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

Italy Travel News Round-Up

Tuscan SunsetHere are some of the latest Italy travel and news articles you may have missed:

Plus, there has been massive coverage of Italy’s deepening economic crisis. Here are a few pieces of analysis:

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.

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

Beautiful Places in Italy for a Photo Op

Let’s face it. Just about every spot in Italy is a lovely place to take a photograph. But there are some spots that are truly special, places that make friends and family go “Wow!” when they see the photos on Facebook or in the picture frame on the mantle piece. Far beyond the hokey photographs of “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa or posing with modern-day gladiators in Rome, here are some lovely places to record some memories.

The Faraglioni Rocks, Capri
faraglioni2

I have to admit that I got the idea for this post from looking at my friend Laura’s photo on her Ciao Amalfi blog. Take a look at her blog and her profile pic and you’ll see exactly why I picked this location as one of Italy’s most beautiful places for a photo op. The Faraglioni Rocks are a group of three mini rock islands that have been known since Roman times. I Faraglioni, which are named Stella,  Faraglione di Mezzo, and Faraglione di Fuori (Scopolo), are some of the most photographed features in southern Italy and you can even get up-close photographs of the rocks on a boat tour around the Bay of Naples. Faraglione di Mezzo even has a natural arch in it, which is a thrill to go through.

From San Miniato al Monte, Florence

duomofromsanminiato

The typical place that tourists go to take photos of Florence – with the giant Duomo dome in the background – is Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill high above the city that is accessible by motor coach and has a huge parking lot buzzing with postcard vendors and “professional” photographers. Don’t get me wrong – this is a lovely place for a photo op. But even better is in front of the church of San Miniato al Monte, which is only about a five minute walk from Piazzale Michelangelo. San Miniato itself is a beautiful, medieval, green-and-white-marble church with spectacular interior mosaics where you’ll sometimes hear Gregorian chanting. If you enjoy getting out an about rather than hopping on board a motorized tour, you can hike a small path from the Lungarno along the city walls up to San Miniato. It can be a bit of a challenge, but the views are so much more rewarding once you make it to the top.

Atop the Duomo, Milan

duomoroofmilano3

You can scale the heights of the Duomo in Florence, the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, and go up into the domes and attics of countless churches and bell towers in Italy. But none of these locations give you the kind of fabulous backdrop that you get from the top of the Duomo in Milan. The gorgeous Gothic church in the heart of Milan is a great photographic subject in itself and you can certainly capture some lovely pics of the whole cathedral while standing in the vast Piazza del Duomo. But take a trip to the Duomo’s roof and it’s as if you’re walking atop an intricately decorated wedding cake. A trip to the top also affords you nearer views of the church’s spires, statues, and gargoyles as well as a panorama of the Alps (on a clear day)

Rome – the Bocca della Verità

hepburnbocca

When you’re in Rome, there is pressure to get that perfect shot with either the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. Indeed, you should get those shots – for the Colosseum go up to Colle Oppio Park for a good angle and for St. Peter’s, the perch of the Pincio Park above Piazza del Popolo can’t be beat. But I like to suggest two classic places for a Roman photo op.

The first is the Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth), an ancient manhole cover that is located in the entryway of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin around the corner from the Campidoglio. You may remember this landmark if you’ve seen the film Roman Holiday which starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. The legend is that if you place your hand inside the mouth of the god/monster depicted on the cover that your hand will be chopped off if you haven’t been telling the truth. A photo in front of the Mouth of Truth is a fun diversion. And if it’s good enough for Audrey Hepburn, then it’s good enough for you.

