Catherine Sweeney

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.

Jul 112016

Romance in Asolo, “The City of a Hundred Horizons”

Photo of Catherine Sweeney and husband in an EsteVillas holiday rental in Asolo, Italy courtesy of Federica Donadi

Mr. TWS in a romantic mood in Asolo — Photo credit: Federica Donadi

I often think of Asolo. Since our April visit to this town in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, I’ve thought back fondly to many moments of our stay there. The picture-perfect hilltop town exudes romance with its winding lanes, beautiful villas, galleries, cafes, and fabulous views from its lofty position. In part, this explains why great writers and artists have loved the town and found inspiration here. Robert Browning (for whom a street in the city center is named), Ernest Hemingway, and Henry James are just a few who came to Asolo as frequent visitors or residents.

One of Asolo's stunning views from the panoramic vista point of Queen Cornaro's Castle

One of Asolo’s stunning views from the panoramic vista point of Queen Cornaro’s Castle

Italian poet Giosuè Carducci called Asolo “The City of a Hundred Horizons”, aptly describing the many beautiful panoramic views of mountains and the Veneto countryside its hillside setting provides. From vantage points during walks in town or from the windows of our EsteVillas Elena apartment, we took in the character and scenery of Asolo for four days and nights — a time that proved to be too short. Like the horizons to which Carducci referred, there are a hundred reasons why our stay in Asolo, a town I only recently learned about, touched us so much. Here are a few of the highlights of our stay.

Our romantic “Elena” apartment in Asolo

"Elena" apartment in Asolo on Piazza Garibaldi

“Elena” apartments above Caffé Centrale on Piazza Garibaldi

Fitting the romantic character of Asolo are the two beautifully-renovated apartments (top two floors shown in the photo above) owned by our host Elena Benassi. We stayed on the top floor and the other apartment was on the second floor (1st floor in European terms) just below it. The two apartments are above the iconic Caffé Centrale on the ground level. Our “Elena 3” apartment consisted of three bedrooms, four baths, full bright kitchen, and elegant living and dining areas. Elena’s impeccable style was evident with the carefully-selected antique furnishings and stylish finishes throughout. The decor preserves the architectural style of the building and a sense of a romantic past.

Elena 3 apartment in Asolo dining and living area --- our EsteVillas accommodations in Asolo, Italy

Elena 3 apartment dining and living area

From the windows of our apartment, I drank in the sights of historic Asolo — the fountain on the small piazza below, picturesque buildings lining the square, and the lane leading up to the majestic castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro. It was a great, central location to feel part of Asolo life and enjoy the town with easy walking to attractions and restaurants.

Queen Caterina Cornaro's Castle seen from our "Elena" apartment on Piazza Garibaldi in Asolo

Room with a view: Queen Cornaro’s Castle seen from our “Elena” apartment on Piazza Garibaldi in Asolo

A warm and delicious welcome to Asolo

We had the pleasure of spending time with Elena and our EsteVillas trip organizer Beatrice at a delightful welcome dinner prepared by a local chef, Maurizio Gallina — right in the kitchen of our charming Asolo apartment. We enjoyed fresh regional dishes and fine wines during a relaxing dinner with lively conversation about the attractions of Asolo and the Veneto region.

Chef Maurizio in the Elena apartment kitchen preparing Vialone Nano risotto (right), Tinchitè rosè wine and table decorations of fresh zucchini flowers

Chef Maurizio in the Elena apartment kitchen preparing Vialone Nano risotto (right), Tinchitè rosè wine and table decorations of fresh zucchini flowers

As the chef was busy in the kitchen, we began with a sampling of appetizers including fried parmesan and zucchini flowers accompanied by a refreshing glass of Prosecco. Although I couldn’t fool anyone that I really participated in the meal preparation, Chef Maurizio was kind to let me give the risotto a few stirs, too.

Dinner courses by Chef Maurizio Gallina in Asolo, Italy -- Herb, borage leaves and ricotta pie (top right), white asparagus and egg salad (bottom right), and delectable tiramisu

Herb, borage leaves and ricotta pie (top right), white asparagus and egg salad (bottom right), and delectable tiramisu

On the menu for our feast was a delicious array of the chef’s recipes of local dishes using primarily products of the Veneto region. Top among the ingredients was white asparagus that was perfectly in season during in April. While in Asolo, we enjoyed white asparagus served in many dishes and styles, but Chef Maurizio’s asparagus and egg salad was one of the most creative and delicious. Another key component of our special meal was a risotto made with Vialone Nano, a rice variety grown in Veneto. With each course, Chef Maurizio paired an appropriate wine —  Maculan Vespaiolo, a Veneto white wine, was perfect with the asparagus.

It was quite a start for our stay and we would highly recommend including a private dinner of your own prepared by Chef Maurizio when you stay in Asolo. As a “chef on demand”, he specializes in private dinners like this and he also offers cooking classes. These options are among the extra services that you can easily arrange when renting one of Elena’s apartments.

More highlights of our stay in Asolo

Walks around town

Though our hosts kept us quite busy with the many entertaining and informative side trips outside of town, we also enjoyed the time we spent just walking Asolo’s winding lanes past shops and restaurants, medieval buildings, historical sites, and landmarks.

Admiring ancient frescoes in Asolo's city center -- Photo credit: Federica Donadi

Admiring ancient frescoes during a walk in Asolo — Photo credit: Federica Donadi

Strolling around Asolo with Elena Benassi

Strolling around Asolo with Elena

One of the many shops that attracted our attentions as we strolled was Asolo Kilim Gallery where we could have spent hours admiring the colorful and eclectic selection of art, textiles, jewelry and antiques. We were thrilled to get a look at a very special old register signed by many international guests of the hotel that was once located in the building. Be sure to ask to see it when you visit.

Colorful and eclectic art and objects at Asolo Kilim Gallery

Colorful and eclectic art and objects at Asolo Kilim Gallery

Seen from many vantage points in the area and in town, La Rocca, the city’s ancient fortress, sits prominently atop Mount Ricco. A defining landmark of the Asolo landscape that can be seen for many miles, we always knew when we were getting close to “home” returning from our nearby Veneto excursions.

La Rocca atop Mount Ricco seen from Piazza Garibaldi

Above the trees — La Rocca atop Mount Ricco seen from Piazza Garibaldi

As we walked to the top, there was a mild, but steady winding climb providing good exercise and wonderful views. Although the fortress wasn’t open to visitors that day, we enjoyed the stunning 360 degree views of the hills and valleys of the area from the hilltop location.

On top of Mount Ricco at La Rocca

On top of Mount Ricco at La Rocca

The women of Asolo

Guided by the lovely and knowledgeable women of Asolo today, BellAsolo guide Laura Serafin and Discovering Veneto representative Francesca Zuccolotto, we got an introduction to three remarkable women of Asolo past — Freya Stark, Caterina Cornaro, and Elenora Duse. Each of these amazing women are central characters in the stories of Asolo as officially documented in guides and books, but also in the stories of locals who have personal recollections or those passed down in family history.

With Laura Serafin (left) and Francesca Zuccolotto at Villa Freya

With Laura Serafin (left) and Francesca Zuccolotto at Villa Freya

Touring the gardens of Villa Freya we learned about Freya Stark, British journalist and avid world traveler. Freya was a solo woman traveler pioneer who traversed the Middle East and other distant lands beginning in the 1930s. She had come to Asolo as a child near the beginning of the twentieth century and chose to return later in life because she loved the town. Freya died there in 1993 at the age of 100 and is buried in Asolo at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.

