Postcards from Italy
THE BLOG OF CIU TRAVEL

Parma's Festival Verdi

One of our favorite pastimes in Italy is uniting our love of opera with our love of the Bel Paese and exploring new and wonderful ways to see live concerts and performances in everything from small mountain towns to magnificent Roman amphitheaters. We have often enjoyed memorable stagings, stunning theaters, or contagiously enthusiastic audiences...and, on rare fortunate occasions, we have come upon the perfect storm of all three.

Festival Verdi - Parma(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Just such an occasion happened this past fall when we attended the final weekend of Festival Verdi, the annual celebration of one of Italy's most prominent and beloved composers that has been held for the past 18 years in Parma and Busseto, the small town between Parma and Piacenza where Giuseppe Verdi was born and lived for numerous periods of his life. Held each year from late September to mid-October, the festival is a delightful way to experience traditional and contemporary stagings of Verdi's works, sit in on rehearsals, see up-and-coming performers and directors, and mix with opera and classical music aficionados from across the the world.

Festival Verdi - Parma(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Here are a few highlights of our experience, so fellow Verdi fans and opera buffs who are considering attending upcoming editions know what to expect. Remember that the Festival Verdi is held in the very heart of Italy's gastronomic capital, so expect to consume copious amounts of Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma along with the musical fare!

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Something Old, Something New: Recent Discoveries in Pompeii

Pompeii is one of the most famous and important archaeological ruins in the world, and among the most visited cultural sights in Italy. This ancient Roman city just outside Naples was buried in ash and scorching rock from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 (more on that below), and remained more or less unexplored for over 1000 years. In the 18th century, official excavations began, and the site became a popular stop on the Grand Tour between Naples and Sorrento; today millions of visitors walk the paved Roman streets and admire the colorful frescoes and intricate mosaics decorating many of the unearthed villas and public buildings.

Pompei 2(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

What most of these visitors don't know, however, is that the Pompeii Archaeological Park is an active dig, with new discoveries being made almost weekly that shape how historians and researchers imagine life in the city and in the 1st-century Roman empire in general. Almost a third of the Pompeii has yet to be excavated but 2018 has been a year rich with new finds as the two-year Great Pompeii Project kicks off, the most intense period of study in the ruins since the 1950s. Archaeologists have begun a large-scale excavation of Regio V, a stretch of land between the House of the Silver Wedding and the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto and a number of important clues to the past have been uncovered over the past year.

Just this week, archaeologists uncovered a magnificent fresco depicting the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan decorating an internal wall near the entrance to an elegant villa on Via del Vesuvio, in the Regio V. This somewhat suggestive depiction was discovered just days after that of an equally eyebrow-raising fresco of the Roman fertility god Priapus weighing his member on a pair of scales. Though it was found near the Leda fresco, the depiction of Priapus is unfortunately in much worse condition.

Pompei with Vesuvius(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

What have archaeologists found? Here are some of the most exciting discoveries:

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Glass Half Full: Drinking Wine in Italy

Piedmont has recently been named as one of the top destinations in the world for 2019, and the news comes as no surprise. With delightful villages, beautiful landscapes, and one of the best regional cuisines in Italy, this northern region is a winner in every way. No visit to Piedmont is complete, however, without sampling its local wine, as the region is home to Barolo and Barbaresco, two the most prestigious labels in the Bel Paese.

tasting-wine-italy-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Though Piedmont is one of the most captivating regions in Italy, its wine culture is in no way unique. One of the greatest pleasures when visiting Italy is discovering the rich variety of wines produced here. With tens of thousands of wineries from the tiny, family-run to the international powerhouses scattered in every region from north to south, sampling the countless local labels is both a joy and a daunting task, best undertaken with a few pointers to keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

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The Best Chocolate Festivals in Italy

Italians are purists when it comes to seasonal foods. At the outdoor markets, the months of the calendar are marked by what is stacked high in the market stalls: asparagus, strawberries, and lamb in spring; tomatoes, zucchini, and goose in summer; mushrooms, chestnuts, and pork sausage in fall; and legumes, truffles, and charcuterie in winter. You may be surprised to learn, however, that even foods that are normally not considered “seasonal” outside of Italy are harder to find during certain months of the year in the Bel Paese.

chocolate-modica-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Chocolate, for example, is celebrated whole-heartedly in Italy from autumn through spring, but is often pulled from store shelves during the country's hot and humid summer months, when many chocolate factories and artisan workshops either slow or halt production entirely. With the first cool days of fall, however, chocolate reappears at shops, cafés, and, most importantly, festivals. Exact dates of Italy’s chocolate festivals vary from year to year, but they are all held in the fall or winter months when Italy's endless varieties of bars, truffles, candies, and “sippables” can be displayed and sampled without fear of melting or curdling.