Rome – The Tomb of Cecilia Metella

goethe_tischbein_1787

Another great locale to have your photo snapped is among the ruins along the Appia Antica. In the days of the Grand Tour it was de rigueur to have your portrait painted among the remnants of antiquity. One of the most evocative portraits of this kind is of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived in Rome in the late 18C. The artist Johann Tischbein painted Goethe in the Countryside with the distinctive tomb of Cecilia Metella in the background. This is still a major monument in the Appia Antica park, and you can still enjoy a nice hike to the tomb on the weekend when the thru-ways are closed to traffic. While you won’t get the completely uncluttered panorama that Goethe enjoyed when he sat for his portrait, you will have a unique shot for the mantle. Kudos if you can also strike the same leggy pose!

Portofino Bay

portofino

The pastel houses of Portofino, a fishing village turned wealthy tourist haven in the region of Liguria so lovely that developers in Orlando, Florida, had to replicate it, make for a romantic backdrop for an Italy travel memory. Ideally, you want to get a photo of yourself in front of Portofino’s colorful port while on board a yacht. But if you can’t make that happen, there are a couple of options. One overlook is from the grounds of Castello Brown, a fortress located high above the bay. This ancient castle (some hypothesize that its foundations have been there since Roman times), however, is typically rented out for private events like weddings and conferences. It’s also a little high up for my liking. Another even better place to go to get a shot of the picturesque bay is to the church of San Giorgio, located on the Salita San Giorgio. Of course, there are also plenty of hotels located along this street where you can pay to see that bay view from your window every morning.

So these are just a handful of some of my favorite Italy photo locations. Where else would you suggest? Please comment below or find me on Twitter @italofileblog.

Photos © giorgiopix, rvega, Italian Notebook, Roman Holiday trailer, onlinekunst.de, buteijn

Round-up: Martinis in Rome, Skiing Switz-aly, and more

It has been a while since I posted an article roundup. Here are some of the great Italy travel articles you may have missed in the last month or so.

Roaming Rome, in a Martini Mood [L.A. Times]
Do the Splits on the Swiss and Italian Ski Slopes [The Independent]
Sicily’s Secret South [The Guardian]
Italy in Full (Palermo, Sicily) [Conde Nast Traveler]
Artists Lead the Way in the Oltrarno District of Florence [New York Times]
The Best Way to Travel in Tuscany [CN Traveler’s Perrin Post]

Photo © ventofreddo

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

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.

2008 Year-End Article Round Up

I am still trying to figure out how to manage a toddler and a newborn and find time to keep this blog up-to-date. But I have been keeping track of the numerous articles about Italy that have come out in the past couple of months. So, enjoy the following links and have a Felice Anno Nuovo!!

Boston Globe
Eating Up Miles, Drinking Up Scenery, Motoring From Nice to Tuscany
(road tripping between France and Italy)

L.A. Times
American Military Cemeteries in Europe Honor Heroes in Both World Wars
(profiles Sicily-Rome Cemetery)

The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Roman Holiday, Reconsidered
Your Palazzo in Florence Awaits
Escape From San Domino

The Independent (U.K.)
Madama Butterfly, Floria Tosca – They All Came From Lucca
Puglia Is a Food Lover’s Paradise

The Guardian (U.K.)
Flying Visit to Florence
Flood-Hit Hoteliers Offer Packages With Free Wellies (Venice)
Go With the Flow (Skiing on Mt. Etna)
A Taste of Italy at Harvest Time (Le Marche)
Turin On A Plate
On the Trail of the Leopard (Sicily)

New York Times
Florence, Then and Now
Venice: In Laguna Da Toni
Savoring Italy One Beer at a Time

The Telegraph (U.K.)
Mesmerizing Relics of Byzantine Brilliance (Ravenna)

Wall Street Journal
Starling Stalkers Try to Scare the Birds out of Rome

The Top 25 Hotels in Italy

Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli: One of Italys 25 Best
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli: One of Italy's 25 Best

While it’s true that the travel industry is taking a hit in light of the world financial crisis, there are still plenty of people making trips to Italy. And, with the dollar improving against the euro (at least for the time being), some Americans are looking to do Italy in style.

