Pisa beyond the obvious and the cliches. The famous sights photographed from a not so usual perspective and other off the beaten tourist track points of interest.
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Pisa beyond the obvious and the cliches. The famous sights photographed from a not so usual perspective and other off the beaten tourist track points of interest.
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Ponza has been my favorite hide away for the last 20 years. You know, the kind of place you’ll want to keep secret, but you just can’t help to tell. A favorite summer escape for both nature lovers, divers, Italian food lovers, and the Roman and Neapolitan bella gente, but that is still relatively off the beaten tourist track. The perfect mix between slow and chic: unspoiled nature, crystal clear waters, excellent food, family-run hotels with stunning views, and a fisher men’s island that is still authentic and true to its character.
A photographer’s paradise, where the local people, seasonal inhabitants, habitués and the right amount of visitors perfectly mingle together sharing the island’s slow pace and laid back atmosphere. The kind of place where you can still get a glimpse of authentic Italian hospitality and (slow) island living.
The charming, little island lies between the Circeo Promontory and Ischia, in one of the most beautiful parts of the Mediterranean. Although belonging administratively to the Lazio region, the island is located closer to the coast of the Campania region.
As much as I’d like to keep this place to myself, here are 15 reasons why I think you should visit this little gem at least once in your life:
1. A charming, picturesque Italian island, but without the fuss and stress of its more famous counterparts
Ponza is a true miracle: a closely-knit island that has managed to stay virtually intact despite the fact that it is only about sixty miles from Italy’s capital Rome. As it has no airport and is only accessible by boat, it has been relatively well preserved and unblemished by mass tourism.
While the port and center of the island are accessible by ferry and boat, most of the small, rocky beaches are only reachable by sea, requiring a small motor or rubber boat, as the larger sail boats and yachts need to remain at a reasonable safety distance due to the presence of sandbanks and rocks. The wisdom of the inhabitants of Ponza has done the rest.
2. A neat and graceful village, with a definitely slow pace and laid-back atmosphere
The picturesque, little port, surrounded by a semi-circle of typical cheerily painted houses, boasts a few restaurants, cafés and small boutiques that line up along the central promenade facing the sea.
While Ponza may have an upscale feel about it due to the presence of impressive yachts dropping anchor around the island, the island’s style is resolutely casual and relaxed. Visitors to the island remain discrete, appreciating the peace and anonymity they can find on Ponza like nowhere else.
You will find a few shops selling clothes, shoes and jewelry in the typical Pontine style, a few bars and family-run hotels, but you’ll find no 5-star hotels, nor high-end luxury shops here. And that’s a good thing.
The only exception are a Michelin-starred restaurant (see further) and a few other excellent restaurants, but even here the atmosphere is definitely more laid back than in comparable restaurants on the mainland and you can feel that this is how the Ponzese people want to keep it.
To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want, is what best summarizes the island of Ponza, but what you’ll get there you find nowhere else.
3. A delicious dinner against one of the most beautiful backdrops of Italy
One of Ponza’s iconic restaurants is Acqua Pazza on the port-side promenade. It is here that the famous Acqua Pazza preparation (a delicious sauce combining fresh tomatoes, capers and olives, now famous all over Italy) was invented. Another of our favorite dishes (not on the menu,) is the Spaghetti alle uova di ricci. Absolutely worth trying is also their antipasti crudi, an exquisite dish of tartare and refined raw fish bites.
Almost next door is another iconic restaurant of the island, l’Aragosta. Try their carbonara di mare or their delicious spaghetti alle vongole. The owner takes pride in his pasta, which is indeed cooked al dente to perfection! The restaurant takes no reservations so arrive early.
If you feel like having a ride around the island (see further) I recommend a gastronomic pitstop at Da Ciro ristorante Miramare in Le Forma, on the other side of the island.
Da Ciro is the island’s only restaurant where you can see the most dazzling sunset over the Pontine sea from your table. Their pasta con granseola (spider crab) is to die for, freshly fished and prepared on order (only available in the months April, May and beginning of June).
4. Jaw-dropping, unspoiled nature and amazing coast-line
Due to its volcanic origin, the island is adorned with spectacular natural sights: blue caves, beautiful coves, amazing sea stacks and rocks, white and blue-grey cliffs that drop abruptly into the sea and gorgeous beaches, all surrounded by emerald and turquoise-colored, crystal clear waters. The unique, breathtaking scenery and nature is best admired from the sea, both above and underwater.
Take for example, the Scoglio Caciocavallo, also known as Casocavallo. Legend has it that the barren women of the island went there on a nocturnal pilgrimage, as its phallic shape was considered to bring them good luck. The superstition disappeared when a piece fell off the summit…
There is also the Core, a portion of the rock in the shape of wounded heart, dripping blood, subject to the most daring legendary interpretations, and Capo Bianco, home of the peregrine falcon. Struck by the beauty and peculiarity of the place, the Italian director Federico Fellini decided to shoot a few scenes of his film Satyricon here.
Among the many other natural sights are Cala Feola and the Piscine Naturali, Cala Fonte, the Faraglioni del Calzone Muto, Grotta del Corallo, Orecchio Giallo, Punta Incenso and the Scoglio dello Spumante.
And last but not least, the island boasts some beautiful stretches of beach such as Frontone, Lucia Rosa, Schiavone and Felci and, of course, the most scenic of them all, Chiaia di Luna, a narrow beach of silky sand at the base of a skyscrapping white golden rock wall in half moon shape (hence its name).
5. Hang out on the picturesque portside promenade and soak up the atmosphere
At night the atmosphere on the port-side promenade is just magical. Whether you have a drink or an after dinner ice cream or just come down for a walk, take the time to enjoy the amazing ambiance and outrageous sunset.
Don’t skip a visit to the island’s only bookshop Il Brigantino, run by Silverio Mazzella, a cartographer, photographer, researcher and book illustrator, who among many other interesting works, has published a beautiful book about the fauna of Ponza, illustrated with his awesome true-to-life acquarelles.
For fashion shopping in the local Ponza-style head to Brezza di Mare run by an adorable young couple, Saverio and his wife Tiziana, from Naples. Their city of origin is famous for its artisan tailors, so it comes as no surprise that you’ll find some of the best fine linen and cotton shirts in their little boutique. Almost next door is a shop selling cute armbands, earrings and neck laces, and a gelato parlor open until late at night.
6. Circumnavigating the island to admire the amazing coastline
One of the best ways to admire some of the island’s most wonderful sights is by renting a boat and touring the island. You can rent a small boat from one of the boat rentals at the port (going down the stairs at bar Maga Circe) or at the beach in front of Hotel Gennarino a Mare for a few hours or a day. It will cost you about 50 to 120 euro a day depending on the season and the size of the boat (you will be charged for petrol separately).
No license is needed, but please respect the recommendations you will be given, as the sea can be very tricky and change abruptly within a couple of hours. Depending on the sea and winds the owner will tell you whether it is preferable to tour clockwise or counterclockwise around the island and whether it is safe to tour all around the island or if that day it is best not to go beyond a certain point.
Also please respect speed limitations when approaching the coast and otherwise remain at a safety distance from the coast in order to avoid rocks. Take some drinks and food and organize a delicious picnic at sea, but please (please!) bring all waste back with you and do not throw anything into the sea (not even things that you assume are biodegradable).
This year we discovered something new: a colorful and curious little boat, selling ice cream at sea!
Of course, we had to try this! So we hailed them, and I must say they were really clever at manoeuvering their boat to stabilize it alongside ours. A welcome surprise when it’s hot and you are far from the shore. This is Italy !
7. Hire a buggy or Mehari jeep and tour the island
Renting jeep for a few hours (the island is otherwise mostly car-free, apart from the small local Ape) is another way to discover some more secluded places of the island. Rent a Mehari jeep or buggy at Noleggio Agostino Pilato (right after the pedestrian tunnel on the main street) and have a ride to Le Forma on the other side of the island (see 3.) Count about 35 euro for 4 hours (20 for the first hour and 5 euro for each additional hour. Petrol is included in the price).
8. Have a walk through the tiny white-washed back streets with blue and pink houses up to the vine yards and admire the view from above
If you like to discover the little maze of streets on your own to make spotless photographs, the best time is around lunch time, when most people are either at the beach or out on the sea.
9. Climb up the hill to the necropolis and admire the jaw-dropping views and untouched nature
If you decide to venture up to the “forgotten” ancient Roman necropolis of Ponza, I recommend you buy the small brochure-book Ponza Itinerari a piedi which will guide you along the path that is most of the time very well indicated with information boards, but lacking signs on some portions.
