Picnics are thought of as an All-American invention, but in truth, the word began life in France. A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage is the first time the word Piquenique was ever seen in print. In French, the word piquer means to bite, pick or dip. Nowadays, in both France and Italy the word picnic is commonly used, although in Italy you may go on a scampagnata--an outing.
The published use of the word outside the French language was in 1748, but picnic was rarely used in English prior to 1800. Even still, "picnic" was not used in America, either as a word or a concept. Around the same time in England, the word "picnic" was used to describe a social event for the upper classes similar to a pot-luck gathering, but was not held outdoors.
As time passed, the outdoor element became more and more a part of what a picnic is today... not necessarily a gathering of people sharing food they all contributed, but a casual meal held outdoors in a peaceful, natural location. For most, the location of the picnic is as important--if not more so--than the food they are going to eat.
Curiously, in France (in my opinion) the piquenique has de-volved into merely a necessity when traveling. I can't tell you how many times when traveling 3000 miles throughout the French countryside I saw cars pulled over alongside of the ugliest, dirtiest, un-scenic stretch of highway--with cars buzzing past--with lunches set up on folding tables (with chairs) pulled from their trunks. Entire traveling families chomping down their quick meal--all without the slightest regard for the aesthetics of the location. Weird.
Now, contrast that with Italians... They choose a place with a view. It might be as simple as church steps having their bread and cheese and watching people walk by, or spreading a blanket at the side of a vineyard and having a simple feast while just gazing down at the wonders of nature and man, or sitting at the edge of an old castle wall atop one of the countless hilltowns across Bella Italia. Workers will spread their handkerchiefs out to hold their bread, cheese, perhaps a Tupperware lunch from home that the wife made and afterwards lie down under a shady tree for a nap. Remember, lunchtimes are hours long in Italy. Once I saw some workers sitting on top of their scaffolding having their boxed lunches picnic style, while enjoying the view of the valley below from their bird's nest perch.
To me at least, it seems that the picnic really started in Italy... long ago with the Romans. They knew how to enjoy simple foods barely a step away from nature itself--and they knew how to keep cool. After all, that's what alfresco means in Italian: cool... fresh. When Romans ate outdoors under the shade of a thousand year old olive tree, it was more than likely done in the heat of the day--to keep cool as they feasted. All over Italy during harvest times of the year (different times for different crops), rural farming families and neighbors still throw a sheet or blanket on the ground in the shade, gather together bread, wine, olives, cheese and sausages from whoever brought this or that... and they have their picnic. Except they don't think of it as a picnic. It's just a way of life. A way of refueling the body and soul with good food, good neighbors and family... and wonderful views of nature, which thankfully in Italy are just about everywhere you look.
So, the next time you think of having a picnic, think of the Romans... think of the Italians... and bring together not the most complex foods, but the simplest. A great piece of cheese. Some ripe fruit. Crusty bread and wine---and olives. Some of your favorite sausage... and a knife, and some simple glasses or plastic cups. No fine crystal here. Just look for a place with a view of the sky, some water, some beautiful inspiring architecture... drop a bandanna on your lap or a sheet on the ground or just sit on a bench. Then add a friend or two, your children, your lover... and eat. Slowly. Taste each bite and then use your eyes as you would some wine in your mouth to mix the flavors and heighten your senses.
I've taught Lucas to put a morsel of your food in your mouth, chew a bit to release flavors and then (and only then) sip a bit of wine to mix with the flavors... and a new, complex flavor is born. It's like that with picnics. Mix what you see and feel in your surroundings with your food... and find some new flavors in your entire spirit.
If you enjoyed this little picnic with use, please tell all your friends to stop by Grand Voyage Italy. Grazie!
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Copyright 2016 - Jerry Finzi - All Rights Reserved
In the Garden of Ninfa, travelers will discover a wide range of exotic plants from various parts of the world, numerous watercourses and a large variety of rambling roses growing over the stone walls of the ruins. Ninfa is a landscape garden in the territory of Cisterna di Latina, in the province of Latina, central Italy. Its 260 acres comprise an Italian natural monument which contains medieval ruins, several oaks, cypresses and poplars, and grassy meadows. The garden has an almost-returned to Nature feel about it. It is open to the public at set times from April to November. Nearby towns include Norma and Sermoneta. Ninfa has been described as "the most romantic garden in the world".
During the Middle Ages, Ninfa was actually a hamlet containing more than 150 houses, churches, mills, bridges, inns, a castle and a town hall. The town was encircled by a defensive wall over half a mile long with guard towers. The castle was built in the 12th century near the lake outside the city walls. Santa Maria Maggiore was the town's primary church and was most likely built from the 10th century and widened in the first half of the 12th century. The Church of Saint John is dated around the 11th century and is now in ruins.
In the 16th century Ninfa was repopulated by its inhabitants, when Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani ordered the architect Francesco Perugino to build a garden in the area of Ninfa, but this garden fell into decay soon after the Cardinal's death in 1585. During the 17th century it was gradually deserted due to the expansion of the surrounding marshes and the arrival mosquitoes carrying malaria.
By the 18th century the last mill was abandoned and the town hall was transformed into a barn. Pope Pius VI started a reclamation of the marshes, but the project was abandoned. The garden at Ninfa sat neglected under the domain of the Caetani family until the 20th century, when the estate was renovated and the garden was transformed. The garden is crossed by numerous small springs as well as the river Ninfa, which flows south of the garden. Restoration of the garden involved importing plant species from all over the world. There are over a thousand varieties of plants and trees, such as American walnuts, several ornamental apples, yuccas, Cotinus coggygria, catalpa, cedar trees and many rose bushes
Fondazione Roffredo Caetani onlus
Via della Fortezza
04010 Sermoneta (LT)
--Trastevere, Rome - on 10/17/2014
This morning we woke up at 5:30am to get ready for our "Private Tour" of the Vatican. We called a radio taxi service the night before to pick us up at the Gensola apartment at 7:15am... we were to meet the tour guide at 8:50am at the bottom of the steps across the street from the Vatican Museum entrance. (We used Presto Tours. Look for my TripAdvisor review). We are about a 15 minute ride from the Vatican Museum. The trouble with calling for a radio taxi is the language problem (I found they use a lot of slang) along with the lousy cell phone connection you often get.
The next morning the taxi driver was on time and so were we. That was a good thing, because radio taxis start the meter when they get the call from their dispatcher, not when you get in the car. The driver was great, spoke English, and got us there without cheating on the fare. We heard that some try the trick of pushing the "tariff 2" or "tariff 3" buttons (for outside the town walls) instead of "tariff 1" which can triple or quadruple the fare. Pay attention, and say something if it's not set to "tariff 1".
We got to the meeting point at the bottom of the stairs on Via Tunisi, just below the entrance to the Vatican Museum, and saw all the large tour groups cuing up. We went for the extra bucks and got a private tour so we wouldn't get lost in a herd of sheep, and to go through faster because of my lousy knees. When I saw the size of some of the tour groups (especially from the cruise ships), I was glad we weren't part of the cattle following a tour guide, wearing an earpiece (it's so loud in the Vatican at times it's impossible for groups to hear their own guide without a headset) and following the colored flag on a pole.
After a half hour wait Marcello arrived... (we paid for an earlier entry time... now that was blown!) He spoke English with a slight Italian accent and as it turned out was born in Houston, Texas but moved to Italy when he was 13. Ciao-dy!
As we started up the stairs and toward the entrance we felt a relieved when Marcello led us past the flocks and into the entrance. He waved his tour guide I.D. ward casually and got us quickly past the checkpoints in the surprisingly modern interior of the entrance mezzanine. Even though it was very modern, we sensed no air conditioning! (It was hot). He started the tour by telling us the history of Rome itself and how the Vatican came to exist--informative but a bit dry--even though I had told him ahead of time to keep things simple but interesting for an 11 year old. Our bags went through the X-ray belt and we were on our way up and around and into the museum--at first by modern escalator, then by steps.
We went through hall after hall and saw more and more art, sculptures, tapestries, frescoes and became aware of the unimaginable wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, my childhood idols were there... Boteccelli, Raphael and Michelangelo. The tapestries were wonderful, but I've seen some in better shape and under better care in other museums, including the Cloisters in New York. I'll be honest, I thought some the frescoes that were restored looked flat and lifeless. Perhaps they cleaned off too much of the subtleties from the hands of the Masters.
There was even a section under the Sistine Chapel that contained a treasury of modern masters... Chagal, Mattise and others. What concerned me is the complete lack of climate control for all these treasures of mankind. There is no air conditioning and most of the windows were open allowing the pollution, humidity and heat of the day to permeate the exhibit halls. I was sweating like crazy after a while... imagine the tens of thousands of visitors they cram through there every day.... all that body heat, humidity, body oils, etc. They make 70 million dollars a year on Vatican ticket sales and they don't spend a dime on climate control? Shame on them. As a lifelong artist I was shocked at the lack of at least a minimum of basic care for the art and the architecture itself.
