Nina Bernardo was raised in America, but was steadily drawn to living in Italy by the "old country" stories of her grandparents. Now she's a full-time resident of Rome, and shares her passion for all things Italian by leading a variety of Rick Steves' Italy tours.
How did you end up guiding and living in Italy?
My family is from the south of Italy and emigrated after World War II. I grew up listening to my family, especially my grandparents, talk about "the old country." I couldn't get enough of their stories, and once I'd visited I was hooked. Their stories are the foundation of my experience here. There was so much that was already familiar to me when I first moved to Italy, and over the years I've been able to enrich that experience by living in different parts of the country. I've developed a passion for this place. I've always been drawn to working with people in one capacity or another and so guiding seems to be a perfect fit for my personality and interests.
When you fly home to Italy after a stateside visit, what one thing do you experience right away that makes you happy you've returned?
The human contact — the physical proximity to strangers. I think we have just about lost it in the US. It seems like more and more in the US we are able to go about our daily lives without ever having to interact with others. (We drive everywhere, shop at huge stores, etc.) There is almost never the possibility of a chance encounter on the street or on the bus, and so we rarely interact with people different from ourselves. It makes me feel isolated. I always breathe easier as soon as I get here and know that I can walk out my front door and be in a crowded street and feel the buzz of activity around me.
If a tour member has already been to Italy north of Rome, what will they experience differently on a South Italy tour?
If they've only been north of Rome then they don't know Italy...yet. Many people forget that a united Italy is younger than the US. The variation in tradition, cuisine, language, landscape, history, and art make traveling in Italy like traveling to several different countries. The north will undoubtedly feel more familiar, but will offer fewer challenges. The south will surprise and delight with the warmth of its people, its stunning coastline, top-notch ancient Greek and Roman monuments, and the intense flavors of food and wine that some may never have heard of but that will undoubtedly delight. It also offers the quintessential Italian experience: controlled chaos. I say "controlled" because to the untrained eye it may seem as though everything is a "free-for-all" but really Italians are just playing by their own set of rules.
What do you enjoy most about our South Italy and Village Italy tours?
On the Village Italy tour I love the variety of experience with an almost equal emphasis on art, history, food, wine, and culture — and also the interaction with Stefano at his agriturismo. There can be no more enjoyable way to learn about the difficulties and rewards of remaining true to your family's farming traditions than sitting down to a mouth-watering meal prepared by the fourth generation of that family. On the South Italy tour I love the ancient monuments and amazing local guides who bring life to the ruins. And I love ending the tour in Napoli because it's a wonderful place to bring together the ancient and the modern and draw comparisons between the two.
If people are reluctant to visit Naples, what do you tell them?
I'm honest. Napoli can be intimidating, but also rewarding. It isn't any more dangerous than any other large city but it is intense. There is a vibrancy, a tangible energy to it that I've not experienced in any other Italian city. Its position on the Bay of Naples — with Vesuvius looming in the background and the colorful buildings cascading down from the Vomero — make it quite a dramatic sight.
It has wonderful monuments to see, but I think the best attraction is the people. Napoli is an open theatre, and as soon as you enter the city you become one of the actors. Half the fun is finding a place to sit and watching the human drama unfold. Neapolitans are Italians in the extreme, and I think you cannot help but be intoxicated by the city if you come with an open mind and heart.
One day I was standing outside an apartment building and watched this scene unfold: A slightly impatient postman was leaning against the building and an older woman was standing on her balcony, four floors up, slowly pulling up the ubiquitous blue basket that every Neapolitan has tied to their balcony. In it was a document she had to sign then return to the postman. The whole transaction seemed to be taking forever, and several times I thought she might tip the bucket and the letter would fall out. The postman looked at me and said, "This could take all day." But he waited until she had finished instead of making her come down to do it, as would normally be the case. And she eventually got it back to him. I can't imagine that scene taking place in any city in the north of Italy.
How do your South Italy tour members react to Naples?
Although some tour members are a little apprehensive, almost everyone is pleasantly surprised by all the city has to offer. They are amazed by what they see at the Archeological Museum, and often they comment on the warmth of the people.
How do you stay enthusiastic after taking groups to places again and again?
How can you get tired of taking people to beautiful places? I feel lucky I'm able to do it. And every group is different. Tour members come from different backgrounds and have different reactions and insights to what we're doing, so I find I'm constantly discovering new ways of looking at old things.
How do Rick Steves tour members differ from other travelers you've guided?
They are more willing to be pushed out of their comfort zone. They like being challenged and are genuinely curious and enthusiastic about what we see and do together. And they aren't grumpy. :)