Postcards from Italy
THE BLOG OF CIU TRAVEL

Switzerland

Switzerland by Rail: The Glacier Express and Bernina Express

One of the biggest draws in Switzerland is, of course, its unparalleled scenery. Soaring mountain peaks, lush expanses of Alpine meadow, placid crystalline lakes, rushing streams of icy water, bucolic rural farms and quaint mountain towns straight out of a Currier and Ives Christmas card...no matter where you look, the views are gasp-worthy.

bernina-express-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

There are a number of ways to tour Switzerland's panoramic countryside, each with its pros and cons. The country has an impeccable network of roads, and driving tours are the most popular and straightforward way to get around. The downside is that many of the most spectacular vistas are from rather remote, impervious wilderness that is difficult—if not impossible—to reach by car. Almost more formidable than their highway system are Switzerland's hiking trails, setting out from virtually any town or city in the country and in just minutes heading steeply uphill to the most sweeping overlooks across the Swiss landscape. But even the most approachable mountain trails require a certain level of fitness, and not everyone wants to be (or can be) that physically active on holiday.

There is a third way to explore Switzerland's most remote mountain passes that combines the convenience of the road with the exclusivity of the trail: the train. There are a number of scenic train routes that offer timeless charm, comfortable transport, and memorable views—perfect for combining a transfer from one location to another with a bit of adventure and unique panoramas. Here are our favorites:

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Day Hikes in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland is one of the world's most popular hiking destinations, and after just a glimpse of its stunning Alpine scenery, you'll understand why. But it isn't just the gorgeous mountain vistas that draws hiking and walking enthusiasts from across the globe: it's also the ease of its user-friendly trails: well-marked, lined with a system of mountain lodges with excellent food, and impeccably maintained. You could walk for days without needing much more than a light day pack to keep you going.

Hiking sign at Höhbalmen(Photo by Björn S... via Flickr)

That said, not everyone wants to spend their entire holiday on the trails. Luckily, there are a fantastic day hikes in the Swiss Alps, as well, letting you set out for a few hours to enjoy the mountain views with their rushing waterfalls, dramatic glaciers, local wildlife, and flower-filled meadows during the day but be back in town (http://www.ciuitaly.com/blog/files/48-hours-ticino.php) with glass of wine in hand by sunset.

IMG_4684-4686 - Gimmelwald - View from Wylern-Gehren(Photo by thisisboss via Flickr)

Here are a few magnificent day hikes along easy-to-follow trails that can be hiked in either direction; many also have a fun funicular, gondola, or cogwheel railway to whisk hikers up to a scenic elevation to set off. You can bring a bag lunch if you like, but these routes are lined with Alpine lodges serving filling meals and snacks to keep you going for hours.

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Swiss Cheese: Not Wholly Holey

Switzerland is known for three things: mountains, chocolate, and cheese. Though this beautiful Alpine country offers much more—think lakes and castles, contemporary art and music festivals, picturesque old towns and bustling modern cities—there can be no quibble that it is home to some of the world's most stunning landscapes, prestigious chocolatiers, and, of course, unforgettable cheeses.

fondue-cr-ciu-travel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

If your only foray into Swiss cheese has been...uh, Swiss cheese, you're in for a delightful surprise. Switzerland produces more than 150 different types of cheese, each more complex and storied than the bland commercial cheese called “Swiss” available in the US. If you want to sample some of the country's best cheeses but are overwhelmed by the vast selection, you can start with the ten or so AOP (Appelation d‘Origine Protégée) Alp cheese varieties, certified as coming from Swiss Alpine farms in a specific area of origin and guaranteed to be the best of the best.

