Iconic Italy

Pistoia: Italy's 2017 Culture Capital

It's a new year, and Italy would like to bring your attention to a new unsung “Cultural Capital” over the next 12 months. Cultural Capitals are small, jewel-like cities that have less star power than Venice or Florence, but offer their own understated beauty and artistic and architectural treasures to discover. Last year, the honor fell to the “Sleeping Beauty” of Mantua, a beautiful Renaissance center and UNESCO World Heritage Site between Milan and Venice, and this year the fêted city is the Tuscan town of Pistoia, just half an hour outside Florence at the foot of the Apennine mountains.

B02 Pistoia panorama(Photo by mksfca on Flickr)

Christened “La Città dei Crucci”, or “City of Sorrow”, by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pistoia has long had a reputation for being particularly contentious, with its residents embroiled in protracted battles between warring factions and families for centuries. “I love you, city of sorrow, bitter Pistoia,” wrote D'Annuncio, “blood of the Whites and the Blacks, that turns red before your proud people, men of ideology, with ancient joy.” Today, rather than bitterness and blood, you'll find Pistoians harbor a fierce civic pride and enduring affection for their home town.

Pistoia has grown in popularity over the past few years, as visitors to Florence look to escape the crowds in Tuscany's capital city by venturing out to the relative peace of the nearby provincial towns for day trips and overnights. If there was ever a time to visit Pistoia's pretty piazzas, elegant churches, and world-class museums, it is 2017...the calendar is full of special cultural events, exhibitions, and concerts and the center has been spruced up and is ready to receive travelers curious to explore one of the most charming small cities in Tuscany.
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Italy: The Perfect Romantic Gift

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and everyone over the age of 8 who is in a relationship is feeling the pressure of choosing the perfect gift to celebrate their love. From a classic understated box of chocolates to an over-the-top showstopper classic car, nothing gives more pleasure than knowing you have found that one thing that will make your sweetheart smile.

Florence twilight.<(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Unfortunately, research has shown that the thrill of a new possession fades quickly. Instead, the pleasure of an experience, especially one shared as a couple, lasts much longer. Rather than a gift that can be wrapped in a bow, this year think “outside the box” and opt for something that will make memories to last a lifetime. In short, diamonds are neither a girl's best friend nor forever, but a vacation in Italy and the memories made during your trip can be both of those things!

For an extra romantic touch to your trip, here are a few suggestions perfect for a vacationing couple:

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Guilt-Free Tourist Fun in Italy

There is much discussion right now about a new McDonald's fast food restaurant that opened in Rome a few weeks ago just steps from Piazza San Pietro and the Vatican, one of many located near the Eternal City's most iconic sights. The arrival of each Starbucks hawking flavored cappuccinos or souvenir shop stocked with counterfeit Venetian glass rekindles the debate about how international commercialism is damaging Italy's fragile traditional culture and its small, family-run economy. In addition, recent protests about the stress of mass tourism on delicate ecosystems like the Venetian lagoon and the crumbling coast along the Cinque Terre raises questions about the ethics of visiting these destinations without causing irreparable damage.

Trevi Fountain, Rome(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Travel should be many things, but most importantly it should be fun. Indulging in guilty, somewhat clichéd, pleasures that do no harm beyond an expanding waistline or silly photo is part of the joy of travel, as anyone who has posed holding up the leaning tower of Pisa or tossed a coin over their shoulder into the Trevi fountain can attest. Here are some suggestions for things to do in Italy that may seem too touristy to justify, but are actually authentic and sustainable, as well as good fun.

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Top Italy Recommendations for 2017

As the year draws to a close, you may be looking at your travel calendar for 2017 and beginning to think about your next trip. Winter is the perfect time to start planning a spring or summer visit to Italy, as later in the year the best hotels, guides, and cooking classes can start to book up, leaving you with limited options.

Taormina(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you're dreaming of visiting the Bel Paese over the next 12 months, we have a few suggestions for unforgettable itineraries, unique experiences, and once-in-a-lifetime trips that are perfect for a 2017 Italian vacation.

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Italy's Most Iconic Piazzas

The heart of an Italian home is the kitchen, and the heart of an Italian neighborhood, town, or city is the piazza. Just like the kitchen, the piazza is where family, friends, and neighbors congregate. They exchange news, participate in public celebrations and events, shop at the weekly market, or simply while away the hours with espresso, an aperitivo, or a gelato...since no piazza is complete without a bar.

In addition to being the hub of local life, Italy's piazzas have historically served as the focal point of the town's political and religious life. The central piazza of each town or small city is usually where the municipal building and the main cathedral are located, as well as the residences of the most important local nobility and clergy, often dating back centuries.

sampietrini-roma-piazza-del-popolo-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

In the past, wealthy and influential towns and cities also used their main piazza to showcase their power by commissioning monumental fountains or statues as decoration to impress visitors and citizens alike. From soaring church spires to humble cafe tables, the piazza encompasses the most important touchstones of Italian life and culture.