In the gardens of Villa Freya in Asolo, Italy

In the gardens of Villa Freya

Flowers and Roman theater remnants at Villa Freya

Flowers and Roman theater remnants at Villa Freya

The gardens in the large area behind the villa were beautiful with a wide diversity of flora, some varieties brought here by Freya from her travels. Although much of it was in bloom, the long rows of its popular English roses were not yet budding. Behind the garden are ruins of a Roman theater and views down into the valleys below.

On the grounds at Queen Cornaro's Castle

On the grounds at Queen Cornaro’s Castle; Bell tower of Asolo Cathedral visible on the right

Married at the age of 14 and widowed at 19, Caterina Cornaro (1454 – 1510) ruled Cyprus as queen for 15 years before being deposed by Venetian merchants in 1489. It was then that she came to Asolo, retaining the title of queen and had her palace built just up the hill from Piazza Garibaldi. It was quite an occasion when she arrived in Asolo, an event commemorated annually with a festival that includes many donning fancy 15th-century attire. Queen Caterina hosted Renaissance artists and intellectuals during her reign giving Asolo the early distinction of being a center of literature and the creative arts. An interesting connection to the United States is that the theater built there in 1798 was dismantled and stored in 1930, then purchased by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to be reassembled and reconstructed in Sarasota, Florida in the 1950s where it has been in use ever since.

Elenora Duse (1858- 1924) was an actress called “Divine” by her fans. She had said of Asolo, the place in which she chose to live, that it was a “small town of lace and poetry”.  A theater named after her is located in Queen Cornaro’s Castle. She is highly regarded as one of the great actors of the period and was reviewed favorably in comparison to her contemporary and rival, the acclaimed Sarah Bernhardt. Fitting our theme of romance, Elenora was celebrated for her acting but she was also known for her famous romances. Like Freya, Elenora is buried at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.

A taste of Asolo

Although it may be tempting to stay in the comfortable Elena apartment for all meals, there are great dining options within a few minutes (some a minute or two) walk from there. From our experiences, we can recommend these places for wining and dining.

Caffé Centrale

How lucky we were that Caffé Centrale, an important center of Asolo’s culture, was in the same building as our apartment. But I would have made it a point to go there even if it wasn’t so convenient. Over scrumptious croissants and cappuccino, Mr. TWS and I reveled in thoughts of the many literary figures and celebrities who frequented the cafe and who have been memorialized with their names on the red director’s chairs on the patio of Caffé Centrale. During our breakfast ritual, we could imagine a young Hemingway in the 1920s writing a novel while sitting there. Besides our morning breakfast ritual, we also had a great lunch of lasagna and salads sitting on the patio on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, an afternoon gelato, and a late night liqueur.

Caffè Centrale, a meeting place for literary greats and celebrities of the past and present

Caffè Centrale, a meeting place for literary greats and celebrities of the past and present

Lele and Ezio Botter are the two brothers who own and operate the bustling cafe. We enjoyed a chance to sit down with Lele who graciously shared part of his busy day and enthralled us with marvelous stories of Asolo’s celebrity residents and visitors during his years of working at the cafe as well as those found in records and original letters dating back to 1796, some of which are in the cafe’s possession. From those documents they learned that the building was initially an exclusive club for noblemen, but much to the patrons’ dismay the owner opened it to others because the owner said that others will pay, the noblemen don’t. Among his stories, was one of Napoleon and a plot ostensibly to kill him that was centered in Asolo and particularly the club. The club was closed for several years (reopening as a coffee shop) and the conspiracy suspects were imprisoned. He also mentioned that a descendant of Robert Browning had visited just a few days earlier.

Antica Osteria Al Bacaro

Smiling service and delicious simple Italian dishes at Osteria Al Bacaro

Smiling service and delicious simple Italian dishes at Osteria Al Bacaro

Al Bacaro is a small osteria on Via Browning that has been operating since 1892. It was one of our favorite Asolo experiences. In fact, we went there twice to enjoy the ambiance of a spot frequented by Asolani (as locals are called) as well as the local delicious cuisine and very friendly service.

Trattoria Due Mori

For dinner with a spectacular view, reserve a window table at Trattoria Due Mori. Everything during our long, leisurely dinner from the appetizers to the tiramisu was excellent.

Dining with a view at Trattoria Moderna Due Mori in Asolo, Italy

Dining with a view at Trattoria Moderna Due Mori

Tappo Bar

Our choice for our last dinner in Asolo was Tappo Bar a few steps across the piazza from our apartment. The meal was very good as was the service and it appeared that the other customers were locals.

Perfect combination -- pasta and tiramisu (one of the best we've had) at Tappo Bar in Asolo, Italy

Perfect combination — pasta and tiramisu (one of the best we’ve had) at Tappo Bar

Farewell to Asolo

We said our goodbyes to our lovely and gracious host Elena over afternoon tea at the Hotel Villa Cipriani. The villa was once owned by Robert Browning who bought it in 1889 shortly before he died. Passed on to his son, subsequent owners transformed the property into a country inn (including the famous Guinness family of Ireland) before Giuseppe Cipriani took over management and it became Hotel Villa Cipriani. The hotel is just a short walk from Elena’s apartments and is a perfect place for tea time and a walk in the garden to admire the views of the surrounding countryside.

Elena at Hotel Cipriani

On our last night in Asolo, Mr. TWS and I stopped in for a nightcap of Amaro Montenegro (an Italian herbal liqueur) at Caffé Centrale, trying to prolong the night and our stay. We were already missing romantic Asolo.

Caffé Centrale in Asolo, Italy late at night

Caffé Centrale on our final night in Asolo

What else to see and do during a stay in Asolo

In a future post, we’ll be talking about some of the excursions we took outside of Asolo that included art, architecture, wine, and beautiful towns. There are many outdoor activities like golfing, hiking, biking, boating that are available nearby. In the city center, there are flea markets every second Sunday of the month throughout the year. Asolo also plays host to special annual events such as Palio di Asolo (late June) and the Asolo Art Film Festival (August 29th to September 7th in 2016).

Distances from Asolo to key cities

Treviso – 30 km
Venice – 51 km
Verona – 81 km
Padova – 40 km
Vicenza – 39 km


Jun 202016

Traditional food and wine of Mantua

Enjoying regional food and wine is always a key element in our travels. While staying at Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua, we indulged in a variety of local specialties. We also learned about Mantuan pride in the agricultural richness of the area (in large part due to its proximity to the Po River) and the deep traditions of their culinary heritage. With this in mind, it is fitting that East Lombardy (which includes the areas of Mantua, Bergamo, Brescia, and Cremona) has been awarded the designation of European Capital of Gastronomy in 2017.

Mantuan specialities at Locanda delle Grazie

Locanda delle Grazie
Via San Pio X, 2 – 46010
Grazie di Curtatone (MN) Italy

Sampling traditional food and wine of Mantua at Locanda delle Grazie with Daniela Aldigheri and Luisa Castiglioni

Locanda delle Grazie with owner Daniela (left) and Luisa of Palazzo Castiglioni (right)

We really relished our experience at Locanda delle Grazie in Grazie di Curtatone, a town about 9 km west of Mantua. The town is famous for the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary which we wrote about in our post Highlights of Mantua: 2016 Italian Capital of Culture.

We were on the early side for lunch, so we had our choice of inside or outside seating. You may know that I love al fresco dining on a beautiful day, so we immediately opted to dine at one of the tables outside although the interior of the restaurant is equally inviting.

Locanda delle Grazie and the home of Pope Pio X's brother (left)

Locanda delle Grazie and the home of Pope Pio X’s brother (left)

Locanda delle Grazie’s owners Fernando and Daniela Aldighieri are warm and charming people who made us feel welcome from the moment we arrived. They are enthusiastic ambassadors of Mantuan heritage and talked about their passion for Mantuan cuisine, organic products, and local history. They also spoke of a most important opportunity they had to meet Pope Francis and there are photos of them with the pontiff proudly displayed in the restaurant. The food, the wine, and the hosts made this a delicious, fun, and interesting time.

