Ai Weiwei’s ‘Libero’ at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

Ai Weiwei is one of the best and most provocative artists working in the world today. Now Italians and visitors to Italy will have a chance to see the Chinese artists’s works up close in an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Continue reading Ai Weiwei’s ‘Libero’ at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

The Best Ever In-Depth Video of Siena’s Palio

Inspiration always seems to find me when I’m not looking and that is exactly what happened as I settled in to watch a few minutes of television last night. Lucky for me, I clicked over to Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports, a show on ESPN that puts sports into a cultural context.

One of the segments was on the Palio, the famous, twice-yearly horse race in Siena. Mayne gained insider access to the Leocorno (Unicorn) contrada to cover the race from mane (ahem) to tail. We learn about Leocorno’s rivalry with the Civetta (Owl) contrada, the pre-race ritual of having the horse blessed in the district church, and the strategies and intrigue that go into competing in one of Italy’s oldest sports traditions. Both the footage and the commentary in this segment were compelling, so I wanted to share the video with you.

Fantastic stuff, Mr. Mayne. Mille grazie!

My September 11th in Florence

Every year, as we approach the anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I think back to what I was doing that day. In fact, I was in Florence. So this year I thought I would share my recollections of the event from the perspective of a tourist in Italy. This may not be all that interesting to you, but I felt it important to get it down on paper/screen before I forget.

The thing that I remember most about 9-11 was that it was a beautiful fall day in Florence. I was in Italy to do research for The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy, but was spending a good chunk of my time in Florence, staying in a different hotel almost every night and day-tripping to other towns. That Tuesday morning, I woke up early at the suburban hotel I had tested out for the evening, re-packed my bags, and hopped on a bus north to Florence, where I checked in at the Hotel Botticelli, a nice boutique hotel near the San Lorenzo Market (Mercato Centrale). I left my luggage in my room and went out to explore some more of Florence before I picked up my sister, a photographer, at the airport later that day.

I recall doing a number of hotel and B&B inspections that day, as well as some shopping and touring around the San Lorenzo district. It was a carefree day – remember, the time difference was six hours. I bought some boots and this corduroy number that seemed pretty chic at the time. I ate gelato. I strolled over to the Duomo, snapped photos, dodged motorini, and just enjoyed the sunny cool breezes and other autumnal goings on the city. There were certainly many tourists in Florence in mid-September, but fewer than I had spotted a year before during the summer. Life was good.

At about 2pm, I hopped in a cab and headed to Peretola Airport, where I was to pick up my sister when her flight arrived at 3pm (approximately 9am New York time). I hung out in the terminal, had an espresso. Her flight arrived about 15 minutes late. We hugged each other and proceeded to get in another cab to head back to Hotel Botticelli.

On the taxi ride back, the driver kept fiddling with the radio. We were hearing bits and pieces of English coming out of the radio…”World Trade Center”…”terrorism”…but couldn’t tell what was going on. The driver was obviously trying to find a station that wasn’t broadcasting the news, which was being translated simultaneously, thereby allowing bits of English to come through. My sister asked me what was going on in the news as she had been on a flight for hours and felt out of touch.

“Oh…I don’t know,” I said. “Last night I was watching the Miss Italia contest. Then there was something about the head of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan being assassinated. I don’t really know who that is but it was a big headline in the news over here.”

“Well, it sounds like something is going on at the World Trade Center in New York,” she said.

“Oh…I think that they’re just playing back the broadcast from when it was bombed in ’93. I think that Sheik’s trial is coming up or something.”

“No,” my sister said. “I think there’s something going on right now at the World Trade Center.”

By the time we thought to listen to the radio more diligently, we were already at our hotel. The driver, wiping sweat off his brow, eagerly helped us with our bags, took our money, and sped away.

As we entered the hotel, everyone was standing around the television in the lobby. The manager said to us, “I am so sorry. One of your towers is about to fall.” We didn’t understand what he meant until we watched the TV for ourselves. Sure enough the first tower did fall. After gawking silently for a good half-hour with the rest of the hotel’s clientele and nearby shopkeepers, we headed up to our room, plopped down on the bed, and turned on the TV, unable to move for hours.

But, we had to go to dinner eventually. Bleary-eyed from watching hours of the same footage and the new scroll ticker on CNN International, we slowly made our way out of the hotel to look for food. We ended up at Trattoria ZáZá, a congenial spot just steps from the hotel that specialized in Florentine and Tuscan home cooking. I remember I had the pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup). ZáZá was the perfect speed for us that night – mostly heavy on other tourists, but extremely friendly. Our minds were focused on the food and service for a brief moment in time. Then we had to walk back to our hotel, where we watched another couple hours of TV before passing out into an uneasy (and, for my sister, jet-lagged) sleep.