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48 Hours: Ticino

We understand your dilemma: you've decided to add a couple of days to your next Italy trip and explore Switzerland just to the north, but aren't sure where to go. Zürich, the country's largest city, and its Old Town of pastel-hued buildings along the Limatt River? The postcard-perfect capital of Bern, with its steeply pitched rooftops and excellent pastry shops? Or perhaps the lakeside cities of Lausanne or Lucerne, both set against a backdrop of snowcapped mountain peaks.

ticino-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We suggest dipping your toe in gradually, with a stop in the Canton of Ticino just across the border with Italy. The only Canton where Italian is recognized as the sole official language, Ticino has a unique landscape that blends dramatic Alpine peaks with the lush, palm-lined shores of Lake Lugano, and is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the picturesque cities of Lugano and Locarno. Here, you can discovery the beauty of Switzerland, tempered by the cultural and climatic influence of the country's warm southern neighbor.

lugano-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

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Driving in Italy: When You Must and When You Shouldn't

One of the biggest conundrums for travelers to Italy is whether or not to rent a car while visiting the country. Driving in this country can be tricky, and if you do decide to rent a car, we suggest you take a look at our tips in Want To Rent A Car In Italy: A Few Things To Consider. In addition, there are some excellent resources online for a quick overview of rules of the road and common road signs to brush up on before taking the wheel.

Arezzo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though there are many destinations in Italy for which a car is both unnecessary and a nuisance, there are other situations in which you may enjoy having the freedom and flexibility of your own transportation. Here are some suggestions to help you decide about whether or not you should consider renting a car during your trip to Italy:

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What To Do In Italy When It Rains

There's no denying that Italy is most enchanting when the weather is balmy. We especially love the spring and fall, when the air is so crisp that every view looks like a vintage postcard, you can comfortably tour even through the warmest hours of the afternoon, and the days are long enough to explore until evening.

umbrellas at yellow house
(Photo by Steve Hardy via Flickr)

Unfortunately, these are the same months in which the weather can be unpredictable and sudden showers can disrupt your carefully laid plans. One of the keys to a successful trip is being a bit flexible when the weather throws you for a loop, and finding a “Plan B” which will fill those wet hours or days with activities and experiences which keep you engaged...and dry! As Brian observed, “We were in Pienza the other day in the rain and saw a couple getting their bikes OFF their cars and setting out to ride around the countryside in pretty heavy rain. They didn't look very happy. A better idea - park the car and go have a leisurely lunch and a glass of wine.”

Here are a few ideas for those unforeseen stormy days when your plans of walking tours or countryside bike rides are better postponed:
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Fall Art Exhibits in Italy

Autumn is one of the best periods of the year to visit Italy: the dense summer crowds thin considerably with the beginning of the school year, the torrid temperatures become more humane, some of the county's best culinary products are in season, and in some destinations, accommodations and airlines start offering their shoulder or low season rates. Perhaps one of the only disadvantages to traveling from October to December is the tricky weather, which can often turn on a dime and makes it challenging to foresee what to wear or what to plan from day to day.

This is why it's always wise to have a Plan B in mind for your daily itinerary, just in case the skies open and that stroll through the Forum or Boboli Gardens has to be postponed a few hours. Local museums are good alternatives, especially temporary exhibits that offer something new and engaging to see, even if you've visited and toured the museum itself on previous days or trips.

Palazzo Strozzi(Photo by Federico Pelloni via Flickr)

Fortunately, Italy is thick with excellent art exhibitions running through the fall months in major and minor cities from north to south over the next three months, perfect for a B-list (or even A-list) itinerary, rain or shine.

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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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Lardo di Colonnata: Fatback at its Best

While the rest of the western world may be moving towards low-fat foods, Italy clings steadfastly to its fatty treats. Creamy cappuccino is made with luscious whole milk, cheeses leave a perfect patina in your mouth to cut the tannins of robust wines, and charcuterie from prosciutto to 'nduja are not shy about their pork fat content. But perhaps the gourmet specialty most in-your-face about its lard is, well, lardo...or, better, that divinely herbed and aged fatback known as Lardo di Colonnata.

lardo-di-colonnata-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Wine Tasting in Chianti

There are few products in the world which came as close to being a victim of their own success as Chianti Classico, the iconic red wine produced in a small vineyard-covered area of Tuscany dotted with tiny hilltop villages, quiet country churches, and lone rustic castles, and criss-crossed by the kind of winding country roads that just beg to be explored.

