Fabulous Venice Carnival

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What to see, do and enjoy during Venice carnival, an unmissable Italian event.

Venice Carnival is much more than costumed chaos: parades, processions, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties… well Venice Carnival will offer you everything you need to live a really unique and rewarding experience (especially if you manage to avoid week ends, when the town gets really crowded).

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Weird Italian food you’re going to love

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Nowhere else in Europe you will find the same variety  of regional recipes you can find in Italy. With a bit of curiosity and, sometimes, courage, you’ll discover much more than just pasta!

Italian incredibly high number of recipes derives from its being separated for centuries into many independent “states”, each one with its peculiar traditions, and from the variety of its territory (and what it could offer to be cooked). There’s also another aspect to consider: Italy was a rather poor country. The need to feed an increasing population with the available resources, united to the unbeatable Italian creativity, has given birth to some real weird, hence delicious, dishes.

In this post I’m presenting a selection of my favorite “weird Italian dishes you are going to love”. Buon appetito!

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Top romantic destinations in Italy (beyond the obvious)

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

Italy is arguable one of the most romantic countries in the world: here are the top destinations for romance, off the beaten path.

 

Saint Valentine day is getting closer, and you still don’t know were to go with your beloved one? Then here is my personal selection of the most romantic destinations in Italy!

Are you thinking of Venice, the Amalfi Cost, Bellagio, Capri, the Cinque Terre? Much too easy! Of course, these are fantastic places, full of romance, atmosphere, history, candle light dinners… and tourists! Yes, because since they are so famous, they easily get crowded (and expensive!). Don’t you think your love deserves destinations off the beaten path, getaways to be discovered in (nearly) solitude, hands in hands, pretending you are there all alone?

If the answer is “Yes!”, then this is the right post for you. And, by the way, you don’t need to wait for Saint Valentine day to visit these destinations, they are fantastic all year round!

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Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet

Well, Verona is not exactly “Off the beaten path”, but it is surely underrated compared to nearby Venice. In fact, ever since Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet drama, Verona has been the portrait of the Italian romantic city (and it surely is!). That’s why I picked it up to start our tour.

Unsurprisingly, in Verona you will find Juliet’s house, complete with her balcony and statue, as well as thousands of love letters tucked into the wall around Valentine’s Day (you can even write one yourself!)

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But Verona is much more than that, and its air of romance doesn’t come by association alone. You’ll have plenty of romantic options: enjoying an old fashioned carriage ride, strolling along the river and in the narrow old streets, or relaxing in an outdoor cafe on a renaissance square.

My personal top choices for a romantic walk are Piazza delle Erbe (where you can sit and have an Aperitivo while enjoying the beautiful setting), the old bridge, the Roman theater and, of course, the fantastic views from the belvedere at Giardino Giusti (one of the most notable renaissance gardens in Northern Italy).

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Verona is also reputed for its food, and you will find many romantic “trattorie” (family restaurants) to enjoy a delicious dinner, at very reasonable prices. My preferred is the Trattoria al Pompiere, close to the Roman theatre.

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Villa d’Este gardens and fountains in Tivoli

Villa d’Este, with its fabulous palace, garden and fountains, is one of the most remarkable Italian Renaissance accomplishments, and, in my view, an incredibly romantic place, especially when visited after sunset. It is located in the small town of Tivoli, 30 km from Rome.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

Villa d’Este displays an incredible concentration of fountains, nymphs, grottoes, plays of water, and music (water powered!) and is a unique example of an Italian 16th-century garden. It is rather far from traditional touristic itineraries, and it’s about one/one and a half hours from Rome. For these reasons, it never gets very crowded, and if you go thee during week days, chances are that you will be nearly alone.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Courtesy of Wikipedia

During summer time, Villa d’Este is opened also after sunset, and that’s pure magic!

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Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Courtesy of Wikipedia

The trip to Villa d’Este can be combined with a visit of Villa Adriana, the amazing remains of emperor Adrian’s magnificent villa.

Pienza, and the views from the via dell’Amore

Pienza, a Unesco world heritage site, overlooks the Val D’Orcia and is the first example of Renaissance “ideal city”, i.e. a town bult according to architectural criteria of antique classics that would impact directly on the human soul, stimulating spiritual well being.

It’s old walls and buildings are full of atmosphere and are a fantastic romantic destination.

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The wonderful walk along the ancient walks has been named “Via dell’Amore” (no need to translate…), and offers fantastic views over the Val d’Orcia.

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For your Romantic stay, the relais  Il Chiostro di Pienza is arguably the most atmospheric choice.

It is an ancient Franciscan convent, just in the center of Pienza. It has a  wonderful panoramic terrace with view on the romantic Senese’s hills. You can actually sit on the terrace while sipping a café or a drink  (cheaper than spending the night there, indeed!).

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Pienza could be an excellent hub to visit the worldwide renewed Val D’Orcia.

The island of Ponza, a hidden jewel in the Mediterranean sea

For sure you know Capri, you may have heard of the islands of Ischia and Elba, but hardly anyone other than Italians goes to Ponza: lukily enough, this tiny group of islands has managed to stay away from mainstream touristic itineraries.

So here it is, your private paradise ready for you to discover, explore and enjoy!

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Stuck in time atmosphere, laid back life style, gorgeous natural landscapes, gelati-colored houses, fisherman in bright boats, turquoise water and white limestone cliffs, secret grottos for snorkelling, fantastic uninhabited beaches, incredible sunsets over Palmarola island: everything contributes to make Ponza one of the most amazingly romantic places I stumbled upon in Italy (and elsewhere)!

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

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For your stay, consider the posh Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna, and its fantastic terrace overlooking Chiaia di Luna cliffs. Even if you don’t sleep there, it’s a perfect place for an Aperitivo or a drink after dinner (god music provided!). Unmissable at nigh, when the full moon lights up the cliffs.

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Ravello, window in the sky of the Amalfi cost

Ravello is a tranquil and tiny medieval town which sits high up on the Amalfi mountains, offering stunning views of the Mediterranean sea.

Richard Wagner was inspired by Ravello….and described it as the closest place from earth to heaven!

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

Ravello is cosy, sunny, and loaded with notable buildings (such as its 1086 cathedral). Despite its choice position on the Amalfi coast, Ravello manages to retain the aura of an old-fashioned village, and the typical southern Italy laid back atmosphere.

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In Ravello, the most romantic place of all is the fantastic Villa Cimbrone, a luxury hotel with a beautiful park that can be visited. But the true highlight  are the terraces, and their unbelievable views over the Mediterranean see. Villa Cimbrone is actually used to celebrate wedding parties, and I had the chance to be invited to one of them, some years ago. Indeed, it was a Wow! experience!

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A suggestion for your stay if you don’t think it reasonable to stay at Villa Cimbrone? Of course the  Hotel Villa Amore  (again, no need for translation!), a small family hotel, no fancy at all but with breathtaking views over the cost.

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During summer time, Ravello hosts a renowned open air chamber music festival.

Ninfa romantic gardens

The enchanting Ninfa English garden in the Roman countryside was once a small agricultural town founded under the Roman Empire, passed through the ages from Pope Pasquale II in the 12th century to the Colonna family in 1293 until the 14th century, when a devastating war with the neighboring cities brought about the fall of Ninfa and its definitive abandonment.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

What you see today was started in 1921 by Gelasio Caetani and his mother Ada Wilbraham, who would bring diverse species back to this garden from her various travels and transform it into one the the most amazing, yet unknown, marvels of central Italy.

Among the various treasures to be found in the gardens are the ruins of a 10th-century church (Santa Maria Maggiore) complete with 12th-century fresco, a picturesque river complete with crystal-clear water and ancient bridges, and a plethora of plants from around the globe, such as red Japanese maples, yucca, yellow begonias, orchids, cherry trees, lavender pathways, Himalayan and Mexican pines and miniature pomegranates.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

But what makes Ninfa truly unique and atmospheric is having real roman and medieval ruins dotting a lavish English garden, in an incredibly beautiful and peaceful setting. Not easy to find such a romantic place elsewhere!