Here are just a few tastes of our lunch at Locanda delle Grazie to whet your appetite.

Let’s start with the wine of Mantua

Lambrusco Mantovano — Mantua’s Lambrusco Mantovano is a young sparkling ruby-red wine, frothy when first poured, which pairs beautifully with lunch courses like those we had at Locanda delle Grazie. The wine is a blend of four grapes (viadanese, marani, salamino and maestri) and was awarded DOC designation of origin accreditation in 1987.

Lambrusco Mantovano, Mantua mustards, regional breads and Grana Padano cheese

Lambrusco Mantovano, Mantua mustard, regional breads and Grana Padano cheese

Mostarda Mantovana (Mantuan Mustard) — Originally a staple for the rich, these are spicy preserves are made with fruit (particularly typical ripe Mantuan pears or apples), sugar, and mustard oil. It is a popular specialty that goes with a wide range of dishes. We especially liked it with Mantua’s Grana Padano cheese (similar to Parmigiano Reggiano, also of the Lombardy region). Daniela told us that most families have their own recipes for Mostarda Mantovana, a process that is delicate and time-intensive. The mustard oil that is used is very powerful and in Italy it must be purchased at a pharmacy.

Mother-in-Law’s Tongues— These typical Mantuan bread products with the provocative name are flat breadsticks (bottom right in the bread basket above). They are crisp and eaten with meals instead of bread. “Mother-in-Law’s Tongues” is a name I’ve only heard before associated with a plant with long tongue-like leaves.

Tortelli di Zucca, pumpkin ravioli, at Locanda di Grazie

Tortelli di Zucca

Tortelli di Zucca — This pasta dish, pumpkin tortelli, was a highlight for me. In ancient times, it was considered to be the “pork of the poor”. This tasty dish became more popular over time and even became a symbol of the land of the Gonzagas, the ruling family of Mantua from 1328 to 1708.

Pike in green sauce with polenta

Pike in green sauce with polenta

Fernando’s Pike Specialty — Mr. TWS eagerly devoured one of Fernando’s special recipes for pike in a green sauce of capers and parsley accompanied with grilled polenta.

Torta Sbrisolona at Locanda delle Grazie

Torta Sbrisolona

Torta Sbrisolona — Perfect for snacking or as dessert, Torta Sbrisolona is a hard, but crumbly cake made of flour, sugar, butter, and almonds. Going back to its ancient origins, it’s often called a “traveling cake” because of its hardness and ability to keep for a long time.

As we were leaving, Daniela mentioned that Fernando also offers cooking classes, quickly giving me one of many great reasons to return sometime. Grazie mille to our hosts Fernando and Daniela for the marvelous introduction to Mantuan food and wine and their warm hospitality.

More tastes of Mantua

A few other tasty specialties you’ll find at restaurants and shops when you visit Mantua are these traditional foods.

Risotto alla Pilota — Mantua is rice country. It is believed that Federico I Gonzaga first introduced it to the area.  I’d only known of rice grown in rice paddies before, but here different types of rice can be grown in dry or wet fields and there are many ways it is prepared. Risotto alla Pilota is prepared with pork, garlic, pepper, and onion sauteed in butter and served in a sort of pyramid shape. I loved this dish!

Stracotto (Donkey Stew) – A real comfort food usually eaten in fall and winter, Stracotto is prepared with cut donkey meat with primarily onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, spices, carrots, celery, tomato sauce, and a strong, dry red wine served with polenta. It comes from the times when farmers killed and ate their animals when they were too old to work. I didn’t have a chance to try this, but will do so next time.

Salame Mantovano (Pork salami)  — Pig breeding in the area goes back to the Etruscans of the 5th century. Pork was an important dish of the Renaissance regularly enjoyed by the Gonzaga family and is still a major Mantuan staple. Pork salami is very popular in Mantua, sliced and commonly eaten with polenta or bread.

Torta di Tagliatelle — Made with sweet egg noodles atop an almond cake, Torta di Tagliatelle (shown below left) is a rather wild-looking dessert.

Torta di Tagliatelli and Torta Mantovana, traditional cakes of Mantua

Torta di Tagliatelli and Torta Mantovana

Torta Mantovana — Shown in the photo above on the right is yet another popular dessert, Torta Mantovana consisting of typical Mantuan ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, almonds, pine seeds, eggs, and lemon peel.

Torta delle Rose (Rose Cake) — It’s said that this sumptuous cake resembling a bouquet of roses was created for the wedding in 1490 of Isabella d’Este to Francesco II Gonzaga. The rosebuds symbolize the beauty of Isabella, who was only sixteen at the time of her marriage.

Torta delle Rose, a traditional cake of Mantua

Torta delle Rose

And with that lovely cake fresh on your mind …..

Buon appetito!

Jun 122016

Culture and history in vibrant Mantua

Surveying the Mantua skyline from the tower rooftop at Palazzo Castiglioni, I thought of the stories of power, wealth, love, and war that unfolded here from the city’s Etruscan origins and Roman occupation, through the Renaissance. I imagined being here in the days of the House of Gonzaga and especially Isabella d’Este, the “First Lady of the Renaissance” who ruled Mantua when her husband was off fighting wars and after his death. She influenced culture, fashion, the arts, and even funded a school for girls in Mantua.

In a Renaissance mood on the rooftop of Palazzo Castiglioni, one of many highlights of Mantua

Imagining the Renaissance on the rooftop of Palazzo Castiglioni

The historic city center of Mantua along with nearby town of Sabbioneta was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Mantua also has the distinction of being designated as the “2016 Italian Capital of Culture”, the first city in Italy to be awarded this honor. And no wonder — music, history, art, and regional food and wine specialties were all part of our stay. Plus there were beautiful walks in and around the city and other outdoor activities.

Mantua is a vibrant city with a rich history, but it is the period of rule by the powerful Gonzaga family (1328-1707) that is the most fascinating to me. The Gonzaga’s wealth and influence have left their indelible marks on this Renaissance city of culture and art.

Our stay at Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua

What could be a better place to stay in Mantua than in an intriguing palace of great historic significance in the very historic center of the old city? We loved our three-night stay at Palazzo Castiglioni.

Palazzo Castiglioni on Piazza Sordello, Mantua

Palazzo Castiglioni on Piazza Sordello in Mantua

The 12th-century palace is the largest in Mantua and was home to the ruling Bonacolsi family during their reign from 1200 AD to 1312 AD. During the 18th century, it was purchased by the noble Castiglioni family, descendants of Baldesar Castiglioni, an eminent Renaissance scholar, diplomat, courtier, ambassador to the pope, and writer of an iconic book of the times, Il Cortegiano (The Courtier). His friend, the great artist, Raphael, painted his portrait which is on exhibit at the Louvre. The family still resides in the palace and owns a fascinating archive of documents and letters from the period.

Surveying the city scenes from the balcony of our tower suite

Enjoying the view of Mantua from the balcony of our tower suite

Part of the palace has been renovated with designs of Italian architect and designer Filippo Feroldi, creating five spacious luxury suites, each with unique decor that provides modern convenience while preserving the grandeur of the palace. Rooms in the family’s apartments are available for weddings, anniversaries, and special events. Palazzo Castiglioni has been pleased to have many notable guests, including world-renowned musicians and literary figures who come for the city’s annual festivals.

If staying in the palace wasn’t enough, we had the pleasure of staying in the spacious Tower Suite, a magnificent suite on the entire top floor of the palace’s tower and a spectacular rooftop garden. This is a true destination accommodation, where people come to Mantua just to stay in tower, including art and history experts and enthusiasts. The medieval suite architecture was highlighted by an amazing 8-meter high fresco on the tower walls representing the “tree of life”. The 13th-century fresco is one of the oldest non-religious frescoes in Europe. And there it was, right in our room!