IMG_2685(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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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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Parma Food Tour

There are places in Italy where you also visit for the food. Puglia has its wonderful Baroque and beaches, and also the food. Sicily has its unique history and culture, and also the food. Tuscany is all wine and landscapes...and also the food.

Emilia Romagna, specifically the area surrounding Parma, is pretty much only the food. Yes, there are a few interesting cities to visit, and, as in all of Italy, there are important historical sites and museums. But let’s face it: the main reason for stopping in Parma and environs is to eat, so much so that this area is known in Italy as “Food Valley”.

wall-of-prosciutto-parma-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Parma’s most famous products are prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, its dried and aged ham and iconic cheese. The nearby city of Modena is home to Italy’s most prestigious balsamic vinegar (check back Friday for more details!), and, if you are still hungry, you can head to Bologna for egg pasta, in particular tortellini. The best way to fit in tastings for all the best of these local products in one day is on a food tour, where you visit producers and see the process up close, and then taste directly from the source.
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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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So You Want to Visit Vineyards in Italy?

Getting out into the Italian countryside, driving through the perfectly-aligned rows of grape vines capped with rose bushes at each end, and sampling little-known wines with the families who have been making them for generations – what could be a better way to spend an afternoon in Italy?

Young travelers at a vineyard, Tuscany(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We have had unforgettable experiences and made life-long friendships while visiting small vineyards in Italy, while also discovering wines that we can’t wait to share. (You can see our favorite spots from 2013 and 2014.)
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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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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…

Italy's Islands: The Venetian Islands

The word “island” tends to conjure up mental images of sugar sand beaches, palm trees, and flower-laden maidens, but Venice’s islands are much less Gauguin and much more de Chirico.

Leaning tower on Burano(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Gaily painted houses lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in blocks of contrasting color along canals placid enough to reflect their mirror image, perfectly symmetrical miniature footbridges spanning the water, neat artisan workshops turning out the same intricate crafts they have been for centuries—these tiny mini-Venices off the coast of La Serenissima are a microcosm of the same beauty, history, and artistry that has drawn wanderers to this corner of Italy since it was rivaled only by the Ottoman Empire in wealth and power.
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Italy’s Best Car and Automotive Museums

The world mourned Massimo Vignelli last week, one of Italy’s most influential designers who was the genius behind such iconic graphic images as Bloomingdale’s shopping bags and New York City’s uniquely Modernist subway map. In reviewing his ubiquitous influence, we were reminded of how important Italian design has been to the 20th century aesthetic evolution of everything from espresso pots to sunglasses to cinema to cars.

Especially cars.

Some of the sexiest (okay, beautiful...but we all know they’re sexy) cars produced since Ford cranked out the first Model Ts have come from Italy; indeed, if you want to nitpick, the first car ever built was a wind-driven vehicle which used a windmill-type drive to power gears and turn wheels designed by Guido da Vigevano in 1335. Names like Lamborghini and Maserati have become synonymous with sinewy, flowing lines that belie the power of their roaring engines and conjure up images of La Dolce Vita-era film stars speeding their way along the Italian coast.

Ferrari classic cars(Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr) Read More…

So You Want to Hike in Italy...

Italy is a country best explored by foot: in its bustling major cities, where just a few cobblestone streets away from the packed tourist sites pretty neighborhood piazzas await discovery; in its sleepy hilltowns, where the winding alleys are too narrow for most cars to navigate; and, most importantly, in its gorgeous countryside, ranging from the rocky Alpine peaks at its northern border to the rolling hills of central Italy and the rugged coastline at its southern shores.

IMG_2575(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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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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Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in Bologna

“Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art” exhibition, runs in Bologna’s Palazzo Fava until May 25th.

