By Robert St. John
BARBERINO-TAVERNELLE, TUSCANY— There’s a big difference between a tour host and a tour guide. A tour guide goes through rigorous training for a particular city, region, or institution. They do a deep dive into history, dates, personalities, and minute details into towns and locales such as Florence, Italy. The detailed comprehension required to become certified is amazing and the depth of knowledge these guides possess once training is completed is impressive.
My friend, and coworker, Marina Mengelberg, is a registered tour guide for Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, and the Tuscan region. Each of those areas require specific training. One must know thousands of details and facts, from structural landmarks on the city streets, to the lineage of artist’s families, to religious history and symbolism and a depth of knowledge in architectural details, to the point that one becomes a walking history book and reference guide at the end of the training.
Once the intense training is complete, the hopeful guide must sit in front of a six-person panel in a scenario that sounds a lot like defending one’s thesis. The room is crowded behind the six questioners. In a high-pressure situation, everyone in the gallery is watching as the tour-guide candidate spends the next hour or so answering questions such as, “In the Uffizi Gallery, on the third floor, in the second room, and the third painting on the right, who is that artist’s mother and why is she important?”
I don’t possess that kind of knowledge, nor do I have time to do the work that would go into such training, even if my memory would allow it. That’s partially why I am a tour host. In my travels I have found certain places that I love, locals-only restaurants, wineries, out-of-the-way historical institutions, and local finds that I enjoy sharing with others. There’s something deep inside me that loves turning people onto new things. I’ve always been that way.
I am probably the living example of the adage, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I don’t claim to be an expert at anything but there are a couple of areas where I feel I am extremely competent. One area in which I believe I’m very good— and my track record proves it— is that I have some type of intrinsic ability to pick excellent tour guides. I’m pretty good at picking nice hotels and villas as well.
Marina Mengelberg is the ultimate example of my ability to recognize talent and saddle up alongside it. It’s obviously a major benefit that my wife and I have become very good friends with her, and her children. Mengelberg possesses the raw, natural ability to connect with whomever she is with at the moment. That is the difference in a great guide and someone who can regurgitate facts on cue.
First and foremost, a great guide must be relatable. Seems simple, but that is not an easy thing to accomplish. Actually, it’s probably the hardest thing to do in that field. There are plenty of people who can walk through a city or museum and recite dry facts. It’s another thing to make people feel comfortable, grateful, appreciative, and willing to learn more in the process. There is a certain amount of charm and self-awareness that needs to be added to the mix of knowledge and training, too. But when those components all come together, the perfect guide is born.
Mengelberg is Dutch and grew up in the Netherlands watching American television. Other than her God-given intelligence and natural charm, I think that’s a lot of the source of her relatability— and especially with southerners— as one of her favorite shows as a child was the “Dukes of Hazard.” I have never seen an episode of the “Dukes of Hazard,” but I know John Schneider, and once had him autograph an 8 by 10 glossy for Marina.
As Baby Boomers, we also grew up on American television. That is the connection. It’s not that Marina ever talks about American TV shows. That topic never comes up. It’s just the sensibility is there and there is a common denominator that allows her to connect and be relatable. Connection and relatability is the key to gaining one’s trust. The learning follows, easily.
Connection is not easy. The groups I host are varied in age, background, and region — although they mostly come from the South. The fact that a Dutch-born person, who’s lived in Tuscany for the past 20 years can connect with Americans from California, to Florida, to Hattiesburg MS is an admirable trait.
This tour-hosting gig happened organically and started with the idea of taking a small group of people to Tuscany, once. That group filled in an afternoon and a waiting list was created. Then the waiting list grew a waiting list. After touring Tuscany several times, those guests started asking, “Where are we going next?” I figured Venice is the most unique city in the world, Bologna is the food capital of Italy, and Milan is beautiful at Christmastime, so I hosted a couple of those tours. Again, they asked “Where are we going next?” So, we toured Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples.
Next Spain was added, and when I hosted that trip last March it was filled with almost all seasoned alumni of my past trips. For some it was their fourth or fifth trip with me. It should be noted that I have never been a fan of group travel. My wife and I have avoided those types of trips, always. But this is nothing like group travel. I’m not sure why it doesn’t feel that way, but it never has. It’s just like a group of friends getting together and discovering new places.
There was a group of eight ladies dining together in one of my new restaurants just a few weeks ago. All of them had traveled with me before some three or four times. At one point during their meal, I asked if any of them had known each other before going on the tours. The unanimous answer was, “No.” I’m not sure if I have ever felt more pride in something I’ve done in this tour-hosting career. I was a small component in creating eight bonds among newly-made friends. They’re traveling with me in the future, too.
I was once invited to a reunion that was held by one of my previous groups, as a guest. They had connected so fittingly on their trip they wanted to stay in touch a few years later. I was not involved in planning of the reunion other than being asked to attend as an invitee.
We released next spring’s Spain trip dates and the tour filled in 90 minutes. The Holland-Belgium tour filled in an afternoon. Both groups were almost all veterans. My first thought was, “I must be doing something right on these trips.” But then I checked my ego at the door and realized that it’s people like Marina Mengelberg, and a dozen others who make an impact on people as they travel with me to these foreign lands. I hope each of them knows how grateful I am and that I’ll never take them for granted.
Italian Sausage and Mascarpone Crostini
This recipe is inspired by Rosanna, a Tuscan woman who cooked dinner for a large group of Mississippians, Milanese, and Tuscan locals at Villa Il Santo. These were served with the first course.
1 loaf Ciabatta bread, sliced ¼” thick, about 16 slices
1 TB Extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. Ground Italian sausage
1 tsp Fresh garlic, minced
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground cloves
8 oz. Mascarpone cheese
Preheat oven to 300.
To par cook the crostinis, place the sliced Ciabatta on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until almost crispy, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausage and spices and stir frequently until half-way cooked, about 3-4 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool at room temperature.
Divide the partially cooked sausage among the crostinis, about 2-3 TB each. Divide the mascarpone among the top of the sausage. Return to a baking pan lined with parchment paper and finish in the oven until sausage is cooked and cheese is melted, about 8-10 minutes.
Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.