This is sweet music to the ear of any chocoholic visiting Italy during the autumn and winter months, as there are a number of chocolate festivals held across the country each year where visitors can sample offerings produced by everyone from the most famous Italian and international chocolate powerhouses to the tiniest local artisans. Some festival highlight a local specialty, be it a unique flavor or style of chocolate; others include a variety of chocolatiers offering new concoctions, free samples, workshops, demonstrations, and cultural events like concerts and performances.

Amedei. the Italian family
(Photo by Everjean via Flickr)

If you'd like to wander through a food festival where even the air smells of cocoa, here are five of Italy’s most popular celebrations of “the food of the gods”:

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Fall into Art: Exhibitions to See in Italy This Autumn

As September comes to an end in Italy, fall is reaching its glory: temperatures have cooled and brought balmy days and crisp evenings, a few heavy storms have cleared the last of the summer haze from the air and brought picture-perfect skies, and the autumn leaves and sunsets are tinged with red and orange.

autumn-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by CiuTravel via Flickr)

This golden moment of autumn, perfect for outdoor touring, is fleeting; in October and November, the weather will turn to nippy winds and sudden showers that usher in winter. Rather than spending long days in the open air, you'll want to be inside where it's warm and dry...the perfect excuse for ducking into a museum or art gallery. If you need to come in out of the cold, here are a number of excellent art exhibitions scheduled through the end of the year across Italy:

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Venice's Unforgettable Artisans

Venice has been dominating the news this month, and not only for lighthearted reasons like the Venice Film Festival and the Biennale. La Serenissima is under siege from an increasing number of tourists each year, reaching numbers of daily visitors in the summer months that are unsustainable both ecologically and socially. As mega cruise ships and vacation rentals have moved in, historic shops and long-time residents have moved out, diluting the uniquely Venetian charm that has attracted travelers for centuries.

DSC03268 _Snapseed(Photo by Ciutravel via Flickr)

That said, don't despair! Venice will always be Venice, and the city is trying to preserve its social fabric by making a number of changes, including limiting the size of cruise ships allowed to dock and the percentage of city residences that can be used for short-term rentals. Slowly the pendulum will swing back toward a vibrant and thriving Floating City, where future generations of visitors and residents alike can bask in its magnificence.

Venezia - Rialto(Photo by Ciutravel via Flickr)

In the meantime, there are ways to visit Venice that support rather than harm its local economy and traditions, giving the pendulum a little nudge in the right direction. Be sure to stay at least a few days when visiting, rather than just stopping by for a day trip. Take in the famous sights, of course, but take time to wander the quieter back streets and explore the smaller churches and museums. Sample cicchetti, take a gondola ride, and head to the outlying islands. And, of course, avoid purchasing cheap tchotchkes, and choose beautiful, one-of-a-kind mementos from Venice's many artisan workshops and ateliers.
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Fashionable Florence: Designer Museums

Milan may be considered Italy's fashion capital, but a number of the most famous and historic designers to come out of Italy in the 20th century actually hail from Florence. Indeed, many trace the birth of Italy's haute couture industry to a fashion show held at Florence's Villa Torrigiani in 1951 by entrepeneur Giovanni Battista Giorgini; the collections made such an impression on international buyers that in just a few short years Italian fashion was considered equal to or better than the iconic French houses.

