The Magic of Venice in Winter

The Magic of Venice in Winter

Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.

The Romance of Winter

Italy-Venice mist.

A gauzy mist spreads over the lagoon.

Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.

Italy-Venice canal at night

The canals become eerily quiet on winter nights.

Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.

It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.

Arrive by Train

Italy-Venice train.

The train reaches the lagoon with the morning light.

Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.

Italy-Venice San Simone

Voyagers step off the train right onto the Grand Canal.

It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.

Take the Vaporetto

Italy-Venice Zattere.

The Canal of the Giudecca. offers a unique view of the Zattere Promenade.

Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.

Stay in the Dorsoduro

Italy-Venice San Trovaso.

The Squero di San Trovaso is oldest gondola yard in Venice.

Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.

Italy-Venice Ca Foscari

The Ca’ Foscari University overlooks the Grand Canal.

Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.

But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.

Italy-Venice Dorsoduro

Vaporetto approach of the Dorsoduro.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereThello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
  • Getting aroundVaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
  • Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin  was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email:

Location, location, location!


The Ultimate Amalfi Coast Getaway – Hotel Santa Caterina

The Ultimate Amalfi Coast Getaway – Hotel Santa Caterina

After decades of “some day soon”, I am finally wending my way along Amalfi Drive, the succession of hairpin turns originally carved by the Romans from the side of cliffs rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now officially known as Starda Statale 163 (National Highway 163), it remains by any name one of the most spectacular coastal roads in Europe.

Amalfi-Hotel Santa Caterina.

The grand Art Nouveau mansion is an iconic landmark of the Amalfi coast.

Each turn reveals more eye-popping scenery. Isolated farmhouses and watchtowers harking back a millennium grip the vertical rock face above, and whitewashed villages rise in precarious stacks from the azure waters below. Then, on a rare stretch of straight road at the outer edge of Amalfi, the sumptuous Stile Liberty (Art Nouveau) Hotel Santa Caterina outlines the edge of the cliff.



A Mansion Dreams Are Made Of

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Vetri.

Throughout the light-filled hotel, pale Vetri Majolica tile floors are sprinkled with hand-painted flowers.

Deservedly recognized for over a century as one of the crown jewels of Italy’s legendary Amalfi Coast, the Santa Caterina has the timeless grace of a stately Mediterranean villa. It is a dream-like domaine of light-filled open spaces, high vaulted ceilings, and arched floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto flower-filled patios. Its intoxicating sea view melts into the faint outline of the far side of the Gulf of Salerno. Terraced citrus groves and lush gardens cascade down a 60-meter (200-foot) drop to the water’s edge with its private beach and saltwater swimming pool.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Suite 87

My suite is draped in fuchsia Pierre Frey silk taffeta.

In all the common areas as well as my own suite, pale Vetri Majolica tile floors are sprinkled with hand-painted flowers. White walls and ceilings provide an understated background to better showcase the antique furniture and artworks interspersed throughout. My suite, Number 87, is a 45 square meter (455 square foot) cocoon of luxury with a full-height glass wall that opens onto a verdant terrace. Miles of rich fuchsia Pierre Frey silk taffeta drape the sleeping area and the glass outer wall.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina bath

My bathroom is a lavish personal spa.

Behind a door covered with a mural of a whimsical flower garden in the French post-impressionism Nabis style, the walk-in dressing room is fitted with two walls of floor-to-ceiling storage closets. Then there is the glorious bathroom! With its vaulted frosted glass ceiling, Majolica seascape fresco above the oversized circular Jacuzzi bathtub, huge walk-in shower and lavish toiletries, it had the allure of a private spa.


A Superb Amalfitana Dining Experience

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Restaurant.

The rare dark blue-veined Brasilian marble floor sets the tone for the formal dining room of the Santa Caterina.