Here are five of the most iconic and beautiful piazzas in Italy, each embodying the essence of their city or town:

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The Day of the Dead and Italy's Famous Tombs

Though you would never know it by the Halloween mania that has swept Italy over the past few years, this holiday is a recent cultural import from the US. Until just a decade ago, trick-or-treating and masquerading as witches and ghouls was unknown in Italy, and the first days of November were instead dedicated to celebrating All Saints' Day and All Souls, known together as I Santi e I Morti.

purgatorio 1(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We love Halloween fun, but also value Italy's unique cultural heritage and traditional holidays. If you are visiting on November 2nd, you can experience first hand the affection that Italians feel for their deceased loved ones by stopping in at one of the country's many beautiful monumental cemeteries, which are crowded with visitors leaving flowers and lighting candles at their family tombs each year on All Souls Day.

purgatorio 2(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

As you probably don't have any family members or friends buried in Italy to honor, here are some illustrious graves of Italy's most famous historical and cultural figures you can visit instead to pay your respects and participate in one of the most heartfelt holidays on the Italian calendar.

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The Town & Country Grand Tour

When new clients approach us to plan their dream trip to Italy, the first thing we do is schedule a telephone call to discuss their hopes and wishes and discover their definition of “dream”...is it art and culture, food and wine, or pure R&R on the beach? Each of our Italian itineraries is customized to the specific traveler, from honeymooners on their first Italian sojourn to experienced adventurers who love Renaissance architecture and local cuisine to multi-generational trips with fun truffle hunts and child-focused activities. Our goal is to deliver the most unforgettable Italian vacation to all of our travelers.

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As Seen In Fall/Winter Town & Country Travel

Crafting an Italian itinerary that will appeal to thousands of sophisticated travelers with whom we haven't spoken on the phone is more challenging, but we rose to the task for this month's special issue of Town & Country Travel! To celebrate the magazine's 170th anniversary, Town & Country teamed up with Wendy Perrin, sourcing Wendy's “WOW List” of trip-planning experts to create a modern-day Grand Tour: a trip around the globe in 170 days, including stops in over 50 countries. From Sweden to Antarctica, this Grand Tour is the ultimate template for the vacation of a lifetime, and we were honored to take up the challenge of planning the perfect week in Italy for T&C readers.
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Italy's Picture Perfect Wheels

From Absolut Vodka ads to Pixar films, nothing has been used to symbolize Italy's unique knack for blending pragmatism with design like the iconic Vespa scooter and Fiat 500 compact car. And after the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum, nothing is more often photographed than a brightly painted Cinquecento or Vespa parked jauntily in narrow Roman backstreets or against the backdrop of a bustling historic piazza.

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Three Perfect Itineraries for a First Trip to Italy

Nothing is as magical, or as memorable, as your first trip to Italy. Though subsequent trips may be those in which you pick up a few sentences of Italian, get off the beaten path a bit, and start to choose your favorite cities and regions, that maiden voyage is one of pure discovery. Your first glimpse of iconic monuments like the Colosseum in Rome or Venice's Grand Canal, your first sips of Brunello or Barolo, your first sunset from the Ponte Vecchio or the Amalfi Coast...these are all an epiphany of the senses, and will color your affection for this stunning country for years to come.

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though it's a fun challenge to plan unique trips for travelers who have already explored Italy in the past, organizing a client's first trip is always a particular delight. We still remember our first trip years ago, and know how easy it is to get bitten by the “Italy bug” if your first trip dazzles. Here are three of our favorite itineraries for first timers, and some tips to help you plan a trip that will begin a long-lasting love affair with the Bel Paese!

Venezia - canal(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Rome's Sampietrini Cobblestones

There are many iconic sights in Rome that immediately come to mind when thinking about Italy's most visited city: the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and the Vatican are all unmistakable monuments. But most Italians could recognize the Eternal City by simply looking down at the road under their feet.

sampietrini-roma-piazza-del-popolo-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Most of Rome's historic center is paved with a unique type of cobblestone called “sampietrini”. These are 12 centimeter cubes of black basalt, trimmed and set in straight rows or intersecting arches on a sand or earth foundation, with the same sand or earth filling the space between each block.
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The Fountains of Rome

When the temperatures soar in Rome each summer, the city's historic fountains are tempting with their cool waters sprinkling and bubbling over intricate stonework and into shimmering pools in the center of torrid, sun-baked piazzas. Don't give in to the urge to take a dip, however, as it is illegal to bathe in the Eternal City's monumental fountains, many of which have been damaged recently by reckless visitors climbing and frolicking on their delicate marble. But do stop to admire these stunning works of art and utility, and even quench your thirst... many have drinking fountains worked into their design!

trevi-fountian-rome-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Here are some of the most famous and beautiful fountains in Rome, from the ornate to the fanciful, which merit a visit (but not a swim):

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Italy's Gran Sasso National Park

If you tell any Italian that you are headed to the region of Abruzzo, the very first thing they will ask is, “Are you visiting Gran Sasso?” Gran Sasso is shorthand for Abruzzo’s sprawling Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga (Gran Sasso and Laga Mountain National Park), one of Italy’s largest national parks—indeed, covering almost 350,000 acres, one of the largest protected areas in all of Europe.

Gran Sasso da Rocca Calascio(Photo by Paolo Fefè via Flickr)

The park territory covers a wide swath of Abruzzo and includes parts of neighboring Lazio and Le Marche, as well. Inside its borders, visitors will find some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in all of Italy, including peaks from the Apennine and Monti della Laga mountain chains, pristine Alpine lakes and rivers, woodlands teeming with wildlife, and hundreds of kilometers of trails to explore by foot, bike, or horseback.