Tower Suite at Palazzo Castiglioni showcasing the amazing 13th century fresco

Tower Suite at Palazzo Castiglioni showcasing the amazing 13th century fresco

It was thrilling to climb the suite’s narrow spiral staircase to get the full view of our elegant accommodations with antique furnishings, canopied bed, and the beautiful fresco. A door at the top of the staircase opens to a rooftop garden with panoramic views of Mantua, its landmarks and its lakes, and miles beyond into the countryside all seen over the city’s red-tiled rooftops. Below is a sunrise picture from the rooftop featuring one of the prominent statues on the Church of St. Andrew on Piazza Sordello.

Sunrise over Mantua from the rooftop garden of Palazzo Castiglioni

Sunrise over Mantua from the rooftop garden of Palazzo Castiglioni

It felt like we had stepped back in time but for the availability of modern conveniences. Palazzo Castiglioni is filled with the ambiance of Renaissance style and is located only steps away from many main attractions and piazzas of Mantua.

Mr. TWS and I with our Mantua hosts Guido, Luisa, and Baldesar Castiglioni at Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua, Italy

Mr. TWS and I with our Mantua hosts Guido, Luisa, and Baldesar Castiglioni

Highlights of Mantua

We had a wonderful and busy itinerary with our hosts and guides during our three days that included some free time to wander the streets and piazzas of Mantua on our own. Our impressions of Mantua were that it’s a very livable city, one where residents can be part of very many cultural activities in the midst of rich historical significance.

In separate future posts about some of the places mentioned here, we’ll have more pictures and details to share, but in this post we hope to give you an idea of our visit and highlights of things to do in and around Mantua.

The Palaces

Palazzo Ducale

Across Piazza Sordello from Palazzo Castiglioni is Palazzo Ducale. With 500 rooms and several courtyards, the palace was home to the Gonzaga family during their reign (1328 to 1707). We were able to take a quick self-directed tour of portions of the large complex during our time in Mantua. Particularly fascinating are the mesmerizing paintings of Andrea Mantegna, one of the greatest artists of the time.

Stunning frescoes of the Sala degli Specchi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantual, Italy -- one of our higlights of Mantova

Stunning frescoes of the Sala degli Specchi in the Palazzo Ducale

When touring Palazzo Ducale, your attention will be turned often to the ceilings with the gorgeous frescoes. Of special importance are those in the Camera Picta or Camera degli Sposi, the bridal chamber with the amazing work of Andrea Mantegna. Below are photos of the ceiling and one of the wall panels which depict a court scene with the Gonazaga family.

Andrea Mantegna ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi

Palazzo Te

It’s all about love at Palazzo Te, the palace Federico II Gonzaga had built to have a place for spending time with his mistress. Room after room designed by artist Giulio Romano presents a variety of beautiful, playful, and daring paintings.

Ceiling fresco by Giulio Romano in the Chamber of the Giants in Palazzo Te, Manuta, Italy

Ceiling by Giulio Romano in the Chamber of the Giants

One stunning example is the ceiling in the Chamber of the Giants with a scene from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” where Jupiter punishes the giants who planned to overthrow the gods. This is just a brief introduction to this great attraction. In a separate future post we’ll provide more pictures and detail about Palazzo Te.

The music 

A gorgeous theater with fantastic acoustics, Teatro Bibiena, built in 1769, is home to the Mantova Chamber Orchestra and a main venue of the Mantova Chamber Music Festival. Read more in our article, The Musical Essence of Mantua.

Preparing for a rehearsal at Teatro Bibiena in Mantual, Italy

Preparing for a rehearsal at Teatro Bibiena

The piazzas

The piazzas of Mantua are great places to feel part of the city. On market days, the squares are crowded with vendors and shoppers. We arrived in Mantua while the weekend flea market was in full swing on Piazza Sordello.

Flea Market

A short walk from Palazzo Castiglioni is Piazza delle Erbe, a beautiful square surrounded by shops and restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating in view of its imposing 15th-century clock tower. The Basilica of Sant’Andrea is also on Piazza delle Erbe and worth a visit for it’s ornate interior decor and art. It is said that beneath the marble in front of the altar is a container holding earth that had been soaked with the blood of Christ.

Clock tower and restaurants of Piazza dell Erbe in Manuta, Italy

Early evening on Piazza delle Erbe

The lakes

Visitors and locals can also retreat to the nearby pathways and parks along the shores of the three lakes, created in the 12th century for defense purposes, that virtually surround the city — Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore.

Strolling along of the lakeside paths in Mantua

Strolling along of the lakeside paths in Mantua

On the Sunday we arrived, we took a walk along the lakeshore and took notice of the many couples and families who were enjoying leisurely time with each other.

Mantua restaurant tip: In easy walking distance from Palazzo Castiglioni up a quiet side street is Tiratappi di Scicolon on Piazza Leon Battista Alberti where Mr. TWS and I had a lovely dinner outside on a mild evening. We liked the food, service and romantic ambiance. I had the Risotto alla Pilota  — a Mantuan specialty of local sausage sauteed in butter with garlic and pepper. Delicious!

Nearby excursions

Grazie di Curtatone

Grazie is a small section of the town of Curtatone about five miles from Mantua on the Mincio River. The main attraction there is the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was built in the early 15th century by Francesco Gonzaga in gratitude to the Virgin Mary at the end of the Plague.

Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary and area where artists create their chalk drawings on August 15 of each year to honor the Feast of the Assumption

Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary and area where artists create their chalk drawings

The reason the photo above has a long view toward the church is to show the area where each year artists from around the world take their chalk to the pavement and create their religious representations in honor of the Virgin Mary on the feast of the Assumption, August 15th. There was still some residue of the colorful drawings faintly visible on the pavement when we visited in April.

Unusual decor of the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- Votive mannequins (left) Stuffed crocodile (right)

Unusual decor of the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary — votive mannequins (left) stuffed crocodile (right)

The interior of the church is different from any church I’ve seen before. Upon entering, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. One theory about this unusual church decoration is that it symbolizes holding back the forces of evil.

As you explore further, you next see what appear to be typical religious statues on both sides of the church. But a closer look reveals something else; many of the statues depict gruesome scenes, including torture, a hanging, and a beheading (as shown in the photos above). They are actually votive mannequins given in thanks for the mercies shown by the Blessed Virgin Mary saving these people in their hours of dire need. In addition to the votive mannequins, there are also statues of many dignitaries from Italian and church history. The sanctuary is also home to the remains of Baldesar Castiglioni in a tomb designed by Giulio Romano.

Grazie di Curtatone restaurant tip:  One of our favorite dining experiences in Mantua was an al fresco lunch of Mantuan specialties at Locanda delle Grazie which is close to the sanctuary. It is another great reason to visit Grazie to Curtatone. You can read more about it soon in an upcoming post.

Parco Giardino Sigurtà (Sigurta Garden Park)
Open from March 6 to November 6 (2016)

Biking with Stefano Cabrini of Mantovabikexperience at Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Biking with Stefano Cabrini of Mantovabikexperience at Parco Giardino Sigurtà

We were able to combine our love of bike-riding and enjoyment of the beauty of nature with an excursion to Parco Giardino Sigurtà, prize-winning gardens about 18 miles north of Mantua in Valeggio sul Mincio. We took a fun bike tour through the park with Mantovabikexperience with our guide Stefano Cabrini. You can read more about it in our article Biking in the Park: Parco Giardino Sigurta

Valeggio Sul Mincio pasta tip: We enjoyed a delicious lunch of assorted fresh pastas, including various tortellini (the specialty of pasta-makers in the town of Valeggio Sul Mincio) at Tortellini Remelli at Via A. Sala 24 in the village. They sell their fresh pasta in their shop, but also prepare and serve it in their restaurant. Mr. TWS had such a look of pure joy as he devoured every bite on his plate. (Sorry, no photo.)