“Vermeer(Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” via Wikimedia Commons) Read More…

Caravaggio in Sicily

If you think that Charlie Sheen has a corner on the bad boy-slash-artistic genius market, think again. Centuries before temperamental Hollywood actors were trashing hotel rooms and scandalizing the morally upstanding,16th century Baroque painter Caravaggio was blazing the trail of high-profile excess and brawling, a route which led from Rome to Naples to Malta to Sicily and back to Naples as he sought to keep a step ahead of the law and his personal enemies. 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…

Deruta’s Majolica

Beijing may be the city of bicycles, Zurich the city of banks, and Las Vegas the city of sin, but no town is as synonymous with a single identifying feature as Deruta, a tiny hill-town in Italy’s central region of Umbria. Read More…

A Rainy-Day Florence Itinerary: Leon Battista Alberti

Now that autumn is upon us, travelers can expect some wet and blustery days even in the mild Mediterranean climes of Italy. With this in mind, we asked one of our favorite Florence guides, Elvira Politi, to suggest a largely indoor itinerary for those days when plans of lingering over a cappuccino in the city’s outdoor cafés get rained out, and she came up with the wonderful Leon Battista Alberti walking tour to celebrate the recent reopening of his Rucellai Chapel. 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…

Sicily’s Cous Cous Fest

One of the most well-known food festivals in Italy (and certainly in Sicily) is the annual Cous Cous Fest, held every year in late September in the pretty beach town of San Vito Lo Capo on Sicily’s western shore. Read More…

The Best Beaches for Daytrips from Rome, Florence, and Venice

Here are suggestions for the best beaches for “daycations” from Rome, Florence, or Venice. These, like most Italian beaches, are well organized for daytrippers as the stabilimenti balneari, or beach establishments, almost always include a café (many serving food), bathrooms, shower and changing rooms, and beach chairs and umbrellas to rent by the day. Just bring a bathing suit and towel and enjoy your vacation...from your vacation! Read More…

Siena’s Duomo Floor Revealed

The breathtaking floor of Siena’s Duomo, worked in inlaid marble mosaic by about forty artists from between the 14th and 16th centuries, is one of the most splendid of its kind in all of Italy. Read More…

Ferragosto: Chiuso per ferie

Of all the confounding holidays—of which Italy has many --perhaps the one that most often trips up the traveler is Ferragosto. Read More…

In Season: Sunflowers

Summer means Sunflower season. Read More…

A Note on Tour Guides in Italy

Our tour guides are not only wonderful local contacts and sources of information for our travelers but they are also our eyes and ears. We can't be everywhere at once, and they keep us in tune with the newest and greatest developments in our favorite cities.

From newly unveiled archeological sites in Rome to a once-in-a-lifetime blanket of snow covering central Florence, they are out there every day discovering the new and re-discovering the ancient.

Image © Concierge in Umbria

Italy's Stringent Tour Guide Requirements


In Italy, being a tour guide is not a seasonal occupation or something one does for a few years before moving on to a "career."

It is a licensed specialty, a lifelong occupation that requires years of study and training. Many guides have advanced degrees in art history, ancient history, and languages – often more than one. And if they are guiding our clients we work with and know them personally.

Guides must be licensed by the city or region they guide in, which not only means that they live in and frequently come from the areas they guide in, but they know their area so well that they've passed rigorous exams on the history of their geographic specialty.

Similar to our own belief that an itinerary should be developed around the traveler's needs and interests, first rate, professional tour guides adapt their knowledge to create tailored tours for each traveler they guide.

If there are children in your group for example, a good guide will include things of special interest to their age group that they wouldn't normally include for adults.

We highly recommend local tour guidesImage © Concierge in Umbria

The Guided Tour Experience


When you visit a church or a ruin or a battlefield, that's what you see – carvings, stones, or grass – unless you know what to look for.

Having a person who not only knows what there is to see, but what of those things you are interested in, how and when best to see them, and the logical order to present them in is what turns sight-seeing into a transformational experience, a confrontation with history and culture that brings you into the experience instead of leaving you outside looking in.

The first time we took a guided tour, we were stunned at the hidden stories, anecdotes, and local legends that our guide showed us. And this was a small town. That we had visited several times. And thought we knew well.

brian maria gabriella signature

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

Handmade Italian Textiles from the Masters at Brozzetti

When you reach Giuditta Brozzetti’s Handmade Fabric Museum and Workshop, it’s easy to think you’ve got the wrong place.