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A Day in Trieste

The world sees Italy as a homogenous country, united from north to south by a common language and culture, but this relatively new nation was united only in the late 1800's from a patchwork of former kingdoms and territories grouped - sometimes reluctantly - under a single flag but with vastly diverse histories and traditions. This is especially true in the case of the Italian islands, where millennia of geographic isolation has created local cultures much different from mainland Italy, and on the northern Alpine borders, where many regions were part of the neighboring empires until very recently.

Piazza Unità d'Italia(Photo by Leandro Ciuffo via Flickr)

The elegant city of Trieste is an excellent example of Italy's fascinating diversity. Located on the border between Italy and Slovenia on the Adriatic coast, this wealthy city has seen at least a dozen waves of invaders and rulers since the Romans. Most recently, Italy was granted the city after World War I and annexed the area from the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Though Trieste remained an intellectual hub and center for important literary and artistic movements, the rise of Fascism and campaign to transform this formerly heterogeneous city into a “città italianissima” led to attacks on and subsequent emigrations of the city's large ethnically Slovene population in addition to its Jewish population, which was the third largest in Italy.
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Christmas Traditions in Italy

Though the consumerism that plagues the Christmas holidays in the US is slowly creeping across the Atlantic, an Italian Christmas continues to focus on the same values of faith, family, and food that lie at the foundation of Italy's culture in general. Each year, holiday decorations expand, Santa nudges out the historic holiday symbols a bit more, and the shopping season begins a few weeks earlier (this year there were even Black Friday sales), but Christmas in Italy continues to have a simple, traditional feel despite encroachments from the New World.

christmas-gubbio-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are planning a get-away over the winter holidays in Italy, here are a few unique Christmas traditions for an unforgettable Natale! Read More...

Amalfi Coast CNT Editor's Itinerary

When Conde Nast Traveler invited us to create an Editor's Itinerary for their readers, we were happy to have the chance to share some of our favorite hidden spots, local guides, and authentic experiences in one of the most beautiful areas in Italy: the Amalfi Coast.

monastero-santa-rosa-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Now in the current issue of CNT magazine, our custom Amalfi Coast Editor's Itinerary includes a four night stay in one of our top pick hotels, a boating trip along the coast, a private cooking lesson with one of the most acclaimed chefs in Sorrento, and a guided tour of Pompeii.
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The Cinque Terre: A Primer

The Cinque Terre, the five tiny, technicolored fishing villages which cling to the craggy Ligurian coast between Levanto and La Spezia, are perhaps one of the most picturesque stretches of Italy's coastline to glimpse from the water. They each spill down the cliffside to the water's edge in pleasing disorder, a jumble of brightly tinted houses and disjointed terracotta rooftops, connected by a number of hiking and walking trails that string them together like pearls on a chain.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Spello's Infiorata

The world is filled with forms of temporary art, from intricate sand mandalas which blow away in a matter of days and chalk paintings which won't survive the next rainstorm, to monumental works of land art made to erode over decades. But perhaps the most evanescent art form in the world is both created and destroyed in less than 24 hours in a tiny hilltop town in Umbria: the Infiorata.

infiorata-spello-umbria-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Venice's Historic Jewish Ghetto

Venice's storied Jewish ghetto, a tiny island no larger than a city block in the lagoon city's Cannaregio district, made news at the end of 2014 with the announcement of a $12 million renovation project, spearheaded by German-Jewish designer Diane von Furstenberg and the Venetian Heritage Council. The complete redesign of the neighborhood's Jewish Museum and renovation of three of its five 16th century synagogues, some of the oldest in Italy, is slated to be completed in 2016, which marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto and the date in which the island, still an important Jewish cultural center, will be inducted into UNESCO's World Heritage sites.

Ghetto ebraico di Venezia 10(Photo by Giovy via Flickr)

Venice's ghetto is one of the most interesting and unique corners of this captivating city, testament to both its rich history and its complicated relationship with its Jewish community over the centuries. Just a few minutes from the bustling calle and canals around Venice's most famous sights, “il ghetto ebraico” is a quiet, residential quarter which offers visitors a different perspective on La Serenissima, both past and present. Read More...

Il Salento: Italy's Southern Surprise

When travelers picture Puglia, they really only conjure up two relatively small areas in this vast region at the southeastern corner of Italy: la Valle d'Itria, dotted with the conical-roofed, whitewashed houses which would look more at home in Middle-earth than they do in the Mediterranean, and, directly to its south, il Salento, the narrow peninsula that makes up the “heel” of Italy's “boot”.

salento-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though il Salento - and Puglia in general - can certainly not be considered “undiscovered", this narrow tongue of land lapped by the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west is nowhere near as invaded by international tourists as more famous areas like Chianti and the Amalfi Coast, so a visit here still retains a bit of an adventurous feel. You will not find many menus printed in English, and the small towns and provincial cities have an authentic, lived-in atmosphere that many hilltowns in central Italy have lost.
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So, You Want to See the Pope (or just the Vatican)...

Most sights in Rome don't require a lot of advance planning (unless, of course, you'd like to skip the lines at the Colosseum): the sweeping piazzas, imposing churches, characteristic neighborhoods, and even the Trevi Fountain just involve showing up.

