Italian Persuasion

By Natasha Dragun

Strolling the Streets of Burano - Image: Natasha Dragun
Strolling the Streets of Burano - Image: Natasha Dragun

 With 2017 designated as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism, MiNDFOOD visits Italy with travel experts Trafalgar to learn more about how the company is working with communities to preserve traditions and support thoughtful travel projects.

It’s springtime in Rome, and I’ve just about had the perfect Italian day. It began with a sunrise stroll along Medieval streets and shoe shopping on blossom-laced avenues; there was a pre-lunch Aperol spritz, a post-lunch limoncello. There has been freshly baked bread and now, as dusk falls, there’s homemade ravioli and baked artichoke hearts as well as a salad of torn buffalo mozzarella atop sun-ripened tomatoes.

It’s all served up overlooking Rome’s main waterway in a dramatic whitewashed dining room, which happens to be on the top floor of a centuries-old stone building on Tiber Island, owned by charismatic chef Fabio Bongianni. It’s where I would want to live if I was a celebrity, so it comes as no surprise that Marlon Brando called the residence home in 1965.

From the outside, you would never know the space of romantic porticos and pillars exists, but it’s one of the locations scouted out by team Trafalgar for a Welcome Reception, a tasty prelude to the company’s Be My Guest rituals. These exclusive experiences are featured throughout Trafalgar’s range of guided holidays, and are designed to give guests a deep understanding of the destination they’re visiting. The activities are varied, and touch every corner of the globe.

While there are more than 70 Be My Guest experiences in Europe alone, the one thing tying them altogether is their exclusivity – these activities are not available to the general public, and have been selected for their emphasis on immersive cultural and sustainable tourism projects. There are plenty of opportunities for culinary experiences, such as the one we’re enjoying in Bongianni’s private home on the only island on Rome’s Tiber River.

Later in our journey across Italy, we also visit the Fattoria di Petroio estate in Tuscany for a Be My Guest afternoon with the Lenzi family. Fattoria di Petroio could have been plucked straight from a Tuscan film set: the family home is surrounded by gentle hills lined with grape vines, while wisteria clings to ancient stone walls that separate the property from a long avenue of Italian cypress. There’s also an olive grove, where the family picks fruit that they turn into a delicious extra virgin olive oil.


Lenzi wines

The estate’s 16 hectares of vines have been in the Lenzi family for more than two centuries. At one time, around 30 farmers lived on site, helping pick grapes in exchange for accommodation and a share of the wine produced.

“Back then, we made a lot of wine, but not very good wine,” says Diana Lenzi, the daughter of Pamela and Gian and the property’s current manager. “We decided to change all of that.”

Today, Diana and her team oversee di Petrio’s production of just 30,000 bottles of wine a year. Having graduated from culinary school, Diana is also the driving force behind the meal prepared here for Trafalgar guests, sometimes served up on the grass in the sun; at other times in a long barn used to store barrels of wine.

On our visit, the family dishes up platters of polenta gnocchi with a vibrant tomato and basil sauce, piles of fettunta (a type of toasted bread) and liberal pours of house wines made from the estate’s sangiovese grapes. There’s a ruby-red Chianti Classico Reserva 2011; a crisp Poggio al Mandorlo 2014; and the first batch of Poco Rosso rosé.

“This is our legacy, and something we truly believe in,” says Diana. Indeed, the meal is a tasty reflection of her family’s passion for the Tuscan terroir. In many ways, these dining experiences are helping sustain artisanal producers like the Lenzi family, guaranteeing them an audience of travellers curious to learn more about local life.

Trafalgar is also working with artists around the world to offer similar support for, and spread awareness of, cultural traditions. And on Giudecca Island – a slip of land in the Venetian lagoon – we swap food and wine for gilded glass as part of one of the company’s Cultural Insight experiences.

Glassblowing has a long history in this part of the world, and while the linked islets of Murano are best known for glass production, Giudecca is also home to a number of studios where craftsmen create contemporary and traditional works of glass art. It can take up to 10 years to become a master glassblower, perfecting the process of heating and cooling, rolling and colouring the silica until it becomes a sculptural form. We watch an artisan deftly create a vase in a few minutes, making the process appear much easier than it actually is.

It’s a short boat ride from Giudecca to the island of Burano, where art of a different kind is on show wherever you look. A fishing village, Burano’s streets are lined with houses and shops painted a riot of colours. As whimsical as they are, the fanciful facades actually have a practical purpose, guiding fishermen home from sea when fog and inclement weather obscures vision on the lagoon.

Learning about such traditions has become so popular among Trafalgar’s guests that raising awareness of endangered art forms has become an overt goal through the company’s charitable arm, the TreadRight Foundation (see Cultural Sensitivity, opposite page).

In the once-fortified city of Perugia in central Italy, Laboratorio Giuditta Brozzetti was established in 1921 as a way to keep Umbrian weaving techniques alive. It began when Italian housewife Giuditta Brozzetti became inspired by the traditional textile weavings of local women, who were using their craft as a way to barter for food and other necessities during World War I. Giuditta began collecting pieces of their art as well as looms and patterns dating back to Medieval times and, together with her daughter, began showcasing the collection with the goal of encouraging younger generations to adopt the creative process.

Today, Giuditta’s granddaughter Marta Cucchia runs the Laboratorio, and is the only person in the world still using jacquered wooden looms to create wool and silk pieces featuring Umbrian and Italian Medieval and Renaissance designs. It’s an expensive and time-consuming art form – it takes Marta 12 days just to set up her largest loom, with its 3600 threads of wool.

Inside Marta’s workshop

Marta’s workshop and showroom is set in a 13th-century church that she restored and opened in 1995, partly thanks to funds donated by the TreadRight Heritage Initiative – the grants programme also contributed to the development of Marta’s e-commerce site and educational tools to help spread the word on weaving.

Marta, who admits she makes up patterns as she goes, says that weaving is “my hobby and passion. But in the future, who knows. It’s a miracle we’re still here today. It’s not a lucrative business, and there were points in the past where I could barely go on.”

In addition to selling her creations from the workshop we visit, Marta still teaches the art of weaving to a select group of converts. “I hope, somehow, by raising attention and awareness, we can ensure this precious art never dies out.”



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