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6 Foodie Road Trips to Little-known places in Emilia-Romagna


emilia-romagna-zeneba-bowers-cThe 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:

  1. Busseto and the Po River Plains
  2. Castles and Monasteries in the Mountains
  3. In and around Parma
  4. Architecture and Aceto (in and around Modena)
  5. The Panaro River Valley and the Apennine Foothills
  6. East of Bologna: Castles, Wine and Wall Art

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.

Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba. Photo by Francesco.

Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba. Photo by Francesco.

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

Photo © The Art Archive/Alamy 2011 via Operanews” via Slow Italy's Facebook page.

Verdi’s birth house in Le Roncole (Busseto). Photo © The Art Archive/Alamy 2011 via Operanews and Slow Italy’s Facebook page.

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.


3. Fontanellato

Fontanellato. Photo © FRANCO600D.

Fontanellato. Photo © FRANCO600D.

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.


4. Bobbio

Hunchback bridge, Bobbio. Photo © FedevPhoto/Fotolia

Hunchback bridge, Bobbio. Photo © FedevPhoto/Fotolia

Bobbio is a lovely town in the Val Trebbia mostly known for its dramatic bridge surrounded by legends and folk tales, the Ponte Gobbo (Hunchback bridge). See also: Hunchbacks of Italy.


5. Castell’Arquato

Castell'Arquato with the collegiata Church of St Mary on the left and the Rocca Viscontea in the background. Photo by Maria Grazia Montagnari.

Castell’Arquato with the collegiata Church of St Mary on the left and the Palazzo del Podestà in the background. Photo by Maria Grazia Montagnari.


6. Castello di Vigoleno

Castlello di Vigoleno. Photo by Castelli e Borghi d'Italia via Turismo Emilia Romagna

Castlello di Vigoleno. Photo by Castelli e Borghi d’Italia via Turismo Emilia Romagna

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

Castle of Torrechiara. Photo © Carla Silva

Castle of Torrechiara. Photo © Carla Silva

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 .


8. Parma

Parma. Photo by Jakob Montrasio.

Parma. Photo by Jakob Montrasio.

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.


9. Modena

Mercato Albinelli neighborhood in Modena. Photo © gwh.photography

Mercato Albinelli neighborhood in Modena. Photo © gwh.photography

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.


10. Dozza

Dozza. Photo © GoneWithTheWind/fotolia

Dozza. Photo © GoneWithTheWind/fotolia

Dozza is a litttle town situated between Bologna and Imola, known for its fortress (Roccaand colorful murals in the picturesque historic center (borgo). More about Dozza.


11. San Leo

San Leo with the 15th century fortress Rocca di San Leo in the background. Photo by Anguskirk

San Leo with the 15th century fortress Rocca di San Leo in the background. Photo by Anguskirk

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.


12. Longiano

Longiano. Photo © ermess.

Longiano. Photo © ermess.

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.

Longiano. Photo © Filippo Giorgini via Longiano dei Presepi on Facebook.

Longiano. Photo © Filippo Giorgini via Longiano dei Presepi’s page on Facebook.

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.


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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 of Italy

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

Verona, with the Sant'Anastasia Church in the background. Photo: Jpellgen.

Verona, with the Sant’Anastasia Church in the background. Photo: Jpellgen.

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.

Hunchback of Verona by Paolo Caliari. Photo by David Monniaux.

Hunchback of Verona by Paolo Caliari. Photo by David Monniaux.

The one on the left is the work of Gabriele Caliari, eldest son of Paolo Caliari, better known as the Veronese.

The Hunchback by Paolo Orifice, Sant'Anastasia, Verona. Photo by Hans Weingartz

The Hunchback by Paolo Orifice, Sant’Anastasia, Verona. Photo by Hans Weingartz

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.

Sant'Anastasia Church, Verona. Photo by Holly Hayes.

Sant’Anastasia Church, Verona. Photo by Holly Hayes.


2. Hunchback of the Rialto, Venice, Veneto

Gobbo di Rialto. Photo by David Bramhall.

Gobbo di Rialto. Photo by David Bramhall.

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

Ponte Gobbo, Bobbio. Photo by Matteo Russo.

Ponte Gobbo, Bobbio. Photo by Matteo Russo.

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.

Ponte Gobbo with the town of Bobbio in the background. Photo © Roberto Lo Savio/fotolia.

Ponte Gobbo with the town of Bobbio in the background. Photo © Roberto Lo Savio/fotolia.

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.


Italy’s Top Hotels according to Mr & Mrs Smith

Fourteen Italian hotels recently made it into the top list of the 2015 Smith Hotel Awards, celebrating exceptional hotels worldwide. Out of the 120 awards granted worldwide, 14 hotels were chosen in Italy by the hotel booking service Mr&Mrs Smith, as the world’s best hotels in the following 11 (out of 12) special categories: Best-Dressed Hotel, Sexiest Bedroom, Best Hotel Pool, Hottest Hotel Bar, Best Spa Hotel, Best Hotel Restaurant, Best Hotel for Families, Best Budget Boutique Hotel, The Eco Award, Best Newcomer and…Best Smith Hotel 2015.

Aman Canal Grande Hotel, Venice. Photo © Adrian Turner.

Aman Canal Grande Hotel, Venice. Photo © Adrian Turner.

For many of you Mr&Mrs Smith need no introduction, but if by any chance you haven`t heard of them, check them out. As they state on their website, they’ve been around longer than the film with Angelina and Brad, 🙂 “visiting and anonymously reviewing stylish boutique hotels and hip holiday stays”. For a decade now they have selected their favorites, the most stylish and individual hotels in destinations around the world, including Italy.

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Photo: Masseria Cervarolo

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Winner of the Best Budget Boutique Hotel Award. Photo: Masseria Cervarolo

The 14 Italian hotels that made it into one of the categories of the 2015 Smith Hotel Awards appear in our list below in no particular order except for the first one, which won two awards, and the order according to the hotels’ ranking within the individual award categories. When two hotels, mentioned in different award categories, had the same ranking the order was (arbitrarily) determined by what we judge more important a criteria.


1. Aman Canal Grande Venice, Veneto

The Grand Canal with in the center Palazzo Papadopoli now converted into the Aman Canal Grande Hotel. Photo © Adrian Turner.

The Grand Canal with in the center Palazzo Papadopoli now converted into the Aman Canal Grande Hotel. Photo © Adrian Turner.

The Aman Canal Grande Hotel in Venice was awarded the 10th rank in the crème de la crème list of the Best Smith Hotels Worldwide. Housed in the 16th century Palazzo Papadopoli, the Aman Canal Grande, is the most expensive and perhaps the finest hotel in the city. One rare feature of this Grand Canal hotel is the garden, to the left of the main building.

Aman Canal Grande Venice. Photo: Mr & Mrs Smith

Aman Canal Grande Venice. Photo: Mr & Mrs Smith

The same hotel also made it in Smith’s Top 3 of the sexiest bedrooms worldwide, which makes it the number 1 of our list.

Aman Canal Grande, Venice. Photo: Jeffery Edwards.

Aman Canal Grande, Venice. Photo: Jeffery Edwards.


2. Bellevue Syrene, Sorrento

Bellevue Syrene Hotel, Sorrento. Photo: Bellevue Syrene/Flickr.

Bellevue Syrene Hotel, Sorrento. Photo: Bellevue Syrene.

As the winner of Smith’s sexiest bedroom award, Hotel Bellevue Syrene, housed in an ancient grotto, comes second in our list.

Boutique Hotel Bellevue Syrene. Photo: Mr & Mrs Smith.

Boutique Hotel Bellevue Syrene. Photo: Mr & Mrs Smith.

The exposed stone walls, over-sized hydro-massage pool – on top of an en-suite tub, canopied king-size bed, and balcony with sea views make this hotel the 2015’s Sexiest Bedroom winner.


3. Masseria Cervarolo, Puglia

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Photo: Masseria Cervarolo,

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Photo: Masseria Cervarolo,

Winner of the Best budget boutique hotel award, Masseria Cervarolo is a 16th-century farm with truli houses located in Ostuni. The historic Masseria was completely restored taking into account the original architecture using authentic materials.

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Photol Masseria Cervarolo.

Masseria Cervarolo, Ostuni. Photo: Masseria Cervarolo.


4. Monteverdi, Tuscany

Monteverdi Tuscany, restaurant Oreade. Photo: monteverdituscany.com

Monteverdi Tuscany, restaurant Oreade. Photo: monteverdituscany.com

The winner of the Best hotel restaurant award, the centuries-old Hotel Monteverdi, opened its fine dining Oreade restaurant in the heart of the hotel-village of Castiglioncello, where Chef Giancarla Bodoni proffers farm-to-table cuisine.


5. Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, Abruzzo

Sextantio Santo Stefano. Photo Sextantio Santo Stefano.

Sextantio Santo Stefano. Photo: Sextantio Santo Stefano.

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso scored fourth on the list of Smith’s inaugural eco award for its innovative approach to restoring an entire abandoned Apennine village.


Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. Photo: Sextantio Santo Stefano

Using traditional methods, craftwork made by villagers, the hotel offers a rustic simplicity maintaining the hilly hamlet’s medieval charm, while seamlessly incorporating modern luxury.


6. Palazzo Margherita, Basilicata

Palazzo Margherita. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Palazzo Margherita. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

With its very discrete façade and unassuming location in Bernalda (Basilicata) you would never guess that Palazzo Margherita houses a luxury retreat created by the director Francis Ford Coppola and that it boasts the fifth Sexiest bedroom in the world, according to Mr&Mrs Smith.

Photo © Slow Italy

Photo © Slow Italy

Bernalda is in fact the birth town of the director’s grandfather Agostino Coppola. Next to the hotel’s entrance is the Cinecittà bar.

Palazzo Margherita, Cinecittà bar. Photo © Slow Italy

Palazzo Margherita, Cinecittà bar. Photo © Slow Italy


7. Prati Palai, Lake Garda

Prati Palai Lake Garda. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Prati Palai Lake Garda. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Perched in tranquil olive groves above Lake Garda, the boutique hotel Prati Palai is the fifth Best newcomer worldwide.


8. L’Albereta, Brescia

L'albereta Hotel, Brescia. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

L’albereta Hotel, Brescia. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

A few minutes’ drive from Lake Iseo, L’Albereta Relais & Chateaux is an enchanting off-the-beaten track place in the heart of the Lombardy region. Its award-winning Espace Vitalité Henri Chenot brings it seventh on the list of the Best Spa Hotels worldwide.


9. Villa Arcadio, Lake Garda

Villa Arcadio. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Villa Arcadio. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

An ancient convent located in the enchanting environment of the Salò hills, Villa Arcadio boasts one of the best hotel pools worldwide (number 8 on Mr&Mrs’ list). The hillside pool offers beautiful views over Lake Garda.