Italy-0039 - The Obelisk(Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr)

An exception to that rule is the Vatican, including the museums, Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter's Basilica, and, for the devout or simply curious, Pope (in the form of a public audience). Here, because of the sheer numbers of visitors, massive size of the place, and ticket logistics, a bit of advance planning and insider information can make the difference between an unforgettable visit and a day spent standing in lines or staring at the backs of thousands of heads.

Here are our tips for a simple Vatican visit and participation in a Papal audience.
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Perugia

Perugia can be daunting at first glance, we admit. Though the lion’s share of Umbria’s hilltowns are perfectly preserved gems perched atop the region’s rolling peaks and largely devoid of modern development spoiling your Instagram shot, the bustling provincial capital is ringed with a rather drab stretch of suburbs which can be off-putting.

perugia-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But don’t be discouraged by the eyesore that greets you along the highway. Once you’ve passed the box stores and apartment blocks, Perugia reveals herself to be just as worth a visit as similarly sized provincial cities between Rome and Florence (we are thinking of Siena and Orvieto, perennial favorites), with an elegant historic center, beautiful views, worthwhile museums, memorable restaurants, and excellent shopping.
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Buon Anno! Italy's New Year's Eve Traditions

Italians are a superstitious people, and everything from the mundane (handshakes) to the extraordinary (weddings) are imbued with rigid rituals to ward off bad luck, ranging from the dramatic malocchio to the simple sfortuna. It is common to move travel dates and important appointments which would otherwise fall on the unlucky 17th of the month, touch iron (or, ahem, the male nether regions) when conjecturing over the possibility of a negative outcome to a situation, and carefully avoid certain flowers, colors, and gestures depending upon the context.

It comes as no surprise, then, to find that perhaps one of the most superstitious holidays—New Year’s Eve—is no less full of traditions and rites aimed at ensuring the luckiest of coming years. As you prepare for 2015, consider adding one of these popular Italian customs to your evening. It can’t do any harm, and may actually porta fortuna!
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The Christmas Story, Artfully Told

Italy is home to so much art (over half the world’s artistic treasures can be found in this relatively small country, according to UNESCO estimates) that it is easy to become inured to this exceptional patrimony, displayed everywhere from world-class museums to tiny country chapels.

Many of these works take on a particularly moving significance when viewed in a specific context, be it a poignant location or a relevant time of year. This is why we love to revisit some of the best Nativity-related paintings in Italy during the Christmas season, when they become more than just another masterpiece and instead a reminder of the message of joy and peace that this holiday represents to millions of Italians (and visitors to Italy).

Here are a few of our favorites, depicting the most important moments in the Christmas story:
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Matera: Italy's Cinderella Story

You know there must be something particularly special about a place when, despite the distance from transport hubs and tricky arrival logistics, it suddenly starts popping up on dream itineraries and bucket lists from glossy travel magazines to backpacking blogs.

matera-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The ancient city of Matera is one of those difficult yet rewarding special places, located in the extreme southern province of Basilicata just a few kilometers from the border with Puglia, and tumbling down a canyon ridge overlooking the neighboring Murgia Materana Park. Not particularly near any principal airports, and set a bit off by itself at the point where the Salento peninsula “heel” attaches to Italy’s “boot”, this hauntingly beautiful place is unique and memorable enough to have been named both a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and, just this year, the European Capital of Culture for 2019.
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Tuscan Villages to Discover: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Montalcino

Italy is a country of contrasts, with differences between regions so stark that a trip from north to south seems to span a continent rather than a country.

Pienza(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

You don't need to drive for hundreds of kilometers to see how dramatically Italy can vary both culturally and architecturally. It is enough to simply travel a bit around the region of Tuscany, beginning in the elegant and bustling city of Florence marked by the wealth and power of the Medici and still one of Italy's most vibrant cultural and economic hubs, and moving on through the iconic Tuscan countryside to some of its lovely hilltowns, popular with travelers but with a quieter, more rustic atmosphere reflecting a humbler history much more closely tied to the rural culture of farming families and provincial nobility.
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Bologna: The Stopover Worth a Stay

Though Bologna is perfectly positioned as a stopover between Florence and Venice, this bustling university town—the largest in Emilia Romagna—can easily be considered a destination itself.

Street view in Bologna(Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr)

Famous for its excellent cuisine, home to the world’s oldest university (and with a history shaped by the millenia-long conflict between the secular academic world and the religious Catholic one), and with an elegant city center offering excellent shopping and sightseeing, take time to spend an overnight here before moving on either north or south.
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Italy's Cool Cats

They bask in the sun, alone or in pairs, draped languidly at the base of tinkling fountains in public piazzas, across picturesquely-crumbling ancient ruins, on doorsteps and windowsills of sleepy villages.

They watch you with half-closed eyes, daring you to stare back. If you show any interest, they either startle with their avid attention or offend with their contemptuous indifference. They are casually sleek, mysteriously attractive, offhandedly photogenic, and quietly ubiquitous.

kitten-motorino-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

No, we’re not talking about Italian men. We’re talking about Italian cats. Read More...

