Catherine Sweeney

Mar 182017

Sweeney in the Valley of the Sun

As new residents of the Valley of the Sun with a home in Scottsdale, Arizona we are eager to learn about the great places and activities in our new community and surrounding area. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that there is so much to see and do!

A luxury sanctuary for relaxation and recreation

Recently, we got a glimpse of the beautiful Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in nearby Paradise Valley. Take a look.

On the terrace of elements restaurant for lunch (Camelback Mountain in the background)

On the terrace of elements restaurant for lunch (Camelback Mountain in the background)

Great views, super-friendly staff, delicious and inspired cuisine — we enjoyed it all during a brief visit and lunch at the Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa, situated against the north slope of Camelback Mountain. A tour of the property and lunch at its acclaimed restaurant provided a brief introduction to its accommodations, amenities, cuisine, and ambiance.

Property Highlights

Sanctuary evokes a warm, welcoming, and unpretentious luxury. The resort is updated and upscale but it still retains a sense of the days when the resort was the Paradise Valley Racquet Club which opened in 1957 and then in 1965 became John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, where movie stars and other celebrities hung out and played tennis. The resort opened as the Sanctuary in March 2001.

Bell sculpture by Paolo Soleri at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa entrance

Bell sculpture by Paolo Soleri at resort entrance

There are lovely touches of art throughout the resort that blend with the architecture and landscape, such as the large sculpture of bells by the late artist and architect Paolo Soleri (once an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright) outside of the entrance to the lobby.

Casitas and suites

Sanctuary has a total of 109 casitas and suites. The Spa Casitas and Suites were refreshed in a renovation of decor and furnishings in 2016. The Mountain Casitas and Suites, including eight Camelback Casitas and Suites (perched high on the mountainside with panoramic views) went through a full-scale renovation that was completed in 2015.

Artistic touches and interior of Onyx ("O") Spa Casita at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Artistic touches and interior of Onyx (“O”) Spa Casita

We got a look at one of the 24 Spa Casitas and Suites, aptly named for their proximity to the resort’s spa amenities and identified by gems, rather than numbers. The one we viewed is called Onyx. They are situated along walkways bordered by palms, cacti, and foliage in bloom. This time of year (mid-March), the flora was in “superbloom”, and we breathed in the fragrances as we walked about the property.

Consistent with other resort decor, art pieces are also found in the casitas. The butterfly art we saw in Onyx is a nice reflection of the resort’s status as a certified Butterfly Garden due to its landscaping which is conducive to increasing the butterfly population.

Dining with a view

elements (yes, it’s a small “e”), Sanctuary’s on-site restaurant, presents inspired dishes with a focus on freshness under the direction of Food Network star and Executive Chef Beau MacMillan. We dined al fresco on the terrace of elements enjoying close up views of Camelback Mountain and Mummy Mountain across the valley. When I heard that a pork belly sandwich was the day’s featured entree, I knew immediately that’s what I wanted. The Pork Banh Mi made with tender sliced pork belly, slivers of cucumber, and five spices was served on a Buddha Bun (one of the softest, most flavorful buns I’ve ever had).

Lunch entrees at element restaurant at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa: Citrus shrimp salad, Pork Belly Sandwich, Pumpkin cheesecake

Lunch entrees: Citrus shrimp salad, Pork Banh Mi sandwich, Pumpkin cheesecake

Mr. TWS kept it light and fresh with the Citrus Grilled Shrimp salad with spinach, snap peas, avocado water chestnuts and cabbage and he really enjoyed it. Each entree had distinctly Asian flavors.

Our waiter Bryan was friendly and helpful and talked about how much he loves his job at elements where he started as a dishwasher three years earlier.

Exquisite jade onyx decor in jade bar

Exquisite jade onyx decor in jade bar

Wood slats in the ceiling of jade bar are original from the days of the former Paradise Valley Racquet Club. I was really taken by the bar that is made of authentic jade onyx. The vistas from both elements and the adjacent jade bar are beautiful during the day, but they must be spectacular at night with the lights of Paradise Valley’s hillside homes and resorts (shown in a photo below). A good place to catch the stunning sunsets would be at jade bar or outside on the terrace. During the cooler seasons, casual ceremonies toasting the sunsets with champagne are held on the terrace.

Spa and recreation

The resort’s spa includes indoor and outdoor treatment rooms offering Asian-inspired spa therapies, a meditation garden, vitality and tranquility pools, fitness center, and a variety of classes. We spoke for a few minutes with Spa Director LaRae Verros and enjoyed her engaging personality, a trait that seems consistent other staff we met.

Infinity-edge pool (the largest in Phoenix/Scottsdale) of Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Infinity-edge pool with vistas of Mummy Mountain and mountainside homes of Paradise Valley

There are three pools on the property including a lap pool and the infinity-edge pool (the largest in Phoenix/Scottsdale) which is designated as adults-only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and is one of the cell phone-free areas of the resort. It’s a place for health, wellness, and relaxation, after all.

Photographs of celebrity guests; tennis pro Horst Falger at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa

Photographs of celebrity guests; tennis pro Horst Falger

Five of the 21 original John Gardiner courts remain. We had a nice chat with the charming and amusing Horst Falger, the resort’s Austrian-born tennis pro. He has been a key figure at the resort for over 30 years. The pro shop walls are covered with many photos of celebrity guests who played on the courts of the John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, including Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Eva Gabor, Merv Griffin, John Forsythe, and General Alexander Haig. There is also a display of drawings from the original 1955 membership brochure of the Paradise Valley Racquet Club (below).

Drawings from the 1955 membership brochure for the Paradise Valley Racquet Club in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Drawings from the 1955 membership brochure for the Paradise Valley Racquet Club

Mr. TWS and I appreciated the hospitality of Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa staff during our tour and delicious lunch. Sanctuary’s accommodations and facilities seem to make it a lovely destination resort for leisure, business, and special occasions. It’s also appealing for locals to enjoy the spa, restaurant, and bar. I’m sure that we’ll be making return visits.


Mar 072017

Spring is a great time to visit Venice, a magical city

I have to admit to a bit of jealousy as I’ve recently seen photos and read posts of friends who were visiting or living in Venice during Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice) during February 2017. Now that Carnevale has come to a close for the year, I’ve been reflecting upon the few days that Mr. TWS and I had to spend in this magical and romantic city last spring.

Although our stay last April was short, I felt that we experienced a lot of what makes Venice so special – enough to know that we’ll make it a point to come back sometime — sooner rather than later, I hope.

Sunset in Venice --- view of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge

Sunset in Venice — view of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge

On a spring trip to Venice you might experience some rain (as we did upon arrival and for a bit the next day), but it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of the city and all it has to offer. So just remember to pack a light rain jacket.

Of course, you’ve probably heard that Venice can be very crowded with tourists in any season, but a visit in the spring will beat the summer throngs. We scheduled our time in Venice to work with a previously set itinerary for visiting other destinations in the Veneto region. That meant that we were visiting during one of the busiest times of the year — the weekend of Liberation Day, a national holiday bringing people from all over Italy to Venice to mark the occasion. But we found that although major sites such as the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco were crowded, there were better times to visit those sites (in the morning or late evening), and by veering off the main tourist areas there were many interesting and less-crowded places to stroll and enjoy.

