Italy Beyond the Beltway – Trails of Transhumance

There are many ways to see and savor Italy. To experience the noble vineyards, pilgrim paths, iconic art and architecture 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.

Travelers can follow itineraries along the Roads of Wines and Taste (le strade dei vini e dei sapori) in and around Italy to immerse themselves in the traditions, territories and tastes of a particular region. A behind the scenes, back road tour of the gastro-history of Italy to visit artisan producers and generational families committed to preserving the culinary culture shaped by the region in its geography and traditions. I have followed many of these routes over the years and highly recommend them.

One of the best ways to see and savor regional Italy is in the provence of Siena. Siena’s Duomo, Il Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall) have made Siena of the most popular places to visit when traveling in Tuscany. But if you’re looking to travel beyond the obligatory wine and dine sites of Siena there are a series of local itineraries that are worth “getting off the bus” or better yet taking the time to explore on a road trip through the region.

transumanzaOne little known itinerary  consists of eight destinations that cross the lands of Siena into the “traces of transhumance”, a fascinating course of travel designed to express the value and worth of the paths once crossed by shepherds during the seasonal movement of their livestock. This time-honored tradition of mobile pastoralism gives you a true sense of the connection between the land and the artisan’s hand.  Along the rural paths there are often rest areas, shelters, chapels, taverns and inns, hiking trails and scheduled festivals that create a historical itinerary of the food and cultural traditions of the region.

There are other trails of transhumance to discover throughouttranshumance sheep Italy including the Royal Shepherd’s Track, in Molise (considered for  inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and in Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Basilicata.


21 Undeniably Signs You’ve Traveled in Italy (on more than a “show and tell” tour)

Are you part of the confraternity of Italian travelers who have truly seen and savored Italy? Off the tourist flow to see Italy’s iconic sights a little differently. Traveling le stradi dei vini e sapori to taste regional Italy food at the gastronomic epicenter of the world. Ready to return home boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Traveling to Italy on more than a “show and tell” tour will take you down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals, into kitchens, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of princes, popes, pilgrims and everyday Italians, developing a taste for Italy and wanting more.

Here are 21 undeniably signs you’ve seen and savored Italy.

1. You can’t drive by the Olive Garden without thinking or saying “THEY JUST DON”T GET IT”.

2. You’re on a universal quest to find the right olive oil like the one you had in Italy.

3. You find yourself wanting to take a mid-day break without regret just to rest and recharge.

4. You would never think of having a cappuccino after 12 noon.

5. You’re favorite pizza is Pizza Margherita with Bufala Mozzarella.

6. Each night after dinner you take a passeggiata.

7. You’ve seen the Palladian villas.

8. You’re favorite Italian cheese is something other than parmesan.

9. You’ve driven through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany.

10. You’ve been to an Italian terme.

11. You’ve stared at the starry blue mosaic ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.

12. You’ve stopped at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and nip.

13. You’ve eaten papparadelle con lepre or a ragu’ of wild boar.

14. You’ve visited the Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience.

15. On more than one occasion, you have cornered a totally uninterested stranger at a house party to rant about how America needs to learn how to make a proper pizza.

16. Supermarket cheese aisles depress you.

17. Chianti is not your favorite Italian wine.

18. You’ve window shopped Via Monte Napoleone in Milan.

19. Visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Italy.

20. You’ve breathed the air of the Renaissance at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia in Florence.

21. You find that you sometimes avoid talking about Italy or your time there, because you know how pretentious it sounds (but come on!! it’s a huge part of your life!!).

Fortune is Fickle

pinturicchio mount of wisdomIf you need a visual image to keep you focused on your Lenten journey you might consider the Italian Renaissance artist Pinturicchio’s Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom (1504). The Greek philosophers Socrates and Crates are caught in a rather tricky balancing act on the top of a steep hill with the Roman goddess Fortuna. A desperate band of travelers are shown trudging upward on a difficult path, supposedly a path we humans have to undertake if we want to reach wisdom.

