Cooking Vacations in Italy: Tuscany & Sicily Culinary & Wine Tours
It All Began With Some Unexpected Guests...
Hi! We are Michael and Paola.
We founded Culture Discovery Vacations in 2006 as a way to bring to others the experiences we had brought to our friends and family that visited us at our villa in Italy. When people travel, they usually see the sights, eat at recommended restaurants, etc., but when our friends and family visited us, we introduced them to local friends, showed them off the beaten path places, cooked together, ate at amazing local restaurants, and really brought them into the local lifestyle. Every time they would leave, they told us they had just experienced something transformational. They felt like they had found a new second home... a sense of belonging. They had never experienced anything like that kind of travel before.
All of this is at the core of what we are about, because that simple difference in travel style was the bud that became Culture Discovery Vacations. We're different. Very different.
So read on and we will start off by telling you a little about us as people (from Michael's perspective), our history, and how Culture Discovery developed into what it is today.
First things first... Who are we?
I (Michael) am a Los Angeles native. I grew up in the 'Valley' (Like, y'know.. the valley, dude!). In 1984, when I was 19, I took a trip to Italy, and during my travels I went to visit a friend of my mother's who had moved back to his hometown in Central Italy a couple years prior. I fell in love with the town, but more importantly, I fell in love with a girl in that town (Paola). She was beautiful and vibrant.. and she happened to be the only person around that spoke English. Over the next two years, we ended up going back and forth between Los Angeles and Italy together while I learned to speak Italian, and in 1986 we married. The decision was made that we would live in Los Angeles and spend our summers in Soriano nel Cimino, her home town.
After we married, we went on to start our family while living in Los Angeles. When we visited Italy, we stayed in a 350 year old country house that had been in Paola's family since it was built. Paola's mother left the old house to us, which was in terrible disrepair. But over the years, we have been working on restoring it little by little, such that it has developed into an amazing country villa. We named it 'Villa Eddarella' after Paola's mother, who passed away just before the restoration began. The villa is our personal sanctuary, and we now spend between three and four months per year here.
We have two wonderful children who enjoy the kind of freedom here that they could never dream of back in in the states. Our daughter, Alyssa, speaks fluent Italian. She went on to get her degree in Hospitality management, worked within the company for years, and is now the company's CMO. She went on to marry Sam, who is now our CFO. Our son, Andrei, has decided that his mission in life is to teach English to everyone in Italy so that he doesn't have to speak Italian :-).
About Paola... She attended a linguistic-focused high school that left her speaking four languages, including near perfect English. As a result of her excellent English, she met me while I was on vacation in Italy. After a couple years we were married, and I took her away from this wonderful place to live in a traffic-infested megalopolis... Los Angeles.
She is a direct descendant of the Corsi family, who were one of the more important families in town for hundreds of years. During the time of Napoleon, her family emigrated from Corsica to Italy.
They were land barons that owned much of the valley beneath Soriano. She is extremely proud of her hometown (rightfully so!) and can sit down and tell you stories about Soriano all day long that would keep you riveted.
In the Beginning...
For years Soriano was our secret. In fact, during most of my years coming here, I was quite simply 'The American', and the two years that I actually lived here, only once had I encountered an native English speaking person.
Over the years I had started and ran several companies. Most significantly, I was the founder and CEO of a well-known "DOT COM" software company. The company grew considerably over the years, and we enjoyed a very comfortable life. However, after the technology crash of 2000 (and especially post 9/11), times got a little more difficult, and while the company survived the crash, it had taken quite a bit of my fight out of me. We didn't know it yet, but Paola and I were ripe for a major change in our lives.
As mentioned earlier, we often had friends and family visit us while we were in Italy. After all, when you have a villa in Italy, people always come out of the woodwork! When they would visit, it would usually be part of a larger trip. That is, they would do traditional travel (car & guidebook, cruise excursions, tours, etc.) in Italy, and during the trip, they would plan some time with us at our villa.
While they were with us, we would always do what people do when friends visit. We took them to our favorite restaurants, introduced them to our friends, cooked together and had parties, and took them to meet that friend of ours that makes olive oil, etc. We would take them to see nearby towns, but not in a guidebook tour way... just as friends going out for a stroll, stopping in a cafe, enjoying time together. Instead of talking about the history of a particular building, the tendency was more to talk about our personal connection to where we were. We were sharing our experience with our friends and family.