La Nazione Headline on September 13, 2001
La Nazione Headline on September 13, 2001, the night after the candlelight vigil in Piazza della Signoria

The next morning, we scrambled to the newsstand to see if we could get an English-language newspaper. There was one USA Today left and we devoured it from cover to cover as we sipped cappuccinos at some unknown caffè. We became popular with other tourists, too, who wanted to borrow our paper or just chat with us about the day before’s catastrophic events.

I felt a definite camaraderie with my fellow Americans on September 12. In addition to feeling dumbstruck, all of us also felt a little guilty for being away from the U.S. and for being on vacation. We felt guilty about proceeding to go on our tours. And most of all, we were frustrated that we were unable to reach loved ones. Phone lines were clogged and it was almost impossible to get a terminal at an internet café.

The Italian people were incredibly gracious and warm on September 12, too. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it did my heart some good to see signs posted in English on the storefronts along the Ponte Vecchio that read, “We stand with our American brothers and sisters.” There was an incredible outpouring of sympathy from everyone we met, even though nothing had actually happened to us personally. Although I was far away from home, I felt comfort being in Italy. (I don’t think many American travelers realize it, but Italians and Americans have a special bond. It’s rare when I meet an Italian who doesn’t have a brother or a cousin living in the States.)

My sister and I spent September 12 getting on with our travels of Florence. To take our minds off of things, we hiked up to the beautiful church of San Miniato al Monte, where there is a spectacular view of the Duomo and the rooftops of Florence.

That evening, a candlelight vigil in Piazza della Signoria drew thousands. I can’t remember much of the service other than that the head of the Jewish community in Florence spoke. Some woman from the English community sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” It seemed as if the whole city was in mourning that night and were gathering around travelers and expats for support.

Romantic Hotels in Tuscany

Tuscany is, without doubt, one of the foremost locations in the world for your honeymoon. Whether you wish to visit the tiny, romantic, hilltop villages or simply watch the olive groves and cypress trees gently sway in the wind, Tuscany offers some of the most romantic hotels that you are likely to come across and allows you the opportunity to enjoy a perfect honeymoon. Here are a few romantic hotels in Tuscany available for booking from Escapio.com by guest blogger Holly Maguire.

Monsignore della Casa Country Resort Tuscany Hotel
Monsignore della Casa Country Resort
, situated in Borgo San Lorenzo, is a four-star country house hotel with breathtaking views of the Mugello. Within 5 km of the resort are a variety of bars/pubs, discotheques, restaurants, cinemas, and shopping opportunities. The extensive grounds of the hotel offer fabulous gardens, a pool and spa area inviting to relaxation. This is ideal for couples happy to spend their honeymoon without lifting a limb, as every necessity and modest luxury is available on the hotel grounds. The hotel was named after Giovanni Della Casa, best known as the official secretary of Pope Paul IV. (Melanie: nothing says romance like the Pope’s personal secretary!)

UNA Palazzo Mannaioni Tuscany Hotel
UNA Palazzo Mannaioni
, located in Montaione, is an enchanting castle hotel with a distinct historic character encompassing 400 years of romance and history. Montaione has forged a reputation as one of the most spellbinding areas of Tuscany. It is also home to the much celebrated Montaione Castle. The original building was constructed in the year 1500, and over the years the hotel has undergone many renovations, most recently in 2006. The local area sings with vineyards, olive groves, oak and lemon trees – perfect for hand-in-hand strolls, or even one of Tuscany’s many bicycle tours. You can also take advantage of the many in-house facilities that this sublime hotel has to offer. The De’ Mannaioni restaurant in the old mill will cater to candelit dinners after days sunbathing and sipping exotic cocktails by the outdoor pool.

San Biagio Relais Tuscany Hotel
San Biagio Relais
is an old patrician mansion which was converted into an intimate 41 room hotel in 2006. Situated in Orbetello, the hotel’s muted modern décor inside historic walls guarantees a unique experience, and this may well be the perfect place for star-crossed lovers to retreat. Take in the spectacular views of the Monte Argentario mountains from the stylish rooms and savor breakfast and outstanding cuisine in the Ristorante Wine Bar. Rooms offer large comfortable bed, stylish furniture, and wonderfully crafted historic arched ceilings. While romantic couples will find everything they need in the hotel, they can also enjoy the Orbetello peninsula, which has a lively nightlife district full of bars and restaurants.

