Six 10 Second Decisions That Can Change the Course of How You See and Savor Italy

The endless possibilities of the day ahead. Travel is exciting, invigorating and in the best possible way unpredictable. Here are six 10 split-second decisions that I would not hesitate to make on your next trip to Italy.

Should I Stay or Should I Go  . . . Off the Tourist Flow?

If your destination is one of Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence or Venice) and you have an opportunity to travel outside the tourist flow – go. As spectacular as these cities are, the personal charm of Italy lies just beyond. Here is where the real magic begins.

Should I Visit an Italian Terme?

Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtues of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena is a perfect place to “get your feet wet” when it comes to the terme experience. You can check in to the local term or just walk down to a trickling hot spring to sooth your tried feet. Popular termes in the same region include Montecatini and Saturnia. I prefer Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme which is very accessible and family oriented.

Should I Do Some Outlet Shopping?

There are many outlet malls within driving distance from most major Italian cities with high end designs at outlet prices. Why would you not go?

Should I Forgo One Large Museum to Visit a Small Lesser Known One?

When you think of Italy you think of world class museums with an archival wealth of art and history. The Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice,
Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Italy is an open air museum. But don’t forget to seek out some of the small, lesser known museums. A good local museum will add to your understanding of the region and as you won’t have to queue to view exhibits, you can be in and out in less than an hour.

Should I Include a UNESCO Italian World Heritage Site in My Travel Itinerary?

These have been identified by UNESCO as cultural and national heritage sites of significant importance and value to humanity that deserve the protection of our world community. A cultural endangered species that should not be missed.

Should I Order the Region’s Signature Dish?

There is nothing more evocative than eating the food or drinking the wine in its place of origin. Food immersion is the best way to experience the true Italian lifestyle. Eat locally to eat like an Italian. Be a little adventurous and try the speciality of the house, the advice of the chef consiglo dello chef.

Pappardelle con Lepre or a Ragu’ con cinghiale. Truffles in Tuscany or Piemonte. Sugo all’amatriciana in Rome. Spaghetti Bolgnese in Bologna and gelato everywhere.

The Iconic Chapel on the Hill

I remember the first time I saw the chapel, from a distance in the middle of no where, on a road trip through Tuscany on my way to Pienza. I thought I had seen a mirage. I had to blink twice and rub my eyes. The view I saw had been photographed thousands of times yet it seemed like it could not possibly exist. An iconic picture found in almost every calendar or note card set about Italy that leaves you thinking there can be no place on earth that beautiful and yet here I was looking at it in real-time, in the flesh.

The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in Italy’s stunning Val d’ Orcia is one of the most photographKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAed views in Tuscany. Built on a solitary hill against a sweeping panorama of agrarian fields and stands of cypress, the chapel once held a Renaissance statue of the Madonna sculpted by Andrea della Robbia in 1590. Recently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta is an indelible memory of my travels in Italy and a sight that will forever define the landscape of Tuscany.

Click here to see some amazing pictures of the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in San Quirico d’Orcia and Tuscany.

Italy’s MUSE

museum MUSE trentinoThe unique scenic beauty and the impressive mountain landscape of the Dolomites is the setting for a new science museum called the MUSE ( MUseo delle ScienzE ). With a retractable shading system, solar panels, geothermal probes and a cistern system for rainwater recovery, architect Renzo Piano has created a futuristic blend of nature, science and technology. Built on the site of a former Michelin tire factory in Trento, Italy, the museum is part of a destination complex that includes shopping, residential and office spaces, a public park and cycling paths.renzo-piano-MUSE museum -trentino

The architectural foot print of the building follows the cathedral-like spires of the Dolomiti Alps and the glass panels reflect the crystalline mineral rocks that are the foundation of this mountain range. The pinnacles and peaks of the Dolomites, sculpted by glaciers and erosion, create sweeping panoramas through alpine meadows and the exceptional geology of their formation make the Dolomites one of the richest  mountain regions of Europe. Declared by UNESCO as one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes on Earth, the Dolomites were officially included in UNESCO’s 2009 list of world cultural and natural heritage sites. MUSE app

The breathtaking views and endless outdoor activities found in this region of Italy are enhanced by a visit to Italy’s MUSE where visitors can explore the formation of the Dolomites, the birth of the alps and a natural history of both the alpine region and the rest of the world .

In keeping with the futuristic blend of learning about the past in the context of the future, the museum is offering an Explora MUSE guide multi-touch app on the iPad Mini where visitors can create their own thematic experience.

Alpha Italy

bestofitalyThere are some things in Italy that are over the top, the star of the group, the best investment, the cherry on the sundae, the most dominant person, place or thing you can see in Italy. I get asked ‘What is your favorite thing to do in Italy?” all the time and I tend to want to say everything because for the most part it’s true. Italy is the gastronomic epicenter of the world and 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy with almost half of those in the city of Florence. Traveling in Italy 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 family trattorie, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of Popes, princes, pilgrims and kings and wanting more.

