Italy Inspires Art Behind the Glass Case

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When I’m in Italy, one of the sights that never fails to grab my attention are the many glass display cases well stocked with delicious food. I switch to cruise mode as I pass by and hungrily admire thick meaty paninis on focaccia bread, thin crust veggie pizzas, deep-fried potato balls, fresh-baked croissants, rainbow-colored salads and mouth-watering gelato. The Italians have a way of making food a constant festivity and these glass cased tidbits are no exception.

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A well-dressed display case puts everyone in a good mood. No matter how long the line is, people seem to be having a good time, including the sales staff behind the cases.

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These appealing focaccia paninis are layered with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. They were delicious and didn’t last long. I admired the way they were so attractively arranged on my plate.

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The thick and the thin….just how hungry are you? The thin ones are heated with meat and/or cheese.

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On a typical hot summer day in Rome, bowls of fresh fruit sell quickly.

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Who doesn’t love a gelato? There are so many different flavors it’s difficult to choose, but cioccolato or nocciola (hazelnut) are my favorites. I especially enjoy a gelato cone as I stroll down the street on a warm summer evening.

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Everything is freshly baked, flavorful and tender

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Although Italians are not typically big on sweets (dolci) like we are, there are tempting treats to be had.
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Insalata displays entice me the most. All of the ingredients are fresh and tasty. Seafood, olives, eggs, cheese, the Italians can really dress up a salad. Combined with olive oil and vinegar, it is a complete meal in itself.

So the next time you are busy checking out the sights in bella Italia, stop to visit these glass cased works of art. In a culture notorious for its many famous masterpiece paintings, not all of the most sense inspiring are from the Renaissance.

 

 

Surprising Gaeta, Italy; You Haven’t Heard of It But You Should

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 “Whether it be hiking along the rugged coastal mountains or shopping in the busy downtown thoroughfare, Gaeta is truly one of Italy’s hidden treasures.”  Nicola Tarallo

 Nicola Tarallo is very passionate about his hometown of Gaeta.  Acting as the town ambassador, Nicola not only knows everyone but also little secrets that guide books don’t tell you.

Just south of Rome by 86 miles and 59 miles north of Naples, Gaeta is a stunning seaside village with golden sandy beaches. It is still a bit undiscovered, but if you find Nicola there it won’t remain a mystery for long. On his website, he has a long list of fans that have visited him in Gaeta.  His authentic friendship and helpfulness are highly regarded. His enthusiasm and warm-hearted friendliness will convince you that you have a solid friend that you can depend on.

Have you ever heard of tiella? I never had, until I “met” Nicola on Twitter. He was excited to discover not only my passion for Italy but that my hometown of Portland, Oregon is where he spent a year attending college.

Nicola has learned the secrets of traditional family meals handed down through many generations. His nonna, mother and aunts cooked over a wood fired oven, teaching him their recipes for traditional local cuisine. One popular specialty in particular is called the tiella. This is a pie shaped dish made of thin layers of dough crimped around the edges to enclose a seafood or vegetable filing. They have become so popular that Nicola has written an e-book, Mangia Tiella, complete with photos and instructional videos. Tiella can be found in almost every bakery and pizzeria in Gaeta. It can be eaten hot or cold and always eaten with one’s hands. Nicola teaches cooking classes on the fine art of making tiella in his home.

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Born in a family committed to high standards and a deep love for their hometown of Gaeta, it is no wonder Nicola fosters the same passion and talent for creative cooking and writing. His grandfather, Nicola Magliocca, wrote several books about the traditions of Gaeta and about the unique dialect of the “Gaetanos.” He received the gold medal from the President of the Republic for good service in the public school system.

Nicola's nonna makes a mean tiella!

Nicola’s nonna makes a mean tiella!

Enjoy the following interview I had just recently with Nicola Tarallo.

Were you born in Gaeta? If so, what was it like growing up in Gaeta? Do you have a particular memory about it?

I was born and raised in Gaeta. It is a safe place to grow up. Gaeta is a very small city with a population of 22,000. You can walk the streets and beaches freely. I finished school through high school. I have good memories of when Gaeta was less populated, and there was more space in the town and on the beaches.

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What inspired you to carry on your family’s tradition of writing books, teaching how to make tiella, and promoting Gaeta?

My lifelong passion for cooking has developed throughout my life while watching and helping my grandmother Maria and my mother Nives prepare delicious Italian dishes in the family’s kitchens. All of my books originate from my love of Gaeta and of my family: I helped my grandfather, Nicola Magliocca, draft and prepare several books about the traditions and history of Gaeta and on the unique dialect of the “Gaetanos.” I also published a book of my grandmother’s poems written about their beloved Gaeta.

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Nicola and a happy tiella class…now they get to taste them!

Your grandfather Nicola and grandmother played a big role in your life. What more do you remember about them?

While my Grandfather and Grandmother were writing their books they did not have a computer, everything was finished with a typewriter, after everything was written by hand.

What are the regional foods of Gaeta?

La Tiella is the most distinctive dish in the city of Gaeta –  kind of a double crusted deep pizza or pie. Traditionally is made with seafood (squid, anchovies or catch of the day) or vegetable. Any seasonal vegetable is suitable for la tiella: zucchini, escarole and spinach are popular favorites. Also Olives of Gaeta are very popular all over the world. Easter Cake (Tortano) and traditional Christmas Cookies (Mostaccioli, Roccocò, Susamieglie, Sciuscèlle)

When you aren’t busy teaching and promoting Gaeta, what other passions do you have?

I enjoy riding my beach bike, and walking on the beach, or up the Regional Park of Monte Orlando.

What is your definition of authentic Italian cuisine?

Using fresh products in every dish you make.

Do you teach tiella making in your home?