The Santa Caterina Restaurant is an exquisite antidote to the standard tourist fare dished out in abundance all along the coast. Not only does its scenic dining room offer a sumptuous view of the historic city of Amalfi and the Gulf of Salerno, but it is also arguably the best restaurant in town. Whether for lunch or dinner, Chef Domenico Cuomo and his team showcase the excellent traditional cuisine of the area, prepared to order from the best seasonal ingredients and the latest catch of local fishermen, as well as irresistible home made pasta dishes. And the service is impeccable: attentive, friendly and precisely choreographed to ensure a superb dining experience.

Rooted in Family Tradition

Beyond its breathtaking surroundings, exquisite décor and outstanding cuisine, the inimitable charm of the Santa Caterina comes from its people, management and staff alike, for whom the property has always been, quite literally, a family affair.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Al Mare.

The Al Mare open-air beachsdie restaurant overlooks the pool.

When Crescenzo Gambardella built his original villa in 1904, he included six guest rooms, and the Santa Catarina was born. Fast forward through the twentieth century, during which the Gambardella family continuously expands and enhances the property into the glamorous luxury resort with its 66 guest rooms and suites that we enjoy today. Along the way, Crescenzo’s daughters, Giuseppina (Giusi) and Carmella (Ninni) assume the direction. Then their children, and more recently grandchildren, step in to continue the family tradition. And so does the staff. Many have been at the Santa Caterina for decades, in some cases for two or more generations, an extended part of the Gambardella family, upholding the tradition of flawless service for which the hotel is famous. Enter the lobby and you immediately become a valued friend. Your preferences are noted, your wishes anticipated.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Sunset.

The Gulf of Salerno is ablaze with autumn sunset.

Small wonder that over one-third of the guests are return visitors. They come back year after year, and generation after generation. “People who honeymooned here return with their children, and their grandchildren,” Giusi confides. I try to bring the conversation to VIP and celebrity guests. It is after all public knowledge that it was at the Santa Caterina that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their turbulent relationship in the early 1960’s during the filming of Cleopatra, and that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rumored to have begun their romance there. And I suspect that yesterday, I espied a musician of international renown in the foyer. But Giusi demurs: “all our guests are VIPs to us, and we strictly respect everyone’s privacy equally.”

Prosecco welcomes us on our private the terrace.

Taking in the late afternoon bustle in the lounge, with every member of the staff attentive and friendly but never overly familiar, I understand the unique strength of the Santa Caterina: it is the personal commitment of its devoted management and staff to their grand tradition of superb hospitably; and the blazing autumn sun dipping into the Tyrrhenian Sea.


Good to Know

  • Getting in touchHotel Santa Caterina, S. Amalfitana 9, 84011 Amalfi (SA), Italy. Contact: e-mail . Tel. +39 (0) 89 871 012.
  • Getting There – The nearest international airports are Rome-Fiumicino and Naples. Both cities have train connections to Sorento. From there, public bus transport (SITA company) is the most efficient (an inexpensive) way to get to Amalfi. My driver even stopped on request in front to the Santa Caterina.
  • Getting around – In addition to the stairs, there are elevators linking all the levels of the property, including a glass-fronted one reaching down to the beach, so you don’t miss a single opportunity to enjoy the jaw-dropping view. The Santa Caterina is just one kilometer (just over half a mile) from the center of Amalfi and its harbor with ferry links to Capri, Positano and Sorento (from April 1 to October 31). The hotel offers a regular shuttle service to and from the harbor.
  • Getting through – There is excellent mobile phone reception and complimentary high speed WiFi throughout the property. An especially notable feat considering the challenging multi-level rocky topography and thick stone construction of the hotel.
  • Pool and beach – Set in a concrete terrace at the base of the cliff, the 18-meter (60 meter) long seawater pool has depths ranging from 1.10 to 2.20 meters (or 3.6 to 7.2 feet). A few steps down, a lower terrace provides easy access to the sea. Both terraces are lined with teak lounge chairs and white canvas umbrellas. Pool assistants and lifeguards are always on hand with fresh bath towels. From May to October, Al Mare, a covered patio overlooking the pool serves a full luncheon menu, and the poolside Beach Club Bar offers a variety of sandwiches and appetizers as well as smoothies and bar drinks.