The tombs are excavated in the friable rock. They are proof that the island was settled by the Romans during the Republican era, as these hypogram structures were used to until the end of the 4th century AD. The first necropolis is located on top of the rocks that dominate the inlet of Chiaia di Luna. The second can be found on the eastern slopes of Monte Guardia at Bagno Vecchio.
The spectacular view from the top of the island alone is worth the hike, but do bring a bottle of water, a cap and preferably wear hiking shoes or closed shoes and long trousers as vegetation may be overgrown at certain spots. The path is literally off the beaten track most of the time! 🙂
10. Admire one of the most spectacular sunsets of Italy with a cocktail on the terrace of Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna
One of the most scenic terraces of the island and maybe of Italy, is the terrace of Hotel Chiaia di Luna. Every evening during summer entertainment is provided at the Ki Bar piano and lounge bar overlooking the spectacular bay. You can enjoy the view while sipping a refreshing cocktail and for a small supplement you can enjoy the dinner buffet.
11. Taste the oven-warm goodies at Pasticceria Napoletana
For breakfast or a coffee break head to the Pasticceria Caffetteria Napoletana on the small, bustling main street in the center of Ponza. They have the most delicious sfogliatelle (ricce AND lisce), wonderful cannoli and other totally yummy pastries.
12. Lunchtime break with an antipasto misto and glass of white wine at Oresteria at the port of Ponza
Try the antipasti misti of raw fish and pair it with a local wine from Ponza or a Pecorino from Abruzzo (which is excellent with fish-based pasta or raw fish dishes).
13. Day trip to one of the other islands of the Pontine archipelago
Actually, Ponza is part of the Pontine archipelago which consists of six islands: Ponza, Palmarola, Zannone, Gavi, Ventotene and Santo Stefano. All islands are of volcanic origin, except Zannone which has sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Only Ponza and Ventotne are large enough to offer accommodation possibilities and regular ferry connections. The other islands can be visited by boat from the larger islands.
Palmarola and Zannone are classic day trips from Ponza, each just 30 minutes away by motor boat. To the west, Palmarola is a protected nature reserve, particularly popular among divers.
Its turquoise seas and splendid coves can compete with those of islands in the South Pacific or the Caribbean.
There is a small, low key fish restaurant on Palmarola that is accessible only by boat. To the northeast, Zannone is a nature reserve with quiet hikes, dense forests, and wild sheep running free.
14. Explore the beautiful and unusual fauna and flora
Some of the animal species and subspecies found on Ponza are endemic to the island, which means that they can be found only here and nowhere else on Earth.
One example is the butterfly Hipparchia sbordonii (Ponza grayling) that is only found on Ponza and the Faraglione della Madonna. Actually it was first called Hipparchia of Ponza, by O. Kudrna Leigheb, the naturalist who studied it in 1984. Other endemic species include the scorpion Euscorpius carpathicus Palmarolae, found only on the island of Palmarola.
Even the class of reptiles includes some species that are only found on the pontine islands, such as Podarcis siculus latastei or Palmarola Wall Lizard and Podarcis siculus patrizii (Zannone lizard).
This ponzesità (the quality of being specific to Ponza) can also be found in the vegetal world. On the rocky slopes , near the coast, grows the Limonium Pontium a plant with delicate, violet-colored flowers.
15. Delve into the amazing history of the island
Part of the island’s fascination also stems from its unusual history.
Taking advantage of the island’s isolation various regimes used it as a penal settlement. During the two decades of fascism, Ponza and the nearby Ventotene, served as a prison for political opponents of Benito Mussolini’s regime. Mussolini himself was imprisoned on the island for several weeks after being overthrown and arrested in 1943.
Like other Mediterranean islands, Ponza suffered successive waves of invasion. First colonized by the Etruscans, Phoenicians, Spanish and Greeks, among others, it was abandoned during the Middle Ages due to constant raids by Saracens and pirates.
Re-colonized by the Kingdom of Naples during the 18th century, the island became part of the Kingdom of Italy in the mid-19th century, later transformed into the Republic of Italy.
The Greek gave it the name Eea, while the Volsci called it Pontia. Various theories have emerged to explain the etymology of the name. According to some sources the island was named after Pontius Pilate, but there is no evidence to support this theory. Othe sources believe the name stems from the Greek term Pontos (land of sea), but more recents studies indicate that it could be the latin translation of the Greek term Pénte – Nèsoi (five islands), referring to the number of islands that make up the Pontine archipelago (but they are in fact six). The most recent hypothesis is that the ancient Greeks named it after the goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite had various cult titles and divine functions, among which Pontia, a title referring to her function as the protectress of sea voyages and sea people. Evidence to support this theory is that Ponza’s neighboring island Ventoten was originally called Pandataria, coined on Pandemos, another of Aphordite’s many titles.
When to visit Ponza?
The best time to visit Ponza are the months May, June, September, and the beginning of July, avoiding August as the island can become pretty crowded by day-tourists flocking from Rome and Formia.
If you plan to go in July it is best to avoid the week-ends, planning your stay anywhere from Tuesday to Friday. We recommend spending a minimum of two nights and three days to have enough time to visit the island both from the inside and from the sea.
Where to stay?
I have been going to Ponza at least once a year for the past 20 years and have stayed in various types of accommodation: rented rooms, B&Bs, “budget” hotels and more upscale hotels.
Until a few years back I preferred to stay in a B&B, like Villa Ersilia, as I found that the hotels’ infrastructure had not kept up with the rooms rates asked. However, in the past three years I’ve been going back to one of the iconic hotels of the island, Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna, where the younger generation has done a great job to renovate the premises and bring them up to standard. I must add that most hotels on the island are still run by the original families, which in my eyes is a very good thing, but which also means that renovations and improvements to keep up-to-date with requirements of international travelers are done at a slow pace. But that is also what makes the charm of the island.
In the range of Chiaia di Luna, there is also Santa Domitilla. Both hotels have a swimming pool, beautiful outdoor areas where to relax and a state-of-the-art restaurant. Santa Domitilla also has a nice spa with cold and hot water grottos. Chiaia di Luna is unbeatable for the view over the eponymous bay.
For those of you who want to stay right in the center (and pay a little less), there is Hotel Mari, with its balconies overlooking the promenade (the first photo on this page was taken from the balcony of Hotel Mari). If you prefer to stay in a B&B, I recommend Villa Ersilia for their lovely terrace with a lovely view, but be aware that their beds are a bit spartian. 😉 In recent years a lot of new B&Bs have popped up that I haven’t tried yet, so you may want to have a look at everything that’s on offer using the search box below (it’s preset for Ponza).
Getting to and around Ponza
Access from Anzio by aliscafo (hydrofoil, 1hr10) and Formia by ferry (2hr30) and aliscafo (1hr10) or from Terracina (ferry 2hrs). There used to be a ferry departing also from Anzio but it doesn’t operate anymore. I always travel from Anzio.
Once in Ponza you may want to rent a small motorboat to discover the coast around the island as well as the other pontine islands. Another option is to rent a sail boat or small yacht for your trip to Ponza and your stay there.
To tour around the island you can rent a Mehari jeep, buggy or scooter in the center of Ponza (just past the pedestrian tunnel on the promenade).
Photo credits: all photos © Slow Italy, except history post card.
An earlier and shorter version of this article by the same author was published on Yourguidetoitaly.com on July 4, 2007.
Situated on the slope of the Montalbano, amid the rolling hills of Tuscany, lies the town of Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci.
It is here, in the heart of the stunning Tuscan countryside, at just 40 km from Florence, that the genius artist and inventor was born on 15 April 1452, the natural child of Florentine notary Ser Piero and a young peasant woman named Caterina. He was raised by his grandparents in a farmhouse located in a frazione of Vinci called Anchiano, surrounded by an amazing landscape made of centuries-old olive trees and the typical bluish misty horizons as seen in many of his paintings.
It is quite touching to see that, throughout his life, the world famous genius kept a close relationship with his home territory, the scenery that inspired his works. Indeed, the background hues of the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous portraits of all time, was clearly inspired by the landscapes of his early childhood, even though the bridge visible in the backgrod is believed to be the Ponte Gobbo from Bobbio in Emilia Romagna.
In the chapter on Perspective of Color and Aerial Perspective of his Notebooks, da Vinci recommended the blue horizon and gave as a reason that in reality horizons are blue.
Standing in front of the farm house where Leonardo spent his childhood, overlooking the amazing scenery all around, it is easy to understand why this celestial feature was given so much importance in his paintings.
Leonardo da Vinci was the epitome of a “Renaissance man”, a person who excelled at several fields in science and the arts, a polymath of fervent curiosity, coupled with a visionary and vivid imagination.