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Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Courtesy of Wikipedia

Whether you are a botanist, bio-diversity expert or Roman/medieval history buff, these gardens will surely excite the inner dreamer (and lover) in you.

Moena enchanted mountains

Moena lies in the middle of the Dolomites, which are widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world.

Their intrinsic beauty derives from a variety of spectacular vertical forms such as pinnacles, spires and towers, with contrasting horizontal surfaces including ledges, crags and plateaux, all of which rise abruptly above extensive talus deposits and more gentle foothills. The bare pale-colored rock surfaces beautifully contrast with the forests and meadows below.

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Travelers in love with nature will be captured by the beauty of the scenery and the majesty of Moena’s panoramas: some of the rock cliffs here rise more than 1,500 m and are among the highest limestone walls found anywhere in the world.

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Just lie in a meadow (or stand in the snow with a cup of Vin Brulé in your hand) and wait for sunset: the pale grey rocks suddenly turn into unbelievable pink and orange nuances while the sun sets down beyond the peaks. In minutes, the stars will appear in the dark sky, highlighting peaks shape. Believe me, few places look as romantic as the Dolomites at Sunset!

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Apart from the gorgeous surrounding, the beautiful village of Moena definitely deserves a visit. It’s a delightful hamlet, known as “la fata delle Dolomiti” (the Dolomite’s fairy).

In the lovely traditional mountain huts, with a hot Stube (local brick stove) to warm the room, you will enjoy delicious local Ladin dishes.

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Sardinia at its best: Capo Testa hidden coves

Capo Testa is a windy, wild area, located in the north of Sardinia, in the Gallura region. It offers unique, lunar landscapes, and incredible beaches.

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Lapped by translucent blue waters, backed by macchia (scrub land perfumed by wild herbs such as thyme, rosemary and oregano) and framed by Mistral-warped granite outcrops, northern Sardinia beaches are among the finest in the Mediterranean.

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Here you are far from the posh beach resorts of nearby Costa Smeralda, and you can savor the wild Sardinia nature at its best.

In particular the rock bluffs, carved by wind and water into natural pillars reminiscent of Roman columns, are an impressive and unbelievable sight

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Delightfullyitaly.com: Italy top destinations and travel itineraries, off the beaten path

Delightfullyitaly.com is the blog for all the ones in love with Italian culture, Italian sights, Italian monuments .. and with Italian food! If you wish to visit Italy for the first time, or if you already discovered Venice, Rome, Florence, the Amalfi coast, but still want more, delightfullyitaly.com is here to disclose to you Italian Must See as well as Italian hidden treasures. And if you like what you read, why not follow delightfullyitaly.com and get free updates?

Venice Carnival, and five other top Italian Carnival destinations

Discover Italian Top carnival events, beyond worldwide known Carnevale di Venezia.

February in Italy means that just about every city on the Peninsula is invaded with masks, confetti, colors and lights that make for a very exciting and unique atmosphere: it’s Carnival!

In 2015, carnival will take place between January 31st and February 17th (celebrations dates may vary depending on the location): what are you waiting for?

Continue reading “Venice Carnival, and five other top Italian Carnival destinations”

Enchanted Taormina

The Greek theater and mount Etna
The Greek theater and mount Etna

A one day itinerary to discover Taormina, one of Sicily top destination 

 

“Should you only have one day to spend in Sicily and you ask me ‘what is there to see?’ I would reply ‘Taormina’ without any hesitation. It is only a landscape but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” – Guy de Maupassant.

Indeed, Taormina is one of the most amazing  destinations in Sicily and, arguably, in the world. Where else would you be able to sit on a 23 centuries old Greek theater, built on a natural terrace overlooking the deep blue Ionian sea,  with the highest European volcano snowy peak on the horizon?

Taormina is not only a delightfully medieval village with astonishing views and sights, but it is also famous for its beaches, including the Isola Bella, a tiny island connected to the main land by a narrow stretch of land that can only be seen if the tide is low. One or two days in Taormina allow you to wonderfully combine seaside, culture and entertainment.

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Discovering the Spanish Steps

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Discover by foot one of top Rome destinations, beyond the beaten path

 

The Spanish Steps, that Italians call Scalinata of Trinita dei Monti, are one of the main tourist attractions in Rome and, indeed, one of the most famous images in the world.

You will certainly visit them when in Rome and sit on the most famous Italian steps while savoring a gelato , before heading to the next destination on your “to be visited” list. The good new is that there’s much more to see than just the staircase, and if your planning allows you a couple of hours in the  neighborhood, you  will be greatly rewarded by discovering often neglected jewels such as Villa Medici and Santa Maria del Popolo, plus a couple of delightfully places where to stop for a coffee or for a cocktail.

I suggest to walk this itinerary in the very early morning magical light (as in the pictures I shoot fro this post), but you can do it also at the end of the day, to enjoy memorable sunsets from the Pincio esplanade or from Trinita’ dei Monti terrace.

Spanish Step walking tour map

Your starting point is  Piazza di Spagna, the square  at the fot of the steps. The most scenic way to get there is to walk down Via dei Condotti, one of the poshest streets in Rome, dotted by top  fashion boutiques. And if you’re still hungry after your breakfast, you can grab a cappuccino and a cornetto (the way Romans call croissants, because their looking like horns, “corna” in Italian, hence “cornetto”, little horn) at Caffé Greco, one of the oldest and most fascinating cafés in Italy.

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Cappuccino and Cornetto at historical Caffé Greco

At the end of via del Corso, the breathtaking sights of the Spanish Steps will amaze you.

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                                                                              Spanish Steps, early in the morning

Built on the request of pope Innocent XII and created by Francesco De Sanctis in the eighteenth century, this daring architectural master piece was just intended to connect the square and the Trinità dei Monti Church above (a simple solution, indeed!). Today, the Spanish steps are considered one of the three major Barocco masterpieces. The other two being the nearby Fontana di Trevi and the Porto di Ripetta, unfortunately destroyed in the XIX century to build the Tiber cause way.

In spring the ramps of the staircase are literally covered with azaleas, a sight not to be missed.

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Nuns crossing a “botticella” (local traditional coach)
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Japanise fiancés getting married in romantic Rome
The "Carrozzella" engine
The botticella “engine”

At the foot of the steps lies the Barcaccia (the ‘sinking boat’ fountain) by Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Gian Lorenzo. It was ably conceived to overcome a technical problem due to low water pressure, hence the idea of the boat wreck. The sun and bee ornamentation is a symbol of the Barberini family and a reference to Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the work.

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Bernini’s “Barcaccia” fountain

From Piazza di Spagna, walk down via del Babbuino. After a while you will actually discover the Babbuino (the baboon) himself, actually an old roman statue once part of a fountain, which looks reminded a monkey to old Romans. A few meters away, stop to admire the fascinating Canova Tadolini café. It was once the atelier of Canova’s preferred apprentice, and when, after hosting four generations of artists, it became a café, it was left unchanged, with many of his masterpieces all around. It’s really an incredible place to sip a coffee!

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Walking down via del Babbuino to Piazza del Popolo
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The “babbuino” fountain
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The fascinating Canova Tadolini Caffé

Parallel to via Del Babbuino runs Via Margutta, a secluded old street, famous for itsart galleries and for hosting Federico Fellini’s house.

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Delightful via Margutta

At the end of via Del Babbuino Piazza del Popolo will reveal all its monumental beauty. Its present layout is a neoclassic modern invention, designed in 1811 by the famous architect Giuseppe Valadier. The Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome in 10 BC by order of Augustus and originally set up in Circo Massimo, is one of the tallest in Rome.

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Piazza del Popolo
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Young tourist enjoying the square

Close to the monumental Porta Flaminia, the gateway to ancient Via Flaminia, you will find Santa Maria del Popolo.