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Location, location, location!

Hotel Santa Caterina

The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

Hard to imagine that any corner of Tuscany could ever escape attention of tourists but the Casentino Valley, a rural area a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Florence has managed to remain mainly ignored by visitors. Wedged into the densely forested foothills of the Appenine Mountains, the valley rose to prominence in the Middle Ages when it remained for 500 years the private fiefdom the Guidi Counts. They built a number of great fortresses to guard their domain before they were finally annexed by Florence in 1440. Three of these Castellos, in Poppi, Porciano and Romena still dominate the valley, although the later has been for centuries merely a foreboding ruin chiseled against the misty Castentino sky.


Tuscany - Casentino, Poppy

Main street of medieval village of Poppi.

The ancestral seat of the Guidi Counts, the medieval village of Poppi is considered one of the best-preserved fortified villages in Italy. It is dominated by its majestic castle by Arnolfo di Cambio, which is regarded as the prototype for his latter design of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The entire castle is open to visitors, from the prison cells to the bell tower. The chapel contains well preserved frescoes attributed to Giotto’s star pupil Taddeo Gaddi, and the library holds one of the richest collections of medieval manuscripts and scrolls in the country.


Tuscany - Casentino, Porciano

The hilltop hamlet of Porciano is a quaint rural retreat.

Surrounded by a hamlet of picturesque stone cottages build into the original fortification walls, the privately owned Castello di Porciano has been painstakingly restored starting the 1960’s. Its imposing six story (35 meter/115 foot) high keep has retained its battlement. The tower now includes a small museum. The top three stories are a private residence. The residence as well as some of the cottages are available for short-term rental and offer a unique opportunity to experience rural Tuscany at its relaxing best. The entire village is blessed with commanding views of Casentino Valley.


Tuscany - Casentino, Arezzo Piazza Grande.

Arezzo Piazza Grande and Vasari Loggia.

Tuscany - Casentino. Arezzo Basillica.

Piero della Francesca’s msasterpiece in the San Francesco Basilica.

Another under-visited bit of Tuscany, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Poppi is Arezzo. One of the main settlements of the Etruscan League (circa sixth century B.C.), it flourished well into the middle ages before falling to the Florentine hegemony in 1384. Consequently its historic center is mainly medieval, with its sloping Piazza Grande edged on the north side by the flat Mannerist façade of the Vasari Loggia (yes, by native son Giorgio Vasari of Ponte Vecchio Vasari Corridor fame) and fine view of the elaborate Romanesque apse of Santa Maria della Pieve. Arezzo’s most notable artistic treasure is La Leggenda della Vera Croce (Legend of the True Cross) by Piero della Francesca is in the chancel of the San Francesco Basilica.

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Location, location, location!

Arezzo, Italy.

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

Today I leave behind Florence and its inestimable wealth of Renaissance treasures to take to the back roads of Tuscany. The region abounds with medieval hill towns with their own important cultural heritage. Among them my favorite of Tuscan cities, Siena and her Piazza del Campo, regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. Just south of it lays the picture-perfect Val d’Orcia where vineyards and olive groves climb up sun-baked hills toward ancient fortified villages and country lanes lined with dark arrow-straight cypresses meander across rolling meadows toward apricot-colored farmsteads. This is a land that had me smitten at first sight, long before UNESCO recognized it a World Heritage Site for “its exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance time to reflect the ideals of good governance” and credited it for its profound influence the development of landscape thinking.


Tuscany - Siena Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo is regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe

Tuscany - Siena Duomo.