Our favorite things

Arriving by boat

On our cruise to Venice from Portegrandi on the Silis, a tour boat operated by Navigazione Stefanato, we cruised the lagoon admiring the colorful buildings on the island of Burano and stopped on Murano Island to see a glass blowing demonstration at the famous Murano Glass Factory.

Murano Island in the Venetian Lagoon, Italy

Murano Island in the Venetian Lagoon

As we left Murano to head toward Venice, the sky became grayer and the rain picked up which added to the excitement and feeling of intrigue during our slow approach. The conditions also gave a surreal look to the city. I think that the photos we took (shown below) have a look much like Medieval frescoes or scenes in old-fashioned painted postcards.

Approaching Venice in the rain --- springtime in Venice

Approaching Venice in the rain

St. Mark's bell tower and the Doge's Palace seen from the boat as we approached Venice

St. Mark’s bell tower and the Doge’s Palace seen from the boat as we approached

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute seen upon approach to Venice by boat

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute seen upon approach to Venice by boat

Once in Venice, the main way of getting around on the waterways is by vaporetto (water buses) and water taxi (for getting to/from Marco Polo airport). Gondolas are seen everywhere but are mainly for sightseeing and having a quintessential Venice experience, not so much for getting from place to place.

Enjoying sights and sounds of Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe, is awe-inspiring. It seemed to always be bustling with people the numerous times we crossed the square during the visit. Its famous attractions are St. Mark’s Basilica, the adjacent clock tower and the Doge’s Palace, but there are also many shops, restaurants, and cafes. The piazza was beautiful on an overcast day, in the bright sunlight, and especially at night with the lights on all of the buildings.

Venetian flags flying in St. Mark's Square on Liberation Day

Venetian flags flying in St. Mark’s Square on Liberation Day

We felt fortunate to be there on April 25th, Liberation Day, which celebrates the end of Nazi occupation in World War II and also the end of the Italian Civil War. It was exhilarating to watch the planned festivities as well groups and individuals waving red Venetian flags promoting Venetian independence from Italy.

Touring St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica is named for the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. It is one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks beneath its iconic bell tower and adjacent to the Doge’s Palace. We took a Walks of Italy VIP night tour of the basilica tour to beat the crowds and we got so much interesting and entertaining background. April 25th is the Feast of St. Mark so there were special flower arrangements on the altar and the panels in the railing were removed so that worshippers on Saint Mark’s Day could fully see the altar where Saint Mark’s remains are said to reside.

Eating like a Venetian

From top left: Fresh seafood market, Prosecco, cicchetti, squid ink pasta

Enjoyment of food and wine accompanied with conversation is part of Venetian culture. We found a wonderful way to be introduced to eating like a Venetian and get tastes of cicchetti (small bites, snacks) and wines of the Veneto region on the Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour, The walking tour allowed us to experience two bacari (cicchetti and wine bars); squid ink pasta for lunch; and the local fish, meat, and produce markets. In late April, we were there in time to enjoy the amazing white asparagus of the Veneto region.

Many of the city’s senior residents slowly make a daily routine of making their their way from one bacaro to the next for food, wine, and meeting friends.

Walking around and getting lost

It’s very easy to get lost in Venice’s maze of narrow alleys, bridges, and squares and those times were some of the highlight of our time there. Just steps away from the main attractions, you can escape the crowds to feel that you’re alone.

Quiet canal scene off the tourist track in Venice

The pretty and serene places you can find strolling through Venice

While taking in the intriguing canals, bridges, gondolas and gondoliers, we came across captivating views.

Classic Venetian scene -- a gondola on the Grand Canal

Classic Venetian scene — a gondola on the Grand Canal

Birds along the Grand Canal in Venice

I appreciate that these birds posed for me in this pretty setting

One of my favorite scenes was the one below of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal at sunset (also the location of the photo at the top of the post).

View from the Accademia Bridge, Venice

View from the Accademia Bridge

Listening to the music

I highly recommend attending a concert to further enhance the visit and immerse yourself in the music that beautifully reflects the history and romance of the city. Interpreti Veneziani holds string concerts in several venues in Venice.

Interpreti Veneziani concert at Chiesa San Vidal in Venice

Interpreti Veneziani concert at Chiesa San Vidal

We attended an extraordinary concerto at the beautiful Church of San Vidal featuring the works of Antonio Vivaldi who was born in Venice in 1678. The musicians and acoustics were excellent.

On my Venice wish list:

Carnevale di Venezia!

Gorgeous carnevale mask seen in a specialty shop in Venice, Italy

Gorgeous carnival mask seen in a specialty shop

Perhaps we’ll get back to Venice for Carnevale sometime. I would love to wear this mask that we saw in a specialty costume shop. Wouldn’t you?

Feb 132017

Scenes of Scottsdale on Instagram

Mr. TWS and I are finally settled in at our new home and loving it here in Scottsdale.

We’ve been enjoying the sights, activities, and places of our new hometown and have much more exploration to do. It’s easy for us to see why Scottsdale is a desirable destination for travelers as well as being a great place to live. In our first Sweeneys in Scottsdale post in December, I shared a few photos from our Instagram gallery to introduce you to our new little corner of the world. Here is a follow up with a further glimpse of Scottsdale from our Instagram galleries where I post as @travelingwithsweeney and @scottsdaleblogger. If you’re on Instagram, give us a follow!

Our new neighborhood views

Oh, how I love the desert and the dramatic skies above it. This is a scene from a walk through our McDowell Mountain ranch neighborhood looking towards Camelback Mountain.

We were quite spoiled with bay and city views from our home in California, so we were focused on finding a great view in Scottsdale, too. We found it!

Desert flora and faux fauna

There are quite a few of these wildlife sculptures on the desert landscape throughout the McDowell Mountain Ranch community. Pretty cool, don’t you think?

When we took our nephew on a short trip to San Diego last year, he was in awe of the cacti at Old Town San Diego. Just wait until he visits us here in Scottsdale.

Holiday spirit

There was plenty of holiday spirit in Scottsdale at Christmas. Families had a blast taking in the lights and festivities at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park.

Native American Culture

The annual Native Trails festival celebrates Native American culture through dance, song, and storytelling. This year’s festival theme is “unity”. The free performances are held at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.

So many trails… so little time

We are looking forward to exploring all of the great hiking and biking trails in and around Scottsdale — there are many! This is Mr. TWS getting some exercise and sunshine on the Sunrise Trail.

One of my favorite outdoor activities is bike riding and there are so many awesome trails in and around Scottsdale for cyclists of all levels. This photo comes from the Indian Bend Wash Path.

Happy hour

There isn’t a shortage of great places for happy hour and dining in the Scottsdale area. At AZ88, friendly bartender Shaun smiles beneath the bar’s current installation of a beating heart — always cool art and great drinks at this bar/restaurant at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.

It doesn’t just look mouth-watering, it’s totally delicious. This is (currently) my favorite main dish at The Herb Box restaurant on Market Street at DC Ranch in Scottsdale — short rib enchiladas.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of Scottsdale from our Instagram galleries. Stay tuned on the blog and in social media for more from Scottsdale and beyond.

Feb 062017

Cultural Traditions at the 15th Anniversary Native Trails Festival

I remember butterflies. A snake coiled up in the desert. Birds surround you.