I teach Tiella making in my home, and I share my grandmother’s wonderful tiella making tips and techniques. I teach how to prepare the different fillings (zucchini, cheese, anchovy, onion etc.). how to knead the dough; how to roll out the dough; how to seal the two layers of dough in the shape of waves of the ocean.

What brought you to Portland for a year?

I was in Portland to attend College to study English and to practice at a Hospital for the Sleep Disorder Technician program.

What are the local wines and do they play a big part in the everyday life of the people?

Local wines do play a big part in the everyday life of the people. A small amount is usually served at the lunch and dinner hour every day.

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What is the dialect of Gaeta?

The dialect of Gaeta is similar to the dialect of Naples area.

Why should one visit Gaeta ~ what makes it stand out from other cities in Italy?

The weather is always nice all year round, it never gets too cold during the winter, and not to hot or humid during the summer. You are able to get fresh fish everyday from the local fish market. There is much history steeped between the narrow streets and churches to discover. One can be easily enticed into wanting to spend an extended amount of time basking on the golden, sunlit beaches and swimming in the warm summer waters. Whether it be hiking along the rugged coastal mountains or shopping in the busy downtown thoroughfare, Gaeta is truly one of Italy’s hidden treasures.

*Visit Nicola’s website for exciting articles and information about his beautiful Gaeta and family traditions at ladolcegaeta.com

*E-books by Nicola, including how to make tiella, sweets, touring Gaeta and the history at ladolcegaeta.com

Click on Nicola Tarallo to follow on Facebook

Tuscany’s Villa Vignamaggio ~Much Ado About Mona Lisa

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Villa Vignamaggio in Greve in Chianti

Mona Lisa was born here…..or was she?

Considered to be one of the oldest and most enchanting wine estates in Tuscany, the vast 14th century Renaissance Villa Vignamaggio contains all of 85 rooms on a 400 acre wine estate in the Chianti region. Hills, vineyards, castles and cypress trees create a mythical landscape appropriate to the mysterious shroud that surrounds the villa.

Much debate exists concerning Mona Lisa’s place of birth. A noblewoman by the name of Lisa Gherardini and wife of rich silk merchant Francisco Giocondo, she is famous for her portrait by Renaissance painter Leonardo di Vinci. It was her husband who commissioned Leonardo to paint his wife, yet Leonardo refused to part with the painting. He took it into France and kept it with him until his death when it became part of the French royal collection.

Those of the Villa Vignamaggio claim that she was born within its walls in 1479. It has been noted by some that if one looks closely at the background of the painting, they will see the same view as that from the Villa terrace, suggesting that the picture was painted from there.

Leonardo scholar Giuseppe Palanti, after studying the city of Florence’s archives for decades, is convinced that Mona Lisa was born in a house on the side street of Via Maggio in Florence. Later, Mona Lisa lived very close to Leonardo in San Lorenzo as a young married woman.
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Much Ado About Nothing, a 1993 adaption of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, was filmed at Villa Vignamaggio in Chianti. In the movie, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves duke it out as the one accuses the other of infidelity just prior to her wedding day. However, merriment and love eventually find their way into the elegant Italian gardens surrounding the estate with much singing and dancing.

It is interesting to note that both Leonardo and Shakespeare came from insignificant backgrounds but rose to universal acclaim.

Enter through the door

Enter through the door

Passing through the entrance gate on a visit last September was like walking into a pristine medieval realm. Tall stately trees lined the side of the stairs, reminding me of attentive soldiers. At the top a vast garden spread out before the long and palatial villa. I ran my hand over the prickly forest green hedges trimmed with care. Bright red geraniums and pink impatients brought splashes of color against the variegated foliage. A young couple conversing softly in a corner nook is all I could hear in the surrounding silence.

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Fine gravel walkways crunched under my feet and rambled all throughout the grounds, accentuated with occasional terracotta pots of flowering geraniums.

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Copy of the Mona Lisa ~ Vasari, art historian of the Renaissance, notes that Leonardo hired jesters and singers to keep a smile on her face while he painted her.

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Rolling vineyards at the estate

Vineyards of the Vignamaggio estate

The winery at the Villa is a major supplier to the Quirinal, or Presidential Palace in Rome as well as to the Senate of the Italian Republic. Vignamaggio produces 230,000 bottles of wine each year. After over 500 years of winemaking, the winery has gained prominent standing. The harvested grapes are processed through a strict regiment of fermentation which afterwards leaves the wine in oak barrels for 4 years. It is then divided between Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva I.G.T., and Vinsanto del Chianti Classico DOC. Roughly two-thirds of the bottles are exported, while the remaining third are sold within Italy and at the estate.

A host of amenities include swimming pools, horseback riding, bicycling, cooking classes, a spa center, and meandering walks among vineyards and olive groves.

Castello Verrazzano, another Renaissance wine estate and the birthplace of seafaring explorer Captain Verrazzano, can be seen on the neighboring hilltop.

Castello Verrazzano in Chianti

Castello Verrazzano in Chianti

My previous posts, “Captain Verrazzano’s Castle Wine Tour,” and “Tuscany’s Castle Winery Leaves a Dashing Legacy” will reveal some exciting aspects that many are not aware of. Take a look, and understand the deeper spirit of Chianti.

*Villa Vignamaggio Accomodations 

 

Verona’s ‘Faire Old Castle’ ~ Lords of Foul Play?

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Castelvecchio, 'old castle', was the most important military structure of the Scaliger empire that ruled the city during the Middle Ages

Castelvecchio, ‘old castle’, was the most important military structure of the Scaliger empire that ruled the city during the Middle Ages

Mystery surrounds Lord Cangrande I (1291 to 1329), early Lord of Verona, like a dark shadow. Historical documents claimed he expired suddenly from polluted drinking water but doubt remained among scholars. Shocking results from a recent exhumation revealed toxic levels of digitalis, a strong poison from the Foxglove family, discovered throughout his liver and colon. It appears that he was likely poisoned under the cloak of medical treatment in the midst of his astounding military victories. One of his physicians was hung afterwards by his successor, Mastino II. Foul play? One would think so.

