A young Massachusetts woman disembarks in Naples, Italy, in April 1958. She is pursuing connections with relatives, her Italian heritage, and her love for travel, never imagining that her wanderlust one day will inspire thousands to follow in her footsteps.
That is exactly what happened to 24-year-old Joan, born and raised in the small mill town of Lawrence, MA. It had taken her 20 days to cross the Atlantic from New York Harbor to Naples on the MS Vulcania, an American Export Lines ocean liner that had served as a U.S. troop ship during World War II.
Joan was seeking to connect with her grandparents’ family in Teano, a small town outside of Naples, and to see Italy. Her travels that spring eventually took her to Florence, where she regularly frequented a small, family-run restaurant, and there she met Vittorio Barsotti, a handsome young man from a small town just outside Florence.
Andrea Barsotti, Joan’s son (who would eventually launch his own travel company specializing in Italy) recounts, “after seeing this lovely American girl sitting alone at the table a few times, the old lady running the place told my father he should talk to her...and everything started.”
Romance bloomed, as so many travelers to Italy dream it will. Joan and Vittorio married about a year later, with Joan taking up residence in her newfound homeland. Soon after, Joan and Vittorio welcomed Andrea into the world.
A long journey to travel agent
Andrea spent his childhood going back and forth between Tuscany and the United States, and the Barsottis frequently hosted American family and friends in Italy.
“We used to take them around Italy to show them the beauty of the country and to share with them the richness of our culture,” Barsotti writes on his company’s website. “At that time I didn’t know that this would have inspired my future career.”
As a young man, Barsotti lived in Milan and studied economics and business, and traveled regularly to the United States. Eventually he earned an MBA from Kellogg-Northwestern in Chicago, and settled there. His girlfriend Sandra, who earned a degree in art history, took a job with Select Italy, a tour operator, and Barsotti became a road warrior, working as a management consultant. While he enjoyed traveling on business, he was generally dissatisfied with the corporate life. “It was enriching my bank account, not my life,” he said.
Meanwhile Sandra had become an official tour guide for the city of Rome, and in 2002 started Romaround.com, offering private tours. “That was the start of our travel business,” Barsotti said. They moved to Sardinia, where Barsotti launched a digital television startup, until one day, looking out at the blue Mediterranean, he finally realized what he wanted to do in life. He and Sandra moved back to Florence and started Blue Travel LLC.
Today, Blue Travel is based in Boston and includes three companies: KissFromItaly, Romaround, offering travel planning and private tours in the major Italian cities, and Rome Urban Adventures, which specializes in small group tours.
A passion for people and connections
Sandra and Andrea work together now. She is responsible for sales, “but most of all she is the creative soul” developing new itineraries and finding hidden gems, Barsotti said.
The company’s most popular itineraries include the classic destinations—Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and the Amalfi coast. Curated trips include experiences like tasting wine in an ancient castle in the Chianti region, driving a Ferrari on a racetrack in Maranello, exploring secret private Venetian gardens or riding a motor yacht on the Amalfi coast, with a stop to dine on seafood at sea.
Barsotti estimates that 20%-25% of his clients are Americans of Italian origin seeking their roots in Italy. “The great majority of them want to go and experience Italy firsthand, to vacation in the land where their ancestors came from,” Barsotti said. “Others have very specific needs like accessing public office records, translations, travel to special places, legal assistance in some cases.”
Often they want to go to the little town outside of Naples or in the middle of Sicily that they heard about from their grandparents. “And the great thing is that we often become friends and start relations that continue over the years and over multiple journeys.”
The best part of a heritage trip is when they are actually able to find and meet distant relatives..
“Needless to say, these gatherings are generally centered around a great feast where everyone gets together and celebrates with lots of food and wine. These are great moments and I am very proud when I can give my contribution to make them happen.”
As for Joan and Vittorio,they are still happily married, 56 years later.