The Story of Zefiro
A story by Kaya Jay

Slow travel on Italian ‘winds that blow from the northwest’

American writer Mark Twain famously wrote: ‘The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo’, and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi exclaimed in a bout of passionate patriotism, ‘You may have the universe, if I may have Italy’.

Italy’s art, history & culture, architecture, cuisine and wines are not exactly an exclusive travel secret. In literature as well as in pop culture, Italy is etched into our collective memories, conjuring warmly hued images of beauty, quality and luxury. However, if you feel that Italy has fallen into touristic clichés or that you’ve already experienced what Italy has to offer in a previous visit to Rome, Milan or Venice, you’d be wise to reconsider.

The less-explored northwestern Piemonte region, ‘at the foot of the mountains’, borders France in both directions with majestic alpine mountain peaks like the Mont Blanc, Mont Rosa and Gran Paradiso. It holds the Aosta Valley in its lap, boasts an extensive Lake District of 15 UNESCO protected lakes, is strewn with archeological sites, and kisses the Mediterranean in Liguria at the ‘Italian Riviera’. It is a magical corner of Italy. A unique, innovative and diverse area that marries French and Italian refinement. Rich in tradition and protective of its communities, the Piemonte region was the birthplace of the slow food movement.

Could there be a more ideal place for unforgettable slow travel experiences?

Barbara Cesario, a longtime luxury lifestyle specialist and travel enthusiast, founded her destination management company ‘Zefiro’ just one year ago, aimed exclusively at the less-explored northwest of Italy, the region of her grandparents.
Barbara Cesario, founder of Zefiro
Barbara had been working diligently in the luxury travel industry for 15 years, her focus always steadily on the distant horizon, far away from home. It took a little nudge – or rather, a global pandemic – to rediscover the wealth and potential of her own region, the Italy she had known since childhood.

‘During Covid and lockdown, instead of traveling to the other side of the world, I said, ‘Let's start discovering what's around, what the region has to offer.’ I fell in love again because it's really beautiful. The landscape, the variety, it's still very authentic. It's not as touristic, like Tuscany is now or how Puglia is becoming as well.’

As a child, Barbara was always on the move. She was raised ‘worldwide’ between Rio De Janeiro, Johannesburg and Turin, the capital of Piemonte. Initially seduced by the high-paced fashion industry in Milan and London, Barbara eventually felt it lacked the necessary adventure, so she packed up for the Maldives and stepped into the world of luxury travel.

‘I was in the luxury lifestyle industry for a long time, and I attended all the big travel shows, yacht shows, ... So, during Covid and the lockdown, different agencies from around the world contacted me in the same week. They asked if I was able to offer anything in my region for high end clients, because they couldn't find people who offered that. I said, ‘ok, let me have a think’. It was lockdown and I had nothing to do. I had to keep myself busy. I started researching and studying competitors and I didn't like what others were offering, the image they were conveying of the region. It was the usual; white truffles, or the grandmothers that prepare pasta. 
I didn't like that, because the region is not only that.’

The name ‘Zefiro’ refers to the Italian concept of ‘winds that blow from the North West’. It highlights the influence of the Piemonte region that has permeated the rest of Italy as well as international culture.
                     Barbara making pasta with her Piemontese grandmother
                       White truffle, photo courtesy of Giorgio Perottino
The elegant capital of Turin (Torino) is a testament to centuries of cultural heritage. After the Romans recognized its strategic position, including Julius Ceasar himself, it was the ruling House of Savoy that made Turin their capital. Castles and palaces rise up throughout the city and the surrounding mountains, as silent witnesses from the time when Counts and Dukes eventually became the first Royals of Italy. Baroque cafes and architecture lace the old town, along with quality shops, intriguing museums, and gastronomical delights.

Piemonte is super well known for wine and truffle. We have the International White Truffles fair every year from October until December, every weekend. That’s why the region is mainly famous for that. We are also the biggest wine region in Italy, so we are famous for wines and sparkling wine. There are plenty of distilleries, and you can go truffle hunting pretty much all year round.

If you are a chocolate lover, we have great chocolate producers. If you are into history and art, there are plenty of castles and palaces. If you are a mountain and ski lover, there are excellent ski resorts for you to come skiing. If you are into lakes, there's the Lake District. Piemonte is very rich.

There aren't any competitors that focus solely on this area. We only do that, and believe me, it’s already a lot!

Italy was one of the last countries to become united, so I always say it is many countries in one.
It's impossible for a DMC to cover the entirety of Italy, especially if you work for high-end tourism.
There are some agencies that offer Piemonte, of course, but they do the entire country, and so they do the classical things, the usual. I try to offer things that are completely different.’