Lord Cangrande I was the most celebrated of the Scaliger family, the Lords of Verona, who ruled from 1260 to 1387. A noble ruler who was a warrior, prince and patron of Giotto, Dante and Petrarch, he didn’t live to set foot inside Castelvecchio.

Lord Cangrande II della Scala had the castle and bridge built in 1355 for his protection and that of his ruling family. With a reputation opposite that of his predecessor, he was a cruel and tyrannical governor who needed a safe escape route from his abundance of enemies. Venice, the Sforza family and the Gonzaga were a constant threat. He had no lack of forceful neighbors who surrounded his keep in Verona. If needed, the bridge would allow him to escape northwards to relatives in Tyrol.

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William Shakespeare was smitten by the walls of Verona and immortalized them through the words of his Romeo ~

“There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence “banished” is banished from the world. And world’s exile is death.”  Romeo and Juliette, Act 3, Scene 3

The Adige River in Verona passes gently beneath the red brick segmental arches of the Scaliger Bridge. Graceful in bearing, it was the world’s largest span at the time of its medieval construction. White marble lines the lower sections of the nearly 49 meter length, which connects to the powerful fortress of Castelvecchio.

The day I visited the Castle was grey and chilly, making this imposing Gothic structure all the more real. As I crossed the bridge toward the castle, I passed striking M-shaped merlons (see in photo above) that ran along the top of the walls.  The brickwork opened regularly to offer a view of the river and surrounding countryside. Peace and tranquility permeated the ambience of this visually romantic castle fortress.

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According to records, a tiny little church existed on this site prior to the castle’s construction. It’s name, San Martino in Acquaro, was adopted by the castle. It became known as Castello di San Martino in Acquaro. In 1404 it was renamed Castelvecchio, Old Castle, and became part of the Venetian Republic as their military compound.

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Seven towers in a pentagonal shape give a magnificent character to the castle, which is divided into four buildings. The super lofty castle keep has four main buildings inside. And, a castle is rarely without a moat that surrounds it.

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The castle moat is no longer flowing with water from the Adige River, but is full of lush greenery. Notice the equestrian statue of Cangrande I Della Scala at the top center.

 

Lord Cangrande I Equestrian Statue of Cangrande I della Scalla, sandstone sculpture from the early 14th century housed in the Castle museum. 

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The castle remained steeped in historical events. It was brutalized by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars of 1796 when the population reacted violently to the anti-French revolt. During WWII, the retreating Germans destroyed the bridge and tower (Ponte Pietra), which was rebuilt by dredging the river for the original mortar and bricks.

Carlos Scarpa, famous architect of his time, implemented a final restoration of the castle in 1958. Born in Venice, he was an artist very sensitive to historical times. As a result, the Castelvecchio was carefully repaired to its original design.

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Castelvecchio at night, photo credits by Google

 

 

A Village Stroll through Chianti

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Panzano in Chianti

Panzano in Chianti

The early Fall morning in Chianti is crisp and quiet. My first night at the Castello Verrazzano (yes, the bridge in New York is named after Captain Verrazzano) in Greve leaves me refreshed and eager to explore the new surroundings. I hike up the half mile to the castle from my farmhouse lodgings and eat an early breakfast of artisan cheese and rustic bread washed down with a rich brew of fresh coffee. My fellow lodgers and I share our plans for the day, from winery tours to B&B shopping. Gazing off the deck high above the valley, rows of vineyards swell gently over the landscape. Every row is straight and precise. Another castle sits like a crown jewel on the next tall hill a short distance away.

Back at my car, I head south through Greve on Via Chiantigana. This route cuts through the middle of the famously picturesque Chianti Classico wine zone. With no itinerary, I lean back and absorb the fresh green ambience.  No radio, just me and Chianti. Only 20 minutes down the winding road I come upon the town of Panzano. The brickwork framed with bright flowers and towering church on the main square entice me to stop and take a look around. Following are some of the highlights of my village stroll.

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Someone with an obviously incredible green thumb lives here. The clay pots on the steps and across the wall sprout colorful flowers which add a rich texture to a stately entryway. If only I could make my doorway at home look like this.

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Churches in Italy fascinate me. Santa Maria Assunta adorns the piazza with old world charm. However, unlike many churches in Italy, this one is not very old. It was constructed between 1890 and 1903.

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Door Panels on the church built in 1964 depict scenes from church history. At the top is Pope John XXIII.

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The village streets bring out the shopper in me. To the right are rows of shirts with a cartoon wild boar on the front. Of course, I have to buy one. Chianti has its share of wild boar, called cinghiale, and they are hunted for their tasty meat that often accompanies a pasta sauce or hearty stew.
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Intrigued by a green door outside an old medieval aristocratic residence, I enter into this wine cellar run by three entrepreneurs. Although I did not eat here, the food is traditional Tuscan with a modern twist. I was taken by the rustic atmosphere with a stone terrace that offers both indoor and outdoor dining.

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I stop here for a cappuccino at II Vinaio, an enoteca and bar. Covered completely overhead with a thick green canopy of leaves, the lively chatter of people below entice me to linger. Afterwards, I find some stairs straight ahead that lead down to the lower part of town.
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Most of the doorways are clean and tidy with lots of greenery. Today the village is very quiet except for some tourists roaming the streets.
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Poor old Mr. Boar has been reduced to only a head. Yet he symbolizes an important landmark for tourists. Inside, the famously winsome owner Stefano will let you try some of Chianti’s most remarkable wines. He also offers samples of local honey, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

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Shallow doorways in rustic brickwork are around almost every corner. Small and pristine, village life in Chianti is the perfect week away for anyone seeking impeccable streets, medieval ambience, tasty authentic Tuscan cuisine and panoramic vistas.