Villa Arcadio Hotel & Resort. Photo: Intlkitchen.

Villa Arcadio Hotel & Resort. Photo: Intlkitchen.


10. Borgo Egnazia, Puglia

Borgo Egnazia. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Borgo Egnazia. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

One of the Best hotels for families, this 21st-century fairy-tale hotel, immersed among the ancient olive groves of the Itria valley, is renowned for its first-class all-ages childcare.


11. Portrait Firenze, Tuscany

Portrait Firenze Hotel. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Portrait Firenze Hotel. Photo: Mr&Mrs Smith

Set on the banks of the Arno, Portrait Firenze, was selected as one of the Best dressed hotel in the world for its mid-century-inspired magic on luxurious suites and its beautiful riverside café.


12. Castello di Casole, Tuscany

Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.

Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.

Listed in the Best hotel pool category, restored Castello di Casole, offers the rare opportunity to time-travel to one of the pool parties held by former owner, the Italian film director Luchino Visconti, who entertained European and Hollywood celebrities throughout the estate.

Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.

Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.


Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.

Castello di Casole. Photo © perahia.


13. Monastero Santa Rosa, Amalfi Coast

Monastero Santa Rosa pool. Photo: Monasterosantarosa.com

Monastero Santa Rosa pool. Photo: Monasterosantarosa.com

Last year’s winner in the Best hotel pool category, this former monastery’s infinity pool overlooking the Bay of Salerno with stunning views from Positano to Ravello still got its deserved place in the 2015 awards list.


14. Continentale, Florence

La Terrazza Bar of Hotel Continentale in Florence. Photo: lungarnocollection.com

La Terrazza Bar of Hotel Continentale in Florence. Photo: lungarnocollection.com

Elected among the Hottest Hotel bars in the world, La Terrazza’s offers beautiful views over Florence with the Ponte Vecchio on the right, Giotto’s Campanile on the left.

What we like about Mr&Mrs Smith approach is that they are quite different from any other website of that kind and that their descriptions are really accurate (they only include their favorites). Particularly useful is that they tell you which room or suite to ask for, which table to book at the hotel restaurant, what to pack, plus a few extra tips or details, for example on the dress code, accessibility, or even where to have your afternoon tea.

We’ve used the website once for one of our trips to Sicily and the agriturismo we found on their website was up to or even exceeded our expectations. The only reason we haven’t used their website more often is that they do not always have hotels in the destinations we’re heading to (even though I see that they have been adding more and more destinations in Italy), or that the price tag of the available hotels at our time of booking was above what we were prepared to spend. For more info, see: Mr&Mrs Smith hotels in Italy.

The Way of St Francis: a glimpse back into the Italy of St Francis’ time following his 550km pilgrimage from Florence to Rome


The idea for this article was submitted by Hannah of Cicerone Press, who asked me if I would be interested to write an article about the Way of St Francis, a walking route retracing the amazing pilgrimage completed by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century.

the-way-of-st-francisThe month-long walking route, as suggested by Sandy Brown, the author of the guidebook The Way of St Francis, is one of the world’s greatest pilgrimages, passing through two States, Italy and Vatican city, three regions, Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio and three major religious historic hubs, Florence, Assisi and Rome. The itinerary connects important travels and travel destinations from the life of Francis of Assisi, one of the most venerated religious figures in history.

Proclaimed a saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, Francis was a simple man from Umbria who became one of the patron saints of Italy and the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. In Christianity, a stigmatic refers to a person bearing physical “marks” on his body, known as stigmata, which are believed to represent the wounds that Jesus Christ received at the crucifixion. St Francis received the stigmata on Mount Penna in 1224. Mount Penna and the Santuario della Verna are one of the highlights of this walk.

In 1223, Francis also arranged for the first living Christmas nativity scene, a tradition that lives on in Italy to this day. See more at: http://slowitaly.yourguidetoitaly.com/2011/12/living-nativity-scenes-in-italy/

St Francis’ sacred travels began with a walk in 1209 when he and his friends walked from Assisi to Rome to visit Pope Innocent III. By 1221 Francis’ exceptional character, faith and purity had inspired a movement of followers with renewed spiritual strength that had spread across Italy and beyond. Since the 13th century pilgrim walkers from all over Europe have traveled to Umbria to venerate St Francis and retrace the saint’s steps to capture his love of this land.

As there is no historic text suggesting an “official” itinerary several variants have been proposed over the decades, among which the Via Francigena di San Francesco (Via di San Francesco), Camino di Assisi, Di qui Passo’ San Francesco, Cammino di San Francesco, Der Franziskusweg, Sentiero Francescano della Pace and Via di Roma.

What makes the itinerary as suggested by Sandy Brown stand out is that it combines the most important sites identified with the life of St Francis into a 550-km long walk, while taking great care to make each of the 28 stages of this walk an enjoyable and scenic daily experience with easy access to services and economical overnight lodging. The route also starts and ends in locations that provide easy access to air and/or other transportation from Italy or abroad. Actually, the itinerary is an optimized version of the Via di San Francesco and Via di Roma, but avoiding long and poorly marked routes, and with an additional part from Florence to the hard-to-reach Santuario della Verna on Mount Penna. Each of the 28 stages comes with detailed route descriptions, stage maps and walk directions. For faster walkers the book also provides the ideal combinations to complete the itinerary in 23 days.

The walk as outlined in the book is often challenging due to the rugged topography of the north and east borders formed by the Central Apennines. A daily climb and descent of 500 to 1000 meters is not unusual. However, the author provides a detailed information box at the start of each stage with start and finish points, distance, total ascent and descent, difficulty rating, duration and other relevant notes which allows the walker to easily manage the daily route and schedule.

Leafing through this book brought back happy memories of my travels in Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany, so while writing this article I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own suggestions and impressions. Below I have selected 14 of the highlights of the walk among the many beautiful sights detailed in the book, with a few additional details and a few snapshots (not from the book), which should be enough to get you into the starting blocks!

For a more detailed description of the daily walking routes, Franciscan sites, detailed stage maps, directions, planning tips and suggestions for accommodation please refer to the book The Way of St Francis.


1. Florence (province of Florence, Tuscany)

View over Florence. Photo © Slow Italy.

View over Florence. Photo © Slow Italy.

The walk starts in Florence, with its incredible architecture, world famous art works and beautiful piazzas, the Duomo, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Gates of Paradise. If you have never visited Florence plan an additional one or two days at least to enjoy the many monuments and art works.

View over Florence and the Giotto's Bell Tower from the Duomo. Photo © Slow Italy.

View over Florence and the Giotto’s Bell Tower from the Duomo. Photo © Slow Italy.

For additional info or alternative things to do in the Renaissance city you may also want to check one of our articles on Florence: The Gates of ParadiseTop 10 movies filmed in FlorenceTop 9 historic cafés.


2. Monastic Community of Camaldoli (province of Arezzo, Tuscany)

Photo by Francesco Gasparetti.

Photo by Francesco Gasparetti.

The ancient hermitage and monastery of Camaldoli  was founded in 1012 by St Romualdo, a benedictine monk from Ravenna. The community is renowned for following a rigorous interpretation of the monastic Rule of St Benedict. The monks lead a self-sufficient existence, consuming only vegetarian products and selling products they have made for centuries. Since its establishment in the 11th century the community is also famous for having produced an illustrious array of church leaders, among whom four cardinals, many bishops and artists, such as Guido d’Arezzo.


3. Badia Prataglia (province of Arezzo, Tuscany)

Photo by Alessio di Leo.

Photo by Alessio di Leo.

A nature reserve within the lovely Casentino Park (Parco nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona e Campigna), Badia Prataglia is home to the Fall Foliage Festival, a mix of events connected to fall foliage and chestnuts. The surrounding hills offer beautiful walks along streams and forest trails with waterfalls.


4. Santuario della Verna (province of Arezzo, Tuscany)

Photo by Helena.

Photo by Helena.

Walking from Florence to the remote mountain retreat Santuario della Verna, through the Casentino park, is like walking back in time from the Renaissance into medieval times. Considered one of the most holy and spiritual places in Italy, Santuario della Verna was one of St Francis cherished places, which he loved for its seclusion. Santuario della Verna is famous for being the place where St Francis received the stigmates in 1224. Due to its remote location the sanctuary has retained much of its seclude and peaceful character that it had when St Francis visited it more than 800 years ago.


5. Pieve Santo Stefano and Lago Montedoglio (province of Arezzo, Tuscany)

You may not believe this, but this is the Tiber. Lago Montedoglio, Pieve Santo Stefano. Photo by Franco Vannini.

Lago di Montedoglio, Pieve Santo Stefano. Photo by Franco Vannini.

Pieve Sante Stefano town is known as the “City of the Diary” (Città del Diario) for the archive of over 7000 journals, diaries, letters and autobiographical memories gathered by journalist Saverio Tutino as a sort of memorial to the daily lives of ordinary people.

Archivio Diaristico Nazionale. Photo: archiviodiario.org

Archivio Diaristico Nazionale. Photo: archiviodiario.org


6. Gubbio (province of Perugia, Umbria)

Gubbio. Photo by Rutacultural.com

Gubbio. Photo by Rutacultural.com

Spread out over the steep slopes of Monte Ingino, Gubbio is one of the Italian towns in which the harsh conditions of life at St Francis’ time can most easily be imagined. The most important sites include the città vecchia (historic town center), the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Palazzo Ducale.

Since Medieval times Gubbio has been famous for its ceramics. Gubbio is also home to a remarkable discovery, the Tavole eugubine, seven bronze tablets inscribed in ancient Umbrian, a unique piece in the fields of linguistics. – See more at: 5 Charming little towns in ancient Umbria.

Gubbio, Piazza Grande. Photo by Matteo Alessandrini

Gubbio, Piazza Grande. Photo by Matteo Alessandrini


7. Assisi (province of Perugia, Umbria)

Assisi. Photo by Nicola.

Assisi. Photo by Nicola.

The historic hill town of Assisi is the third most visited pilgrimage site in Italy. It is in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Piazza del Comune that Francis and his friends first opened the Bible and found the call to poverty.The town includes several sights of interest, among which, of course, the Basilica di San Francesco, which contains the sandals and the tunic of St Francis. The Basilica, which was built in honor of St Francis and the event of his canonization, contains one of Europe’s greatest ensembles of 13th and 14th century frescoes.


8. Spello (province of Perugia, Umbria)

Spello. Photo by Christopher John SSF.

Spello. Photo by Christopher John SSF.

Spello has a similar history as Assisi, starting as an ancient settlement of the Umbri, then becoming a Roman city. The lovely town is home to an annual Infiorate Festival, held for over 150 years. It is also famous for its two dozen medieval churches within its walls, among which Santa Maria Maggiore with frescoes by Perugino and Pinturicchio.