Polymaths had a comprehensive approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time.
According to the Renaissance ideal, one was expected to be versed in science, technology and philosophy, speak several languages, play a musical instrument and write poetry. This is in sharp contrast to our modern day assumption that excellence or expertise can only result from focusing on a single specific topic and where certain alliances between subjects are not as easily “tolerated”, especially not within one and the same person.
During the Renaissance, excellence in any of these areas was not supposed to take attention away from the pursuit of the other fields, but rather served to increase competence in complementary areas, in order to provide a greater understanding of oneself and the world.
The idea was certainly not to have a superficial understanding of many topics, but rather to have a profound knowledge in each of the fields, which allowed to “connect the dots”. Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, hence the term. Galileo, for example, painted and played the lute alongside his mastery of science and philosophy.
As for Leonardo, he was a brilliant scientist, inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, engineer, cartographer, writer, poet and musician. Even though he is renowned primarily as a painter, his expertise in each of the other fields contributed to his unique skills as a universal genius.
Leonardo thought that the eyes are human kind’s most important organ and sight the most important of our five senses. Therefore, he believed in the amassing of direct knowledge through observation. Saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became one of the central themes of his studies.
His creativity reached out in every realm in which vision and graphic representation go hand in hand: painting, sculpting, architecture and engineering. But, he went much further than that. His unusual powers of observation and mastery of the art of drawing allowed him to sketch his findings when dissecting human and animal bodies.
Combining several of his unique skills in an alliance of art and science, he became one of the first artists to make detailed anatomical drawings from his own dissections, at a time when dissection of the human body was still very rare. His drawings of fetus in utero, sex organs and other anatomical features are some of the first recorded in human history. Reversely, his dissections also allowed him to more accurately depict movements and gestures in his paintings.
Art and science intersected also perfectly in his sketch of the “Vitruvian Man,” which depicts a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, inscribed in both a square and a circle. The drawing and the accompanying text (based on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius) are sometimes viewed as the Canon of Proportions. The Canon of Proportions is a type of ideal proportions in which the human body was the principal source of proportions among the Classical orders of architecture, a kind of intersection between geometry and ideal human proportions. According to this ideal the human body should be eight heads high. A real-life representation of the Vitruvian Man, by Mario Ceroli, can be seen right behind the tower of the Castle of Vinci, where it is strategically placed against the panorama surrounding it.
However, da Vinci acknowledged the risk of being stuck in one’s own perceptual position, and he indicated several ways to shift perspective, both literally and mentally.
A striking example is the painting Annunciation (1472-1473), which is generally considered a work denoting the immaturity of the artist due to so-called errors in perspective and strange deformations from a spatial point of view. It is in fact a quintessence of his research in optics. When you move to the right side of the painting, you will see that the proportions of the palazzo change and the whole picture becomes more realistic.
The reading-desk is now also further back and much closer to Mary; her right arm is shorter and the posture more natural; and finally, Gabriel’s stance is more compact, as is appropriate for a kneeling figure in the act of greeting Mary.
In addition to his anatomical investigations and his research in optics, da Vinci studied aeronautics, hydraulics, mathematics, physics, geology, botany and zoology. He sketched his observations on loose sheets of papers that were arranged in dozens of notebooks around four comprehensive themes: painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy.
Despite his groundbreaking discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, he did not publish his findings, which explains why they had no direct influence on later science.
Ahead of his time, da Vinci seemed to prophesize the future with his sketches of machines resembling an airplane, bicycle and helicopter, but his sketches were mainly theoretical, rarely experimental, as the technology was lacking at that time to develop his plans, which, if anything, is an additional proof of his unusual ingenuity. His sketch of the ancestor of an airplane was based on the physiology of the bat, again demonstrating the alliance of his skills in various fields, in this case biology and engineering. A number of Leonardo’s most interesting inventions are now on display as working models at the Museum of Vinci.
While Leonardo is widely recognized as one of the most diversely talented individuals to have ever lived, it goes relatively unnoticed that he did in fact receive little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction. His artistic talents, however, were evident from an early age. By the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the famous Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. While in Florence, he learned a wide variety of technical skills including carpentry, metalworking, leather arts, painting and sculpting. His earliest known dated work is a pen-and-ink drawing of an Arno landscape, sketched in 1473.
Barely fifteen of his paintings have survived, but he probably never painted more than two dozen. One reason is that his interests were so varied that he was too absorbed to be a prolific painter. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his thoughts on the nature of painting, form a contribution to later generations of artists rivaled only by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo. Among his works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are both the most famous and most reproduced paintings of all time.
It was under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, who ruled Milan as its regent, that da Vinci painted The Last Supper on the back wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. Ludovico brought da Vinci to Milan for a tenure that would last 17 years.
The Mona Lisa, instead, was a privately commissioned work. Much of the painting’s allure is due to the enigmatic smile of the woman in the half-portrait, which derives from da Vinci’s sfumato technique. The mystery surrounding the identity of the subject is also a source of endless fascination. The most accepted theory is that the painting’s model was Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. The painting’s original Italian name, “La Gioconda”, supports this theory. Some art historians, however, believe that the portrait is androgynous (half male, half female) and that it was either partly a self-portrait or that Da Vinci’s apprentice and lover Gian Giocomo Caprotti sat as a model for the painting. Even though it was a privately commissioned work it was never delivered as Da Vinci considered it forever a work in progress, so there isn’t any delivery destination that could confirm the identity of the model.
During his stay in Milan da Vinci also worked as a military engineer for the regent, sketching war machines such as a war chariot with scythe blades mounted on the sides, an armored tank. The Duke of Milan also tasked him with designing a dome for Milan’s cathedral.
In the beginning of the 1500s, he briefly worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and commander of the papal army. Together with the politician and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, he developed an innovative weapon of war: the diversion of the Arno River away from rival Pisa in order to deny its wartime enemy access to the sea.
Towards the end of his life Da Vinci moved to Rome, then to France, where, lacking large commissions, he devoted most of his time to mathematical studies and scientific exploration.
If you are in Florence, the picturesque village of Vinci with its evocative medieval alleys and panoramic views is certainly worth a day trip. The town has paid a beautiful tribute to its most famous son, expressing the past-future relationship between the Renaissance genius and his futuristic works, in its squares, streets and the Leonardo Museum (Museo Leonardiano). The artist’s sketches, inventions and handwritten notes have been wonderfully brought to life in the real-life abstract sculptures that adorn the town and in the wooden models exhibited in the museums, many of which are supported by digital animations and interactive software.
The Leonardo Museum consists of two parts, one housed in the XIIIth century Castle of the Guidi Counts, restored in 1952 to create the museum, and one inside the Palazzina Uzielli (where the ticket booth is located). The two buildings together house one of the broadest and most original collections devoted to Da Vinci the engineer, architect and scientist, and to the history of Renaissance technology in general.
The visit of the Leonardo museum starts on the first floor of Palazzo Uzielli. The various sections are dedicated to applied textile technology, construction machinery and mechanical watches and a separate section explaining Leonardo’s calculations for the construction of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. From there the visit continues in the Guidi Castle, dedicated to Leonardo’s war machines, architecture and engineering.
In the flight section you will find the famous beating wing, the designs of automatic mechanisms, such as those for operating bells. Further rooms include the room of the bicycle, optics and water and the studies dedicated to river transportation. From the tower of the castle you can enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding area.
Copies of all Leonardo’s manuscripts and sketches are kept in the Leonardo Library. The Library (Biblioteca Leonardiana) also contains over 7,000 monographies on Leonardo Da Vinci.
Next to the museum is the Church of Santa Croce, where the original 15th century baptismal font where Da Vinci was baptized is still visible. The church also houses a sculptural cycle, inspired by Da Vinci, by one of the most famous contemporary Italian sculptors Cecco Buonanotte.
In Piazza Guidi the artist Mimmo Paladino has reinterpreted Leonardo’s geometry in his own unique artistic language, creating an original urban space which marks the entrance to the Museum. The sculptures with their geometric and abstract shapes were inspired by the polyhedron, symbol of the Renaissance, composing a symbolic dialogue between the medieval heart of Vinci and the contemporary effect of the glass and silver laminate sculptures.
On Piazza della Libertà stands the bronze Horse statue by the Japanese-American sculptor Nina Akamu, taking inspiration from Leonardo’s project for an equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza which was never finished. The artist was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza to sculpt a 16-foot-tall bronze equestrian statue, meant to be the largest equestrian statue in the world, as a tribute to his father and founder of the family dynasty, Francesco Sforza.Leonardo did extensive preparatory design and calculations for the project, but war prevented him from completing his masterpiece, as the available bronze was used for the war effort. Only a clay model was produced that was later destroyed. Several projects have brought Leonardo’s horse to life around the world.