Why I Love Southern Italy

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Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with the modern

Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with modern

When I dream of Italy, i’m wandering along the shimmering Bay of Naples. The mountainous backdrop rises up to meet a baby blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. A faint smell of citrus drifts on the breeze and tugs at my hair as I watch several white boats skim the water’s surface, leaving a bubbling trail behind them. An old castle fortress stands high on a hilltop, its many levels adding dimension to the landscape.

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My life has been blessed with the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and I am passionate about every region. Italy never ceases to fascinate me and each time I visit, I feel myself pulled deeper into its history, culture, exotic beauty and friendly people. A return visit is always on my mind.

Although the south of Italy is poorer than the north, to me it is the real Italy. It is true that transportation by train or bus is slower and sometimes undependable, but to really see Italy and experience the culture it is essential to leave oneself a bit vulnerable. Who knows what kind of adventures await you at a bus stop when the bus shows up late? A slow train provides the opportunity to meet the locals and strike up a conversation.

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It is the people who I have met along the way in the south that have put heart and soul into my experience in Italy. This young woman and her son run a tiny restaurant next to my hotel in Naples. The hotel manager personally walked me over to her and introduced us. She wined and dined us with delicious home-made food and charged only a couple of euros. Of course we couldn’t allow it, but she staunchly refused to take any more. After the meal, she took out a laptop and brought up her Facebook photos. We had a wonderful evening even though it wasn’t easy to communicate.

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This young lady is the educational director aboard the glass-bottom boat Cymba, which takes people out onto the shallow waters of the bay in Baia to see the underground ruins of the palatial palaces and statues of the rich and wealthy of the first centuries. When I arrived and found no excursion was leaving for the day due to murky water conditions, she brought me aboard and spent an hour educating me on the ancient luxury resort of Baia.

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After we spend a morning walking through the wonder and grandeur of Naples, we stop for pizza. This young couple, who are attorneys in Naples, sat next to us. They encouraged us to order Margherita with extra cheese which we did. I never imagined pizza could be so delicious. As you can see by our plates, not much was left. They were delightful to meet and spend time with. Now, when I order pizza, it must have extra cheese!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers

 

Three brothers who own a cameo shop in San Martino, a neighborhood just above Naples, welcome me like I’m the Queen of Sheba. Warm and talkative, they graciously let me observe them hard at work bent over lovely pieces of mother-of-pearl while they carve them into delicate cameo’s.

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I love the passeggiata on the waterfront in Naples during the early evening hours. Families, friends, lovers, kids, all kinds of people from every walk of life enjoy themselves as they intermingle with the crowd. It is warm, friendly and full of life. It signifies the beginning of a slower pace before mealtime, which is typically after 7:30pm.

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Where else can you join a Sunday crowd of locals and take part in rooting for the teams playing water polo? The splashing and fast action is thrilling, and I am welcomed into the group. We all pack together tightly and cheer on the players.

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The shops and street markets are abundant and colorful

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Crazy street markets sell everything you can imagine….at the most amazing bargain prices. I bring my bag and fill it up with fruits and vegetables. I love learning the ropes of bargaining.

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Morning street below my hotel balcony in Naples

This next Spring of 2015 I plan to return to southern Italy and the culture I have come to understand and love. But this time I’m excited to push further south and discover the ancient regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and forgotten Molise. They, too, have stories to tell, ones that go back to the early beginnings and developed a culture. Genuine, authentic travel among real people doing what they have done for centuries; simply live.

Our ‘Passed-Over’ Easter

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St. Peters Basilica in Rome

St. Peters Basilica rises majestically in Rome

How is it possible to miss the yearly Easter celebration, you may ask. Quite easily, we found, if one’s mind is preoccupied with other matters. Let me tell you just how we temporarily ‘fell off the grid.

Throwing caution to the wind and taking temporary retirements, my husband and I backpacked through western Europe for three months in the Spring of 2004. With only 25 pounds each, which allowed us two changes of clothing and our basics, we embarked upon the adventure of our lives. Flying out of Portland International Airport on March 9th, we found ourselves in Amsterdam the following day. From there we took a flight to Athens and spent the remainder of March exploring the wonderfully diverse landscape of southern Greece.

Monastery on Pelopennese

Monastery clings to a mountainside on the Peloponnese

On March 27th, Easter Sunday for the western world, we were curiously investigating all the nooks, crannies and tiny chapels of a monastery, Eloni-Chynuria, north of Kosmas on the Peloponnese. Sitting on a mountainside shelf, it was nearly hidden from a distance. A winding road through desert country took us up to the monastery, where I donned a skirt over my jeans (requirement for modesty) and absorbed the Greek Orthodox ornate Byzantine decor. Panoramic vistas of low valleys and rugged mountains dominated the landscape from the rock walls above.Taverna in KosmosTaverna in Kosmas

Continuing our drive down the rocky Peloponnese, we had lunch in a lively, down-home taverna in Kosmas run by a local family. We enjoyed a simple but tasty dish of chicken and spaghetti, cooked spinach and rose wine. Next to us an elderly woman sat at a table in a traditional black Greek dress, quietly enjoying her own thoughts. The warm open friendliness of these local people transformed a simple lunch into fond memories.

Throughout the day we enjoyed the panoramic and visually stunning view of the Aegean Sea. Thoughts of Easter day back home were far from us. EUROPE04 152

A few weeks later we were at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when it dawned on us that Easter had come and gone while we were in Greece. What a surprise! On May 5th, while dining on the glistening sun streaked water of Lake Como, it never occurred to us that Easter was happening in the East.