9. Lago di Piediluco (province of Terni, Umbria/province of Rieti, Lazio)

Lago di Piediluco. Photo by Milarix.

Lago di Piediluco. Photo by Milarix.

Lago di Piediluco lies between the province of Terni in Umbria and the province of Rieti in the Lazio region. Down at the lake you can follow a picturesque boardwalk, the Percorso Lungolago. The village of Piediluco has remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. One of the historic gems is the Church of San Francesco, up a flight of steps, which commemorates the journey of St Francis through the territory of the lake in 1208.


10. Marmore waterfalls (province of Terni, Umbria)

Marmore waterfalls. Photo by Gianluca Papaccio.

Marmore waterfalls. Photo by Gianluca Papaccio.

Near Terni are the Marmore waterfalls (Cascate delle Marmore), the tallest man-made waterfalls in the world. The panoramic view of the waterfalls immersed in a green forest, is even more dramatic when you realize that they were created nearly 2000 years ago. – See more at: The Green Hills of Umbria.


11. Poggio Bustone (province of Rieti, Lazio)

Poggio Bustone. Photo by Luca Biada.

Poggio Bustone. Photo by Luca Biada.

Poggio Bustone is home to one of the Holy Valley’s four main Franciscan sanctuaries (the other ones being Fonto Colombo, La Foresta and Greccio), where Francis of Assisi, not yet a saint, retreated about 800 years ago to pray and meditate, and became a penitent.

Photo by Christopher John SSF.

Photo by Christopher John SSF.

A steep path on the mountainside above the village leads to seven small chapels containing, by tradition, impressions of objects relating to St. Francis. This trail comes to an end at the small church Sacro Speco (the Grotto of Revelation), considered by many the Franciscan site par excellence. It is here that St Francis obtained remission for his sins from Archangel Gabriel.

Photo by Christopher John SSF.

Photo by Christopher John SSF.


12. Santuario de La Foresta (province of Rieti, Lazio)

Santuario de La Foresta. Photo by Alessandro.

Santuario de La Foresta. Photo by Alessandro.

The Santuario de La Foresta is mostly known for the Miracle of the Grapes (Miracolo del Vino). Towards the end of his life St Francis started losing his sight. On his way to a renowned eye surgeon who lived in Rieti, St Francis stayed in La Foresta in 1225.

La Foresta was a small religious community that relied entirely on their wine production for their income. St Francis originally planned to only stay for a night, but ultimately remained there for 4 months. The longer he stayed the more visitors invaded the small community consuming all the grapes, so the members of the community started being concerned about the wine production. According to the legend St Francis had them bring the remaining grapes to the winepress, which yielded twice the production it had in the previous year’s crop, which became known as the Miracle of the Grapes.


13. Rieti (province of Rieti, Lazio)

Rieti with in the background church, bell tower and cloister of St Francis. Photo by Mac9.

Rieti with in the background church, bell tower and cloister of St Francis. Photo by Mac9.

Surrounded by the Reatini Mountains and overlooked by Monte Terminillo, the hilltop town of Rieti was once a major site of the Sabine nation. The authors of Antiquity considered it the geographical center of Italy (Umbilicus Italiae). The Sabine people appear in many myths and legends among which The rape of the Sabines, a common theme in Renaissance art.


14. Vatican City (Vatican City State)

San Pietro. Photo by Roberto Taddeo.

San Pietro. Photo by Roberto Taddeo.

One of the most celebrated pilgrimage destinations in the world, Vatican City is home to the Pope and one of the largest churches in the world, built over the traditional site of St Peter’s tomb. The dome was designed by Michelangelo. At the center of Saint Peter’s Square stands the “Witness”, an ancient Egyptian obelisk believed to have witnessed the crucifixion of St Peter.


For each of the 28 stages of the walk the author suggests nearby hostels, rifugi (mountain huts), agriturismi, local parishes, convents, foresterie (guesthouses), and hotels. The book also provides a very useful estimation of the daily budget based on the suggested accommodation (incl. breakfast), lunch, dinner and incidentals, along with other useful planning and travel tips.

Paperback US
Paperback UK
Kindle edition

For more info see: The Way of St Francis by Sandy Brown, published by Cicerone Press, a UK-based publishing compagny specialized in guidebooks to walking, trekking, climbing, mountaineering and cycling.

Photo credits (from top to bottom): Monastic community of Camaldoli by Francesco Gasparetti; Badia Prataglia by Alessio di Leo; Santuario della Verna by Helena; Pieve Santo Stefano by Franco Vannini; Gubbio by Rutacultural.com and Matteo Alessandrini; Assisi by Nicola; Spello by Christopher John SSF; Lago di Piediluco by Milarix; Marmore waterfalls by Gianluca Papaccio; Poggio Bustone by Luca Badia and Christopher John SSF; Santuario de La Foresta by Alessandro; Rieti by Mac9; San Pietro by Roberto Taddeo.

Alpine motorcycle road trip around the Mont Blanc

Last weekend I joined a motorcycle group for a most exciting road trip around the Mont Blanc, starting from Geneva, over the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Aosta and back to Geneva, via the Little Saint Bernard Pass. Interesting people, beautiful motorcycles, among which two Guzzi California, hey hey!! [waving the Italian flag 😉 ], delicious food and of course, technical roads and breathtaking scenery all along the way. Two days with the highest ratio of hairpin turns per day ever in my life!

Here’s our itinerary, in purple on the map.

1. Geneva 2. Evian-les-Bains 3. Saint-Paul-en-Chablais 4. Chevenoz 5. Abondance 6. Châtel 7. Troistorrents 8. Monthey 9. Martigny 10. Great Saint Bernard Pass 11. Valpelline 12. Aosta 13. Pré-Saint-Didier 14. Little Saint-Bernard Pass 15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice 16. Flumet 17. Sallanches 18. Beaufort 19. Lac de Vonnes 20. Lac de Roselend. Via Mapcustomizer.

1. Geneva 2. Evian-les-Bains 3. Saint-Paul-en-Chablais 4. Chevenoz 5. Abondance 6. Châtel 7. Troistorrents 8. Monthey 9. Martigny 10. Great Saint Bernard Pass 11. Valpelline 12. Aosta 13. Pré-Saint-Didier 14. Little Saint-Bernard Pass 15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice 16. Flumet 17. Sallanches 18. Beaufort 19. Lac de Vonnes 20. Lac de Roselend. Via Mapcustomizer.

For once, this article will be covering three countries, Italy, France and Switzerland. Interestingly, however, the territory we covered on our motorcycle tour all once belonged to the Duchy of Savoy, one of Italy’s historical states.

The historical Duchy of Savoy covering three of today's countries, France, Switerland, Italy. Our alpine motorbike tour covered the part in green within the ancient Duchy.

The historical Duchy of Savoy in 1494 covering three of today’s countries, France, Switzerland, Italy. Our alpine motorbike tour covered the part in green within the ancient Duchy.


We left Geneva rather late in the evening on Friday night via the D1005 in direction of the French town Douvaine. As the night was getting pretty cold, we decided to spend the first night on the Leman Lake in Evian-les-Bains, famous for its springs, its casino and, of course, its Evian mineral water. For those of you who would like to arrive the day before and stay overnight in Evian before starting the road trip we recommend Hotel Littoral, a small, cozy hotel with an excellent quality-price ratio, just off the lakeside.

The following morning we left Evian after a hearty breakfast hitting the road towards Maxilly. From there we followed the charming D21 in the direction of Bernex, passing through Saint-Paul-en-Chablais, then the D32 to Chez-Bochet and Chevenoz and the D22 towards Abondance.

Abondance. Photo by Espirat.

Abondance. Photo by Espirat.

In Abondance we had a coffee break right at the moment when a herd of cattle, complete with cowbells, crossed the town. There were about two dozens of them, but we managed only the get the last two on camera !


Two Guzzi California side by side in Abondance with the Abondance cows in the background. Photo © Slow Italy

This local Abondance breed of cows, typically golden brown with a white head as you can see in the picture, produces milk rich in both fat and protein that is used to produce AOC cheese, such as Reblochon and Beaufort, among others.


Reblochon cheese.

Half an hour later we were back on track, following the beautiful D22 road from Abondance to Châtel and to the French-Swiss border, passing through the Vallée d’Abondance.

Photo by Jean-Paul Lesange.

Photo by Jean-Paul Lesange.

The Vallée d’Abondance is known for its large, beautiful farm chalets and its XIIth century abbey, the first savoyard building to have been classified as a “Monument Historique”, a designation given to French national heritage sites.


After Châtel, right before the French-Swiss border, we passed by the Lac de Vonnes, with its typical fountain, looking like a small replica of Geneva’s Jet d’Eau.

Lac de Vonnes, Châtel. Photo © Aurélien Antoine.

Lac de Vonnes, Châtel. Photo © Aurélien Antoine.

The high mountain pass Pas de Morgins (1369m) marks the border between France and the canton du Valais in Switzerland. After the border we followed the Route de Bas-Vièze and the Route de Morgins hitting a series of hairpin turns at Troistorrents. From there we headed towards Monthey, then Massongex.

6. Châtel 7. Troistorrents 8. Monthey 19. Lac de Vonnes 21. Pas de Morgins

6. Châtel 7. Troistorrents 8. Monthey 19. Lac de Vonnes 21. Pas de Morgins. Via Mapcustomizer.

At Massongex we took the Swiss highway E21 to Martigny, where we had lunch in a nice oenothèque (wine bar). After lunch we proceeded on the highway E27 until the Great Saint Bernard pass. The road swings up the valley to the storage lake with the intersection between the tunnel and the pass road. The indication to the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard is a very small sign on the right, just before the entrance of the tunnel. It’s really easy to miss if you are not careful!


Great Saint Bernard Pass. Photo © Slow Italy

The Great Saint Bernard pass, culminating at 2469m, is the third highest pass in Switzerland. It connects the Swiss canton of Valais with the Po Valley in Italy and is of very ancient origin. Some of Europe’s greatest leaders crossed it, such as the Holy Roman Emperors Charlemagne (in 775) and Frederick Barbarossa (in 1174 and 1175), as well as Napoleon (15-21 May 1800). Its was also here that the famous St Bernard’s dogs were bred and trained to rescue travelers lost in the snow.

Great Saint Bernard pass

Great Saint Bernard pass. Photo © Slow Italy

After the pass we descended down the road to Aosta. We decided (quite on-the-spot) to spend the night in Valpelline, after we saw a funny sign saying “Le Lièvre Amoureux”, which left us wondering what kind of hotel or hostel that could stand for. We followed the sign for about 8km and arrived at a typical alpine building with separate bungalow rooms and a small pool offering a lovely view over the valley. What totally got us were the inviting loungers placed pretty much everywhere on the lawn overlooking the valley.



Hotel “Le Lièvre Amoureux” in Valpelline, Aosta Valley.