Pinturicchio frescoes at the Siena Duomo Piccolomini Library

This classic medieval hill town is best known for its unique shell-shaped Piazza del Campo dominated by its Gothic town hall, the imposing fourteenth century Palazzo Publico. Beautifully preserved reminders of its thirteenth century grandeur, when it was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, can be found everywhere along its steep, narrow streets. Perched high on a hill, the Siena Duomo is a superb gothic cathedral with an intricately carved marble façade. The interior walls and the high pillars of the nave are clad in black and white marble stripes that soar to a vaulted ceiling of golden stars against an indigo sky. The adjoining Piccolomini Library is filled with lavishly illuminated choir manuscripts, its walls and ceiling are covered with striking frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the popular Fontebranda neighborhood (named after the most popular fountain in Siena, still in existence), the house of Caterina Benincasa, who became Santa Caterina, the patron saint of Italy, is well worth a visit. Although it had undergone many modifications since her death in 1380, it remains a serene retreat with a lovely Renaissance loggia and brick-lined courtyard.

Bagno Vignoni

Tuscany - Bagno Vignoni sulphurous springs,

Bagno Vignoni’s hot sulfurous springs have been a popular spa since Roman times.

Known since Roman times for its thermal waters, Bagno Vignoni is a tiny medieval hamlet clustered around a large rectangular pool fed from an underground aquifer of volcanic origins. The spa is said to have been attended by many eminent Renaissance personalities, among them Pope Pius II, the afore-mentioned Santa Caterina da Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although modern spas have sprouted in the vicinity to take advantage of the hot sulfurous springs, this charming Val d’Orcia hamlet appears mainly unchanged since then.

San’ Antimo Abbey

Tuscany - San’ Antimo Abbey

San’Antimo is considered one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy.

Another Val d’Orcia jewel, San’ Antimo was built in early the early twelfth century in a remote pastoral setting of ancient cypress and olive trees. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. It certainly is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved ones I have ever seen.




Tuscany - Montalcino, Altesino Vineyard.

Montalcino produces some be the most prestigious red wines in Italy,

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

While Chianti may be synonymous with Tuscan wines in the mind of many and some of the area’s wineries are worth a visit, for me the ultimate Tuscan oenology experience is Montalcino, a delightful hilltop village that traces its winemaking tradition to the fourteenth century. It offers a commending view of the Val d’Orcia and rolling hills streaked to the horizon with the vineyards that produce some of Italy’s most esteemed reds, the Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. I have the good fortune to visit Altesino, a leading local estate, where I am treated to a tour of the entire production cycle from the neat rows of vines, each punctuated with a thriving rose bush for pest control, to the state-of-the-art aging cellars and bottling operation. A memorable tasting of Altesino’s prized vintages conclude the visit. Salut!

Visits of the Altesino Winery are by appointment only.

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Location, location, location!

Siena, Italy

The Oltrarno – where ancient Florence lives on

The Oltrarno – where ancient Florence lives on

No visit to Florence feels complete without at least one foray into the narrow alleys of the Oltrarno. This area, located outside the city’s walls, on the oltr’Arno (literally the other side of the Arno), was from the start a working class neighborhood home to the manual trades, especially the fullers, dyers and tanners that needed water from the river. Other artisans followed, pushed outward by the expansion of the medieval city. Today their artistic legacy lives on in myriad small shops where the last of traditional Florentine craftspeople carry on their trade. They are the picture framers, gilders, engravers, enamelers and restorers of fine antiques. They still bind books, make marbled paper and fine hand-made leather goods.

An embarrassment of bridges

Tuscany - Florence. Oltrarno San Frediano Church.

The Baroque cupola of San Frediano refects in the Arno.