Pardon this rant... The unimaginable wealth and hoarding of the treasures the Catholic Church could be put to better use in helping the needy in the world. Selling off their Chagal collection alone could potentially solve the ebola crisis in Africa, for example. Much of the art in the lower chamber (I believe it's under the Sistine Chapel itself) has nothing to do with Catholicism or religion of any kind.
Anyway, the big moment came when we were about to enter the Sistine Chapel. Oddly, tour guides are not allowed to speak inside the Chapel. Because of this, guides need to explain what visitors are about to see before they even get close to the Chapel. Marcello briefed us in a dark chamber by pulling out a book and turning the pages as he explained what we are about to see. (The shorthand version). You'd think with all their millions in revenue the Vatican Museum would install a proper orientation exhibit to educate visitors before they enter... videos, slides, displays, etc. Heck, even our local canal barge museum has an orientation video before you take a ride on the canal, and the Crayola Factory in a nearby town has excellent, world class multi-media presentations! I mean, after this is the Vatican!
After Marcello finished showing us photos in his dog-eared art book, he led us through more rooms and then upstairs (no elevator... people with walking issues need to be ready for this) and into the crowded Sistine Chapel, saying he would meet us near a back door in 10 minutes or so. Ten minutes? When I was a young man, I heard of people spending all day, often laying on the floor with binoculars to soak in the wonder of the Ceiling. Ten minutes?
We were now on our own--with about 1000 or more other people from large tour groups... shoving Chinese, rude Italians and pushy Germans (forgive me, but I'm just pointing out my observations). After a little while we luckily found seats against a side wall (Knees to Babbo, "Thank You!") and sat gazing up at the magnificence of Michelangelo's genius. Lucas was surprised when he realized that the architectural details like moldings and columns were all Trompe-l'œil (tricks of the eye)... all painted to look three dimensional. He also liked the Creation of Man... the famous God touching the hand of Man scene. I loved the Temptation of Adam panel. The bright colors of the restoration of about 20 years ago brought out all the amazing bright colors of the frescoes. Before that, the frescoes were covered with half a millennium of candle soot.
Afterwards, we went outside and around to the front entrance to St.Peter's Basilica. The place is immense. You could almost fit Yankee Stadium inside. The art was mostly beautiful, the rest I found to be ostentatious. The grandeur is overtly in your face--majestic by design. The craftsmanship in everything is unbelievable, and a bit disturbing to thin of the enormous resources the Church spent to have them made by artists and craftsmen throughout history (instead of taking care of the truly needy?) The huge dome can easily fit the Statue of Liberty inside. Some sculptures and angels are huge. The marble columns are massive. The bronze doors are enormous. Amazingly, because of the crowds, the echoing chatter, the picture-taking and the signs warning of pickpockets in the Basilica, I didn't feel God here.
Marcello was still in his bore-them-with-obscure-details mode, Lucas was thirsty and hot, Lisa was hot and having a near melt-down, and my knees were out for the count and my sweat had dehydrated me beyond belief. I can imagine how many people collapse in this place from exhaustion and heat, but unlike Disney theme parks, I didn't see even a single defibrillator station anywhere.
We told Marcello we were going to cut this part of the tour short--Short? We were going over 5 hours! We said good bye to Marcello outside and above the Square and after a stop at the Vatican Post office to get Lucas some stamps, we headed off to find cooling refreshments. We waded through shepherds and their tourist flocks and several gypsies dressed as nuns looking for handouts, African hawkers selling cheap junk and finally saw The Line... of people trying to get through the security check and into the Basilica. It was six people thick and going from one side of St Peters to the other, where it then went into corralled switchback lines, zig-zagging back and forth. It looked like about 50,000 people trying to enter a single entrance to a major league baseball stadium. Incredible! I've heard the wait on line can be 3 hours long...
Now we knew for sure that our not so private tour was worth it just to avoid those hours on that unbearably long line. Was the Vatican Tour itself worth it? I'm not so sure. Of course, as an artist, a lifetime dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel was realized... but not in a way where I could appreciate the art in a meditative manner, as I did when I was a kid and would sit for long periods studying a painting I liked.
I didn't appreciate being swallowed up by the ever-rushing tour groups, effectively nullifying our "private tour". I really hated how poor the Museum is in terms of climate control and protecting these treasures... for example, walking through the bedrooms of the Popes, the beautiful ceramic tile floors have been worn clear through the top layers of color from the thousands of shoes walking on them. I saw graffiti around some windows. The 16 foot tall windows being wide open to the humidity and pollution was horrible.
And I really thought that visiting the seat of the Catholic faith itself--St. Peters--would be a more moving experience. It was loud, crowded, and we were in fear of pickpockets (even Marcello warned us). Perhaps they should treat this like a museum, too... and limit how many people enter at one time. It's a functioning place of worship, so anyone can walk right in (after the long wait in line). In general, I get the feeling that the Vatican will increase the number of tourists, making matters worse. Perhaps there is a marketing manager in a hot office somewhere setting new goals for 100 million dollars a year.
We bought some gassata (sparkling water) from a street vendor to cool down, then grabbed a taxi at the taxi stand across the piazza, and went back to our apartment to refresh ourselves. Snacks and a nap brought an end to this day of agony and ecstasy.
Click HERE to see some amazing High Resolution images of the Sistine Chapel!
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Copyright 2015 - Jerry Finzi - All Rights Reserved
Tuscany is much more than fields of sunflowers, rolling hills, medievel hilltowns and the crowded "must see" sights in Florence or Pisa. Clustered along the Tyrrhenian coastline near the town of Grosetto, Voyagers to Tuscany will find some of the most natural and heavenly sand beaches in all of Northern Italy. Their individual names are Follonica, Castiglione della Pescaia, Marina di Grosseto, Principina di Grosseto, Marina di Alberese and Monte Argentario, but their known collectively as simply the Maremma. Some, like Marina di Alberese can be very busy in the high season but are great for families, while other gems like Cala Violina are a bit more relaxed, perhaps due to the 10-15 minute walk from the forested parking area in order to reach the sandy beach. (Many beaches in the area have parking lots well away from the actual beach and require a short, but pleasant walk). Going to the beach here is a more spartan experience at times... flip-flops, sun-block, a towel, and perhaps a backpack with drinks and picnic snacks are all that's needed.
In the month of August, Italians rent small cottages or bring their camping caravans and spend their yearly, month-long holiday at these beaches. At other times of the year, many foreigners are also enjoying the unparalleled and highly colonized beach resorts forested with organized rows of beach chairs and colored umbrellas. They also visit the area for its spiagge libere (free beaches), vast expanses of sandy beaches, woodland hiking trails and the reefs that dot the shoreline. So, whatever your tastes... nature lover, pool-side sun-worshiper, hiker, birdwatcher, or reef snorkeler, you won't be disappointed with the Maremma.
The National Park
Undoubtedly, the best part of the Maremma is that it's actually a preserved area of nature, with some of the best wooded hiking trails in the country. Il Parco Regionale della Maremma has trails that go up and through the Monte Argentario peninsula for incredible vistas and panoramas. You can see clear to the island of Elba, Giglio and Montecristo. Hiking in the Maremma requires signing in at a ranger station, but that's for your protection. The trails are well marked and well worth the effort. Some are easy, a few difficult, but all offer a chance to see flora and fauna alike: migrating birds, raptors, horses, wild boars, turtles, lizards, stands of natural lollypop pines and ancient olive groves. And be careful of the apparently tame foxes. They'll come right up to you looking for a handout. Hike A2 - Le Torri, is especially well suited for families with small children. The part of the trail heading down to the beach is paved and well suited even for strollers.
The Maremma park is also famous for its Butteri, the Tuscan cowboy--and their long horned cattle. Dressed in high boots, long velvet jackets and wide brimmed hat, they lead their cattle with traditional mazzarella, a hooked wooden staff. There are even opportunities to go on trail rides if you love spending time in the saddle. If you want to experience riding with the Butteri up close and personal, check out Azienda Regionale Agricola di Alberese, located a short distance from Grosseto.
And don't forget about the beef itself... Vacche Maremmane (as they call their beasts)--a true delicacy. It is said that the beef they produce rivals the Wagyu steaks of Japan. So don't forget while in the area to feast on a Bistecca Fiorentina, a thick, flavorful steak drizzled with extra virgin olive oil--just don't ask for it "well done"!
In the town of Alberese you can rent bicycles for about 8 Euros a day and ride the Maremma's well kept cycling trails. Besides the stunning views, you will come across horses, long-horned cattle and other wildlife, like wild boars and deer.
But once you hike down to the shoreline you'll realize the main reason you came here... the absolutely pristine beaches. People collect shells and often use the abundant driftwood to build ramshackle beach huts. There is also loads of history here, such as the Renaissance towers built by the Medici to protect against pirate invasions and the San Rabano medieval abbey.
All in all, you will fall in love with the beaches and nature of the Maremma. If you are the gregarious type, book a stay at one of the large resort beaches, play some golf, show off your newest speedo or bikini and sip your Bellini... or, if your more of a nature lover, hike down to a desolate beach and build your own hut from driftwood and have some cheese and wine with your companion, Friday.