Easter had ‘passed over’ us unnoticed. Explorations of the multi-layered Peloponnese with its Byzantine fortresses, mystic monasteries and homey tavernas kept our thoughts far from home. Italy intoxicated us with the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards of Campania serving ancient wines of the Greeks and Romans, the Eternal City with its multiple layers of history, and the richness of the north. Although surprised and a bit saddened by it, we knew it was probably a once in a lifetime occurrence. At least we hope so. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is My Time ~ to Return to Italy

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Bella Roma

“If you want something you’ve never had, than you’ve got to do something you’ve never done.”

I have great news ~ I’m returning to bella Italia. If you have wondered where I’ve been, the answer is right here ~ packing. In fact, I will be leaving Portland airport this Saturday with my feet in Rome Sunday morning in time for mass, if I choose to.  But this is not my typical trip to Italy. I have been invited to embark on a 10 day tour of discovery.

This Is Your Time Travel Blog Tour will be taking a group of bloggers, photographers and journalists throughout one of the most exotic and exciting parts of Italy. We will begin in the medieval hill town of Orvieto, which is built high on a shelf of volcanic rock called tufa, explore the natural beauty and activities of Lake Trasimeno, and then venture over to the Pontine islands of Ponza and Ventotene to take in turquoise waters edged by white beaches below dining terraces overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean. There is so much more on the itinerary, but I want to save some surprises for you.

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While I am visiting some brand new locations, I will be posting photos and small updates on my website so be sure to tune in. I’m excited to bring them home to you. There is always so much more to see and experience. This is what I love so much about Italy. I hope you follow along. I promise excitement, beauty and places you will want to visit.

I’ve never embarked on a blog tour with others in search of some of the finest, richest and most exotic experiences that Italy has to offer. Everyone I encounter will be a stranger, but not for long. This time will be full of rich rewards for each of us as we travel, dine, and experience life together. Embracing the unknown, I’m ready to go.

click on This Is Your Time FB page 

 

5 of My Favorite Places in Italy

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I loved this candle lit outdoor restaurant in Trastevere

Italy is like Santa’s bag full of all my favorite toys! It’s difficult to choose just one or two when I want to play with them all. While recently re-living my photos of Italy, I chose 5 places that were especially good memories. Each of these is worthy of a visit at least once.

While exploring Trastevere on a friday evening for the first time, I was surprised and impressed by the active nightlife. Caught up immediately by small street bands strumming guitars and singing while strolling past clusters of candlelit tables of outdoor diners, I was ready to join the throngs for a veritable feast. I stumbled onto Grazia & Graziella at the corner of Via della Paglia by chance. The ambience was irresistible and so I cubbied in with those already gathered around the tables.

Amid the lively chatter, I enjoyed a glass of delicious white wine. Soon the handsome dark waiter brought me a gourmet thin crust cheese pizza embellished with lemon slices and sprinkled herbs. Large slices of tenderly grilled eggplant traced the side of the plate. It was all delicious. My evening in Trastevere was a swirl of lamp lit cobblestones, smiling faces, exotic smells of grilled meats and basil, all encased in a spirit of romance.

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Ancient staircase that connects San Martino to the lower city of Naples

San Martino is an attractive neighborhood above the old city of Naples. It has a monastery-museum and castle that I wanted to see, so I took a funicular up from the city below for the afternoon. After visiting a cameo shop along with the museum and castle fortress, I was encouraged by Giovanni from the cameo shop to take the stairs back down and enjoy the gorgeous views. I was not disappointed. Mt. Vesuvius stood in the background, it’s top contours blurred by the pinkish rays of the setting sun. The Bay of Naples joined the sea in a shimmering blue expanse. Old buildings and short leafy palms lined the stair. Apartment buildings with open windows let out the sounds of family activity. Fragrant smells of food preparation followed. So much life was happening behind these old walls, so much activity. But I was having a memorable moment in Naples all to myself.

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Magnificent breakfast and castle wine tour at Verrazzano winery in Chianti

Captain Verrazzano was born in this castle winery estate in 1485. A Florentine navigator who explored New York harbor and most of the east coast in the 1500’s, New York immortalized him by naming their double-decker suspension bridge the Verrazzano-Narrows in 1964.

The castle wine tour, lead by a playful young man by the name of Mateo, took us through a dungeon lined with cells. I discovered not only the Captains wine, but also hanging racks of prosciutto, small barrels of aging Balsamic vinegar, and large terracotta pots full of golden olive oil. The spirit of the Captain, who met his untimely death on an island of cannibalistic natives, was strongly felt. We all enjoyed an excellent tasting afterwards of delicious wines, thick balsamic vinegar and fragrant olive oil.

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Italian Riviera walk along Santa Margherita on the Mediterranean

The Italian Riviera is famous for so many things from exotic yachts, famous people, gorgeous views and rich ambience. But it is always the promenade that attracts me. I love to walk along the ocean while simultaneously viewing the town. The promenade is a public walkway that is especially fun during the passeggiata, where throngs of people traditionally meet for an early evening stroll.

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Piazzas and backstreets of Rome

Rome has a maze of piazza’s and back streets that are so much fun to explore. Cozy outdoor restaurants and cafes bring a feeling of community that I love to get lost in. Sipping a glass of cold white wine while people watching at one of the tables is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour or two mid-afternoon or just before dinner, and a perfect way to relax.

There is no end to my list of favorites and great memories of Italy. Each time I visit, I wonder how I can bring a bit back home with me. The most effective way I know of is to keep the memories alive and safely tucked away to revisit over and over again. My photo collection has become my treasure box.