Mediterranea Hotel Tuscany
Mediterranea Luxury House
is a small bed and breakfast offering four star luxury in a beautiful, romantic setting in Quercianella. Quercianella, known for its macchia – the evergreen Mediterranean vegetation enveloping the landscape – is a nature lover’s paradise and is just a stone’s throw from the sea. Mediterranea Luxury House is a private retreat which affords stunning views and personal service. This exquisite bed and breakfast serves up local hams, cheeses and home-grown tomatoes as part of the renowned morning fare. Owners Roberto and Vania will ensure your stay at this white villa is a memorable one, and can help you with recommendations for nearby activities including mountain climbing, sailing, surfing, and fishing.

Villa Campestri Hotel Tuscany
Villa Campestri
,  a 13th century country home, is set in the awe-inspiring natural surroundings of the village of Campestri, not far from the magic of Florence. Villa Campestri pampers honeymooners with homegrown fruits, vegetables, and finely tuned cuisine; enjoy regional specialties and vegetarian options accompanied by a glass or two of the local Oleoteca wine. From the outdoor pool, couples can enjoy views of vineyards, olive trees, forests, and meadows stretching out to the horizon. In addition to the attractions of Florence, the Medici fortress at San Piero a Sieve is a great day trip from here. This beautiful hotel offers high-flyers a helipad should they wish to arrive in style and horse-drawn coach rides are an opportunity to lap up romance and style with a timeless touch.

Contributed by Holly at Escapio.com. These are just a selection of the luxury, design and boutique Tuscany hotels available for booking. All photos courtesy of Escapio.

Five Favorites: Art in Tuscany

To many a traveler, Tuscany and art are synonymous. From the architecture to the numerous galleries to those gorgeous, green, and cliché hills, there’s an element of art in every corner of Tuscany. Continue reading Five Favorites: Art in Tuscany

Siena 101

The Torre del Mangia and Palazzo Pubblico on Siena's Piazza del Campo

On the other side of the Chianti countryside, some 35 miles south of Florence, you will find Siena, a Tuscan town rife with tradition and mood.

WHERE: Medieval Siena is best known as the site of the Palio, a twice-yearly, bareback horserace that takes place in the wide, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The race, which can be traced as far back as the early 13th century, pits a rotating roster of 10 of the city’s 17 contrade (neighborhoods) against one another. Run on July 2 and August 16, the Palio is Siena’s most famous local event, which today draws scads of spectators from all over Italy and abroad. Indeed, the Palio is a hot ticket: Learn how to book tickets for the Palio.

Post pageantry, Siena is a gloriously Gothic prize for pedestrians; the compact city center is car-free and quiet enough to hear the cobblestones resonate underfoot.

WHAT TO DO: In addition to the Palio, Siena’s cityscape awes, with art and architecture around every bend. The tight warren of shadowy streets empties into Piazza del Campo, one of the finest medieval squares in Europe. Divided into nine sectors–a nod to the Council of Nine who ruled the city during the Middle Ages–the shell-shaped piazza serves as a meeting point, playground, and outdoor dining venue.

At the base of the shell lies the Palazzo Pubblico, a result of Siena’s construction boom in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Humanist “palace of the people” houses two masterpieces by native son Simone Martini and an amusing fresco series depicting good and bad government practices.

Next door to the Palazzo Pubblico rises the Torre del Mangia, which, at the height of 330 feet, is one of the tallest bell towers in Italy. Climb the 505 steps to the top and enjoy the views of rooftops and the Campagna Senese (Sienese countryside).

Also within view from the tower is Siena’s spectacular Duomo, a massive, black-and-white striped cathedral renowned for its interior pavements. The pavements are usually unveiled in their entirety in September. However, a small portion of the 56 floor panels featuring sybils, angels, saints, and biblical scenes, are visible to viewers on a rotating basis throughout the year.

Finally, if you want to endear yourself to some of the locals, pay a visit to one—or several—of Siena’s 17 contrada museums. On proud display are banners, relics, and costumes from Palio contests of yore. The tourist office in Piazza del Campo can provide you a map to each neighborhood. For a really good explanation of the contrade, their history, and what’s on view in their museums, see this article of Siena’s Contrada Museums from In Italy Online.

LODGING: There are tons of agriturismo (farm stay) inns and self-catering options on the outskirts of Siena, ideal if you’re touring Tuscany by car. Retreat to the well-appointed Hotel Santa Caterina (Via Enea Silvio Piccolomini, 7), which is set just outside the Porta Romana, or stay in Villa Scacciapensieri (Strada di Scacciapensieri, 10), a country hotel north of town where you can “forget your troubles” by enjoying vistas of the rooftops and towers Siena as well as the surrounding valley.  If you want to stay in town, consider Hotel Duomo (Via Stalloreggi, 38) because its upper floors offer rooftop views.