— Derrick Suwaima Davis

The simple words of Derrick Suwaima Davis of the Hopi and Choctaw Nations describe inspirations from his youth that were his calling to dance. Today, he is the artistic director of the annual Native Trails festival in Scottsdale, and he is also the only adult seven-time World Champion Hoop Dancer. Each year, he and the other festival performers bring their talents and cultural expressions to the festival, sharing their passion and pride in their movements and voices with people of all cultures. This year’s festival focuses on the concept of unity among people of diverse cultures — dispelling stereotypes, finding commonalities, and encouraging cooperation.

Native Trails Festival -- Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Native Trails Festival — Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Last week, at performance under clear blue skies at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, I eagerly took in the Native American cultural traditions and was impressed with its deep meaning and symbolism. Expressing these traditions through song, dance, and storytelling, Native Trails is now in its 15th year. It is sponsored by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

With Derrick Suwaima Davis, artistic director of Native Trails, at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall

With Derrick Suwaima Davis, artistic director of Native Trails

The early part of a new year is a perfect time for the festival as it is in keeping with the Hopi tradition of putting away musical instruments in December as the animals are asleep. After the new year in January, the instruments are sounded again.

Expressions of cultural unity in song and dance at Native Trails in Scottsdale, Arizona

Expressions of cultural unity in song and dance at Native Trails

For one hour, we enjoyed vibrant dances that are a combination of specific symbolic movements and inspired improvisation. Each act was introduced with enlightening and entertaining explanations. Many audience members listened and watched from their lawn chairs and picnic blankets. Others stood at the back or just stopped for a few numbers as they strolled the mall. It was clear that they really enjoyed and were immersed in the music and dance. The many young children attending happily moved with the rhythms and enthusiastically applauded with the adults as each song finished.

Eldred Matt of the San Carlos Apache Nation performing at Native Trails Festival in Scottsdale -- Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Eldred Matt of San Carlos Apache Nation — Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

A few of the very popular dances we watched were the “Eagle Dance”, “Men’s Lance and Shield Dance”, “Fancy Dance”, “Women’s Jingle Dress”, and “Fancy Shawl”. A lovely song called “Bluebird” was a highlight for me as well. I also thoroughly enjoyed both the colorful clothing, in many cases specially made for this festival, and learning about the significant amount of symbolism in the dances.

The finale was a great way to end the show and emphasize the theme of unity. The interactive “Round Dance” enabled all of us to join in. As the musicians formed in the center on the lawn, we (the audience) held hands and moved in a circle around them.

Native Trails Festival Round Dance -- Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Round Dance — Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

After the performances, audience members are invited to mingle and talk with cast members whose passion for their traditions and pride in their culture is evident in their eagerness to spend time with the audience sharing their knowledge and stories.

Native Trails dancers talking to audience after the performances -- -- Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Dancers talking to audience after the performances — Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you go, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to the cast. I loved listening to Derrick’s thoughts about the importance of music to the people of Native American nations. He described music being all around and part of their lives starting from the time they are in the womb. The music they make with their instruments establishes and maintains a balance with nature while asking the questions of creation and life that have been asked for thousands of years.

And there are lessons for all, such as the importance of respecting nature and other people and cultures. The young learn from the old and the old can learn from the young. We can all benefit by taking to heart messages instilled in the tribes and represented in the Native Trails festival.

Although we may come from different cultural backgrounds, as part of the same human family, we hold many common values. There is more that unifies us than divides us.

— Derrick Suwaima Davis


Scottsdale Civic Center Park
3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251


This season’s festival began on January 12, 2017 and runs through March 30, 2017 with performances on Thursdays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. — rain or shine! The performances are moved inside in case of inclement weather.

Special Performances: 

There will be two special Native Trails events incorporating different cultures on February 16th and 18th that will include African and Japanese drumming.



For more information:

Scottsdale Native Trails

Dec 252016

Merry Christmas 2016 from the TWS duo

By Mr. TWS

Sweeney and Mr. TWS in front of the Christmas tree at Bryant Park -- New York City at Christmas

Sweeney and Mr. TWS in front of the Christmas tree at Bryant Park

Sweeney and I kicked off our Christmas season a little differently this year because our relocation to Scottsdale, Arizona from the San Francisco Bay Area was still in progress. Instead of getting our Christmas tree and decorating just after Thanksgiving before heading off to Europe for a holiday trip in early December, it seemed getting to New York City for a few days was the perfect plan. We had commented several times recently that it had been too long since we had been to New York and the visit relieved our itch for seeing the city again but also got us in the Christmas spirit. So this brief sharing of our few days there is also our Merry Christmas greeting to you all.

New York City at Christmas

Red and green of the Empire State Building and Macy's on 34th Street epitomize Christmas in New York City

Empire State Building towering above Macy’s on 34th Street

For me, the Empire State Building epitomizes New York at Christmastime, particularly with its red and green lights (though the colors schemes varied while we were there). The iconic New York site was in view just outside our Murray Hill hotel. On 34th street between 3rd Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the hotel was a great central location for experiencing Christmastime in New York City.

We arrived at the hotel just after dark and after checking in walked a few blocks to another icon of New York City at Christmas — Macy’s. If its Christmas window displays, eagerly-anticipated by most New Yorkers and visitors, aren’t enough to warrant that distinction, its particular prominence as a setting in Miracle on 34th Street, one of the all-time Christmas movie favorites surely does. The displays, a few pictured below, were impressive but not quite as Christmas-y as ones we’d seen before. It was a good start to our visit as was the walk in the brisk air, which seemed especially cold to us as temperatures in Arizona had been in the 80s and 90s (F) during October and much of November.

Beautiful window displays of Macy's

Beautiful window displays of Macy’s

The next morning, we began the day with brunch at Penelope on Lexington Avenue, a popular nearby restaurant with delicious breakfast comfort food. It was well worth the wait of just under an hour.

From there we headed to nearby Madison Square Park to see a real life-sized gingerbread house (this time we didn’t wait in the line — about a block and a half long — to see what was inside.) While there, we also enjoyed the other festive decorations and appreciated the sheer beauty of the park and surrounding skyscrapers.

Gingerbread House in Madison Square Park -- New York City at Christmas

Gingerbread House in Madison Square Park

It was across the street from the park near the landmark Flatiron Building that we got our first glimpse of revelers dressed in Santa gear gathering for SantaCon, the annual pub crawl with frivolity and imbibing continuing from morning to late night. At about noon, we were amazed to see the line for 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar on 5th Avenue. The line stretched at least a block and a half (we couldn’t see around the next corner to see how long but guessed another block) with Santas.

Ho Ho Ho! It's SantaCon! -- Revelers line up to get into 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar in New York City at Christmas

Ho Ho Ho! It’s SantaCon! Revelers line up to get into the 230 Fifth rooftop bar

Throughout the day we encountered clusters of the party-seeking Santas as we walked around the city. We learned that many locals aren’t particularly fond of SantaCon, but we didn’t personally witness any of the predictable downsides of a day-long drinking event.

Winter fun at the Bryant Park ice rink and Christmas market -- Christmas in New York City

Winter fun at the Bryant Park ice rink and Christmas market

Heading north to Bryant Park, one of our favorite places in New York, we enjoyed the walk, Christmas scenes along the way, and energy of city. Bryant Park has a great skating rink and a Christmas market in a wonderful setting next to the New York Public Library surrounded by fabulous architecture.