Fresh toretellini being made and enjoyed at Tortellini Remelli in Valeggio Sul Mincio, Italy

Fresh tortellini being made, in the shop display case, and being enjoyed by me

More we’d like to do during a stay in Mantua

  • If you visit in September, you’ll catch Festivaletterature. This is a very prestigious annual literary festival bringing world-renowned literati to lead, participate, and enjoy workshops, concerts, and a myriad of cultural events. In 2016 the festival will take place from September 7th to September 11th.
  • In addition to bike paths and tours within the city of Mantua, there are extensive bike routes for all levels of cyclists in countryside, parks, and along the rivers. Other activities include walks, horse riding, and boat trips.
  • Sabbioneta, Mantua’s UNESCO sister city, is only 30 km away. Built between 1556 and 1591, it is considered to be a perfect example of an ideal city of the modern Renaissance.

I think that Isabella d’Este would like the Mantua of today. Don’t you?

How to get to Mantua

We arrived in Mantua by car from Milan (185 km) on the A4 (toward Venice) and A22 motorways (toll roads). There is also Trenitalia railway service from cities including Milan, Ferrara, Padova, Parma, and Verona. The nearest airport is Verona Villafranca “Catullo” Airport (20 km).

Thanks to Palazzo Castiglioni Mantova for hosting our Mantua cultural experience.

Jun 122016

Parco Giardino Sigurtà (Sigurtà Garden Park)
Open from March 6 to November 6 (2016)

Since Mr. TWS and I are bike-riding enthusiasts, a bike tour of an award-winning park and gardens in Italy sounded like an awesome idea. So I really looked forward to this part of our stay in Mantua, Italy.

I hope these photos will give you a good idea of our experience and inspire you to visit Parco Giardino Sigurtà which about 28 miles north of Mantua in the village of Valeggio sul Mincio.

Let’s get on our bikes and go!

Bike tour of Parco Giardino Sigurta in Valeggio sul Mincio, Italy

Bike tour of Parco Giardino Sigurta with Stefano Cabrini of MantovabikeXperience

We had a great time on our bike ride around the park with our MantovabikeXperience guide Stefano Cabrini. The route that we followed had a few mild hills to climb, but was generally easy. We went along at a fairly slow pace to really enjoy the beauty around us and took a few breaks to walk among the flora and look at the views of the countryside.

The beauty of Parco Giardino Sigurta

A lovely setting to enjoy the beauty of the park

And since it was mid-April when we visited, gorgeous tulips of every color were a feast for the eyes.

Bright, beautiful tulips at Parco Giardino Sigurta

Bright, beautiful tulips

Tulips in season -- a visit to Parco Giardino in April

Tulips in season — so beautiful

Mr. TWS, who often notices and comments on similarities of events and places to movie scenes, likened one green hilly landscape to the hillside viewed in the opening of The Sound of Music, where Maria sings the movie’s theme song.

Peaceful hillside, a perfect place to relax at Parco Giardino Segurta

Peaceful hillside, a perfect place to relax

The Great Lawn of Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Families enjoying a day on the park’s “Great Lawn”

Stefano took us along lovely paths by some of the park’s 18 ponds and lakes where we stopped to admire the views of the surrounding area and the lush gardens.

A very pretty spot in the gardens with a bridge over the lily pond at Parco Sigurta

A very pretty spot in the gardens with a bridge over the lily pond

The towers of Scaliger Castle from the gardens of Parco Sigurtà

The towers of Scaliger Castle from the gardens of Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Of note, there are an amazing 40,000 box trees in the park, the world’s largest collection of them, and a four-centuries-old Great Oak with a trunk of 6 meters and a crown of 120 meters.

The maze of 1500 sculpted yew trees at Parco Sigurtà

The maze at Parco Giardino Sigurtà

A maze winding among 1500 sculpted yew trees was much fun. I quickly lost my way, but then followed a group of school children scurrying through the foliage who easily found their out.

The Castelletto at Parco Giardino Sigurta

The Castelletto

We stopped briefly at the entrance to “The Castelletto” shown above where important meetings have previously been held with famous guests of the park such as renowned scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Alexander Fleming. The plaque commemorates their visits.

Statue of Dr. Carlo Sigurta at Parco Giardino Sigurta

Statue of Dr. Carlo Sigurtà — appearing to be admiring his beautiful gardens

There is bronze statue by sculptor Dante Carpigiani honors Dr. Carlo Sigurtà (1898-1983) who purchased this 600,000 square meters of land in 1941. Since the early 15th century the estate had been owned by various aristocratic families and originally used for growing food for livestock. With the help of his son Enzo, Dr. Sigurtà accomplished his goal of creating a “green wonderland” and in 1978 Parco Giardino Sigurtà was opened to the public. The park is still owned and managed by the family.

We loved our bike experience in this gorgeous park and highly recommend it, but there are other options for visiting the park, too — on foot, tourist train, shuttle, and golf cart.

Thanks to Parco Giardino Sigurtà and Palazzo Castiglioni for hosting our park visit. Thanks to Stefano Cabrini for showing us the sights.

Jun 112016

Music is in the air in the 2016 Italian Capital of Culture

Mantova Chamber Orchestra

Music is an essential part of Mantua, Italy’s culture, and the Mantova Chamber Orchestra is an important part of Mantua’s music. For over 30 years, the orchestra has been spreading the enjoyment of a range of musical genres through their concerts and events and promoting music culture through innovative special programs. (Note: Mantova is the Italian name for the city of Mantua and is used in the official name of the orchestra, so you’ll see both forms used in this post.)

The Mantova Chamber Orchestra -- Photo credit: Nicola Malaguti

The Mantova Chamber Orchestra — Photo credit: Nicola Malaguti

The Mantova Chamber Orchestra continues to be a force in Mantua actively reaching out to new audiences to develop their interest in learning about and enjoying music. For example, the orchestra provides special short concerts to young people to teach them about music and to give them an early appreciation for it. Hopefully, it will be an appreciation that lasts a lifetime.

Mantova Chamber Music Festival

In 2013, the Mantova Chamber Orchestra organized its first annual Mantova Chamber Music Festival. This year’s 4th annual festival ran from June 1 through June 5, and it was identified as one of the flagship events that have given Mantua the distinction of being the 2016 Italian Capital of Culture, the first city to receive this designation.

During the festival, 180 short concerts were performed by over 200 musicians from early morning until late night in Mantua’s most beautiful cultural and historical locations. Festival locations included Palazzo Ducale, Basilica di Santa Barbara, Rotonda di San Lorenzo, Teatro Bibiena, and Palazzo Castiglioni (the wonderful palace where Mr. TWS and I stayed in Mantua). Heading the list of many renowned international musical artists was maestro pianist Alfred Brendel, the festival’s guest of honor.

In a video promotional piece about the Mantova Chamber Music Festival, violinist Carolin Widmann raved about the city during festival time.

I go through the streets and I see musicians everywhere. I hear music everywhere and it embraces the city. And this is so beautiful. This is really what music is meant to be originally and what we have lost so often in the concert world out there. But here we come back to what the essence of music really is and that’s unbelievably beautiful and also because Mantova is a miracle of a city.”

Although we were not in Mantua for the Mantova Chamber Music Festival, I can imagine this city filled with music and we felt it would be great to be able to return during the event.