DINING: Siena’s culinary landscape reflects its rustic roots: think roasted meats, lots of herbs, and simple peasant fare. But the city is also home to a university, so cheap eats and wine bars abound. Osteria Le Logge (Via del Porrione, 33), changes its menu daily, and offers more than a dozen options for lunch and dinner. Osteria La Sosta di Violante (Via di Pantaneto, 115) serves up traditional fare in a casual atmosphere a few blocks from Piazza del Campo. Primi piatti, such as ravioli with red chicory, start at around $16. An enoteca (wine bar) option is Trombicche (Via delle Terme, 66), which offers good wine by the glass,  tasting platters of salumi, cheeses, and antipasti (ideal for a snack), and a convivial atmosphere.

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GETTING THERE: Fly into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport or Pisa’s Galileo Galilei Airport. If you take the train from either of these destinations to Siena, the trip will last approximately two to three hours, with at least one connection on the way. A better bet is to rent a car from the airport. The A1 autostrada is a direct route from Rome to Florence; Siena is about halfway between the two cities. The SS-222 from Florence to Siena provides a more scenic route past the olive groves and vineyards of Chianti.

INFORMATION: For more ideas about what to do and where to stay and eat in Siena, see the Siena Tourism website.

Photo © delphaber

Six Places to Celebrate Carnival in Italy

Carnevale Masks in Venice

It’s Carnival time again in Italy, when Italians prepare to say “goodbye meat!” (Carnevale) by throwing lavish parties and parades before hunkering down for 40 days and nights of denial during the Holy Lenten Season.

Many travelers think that Carnevale only takes place in Venice. While Venice has the best known Carnival in Italy, there are many other cities with long carnival traditions. Let’s have a look at them: Continue reading Six Places to Celebrate Carnival in Italy

Three Best Travel Secrets

Coming up with three of my best travel secrets for Italy is no easy task. Alas, I’ve been tagged by Robin Locker at My Mélange to come up with my list, just as she has over at her blog. In fact, since I had difficulty paring down my favorites, I’ve come up with my non-Italy list over at my personal site Miss Adventures. Have a look at both of them!

Of course, it’s not fair to really call these “secrets,” as there are plenty of other people who have gone before me and recommended the same places. So, just consider these as my current favorites among a bucket-load of tips.

Three Best Travel Secrets for Italy

aventinohillrome

Aventino Hill, Rome
There are so many wonderful places to stay in Rome, but I really like the Aventine Hill which rises just beyond the Circus Maximus. This is one of the most peaceful corners of the city, mostly because it is slightly removed from the constant buzz of the city. And the views from up here are spectacular and even unique. If you are lucky enough to charm the policemen who guard the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, then you can have a glance through their peephole, through which you can see a perfectly framed St. Peter’s Basilica. Though it’s largely a residential area, there are hotels on the Aventine. I like Hotel Villa San Pio for its garden setting, richly decorated rooms, and the fact that its on Via Santa Melania. 🙂

ravennamosaics

Ravenna
As a former capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Ravenna is hardly unknown. Nevertheless, I rarely see it on must-visit lists for Italy. True, there’s so much to include that Ravenna is easy to bypass. But I think this little city in eastern Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy’s gems. Indeed, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its incredible Byzantine-era mosaics, such as those decorating the walls and apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (above). In total, Ravenna has eight sites featuring spectacular mosaics. Ravenna is also a great place to get piadina, a special flatbread typical of Emilia-Romagna and very much like a Turkish gözleme. Grab one filled with cheese, spinach, or nutella (!) at a piadinerie and enjoy…yum!

argentario

Argentario Promontory, Tuscany
This is a place you probably won’t get a chance to go to unless you have a friend with a house here. The Promontorio dell’Argentario is a popular summer home spot for Romans and Tuscans. It has stretches of empty sand beaches, ideal currents for windsurfing, idyllic resorts at Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole, and views of some of the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for ruins and the Argentario promontory has Roman ruins at Ansedonia, known in the Roman world as Cosa. I’m also quite fond of La Parrina, an agriturismo where you can overnight or simply stop by to pick up the farm’s own olive oil, wine, and super fresh provisions on your way to your beach home.

So, those are my “secrets” and I’m also supposed to tag a few other blog friends to see what they come up with.