Three of the six bridges of Florence directly link the centro storico to the heart of the Oltrarno. The famed Ponte Vecchio, built at the narrowest point of the river. is now a pedestrian passage jammed with tourists. As was common a millennium ago, it is still lined on both sides with small shops. In keeping with a sixteenth century edict from the then Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I, the entire bridge is dedicated to the jewelry trade, but the gold and silversmiths are long gone. These days it has become a garish strip mall of brightly lit storefronts dripping with gold items manufactured around the world. I avoid it in favor of the next two down river bridges. I occasionally I use the Ponte della Carraia about 500 meters (a third of a mile) downstream, for a close look at the Baroque cupola. of the Frediano church in the river. But most often, I take the Ponte Santa Trinita, located halfway between the two others. From there, I can enjoy the Ponte Vecchio and the ancient architecture of the Oltrarno riverfront at their photogenic best.

Tuscany - Florence. Oltrarno fountain.

Bernardo Buontalenti’s Fontana dello Sprone stands guard in corner of Piazza Frescobaldi.

Besides its spectacular views, the Ponte Santa Trinita has the added attraction of leading me straight to Gelato Santa Trinita, one of my favorite gelateria in the city for its wide choice of decadently rich, freshly made ice creams and its reasonable prices. It is located at the corner Ponte Santa Trinita and Piazza Frescobaldi. Then, just a few steps away, the far left corner of the tiny piazza is guarded by a favorite Oltrarno landmarks, the striking sixteenth century fountain by Bernardo Buontalenti where water spouts from a grotesque marble mask into an elaborately carved inverted cone basin. Commonly known as la Fontana dello Sprone (the fountain at the corner) it sits at the sharp corner where two ancient streets, Borgo San Jacopo and Via dello Sprone intersect. High on the wall above it, the unmistakable oval white marble shield adorned with six balls reminds passers-by that even this working class neighborhood is Medici country.

The ultimate Medici repository

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

The Palazzo Pitti’s Boboli Gardens.

Palazzo Pitti. Follow either of these streets, and a ten-minute walk later this is extravagantly confirmed when they open onto the rambling Palazzo Pitti, originally built in the mid-fifteenth century as the residence of the powerful banker Luca Pitti, friend of Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder, 1389-1464). A century later his descendent Cosimo I de’ Medici purchased the palace from the Pitti family and expended it into the grand 32,000 square meter (eight acre) residence that we know today. His wife Eleonora do Toledo oversaw the addition of the sumptuous amphitheatre-shaped Boboli Gardens at the rear of the palace.

For the next two centuries, the palace was the primary residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. It became an unimaginable treasure trove as the family accumulated a wealth of artworks, jewels, china and furniture. Today is it the largest museum complex in Florence, with a rich collection spanning six centuries and including dedicated silver, porcelain, costume and carriage museums as well as painting and sculptures galleries. The gardens, enlarged in the seventeenth century to their present 45,000 square meter (11 acre) size have become an outdoor sculpture museum that includes roman antiquities as well as Renaissance works. It’s an ideal place for a serene al fresco escape from the crowds of the city on a sunny afternoon.

The Masaccio legacy

Tuscany - Oltrarno's Santa Maria del Carmine cloister.

The Brunelleschi cloister at Santa Maria del Carmine.

Tuscany - Oltrarno Masaccio frescoes.

Early Renaissance Masaccio frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel.

Brancacci Chapel. The grandeur of the Palazzo Pitti and the charms of Boboli Gardens notwithstanding, my favorite Oltrarno destination lays a ten-minute walk north through the narrow alleys of the artisans quarters to the Piazza del Camine. At the edge of this quiet square stands the unassuming, semi-deserted church of Santa Maria del Carmine, part of a Carmelite convent with a graceful cloister designed by Brunelleschi. But mainly is it home to the Brancacci Chapel, built in 1386 for a wealthy local merchant, Pietro Brancacci. In 1425 his descendant Felice Brancacci commissioned frescoes depicting a cycle from the life of Saint Peter (the patron saint of the original owner of the chapel) from Early Renaissance master Masolino and his brilliant pupil Masaccio.