Luckily, thanks to USA Today/Forbes Traveler, there’s now a list of Italy’s 25 best hotels. Compiled by Forbes, this is a grouping of the most luxurious and elegant lodgings “ranging from urban grande dames to breathtaking coastal villas.” Forbes Traveler has also created a nifty little slide show to showcase each of the 25.

We’ve certainly mentioned some of these hotels in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy and/or on this site. But here are the links if you want to check them out yourself:

Italy’s 25 Best Hotels According to Forbes Traveler

Rome
Hotel de Russie
Hotel Eden
Hotel Hassler Roma
Portrait Suites
St. Regis Grand Hotel

Florence
Hotel Lungarno
Hotel Savoy
Villa La Massa
Villa San Michele

Tuscany
Il Pellicano Hotel (Porto Ercole)
Relais Il Falconiere (Cortona)

Milan
Bulgari Hotel Milano
Four Seasons Hotel Milan

Venice
Bauer Hotel
Luna Hotel Baglioni

Capri
Capri Palace Hotel and Spa (Anacapri)
Grand Hotel Quisisana

Lake Garda
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli (Gargnano)

Amalfi Coast
Hotel Caruso (Ravello)
Hotel Santa Caterina (Amalfi)
Il San Pietro (Positano)
Le Sireneuse (Positano)
Palazzo Sasso (Ravello)

Cinque Terre
Hotel Splendido (Portofino)

Lake Como
Villa d’Este (Cernobbio)

October 2008 Article Round-Up

Sometimes I’m not always sure if anyone is actually reading Italofile. As I’ve said, it is a true labor of love. Still I like to imagine that there are regular readers out there who enjoy discovering with me the destinations, hotels, art, schools, churches, etc., that make traveling in Italy so rewarding.

Lo and behold, this weekend I found that I have at least one reader! Maribel wrote in to tell me that last year I missed a New York Times article on “Tortellini Lessons at the Source” in Bologna. Thanks, Maribel! And, with that, I thought I’d provide another round-up of recent articles, from the NYT and elsewhere:

New York Times
In Turin, the Olympic Glow Hasn’t Yet Faded
Monastic Doors Open For Travelers
Milan: Princi (a must-visit bakery)

The Washington Post
2,000 Years After Vesuvius (Stabiae)
In the Eternal City, Walk in a Roman’s Sandals
Rome On Two Gelatos A Day
Good Libations: Bassano del Grappa, Still the One (Veneto)

Los Angeles Times
Art Springs to Life in Gardens Near Rome
Planning Your Trip to Rome’s Gardens
Planning Your Trip to San Marino
Planning Your Trip to Vatican City

Wall Street Journal
Venice Crossings: A Traghetto Tour
In Italy, A Monastery Getaway (Umbria)

The Independent (UK)
City Slicker: A Guide to Genoa
The Hip Hop Guide to Tuscany’s Treasures

The Guardian (UK)
The Insider’s Guide to Cortina d’Ampezzo
Instant Weekend: Florence
Flying Visit: Le Marche Is Olive-Town
Letting Catania Out of the Bag
Going Solo: Venice
Flying Visit to Lake Garda

Sydney Morning Herald
Dining in the Sky the New Way to See Milan
See Ya Later, Gladiator
Floating Through a Dream (Venice)

The Telegraph (UK)
Rome: Eternal Love
Palladio: 500 Years of Architectural Wonders
Sicily: Golf in the Shadow of Mt. Etna
Michael Howard’s Venice

Yes, this is an exhaustive list. But I’m sure I didn’t find everything. So, I’m depending on all you Maribel’s out there to help me out by sending me links to articles and other tips you think would be worthy of posting on Italofile. Thanks again!

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

Kid-Friendly Tours of Florence

Florence may feel like a fairy tale city for adults, but kids aren’t always impressed. That’s mostly because they’ve yet to study or appreciate the art, architecture, and history that have made the Tuscan town one of the world’s most favored destinations for generations.