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I'm on a mission. I'm going to return to Italy someday. But when I do, I do not want to spend any time where everyone else in God's Green Earth is going... Venice, Florence, Rome or Naples. They'll be no Vatican Museum or St. Peters Basilica on our "must see" list. In fact, there won't be a "must see" list. Maybe a "must do" or "must feel" or "must saturate" or "must relax" or "must enjoy" list.
So where do I go and still fill my soul with the beautiful architecture, food and lifestyle Italy is famous for? The art, the gardens, the castles, the cobbled streets? Well, the truth is, just about anywhere in Italy has something to satisfy the non-tourist--the person who just wants to be Italian for a while. How about Mantova (also known as Mantua). Both are names for the same town in northern Italy in the southern part of the Lombardy region, halfway between Genoa and Venice.
In 2007, Mantua's centro storico (old town) and nearby Sabbioneta were declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site. Mantua's power and influence made it one of the most important artistic and especially musical hubs in Northern Italy. Opera is one of Mantua's main attractions, but it also offers wonderful examples of medieval and Renaissance artifacts, palaces and a beautiful cityscape. Monteverdi premiered his opera L'Orfeo here, and this is where Romeo was supposedly banished to in Romeo and Juliet.
Mantua is surrounded by three artificial lakes, engineered and built in the 12th century as essentially a tremendously large moat. The lakes get their water from the Mincio River, a branch of the Po. The three lakes are called Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore. There used to be a fourth lake that dried up in the late 1700s, which completed the circle of water protecting the town. Lago Superiore has a unique feature floating in it... a mile long, leaf shaped (when seen from the air) bed of millions of water lilies called Isola del Fior (Flower Island).
There is so much to see in Mantua that it could very well be a hub for a longer stay in Italy, with side trips to Verona, Venice and Bologna. For example, there is the St. George Castle, a thick walled medieval structure with some precious art inside... like the Camera degli Sposi (The Bridal Chamber). This has some of the most beautiful Trompe l'oeil paintings in the world. The frescoes on the walls seems to open up into a medieval courtyard with lively scenes. The dome above with its painting occulus makes it feel open to the sky above with onlookers peeking down at you. Imagine spending your luna di miele (honeymoon) looking up at that view!
There are also many towers in Mantua that rival those of San Gimignano, or how about the opera house--Bibiena Theatre--where Mozart revealed his talent to the world in 1770 at the age of 13! Add to those a magnificent basilica, swans on the lake, sunset cruises on lake boats and more... all in all, Mantua is a non-touristy town with much to enjoy.
A few miles away, there is another gem to search out... how about a magnificent storybook castle with a moat? Then take a ride to Palazzina di Caccia (Little Hunting Palace) in the middle of Bosco Fontana (Fontana Forest). The Bosco Fontana is a nature preserve, so besides visiting the castle, plan on bird watching and taking a hike in one of the few remaining old growth forests in the region.
About 20 miles further west of Mantova is Sabbioneta. The name is derived from the Italian word, sabbioso, meaning sandy. This is because the town was built on the sandy banks of the River Po. Sabbioneta is well worth the 20 mile trip from Mantua. One of the more interesting sights is the Teatro all'Antica, basically, a court theater for the elite. And as you can see from the photo above, Sabbioneta is actually a star-shaped medieval fortress.
One more treat lies about 20 miles north of Mantua... yet another star-shaped fortress town of Peschiera del Garda, but this is a fortress with much more than a mere moat. The entire fortress is built on an island in the river Mincio at its outlet from Lake Garda--a wonderful destination in itself, although it could be crowded with tourists in summer, especially in August when most Italians take a month long holiday. Keep in mind that the area immediately surrounding Peschiera del Garda is chock full of caravan camp villages and other compounds with hundreds of vacation cottages.
There are lake tours, fishing, and views of the snow capped mountains surrounding the lake. Two days here would be well worth it, especially if you want to give the kids a treat. In that case, check out Gardaland in the nearby town of Ronchi. It's a full-fledged amusement park with lots of appeal for the little ones and bigger kids alike, and one of the scariest, twistiest, roller coasters imaginable. One day could be spent at the Peschiera fortress, the other could be spent at Gardaland, or one of the other water parks in the area.
Mantua/Montova and the surrounding area is a great place to visit, and the town would make a great hub for a longer stay. Coming to a town like Mantova will leave the throngs of tourists back in Venice, Rome and Florence. If you're so inclined, it's only about 2 hours from Milan and 1-1/2 hours from Venice, making day trips to either very doable (although not necessary). If your goal is to have a less typical vacation, there is enough here to satisfy any voyager. If you insist on going to Venice, I'd really recommend slowing down a bit and planning a two day visit, staying in Venice on one of the islands and getting lost in the back streets. Wherever you see tourists, point your nose in the opposite direction. There's always more to see in Italy than just the obvious...
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If you are going to the Isle of Capri while visiting Campagnia--Naples or the Amalfi Coast--then you might want to feel what film stars feel like and take a taxi ride around the island. But these aren't just any taxis... these are Capri taxis. Some are as long as limos, some like vans and others are vintage custom Italian vehicles--all with their roofs cut off to enjoy the sun. And if the combination of sun and dizzying views over the cliff edge get you a bit light headed, ask the driver to roll out the canopy over your head to help keep your cool.
These unique looking, top-chopped, sun-worshiping taxis first appeared on Capri in the 1930s. They were mostly Fiat convertibles, or custom made convertibles with their roofs cut off. By the 1950's, they'd become a welcoming symbol for the chic isle, with some drivers becoming as well known as the film stars they transported... Sophia Loren, Princess Margaret and Brigitte Bardot. Later on, Jackie Onassis and her hubbie-to-be Aristotle Onassis brought even more attention to them. One driver even proved his loyalty when Onassis left wallet on his yacht, the driver paid for their meal. This is the stuff legends are made out of--at least in chic Capri. By the seventies, finding replacement parts for the colorful canopy frilled taxis became more difficult and today only a handful of these vintage vehicles can be hired--for higher than normal fees. There are hotels that use vintage taxis to transport their guests from the harbor to their hotel. Still, the modern breed of unique vehicles offer the same sun and wind filled adventurous ride while passengers soak in the sights along their way...
There are many taxis to pick from at the taxi parking areas as you get off the ferry or you can book ahead online to plan a tour. Most do a circumnavigation of the island, giving you all the best views from the magnificent curvy roads. You can choose from the less expensive van or sedan type or, if you can find one and can afford it, choose to ride in a 1950s or 60s era classic vehicle. Circumnavigation tours around the island range from around $100 to $200 dollars, depending on the vehicle and the length of your tour. To go from Marina Grande up the mountain to the Piazzetta in Capri town, a 10 minute taxi ride will cost you about $22 (whereas the Funicular rail car will cost about $3). It might well be worth splurging on the ride for a truly unique experience. (I'd still take the funicular for that experience also!)
Now I for one would love to be at the wheel while driving the twisty roads of Capri, as I did on the Amalfi Coast. (Click HERE for Amalfi Coast Drive: Part Paradise - Part Hell). Voyagers to Capri should be aware that, while renting a car is possible in Capri, it's not recommended. The rental car rates in Capri are much higher than rates in Italy, mainly because the Capri government itself wants to discourage excess car traffic. The situation is so bad that in the busiest months travel by car is restricted to residents only! (In my opinion, they should also do this along the Amalfi Coast during the high season). So when visiting Capri, relax and let someone else do the driving for you. Besides these taxis, there are other local taxi services you can call by phone, taxi stands, cheap buses, the famous funicular in Capri town, and of course, the always available and pleasant water taxis and ferries.
Pompeii Map & Travel Guide
Visit one of the top Roman Attractions in Italy
Pompeii, and to some extent its sister site Herculaneum, are notable for being destroyed by a particularly ferocious eruption of Vesuvius. Time stopped at that very moment. The archaeological site became a vast museum of that moment in time, which is why it is so compelling--and why archaeologists have learned so much from the ruins of Pompeii.
Pompeii is one of the top Roman era attractions in Italy. It's also pretty easy to get to. The main train line, the FS from Naples, and the private line, the Circumvesuviana, both arrive in the modern Pompei, albeit at different stations, as you see on our Pompeii map below.
As you can see from the map, the ancient town of Pompeii to the north of the modern Pompei is not so much smaller than the modern town that's grown up around it. You can take quite a long time exploring it--the whole city is at your feet....
(CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE AND SEE THE MAPS)
When you travel to Italy, there are a few choices of how to plan your accommodations, some limiting your options for meals, while others leave a lot of options open, especially if you would like to try cooking for yourselves in Bella Italia. First, there's staying in hotels, which usually (but not always) include cornetto and other pastries, jam, honey and espresso breakfast, and then eating dinner in their (typically) over priced ristorante (if they even have one).