Though virtually ignored by the Rome’s teeming crowds of tourists, Santa Maria del Popolo is one of the most interesting and beautiful churches in Rome. Santa Maria del Popolo was original built in the Middle Ages to evict hated emperor Nero’s ghost, who reportedly was haunting his grave, in a grove of walnut trees on what was once his family estate. In 1099, church officials exorcised the specter by razing the trees and building on the site a church dedicated to “St. Mary of the People”.  Rebuilt in the XV century, it hosts masterpieces from some of  Reanaissance and Barocco top artists, such as Bramante, Raphael and Caravaggio.

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Santa Maria del Popolo
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Nativity scene, from Renaissance maestro Pinturicchio
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Bernini’s Cappella Chigi (quoted in Dan Browns’ Angels and Demons)
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Santa Maria del Popolo nave
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St Peter’s crucifixion painted by Caravaggio, in the Cerasi Chapel

From Santa Maria del Popolo, walk up to the Pincio terrace, and admire the landscape dominated by St Peter’s basilica dome.

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                                     View of Piazza del Popolo and St Peters Basilica from Pincio Terrace

Behind the Pincio terrace lies Villa Borghese, one of the largest parks of Rome and a perfect place to practice jogging or just to rest on the grass.

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Villa Borghese park
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Giuseppe Garibaldi’s bust
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Casina Valadier upscale café and restaurant
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Rome historical center and Altare della Patria from Casina Valadier terrace

Walking towards Trinità dei Monti church, you will get to an apparently severe renaissance building: Villa Medici

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Villa Medici

Ferdinando dei Medici bought this striking Renaissance palace in 1576, and in 1666 Louis XIV established the French Academy and decided to send the best artists and sculptors of France to live and be inspired in Rome while studying the classics. Since then, Villa Medici has hosted artists from all over the world, including once upon a time, Velázquez, Fragonard, and Ingres, who all worked here.

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Villa Medici facade

It is definitely worthwhile to take the guided tour  to visit the exquisite 18 acres of gardens filled with fountains and sculptures and to discover the elaborated garden facade, enriched with an astonishing collection of Roman statues and bas reliefs, and overlooking a loggia with a beautiful fountain devoted to Mercury.

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h Villa Medici Inner Garden
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Ancient obelisk in the park
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Villa Medici inner façade
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The Loggia
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Detail of a Roman master piece, recycled to decorate the facade
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The Altare della Patria from Villa Medici terrace
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Trinità dei Monti chuch from Villa Medici

After your visit to Villa de Medici, keep on walking in the same direction: in a few minutes you will get to the church of Trinità dei Monti and to one of Rome’s best views.

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Trinità dei Monti church
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Trinità dei Monti and its obelisk
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Roman kiosk
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The view from the top of Spanish Steps

Your Trinità dei Monti walking tour ends here. However, add another 15 minutes to your walk, and you’ll have the possibility to visit the other remaining Barocco masterpiece: Fontana di Trevi.

Don’t forget to bring a coin to be thrown in the fountain!

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Fontana di Trevi, a Barocco masterpiece
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Fontan di Trevi Neptune

And not to miss Rome (too much…) when you’re back home, what about a souvenir?

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Souvenirs
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Old and new Roma souvenirs

Caldarroste (roast chestnut) are a typical winter delicacy in Italy, now available all year round. Unmissable!

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Caldarroste!

That’s all folks (and congratulations if you get to the end of this long post!).

Enjoy Italy!

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Delightfullyitaly.com: Italy top destinations and travel itineraries, off the beaten path

Delightfullyitaly.com is the blog for all the ones in love with Italian culture, Italian sights, Italian monuments .. and with Italian food! If you wish to visit Italy for the first time, or if you already discovered Venice, Rome, Florence, the Amalfi coast, but still want more, delightfullyitaly.com is here to disclose to you Italian Must See as well as Italian hidden treasures. And if you like what you read, why not follow delightfullyitaly.com and get free updates?

Noto, baroque perfection in Sicily

A delightful small town that hosts some of the best baroque monuments of Sicily

 

A UNESCO Heritage site, Noto is a destination not to be missed in your Sicily tour.

The original town (“Noto Antica”) was completely destroyed by the terrible 1693 earthquake. It was then rebuilt from scratch, in the sublime elegance, originality and fantasy of the Sicilian Baroque style.

Noto is very easy to visit. Simply wander the length of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, along which many of Noto’s most representative buildings stand. And if you feel lazy in a hot Sicilian summer day, have a tourist ride in a delightful APE (typical Italian motorized tricycle).

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First stop: Porta Reale (“Royal Gate”), the main entrance to Noto historical town.

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Second stop: Noto’s cathedral,  which rises impressively above Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and is approached by a wide and graceful flight of steps. Its dome collapsed in 1996 due to another earthquake, but has now been perfectly restored.

The monument is made of the same limestone which makes all monuments in Noto, and that over time gradually becomes golden-colored, especially at sunset.

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Opposite the cathedral is Palazzo Ducezio, the town hall. To the left of the cathedral you can admire the Landolina di Sant’Alfano palace.

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Just in front of the cathedral, in Piazza Municipio, don’t miss a delicious ice cream  (“Gelato”) at Caffé Amarcord.

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After visiting the cathedral, keep on diving down side streets here and there, while heading to Via Nicolaci, at the top of which is the beautiful elliptical façade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine.

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Along one side of Via Nicolaci stands the Palazzo Villadorata, whose many playfully buttressed balconies – horses, griffons, nymphs, cherubs, fierce bald men – jut from a severely Classical façade.

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In via Nicolaci you will also find the delicious Cantina di Noto.

It’s a wine bar (they sell the wines of their own wine yards) and a fabulous place to for a lunch snack or a dinner.

Noto Restaurant

Near the end of the Corso is Piazza XVI Maggio with its magnificent Church of San Domenico and a magnificent Fountain of Hercules.

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At the end of May, Noto celebrates the marvels of Spring and the coming summer with a colourful “Festa” known as the “Infiorata”. The street of Corrado Nicolaci becomes home to flower artists who create the most beautiful mosaics using petals.

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Mystical ecstasy in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria

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An absolute baroque masterpiece by Gianlorenzo Bernini, hidden in small church close to Termini station in Rome.

 

Santa Maria della Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory) hosts one or the most amazing Baroque masterpieces: the ecstasy of St Teresa, by Gianlorenzo Bernini. However, this tiny church is not included in the “standard tourist itinerary” and this makes it a rewarding “off the beaten path” destination.

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria0

Santa Maria della Vittoria construction started in 1608, under the direction of Carlo Maderno, but the church was only finished in 1626.

Its interior is sumptuously decorated, with lots of gilded stucco and polychrome marble so that hardly any of the interior wall surfaces are left naked.

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria 1

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria4

But the true reason to visit Santa Maria della Vittoria is the baroque Cappella Cornaro designed and executed by by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and hosting one of the Exstasy of St Teresa. The ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila, executed with the rest of the chapel in 1646. It is considered one of the best Baroque sculptures in Rome, and is one of Bernini’s most accomplished and well-known works.

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria2

Bernini made magisterial use of the shallow transept available to him: instead of trying for an enclosed chapel he presented the composition as a theatre, featuring the ecstasy of St Teresa.

The famous sculpture is cleverly lit by a window hidden by the pediment (looks like a light scene!) and on the flanking walls are two opera-boxes containing sculptured representations of members of the Cornaro family.

Visit Rome_Exctasy of St Teresa_1

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria-santa teresa 3

The saint, the Spanish founder of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and, is depicted as seated on clouds as on a bed. She is caught during an ecstasy that she described in her mystical autobiography, when she experienced an angel piercing her heart with a dart of divine love, causing her both immense joy and pain.

Visit Rome_Santa Maria della Vittoria-santa teresa

Saint Teresa contorted posture and the fairly ambiguous angel smile give the scene a flavor of passion and voluptuousness, very surprising in a catholic statue!