Italy's Islands: Capri

Capri is an island so enchanting that it was used as an idyllic retreat already in the first century AD, when the emperor Tiberius would escape to one of his twelve villas scattered on the hilltops overlooking the Mediterranean for a bit of respite from the chaos of Rome.

rowboat-capri-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

And who are we to argue with Tiberius? Two thousand years later, visitors still flock to this fairytale spot just off the coast of Naples, with its sweeping view over the entire expanse of the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi Coast and dramatic shoreline dotted with secret coves and sea grottoes.
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A Michelangelo-Themed Walking Tour in Florence

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the greatest artists, architects, and engineers Italy—indeed, the world—has ever known. The mastery and prodigiousness of his work in a number of different disciplines, including painting, sculpture, and poetry, earned him the title of “Il Divino” during his lifetime, and has been the key to his lasting influence on western art and culture.

Michelango Portrait by Volterra.jpg
"Michelango Portrait by Volterra" di Daniele da Volterra - [1]. Con licenza Public domain tramite Wikimedia Commons.


Though he was born in a small town near Arezzo and many of his most famous works are in Rome, Michelangelo spent most of his youth in Florence where he began his long career with his first apprenticeship (under Il Ghirlandaio) at fourteen. We asked our favorite Florence guide and art historian, Elvira Politi, to suggest a Michelangelo walk to celebrate the life and work of this truly Renaissance Man in the most Renaissance of cities. Read More...

Italy's Most Beautiful Gardens

Though it may seem that summer is the season to visit Italy’s many splendid gardens, in this country’s hot and arid Mediterranean climate, the best times of year to enjoy most of these magnificent grounds are actually the spring and fall. It is during the cooler, damper months that these public and private parks, many of which could be considered works of art rivaling those in Italy’s museums, reach the height of their lushness and color.

villa-lante-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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La Trattoria di Famiglia: An Italian Icon

There are many ways in which Italy is, sadly, losing a bit of that “italianità” that has made it such a beloved destination for travelers for centuries. Village centers are struggling as shoppers flock to big discount box stores. Packaged convenience foods are becoming more common and long, home-cooked lunches at home less.

Trattoria(Photo by Damien Oz via Flickr)

One tradition that seems to be stronger than ever is the small, family-owned trattoria. These (often historic) eateries line quiet side streets and piazzas everywhere from the smallest country hamlets to the bustling cities of Rome and Florence, and thrive despite the menacing growth of fast food chains and kebob shops. Read More...

Ravenna

Most stop-overs are more a question of logistics than context: there happens to be a delightful town or quirky museum along your route between one destination and the next, so you break up the long ride, stretch your legs, and explore awhile.

mosaics-ravenna-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Ravenna is a bit different, in that a pause here is not just a question of travel itineraries. Whether you are coming from or headed to Venice, a stop in Ravenna, famous for its stunning 5th and 6th century Byzantine mosaics, will help you put the sumptuous mosaics in San Marco (created some five to seven centuries later) into the larger context of the evolution of early Christian art. Read More...

On the Plate and In the Glass in Piedmont's Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato

Though arguably all destinations in Italy could be considered a Shangri-La for lovers of excellent food and wine, nowhere is this more true than the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato wine country of southern Piedmont, just an hour by car from the bustling metropolis of Turin but worlds away in both pace and scenery.

castello-grinzane-cavour-langhe-italy-cr-brian-dorePhoto by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr

Le Langhe-Roero and Monferrato have recently gotten a bit of press, as they were added to the UNESCO’s register of World Heritage Sites in the first half of 2014. Citing the area’s uniquely beautiful landscapes—including five rolling wine growing districts, the Castle of Cavour, and pretty stone hilltowns of Serralunga, Nieve, Barolo, and Bra—and the long history of local winemaking—which has probably flourished since the time of the Etruscans five centuries before the birth of Christ—the UNESCO nomination only highlighted what lovers of Piedmont have known for years: this corner of Italy offers some of the most memorable meals (and photo-ops) in the entire country. Read More...

Siena Palio

Italy is a land of festivals. Religious festivals, historic festivals, festivals that celebrate food or wine, festivals that last for weeks or are here and gone in a day. Italians love to throw a party, and from the tiniest of village piazzas to the overflowing streets of the most cosmopolitan cities, there is no better place to get a taste of Italian culture than at a festa.

Very few of these local festivals are known beyond the borders of Italy (indeed, many are so local that even folks a few towns over don’t know about them), but there is one exception: the raucous, overwhelming, marginally anarchical but thoroughly heart pumping rave that is Siena’s Palio.

107_0774(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Exploring the Dolomites in Summer

When a mountain chain is recognized by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, you know it must have something special going for it. And the Dolomites, a group of almost 20 peaks which top 3,000 meters, covering the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige/SudTirol in the Alps straddling the Italian-Austrian border, are indeed spectacular.

Dolomites(Photo by F Deventhal via Flickr)

Though Italy is most known for its historic cities and photogenic coast, it is also a country of mountains. From the rumbling volcanoes in its southern-most reaches (and islands), through the Apennines which run almost the entire length of the Italian peninsula like the country’s rugged backbone, up to the Alps separating Italy from its northern neighbors, there are peaks in almost every Italian region. Read More...

Nocino: Italy's Most Beloved Digestivo

Just yesterday, Italians celebrated the Feast Day of Saint John—or the Festa di San Giovanni—with food, fireworks, and showy pageantry. At least, that’s how citizens marked the day in some of Italy’s biggest and most cosmopolitan cities. In the quiet countryside, however, this saint’s day was observed with a much humbler but no less traditional rite: gathering green walnuts to put up the annual batch of one of Italy’s most popular digestive liqueurs, Nocino.