South of Rome
Flip Florence
The Espresso Break
Bell’Avventura
Katie of Tripbase, who started this whole shebang

If you’ve come up with a list, by all means tag me so I can have a look at your tips, too!

Photos © Patrick Medved, Gregorio Parvus, Alberto Bizzini

Five Favorites: Lucca

Today I am starting a brand new feature at Italofile called Five Favorites.

The segment is a chance for me to invite fellow Italy bloggers and Italophiles to wax poetic about five favorite Italian things, be it characteristics of a town or region or five favorite foods, fashion designers, parks….anything Italy-related. Continue reading Five Favorites: Lucca

Best Places in Italy for Modern Art

Zaha Hadid's MAXXI Museum, Rome
Zaha Hadid's MAXXI Museum, Rome

Italy’s modern art museums are often overlooked by the masses, who prefer, not surprisingly, to examine the country’s ancient and Renaissance-era treasures. But with the debut of Rome’s new, Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI Museum, the capital now has a very high profile exhibition space that is itself a work of art.

New York Times’ The Moment magazine describes the museum, which is dedicated to exhibitions on 21st century art, this way:

[It is a] series of sky-lighted concrete canyons that tilt and swell, swerve like a velodrome and twist into what appears from the exterior to be a monumental hard-shelled calla lily, a pliable mausoleum that seems to play the sobriety of a de Chirico off the cooling, warping effects of a work by Anish Kapoor. Otherworldly in some respects, the museum also resonates with the character of Rome. The MAXXI could easily be a composite sketch of Rome’s contradictory but fluid, theatrical, and sweeping architectural personality — which is not unlike its architect’s.

Such excitement over a new building in the Eternal City made me think that others may wish to know more about some other modern art museums in Italy. Here’s a brief list:

Rome and Lazio
Before the MAXXI, Rome had the National Gallery of Modern Art. This museum is housed in a late 19th century building in the Villa Borghese and features art from Pirandello, De Chirico, Kandinsky, and more. There’s also the MACRO, a museum occupying two reclaimed buildings (and a new wing in 2010) in the Porta Pia neighborhood. It features “some of the most significant expressions characterizing the Italian art scene since the 1960s.” Other places in Rome to see modern art include the PalaExpo in the Quirinale district (which has, by the way, a great cafeteria); the Auditorium Parco della Musica, a music hall and occasional exhibition space in Flaminio which was designed by the celebrated architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2002; and the Giorgio de Chirico House-Museum near Piazza di Spagna.

Elsewhere in Rome’s region of Lazio, check out the town of Anticoli Corrado, located about 40 km northeast of the capital and featuring a trove of artist studios and the Civic Gallery of Modern Art. The best write-up about this little town can be found on the Vagabondo-Italy website.

Venice

A work by Picasso at the Guggenheim, Venice
A work by Picasso at the Guggenheim, Venice

Venice is on this list for one museum only: the Guggenheim. Located in Peggy Guggenheim’s former palazzo on the Grand Canal, the museum “is the most important museum in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century.” What does that include? Some of the famous names in Mrs. Guggenheim’s collection include Braque, Duchamp, Modrian, and Giacometti. Ernst, Pollock, and Magritte. Calder, Brancusi, Klee, and Picasso. Just about anyone you can think of from the world of contemporary art is there. The Guggenheim also attracts numerous big-name exhibits. Currently, it is hosting the Masterpieces of Futurism (through Dec. 31, 2009). See my article on Planning a Visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for About.com.

Of course, Venice also is the host city for the Biennale. Despite its name, this celebration of contemporary art is happening almost all of the time. This year (2009), saw the Venice Biennale of Art, Cinema, Theatre, and Music. However, in August 2010, the 12th Biennale for Architecture will kick off in the Lion City.

Tuttomondo by Keith Haring
Tuttomondo by Keith Haring

Florence and Tuscany
Finding modern art in Renaissance-heavy Tuscany is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. But modern art is there. In Florence, try the Marino Marini museum, which features the Italian artist’s works, including numerous sculptures of horses. Also, what could be more modern than fashion? Even if you can’t afford to shop until you drop, you can enjoy looking back – and forward – at the styles created by Florentine Salvatore Ferragamo in the Museo Ferragamo. (As of this writing, the Museo Ferragamo is sponsoring a shoe design contest for artists. Deadline Dec. 10, 2009!)