A walk through Central Park with blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins, New York City 2016

A walk through Central Park with blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins

On our second morning, we headed back to one of our old haunts for breakfast (it was one of our favorite breakfast spots just blocks from where we had an extended stay in Midtown East several years ago. After a hearty breakfast that was just like those we remembered, we met two blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins with whom we enjoyed a nice walk in Central Park. Our friends pointed out spots we’d never noticed before in the park, like the plaques in the sidewalk that commemorate donors who adopted trees in Central Park. In particular, we came across one that was dedicated to Natasha Richardson, the late actress who we’ve always admired.

Wine, cheese, and lively conversation at a cozy Upper West Side cafe topped off a great New York City afternoon.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree -- New York City at Christmas

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

From there we headed to another iconic NYC area, one especially associated with Christmas — Rockefeller Center with its enormous Christmas tree and inviting skating rink. The lights of Radio City Music Hall were dazzling as well.

Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, New York City at Christmas

Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall

Also along Fifth Avenue, many extravagantly decorated hotels and department stores drew huge crowds. The light show on the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue accompanied by Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells was mesmerizing. Don’t miss the performance and displays at Saks Fifth Avenue at Christmastime.

Christmas light show at Saks Fifth Avenue -- Christmas in New York City

Christmas light show at Saks Fifth Avenue

Wending our way back to our hotel at the end of a full day, we appreciated the beauty of the gorgeous red Christmas ball decorations at the pool on Sixth Avenue and the giant Christmas lights decoration a block south.

Giant red ornaments adorn a fountain on Sixth Avenue -- New York City at Christmastime

Giant red ornaments adorn a fountain on Sixth Avenue

It all added to the magic of the day and the trip.

Giant Christmas lights decoration on Sixth Avenue -- New York City at Christmas

Giant Christmas lights decoration on Sixth Avenue

We enjoyed many other New York sights, but I hope these few highlights of kicking off the holidays in New York capture a bit of our enjoyment.

Merry Christmas to you all and our best wishes for a year filled with peace, health, happiness, laughter, and travel!



Dec 092016

A preface to the next chapter of our lives

Mr. TWS and I have been pretty quiet on the blog recently, but our personal lives have been bustling with activity and new adventures. For the past few months, we’ve been immersed in preparing for and beginning a new chapter in our lives by relocating to Scottsdale, Arizona from the San Francisco Bay Area.

I hope to get a chance to tell you more about some of our experiences along the way, both serendipitous and planned. Warm and wonderful visits with friends and families complemented exciting excursions into new territories.

Change can be a wonderful thing

Scottsdale sunset, brunch al fresco, hiking and biking

Scottsdale sunset, brunch al fresco, hiking and biking

And now, we call Scottsdale home. Although we’re not yet in our new house, while renting a condo at McCormick Ranch we’ve been enjoying the desert climate, fantastic restaurants, extensive shopping, amazing views, numerous events, and close proximity to family members. We’ve been impressed by the friendly people, locals and the seasonal “snowbirds”, that we’ve happened to meet. We’ve been surprised by fireworks at the nearby country club as we sat on our patio enjoying the night breezes. And every day, we’ve looked forward to what the future holds for us in our new hometown. So stay tuned. We’ve got more tell about our transitional journey as well as journeys yet to come. In the meantime, here are a few snapshots from our Instagram gallery to set the scene of relocating to Scottsdale.

Peaks and palms

The beginning of a new day in Scottsdale, #Arizona. Camelback Mountain is looking gorgeous this morning.

A photo posted by Catherine Sweeney (@travelingwithsweeney) on


Tee time! Peaceful reflections — Scottsdale #Arizona golf course scene captured on an afternoon bike ride.

A photo posted by Catherine Sweeney (@travelingwithsweeney) on

On the waterfront

Butterflies are free

Nov 082016

Highlights of Palazzo Te in Mantua

A palace built for love

In a city full of prestigious art and architecture, deep culture, and Renaissance majesty, Palazzo Te embodies all of that plus surprising elements of daring sensuality and secret love that spark the imagination.

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

I can’t imagine a more erotic historic palace than Palazzo Te in Mantua, the 2016 (and first ever) Italian Capital of Culture. In 1525 Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, commissioned Giulio Romano, a student of Raphael and also an architect, to create his special palace to indulge his romantic inclinations. Romano let his imagination and creative spirits go wild as he experimented with artistic and design techniques depicting a diversity of subjects such as mythology, astrology, love, war, horses, and fairy tales. At Palazzo Te Federico entertained his lover Isabella Boschetti and entertained noble visitors such as Charles I. Many paintings of Romano and his apprentices throughout the palace reflect the duke’s burning love for his mistress.

With the wide range of subjects and given the mischievous imaginations of Federico and Giulio Romano, the best way to appreciate the beauty and significance of Palazzo Te is on a guided tour. Mr. TWS and I were fortunate to have a private tour of the nearly 20 major rooms and spaces of Palazzo Te with Mantua guide Giuliana Varini. Giuliana’s rich detail of the rule of the Gonzaga family and many stories behind the amazing frescoes, architecture, and designs added a deep dimension to the experience and our enjoyment of this must-do activity.

We’ll give you just a sample of what’s inside Palazzo Te and highly recommend that you put a visit to the palace on your itinerary when visiting Mantua.

Chamber of the Giants

It’s not all about love and romance at Palazzo Te.

Though we visited this room last, I start with it because it was one of my favorite of Romano’s masterpieces and one for which the palace is best known. As we entered the empty Chamber of the Giants I had an immediate emotional reaction. With a domed ceiling and rounded corners and with some of the large grotesque figures and scenes of destruction, I felt engulfed in the dramatic story painted above and around me. Adding to the intense effect, the shape of the room echoes every sound we made no matter where we stood.

Chamber of the Giants at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Giants

The somewhat disturbing paintings encompassing the ceiling and walls of the chamber portray the Fall of the Giants from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Charles Dickens, who traveled extensively in Italy, in his Pictures from Italy described “the unaccountable nightmares with which its interior has been decorated” and the giants “so inconceivably ugly and grotesque that it is marvelous how any man can have imagined such creatures.” The scene in the center of the room’s domed ceiling (pictured above) features Jupiter as he punishes the giants who planned to overthrow the gods. The size of the giants, the reality of the depiction, and the unique aspects of the room and art punctuated an already fascinating tour.

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

The room that best presents the sensuality of the palace and the intent of the duke and Romano, this chamber in its art depicts the myth of Cupid and Psyche and their forbidden love (which may have been chosen because of the forbidden love of Federico and Isabella). The ceiling is particularly noteworthy divided into mostly octagonal frames encompassing scenes from the story, one of which is in the leading photo of this post (above). With its overtly erotic scenes and being the most ornate room of Palazzo Te, it was used to host the most prominent guests.

The wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche depicted in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

The wedding feast portrayed in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

Chamber of the Devices

Devices is an interesting term that makes one expect a display of mechanical gadgets but “devices” here refers to the heraldic emblems of the Gonzaga family presented in the chamber. Each is a symbolic emblem consisting of an image and a motto that together reflect key traits such as virtues, moral principles, and important personal events in figurative and idealistic ways.

Chamber of the Devices at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Devices

Chamber of the Winds

At the heart of the Chamber of the Winds is astrology and the influence of the stars on destiny. The name comes from the masks on the wall representing the faces of the winds but mainly the room has an astrology theme particularly with the signs of the zodiac represented on the walls.