Visit Rome_estasi of St Teresa

Santa Maria della Vittoria is located at Via XX Settembre 17 just north-west of the Repubblica metro station.

As a result of the fame of the Bernini sculpture of St Teresa, the church is now a popular tourist destination and is on tour circuits. A serious visit is best done early; the church is open 07:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:00. You may combine it with a visit to the astonishing nearby church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.


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What to eat in Venice

Fritto misto con Polenta

A short food guide to decipher a Venetian menu and to discover what to eat in Venice, beyond Pizza and lasagne

Venice cuisine is among the most fascinating you could taste in Italy, and not only for its delicious taste.

Over centuries, Venice has built contacts both with the inland and with diverse and faraway countries: therefore, its culinary tradition presents a variety of dishes linked to the different origins of ingredients. This is why you can see in Venice dishes baccalà (dried salted cod) from the Baltic routs, precious spices from the caravans of Asia but also fresh vegetables from islands of the estuary and fish from the lagoon and the Adriatic sea.

Antipasti (starters):

Continue reading “What to eat in Venice”

Siracusa: Sicily at its best

Siracusa_eagle

 

Discover Siracusa, a top destination in Sicily, with over 24 centuries of history, art and culture

 

Siracusa is an ancient town on the sea, which was of immense importance as Greek Syracuse. It has a superb archaeological zone and a lovely historic center on the island of Ortigia. It’s one of the 41 UNESCO heritage Italian sites and can be an excellent hub to visit south eastern Sicily: the Baroque towns of Ragusa and Noto, the protected beaches of Vendicari, the gorges of Cavagrande, the lively city of Catania and the Etna volcano.

The city’s finest sight is the superb Archaeological Park of Neapolis, (25 minutes walk from the center of the town).

Siracusa_teatro greco

Siracusa’s Greek theatre (Teatro Greco) is one of the finest and largest of its kind. Cut directly into the rock, it was enlarged and modified several times over the centuries, and is still in use today – Greek plays are performed here in May and June each year.

Siracusa_...

The deep quarry to the east of the theater is called the Latomia del Paradiso (Paradise Quarry), and it’s a peaceful and green spot, filled with vegetation and lemon trees. The most famous sight here is the huge cave called the Ear of Dionysius (Orecchio di Dionisio).

Siracusa_orecchio di Dionisio

Apparently it was Caravaggio who coined the name; the connection with Dionysius is the story that this ruler of ancient Syracuse used to eavesdrop on his prisoners incarcerated here, thanks to the cave’s acoustics. A second cave nearby, the Grotta dei Cordari was used by the ropemakers who gave the place its name.

Outside the main park, but included in the ticket, is the Roman Amphitheater (Anfiteatro Romano).

Siracusa_Neapolis_anfiteatro romano

Once you’ve seen Siracusa’s fine mainland archaeological sights, the most pleasant place to spend the rest of your stay is the island of Ortigia, Siracusa’s heart for thousands of years.

Much of the island’s charm lies in wandering down narrow medieval lanes, past romantically-crumbling – or lovingly-restored – Baroque palaces and churches.

Siracusa_old street

Siracusa_pop houses

To head straight to Ortigia’s most attractive piazza, turn right and head for Via Cavour (which continues as Via Landolina), a narrow thoroughfare lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. At its end lies Piazza Duomo, an elliptical open space lined with harmonious and impressive buildings.

Siracusa_Cathedral square

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Sracusa_architectural detail

Siracusa’s Duomo is one of the town’s most celebrated sights. Once it was the Greek Temple of Athena, with a giant gold statue of the goddess on its roof. The massive Doric columns of the temple are still visible. The wall above the columns along Via Minerva, with battlements, is Norman in origin, while the fancy Baroque facade was a replacement after the 1693 earthquake.

Siracusa_Cathedral

Siracusa_statue

Siracusa_cathedral 2

Inside, the Duomo, is even more fascinating, since you discover the original structure of the ancient Greek temple (this make Siracusa’s duomo a monument absolutely unique).

Siracusa_cathedral insight3

Siracusa_cathedral insight2

Continuing your tour, head towards the thirteenth-century Castello Maniace, the fortress at the island’s tip. The route from here back to the Duomo, along the seafront to the Fonte Aretusa, is adorned with several bars and restaurants and is a nice place for a summer evening promenade and, close to the castle, for a swim and a sun bath.

Siracusa_Courtyard

Siracusa_Sunbathing

Siarusa_seaside restaurants

The Fonte Aretusa (on the western shore) is a fresh-water spring whose history goes back to the earliest Greek colonists. Surrounded by high stone walls, planted with papyrus and inhabited by white ducks, the spring is an important spot on the Ortigia promenade.

Fonte Aretusa

In summertime, the island of Ortigia is a very lively place, with both locals and tourists strolling around to benefit from the freshness of the evening and to the many shows that take place in the squares.

Siracusa_night street artist

If you have a car and are looking for a place to combine seaside relaxing and cultural visit, you may consider staying at the Villa Fisher Bed & Breakfast, build right on a cliff, 15′ driving from Ortigia (Tip: use a navigator to reach it, especially if you arrive after sunset!).

Siracusa_villa Fisher

Siracusa_sea from villa Fisher

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Climbing up St Peter’s Basilica’s dome

St Peters dome from the basilica

Climbing to the top of St Peter’s Basilica is possible, and it’s actually one of the highlights of a trip to Rome! Here is how to make it.

Cupola San Pietro

Not that many visitors know that it is possible to climb up to the top of St Peter’s dome (“cupola”) : it is a fantastic experience, and a great opportunity to enjoy a fantastic and dizzying city panorama all around Rome and to admire a top down view of St Peter’s basilica nave.

At the entrance to the basilica, after the security check, there is a sign that directs you to the far right of the portico (past the Holy Door) and to the kiosk for the elevator. Note that the Basilica entrance is on the right side of the colonnade (follow the queue… or click here to learn how to skip it).

You can take the elevator to the roof level (saving 320 steps), but if you want to be on the top of the cupola you must take the stairs for the last portion (551 steps in total). The entrance cost is Cost 10 Euros for elevator, 8 Euros for stairs.

After the brief elevator ride (or the first 320 steps), before your climb to the dome, you can stop and enjoy the view from the gallery inside the dome looking down into the basilica . Take a few moments to absorb the astonishing beauty of the cupola from within – and look down – the main altar.

St Peters insight from cupola_3

St Peters insight from cupola_2

St Peters insight _angel

Michelangelo himself designed this dome, which measurs  135m (450 ft.) above the ground at its top and stretches 42m (139 ft.) in diameter. Legend has it that in deference to the Pantheon, Michelangelo made his dome 1.5m (5 ft.) shorter across, saying “I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon.” Carlo Maderno later added the dome-top lantern.

The climb to the top of the dome proceeds through progressively narrower and sloping stairs. The narrow passageway can be uncomfortable you are claustrophobic (it could also get crowded and hot in summertime). Luckily, there are “slits” here and there to let fresh air in, and since you’re going up during the daylight hours you’ll have the interior lights plus sunlight now and then.

St Peter_climbing up the cupola

Once at the top, you will be rewarded by the views so often seen in photographs: St Peter’s square…

St Peter's square from cupola

… the Sistine chapel and the Vatican museums…

Vatican museums from cupola

… the Vatican gardens

Vatican Gardens from cupola

Back on the roof, you have access to restrooms, water fountains, a gift shop and a new coffeebar. Take a walk to the front of the basilica to look into the Square and observe the huge statues on the façade and the imposing Cupola just above you.

St Peters cupola

St Peter's facade statues

Vatican_tough jobs

When you’re ready to leave, there is again the option of elevator or stairs. Consider taking the stairs down, as this area contains marble plaques of all the famous who have visited the dome over the years. Going down takes much less time than going up!

Astonishingly, the exit is directly in St Peter’s nave, that you can now visit.