Absolutely every guest we had said the same thing. They all said that the time they spent with us was by far the most memorable part of their trip. They regularly told us that they had no idea how good the food could be, or what amazing things there are to see that cannot be found in the guidebooks, or how incredibly warm and welcoming the people are when you get away from the touristy areas, or what an amazing feeling it was to immerse in the culture, rather than tour the sights. Absolutely everyone left in tears, and the common theme was that they felt like they were leaving home. Those that had more "touristy" travel ahead of them after staying with us always wanted to change their plans and just stay longer with us, and when we would talk with them later, they always told us that the rest of their trip they just wanted to go home to Soriano. We knew it wasn't specifically our town, but rather the "insider's experience" we gave them.
Then at one point a timeshare group opened a hotel in our town in Italy. This brought in a limited amount of tourism, mostly Americans and British. The hotel offered very little in terms of services, and while the town had adapted to its new international visitors to some extent, much was left to be desired. We found ourselves often helping out the tourists in town, giving them pointers, and acting as an unofficial point of reference for many of them when they felt lost. Then one day we were sitting and chatting with some of the tourists in town, and they really conveyed a sense of loss for not knowing what to do. So Paola and I took them under our wings for a day and took them out on an excursion. We were certainly not tour guides, so we simply did exactly what we had always done with our own friends and family.
We took them to some local ruins, then grabbed some lunch and invited them to our villa to spend the afternoon.
We had an amazing time, and when they left to go home a few days later, we found a very large arrangement of flowers at the gate of our villa with a card signed by all of them that brought us to tears. We had made an otherwise bad vacation into the best of their lives... and they felt a sense of belonging and family for it. We had no idea at the time, but that was the beginning of what would one day become Culture Discovery Vacations.
The Summer of 2006
Paola and I were really struck by this, and we had an idea. What if we would buy some homes in town and offer them as vacation rentals? We would offer them weekly, and offer services that were lacking locally, all kinds of help for our guests, and we would give the same experience our visiting friends and family got. Simply put, we would treat them the same way we treat ALL of our visitors... like family, not clients. So we went ahead and bought a few homes and started a new company. Since we were in a town called Soriano, we called it "Discover Soriano" and created DiscoverSoriano.com.
It was instantly successful, and before our first guests even arrived, people began to ask us if we could arrange excursions for them with a guide. We figured "Why not?" To keep with our idea, we would simply take them places just as we always did with friends and family, rather than organizing traditional history tours.
People began to ask about Italian cooking classes. Why not? We figured the classes would not be academic in nature. Instead, it would just be like we have always done with friends and family. We would plan a little party and all cook together, just with a little more organization than we had done in the past.
Before we knew it, we found ourselves organizing these services until we found ourselves doing this for just about everyone.
Just as had always happened with our friends and family, our paying guests left with the same feelings and comments. They would leave in tears. They would have a sense of home. It was always the experience of a lifetime for them. Most importantly, because we treated them like old friends, they became friends, and we found ourselves absolutely loving what we were doing!
We quickly realized we were really on to something, so we put it all together. We had a formula. Cooking classes, excursions to famous sites as well as hidden treasures, immersion into the local culture, unique hands-on experiences, small groups, dinners in private homes with locals.... all tied together by what we had always done: Those that come would be treated like friends and family, not customers.... but in the truest sense. With everything we do, we had to think: "How do we do this when our friends are visiting us?". So it had to always be all-inclusive, because we would never ask a friend to pick up a tab. When we would go out on excursions, it would have to be like a group of friends going out, not like a classic 'tour of the sights'. When we did our cooking classes, they needed to feel more like a group of friends cooking. If we went to a winery, it was more about visiting our friend that owned the winery than doing a classic "wine tasting & tour". Everything we did had to be done through that lens.
To say we were wildly successful would be an understatement. We doubled our bookings between 2007 and 2008. Despite the global recession in 2008, our bookings doubled again. Every year we have experienced high double digit growth, to the extent that we now host more than 600 guests per year in six separate locations throughout Italy.
