One of the highlights of our Voyage throughout Italy was our hot air ballooning adventure, flying over the Tuscan hillside with wisps of smoke filling the air from the burning of vine prunings down below. This flight was memorable not only for the beautiful scenery, but for the pilot that took us up into the Italian skies... Stefano Travaglia.
Sadly, this Mago dell'Aria, a master pilot of ballooning, took his last flight this week on September 14th from his Barberino Taverelle home in Tuscany. As a mutual friend tells it, his wife Gianna said he had planned to work in his garden that morning, but she returned to discover that her dear Stefano had passed away gently in his sleep.
Many knew Stefano. The people of his rural part of the Tuscan and Chianti regions knew him as a neighbor and friend. Always conscious of not disturbing his neighbors' fields or crops when landing, Stefano was quick to offer a bottle of Prosecco to farmers when he landed in their fields. He rarely imparted any damage to these fields, being such a masterful pilot, typically landing his balloon exactly where he wanted it, while not harming crops or other property. (I can attest to this... he landed our balloon after pointing out the landing spot from over a thousand feet above, reminding me of a major league baseball player pointing to the path of his home run).
Thousands upon thousands around the world also knew him as "their" balloon pilot as he helped them discover a peaceful, childlike joy, flying them above vineyards, olive groves, villas or even the medieval towers of San Gimignano. Because he wanted to afford as many people as possible to fly silently through the air, he was the first balloonist in Italy to have a handicapped accessible basket.
Those in the aeronautic and ballooning world knew him for his skills as a pilot. After doing a stint in Manhattan as a commercial photographer, he returned to Italy and began a career with airplanes, but his interests soon turned to lighter than air flight after training with world renowned British balloonists. Today, there are many Italian hot air balloon pilots offering flights throughout Italy who Stefano personally trained. In fact, he and Gianna founded the Association Aerostatics Tuscany.
Stefano was inspired by the first balloon flights of Montgolfier brothers from France in 1783. In fact, the Italian word for hot air balloon is mongolfiera. Second only to France, Italy also became a country with colorful balloons floating over its magnificent landscape. One early Italian ballooning passenger recalled after his flight, "Rome looked like a field which had been seeded with white flakes of plaster, while the Tiber seemed to be a very fine thread”. Stefano witnessed similar reactions to his many adventurers.
Fly your highest in your last flight, Maestro del Cielo. The flight this time must be wonderful.
Our family offers hugs and prayers to Gianna, family and friends. Stefano's memory lives on. Be certain of it.
--Jerry, Lisa and Lucas Finzi
For many years, you couldn't visit. Then you could. Then you couldn't. Then you could again, but only by making an appointment way in advance.
There was a time this magical place was going to ruin, with no one looking over it--caring for it. Then there was a group of volunteers who tried their best to look after its beauty. Then the place was put up for sale and bought, with an uncertain future again... Will the public ever be able to share in this amazing piece of architecture?
Of course, we're talking about Castello di Sammezzano, the Moorish Revival palazzo in Leccio, a 45 minute drive from Florence and not too far from the local Mall Firenze.
The foundations of Sammezzano date back to the Romans and in the middle ages it was a defensive fortress--its most famous visitor being Charlemagne. Later on, its owners included such noble families as the Gaultierotti, the Altoviti and even the Medici.
Around 1600, it was bought by the Portuguese nobleman Sebastiano Ximenes of Aragon and remained in the family until 1816, when it passed into the Panciatichi family via the wife of the last Ximenes d’Aragona.
Two generations later, it became the property of the man who changed its destiny: the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragona.
Between 1842 and 1890, Ferdinando completely reshaped a medieval castle into an Orientalist palace in line with the fashion of the time, particularly in Florence. The result is a stunning mix of the Moorish with the Byzantine, the Indian with the Chinese. Using entirely local craftsmen, he had all the bricks, tiles and friezes made under his supervision on site.
It's almost inconceivable that this palazzo has 365 rooms--one for every day of the year--each with its own name and unique style and decor. The more famous rooms are the Peacock Room with colorful geometric design, the White Room with its Moroccan mosaic tiled floors, the Hall or Mirrors and the octagon Smoking Room.