Chamber of the Winds at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Winds

Chamber of the Stuccoes

In this chamber, the walls and ceiling are decorated with ornate stucco reliefs. The scenes at the top of the walls depict a procession of about five hundred Roman soldiers emerging through an arch and marching. The detail of soldiers, women, children, horses, supply wagons, musicians and the emperor is amazing.

Chamber of the Stuccoes at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Stuccoes

Chamber of the Sun and the Moon

This room is named for the fresco (pictured below) in the center of the chamber’s vaulted ceiling. The fresco depicts the chariot of the sun at sunset and the chariot of the moon as the moon rises, a scene representing the passing of time. With the rather graphic depiction of the charioteer for the sun, Mr. TWS said he wasn’t sure if that wasn’t part of the source of the room’s name.

Looking up in the Chamber of the Sun and the Moon at Palazzo Te

Looking up in the Chamber of the Sun and the Moon

Loggia of the Muses

The Loggia of the Muses, a hallway dedicated to the goddesses of art and science, was the entrance for the duke’s guests coming into the state rooms.

Loggia of the Muses at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Loggia of the Muses

Hall of the Horses

One of the first rooms we visited, the Hall of Horses, introduced us to the many tricks on the eye prevalent throughout the Palazzo, such as the 3D effect that made the actual-size horses look almost real. The room’s main function was to receive guests and host special ceremonies. The Gonzaga family bred horses and considered them the finest gift that could be given to a friend or guest.

Hall of the Horses at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Hall of the Horses

The Apartment of the Secret Garden

Our tour ended outside the main palace at the adjacent Apartment of the Secret Garden.

The loggia of the Apartment of the Secret Garden of Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

The loggia of the Apartment of the Secret Garden

The apartment, overlooking a secret garden from which it takes its name, was created by Federico as an intimate and secluded place. It is said that he used the room for solitude and even sometimes to escape his lover.

Stunning ceiling of the grotto at Palazzo Te

Stunning ceiling of the Apartment of the Secret Garden

I hope this has given you a good introduction to Palazzo Te, but there’s much more to see and experience at the palace and in the city of Mantua when you visit.

Catherine Sweeney (Traveling with Sweeney) with Giuliana Varina and Luisa Castiglioni at Palazzo Te in Mantua

With Giuliana Varini and Luisa Castiglioni at Palazzo Te in Mantua

Thanks to our guide Giuliana Varini (left) and our Mantua host Luisa Castiglioni (right) for our tour of Palazzo Te.

Oct 042016

Tredozio: Returning to a dream destination

Since our first visit to Tredozio, Italy in June of 2013, I’ve dreamed of a return to this serene village of Emilia-Romagna in the Apennine mountains.

A dreamy Tredozio seen from Villa La Colllina

A dreamy Tredozio seen from Villa La Collina

During our April trip to Italy, my dream was fulfilled. We once again enjoyed the hospitality of our host at Torre Fantini (you may remember reading about our stay here in 2013) and were royally welcomed at another lovely estate in the EsteVillas portfolio of holiday rentals, Villa La Collina.

Luxury on a hilltop

The main house of Villa La Collina

The main house of Villa La Collina

Near the border of Tuscany on a wooded hilltop, a tree-lined lane in the hills above Tredozio leads to the courtyard and grand entrance of Villa La Collina’s main house and adjacent chapel. For a few moments, I paused to admire the elegant facade and imagine the carriages of past centuries arriving in this very spot with their noble guests and residents.

A warm welcome to Villa La Collina in the hills of Tredozio, Italy

A warm welcome to Villa La Collina by Countess Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli

Our initial greeting was from the beautiful dogs of villa owner Countess Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli, who quickly followed with a warm welcome. Where the countess is — her devoted dogs will be nearby.

The villa has been in the countess’s family for over 400 years. Once exclusively their private home, it is now available for holiday guests to enjoy. It has been carefully maintained, but its luxurious and inviting appearance also resulted from a massive restoration project by the countess and her husband completed eight years ago. The renovation was overseen by Faenza architect Paolo Baccherini with advice by the countess’s sister Bettina, an architect who has specialized in restored historic buildings in Florence, and with the labors of local craftsmen.

Art, books, and fine decor in the entrance of Villa Collina

Art, books, and fine decor in the entrance of Villa Collina

The spacious interior has a number of living areas and 12 individually-decorated bedrooms and suites ideal for a variety of events, including family vacations and/or reunions; weddings (and the chapel, where the family wedding ceremonies have been held, can be used for the ceremonies); filming and photo shoots; business meetings; cooking classes and other events for immersing in Italian culture. The villa can be used for extravagant entertaining or intimate dining.

The countess and her charming friends who were visiting at the time were delightful company as they graciously took time to show us the intriguing villa and surrounding grounds. I really liked the layout of the villa’s rooms on three levels, anticipating surprises around every corner and through each doorway. I wasn’t disappointed as the tour led to formal living and entertaining areas to cozy sitting rooms.

The artistic essence of Villa Collina -- paintings, sculptures, art book published by the countess (top right)

The artistic essence of Villa Collina — paintings, sculptures, art book published by the countess (top right)

When we found out that we were to have lunch with a countess we weren’t sure what to expect since it would be a first for us. The countess shared stories of her notable ancestors and of her own interesting background and career in the publishing world of New York and Italy which made our tour even more fascinating.

Amazing art is central to the decor of Villa La Collina, and each piece has a personal and insightful story. Framed family portraits adorn antique furnishings and the walls bear beautiful drawings and paintings, including some of those created by her grandfather, acclaimed Post-Impressionist artist and sculptor, Giuseppe Graziosi. His works can be found in many of the galleries and public venues in Italian cities.

Admiring art and family portraits with the countess

Admiring art and family portraits with the countess

Another story the countess told us was about her father, Jacopino Vespignani, whose courageous acts for the community during the Nazi-Fascist occupations of World War II gained him historic notoriety. A dramatic play about his life and notable deeds was performed at the villa in July, 2016.

In the kitchen of Villa La Collina with the countess

In the kitchen of Villa La Collina with the countess

The large, warm kitchen is decorated with authentic and intriguing touches such as tiles from the city of Faenza, renowned for its ceramics, and an interesting chestnut table built around a central pillar. With its state-of-the-art appliances, the kitchen accommodates the preparation a large formal dining as well as intimate family meals. A chef can be hired for the guests or they can be completely independent using the kitchen to cook themselves. By special request, Chef Gentilini, owner of the Restaurant Il Mulino di San Michele in Tredozio, will serve a typical 19th century dinner for guests at the villa.  And why not book a cooking class in the kitchen? It’s a popular activity for guests of Villa La Collina.

Gorgeous wisteria draping over the gardens of Villa La Collina

Gorgeous wisteria draping over the gardens of Villa La Collina

Beautiful gardens surround the villa, and in April they were beginning to show some of the beautiful blossoms. Hearing only our footsteps on the stone path through the gardens, I enjoyed the peaceful ambiance.

Enjoying an aperitivo before lunch at Villa La Collina

Enjoying an aperitivo in the living room before lunch at Villa La Collina

The countess’s hospitality continued with an aperitivo served in the sitting room, followed by a multi-course lunch of traditional Romagna dishes and Tuscan wines with the engaging company of the countess and her friends. It was a joy to share laughs and interesting conversation as we would typically with good close friends.

