Category Archives: Little Italian Treasures

Visit Tuscany: The Florence Baptistery Doors

Florence is one of the world’s great artistic cities, boasting numerous beautiful pieces of art; whether in the form of architecture, such as the Ponte Vecchia, or artworks such as Michelangelo’s David. Another architectural piece can be added to this list: the Baptistery Doors.

The three doors of the Florence Baptistery, located opposite the Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo, have become a famous entity in themselves. The first set of doors, designed by Andrea Pisano in 1330 and 6 years in the making, are made from bronze, with each of the 14 panels on each side being delightfully gilded. This was an incredible piece of work, given that the use of bronze was by no means commonplace and had not been perfected at this time.

The second set of doors were built some seventy years later, when the young Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition and was commissioned to create them. He took his time over finishing them, with a twenty-year gap between the time he started and when the project was complete. The door is similar in style to Andrea Pisano’s, with 28 panels.

The final set of the three was again entrusted to Lorenzo Ghiberti, after he had impressed with the first door he created. The ‘Doors of Paradise’ form the north entrance to the building and are different to the others, as they are comprised of just 10 panels, telling stories from the Old Testament. The final door was even praised by the great Michelangelo, and is known as Ghiberti’s pièce de resistance. The doors have been renovated, but still stand today.

 

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Visit Sicily: Explore the Zingaro Nature Reserve

There is plenty to get your teeth into when you visit Sicily. The first things that spring to mind are the food and beaches, but there is much more to experience on this beautiful island.

The Zingaro nature reserve (Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro) was founded in 1981 and was the first of its kind on Sicily. The park stretches along 7 kilometres of unspoilt coastline and includes a mountainous area, in addition to steep cliffs and small coves complete with lovely sandy beaches and a crystal clear sea.

The reserve is the perfect place to escape and get back to nature. Its location ensures tranquillity as well as the perfect pictures to take back home with you. For bird lovers, there are several species of birds of prey to look out for. It is located in the north west of the island, a couple of hours drive from the capital Palermo, making it a tempting day trip.

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Visit Montepulciano

One of the first images that springs to mind when thinking about a holiday to Italy is that of the rolling hills of Tuscany. Montepulciano, which is a medieval town, certainly does nothing to dispel this image, and is a beautiful place to visit all year round.

During the day, there are an impressive amount of things to see for a town of its size, with the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the communal palace among the favourite sites for visitors to the area. Aside from the beautiful architecture, one of the most stunning things about Montepulciano is the views that it offers from its hilltop perch.

 Montepulciano's Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral

Montepulciano’s Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral

A quaint town, Montepulciano is most famous for its wine, which is one of the best produced in the whole country. The town is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of this wine in the evening and watch the world go by.

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Visit Bologna

One Italian city that is sometimes overlooked when planning a holiday is Bologna. Although less famous than some of its counterparts, such as Florence, Rome and Venice, there is still plenty to do when you visit Bologna, and with fewer foreign tourists around, it may feel like your little secret.

Bologna is located in the North of Italy, in the Emilio-Romagna region and boasts several attractions that make it such a fantastic place to visit. Primarily, it is famous for its food and is even known as the gastronomic capital of Italy, a title for which there is much good competition. The delicious and renowned Bolognese sauce has its origins in the city, and there is such a wide variety of restaurants serving traditional local food that everyone will be satisfied.

The main square, the Piazza Maggiore, is simply stunning and worth a visit on its own. It is the perfect place to relax with an espresso, or for those travelling in July, to take in the film festival which shows restored films on big screens in the square.

Bologna is also home to the oldest university in Europe, which is well worth a visit. Finally, the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers are some of the oldest and most important monuments in the city. The tops of the towers offer the best view of the city and can be climbed.

The city is easy to reach via its airport, and is also a major railway hub, so the next time you plan an Italian getaway, think Bologna.

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Visit Sicily’s Markets

Sicily is synonymous with beautiful beaches and delicious food, and there is no better place to discover some of the local produce than at the local street markets. Sicily has four main markets; Vucciria, Ballarò, Il Capo and Borgo Vecchio, all of which are in Palermo and offer the chance to discover the island through its food.