Perhaps you'll book yourself into a small and cozy Bed & Breakfast, where you normally receive an Italian style breakfast, or worse--a colazione Americana (American Breakfast)--a poor impersonation of the egg and bacon breakfasts that you are used to--picture scrambled eggs sitting out all morning, fatty, greasy bacon and the packaged, hard dry bread that Italians consider "toast".
But there is a third option... staying in an apartment, house or an entire villa, or an agriturismo (a suite or room at a working farm), each with a full functioning kitchen. Yes, you can cook your own meals whenever you're inspired to do so. It's these options that afford you the most flexibility.
But of course, you'll also be eating out... when you discover that little, homey, non-touristy trattoria in the back streets; having sweet pastries and espresso while standing in the local bar/tabacchi like a real Italian (remember, they are more like snack shops in Italy); and eating pizza in a ristorante tourista just because it's right across the street from the Colosseum (yes, we did it). Or perhaps you feel a need to say you had a Big Mac in Rome (don't do it!) or you just have to have a foot long at an Italian Subway. (ugh) Eh, to each his own. You might even want to check out a gigantic slice of pizza at Spizzico--where one slice is a quarter section of a whole pie--an Italian fast food pizza chain owned by parent company Autogrill, a fast food restaurant you might want to stop at while driving on the large Autoroutes in Italy. Hey, I hear their panini aren't bad.
But other times you'll be buying pastries, a special blend of coffee, some fresh ricotta and honey, and buying some of those multicolored eggs with deep orange yolks (Italians call that part "red") in the mercato... just so you can sleep in a bit and make your own breakfast the nest morning. Or simply stocking up in the local market so you always having a backup plan--picnics and bread & cheese snacks on the road, or cooking at "home" with some new found authentic Italian ingredients: local pasta, tomatoes and veggies, prosciutto, cheeses, sausages, breads, wines and balsamic. We saw delicious produce and ingredients everywhere we went--even the supermarkets have amazing choices. Remember, you can do some culinary exploration while in your own Italian cucina (kitchen). Suggestion: a simple frittata with a new type of cheese, a sausage you never heard of or using those odd green tomatoes you saw at the market. And of course, there's always the breads. Chop some olives, tomatoes sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil and top off your bread for your very own bruschetta!
Having a home base is a wonderful way to expand your culinary horizons while using the amazing ingredients from the region you are staying in. As a plus, if you stay at an authentic agriturismo (a working farm that also rents rooms or apartments), you might be able to take cooking classes on how to make pasta, make cheese, cook regional recipes and more.
Your first day in Italy will be tiring, but as you travel toward your apartment, you will need to stop for basic supplies--if it's not to late in the day. Before booking your accommodation, ask about the kind of kitchen equipment they have for you to use (some might have a cooktop but no oven), and how much basic pantry items they keep in the cupboards. For example, in one agriturismo apartment we rented in Tuscany, they had coffee, tea, sugar, spices, salt, pepper, olive oil and even had little breads, pastries, honey and jam (the owners live there and farm the land). It was easy to have a snack the first night, make breakfast the next morning and other meals thereafter. They really had a complete kitchen and pantry.
Beware: Phoney Agriturismos
Yet, in another of the new breed of overdeveloped faux agriturismo, created by investors who don't live or work there, you will find little authenticity, no hands-on farm experiences, very little history, young and handsome or pretty smartphone-clinging staff (who live in the nearby cities), cheap tourist wine, terrible olive oil, and an overpriced on-site cafe. Everything is extra. The wine, the oil, the soap for the washer.
In Mormoraia, an agriturismo we rented outside of San Gimignano, as chic and stylish as it was, they didn't have salt, pepper, coffee, tea, oil, ice trays, a cutting board or even a single good chef's knife. (The TV didn't even work--and no one seemed to care). The place produced their own wine and olive oil--but they didn't think to supply small samples for the kitchens in their apartments so guests could cook with them. These types of places are built by a recent wave of out-of-region (or foreign) developers who buy up old farms and vineyards, renovate them to look pretty as a postcard, put fancy labels on their wine and oil, but are about authentic as a Brit wearing a "Kiss me, I'm Italian" T-shirt. I really emphasize due diligence on your part in researching beforehand--and reading all the reviews of an agriturismo you're considering. If you want to cook while in Italy, make sure your accommodations can handle it.
Another tip... look at the photos people post on sites like TripAdvisor. If the agriturismo looks too clean and neat, if their are no dogs, goats, pigs, or kids running around, and if you don't see photos of the actual proprietors cooking and engaging with guests, it's more than likely a phoney-Bologna imitation of the real deal.
Where to Buy Food
If you have your agenda well planned ahead of time, you can use a tool like Google Earth or Google Map to find places to shop in the area. Zoom into the area you will be staying in and search for "supermarket" or "supermercato". Google speaks all languages. I did this before we left and put my custom Google pin maps on my Kindle and smart phone before we left. Stop at an alimentari (literally translates as "food") or even a supermercato. Here are the types of places you can stock up:
One more thing... small towns will have alimentari and other small shops with little or no signs. Often it's difficult to tell what type of shop it is. They will have metal roll-up doors that will more than likely be closed (either partially or all the way) from 12 - 3pm. Try to do your food shopping earlier in the morning to be certain to find the shops you need open. If need be, ask someone "dove si trova la (il) ______ più vicina?", (Where is found the nearest _________?") filling in the blank with the type of shop you need.
Late in the day (4-7 pm) is the best time to shop in boutiques or gift shops. A new trend in Italy is to put "-eria" at the end of a word to describe a shop. Yogurteria, Hamburgheria, Fruiteria, Disceria (for CDs), Vineria (wine), etc.
How to ask for what you need
In Italy you will be dealing with the metric system... kilos, not pounds. Una etto (abbreviation of hectogram) is asking for 100 grams, 200 grams would be due etti, three... tre etti, and so on. I even asked for simple, "cento" and got 100 grams, which is about a quarter of a pound--about the amount of cold cuts for one or two sandwiches, or enough cheese for your lunch. If you want a wedge of cheese, hold out your fingers to how thick you want it sliced and say "Come questo" (like this). If you want thicker say "più spessa" (more thick), for thinner say "più sottile" (more thin). Point close to you for "questo" (this one) and point away for "quello" (that one).
When thinking in kilos, think about half of what you would ask for in pounds. (A kilo equals 2.2 pounds). If you want about a pound, ask for a chilo (pronounced KEY-lo). In Italy, a kilogram is chilo. Half a kilo would be mezzo chilo.
Be careful about these two... one quarter kilo is "un quarto chilo". Four kilos would be "quattro chilo". If you want to ask for something "to-go" you ask for "portare fuori" (literally, "bring out").
Remember that numbers for pricing are written a bit differently. Decimal points and commas are switched around... a leather jacket can cost €1.000,00 but never would cost €1,000 (that would be one Euro with an extra zero). A house might cost €1.000.000,67 (one million plus 67 cents... don't know what the 67 cents is for). A gelato might cost €3,50 (without the decimal point).
I'll do a separate post on numbers soon. You definitely need to know how to say and hear numbers when shopping, in hotels, restaurants, taxis and trains.
I hope you'll get a chance to do some food shopping in Italy... and don't miss the Italian supermarket experience. Soak in the differences, try to translate the names on boxes and cans, and enjoy trying to figure out those odd veggies...
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There are places on this Good Earth that obviously have the Hand of God in their making--otherwise, how would they be so uniquely beautiful? Italy has many of these wonders of nature and one of the more amazing sights to see and experience is la Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks). You will find the stark white Scala cliffs on the western third of the southern coast of Sicily in Realmonte near the town of Porto Empedocle.
Formed by a sedimentary rock called marl, its crisp white color is whiter even than the two sand beaches which embrace its east and west boundaries. The constant action of waves, wind and weathering over the course of millennium have carved the shape of steps into the cliff, creating a sun worshipers' magnet during the hot summer months. The natural landmark drew invasions from the Moors from northern Africa, the Saracens and Turkish pirates, thus the name.
The municipality of Realmonte has applied for UNESCO Heritage Site listing, even though the Scala seem to be privately owned by an aging pensioner who has placed signs warning that he will not be liable for any injuries that occur on the site. His signs are largely ignored...
Most of the time the Scala appears to be a snow white, slanted layer cake, while at other times of the day the color of the cliffs can change dramatically from pink to orange to yellow and even blue. Unlike the White Cliffs of Dover in England (made of chalk), the Scala's geology is made of a sedimentary limestone and clay. Its stairs are soft and rounded and very precarious, but are still visited by many people who climb and sun themselves on the Scala.
The Scala di Turchi are located just west of the beach town of Punta Grande and all the way past Lido Rosello for about two miles, but more white cliff formations dot the coastline from past Capo Rosello for another 10 miles or so until the archeological site of Eraclea Minoa. The area of a mix of rugged and forested nature preserves, campgrounds, golf courses, sandy beach towns and a few world class resort "village" complexes.
When we visited the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, we couldn't help falling into the trap of taking the same picture that everyone else was taking... that is, positioning yourself to look like you're holding up the tower. Here's what they looked like...