Teatro Bibiena

Teatro Bibiena in Mantua, Italy

A choral group prepares for rehearsal at Teatro Bibiena

We really enjoyed our visit to Teatro Bibiena where we had a private tour of the theater and an opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of a wonderful choral group. The singers voices were so clear and beautiful that I felt goosebumps as I listened. It was also a real treat to watch the creative process in action as they stopped at certain points to discuss and make adjustments.

A rehearsal of a choral group at Teatro Bibiena

A rehearsal of a choral group at Teatro Bibiena

The beautiful Teatro Bibiena, built in 1769, is one of the main stages of the Mantova Chamber Orchestra Festival and is a premier venue for concerts, operas, and other performances throughout the year. Of great historical note, Mozart performed his first solo concert on stage here at age 13. About the theater, his father wrote that he had never seen anything more beautiful of its kind. I’m sure he was duly impressed by the theater’s fantastic acoustics, too. Almost two and a half centuries later and we were equally impressed with the theater’s beauty.


The elegant balconies surrounding the stage (even behind the stage) were not only designed to be excellent vantage points to see the performances, but more importantly for the members of the audience to “be seen”.

Entrances to private boxes on an upper level of the Bibiena Theater

Entrances to private boxes on an upper level of the theater

Statues of Mantua’s notable people of the past, including Baldesar Castiglioni, (eminent ancestor of our hosts at Palazzo Castiglioni) adorn the theater.


As we sat in the audience for the rehearsal, I thought about how lucky the people of Mantua are to have this venue and musical events available to them. I’ll always remember the exquisite sounds of music that I was fortunate to hear while in the Teatro Bibiena.

When you visit Mantua, Teatro Bibiena is a must-see, ideally for a performance, but at least stop by to take a look inside. The theater is open for visitors Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm.


May 292016

Springtime in Italy — what a feast for the senses with blossoms in every shade of the spectrum and fragrances abounding. Mr. TWS and I stopped to smell the roses (actually, no roses in April, but hundreds of other varieties of flora) as we toured two amazing public gardens during our stay at Lake Maggiore in northern Italy’s Piedmont region.

Come along for a stroll in the gardens of Lake Maggiore

Basking in the sunshine among the lemon trees of Isola Bella

Basking in the sunshine among the lemon trees of Isola Bella

Isola Bella Palace and Gardens

Open from March 18 to October 23 (2016)
Isola Bella visitor information

On a picture-perfect day with a bright blue sky above, we sailed on Lake Maggiore’s calm waters arriving by boat from the lakeside town of Stresa to Isola Bella, one of the lake’s three Borromeo Islands.

Lake Maggiore from the palace and gardens of Isola Bella

Lake Maggiore from the palace and gardens of Isola Bella

The Borromeo family still uses two floors of the palace as a summer residence, but has opened 25 of its 100 rooms to the public. Our guide Vittoria Colombo provided a wonderful informative tour of the elaborate and surprisingly extravagant interior of the palace. She was able to point out things we would have missed on our own but also added anecdotes that filled in background and history.

Arcade separating terraces and floral representation of the family crest -- Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

Arcade separating terraces with floral representation of the family crest — Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

Then Vittoria took us outside for another treat — the palace’s elegant gardens, which are the real subject of this post. Azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, citrus trees, olive trees, and many more grace the magnificent gardens amid grand architecture and statuary.

Isola Bella seen from a boat on Lake Maggiore during our tour of the gardens of Lake Maggiore

The terraced gardens of Isola Bella seen from a boat on Lake Maggiore

Carlo III of the House of Borromeo began building the palace in 1632 for his wife Isabella (for whom the island is named), but it was completed by his sons, and the palace’s spectacular baroque gardens were completed by his grandson Carlo IV in 1671. The gardens have 10 overlapping terraces designed to resemble decks and the bow of a ship. The terraces are adorned with statues and staircases that complement the grandeur of the palace and were intended to convey power and wealth — and they certainly do.

Bursts of colorful blossoms on the trees of Isola Bella

Bursts of colorful blossoms on the trees of Isola Bella

Beautiful hyacinth -- Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

Beautiful hyacinth — Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

Plants and trees in bloom adorning the terraces of Isola Bella

Plants and trees in bloom adorning the terraces of Isola Bella

White peacocks freely roam the gardens of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore

A white peacock strolling the gardens of Isola Bella

White peacocks live in the gardens of Isola Bella giving visitors a thrill to see them strolling freely on the grounds. I wish that we had been able to see one of them open their feathers, but they must have been a bit shy when we were there.

The ornate exterior of Teatro Massimo on Isola Bella

Teatro Massimo

The statues adorning the Teatro Massimo amphitheater were created by Milanese sculptor Carlo Simonetta between 1667 and 1677. The top statue portrays a unicorn, a prominent feature of the Borromeo family coat of arms.

The Garden of Love on Lake Maggiore's Isola Bella

Isola Bella’s Garden of Love

As if being on a small island bursting with beautiful foliage and flowers surrounded by the deep blue waters of Lake Maggiore wasn’t romantic enough, Isola Bella has a special Garden of Love (pictured above and below). The red tulips planted at this time of year in the hedge designs seemed perfect for a garden of love, a nice ending to our tour of this beautiful and romantic place.

Garden of Love

Garden of Love

Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto

Open from March 16 to November 1 (2016)
Villa Taranto visitor information

We enjoyed more lush gardens in at the Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, about 15 km north of Stresa along the shoreline of Lake Maggiore. The extensive walkways through 16 hectares of gardens provided a lovely walk where we saw many of Villa Taranto’s more than 20,000 plants, 80,000 blooming bulbous flowers, and over 15,000 border plants.

Strolling the beautiful hillside of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, one of the fantastic gardens of Lake Maggiore

Strolling the beautiful hillside of the Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto

The hillside gardens were established in 1931 by Scottish Captain Neil McEacharn, satisfying his passion for botany and importing plants and seeds from all over the world. He once said, “A beautiful garden does not need to be big, but it should be the realization of one’s dream, even though it is only a couple of square metres large and it is situated on a balcony.” The spacious grounds and fabulous gardens clearly showed the hand of a man with a dream and a passion. He named the villa that he bought and garden that he built after one of his ancestors who was appointed the Duke of Taranto by Napoleon.

Tulips were the stars in April of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, Italy on Lake Maggiore

Tulips were the stars in April of Villa Taranto

April was an ideal time to be here and Dutch tulips were the highlight with blooms in every color imaginable.

Walkway through the tulips

Walkway through the tulips

Tulips of Villa Taranto, one of the beautiful gardens of Lake Maggiore

Romantic red tulips at Villa Taranto

A bed of purple and yellow tulips in the Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto

A bed of purple and yellow tulips at Villa Taranto

Red and yellow tulips of Villa Taranto in April, one of the beautiful gardens of Lake Maggiore, Italy

One of many gorgeous varieties of tulips at Villa Taranto

A pathway of blue flowers and white tulips at Villa Taranto

A pathway of blue flowers and white tulips in the forefront at Villa Taranto

Although tulips were the seasonal stars of the show, there were pretty surprises seemingly at every step of the way and in every direction along the paths throughout the gardens as other floral varieties came into view — lilies of the valley, magnolias, forsythia, rhododendrons, poppies, mimosa, wisteria, camellias, cherry blossoms, and many more.

The diversity of color and bloom was everywhere at Villa Taranto

The diversity of color and bloom was everywhere at Villa Taranto

Beautiful displays of complementary colors among the blooms

Beautiful displays of complementary colors among the blooms

Interesting diverse blooms and colors in a single bed

Interesting variety of blooms and colors in a single bed

Red and yellow tulips that look more like roses at Villa Taranto, one of the beautiful gardens of Lake Maggiore

These red and yellow tulips look more like roses, don’t they?