Italians have penchant for digestivi (the function of which, as the name suggests, is to settle the stomach after overindulging at the table), especially amari, or those bitter elixirs made with infusions of either plants and vegetables or a complex mix of herbs and spices. Mouth-puckeringly alcoholic and tongue-blisteringly aromatic, these drinks are not for the faint of heart (or liver). There are a number of digestivi that any restaurant or home cook will have at the ready to finish off a meal--measuring out no more than three or four sips to be presented in tiny digestivi glasses--but the one served with most pride is the house Nocino.

Tweetable: Across Italy yesterday, home cooks were picking green walnuts to put up this year’s batch of Nocino

Walnuts for Nocino(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Fire and Water: the Feast Day of San Giovanni

It’s so easy to lose track of time when you travel. In fact, that might be one of the most blissful aspects of setting out for distant lands, this sense of timelessness when you no longer know what day of the week it is, what month, or what holiday.

Of course, finding yourself unaware of a passing holiday is more common when you’re in a foreign country with a foreign calendar...especially when you’re in a foreign country like Italy, where it seems that every other day the nation is commemorating a historical event, saint, or random day of R&R. Here you are, happily getting on with it, when suddenly—and, to you, inexplicably—you find museums closed, hotels booked, and a procession complete with marching band and Madonna statue weaving its way down the main Corso.

Tweetable: Cities across Italy will be celebrating the Feast Day of Saint John next week with fire and water.

One of the holidays that often sneaks up on visitors to Italy is the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist--La Festa di San Giovanni--on June 24th (John the Baptist is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on his birthday rather than his date of death, incidentally). Though not a national holiday, it is a festive occasion in a number of Italy’s most important cities where San Giovanni is patron saint, including Florence, Turin, and Genoa.

If you are traveling through Italy during late June, you may want to join in on one of these celebrations, which are infused with centuries of local history and culture. Though they take place hundreds of kilometers apart, they are united in their themes of fire and water, two elements linked to Saint John from pagan tradition. Read More...

Belli Bellini

How well do you know your Bellini, that deceptively simple combination of just two ingredients—Prosecco and peach nectar—into a delighfully refreshing cocktail? Here’s a pop quiz:

  • The best Bellini in Venice can be had at Harry’s Bar, where it was famously invented in the 1940s.
  • A Bellini has a distinct dusty rose color, which comes from the color of the pureéd peaches.
  • No peach nectar, no Bellini.

All three are true, right?

Wrong.

We were recently treated to hands-down the most delicious Bellini now being served in Venice, the signature cocktail of one of the city’s most respected mixologists, award-winning cocktail innovator Marino Lucchetti.

Bellini cocktail at the Londra Palace, Venice(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

Rome with Kids: A Family Friendly Tour

At first glance, Rome will not strike any parent as particularly kid-friendly. One of Europe’s largest and most visited cities, this sprawling metropolis is home to some of the world’s greatest treasures of art and archaeology, but can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate for families traveling with children.

rome with kids 001
(Photo by Rebecca Winke for Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Which is why the Eternal City is the perfect place to explore with a tour guide specialized in bringing the city’s iconic cultural sites to life (while coordinating bathroom and water breaks) for kids of various ages, attention spans, and interests. My sons (who are nine and twelve) and I recently spent a day with Valerio, one of Concierge in Umbria’s go-to family-friendly tour guides for Rome, who is also an art historian and expert on Rome and Roman history. Here’s our review of the sights we visited, with high points and caveats!
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48 Hours: Portofino and the Cinque Terre

The Ligurian Coast—known primarily for glamorous Portofino, beloved by Hollywood celebrities and the world’s yachterati since the 1960s, and the fetching Cinque Terre, “discovered” in the 1980s and now one of Italy’s most visited spots—can delight just about any traveler.

Portofino in winter(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

With its breathtaking scenery of craggy coast dotted with colorfully stuccoed fishing villages, excellent cuisine dominated by the local specialties of pesto genovese and seafood, national parks and marine reserves best explored by foot or boat, and tony boutiques and cafés lining Portofino’s winding lanes, you will be wishing you had more than just two days to revel in this unforgettable stretch of Italian coastline.
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Gubbio’s Raucous and Saintly Festa dei Ceri

Umbria, the pretty, rural region in central Italy just south of Tuscany, is known for its sleepy Medieval hilltowns, which spend almost the entire year caught in a time capsule of languid days broken up by long family meals and gossip in the main square which has remained unchanged for centuries. I say almost the entire year, however, because this slow pace and pastoral atmosphere is brusquely interrupted once a year when each town holds its annual festival—most often celebrating the local patron saint’s feast day—and the citizens let their hair down for a few days of unfettered eating, drinking, dancing, and benignly chaotic partying.

Saint Ubaldo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Nowhere is the contrast between the saint’s day celebrations and the remaining 364 days of the year as dramatic as in Gubbio, where this normally stoic and rather dour mountain fortress town descends into a day of delightful madness and celebratory anarchy each year on May 15th to celebrate their patron Saint Ubaldo with a symbolic race, La Corsa dei Ceri.
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Our Secret Florence

Shh! Can you keep a secret? We’re about to reveal some of our favorite hiding-in-plain-sight spots and highlights in Florence that are just too much fun to keep to ourselves. Read on to see what is getting us excited to be in Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance city this week...(but keep it between us!)