But you really don't want to bring home the same old, photo. You want something different to show your friends. So we wondered, what are the best ways to do this... to bring it up to a higher level? Here's what we came up with...
and Lucas it!
Many people have dreams of spending their Italian vacation on a farm... seeing cheese and wine made, perhaps learning how to make pasta, milk a goat or make fresh sausage. Of course, you can always spend your vacation on an agriturismo in the region of your choice. An agriturismo will typically have fairly posh and comfy apartments or rooms, wine tastings (for extra $$$), cooking lessons (again, more $$$) and even their own restaurants on site--some include meals, most don't.
You can find some that are historic and agriculturally oriented, but many are simply overly developed investment hotelier or B&B properties often owned by non-Italian investors and staffed by young, inexperienced hotel staff. The wine and olive oil they produce and sell to tourists are not known to be high quality. If you research meticulously, you can find some that are actually working farms run by the same family that lives and works on the farm. But there is another way to have an authentic, hands-on experience with Italian agricultural organic techniques, food-to-table, and Slow Food movements....
WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange--yes, people work for free--but they gain a whole lot more than money in these experiences. The goal of the organization is to help spread the message of building a sustainable global community. As the average age of farmers is 55, the world needs more young people to return from the big city job centers to sustain farming--especially organic methods--and carry on the skills and craftsmanship needed for smaller, owner-operator farms to survive. Many young Americans see this as an opportunity to learn authentic skills that they can use to start their own green enterprises at home.
What is WWOOFing?
WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, but the concept of having a working vacation on farms has been around for a while under the older Willing Workers on Organic Farms, where city dwellers in the UK volunteered on organic farms in the countryside. Always wanted to work on a farm? Want to learn some skills to help start your own organic farm? Want to learn the Slow Food method of growing and then producing your own artisanal food products? Read on... you might have just found a great way to have a very valuable experience...
There are WWOOF farms in many countries around the world... and luckily for the Italophile interested in honing their organic skills, Italy has many opportunities, too. Membership for one year is €35. There are over 650 WWOOF host farm members in Italy in many areas of specialty: cheesemaking, olives and olive oil production, vines and wines, sheep & herding, goats, almonds, fowl (chickens, ducks and others), cows & milking, pigs & sausage, butchering, beekeeping, hay & cereals and vegetables of all kinds. In addition, some offer opportunities to learn construction trades relating to farming... carpentry, masonry, historic restoration, blacksmithing and more.
Volunteers stay in a variety of accommodations from tents to castles, Trulli to masseria farm complexes, converted barns and shared dorms. There are even those that welcome entire families with programs for children. The WWOOF site has an excellent keyword driven search engine that can help you locate a perfect match for the skills you are interested in experiencing first hand.
Click for a LIST OF WWOOF Farms in Italy.
To register for a WWOOF experience, SIGN UP HERE.
Before our voyage to Italy, we tried a couple of different methods to learn Italian. Our first was a Pimsleur set of CDs that we had for several years (we had planned to go to Italy once before but had to cancel at the last minute). These are excellent CDs which guide you through conversational Italian lessons, grouped by specific subject.... transportation, shopping, food, meeting people, etc. My wife, Lisa, also bought a subscription to Rosetta Stone, both on our PC and our smart devices, but their approach was not that effective with us... you look at pictures and hear only Italian, supposedly the way a baby learns a language by associating a word with what it is looking at. For us, it didn't work well. And besides, once we finished the first bunch of lessons, they wanted more and more cash to keep unlocking more chapters.
A good idea to try is making a list of phrases that you want to focus on--business versus casual stuff, or specific for kids versus the needs of seniors. Categorize these by subject on paper or in MS Word first, then you can then go to Google Translate and enter them in one by one, saving each (pressing the Star) as you go along. In this way you can build your own personal database of your most important phrases listed by category.
This would be useful to look up phrases before you get into a taxi, for example... scroll down to your section on travel phrases and look for the right one. I had sections for shopping, accommodations, train travel, food and restaurants, etc. Lucas, Lisa and I would have fun sessions testing each other.
I even had a section with translations for curses and other phrases I'd need to use in an emergency. For instance, if I felt threatened, if I wanted to get rid of a panhandler, and other distasteful situations.... like "Va Via!" (hit the road). I even had a nice group of curse words and phrases in there. This actually worked several times to get rid of nefarious types.
Imagine going to a doctor or pharmacist, and think about what you might need to ask or explain. I would need to know how to ask for an inhaler for my asthma, anti-inflammatory for arthritis or even something as simple as lip balm. I needed to know how to let someone know that my son was lost, sick, hurt and where his pain was located. A Google Translate Phrasebook can be endlessly customized to you and your needs.
After you fine tune your own Phrasebook, Google Translate can output a spreadsheet into Google Docs for you, which you can always access online or download document file copies onto your devices for when you can't get an online connection. See mine below...
I copied it my Phrasebook doc onto my Kindle and phones as a ready reference file. I remember studying it right before important events as we were traveling. It helped me retain mainly the phrases and words that I knew for sure I'd need to use that day.
The only warning I'll give is to use a single device when creating your personal phrasebook. It seems that each device saved its own version of the Phrasebook. At the beginning I would use the PC for some translating and my Kindle for the rest. Each list was different. I would have saved a lot of time typing in the list from one to merge into the other if I knew about this ahead of time.
As I researched our Voyage to Italy, I kept Google Translate always open in a browser tab. I could easily pop over to the tab, cutting and pasting Italian phrases that I found on Italian web sites (ones that offered ny English translation), or the reverse... typing in an English word or phrase to see the translation, then using the Italian phrase to find what I was looking for on an Italian website.
You can also hear the translation spoken by clicking the speaker icon on the bottom left of a panel. The only trouble is, the voice is female. There is no way to change the voice on Google Translate. Each language has it's own voice.... some are male, some female.
Here is part of my own list I created of phrases and words I knew I might need...
Even though I'm back in the States, I still use Google Translate every day. I keep adding to my Phrasebook--it helps to keep practicing. I often use it to help communicate with my new Grand Voyage Italy friends in Italy... I just need to keep what I need to say jargon-free and say everything in simplistic ways, otherwise the translation might sound odd to a real Italian.
After all, we want to go back to Italy someday... in una data futura...
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Deep in the Salento, the part of Puglia that shapes the heel of Italy's boot, you will find incredible natural beauty, a mostly rocky coastline with intermittent sandy beach coves, incredibly clear water and many sea caves. One of the most majestic and compelling is the Grotte della Poesia (Caves of Poetry) in the small town of Roca, a 100 foot wide sinkhole at the edge of the sea.
Roca is positioned in between San Foca and Torre dell'Orso about 35 miles south of Brindisi. Both San Foca and Toree Dell'Orso have several large beach resorts and are very crowded, especially in the month of August when Italians flock to the Salento for their summer holiday. But if you look past the rows of umbrellas, cabanas and beach chairs, you'll find both nature and ancient history here.
Grotte della Poesia is said to have been a favorite swimming spot for an ancient princess, the sight of her swimming there inspired poets--thus the name Caves of Poetry. But visitors nowadays come mainly to take leaps from its 15' cliffs into the clear waters, to scuba dive, swim from the sinkhole through an underground sea cave and back out to the sea. You can even rent a boat from nearby San Foca to get up close and personal to all the cliffs and grottoes in the area.
Voyagers also come for the archeological sites along the coastline. On the north side of the cove adjacent to the Grotte, you will find the archaeological site of Roca Vecchia, which is similar to Egnazia--an ancient town right at the edge of the sea. There is evidence of humans living here since the Bronze Age, along with the remains of massive walls from the 4th century BC, all the way up to structures and medieval walls dated to the fourteenth century AD. The site was used almost exclusively for the purpose of worship before the construction of the city itself. Rare inscriptions, animal sacrifices and other inscriptions have been found in a smaller sinkhole next to Grottta della Poesia with the name Little Poetry. You can wander through the old walls of the past and then head over to the Grotte for a swim and lots of sun.
If you enjoy beach resorts, there are plenty to choose from, otherwise you can rent a bare boat charter for visiting the area, or rent an apartment or hotel room in either nearby San Foca or Torre Dell'Orso, the former being a well-equipped port town with shops, restaurants and markets. Or stay in or near Lecce as your hub... often considered to be the "Florence of the South" with it's 17th century baroque architecture.
In any event, taking the time to discover the rugged, natural coastline of the Salento will give you the experience of a lifetime...