Whether you are a garden enthusiast, botany expert, or just a person who appreciates the beauty of nature, be sure to stop at these gardens when you are visiting Lake Maggiore.

Thanks to EsteVillas and the Borromeo family for our lovely garden tours.

May 192016

There’s something magical about Lake Maggiore

“It’s magical.” We repeated that often during our stay on Lake Maggiore, a sister to Lake Como, the more famous celebrity-studded of the northern Italian lakes.

There was definitely something special about Lake Maggiore from the moment we arrived at our villa rental in Lesa until we left four days later. Did it start with the warm welcome we received from our hosts? Was it the natural beauty of the water, islands, and gardens? Was it our special experiences that included a private world-class concert? I think it was a combination of all of those things wrapped up into one magical experience.

View of Lake Maggiore and the mountains from the gardens of Isola Bella

View of Lake Maggiore and the mountains from the gardens of Isola Bella

Lake Maggiore, with shoreline located partly in Italy’s Piedmont and Lombardy regions and also in Switzerland, is the second largest lake (after Lake Garda) in Italy.

Our stay on Lake Maggiore at Casa del Lago in Lesa

Lesa is located in Piedmont along the lake between the towns of Arona (at the southern tip of the lake) and Stresa (the most well-known town of the area for its famous music festival and access to attractions of the lake area).

Looking at the lake from the archway of Casa del Lago during our stay on Lake Maggiore

Looking at the lake from the archway of Casa del Lago

Casa del Lago is a romantic lakeside cottage in Lesa that we called home for four nights. There is a separate wing of Casa del Lago where the villa’s owner lives part-time, but there is complete privacy for guests with private entrances and patio.

Casa del Lago on magical Lake Maggiore

Casa del Lago (rental is wing on the right), Lake Maggiore

Soon after arriving, Mr. TWS declared that he wanted to “spend the rest of my life here”. The magic had already taken hold. Not wanting to miss an itinerary full of great activities while we were there, we didn’t spend as much time on the property as others might who come there to vacation, but we enjoyed every minute.

Capturing the magical essence of our villa stay

Capturing the magical essence of our villa stay

Casa del Lago is roomy, yet cozy — perfect for a small family or group of friends looking for a quiet place to enjoy their vacation and/or use as a base for the many nearby sites and activities. The decor includes comfortable furnishings and upgraded baths. The warm kitchen and dining area were my favorite parts of the house where we enjoyed views of the lake as we had breakfast or caught up on some work. On our first night, we debated whether or not to go out to dinner. We were eager to try recommended restaurants in nearby Lesa, but ultimately decided to pamper our jet-lag by a simple evening in the comfort of our own place with wine and snacks. And it was a wise choice. The picture above captures the experience.

Sunrise on Lake Maggiore from Casa del Lago during our stay on Lake Maggiore

Sunrise on Lake Maggiore from Casa del Lago

In the mornings, we awakened to the sounds of chirping birds and spent a little time just listening, noting that otherwise there was silence. Mr. TWS walked out on the dock to enjoy every beautiful sunrise, each as peaceful and quiet as the picture above portrays. There are a few other residences along the private road leading to the villa, but we rarely heard or saw another car or person. We got a kick out of the Casa del Lago mascots, two ducks who greeted us at the cottage door first thing in the morning and whenever we returned to the villa after our day’s activities.

Our pretty ducks at Casa del Lago

Our pretty ducks at Casa del Lago

Lake Maggiore highlights:

Casa del Lago is perfect for either a relaxing vacation by the lakeshore or as a base for exploring the area and taking advantage of its many activities and sites. These are highlights of the lake that we enjoyed and some of them will be covered in more detail in future posts.

Borromean Islands

On Lake Maggiore with Luisa -- Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

On Lake Maggiore with our EsteVillas host Luisa — Photo credit: Emilia Grisetti

One of the most memorable parts of our stay was a visit to two of the Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore on a perfect weather day. A short boat ride from Stresa (about 9 km from Lesa) took us first to Isola Bella to tour the Borromeo family’s grand baroque palace and stunning terraced gardens where we were accompanied by our excellent guide Vittoria. You’ll see more photos of the palace and its fairytale-like gardens in an upcoming post.

The terraced gardens of Isola Bella

The terraced gardens of Isola Bella

The Borromeo family has owned the island (and neighboring Isola Madre) since the 1600s and still use two floors of the palace as a summer residence. The palace has 100 rooms, 25 of which are open to the public to see its extensive collections of important paintings and grand rooms. A large grotto for the residents of yore to keep cool in summer opens onto the gardens and a street outside the palace gates features several high-end Italian brands.

Isola Pescatori (on the right) on Lake Maggiore

Isola Pescatori (on the right) on Lake Maggiore

Another short boat ride took us to Isola Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) for lunch at Ristorante Verbano. The local seafood specialties were delicious and the setting was so lovely that we could have spent the rest of the afternoon there on this gorgeous day.

Terrace dining at Ristorante Verbano on Isola Pescatori

Terrace dining at Ristorante Verbano on Isola Pescatori

Villa Taranto

Just as I was surprised at the sheer beauty and architectural design of the gardens of Isola Bella, I was struck by the expanse of the Villa Taranto gardens and the thousands of varieties of flora on the property. A pathway winds up through the woods and gardens and offers panoramic view of the lake at the top. We have too many beautiful photos to choose from for this post, so stay tuned for future flora posts.

Villa Taranto gardens in Pallanza

Villa Taranto gardens in Pallanza

Let there be music

If you visit Lake Maggiore in summer you can enjoy the famous Stresa Festival (founded in 1961) that attracts renowned musicians, orchestras, conductors, and vocal artists from around the world to perform in a diversity of venues around and on the lake, such as Isola Bella. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Gianandrea Noseda, the 2016 55th annual festival series begins with the Midsummer Jazz Concerts (July 19th to 24th), continues with Musical Meditations (July 26th to 28th), and features its main series Building Bridges (August 23rd to September 6th).

Tea and conversation with Massimo Marenzi of the Piano Academy at Villa Sandra

Tea and conversation with Massimo Marenzi of the Piano Academy at Villa Sandra

Although we wouldn’t be at Lake Maggiore for the Stresa Festival, we were lucky to attend a private performance of Roberto Prosseda, an internationally acclaimed pianist, at Villa Sandra. An intimate affair, we were entertained with Prosseda’s masterful renditions of pieces by Chopin and Mendelssohn. The next morning, we enjoyed tea with Villa Sandra’s founder and president Massimo Marenzi (shown above) whose passion for music inspired him to create the Piano Academy, an intensive two weeks of music lessons and immersion taught by master musicians. The Piano Academy offers concerts by its students and teachers to the public during the summer session (July 2016). We were enthralled by Massimo’s enthusiasm for music, the initiatives of Villa Sandra, and the Stresa Festival.

The charming towns

On our drives between Lesa and other points on the Piedmont side of Lake Maggiore, we were constantly pointing out beautiful lake views and admiring the towns and villages through which we passed. On the weekend, we shared the road with bicyclists enjoying their exercise in this beautiful setting, too.


Stresa is a main tourist area of the lake and there is much to do — shop, dine, and catch the ferries to the islands and other Lake Maggiore destinations. Stresa has a literary connection, too. Of note, Ernest Hemingway spent time in Stresa at the elegant Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées (pictured below) on the shore of the lake. Lake Maggiore is a setting in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.

Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa, Italy on Lake Maggiore

Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa


Lesa, the small waterfront town near Casa del Lago, has restaurants, shops, and a lovely promenade to stroll. There is also a market convenient to the villa to stock up on supplies for your stay.