Valpelline is a small town in a farming village, popular with visitors in summer. The charming houses in the old town center of town have typical slate roofs and wooden balconies.

Typical slate roof in Valpelline, Val d'Aosta. Photo by Alessandro.

Typical slate roof in Valpelline, Val d’Aosta. Photo by Alessandro.

For dinner we decided to drive to Aosta, the regional capital of the Valle d’Aosta. Founded by the Romans in 25 BC as a settlement on a key route across the northwestern Alps, Augusta Praetoria Salassorum as it was then called, is definitely worth visiting ! With its many Roman remains in the historic center and delightful eateries and wine bars, the city provides an ideal setting for a relaxing evening after a strenuous ride.

Roman theater, Aosta. Photo © paolo_74.

Roman theater, Aosta. Photo © paolo_74.


Typical little street in the historic center of Aosta. Photo © Slow Italy.

Typical picturesque little street (vicolo) in the historic center of Aosta. Photo © Slow Italy.

Via Croix de Ville, Aosta.

Via Croix de Ville, one of the ancient and very characteristic streets of Aosta. The crucifix was erected in 1541 to commemorate the expulsion of the Calvinists from Aosta. It was moved to its current location in 1841. Photo © Visit Aosta.

For dinner we headed to Via Croix de Ville where we found a pleasant winebar, Enoteca Croix de Ville. The owner Davide recommended us some excellent wines among which a local Muscat Petit Grain of 2014, fruity on the nose and dry on the palate, excellent as an aperitif but also suitable with the Ravioli Plin I had. I especially recommend their cassata siciliana for dessert.


Photo © Slow Italy

On Sunday morning we left Valpelline in the mid morning and followed the SS26 from Aosta to Chenoz. On the ascent of the Little Saint Bernard pass the first town we crossed was the lovely flowered town (città fiorita) of Pré-Saint-Didier with a series of hairpin turns.

The Petit Saint Bernard Pass separates the Vallée d’Isère on the French side from the Valle d’Aosta on the Italian side. The Pass has existed since Antiquity as attested by the numerous Roman and celtic remains. It is believed that it was here that Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade ancient Rome.


Little Saint Bernard pass

Little Saint Bernard pass. Photo © Slow Italy

At the Little Saint Bernard pass we stopped at the Bar S Bernard where had a hearty lunch to recover from the cold, starting with Barley soup and followed by the local carbonada, a stew of salt-cured beef with red wine, pancetta, onions and… cinnamon, which gives this dish a quite peculiar taste. Other main dishes included coniglio in umido (stewed rabbit), which was just delicious, all served with homemade polenta.

After this most restorative meal we continued on the SS26 towards the French border. On the French side we crossed the Ancien Hospice du Petit Saint Bernard, built in the 11th century by Saint-Bernard de Menthon to provide shelter to travelers crossing the pass. After being in disuse for decades the building reopened recently as a hostel. For info see: www.bureau-montagne-haute-tarentaise.fr/hospice-du-petit-saint-bernard.

Cromlech, Little Saint Bernard pass. Photo by Genevieve Romier.

Cromlech at the Little Saint Bernard pass. Photo by Genevieve Romier.

The national road crosses a megalithic complex, known as a cromlech, a celtic cult site built in prehistoric times by the Salasses, the celtic inhabitants of the Aosta Valley. Not to be confused with the remains dating back to World War II !

Lago Verney, Little Saint Bernard Pass.

Lago Verney, Little Saint Bernard Pass. Photo © Slow Italy

Going down from the pass following the national road D1090 towards La Rosière is a panorama point called “Les Arcades” offering spectacular views over the Tarentaise Valley and Bourg Saint Maurice.

Panaroma "Les Arcades". Yes, that's me in the picture. ;)

Panaroma “Les Arcades”, right after the Little Saint Bernard Pass. Yes, that’s me in the picture. ;). Photo © Slow Italy



Panorama point called “Les Arcades” with views over the Tarentaise Valley and Bourg Saint Maurice. Photo © Slow Italy



Photo © Slow Italy


From La Rosière we proceeded on the D1090 towards Séez, following another series of hairpin turns, and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

14. Little Saint Bernard pass 15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice

14. Little Saint Bernard pass 15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice

At the roundabout in Bourg-Saint-Maurice we took the D902 in the direction of Beaufort, on a beautiful road all the way to Flumet. Then for about 20 km we followed the D925 to Beaufort, passing the Col du Cormet de Roselend (1967m), which connects the Beaufortain Valley and the Tarentaise Valley and the Col de Méraillet (1605m). From Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Cormet de Roselend the climb is about 1154m.

15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice 18. Beaufort 19. Col de Méraillet 20. Lac de Roselend 22. Route de Roselend

15. Bourg-Saint-Maurice 18. Beaufort 19. Col de Méraillet 20. Lac de Roselend 22. Route de Roselend


Short stop at the Cormet de Roselend pass connecting the Beaufortain Valley and the Tarentaise Valley. Photo © Slow Italy


Roselend Lake

Roselend Lake. Photo © Slow Italy



Stop at the bar “Etoile des Neiges” on the Route de Roselend. Photo © Slow Italy

A bit more further down on the Route de Roselend at Arêches-Beaufort is a lovely place called Etoile des Neiges, where to have a sweet break. The place offers beautiful views over the Roselend lake.


Photo © Slow Italy



Photo © Slow Italy

Close after Beaufort we turned right following the D218B, then after a series of bends passing close to the Col de Saisies we turned left on the D218C.

From Flumet we took the D1212 to Megève, then Sallanches where we took the highway back to Geneva.

All photos © Slow Italy, except from top to bottom: Abondance by Espirat; Abondance chalet by Jean-Paul Lesage; Lac de Vonnes © Aurélien Antoine/Fotolia; Valpelline roof by Alessandro/Flickr; Roman theater at Aosta © paolo_74/Fotalia; Aosta © Visit Aosta/Flickr; Cromlech by genevieveromier.

Sperlonga and the Riviera of Ulysses: a photo essay


Sperlonga is a charming little seaside borgo perched on the coast between Rome and Naples. Its historic center with its whitewashed houses and maze of narrow stairway streets, leading to unexpected terraces with beautiful views, is lovely to explore on foot.


Photo © pavel068/fotolia.

Photo © pavel068/fotolia.


Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.


Photo © tuniz/fotolia.

Photo © tuniz/fotolia.


Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.


Sperlonga as seen from the Piazza. Photo by Michael Calore.

Sperlonga as seen from the Piazza. Photo by Michael Calore.


Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.






Lovely ceramic shop, Sperlonga. Photo © Slow Italy.

Lovely ceramic shop, Sperlonga. Photo © Slow Italy.


Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.


Sperlonga view from the beach


Sperlonga. Photo © Alessia.

Sperlonga. Photo © Alessia.


Walking in the "old" Sperlonga. Photo © Alessia.

Walking in the “old” Sperlonga. Photo © Alessia.




View over the new part of  Sperlonga from the historic center. Photo © Slow Italy.

View over the new part of Sperlonga from the historic center. Photo © Slow Italy.

The town, which has very ancient origins, was named after the numerous natural sea caves or grottos that adorn the coast line, known as speluncae in Latin.

Inside the Grotto of Tiberius. Photo by Andy Hay.

Inside the Grotto of Tiberius. Photo by Andy Hay.

The first settlement dates back to the upper Palaeolithic (10,000 AD ca.), but like many of the other seaside towns to the south of Rome, Sperlonga was also a favorite summer retreat for patricians and emperors at the time of ancient Rome.

Villa of Tiberius. Photo by Carole Raddato.

Villa of Tiberius. Photo by Carole Raddato.

Emperor Tiberius had an impressive villa built here, which included a few of these natural grottos, one of which served as his summer dining room.


The “Blinding of The Cyclops Polyphemus”, Sperlonga Museum. Photo by Andy Hay.

Many of the archaeological findings can be seen at the Museo Archeologico, including the painstakingly reconstructed marble sculptures depicting scenes from Homer’s Adventures of Ulysses, among which the Blinding of The Cyclops Polyphemus and Scylla’s Attack on the Ship of Ulysses.




Photo © cloverleaf2489

Photo © cloverleaf2489


Another distinctive trait of the borgo are its defensive towers that were built in the 16th century, such as the Torre Truglia with its troubled history. Erected in 1532 on the ruins of an ancient Roman tower, the tower was torn down by invaders and subsequently reconstructed several times.



Sperlonga is also renowned for its beautiful beaches, which are considered among the most beautiful beaches of Italy. The crystal clear waters and rocky headland are part of the Riviera of Ulysses Regional Park (Parco Regionale Riviera di Ulisse), which includes the Villa Tiberio and the Costa Punta Capovento- Punta Cetarola. The coast line has been awarded the prestigious Bandiera Blu for 18 years running.



Sperlonga shopping. Photo by Max.

Sperlonga shopping. Photo by Max.





Sperlonga street art. Photo © Slow Italy.


Photo credits: all photos © Slow Italy, except (from top to bottom): Sperlonga night view by Riccardo Cuppini; Sperlonga wide view © tuniz/fotolia; Sperlonga white houses&flowers © pavel068/fotolia; Sperlonga view from the Piazza by Michael Calore; Sperlonga door detail by Michael Calore; Sperlonga view from the beach by Stef; Walking in the old Sperlonga by Alessia; Sperlonga by night by old stretch; Grotto of Tiberius by Andy Hay; Villa of Tiberius by Carole Raddato; Blinding of the Cyclops by Andy Hay; Sperlonga Torre by Riccardo Cuppini; Sperlonga arch by Riccardo Romano; Sperlonga beach by mikeshdesign; Sperlonga shopping by Max; Sperlonga virgin by Michael Calore.

Top 5 best free language apps to learn Italian before your next trip to Italy


For those of you who think that learning a new language is necessarily very time consuming, big ticket or just not in your wheelhouse, here are five free language apps that will definitely change your mind.

The top apps on this list will introduce you to the new language in a very entertaining way, without requiring to re-organize your daily or weekly routine or spending an arm and a leg.

While I can’t promise you that you will be 100% fluent in Italian in no time when using one of the apps in this list, I do guarantee you that the top apps on this list will make learning Italian (or any other language) enjoyable like never before and will also produce surprisingly fast results.

What makes the top best apps different from other language learning methods:

Small window of attention
An app is something that I use by definition when I can’t open my laptop or a book, so often in situations where I can’t be fully concentrated more than 1 or 2 minutes at a time. As compared to other language learning methods and app will present you with bite-sized chunks that are easy to pick up and digest without completely losing attention of what is going on around you while you are commuting or queuing somewhere, for example.

Fun and addictive
To be effective, your language learning method should be something you grab back to with pleasure. Learning a new language can be dull and repetitive at times, so playing and learning with an app is something that will help you overcome these ‘boredom barriers’ by offering something fun and addictive to play with.