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Well away from the throngs of tourists in other parts of Italy, the tiny double island of Gaiola just west of Naples is abandoned and ghostly. There are many legends about the place being cursed. In the early 1800s, the island was inhabited by a local hermit who everyone knew only as "Il Mago" (the Wizard). As most hermits, he lived a troubled, lonely life, existing on handouts of fish from local fishermen. Without warning, he mysteriously disappeared. It's not known if he cursed the island, but many unfortunate things came to pass for people who lived on the island or owned the island. There is a small villa on one of the islets that has been occupied by many different types of people: A famous author, a Swiss businessman, a German investor, a pharmaceutical magnate, a steel baron, the Head of Fiat, billionaire J. Paul Getty, and an insurance company CEO. All met with strange fates either while on the island or shortly after purchasing it. Here's just a few of the cursed events:
For for SCUBA divers and and snorkelers alike, Gaiola is a wonderful haven. They are a part of the Gaiola Underwater park, a 100 acre marine preserve meant to protect the diverse marine ecosystem here as well as ancient underwater Roman ruins. Underwater ruins are scattered around the crystal clear waters. Some of the marine creatures here are found nowhere else on Earth. Consider the excitement of snorkeling among the underwater ruins of an ancient Roman temple.
Gaiola was originally known to the Romans as Euplea, which was the protector of safe navigation, and was home to a temple erected to honor the goddess Venus. Other Roman ruins are also found here... just under the surface of the sea are the ruins of an ancient Roman harbor. If you look at Gaiola from space via Google Earth, you can easily see the outlines of ancient structures. There is also a legend that claims the poet and wizard, Virgil, taught his students on the island. Perhaps their incantations and poetry can still be felt and heard in the crashing of the waves and sounds of the winds...
Then one night driving back to our Cosona agriturismo in the dark of night, my headlights came upon a heard of sheep huddled near the roadside. I stopped to take a photo and out of the darkness we heard growling and barking from two sheep dogs. They were the white fluffy type--which are raised with the sheep as puppies. They think they ARE sheep, and do anything to protect their flock. Again, no shepherd, just the dogs doing their job.
Most dogs in Italy are just pets. City dogs are usually tiny and leashed or carried. Many are cute. Lucas had a great time getting to know some of them. One of his favorites are the pugs we met in Matera we call the "Twins", although the owner said they weren't related. I imagine their real names are Francesco and Marcos. They look very Italian with their old man, social club, people-watching persona.
In towns and cities you see many small lap dogs--small like everything else in Italy, perhaps due to the small apartments and homes. These dogs have personalities similar to the owners--some vibrant, others sweet and lazy, a few fat, all have an eye out for trouble, many are stubborn but all with those deep, passionate Italian eyes--like Giancarlo Gianinni has.
However, I did see few owners of incredibly cute fluffy dogs treat them badly--smacking, hitting and even kicking to stop bad behavior. (Dog Whisperer where are you?) There was one "lady"--a mom--we saw in Vinci while having gelati... she was gabbing to her friend as she was walking and tripped over her little white dog, threw a fit and smacked him for tripping her! Even her kids had that same tail-between-their-legs look about them. Some people!
In Italy dogs are pretty much allowed everywhere--even in cafes and restaurants. There are some rules, although I don't think anyone cares about rules for dogs. For example, many towns have some pretty serious dog poop problems. I stepped in dog poop a few times, Lisa only once, but Lucas was luckier--few people seem to pick up after their pets. I've read that in cash strapped Naples, one new scheme for drumming up money is to start keeping a DNA database of dogs and then testing DNA in dog poop so they can hit owners up for fines as high as 700 bucks! No kidding. (Check it out here.) If they can't get the city workers to pick up the garbage, how are they going to get anyone to pick up after their dogs? People don't care because the government allows their city to remain filthy. And how many poop DNA inspectors would they need to hire? How are they going to get DNA samples of each and every one of the estimated 80,000 dogs pooping on the streets of Naples? How about trying to stop the humans in Naples from peeing on the streets? That would be progress indeed!
Dog houses. I didn't see any like we have in the States, but I did see masonry ones. A dog has a nice life when he has fancy villa style digs in the courtyard of a villa or castle. It might be cold inside, but then again, this is Italy where a cool floor might help a dog get by during the Dog Days of October...
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Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
We all have bucket lists. Some are very long, containing a list of odd, exotic or strange things, many of which we'll never get a chance to do--sad, but probably true. Some of my bucket list items I've already done:
I found a great lady to share my life, a fantastic, sweet son, too. I've scuba dived with colorful fish, shark and barracuda. I've been to see the Glacier up near Mont Blanc. I've seen fireworks on Bastille Day in Normandy and Fireworks from the harbor in Manhattan. I've driven all sorts of cars, motorcycles and boats--including a vintage 60 foot tugboat. I've jet skied under the George Washington bridge. I've learned how to make the world's best pizza at home. (Lucas tells me so.) I've also done some of my bucket list items in Italy: drove the Amalfi Coast, hot-air ballooned over Tuscany, I've blessed myself in the waters of Molfetta where my father was born. I missed a few too... just not enough time to rent a boat in Amalfi, didn't get to see the David in Florence. There are many things that would be great to include on a bucket list for Italy. I thought it would be fun to explore some ideas...
I hope you will be as lucky as I have in doing just a few of the things on this list... Make your own list and then set about trying to get them all done, and I highly recommend making Italy a part of the things in your bucket...
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The first time anyone travels to Italy, there are always a list of "must sees" that they try to squeeze into the limited time of their voyage. Especially when you're traveling as a family, you try to satisfy everyone's goals and dreams. But there are some things that might be missed due the to tight time constraints of checking in, checking out, train schedules, car rental pickups and drop offs, ad infinitum. So I came up with an idea for a second trip to Italy where one doesn't have to do any "must sees" and try to experience even more of day to day life in Italy. This idea is based on something we totally missed out on during our intensive three weeks Voyaging through Italy--markets. Markets in Italian towns are on very specific days and times. Usually they start early in the morning (especially true for food markets) and often close early. Flea Markets might only be held once a week or month. Authentic antiques markets might be held even less than that--perhaps once a month or season.
We missed market days either because we were in the wrong place, or in the right town on the wrong day. We missed early morning markets because of tight schedules for check out and check in times, and time spent driving from one location to the next. The next time around, we're determined to slow it down a lot, pick fewer "hub" places to stay so we can live the Italian life at a slower pace--while experiencing the wonderful markets.
Here's the plan... Forget tourist hot spots and "must sees" and shop where the locals shop for food (planning lots of picnics and cooking back at your apartment's kitchen). Plan your agenda on where you will buy food, fish, clothes or antiques. Book an apartment in a central hub location so that you can journey out to this town and that on market days.... hunting for the best cheese, fruit, sausages, leather bags, hand crafted fabrics, lace and more. Find a genuine antique to bring back home. So, decide on what markets you'd like to experience, book a flight and an apartment and gas up that rental car...
Here are some options of various types of markets all over Italy... Enjoy your shopping!
Naviglio Grande Canal Antiquties Market, Milano
In Milan, you can enjoy a fantastic antiques market right on the banks of the Naviglio Grande Canal. Stalls offer furniture, porcelain, books, jewelry, paintings and prints and spans nearly a mile from Viale Gorizia to the bridge on Via Valenza. The market is open on the last Sunday of each month with many bars, shops, restaurants and numerous art galleries in addition to the vendors.
Piazza dei Ciompi Flea Market, Florence
Open daily from 9am to 7pm this is considered Florence's best flea market. It really gets busy on the last Sunday of the month its 100 extra stalls also overflow into the streets around. There's the usual eclectic mix that makes flea market shopping so addictive!
Campo dei Fiori Market, Rome
Campo dei Fiori translates as Field of Flowers, and in fact, there is a large contingent of vendors that sell wonderful flowers here. But primarily, this is a food market. It's a stunning piazza in the heart of Rome not far from the Pantheon with a gruesome past--public executions were held here. Though filled with tourists in the high season, the market is also frequented by locals. By night, it transforms into a great place to have dinner in one of its many outdoor ristoranti. And if you're staying in Rome, you can walk to this and many other types of markets... and not have to pay for gas.
Mercato Nuovo, Florence
The Mercata Nuovo was named the "New" market when it was built, around the middle of the 16th century in the heart of the city, just a few steps from the Ponte Vecchio. Initially, it was intended for the sale of silk and luxury goods and then for the famous straw hats, but today mainly leather goods and souvenirs are sold. In the corner niches, statues of famous Florentines were installed during the 18 century. The focal point of the loggia is the Fontana del Porcellino--fountain of the piglet. What you see is actually a copy of the original bronze wild boar by Pietro Tacca from the sixteenth century marble. The original marble of the Porcellino can be found at Palazzo Pitti. Popular tradition has it that rubbing the nose brings fortune, so over time, the piggy's nose has developed quite a polish. Visitors are encouraged to place a coin in the mouth of the boar after rubbing its nose, and superstition implies that the wish will be granted if the offering tumbles through the grate where the water flows. The slope of the grate is such that most coins do fall through, and are collected by the city.
Lungo il Tevere festival, Rome
Not exactly a market, per se, but in the summer, the Lungo il Tevere festival runs from mid-June through the end of August and features vendors, restaurants, music, and bars in festive tents lining the river walk on the Trastevere side of the river. It’s the place to be, often until the wee hours of the morning.