Il Capo Market *Image: Wikipedia

Il Capo Market
*Image: Wikipedia

Sicily’s seafood is much vaunted and is very prevalent in the Il Capo market, which is one of the biggest street markets in Sicily, and famous for its fish. These four markets do sell other things, such as traditional gifts and clothing, but it really is the food that stands out. Another popular treat to enjoy at the markets is the mountains of fresh fruit on offer. In the winter months, the island is full of blood oranges, a native fruit with protected status, which is delicious as a juice to start a day of sight-seeing.

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The Cinque Terre

The coastline of the Cinque Terre

The stunning coastline of the Cinque Terre

Having worked for Cottages to Castles for many years I had heard a lot about the Cinque Terre but had never actually visited it.  In September 2013 the chance finally came when my partner and I decided to visit the area for a few days whilst en route to Tuscany.

We stayed at the gorgeous Casa dei Limoni one of Cottages to Castles many cottages in Italy.  It  is conveniently located just above the coastal resort of Bonassola and because we were travelling by motorbike we like to be able to walk to shops and restaurants so it was ideal.  The walk down into the town from the property takes just 15 minutes (and only slightly longer on the way back up).  Bonassola is a delightful town and has everything you could need for a relaxing holiday.  But one of the ideal facilities is the train line which takes you to the first down of the Cinque Terre (Monterosso) in just two stops!

We actually decided to go to the furthest town (Riomaggiore) and work our way back from there with a combination of walking and taking the train.  So we set off at around 9.30am and arrived in Riomaggiore approximately 30 minutes later.  Whilst it was busy with other visitors it was not unbearable and after a stroll around the village we found a great bar for morning coffee and a second breakfast!  We were already enthralled by the steep, narrow ravine this village has been built in yet the surrounding slopes are covered with vines. How on earth is that possible? We kept asking ourselves. We strolled down to the tiny yet lovely and much photographed harbour of Riomaggiore where we discovered that there is a boat service which serves each of the towns except for Corniglia, the highest one.  As it was a lovely, sunny day we decided to use the boats rather than trains. As it turned out the path that we wanted to walk was closed anyway so this was a great alternative. It also proved a great way of getting some great photos of the villages as they are tricky to photograph close up.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

 

The boat services which links the villages

The boat services which links the villages

We bought our tickets to the next village of the group (Manarola) and only waited a few minutes for the boat to arrive.  A short boat ride later and we were in Manarola.  This is a bit smaller than Riomaggiore but still absolutely stunning – beautiful pastel coloured buildings simply clinging to the cliffs.  Lunchtime had arrived and we found a great restaurant on the main street. Of course, we had to go for seafood and opted for the deepfried mixed dish.  What a fantastic choice!  It proved to be one of the best meals of our entire trip.  It was cooked to perfection and washed down with a glass of the local white wine – ottimo!!

Delicious lunch!

Delicious lunch!

Speaking of wine, it was really interesting to learn how important the area’s vineyards have been in its history.  From as early as the 11th century there have been vines planted on the cultivated terraces.  Today it is still very much regarded as ‘heroic winemaking’ because of the enormous effort that has to into producing the grapes.  There is very little mechanical help so all the work must be done by hand. If you come here you will see for yourself how truly incredible this is.

After lunch we took the boat along the coast passing Corniglia on the way to Vernazza.  Yet another great village awaited us.  Unfortunately, this one was severely affected by landslides back in 2011 and the effects are still apparent on some of the buildings.  It made us realise how fragile this entire area is.

Vernazza's lovely harbour

Vernazza’s lovely harbour

The last town we saw was Monterosso al Mare, perhaps not in such a stunning location as the others but still good to visit.  With lots of bars, restaurants and shops to explore as well as the lovely beach there is certainly lots to do here.

After a look around Monterosso we headed back to Bonassola on the train and enjoyed an aperitivo on the beach watching the sunset before heading back to Casa dei Limoni.  What an absolutely fantastic day it had been!  It was just about the amazing scenery and great villages but also the food, the boat experience and indeed the people we had met and chatted with, locals and fellow visitors alike.  I would love to do it again sometime and highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

 

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Visit Naples: The Capodimonte Royal Palace

This palace was built during the XVIII century by Carlo di Borbone. Its impressive construction manages to dominate the landscape on the Gulf of Naples. During its history, it has been used both as a residence for royals and as a museum.

Capodimonte Royal Palace

*Image: Wikipedia

In the woods of the Palace and game reserve can be found more than 4,000 varieties of age-old trees, and some of the buildings were set aside for court life (The Casina della Regina, and The Palazzina dei Principi). Various religious celebrations take place in the Church of San Gennaro, and the Capuchins Retreat, and agricultural and animal husbandry activities go on in the pheasants’ aviary, the ‘Cellaio’ barn and the cowshed. Also at this stunning location is the Parco Della Statuaria, consisting of fountains, boulevards and small villas.

During the rich history of the palace, many European intellectuals have stayed there; Winckelmann, Angelika Kauffmann, Canova, Fragonard, Goethe and Hackert, to name but a few.

Well worth a visit next time you visit Naples or its surrounding area!

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Visit Verona: a little treasure for Romeo and Juliet’s fans

We are probably all aware of how much Shakespeare adored Italy and know that he was very fond of writing plays set in this beautiful country. But have you thought of visiting Verona, where three of his plays take place?

*Source: Wikipedia

*Source: Wikipedia

In Verona, you can visit what claims to be Juliet’s house. Thousands of people visit this attraction every day to admire the famous balcony and to take pictures with a bronze statue of Juliet that claims to bring good fortune if you rub its right breast. In the last few years, people have also started to leave locks on the inside gates, as well as to write their lover’s name on the walls that lead to the house in the hope that this will make their love everlasting.

*Source: Wikipedia

*Source: Wikipedia

If you are a Shakespeare fan, another place you might not have thought of visiting is Juliet’s grave, which is in Via del Pontiere. The grave is to be found within the religious compound of San Francesco al Corso, although to be exact, it is actually placed in a crypt which is accessible from the cloister.

This was formerly a monastery with a vegetable garden in which there was an ancient red marble sarcophagus.  The sarcophagus was empty and had no cover, and it was at the beginning of the 19th century that it became identified as the final resting place of the beautiful Juliet.

In present times, many civil weddings are held here, with couples from far-flung countries celebrating this unique experience. There is also a tradition of addressing love letters to “Juliet in Verona” which a team of secretaries collect and post answers to.

Visiting Verona might not be somewhere you may have thought of before, but is definitely one for the ‘bucket list’!

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Visit Ostia Antica and the Castello di Giulio II

Italy is home to more UNESCO world heritage sights than any other nation, so you can be certain of always finding a monument to pique the interest when visiting this beautiful country.

Rome is famous for many historical and interesting sights including the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountains, The Spanish Steps and Vatican City, to name but a few. But just around half an hour’s train ride from the eternal city is a castle well worth paying a visit to. The Castello di Giulio II (Julius the 2nd’s castle), also known as La Rocca di Ostia, may in fact soon be forced to close its doors to the public due to lack of funding, so the next time you are in Rome take the chance to visit Ostia Antica and see this wonderful historical monument while you still can.la rocca di ostia

The castle is hundreds of years old and overlooks the ruins of an ancient harbour city, Ostia Antica. Its construction was financed by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere sometime between 1483 and 1487, and he entrusted the building work to Florentine architect Baccio Pontelli. Strategically, the castle was of immense importance as customs officials there had to collect duties for the Vatican from ships that were sailing on to Rome.

The castle reflects Pope Julius the Second’s great love of the arts and so among the beautiful things to see are some stunning frescos, which were created by artists of the Baldassarre Peruzzi School. Restoration of these began some four years ago when paintings of the trials of Hercules and cameos of ancient Roman emperors were partially revealed.

 

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Visit Basilicata: Matera and the prehistoric cave dwellings

In the region of Basilicata, in Italy’s ‘instep,’ you will find Matera, its most notable feature being the prehistoric cave dwellings still in evidence and actually inhabited until 1952 when they were declared unsafe. It was the first location in southern Italy to make the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993.

Sassi di Matera

*Image: Wikipedia

The Sassi di Matera is a complete ancient city which was carved out of the local rock. It is possible for a small fee to visit some of the cave dwellings. Just imagine for yourself living there as a peasant during the first part of the last century. There were no windows and very often people and their animals would inhabit a single room, and yet there was a complex system of hydraulics which actually provided running water. You can also see many cave churches, some still having Byzantine frescoes preserved within them. You can take a guided tour of the caves in Parco delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano.

All in all, Matera is a completely different, but very fascinating, area of Italy and we would recommend you visit Basilicata!

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