In the Great White Rotunda there is a glass dome surrounded by a balcony, and the shields that adorn the base of the dome bear inscriptions: Fortitudo, Elementia, Temperantia, Pax, Prudentia, Justitia, and Libertas. There is even a small chapel in the palazzo.
It would seem that the Marquis used just about every type of architectural element to enhance his creation: hidden niches, corners, friezes, windows, columns, labyrinths, capitals, arches, vaults and domes.
Above an archway are the words "Non Plus Ultra", in Latin meaning "no more beyond", a saying that is said to have been inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules (nowadays known as the Strait of Gibralter), in part as a warning to sailors not to travel beyond the edge of the known world. Some think that the Marquis meant to take his visitors beyond the beauty of the known world when they entered his home.
But perhaps, the meaning of a Latin phrase should be thought of in the way the ancient Romans used it, in this case, the highest level that could be attained or the the highest degree of a quality. This is, after all, what becomes evident to any visitor to Sammezzano. The quality of al the details are absolutely astounding. The beauty of the palazzo was even enough to entice Umberto I, King of Italy into visiting Ximenes at Sammezzano in 1878.
After the Second World War Sammezzano became a luxury hotel with apartments, spa, golf and country club until it closed in 1990. In 1999 it was bought by a British investor in 1999, and some stabilization restoration work was done. It has since been abandoned and closed to the public.
In April 2012 a local non-profit committee called FPXA 1813-2013 (an acronym for Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragon) was formed to attempt to restore and preserve the palazzo. Then came the auctions... three of them to date.
Movimento Save Sammezzano was a group dedicated to finding an owner who would restore and honor the castle. Appreciating the architecture and uniqueness, in 2018 a Dubai-based company placed an offer of $18.1 million on the third auction and is the current owner.
Considering the recent purchase, it is unsure if the Comitato FPXA is going to continue tours. In case they are still arranging tours, contact firstname.lastname@example.org (or join the Facebook page Sammezzano – Comitato FPXA). The Committee typically would organize several visits each year, which sell out almost immediately. www.sammezzano.org.
Otherwise, do as the locals do and hike the many trails and dirt roads that surround the castle. You will see many of the giant sequoias along the eastern slope of the castle. Just be respectful and don't try to enter the castle itself unless you have joined an authorized tour group.
Two of the trails leading to the Sammezzano
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 either lived on 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:
The two twin islets are only about 100 feet from the amazingly rugged and beautiful coast of the Capo di Posillipo. Their main attraction is that they are akin to the original Siamese twins, joined by a narrow stone bridge that runs between them. In Italian, their name is Isola La Gaiola, which uses a variant of the local dialect word for cave (caviola), referring to the many small caves and grottoes are seemingly everywhere along this part of the coast.
Area Marina Protetta Parco Sommerso di Gaiola
For for SCUBA divers and and snorkelers alike, the waters surrounding Gaiola is a wonderful haven. They are a part of the Gaiola Protected Marine 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.
If driving, you can reach the Park by driving down the Discesa Gaiola road, where you will find a car park on the left, followed by a short walk to the site. But be aware that in recent years, local police have placed a ban on vehicular traffic, from 7am to 7pm. You may also park up the hill on Via Tito Lucrezio Caro (there is a parking meter for tickets) and walk down the hill (15 minutes). And don't forget to check out the neighboring Archeological Park of Pausilypon.
Descent Gaiola (Cliff S.Basilio Cala), 80123 - Napoli
Tel / Fax: 0812403235
from 1 to 31 October: daily except Monday at 10.00 to 14.00
from November 1st to March 31st: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10.00 to 14.00
from April 1 to 30 September:
every day except Monday at 10.00 to 16.00
Tucked into the pristine landscape of oak and beech trees, streams, meadows and stands of forest is the medieval village of Fiumalbo in the Italian region Emilia-Romagna. It is located about 70 kilometres southwest of Bologna and about 60 kilometres southwest of Modena. Fiumalbo's name evolves from the Latin, flumen album (White River), with reference to the pristine waters of the two rivers that surround the village. The area surrounding the village is dotted with ancient Celtic stone huts, medieval places of worship and the most significant draw to the area, its Natural environment.