Statuesque Villa Adriana Reveals Rome’s Sumptuous Past

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One of several caryatids, or Greek statues, that line the Canopus in Villa Adriana

When I pass statues from antiquity, whether in a museum or in the environment, my curiosity perks. Who were they? What were their names and how did they impact their world? Most were worshipped as mythical deities or emperors who were believed to have powers to effect an individual’s life. Whether their powers be good or bad, most everyone watched their step with all due respect.

Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa, is just 18 miles east of Rome on the edge of the Sabine Hills. While strolling through the villa, I was amazed at the huge complexity. A long row of statues that lined an oblong lake, called the Canopus, still held stately reflections on the rippling water below them. These ghostly images, like echos from the past, seemed to signify the depth of immortality that these caryatids were thought to possess. The passing centuries haven’t been kind as some are missing a head or an upraised arm, or even gone altogether leaving empty spots. But a glimpse of the stunning overall effect still lingers.

 

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Greek columns with Hermes in the center flanked by two Amazons. Alligator symbolizes the Nile River

Emperor Hadrian had the sumptuous villa built beginning around 117 AD as a ‘country home’ of sorts. He escaped the political rat race of Rome often to this hide-out that became a tranquil sanctuary for him and his friends. Glorious banquet rooms, luxurious bathing facilities, and his own floating island where he could isolate himself for a time are just a few of the amenities Villa Adriana had to offer.

Hadrian was a world traveler and architect. Spanish-born, he had a deep passion for the Greek culture and made attempts to replicate what he saw. The famous Pantheon and Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome are testaments to his grand architectural designs.

 

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Caryatids line the Canopus

The lake was completely surrounded by statues of various deities that likely supported a huge pergola over the water. It must have been a breathtaking effect to look upon this green canopy. It’s easy to imagine small gilt rowboats skimming the top of the waters, escorting their passengers to a sumptuous feast or a moonlight pleasure cruise. Sadly, very little is left of this glorious vision of the past. Much of it was plundered over the centuries by barbarians and the marble burned to make lime.

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Greek god Hermes stands in the center with helmet and shield. Although these statues are replicas of the original, they look impressive.

His villa was enormous and filled with copies of his favorite buildings from around the world. He spent the last ten years of his life here on his three hundred evocative acres. Villa Adriana expresses the lavishness and enormous power of ancient Rome.

Historians and archaeologists today believe that the Canopus represented a branch of the Nile River in Egypt. At one end was a shell shaped grotto with fountains dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis whom the Romans worshipped. Summer banquets and nighttime parties around the Canopus were famous for imperial excess.

 

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A mere hint of what was

What remains of the temple of Serapis on one end can be partially seen to the left.

 

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Neptune reclines along the lake

 

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These old olive trees are huge! One of several around the Villa Adriana

The afternoon grew hot and I was ready to seek some shade after several hours of traipsing over ancient ruins. What once was a huge and undoubtedly elaborate complex is now just a shell of rubble. But for those with any imagination, it’s not hard to recreate the grandiosity of what once was the richest, most famous and stunning Roman villa in the world.

Scarlino ~ Tuscany’s Tucked Away Hamlet

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Scarlino- looking down from part of the old fortress wall.

Scarlino- as seen from the old fortress wall 

While standing in a Tuscan vineyard full of ripened purple fruit to stretch my legs during a long car ride from Pisa to Rome, I found myself captivated by a vision that appeared straight out of a Brothers Grimm storybook. Sitting high above me in a fairytale setting was the castle village of Scarlino. Located only 62 miles SW of Florence and a short way inland from the coast, Scarlino looked like an island floating on a sea of green trees. Blocky beige houses tumbled down the hillside, hemmed in by ancient stone walls and oak-filled forests.

Small medieval hilltop hamlets have always had a magical effect on me. They leave me curious and compelled to see more, as if they held a secret ready to be discovered. Scarlino was no exception, and I quickly decided take a temporary detour to the top.

After driving up a few switchbacks, I rolled my little car through the old medieval gateway and into the quiet village.

Scarlino Archway

Narrow cobbled streets took me to rustic corners, tiny piazzas and tall brick buildings. Bits of the 11th century fortress walls, great for a perch, provided expansive views of the surrounding countryside. To the west, the Mediterranean shimmered endlessly toward the horizon. Located only twelve miles from the coast, Scarlino (scherl in the Lombard tongue, meaning lookout-post) offered a perfect opportunity to experience Tuscany without the waves of tourists.

Vines and flowers grew around crumbling rock in crisscross formation and stonework felt warm to touch. I passed by several coffee bars, restaurants, and tiny food shops. Small gatherings of locals sat about the piazzas engaged in conversation.

While relishing the expansive view from the wall, an elderly gentleman in dark worn slacks and a white t-shirt approached me for a visit. In a town where very few speak English, typical of small villages like this, our language limitations were no barrier. His wink and broad toothy smile gave me reassurance that I had made a friend.

Typical Medieval Street in Scarlino-

Scarlino is a maze of Medieval streets.

My short stroll through the village provided some authentic Italian nooks and crannies that are so enjoyable to stumble across. Below is the backside of a restaurant that, on the other side, offered birds eye views of the valley below from a flagstone terrace. Bright red geraniums light up this old crumbling wall.

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A bit of history….

Afterwards, I found a chance to look up the history of Scarlino on my laptop. My strong attachment to a place always involves the past and I love to investigate. What I found is that archaeologists have discovered remains of a small village where Scarlino is today, composed of wooden huts surrounded by a boundary wall dating from the Late Bronze Age (10th – 12th century BC). Since then, communities have come and gone, including Etruscan settlements, until the early medieval ages when Scarlino became an established village with a castle fortress.

Scarlino Castle- Five Sided and Oddly Shaped Towers

Scarlino Castle ~ Five sided with odd-shaped towers

Rocca Aldobrandeschi, its ancient castle, is worthy of exploring. Although much of it is no longer existing, the ancient grounds, towers and views fascinated me. According to documentation, it was in existence by 973 AD. and was once a stronghold for the northern city of Pisa. Originally owned by the powerful Aldobrandeschi family, the village and castle were conquered by Pisa in 1164. During this time, political and military expansion dominated the goals of the wealthy and prestigious. By the 13th century, Pisa had permanently imposed its authority along the nearby Tyrrhenian coastline.

Curiously built with five sides and three odd-shaped towers, the castle is strategically positioned overlooking the valley on one side and the coast on the other. A wide panorama of patchwork fields in variegated green surrounded the village from below. Opposite, rolling hills of oak give way to the distant open expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Today the castle is used for local shows and cultural events.

 

Rocco Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino

Rocca Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino sits like a fairytale

 

A Taste of Trastevere

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Trastevere

Trastevere~Village Rome

I had just arrived in Trastevere from the ancient forum across the Tiber River in Rome. Dodging traffic and keeping my sense of direction paid off. Trastevere, with a past reputation of that ‘seedy, wrong-side-of-the-river’ village Rome. But I found it anything but seedy. With my back to the river, I began my journey into the depths of this ancient and colorful neighborhood.

Trastevere is still a busy place, but it has hummed with human activity since 750 BC. Beginning with the Etruscans, it eventually developed a large Jewish population and grew into a multi-cultural community. The inhabitants were called “Trasteverini.” Trastevere is Latin for Trans Tiberim, meaning ‘beyond the Tiber River.’

After stopping by a cafe for a cappuccino and cornetto, I passed ivy-colored trattorias and weathering apartments. Umbrella-shaded outdoor cafes lined the alleyways filled with tatoo shops and alimentari (a small market selling fresh produce, cold cuts and dry goods.) It was in an alimentari that I had my first experience on local manners.

Alimentari, produce shop in Trastevere

Alimentari, produce shop

“Non toccare, mi metterò che,” “Don’t touch, I will get it.” the young man chided as I picked up a banana. Taking it out of my hands he took it to the front counter. I paid my due and left, a little wiser on local protocol.

I set off to find the famous old church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Following a few twists and turns, I was standing in the small grassed courtyard before the church.

St. Cecilia Church

St. Cecilia Church, Trastevere

Mosaic inside St. Cecilia Church

Mosaic of Christ and Mary above the nave dated around 1140 inside Santa Cecilia Church

St. Cecilia was a young woman who lived here during the 2nd century when Christianity was sporadically persecuted. As the legend goes, she was martyred by beheading (three attempts) for her faith. A white life-size marble replica of her lies under the altar in the main church.

An archaeological dig below the church is believed to be the remains Cecilia’s home. I was eager to go exploring. After entering the church, I found a small office to the left where a friendly Italian speaking nun with a huge smile let me descend the stairs to the house ruins for a small fee.

St. Cecilia's first century home underneath the church

St. Cecilia’s 2nd century home underneath the church

The air grew damp and earthy as I stepped onto the ancient turf. I was experiencing an Indiana Jones moment. It was more spacious than I thought it would be, leading me to believe that Cecilia belonged to a wealthy family. A main hallway ran straight back with rooms on each side. Some original marble pieces, floor tiles and columns were left to be viewed.

House ruins of St. Cecilia

House ruins of St. Cecilia

After I left the church of St. Cecilia, I discovered the oldest fountain in Rome. It was located in the center of the nearby piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Traced back to the 8th century, it was restored during the late Renaissance by the architect Donato Bramante. This piazza is the neighborhoods most important one with the steps of the fountain designed to be the so-called ‘sofa’ of the neighborhood. During important soccer games, a huge screen is set up in the piazza for everyone to watch and share in the excitement.

Fountain in piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

Fountain in piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

This fountain is not without a legend. As it goes, on the night of the birth of Christ a stream of oil burst forth miraculously on this same spot in front of the church. Who can say for sure, but it certainly put this piazza on the map.

As I sat on the steps of the fountain and watched the hustle of people crossing the piazza against a backdrop of cramped and peeling buildings, I wondered if anything had really changed all that much over the centuries.

I crossed the piazza and onto the portico of the landmark church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

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Church of Santa Maria piazza and the old fountain

The church of Santa Maria was founded in the 4th century, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome. Inside are exquisite Cavallini mosaics dating from the 13th century. The portico (covered area just outside the door) is covered with bits of old stone with Christian symbols. Many are believed to be parts of lids to early catacomb burial niches. The entire front of the columns are lit up at night, casting a golden glow onto the piazza.

Evening was quickly descending. The narrow cobbled alleyways lined with medieval houses gave way to a throbbing Roman nightlife as twilight slid into darkness. Pubs, cafes and restaurants faced the crowded streets, beckoning to me as I passed. Waiters stood advertising their menus to the din of a nearby guitar.

Trastevere

Trastevere

Outdoor restaurant in Trastevere

Outdoor restaurant “Grazia & Graziella,” where I enjoyed dinner

“Madame abbiamo un tavolo per uno!” “Madam, I have a table for one.” A handsome waiter had just tapped my elbow and motioned toward a seat. His smile and touch convinced me. “Perché sì, grazie,” I buckled.

Evening in Trastevere

Evening in Trastevere

As the evening wore on, I made my way slowly back toward my room. Bands of musicians played along the streets while diners enjoyed good food and friends with indiscreet enthusiasm. Scruffy poets stood in corners quoting in reckless abandon. Trastevere hasn’t changed much over the centuries in appearance. The streets still attract crowds of locals and tourists alike. But today, it is becoming an upscale neighborhood, far removed from the pain and poverty of the distant past.

