All of us on the Untours team have been here for 20 or more years, which is a good thing, given how knowledge intensive our work in Europe is. So when Andi Cancelliere Sheehan, our Italian Untour Director for 25 years, left our staff during COVID, it was hard to imagine how to fill those big, shiny Italian shoes.
As we’re ramping up for 2022, we have hired Amber Martin to lead the Italian Untour programs. She comes to us with months of recent travel experience in Italy, mostly helping to run an art program for American and International students. She’s handled everything from painting instruction to group travel logistics and reservations, to interpersonal consulting and management of her program’s participants and instructors.
Before heading off to Italy to train with our staff people across the country, Amber sat down for a little chat with us.
What do you love most about traveling in Italy?
Of course delicious food obviously has its perks, but the atmosphere and the people themselves may be my favorite part of Italy. It is all so different from growing up on the east coast of the US. In America, we tend to think of a building from the 1800s as being old. Life is really put into perspective once you’re walking down a street in an Italian town or city, and you realize you are walking beside a building that’s been standing there for over a 1000+ years.
The larger sites are amazing to visit, but I have grown to admire the little things you find during your Italian travels. Those breathtaking moments for me tend to be nestled into the side streets of the busy cities, or in the multi-generational running of a family-owned farm in the countryside. For me, Italy feels like a home away from home, and no matter how many times I travel, Italy always leaves me wanting more.
Where are your favorite places in Italy and why?
Rome and Florence are at the top of my list of favorite places, both for very different reasons, which I hope to explain in future blog posts. I have lived in these two locations for over a year in total, and it’s impossible to capture their perks and nuances in one or two lines.
I absolutely love Siena, with its fascinating contrada neighborhoods and famous Palio horse race. (The photo up top is Amber at a Palio contrada dinner.) The fortified small town of Lucca just northeast of Pisa is an absolute gem, especially walking along the walking path on top of the wall surrounding the town. The archeological site of Herculaneum, which is often overlooked by the tourists interested in visiting Pompeii, still has petrified wood on the doorframes from when Vesuvius exploded! I also love Tivoli, about 20 miles east of Rome, which is known for its 16th century stunning Villa d’Este; it also has a stunning renaissance garden with over 500 fountains. These locations are spectacular places to spend the day.
What is some practical advice you would offer to those planning a trip to Italy?
I would highly suggest doing your research and booking reservations and entry tickets prior to your arrival in Italy where and when you can. Especially in this current climate, a lot of ticketing can be handled online weeks if not months in advance. Be sure to check your trip planning guide on MyUntours for resources to popular destinations in your region. These helpful tools can allow you to plan out your trip, but be sure to take some time to wander and explore the areas you’re visiting as well. Some of my most cherished memories of traveling throughout Italy were the hidden gems I found just by exploring around my neighborhood, or venturing out to the tiny town next to where you’re staying.
What are some of the things that surprised you about Italy?
We often hear about siesta time when talking about Italy. It honestly just depends on the region and town itself if siesta is observed. I often found in the bigger cities that siesta didn’t often come into play, but the smaller towns and regions are more inclined to observe it. This can be important when planning out day trips or lunch plans, which are all part of the researching stages of your planning.
What is a common mistake travelers to Italy make?
The best way to quickly identify American tourists is to first look at their footwear. In America, white sneakers or athletic tennis shoes are a very commonly worn shoe. Over in Europe, these trainers/athletic tennis shoes are really only used inside gyms, and leather or dark colored shoes tend to be what are worn on the streets. The most important part though is for you to be comfortable! Pick something that can be fashion forward to help you blend in, as well as equip yourself for lots of walking.
What are some things you do to feel more like a local when you spend time there?
I usually avoid going to restaurants which have more than three or four languages on the menu, and especially the places showing photos beside each dish offered. There are rare exceptions of this, but it usually signifies it’s a tourist restaurant rather than a local favorite. Always go down the side paths close to the popular tourist sites, or leave the area entirely to get something to eat. You’re more likely to find a locally owned mom and pop restaurant which often has less people, and the quality of food is usually better. Here your dollars will most benefit the local economy as well.
Why are you excited about joining the Untours staff, and what do you think you can bring?
Having this opportunity to work for Untours this past month has brought all of my life experience and goals together in one beautiful package. When assisting others with their trips in Italy, I have always enjoyed living vicariously through them, having these experiences myself for the first time. I look forward to working directly with our future Untourists, to help enhance their stays in our destinations, places that have meant so much to me in my own life and travels.
I also have a lot of experience in digital and social platforms, and hope I am able to help assist Untours with this ever changing digital world we are living in. I’m looking forward to taking over Untours’ Instagram during my trip though Italy next month!
What are your hopes for travel in Italy and Europe in this new era of travel?
I find the added level of sanitation and security in this new era to be a positive. In the past, I found traveling throughout Europe was often cleaner and more environmentally friendly as a whole than what I find when traveling in bigger cities in the US. The way Europe and Italy handle recycling has always been ahead of what we do in the US, and I hope we can learn from these new standards of cleanliness and care for the world and use it to our advantage back home.
Thinking about Italy for 2022? Now is the time to plan your trip. Amber and other members of Untours’ US staff can help you plan an adventure in Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Umbria or the Amalfi Coast. Start planning now!