Their work marked a radical break from the medieval tradition of hierarchical representation (where the most important figures stood largest and most prominently placed) to embrace the nascent Renaissance use of perspective and light to create a realistic human dimension. Here the artists depicted biblical scenes that used the setting and likeness of their contemporaries. Theses magnificent frescoes are widely regarded as some of the most important work to come out of the Early Renaissance period. Many Renaissance artists, including the young Michelangelo, are known to have copied Masaccio’s works in the chapel as part of their artistic training.

Lo Sprone. No visit to the Oltrarno is considered complete until I have stopped for a meal at tiny Lo Sprone, predictably located on Via dello Sprone. An open kitchen area and seven wooden tables are shoehorned in this friendly hole-in-the-wall storefront where the two friendly owners alternate in the kitchen and dining area to dish out simple, delicious local fare against a background of Opera arias. The pasta dishes of the day and seasonal salads are prepared on demand as is the only constant on the limited menu, a generous meat and cheese board. Good Tuscan wine is served by the glass. And best of all, the prices too are tiny.

Next I am setting out beyond Florence and explore the back roads of Tuscany. Until then, Ciao!

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Oltrarno, florence, Tuscany

Everyday life amid Renaissance wonders

Everyday life amid Renaissance wonders

To wander around Florence, the historic city nestled in the Tuscan hills along the banks of the Arno River, is to walk back in time to the birthplace of modern western culture. The Renaissance began here, in the maze of narrow streets lined with the palazzos and monasteries of the old town. Their façades look like stark fortresses. They were, after all, intended to keep invaders at bay. But step through their foreboding, metal studded gates and a world of serene gardens, elegant cloisters and inexhaustible treasures await. Or keep following the cobblestone labyrinth and it will invariably open onto a harmonious piazza dominated by a magnificent church.

Beyond the guidebook musts

The guidebook “musts” have been so often photographed and filmed they seem familiar at first glance. Like millions of other visitors from around the world, I paid them their due years ago on my first visit. Then they became the backdrop of everyday life, convenient landmarks as I set out to discover new personal favorites each time I contrive a reason to find my way back to Tuscany.

Thuscany - Florence. The Bargello.

The cloistered courtyard of the Bargello is an ideal spot for a quiet moment right in the center of the city.

Tuscany - Florence. Della Robia Collection.

The Bargello features an extensive collection of Della Robia glazed terracottas.

Bargello. Built in the mid-thirteen century as the residence of the Podestà, the highest magistrate of the Florence City Council, this small medieval fortress is the oldest public building in Florence. Later turned prison and barracks, it became a national museum in 1865. The Bargello features a spectacular display of glazed terracotta works by the brothers Della Robia, along with works by Michelangelo and other prominent Renaissance sculptors. And it is home to the “first David”. Donatello’s one and a half meter (five foot) bronze of David (circa 1440’s), commissioned by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici for the courtyard of his own palace and the first known nude statue created since antiquity. It set the stage for another world-class nude David: Michelangelo’s 17 foot (5.20 meter) white Carrara marble masterpiece. In addition to revisiting these favorites, I always enjoy lingering along the open loggia and under the arches of the cloistered courtyard to spend a quiet al fresco moment right in the center of the city.

Museum of San Marco This twelfth century Dominican monastery adjacent to the San Marco church was restored by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici in 1440, who entrusted the work to his favorite architect Michelozzo. With its elegant cloister and spacious sun-filled library, the building offers a superb example of Renaissance conventual architecture. Of special interest are the perfectly preserved Fra’ Angelico frescoes that decorate the cloister, refectory and the brothers’ cells. Additionally, the library, the first public library in Europe, contains a stunning collection of elaborately illuminated manuscripts, many of them donated by Cosimo himself.

Tuscany - Florence. Cloister of the Scalzo.

Andrea Del Sarto chiaroscuro frescoes at the Cloister of the Scalzo.