There are several more opportunities in Tuscany to enjoy modern art. Just north of Florence, in the city of Prato, is the Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Museum. It features mid- to late-20C art, including photography, from Italian and international artists. If you’re in Pisa, you can savor some pop art with Keith Haring’s Tuttomondo mural. It’s one of the last works ever created by the American artist. Two more outdoor modern art spaces in Tuscany are gardens. In Chianti, check out the Chianti Sculpture Park, whose name says it all, and the Tarot Garden (Il Giardino dei Tarocchi), an unusual project of sculptures based on tarot cards that was the vision of artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The Tarot Garden is located in Capalbio in the province of Grosseto.

Torino (Turin)

Torino's Mole Antonelliana
Torino's Mole Antonelliana

Our final stop on this modern art tour of Italy is in Torino (Turin), whose skyline is a work of contemporary art. The spire of the Mole Antonelliana, gives Torino its distinctive look and today houses Italy’s National Museum of Cinema (Museo Nazionale del Cinema). The moving image is, to some, the ultimate in contemporary art, and the MNC contains a vast collection of archival film footage, books and magazines about film, scripts, costumes, and a cinema. Among the masterpieces in the collection are an 18C movie camera (the first?), Peter O’Toole’s costume from Lawrence of Arabia, an original poster from the Rita Hayworth classic Gilda, storyboards from Star Wars, and a script of the Italian dialogues from the 1933 version of King Kong.

While Venice has the Biennale, Torino has the Torino Triennale Tremusei, a triennial exhibition of emerging artists at three of Torino’s contemporary art spaces: the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Castello di Rivoli, and the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, also known as the GAM. The last Triennale in Torino was in 2008 (the 2nd incarnation). So, if my calendar and math serve me right, T3 will take place in 2011. Stay tuned.

I know I’ve missed a ton of other fine contemporary art museums in Italy. So if you have suggestions for what else should be on this list, please add your comments below.

Photos by MAXXI, Guggenheim, Comune di Pisa, Comune di Torino

Vampires in Volterra

New Moon Fever in Volterra
New Moon Fever in Volterra

The windswept, medieval Tuscan town of Volterra has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the hype surrounding New Moon, the second book in the teenage vampire series Twilight. Author Stephenie Meyer set a scene between Bella, the heroine, and Edward, her undead lover, in Volterra. And now this small town in western Tuscany has become a tourist attraction.

Volterra has never really been much of a Tuscan hotspot, being highly overshadowed by Pisa, the capital of its province. Now, according to USA Today, wide-eyed, vampire-loving tourists are coming to Volterra to take the New Moon tour. USA Today has provided a photo slideshow of the tour.

Want to know what else to do in Volterra? Visit the Official Volterra Tourism Website. Here you can learn about Volterra’s museums, including the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, which showcases the history and artifacts from Volterra’s ancient past. Maybe Edward was Etruscan? I don’t know – you’ll have to read the book!

Or see the movie. The film version of New Moon comes out on November 20.

Photo from USA Today

The Scariest Place in Tuscany

Shrine to Vicchio Victims
Shrine to Vicchio Victims

Last year saw the release of the book the Monster of Florence, a true tale about a serial killer who terrorized the hills around the Tuscan capital for almost 20 years, from 1968 until 1985. While several men were tried for the heinous crimes, many Italians, crime experts, and the book authors Mario Spezi and Douglas Preston, believe that the real killer remains on the loose to this day.

I knew nothing about the sensational story of the Monster of Florence when I was first doing research for one of my Italy guides long ago. Certainly, I had heard of Il Mostro, the dark comedy by Roberto Benigni based on the crimes and the search for the perpetrator,  but I hadn’t given it a second thought. You can be sure that the tourism boards did not wish to point out the areas where these crimes had taken place. In fact, two of the victims – Horst Meyer and Uwe Rüsch – were tourists who were camping in the Tuscan hills.

As a travel writer, I also wasn’t keen to reveal this scary piece of Tuscan history. No use in discouraging travelers from visiting Tuscany just because of a few terrible incidents, I thought. But looking back on one of my research trips, I realized that I had actually stayed in a hotel – by myself – just minutes from one of the crimes scenes. The thought of it still sends shivers up my spine.

The part that especially upsets me is a memory of strolling into my hotel in the early evening. I had gone to a local pizzeria and enoteca to pick up my dinner for the evening. I was strolling the quiet suburban Tuscan streets in the twilight without a worry. Little did I know that the Monster of Florence had likely prowled down this same street searching for victims or on his way back from a fresh kill. Did I mention that the story of the Monster of Florence was the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter? Did I also mention that this particular evening was September 10, 2001? Horrible events – both past and future – were swirling about and I had no clue!

