ROBERT ST. JOHN: Traveling in Italy | Lifestyles

PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— It all starts with a lady named Annagloria. In 2009, I started planning a long trip that would take my family through 17 countries and 72 cities on two continents. We left the United States in August 2011, but such a trip requires a lot of planning.

For the past two years, I’ve spent most nights from 10 p.m. to midnight with my laptop researching destinations, restaurants to visit, villas and apartments to rent, and things to do and see. I created a folder for each country, and within that country I created subfolders related to cities and regions. My Italy folder included Venice, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Ostuni, Sicily – as well as several cities on this island – and of course Tuscany. I probably spent the most time researching Tuscany because we would be there the longest.

I kept coming back to a particular villa in the Tuscan countryside. It was a 1000 year old tower and a 1000 year old barn that had been completely renovated that year. The lady who owned the Villa with whom I communicated spoke good English, seemed like a foodie and really “understood” what my family and I were doing. So I booked his place, Villa Il Santo.

The Villa, the two neighboring towns and the family that owned the Villa were the perfect choices. The Villa sits at the end of a secluded gravel road in the Tuscan countryside; nothing around but a 30 mile west view of grapes and olives. No tourists hang around the city or in the restaurants. It’s all local. Exactly what I was looking for, but the bonus was that in 30 minutes we could be in downtown Florence or Siena. It was the best of both worlds; perfect.

Although the bonus was Annagloria, her husband Enzo and their family, they were the perfect hosts and got us through those first few days in Tuscany when I was just learning the ropes. Later, when I started to organize tours in this part of the world, Annagloria and her family became essential parts of the process. She introduced me to a guide for Siena and Florence named Marina Mengelberg. She is Dutch but has lived in Tuscany for 20 years. She also introduced me to Ricardo, another guide we use in Florence. In turn, Marina introduced me to Jesse, who helps with our tours to Rome and Amalfi and has just spent ten days with us helping lead my tour through Spain.

All these people made us discover other people and other places. I tell the guests I host on these tours that one of the big surprises leading people through Tuscany, northern Italy or southern Italy – or Spain, for that matter – that I knew I would have fun doing it.

Still, I had no idea that I would make such good friends with the people who travel with me. It was, but also, it’s the same with the initial trip; I knew I would enjoy traveling with my family for six months through Europe. But little did I know that I would make lifelong friends overseas in the process.

The key to my business success over the years (as far as I’ve had business success over the years) is that I’ve surrounded myself with people more talented than myself.

If I’m good at anything in business, it’s picking talented people and surrounding myself with them. I choose the path, steer the ship in the right direction, and step aside so these people can use their talents to help us reach our destination. The same goes for international travel. I am fortunate to have surrounded myself with talented people who help organize these trips and create unique experiences for Americans traveling to Europe.

It’s a career that I never chose and in which I almost fell over backwards. I never intended to host a trip to Europe. I planned to do it once and then move on. But that first group had a waiting list, and then the waiting list grew, and then the first people we took to Tuscany asked, “Where do we go next?” And so we visited northern Italy a few times. And then people asked, “Where are we going next? And so we reached southern Italy with a few groups. A few weeks ago, when we finished crossing Spain from north to south, we had people with me who were on their fourth or fifth trip.

It is special. But I’m hesitant to take credit for it because of the wonderful people I’ve met over the years, those who work with me and those I’ve surrounded myself with. They are hardworking, talented, and amazing people who know the area and enjoy hosting Americans.

Annagloria and Enzo know how to welcome Americans to their villas. Their children work hard to make customers happy and comfortable. Enzo has lived in the area all his life and Annagloria grew up in Florence. They therefore know the area well, which was huge during my first visits.

Marina is a licensed tourist guide who has undergone many intense studies and training in Florence and Siena. Ricardo grew up in Florence, and he knows the city well, as does his American-born wife, Cynthia.

There are countless restaurant and shop owners that we have come to know and love over the years, so much so that when we arrive here it feels like we have come home. It doesn’t just happen without special places and special people. I am grateful for each of them.

Forward.

About Juana Jackson

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