(Forbes) -- There are some countries where only the bravest among us would venture without a tour operator: Mongolia. Bhutan.
Iran. For those journeys into the unknown, the on-the-ground expertise is priceless.
But while we rely on insiders in these exotic destinations, Italy seems like the kind of place where we could easily go it alone. It is perhaps the most user-friendly country in the world.
Locals are accustomed to tourists, even if you get lost there’s beauty and history at every turn, and it’s virtually impossible to have a bad meal.
This raises a question: Why hire an expert tour operator to visit Italy?
The answer is that a really good one can not only jump the lines but open doors that you didn’t even know existed. A good one can provide seamlessness, insight, surprises and, above all, access.
So it’s no coincidence that the Italian-born, American-educated Amorico family chose the name Access Italy when they began their tour operation a decade ago.
Long before they planned their first custom-made vacation for clients, they began cultivating a network of trusted relationships across the country—hotel managers, local artisans, museum directors, winemakers, and holders of various keys. They are masters of the Latin art of knowing the right people to make magic happen.
Plus, Simone Amorico, a former professional tennis player who is now the CEO and the face of the company, is the consummate lighthearted Italian gentleman. He says, “I like to personally meet clients and partners to ensure the best possible experience and to add our personal touch.”
Among those clients are Oprah Winfrey, Aaron Paul and Owen Wilson, with whom Amorico became close friends. But non-celebrity clients get the same level of service and are paired with “young, cool” guides who work exclusively for Access Italy.
Likewise, the hotels are handpicked. They include the likes of the elegant, newly renovated Hotel Eden in Rome and the lavish Four Seasons Firenze, which occupies a former Medici palace in Florence.
When I recently traveled with the company (as their guest), the itinerary sounded like Italy 101: Rome, Tuscany and Florence. I wondered what could surprise a seasoned traveler there.
Actually, there were quite a lot of surprises. One day began with a sunrise visit to the Pantheon, for a private tour before anyone else was allowed inside this fascinating architectural achievement, and a photography workshop on some of Rome’s most picturesque streets.
The next began with a tour of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica in a highly exclusive way. We entered through a hidden side door and followed a guide who explained Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Pietà and Bernini’s bronze baldachin. We went to the Vatican Necropolis, a first-century City of the Dead where the tomb of St. Peter was discovered. It’s arranged along narrow, dimly lit pathways adorned with frescoes, inscriptions and stucco decorations. Very few people get to enter each day, so it’s one of the Vatican’s best kept secrets.
From there, it was a bit of time-travel, to a medieval village turned small hotel in the Tuscan countryside. Monteverdi, which now has 18 rooms and three villas, is the passion project of Michael Cioffi, an American lawyer of Italian origin. It’s still a village, with holiday homes and a handful of full-time residences in between the hotel facilities. The buildings are centuries old, and part of it dates from the 1000s.
It’s a fine place to hole away for a few days, but it’s also a fine base for exploring the UNESCO-protected Val d’Orcia and its boutique wineries. Access Italy met with many of them to find the most interesting and hospitable. One day, we visited Podere le Ripi, a biodynamic winery that is the passion project of Francesco Illy, a very colorful member of the Illy coffee family, who turned up to join us at lunch. There, there are cooking classes, hands-on farming experiences, formal tastings and elegant meals catered by a nearby Michelin-starred chef.
The next day was completely different, a private tour and tasting at Tenuta di Trinoro, which specializes in Bordeaux blends (obviously a rarity in Tuscany) and rarely opens its doors to the public. But as it happens, Amorico had recently met winemaker Carlo Francetti through mutual colleagues at Rome's excellent seafood restaurant and wine bar Pierluigi. Lunch at the winery was prepared by the owners’ longtime private housekeeper, and even with the Michelin-starred restaurants on our itinerary (the standout being La Bottega del Buon Caffè in Florence), her home cooking made for one of my favorite meals of the trip. The elegant reds didn’t hurt, either.
But the peak experience was at the end, in Florence, and it was quite literally a high point. Among Access Italy’s many new offerings for 2019, is a privileged visit to the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, popularly known as the Duomo. After a guide explained the controversies and plots behind its completion—which took more than a century to achieve—we climbed many narrow flights of stairs to reach the upper terraces. There, a panoramic, exclusive passegiata allowed us to marvel at Brunelleschi’s masterpiece up close. Virtually no one gets to do this, and even Amorico seemed astonished to be there. Far below, tourists on the street looked up in envy.
And those who still insist on showing off their travel bravery can climb all the way to the top of the dome.