The right trade-off between repetition and motivation
Repetition is needed to fix certain concepts in your long-term memory, but too much repetition easily becomes very boring. Most of the apps in the list are designed in such a way that they keep you interested and motivated.

Easy pick-up
The top apps in this list are designed in such a way that they make it easy for you to pick up where you left when you are being interrupted, both in terms of access (the way the apps are designed) and in terms of progress (units are small enough, so that you can always complete one in a short session and come back to start a fresh unit).

As compared to other language learning methods, with an app you can effectively start learning a new language within seconds. Sign-up is very fast and easy, and most apps also have an easy way to monitor your progress and see where you’re situated within the course (how much you have learned, how much there is left to complete a session or an entire level).

Right balance between passive and active language use
The two first apps make use of the microphone (Duolingo), and include typing exercises in the target language (Duolingo and Memrise), which provides you a good balance between passive and active language use. This is not often the case with other language learning methods. It is one thing to learn to memorize words, to recognize and read them, it’s another to learn to how to pronounce and spell the words correctly and how to use them correctly in the right context. Too often, language learning methods concentrate the bulk of the exercises on passive language acquisition instead of active use. The fact that with an app you have a microphone and keyboard at your disposal makes it possible to balance passive and active language learning.


1. Duolingo

Duolingo consists of series of drill exercises constructed as a tree, in the sense that you have to complete each module before you can unlock the next one. The modules are called “skills” and introduce you to vocabulary units such as “food”, “colors”, “family”, “occupation” alternating with grammar units such as “plurals”, “questions”, “prepositions”. The modules consist of very short units which makes it easily possible to complete a unit during your daily commute or when you have just a few minutes to kill.

The exercises consists of translating short words or sentences, writing down what you hear, reading out aloud what you read and ticking the right answer among three or four options. The emphasis is on acquiring new vocabulary and understanding grammatical structures, rather than on pure memorization. A plus point is the little conversation bulb you can click at each exercise where you can find tips and comments by fellow students and moderators, which are often very helpful to explain nuances in the language you’re learning. Where Duolingo is different from the other apps is that you can access these to-the-point comments right from the exercise section, without having to go to the discussion section.


Duolingo encourages you to use the app on a regular (daily) basis by indicating your “on a x day streak” value next to your profile. This value indicates the number of days that you have been learning with Duolingo without interruption.

Duolingo beats the next app Memrise on two points: first, because it takes into account typos, counting your answer still as correct if you obviously made a typo, whereas Memrise counts anything that deviates from the correct answer as a mistake (except that it takes into account various translation possibilities).

Secondly, as I mentioned in the introduction, it also includes speaking exercises, where you have to record your answer, which is then matched against the correct answer, giving you also feedback on your pronunciation.


Too often, students keep progressing in vocabulary and grammar, without getting accustomed to the real-life pronunciation of the language, which creates a gap between the theoretical (passive) knowledge of the language and the active use of it.

The app allows to to set a daily goal going from:
– Casual (10 XP/day)
– Regular (20 XP/day)
– Serious (30 XP/day)
– Insane (50 XP/day)

The daily goals are translated into a graph showing your daily and weekly progress.


Right after you’ve signed up, you can choose between beginner level and a placement test, if you already have some basics in the language.


However, once started you can’t choose or skip topics or levels, you have to complete the Duolingo skills in the pre-determined order, even if there is something you don’t find interesting to learn (let say, the names of family members, for example). The only workaround is to take a short-cut, but short-cuts are only granted after passing a placement test.

However, once you have completed specific skills you can always repeat them whenever you like and the system will also remind you at regular time intervals when it is time to repeat specific skills.

Another drawback is the limited number of languages available. Besides Italian, there is Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Swedish, Danish.
Languages in Beta: Turkish and Esperanto
Languages in incubator: Norwegian (Bokmal), Ukranian, Romanian, Vietnamese, Polish, Hebrew, Klingon.

Aimed at: people who want a no-brain, easy-to-use app with modulable input, but maximum efficiency and a clear and well-defined methodology.

Available at: Apple App Store, Google Play Store, and Windows Store.


2. Memrise

Memrise is mainly centered around memorization. The exercises are therefore slightly different. Vocabulary and phrase structures are learned while memorizing examples. The units you learn are represented as seeds that are planted in your memory, which evolve into a flower once you have completed a unit and the word is fixed in your long-term memory. Memrise indicates at which interval you have to “water your plants” (read: reinforce the units in your memory).


You are asked to arrange words in the right order to reproduce a sentence and to select the right translation (in both directions) among four options. There are also spelling exercises which make use of an internal keyboard are also provided.



After completion of a section you can choose to go on learning new words or review what you have already learned. You can also chose to do a speed review.


Memrise beats Duolingo with its leaderboard, where you can monitor your own weekly, monthly and all time progress against the other Memrise community members using the same language module, which makes the app highly addictive. The fact that there is a weekly leaderboard allows you to eenter the competition right from the start.

Another nice Memrise feature are the “Mems” (mnemonics) provided by other Memrise members to help you remember the new words you are learning in a fun and effective way by association with an idea or pattern of letters that will make you easily remember the word. You can also submit your own Mems, but only from the website.

However, I have found that I have to go back to Duolingo from time to time to really “fix” the concepts in my memory with the right context and explanations.

You can choose your level and topics.

The app allows you to set a daily goal, going from:
– 1,500 pts/day corresponding to 5 mins a day
– 6,000 pts/day corresponding to 15 mins a day
– 20,000 pts/day corresponding to 20,000 45 mins a day


You can also choose to turn the goal setting feature off

One of the drawbacks may be that, unlike with Duolingo, you have a large choice of courses of different levels from which you can chose any to start with. My tip is to chose the suggested course on top or one of the courses with the highest numbers of users.


Memrise offers the largest collection of languages available.

Aimed at: people who want a little bit more freedom to choose what they study first and people who get their motivation from measuring their results against the community (leaderboard).

Available at: Apple App Store, Google Play Store, and Amazon App Store.


3. HelloTalk

Different from the previous two, HelloTalk is a chat app, aimed at people looking for language partners with whom to share live or text conversation. As opposed to other applications HelloTalk includes its own interface for texting and chatting, so you don’t have to resort to skype. Basically it’s like Whatsapp, but with an access to the entire user base instead of just your friends and acquaintances. Contrary to other social applications, the app is not designed to meet up with people afterwards, so it includes no reviews or ranking of the users.

The app includes a doodle share function (where you can draw what you are talking about when you don’t know the word in the target language), a spelling and grammar correction function, transliteration & voice recognition to help you write and speak your target language and the possibility to save an entire chat for future reference.

Available at: Apple App Store and Google Play Store.


4. Busuu


The method consist of short listening exercises; basically you view flashcards and have to memorize the words and then pick the right one from a list of three. Then you have an example of a dialogue (both written and spoken) that you have to reconstruct. There are also exercises where you have to drag words and match them with the right translation, or drag words to complete a dialogue that you have previously listened to. The exercises are a little more slow-paced than on Duolingo and especially Memrise, but that may be an advantage for certain people. This method looks very similar to the language courses I had 20 years ago in the language labs, which is a pity as an app could offer so much more variety and pulse. The design also seems a little outdated.

The main drawback is that you constantly receive reminders inviting you to upgrade to the paying Premium version. From the start, you can’t complete certain sections without paying for the Premium version. So, if you want to continue with the free version you often have to leave a section halfway and continue with the next one, and so on, or upgrade to the paid version. Really frustrating!


Also, unlike with Duolingo and Memrise you can’t practise what you have learned as the quizzes are locked in the free version.


Premium membership costs 8.99 Euro/month on a monthly basis or 4.08 euro/month on a yearly basis.

Adding more than two languages is only available in the premium version.

There are 4 levels: Beginner A1, Elementary A2, Intermediate B1, Upper Intermediate B2

Conclusion: Overall, Busuu is a little more “passive” in its language teaching approach. It also does not take full advantage of the specific elements that can be offered in an app. It is more slowpaced and traditional in its approach, like a typical handbook-tape course, whereas you would aspect a more dynamic approach with an app. Some quizzes are blocked in the free version.

Besides Italian the other languages available are: English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Turkish

Where this app beats the two first ones, is that it provides interfaces for typing and speaking live with a native for free. However, you could easily use Duolingo or Memrise in a first stage and then HelloTalk when you start feeling a little more confident.

Aimed at: people who prefer a classic book-and-tape-like approach

Available at: Apple App Store and Google Play Store.


5. LingQ


In my opinion, this is the least stimulating and therefore also least effective of the language learning apps in this list. Still, it is a very comprehensive tool that may find supporters among the students who prefer a more traditional approach.

Basically, you are presented with a text, where words are highlighted in blue. You are supposed to listen to the text and check the words you don’t know by highlighting them in yellow for an explanation, after which you then decide to move them to your flash cards. When you’re done looking up the words you didn’t know, you can then click “I know all remaining blue words”. These words are then added to your “known words” database.
You can review what you have learned with flashcards and with “Cloze” (where you have to fill in the missing word). A nice feature is the fact that you can edit your flashcards within the app. Dictation and multiple choice exercises are available with the premium version.


The app makes it easy to select a learning level going from Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Intermediate 1 & 2 and Advanced 1 & 2.

While LingQ seems to be a very comprehensive tool, it completely misses out the purpose of an app, i.e. something that is fun to work with in the first place and that is easy to pick up no matter where I am or what I’m doing. If I can afford to be fully concentrated on what I’m doing for a longer period of time, then I might consider working with a book and CD, which gives me even more control and more in-depth-information, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an app, so an app that competes on the same level as a book and CD-method necessarily misses the point. LingQ requires a larger attention window, more input for a lower efficiency and yield. Actually, this app looks like it was first developed as a website and never was really adapted to become an app.

Available languages besides Italian: Swedish, English, French, Russian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Dutch.
Beta languages: Arabic, Czech, Finnish, Esperanto, Hebrew, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian, Greek

Aimed at: people who prefer a more traditional approach.

Available at: Apple App Store and Google Play Store.



The first two apps in this list, Memrise and Duolingo, are qualitatively very similar. From a linguistic point of view they are excellent tools to start learning a new language and they are both fun and easy to use. They offer intelligent drill exercises that introduce you in a fun way to new vocabulary, grammatical structures and idiomatic expressions. They promote both passive and active language learning.
Both Duolingo and Memrise are esthetically pleasing and addictive, with Memrise being even more addictive than Duolingo (but that may be a question of taste).

Duolingo and Memrise are by far the two best free language apps available. They complement each other very nicely, so I highly recommend to use both, should you decide to start learning Italian, as Italian is available in both. This will allow you to cross-test what you have learned with one app in the other one. Set your daily goal to something that you are sure to achieve each day, so that it will keep you motivated.