St Peters (navata)

St Peter_St Peter statue

St Peters Navata 2

Tips & Infos

Hours 8:00 – 18:00 (Apr – Sep) 8:00 – 17:00 (Oct – Mar)
Cost 10 Euros for elevator, 8 Euros for stairs (updated March 2018)

Web site (Italian): http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/it/cupola/orari.htm

Dress code: St. Peter’s has a strict dress code: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders. I am not kidding. They will not let you in if you do not come dressed appropriately. In a pinch, guys and gals alike can buy a big, cheap scarf from a nearby souvenir stand and wrap it around legs as a long skirt or throw over shoulders as a shawl.

Drop your bags: They no longer allow you to take large bags or purses into the basilica. Luckily, they’ve also arranged a drop-off point for all bags in a room just to the right of the steps leading up into the church. This service is free.

Free Tours: There are free guided visits to St. Peter’s run by volunteer professors and scholars from North American College in Rome. They’re offered Mon–Fri at 2:15pm and 3pm, Sat at 10:15am and 2:15pm, and Sun at 2:30pm. They meet in front of the Vatican tourist info office, which is to the building along Piazza S. Pietro just left (south) of the main steps into the basilica.

Otherwise, follow this link to skip the queues and get a complete St Peter’s basilica tour.


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Sleeping in a Tuscany castle (at a very reasonable cost)

 Do you know that you can sleep in a Tuscan medieval castle spending just like standard hotel? Discover how!

 

Have you ever dreamed to spend a night or two in a real castle? High rise crenelated walls, majestic dungeons, the echos of ferocious battles that took place centuries ago…

Well, let the dream come true! Tuscany offers an incredible variety of castles, and many of them have been turned into country houses and luxury resorts.

In this post I’d like to share with you my favorite Castle accommodations in Tuscany. Treat yourself as a knight, for a night!

Living in a Castle Map

Castello di Spedaletto

Castello La Grancia 1

The beautiful Castello di Spedaletto was built in the XII century along the old Via Francigena (the path followed by pilgrims walking their way down to Rome). It is a perfect example of a middle age castle  in a beautiful setting in the Val D’Orcia, close to Pienza, Bagno Vignoni and San Quirico D’Orcia (read my post Pienza, Sant’Antimo, Bagno Vignoni: delightful Val d’Orcia to know what to do, eat and see)

It features a large yard, an “ecologic” swimming pool and a very relaxed atmosphere. Relatively cheap (it is an “Agriturismo”), Castello di Spedaletto is perfect for visiting the Val D’Orcia, especially if you are traveling with kids.

Tip: when reserving, ask for the rooms inside the castle, more scenic compared to the ones built in the old fortified wall.

Castello la Grancia 2

Castel Pietraio

Castel Pietraio dall'alto

Here we move to Siena Countryside. Castel Pietraio is a gorgeous castle from the XI° century. It is located in Strove, a very small hamlet close to Monteriggioni, and to the beautiful church of Badia Isola, and is surrounded by vineyards and sunflowers fields. It’s a 4 star small hotel, still belonging to the original noble family (Barone Neri del Nero).

Castel Pietraio is also a farm with an excellent vocation to quality wine-growing: you will be able to taste Chianti Superiore (of course!), Chardonnay, Merlot and Vin Santo.

A personal anecdote: this is the hotel I choose for me and my wife when we got married!

Castel Pietraio_3

Castello di Meleto

Castello di Meleto

Massive, awe-inspiring, castello di Meleto stands in a beautifull Chiantishire valley, close to Gaiole in Chianti. Its striking location and its vaulted halls are often used to host weddings parties, but you don’t necessarily need to get married to sleep in one of the beautifully decorated rooms!

For longer stays, you can also choose to rent a self catering apartment in the nearby dependence.

Castello di Meleto produces an excellent Chianti, that you can taste in the modern wine shop after visiting the old cellars.

HAve a look at my post Fascinating Chianti wine tasting tour to learn what to visit (and drink!) in the Chianti area.

Castello di Meleto 2

Badia a Coltibuono

Badia di Coltibuoni 1

This is a fortified abbey, built in 1049 and transformed in a countryside villa in the XIXth century. It features a Romanesque church, beautiful cloisters, a gorgeous walled garden and huge cellars, as old as the abbey itself!

Regarding your stay, you can choose between the 8 rooms and the 5 apartments. Badia a Coltibuono offers also wine tasting, cooking courses and local delicacies tastings.

Hint: the abbey is 650 metres above sea level, which makes it a perfect place during summer. Winters and springs, on the othe hand, can be really chilly.

Badia di Coltibuoni 2

Monteriggioni

Monteriggioni

Strictly speaking, Monteriggioni is not exactly a castle, but a medieval walled town located on a natural hillock and built by the Sienese in 1214-1219 as a front line in their wars against Florence. Said so, Monteriggioni is one of the most evocative medieval villages in Italy.

Located 14 km from Siena. Monteriggioni has became famous for its fourteen towers’ walls which are among the best preserved all over Italy. Believe me, it’s one of the most scenic places in Tuscany, not to miss even if you decide to sleep elsewere (which would be a pity, indeed!).

Two possibility of lodging here: the romantic Hotel monteriggioni http://www.hotelmonteriggioni.net/ or the value for money Bed & Breakfast “In piazza” www.inpiazzamonteriggioni.

Monteriggioni - borgo

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What to eat in Florence

Menu

A short food guide to decipher a Florence menu and to discover what to eat in Florence, beyond Pizza and spaghetti

 

Few countries can offer the same variety of regional recipes you can find in Italy. This post is a short guide to help you browse Italian menus, with the necessary confidence (and appetite!) to dare tasting something different from spaghetti and lasagne!

I’ll start with one of my best beloved regions: Tuscany.

Antipasti (starters):

Crostini con fegatini

Chianti_062

You will hardly find a Tuscan menu that doesn’t offer Crostinis with salumi and a flask of red wine! The word crostini literally refers to the bread, similar to a baguette where the patè is spread. You will be offered many different type of crostini in Tuscany’s restaurants, but the real stuff is made of chicken livers. Other popular options are Bruschetta, crostini with minced tomatoes and olive oil and crostini with truffle oil.

Finocchiona

Salumi toscani

The “typical” antipasto generally includes all sorts of salami, ham and cheese. While this may not differ that much from the salami you normally find in other Tuscany areas, there’s one which is typicall of Tuscany and that you shouldn’t miss: the Finocchiona.

Finocchiona is a variation on salami made of finely ground pork and fat, laced with fennel, and aged for a while. The unusual ingredient in finocchiona is fennel seeds, which give the salami an intriguing sweet, anise-like flavor. They are also behind the name, as finocchio means “fennel” in Italian. After the ground pork is stuffed into salami casings, the finocchiona is cured so that it becomes firm and dry.

Primi piatti (first courses)

Ribollita

Ribollita

The Ribollita is the most famous Tuscan soup. It is a typical “poor” dish from the Florence and Arezzo cooking traditions, meant to reuse the left over bread and the most commonly available vegetables. The name, which means “reboiled”, derives from the former habit of preparing  the soup in large quantities, usually on Friday. The soup was cooked a second time (and therefore “reboiled”) in the following days, before being served. Actually, the ribollita gets tastier each time it is reboiled.

While many different vegetable can be used, a true ribollita always includes black cabbage (“cavolo nero”), Borlotti beans and dry bread. Once it is served, you should add one or two spoons of “exravergine” olive oil and freshly ground pepper.

Pappa al pomodoro

Pappa al pomodoro

Half-soup and half-sauce, pappa al pomodoro is little more than ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and day-old bread. It’s a delicious summer dish, served in the majority of Tuscany restaurants.

Pici

Pici 2_01

Pici is are thick, hand-rolled kind of pasta, like a fat spaghetti. The dough is typically made from flour and water only. It originates in the province of Siena in Tuscany; in the Montalcino area it is also referred to as pinci.

Pici are served with a variety of toppings, such as ragù (often from game, such as duck, hare or wild boar – “pici al ragù di anatra-lepre-cinghiale”), spicy garlic tomato sauce (“Pici all’aglione”) or porcini mushrooms (“Pici alla boscaiola”).

