Go global, tour local

When I contemplated what would be the best way to immerse myself in Italian during my week in Italy, I decided I didn’t want to take formal classes. I am already doing that four hours a week in DC and I didn’t want to feel boxed into a curriculum when I could be out and about exploring. What I settled on was setting up tours with private guides who would speak in Italian but be able to explain things in English when I didn’t understand. And since they were private guides and I was the only one on the tour, I could ask them to slow down and help on points of language without feeling sheepish.

It is hard online to sift through all of the corporate results when looking for private tours. I wanted to deal with humans not a company or a website. One of the most promising boutique tour outfits that I came across was Bella Milano Tours run by Mirella Maestri and Valeria Andreoli. They offer all kinds of specialized tours related to food, fashion, history, etc. that go beyond the obvious things to see or do in Milan. And even better, they will create a bespoke tour so you can really dive into what interests you. When I emailed them about the possibility of creating an opportunity to have an Italian conversation with Italians over a good meal, Valeria was quick to write back with some options.

What she set up was a lunch at Trattoria Madonnina with her friend Donatella who is also a tour guide. Now this is the kind of restaurant I would probably not have ventured into on my own. Yes, I was trying to immerse myself, but I would have been intimidated by the fact that it was full of locals without a tourist in sight. It was a wonderful spot to pretend I was a local. There was a large party that arrived while we were there that included a young man wearing a crown of laurel. Had I been on my own I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. Thanks to Valeria and Donatella I got the inside scoop. Not only were they able to tell me that he had graduated from university that day and was there with friends and family to celebrate, but I got to know more about how universities work in Italy. Valeria also had lots of ideas for finding sweet treats in Milan. One of her specialties is a food tour of the city center.

Valeria, co-owner of Bella Milano Tours (on the right) and her friend Donatella.
Unless my Italian conversation comprehension skills failed me (a distinct possibility) this was when the restaurant owner was telling Donatella the restaurant had been in operation for 300 years.

Since I wanted to have as many experiences as possible, I also emailed a promising looking small tour company called My Private Milan. Owner Fabio was fantastic and set me up with private tours of three different museums I wanted to see.  Since my goal was to listen to and speak Italian and to feel a bit more like a local, I asked if I could have two-hour tours at La Pinacoteca di Brera, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana on three successive days rather then some other kind of highlights tour. What amazed me about what Fabio was able to set up was that each of the three guides (Paolo, Fiamma, and Davide) knew so much about the history of the museums and their collections. If they know half as much about the rest of the city their brains must be enormous.

Again, if my Italian skills didn’t let me down, this is San Marco about to lose his head in Egypt. Notice how much the scene looks like San Marco in Venice?
I love a still life and this one was super sized.
As I looked at this one, probably about 400 years old, I had deep thoughts about the timeless reality of food. Sure, I know some fruits and vegetables have changed dramatically over the centuries, but if you look at these there isn’t much that looks foreign to us. And then imagine how sweet they tasted to people who didn’t have refined sugar.
Lovely detail
I feel like this dog is thinking “Can you believe these people?”
It’s almost like the dog is photobombing the painting.
A giant dead frog. I was told what it meant, but I just like to think of him as a giant dead frog.
Which one you gonna kiss the one on the left or the one on the right?

5 thoughts on “Go global, tour local

  1. BookerTalk March 16, 2019 / 8:49 pm

    You’ve given me an idea I hadn’t ever thought of – my husband and I have decided we want to improve our French and would talk only in French to each other one day a week. The target would be to have a holiday in France and be able to converse considerably more than in the past. Having real conversations with local people would be such a great target – thanks for the tip Thomas


  2. Ruthiella March 18, 2019 / 2:49 pm

    The private tour idea is fantastic. How do you feel now about your Italian conversational skills? Are you more fluent? Did you pick up any useful vocabulary?

    What does the giant dead frog mean?


  3. Geoff W March 22, 2019 / 3:04 pm

    One of the best tours I ever took was of the National Library in Madrid. It was incredibly rewarding, but also very draining as I was trying to translate for my partner. At some point I gave up translating for him simultaneously and gave him recaps after each of the rooms. I should’ve spent more time trying to talk to the other tour guides in Spanish.


  4. Karen K. March 31, 2019 / 9:14 am

    I’m so impressed that you did an immersive trip to Milan — three years in Germany and I’ve basically given up trying to improve my German, there are just too many English speakers around here and most locals don’t want to be bothered trying to struggle through a conversation and just switch to English. I love Italy but haven’t been to Milan, it’s definitely going on my list — and all of those museums! I love the still life and the dog photobomb — painting bomb?

    And what is up with that giant dead frog???


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.