The Women’s Church of St. Francis


brozzetti italian textiles
Image © Concierge in Umbria

The street address leads you to an early 13th century church near Perugia's historic center. The atrium (pictured above) could be the office of the convent’s head sister, with its spare but elegant furnishings.

It was here that San Francesco and his disciples made their home while they were teaching in Perugia. And this church – today Perugia’s oldest Franciscan church – was erected on the spot in the saint’s honor. A group of Benedictine nuns then resided there on and off for the next 600 years.

But as you venture into the main church, you find antique looms lined up within each arch of the arcaded aisles.

brozzetti italian textiles loom
Image © Concierge in Umbria

And as textiles historian and Brozzetti co-owner Clara Baldelli Bombelli unravels the history of Umbrian weaving, through one breathtaking sample after another of the workshop’s delicate, colorful recreations of Deruta ceramic-inspired embroidery, veil-like silk and linen curtains, and cashmere- and gold-threaded tapestries, you come to share her belief that the church is the ideal place to honor the region’s traditionally feminine monastic crafts.

The Long Tradition of Umbrian Weaving


brozzetti italian textiles weaving
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Weaving as both a craft and an art form is believed to have developed in Umbria between the 11th and 13th centuries.

But it was in the next three centuries that the industry, and its designs, came into their own.

Umbria-woven linen altar cloths with geometric borders (similar to the Medieval tessuto rustico pictured above) and regal animal figures became in moda throughout Italy. Umbrian griffins, lions, and eagles – based on Etruscan pottery – could be found gracing the vestments of the high-ranking church figures and the tables of the wealthiest Renaissance families.

Unfortunately, after its Renaissance peak, the Umbrian textile industry declined almost to the point of extinction, until, in the early 1900s, a group of Umbrian woman revived interest in the traditional designs.

Giuditta Brozzetti, Clara’s grandmother, was one of those leading the charge, and Brozzetti founded her workshop not only as a production center, but also as a school to further the craft.

Brozzetti’s Work Today


brozzetti italian textiles jaquard plates
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Generation after generation, from mother to daughter, this tradition of education and excellence has continued through today.

If you have a day or a week, Clara and Marta will impart their deep knowledge of the craft’s history through basic weaving courses or in-depth dives into the intricacies of traditional Umbrian motifs. What sets the Brozzetti workshop apart, besides being one of the few wholly handmade cloth workshops left, are these designs (created on the pattern machine above).

Clara’s daughter, master weaver Marta Cucchi, studies paintings from the likes of Simone Martini, Ghirlandaio, and even Giotto and da Vinci featuring Umbrian cloths to uncover Renaissance patterns that have been lost to the weaving community over the centuries.

The Region of Umbria honored Brozzetti in 2004 for this important preservation work, officially including the workshop in its museum system.

Don’t Forget A Souvenir


brozzetti italian textiles weaving
Image © Concierge in Umbria

While you’re busy admiring the antique jacquard looms, skeins of jewel-colored linen, cotton, silk, and cashmere thread lined up like jellies in a candy shop, and Marta swiftly warping and wefting away in the midst of it all, don’t forget to choose a favorite.

We think it’s a sin to miss the opportunity to pick out one of the workshop’s divine creations in person.

brian maria gabriella signature

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

48 Hours: Firenze (Florence)

In a city with more than 70 museums and 2,000 years of history (much of it concentrated in the just under 2-square-mile centro storico UNESCO World Heritage Site) forty-eight hours is just enough time to get a taste of Florence’s charm . . . and start plotting for your return.

FRIDAY


48 hours in florence duomo
Image © Concierge in Umbria

4:00 p.m. Greatest Hits


Start in the Piazza del Duomo, where the sheer mass of the cathedral and its Renaissance engineering masterpiece, the largest brick dome constructed to this day, dwarf the surrounding medieval streets. Continue down Via dei Calzaiuoli and work your way through Piazza Signoria to the Arno River and back east to the Basilica of Santa Croce.