Pappardelle ala lepre

Pappardelle alla lepre

Pappardelle are large, very broad flat pasta, similar to wide fettuccine. The name derives from the verb “pappare”, to gobble up. The fresh types are two to three centimetres (1 inch) wide. Like Pici they can be served with a variety of toppings, even though most popular Pappardelle dishes are “Pappardelle alla lepre” (hare minced meat sauce) or “Pappardelle al cinghiale” (Pappardelle with wild boar topping).

Secondi piatti (second courses: fish / meat dishes)

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Bistecca alla fiorentina

The most famous tuscan meat dish is actually… a T-Bone steak!

The true bistecca alla fiorentina (“Florentine-Style Steak”, normally called just “Fiorentina”, is huge (hardly less than one Kg, cooked on charcoal fire and traditionally served on a wooden cutting board. Though Fiorentina, is featured on the menus of almost all the restaurants in Florence, finding a good one isn’t at all easy. But when you do it’s heaven on earth, delightfully rich, flavorful rare meat so tender it can be cut with a spoon. Much of the secret is the breed of cattle, Chianina beef…

Cinghiale in umido

Cinghiale in umido

This winter dish requires marinating the wild boar meat in red wine, vinegar, chopped vegetables, garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries and chili flakes for at least one night, and then cook it in a clay pot for at leat 2-3 hours. The result is a melt-in-your-mouth tender, deliciously tasty meat dish, often served with Polenta (cornmeal boiled into a porridge and eaten directly or baked, fried or grilled)

Lampredotto

Chianti-osteria Nerbone 2

Lampredotto is a very famous dish from Florence, that you may find in restaurants or as street food (“panino col lampredotto”). Lampredotto is the fourth stomach of a cow, boiled in water with tomatoes, onion, celery and parsley. A typical Florentine peasant dish, the most popular way to serve it is in a bread roll, with parsley sauce and optional chili oil. ‘Snap up’ a hot cow stomach sandwich at one of the many street and market stalls in Florence that serve it. The most famous one is just in front of the famous “porcellino” statue.

Caciucco alla livornese

Caciucco alla livornese

Cacciucco (also called Caciucco alla Livornese – Livorno-style cacciuco) is a popular traditional Livorno seafood dish, fairly common also in Pisa, Lucca and in all the Tuscan coast.

It’s a delicious soup of assorted sea fish, shellfish and molluscs, poured over the toasted bread, which history stretches back at least five hundred years. The origin of dish name also proclaims the fact that cacciucco is rooted in a mixture of culinary cultures of many nations. It bears resemblance to the Turkish word ‘küçük’, which means ‘tiny pieces’ – small fish and molluscs were used to prepare the dish.

Dolci (Desserts)

Cantucci col vin santo

Cantucci_01

Originating in the city of Prato (close to Florence), Cantucci are presently the most famous cookies in Tuscany. You will probably be offered Cantucci col vin santo after all your meals!

Cantucci are oblong-shaped almond biscuits, made dry and crunchy through cutting the loaf of dough while still hot and fresh from baking in the oven. Traditionally, you are supposed to dip them into a glass of vin santo (Tuscany sweet dessert wine) before savor them.

Panforte

Panforte

Panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavor. It’s the traditional Siena cakes, and its origins may date back to 13th century.

The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar is dissolved in honey and various nuts, fruits and spices are mixed together with flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan. The finished cake is dusted with icing sugar. The result is heavenly delicious! You may taste Panforte as a dessert in restaurants or purchase a slice in a “pasticcieria”. A tasty and spicy variety of Panforte is “Panpepato”.

Buon appetito!

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Garda lake’s natural SPA

Relax in natural hot water pools, surrounded by centenary trees and beautiful lawns, less than 20 minutes drive from Peschiera and Sirmione, and for a very reasonable price? Yes you can, in the Parco termale del Garda (“Garda Thermal Park”)!

Terme del Garda

The Garda Thermal Park is not a traditional health spa at all (if this is what you are looking for, you have many options in the Garda Lake area:  http://www.lakegarda.com/wellness-spa-beauty-farm.php).

On the contrary, it’s much closer to a mountain lake surrounded by lush woods, but with hot water!

Continue reading “Garda lake’s natural SPA”

Secret treasures of Milan renaissance

A walking itinerary to discover Milan hidden renaissance jewels, beyond the Duomo and the Last Supper

 

Milan is universally recognized as the economic capital of Italy, but it is also a city of art. Historical buildings, villas, monuments, modern-architectural buildings, churches and abbeys all offer a variety of styles and striking details that are well worth getting to know.

Yes, there are the well known clichés: il Duomo, La Scala, La Galleria,  Santa Maria delle Grazie (feturing Leonardo’s last supper…), Sant’Ambrogio, the Castello Sforzesco. But the truth is that there’s much more than that. Milan can reveal fabulous treasures from its twenty centuries history,  if only you take your time to look for them carefully, since most of them are very well hidden. In this post I would like to walk you through fantastic renaissance churches, some of which date back from the end of the Roman empire: after all, Milan was the town where Constantine issued the edict legalizing Christian worship in 313.

Milano - San lorenzo Church - Constantine statue

Let’s start from San Maurizio, located in Corso Magenta, 15. It’s close to Sant’Ambrogio, so you can go there after visiting it.

Secret treasures of Milan Renaissance - Map

The church of San Maurizio and its adjoining cloister (now Milan archeological museum) are all the remains of the Monastero Maggiore, the oldest and largest female convent in the city, built between the 8th and 9th centuries close to the walls and near the Roman circus.

San Maurizio - Facciata

The present church, begun in 1503 on the site of an earlier place of worship, has a single nave and is divided into two distinct areas by a screen extending up to the large rib-vault ceiling.

Fuerte-Mil201304_085

The first hall, entered from the street, was where the faithful gathered. The second, connected to the rest of the convent, was reserved to the nuns. Nuns couldn’t get in touch with male attendance, not even the priest. To take the holy communion, the host had to be given through a hole in the screen (look at the photo).

Milan - San Maurizio - Holy communion hole in the wall

Along the side walls are ten barrel vaulted chapels over which is an elegant matroneum with Serlian motif.

Milan - San Maurizio - entrance hall

The walls are decorated with one of the most important fresco cycles from the 16th century Lombardy, mainly by Bernardino Luini and his followers.

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After this fascinating visit to a temple of the faith, what about having a look to a modern Gourmet temple ?

At walking distance from San Maurizio, in Via Spadari (very close to Piazza del Duomo) you will find Peck, by far the most reputed Italian Gourmet shop, often referred to as the “Italian Fauchon”.

Peck Vetrina

Here you will find an incredibly wide range of culinary products, all at he utmost level of quality and desirability: gourmet meats, cheeses, meats, grill, delicatessen,pasta, pastry, ice cream, bakery and the most tasty may want the gourmands around the world.

peck-macelleria

Peck basement hosts one of the most famous and prestigious Italian wine shops. Here you will find the most prestigious Italian and international wines, in a classy and refined setting. It is also a perfect place for an exclusive Aperitivo.

Enoteca Peck

Back to culture and history, just in front of via Spadari, in Via Torino, nearly unnoticeable, you will find the Chiesa Santa Maria Presso di San Satiro (commonly known just as San Satiro).

The  is a delightful church just south of the Duomo in Milan, and one of my favorites.

Milano - San Satiro - Facciata

First built in 876, the church was dedicated to St. Satyrus, brother of St. Ambrose, and stands on the reputed site of his house. Later the church was dedicated also to Mary, so that the church’s full name is now “St. Mary Staying with St. Satyrus.”

While San Satiro is now eclipsed by more famous Milan churches, it was an important pilgrimage site in the 13th and 14th centuries, after news spread through Christendom that an image of the Madonna here shed real blood when stabbed.

