Italy is in your blood, where is your family from?
My family is from the south of Italy; my mum from Napoli and my dad from Alicudi, one of seven Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands), off the coast of Sicily. Both are spectacular places in very different ways and equally make my heart sing. I love the drama and edginess of Napoli, and the calm tranquil Mediterranean waters of the Isole Eolie. They are both such contrasting places and when I think about it, quite an accurate reflection of the contrasting yet complimentary people my mum and dad were.
I’m sure it’s hard to pick just one, but do you have a favourite region or town that you are drawn back to year after year?
It sure is hard to pick but I would have to say Gaiole in Chianti, which is in the magnificent Chianti region of Tuscany between Florence and Siena. It’s where our adventure began and it’s now our second home. We share our time there with wonderful people whom we now consider to be like family, and with whom we love sharing the dinner table. It’s our soul place; a place where we unwind and feel very much at peace.
Is there anywhere you and Damian haven’t explored? Where would you like to visit next?
You know, I’ve been to Italy almost every year for the past 25 years and Damian and I now spend 5 months there each year, and I still feel we’ve hardly touched the surface. Italy is just so deep, with so many layers of culture, that I feel every time we go back to a town or a region, we just keep learning more about it; its people, recipes, traditions, culture, you name it, there’s just so much to learn and experience to feel truly immersed. So I always feel torn between wanting to explore new places and becoming more deeply entrenched in the places we already know and love. I haven’t spent enough time in Sicily though and that is a place I would love to explore further with Damian.
Do you cycle?
No, I don’t cycle. I just married into cycling 6 years ago when I met Damian at the Alpine Classic in Bright. I used to worry that I didn’t love to cycle and wondered how I could co-run our business if I didn’t cycle, but as it turns out, we’ve created our non-riding program for each of our tours, and I have well and truly found my place. I love sharing the Italian journey with our non-riders. Cycling has never really made my heart sing but I do love watching our riding groups do what they love doing, and as I always say to Damian ‘never say never’….one day it may just come to me…and if it doesn’t that’s OK too as I’m very happy being the non-riding partner.
What does a typical day on an A’qto Italian cycling tour look like for you?
We generally wake up around 5.30 am to do all of our emails and phone calls back to Australia, before joining our groups for breakfast around 7.30am. After breakfast, the riding and non riding groups go our separate ways and I host the non riders to the many great experiences available on each of our tours; whether that’s visiting hilltop towns and taking guided walking tours to learn about the places we visit, hiking through the mountains or beautiful Tuscan countryside, cooking, photography or ceramics painting classes, going on a truffle hunt or occasionally having some time out by the pool, the activities all come down to who’s joining us on tour and what’s on offer in the the regions we’re in. We usually regroup in the late afternoon for some time out, before heading out for aperitivo hour. It’s a time to relax, share stories, reflect on our riding and non-riding adventures and soak up the ambience of our beautiful surrounds over an Aperol Spritz and often a cheese and salumi plate, pre dinner. Following a wonderful dinner, we retire to bed around 10.30pm. It’s a big day, each day for 9 days, but when you love what you do, as we do, it is really satisfying.
How did you and Damian start hosting bike holidays in Italy?
It actually came to us. We had been running cycling weekend escapes in Australia and in 2014, Damian rode his first L’Eroica in Gaiole in Chianti, which had been on his bucket list for a number of years. Post ride, he wrote a blog and published it to our client list, and within a couple of hours, we had people asking if we took tours there. Without having to say too much, we both looked at each other and decided ‘why not’? With that, we drove back to Gaiole in Chianti the next day, hunted around different accommodations to eventually find and pay our deposit to secure the most wonderful 7 bedroom, hilltop villa accommodation for the following year, prior to having any bookings….and the rest is history.
In your opinion, what is the key to achieving a true Italian immersion?
I think the key is to allow yourself to truly be in the place you are in, absorbing all that it has and is. It’s amazing how many people look at something when they are overseas, taste or experience it and feel the need to always relate it back to what they know at home, or how it reminds them of something they’ve tried before, etc. I think this is human nature that we seem to want to relate back to what we feel comfortable with. I think if you can allow yourself to step out of your comfort zone, be open to new experiences, tastes, people, behaviours and challenges, you’ll be enriched by a deeper, immersive experience. I think it’s about allowing yourself the freedom to let go and just be in the place you’re in.
How do you spend your time between hosting cycling tours around Italy?
We often return to our home base in Gaiole in Chianti where we can relax and unwind, enjoying the tranquillity and feeling of ‘being at home’. I try to go for a big walk each day, eat and drink less (which is never easy!) and take time out to do yoga or write in my journal…doing the things that I would do on a day off at home in Melbourne.
Often we are also recce-ing places for our tours, so we spend periods of time immersed in these regions, testing out restaurants and accommodation places, spending time with our local contacts and always delving more deeply into the places we choose to share with our guests. It’s a really important part of what we do and how we want to deliver our tours.
It’s your last meal in Italy before boarding a flight home to Australia, where/what do you eat?
Oh boy, that is tough. I guess it depends on where I am as I always love to eat the local, regional specialities in each of the places we stay. If we’re departing from Rome, I’d probably order a veal satimbocca with some beautiful contorni. If I’m in Turin, I would most likely order an amazing dish of Ravioli del Plin or a Vitello Tonnato. If it’s Venice, definitely a beautiful seafood risotto and if I’m on the coast of Tuscany, which is also often a departure point for us, it will always be a delicious Fritto Misto…fresh seafood caught that day and lightly fried, with a beautiful glass of wine.
What do you pack for an Italian cycling holiday? Any must-have essentials that you won’t leave Australia without?
My yoga mat, my journal, my runners so that I can enjoy long walks, a couple of my ‘go-to’ books by Marianne Williamson or other authors I love to read and reflect on, and a good luck charm that my mum gave me many years ago that reminds me to stay grounded and true.
In your very expert opinion, where is the best shopping in Italy?
In the small towns and one off boutiques. While I have a couple of favourite clothing brands I go to in Florence and Bologna including Manila Grace and Pinko, I love to shop in the smaller towns and boutiques. The thing I love most about shopping in Italy is when you find a great shop assistant and you allow them to style you. It becomes a whole lot more than a shopping experience. I enjoy putting myself in the hands of a good Italian woman who truly knows style.
Team North or Team South?
Oohhh…team South. It’s in my blood. I do truly love the south, particularly when I’m around the areas where my parents are from. It really is a homecoming. Although I was born and raised in Australia and I love a lot about our life in Australia, I feel a very deep connection to Italy, and even more so when I am in the south. Those Mediterranean waters, the simple yet fresh and flavousome produce and cuisine, and the dialects…there is nothing more heart warming than arriving to Napoli and hearing the locals talk in the Napoletana dialect…I feel like my nonna is singing to me from heaven.
What is your most memorable experience on tour?
Sharing great conversation and lots of laughs around the dinner table with so many wonderful people. Damian and I feel truly blessed.