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Sicily and the Ancient Greeks: Sites to Visit

Most travelers to Italy who want to take a stroll backward in time thousands of years to the Classical period make a bee-line to Rome. Famous for the quality and concentration of its architectural monuments and ruins, both in the city itself and in outlying Tivoli, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, Rome admittedly remains the Caput Mundi of archaeology.

Selinunte(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

It is wise to remember, however, that though Roman civilization once included the entire Italian peninsula—indeed, much of Europe—leaving spectacular remains in the most far-flung and unlikely corners of Italy, from tiny towns in central Italy (Gubbio’s Roman amphitheater comes to mind), to the bustling northern cities (Verona’s Roman sites are a pleasant surprise for many visitors), and southern sea ports (Gnatia in Puglia is the Pompeii of the Adriatic), Rome itself was heir to a vast and complex Mediterranean civilization: Classical Greece. Read More...

Italy's Islands: Ischia

Ischia, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Naples, is often overshadowed by its glamorous neighbor, Capri, to the south. But despite being cast as stepsister, Ischia, with its volcanic peaks, sprawling thermal spas, spectacular scenery, and pretty beaches, has a beauty and charm which rivals that of Capri’s Cinderella.

Gull in Ischia with Capri

Though a languid, bucolic calm that pervades modern Ischia, this island has seen its share of cataclysmic disasters, including the eruption of Monte Arso (now extinct) in 1301, an earthquake in 1883 which killed almost 2,000 people and completely razed a number of towns and villages, and almost 1,000 years of invasions, sackings, and conquests by everyone from the Ostrogoths to Ferdinand II, king of Naples. Read More...

A Day in Verona

Vibrant Verona seamlessly combines the old-world aesthetic of pink palazzo-lined cobblestone streets and Roman ruins with chic contemporary restaurants and boutiques, giving visitors photo-ops rivaling a hill town enlivened by the cultural sophistication of an Italian capital. Located almost precisely halfway between Milan and Venice, this lovely yet underrated city is a perfect stop-over for those traveling between these two major hubs, or a day trip from the northern lakes or many of the most popular ski resorts in Veneto or Trentino-Alto Adige.

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Carnival in Venice

Everything about Venice is sumptuous and extravagant: its history as a wealthy and powerful maritime republic; its architecture, which spans from the Byzantine Saint Mark’s Basilica to the Gothic palazzi lining the Grand Canal; its art, dominated by the eye-popping colors of Renaissance masters Giorgione and Titian.

Is it so surprising, then, that even Venice’s Carnival celebrations are the most elaborate in all of Italy? Read More...

Surprise Sunshine and Serendipity

The snow and ice got Brian and Maria reminiscing about one of their last, unexpectedly balmy days in Italy, while traveling through Puglia’s Salento peninsula this past fall. Read More...

48 Hours: Lago di Como (Lake Como)

Though the Amalfi Coast is often considered the most spectacular combination of water, mountain, and fishing village scenery Italy has to offer, the placid glacial depths of Lake Como--ringed by lush, tumbling slopes and the distant peaks of the snow-capped Alps—gives the Costiera Amalfitana a run for its money.

Old-world elegance (Como is home to a number of historic villas), modern luxury (this is where George Clooney famously owns a holiday retreat), and traditional charm (despite the villas and A-listers, Como remains a land of tiny towns and humble polenta) combine to attract visitors who revel in the romance and beauty of this breathtaking lake. Read More...

Puglia’s Castel del Monte

If, while in Puglia, you can pull yourself away from this southern region’s whitewashed villages, turquoise sea, and heaping plates of orecchiette a cime di rape, consider a visit to Castel del Monte. Read More...

Piero della Francesca Trail

Italy is so dense with history, art, and—most importantly—incredible food that it’s a gratifying country to simply wander guided by serendipity (and an expert travel planner) rather than an overly precise game plan. That said, themed itineraries organized around a specific artist, food, or historical period are an excellent way to both give a bit of structure and context to your meanders and discover memorable hidden spots that probably wouldn’t have made the A-list classic tour.

One favorite is the Piero della Francesca trail, winding through some of the prettiest towns on the Tuscany-Le Marche border where this Renaissance painter and mathematician lived and worked during the second half of the 1400s. Read More...

So, You Want to See an Opera in Italy...

There may be no better place to see an opera than Italy, with its rich musical history, stable of illustrious composers, and sumptuously grand landmark theaters. And there may be no better people to advise the traveling opera fan than Brian and Maria, Italy travel experts and professional musicians themselves. Read More...

Naples’ Christmas Street

Though Christmas decorations have become increasingly international in Italy over the past few decades, traditionally most Italian households, shops, and churches celebrated the season with a single, but often sprawling and elaborate, adornment: the Christmas Nativity scene, or presepe. Read More...

A Magical World Inside a Lucky Store

In just a few days, Italy will celebrate the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception which falls each year on December 8th and marks the official beginning of the holiday season. In years past, families and merchants spent this day decorating their homes and shops for Christmas, and each town threw the switch on their holiday lights come sundown (though now decorations are often seen at the end of November). Read More...