Enter Context Travel. The walking tour company, which I have mentioned in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy, has just announced a “robust kid-friendly program” that includes family tours such as Symbols and Legends of Florence, a 2-hour family treasure hunt, and Arte Firenze for Families, a guided tour through the Uffizi Gallery.

Some other Context Travel tours of Florence and Tuscany that your family (and teens) may enjoy are Florence Food Experiences, Fresco Workshop, and (one we’d LOVE to try) Tuscan Truffle Hunt. You can also find Context Travel tours and services in Rome, Naples, and Venice.

Of course, you can’t expect some of the most knowledgeable guides in the business to charge a pittance for their services. These group walks, excursions, and daytrips start at around €200 per group. But, you’ll definitely return from your trip to Italy with more interesting captions for your photos. And your kids will be able to impress their teachers with loads of Tuscan trivia.

Photo by Context Travel

Italy Article Round-Up

In case you missed these recent articles on travel to Italy…

New York Times
Sicily, Through the Eyes of the Leopard

The Washington Post
See Naples…And Eat

Sydney Morning Herald
Ready for Super-Bol (A Search for the Best Ragu in Bologna)

Los Angeles Times
Exploring Sun-Splashed Venice’s City Squares

The Guardian (UK)
Instant Weekend…Turin

The Boston Globe
Eat Them All, Pray For More, Love the Neopolitan Pie
Ancient Capri Still Casts Its Powerful Spell

Seattle Times (Rick Steves’ Europe)
For Italy In the Extreme, Go to Naples

The Independent (UK)
See Italy – From the Wheel of a Ferrari
Lyrical Charm in Capri

The Vancouver Sun
How To Enjoy Rome With the Kids

The Financial Times
Do You Need Another Reason to Visit Florence?

The Best Chiantis

Iconic Chianti bottles in San Gimignano

In my opinion, Financial Times columnist Jancis Robinson provides some of the best, most accessible coverage of wine anywhere. This past weekend, in the FT Life & Arts Section, Robinson looks at the 2006 vintage of Chianti Classico as “something to celebrate.” Apparently, this is the first year that “white wine grapes have been outlawed” from the making of Chianti Classico. Indeed, up until 2006, Chianti was a blend of white (mostly Trebbiano) and red (mostly Sangiovese) grapes. Robinson gives an interesting primer on the former and current production of Chianti – the wine made in the mini-region between Florence and Siena – and also makes suggestions for the best Chianti buys.

Here are her picks:

Taste of Tuscany: Classic Classicos

RECOMMENDED 2006s
?Badia a Coltibuono
?Carpineto (£)
Fonterutoli
?Collelungo (£)
Montecalvi
Principe Corsini, Le Corte (£)
San Fabiano Calcinaia
?Villa Calcinaia

SUPERIOR 2005s
?Castello di Ama
?Castello di Meleto (£)
?Casanuova di Nittardi
?Fontodi

A GOOD VALUE 2004
?Il Poggiolino (£)

?denotes a particularly traditional, lively style
(£) denotes especially good value

You can learn more about these wines from winesearcher.com and a few are available for purchase from wine.com and mywinesdirect.com.

Photo © photo_nuevo

Two Of Summer’s Most Intriguing Reads Are Set in Italy

The Monster of FlorenceRome 1960

I am supremely excited about two new nonfiction books this summer: The Monster of Florence and Rome 1960. Both describe tumultuous times in central Italy, the first being a period of time in Florence when an unknown predator or predators who “stalked lovers’ lanes in the countryside,” and the second describes the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

Set in Florence and the Florentine hills, ‘Monster’ trails author Douglas Preston on his quest to solve – or, at least, learn more about – the case of the horrific murders of scores of young lovers from 1968-1985. Chosen by Amazon.com as one of the best books of the month for June 2008, and here’s the review:

