Born and raised in Volterra, Italy, Francesco has long been passionate about good food, good wine, and sharing his beautiful homeland with others. After marrying an American, he spent a few years living in Washington, DC, before being lured back to Volterra. As a lead guide with Rick Steves' Europe, Francesco shows travelers the joys of his homeland on several of our Italy tours, including (naturally) the Best of Tuscany tour. When he's not guiding Rick's tours, Francesco, along with his wife, Annie, offers virtual wine tastings, Italian language lessons, and trip-planning services.
Francesco, you're from the Tuscan town of Volterra. What was it like growing up there?
When I was young, it was a vibrant city with 20,000 people (today we're only 10,000), and everybody knew one another. There was a strong sense of community, and everybody was involved in politics, because that meant helping your community.
It was idyllic growing up in Volterra: Crime was basically nonexistent, and thanks to the post-war economic boom, unemployment and poverty were too. I would walk or bike to town from my house in the country and meet with friends to play sports, go fishing, or go to a concert, a play, or a movie. There were always lots of things to choose from, and we had the offerings of a city with the tranquility and freedom of the countryside. I felt free, without any worries. Life was easy.
How is Tuscany different from the rest of Italy?
Tuscany is different from the rest of Italy because it has a very different history. Tuscany was its own nation with its own language (now called Italian) until 1860, when Italy was unified. Until then Tuscany was never ruled by a king or a pope, unlike the rest of the peninsula, but was led by rulers who were usually quite "enlightened." Just think of the lords of Tuscany (most famously, the Medici) who led the transition from the rigid Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Humanism, or of the Lorraine grand-dukes (who succeeded the Medici) who introduced the first public schools and libraries in Europe here, not to mention abolishing the death penalty and torture way back in 1786. Tuscans tend to think government can do good things — as long as it isn't too authoritarian!
But Tuscany is simply better than the rest of Italy. No, I am joking of course, but this is part of the Tuscan character, to be very proud of your identity and have a little superiority complex. When abroad, if someone asks a Tuscan where they're from, the first response will be "Tuscany," and the second "Italy." But Tuscans also have very strong rivalries within the region. This is something we call campanilismo, meaning you think that your town (and its bell tower, the campanile) is better than the rest. Never ask a Florentine to praise something in Pisa, and never think someone from Siena would admit that Florence is a beautiful city!
How did you meet your wife, Annie, and find your passion for wine and leading tour groups?
I met Annie in Volterra when she was spending a few months here after falling in love with the Tuscan "way of life," and later, luckily, fell in love with me too. We also lived together in Washington, DC, for a few years; getting to know Americans over the years has helped me understand and appreciate their culture, and I think that makes me a better guide. A good guide, I believe, is a two-way cultural interpreter!
My passion for wine began at a scandalously young age. I grew up on a small farm and was my grandfather's shadow. Like any proper Tuscan farmer, my nonno made both wine and olive oil, and I was enthralled by the love that he dedicated to his vines and trees. As an adult my interest in wine grew, and after receiving my certification as a sommelier I started to work as a wine critic for Slow Food. The most satisfying part of all, though, is leading wine tours, in which I can share my interest and passion for wine with others and help foster a connection between the people who dedicate their lives to making the wine and the people who enjoy it.
When I started to guide I felt like I had found the missing puzzle piece in my life, because as a guide I am essentially a facilitator for people having conversations with people of other cultures, and, through the lens of history, gaining a better understanding of why different people do things in different ways. I believe in people, and I believe that the more we travel, the more we learn about other cultures, the more we will understand about ourselves and what connects us to others.
What's your favorite stop on our Best of Tuscany tour?
I am tempted to say Volterra, but that would be too partial of me. My favorite stop is another Etruscan place: Pitigliano. It is one of the most charming villages in Italy — hidden in the unspoiled countryside in southern Tuscany — and has so much going for it, from its historic Jewish community to the nearby Vie Cave (cavernous roads excavated by the Etruscans). It's an undiscovered gem, even for Italians.
What do you enjoy most about being a guide with Rick Steves' Europe?
What I like the most about guiding is the opportunity to spend time with people and to help people have a better understanding of my country and our traditions. I really enjoy talking about stereotypes and discussing when they are well-founded or a misrepresentation of reality. I like to dive deep into Italian and Tuscan culture and make comparisons with American culture, and we usually end up agreeing that there isn't a better or a worse way of life, just different ones.
Here's what Francesco won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"Francesco was the perfect guide, human, and friend all rolled into one. He got to know each of us, shared stories and knowledge beyond what was expected, and treated all of us like friends he has known forever. He introduced us to so many people, places, and ideas that we came away feeling like we've always been family. Thank you so much, Francesco, for sharing your home and family with all of us!"
— Karen in San Antonio, TX