Travel Like Mozart

You think you know Italy. You’ve traveled to Rome, Venice and Florence. You’ve been to Siena, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi coast and Como. You’ve been to Pisa, Parma and Pompei and basked under the Tuscan sun. Seen the towers of San Gimignano and drunk the Brunellos of Chianti. Bravo fellow Italian traveler you’ve just began to discover Italy!

There’s much more to see and learn about Italy and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of  “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway. Mozart toured Europe as a child, something that was not commonly done at that time. Traveling with his father and other members of his family he performed for various courts and dignitaries. Journeys that exposed him to many different styles of music (notably Italian and German) with lasting impressions that influenced his destiny as a composer. Mozart made three trips to Italy with varying degrees of pleasure and success but uncontested in the wealth of ideas that strongly influenced his artistic development.

mozartOn your next trip to Italy, travel like Mozart, go further afield and look for something completely different. Besides Assisi visit La Verna, a Franciscan retreat in the centre of the Tuscan Apennines, where Francis received the stigmata. Discover that there’s more than wine in and around Chianti, visit San Giovanni d’Asso near Siena for truffles with a side trip to an Italian terme. Drive the historical route of the Brenta Riviera and visit the Palladian villas  of the Veneto near Vicenza. Stop at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) with prosecco to drink.

You may have seen the Sistine Chapel but the mosaics of Ravenna will leave you with an equal sense of wonder. Leonardo’s Last Supper is amazing but Giotto’s interpretation, located in the Scrovegni chapel on the estate grounds of a Paduan money lender’s son who in atonement for his father’s sins sought redemption through art, is in many ways as intriquing as Leonardo’s masterpiece in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Discover antica farmacia (pharmacies) where healing ingredients from nature create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look. Visit Ferrara, Verona, the Gonzaga court of Mantua and Bellagio for a romantic view.

Learn new things  about Italy to add to what you already know and come up with something completely different in your travels. I guarantee you’ll never think of  Italy the same afterwards and never think about having a cappuccino after 12 noon.

The Land of the Fox, Squirrel, Badger and Dormouse

Mont termenilloThe rocks and woods of Italy’s Valle Santa di Rieti are filled with natural beauty.  The ancient forests, deep rivers and springs create a fertile plain with an abundance of wildlife living in such harmony with nature that it inspired St. Francis of Assisi to write the “Canticle of Creatures” one of the world’s most beloved spiritual texts. Also known as The Canticle of Brother Sun it praises God through the elements of the earth (sun, moon, stars, wind, water and fire) and reflects Francis’ personal theology about the relationship between the creatures of the earth referred to as brothers and sisters to Mankind.

The sacred nature of the Rieti Valley is celebrated each October with the Cammino di San Francesco (St. Francis Walk) a pilgrimage walk along the same route travelled by Francis through the Sacred Valley. The 80 km of paths and roads can be done by foot, bycycle, mountain bike, horse or car and follows the spirit of the Franciscans; purity, poverty and a respect for the environment. You can stop at various Franciscan santuaries along the way traveling through an  extraordinary landscape of valleys and mountains filled with the colors of the season to experience  the mystic beauty of a land once walked by a saint. The Walk will take you to the medieval walled city of Rieti and the fairytale landscape of Poggio Bustone passing through Rivodutri’s mysterious Alchemic Gate. On the other side of the Sacred Valley you will visit Greccio, known as the Franciscan Bethlehem. It was here, in the winter of 1223, that St. Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with the Nativity CrècSt. Francs Walkhe that has become a seasonal tradition of faith renewed with live open-air scenes in Greccio and throughout Italy at Christmas time. There are various other stops and sites along the Sacred Way marked with special signs and an itinerary with a “pilgrim’s passport” (to be stamped at the sanctuaries) as a remembrance of your journey.  Walking through a land where the creatures of the forest and stream look to you as their brother and sister to reflect Francis’ sweet song of praise.

*Other significant areas that follow the path of St. Francis include Assisi, Gubbio and La Verna

Time Traveling Christmas

Over the years my travels in Italy have taken on a deeper meaning, well beyond the casual tourist, beyond the taste traveler, beyond the travel writer. My road trips are often off the tourist radar and off the beaten track. I’ve seen the usual monuments, works of art and ancient ruins but from a different view. My Italian family and friends have become my personal docents, teaching me to travel like an Italian to discover an Italy way beyond a show and tell tour, often to a time and place I least expected. Yes I did say time. No I haven’t discovered the secret behind H.G. Well’s time machine, paradoxes or traversable wormholes. The evocative landscape of Italy has the potential to take you to another time if not literally than figuratively with places and people who lived in the history of its land.  I have felt this way in Ravenna, in Ferrara and Florence, in Siena,  Venice and certainly in Rome but nowhere more than in Assisi where the footsteps of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings echo through time.

Assisi is a hill town in Umbria and together with the monastery at La Verna, in the Casentinesi Forest of northeastern Tuscany, is a spiritual center for the followers of Saint Francis. Francis believed that the ethereal message of Christmas needed a tangible expression. He wanted the Feast of the Nativity to be more than a story from the past. He wanted to remind people of the real reason we celebrate Christmas. He decided to do something dramatic for the time and arrange a special celebration on Christmas Eve in the village of Greccio where he would create a living manger scene. Francis had real people portray the shepherds, Mary and Joseph. He brought a donkey, cows and sheep in from the fields near the village to complete the scene. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the Infant Jesus.

Over time the Nativity Scene or  presepio, as it is called in Italy, spread throughout Western Europe and many people created nativity scenes in their towns, villages and homes to commemorate the birth of Christ and travel back in time to that night in Bethlehem to recreate Christmas.

*Nearly every Italian town has a presepio, often with life-sized crèche figures. Some of the most famous are in Greccio, Naples, Verona and the Basilica of Saint Cosmas & Damian in Rome. Commissioned by Charles ll, it measures 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.

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.

Saints, Sinners, Pilgrims and Kings

The gastronomic landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. Curated by casalinga, home-style cooking and the monasteries and abbeys of the Catholic Church, the foods of Italy did not distinguish among those who ate them. Whether you were a Medici princess or pilgrim on the Via Francigena the flavors of  Italy found their way to the table with traditional recipes that were passed down and held in trust through the generations.  The Church was both a source of spiritual and physical nourishment and monasteries and abbeys were places where saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings shared whatever was on the table.  

I have visited many monasteries and abbeys in Italy on a parallel journey of art, history, spirituality and food. Some abbeys have been commercially re-purposed like  Badia a Coltibuono, “the abbey of the good harvest”, a former 11th century Benedictine abbey now a wine estate, cooking school and mecca  for food enthusiasts  seeking  culinary inspiration.

 Others like Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore stay true to their heritage and rise up from the stark rolling landscape of  Tuscany’s Crete Senesi, (crete means clay in Italian) like a spiritual oasis in the desert.  A popular stop on the road to Siena, the Abbey’s Great Cloister (Chiostra Grande) has 36 frescos that line the inner courtyard.

The frescos depict the life of St. Benedict including Benedict giving CPR to a monk who has fallen off a wall and a self-portrait of one of the artists, with his pet badger.  

A monastery located on the road less traveled is the forest and mountain  sanctuary of    La Verna, Santuario San Francesco, the Sanctuary of St. Francis.  It is a place  rich in the beauty of nature and works of art.  The monastery is built on the edge of a mountain cliff (4160 ft) . Driving and then walking the long, winding road to La Verna  intensifies the beauty and spirituality of this place. The chapels, buildings and grounds of La Verna tend to envelope you in a mysticism that is palpable.  It was here that Francis received the Stigmata. I can remember visiting La Verna with my 2-year-old grandson. He and I were standing on the side of a long hallway in the monastery watching the friars walking along the corridor in procession. The monks, in their brown robes, were chanting and contemplative and my grandson was holding me tight because the whole setting was solemn and imposing. Then one of the friars, stepping out of line, came over to us and put his hand on my grandson’s head and with a big smile gave him a blessing. He was filled with wonder and immediately at ease. In the Refectory (dining room) a traditional lunch of ribollita, tagliatelle, meat and fish is served. The food of Francis and his brothers was simple and wholesome and the monastic practice of extending food and hospitality is an Italian tradition that is still followed today.

Abbazia Sant AntimoAbbazia Sant’ Antimo, in Tuscany’s stunningly beautiful Val d’ Orcia, has a monastic myth attached to it that will appeal to the wine lover.  I traveled there to see the site of a legend and to experience the spiritual clarity of the Abbazia where around the year 800 Emperor Charlemagne on his return to Rome made camp. His army was suffering from the plague and an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo. Only 9 km from the Brunellos of Montalcino you can easily see how myth becomes reality when you are surrounded by the vineyards of the region. The abbey stands in solitary splendor against the open fields where olive orchards go on for miles and Chianina cattle graze.  One of Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque churches,  Sant’Antimo is like a laser beam concentrating all the history and mysticism of centuries of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings that have traveled through its doors and eaten of its fields.  


From  Seeing and Savoring Italy – A Taste and Travel Journey through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria.