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Head in the clouds, eyes in the sky, heart in the historic castles of Europe

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When growing up in South Jersey, Marc Chiacchio enjoyed exploring the sky via telescope.

After studying and working in Europe for more than a decade, he’s back home exploring the sky with more sophisticated instruments, befitting an expert with a doctorate in climate science who specializes in the interplay between clouds, radiation and aerosols (a scientific term for suspended particles in the atmosphere, not just those from spray cans). By launching a travel planning firm, he’s also leveraging his research and organizational skills gained as a scientist, his passion for history and his life experiences dwelling in Europe.

Along the way, he acquired Italian citizenship (2006) and bought a house in Florence, Italy (2017).

Marc Chiacchio in the Swiss Alps. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MARC CHIACCHIO

“I’ve always had this dream of buying a house in Florence,” he said, citing its superb art, rich history and, of course, its dolce vita. He now splits his time between Florence and his mother’s home in Penns Grove, New Jersey. He conducted his interview from his New Jersey bedroom, with bodybuilding, weightlifting and power-lifting trophies at times visible during the Zoom.

His father was a baby when his family emigrated from San Valentino, Abruzzo, and his mother was a teenager when her family emigrated from Carini, Sicily. Both found America to be the classic land of opportunity. He grew up sorta multilingual: He understood his grandmother’s Sicilian, but he replied in English. Today, he also has an intermediate knowledge of Italian, plus basic German and Swedish.

“Being Italian is a way of thinking,” with an emphasis on la famiglia, he said. “I didn’t realize there was an outside culture until I was older.” Even then, his friends preferred to eat with the Chiacchios. “You mean there’s not a Sunday dinner where everyone gathers?”

He earned a bachelor of arts in physics and a master of science in meteorology from Rutgers University. Connections he made led to a summer job at NASA, studying the atmosphere, and then his doctorate in climate science from ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich.

He studied atmospheric radiation with the effects of aerosols on the Earth’s climate for three years as a visiting scientist at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Another three years were devoted to studying the climate processes involved in the formation and development of hurricanes as a research fellow at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Those jobs were great, the titles less so. “Becoming a scientist with a permanent position is nearly impossible,” he said. “You’re always a contractor.” So in 2016, he set up shop as a writer and editor, helping scientists with their publications and creating scientifically and educationally grounded articles for companies.

In 2019, he pivoted again, as a travel advisor who plans European destinations, custom groups and corporate retreats. He dubbed his company Courtly Tours. “It took me months to come up with the name,” which evokes historical royal courts and “courtly love,” a literary concept involving knights, damsels and feats of derring-do.

His home in Florence continues the courtly theme with a suit of armor and other Renaissance decorative elements. He figures that the home is 300 years old, with the basement even older. After “lots of work and headaches,” the dust of the ages is long gone, and the utilities all modernized. He rents it out on Airbnb, and Courtly Knights gets rave reviews.

He is working with a colleague in Italy to publicize the cultural and historical significance of castles and palaces and those left in ruins. “We plan to do this with written articles as well as designing travel itineraries and activities within these important buildings,” he said.

Courtly Tours handles three sectors. One is fully independent travel, and another involves escorted tours with unique experiences. The last type is custom travel, which he designs with the support of supplier companies providing transport and accommodations. He devoted four months to creating an educational and themed tour for summer 2024 called Mediaeval English Castles, with an exploration of castle development and their history in England from the 11th to the 16th centuries. “It’s slow but getting better,” he said of the business. He has yet to lead a tour, if you don’t count chaperoning his mother to Italy and England.

“When I sell a tour, I’m not just selling a tour,” he said. “I want to put into it all my experiences, as a scientist who’s organized and as someone who’s lived in Europe, navigating strikes and other pitfalls. And I’m available to help.” Ask him for his favorite Florentine trattoria, and he’ll answer (I Ghibellini) but more importantly, he’ll ask customers what experiences they want to have.

As he writes on www.courtlytours.com, his goal is to “design your next dream escape.”

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