Porta Portese, Rome
In the work-a-day Trastevere neighborhood, this is probably the most famous flea market in Rome It stretches from Piazzale Portuense to Viale Trestevere and is held on Sundays from 6.30am to 2pm. Bargaining will get you anything from 10 to 30 % off, so give it a go. You'll find everything here, including a lot of junk, but keep your eyes peeled and you may come home with a treasure.
Mercato Orientale, Genoa
At the Mercato Orientale (Eastern Market) of Genoa you can find everything from tripe to baked goods and fresh pasta, plus textiles, fruits, vegetables, household goods and footwear. It is a true gathering place, crowded by the locals, where they purchase traditional products, local foods, and specialties from different cultures.A visit here is an authentic experience and not to be missed if you are into local color color, flavors and scents.
Molfetta Fish Market, Molfetta (Bari)
When you visit an old world palatial fish market building like the one just off the harbor in the port town of Molfetta, you realize that we Americans are very fussy in our fish preferences. While the average U.S. supermarket has perhaps 4-6 types of fish, some shrimp and clams, Italians enjoy a much wider variety of sea food. We like to buy our fish in little plastic trays, trimmed and cleaned for us by someone we might not ever see. This market is a lively place--and not just the shouting fish vendors--but the fish themselves... the marble display slabs are brimming with fish so fresh that most are still alive and flapping about, shrimp's tentacles feel about, sea urchin's spines move and octopus try to crawl away. If you can get past the magnificent smell of the place (our boy Lucas objected), this is an experience you won't want to miss. (Read A Blessing in Molfetta's Waters)
La Vucciria Market, Palermo
La Vucciria is a Palermo's colorful, exotic market . If you leave Piazza Marina with the sea behind you you'll reach Corso Vittorio Emanuele, just before Via Maqueda on the right you should see, hear and smell the market. The colors, flavors and voices of Palermo come together and vendors will try strongly to entice you to buy their offerings, from freshly caught fish to unusual vegetables and amazing spices. Food stalls sell an array of sandwiches--panelle, chickpea fritters, aubergines, octopus - you name it. There are places to sit and have a meal too... and as you sit overlooking the market you'll think you're in the middle of Shanghai or Casablanca instead of Sicily.
Porta Palazzo, Turino
This market is held every day in Piazza della Repubblica in Turin, very close to the Porte Palatine and the Duomo. If you want to fully enjoy the market of Porta Palazzo, Saturday is the day to go--the busiest day, but also because every Saturday just behind the market there is a flea market, where you could find old records, antiques, postcards, vintage clothing, glassware, ceramics and more. The main market is very mixed: fruit and vegetables, household goods, butchers, fish, cheese, sausage, shoes, clothing and spices. This market is huge (one of Europe's largest), but it's also one of the more multi-ethnic markets affording more exotic offerings in addition to the more traditional Italian produce.
Piazza del Ferrarese, Bari (Puglia)
Piazza del Ferrarese, named after a Ferrara merchant who lived here in the 17th century, provides an elegant entrance to the old town. On your left are the rounded arches of Sala Murat which holds contemporary art exhibitions, and on your right is the old indoor fish market. The piazza is lined with bars and cafés, an old section of roman road roped off in the middle. On certain days there are food vendors under tents. To the north it merges into Piazza Mercantile. But for the authentic experience, walk a block or so south along the waterfront and you'll come across the waterside fish market where the daily catch is sold directly from the fishermen. You'll see a covered structure with concrete tables where the fishermen are supposed to sell their wares, but being furbo, most avoid the fees the city charges for this and sell their catch along the sidewalk just outside the structure.
Piazza Campo del Palio, Asti
This is Piedmont's largest food market held in the Piazza Campo del Palio in Asti. The Campo is also where horse races are held in September. This market is considered a general market with varied products being sold. It is open twice weekly on Wednesdays & Saturdays... clothing, shoes, haberdashery, hardware’s, household items, cheese, meat and bakery stands--and of course, the famous sparking Asti Spumonte wine. Fruit and vegetables in the morning only. You might think about planning a trip in September and take in the Palio race too!
Ballarò Market, Palermo
This is the market where you will find a lot of locals doing their shopping. A Sicilian street market is a cacophony of sights, sounds and scents. Be prepared for the shouting, barking and singing of the vendors pushing their products on you--fruits, vegetables, fish and meats--which can intimidate the uninitiated. The name probably comes from Balhara village, where there were Arab merchants. There is a strong Arabian influence in Sicily. The ambience is heightened by colored tarpaulins suspended as tents to protect the wares from the elements. Ballarò market extends from Piazza Ballarò in the Albergheria district toward the main train station.
Forte Dei Marmi Antique Market, Lucca (Region)
Every second Saturday and Sunday of the month, more than 45 traders from all over Italy travel to Piazza Dante, Forte Dei Marmi to be a part of the monthly antique market. The best of Italy’s antique collectors are the ones who take part in the market. Sculptures, art, collectibles, jewelry, furniture, books and artifacts are some of the items that are available on sale at bargain prices in this market. If antiques are your thing, this is a must visit place for you. In the end, you'll love Lucca as a place to visit. It became one of our favorite towns in all of Italy, and our most favorite in the North.
Forte Dei Marmi Flea Market, Lucca (Region)
Aside from being a busy beach town in the Lucca province, Forte Dei Marmi is a shopper’s paradise. The Forte Dei Marmi flea market opens every Wednesday from 8.00 to 14.30 at Piazza Macroni near the city center. Traders from all over Italy come over to display their wares. Everything under the sun, from crockery to branded designer wear, is available at this flea market for bargain prices. During summers when the tourist inflow increases, this market is open even on Sunday’s. This is the perfect place to shop, as you get the best of Italy.
Mercato di Mezzo, Bologna
The Quadrilatero area of Bologna has a long history of trade guilds since the Middle Ages. The main craft guilds of the city such as goldsmiths, butchers, fishermen, furriers, barbers and the painters, and Salaroli (specialists who salt cure meat) had their headquarters in this area. Most of the guilds located in the street once called Mercato di Mezzo, today known as via Rizzoli, at the beginning of the 20th century also moved in the heart of the Quadrilatero.
Nowadays the Quadrilatero is the historical center area bounded by Piazza Maggiore, via Rizzoli, Piazza della Mercanzia, via Castiglione, via Farini, Piazza Galvani and Via dell’Archiginnasio. Jewelers, butchers, delicatessens, greengrocer’s, bakeries, shops with traditional cuisine and craft activities and other specialized trades are located in these streets. Most of these shops have preserved the historic architecture and furnishings, thus making themselves genuine artistic treasures. From the elegant Piazza Maggiore, the roads lead to the narrow alleys of the old medieval market overflowing with goods on the stands and full of noisy sellers and customers going by.
Porta Nolana Fish Market, Naples
Just a few blocks north of the port in the area around Piazza Nolana, under two towers of the old Aragonese gateway that stood guard over the ancient port entrance to the city, you’ll find Naples' best seafood market. And if you don’t mind crowds, chaos and confusion, this market is not to be missed. The vendors shout and sing about their offerings. Rarely frequented by tourists, Porta Nolana Market is where locals go in search of ingredients for their daily meals--clams, mussels, oysters, shrimp, squid, octopus, sea bass, sword fish, anchovies and sardines. And if you travel here for the Christmas season, you'll find the place inundated with locals buying fish for their Christmas Eve "seven fishes" feast--bacala (salted cod) and eel, for example. All this is the freshest seafood you'll find anywhere. Seafood isn’t all that's here... fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, breads and desserts, and grocery items round out the market’s offerings.
This top quality antiques fair is held annually, in late August and early September, in 17th century Palazzo Vagnotti, Cortona (a mecca for tourists ever since Under the Tuscan Sun hit the shelves), and has been going since 1963, making it Italy's oldest antiques show. Cortonantiquaria is now considered one of the most prestigious fairs in Europe and many dealers visit it, resulting in correspondingly high prices to go with the great number of tourists that flock to this oversold, but beautiful hilltown. The event is usually held between the last week in August through the first week in September. It's best to check for the specific schedule online.
Mercato Centrale, Florence
The Mercato Centrale was an authentic, big city, down and dirty food market before... but after a multimillion dollar renovation, it rivals the overpriced Eatalys around the world. Nowadays it's more of a tourist attraction, where locals go very early in the morning to get their food, and the tourists take over in late morning. They sell amazing things here... cheese, breads, meats, fish, etc.... but the fit and finish of the place caused the priced to go sky high. On the upper floor of this grand old market building, they created a modern, chic, industrial space that holds essentially a modern, chic, "foody" court full of bars, restaurants, pubs and the like. The outside of the market is surrounded by tacking clothing and tourist kitchy stalls. The prices are high, but it might be worth it for the urban foody to look into.
