Tag Archives: italy

Italian Tours

Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Starting in the spring of 2012, the Istituto Educazione Italiana will begin offering guided tours to Italy of approximately two-weeks duration. The tours will concentrate on history, art and culture, as well as gastronomy and leisure. 

The tours are organized by Mario Fusco and Angelica di Chiara, both natives of Italy and knowledgeable of the language and culture of the country. By using their extensive network of contacts in Italy Mario and Angelica are able to offer uniquely customized tours not available from commercial organizations. Mario and Angelica accompany each tour and provide value added in the form of language instruction, historical narrative, insights in the art and culture, and personalized interactions with “real” Italians in Italy. And of course they will deal with any unforeseen circumstances that might arise while traveling. The personal approach makes it also possible to contain costs and to offer significant value for the traveler’s money.

The first tour if offered in May-June 2012. Please go to the Italian Tours page for details.

Italian Travel Tips

1. DO fly a European carrier if possible. You will have many more choices of final destinations if the second leg of your trip originates in Europe.

2. DO get some euro’s at the airport, as soon as you arrive. Their exchange rates are competitive.

3. DON’T deal with banks if you can avoid it. Generally you have to have an account at a bank to have them do anything for you at all.

4. DON’T take much cash with you, and DO use the ATM’s. They are plentiful and the fees you incur are well worth the peace of mind.

5. In restaurants, forget the 15-to-20% tipping rule. Ten percent is plenty, and then only if you think you have received good service.

6. DO tip your porter after he has taken your bags to your hotel room. Figure one euro per bag.

7. DON’T, if you are over eight years old, order a glass of milk or a cappuccino with dinner.

8. Remember that in Italy the midday meal (‘pranzo’) is the main meal of the day. For an inexpensive but still good ‘pranzo’ DO try a tavola calda on occasion.

Little Known Italy – BOLOGNA

Le Torri di Bologna

Le Due Torri

Bologna is without a doubt one of the most underrated cities in Italy. The capital of Emilia-Romagna, it is a city of about 1/3 million people, with ancient roots in pre-Roman Etruscan culture, a rich artistic heritage, a well-preserved historical center, and a coherent integration of the best that Italy has to offer in art, cuisine, architecture, and lifestyle. With a long tradition as a university city, probably the first in Europe, it is enlivened by the cultural and social contributions of young people who come from all over the world to study there. It is famous for its towers, its portici, and its centro storico, among the best-kept in Italy following a careful policy of preservation and restauration. Bologna has long enjoyed one of the most efficient and dedicated city administrations in all of Italy, and this is reflected in the efficiency of its services, the care with which the physical environment is maintained, and the smooth functioning of its civic institutions.

The relative obscurity of the city (compared to Florence and Venice, say), is perhaps due to the lack of an overarching artistic or architectural masterpiece to serve as a magnet for the attention of tourists and art aficionados, such as the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. And in fact the artistic importance of Bologna is due primarily to an homogeneous aggregation of first-class architectural and artistic masterpieces out of which it would be difficult to single out a distinct work for special recognition.

Agriturismo in Italy

Italian Landscape

Italian Landscape

Agriturismo, the countryside kind of tourism that has been growing in Italy in recent years, is a sort of rural retreat, generally for the whole family, during which the vacationeer can relax and reconnect with nature in its various manifestations, including getting to know your friendly horse and cow and other farm animals.  A treat for the city slicker who thinks that eggs are made in a laboratory and milk comes from the interior of coconuts.   This being Italy, agriturismo is also closely related to the regional types of cuisine that can be sampled while enjoying your stay in the rustic surroundings of the fattoria or casale of your choice.  In fact, as shown by several polls in Italy, the culinary element is key, for most people, when choosing an eventual destination.  This was explicitly recognized by Agrietour, International Salon for Agriturismo in Arezzo, in recently organizing a contest to choose the best peasant dish from 20 entries submitted by preselected agriturismi from all parts of Italy,

The prizewinner was the casata, a dish from Latium, which is a kind of pie based on an ancient recipe and made of two different dough mixes which should layer and not intermix, a result that can be verified only when the pie is cooked and eventually cut.  As agriturismo continues to grow in Italy we can look forward to more such contests and sagre that will showcase the local culinary specialties connected to each agriturismo.  All good for the vacationing public, which stands to benefit from the increased competition and the resulting improvement in the quality of agriturismo fare.

If your intent is to relax and unwind,  an agriturismo vacation is hard to beat: the Italian countryside, magically timeless, the Mediterranean climate and its glorious vegetation, excursions to solemn pinete as spiritual as any church, the rediscovery of ancient unhurried rhythms and practices, top-notch food, group activities in a convivial setting ideal for bonding with your family and making new friends … what more could you ask?


Il Maschio Angioino

Maschio Angioino

Castel Nuovo

With this we get back to the mother lode, back to our roots, full circle, Naples, beautiful and forlorn, deceptively gay and mysteriously complex, vibrant as a tarantella and subtle as a stiletto.  The core, the essence, inseparable from the sea and the volcano, smoldering in its millennial languor, prostrated by the sweetness of the summer air, seduced and seductive in the grip of its eternal dream.  And we present here for your consideration the Castel Nuovo (distinct from the Castel Vecchio and Castel Capuano), also known as the Maschio Angioino in honor of its builder, Charles I of Anjou in the 13th century, following the expulsion of the Hohenstaufen.

Famous names are associated with the castle.  Pope Celestine V (the only pope to ever abdicate the Pontificate, and consigned to hell by Dante in his Inferno), sojourned here.  So did Petrarch and Boccaccio and Giotto, who produced frescoes which have unfortunately been lost.  The castle was almost entirely rebuilt during the tenure of the Aragonese, and further modified during the 18th century.

The Renaissance facade inserted between the medieval towers gives a startling contrast.  This exceptional work is actually a triumphal arch, executed in marble, and was commissioned by King Alfonso of Aragon following his conquest of the Kingdom from the Angevins.  It consists actually of two arches stacked vertically; the intermediate facade is where Alfonso’s triumph is actually represented.  The rest of the structure is abundantly decorated with mythological and allegorical symbols, as was the practice in those times.  Many artists from Naples, France and Spain worked on this remarkable arch, and it is difficult to accurately attribute every feature to the proper author.

The Italian Sesquicentennial Revisited

Unification Logo

Unification Logo

History abounds with ironies, and one of the most poignant is surely the story of the political unification of Italy. United during the late Roman Republican period (~100 BC), Italy became fragmented following the fall of the Empire in the 5th century AD. It was to remain fragmented for more than a millennium, variously dominated by either foreign or domestic dynasties. The great period of the Renaissance was characterized by the ascendancy of indigenous autocratic rulers and by a the well-known efflorescence in the arts and sciences. The Renaissance came to an end with the advent of foreign rulers, notably the Spanish, the French, and the Austrians.

The ideals of the French Revolution and the dissemination of these ideals during the Napoleonic Era gave a great impetus to irredentist tendencies in Italy. The time had come for a national state, the Congress of Vienna could not put the genie back in the bottle. The Kingdom of Sardinia (which was ruled by the Savoia and included Piedmont, Liguria and Val d’Aosta) took the lead in trying to unify the Peninsula, and went to war three times with the Austro-Hungarian empire, which held large swathes of the territory. The result of these three Wars of Independence (1848 to 1866), together with the conquest and annexation of the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples) in 1860, was essentially the united Italy we know today. The Austrians still clung to some disputed territory in the Northeast (notably Trieste and Trento), but the Italians managed to recover these cities following the first World War, in 1918. Further territorial adjustments were made after World War II, and voila’ contemporary Italy!

The architects of the Unification are four in number, and their names are strewn all over the Italian cityscape. Best-known is probably Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of two worlds, who turned down a request by Lincoln to join the Union armies; then there was the indomitable republican revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, whose work was mostly done in exile; then the crafty Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, whose clever diplomacy put Italy in the middle of European affairs and resulted in key alliances; and of course the Savoy King, Vittorio Emanuele II, who became the first King of Italy since Theodoric.

Little-known Italy – RAVENNA

Coat of Arms of the City of Ravenna

Coat of Arms of Ravenna

A few miles south of Venice, in Emilia Romagna, the enterprising traveler will find the city of Ravenna. This city is easily bypassed, it is not on most tourist itineraries nor does it generally host internationally advertised events such La Biennale di Venezia or La Fiera di Milano. It is nevertheless a city of capital importance both artistically and historically. And it offers a glimpse of that urbanely unhurried Italian lifestyle that most people seek when they visit the country.

The beginnings of Ravenna are uncertain, though scholarly opinion inclines towards an Etruscan origin. The city was never conquered by the Romans, rather, it was accepted into the Republic as a federated town. Ravenna was an important outpost during the period of ascendancy of the Western Empire, becoming its capital in its twilight, just before the Empire’s fall to the German foederati chieftain, Odoacer. It was then the capital of the first Kingdom of Italy, and continued in this role after Theodoric slew Odoacer and took over his kingdom. Retaken eventually by the Byzantines, Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine power in Italy (the Exarchate of Ravenna), until the Byzantines’ final expulsion by the Longobards. Ravenna’s distinguished history continued under the popes, until its unification with the newly-minted Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Little Known Italy

The Italian Flag

Bandiera Italiana

The canonical destinations for tourists traveling to Italy are well known: Florence, Venice, Rome, the Cinqueterre, Umbria. The slightly more experienced may have found the Amalfitan Coast, Sicily, the Lago di Como, the Italian Riviera. But there is much, much more to Italy than these well-known destinations. I would argue, in fact, that the true Italy, unspoiled by the tourist presence, is more readily found in little-known middle-sized cities and out-of-the-way places that have maintained their cultural and historic identity aloof from the tourist tide.

Examples abound. The Byzantine treasures of Ravenna, the Renaissance gems of Ferrara and Mantova, the liveliness of Padova, the casual gayety of Rimini, the transcendent serenity of Montecassino, the majesty of the Monastery of Padula, the timeless ruins of Paestum, the eclectic beauty of Monreale… the list is truly endless. Charming resort towns like Nettuno, Maratea, Gallipoli in the South, alpine beauties such as Cortina in the eastern Alps. And more and more. And everywhere you find art and history and the Italian lifestyle!

In the next few posts we will explore some of these little-known treasures. Perhaps on future trips, once Florence and Venice have begun to pall, you will want to venture further afield and get a taste of a more pristine Italy.

The Italian Diaspora

The unification of Italy, itself a political and historical event of major importance, led to an unintended but equally massive consequence: Italian emigration to North and South America, a trickle up to 1861, assumed the dimensions of a torrent, as hundreds of thousands of Italians finally said basta to harsh lives of unrewarded labor and sought opportunities elsewhere. So far as I know, no one has made a causal connection between the two events, but it seems disingenuous at best to suppose that they are totally unrelated. Strangely enough, the initial impetus came from the northern regions, Piemonte, Veneto, Friuli…, and not from the South. Southern emigration, from Campania, Calabria and Sicilia, did not pick up until several decades later.

Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)

Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)

La Madonnina di Milano

Madonnina di Milano, high above the city, on one of the spires of the Duomo.

Madonnina di Milano

High above the rooftops of Milano, on the highest spire of the Duomo, arms outstretched to invoke divine benediction upon Her beloved city, there stands La Madonnina, the Little Madonna. But not so little, really: She stands over four meters tall, in radiant golden brass, representing the Madonna of The Assumption. She has stood there, on her guglia 108 meters above the square, for 240 years, and in that time the legend has taken hold that no building in the city may be taller than the Madonnina, lest her divine protection be withdrawn.

The legend, eventually inserted into the law books, served to keep the height of any new building below the canonical 108 meters until the advent of the Pirellone (~1960), which stands about 127 meters. But to make the new building palatable to the Milanese a new Madonnina had to be constructed and placed on the highest point of the Pirellone . And now the precedent had been set: Palazzo Lombardia, taller than the Pirellone, was built in 2004, adorned with yet another copy of the Madonnina, which must forever occupy the highest point of the city, to best watch over her.