The sculpture exhibited in Vinci is actually a smaller scale version of the Cavallo di Leonardo by the same artist Nina Akamu, made in two castings, of which one is exhibited in Milan and one, The American Horse, stands in the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, there is also the wooden sculpture The Man of Vinci by Mario Ceroli, a real-life representation of the Vitruvian man, right behind the tower of the Castle.
Da Vinci’s birth house, instead, is located at 3km from the center, the frazione Anchiano of Vinci. It is worth visiting, if only for the breathtaking ride through the amazing scenery on the road bordered with century-old olive trees. You can also walk up following the picturesque Strada Verde (Green Road) on foot for about 30 minutes (CAI path n.14). The surrounding nature and breathtaking viewpoints are those that inspired the young da Vinci!
From Florence follow the road to Empoli, then drive along the Arno until the Zona Industriale and follow the SP13 towards Vinci.
When to visit:
A framework of celebrations are usually organized between mid-April and the end of June (corresponding approximately to the birth and death-month of Da Vinci).
During the second weekend of April, a cultural gathering called Lettura Vinciana, which is a critical review of one of the works of Leonardo with Da Vinci readings, is being held. Each year, it is curated by a different international exponent of the world of culture or world expert on Leonardo.
The ‘Unicorn Festival’ (Festa Unicorno) in Vinci, is however, the most intense and original event, which has taken place every year since 2004. For three consecutive days during the second half of July a fantasy world of elves, goblins, knights of the Hobbit world, Adventure Comics characters invades the streets of Vinci creating a huge party of colors, costumes and thematic music concerts.
Last but not least is the Volo of Cecco Santi, which takes place during the last week of July. It is a rite for the harvest of Vinci’s fields and consists of a historical parade in medieval dress on the streets of Vinci, the flight of Cecco Santi puppet from the Castle and one breath-taking fireworks display. According to the legend, Cecco Santi di Vinci was a guard knight of fortune who, for the love of a noblewoman, became corrupted by the opposing attackers to encourage their entry into Vinci. He was discovered and sentenced to be thrown from the tower of the Castle of the Guidi Counts. Cecco asked to drink, as a last wish, a good wine glass of Vinci, a miraculous wine because the traitor and womanizer rider was able to fly and had thus saved his life. The story of Cecco is known throughout Tuscany and should be seen in the 14th century and the background are the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines which plagued Florence and Tuscany.
Photo credtis: all photos © Slow Italy, except when otherwise stated.
Symbol monument of the Piedmont region, the abbey of San Michele is undoubtedly one of the most striking architectural highlights of the province of Turin. Just like the Superga Basilica, another highlight of the region, the Sacra of San Michele is shrouded in legend, mystery and macabre details.
Founded on the rocky spur of Mount Pirchiriano in the Val di Susa (Susa Valley) between 983 and 987, the Sacra, also known as the Abbazia della Chiusa, is one of the sacred sites dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
Mysteriously, the three most important medieval monasteries venerating Saint Michael in Europe are all located on the same axis, one straight pilgrimage route, known as Via Sancti Michaelis, going from the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy (France) to Monte Sant’Angelo (Monte Gargano) in Puglia (Italy). The Sacra di San Michele is located exactly at the midpoint of this 2000km long pilgrimage route.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Sacra di San Michele lies in perfect geographic alignment with three other Saint Michael monasteries, on a straight line going from Skellig Michael (Ireland), over Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, England), including the pilgrimage route previously mentioned, to the Monastery of Saint Michael (Symi island, Greece) before coming to an end in Jerusalem, at Mount Carmel.
Lines like this axis are known as ley lines, believed to be a system of energetic highways, with the same purpose or meaning as the chakras and acupuncture meridians in the human energy body.
From an architectural point of view, the Sacra is one of the largest religious Romanesque complexes in Europe, resulting from the construction and consecutive enlargements made over a millennium, giving the impression that the ancient monastery has grown out of the rocky spur on which it was built. In fact the monastery developed from three chapels built in the rock under the present basilica. The three chapels of the original nucleus were transformed into tombs were twenty-four members of the Savoy house were buried in the 11th century.
Just like the other sacred sites dedicated to the Archangel, the summit of Mount Pirchiriano, culminating at an altitude of 962m, was not chosen by accident. From earliest times, mountain summits and hills were regarded as the most appropriate places for the veneration of the Archangel Michael, probably as a real-life metaphor for his highest place among the Angels.
A further peculiarity of the Sacra is that it was mainly built with stones of oceanic origin. The calcareous base of the monument stems from the settling of calcareous plankton mixed with different types of clay carried by submarine currents, before the Alps were formed. The prasinites used for the top of the Sacra and the wonderful sculptures of the apse were formed by the transformation of submarine lavas which flowed from volcanoes along the pre-alpine oceanic ridge. Inside the Sacra you can find materials of ancient coralline origin: the marbles of the impressive gateway of the Zodiac. This piece of art is the work of the sculptor Nicolo’ and local craftsmen (beginning of the 12th century).
The steep staircase going from the entrance to the Zodiac gateway (Portale dello Zodiaco) goes by the obscure name of Scalone dei Morti (Staircase of the Dead), reminiscent of the bodies of dead monks that used to decorate the niches on either sides of the staircase. It is said that until recent times, skeletons of dead monks were still visible.
The three aisles inside the Church show the passage from the Romanesque style (the apse) to the Gothic style. The old choir contains frescoes and paintings from the beginning of the 16th century, such as the Triptych and The Virgin on the Throne by Defendente Ferrari, a piemontese painter from Chivasso.
The Monks Door leads to the terrace with views over the ruins of the new monastery (12th to 14th centuries) as well as the Tower of the Beautiful Alda (Torre della bell’Alda) and an unfinished bell tower.
Legend has it that a beautiful peasant girl, named Alda, was ambushed by enemy soldiers when she visited the Sacra to pray against the evils of war. As she tried to escape their assault she found herself trapped at the top of the tower. Left with no other choice but to throw herself into the ravine she invoked the help of St. Michael and the Virgin and miraculously survived, landing unhurt at the bottom of the precipice.
Out of vanity she recklessly tested the angels with a second leap believing she would be able to repeat her flight in front of the unbelieving villagers. Unfortunately, as miracles never happen twice, she met her fate at the bottom of the rocks below.
How to get there:
The Sacra is administratively situated within the territory of the comune of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, but accessible by car from Avigliana (or from Turin, exit Avigliana Est), or following a hiking trail from Sant’Ambrogio di Torino.
By train: take the train from Porto Nuevo station in Turin to Avigliana (end station is Susa). At the station of Avigliana you can get a shuttle to the main parking. From the parking you walk about 800m to the Sacra.
In Winter: from October 16 to March 15
weekdays: 9:30-12:30; 14:30-17:00
Sundays and festive:days: 9:30-12:00; 14:40-17:00
In Summer: from March 16 to October 15
weekdays: 9:30-12:30; 14:30-18:00
Sundays and festive days: 9:30-12:00; 14:40-18:30
Photo credits: all photos © Slow Italy, except (top to bottom): Sacra at night © Roberto Bertero / bertero.weebly.com; Sacra di San Michele by BillH-GSACC; Zodiac gateway by Pietro Izzo; Sacra San Michele night view © Mat738; Staircase of the Dead (1 photo), inside the Sacra (2 photos), Torre della bell’Alda and panorama by Alexander Schimmeck;
More than any other city in Italy, Trieste is inextricably linked to the world of coffee. Since the 18th century the Adriatic seaport has been the Mediterranean’s main coffee harbor, where the green beans arrive from around the world. The capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region also serves as a global hub for the coffee roasting industry, with among the many small, local coffee roasting businesses also the world famous Triestine company, Illy. Add to that the city’s many historic cafés and you’ll understand why the aroma of freshly-roasted beans and brewed coffee is always swirling in the air.
The unique rapport between the Triestines and their favorite brewage (the inhabitants of Trieste drink almost twice as much coffee as the rest of Italy, 10kg per capita a year versus 5.8kg for the national average) is even visible in their language. They have developed their own coffee jargon, only intelligible by the initiated, that can be rather confusing for the non-locals. See: How to order a coffee in Trieste.
Many of Trieste’s historic cafés used their own brands and blends of coffee, and some still do today. Actually, this is precisely what characterizes the coffee production in Trieste, which has no equivalent in the rest of Italy, except maybe in Naples and Palermo, where small coffee roasting businesses cater directly to Trieste’s coffee houses. This creates the rather unique experience of tasting a different coffee in every café.