Lunch and conversation at Villa La Collina; exquisite touches of the villa's kitchen

Lunch and conversation at Villa La Collina; exquisite touches of the villa’s kitchen (bottom right)

Feeling like a princess at a ball, although woefully underdressed, I took a few steps on the ballroom dance floor with Mr. TWS. It was easy to picture formal balls here especially since the renovations had uncovered original 18th century frescoes.

A little romance with a dance in the formal ballroom at Villa La Collina in Tredozio, Italy

A little romance with a dance in the formal ballroom

Following our delightful afternoon at Villa La Collina, we took a short drive to get a glimpse of the other holiday rentals owned by the countess on the estate — each with its own character in lovely settings with accommodations ranging from an intimate chapel retreat for two to a villa accommodating 14 guests. Seeing these accommodations in their beautiful settings, I started to dream about another return to Tredozio.

Activities while staying at Villa La Collina and Torre Fantini

  • While at Villa La Collina, you might opt to spend a good deal of time at the amazing pool that seemed to be immersed in the beautiful rolling green hills of Emilia-Romagna, but there are plenty of nearby outdoor activities, including walks, mountain biking, and horseback riding in the countryside. There are also public tennis courts in Tredozio and golf courses within easy reach in Forlì and Riolo Terme.
  • Take drives through the countryside and relish the panoramic vistas of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.
  • Visit Brisighella, about 25 km north reached by a scenic route with panoramic vistas of Emilia-Romagna. Known for its abundant olive groves, Brishighella is also great place for having lunch, walking around town, and taking in its historic sanctuary and clock tower.
  • Have a gourmet dining experience at Al Vecchio Convento. It’s about 45 minutes south over the mountain in the medieval village of Portico di Romagna, a town very special to Mr. TWS and me. While there, stroll around town and see the house of Dante’s beloved Beatrice and the 14th century Ponte della Maestà over the Montone River.
  • Visit Faenza to walk around the city and visit the International Museum of Ceramics.
  • Pack a lunch and take a walk in the Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi where you’ll see the famous Acquacheta waterfall (of which Dante wrote).
  • Enjoy concerts and visit the gardens at Palazzo Fantini in the city center of Tredozio.

Getting to Tredozio

The nearest airports to Tredozio are in Bologna and Florence (80 km each) Trenitalia train service with many connections is available in Faenza, 40 minutes away.

Thanks to Countess Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli and EsteVillas for their gracious hospitality during our stay in Tredozio.

Sep 192016

A delicious walk on a Venice food tour

Venice is an amazing, magical city made for long, meandering walks that get you lost in the maze of alleys and bridges. To enhance our walking experiences in the city and capture a sense of Venetian history and culture, Mr. TWS and I took a remarkable Venice food tour offered by Walks of Italy.

Getting a taste of Venice with our guide Cristina (bottom left) on a Walks of Italy Venice food tour

Getting a taste of Venice with our guide Cristina (bottom left)

I’d heard that fine cuisine is not something to expect in the most tourist-centric areas of Venice where catering to the throngs of tourists involves basic and non-regional dishes depicted on menus with pictures and English language text. But escorted by our fun and knowledgeable local Walks of Italy guide Cristina we stopped to sample authentic Venetian cuisine and culture in small, tasty bites.

Here’s a little preview of what to expect on the Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour.

Our highlights of the Venice Food Tour

Our small tour group met at 10:30 a.m. on Campo San Giacomo di Rialto near the famous Rialto Bridge. We were warmly welcomed by our smiling tour guide Cristina who then regaled us with stories of Venice past and the history of its culinary culture before moving us on to our first bacaro, wine bars popular with Venetians for cicchetti (small bites, snacks) and wines of the Veneto region. Cicchetti, important in the food culture of Venice, most often consists of crostini with toppings, small panini sandwiches, and fritti (fried fish and vegetables).

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere

Prosecco in the morning? Of course! Near our meeting point was Al Merca, a bacaro where we enjoyed a bubbly beginning to the tour.

First stop on the Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour -- Al Merca

First stop on the Venice Food Tour — Al Merca

We were told that bacari are key places for eating more like the locals in Venice and for getting good, local, and inexpensive food and wine. The small wine bars are popular and typically quite busy with patrons enjoying the fare standing up. There we sampled our first cicchetti, several mini panini made with local ingredients.

Enjoying Prosecco and panini with our guide Cristina at Al Merca in Venice

Enjoying Prosecco, panini, and fried eggplant with our guide Cristina at Al Merca

In the footsteps of Casanova

Hanging out with the locals at Cantina do Mori, one of Venice's oldest bars

Hanging out with the locals at Cantina do Mori

Tucked away along one of the countless intriguing alleys near the Rialto Market is Cantina do Mori, another popular bacaro, which has been operating continuously since 1462. Entering the small bar crowded with boisterous locals, you feel that you might just run into Casanova, a notable customer of the bar back in the 1700’s.

Platter of chicchetti at Cantina do Mori in Venice

Cicchetti, including octopus and salted cod fish at Cantina do Mori

Enjoyment of food and wine accompanied with conversation is part of Venetian culture and we observed several of the city’s senior residents slowly making their way from one bacaro to the next, a daily routine.

Fresh Venice

It’s not a surprise that seafood specialties are abundant in Venice and at the Rialto Fish Market many varieties are on display.

Rialto Fish Market, Venice

Rialto Fish Market

And it’s not just about seafood in Venice — there are plenty of fresh meat, produce, bakery, and other food options in the markets. On our walk, we browsed market booths and shops filled with colorful fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices of the Veneto region.

Vendor peeling artichokes; fresh, in-season produce at the market in Venice on the Walks of Italy food tour

Vendor peeling artichokes; fresh, in-season produce at the market

We visited in late April when fresh asparagus, especially the white variety, were abundantly in season and we got to experience many dishes that featured them. A special treat was watching the friendly vendor peeling artichokes while conversing in Italian with the locals.

Handsome gondoliers and pasta

The final highlights on the tour were a short gondola ride (included in the tour) across the canal to a restaurant for pasta. We weren’t going to have time to take a pricey long, romantic ride on a gondola during our stay so we really enjoyed the brief trip on the tour from one side of the Grand Canal to the other.

Our handsome gondolier takes us across the Grand Canal during our Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour

Our handsome gondolier takes us across the Grand Canal

In a cozy and intimate restaurant, we ended the tour with a sampling of squid ink pasta — a first for me  — that was much tastier than I expected. As pleased as I was (as a person who is not a huge seafood fan) that I gave it a try, I haven’t had a craving for it since. Mr. TWS thoroughly enjoyed his serving and said it was dramatically better than the similar pasta dish he had at Eataly in Chicago just weeks before.

What we liked about our Walks of Italy tour

We loved our Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour and highly recommend it to quickly get a taste of this magical city that will leave you craving a second helping on a future trip.

  • Duration — The duration of 2-1/2 hours is just right to savor the experience, to learn the ropes for eating like a Venetian, and to leave much of the day for further exploration of the city.
  • Group size — We felt very comfortable with the small group size (always 12 or fewer) giving us a chance to enjoy pleasant interaction with our fellow tour members and stay close to our guide.
  • Local guide — Our expert local guide enthusiastically shared her knowledge and engaging anecdotes. On our own, it would have been difficult to find our way around and we would have missed the insider insights about notable places along the way and their ties to Venetian culture and history.
  • Customer service — It’s easy to get lost in Venice — and that’s a wonderful thing. Mr. TWS and I had some spare time before our Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour, so we meandered along dozens of short, narrow alleyways. By the time we decided to head to the meeting place, we were far removed from the mainstream tourist areas of the city and the tour meeting point. We were totally lost. But a phone call to Walks of Italy’s customer service number connected us immediately to a helpful and friendly representative who pointed us in the right direction and notified the tour guide that we would be arriving very soon, albeit a little late.