A dense network of well-marked trails follow old donkey paths once traveled by shepherds and pilgrims can be traveled on foot, horseback or mountain bike. In addition, the proximity of modern ski resorts is a real bonus in winter. The streams are a destination for fly fishermen. In the vicinity, the nearly 40,000 acre Frignano Park sets the tone with its impressive natural beauty.
The little borgho even has the credentials to prove their beauty, being a member of the Borghi più belli d’Italia association and having been awarded the Italian Touring Club Orange Flag status.
Pistoia is just 7 miles or so over the Abetone pass, helping to unify the 1200 or so borghi. The common local dialect, due to the proximity of the border of Liguria and Tuscany, also helps knit together many of the local customs. The highest peaks of the Modena Apennines are here: Mount Cimone (2165 m) on one side and Mount Lagoni (1962 m) on the other.
The spirit of the Celts are here, too. Not only in the forests, but on the houses of the region... Strange and mysterious, carved stone faces called marcolfe (mummies) are found throughout the region. The symbol of the wolf and talismans of Celtic culture supposedly ward off the malocchio (evil eye).
Celts came to Italy in the fourth century BC and left their mark in the region, evidenced by the Celtic stone huts similar to those found in Ireland and Scotland. Some examples--a few with rye grass roofs--can be found in the village of Valdare and along the road from Fiumalbo to the foot of Mount Cimone.
The cuisine of the region is a mix of both Emilia and Tuscany with tortellone filled with ricotta, black cabbage soup, and a traditional sliced beef dish. Borlenghi, a paper thin crepe similar to carasau from Sardinia, is another traditional dish, stuffed with bacon and salami. Then there is tigelle, a stamped bread embossed with a Celtic rose, indicating its origin.
Main courses feature what comes from the forest--mushrooms and game, accompanied by polenta. Their prideful dessert is the Croccante, invented in Fiumalbo, including natural ingredients such as chestnut honey, white almonds, sugar and caramel.
So, tear up your Must See List for Italy and visit one of Italy's small towns... there is a lot to do here:
Fiaccolata di Carnevale
February: on the night before Ash Wednesday, there is a parade through the village with people carrying birch torches, even torches lighting the stream. The flames signify giving up the coldness and hardships of winter and looking forward toa fruitful spring and summer.
Infiorata del Corpus Domini
Flower Festival on the the Sunday of the Corpus Domini procession through the streets with large, intricate floral carpets created by the inhabitants.
Fiera di Luglio
A sagre (food festival) on the second Sunday of July: food stands and stalls selling local produce, cheese, wine, etc.
Festa di San Bartolomeo
August 23: Feast of St. Bartholomew, the patron saint of the village. The village is illuminated with torches, torches, candles, and even candles lighting of the stream. A saint is accompanied in procession by the brotherhoods of the Whites and the Reds, wearing traditional costumes and carry ancient banners. The festival ends with fireworks.
A living nativity, December 24, biennial. People are dressed in the clothes of their ancestors, carrying out traditional crafts. The highpoint is the Wise Men on horseback following a path lit by torches that winds through the old town and leading to the Nativity scene and the Christ child.
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Calascio is a small village and "Rocca" (fortress) in the province of L'Aquila, in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. It is located in the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park.
The earliest village on this site was of Norman origin since the 9th century AD. From the year 1000 onward, it came under control of the Barony of Carapelle (14th century), the Piccolomini family (15th century) and then to the Medici family (16th century), each in succession adding to and enlarging the massive fortress on the rocca above the village.
Rocca Calascio, situated at 4800 feet in elevation, lies in an imposing landscape and is one of the most interesting military-defensive structures of its type. It is the highest and one of the oldest fortresses in Italy and affords amazingly dramatic photography, especially at sunrise and sunset. In fact, even Hollywood has been here before--as example--for the filming of Lady Hawke.
The fortress dominates the southern side of the Gran Sasso mountain range. It has all the characteristic features of a medieval watchtower. The tower would have been transformed into the current Rocca during the 15th century.
At first, there was only a single watchtower for military purposes. There is a walled courtyard with four cylindrical towers at the corners. A taller inner tower was added in the thirteenth century that collapsed during an earthquake centuries ago. The central tower was never rebuilt and today only the exterior walls remain. Curiously, during the time of the Medici, it was used to guard the paths used to move the royal flocks of sheep to their pastures.
Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso
e Monti della Laga
The real draw to this part of Abruzzo is the surrounding natural landscape with amazing biodiversity... flora, fauna, waterfalls and gorges. Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park covers an area of 580 square miles and is one of the largest parks in Italy. It offers skiing, trekking, mountain biking, horseback riding, mountain climbing, paragliding and more. In addition, from June through October there are over 200 festivals and sagre (food festivals), so your culinary and cultural apetite will surely be satisfied.
The Park consists of three mountain groups: Gran Sasso d'Italia chain, Laga massif, and Gemelli Mountains. The Park is also characterized by the presence of the highest peak of the Apennines, Corno Grande at nearly 10,00 feet tall. The most southern glacier in Europe is located here too--the Calderone. Trekkers might be surprised by the prescence of the Osservatorio di Campo Imperatore, a telescopic observatory high up on a mountaintop along with its own botanical garden. In the town of Fonte Cerreto, there is a large funivia (cable car) to take you up to the top of the mountain.
Bottom line... if you love mountains, nature and back country activities, a visit to the Park and Calascio will be a great alternative to the "must see" tourist site in Italy.
Palmanova is located in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeastern Italy, about 70 miles east of Venice. The town is protected inside its massive star-shaped fortress walls, a wonderful example of this type of the Late Renaissance fortressa built by the Venetian Republic in 1593. The fortifications were included in UNESCO's World Heritage Site list in 2017.
The unique thing about Palmanova is that the entire town and expansive piazza was designed and built within the shape of a nine-pointed star fortress, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi. Between the points of the star, ramparts protrude so that the points could defend each other from attacking forces.
A moat surrounded the town with three large, guarded entry gates. The construction of the first circle, with a total circumference of 4 miles, took 30 years. A second phase of construction took place between 1658 and 1690, and the outer line of fortifications were completed between 1806 and 1813 under the Napoleonic domination. The final fortress consists of: 9 ravelins, 9 bastions, 9 lunettes, and 18 cavaliers.
Since Palmanova was built during the Renaissance, its design fit in extremely well with Thomas More's social philosophy of a Utopian society. The Utopian concept requires geometrical harmony in the design public spaces, supposing that if the living space was protected from harm, plus offered esthetic beauty, comfortable public and residential spaces, and a pleasant place to live, its citizenry will be healthy, successful and content. Think of it as being the Renaissance's idea of Feng Shui.
Each road and street were carefully calibrated and each part of the plan had a reason for being. Each person would have the same amount of responsibility, living or working space, and each person had to serve a specific and balanced purpose. Even the fortifications were built with the Utopian concept in mind, with the outer ramparts looking simply like a forest as the town was approached, essentially hiding the town from potential enemies. This effect is still evident today in stark contrast to the very visible hill towns common in most other regions of Italy.
Although Palmanova was praised as one of the most successful Renaissance planned towns, at first regardless of its elegant and rational layout, almost nobody moved to the town. Venice was forced to pardon criminals, offering them free building lots just to help populate the town. Still today, even though Palmanova is a pristine, well laid out town, to visitors it has a totally different feel than most Italian towns, which evolved gradually, in a hodgepodge manner with varied building styles, sizes, colors and textures. This town definitely looks like it was designed and built almost like a modern development... all the buildings are similar style, similar height and the streets are laid out in mathematical precision. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) types will feel right at home here.
Still, today Palmanova is a wonderful place to visit, its Piazza Centrale being the perfect place to host many sagre and festivals. Visit in July and you can enjoy an historical re-enactment which takes places on the day of the Festival of the Redeemer. Tourists can enjoy guided visits to the fort and experience the Venetian cuisine of the 15th century.
There is also the Museo Storico Militare (Military History Museum) with an amazing array of exhibits of Renaissance and Napoleonic era weapons and technology. You can enjoy cycling around the bastions in warmer months. The Duomo Dogale (formerly the Duke's palazzo) is a wonderful cathedral to visit during the Christmas season if only to enjoy the wonderful display of presepe (nativity scenes).