Gucci-Garden-cr-CIU-Travel(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Florence has begun to highlight its design history with a number of fashion museums that have either opened or expanded recently, most notably Gucci Garden. If you are a fashion addict, or simply appreciate the rich history and exacting eye Florentine designers are known for, you can explore a number of museums dedicated to a specific designer or to the history of fashion and design during your visit to the city...in addition to browsing the elegant branded boutiques that dot the city center.
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Four Foodie Fall Trips in Italy

Summer is coming to a close even in the warm Mediterranean climes of Italy, and soon the first crisp autumn days will arrive, and with them the abundance of Italy’s fall fare. The final months of the year are perhaps the best time to visit for gourmands and wine aficionados, as the harvest season brings a wide variety of some of Italy's best seasonal produce, fattened meat, new wine, and freshly pressed olive oil...and the cooler weather means a more hearty appetite!

Octopus(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you're pondering a trip this autumn, consider a culinary journey through one of the Bel Paese's many food- and wine-centric regions so you can combine culturally rich towns and cities, spectacular landscapes, and unforgettable autumn specialties. Planning trips around Italy's fascinating food culture and wine production is one of our specialties; in honor of Condé Nast Traveler's 25th Anniversary issue, we were asked to design a dream trip to include in their World on Sale promotion, and our "Italy for Foodies: 10 Night Culinary Adventure of Umbria, Sorrento and Rome" was included in the September 2012 issue.

Based on our long experience creating food and wine itineraries, here are what we think are some of the best fall foodie destinations:

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Palermo: Italy's Cultural Capital 2018

Each year, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism appoints a panel of seven experts to select the next Italian Cultural Capital, a small city highlighted for 12 months to promote its cultural heritage and artistic treasures through special events, itineraries, and services. Cultural Capitals in past years have included Mantua, Pistoia and Matera; for 2018, the spotlight has turned on one of the most fascinating cities on the island of Sicily, a bustling metropolis with a richly variegated history that is reflected in everything from its architecture to its cuisine: Palermo.

P7310310(Photo by Patrik Tschudin via Flickr)

Many cities in Italy have long histories of successive conquests and rulers, but Palermo is unique in that every new wave over the millennia has left a lasting mark. The original Phoenician colony's strategic military and trading position attracted invaders beginning with the Carthaginians and moving through the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, and French and Spanish Bourbons. Each impacted the city's art and architecture, language, and cuisine, leaving behind a historic center that is a fascinating patchwork of styles and a local cultural that is uniquely multiethnic. Famous for everything from its Byzantine mosaics to its modern streetfood, Palermo is an unforgettable city to explore and discover, layer by layer.
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Italy's Classic Cocktails: Negroni and Spritz

With the seemingly endless list of holidays celebrating iconic Italian foods—think pasta, pizza,tiramisù, and even Nutella —it's easy to lose track, which is why we were caught a bit off-guard by the news that Negroni Week was celebrated recently! The Negroni is one of Italy's most iconic cocktails, which, after spending decades beloved domestically but relatively unknown outside of Italy, has exploded onto the international cocktail scene along with another Italian favorite, the Spritz.

NEGRONI & SPRITZ Full

We love these two aperitivo classics, so much so that our Instagram handle is @NegroniandSpritz, and will be raising a glass and cooling off this July 4th weekend with a Negroni and Spritz. Cin cin! Read More…

Where to Find the Most Photogenic Views in Italy

As much as we lament the modern obsession with sharing every moment of vacation on social media and the growing importance of a destination's “Instagrammability”, the truth is that travel has been image-driven for centuries. From the time of the Grand Tour—perhaps the first moment in Western history when a voyage was considered a pastime undertaken for pleasure rather than a hardship fraught with risk—travelers have been tucking sketchpads and watercolors in their trunks to capture informal “snapshots” of Roman ruins, Renaissance palazzi, and, of course, pastoral views.

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

The explosion of leisure travel in the mid-20th century coincided with the advent of the compact camera, and generations of Americans were forced to sit through album page after album page of rather blurry black-and-white—and, later, color—photos (or, worse, slides) of the world's most famous monuments. This was followed by digital photography, giving travelers the ability to curate their hundreds of shots and only print the best. Finally, we have arrived at smartphones, letting us not only curate, but also filter, edit, and instantly share our dreamy images.

rome-panorama-cr-ciutravel(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

All this to say that today's avid Instagrammers and their quest for the perfect shot are part of historic and close rapport between travel and image-making, just the latest phase of a long evolution. So, snap away! Whether you have an old-school reflex or the latest iPhone, here are some prime locations to capture the most iconic views in Italy for yourself and, of course, your loyal “followers”!