An architectural gem, San Satiro was later perfected by Bramante (1444-1514), demonstrating his command of proportion and perspective, keynotes of Renaissance architecture.

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In 1472 Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan commissioned the extention of the chuch. His ambitions were great but the location available to him was limited by the presence of a busy street. The choir, the space behind the altar, had to be truncated, making the church awkwardly short.

Undeterred by such an obstacle, Bramante devised an ingenious solution. He painted an optical illusion.Trompe-l’œil, or architectural optical illusion was popular in late renaissance and baroque, but Bramante took the visual deception to an entirely new level. Standing at the entrance of the edifice one has an impression of a much deeper space, extending further behind the altar than is physically possible.

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The illusion, of course, quickly disappears as one steps aside from the main axis of the church.

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Another gem lies to the rear of the left transept: the Cappella della Pietà, so called for the 15th-century terra-cotta Pietà it now houses. It was originally built in the 9th century to honor Saint Satiro, brother of Saint Ambrose. Even more attractive than the namesake statue, though, are the Byzantine frescoes and Romanesque columns of the chapel.

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Getting out San Satiro, keep on walking south in Via Torino. Once arrived at the large crossing with Corso di Porta Ticinese, turn left towards San Lorenzo Church.

Dating from the 4th century AD, the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore is the oldest church in Milan. With ancient architecture that might seem more at home in Ravenna, San Lorenzo recalls the days when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.

Milan - San Lorenzo

Probably at the beginning of the V century a.C., on occasion of the building of the basilica, the columns of a big building of the II century a.C. from another part of the city were dismantled and reused in the construction of a wide quadrangular hall opposite to the Basilica. At present, the columns are all that remains of the monumental hall front, and their aspect is the result of several interventions through time, from the Middle Ages on. The Colonne di San Lorenzo are a popular meeting point, especially for the student population.

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Unlike the majority of the Paleochristian churches, the interior of San Lorenzo has a central ground plan, which is not surprising, considering that the basilica was erected as Arian church and that only later on S. Ambrogio succeeded in acquiring it from the ecclesiastic properties of Milan. It is composed of a wide octagonal room with two orders of arcades, overtopped by the magnificent cupola.

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Milano - San Lorenzo - Interior

In presence of the keeper it is also possible to visit the southern sacellum of the basilica, today S. Aquilino’s Chapel, holding the remnants of mosaics which once must have decorated the whole place, not inferior in opulence and beauty to the Roman-Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna.

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However, the most suggestive view of the Basilica can be appreciated from Piazza della Vetra, where it is possible to observe the whole apsidal complex, marked by the three Saint’s chapels. By the way, Piazza Vetra used to be one of the darkest spots of ancient Milan: this was the place chosen by the inquisition to publicly torture and burn alleged  witches.

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Now cross via Molino delle Armi and keep on walking in the nice Giardini di Piazza Vetra garden. After a few minutes you will spot the last monument of this tour: the church of Sant’Eustorgio.

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The Basilica’s architectural structure is particularly complex. The interior has three naves. To the basic Romanesque building, many chapels were added over the centuries following the church’s foundation, above all on its right-hand side.

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This is one of the oldest churches in Milan. It was founded in the 4th century, and rebuilt in the 19th century. Sant’Eustorgio originally housed the relics of the Three Kings, which were later subtracted and taken to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa. However, from the 13th century on, the church took on an important role, becoming the principal location for the Dominican Order in Milan from 1227.

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Two of the several chapels are particularly significant: the Brivio Chapel, dating to 1484, with a Renaissance tomb and a triptych by Bergognone; and the Portinari Chapel, built from 1462 on, commissioned by Pigello Portinari, and an example of Florentine art in Milan. Inside, the upper sections of the walls were frescoed by Foppa between 1466 and 1468.

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Now that your appetite for culture is satisfied, you may consider have something to eat in the excellent Ristorante San’Eustorgio , where you can ask for a table with a view on the square and the church.

Milan - Restaurant - Sant'Eustorgio

Alternatively, if you ar efed up with pasta and keep on dreaming about yankee food, popular California Bakery, just alongside Sant’Eustorgio, is what you are looking for.

Milan - Sant'Eustorgio - California bakery

Cupola San Lorenzo

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Garda lake: biking tour on the Mincio river

This is a fantastic off the beaten path itinerary in the Garda lake area, that will make you discover by bike delightful hamlets, ancient water mills and peaceful river banks. It’s a perfect family tour, my 9 years old boy was delighted to have accomplished such an “adventure” and spent hours staring at (and playing with..) the many water mills in Borghetto sul Mincio. Continue reading “Garda lake: biking tour on the Mincio river”

Fascinating Chianti wine tasting tour

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For anyone but the true “wine aficionados”, Chianti is synonymous of Tuscany wine. There’s a reason for that: Chianti is by far the most produced and sold Tuscan Wine, and is produced in an area much wider than the so called “Chianti region”. It is also one of the first Italian Wines to be branded and marketed in a distinctive way.

The “Chianti” wine was created in 1837 by Barone Ricasoli, who defined a new recipe, a blend of  Sangiovese,  Canaiolo and Malvasia. The new wine was such a success that in 1932 the producers of the original Chianti Wine joint together to create the consortium of the “Chianti Classico”, with the black roaster (“Gallo Nero”) as its symbol.

Chianti Gallo Nero

Today’s recipe is a little different from Barone Ricasoli’s, and requires at least a 80% Sangiovese, with the rest being a different wine, often Canaiolo, but not necessary. Also the ageing in small Oak barrels (barrique) is optional. Add the difference in tastes and texture deriving from different sub-zones, and you’ll easily realize that you will hardly find two Chianti tasting exactly the same.

In this post I’d like to drive you in a one/two days itinerary to discover the beautiful Chianti country side, its history, its food and, of course, its wine.

Our trip begins by taking the “strada del vino” (222 ss route), just south of Florence.

Chiantishire Map

Soon, the view of the silver of the olive trees, the green geometry of the vineyards, the roads lined with tall green cypresses and the borders of the woods lined with yellow broom combine in a palette of colors that seem to create a unique painting.

The first notable stop in your Chiant Wine Tasting tour is the Castello di Verrazzano. The Castle of Verrazzano is located on a hilltop in the Chianti Classico area, overlooking a beautiful countryside.

Chianti Castello di Verazzano

The castle is known for being the birthplace of the family Verrazzano to which the Navigator Giovanni, the one who discovered the bay of New York, belonged. Today, Castello di Verazzano is a highly reputed winery. You can stop there for a guided tour and a wine tasting, often followed by a lunch in the beautiful lunch room overlooking the valley. I suggest to take the tour and the wine tasting, but skip the lunch, there are better options outside.

Wine - Castello di Verazzano

The next stop is Greve in Chianti, which  is considered by many as the gate into Chianti and is famous for its particularly shaped piazza or square that has been market place for the castles and walled villages in the surroundings since the Middle Ages. The square has a triangular shape and large porticos, dotted with nice shops and delightful restaurants. In the center stands the bronze staue of Giovanni da Verrazzano, explorer that discovered the Bay of New York.

Greve in Chianti - piazza

In Greve in Chianti you will also find the Cantine di Greve in chianti, probably the biggest wine shop in the Chianti area, and the best way of tasting up to 140 wines from different cellars in a vaulted, renovated ancient underground. Just purchase a card, choose the wines you want to taste, insert your carte in the tasting isle, put your glass under the nozzle, press the button and Voilà!

Chianti_044 Cantine di Greve in Chianti

You can also order local appetizers (cheese, ham and “bruschette” (grilled bread topped with many different sauces). If you prefer to stay outside, you will find a subsidiary of cantine di Greve on the main square.

If it’s lunch time, you will find many nice restaurants on the main square. I recommend Osteria Nerbone in Chianti, were I had a tasteful Lampredotto (traditional Florence dish, based on boiled cow stomach: it may sound weird, but it’s delicious).