48 Hours: Costiera Amalfitana (Amalfi Coast)

The Amalfi Coast is a welcome departure from most of the rest of Italy. This stretch of Mediterranean coastline south of Naples is much less about visits to museums and monuments and instead, as Maria puts it, “mostly about being out of doors.” Here, more than impressing you with great works of art and architecture, you will find yourself gasping with delight at the dramatic land--and sea--scape and the film set-ready villages tumbling down the rocky slopes to the sea. Read More...

Say Formaggio!

Sure, it may be one of the most clichéd travel photos you can take, but the iconic pose holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa—or, alternatively, pushing it over for the more diabolical visitor—is a fun, whimsical shot for anyone traveling through Tuscany. Read More...

Italy’s Top Ten

A few months ago, CNN published an eclectic list of “10 Things Italy Does Better Than Anywhere Else” which was in part spot-on (Flattery, absolutely.) and in part perplexing (River cruising? Really?). It did, however, inspire us to think about what we hold Italians to be particularly adept at and jot down our own list. Agree or disagree? Have your own Top Tens? Let us know, and we can compile a “Top Ten, Part Two”--crowd-sourced with your suggestions! Read More...

Turin’s Historic Lingotto Automobile Factory

Travelers flock to Italy to see this country’s excellent Etruscan and Roman archaeological sites—many dating from over two thousand years ago—but few consider visiting the fascinating and elegant industrial archaeology left over from Italy’s economic boom in the early 20th century.

The best example is the Lingotto building in Turin. Read More...

48 Hours: Venezia (Venice)

There is good news and bad news about visiting Venice.

The good news is that the breathtaking historic center—more an open air museum than a city—is quite compact and so easily navigable by foot (or boat) that two days of exploring are enough to sample much of La Serenissima’s elegance and romance. The bad news is that this same compact center means that the crowds of visitors drawn to this unique city are concentrated in a relatively small area and hard to avoid. Follow Maria’s advice and “just put blinders on and enjoy the sights”; you will soon be so absorbed in the stunning architecture, iconic gondolas, and fascinating everyday logistics of life in a city of canals that the tourists will fade into the background. Read More...

Where's the beef?

f you are looking for the best beef in Italy, look no further than Chianti, where you can sample some of the country’s finest cuts in the village of Panzano. Read More...

48 Hours: Roma (Rome)

Rome is often called the Eternal City, and it would indeed take an eternity to truly get to know Italy’s vibrant capital. Here is an amuse bouche of an introductory visit, including tastes of Rome’s iconic monuments, captivating neighborhoods, and memorable meals. Read More...

Stars in their Eyes: Italy’s Notte di San Lorenzo

Italy is a country that lends itself to generalizations. Some of these wide brush strokes ring true (Italians have a sense of style) and some less so (Italians eat pasta at every meal), but the most popular stereotype about Italy--permeating everything from movies to books to travel bucket lists--also happens to be one of the most accurate: Italians are romantics. Read More...

Walk in the Paths of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi

st francis and st clare assisi city view
Image by Flickr user Carolyn Conner

Like main squares in towns all around Italy, Assisi’s Piazza del Comune is a microcosm of the entire city. The façade of a first-century Roman temple opens into a 15th-century Catholic church. The modern day square lies directly atop the Roman forum, the entrance to which is next to a 20th-century pastry shop housed in a Renaissance pharmacy framed by period sculptures. The town hall rubs shoulders with the Roman brothel.

Assisi revolves not only around the landmarks of the life of its most famous figures, St. Francis and St. Clare, but also what they stood for: finding peace in simplicity amidst a decadent world.

st francis and st clare assisi crowded city
Image by Flickr user Rodrigo Soldon

The Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare


Lying at opposite ends of the sloping city, roughly equidistant from the main square, the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare balance each other in stone as the saints balanced each other in life. St. Clare and St. Francis form two halves of the same whole, the female yin to the male yang, the nuns that complete the work of the friars.

At the lower end of the city, the Basilica of St. Francis, holding the tomb of the saint, has drawn pilgrims since it was first constructed in 1228 - another church was even constructed on top of it to accommodate the adoration and reverence the saint drew. Among those who have come to Assisi, few have left a more lasting mark than the artists who adorned the walls, including Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini.

For medieval Christians, many of whom were illiterate, these illustrations were the main means of understanding the life and works of the saint. And as they tell the story of St. Francis, the frescos also speak to us of the origin of modern painting, which many art historians believe lie within Giotto’s cycle of St. Francis’ life in the upper church.

st francis and st clare assisi francis basilia
Image by Flickr user Josh Friedman

Meanwhile, at the upper end of the city, the Basilica of St. Clare dates back to 1260 and preserves not only the remains of St. Clare, but also many relics of her and St. Francis’ lives. But none are more revered than the Cross of St. Damien, through which it is said that God first spoke to St. Francis.

The cross originally lived in the tiny, run-down church of St. Damien just outside Assisi. In the early days of his renouncement of worldly goods, the wooden figure of Jesus famously whispered to St. Francis: “Go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

And so it was here that St. Clare led her cloistered life. You can see where she prayed, where she slept, and where she performed her miracles. The deep peace present for the first devotees of St. Francis and St. Clare resonates in the walls even now.

st francis and st clare assisi countryside
Image by Flickr user Niels J. Buus Madsen

And after a guided walk through Assisi and its countryside, with the collected intentions of 800 hundred years of pilgrims, it is hard not to feel at peace yourself.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy