Love Renaissance Art, Markets, Food and Fashion? Florence Has It All

People often ask me what my favorite Italian city is. Although I love them all for their unique aspects, I have to say that Florence is the one that completely captures my heart and soul. 

Florence, Firenze!
Florence, Firenze!

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 106

Florence has its own vocabulary for the eye. It is a city that the Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together kind of place. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has the best Renaissance art in Europe. Florence is unbeatable for some of the very finest food, fashion, and street markets. Not to mention unrivaled gelato and superlative people watching.

The Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale 

Shopping is a full-time occupation in Florence. Inside the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) you will find everything imaginable. The huge iron and glass covered building is full of enticing food, colorful produce, generous free samples, pasta-making, eateries, meat counters, and gigantic stacks of pulled pork sold in a bun for a pittance. Rub elbows with the locals and visit this elegant Florentine market. Hours are Mon-Sat 7:00-14:00, closed Sun year around.

San Lorenzo Market
San Lorenzo Market

Surrounding the Church of San Lorenzo is Florence’s spacious open-air market. Leather is a popular item, from clothing to purses to boots. Here the prices are soft, so you can use your bargaining skills. Located between the Duomo and train station, the hours are daily from 9:00 to 19:00.

Pantomime Looking Human Statues
Pantomime-Looking Human Statues

There are plenty of these pantomimists around. Actually, they are quite impressive with their ability to stand absolutely still for hours. Kids especially love these guys, and flock around them along with the birds. Occasionally the statue will acknowledge its admirers with a glance and a nod, but don’t count on it.

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 104

Medieval Wall

On the other side of the Arno River and up to the Michelangelo Park  viewpoint, the hilly landscape reveals a long portion of the old medieval wall that encompassed the city at one time. Invaders from all directions found it pretty difficult to scale those walls and penetrate into the city. Florence remained fairly well protected throughout its earlier history. The walk up to Michelangelo Park Viewpoint  is well worth it, and also provides vast views of Florence, giving opportunities for great photo taking. Nighttime is spellbinding.

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 121
San Miniato Church

Behind Michelangelo Park Viewpoint is this classic 12th century Florentine Romanesque church, stately in its green and white marble facade. One of the oldest churches in town, highlights within the church are the glazed terra-cotta panels on the ceiling by Luca delle Robbia, an exquisite Renaissance chapel, and radiantly preserved frescoes in the upstairs sacristy, showing scenes from the life of St. Benedict (painted 1350 by a follower of Giotto.) I loved these paintings, and spent a lot of time in this room. Behind the building outside is the oldest graveyard I have ever seen. It’s full of life-size statues dancing, crying, sporting wings, little children laughing, and so on. I found it very interesting to walk through, but I don’t recommend a night-time stroll.

Florence is very multi-layered, and although I have seen a lot I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are magnificent churches, museums and other historical venues that are Florence’s landmarks and not to be missed. Florence beacons me to return time and again, with each visit an entirely new adventure.

“And it was this…..that beckons us back: not any particular building or painting or statue or piazza or bridge; not even the whole unrivaled array of works of art. It is the city itself–the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design.”

R.W.B. Lewis “The City of Florence.”


Cycling Italy in the Shadow of the ‘Giro’

The Giro d’Italia is a cycling road race in Italy equivalent to the Tour de France. Top professional cyclists from around the world gather to compete in one of the most grueling road races, covering every region of Italy. The three-week competition began May 4th, which sent the competitors on a designated route of 2,116 miles.  Diverse terrain through valleys and mountains in cold and wet weather conditions made this year’s event one of the more brutal in recent memory. This 96th edition of the race began in Naples and finished in Brescia.

Adnan on the Passo Campolongo
Adnan on the Passo Campolongo~ all photos credit of Adnan Kadir

Adnan Kadir, an avid cyclist and friend from my own hometown of Portland, Oregon, just returned from Italy. Accompanied by his fellow cycling athletes and his French-made Cyfac bicycle, he had planned this trip to overlap with the Giro d’Italia. As anticipated, they observed two days of the race while also cycling through Italy along some of the same designated routes, passing through the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany and up into the mountains of northern Italy. The first two weeks of his trip were handled by what he describes as a ‘stellar’ outfitter called InGamba.

Adnan's Cycling Gang
Adnan’s Cycling Friends
Giro d'Italia racing through town
Giro d’Italia whips through a village-the 4th guy back is the race leader, and eventually winner, Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the Maglia Rosa (pink winning jersey)

Adnan described the Giro d’Italia as one big cultural event. The cyclists in the Giro rode in a rolling enclosure between official vehicles while police kept cars off the road. He saw people pack themselves along the roadside as the racers came through. Several actually broke rank and ran beside the riders. This year’s route took the competitors up the steep ascent through the mountains of northern Italy to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the highest point at an altitude of 7,550 feet. On the final stages of the climb, the road was surrounded by huge banks of snow. Last year’s racing route took the cyclists to the top of Mt. Vesuvius and on to Sicily for a couple of days.

Adnan and the Sella
Adnan with the Sella behind him

One of Adnan’s favorite rides while in Italy was around the Sella Ronda. This ride is about 90 km and takes in the Passo Gardena, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordio, Passo Sella, and finishes on the pass where his hotel was located, the Passo Pinei. They started in sunshine but encountered snow while climbing the Sella.

Snow Zone
Snow Zone-Adnan with friend Christoph from Munich

Is competing in the Giro d’Italia a goal of Adnans? Not at this point in his life, he assured me. “After spending a year racing in Europe, I liked racing but I didn’t love it. I wanted to use my brain, so I came back home and went to grad school.” Good choice! Adnan has raced in Guam, competed in a 7-day mountain bike race in the TransRockies in Canada as well as a 7-day road race, the TransAlp, in Europe (2008). Today he races 2-3 times a week around home.

Cyclist resting in Spiazzi
Caprese, an easy favorite

Adnan is his own boss. Not only does he live adventurously, but he is an entrepreneur as well. He organizes training camps and cycling trips and works as a cycling/triathlon coach through his company Aeolus Endurance Sport. But not all of his fellow athletes are in the same country. With the help of a power meter, specifically the QuarQ power meter, he can utilize remote coaching. Adnan is also a partner in LifeCycle Adventures cycling tours, which operates in California, Oregon and Hawaii. Here is a great short promo video where Adnan explains what he does-

Piazza Pastrengo
Piazza Pastrengo

There are loads of hotels around Italy that cater to riders. One that Adnan stayed in and recommends was the Enjoy Hotel Garda, but there is a whole network of them all around Italy (

Adnan and pals on ridge
Adnan and pals on ridge

“The ride to Asciano was on a magnificent ridgetop. The fog cleared and the sun came out, revealing amazing views in every direction. After Asciano, I rode through the sunny valley back to Lecchi, stopping for coffee in the sunshine in Castelnuovo Berardenga.”

Group heads out together
Alpt de Suisi
Adnan’s good friend Christoph from Munich at  Alpe de Suisi
Gate at Asciano
Heading for the Gate at Asciano, photo taken by fellow athlete Jenn Reither

*Promo from Giro d’Italia

Streets of San Gimignano
Streets of San Gimignano

Adnan left me with this one final off-bike experience that he had during his visit to Castello di Ama winery. Originally a walled fortress, wine is now produced and artists hosted who are required to produce one installation while they stay there. Adnan was impressed by how they integrated artwork into the winery spaces. After viewing the art, a gourmet dinner made by the resident chef awaited him and his friends. The food, he emphatically states, like his cycling trip, was unforgettable.

Morning in Chianti
Morning in Chianti

Homemade Chicken Stew in Cefalu, Sicily

Cefalu Medieval District and Sandy Beaches

The Tyrrhenian sea laps gently along the beaches of Cefalu as the curvature of the land cuts into the medieval town. Sounds of sea birds occasionally pierce the gentle ocean breeze. My overnight train from Rome left me here to escape the big city atmosphere and experience a few days of southern village life in Sicily.

Cefalu Beach Promenade
Cefalu Beach Promenade

The long promenade leads me toward town from the small bus station. Before long, two local men approach me. They have rooms to rent and wonder if I need a place to stay. After a chat with them, I decide to go with the one that looks more trustworthy. His name is Angelo. I grab my bag and walk with him into the heart of the medieval district. He keeps up a fast pace for his robust build. His black pants are held up over a white t-shirt by old threadbare suspenders, revealing a pair of badly worn loafers. I sense a genuine spirit and like him from the start.

The morning air is cool and moist with the smell of salted fish. As we enter the old part of town, we turn onto Cortile Siracusani Street and pass through a tunnel into a tiny square courtyard where Angelo lives with his family. The narrow buildings are tall and crowd together.  Winding stairways, small iron balconies, and pots of flowers add a touch of charm. Angelo has a small apartment above his home with a kitchen that I agree to rent for a few days.

While exploring the village that afternoon, I decide to make a chicken stew in my kitchen. Stepping inside a small macelleria, butcher shop, I see meaty chicken legs behind the glass. “Prendo due gambe, per favore,” I’ll take two chicken legs, please. The balding man behind the counter wraps them in paper and points to a packet of seasoning. I shake my head yes, and pay him. My next stop is the verdure, vegetable shop. Here I buy potatoes, carrots and mushrooms. What a welcome change from home, where all my groceries are purchased in one store.

 Chicken Stew
My delicious Sicilian stew!

After I return to my apartment, I run up the stairs to the kitchen and pull out a large pot. I brown the chicken legs in oil, add water and the seasoning packet, and simmer. Soon the vegetables are added. While it is bubbling away, I look through the window and notice the courtyard almost completely immersed in shadow as the sun begins to set. Lights start to flicker behind curtains as the night closes in.

The room fills with the pungent aroma of rosemary and sage. I ladle up a bowl full of rich meaty goodness. My stew is a success.

Marina with Norman ruins in background
Marina with Norman ruins in background

Walking the medieval village deepens my understanding of close living. Narrow winding streets hug corners. Laundry dries from upper story clothes lines and voices carry down through open windows. Gray stonework is dotted with black motorbikes.

Medieval Laundry Room
Medieval Laundry Room

These medieval wash basins, located close to the beach, sit on the site of ancient Roman public baths that were later converted by the Arabs. The Discesa River provided the water for washing.

My walk along the ocean involves some climbing upward through rocky pathways lined with brush. Ocean mist clings to my hair and clothes like a web.

Basilica of Cefalu
Basilica of Cefalu ~ styled in Arabic, Norman and Greek
Christ Pantrocratore
Christ Pantrocratore above the altar

Cefalu is one place I would love to revisit. The medieval village, the amazing shore-path views and the tasty chicken stew all culminate into an outstanding memory.

I encourage you to view the following video on Cefalu put out by The Compulsive Traveler. It gives excellent footage of the medieval village and, interestingly enough, the courtyard and apartment they stayed in appears to be the very same one I found.

Naples, from Egg Castle to Underground Pizza

Naples, one of my favorite Italian cities, is a case-study in the many layers that bring the real Italy into existence. Often described as gritty, undisciplined, shady and confusing, Naples is genuine old-world history iced with nuovo Italia. Don’t be put off by it’s scruffy exterior. Naples will disclose herself slowly, one layer at a time. But one thing I can assure you of is this…..her many dimensions will remain with you always.

Italy Destinations offers an unbelievably exciting adventure(link below) right in the heart of Naples. How does spending an extravagant evening in the San Carlo Theater, the  oldest working theatre in Europe, sound? While enjoying the ambience, you sip cocktails while listening to classical operatic masterpieces of incredible beauty.

San Carlo Theater Panorama
San Carlo Theater Panorama

Imagine exploring Naples Underground the next day, which lies forty meters below the historical center of Naples. Here, inside the ruins of a Roman Theater, you will learn the secrets of assembling authentic Napoletana pizza with experts standing by to help you make it. Open air fire oven included.

Descending to the Naples Underground
Descending to the Naples Underground

Look below the surface of Naples.…there you will discover incredible depths of richness that you never imagined. Ancient historical artifacts, old Roman roads and markets, art and mosaics from the first few centuries, catacombs and ancient temples are all there for you to explore with your group.

Back in the city that evening, a gala dinner awaits you at Egg Castle. Stroll the elegant terrace in the late evening breeze afterwards as you take in panoramic views of both the ocean and the city of Naples. A promise of a romantic evening is in the air.

Egg Castle
Egg Castle

This itinerary had me almost out of my seat and running to the front of the line. Everything from elegance to charm to ancient underground discoveries to Egg Castle had my heart pounding. For anyone looking to experience some of the best Naples has to offer, this is for you. And if you run to the front of the line too, chances are excellent that you will find me there!

For complete details for this tour, see the Italy Destinations website below.

*Naples- A Deep Experience 

Ancient Rome’s Lasting Contribution to Wine Making

“It has passed into a proverb, that wisdom is overshadowed by wine.
Pliny the Elder (Caius Plinius Secundus), Roman officer and encyclopedist, (23-79)


The properties of wine making are very possibly Rome’s most lasting contribution to the world today. What began as wild grapes that grew throughout the mediterranean region, cultivated by the Greeks and Etruscans, and embellished to an art by the Romans, is now considered an essential ingredient to socializing and fine dining.

The rise of the ancient Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of wine making which spread to all parts of the empire. Because the Romans held the attitude that wine was a daily necessity of life, wine became democratic and available to everyone regardless of class. By the 2nd century BC, wine and grape production soared. Large slave-run vineyards dotted the peninsula along the coastline. As the Roman empire expanded, wine and viticulture was introduced throughout the regions to ensure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. Conquered territories, such as France, Germany, Portugal and Spain traded with the Romans for wine even before the Romans annexed the regions and cultivated vineyards.

Unlike the Greeks and Etruscans, the Romans took a deep interest in the art of wine making. They cared about the quality of the wine, its taste, its aroma and its flavor. Some of the earlier wines, which tended to be harsh, could be ignited due to the high amount of alcohol, so it was necessary to dilute wine with seawater. Flavor changing properties were added to wine including honey, herbs and/or spices of all sorts, and chalk added to reduce acidity.

Roman wine storage
Roman wine storage

Roman historians Pliny the Elder and Horace claimed the best wine to be Falerno, produced in northern Campania, the region of Naples. Martial, however, prefered the wine of Albano, from the same area south of Rome that today produces the popular wines of the castelli romani. And finally Horace, who was fond of Caleno (a wealthy persons wine), Massico, and Cecubo, produced near Fondi, in the south of Lazio, which he considers “generous and strong.”

Almost all of these wines were preferably stored for generations in beautiful amphorae, slender and elegant, with elongated handles and necks. Horace gives specific instructions on how to taste aged wine, stating the best to be the Albano which was aged for nine years. You sip the wine, he says, together with your lover.

So how has all of this Roman viticulture carried down through the centuries to our wine making practices today?

To begin with, they developed the attitude that wine should be available to everyone (populi) and established its importance in everyday life. As a result, vineyards were planted and cultivated throughout the Roman Empire whose borders encompassed most of Europe. As far as wine production, they introduced props and trellises in wine growing, improved the presses used for extracting juice, and classified which groups of grapes grew best in which climates. They sought to develop a better taste with aged wine, and they were the first to store it in wooden barrels. It is likely that they were the first to store wine in glass jars with corks.

Many thanks to monks in European monasteries who, after the fall of Rome, kept the art of wine-making alive and well.

Today, wine consumption is still enjoyed by many and brings a strong connection within the realm of socializing. It is continually being improved upon and perfected by wine-makers all over the world. And to this day, as Horace instructed, wine is still to be ‘sipped together with one’s lover.’

"Populi"- for the people
“Populi”- for the people