6:30 p.m. Stop and Smell the Vino


Rest your feet and feast your eyes on the Florentine passeggiata, the evening stroll in one of the many medieval tower houses that’s been converted into a wine bar. Where to begin? We’re partial to Antinori’s wines and their restaurant outside the city, and their in-town Cantinetta Antinori is an ideal spot to sample both.

8:00 p.m. Dine like Dante


You’ll find that beyond all of the art and architecture, one of the best things about Florence is its residents. Trattorias showcase both traditional local fare – think pasta with rabbit sauce, 30+ oz. steaks, and hearty vegetable soups – and a vibrant swath of the local population. We love Trattoria I’ Parione, where we had one of our favorite meals of 2011.

SATURDAY


48 hours in florence palazzo pubblico
Image © Concierge in Umbria

7:30 a.m. A Café with a View


At Rivoire, founded by the personal chocolatier of the Savoy family when Florence was the capital of newly united Italy, you can grab a signature hot chocolate or a café and pastry and soak up the local gossip and the singular view of Piazza della Signoria, a site which has hosted the rise and fall of Florentine regimes for centuries.

8:15 a.m. Medici Morning


Dive in when the doors first open to get Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery more or less to yourself. The museum is organized chronologically and grouped by artists, so it offers the perfect chance for a morning’s education on Florence’s pivotal role as a setting for Renaissance artistic development. And what better setting than the place these great artists learned their craft! During the early Renaissance, the Medicis invited artists to study and work among the collection to hone their skills.

48 hours in florence arno river
Image © Concierge in Umbria

11:00 a.m. On the Wild Side


Though it’s just a one-minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno’s south shore, the Oltrarno (beyond the Arno) is largely overlooked by tourists. Grab lunch in one of the great-value, locals-oriented trattorias or piadinerias (like a pizzeria for flatbread). Walk it off touring some of the artisans plying ancient trades on the back streets, from bookbinders to furniture makers to stationers. Begin your second Medici encounter of the day at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence’s answer to Buckingham Palace. After all the opulence, treat yourself to a well-deserved respite in the ducal gardens attached to the palace, the Boboli Gardens, or the adjoining, recently reopened Bardini gardens terraced on the hillside.

5:00 p.m.: A Sunset fit for a King


Michelangelo’s David (or at least one of the four versions displayed around the city) enjoys the best view of the city from Piazza Michelangelo in the Oltrarno. As the day cools off, you can reach this spot via car, bus, or foot – the steep steps up the riverside to the piazza are not for those out of shape – for a picnic or aperitivo as the sun sets on the River Arno.

7:30 p.m. Dinner Theater?


No other spot in Chef Fabbio Picchi’s Cibreo empire can compete with Teatro del Sale in terms of pure entertainment value. The dining room is itself a theater, and a performance – from circus acrobatics to lyric opera to stand-up comedy – ends every dinner. But the show is only half the show. Dinner itself, announced with a verbal drumroll from the windows of the adjoining kitchen, is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only after gorging yourself on the buffet of vegetables, salads, and grilled meats does the soup begin, followed by course after course after surprising course.

SUNDAY


48 hours in florence vista
Image © Concierge in Umbria

9:00 a.m. Small Blessings


Begin in one of Florence’s smaller museum gems. Just behind Piazza Signoria, the Bargello (open the 2nd and 4th Sundays of every month), named for its former function as a prison, is a wonderful alternative to the Accademia with its broad range of sculpture including works by Donatello and Michelangelo. The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo, which houses all of the original art and sculpture from the cathedral, offers an opportunity to get up close with a version of Michelangelo's Pieta. For fashion lovers, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo tells the story of how one man's quest to make perfect custom shoes launched an empire.

11:00 a.m. Sweet Rewards


Reward yourself for an early morning among the maestros with a café and pasta (pastry) at one of Florence’s top bakeries in the eastern part of the city. Try I Dolci di Patrizio Corsi on Borgo Albizi or Dolci & Dolcezze in Piazza Beccaria, home to one of the city’s remaining eighth-century gates.

