking in the artistic genius of the Renaissance artists or simply admiring the Florentine sunset over the Arno River from the overlook at Piazzale Michelangelo, one comes away with few words and lots of sighs.
My wife and I have had the pleasure of conducting a number of cultural tours to Europe, the most recent of which was this past June. We visit three of the world's greatest cities: Rome, Paris, and London. We see some of the finest art the world has ever known. We tread where kings and emperors trod. We see amazing performances. We shop in some of the best markets anywhere. We see sights many only dream of seeing. And yet, from the feedback we receive, our experience in Tuscany almost always rises to the top as the highlight of the three-week tour.
There are many reasons for this. Of all the phases of the 3-country tour, these days based half an hour outside Florence contain the most human contact with the local population. We are hosted by two wonderful families: the Ammirabile and Volle families. Our housing consists of newly renovated studio apartments overlooking the valley pictured above. (You could do worse than waking up to that every morning.) In between our day trips into Florence or to some of the "hill towns" of Tuscany, we share in experiences that are an inviting window into what appears to be an almost idyllic lifestyle.
Our good friend Caty (Caterina) heads up the meal preparation and offers lessons in Italian cuisine in the process. We enjoy some pretty delicious food throughout Europe, but everyone seems to agree that Caty's cuisine is the finest -- whether pizzas of all kinds baked in her outdoor oven with olive and other local woods, to pasta cooked just right or even simple bruschetta, every meal is a feast.
Perhaps it's how closely the Ammirabile family lives to the land that makes them so endearing. The family runs both a wine growing and an olive oil business, and one of the highlights of our time is the tour of the vineyards by Giovanni, the patriarch of the family. A committed Christian, Giovanni explains the role of the winegrower while alluding to Jesus' teachings on the vine and the branches. The man knows what he is talking about. He has been "pruned" himself more times than I know about -- and yet the sparkle in his eye as he talks about his vineyard indicates a faith that has survived his trials. His wife, Grazia, doesn't attract attention to herself but has a heart of gold.
Even though food is not the focal point of our Tuscan adventure, it is surely the time spent at the table that stands out in our participants' memory. A welcome contrast to the too-often rushed American meal, it is often surprising to realize how long we've been lingering at the table, simply enjoying the moment, being together in such a pastoral setting.
Whatever the case, you can be sure these few days in the Tuscan countryside will be an ingredient of the World to the Wise cultural tours for years to come. Between the bustle of great cities like Rome and Venice, it is like landing in a bubble of peace and tranquility.
Ask anyone who has been with us and you will most likely be answered with a sigh.