Our TWS recommendation 

When visiting Venice, especially for the first time, look up the tours available from Walks of Italy to really maximize your time and get insights of Venice that you may not find on your own. We loved their After Hours at St. Mark’s Basilica and Venice Food Tour itineraries, but there are other options as well. These two were excellent.

Disclosure: Walks of Italy hosted our Venice Food Tour, but the pleasure was all ours.

Aug 042016

Five great things to do in Veneto

From our romantic apartment in Asolo, we not only enjoyed the culture and lifestyle of the captivating town just beyond our doorstop, we had easy access to other wonders of the Veneto region of Italy on side trips during our four-day stay.

Bassano del Grappa -- view from Ponte Vecchio

Bassano del Grappa — view from Ponte Vecchio

With our expert guides and gracious hosts Mr. TWS and I explored highlights that included regional wine, art, and architecture. Here are five places that we recommend for your Veneto itinerary.

Villa di Maser

Along Veneto’s Strada dell’Architettura (Architectural Road) are numerous examples of the exquisite architecture of Andrea Palladio (born in Padua in 1508). The style is characterized by the symmetry and proportions of classical Greek and Roman architecture, especially temples. Another common characteristic is the portico with arches and columns that provide the unique appearance of the front of the building. The distinct Palladian architectural style spread to England, other European countries, and also to North America. For example, the design of the White House in Washington D.C. was influenced by the Palladian style.

Villa di Maser designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century

Villa di Maser

We visited Villa di Maser (officially known as Villa Barbaro del Palladio) in Maser, just about 7 km from Asolo. The villa (with the 230 hectares of agricultural land upon which it sits) has been owned by several different important families over the years. We were warmly greeted by the villa’s current owner, Count Vittorio dalle Ore whose wife is of the Diamante family who bought the property in 1934 and restored it after WWII.

With Vittorio Dalle Ore, the estate winery, one of two sundials on the facade, the Nymphaeum at Villa di Maser in Maser, Italy

With Vittorio Dalle Ore, the estate winery, one of two sundials on the facade, and the Nymphaeum of the villa’s garden

Open to the public since the 1930s, Villa Maser was included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto” in 1996. In the six rooms that can be toured, visitors can admire the beautiful frescoes of Paolo Veronese (which took ten years to paint) and sculptures by Alessandro Vittoria, considered important works of the Venetian Renaissance. The family lives in the villa and there are a a few spots where you can get a glimpse of the living quarters. Also seen from inside is the Nymphaeum (a classical Greek/Roman arched wall which was a monument to the nymphs), a beautiful garden, and a fishing pool. The estate has also been making wine since 1560 on 33 hectares of vineyards, important to the economy of the villa since its early days.

Possagno – The Land of Canova

Veneto is very rich in art of many types, particularly in an area that our guide referred to as the “Golden Triangle” of artists and painters roughly defined by the vertices of Castel Franco to Possagno to our base in Asolo.

In Possagno, the birthplace of neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822), we had some surprises relating to the great sculptor. First was the sight of the imposing 19th-century hillside temple that Canova designed and where he is buried. The Temple of Canova, designed and financed by Canova, looks like an ancient Roman/Greek temple nestled on an isolated hilltop against a mountain backdrop. As dramatic as the building and setting, a stunning patterned mosaic lies before it leading up to the impressive steps before the portico. The temple looks very much like the Pantheon in Rome. But Canova’s surprises weren’t through for us this day.

Temple of Canova in Possagno -- a great side trip from Asolo, Italy

Temple of Canova in Possagno

Our next surprise was Museo Canova, Passagno’s museum dedicated to the famous sculptor. Its unassuming exterior left us unprepared for what was inside. Within were many of the actual works of Canova that were steps in the creation of his sculpture before committing to marble; they provided a comprehensive representation of his art. The first room you enter contains paintings, drawings and sculptures of Canova which leads outside to a separate building, the Gipsoteca. The building, composed of two large halls, was filled with the plaster cast models of many of Canova’s sculptures, works that are in famous art museums of the world, such as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss in the Louvre and Perseus Triumphant in the Vatican. The casts are made from the initial clay sculptures as the step before committing to marble.

During World War I, a bomb damaged many of the statues in the Gipsoteca, but they were carefully restored by Possagno artists, Stefano and Siro Serafin. The museum also includes a library, and a courtyard garden. To one side of the garden is the home where Canova was born. On exiting the museum, there was one more surprise we hadn’t noticed on the way into the museum. As you exit, you view across a stone paved area, up an impressive stairway that directly funnels your vantage up the hill to showcase a view of the temple.

Bassano del Grappa

Pretty scene along the River Brenta in Bassano del Grappa, Italy -- Veneto highlights

Pretty scene along the River Brenta in Bassano del Grappa

Bassano del Grappa is a lively, international city that attracts tourists from all over the world, and also has attracted many current residents who have come here to live from other places. In fact, as we strolled around town, Mr. TWS and I contemplated how great it would be to live there ourselves. Bassano del Grappa dates back to Roman times and is famously known as the ceramics capital of Northern Italy, as the birthplace of grappa (the liquor distilled of the grape remains from the winemaking process, i.e. the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems), and for architectural gems in its beautiful location along the Brenta River. We were able to spend the afternoon here walking the town and exploring some of its locations and sites.

Ponte Vecchio and buildings of Bassano del Grappa -- liberty style architecture seen in pink building on the hill

Buildings of Bassano del Grappa (liberty style seen at the top) and Ponte Vecchio over the River Brenta

Ponte Vecchio, the wooden covered bridge that spans the river, is the city’s symbol and a famous symbol of Italy. It was designed in 1569 (though earlier versions go back to the early 13th century) by Palladio, and destroyed and rebuilt many times, including the last time during World War II. After the war, it was reconstructed by the Alpini, the elite mountain force of the Italian army, and from that day the bridge has also been called Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpine Soldiers). World War I also was key to the city’s history and nearby Mount Grappa was the site of many fierce battles. To honor those who died in the battle, the city name Bassano Veneto was changed to Bassano del Grappa.

During WWI, Ernest Hemingway stayed many days in Bassano del Grappa recuperating from injuries received when the ambulance he was driving was struck by a mortar. The experience became part of the basis for A Farewell to Arms which is commemorated in the city’s Heminway and Great War Museum that particularly portrays aspects of American involvement in WWI from an Italian perspective.

Museo Poli Grappa Museum entrance and collection; having a taste of grappa at the Nardini Distillery

Museo Poli Grappa Museum entrance and collection; having a taste of grappa at the Nardini Distillery

Of course, we couldn’t pass up a taste of grappa while here. We started at the Poli Grappa Museum, which has interesting exhibits including the copper cauldrons used in distillation of grape pomace and a collection of grappas from Italian distilleries.  I didn’t before realize that there was such a variety of styles of grappa with different tastes depending on several factors, including the vines, the vintage, the aging, distillation process, and herbal and aromatic infusions. The Poli family has been making grappa since 1898. Poli also has a larger museum in Schiavon, 12 km from Bssano del Grappa.