Well, I still have no desire to reveal where my fateful hotel was. That would not be fair to the hotel. But above is a map of the locations of the crimes. On the Monster of Florence UK website you can view a timeline of the events and their locations. Read these at your own risk! You’ll never look upon the Tuscan hills in the same way again!

By the way, here is a full-length 48 Hours video of author Douglas Preston speaking of his own entanglement with the case as well as the more recent murder trial of American student Amanda Knox in Perugia.

Photos from Monster of Florence UK website and www.prestonchild.com

The Real Pinocchio

Pinocchio Marionettes in Collodi, Tuscany
Pinocchio Marionettes in Collodi, Tuscany

Last November, the New York Review of Books released Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio under its NYRB Classics imprint. The tale, as reviewed by Tim Parks in the latest issue, is much darker than the Disneyfied version. After the jump is Parks’ full review. As always, I urge you to subscribe to NYRB; they often review books on Italy and even have an Italian version, La Rivista dei Libri.

By the way, if you’re visiting Tuscany with kids, you may be interested in venturing to the Parco di Pinocchio in the author’s hometown of Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini adopted the town’s name for his nom de plume).

Knock on Wood
By Tim Parks
The Adventures of Pinocchio
by Carlo Collodi, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco and an afterword by Rebecca West

New York Review Books, 189 pp., $14.00 (paper)

A voice yells from within a pine log, “Don’t hit me too hard!” The carpenter is astonished, his axe stayed. When they come unexpected, life and language are unsettling.

Brought into being by blows, the talking log proceeds to start a fight: the carpenter’s friend Geppetto has arrived to ask for a piece of wood and the voice mocks his yellow wig; Geppetto imagines he is being insulted by his friend and in a moment the two are on the floor, scratching, biting, and thumping. Consigned to Geppetto, the lively log contrives to bang his shins and provoke a second misunderstanding and a second fight before it is taken away.

Old Geppetto is something of an artist. His house is bare, but he has painted bright flames in the fireplace and a merrily boiling pot above them; when reality is hard, illusion may offer consolation. Now Geppetto is about to embark on a much greater act of creation: he will fashion a traveling companion who can “dance and fence, and do flips,” so that together the two can earn a “crust of bread” and a “cup of wine.” He’s thinking of company and economic advantage. But no sooner has Pinocchio been carved from his living log than he is snatching off Geppetto’s wig, revealing the reality of his maker’s baldness. Taught to walk, he runs off. When Geppetto catches up and starts to give the puppet a fierce shaking, he is arrested for assault and jailed. The artist has lost control of his creation. Raw vitality with no inhibitions, Pinocchio is freed into a world of hot tempers, vanity, ignorance, and appetite; a violent tussle is never far off.

Continue reading The Real Pinocchio

Ramble On: Tuscany Walking Festival

Walking Festival in TuscanyTuscany, with its beautiful vistas and thousands of hectares of nature preserves and woodlands, offers numerous opportunities for serious hikers and casual trekkers alike. This is the also the thought of the organizers of the Tuscany Walking Festival, a yearly event that happens goes on roughly between the first days of spring until the end of fall.

The festival highlights six of the great hiking areas in Tuscany, including the Maremma, the Monti Livornesi and the Tuscan Archipelago. In addition to the great walks are other events and promotions, such as photography exhibits, birdwatching courses, and restaurant discounts near the walking regions. What a great way to learn about Tuscany’s natural treasures and take a break from art overload!

Photo from Tuscany Walking Festival

Become a Museum Reporter for Tuscany

As we reported last week, Tuscany has a brand new tourism website. We have also now learned that the regional tourism board is considering letting visitors weigh in on the Tuscan museum experience. According to the Florentine, the tourism board will be asking visitors in May to become “museum reporters” as part of the Amico Museo 2009 initiative.

Those who choose to become ‘museum reporters’ will be asked to send their photos and thoughts to [email protected]. The best entries will be featured in a virtual album on the region’s official Web site, in the ‘Culture’ subsection.

So here’s your chance to be heard and let others know how impressed (or underwhelmed) you were by a particular museum in Tuscany.

Tuscany’s Great New Tourism Website

While we weren’t paying attention, the Tuscan tourism office launched a lovely new website, complete with destination information, links to hotels and maps, and even a marketplace where you can purchase typical Tuscan wares (wine, ceramics, leather) or advanced tickets to museums.

What we’re really loving is the Tuscan tourist board’s embrace of new technologies. There is a multimedia portal where you can view photos, watch movies, or take an audio tour of famous sites in the region. The video offerings are currently lacking (only about five of them right now), but we’re sure that number will grow. The other cool thing you can do is sign up to get text messages about the region’s weather or events on your phone. You can also browse multiple itineraries according to your interests, available in sliding scale form on the home page, or see which events are happening right now by clicking on an interactive calendar page (e.g., there are 45 event listings for March 12).

