World Heritage is a Terrible Thing to Waste

When I first started to visit Italy the last thing on my mind was UNESCO. 

I was more interested in the vineyards of Tuscany, the fashions of Milano and the food of Emilia Romagna. Over the last 10 years my trips to Italy have been an on going journey to discover the Italy of my family and friends. Now I travel to Italy on business as well, with my company, Cositutti, working with generational producers to source artisan regional food products and handcrafted items for CosituttiMarketPlace. But somewhere along the way I realized that I had visited 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy.  Something I now know to be very special. Castello Estense Ferrara (model of castle)

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was established in 1972 to encourage the identification and preservation of the cultural and natural heritage sites around the world considered to be of significant value to humanity.  Places with outstanding natural or cultural merit that deserve the protection of our world community. The World Heritage list includes 936 sites in 185 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The US is home to 20 sites (including the Statue of Liberty, the Pueblos of Taos,  Grand Canyon National Park, Smoky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, the Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings and Independence Hall ).

For a complete list go to .  Recent sites added include the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere northwest of Mexico City. 25 new natural and cultural sites have been inscribed  for 2011 including the Keya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, the Wadi Rum Protected Area of Jordon, the Ningaloo Coast of western Australia, Japan’s Ogasawara Islands and 7 groups of important buildings (fortresses, churches, and monasteries) throughout the Italian Peninsula that reflect the influence of the Longobards in Italy.  

Unfortunately World Heritage status is no guarantee of protection. Tourist related activities and time all take a toll on the preservation of World Heritage sites.  The Galapagos Islands, in fact, was placed on UNESCO’s lesser known list – the List of World Heritage in danger.  I now make it a priority to visit or re-visit at least one or two of the UNESCO sites every time I travel to Italy.  I appreciated them in the past for their historical significance and remarkable beauty. I now appreciate them as our legacy and a source of inspiration for future generations. 

  • Ferrara – one of my favorite UNESCO World Heritage sites

Up on the Roof

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space  

                      Song: Up on the Roof by Gerry Goffin and Carole King 1962

One of my favorite places to visit in all of Italy is the Milano Duomo.  In fact so much so that for the last 14 years, every trip begins with a flight into Malpensa (Milan’s International Airport), a stop in Sesto San Giovanni (9 km) to see my cousins and a 15 minute ride on the tube (Milan’s subway system) to Milano centro. I walk up the steps from the tube at the Duomo Metro station and before me, rising out of the concrete earth of the piazza the massive spired cathedral stands like a Gothic Transformer. For me it is an indelible sight, unforgettable, unique; a sight that created a moment in time that changed the way I felt about traveling.  It was unexpected and impressive and in a way was to represent what traveling in Italy would become for me and why I would return again and again.  

The Duomo of Milan has been described as one of the greatest churches in the world, second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Dressed to impress, Milan’s cathedral was built of Candolglia marble from the quarries of Northern Italy. It took more than 500 years to complete, is 515 feet long, 302 feet wide and 148 feet in height. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with a capacity of 40,000. Inspiring and impressive, the art and altars, statues (3,400 inside and out), stained glass and reliquary of Milan’s domus Dei make it one of the greatest churches in the world.  Yet for me the true beauty of this cathedral is up on the roof. To experience the sheer size and intimate grace of the Duomo, visit the rarified air of the roof terraces of the cathedral. It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a spectacular view of the city and the wide plain stretching down to the River Po (on a clear day you can see the Alps and Apennines). Mark Twain described it as a “delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath”. There are 800 statues up on the roof, “a silent population of prophets, saints, virgins, martyrs and bishops”. My first climb to the top of the roof was in 1999 with my cousin Lidia.  You can go up on the roof (salita) of the Duomo con ascensore (by lift) or a piedi (by stairs).  Like the romantic urban aspirations of James Taylor’s dreamy rendition of Up on the Roof,  it seemed to be the “only place where you just have to wish to make it so”. Up on the roof of the Duomo, the world below melted into the timeless landscape of Italy and I began to discover that traveling was as much about how you feel as what you see with many rooftops yet to discover.  

  • Geographic coordinates: 45°27′51″N, 9°11′29″ E Coordinates: 45°27′51″N, 9°11′29″E
  • There is a small charge to ride the elevator to the roof also to ascend by stairs


Invoke an Italian Saint

The landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. Traveling through the villages and towns of Italy, Renaissance cathedrals, Roman ruins, monasteries and medieval castles speak of another time and place with an evocative backstory. The roads traveled were once the way of the pilgrim whose fate was determined by princes and popes.  Every monument, museum and chapel in Italy, whether in the cities or at the end of a country road, reminds you of the saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings who have traveled through its doors or eaten of its fields.

Since I’m no prince, pope, pilgrim or king, certainly no saint; I’m left to the last remaining category that we perhaps all share in common.  Over the years I’ve visited many monasteries, abbeys, chapels and cathedrals in Italy that have left a lasting impression. Some have even been spiritually moving like my visits to Ravenna, Assisi and La Verna.  Many have put me in touch with the remarkable humility and exceptional holiness of a group of people whose moral presence has influenced the lives of others in transforming ways. Here are a group of Italian saints that through my travels have a special meaning for me.

Francis of Assisi –  seeing the 12th century cross of the church of San Damiano in Assisi  that inspired the young and restless Frances to a spiritual rebirth and the founding of the Franciscan order.

Clare of Assisi – the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi and her cloister at San Damiano where she describes her contemplation as “the brightness of eternal light, a mirror without cloud.   

Apollinaris of Ravenna –   depicted in the awe-inspiring  early Christian mosaics of St. Apollinaris Basilica in Classe, Ravenna, the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century; now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 Catherine of Siena – a scholastic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, she is one of two patron saints of Italy, together with Francis of Assisi; the medieval town of Siena in Tuscany  with its black and white cathedral, home of Catherine whose active, intelligent, courageous life and intensity of prayer influenced popes and princes.  

Constantius of Perugia – from Umbria “terra santa”, a land known for mysticism and saints, on this saint’s  feast day, “torcolo“, a ring-shaped cake made of pine nuts, raisins, and dried fruit, is a traditional food in Perugia.   

Ubaldo of Gubbio –   a visit to see Etruscan tablets ended in sight of Gubbio’s Mount Ingino, the end point for a procession known as  La Corsa dei Ceri, “Race of the Saints” where teams of runners carrying decorated wooden constructions (ceri) almost 20 feet high and weighing up to 900 pounds, displaying statues of St. Ubaldo, patron saint of Gubbio, St. Giorgio and St. Antonio climb a 2.5mile course through the town and up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo.

Travel at Un Buon Prezzo

I just finished reading world travel blogger, Mark Wiens 7 Simple (but Effective) Strategies to Save Money to Travel the World One that I found interesting was his advice to Sell Your Crap and Turn Your Clutter into Cash. He readily admits this money-saving strategy wasn’t his idea. E-bay and Craig’s list have been around for a while. But Wiens does recommend a different approach. One also used by fellow blogger Adam Baker from Man v Debt.  Baker’s story too is about consumerism and clutter. His mantra – Sell Your Crap . . . Pay Off Your Debt . . . Do What You Love  . . . and in this case what he loves to do is travel.  

A lot of us like to travel and if you’re like me you have a lot of crap but I don’t necessarily want to spend time turning my trash into someone else’s treasure or indulging in an occassional treat. I do want to be financially smart and simplify my life but I’m not inclined to give up too many of the perks I’ve worked hard for to see the world. I’d rather travel like an Italian.

I’ve been traveling in Italy with my Italian family and friends for the last 14 years. I’ve learned many things about Italian food and culture, how Italians think and what they value. One lesson I’ve learned is that whenever there is a decision to reach for your Euros, ask yourself this question. Is what you’re spending your money on gotten at un buon prezzo (a good price)? Italians are concerned about quality and spending money on something of value and that extends to the way they travel. Local country inns, locandas and motor hotels are generally favored over the more publicized tourist diggs. Being Italian means loving good food but an overindulgent price tag is not on il menu. Once again favoring locality, my Italian family and friends seek out the authentic and travel off the tourist radar. Not that they don’t like fine dining, after all they are surrounded by some of the best food on the planet.  But savvy travelers know that although the number of Michelin stars is certainly a measure of excellence there are many excellent eating experiences on the strada dei vini e dei sapori of Italy without stars.

You can travel at the top of the food chain gobbling up everything in sight or you can travel with a discerning eye. In Italy la dolce vita (“the sweet or good life) is not just a cliche’ from a 60’s Fellini film. Italians truly appreciate and value the beautiful life and strive to live la bella vita. If the wine is bad, don’t drink it. If the food isn’t fresh don’t eat it. If there’s not value in a purchase don’t buy it. But if there is then by all means make it a part of your life. Invest in the experience. Go ahead sell your crap, turn your clutter into cash, forego an occassional treat , break a spending habit. Do whatever you feel you need to do to save money to travel. And when you do, travel smart with money well spent. You don’t have to go on an austerity program to travel well in Italy. If you travel like us you can even stop in Maranello to drive a Ferrari at un buon prezzi. After all you are traveling in Italy.

Visit us on FB for more hints about how to travel at a good price in Italy.

Off the Tourist Radar in the Bolognese Hills

I’m off the tourist radar seeing and savoring Italy on the loggia of my favorite bed and breakfast in the Bolognese Hills with my friend Alice, a most gracious host who makes her guests feel as if she has been waiting for them to arrive and welcome them home. Sleeping well, waking up to a breakfast that is never lacking. An assortment of meats, cheeses, tarts and honey that are fantastici!  A generous cup of cappuccino, flavorful and frothy, one of the best I’ve had in Italy with a slice of semolina cake. Deciding whether to play golf on “the stairway to heaven”, visit a caseificio for a cheese tasting, lay by the pool or explore an Etruscan archeological site. With rooms named after the Dawn, Sun, Sky, Star, Dusk and Moon (Alba, Sole, Cielo, Stelle,Tramonto, Luna) and a panoramic view of the windswept hills and valleys of the northern Bolognese Appennines you quickly realize that your travels are not just about the places you visit in the guide books but the places you visit in your heart where the Who and Where of Travel is just as important as the sights you see. Memorable travel off the tourist radar, want to go, let us know.

An Italian Inspired Picnic

A picnic in the Italian countryside in your classic Fiat 500 or ______. Just fill in the blank and your picnic basket with salumi, salame and a crusty loaf of bread. My choice would be a rustic Tuscan pane and a selection of Italian cold cuts like mortadella, capicola and finocchiona (if I could get it). Finoccchiona is a salame from Florence and the Chianti region made from finely ground pork, flavored with black peppercorns, garlic, wine and fennel seeds. Traditionally wild fennel is used and gives this salame the aroma of the Tuscan countryside. Add a few bruschetta toppings, a selection of mostarda, some fruit and formaggi (my choice would be a truffled pecorino from Pienza). For dessert, a melon with prosciutto and some biscotti to dip into my flask of Vin Santo. Speaking of wine, no self–respecting Italian meal would be complete without vino. So bring along a bottle of wine and to quench your thirst include aqua minerale bottled water (San Pelligrino or Panna ) and Italian soda. Of course you’ll need a cutting board, corkscrew, cheese knife, a nice cloth and plates. Although there is no reliable etymological translation for the world picnic in Italian, an outdoor meal eaten al fuori (outdoors) in the countryside or a garden is widely described in Italian literature and a well-laid table was encouraged to heighten the experience.

This is a picture of our Italian family circa summer 1919 in the countryside near Vicenza.  To me it represents the idyllic Italian lifestyle and the pleasures of “villegiatura”, leaving the life of the city for a villa in the countryside.  Even though our Italian family was not relaxing at their villa along the Brenta they still enjoyed picnics in the countryside. Traveling in Italy and staying with our Italian family and friends has led me to believe that Italians seem to know how to balance work and relaxation better than we do. An Italian inspired picnic in the park is my way of bringing Italy home and capturing a small slice of “la dolce vita”.

Here are a few ideas from Salume’ Menu in NYC for a summertime Italian picnic.

Mortadella di bologna, emmental, rucola, senape 

Bologna mortadella, emmenthal cheese, arugula, mustard

Prosciutto crudo di parma, mozzarella di bufala, pomodoro, olio extra vergine d’oliva

Prosciutto from Parma, buffalo mozzarella, tomato, extra virgin olive oil

Salame, provolone, rucola, rafano, olio extra vergine d’oliva

Salami, provolone cheese, arugula, horseradish, extra virgin olive oil

Mozzarella di bufala, pomodoro, basilico, olio extra vergine d’oliva

Buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil, extra virgin olive oil