In the midst of mourning the death of her husband, Anna Bonavita wanted to help save the small Italian village of Pennabilli—a village that she says changed her life. Now, she’s hoping that can happen for other people, through her travel company, Esperienza.
Though Bonavita grew up in Bulgaria, her country was rich with Italian culture. She was always watching Italian films and singing Italian songs, and even though she didn’t speak the language, she dreamed about visiting beautiful Italy. But in 1992, after obtaining her Ph.D. in physics in Russia, she moved to the U.S. looking for work.
She eventually made it to Italy in 2000. “It was more than I could imagine,” Bonavita says. “I met interesting people, got inspired. But I also noticed problems, like unemployment in young people [and also in] a lot of immigrants—their society was struggling.” In 2004, she travelled back to Italy. This time, she met the love of her life, Italian-born Massimo Bonavita. The two moved home to Edina, Minn., and started the Minneapolis Italian Cultural Center (ICC) in 2006.
“The whole idea of ICC was to go beyond dreams and stereotypes,” Bonavita says. “We wanted to introduce modern Italy to an audience that is very interested in Italy and ready to accept the complexity of Italy.”
Though the idea of the ICC began as an Italian Film Festival, the festival meant to celebrate stories of Italy and their values, passions, food and wine didn’t happen until three years later in 2009. Both the ICC and the film festival has seen growth over the years, and Bonavita says that’s led to her ultimate passion of giving back to the community and giving back to Italy.
Discovering Old World Italy
Bonavita decided to move back to Massimo’s home roots in Italy when he was struck by terminal cancer in 2015. Hoping to renew her spirits, a friend brought her up to the hilltop town of Pennabilli, located in the Emilia-Romagna region, in 2016. The village, though once two separate villages, was brought together amidst the end of a war with a fountain connecting the two towns. And Bonavita immediately felt a connection to the town.
“The village has an aging population with few children,” she says. “But I felt drawn to it, I realized I could create my own life.”
Just a few months after discovering Pennabilli, Bonavita brought her sister to the village—and she says it changed her life, too. Her sister began painting and discovered her creative side, while Bonavita felt the change in her spirit. Bonavita realized this dying village, one of thousands of Italian villages, had to be saved.
“[A revelation] could happen for other people … And I believe that such a rich place, where there’s so much creativity, is worth saving,” she says. “Every traveler can save Pennabilli … They can discover something that is just theirs. And I thought ‘well, maybe we can do this.’”
Bonavita and Tom Gabriel, a board member for Esperienza, held the first meeting to save Pennabilli in March 2018. And just three months later, Esperienza—which literally translates to “Experience” in Italian—was established.
Saving the Village
Though Esperienza’s goal is to save Pennabilli, the travel company also hopes to inspire travelers to discover their passion for Italian culture, language and food through a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Pennabilli, Italy.
“The first year of the program, my wife and I signed up. And I’ll admit, I was skeptical,” says Gabriel. “But it was magical. It was everything you could imagine. I was amazed.”
The culinary and language tour was the first program offered by Esperienza, though there are now two additional programs offered. During the tour, travelers were completely immersed in Italian cooking, language and culture. Guests had a chance to work in the local shops, cook with resident chefs and they even put on a play at the end of the nine days. They had to rely solely on the Italian language.
“It [was] definitely a deeper immersion,” Gabriel says. “But it’s wonderful. Gillian, my wife, could hear cloistered nuns singing at 7 a.m. one day, and over the next few days they would begin waving to her and saying hello.”
The programs have since been separated into a language tour and a culinary tour, but Esperienza now also offers a wine and art tour, as well as a celebratory 100th-year anniversary cinema tour.
Bonavita’s friend, who she calls a “wine expert,” inspired her to begin the wine and art tour—where travelers will experience the “new Tuscany wines,” as Bonavita says, in Bologna, Dozza and Pennabilli.
The cinema tour—in collaboration with Cineteca di Rimini, Cinteca di Bologna and MSP Film—will celebrate the duel 100-year anniversary of film director Federico Fellini and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, two infamous Italian creatives. Travelers will visit Bologna and Pennabilli. Minneapolis will also host a celebration of the two, with a year-long city-wide celebration.
“We’re looking to bring people who want more meaning,” Gabriel says. “We’re immersed in the heart of Italy, and we hope that people will be inspired.”
And travelers sure are inspired. When Bonavita sent out an interest email regarding the culinary tour in 2017, Andy Wolle and his wife Dana Newman knew they had to sign up. Though he had never been to Italy, his wife has rich Italian roots and has travelled to the country many times. And just about a month before travelling to Pennabilli, they booked a reservation at Osteria Francescana—which was deemed the world’s best restaurant in 2016 and 2018.
After booking, Wolle knew this was his chance to propose. He was in contact with the restaurant a month in advance of the booking and hoped they’d help him with the proposal. They had suggested a tour of the kitchen—where he popped the big question.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” Wolle says. “The reservation wasn’t until the last day of the trip, so I was nervously carrying the ring from city to city, and trying to hide it and keep it safe.”
But luckily, his wife never knew about the surprise proposal. “When she said yes, it was such a relief,” Wolle says, with a laugh. “And she was completely taken by surprise.”
The two say the trip was more than just memorable—it was also great to be immersed in the Italian culture.
“The Esperienza experience was unreal,” Wolle says. “The food was unreal … They did a great job at mixing in amazing dinners with cultural tours, and had a great variety. This is truly an amazing program for anyone who is thinking about visiting Italy. This is the way to do it.”