Cloister of the Scalzo. Just one block from the Piazza San Marco on the Via Cavour, tucked away beyond an unassuming Renaissance doorway, this exquisite cloister once led to a chapel that was part of a much larger religious complex owned by the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist. The small rectangular space contains twelve frescoes in chiaroscuro (grayscale) representing the life of Saint John the Baptist. Entry is free and opening hours are limited to a few mornings a week. This cloister appears to be one of the best kept secrets in Florence. I drop in whenever possible and it is not unusual to find I have the place to myself.

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Michelozzo’s Courtyard of the Columns in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Tuscany - Florence Chapel of the Magi.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi
A five-minute walk farther down Via Cavour to the corner of Via de’ Gori, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the antithesis of the intimate Scalzo. Designed by Michelozzo in 1444 for the Medici family, it was acquired two centuries later by the Riccardi family who undertook extensive transformations. Mercifully, the grand interior Courtyard of the Columns along with the Cappella di Benozzo Gozzoli (Chapel of the agi) survived with their Renaissance grace untouched. In the courtyard (where the aforementioned Donatello’s David once stood), a broad colonnade runs around the square perimeter of the building, supporting twelve soaring arches surmounted by a festooned frieze. The festoons link twelve medallions featuring the Medici arms alternated with reliefs of mythological subjects. But the jewel of the palace is its exquisite chapel, with its walls entirely frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. The central theme is the adoration of the Magi. The subjects are said to be portraits of the Medici family, with Cosimo’s son Piero, along with Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg riding along the Tuscan countryside as the Three Wise Men.

A foodie’s reward

Tuscany - Florence. Robiglio pastry shop.

Robiglio’s espressos and pastries have been a Florence institution since1928 .

All this roaming around artistic treasures requires sustenance, another commodity in abundance in Florence. Just like generations of Fiorentini before me, I like to start my day with a stop at the classic marble counter of Robiglio for one of their superb espressos. Opened in 1928 in the Via dei Servi, the busy narrow street that links the Piazza della Santissima Annonziata to the rear of the Duomo, this old-fashion pasticceria offers a mind-boggling choice of freshly baked local pastries along with its ambrosial coffees.

After a day of shopping and sightseeing, the two seem to invariably go together in this artistic and fashion-conscious city, I often head for Rivoire on Piazza de la Signoria. Tourists and elegant local ladies alike have been congregating there since 1872 to enjoy a cup of sumptuous hot chocolate, a spectacular view of the Palazzo Vecchio and the jumble of ancient sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi across the piazza.

Tuscany - Florence. Loggia dei Lanzi,

With its sumptuous hot chocolate, Rivoire offers a spectacular view of the Loggia dei Lanzi.

For lunch, high on my list of favorite spots is La Pentola del Oro (Pot of gold) at the corner of Via di Mezzo and Via dei Pepi in the Santa Croce neighborhood. The area that has kept a genuine local feel as few tourists seem to venture too far east of the Piazza Santa Croce. This bustling neighborhood restaurant dishes out excellent traditional Tuscan fare to a lively crowd of mainly local patrons. Some of their recipes are said to hark back to medieval times. My favorite is the Lasagnole (ribbon-shaped noodles) with a walnut, ginger and chestnut honey sauce.

Tuscany - Florence's San'Ambrogio Market.

Trattoria Rocco’s simple home-cooked food is hugely popular with San’Ambrogio Market shoppers.

Not far from there, I never miss a chance to visit the San’Ambrogio Market. Open every day until early afternoon, the large covered market is filled with colorful food stalls. It is surrounded by a tented area where merchants offer everything from clothing to cookware, paper goods and sewing, knitting and jewelry-making necessities. And in the heart of the indoor market, the hugely popular Trattoria Rocco is usually surrounded by a line of hungry shoppers waiting expectantly for seats to free up at one of the communal tables. The simple home-cooked food is delicious, the prices are easy, the portions more than generous and the caramelized baked pears irresistible.

Next we’ll cross the Arno for a visit to the artisans’ neighborhood of the Oltrarno. Until then, Ciao!

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Florence, Italy.