From an esthetic and motivational point of view I didn’t find Busuu and LingQ very usefull or effective, but I did mention them in the list because I can imagine that language learning methods are also for a part a matter of taste and habit, so if you are more into something that simulates classic learning methods one of them may be your choice.

HelloTalk is a nice app to try once you have completed Duolingo and Memrise and are ready to exchange a few words with other fellow students or native speakers. You don’t have to wait to be fluent in Italian to test your speaking skills, the more you practice the more you will pick up and that is true almost from the start.


Just give it a try and enjoy!

Looking for a more traditional method to complement your language learning app?
Here are our top picks:

20 unconventional ways to see a different Milan

As Expo 2015 kicked off in Milan last Friday, let’s explore a few unconventional ways to visit and enjoy this exciting city.

Best known as Italy’s capital of business, fashion and design, few visitors (and even Italians) know that Milan was once also the country’s capital, in 286 AD, more precisely. Besides its most famous landmarks and futuristic projects, the city is also full of history and hidden treasures. Milan is probably also the most European of the Italian cities, with its seven universities and 120,000 students of which 50% are foreigners.

Expo 2015, with as theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, will run through October 31 and draw an estimated 24 million visitors to the city. So, we’d like to show you a few alternative ways to visit Milan’s famous landmarks, and take you to some meaningful symbols of the city and unusual areas you’ve probably never heard of.


1. Brush up on a bit of Italy’s history at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Photo © pcruciatti.

Photo © pcruciatti.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is probably the only famous city landmark that was designed to connect two other landmarks, the Duomo and the La Scala theather. Few visitors who walk through the beautiful gallery realize that they are setting foot in the world’s oldest purposely-built shopping mall. The gallery is also the first Italian building entirely made of iron, glass and steel, an avant-garde concept at the time when it was built, that was later copied in other parts of Italy, the US and Canada.

The central octagonal floor mosaic represents allegories of the four continents (Asia, Africa, Europe and America) and the coat of arms of the four cities that were the capital of Italy for a brief or longer moment in history (Milan, Turin, Florence and Rome). The coat of arms of Turin represents a bull. Legend has it that it brings luck if you rotate on one foot, with closed eyes, on the bull’s private parts. However, some say it only works if you do it at midnight on December 31!

Turin's Bull, central mosaic of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Photo (left) © emurtola. Photo (right)  © cronopios.

Turin’s Bull, central mosaic of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Photo (left) © emurtola. Photo (right) © cronopios.

Tip: Have a drink at Caffè Zucca, one of the top 15 historic cafes of Italy, founded in 1867, or at Caffè Camparino (founded in 1915) another iconic cafe of Milan.

Caffè Camparino, Milano. Photo © befa.

Caffè Camparino, Milano. Photo © befa.


2. Have breakfast at Princi Bakery

Milan being Milan, its bakeries follow the same codes as the fashion industry, integrating chic and style in its (many) conceptual bakery shops and their prime products.

Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.

Princi Bakery is one of these conceptual bakeries. The first Princi bakery opened in Milan in 1985, as the brainchild of Rocco Princi, affectionately dubbed the “Armani of bread” by the press. He created a new concept of a chic bar-bakery in black and grey colors, open around the clock, where you can eat freshly baked products coming literally right out of the beech-fired oven. The delicious prime products (pastries, tarts, cakes, breads) are prepared following traditional recipes based on organic whole-wheat flour.

Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.

As the idea is to serve breads and pastries right from the oven to the clients, the lay-out and design of the shops hardly make any distinction between the workshop and shopping area.

We visited the Princi Bakeries at Largo La Foppa and in Piazza XXV Aprile, 5. The nice thing about the bakery in Piazza XXV Aprile is that there is plenty of place to sit inside, while at Largo La Foppa you can only sit outside.

Tip: definitely try the brioche alla ricotta, small fagotino al cioccolato, the cheesecake with ricotta and amarene and the small apple pie.


3. A different view of the Duomo and Piazza Duomo

Milan's cathedral (duomo) with on the left the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Photo © elisalocci.

Milan’s cathedral (duomo) with on the left the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Photo © elisalocci.

Milan’s cathedral in Candoglia marble is the second largest catholic cathedral in the world and counts more statues than any other cathedral in the world: 2,300 external statues alone and 3,400 statues in total, representing a total weight of 325,000 tons! Even more astonishing is the surprisingly consistent result, considering that the project took more than 520 years to complete! Actually, when the Milanese talk about a task that will take ages to complete they say that “it takes as long as the construction of the Duomo”.

Tip: it is worth seeing the Duomo also form the side, from Piazza Reale, and from the rear, from Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a view that was often represented in 19th century paintings. The best moment to view the Duomo is in the late afternoon with the setting sun.

Another interesting view over the Duomo can be seen from the nearby Museo del Novecento, or from the 7th and top floor of the Rinascente (rebuilt in 1950), the famous Italian department store, where “Il Bar” offers an unusual view over the Duomo.

View over the Duomo from the Rinascente. Photo by JasonParis.

View over the Duomo from the Rinascente. Photo by JasonParis.


4. Two meaningful symbols of Milan you’ve probably never heard of: the long-haired sow and the “Talking” Stone Man

After a visit to the top terrace on the Duomo’s roof from where you can admire one of the most stunning views of Milan, head to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. At number 13, under the arcades, in a niche, is a stone statue of a noble Roman in a toga. His head has been replaced with one representing the 10th century archbishop Adelmanno Menclozzi, who defended the plebs from abuse by the powerful. Known as Omm de Preja (stone man) or scior Carèra (Mister Carera), the statue was used as a bulletin board for satirical political messages, much in the same way as were the “Talking Statues” in Rome.

Scior Carera. Photo by Geobia.

Scior Carera. Photo by Geobia.

Behind the Duomo is Piazza Mercanti, which was the center of Milano from 1233 until 1776. The square holds a small, but meaningful symbol of the city, the semi-long-haired sow (scrofa mediolanuta), depicted on a bas-relief on one of the capitals of Palazzo della Ragione. Similarly to the she-wolf of Rome, the long-haired sow is associated with the creation of Milan. According to the legend, the Celt Belloveso saw the scrofa mediolanuta on the place where he would found the city. Presumably, it is from mediolanuta that the original name of Milan, Mediolanum was derived. However, the true etomology of the name is still a matter of conjecture.

Srofa mediolanuta (semilong-haired sow). Photo by G.dallorto.

A meaningful symbol of the city, the Srofa mediolanuta (semilong-haired sow). Photo by G.dallorto.


5. The Fashion district and the Sforza Castle

Via Montenapoleone, Milan. Stock photo © Moohoow.

Via Montenapoleone, Milan. Photo © Moohoow.

You might wonder what the link is between Milan’s fashion district and the Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco). Most people associate Milan with its fashion district, the famous Quadrilatero della moda, named after the four main shopping streets that form the sides of the rectangle: Via Montenapoleone (one of the top ten most luxurious shopping streets in the world), Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga, and Corso Venezia. However, few know that Milan’s fame as the city at the forefront of fashion and design is in fact centuries old.

Sforza Castle, Milan. Stock photo ©  repistu.

Sforza Castle, Milan. Stock photo © repistu.

Indeed, as early as the 1480s the Court of Milan played a leading role at European level in the art of jewelry, fashion, interior decorating and arts. Beatrice d’Este, Ludovico Sforza’s spouse, was one of the most refined and cultured princesses of Renaissance Italy, who appreciated the company of artists and intellectuals, among whom Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante and Amadeo. She was a kind of trend-setter, known for her good taste and for inventing new clothing styles, at a time when the Court of Florence promoted a much more austere style. Unfortunately, her court was short-lived (she died aged 22 after only 6 years of marriage), but among the most sophisticated and splendid of that time at European level. Today, the Sforza Castle is probably the only testimony of the Milanese Renaissance period still standing.

Tips: for more affordable shopping head to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II where you’ll find numerous shops and low cost department stores, as well as the famous shopping mall “Rinascente”.

Another shopping area is Via Paolo Sarpi and Via Canonica, Milan’s Chinatown, with artist’s shops and generally lower priced quality products. There’s also Corso Buones Aires, similar to London’s Oxford Street, and last but not least, the Brera district, but more about the latter in the next point.


6. Discover the Brera district

The Brera district is an inspiring and trendy area of Milan, where you find designer shops, smart boutiques and lively bars and restaurants. The district includes Via Brera, Via Solferino, Via San Marco, Via Pontaccio, Via Madonnina and the streets in between. Two of my favorites are Angela Caputi, selling dazzling design resin jewelry in Via Madonnina 11 and Blue Deep, in Via Solferino 5, a SoHo-like clothing shop offering a wide collection of unique dresses, skirts, coats, and leather jackets at reasonable prices.

Blue Deep boutique in the Brera district. One of my favorites! Photo © Slow Italy.

Blue Deep boutique in the Brera district. One of my favorites! Photo © Slow Italy.

Also in the Brera district is the Pinacoteca di Brera, housed in the Palazzo di Brera: the greatest painting gallery of Northern Italy with more than 600 works from the Lombard and Venetian schools on display, including masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca, among others.

Madonna della Candelleta by Carlo Crivelli (1430-1494), Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.

Madonna della Candelleta by Carlo Crivelli (1430-1494), Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano. Photo by Jean-Louis Mazieres

A market selling refined and often valuable objects is held in the Brera district every third Sunday of the month from 9:00 to 18:00.

Tip: From Via Pontaccio you may want to proceed strolling along Corso Garibaldi up to Piazza XXV Aprile, for a beautiful walk.


7. Get a glimpse of Da Vinci’s Last Supper

We already mentioned that Leonardo da Vinci was invited at the Court of Milan by the cultured Beatrice d’Este, who appreciated the company of artists and intellectuals. Leonardo da Vinci and architect Donato Bramante were among the many artists invited to the Court of Milan to make Milan one of the most splendid cities of Italy. The Tuscan artist and inventor spent more than 20 years in the Lombard city. He arrived in the city in 1482 or 1483 when the Court of Milan was at its highest splendor. Under the auspices of Beatrice d’Este and her husband Ludovico Sforza magnificent works were created, the silk and metal industry flourished, the streets were widened, the cathedral further worked on and the university of Milan expanded.


Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper (L’Ultima Cena, 1494-1498) in the former refectory (cenacolo) of the monastery of Basilica Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie. It is a miracle that this masterpiece survived to this day as most of the church housing the fresco was destroyed by a bomb in august 1943.

The church contained another masterpiece, Titian’s “Crowning of thorns”, which was taken by the French in the late 18th century and is now exhibited in the Louvre in Paris.