Quality and sophistication blossom from the fertile ground, delivering renowned Italian luxury products to the world market. Borsalino hats, Pininfarina sportscars, chocolate hazelnut Nutella, Martini aperitif, Lavazza coffee, Grissini breadsticks, some of the world’s finest wool and cashmere, Gianduiotto chocolate, the list of local delights goes on and on.
                                      Turin, capital of Piemonte

                                                               Zefiro: Piemonte, Valle D'Aosta & Liguria

It is not surprising then that Piemonte is the home of the slow food movement, which celebrates locally grown food that is nourishing to the body, and eaten with appreciation. It empowers a sustainable network of farmers, breeders, fishermen and food artisans with a protective stance on the environment and local communities. It is a way of life, and it goes hand in hand with slow travel.

‘Slow travel was born here in Piemonte. We're working with the tourist board of the region and they're really focusing more and more on high-end travel. They don't want the mass market anymore. Of course, it's still a large piece of the cake, but they're focusing more on niche products, which is nice to see.

The Piemonte area is only opening to tourism in the last couple of years. In terms of properties and accommodation you will not find the Belmond or The Four Seasons hotel here. We offer more family-owned properties. We have access to private castles, private villas, private family-owned wineries that usually don't promote themselves at all.’

The Piemontese are firmly attached to their roots and their communities. This implies a traditional, somewhat old-fashioned mentality, and Barbara names this as one of Zefiro’s main initial challenges when building solid partnerships.

‘The mindset of the people is guarded. In order to start collaborating, you need an introduction by somebody they trust or have a long-term working relationship with. Once they start working with you, however, you can trust them 100%.

That's super important for me; to work with the right people. Clients will remember the nice scenery, but in the end, who provides the experience are the people they meet. We have an amazing team. From the guides to the drivers, from the sommeliers to the chefs, we work with great people who are really passionate about what they do. We want to show the northwest part of Italy in its most authentic form.’
Authenticity is indeed the essence of slow travel, and it is the quality label Zefiro requires in order to add it to their tailor-made travel itineraries. Barbara’s own Italian appreciation for quality, her genuine love for traveling and her deep connection to the region inform every handpicked selection.

‘Travel opens your mind. All my money is in travel. That's what I invest in, to be honest, in experiences. I mean, if you work in the travel industry and you haven't been to the destination, how are you meant to sell it? People notice. I have to be able to tell you why you should go there, not because I read it in Lonely Planet.

So, for me, it’s vital to offer things that we have tried and done. I'm from this area, you know, so I'm a very ‘skin-to-skin’ person. I have to see you and know you before I can start working with you.

Sometimes clients will ask for properties that I’ve never heard of or I’m not too sure about. Then we will go check it out first, to make sure it's really up to standard. If not, we don't confirm it. For us, it's not just about making money and accepting everything. We only provide certain things when we have the right contacts and we know the quality of the service.

At the moment, we are working well with Liguria. There are plenty of areas that are not so well known. We are exploring the west part, which is closest to the French border. It's very wild. Great for hiking and sea lovers. It motivates me to keep looking for new things. For us it never stops. It’s always search and work, search and work, you know?’

Barbara jokes that her attention to detail is probably the result of ‘a good brainwashing’ from a past life in the fashion industry, marketing luxury cashmere and jewellery. When she closed that door behind her in search of a new professional adventure, away to exotic locations, she would never have imagined this road would lead her back to Piemonte.
And she is not alone; the trend toward tradition, authenticity and sustainability is gently tugging younger generations back to their roots, and like Barbara, they come with new skills and insights.

The region is moving fast. Most of the suppliers we work with are young and passionate about the territory. Young people who were abroad in the US, the UK, Canada or Australia, are coming back to their family-owned properties and family-owned wineries. They are redoing the brand, a new image for the family company, which is something that was missing before. 

For me it was important to bring life to this region and show others that there's also this part of Italy that exists. Especially now, with Covid, more and more agencies are looking for something less explored. Some of the agencies had never heard of it. Others were confusing Valle D’Aosta and Piemonte with the Dolomites, which is on the opposite side, but this year we see that agencies are offering the region more. It’s nice to see that they are opening their minds to new things.

If clients ask us for Puglia or Sicily, we have some nice collaborations with other DMC’s that specialize in other areas of Italy. I’m a strong believer in collaboration, so I'm all connected. It's important that we work together, especially right now, and I keep saying; there is work for everybody.

So far, especially for a pandemic year, we had great results. We already accomplished a lot; great word of mouth, great recommendations, which is super important. Last year, we saw a significant increase in slow travel demand, and I’m looking forward to this year. We already have some great bookings and confirmations and are starting to receive requests from new countries like Brazil, Mexico and Singapore.

What is nice about this area is that it's great for any kind of interests or hobbies.
It's perfect for everybody all year round.’

Kaya Jay
Kaya is a creative storyteller at heart, with almost two decades of experience in media
directing, story editing and interviewing. Raised between her native country of Belgium and oriental Malaysia, she is a global citizen with a profound love for travel, different cultures and unifying human stories. She has divided her time between Europe, Asia and South America, and currently resides on the beautiful island of Mallorca in Spain.