Mercatino dell'Antiquariato, Venice
You'll need to check your dates for this one, as you only get four chances a year, in April, June, mid September and Christmas. The three-day market is home to over 100 stalls with professional vendors selling everything from postcards to pearls and is held in Campo San Maurizio. It's renowned for having genuine antiques and not junk. Large, well organized and rich with treasures, professional dealers from all over Italy come to this market to sell their precious wares. Cheaper than antique shops, it's the place to find genuine antiques, statuary, books, paintings, glassware, ceramics and furnishings. This is the place to shop for an authentic piece of Italian history to bring back home and treasure. Mercatino dell'Antiquariato simply means Antiques Fair, be sure to go to the one in Campo San Maurizio which is the authentic market.
Fiera Antiquaria, Arezzo
Probably the biggest and most famous antiques market in the country is held in Arezzo, Tuscany, on the first weekend of the month. There are usually over 500 stalls spread over the Piazza Grande and the surrounding streets, which are manned (and visited) by people from all over Italy. You can buy everything there, from a pair of palazzo doors to a lace handkerchief. Some things are overpriced and it does get very crowded, especially during the summer, with an estimated average 20,000 visitors, but you may find a bargain and it will certainly be an experience. Arezzo is easy to reach: it is an hour by train from Florence and a couple of hours from Rome. The market is ten minutes from Arezzo Train Station and the square is surrounded by antique shops. If you love antiques, this might be your perfect destination.
Mercato Coperto Santa Scolastica, Bari
This is a recently built market on Viale Geiovanni XXIII that contains a mix of fruits, vegetables, fish, cheeses, breads, clothes, shoes and more. Although a lot of vendors complain about the additional costs incurred when compared to their old market space in another part of the city, there seems to be a growing following for this modern facility. It's in a neighborhood just south of the Bari Centrale rail station, but it is fully under cover and would be a great place to shop on a rainy morning.
Not exactly a traditional Italian Market, Eataly is becoming a worldwide chain of mega Italian food spaces... part market, part food courts... all Italian. There are only two Eataly locations in the States--Chicago and New York. There is another in Istanbul, one in Dubai and also in Japan. But fittingly, I suppose, there are seven Eataly locations in Italy... and Bari has one of the largest right at the waterfront in the old convention center. The space is huge--86,000 square feet! We ate in the Eataly in Manhattan and found it over-marketed... way overpriced, very crowded and hard to locate specific items. There were very long waiting times if you wanted to sit in one of the various places to eat. Still, if you feel like checking our how Eataly looks in Italy, check out the one in Bari just across the harbor from the old city on Lungomare Starita just past the lighthouse... or check out the other Eatalys in Torino, Milano, Roma, Firenze, Genova and Bologna.
I hoped you enjoyed this little tour of the markets of Italy... there are a multitude of possibilities. Most small towns have markets--but only on specific days. All larger towns have many types of markets... some for fish, some for clothes, some for fruits and veggies and others for books, leather, birds or flowers. Here's a LINK for a tool to help you plan your marketing voyage. Plan your trip around a tour of markets, or in the least, when staying in a central hub location, make a list of the markets in the region within driving distance. You'll be living the Italiana Buona Vita for sure...
Ciao e buon viaggio!
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Americans might have a hard time understanding how big a holiday Pasqua (Easter) is to Italians. In the U.S., you might put Christmas as the number one holiday and Thanksgiving in second place. In Italy, Christmas is first and Easter is a very close second. In a way, Italians celebrate Easter in the same way as we celebrate and give thanks on Thanksgiving, except because of the Miracle of Christ that Easter represents, Italians are giving thanks to Jesus for proving the miracle of everlasting life by dying for our sins and being resurrected again. Easter is a time of rebirth and timed perfectly after a long winter.
Easter has been celebrated on a spring Sunday since 325 AD. That is when the Nicean Council decided that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, unless the first full moon also rose on a Sunday, in which case Easter would be celebrated the Sunday after that. Easter Sunday still adheres to these rules.
Easter follows two other major religious time periods in Italy... First there's Carnevale, during which feasting is enjoyed before the second period... Lent (Quaresima in Italian), during which Christians mimic the forty days Christ spent fasting in the desert before suffering His fate on the cross.
As a child, my family observed meatless Fridays but rarely gave up meat during Lent, but in the old days, Catholics were expected to give up far more during Lent: meat, eggs, milk and even fats. This is the reason why many consider the Tuesday before the commencement of Lent as "Fat Tuesday" or Martedì Grasso. People would have one last blast, eating pretty much everything they could that was on the banned list, before the more lean days of lent.
During Lent there is the Italian Version of Father's Day, la Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19th. Then one week before Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday, there is Palm Sunday, which Italians celebrate with the blessing of olive branches and palm leaves in church, celebrating Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. Priests in Italy knock three times on the church door to symbolize Christ entering. During Lent, many also ask their local priest to bless their homes.
Right before Easter Sunday is Holy Thursday, celebrated as la Missa in Cena Domini (the Mass of the Last Supper), during which the priest washes the feet of twelve members of the congregation to represent His Apostles.
Next is Holy Friday when Jesus died on the cross, a big deal in the Catholic faith, but an even bigger deal in Italy. Every church has an afternoon mass (bells ring at 3pm) where there is typically a reenactment of the Passion of Christ is celebrated, complete with costumed people and Jesus carrying a large cross. On TV, the Passion is watched from people's homes.
Right before Easter is Holy Saturday when a solemn mass is held without music or singing and late in the evening there is la Veglia di Pasqua (the Easter Vigil), one of the holiest times for Catholics... waiting for Jesus to rise again.
Then of course on Sunday is Pasqua itself, with high masses held in every church throughout Italy. Most cities and villages have special festivals and celebrations, such as the Scoppio del Carro in Florence--the centerpiece of the celebration is towering cart with fireworks which has been displaying smoke and fire for three centuries.
The Monday following Easter is known as Pasquetta (little Easter) which is also a national holiday when people stay home from work and spend the day with their families and friends. One of the more entertaining events held on Pasquetta is the Palio dell'Uovo (Egg Races) in the town of Tredozio, in Emilia-Romagna. Attendees dress in medieval costumes and have all sorts of competitions involving eggs... throwing, balancing, eating, etc. It's a colorful way to start the spring season.
In the Sicilian town of Pietraperzia, thousands celebrate on Good Friday with the celebration called U Signuri di li fasci (Lord of the bands), when families tie large white ribbons onto a central large crucifix in the piazza, looking like a huge Maypole. This ritual has gone on since the year 12th century for each family in the town to make a solemn pledge of loyalty to Christ.
On Easter Sunday in the Lombardy town of Bormio, the have an ancient folk festival called Il Pasquali with a procession of shepherds and shepherdesses dressed in traditional garb, along with a parade floats with various historical, religious and modern themes.
And yes, Easter Eggs do lay a big part of the Easter celebrations in Italy. The Latin phrase "Omne vivum ex ovo" is very fitting for this special time of year. Translated it means, "All life comes from the egg." A great representation of the everlasting life and rebirth that Christ promised, and the new life all around Italy during the emerging Spring. Originally during Lent, hard boiled eggs were used to make eggs last longer as one of the few sources of protein during the long fasting season. In times past, they were dyed red on Good Friday to represent Christ's blood. Nowadays, besides ceramic decorative eggs and multicolored dyed eggs, the most popular trend is to give chocolate eggs as presents during the Easter season.
Ever since the Greeks and Romans ruled Italy, they have built monuments that have lasted for several millennia--many using concrete. Concrete type materials were used by humans for over 6500 years in Syria and Jordan. Hydraulic lime with cementing qualities were in use by 700BC. The ancient Romans discovered that adding volcanic ash to the mix allowed it to set underwater. In Rome, the huge domed ceiling of the Pantheon is made entirely of unsupported concrete. Romans added hair to prevent cracking and blood to make it frost resistant (hopefully, not human!) It should be no surprise that Italians are still using concrete, often in unusual ways...
One example of this can be see from space on Google Earth: The Cretto de Gibellina (the Crack of Gibellina) in central Sicily. Also known as Cretto di Burri (Crack of Burri), named after Alberto Burri, the artist who created it, it is a half mile square work in concrete which resembles the cracking that appears in dried river mud. It was installed at the original site of Gibellina, a village that was completely destroyed by a 1968 earthquake. It looks as if the artist meant the cracks to represent the cracks in the earth and the lives of the people of Gibellina. In actuality, Burri covered the actual footprint of the buildings in the original town, while leaving the streets as pathways throughout the concrete. (The town of Gibbellina was relocated and christened Nuova Gibellina 20 kilometers away.) Being truly a monument to the town and the 1150 lives that were lost, the concrete installation actually contains the building rubble including furniture, utensils, and toys. Walking the "streets" visitors feel the emotions of the loss.
This unusual piece of modern art is worth the visit, as are many so-called ghost towns throughout Italy that have been abandoned after being destroyed by earthquakes. There are often recitals, other artists' installations, dance performances as well as the ruins of village buildings painted by other artists. It's like walking into a futuristic, post-apocalyptic film like Mad Max.
The work was left unfinished after Burri ran out of funds in 1989, but in 2015, to honor what would have been Burri's 100th birthday, funding was found and his work was completed... made obvious by the much whiter colored concrete in one corner of the site.