Ever since I left the corporate world and began sharing our Italian travel experiences with guests, I realize one of the greatest gifts to me has been meeting people and making friends along the way. Sure, seeing beautiful places, amazing works of art, tasting delicious food and wine have been pleasing experiences for me as well. However, the opportunity to spend time with my family in Sicily and making new friends in Italy, has been the most rewarding.

A friendship I share with Antonella, our singer performer who entertains our guests each week in Tuscany, has blossomed. Our guests in Italy dine at her boyfriend’s restaurant, where I join the chef in the kitchen. Antonella’s mother, Carla, taught me the art of making orecchiette. In reciprocal appreciation, Antonella has performed for our guests back home, where I hosted her visit to Sarasota, solidifying our ongoing relationship.

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These past five years I’ve had the honor to get to know the owner of our beautiful villa in Tuscany, Loredana. We delight in her delicious dinners served under the Tuscan sky. A forever student of learning Italian culture, I’m impressed with her ease in preparing risotto, a favored dish. Then there is her never ending work on making this Tuscan villa an amazing place to relax and take in all that Tuscany has to offer. Each year I return to another beautiful improvement to the 500 year old villa and she is always there for our guests as well making sure everything is perfect.

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Then, there is my Rotary friend Silvia, who I first met at a Rotary meeting with my hometown club in Sarasota. She lives in a little town near Milan called Magenta. Through the years we’ve shared special trips to Milan and even a day on Lake Como. It’s always a perfect culinary experience to have her mother cook for me. She always insists on having me at her dinner table.

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From the moment I met another friend during my first tour of Tuscany, I felt a strong connection. I needed a place to stay near the villa since I had a full house of guests. Loredana, the villa owner, suggested the little bed and breakfast just at the top of the road. I barely saw Candida that week leaving early and coming home late each day. But when we did share a coffee I could tell there was something very special about this person.

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Her grandfather was a Jewish German man who settled in Florence and married a Tuscan woman near the turn of the century. In 1905, he started a hat manufacturing company producing hats for field workers. Through the years the company grew and begin making all sorts of hats. Candida’s father continued with the business during the Second World War, but moved the ownership of the company into his partner’s name because of his Jewish heritage.

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Later on, after Candida finished her schooling, which included a year of study in the United States, it was Candida’s turn to work with her father. She had a wonderful relationship with him and he taught her many things about business and life.

She was a businesswoman, working in a man’s world, creating hats. Yet, in addition to designing hats for field workers, she created and marketed hats to famous designers and movie stars. It took a special woman to succeed in such a situation. But, I’m certain it was her creativity and tenacity that made it possible.

Sadly after 100 years, the pressures of the global economy and the world financial crisis brought an end to the hat company. She settled in her home in San Casciano, where she still displays in her living room, several of the hat molds used to make various hats. She has a wonderful vegetable and flower garden, some olive trees, a collection of beautiful finches and songbirds and even some chickens that produce fresh eggs for her bed and breakfast guests.

Now, this painter, jeweler, garden furniture dealer, amazing chef, and proprietor of a bed and breakfast, never seems to rest.

After I met Candida I thought it would be very special for our guests to share an evening at her dinner table. It turned out to become one of the highlights of our tour as she delighted our guests with her cuisine. I love the stories she shares about her life. She even shows the tour groups photographs of her family and a beautiful new grandson. I really enjoy the photos from when she came to America as a teenager. In one, John F. Kennedy addresses her group of students while they visited Washington D. C. Candida’s creative talents extend to her paintings that decorate this lovely country home. Several of our guests have purchased her original jewelry.

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This friendship has been so endearing to me. I always invite her to one of the villa parties we host each year. I love to cook for her and have her enjoy the entertainment we provide our guests. One year she invited me to have lunch with her friends on Saturday afternoon. One was the former school of philosophy dean for an American college. Another was Ferdinando, a brilliant and extremely cultured man whose family business has been making bronze and stone sculptures for four generations. In the 40’s, his grandfather made molds of the great works of art in Italy, which include Michelangelo’s David and a collection of Etruscan works. This company is world renowned and they even created the bronze broncos that adorn the Mile-High Stadium where the Denver Broncos play.

Today these molds are priceless, since it would be impossible to create molds again of these magnificent works of art. His clients come from all over the world.  Many come from China seeking copies of Western art, which was systematically removed during the communist revolution. Ferdinando invited our guests to come by the foundry and watch as the worker poured molted bronze into the sculpture molds. It was an astonishing experience and one that could never be replicated, on a tour sold by travel agents. We toured the foundry where artists were working on the finishing touches of statues poured weeks before. Then, we relished watching, just a few feet away, the men distribute the molted bronze material into the molds that were buried in the sand beneath the floor.

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One of my most thrilling days with Candida was a road trip to Carrara to visit the marble quarry, the same one utilized by Michelangelo for its white marble. Candida had friends visiting from England and my girlfriend, Frannie, and I offered to drive us all to this famous marble quarry. We had lunch in a beautiful little town real close to where the men work on the mountain. After we enjoyed our local lunch we asked the waiter if there was someone who could show us around. He said wait here till 4 o’clock and a man will meet you. Sure enough, around 4 o’clock a man appeared in dusty jeans and a smile. He was the foreman of a crew working on the mountain. He gave us a tour of the quarry and told us a little bit about the methods the men use to harvest the marble.

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Now, I’m very certain that this could be considered an unregulated tour. However, it was remarkable. After we reached the foot of the quarry we piled into his marble dust-covered, dated  Nissan pickup truck to travel the rest of the way up the mountain. As we swerved off the work roads Frannie sat on my lap. We gasped at the drop-offs we could see looking out the window while being tossed about in the back seat. We stopped at the top, where he explained to us the mountain is owned by 20 families, who have been removing the precious white marble for sale around the world for hundreds of years. Today, there’s not much left of the high-quality white marble and whatever good stuff remains is sold off to Dubai. For every 5-ton marble block that is of the highest quality cut from the mountain, there are four other blocks of poor quality that is sold off to be used in the production of toothpaste. Our guide was quite a character and entertaining as he showed us how the marble was cut from the mountain. He even had a little marble gift shop out of the back-truck bed which he opened for us to browse through after our tour.

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This area is known for its lardo, a type of cured pig fat that is served on bread. It was just the energy source needed for the workers to eat while on lunch break many years ago.  After our tour he offered to take us to his home to try his homemade wine and purchase some of the lardo he cured. We stopped at his home, tasted the wine and I purchased some of the lardo. A thin slice of the pork fat is served on warm toast, which melts the fat into the bread. It’s salty and very good.

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It’s hard to conceive I could have ever replicated these friendships and experiences if I never left the corporate world and started my little tour company. I am most grateful for these relationships and experiences. I truly treasure developing lasting friendships with these fascinating people.