Trieste’s first “coffee shop” (then called cafeteria) opened in Via S. Nicolo’ (formerly Contrada Bottari) in 1768. It was in fact not much more than a license to sell “hot and cold waters, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, lemonades and syrup water” in addition to the permission to have “biliard tables and bake biscuits”.
Just like a good blend of coffee is composed of beans of different flavors and origins, so is the city’s history and culture made of different languages and traditions, which is in turn reflected in its coffee houses. At first, each coffee house was associated with a clientele of specific origin. Stella Polare, for example, was mostly frequented by the German community, whereas Caffè Greco was the bastion for the Greek community and Griot, founded by a Swiss family, the meeting point for the Triestine nobility and business men. By 1857 the city counted 57 coffee houses (according to a guide published by Lloyd Austriaco) for a population that counted hardly 56,000 inhabitants. By 1911 that number even rose to 98.
With the time, the cafés became associated with specific socio-cultural groups rather than national communities. Some cafés became the meeting places for the irredentists, Italian nationalists who advocated the return to Italy of Italian-speaking districts under Austrian-Hungarian rule such as Trieste, Gorizia, Istria and Dalmatia. Others were frequented by the bourgeoisie or by business men. There were also literary cafés, mostly frequented by intellectuals, writers and artists.
Soon, the city’s cafés became thè places to be, where people could mingle in the typical, friendly but anonymous, Triestine way. James Joyce, Stendhal, Kafka, Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba and the contemporary Triestine writers Paolo Rumiz, Fulvio Tomizza, or Claudio Magris each had their favorite café.
Unfortunately, many of Trieste’s historic cafés have been destroyed or transformed beyond recognition. Caffè Tergesteo, until recently located in the eponymous gallery on Piazza della Borsa, Bar Venier in Piazza Goldoni, Café Garibaldi, Caffè Flora and Caffè Orientale, the latter three in Piazza Unità d’Italia, are just a few examples of Trieste’s rich coffee-cultural heritage that have been lost to history.
Among the ones of historic significance still operating today are the following 8 historic cafés and 2 historic pastry shops mentioned below:
1. Caffè San Marco
Via Battisti 18
Tel: +39 040 363538
Caffè San Marco is by far my favorite café in Trieste, and maybe even my personal pick among all historic cafés I visited in Florence, Turin and Rome. I loved the airy yet, at the same time, very cozy lay-out and the stylish interior decoration, all spiced up with hidden symbols and metaphors, which recall the origin of the coffee house and its irredentist spirit.
It is also one of the few coffee houses that has remained true to its tradition as a literary café. Indeed, since 2013 the café hosts the bookshop San Marco, adding an additional appealing touch for those who love to read and write in an ambiance surrounded by books, but not just books. Concerts, exhibitions and other cultural events are held here on a regular basis turning the café into a cultural hub just as it used to be in the beginning of the 1900s, when intellectuals, writers and irredentists gathered here. An inviting place where you come to read, write or contemplate the lively atmosphere soaking up the inspirational vibes that have been hanging in the air for centuries!
Not to mention their delicious chocolate and pear cake !
Opened on January 3 in 1914, the café was named after its first owner Marco Lovrinovich, a wine dealer. Originally, the Austrian authorities opposed the name claiming that it didn’t fit the Triestine tradition, as it sounded too Venetian. However, Lovrinovich claimed that he should be allowed to call the café after himself, and was eventually granted the permit. Yet, it seems that Lovrinovich liked to maintain the ambiguity as the café is full of references to the Venetian San Marco lion, with lion heads featured on the counter (designed by Conte), and an univocal decorative panel hanging in the side room. Even the wrought iron feet of the marble tables represent lion paws.
If you have a closer look you will also find other symbolic and metaphoric elements, such as coffee leaves and cherries, blended into the decoration of the furniture, walls and ceilings. Interesting are also the forty three river allegories representing rivers of Italy and the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, and the thirty six mask paintings, which adorn the walls throughout the café. Because of these Café San Marco was even dubbed Caffè delle Maschere at some point.
Intellectuals and writers, such as Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba, James Joyce, Gianni Stuparich and Virgilio Giotti all appreciated the cozy atmosphere and, because of its position a bit off the city center, the café also became a bastion for the irredentists, who probably chose the coffee house for its location. At the high time of Italian irredentism fake passports were even printed and distributed here.
The venue was also used as a film set in 1962 for the movie Senelità (Careless in the US) by Mauro Bolognini based on the eponymous novel by Italo Svevo. In the photo below you can see Claudia Cardinale and Rada Rassimov.
The Television drama La Coscienza di Zeno 1987 by Sandro Bolchi with Johnny Dorelli in the role ofZeno Cosini was shot here in 1987.
2. Caffè degli Specchi
Piazza Unità d’Italia 7
Tel: +39 040 370187
Due to its central location in Piazza Unità d’Italia, Caffè degli Specchi has always been the barometer of the town’s city life and history. It is the only testimony of what was once Trieste’s main square lined with cafés, among which Caffè Garibaldi (under Palazzo del Municipio), Caffè Flora (in Casa Pitteri) and Caffè Orientale (under Palazzo Loyd), now part of the past.
Palazzo Stratti, the building where Caffè degli Specchi is situated, was built by the Greek Nicolo’ Stratti, who was also the owner of the license “bottega da caffè”. Nicolò Privolo, also a Greek, opened the café in 1839. He decided to cover the walls with engraved mirrors, which each recounted a historical event that occurred in nineteenth century Europe. This was a smart strategic move rather than a purely esthetic one. Indeed, before electricity (electric lighting was only introduced in 1933), most visitors left at sundown because the cafés were dark. With the mirrors, candles and oil lamps were reflected a hundreds of times, illuminating the café with shimmering light, which allowed visitors to stay longer even after dusk. Today, only three of the original mirrors have remained in place.
In the basement of the café there is relic piece of a wall of the ancient Castello Amarina built by the Venetians in 1370. Next to the site where the café was built there was an ancient church di San Pietro demolished in 1822.
The café was requisitioned in 1945 when the Anglo-American forces used it as headquarters for the Royal Navy. Until 1954, year when Trieste was annexed to Italy, locals were only allowed inside the café if accompanied by a British military.
3. Antico Caffè Torinese
Corso Italia 2
Tel: +39 389 654 3611
Antico Caffè Torinese was founded in 1915, at the corner of Corso Italia and Via Roma. It may not look like much from the outside, but step inside and you’ll be absolutely amazed. The café, where even the ceiling is covered with fine wooden paneling, is a little gem inside.
The interior made of precious teak and fruit tree wood is the work of cabinetmaker Giuliano Debelli (whose logo is visible on some pieces). Once you know that Debelli used to make the fine wooden interiors of transatlantic ships such as Saturnia and Vulcania (1925-1926), you’ll understand why the small café hints at the atmosphere of a luxury Belle Epoque passenger ship. The fixed furniture system made of wooden cabinets, drawers and shelves, and the magnificent crystal chandelier all beautifully work together to confer an aura of grandeur to an otherwise tiny space.
The counter in Art Nouveau style may be the only of its kind left in Trieste. The beautiful tin and lead border, a material that was previously only used for fishmonger counters, was temporarily removed by the owners during WWII to prevent it from being seized for the war effort.
A further peculiarity of the café is that is has no restroom, which is rather unusual, as a café with tables which is not intended as a take-away must have a restroom according to Italian law. However, as Antico Caffè Torinese started as a pastry and chocolate shop it had no bathroom originally. Now, the building has been listed under historical preservation protection so it can no longer be altered.
Like other historic cafés, the coffee house has its own blend of coffee, branded Antico Caffè Torinese.
4. Caffè Stella Polare
Via Dante 14
Tel: +39 040 632742
Founded in 1867, next to the Serbian orthodox church San Spiridione alongside the Grand Canal, Caffè Stella Polare has always been frequented by local merchants, citizens and intellectuals.
Originally the coffee house extended up until the Church San Spiridione and was also much deeper. In front of the coffee house was the canal, which at that time extended up to Via Dante Alighieri.
The coffee house was so spacious inside that it could contain several billiard tables and about 20 game tables.
In the beginning of 1904, the old three-story building was torn down to make way for the current coffee house, while Café Stella Polare moved provisionally into a wooden pavilion, located opposite the Church of Sant’Antonio Nuovo.