To view Pinturicchio’s Allegoria del Colle della Sapienza you have to look downward rather than upward as it is part of the floor intarsia in the Cathedral of Siena. A masterpiece underfoot, Giorgio Vasari called the floor of Siena’s Duomo “the most beautiful, big and magnificent that has ever been done”. Normally covered by carpets to protect it, the floor is uncovered for a few months each year when stories from antiquity, biblical scenes and allegories come to life through intricate patterns and designs created in marble as vivid and alive as any Renaissance sculpture. Siena cathedral floor

Siena is one of my favorite cities in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must see when traveling in Tuscany. Siena is located in the Val d’Orcia, a breathtakingly beautiful part of Italy that makes the journey all the more memorable. A perfect image in my mind’s eye to reflect on life’s journey.  Pinturicchio’s travelers to the Hill of Wisdom find their fortunes cast from the top as if to say Fortune is fickle and Wisdom lies in knowing so.

The Wise Men of Ravenna

three wise men san apollinare nuovo and ravennaTraditionally on January 6th, the Three Wise men or Magi visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna an early 6th century Byzantine style mosaic pictures their arrival from the East in stunning, exotic colors and intricate costumes.

One of the main reasons for going to Ravenna is to see some of the finest and most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the world. In 330 AD the Christian Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from the west to Byzantium in the east. From 500 to 700AD, the Adriatic Sea town of Ravenna flourished as an early Christian center influenced by the culture and art of Byzantium, decorating its church ceilings and walls with mosaics.

Visiting Ravenna is like looking into a jewel box and discovering a hidden treasure. Behind the somber basilica exteriors are shimmering mosaics of such quality that Ravenna has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the “outstanding universal value and remarkable significance” of the mosaics.

The Three Wise Men from the East  can also be found on the mosaic image of Byzantine Empress Theodora in Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale. The hem oftheodora her imperial cloak of is embroidered  with the figure of the three Magi.  While visiting the sites of Ravenna you’ll want to stop for a piadina, an Italian flatbread filled with Parma ham, sausage, cheese or vegetables. Cooked on a low-rimmed  terracotta or cast iron pan called a “testo“, it is typical of Ravenna and the Romgana region of the eastern Adriatic.  A hand-held street food paired with a glass of Trebbiano or Sangiovese di Romagna perfect for discovering the mosaic beauty of Ravenna.

Did you know there’s wurtzel, stinco, strudel and ice in Italy ?

Bolzano  is known as the Gateway to the Dolomites, a 3,000 meter mountain range formed 200 million years ago from the primeval ocean. Defined by their unique composition and staggering beauty, the 18 peaks of the Dolomites have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their geomorphology and spectacular spires. Bolzano is also known for exceptional local food, a wide range of outdoor activities (skiing, cycling, snowboarding, hiking, climbing), traditional Tirolean handcrafts (like the famous chubby cheeked Bozen angels from Thun) and ice.

Located in the Northern Italian province of Trentino- Alto Adige (Sudtirol), Bolzano is a cross-cultural mélange that takes most travelers by surprise. Bordering on Austria and Switzerland, the region combines food, customs and language to create a unique taste and travel experience that is often overlooked by conventional tourists. Italian specialties like gnocchi take on the distinctive flavors of the SudTirol where gnocchi becomes canederli in the form of a speck flavored bread dumpling. There is a strong German influence in the region so foods like wurtzel (German sausage), stinco di maiale (braised pork shanks) and German inspired pastries are favored and it’s not uncommon to see apfelstrudel  as well as studel di mele on restaurant menus along with plenty of German birra and regional Italian wines like ruby, red Teroldego

Traveling in this region of Italy is all about extremes. Rare chamois and mountain goat pick their way along  rocky crags and edelweiss bloom in Alpine meadows alongside some of the highest vertical rock walls in the world.  Adventure travelers look for unprecedented experiences ice climbing, mountain biking and hiking the via ferrata,  “iron path”,  where steel cables cemented in the rock assist climbers along the mountainside.  If your idea of  adventure travel  is more about extreme sights than extreme sports  plan a visit to Hopfen and Company  for some stinco and bozen bier.

Then vist the South Tirol Museum of Archeology in  Bolzano to see the Iceman, one of the world’s best known and most important mummies.The Iceman was discovered in the Ötztal Alps of Italy’s South Tirol in 1991 by two hikers who found the back of a human figure jutting out of the ice and melt water in a  rocky gully. Finding and recovering the Iceman with his clothing and equipment intact provided a natural diorama over 5000 years old. Today a sealed refrigerated chamber exhibits and conserves the mummy of the Iceman. Visitors file through a darkened room to view the Iceman through a small window that measures 40 x 40 cm. A larger opening would result in excessive temperature fluctuations inside the controlled cell that would cause the mummy to be destroyed. Read more about the 5,300 year old mummy’s 20th year as a global sensation.