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A New Look at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence

For a decades, if not centuries, Italy was home to the both world's best art and its worst museums. Dusty, stodgy, impenetrable, uninviting...the art was magnificent, but often the setting was underwhelming, at best.

Over the past decade, however, the Bel Paese has been working hard to up its museum game, shifting from a somewhat apathetic institutional mentality to a more pro-active, almost entrepreneurial one. Many state-run museums and galleries have been renovated and reorganized to make the collections more approachable, offer incentives like kids' programs to extended hours to attract a larger audience, hold the type of blockbuster temporary exhibitions that have been the bread-and-butter of US museums for half a century, and have brought on younger (often foreign) directors to shake things up a bit.

These welcome changes have meant that despite the crowds and overwhelming scope of many collections, a museum visit in Italy is a much more engaging experience than just a few decades ago, often going beyond the traditional chronological curation to use multimedia, group works by theme, or simply take long-stored works out of the basement. Even if you've already visited Italy's A-list museums, now is a good time to circle back and take another look.

To begin, here is what's new at the Grand Dame of old-school museums, Florence's Uffizi Galleries:

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Wine Tasting in Montalcino

When you picture a Tuscan hilltown, what comes to mind is probably more or less Montalcino. With its fairytale castle above, vineyard-covered hills below, and warren of winding lanes and pretty squares, this village in the scenic Val d'Orcia is sent directly from central casting.

When you picture a Tuscan wine, what probably comes to mind is more or less Montalcino's flagship red, Brunello. With centuries of history, Italy's first DOCG recognition, and a unique microclimate and terroir that gives this 100% Sangiovese wine a more fleshy texture, smoother tannins, and more complex dark-fruit-driven flavors than Chianti (http://www.ciuitaly.com/blog/files/wine-tasting-chianti.php), this iconic red has become so popular and prestigious over the past half century that it has almost single-handedly transformed Montalcino and the surrounding area from one of the poorest in the region to one of the wealthiest.

wine-tasting-montalcino-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

For a quintessentially Tuscan experience, there is nothing like a day touring the wineries surrounding Montalcino and tasting what many consider Italy's greatest wines. We have spent time nosing around the local wineries many times over the years, and always discover something new and memorable. Here are some of our tips:

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Poetry and Sunday Lunch: Naples' Most Iconic Ragù

'O rraù ca me piace a me
m' 'o ffaceva sulo mammà.
--Eduardo de Filippo


Food is not taken lightly anywhere in Italy, but in Naples it is the subject of passionate arias and earnest odes. And of all Neapolitan classics, the two that are most exalted and celebrated are also two of the most humble home dishes: ragù.

manfredi-orrau-napoli-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Naples has two types of traditional ragù, both of which call for long, slow cooking; are generally more flavorful the next day; and serve as an all-in-one dish of both pasta sauce for the primo and tender, braised meat for the secondo. The tomato-based 'o rraù and the onion-based la genovese are both such traditional staples of festive lunches in famiglia, that many Neapolitans believe that Sunday isn't Sunday without a plate of ragù.

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Our Favorite Hotels: Hotel Savoy Florence

As we mentioned recently in our Accommodations in Italy post, it isn't always easy to judge the quality of a hotel in Italy without vetting it in person. The Italian star rating system can often be misleading, and hotels that look landmark and luxury on paper can turn out to be dingy disappointments on the ground. In short, even the Grandest of Dames sometimes need to “have a little work done”, as they say, which is why we were very excited to get a sneak peek at the Hotel Savoy Florence after a its glorious new facelift.

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Authentic Amalfi Coast: Traditional Ceramics from Vietri sul Mare

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy, and it’s easy to see why. With its dramatic coastline, colorful fishing villages, crystalline turquoise waters, and hidden sea coves and grottoes, this stretch of coast south of Naples is simply stunning. That said, after more than half a century of intensive tourism—the masses began rolling in after the post-war Jackie O/Brigitte Bardot jet set put this area on the map—it can sometimes feel as if the local culture of this historic coastline is buried under layers of grand hotels, luxury yachts, and chic cocktail bars from Positano to the island of Capri.