It’s hard not to have the best time seeing and savoring Italy but it can happen. Many Americans have a narrowly defined, commercialized view of the people, places and food of Italy and pre-packaged tours often result in a show and tell version that can be less satisfying. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, take some time to “get off the bus”. There should be no excuse to come back from a trip to Italy boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are some of our favorite alpha experiences traveling in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria. Some are on and some are off the tourist flow. They are in no particular order and are just the beginning of your tour of a land perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of man. Where even after 15+ years and 15,000+ miles seeing and savoring Italy makes me come back for more.

Driving le strade dei vini  e sapori, the wine and food routes of Italy

Seeing 1800 statutes up on the roof of the Milan Duomo and the baptismal pools of the paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below

Stopping at an aperitivo bar in Milan for a struzzichini (nibble) and Campari and Soda

The Obika Mozzarella bar in La Rinascente  and window shopping on Via Monte Napoleone in Milan

An afternoon spent at Castello Sforza in Milan

The luminous crystal roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan centro

The Navigli canal district of Milan

Michelangelo Caprese

A dinner of costoletta alla Milanese and an authentic Milanese risotto

A plate of Milanese Osso bucco

An authentic Margherita pizza

Eating panforte in Siena

Panoramic landscape of The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany

A bowl of Tuscan ribollita

A panzanella salad

A summer afternoon spent at the lake side resort town of Sirmione near Lake Garda stopping at every gelateria

Walking the promenade of Bellagio

Eating lavarello, a type of whitefish, on the shores of Lake Como

Off the tourist radar to see the Roman ruins of Veleia near Castell’d’Arquato near Parma

Tuscan crostini di fegato and fettunta

A panzerroti, a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, down the street from Milan’s Duomo at Luini’s panificio

Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery and library to see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

A taste of gelato at any Riva Reno Gelateria or Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano

The funicular to Bergamo Alta, (the upper part of the city), the capital of polenta for a taste of polenta e osei, tiny little bird cakes gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse

A stay at Le Ginestre , a two-storied Tuscan farmhouse, on the grounds of Castello Bibbione, Machiavelli’s Hunting Lodge, San Casciano in Val di Pesa near Florence

The dramatic Camera degli Sposi  in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, one of 500 rooms of Renaissance glory in the renowned court of the Gonzaga

The Great Fresco Cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

Eating a bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan T-bone) in the Val d’ Chiana

Radda in Chianti to visit the Chianti Cashmere Goat Company

A stay at the Hotel Tiferno in Citta’ di Castello in Umbria

Driving a Ferrari through the streets of Maranello

The Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio

Baci and chocolate at the Perugina Chocolate Factory in Perugia

Fidenza Village Outlet Shopping Center near Parma

Siena’s Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Eating a plate of cappellacci  di zucca (big hat pasta) with a butter and sage sauce in Ferrara

Assisi

The Franciscan Santuario of La Verna

A glass of Montefalco Sagrantino

The hot springs of Bagno Vignoni

The fish market of Treviso

A drive through Tuscany’s Chocolate Valley

Eating Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese near Bologna

Tasting authentic Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma

The aroma of the grass, herbs and wildflowers of Italy

An insalata caprese made with authentic mozzarella di bufala, from Campania

The Luigi Fantini Celtic-Etruscan Archeological Museum near Monterenzio in the Bolognese Hills

The tri-lingual experience of the Northern Italian Trentino-Alto Adige (Sud-Tirol) and the towns and villages of the Dolomiti drinking Bozen beer, eating the local food  at Hopfen and Company  and seeing the Ice Man in Bolzano

The chimneys and Leaning Tower of Portogruaro near Venice

The seaside resort town of Carole on the northern Adriatic coast with beautiful winding streets, colorful houses and dinner at La Ritrovata Ristorante

La Rotonda; the Palladian Villas and the whimsical Villa of the Dwarfs along the Brenta Canal near Vicenza

A picnic lunch along Lake Trasimeno driving from Tuscany to Umbria

The medieval town of Castell Arquato near Parma with dinner at at Ristorante Don Ferdinando and the night at Hotel Leon d’Oro

A visit to a caseficio (cheese factory/dairy) to see the art of Italian cheese making

The Charlemagne Castello di Gropparello and “Parco delle Fiabe” for the fairies and elves of Vezzeno Gorge and the  Leggenda of the Ghost of Rosania Fulgosio

Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany

The city of Pienza for pecorino cheese and a visit to Palazzo Piccolomini

The hot springs at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme in Tuscany

A tasting of artisan crafted Italian beer at Birra Toccalmato near Parma

Stay at the Prisciana Suites in Ferrara and dinner at La Romantica with a visit to Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia,

Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience

Abazzia Sant’Antimo only 9 km away from the Brunellos of Montalcino

Gregorian chants and the Great Cloister at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena  

Driving the iconic landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi

The authentic Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa,  to drink grappa, eat white asparagus and walk across the Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini), a covered bridge designed by Palladio that commemorates fallen soldiers from WWII