Just two miles from town is the train station Scalo Ferroviario. Venice is about 90 minutes away by car on the A4. Trieste is less than an hour east via the A4. The beach town of Grado is only 30 minutes by car and itself can be a great place to stay, keeping Palmanova on your itinerary as a day trip.
From our contributor, Anthony J. DiLaura
A lesser known and less frequently touristy region of Italy is that of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
It is bordered by Austria and the Dolomite mountains, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea. The Capital City is Trieste and the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is populated by 1.2 million inhabitants, characterized by the spectacular beauty of its snow capped mountains to the North, its verdant valleys and pastures, mountain sloped vineyards and deep blue waters of the Adriatic.
The region, although part of Italy, is one of five autonomous regions with special statute. The regional capital is Trieste. The city of Venice (Venezia) is not in this region, despite the name. Friuli-Venezia Giulia has a rich ethnicity of Austrian and Slavic origin, reflected in the language spoken there and the amazing cuisine found in the local eateries. I had the pleasure of visiting there a few years ago traveling from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Venice.
Things to Do in Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Friuli Venezia Giulia Trekking Guide
Prosciutto di San Daniele Tours in Udine
Frulian Wine Tours
Ancient Roman Archeological Site at Aquileia
Grotta Gigante, the Largest Cave on Earth
Alpine Bob Coaster in Tarvisio
Gorizzia Castle and its Musical Instrument Museum
Cross-Border Skiing and Snowboarding
Starting a new tradition to celebrate the holiday season in 2018, the town of Itri in Lazio hosts Notte di Luce, illuminates its historic center with over 22,000 glass jars with candles. The lights are artistically designed by scores of volunteers in magical and surprising ways, turning the village into a glorious flickering wonderland. It's amazing that the candles all get lit within a short period of time at the beginning of this wonderful evening. The luminaries are hung on windows, doors, over streets, on facades of buildings and even on the steps and stones visitors walk upon.
If you want to enjoy the holiday festivities of small-town Italy, Itri might be just the place to be. This is certain to be a tradition that continues for years.
City of Itri Tel: -07717321
Web Site: comune.itri.lt.it
Italians love their presepe (nativity scenes). They buy them, they collect figures, they even make them from scratch and compete in their local competitions. And no where do they celebrate and promote the presepio as much as on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples. In fact, it's an all-year-round thing, so if you visit Naples in the summer, plan ahead and buy a presepe and some figures for next Christmas. If not, try visiting when the shops are gearing up for the holiday rush and putting out their newest creations during September or October.
This street is packed full with shops selling artistic Italian style nativity figures and structures on which to display them. Many of these are actually wonderful examples of artistic talent, a craft passed on from generation to generation. Visitors can even watch how they are made in the workshops and studios--hands, feet and heads in terracotta, and clothing from fabrics or cartapesta (Papier-mâché). Still other craftsmen create all manner of structures like barns, villas, temples or entire villages out of plaster and paint.
In recent years, presepe figures have been made to mimic popular culture. You'll find not only the Pope, but soccer players, movie stars, politicians and recording artists.
Nearly 2500 feet above the boundary of the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas is the ancient town of Erice with its two castles, Torretta Pepoli and Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus). The mountain-top town has amazing views overlooking the city of Trapani, at the northern tip of the western coast of Sicily. A cable car joins the upper and lower parts of the beautiful town and with belvedere views from every corner of the town, it's well worth the trip.
In the northeastern portion of the city there are the remains of ancient Bronze Age Elymian walls dating back to several thousand years before the time of Christ. The name Erice comes from the Greek hero, Eryx, even though the town was originally colonized by the Phoenicians. It was then ruled by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and then the Arabs (the Aghlebids), until the Normans conquered it in 1167 and gave it the name Monte San Giuliano, a name that stuck until until 1934.
Pepoli Castle dates from Saracen times, and the Castello di Venere dates from the Norman period, built on top of the ancient Temple of Venus. According to legend, the temple was built by the Trojan hero (Venus' son), Aeneas to honor his goddess mother. Legend claims that an important cult used the temple for its sacrifices, and that the animals chosen for sacrifice would voluntarily walk up to the altar to be killed.
Today, there are no sacrifices, so you can safely take the cable car (funivia)--newly rebuilt after a forest fire--from the outskirts of Trapani to the town of Erice.