When Valerie and Bryan Schneider started researching Valerie’s family in Basilicata, Italy, they never dreamed it would eventually lead them move there. They were so struck by the landscapes, culture and hospitality that they bought a house and now help others find out about their roots and the region their ancestors left. Valerie puts her history degree to work by digging into records and history books to conduct genealogy research and look for living family ties, combining that with travel experiences to help clients explore their ancestral towns, taste the foods of the region, engage in local activities and enjoy a relatively unknown but beautiful region of southern Italy.
How do the experiences you offer at My Bella Basilicata give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region?
Most of our guests have roots in Basilicata, so they are going to have the unique perspective of a tangible family tie to the place. We help them have a deeper experience than a superficial walk around town by providing genealogy research in advance of their trip when desired, locating the streets where their family lived, trying to locate living relatives, translating for them with townspeople, and help them understand the history of the place. But we also make it fun and a cultural immersion with the food and quirks or unique activities found in that particular town.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
The work we do before they arrive. We track down as much information as we can on the family and how they tied into the fabric of that town, historical details, and finding the streets and homes where they lived, which isn’t always easy as sometimes street names have changed and been renumbered through the years. We want to really bring it alive for them and try to find links as much as possible.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider exploring their ancestral roots in Basilicata?
Allow time to immerse in the atmosphere and get a real sense of place. This is a journey of the heart that will stay with guests in a meaningful way and not just a tourist stop. It’s worth more than just a few hours or one day to experience it all, because there is so much more to Basilicata than they imagine.
How do you blend ancestral research with cultural education that allows people to connect to their roots in a deep, emotional way?
We look for as much information as possible on the family and help them understand the events and social factors of the time and how it related to their family. We also want them to experience the town itself in its daily routine, flavors, festivals when possible, monuments and landscapes so they can connect to the place that their family came from, the things that would have shaped them and influenced them. My own research helped me understand my grandmother, why she did certain things and cooked the way she did – it came from that town!
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of a trip to your region of Italy?
A good pair of sturdy shoes as much of the region is mountainous and the towns are often steep with uneven cobblestones and stairs for “streets”. It’s also important to allow time for spontaneity instead of planning too much, because often we find relatives by chance, and they really want to welcome their new-found American relations in for a lunch, coffee or walk around town together. We try to allow time to “let magic happen”.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
I see people more willing to explore off the usual tourist track and look for an experience that will bring them into contact with the local culture, which is so much more exciting and genuine than just looking at sights or trooping through a museum because the guidebooks say you shouldn’t miss it. I like the trend for a more active and immersion type of travel.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Independent planning is great, but in less-known spots it’s best to use local resources to help guide you to the best experiences and places. With internet sites sometimes guests think they’re planning it out well, but then discover that the hotel is poor quality, the distances are more difficult than they thought, or the restaurants too touristy. Those of us on the ground know these things and can help you avoid them! Likewise, we can steer you to the very best places, hotels, and activities, too.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
Hm, I’d love to find me a strategy! 😉 More than a strategy, we focus on providing meaningful and authentic experiences that are enjoyable and that bring guests into contact with their family’s roots and with the present culture of the place. Each client’s family history or background is unique, so we personalize every experience based on that, and on what travel style they indicated during our pre-trip talks. We put our hearts into it, as we know what a heartfelt journey it is for them. When they talk to others looking for genealogy research or an ancestral trip, they refer them to us, so word of mouth is sort of our “strategy” I guess.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
I’m naturally friendly and so I am able to help guests feel comfortable and know they’re in good hands, but it also helps to gain the cooperation of local records clerks and other tourism professionals to provide the best services and experiences to guests. I put a lot into cultivating contacts that will aid our research efforts or provide guests with unusual activities or great meals, or open doors for them in those towns. Experiential travel really requires a good collaborative effort.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
There have been many! One that had us all in tears was a gentleman who had a somewhat odd request: he wanted to get a haircut in his family’s town. We found two barbershops in the town, but opted for one in particular, which turned out to be fortuitous. We took him in and while the barber was cutting his hair, tears spilled from his eyes as he explained that his grandfather had been a barber and that sitting there with that distinct smell and atmosphere took him back to his childhood and the happy moments he’d spent with his grandfather in the midst of difficult family situations. The barber then called a family in the country outside town that he thought might be related. We arrived, they confirmed the family ties, brought out boxes of family photos, and insisted we stay for a huge family lunch after calling other relatives to arrive and meet their American cousin. The families are now in regular contact, a really beautiful travel “souvenir”, I’d say!
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