A stay at the Lodole Country House in the Bolognese Hills near Monzuno

A visit to Tenuta di Capezzana for estate bottle extra virgin olive oil, world renown Vin Santo and Tuscan wine

Verona; the Arena, Casa Giulietta and dinner at La Greppia

The wines and cellars of Tenuta Vitanza Montalcino in Tuscany

A stop at the town of Valeggio sul Mincio with lunch or dinner at Ristorante Lepre, a Buon Ricordo member restaurant to eat papparadelle con lepre (papparadelle with hare) and a plate of tortelloni

Anything in Florence including Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Tower, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and the view  at sunset from Piazza Michelangelo

The Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo in Florence

An incensual slice of Lardo di Colonnata over warm toasted bread

A taste of coppa ferrarese bread

An order of Olive all’Ascolana, stuffed olives ascolana style a specialty of the Marche

The mosaics of Ravenna and the starry blue ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Titian’s altarpiece masterpiece in Venice’s Franciscan Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

A stop at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and nip

A Venetian sgroppino, a refreshing prosecco lemon sorbet combination served in a flute

Venice period

 

 

 

 

A Quattrocento Wall Calendar

I’m beginning to rely on my Smart Phone calendar at the expense, pleasure and visual appeal of my calendar on the wall. Every December I looked forward to buying a calendar for the New Year, displaying it like a work of art, shopping for an interesting theme customized to my taste. One year it was Welsh Corgis, another tropical beaches, wolves, 365 days in Italy and the list goes on. You can probably find a wall calendar designed to suit everyone on the planet. A recent Bing search turned up 141,000,000 results. Last year I didn’t bother to buy a calendar and now I realize how much I miss turning the pages month by month. I need to replace the digital and repost the material version of my life day by day and take a clue from the Renaissance.

Month of March

The fresco artists of Italy’s quattrocento were masters at interpreting the months of the year and often used their art to bring attention to the passage of time and its implications. Fresco cycles with symbols and designs that represent the astrological horoscope and seasons can be found in the salons and halls of Italy’s most renown palazzi and villas.  Many 15th century fresco artists interpreted the months of the year with such stunning results that their work is among the great art of the western world.

One of my favorites is in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Painted by Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura, the frescoes line the walls of the Salone dei Mese (Room of Months) in the main hall. Designed for the Estense Court of Ferrara as a retreat for pleasure and diversions (schiafonia is thought to originate from the word schivar la noia meaning “escape from boredom”) Palazzo Schifanoia is a hidden jewel on a side street of Ferrara. With a rather plain and unassuming façade, the elegant marble entry with the Estense coat of arms may be the only sign that you are about to enter into a pleasure palace filled with rare beauty and  earthly delights. The allegorical frescoes of the Ciclo de Mesi (cycle of months) are considered to be one of the greatest examples of humanistic astrological Italian art making it the most glorious wall calendar I ever saw.

The Pope Slept Here

Pienza is known around the world for being one of Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures and the home of a Pope with a vision to transform his birthplace into the “ideal” Renaissance city. Located in the breathtaking Val d’Orcia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) overlooking Monte Amiata, the medieval town of Corsignano was to be Italy’s 15th century version of Renovation Nation.

Reconstructed and renamed Pienza under the Piccolomini Pope Pius ll, a new cathedral, town hall and palazzo were built. I spent an afternoon in Pienza and visited the Palazzo Piccolomini (the pope’s summer residence) with a signorina who spoke an Italian version of Spanglish. Slightly difficult to understand but well intended. The elegant open courtyard, the halls of period furniture and memorabilia and the gardens that overlook the valley below were well worth the cost of admission. Il biglietto d’ingresso interno was 7EU and for that price I got to see where the Pope slept. I also got to see priceless masterpieces, tapestries, weaponry, paintings and a scagliola table representing a map of the Sienese States. There was a chair that was used to carry the Pope in his travels and a medieval baby’s high chair.

But my favorite was the More or Less Clock, a huge medieval clock that is called more or less because it only works in 15 minute increments (instead of seconds). Ah, the Italian sense of time.

 

A Eco-Conscious Traveler’s Earth Day Resolutions

Today is like New Year’s Day for the eco-conscious. It’s Earth Day and for those who are serious about helping Mother Earth it’s time to re-commit to making some positive changes in our ecological life.  The least eco-friendly person on the planet makes an effort not to litter and recycles but a recent survey  by Element Hotels  found that even the most eco-conscious of us ignore normal environment habits when traveling including turning off the lights and using less water.

So today would be a good time to renew our Earth Day Resolutions not only at home but when we are a guest in another country.  The environmental impact of travel is significant. With more than 900 million worldwide travelers we are globally challenged to preserve and protect the culture, heritage and geographic character of sites we visit. To do less would be irresponsible. To do more would be a way to show your appreciation for a chance to see the wonders of the world.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council web site has some tips. Here are a few others from the National Geographic Traveler web site to help lighten your ecological footprint when traveling.

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 http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/it .  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