When author Douglas Preston moved his family to Florence he never expected he would soon become obsessed and entwined in a horrific crime story whose true-life details rivaled the plots of his own bestselling thrillers. While researching his next book, Preston met Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist who told him about the Monster of Florence, Italy’s answer to Jack the Ripper, a terror who stalked lovers’ lanes in the Italian countryside. The killer would strike at the most intimate time, leaving mutilated corpses in his bloody wake over a period from 1968 to 1985. One of these crimes had taken place in an olive grove on the property of Preston’s new home. That was enough for him to join “Monsterologist” Spezi on a quest to name the killer, or killers, and bring closure to these unsolved crimes. Local theories and accusations flourished: the killer was a cuckolded husband; a local aristocrat; a physician or butcher, someone well-versed with knives; a satanic cult. Thomas Harris even dipped into “Monster” lore for some of Hannibal Lecter’s more Grand Guignol moments in Hannibal. Add to this a paranoid police force more concerned with saving face and naming a suspect (any suspect) than with assessing the often conflicting evidence on hand, and an unbelievable twist that finds both authors charged with obstructing justice, with Spezi jailed on suspicion of being the Monster himself. The Monster of Florence is split into two sections: the first half is Spezi’s story, with the latter bringing in Preston’s updated involvement on the case. Together these two parts create a dark and fascinating descent into a landscape of horror that deserves to be shelved between In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Less gruesome but no less engaging in its subject matter is David Maraniss’s Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Though not particularly about Rome, rather about the last Olympic Games that were held in Italy, Maraniss’s book covers one of the pivotal episodes where sports and politics collided. This book is due to be on shelved July 1. So, if you need to get in the mood for what is sure to be an interesting Olympics in Beijing, check out the review and decide for yourself:

Overshadowed by more flamboyant or tragic Olympics, the 1960 Rome games were a sociopolitical watershed, argues journalist Maraniss (Clemente) in this colorful retrospective. The games showcased Cold War propaganda ploys as the Soviet Union surged past the U.S. in the medal tally. Steroids and amphetamines started seeping into Olympian bloodstreams. The code of genteel amateurism—one weight-lifter was forbidden to accept free cuts from a meat company—began crumbling in the face of lavish Communist athletic subsidies and under-the-table shoe endorsement deals. And civil rights and anticolonialism became conspicuous themes as charismatic black athletes—supercharged sprinter Wilma Rudolph, brash boxing phenom Cassius Clay, barefoot Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila—grabbed the limelight while the IOC sidestepped the apartheid issue. Still, we’re talking about the Olympics, and Maraniss can’t help wallowing in the classic tropes: personal rivalries, judging squabbles, come-from-behind victories and inspirational backstories of obstacles overcome (Rudolph wins the gold, having hurdled Jim Crow and childhood polio that left her in leg braces). As usual, these Olympic stories don’t quite bear up under the mythic symbolism they’re weighted with (with the exception perhaps of Abebe Bikila), but Maraniss provides an intelligent context for his evocative reportage.

Gosh, I hope that I find the time to buy and read these fascinating sounding books before the summer is over!

Italy Summer Article Round-Up 2008

Lots of Italy-related articles this time of year. So, here goes:

New York Times
Wandering Beyond Classic Rome (The Frugal Traveler Does Europe on a Budget)
On Venice’s Grand Canal in a Kayak
Prescription Med (Ischia)

Los Angeles Times
Exploring Rome’s Famous Seven Hills
Budget Travel in Rome
10 Books and Movies to Prep for a Trip to Rome
Italy: At Home in Rome

National Geographic Traveler
Rome Photo Gallery (Part of NGT’s Authentic Rome feature for the July/August 2008 issue)
Shopping: Roman Gold

The Washington Post
Smart Mouth: His Palermo Restaurant Is Popular, But It’s No Mob Scene
My Verona

Reuters
Travel Postcard: 48 Hours in Ferrara, Italy

Naples (FL) Daily News
From the Ground Up: Part-Time Naples Couple Found Their Italian Villa a Full-Time Restoration Job Over Two Years (Brindisi, Puglia)