At the end of WWII, during the Anglo-American occupation, the café was transformed into a dance hall frequented by local woman and American soldiers stationed in Trieste. Some of them met their future husbands here and moved overseas with them after the annexation of the city to Italy. However, with the time, the cost of maintaining the ball and game rooms became too high, and only the café part has survived to this day. The café has been completely renovated. Only the mirrors and the arches with carved stucco decoration are original.
5. Caffè Tommaseo
Piazza Tommaseo 4/c
Tel: +39 040 362666
Caffè Tommaseo is the oldest café of Trieste, founded in 1830. The venue was famous for its gelati and its concerts. Actually, it was the first in town to sell gelato at the beginning of the last century.
Originally, it was named Caffè Tomaso, after the first owner Tomaso Marcato. Located in the eponymous square, it has always been a meeting point for business men and politics. The interior alone, with its beautiful mirrors from Belgium, decorated ceilings and wooden chairs in Thonet style, is worth the detour. The café was restored in 1997 keeping the original sophisticated neo-classical style.
The writers and poets Pier Antonio Quarantotti Gambini, Pasquale Giuseppe Besenghi degli Ughi, James Joyce, Umberto Saba, Italo Svevo, Giani Stuparich were all habitués.
Under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the café, the café was the meeting place of the revolutionaries, as one can read from a sign:
Da questo Caffè Tommaseo, nel 1848, centro del movimento nazionale, si diffuse la fiamma degli entusiasmi per la libertà italiana.
6. Caffè Urbanis
Angle of Via del Teatro and Piazza della Borsa
Tel: +39 040 366580
Started as a pastry shop in 1832, Caffè Urbanis is now one of the favorite bars frequented by the Triestine young people at night.
The interior has been elegantly renovated, leaving, however, leaving little clue as to original layout and atmosphere.
Worth seeing is the mosaic on the pavement which contains various representations, the sea, the bora and mythological symbols. The foundation year is still visible on the windows and on the mosaic.
7. Bar Cattaruzza
Piazza Duca degli Abruzzi 1/D
Tel: +39 335 818 0170
This small café was founded by the Cattaruzza family in 1938. It is housed in the historic building Palazzo Aedes, the first “skyscraper” built in Trieste in 1926-1928, inspired by the first red-brick skyscrapers of New York (hence the nickname “il grattacielo rosso” – red skyscraper).
Local artists from the nearby Teatro Miela were habitués of this Art déco coffee house.
8. Gran Bar Italia
Piazza Carlo Goldoni 6
Tel: +39 328 407 8839
Gran Bar Italia is located under Palazzo Parisi in Piazza Goldoni. Opened in the 1920s, it was originally called Bar Grande Italia, which translates the spirit of that time.
9. Caffè Pasticceria Pironi
Largo Barriera Vecchia 12
Tel: +39 040 636046
Caffè Pasticceria Pironi is famous as the pastry house where James Joyce bought his favorite sweet treats, as he lived at number 32 in the same street for a while. Among his favorite cakes were the pinolate.
Sadly it is also the only remaining historic shop in the neighborhood of Largo Barriera Vecchia, as the demolition spree of the Thirties saw the former Caffè Bizantino and Caffè Réclame disappear.
10. Pasticceria La Bomboniera
via Trenta ottobre 3
Tel: +39 040 632752
The Art Nouveau-style pastry shop La Bomboniera was founded by the Eppinger family of ungarian origin in 1836.
The all-time specialty of La Bomboniera is the Rigojansci, an antique cake that formed the base from which the Viennese pastry chef Demel created the Sacher Torte by adding layers of jam. The origin of the Rigojansci itself is attributed to a love story. Legend has it that it was created by the violinist Rigo Jangsi who wanted to seduce and surprise princess Clara who left her husband the Belgian prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay out of love for him. The affair resulted in an international scandal.
Photo credits: all photos © Slow Italy, except (from top to bottom): Caffè Garibaldi and Umberto Saba: via Pinterest – artemagazine.it; Bar Tergesteo by Paolo Tosolini; Caffè Cattaruzza © Mimi Amnell and Paolo Longo; Gran Bar Italia © www.granbaritalia.it; La Bomboniera © Paolo Longo.
A lexicon that is only intelligible to the locals and that may easily lead to confusion for foreigners and even for Italians who do not live in Trieste. Especially tricky are the words caffelatte, cappuccino and macchiato, which may not get you the same thing as elsewhere in Italy. Note that if you order a cappuccino as a non-local you may be asked if you want it in a “tazza grande” or “tazza piccola”, the first being the usual cappuccino, while the latter refers to the Triestine version of the cappuccino, the capo in b.
Here’s a list of the most common coffee drinks in Trieste and how to order them:
– Capo in B: the triestine version of a cappuccino, served in a small glass instead of a cup, with milk froth on top (capo standing for cappuccino and b for bicchiere). Closer to a caffè macchiato caldo than to a cappuccino. More of a caffè schiumato, actually, but served in a glass.
– Capo in B tanta the same as Capo in B, but with more froth.
– Capo in B special: same as Capo in B, but with cacao on top. There is also the version with more milk froth, Capo in B tanta special.
– Macchiato: similar to a macchiato freddo elsewhere in Italy
– Caffellatte or capo in tazza grande: close to what is called a cappuccino elsewhere in Italy
– Nero or caffè nero: a regular espresso
– Nero in B: an espresso in a small glass, similar to a caffè al vetro elsewhere.
– Cbs: capo in b without milk foam.
– Goccia (a coffee with a drop of milk foam in the center)
– Goccia in b (the same served in a small glass).
– Deca: a decaffeinated espresso
– Deco in B: a decaf in a small glass
– Capo Deca: an espresso decaf with froth milk
– Capo Deca in B: an espresso decaf with froth milk in a small glass
Enjoy your coffee …in one of the historic coffee houses of Trieste!
Carnival is celebrated in many cities of Italy, with celebrations usually starting on the first Sunday of February and lasting until the end of February or the beginning of March.
The most famous Carnival of all is, of course, the Carnival of Venice. It starts during the last week of January and ends 40 days before Easter, on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.
Other important Italian carnivals include the ones in Viareggio and in Fano, the latter being one of the oldest carnival of Italy, first attested in 1347.
One-of-a-kind is the Carnival of Ivrea, with its ‘Battle of the Oranges’. This peculiar celebration involves the townspeople, divided into nine combat teams, who throw oranges at each other during the traditional carnival days. Then there is also the colorful carnival of Acireale in Sicily, renowned as being the most beautiful of Sicily, and the carnivals of Putignano, Cento, Verona, Sciacca and Milano.
Without doubt the carnival of Venice is the most famous of Italy and maybe of Europe. It is believed that the Venetian carnival tradition started in 1162 with the celebration of the victory of Doge Vitale Michele II over the patriach Ulrico of Aquileia, which led to festivities on San Marco square. However, the position of oldest carnival of Italy is disputed by the carnival of Fano (see below).
Masks have always been an essential component of the Venetian carnival. Carnival started as a time for celebration where all social classes would mingle, and wearing a mask allowed people to remain anonymous. See more at: Types of Venetian masks. Of course, this also led to excesses and facilitated criminal behavior. The subversive nature of the carnival is reflected in the myriad of laws created over the centuries in Italy in an attempt to restrict celebrations and ban the wearing of masks in specific cases. See more at: Types of Venetian masks.
Originally Venetian masks were made of leather, porcelain or glass and had a practical or symbolic function. The main types of Venetian masks were the bauta, moretta, gnaga, medico della pesta, scaramuccia, pantalone, arlechino, colombina, but today’s costumes often combine elements of various origins. See more at: Types of Venetian masks.
Mask makes (mascareri) enjoy a unique status as registered artisans, organised in their own guild since 1436.
2. Viareggio, Tuscany
The Viareggio carnival is probably the second famous of Italy, renowned for its giant allegorical floats (carri) and authentic art works made of paper-pulp (cartapesta) depicting caricatures of popular people, such as politicians, showmen and sportsmen. It lasts one month with night and day celebrations.
The first carnival parade in Viareggio was held in 1873 as a sign of protest, when aa few wealthy middle-class men decided to organize a parade with floats, wearing masks in order to show their refusal of high taxes they were forced to pay.
The official local mask is il Burlamacco, first depicted in 1931 by Uberto Bonetti. The name stems from the Burlamacca river and the red and white striped outfit from the traditioal colors of the umbrellas on the beach of Viareggio.
3. Fano, Marche
The carnival of Fano is the oldest carnival of Italy, first attested in 1347. Legend has it that the tradition began on the occasion of the reconciliation between two respectable families of the time, the Del Casseros and the Da Carignanos.
The Fano Carnival is also said to be the world’s “sweetest” carnival, as the crowds of visitors are showered with sweets, caramels and chocolates coming form the parade of allegorical floats. The procession ends with a wonderful light and color show. Or, as the Fano Carnival slogan says: bello da vedere, dolce da gustare, or beautiful to see, sweet to taste.
4. Acireale (Catania), Sicily
Known as the “most beautiful carnival of Sicily”, the carnival of Acireale attracst visitors from all over the world for its beautiful parade with spectacular floats and costumes proceeding through the baroque city.
5. Ivrea, Piedmont
The historic carnival of Ivrea is known as the Orange throwing carnival (Battle of the Oranges). Thousands of townspeople, divided into nine combat teams, throw oranges at each other during the traditional carnival days: Sunday, Monday and ending on the night of “Fat Tuesday” with a solemn funeral.
The origin of the orange-throwing tradition is unclear, but according to a legend dating back to the year 1000, the festival supposedly finds its roots in the city’s defiance against the city’s tyrant, King Arduino and that the oranges represented his head. The aranceri on foot, representing the revolutionaries shoot oranges against the aranceri on carts, representing Arduino’s allies;
Visitors are encouraged to purchase and wear a red hat, the Berretto Frigio (Phrygian Cap) for protection at all times. People wearing a red hat will not be considered part of the revolutionaries, and therefore will not have oranges thrown at them.
6. Cento, Emilia-Romagna
Characteristic of the carnival parade of Cento is the generous “showering” of the visitors with presents, cuddy toys, balls and all sorts of gadgets.
Since 1993, The town of Cento is twinned with the Carnival of Rio de Janiero.
7. Putignano, Puglia
The town of Putignano is also well known for its Carnival, considered one of the main carnivals in Italy since it is the longest (it starts the day after Christmas and finishes the day before the ash Wednesday) and the second oldest (dated from 1394).
8. Verona, Veneto
The carnival in Verona is celebrated with a parade of allegorical floats (carri allegorici) on the “Venerdi Gnocolar”, which takes place on the last Friday of Carnival, when people eat traditional potato gnocchi.
Every year, at the occasion of the carnival, a Papà del Gnoco (Gnoco daddy, the traditional first course) is being elected. The Papà del Gnoco is the main mask or character of the Verona carnival. He is represented as a ruddy old man with a long white beard and a fake belly full of gnocchi, dressed in beige brocade and a red cloak. As he is considered the king of the Bacanal del Gnoco, he hold a scepter that looks like a giant fork on which a large potato gnoco is pinned. The Papà del Gnoco is the oldest carnival character that is attested by photographic documentation.
9. Sciacca (Agrigento), Sicily
Sciacca’s carnival is celebrated during the week before the beginning of Lent (February). The festival is throughout Sicily for its parade of bizarre figures with extravagant expressions.
The most unique part of the carnival is the float of Peppe Nappa, the official mask of the carnival, or as they say in the local language “Lu Re di lu cannalivari sciacchitanu” (the King of the Carnival of Sciacca). It is from the float of Peppe Nappa that candies, wine and sausages are being distributed to the crowd.
The clou and most dramatic part of the festival is when Peppe Nappa is being detached from its supporting structure and set on fire.
10. Milano, Lombardy
In Milan carnival is referred to as Carnevale Ambrosiano (“Ambrosian Carnival”) and lasts four more days, ending on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, because of the Ambrosian rite, named after Saint Ambrose, a bishop of Milan in the fourth century.
Photo credits (from top to bottom): Venice by Paolo Vercesi; Venice by Louis Vest; Venice (2 photos) by Paolo Vercesi; Viareggio by Saiko and Giulia; Burlamacco by Chris Sampson; Fano (2 photos) by Patrizia; Acireale by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo and Alessandro Grussu (2 photos); Ivrea horses © Mascava; Cento (3 photos) by Turismo Emilia Romagna; Putignano by Roberto and Laurent; Papà del gnoco by Marco Oliani.
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Aside from being a beautiful and extremely talented actress (she was the first artist ever to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance and she still holds the record for having earned six David di Donatello Awards for Best Actress, the most ever received), Sophia Loren also had a once-in-a-lifetime love story with her husband Carlo Ponti. As I came across these wonderful photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt, shot in the couple’s home in the Castelli Romani (Alban Hills) in 1964, I thought this remarkable couple and their romantic roman villa would be a good topic to share during the “month of love”. 🙂
Sophia Loren first met Italian film producer Carlo Ponti in 1950 during a screen test when she was 15. They became lovers when she was 19 (and Ponti 41) and, despite the many obstacles, would stay together for 54 years (until Ponti’s death in 2007), almost a unicum in the show business. Sophia even turned down the advances of Cary Grant out of love for her husband! Everything that seems straightforward for most couples, marriage, childbirth and a legitimate name and family home, would prove complicated for this couple, adding a dramatic dimension to their love story.
The lovebirds married on 17 September 1957, but, as Italy did not recognize divorce at that time, Ponti was still considered officially married to his first wife under Italian law. To escape bigamy charges, the couple had their marriage annulled in 1962. The Vatican and the Italian authorities didn’t take the case lightly and the couple’s situation almost led to the criminal prosecution of the Pontis. However, Ponti eventually obtained a divorce from his first wife in France, and the couple got married on 9 April 1966. When asked, two years after her husband’s death, if she were ever likely to marry again, Loren replied “No, never again. It would be impossible to love anyone else.”
After years of living in borrowed apartments to hide their illegal love, the Roman villa in the Castelli Romani (Alban Hills) was the first family house the Pontis “built” together. The Pontis bought the 16th-century villa in 1954 and started renovating it in 1960.
The 50-room villa has frescoed walls and includes a riding stable, an aqueduct, a tennis court, an orchard and a pool, with a pool house that could easily be confused as being the main villa (see photo below).
In the 1970s the villa and its art collection were confiscated by the Italian authorities on charges of illegal export of capital, but were returned to the Pontis in 1990.
After the birth of her two sons, Carlo Jr. (born 1969) and Edoardo (born 1973) and several miscarriages, Sophia preferred to spend the majority of her time with her family. Her only acting credits during the decade were five television films, including a biopic, Her Own Story (1980), in which she portrayed herself and her mother. Over the next decade she featured in a few non-mainstream arthouse films like Soleil (1997), Between Strangers (2002) (directed by Edoardo), and Lives of the Saints (2004). She has appeared in American films such as Grumpier Old Men and Nine.
Apart from the Academy Award and six Donatello Awards for Two Women, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style, Sunflower, The Voyage, and A Special Day, she has won a Grammy Award, five special Golden Globes, a BAFTA Award, a Laurel Award, and the Honorary Academy Award in 1991. In 1995, she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievements. She was also nominated for a second Oscar for Marriage Italian Style.
The idea for this article arose as I was reading the book Emilia Romagna – A Personal Guide to Little-known places Foodies Will Love brought to my attention by Zeneba Bowers, one of the authors of the guidebook, together with Matt Walker.
Often overlooked by visitors to Italy, Emilia Romagna is one of these authentic regions, rich in history, art and even expertise in a number of fields. With its magnificent palaces, castles, churches and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, the region counts some of the most beautiful art and Renaissance cities of Europe.
The region is also home to four of the world’s oldest universities and some world-famous automotive brands, such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati, among others.
In this article, however, we will walk and drive in the footsteps and tire tracks of the authors, visiting little-known places along their 6 foodie road trip routes in Emilia-Romagna:
What made this book special in my eyes is that it is written by two professional classical musicians who, by definition, are finely tuned to the surroundings and the emotions of those around them. So, I was glad to find a travel philosophy close to the spirit and mindset of Slow Italy, looking for the real Italian experience, the one that is not usually described in guidebooks; a travel philosophy that celebrates peace, authenticity and timelessness, allowing time to have a great long lunch, to converse with locals, to explore a back street or an unexpected sight, to relax and breathe.
In their professional life Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker put a great deal of time and thought into finding new ways to bring music to the people, performing great but unusual pieces by little-known composers, and occasionally offering lesser-known works by the great masters. The authors applied the same principle to their travel philosophy, looking for more authentic, immersive and out-of-the-way experiences on their trips in Emilia Romagna.
They take us down the far-flung little roads, deep into the countryside, visiting ancient towns and medieval hillside castles. They introduce us to the masterful artisans they met along the way, the great local taverne and osterie where to taste and try delicious in-house made bites and locally sourced products, and tell us about their unique lodging experiences.
