An Italian-Hungarian-British American, Anna Piperato has always been proud of her roots (but confesses that she still needs to learn more about her Hungarian side). After graduating with a degree in art history, she spent a year in Italy working in the nursery of an international school. Deciding she'd rather work with full-sized children, she pursued an MA and then a PhD in Manchester, England, focusing on all things Italian. Eventually finding that academia wasn't all it was cracked up to be, she felt the pull to return to Italy. Anna now happily resides in Siena, home to the subject of her research, St. Catherine of Siena — and to her beloved Lupa, the "she-wolf" contrada that won not just one, but both Palio horse races in 2016.
Anna, what originally brought you to Italy?
As you can see from my name, I have some Italian blood (25 percent). My father had never been to Italy, so the summer after my freshman year in college we packed our bags for a 10-day Italian adventure. In preparation, we all read Bill Bryson's Neither Here nor There and were stunned to find his hilarious observations absolutely spot on. That was the beginning of the end, really, as I changed all my fall semester courses around to accommodate Italian 101. That's also when I took my first Western art history survey, and when we came to anything Italian I was in heaven.
How did you get into guiding tours?
I began taking students to Italy as a graduate student at the University of Manchester, then I worked for a study-abroad program in Florence. As a university professor, the chair of the Art Department and I led our students on our own "Grand Tour" of Italy. Talking about the art and culture I so adore, on-location, is my absolute favorite thing in the world. I so ached for these moments that I left a tenure-track academic position in the US to live in this country that feeds my soul. Becoming a Rick Steves tour guide just fell into place, and it's been a joy.
What is your favorite place in Italy? And how do you share it with your tour members?
It's hard to have just one favorite in Italy because every region has something special. But I absolutely love introducing our tour members to Tuscany and especially to Siena, my new home. I spent years learning about the city for my PhD before ever really stepping foot in it. When I finally managed to spend a summer working there, I fell so deeply in love that I eventually ended up leaving (what I thought was) my dream job to live in Siena. The Tuscans have a wicked sense of humour and a great pride for their region — especially for their own cities. I think some tour members think I'm exaggerating when I talk about regional pride, but when we're in Florence and our local guides tease me about Siena, they realize these rivalries are still very much alive. Both of these cities boast magnificent architecture, art that can bring you to tears (in a good way), and a culinary tradition that will make you never want to leave. And for the record, Siena defeated Florence in 1260 (though to the Florentines' credit, they rarely bring up their decisive victory of 1555).
What's a special "wow" moment for you when you are guiding?
I look forward to seeing tour members' reactions when we arrive in a new city, come across a work of art or architecture, or try eating something squiggly. It has been many moons since I first stepped foot in this country, but I do remember the first time I saw the Colosseum, my first date with Michelangelo's David, and that first bite of squid. Being a part of someone's first experience for any of these things is a privilege. It reminds me of the wonder I first felt and how lucky I am to live where I do.
You lead a mix of Venice-Florence-Rome and Best of Italy tours. What do you like about each of them?
These are both fantastic tours but have completely different paces. On "VFR" we have three nights each in Venice, Florence, and Rome, so you are able to really explore each place and get to know it quite well. As an Italian art historian, leading this tour is a treat, and we provide just the right balance of group time and free time (despite being a professional art dork, even I cannot spend all my time in museums!). With our local guides, we get an in-depth look at the history, art, and culture, but then there is time to explore, people watch, and get lost without feeling overwhelmed. It's a short tour (10 days), but one that gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in these magnificent cities.
The Best of Italy in 17 Days tour has a faster pace. We sleep in each place for two nights, and then move on to the next (you get used to packing and unpacking quickly!). This tour has a wonderfully planned itinerary that gives you a great taste of what Italy has to offer between Rome and the Alps. I feel that most tour members leave each location wanting more, and for many the seeds are planted for future trips. It has so much variety, from the lakes to the mountains, the big cities to the hill towns, the rivers and the coast, the art you've always seen in books and films plus hidden gems you never dreamed existed. We learn (and taste!) the differences between the different regions while understanding what it means to be Italian as we travel through centuries of history. I love seeing how tour members' confidence grows over the course of our journey, from ordering a cappuccino to venturing out into the city with just a map and a smile.
Anything else you'd like to share?
I have a serious (and incurable) addiction to stationery.
Here's what Anna won't tell you…but her tour members will:
"Anna was the very best and a total gift. Her knowledge of art, history and love of Italy added to our appreciation but her never lagging enthusiasm for everything was so contagious and made the trip for us. Her love of Siena was 'caught' by all of us. She made it come alive. Thank you, thank you oh, and she is a lovely person, too."
— Lory in Olalla, WA