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Chianti-osteria Nerbone 2

Going back to route 222, I suggest a stop for a cave visit and a dedicated wine tasting at the Podere casanova. Here you will meet Rita and Silvano, the land lords, who not only produce high end biological Chianti and Super Tuscan wines, but will also delight your tastes with their production of truffle oil, true balsamic vinegar, and even honey wine, which recipe dates from the middle age. Cooking classes are available for the happy few that can dedicate a full day to them (note: the wine tasting is only by appointment, to preserve the intimacy of the experience).

Chianti Cantine Casanova

Chianti - Tenuta Casanova - Wine Tasting

Next stop is Castellina in Chianti.  Set along the Chiantigiana road that connects Florence to Siena, it is one of the most important destinations in Chianti. Once a fortified village, you will discover along the ancient walls an impressive underground tunnel used by the guards, Via delle Volte. You will also like the impressive fortress, which gives its name to the village (Castellina derives from the word “castello”, castle in Italian).

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Castellina in Chianti may be a good place to rest for an evening. My suggestions to eat and sleep? Restaurant Sotto le Volte, in the underground passage under the ancient walls, and, a few kilometers from the Village, Hotel Villa Casalecchi, an ancient countryside villa, immersed in a park of century old trees and surrounded by Chianti vine-groves.

Via delle volte _ Castellina in Chianti

On a second day, you can explore the beautiful countryside, dotted by middle age villages, abbeys and castles (all this area used to be a battlefield between Florence and Siena). Definitely worth a visit is Radda in Chianti. Radda was the headquarters of the Chianti League and the seat of the Florentine governor housed in the beautiful 15th century Palazzo del Podestà, its facade decorated with several coats of arms. The town maintains its medieval look characterized by narrow streets meeting in the main square where you’ll find the Church of San Niccolò, a church of Romanesque origins which displays a venerated wooden Crucifix from the 15th century.

If you are around Radda at the beginning of June, don’t miss the “Radda nel bicchiere”, an open air wine tasting with over twenty producers presenting their Chianti wines.

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Close to Radda you can visit the tiny Volpaia village, often used as a movie set (you may stop at the excellent La bottega di Volpaia, and savour your Fiorentina steak under the trees, on a terrace overlooking the vine-groves) and then have a guided tour at the nearby imposing Badia di Coltibuoni, once a fortified abbey, now a lovely B&B, and visit their huge caves.

Badia di Coltibuoni 1

You may end up your day at the Castello di Meleto, by visiting the 18th century interiors, its caves (of course!) and a really amazing authentic 18th century “family” private theatre. The tour includes, guess what? Yes, you got it: wine tasting! …and a Chianti bottle to bring home. Good deal for 15 €.

Chianti - Castello di Meleto

Chianti - Castello di Meletto - Teatro

Not tired yet? Still a little hungry (and thirsty)? Well, a nice place to have your last aperitivo (Italian cocktail) could be the Castello di Spaltenna,  another perfectly preserved middle age castle, now transformed in an exclusive hotel. On its terrace you will indulge with a glass of Chianti wine in your hand and the  delightful Tuscany countryside at your feet.

Chianti_Castello di Meletto-Degustazione

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Delightfullyitaly.com: Italy top destinations and travel itineraries, off the beaten path

Delightfullyitaly.com is the blog for all the ones in love with Italian culture, Italian sights, Italian monuments .. and with Italian food! If you wish to visit Italy for the first time, or if you already discovered Venice, Rome, Florence, the Amalfi coast, but still want more, delightfullyitaly.com is here to disclose to you Italian Must See as well as Italian hidden treasures. And if you like what you read, why not follow delightfullyitaly.com and get free updates?

Pienza, Sant’Antimo, Bagno Vignoni: delightful Val d’Orcia

A one day itinerary in delightful Val D’Orcia starting from Montalcino: discover San’Antimo, Pienza and Bagno Vignoni

 

Well, you had a fair amount of Brunello – cheers! –  and you feel ready to discover the wondefull Val D’Orcia (the Orcia valley).

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The Val D’Orcia is a fascinating place, where man’s endevour have interacted with nature through the centuries in a way that has well reached perfection. Coming out from Montalcino, only 10 km away, your first stop has to be St Antimo Abbey.

Tuscany, Val D'Orcia: Sant'Antimo abbey

Sant’antimo is an extraordinary Romanesque abbey, one of the most important in the whole Tuscany, famous not only for the elegance of its lines, but also for its setting in a beautifull valley, surrounded by wooded hills, olive groves and wineyards. Founded by the Longobards around 770, the abbey received the seal of emperor Charlemagne on his return from Rome in 781. The present church was build in 1118, to replace the original “Carloingian chapel”. The interior will strike you with with its alabaster walls and columns.

Navata e altare di San'AntimoI

If you get there on Sunday morning, do spend some time to assist to the mass, and allow yourself the opportunity to hear the Gregorian Chant practised by the monks. Believe me, regardless to your beliefs, the atmospheare is unique, and, especially if you sit in the first rows, you will really get the feeling of assisting to a 12th century ceremony. Simply magical! (sunday mass: 9.00 AM and 11.00 PM; the church closes at 12.30).

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Getting back on track, you can continue your itinerary in Val dOrcia and head to Bagno Vignoni. It takes no more than half an hour by car, and the road twists and turns in the beautifull country side, letting you discover new breathtaking sights after each turn.

Tuscany - Val d'Orcia scenery

On the road, consider making a stop in the charming San Quirico d’Orcia, an important stage-coach post along  the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrims route running from France to Rome. Just after passing San Quirico d’Orcia, you will see the white incrustations on the side of the hill, left over the centuries by the thermal springs of Bagno Vignoni.

Bagno Vignoni is quite a unique place. It’s thermal waters were already apreciated in Roman times. In the middle ages, a village developped around the large basin that constitued the ancient thermal structure. Caterina da Siena stood here several times before becoming a nun.

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After all these emotions, you are probabli rather hungry. Bagno Vignoni has several small restaurants, many of which give you the possibility of eating outside, and take advantage of the sun and the view. I suggest the Osteria del Leone, on the main square just behind the Loggiato di Santa Caterina, where I hd a delicious Tartare with olives and goat cheese.

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You can also take advantage of the local thermal waters spa and spend the rest of the afternoon induging in the warm water, with in front of you the astounishing view of San Quirico d’Orcia (Piscina val di sole, close to the entrance of the village). If you get here at the end of the day, you may also consider to spend a romantic night at the Locanda del Loggiato, which has kept the fascinating atmosphere of a 1300 century house, with part of the original characteristic wooden beam ceiling and antique floor in terracotta.

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Otherwise, if you are still hungry of culture, you can head to the delightfull Pienza, one of the jewells of Tuscan renaissance, which waits for you just 9 km away.

Pienza, a Unesco world heritage site, overlooks the Val D’Orcia and is the first example of Renaissance “ideal city”i.e. a town bult according to architectural critria of antique classics that would impact directly on the human soul, stimulating spiritual well being. The most famous Pienza building is the cathedral, dedicated to St. mary of the assumption. It combines a renaissance façade with a gothic interior.

Santa Maria

Also notable are the palazzo Piccolomini, the town hall, the Borgia palace and st. Francis. But, most of all, you will enjoy walking down the corso Il Rossellino (the main street), loosing yourself in the lovely shops selling local delicacies such as Porchetta and worldwide renowned Pecorino di Pienza (Pienza sheep cheese).

Porchetta

Before getting back to your car, don’t miss the walk along the old walls, for a last glance at the Val d’Orcia.

Vista sulla valle

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Delightfullyitaly.com: Italy top destinations and travel itineraries, off the beaten path

Delightfullyitaly.com is the blog for all the ones in love with Italian culture, Italian sights, Italian monuments .. and with Italian food! If you wish to visit Italy for the first time, or if you already discovered Venice, Rome, Florence, the Amalfi coast, but still want more, delightfullyitaly.com is here to disclose to you Italian Must See as well as Italian hidden treasures. And if you like what you read, why not follow delightfullyitaly.com and get free updates?