To start planning your Tuscan vacation, visit www.turismo.intoscana.it.

Farewell to an Italian Historian

Christopher Hibbert - Rome: The Biography of a City

I was hoping that with my first post of the new year I would look forward. Instead, with the passing of Christopher Hibbert, I thought it would be worth it to look back.

Until I read Hibbert’s obituary, I didn’t know too much about him, only that he was the author of one of the most prominent Italian history books on my shelf – Rome: Biography of a City. This book, along with The House of the Medici: Its Rise and Fall, established Hibbert as one of the English-speaking world’s foremost authority on Italy’s history.

Hibbert, 84, was working up until the end. His most recent book – The Borgias and Their Enemies – was published in October of last year. Like Hibbert’s other history books, The Borgias is set to be a definitive guide to the controversial Italian clan. In fact, the New Yorker included it in its list of notable books in the December 22, 2008, issue.

So, if you’re looking to learn more about Italian history in 2009, mark down Christopher Hibbert’s works on your reading list.

If Obama Were Tuscan Wine, What Would He Be?

Have you ever wondered what kind of characteristics Sarah Palin or Barack Obama share with Tuscan wine? No? Neither have I. But here’s a fun little post from On the Wine Trail in Italy comparing the U.S. presidential candidates and their surrogates to various Tuscan vintages. I wonder if there’s a corresponding Facebook quiz…

Sarah Palin is “a Chianti ‘in fiasco’…something fresh and fruity and not too deep.”

Joe Biden is a Chianti Classico in Riserva: “untapped potential and surprise.”

Cindy McCain is a Vernaccia di San Gimignano that “licks, kisses, bites, pinches, and stings. Ask Carol McCain (the 1st wife) about the sting.” Ouch!

Further, Obama and his wife are Super Tuscans, John McCain is a Brunello, and Colin Powell is a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Skip on over to On the Wine Trail in Italy to read more.

Keeping Up With the Antinori

Italian wine enthusiasts (that includes most of us, right?) may find this past weekend’s 60 Minutes story on Italy’s Antinori family intriguing. Considered one of Italy’s premier winemaking clans, the Antinori have been in the wine business for more than 500 years. Today, even the Antinori daughters are in on the act. To learn more about the Antinori family empire, which includes vineyards and restaurants in Tuscany, Umbria, and around the world, check out antinori.it.


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Italian Fashion Designers and Their Hotels

Castiglion del Bosco

Fashion designers have known for a long time that it’s good to diversify. Not only have Italian fashion houses like Armani, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana ventured beyond clothing to include perfume, accessories, and restaurants among their branded items, they’ve also gone into the business of designing and/or maintaining luxury hotels and suites. This weekend, in the wake of the end of Milan Fashion Week, Sophy Roberts profiles Ferragamo’s Tuscan Estate Castiglion del Bosco for the Financial Times. As the writer points out, discussing this vast estate in today’s economic climate seems “absurd.”

The numbers involved in the project – by spring 2010 it will include 20 villas, 26 “hotel” suites, a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course, spa, two restaurants, winery and stud – are clearly not for the credit-crunched. Nor are the sums easily accessible: Castiglion del Bosco has been set up as a membership club where fees are confidential. One source recently estimated it to be 120 memberships at €2m each.

Nevertheless, Castiglion del Bosco does allow non-members (“discerning guests,” according to its website) to stay at Il Borgo, the so-called heart of the 4,500-acre estate, for roughly €600-€3000 per night, based on availability. This latest Ferragamo venture is located in Val d’Orcia, but the Ferragamos also own other (more reasonably priced?) properties in Tuscany that are open to guests. Il Borro (not to be confused with Il Borgo, above), near Arezzo, has villa and farmhouse accommodations starting at $475 per night. In addition, the family also runs Lungarno Hotels, which includes several hotels in Florence and some suites in Rome.

Of course, the Ferragamos aren’t the only designers in the hotel game in Italy. The FT article also lists The Bulgari Hotel in Milan, the (Alberta) Ferretti’s Castello di Montegridolfo and Carducci 76 near Rimini, and the Bottega Veneta suite in Rome’s St. Regis Hotel.

If luxury and design are important criteria for you when choosing a hotel, you can also check out the Fashion Designer Hotels round-up from Forbes Traveler, which includes properties from around the world designed by Italians and other big names in the fashion world.

Photo of Castiglion del Bosco