But perhaps the best indicator that our approach was working is the number of returning guests. Roughly 20% of our guests are returnees, with some having come back 8 to 10 times. In 2009 we founded the Alumni Groups –former guests who are willing to try out new ideas of ours and shake down the itinerary with us. In other words, when we have a new itinerary we intend to offer, they do dry runs with us and help us make our decisions. We now do one or two a year. Furthermore, we now have multiple "reunions" with our guests as we travel the world. We have had reunions in New Orleans, Palm Beach, Houston, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.
And So We Grow (but not so fast, OK?)
As we have added new and exciting locations, we began to seek out PEOPLE, more than places. That is, our trips are first about people, then about the place. We needed to find people in other areas of Italy that shared our values and vision. This was not an easy task, because the tourism business is a machine, and it is difficult to find people that understand our vision and values. What we do is very counter-intuitive for people in the industry. It isn't just about how to do the tours, but how to plan them. You see, when you plan a traditional tour itinerary, it takes days or a week at most. But ours take years because we do so many unusual things that are not part of the "tourism machine". We need to build unique relationships and nurture them, and finding people with that kind of patience in this business is no easy task.
It was a long road, but in 2011, we opened our second location. The town of Norcia, in the heart of Umbria, is a town that is in the dreams of virtually every Italian, but is largely unknown outside of Italy.
In 2012, we opened in Sicily on the tiny island of Favignana, off of Sicily's west coast... another popular spot for Italians, but unknown internationally.
In 2014, we opened two locations (No rest for the weary!) - One on the Amalfi Coast, and one in Central Chianti, Tuscany.
In 2015 we begin with "CDV Classics", more traditional coach tours that stop in multiple points, rather than our hub and spoke approach, with larger groups. Only we are doing it with OUR flair.
In 2016 we opened our new location in Bologna, with a day in Venice, local cooking classes, a private tour of the Lamborghini factory, Parmesan cheese, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Parma Prosciutto, and much more!
2017 and 2018 were "restructuring years," in which we focused on all of our existing locations and relationships. However, moving forward, we have our eyes set for The Dolomites, and a new location that covers Lake Como and Barolo!
We are even working on some outside of Italy. Among them are weeks based Portugal, Spain, Israel and Egypt!
Michael and Paola Today
After a decade of 16 hour days and 7 day weeks, our growth became such that we needed to make a decision to guarantee that Culture Discovery would never lose its charm and family feeling. After all, with 50+ groups per year in six locations, there is a risk of losing who you are, and we would sooner close our doors than become "just another tour company". So we made a decision that many thought was crazy. We vested five key people within
We (Michael and Paola) are still fully involved, though. I remain the visionary of the company as the Chairman & CVO, keeping an eye on quality and new ideas! (I would also love a thumbs up from anyone that likes this website, as I spent thousands of hours building it from scratch). Paola remains active as Co-Chair, and Secretary.
All of these "titles" sound so official, but "I'm not gonna lie... the reality is that we're just a big group of friends and family having fun together!"
Paola and I now split our time between Italy and our winter home in Tampa, Florida. We still spend a great deal of time in Italy with our guests, and we bounce around quite a bit. We are generally in Italy between May and early August. When we are in Italy, we are generally at the Soriano location, so you will often see us at the villa, or popping in and out here and there. Otherwise we are out and about scouting new locations, building relationships, and doing what we do.
Keeping it "Small"
With all of this growth, many have asked us if we are able to stay true to our roots. In a word, yes. We are very careful to find people that think like we do to work with us, and in just about every case, there is a "friends and family" connection with every member of our team. Click here to read about the CDV Family.
So when you come on any of our vacations, you may find Paola and myself there with a huge smile greeting you, or you may find close friends of ours with the same beliefs, same values, and same love for friendship and true culture that we have. In other words, we may have grown, but we still have the feeling of a Mom & Pop ;-)
So on a given week, you may find Rocky (another Los Angeles native), Valentina, Sophie, Linda, Claudia, Ivan & Betta, Luigi, etc. All of them do it the way we did since the very beginning, and you are sure to fall in love with them.
In fact, Paola and I have actually met many of our guests for the first time on Alumni trips! That is, they loved our team so much the first time without having met us, that they came on another of our trips where they finally met us!
And if you read this far, I would love to share a glass of wine with you!
See you at the villa!
If you would like to comment on this page, or ask any questions, click click the link below