At the Ponte Vecchio is the store and tasting room of the Nardini Distillery, where Bortolo Nardini invented and first produced grappa in 1779. The old and historic tasting room has a large bar with artifacts from early distilling days and displays of the many products today. We sat by a window in an adjoining room which gave us a great view of the river below.

Tempted by a menu of delicious-looking grappa cocktails, I still chose a basic sample (one that was quite smooth, contrary to how many think of grappa’s characteristics. I would definitely like to come back to Bassano del Grappa to walk around some more and also see other attractions, such as the Duomo, the castle, the ceramics museum, and the Hemingway and Great War Museum.

Treviso – City of Art and Water

One of the largest cities in Veneto, Treviso was another side trip that we would recommend as a must if staying in Asolo or visiting Veneto. We spent about a half day walking around (but clearly there’s more to do in Treviso to warrant at least several days) and we loved the city. There are a lot references we saw to Treviso as a little Venice and we could easily see why. In particular, the water and canals remind one of Venice as well as narrow winding streets and colorful period buildings and houses.

With Mr. TWS in lovely Treviso - a must-see Veneto city

With Mr. TWS in lovely Treviso

Entering the city by way of one of its three gateways through the well-preserved 15th-century walls, we admired many of Treviso’s liberty-style buildings (such as the one in Bassano del Grappa that grabbed my attention). We mostly walked the city center which on this Saturday in May was bustling.  From our parking spot we passed the Benetton Treviso rugby stadium – needless to say we were surprised to find rugby as opposed to football in Italy. The professional rugby team is owned by the Benetton clothing company, headquartered here.  Trevios has a Roman design with its right angle roads and it bears similarities to Venice particularly with its winding streets, and numerous canals and bridges.

Fresh seafood, white asparagus, and artichokes -- specialties of the Veneto region of Itay

Fresh seafood, white asparagus, and artichokes at the markets in Treviso

Saturday was market day in Treviso, which added to the bustle. We enjoyed seeing the fish market (open every day Tuesday through Saturday) located in the middle of a small island in the Canale Cagnan. Surrounded by the canal, it was one of Mr. TWS favorite spots in Treviso.

Art of Treviso -- sculptures on the river (left), photographer Alessandro Trevisin (top right), Fontana delle Tette (bottom right)

Art of Treviso — sculptures on the river (left), photographer Alessandro Trevisin (top right), Fontana delle Tette (bottom right)

Wonderful elements of art and water are seen throughout Treviso, e.g., as in the sculptures on the canals in the pictures above. The Fontana delle Tette (in English, he Fountain of Tits) is a reproduction of the famous statue and symbol of the city originally build in 1559 providing water during a severe drought. Back then at various times of celebration, the fountain poured red wine from one nipple and white wine from the other; it certainly captures your attention. At the church of San Francesco, we met a photographer, Alessandro Trevisin, who was exhibiting a collection of his photographs representing colorful geometric patterns present in close-ups of everyday objects.

For lunch, we sat outside at Cantinetta Venegazzù on Piazza Giannino Ancillotto for a tasty sampling of local cheese, ham, and bread accompanied with Prosecco. Just a few yards away is Le Beccherie, the restaurant that claims creation of tiramisu (though another restaurant in Treviso and others in Italy claim that they were first).

The Prosecco Road and Villa Sandi

Reminiscent of wine routes such as in the Napa Valley is Veneto’s Strada del Prosecco (Prosecco Road) that runs from Valdobiadene to Coneglano through the hillside vineyards that make up the regions DOC. It’s in the hills of Cartizze where the best grapes for Prosecco are produced. This area along the River Piave has historic significance, too. This is where during WWI and WWII, the Italian people fought significant battles that ended these wars.

In the Cartizze hills along the Prosecco Road -- Veneto's Prosecco wine region

In the Cartizze hills along the Prosecco Road

Villa Sandi in Crocetta del Montello is the biggest wine estate of the area located between the COCG area of Prosecco of Valdobbiadene and DOC area of the Montello and Colli Asolani.  The villa is a Palladian-style beauty that was built in 1622 and has been in owner Giancarlo Moretti Polegato’s family for many generations.

Tunnels, Murano chandeliers, and Prosecco tasting at Villa Sandi in the Veneto region of Italy

Tunnels, Murano chandeliers, and Prosecco tasting at Villa Sandi

A big treat is a tour of the 18th century underground cellars that stretch out for over 1.5 km under the villa. The tunnels were used as military headquarters in WWI. The humidity and constant temperature of the galleries provide the perfect environment for the wine. Bottles of Villa Sandi’s classic method sparkling wine “Opere Trevigiane” are stored here. The tour ends with a generous tasting of Prosecco Superiore, one of the winery’s premier vintages that we also enjoyed later with a bottle that we took back to our apartment.

The villa itself is beautiful and I was really impressed with the gorgeous Murano chandeliers in several of the rooms open to the public.

Other Veneto Highlights

Asolo is a great place to visit and it is well situated as a central point for visiting many sites and attractions in Veneto. The ones we mention here were the side trips we did in just a 4-day Asolo stay. We could imagine a much longer stay affording time to spend more time just in Asolo, more time on the side trips mentioned here, and going further afield in the region.

We talked to our hosts about what other places to see in Veneto on a return visit. Here are a few of them:

  • Vicenza — Sites to see include the basilica, the theater, and Villa Almerico Capra (also known as La Rotonda), another masterpiece of Andrea Palladio.
  • Padua — The setting for much of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, some of Padua’s key sites are the historical center, a famous caffè frequented by Padua artists, the market which is open every day, the largest square in Europe, and the Basilica San Antonio.
  • Verona — Verona is well-known as a setting in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (the fictitious Juliet’s balcony) and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many historical buildings, some dating to Roman  times. The arena in Verona hosts many special events such as summer operas.
  • Marostica — Besides its imposing castle and ancient city walls, Marostica is known for its traditional human chess festival held every two years in September. I would love to see that!
Statue of Alpini soldier kissing his sweetheart goodbye in Bassano del Grappa

Statue of Alpini soldier kissing his sweetheart goodbye in Bassano del Grappa

Goodbye to the Veneto and on to Venice!

Arriving in Venice by boat as a light rain falls creating a surreal look of the city

Arriving in Venice by boat as a light rain falls

Directly from Asolo, we headed to the fairytale-like capital of Veneto — Venice. We went by car to Portegrandi where we embarked on the Silis, a tour boat operated by Navigazione Stefanato, a family-owned and operated Italian river cruise company, to arrive in Venice by boat. The four-hour cruise included delicious fresh seafood snacks and generous pours of Prosecco. Mr. TWS loved the delicious fried smelt served by the plateful by the fun and courteous crew. The cruise also included a stop in Murano for a glass-blowing demonstration and a quick walk around.  We got to see many other islands in the Venetian lagoon and the beautiful views of the city as we arrived. In the photo above, you can see the very cool surreal look of the city that was created by the light rain that was falling. It was a great way to travel and arrive in Venice. Check out Navigazione Stefanato for more about their tours and services.

Map showing our Veneto highlights locations

Thanks to Elena Benassi, Discovering Veneto, and EsteVillas for hosting our Veneto exploration.