Escorted tours: The Italian Job

Escorted tours: The Italian Job

Image credit: G Adventures

Pick a trip that stands out from the crowd in this touring hotspot

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Every time I go to an Italian restaurant, I’m faced with the same quandary: I want everything on the menu.

Whether it’s bog-standard Bolognese and pizza margherita, or authentic arancini and truffle-topped gnudi, there’s too much temptation to narrow down to a single dish.

Which is why I usually end up panic-ordering the first thing that comes to mind, then dealing with inevitable food envy as I spot other people tucking into the dishes I almost ordered.

Luckily, I know that whatever I order, it’s going to taste good – and the same is true for tours to this rich and varied destination.

Italy regularly tops the lists of the most popular escorted-touring spots for standard and luxury operators alike. Despite its cheap flights, abundant accommodation and cultural familiarity making it a relatively easy place to go it alone, it seems nothing beats an organised itinerary and knowledgeable guide to help squeeze every possible drop out of Italy.

With so many operators and such a wide range of tours, the choice can seem overwhelming. So get a headstart with our guide to some of the most popular themes and who sells them.

Food: Eat your heart out

There’s no denying any trip to Italy is going to be packed with good food – you could stop off at the Italian equivalent of a late-night kebab shop and still get something that would put most restaurateurs to shame.

But if visitors want food to be their top priority, there are plenty of trips full to the brim with tastings, cooking lessons and winery tours.

One word of warning though – if they’re looking for ‘Italian’ food, they won’t find it. In keeping with Italy’s strong regional distinctions, each area is fiercely proud of its own cuisine and cooking traditions, so make sure clients don’t expect balsamic tastings outside Modena, spaghetti alla puttanesca outside Naples or classic cannoli anywhere but Sicily.

Ticking off some of Italy’s most famous exports in just five days, Riviera Travel’s Bologna, Parma & Ravenna tour uncovers the stories behind making parmesan cheese, curing the area’s famous hams (with help from the Lanfranchi family, which has been producing the prosciutto for generations), and ageing balsamic vinegar with the precision of a winemaker at the Acetaia Villa San Donnino, just outside Modena (from £619).

The same region is given a different spin on Travelsphere’s new tour, A Taste of Medieval Italy, which pairs up sampling ham, cheese, nougat and local flatbread piadina, with the area’s Renaissance history.

Italy Food

Clients will explore the magnificent Ducal Palace in Mantua, 14th-century Meli Lupi Castle in Soragno and follow in the footsteps of composer Giuseppe Verdi and master violin-maker Antonio Stradivari.

Outside the Emilia-Romagna region, the food traditions are just as strong.

Cosmos Tours & Cruises has added two culinary-themed trips this year: Lake Garda’s Gastronomic Experience, which includes a day making pasta and tiramisu at Tinazzi Winery, while sampling a few tipples along the way; and the eight-day Southern Sicily’s Culinary Soul tour.

The latter combines a day at Antico Convento culinary school, set in a former monastery, with tastings of wine, olive oil, chocolate and traditional Italian desserts – and even a chance to get hands-on with the olive harvest if visiting in October (from £999 including flights, seven nights’ half-board, transfers and excursions).

City: Grand designs

If fine dining is ubiquitous in Italy, then historic architecture is even more so, with buildings from every era jumbled together in most major cities.

It’s only with the help of a knowledgeable tour guide that these urban landscapes come to life with stories of the people who once lived and worked there, making a real selling point in favour of escorted tours.

And if that doesn’t work, point out how many money-can’t-buy experiences are included that simply wouldn’t be possible on a self-guided city break, such as the after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums or the private dinner at 2,000-year-old restored property Case Romane del Celio, both featured in Tauck’s new World Cities – Rome tour.

Ranging from ancient monuments like the Colosseum to the spot where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn filmed the last scene of Roman Holiday, it covers an impressive span of the capital’s history in just six days (from £2,600, land-only).

If the seven hills of Rome aren’t enough, Newmarket Holidays’ Seven Cities of Italy covers more ground, adding Verona, Venice, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Assisi to the Eternal City for a whistle-stop trip through some of Italy’s most interesting spots.

For those who prefer depth to breadth, Cosmos Tours & Cruises has another new trip, Treasures of Tuscany, offering clients a feel for the landscape with walking tours of Montecatini and Florence, plus a guided tour around Lucca and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (eight days, from £775 with flights).

Culture: Live like a local

Venice - Image credit: Newmarket Holidays
Image credit: Newmarket Holidays

Soaking in Italy’s cultural heritage is about more than Renaissance artworks and lofty cathedrals. Coming into contact with local characters is just as important in understanding what makes each region tick.

That’s why Insight Vacations’ Country Roads of Italy combines Pompeii, Venice and a behind-the-scenes visit to the Vatican with meeting local celebrity chef Lorenzo Polegri in Orvieto – ask him about cooking at the White House over a glass of orvieto classico – and master ice cream-maker Sergio Dondoli in San Gimignano, who has attracted international attention for his inventive flavour combinations. The 16-day tour starts at £2,835, excluding flights.

The small, rustic accommodation used by Back Roads Touring on its Enchanting Southern Italy trip is just as packed with character as the itinerary, which takes in lemon-picking and limoncello-tasting in the citrus groves of Tramonti, and making lunch on a working country estate in Campania. The week-long tour starts at £1,625.

Similarly, G Adventures’ five Local Living tours – in Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany – are mostly based at traditional agriturismi, with cooking lessons, orchard tours and hikes through the countryside offering a sense of the landscape and local people.

If those everyday charms aren’t enough to convince clients to book, perhaps seeing Italian culture at its most extravagant will do the job: each February, its cities are filled with parties and parades as they celebrate carnival in a flurry of lights, confetti and elaborate costumes recalling the traditional masquerade balls.

Shearings operates a nine-day tour timed to coincide with the famous Venice carnival. It includes a full-day excursion in Venice with a local guide to explain the history behind the costumes, along with visits to Lake Como, Unesco-listed castles in Switzerland and finally Milan (from £479).

Venice Carnival

Off-piste: Explore more

Already climbed the Spanish Steps, cruised down the Grand Canal and posed for a picture pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa back into place?

For those who have been there, done that, Italy can seem like an open book. Yet with a guide who knows how to get off the tourist trail, this enchanting country might still have a few surprises left in store.

Piedmont, which sits in northwest Italy on the border with France, is famous for its wines, white truffles and winter skiing, yet is woefully underappreciated by British visitors.

Trafalgar’s Secrets of Italy tour is based here, exploring the medieval town of Cherasco, enjoying Be My Guest dining with a family at a wine estate in Asti, and taking an excursion to Turin under the watchful eye of a Trafalgar Local Specialist.

Land-only prices start at £1,475, including visits to Milan and Lake Orta, and a farewell dinner at Lake Maggiore.

The Lake District is also ripe for exploration, with visitors increasingly bypassing better-known Garda and Como (sorry, George) for some of the less touristy spots.

Travelsphere has added an eight-day Secret Lakes of Italy itinerary for 2015-16, visiting six of the most tranquil lakes, from Levico to Caldaro, punctuated by stops at a vineyard producing Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to Champagne) and lunch at a trattoria overlooking Lake Ledro (from £899 with flights).


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