Travel slightly further afield, however, and it’s easy to discover the more authentic side of the Amalfi Coast, including its stellar cuisine, scenic donkey paths-cum-hiking trails, and, of course, traditional artisan crafts. Among the most storied of these artisan crafts is ceramica di Vietri, or hand-painted ceramics from Vietri sul Mare.

Vietri sul Mare(Photo by Elicus via Flickr)

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Rome on Two Wheels: Vespa Tour

Along with the Colosseum and Leaning Tower, nothing is more iconic of Italy than the Vespa. This timeless scooter was created in 1946 by the Piaggio company to meet the demand for a modern, affordable mode of transportation for the country's rapidly urbanizing post-war population. Since then, the Vespa has remained one of the most beloved vehicles of convenience in Italy, from retirees puttering to the market in banged up originals to urban hipsters buzzing about town in spotless faux-vintage models.

Nowhere is this more true than Rome. Due to the city's heavy traffic, limited parking, and—let's face it—theft problem, many Romans eschew a car and opt for a smaller and less expensive scooter to get to work, school, or simply out and about. Though there are certainly higher-end, full-optional scooters that almost edge into motorcycle territory, by far the scooter of choice is the plucky Vespa, and nothing delights more than spotting a candy-colored Vespa parked jauntily in a narrow Roman backstreet or against the backdrop of one of the city's most famous sights.

rome-vespa-tour-cr-ciutravel
(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

If the Vespa is the Roman vehicle of choice, it follows that the ideal way to explore the Eternal City like a native is on the back of one of these classic “wasps”. We did just that on a recent tour that combined the fun novelty of zipping through the streets of Italy's capital on two wheels with the undeniable pleasure of some of the city's best street food. If you'd like to do the same, here are some of the basics: Read More…

The Sestieri of Venice: A Neighborhood Guide

The “Floating City” of Venice is famously made up of dozens of small islands crisscrossed by picturesque canals, but these islands are part of a larger patchwork of historic neighborhoods, or “sestieri”, each with a distinct character, charming “campo” square, and treasured, yet often little-known, church or monument. Luckily, aside from the outlying islands, most of Venice is conveniently compact, and its easy to strike out beyond the over-crowded A-list areas and explore the quieter and more pleasant backstreets—or back “calle”, in La Serenissima.

DSC03268 _Snapseed(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

There are six sestieri on Venice's main islands (or seven, depending upon how you count), though the lion's share of visitors only take the time to see one or two. After taking in the Doge's Palace and the Rialto bridge, stroll a bit further afield in almost any direction and you can discover a completely different side of Venice, a world away from the teeming crowds and questionable souvenir shops concentrated around Piazza San Marco.

Venezia - canal(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Here is an overview of Venice's main historic neighborhoods:

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Italy's Versailles: the Reggia di Caserta

It is said that when Charles VII of Naples first set eyes on the scale model of the magnificent royal palace he had commissioned his architect Luigi Vanvitelli to construct for him outside Naples in 1752, the Bourbon king was filled with such emotion that he feared his heart would be torn from his breast.

king-queen-lion-reggia-di-caserta-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Though your heart is probably safe, your breath is sure to be taken away by the splendor and opulence of the finished Royal Palace of Caserta (or Reggia di Caserta), a triumph of late Italian Baroque architecture that is stunning both for its massive size and ornate style. The largest royal residence in the world, the palace is often compared to that of Versailles in France—with which it shares a number of stylistic and organizational features—and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited monuments in southern Italy.

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Florence to Explore: A Neighborhood Guide

One of the pleasant surprises upon first exploring Florence is the convenient compactness of the city's historic center. Almost all its most famous museums and monuments are within an easy 10 minute stroll from each other, centered around the stunning Duomo and the stately Piazza della Signoria.

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

But if you walk just a bit further in almost any direction, you can discover Florence's historic neighborhoods where the crowds are thinner, the shops and restaurants are funkier, and the feel is that of an authentic Old World city where locals have lived and worked for centuries. After taking in the David and Ponte Vecchio, dedicate a few hours to striking out beyond these iconic yet overrun sights to discover the Florence of the Florentines.

Here are a few of the most charming neighborhoods to wander:

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