8. Santa Maria presso San Satiro: the world’s first trompe-l’oeil

Another architectural gem from the Renaissance period, which is often overlooked, is the church Santa Maria presso San Satiro, built between 1476 and 1486, with an impressive trompe-l’oeil by Donato Bramante. As space was limited due to the presence of the main road, the choir was truncated and replaced with a painted perspective, which makes the choir seem much more profound when viewed from the nave than it is in reality.

Faux perspective by Bramante, Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milano. Photo by trevor.patt

Faux perspective by Bramante, Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milano. Photo by trevor.patt

This faux perspective created by Bramante was one of first examples of trompe l’oeil in the history of art. Bramante was one of the designers of St Peter’s Cathedral.


9. Corso Como 10 Concept store

10 Corso Como concept store. Photo by thinkretail.

10 Corso Como concept store. Photo by thinkretail.

Hidden in a quiet courtyard on Corso Como is the concept store, Corso Como 10 (short CC10), a multifunctional space offering a quintessence of everything that is trendy in Milan. Created in a former garage in 1990 by Carla Sozzani (a lady with an exceptional flair), it is the world’s first concept store, a place you visit and wander through like you turn the pages of a magazine (with sections devoted to photo, fashion, design and a bar-restaurant)

There is also a small boutique hotel called “3 Rooms” with, as you’ve probably already guessed, just three rooms, but with a nice garden and terrace.


10. Explore one of Italy’s major Liberty style cities

Milan is one of the major Liberty style cities of Italy, together with Torino and Palermo. The Milanese Liberty style, which lasted from the beginning of the 1900s until the beginning of WWI, evolved from a floral style into a more eclectic style.

Palazzo Berri-Meregalli, Milano. Photo © Filippo Bianchi.

Palazzo Berri-Meregalli, Milano. Photo © Filippo Bianchi. Reproduced with kind permission of Filippo Bianchi.

Most Liberty style buildings can be found in the district Porta Venezia, between Corso Venezia and Corso Monforte and Corso Venezia and Viale Majno, and between Corso Magenta and Parco Sempione. One of the first Liberty buildings in Milan, Palazzo Castiglioni by G. Sommaruga (1900-1914), can be found at no 47 on Corso Venezia. Worth seeing are also Palazzo Berri-Meregalli by G.U. Arata (1913-1914), in Via Cappuccini 8, Casa Galimberti by G.B. Bossi (1903-1904), in Via Malpighi 3 and Casa Guazzoni, a bit further at number 12 in the same street.

Cinema Dumont, the oldest cinema of Milan, is now a library. Photo © Filippo Bianchi.

Cinema Dumont, the oldest cinema of Milan, now a library. Photo © Filippo Bianchi. Reproduced with kind permission of Filippo Bianchi

Liberty-style cinema Dumont, at the angle of Via Melzo and Via Frisi, once the oldest cinema of Milan, is now a library. Unfortunately part of the building was destroyed by the original owners in the ‘80s, but the inhabitants of the district managed to save the building from further destruction, turning the building into the Biblioteca Comunale Venezia in 2001.


11. Chill out in Parco Indro Montanelli

Skip the usual Parco Sempione and head to Parco Indro Montanelli instead. Formerly known as Giardini Pubblici and Giardini di Porta Venezia, this historic city park (the oldest public park of the city, actually) close to Porta Nuova was named after the famous Italian journalist and writer Indro Montanelli who used to come for a walk here.

Indro Montanelli statue in Parco Indro Montanelli. Photo by Jean-Marc Linder.

Indro Montanelli statue in Parco Indro Montanelli. Photo by Jean-Marc Linder.

Montanelli was one of the most talented Italian journalists famous for his use of a direct and plain written language. A famous history writer, he was often compared to Denis Mack Smith or even Hemingway for his “cronache dal fronte finlandese”, his war chronicles on the Finnish front during World War II.

The parc covers an area of 17 hectares, including a Neo-classic section (towards Corso Venezia) designed by Piermarini (1783-1786) and an English-style garden (1857-1881). The gardens house the Planetario and the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, one of the leading museums of natural history in Europe, featuring stuffed animals, fossils, minerals and dinosaur skeletons and stuffed specimen of extinct animals.

Each year in May, Parco Indro Montanelli hosts the elegant Orticola market-fair, featuring antique roses and beautiful ornamental plants.


12. Enjoy an aperitif Milano-style with a view

Close by the Parco Indro Montanelli is a nice place where to have a chic and cool aperitif with stuzzichini (appetizers), at La Terrazza di Via Palestro, a panoramic salotto with views over the Park.

Radetzky caffè. Photo © befa.

Radetzky caffè. Photo © befa.

Two among the trendiest places for an aperitif are Radetzky caffè in Corso Garibaldi (frequented by designers, models, photographers, architects, and business people, after all when you are in Milan…) and the bar at Bulgari hotel. The latter has a beautiful courtyard, making it one of the most romantic and trendy places in town for an aperitif. Prices are in line with the sophistication of the place, but drinks come with a myriad of delicious appetizers. Waiters keep refilling your plate on demand, so, for the busy and smart travelers, this aperitivo may be a clever alternative to dining out. Count around 22 euro per drink (including the assortment of appetizers).

Aperitif at the Bulgari Hotel. Photo © Slow Italy.

Aperitif at the Bulgari Hotel. Photo © Slow Italy.

Tip: for more casual places with a more laid-back atmosphere head to the Brera district and Corso Como, or to the area by the Colonne di San Lorenzo.


13. Go for a stroll down the Navigli, Milan’s canal district

Navigli, Milano. Stock photo © repistu.

Navigli, Milano. Stock photo © repistu.

Just like Venice, Milan used to be a navigable city with an intricate system of canals that once were the city’s main means for trade and supplying food and goods. Many of the canals have been covered, but in the South-west area of Milan you can still see the Naviglio Pavese and the Naviglio Grande, giving birth to Milan’s most offbeat and trendiest districts, with pubs, restaurants and hip shops.

The Naviglio Grande, the oldest of the two, is also the oldest navigable canal in Europe, dating back to the 13th century. It still features the traditional low-rise period buildings and numerous pubs and restaurants.

The Navigli also host the most ancient flea market of the city, the Fiera di Sinigalia, which takes place on Ripa di Porta Ticinese every Saturday from 8:00 to 18:00. On the first Sunday of June there is also the Festa dei Navigli celebrating the beginning of summer with a lively street event, featuring street artists, live music and many artisan stalls.


14. Dinner at “El Carnicero”

Photo © Slow Italy.

Photo © Slow Italy.

Housed in what was once a local garage, the restaurant El Carnicero via Spartaco 31. has a contemporary and hip, yet cozy atmosphere. Relatively new on the trendy Milanese dining scene, this restaurant is a must try if you are looking for top notch (Argentinean) meat. We especially recommend the “Tomahawk” of about 1kg, a tender and very tasteful piece of meat. For amateurs of filet pur there is the “Lomo” of 1,300 kg (an entire filet pur). As antipasto we recommend the Pata negra (2 types, cured for either 24 months or 36 months).


15. Isola District and Piazza Gae Aulenti

The isola district is a historic quarter between Via De Castillia and Via Confalonieri in the Porta Nuova area that is completely different from the other parts of Milan. This peculiar area, popular among locals, but relatively unknown to tourists, was until recently separated from the rest of the city by the railway, hence it’s name meaning ‘island’. Because it was cut off for so long, the neighborhood retained cool village-like atmosphere, with small shops and local trattorie, organic delis, trendy boutiques and night bars. The area is also famous for its interesting street art.

Bosco Verticale, the iconic towers in the Isola district. Photo by Lorenzoclick.

Bosco Verticale, the iconic towers in the Isola district. Photo by Lorenzoclick.

The building of the iconic Bosco Verticale, two residential skyscraper towers housing 900 tree species, recently participated in a revival effort of the area. The green towers, designed by Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca and Giovanni La Varra, involving also several several horticulturalists and botanists were inaugurated in 2014 and won the award of the world’s most beautiful skyscraper in 2014.

Tip: Blu ristorante is a cool place for aperitif, lunch or dinner, while Ceresio 7 (the former headquarter of Enel) is a trendy place for an aperitif on a roof top terrace overlooking 2 pools. Close by is also Piazza Gae Aulenti.

Piazza Gae Aulenti. Photo by Stefano Bertolotti.

Piazza Gae Aulenti. Photo by Stefano Bertolotti.

Piazza Gae Aulenti is a lively, futuristic neighborhood with the iconic Unicredit tower (231m high, highest building in Italy), designed by the architect Cesar Pelli. From the Piazza you can enjoy a wonderful panoramic view of the skyline of Milan.


16. Pizza at Lievito Madre – Sorbillo

I know, I know, Sorbillo is Neapolitan, not Milanese, but if you have never been to Naples, this is your next-best opportunity to try the real, authentic pizza, as it is made by the best Neapolitan master pizzaioli. The pizzeria opened in October 2014 and when we visited less than a month later, in early November 2014, word-of-mouth had already translated into long queues outside the restaurant. Needless to say, the pizza is really worth the waiting.

Tip: as a starter I recommend the Mezza Bufala (half a mozzarella, but of ½ kg (!), so fit for 2 persons). Also try the Palla di Riso Bianca & Rossa (the famous Arancini served with delicious vegetable Tempura). It’s not Milanese, but it’s a must!


17. Ride one of Milan’s 1900s trams

One of the best ways to pick up the flavor of Milan is probably to tour the city in one of the original 1900s trams that are still in use. Take the numero 1 on Piazza della Scala and do the entire tour until the Arco della Pace.

Stock photo © stephenfalken

Stock photo © stephenfalken

You can also have an atmospheric night tour and dine at the same time. Two historic trams ATMosfera 1 and 2 of the type “Milano 1928”, have been completely restored and transformed into genuine restaurants with a retro look. The meeting point for this dining tram tour (after booking) is at the angle of Piazza Castello and Via Beltrami at 19:45, departure is at 20:00. The ride goes through the historic and modern city, as well as the Isola quarter, and passes by the “Bosco verticale” and all important monuments. For booking call the Infoline ATM at 02/48.607.607 from Monday through Friday from 14:00 to 19:00 or book on-line at http://atmosfera.atm.it/Reservation/


18. Indulge in the local food

Ossobuco with risotto. Photo © Slow Italy.

Ossobuco with risotto. Photo © Slow Italy.

Two of the most famous Milanese flagship dishes are the risotto alla Milanese (a saffron infused risotto) and the Ossobuco, recipients of the DE.co (Denominazione Comunale, or Municipal Denomination) and, of course, the famous Cotoletta alla Milanese.

The Ossobuco dish is a slow cooking dish par excellence as the braised veal shanks should be cooked very slowly so as to keep the marrow intact inside the hole and render the meat as tender as possible. Note that in Milan the Ossobuco is served as a piatto unico (main dish together with a primo, or carbo sidedish, which is rather unusual in the rest of Italy).

Trattoria Masuelli San Marco, Viale Umbria 80, Milano. Photo © Slow Italy.

Trattoria Masuelli San Marco, Viale Umbria 80, Milano. Photo © Slow Italy.

One of our favorite places to enjoy typical Milanese cuisine a bit outside the usual tourist tracks (ssshhh don’t tell anyone!) is Trattoria Masuelli San Marco in Viale Umbria 80, which has existed since 1921. The 3rd generation now manages the kitchen, while the son of the original founder is still attending the tables.

Tip: also try the Börroeula and Testina marinata all’aceto balsamico di Modena for antipasto.


19. Sant’Ambrogio

Basilica Sant'Ambrogio. Photo by Andrea Stefanini.

Basilica Sant’Ambrogio. Photo by Andrea Stefanini.

Even though often overlooked, Sant’Ambrogio is one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks and one of the oldest churches of the city. Dedicated to the city’s patron saint the Lombard Romanesque church was built in 379 AD and became the final resting place of St Ambrose in 397. It was extensively rebuilt in the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Altare d’Oro is a masterpiece of goldsmithery dating back to the Carolingian period, featuring stories of Christ and St Ambrose.


20. Attend an opera in one of Italy’s top historic opera houses

Photo by Lars Nilse.

Photo by Lars Nilse.

Perhaps one of Italy’s best known cultural landmarks abroad, La Scala was inaugurated in 1778 and has been the opening venue for many famous operas ever since. The audiences of La Scala are notoriously very critical and very vocal. It is not unusual for an artist to be booed off the stage when his performance is not judged up to par.

Originally known as Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala after the previous Regio Ducale theater was destroyed by a fire in 1776. Note that the name of the theater indirectly stems from the surname della Scala. Indeed, the theater takes its name from the 14th century church Santa Maria alla Scala that was demolished in 1776 to leave room for the opera building, a church that was named after Beatrice Regina della Scala, who commissioned the church.

A relaxing lakeside weekend in Orta San Giulio, Lake Orta


Orta San Giulio is a charming little town located on a peninsula jutting on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, to the west of Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.

Photo by Gerhard Riess.

Photo by Gerhard Riess.


Lake Orta is known as the “Cinderalla” of the Italian lakes; their most beautiful, but hidden, little sister so to speak, much less crowded than Lake Como and Lake Garda, but with stunning scenery.



Many visitors to Orta San Giulio are only there on a day excursion. You can tell from the fact that all shops close around 18:00 (which is fairly early by Italian standards), when the majority of the day tourists leave.





However, it is at night that Orta San Giulio is at its most enchanting, when the lovely little town is wrapped in a comforting silence, interrupted only by the sound of the lake’s water lapping by the shore. The ideal setting for a romantic getaway or just a peaceful, restorative break away from the hectic and pressure of city life!





In March, when we visited, the lake offers a beautiful scenery of different shades of grey colors.






The picturesque streets are lined with historic buildings with frescoed façades, charming storefronts and inviting wine bars and eateries (which do remain open at night!). The majority of the wine bars and restaurants are concentrated on the main square, Piazza Motta, named after the martyr Mario Motta, but there are also a few interesting ones in the adjacent streets.






The central area of the town that goes from the main square up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta (1485), is the oldest part of the town, dating back to medieval times.

Stairway street to to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta (1485). Photo by Selden Vestrit.

Stairway street to to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta (1485). Photo by Selden Vestrit.


Some of the buildings of interest here include the Palazzotto della Comunità (1582) built on top of a broad portico, Palazzo dei Gemelli and the so-called House of Gnomes, with its tiny little windows, in Salita della Motta.


Casa dei Nani (House of Gnomes) in Salita della Motta. Photo © Slow Italy.

Casa dei Nani (House of Gnomes) in Salita della Motta. Photo © Slow Italy.

The house with a fresco of the Pietà was probably the original site of the Monte di Pietà, the pawnbroker, founded by the authorities in the 16th century to assist the poor. Today it is converted into a shop selling houselinen and tableware.



The romanesque Church Santa Maria Assunta marks the beginning of the road to the Sacro Monte dominating Orta San Giulio. Orta’s Sacro Monte is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a site of pilgrimage. It contains 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1760.


Sacro Monte di Orta. Photo by Mind Monkey.

Sacro Monte di Orta. Photo by Mind Monkey.

From Piazza Motta you can also take a boat to the island of San Giulio. The ride only takes a few minutes.




Noteworthy on the island is the basilica of San Giulio, one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Piedmont, and… the silence.

La Via del Silencio, Isola San Giulio. Photo © Slow Italy.

La Via del Silencio, Isola San Giulio. Photo © Slow Italy.

Both the town and the small island opposite it, San Giulio island, are named after Julius of Novara, the patron saint of the Cusian region. Cusio is one of the other names of Lake Orta and by extension of the area surrounding it.


The lake has been popular with many writers. The 19th century intellectual Lou Andreas-Salom, who was befriended with Kafka, Freud and Rilke, visited Orta as a young girl together with Friedrich Nietzsche . She wrote in her memoirs about her visit to Orta’s Sacro Monte in 1882. Lord Byron and Honoré de Balzac also stayed here.


A magnificent Camellia tree in front of our B&B “Al Dom”. Photo © Slow Italy.

The best time to visit Orta San Giulio probably is May and June, when the temperature is not too hot, and flowering shrubs and trees add beautiful patches of colors to the scenery. The people of Orta, however, say it is in September that the lake is at its most beautiful.

Photo credits: all photos © Slow Italy, except (from top to bottom): Orta San Giulio and Wisteria by Gerhard Riess; street to Santa Maria Asunta by Selden Vestrit; Sacro Monte di Orta by Mind Monkey.

A beautiful, “Made in Italy” success story: Angela Caputi

Today, I would like to put one of my favorite Florentine artists/designers in the spotlight.

As I said in the Mission Statement of my website, what I’m constantly looking for during my travels through Italy are not only all sorts of offbeat and uncliché sights and places, but also inspiring people who are on the forefront of innovation, design and entrepreneurship, and at the same time keen on preserving the traditional craftsmanship and savoir-faire of yesteryear.

I first came across Angela Caputi’s creations when I was in Milan, wandering through the bohemian-chic Brera district.

Via Madonnina, Brera District, Milano

Via Madonnina, Brera District, Milano. Photo by MarkusMark.

Almost by accident, I stumbled upon Angela Caputi’s inviting little shop in one of the pedestrian streets near the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. The attractive, colorful window display of her boutique drew my attention as I was walking by.

Photos © Slow Italy.

Photos © Slow Italy.

From a distance I could not immediately tell what I was seeing, but the shop definitely looked so inviting that I took a closer look. As I came closer, the little, dilettante artist in me was immediately seduced by the festival of colors and fantasy of shapes that were exhibited in the shop’s window. So, I decided to go inside and find out more.

I was lucky to meet the daughter of the artist who very kindly started answering my questions while I was trying on some pieces, overwhelmed by the choice of splendid necklaces, over-sized bracelets and rings, impressive earrings and delicate brooches.




The success story of this artist is so inspiring! Starting in 1975, she just followed her instinct and inspiration and decided to go against the established codes of the fashion world of that time. What immediately struck me is the exceptional capacity of this artist to create exclusive pieces using only the most mundane of materials, namely plastic.

Relying only on the power of her original ideas and the conscientiousness of a centuries-old florentine craftsmanship in jewelry-making, Angela managed to blur the line between the so-called fine jewelry and faux jewelry, bringing her bold bijoux at the level of the finest jewelry, worn even by royalties (Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, just to name a few).



Photos © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi


In a world where there often seems to come no end to the escalation of the “more ostentatious”, “more bling-bling”, I find it kind of refreshing to come across an artist who takes the opposite stance, using only synthetic resins instead of expensive gem stones and precious metals, to express her creativity, seemingly without any limits of colors, shapes and size, but without compromising on mastery, finesse…. and statement. The true prowess is that the synthetic resins don’t look like plastic at all, but can take on the look of coral, turquoise, onyx, amethysts, jade, bronze or almost any texture.


Photo Slow Italy

Photo © Slow Italy



Photo © Slow Italy


You can tell that every detail is heavily researched and meticulously executed, from the geometrical or smooth lines, to the stunning nuances of colors. It seems truly challenging to be able to balance such imposing pieces and yet at the same time keep them so delicate and pure in their lines and hues.


Photos (left) © Angela Caputi, (right) © Slow Italy


Angela Caputi in her workshop and boutique in Via Santo Spirito, Florence. Photo © Slow Italy.

Angela Caputi in her workshop and boutique in Via Santo Spirito, Florence. Photo © Slow Italy.

When I was in Florence last February, I had the opportunity to meet Angela Caputi in person. Rarely have I seen such a creative energy all concentrated in one person! Unlike many other famous names in the fashion world, Angela Caputi doesn’t resort to ghost designers to design her collections, but still does all the design herself!


Photo © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi


Photo © Angela Caputi.

Photo © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi.

Taking her inspiration from American movies of the 1940s and a long-standing passion for fashion and art in general, Angela’s influences are multicultural, multifaceted, extremely modern and at the same time classic and rigorous in their execution. There are also references, both in colors and topics, to the sea, fauna and flora, and the natural colors of Tuscany, blurring also the line between the natural and the artificial.



Photo © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi

Angela Caputi Giuggiu’, as the brand is named, is also a truly “Made in Italy” success story as all materials used are made in Italy by Italian suppliers and all jewelry is designed, created and assembled in the florentine workshop in via San Spirito.


Photo © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi



Photo © Slow Italy



Photo © Alessandro Bencini/Angela Caputi

The synthetic resin pieces are supplied by Italian button makers, specialized in the production of small, high-precision pieces. The small beads are either made from mono-colored resin paste, or are lacquered, sprayed or hand-painted to achieve the wide array of colors and shapes.

Mixing passion and entrepreneurship Angela gained recognition both from Haute Couture stylists and museums who recognize her unique and inimitable style. Not surprisingly her creations have been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the Museo degli Argenti, and in the Galleria del Costume in Florence.

So, when you are in Florence, just have a walk across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno, the historic center of Florence on the other side of the Arno, where you can find Angela Caputi’s workshop in the lovely Via Santo Spirito. Named after the brunelleschian Santo Spirito Basilica, Via Santo Spirito is filled with artisan studios and delightful boutiques.



Photo © Slow Italy

Angela’s workshop in housed in Palazzetto Medici, a historic building in Gherardo Silvano’s style dating back to the mid 1600s . Above the balcony you can see the coat of arms of the Medici.

Palazzetto Medici in via Santo Spirito. Photo by Sailko.

Palazzetto Medici in via Santo Spirito. Photo by Sailko.


Stores mentioned in this article:

Via Madonnina 11, Milano
Via Santo Spirito 58/R, Firenze

More info: www.angelacaputi.com