12:00 p.m. Spoil Yourself


Stroll back through some of the city’s best boutiques on Borgo Albizi as you make your way back to the center of town and Florence’s supreme shopping around Piazza Repubblica, particularly on Via Tornabuoni, home to the family palaces and fashion houses of the Puccis, Guccis, and Ferragamos.

2:00 p.m. Arrivederci Firenze


Refuel on some light fare like the legendary sandwiches at nearly-130-year-old Due Frattelini before bidding your final adieu to the city from its premier panorama spot – the top of Brunelleschi’s dome.

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

Top Italian Music Festivals: Opera in Rome, The Arena di Verona, Umbria Jazz Festival and More

italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user *Debs*

Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).

As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.

Arena di Verona, Veneto


italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh

Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.

Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria


italian music festivals umbria jazz festival
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome


italian music festivals opera in Rome
Image by Flickr user Teldridge+Keldridge

Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.

Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany


Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.

Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast


italian music festivals ravello
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown

Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District


italian music festivals stresa
Image by Flickr user Pascal

When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.

Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche


Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.

Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany


italian music festivals florence maggio musicale
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica

Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.

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

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

Traveling Between Rome, Florence and Venice: Stopovers to Round Out Your Trip

Whether it’s your first trip to Italy or you’ve traveled the Bel Paese so often that you can almost call it your second home, some cities just never get old. As many times as you might visit the cultural capitals of Rome, Florence, and Venice – with all their history, art, and unmistakable Italian vibe – you are bound to discover something new on each trip. That said, though these three cities are among Italy’s most popular destinations, we’ve got a secret.

There’s a lot of Italy left to explore in between. Read More…

A Tuscan Cooking Class with a Noble Twist: Cooking with the Contini Bonacossis

Anybody can sign up for a cooking class in Tuscany. But how about learning to cook with the private chef of a count and countess and then sitting down to lunch with the whole family . . . eating the food you just made?

The Contini Bonacossi Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In Tuscany, and especially Florence, the Contini Bonacossis are best known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) – friend of Simon Guggenheim and a Senator to the Kingdom of Italy – amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Now housed in the Uffizi, the collection was donated to the state in 1969.

Today's generation of Contini Bonacossis are best know for their food and wine. The family is one of the top producers of Carmignano wine, a wine that dates back 3000 years and in the 14th-century was one of the most valuable commodities in Europe. Carmignano is produced by only 13 estates, and when you visit you’ll see the family’s dedication to keeping this craft alive.

Arriving at the Contini Bonacossi Estate


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In the morning, depart from your hotel and climb the leisurely hills outside Florence with your driver. The Contini Bonacossi estate lies a half hour outside Florence in Tenuta di Capezzana.

On the sprawling grounds – you’ll get an excellent view from the hilltop villa – the family maintains large orchards of grapes, olives and lemons, which are raised in terraces called limonaie that transform into greenhouses in the winter.

After driving through the vineyard to reach the house, you’ll dive into your cooking lesson with the family chef Patrizio, who has been with the family for more than twenty years.

Cooking Ancient Tuscan Food


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi founded this cooking school in the 1980s to share traditional Tuscan cuisine based on ancient recipes with her guests, so you're in for a treat beyond the usual Tuscan dining experience.

Though they may include some of today's typical Tuscan menu items, such as ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and bistecca alla fiorentina, Patrizio also teaches particular regional dishes like stracotto alla Carmingnano (Carmignano-style pot roast) and baccala alla livornese (Livorno-style cod) and dishes based on local ingredients, such as penne ai tre cavoli (with three cabbages) or crostini di cavolo nero (with black cabbage).

At the end of your course, the Contini Bonacossis will also give you a bottle of wine or olive oil so you can recreate your meal at home.

Eating with the Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Dust the flour off your clothes, wash your hands, and sit down for lunch with the count, countess, and their whole family. Naturally, the contessa will don her pearls, but the family is quite laid-back, so you’ll do just fine.

After your meal, one of your hosts will escort you around the estate, including the wine cellars where they age their famous DOCG (the highest quality designation available for Italian wine) Carmignano wine. Once you’ve had your fill of the noble surroundings, your driver will cruise you back through the rolling hills into town.

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