I also particularly liked the fact that their love for music transpires tangentially in their narrative, with references to Verdi, Teresina Burchi (a Sestola native who became a hugely successful opera star in the early 20th century) and the Museum of Mechanical Musical instruments, some of which might not have seemed worth mentioning to the typical guidebook author, but which add a delicious personal flavor to this travel book.
Designed to allow you to go at your own pace, the foodie road trips can be completed in a couple of days or more, depending on the time available, or even be combined with other itineraries, such as a visit to one of the 9 Art Cities of Emilia Romagna.
Without giving away too many of the goodies included in this book, here is a selection of 12 interesting sights (and foodie places) from the 6 foodie road trips suggested by the authors that resonated with my own travel experience and research. The photos and links have been added for your enjoyment only and are not part of the book.
1. Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba, Alseno
Legend has it that the Abbey was named after a white dove which indicated the perimeter of the monastery to the monks using pieces of straw.
One of the reasons why the Abbey is famous all over Italy is for its Infiorata del Corpus Domini which takes place in May-June when a beautiful flower carpet is being laid out along the central nave of the Basilica.
2. Verdi’s House, Le Roncole
Verdi’s birth house in Le Roncole, a frazione in the town of Busseto. Today, the village is referred to as Roncole Verdi, in honor of the composer who was born there 200 years ago.
The family home included a small osteria run by his parents, which was actually known as a posteria because it served at the same time as postal office, where mail carriages stopped and left off mail.
The colorful town of Fontanellato was built around the moated and fortified residence of the Sanvitale family, the Rocca Sanvitale, built between the 13th and 15th centuries.
6. Castello di Vigoleno
Vigoleno is a small medieval hamlet, frazione of the town of Vernasca in the province of Piacenza. Its main attraction is its castle.
7. Castello di Torrechiara
Built on the the hill of the same name in Val Parma, the marvelous Castello di Torrechiara was built by Pier Maria Rossi between 1448 and 1460. Originally designed as a defense structure, it also served as a noble residence for the Count and his lover Bianca Pellegrini da Arluno .
It is considered one of the best preserved example of castle architecture in Italy as it combines elements of the Middle Ages with those of the Italian Renaissance .
Famous abroad for its prosciutto and parmigiano, Parma is much more than just the city of ham and cheese. See our article: More than just ham and cheese: hidden and historic Parma in 40 photos and a few anecdotes.
World famous for its balsamic vinegar, the town of Modena is also known as “the capital of engines“, since the famous Italian sports car makers Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati have or had their factories here or nearby. The town is also the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti.
Dozza is a litttle town situated between Bologna and Imola, known for its fortress (Rocca) and colorful murals in the picturesque historic center (borgo). More about Dozza.
11. San Leo
Originally part of the Marche region, the comune of San Leo was detached from the Province of Pesaro and Urbino to join the Province of Rimini in Emilia Romagna in 2006. The town is famous for it large fortress, once owned by Cesare Borgia.
The lovely borgo medievale (historic hamlet) of Longiano with its beautiful castle (Castello Malatestiano) is located in the province of Forlì-Cesena. It is renowned for its Longiano dei Presepi (Christmas cribs) festival running each year from the second week of december to the last but one week of January.
For more info about the 6 foodie trips in Emilia Romagna, see: Emilia Romagna – A Personal Guide to Little-known places Foodies Will Love by Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker.
Photo credits (from top to bottom): Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba by Francesco; Verdi’s birth house © The Art Archive/Alamy 2011 via Operanews; Fontanellato © FRANCO600D; Castell’Arquato by Maria Grazia Montagnari; Bobbio © FedevPhoto/Fotolia; Castlello di Vigoleno by Castelli e Borghi d’Italia via Turismo Emilia Romagna; Castle of Torrechiara © Carla Silva; Parma by Jakob Montrasio; Parma by Jakob Montrasio; Mercato Albinelli neighborhood in Modena © gwh.photography; Dozza © GoneWithTheWind/fotolia; San Leo by Anguskirk; Longiano © ermess/fotolia.
Hunchbacks are present in many local legends and fairy tales across Italy, especially in the North.
Except for a few cases, hunchbacks are usually not represented as malicious or vicious creatures, but as good souls who personify humility and hardship, reason why they are often thought to bring luck. In this article, we are, more specifically, going to focus on hunchbacks legends linked to monuments in Italy.
1. Hunchbacks of Sant’Anastasia, Verona, Veneto
The hunchbacks of Verona are two figures in the Sant’Anastasia church of Verona, which are supporting the two stoups at the base of the first columns of the church’s central nave.
The one on the left is the work of Gabriele Caliari, eldest son of Paolo Caliari, better known as the Veronese.
The one on the right is attributed to Paolo Orifice. Both statues symbolize the humility and poverty of the Veronese population and it is said that touching their hump brings luck.
2. Hunchback of the Rialto, Venice, Veneto
The Hunchback of the Rialto or Gobbo di Rialto is a marble statue found at the end of the Rialto opposite the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto in Venice. The Rialto was the financial and commercial center of the city.
The statue, sculpted by Pietro da Salò in the 16th century, depicts a crouching, naked hunchback supporting a small flight of steps. It was used as a podium for public proclamations, sentences and decrees by the Republic of Venice. Actually, the Hunchback is not really a hunchback, but a man curved and suffering under the effort of supporting the staircase. The weight he is supporting symbolizes the burden of the sentences that were proclaimed from the podium. It was also here that thieves, who had been stripped naked and made to run the gauntlet of citizens lining the streets from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto, could save themselves from further humiliation and punishment by kissing the Hunchback.
At the same time the statue was used to spread satirical notes and political pamphlets, in much the same way as happened with Pasquino, one of the Talking Statues of Rome, and Florence’s famous “piglet” in the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. The Talking Statues of Rome could also establish a dialogue with each other, exchanging a correspondence of pamphlets, and so did the Roman Pasquino with Il Gobbo, when conversing about the Republic of Venice, the Pope and the Cardinals. The Italian historian and satirist Gregorio Leti highlights the existence of this correspondence between Pasquino and the Gobbo in his 1671 Political Visions Le visioni politiche sopra gli interessi più reconditi, di tutti prencipi, e republiche della Christianità: divise in varij sogni, e ragionamenti tra Pasquino, e il Gobbo di Rialto, il tutto dato alla luce per la commodità de’ curiosi.
According to some sources the characters of Launcelot Gobbo and his father, Old Gobbo, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice may been inspired by this traditional symbol of the Rialto. However, it should be noted that the surname Gobbo is common in the Veneto region, from where it originated.
3. Hunchback bridge, Bobbio, Emilia-Romagna
In the Middle Ages, the construction of a bridge was a work of great engineering skill, considered almost miraculous. For this reason, the construction of bridges has given rise to many legends, which often had the devil as protagonist, since joining two places that the nature (and God) had intended to be separated was viewed by many as a “work of the devil”.
In one of the legends concerning the Hunchback bridge (Ponte Gobbo) of Bobbio, the devil bought the soul of an innkeeper who resided on the other side of the Trebbia river. The innkeeper wanted to see his trattoria connected to the rest of the town, including to the deviation of the main shopping street going toward Genoa and Chiavari (the present road was built only recently), which would bring a substantial increase in revenue, so when he saw an old hunchback with a stick asking him if he was willing to sell his soul in exchange for the bridge, the innkeeper did not recognize the devil, he just laughed, but then nodded with his head and shook hands with the old man, who began laughing loudly in front of the unsuspecting innkeeper.
The devil sent little devils of different statures who each built a piece of the bridge, which, according to the legend, explains why the arches of the bridge are of various dimensions. To everyone’s surprise, the bridge was finished overnight, but soon appeared to be bewitched. Indeed, the devil had claimed the soul of the first creature who would cross the bridge. Thinking he could trick the devil the innkeeper sent his dog over the bridge. The devil took the dog’s soul, but obviously was infuriated for having been hoodwinked. Ultimately the devil was overthrown, but before disappearing he left his marks on the bridge, giving the bridge its current “hunchbacked” appearance.
According to the art historian Carla Glori the three-arched bridge that appears over the left shoulder of the Mona Lisa is the Ponte Gobbo. Her theory is based on the fact that the numbers 7 and 2 are concealed in the span of the bridge, which is supposedly a reference to the year 1472, the year in which the bridge was destroyed by a devastating flood.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Verona with the Sant’Anastasia Church in the background by Jpellgen; Hunchback by David Monniaux; Hunchback Verona by Hans Weingartz; Sant’Anastasia blue hour by Holly Hayes; Gobbo di Rialto by David Bramhall; Ponte Gobbo by Matteo Russo; Bobbio with the Ponte Gobbo © Roberto Lo Savio/fotolia.