The Guardian (UK)
The Amalfi Coast On a Budget
Caught in the Spell of San Pietro (Sardinia)
Hidden Gems (Sibillini Mountains, Le Marche)
Little Po Peep (Emilia-Romagna)
Flying Visit: Venice
A Greener Way to Umbria’s Capital

Sydney Morning Herald
How to Shop Up an Appetite (Milan)
Night in Italian Prison Promises Gourmet Fare (Tuscany)
Master of the House (Palladio in Venice)
Holiday in Harmony with Gregorian Monks (Tuscany)
A Bloodbath, Italian Style (Florence)

Renaissance Florence According to Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

I was browsing a bookstore on the Upper East Side yesterday when I saw that one of the store employees had highlighted Salman Rushdie’s new work The Enchantress of Florence. Yes, the Nobel-prize winning author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses is now trying his hand at spinning a tale about Florence during the time of the Medici and combines this story with settings in India and the near East. Here’s a short clip from Michael Dirda’s review in The Washington Post (this review is also on Amazon.com):

Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel — oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children — and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder.

In these languid, languorous pages, the Emperor Akbar the Great dreams his ideal mistress into existence, a Florentine orphan rises to become the military champion of Islam, and a black-eyed beauty casts a spell on every man who sees her. Other characters include Machiavelli and Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, Adm. Andrea Doria and Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula), not to discount various Medicis and the principal members of the Mughal court of Sikri, India. The action itself covers half the known world: the seacoast of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the battlefields of the Middle East, Renaissance Italy and the newly discovered New World.

Yet whatever the locale, The Enchantress of Florence is bathed throughout in Mediterranean sunlight and Oriental sensuousness. Its atmosphere derives from the Italian Renaissance epic, especially Ariosto’s magic-filled Orlando Furioso, and from such latter-day reveries of Eastern splendor as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which features Marco Polo and Akbar’s grandfather Kublai Khan).

Here, then, is a gorgeous 16th century that never quite was, except in operas, masques and ballets.

Could this be the summer’s big beach read?

The Lost Leonardo

Over the weekend, 60 Minutes had a fascinating piece on “The Lost Leonardo,” which is Leonardo da Vinci’s storied painting of the Battle of Anghiari. Italian art historian Maurizio Seracini believes that the missing artwork lies behind a giant Vasari painting in the Palazzo Vecchio:

“He is convinced Leonardo’s mural lies protected behind an immense painting, which was done by the artist and architect Giorgio Vasari when he remodeled the palazzo in the mid-16th century, 50 years after Leonardo.

“Seracini believes the Leonardo mural is on a second wall behind Vasari’s painting, separated from it by a small air gap, which appeared on a radar scan. Of the six Vasari murals in the room, only the one has an air pocket behind it.”

Watch the video to see how Seracini and his team are using modern technology to “see behind” Vasari’s painting and to look at other underdrawings beneath Leonardo’s paintings.

Photo from Wikipedia

Bringing Home the Best from Italy

 

It’s one thing to go to Italy and bring back photos, cheap souvenirs, and designer clothing that you could have bought at just about any department store or outlet. It’s quite another to bring back items that Italy is known for – quality leather, handmade paper, artisan chocolate, etc.

That’s why I really like two guides from publishers at The Little Bookroom: The Civilized Shopper’s Guide to Rome and The Civilized Shopper’s Guide to Florence. These little guides point you past the schlock stalls and tourist trinkets to bespoke shoemakers and tailors, antique booksellers, porcelain shops, and fabric wholesalers. Each book is divided up by various shopping walks, which you can tailor to your usual tourist itinerary.

Some of our favorite shops – such as Leone Limentani in Rome – are also in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy. But if you’re a serious shopper or need to buy a special gift on your travels, consider picking up one or both of these pretty, practical guides.