‘Cave Canem,’ The Wild Dogs of Pompeii

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Wild dog “A dog has the soul of a philosopher.”   Plato

In 2008, the Italian government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii, Italy. The situation hasn’t improved since then and more deterioration has occurred due to embezzlement of funds appointed for restoration projects. Among the disintegrating ruins are wild or abandoned dogs. Many are seen lying about in the shade of ancient walls and ditches.

During my time in Pompeii, my heart was captivated by these forgotten dogs that seemed to want human companionship but were so afraid to trust. So they stayed in the shadows, the only visible inhabitants among the ancient rubble. In today’s ancient ruins of Pompeii, the result of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD., most of these dogs are callously dumped off by people who no longer want them. Few of them have been spayed or neutered so puppies add to the homeless population.

“Bless the beasts and the children, for the world can never be the world they see.” CarpentersPompyPompeii relaxation dog Why do they stay? Potential food dispensers, the tourists, often provide tasty treats and attention that keep these dogs here among the ruins. With more than two million visitors to Pompeii each year, their chances of finding morsels are very good. (C)Ave Canem, meaning “Hail Dog,” is an organization that began in November of 2010, geared toward promoting dog adoption. Originally funded by the government, it is now run by volunteers. The idea is to control the stray dog population while keeping the dogs well-being in mind. The program is essential as new strays appear regularly.

Nearly 132,000 euros was allocated to the (C)ave Canem project by the Italian government to gather the dogs, sterilize them, provide them with veterinary care and promote their adoption. Dog houses were scattered around the site. The project found homes for 26 of the 55 stray dogs in Pompeii. Sadly, most of the money was embezzled by the then-Commissioner for Pompeii, Marcello Fiori, now under indictment for corruption. Marcello had been given charge of the 2010 restoration campaign known as Pompeii Viva, which means Living Pompeii.

Front Door Floor Mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii

Cave Canem ~ Front Door Floor Mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Ancient Pompeii

Dogs have been an integral part of family life for centuries, including Pompeii, as can be seen by this uniquely well-preserved floor mosaic found in the Pompeii excavations.

My New Home! And I have a buddy....

My New Home! And I have a buddy….

Fortunately, a portion of these dogs find loving homes and people who nourish their bodies, minds and spirits. It is with hard work and dedication that the volunteers of (C)Ave Canem keep up their never-ending quest to find good homes for these orphaned dogs.

Sweet Lilli

Sweet Lilli Found Love

“There is honor in being a dog.”  Aristotle

Italy ~ Explore New Discoveries Down a Country Road

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Veneto Countryside

Veneto Countryside

Discovery the secrets of the Italian countryside on bicycle, foot or horseback. Get close up and personal on ancient lands dotted with walled medieval villages, wineries, and thermal spas.  Fertile plains of orchards and vineyards blend smoothly among the rolling hills of the Padova countryside, providing a wealth of paths that intermingle throughout the Regional park of the Euganean Hills. The series of 81 extinct volcanoes clustered together have created a paradise of thermal waters and mild weather that have attracted populations here since ancient times. Located just south of Padova, the abundant natural beauty plays a major theme.

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Cycling the Euganean Hills, photo courtesy of padovainbici.turismopadova.it/

Pass through walled cities that date back to the 1100’s. Among them are the villages of Este, where the great dynasty of the Estense family ruled and built a wealth of historical villas, and Montagnana, encircled by a 6,500 ft. wall built during the middle ages, with 24 exquisite towers that rise as high as 62 ft. tall. Stroll through mystic castle gardens with climbing roses and fabled statues entwined in greenery. Take a bench seat and imagine the troubadours of the Renaissance saunter through the gardens as they compose their melodies.

Castle Garden

Castle Gardens

The famed poet Francesco Petrarch lived an inspired life on his winery in Arqua Petrarca, a village named after him, during the 1300’s. He often sailed the waterways on his boat to Padova, writing his poems as he experienced the countryside. “A pleasant place in the Euganean Hills, in a delightful and healthy position,” he wrote. His house, now a museum, sits just above the village. Inside, the medieval interior is decorated with scenes of Petrarch’s work. In a corner is his study, where he died in front of an open manuscript at age 70. His embellished tomb can be seen in front of the church in the main square of town.

As you familiarize yourself with Arqua, notice the wild pomegranate and jujube trees. The olive-like jujube’s, called giuggioli, taste much like un-ripe granny smiths. The fruit is made into a tasty liquor in the Enotecca II Giuggiolo (mostly in Italian, but nice photos).

Benedictine Abbey of Praglia

Benedictine Abbey of Praglia

Nestled in the nearby town of Teolo is the charming old Benedictine Abbey of Praglia. These impressive monks cultivate a vineyard and honeybees as well as vegetables and herb gardens. Inside the monastery shop are rows of delicious wines made from the harvested grapes. The herbs are used as ingredients for secret recipes handed down among the monks since the medieval ages to create medicinal elixirs that effectively cure indigestion. I found this to be true after indulging in too much rich Italian antipasti one evening.

Villa winery in the Euganean Hills

Villa winery in the Euganean Hills

Local wineries are numerous and produce thirteen varieties of wine granted the D.O.C. entitlement. Among them are the bold red wines Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, the white Chardonnay, and the sparkling wines Serprino and Moscato Fior d’Arancio.

Meadow near Arqua Petrarca

Meadow near Arqua Petrarca

Take a look at this website, Walking and Cycling the Wine Roads of the Euganean Hills. The presence of hot springs in the Euganean Hills have produce famous spas throughout the area that offer aesthetic and therapeutic treatments. The Regional Park of the Euganean Hills has much to offer and a wealth of history, wineries, and many natural country paths to walk.

*Hiking routes through the Euganean hills

*Euganean Hills Bike Path Padova Province

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