Boats in the harbor at Lesa, Italy on Lake Maggiore

Boats in the harbor at Lesa

For a small town (population just over 2,000 people), I was surprised that Lesa was such a cultural and business center. Italian fashion brand, Herno, has its headquarters and concept store here. We visited the store and my only regret is that I didn’t choose among the wide selection of its colorful and lightweight signature rain jackets and make a purchase.


Arona, at the southern end of Lake Maggiore, is the largest town on the west side of the lake and is considered the liveliest with many restaurants, shops and a waterfront promenade with a view of Rocca Borromeo di Angera. On a hilltop nearby, a large bronze and copper statue of San Carlo Borromeo stands 35 meters high. We didn’t take time to climb the stairs of the hollow interior, but we’re told that from the top you can look out the statue’s eyes and ears for beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the lake.

Arona street scene, San Carlo statue, and view of Rocca Borromeo di Angera from the waterfront

Arona street scene, San Carlo statue, and view of Rocca Borromeo di Angera from the waterfront

Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta

It was a fun drive inland to Lake Orta staying off the main highways through the wooded hills and small villages of the Vergante area. We had the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying this scenic route since our host and driver Luisa knows these narrow and curvy roads so well. A spot to which I must return someday is the Umbrella Museum that we passed along the way in Pettenasco. I love finding intriguing museums like that when I travel.

Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio seen from Piazza Motta in Orta San Giulio

Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio seen from Piazza Motta in Orta San Giulio

The overcast day struck me as adding a bit more romantic ambiance as we walked around the car-free town of Orta San Giulio admiring its colorful buildings and beautiful Piazza Motta.

At Pan e Vino, a restaurant on the piazza, we were served regional Piedmont meats, cheeses, and wines. The fantastic platter shown on the right below includes a selection of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses, served with fruit jams. Another platter had a variety of delectable salami and ham options. It was truly a feast paired with Piedmont wines, Gattinara (a red wine) and Arneis (a white wine). The fireplace in the comfortable dining room and the warm and friendly service made us feel like we were guests in a home.

Wine, cheese, and meat specialties of the Piedmont region at Pan e Vino in Orta San Giulio

Wine, cheese, and meat specialties of the Piedmont region at Pan e Vino in Orta San Giulio

More to do during a stay at Lake Maggiore

There are many more sports and outdoor activities available nearby Casa del Lago such as sailing, water skiing, canoeing, golfing, hiking, horse riding, swimming, and tennis. Lake Maggiore also has the largest wilderness area in Italy, Parco Nazionale della Val Grande, and in winter, there are the ski resorts of Mount Rosa which are only 65 km from Lesa. So there are plenty of activities year-round. Or you could just relax at the villa soaking up the Italian lake ambiance and letting the magic happen.

Our hosts

Eva is an engaging woman and we were fortunate to have an opportunity to join her for an al fresco meal one evening along with her daughter, son-in-law, and Luisa. We felt a special, fun companionship with these lovely people, an immediate connection, that is something I’ve found more in Italy than anywhere else. Then it was time to go back to our villa — once again to “our place” feeling like locals who had just left our neighbors after a friendly get-together.

With Sara, Luisa, and Eva at Casa del Lago, an EsteVillas luxury holiday rental at Lake Maggiore

With Sara, Luisa, and Eva at Casa del Lago

On our last night, Mr. TWS and I stood on the edge of our private dock looking at the lights in the hills across the lake and listening to the gentle lapping of the water. I thought about the great experiences we’d had and the nice people we’d met. And one last time while at Lake Maggiore, I said to Mr. TWS, “It’s magical.”

How to get to Lake Maggiore:

The lake is easily accessible from many points by car, boat, and train. The nearest international airport is Milan Malpensa (MXP) from where we drove about 45 minutes to reach Casa del Lago. Railway stations are located in Arona and Stresa. Boats and ferries traverse the lake in all directions. The main ferry ports are Arona and Stresa, but there are also docks in many of the towns where boats can be hired.

For more villa information, photos, and booking information: EsteVillas – Casa del Lago

Disclosure: Our stay and activities at Lake Maggiore were hosted by Casa del Lago, EsteVillas, and local sponsors

Map of main places we visited:

May 122016

On most any day of the year, Piazza San Marco, Venice’s magnificent square, is bustling with tourists admiring the architecture, shopping for souvenirs, or soaking up the ambiance at outdoor cafes. It’s a stunning sight to enter the enormous square whether from the city’s maze of alleyways or from the waterfront promenade. Prominent is St. Mark’s Basilica, named for the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. It is one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks beneath its imposing bell tower and adjacent to the Doge’s Palace.

Piazza San Marco at dusk -- After hours is the best way to visit St. Mark's Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica on Piazza San Marco at dusk

The best way to visit St. Mark’s Basilica

Many wait in long lines to get a glimpse inside of the basilica while others choose to avoid the crowds and be satisfied with a view from outside. After our recent trip to Venice, we can give you our recommendation for the best way to visit St. Mark’s Basilica to avoid the crowds and make the most of the experience.

Why take the Walks of Italy tour

Mr. TWS and I took the Walks of Italy “Exclusive Alone in St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours” small group tour. We’d previous taken the company’s “Rome in a Day Tour” and loved the experience.

  • Visiting after the basilica has closed to the public for the day (which is exclusively available for Walks of Italy tours) avoids not only the lines to enter but also the throngs of people inside the basilica during the day. This provides a more serene and meaningful experience (befitting a visit to a church) and enables taking photos that are not filled with other tourists. The after-hours tour also provides access to areas that are not accessible in any other way such as the crypt, which can only be viewed on the tour or during occasional special masses.
  • Local experts like our guide Elisabetta with backgrounds in art and history are able to share their knowledge with enthusiasm and often humor that bring the basilica to life, weaving stories and legends. These are characteristics that we’ve found with other Walks of Italy guides, too.
  • Elisabetta really pulled all the information together, put it in context, and provided it to us real-time, enabling us to listen and focus on what you’re seeing. She was also able to answer all of our questions on the spot.
  • The groups are small (maximum 15 people). There were about 10 people in our group making it easy to stay with the guide. But even when Elisabetta was whispering in the church, We were all able to follow her narrative with the very good headset system that was used.

Basilica Highlights

Though we’ve seen many different cathedrals and basilicas in Europe, we were quite surprised at the many unique characteristics of both the interior and the exterior of St. Mark’s. These are a few of the highlights. There is much more to see and learn during the tour.

After meeting our group at the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco, Elisabetta started our tour outside the basilica, providing some Venetian history and unique aspects of the square, including the acqua alta (high water) that occurs during exceptional high tides. She also pointed out main features of the exterior, such as the mosaic representing the story about the original transportation of St. Mark’s remains to Venice (below).

Exterior mural of St. Mark's Basilica, Venice

Exterior mural about the story of St. Mark’s remains

Inside the basilica, St. Mark’s most striking characteristic is its 8,000 square meters of gold glass tile mosaics that cover much of the walls and ceiling. Our favorite part of the tour was entering the quiet, quite dark basilica, taking a seat, and watching as the lights were turned on section by section. The stunning contrast reminded Mr. TWS of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the sepia-toned black and white screen transforms into spectacular Technicolor when Dorothy opens the door to Oz. The brilliant gold was magnificent with the lights on and virtually undetectable before they were turned on. The photo below doesn’t do justice to the splendor but it helps approximate the contrast between lights on and off.

Contrast of the ceiling in St. Mark's basilica without and without lights on an after-hours walking tour with Walks of Italy in Venice, the best way to visit St. Mark's Basilica

Contrast of basilica interior with and without lights

The geometric patterns of the marble mosaic tile floors (in some places quite uneven) throughout the basilica are also beautiful.

Geometric patterns on a section of mosaic marble floor in the basilica

Geometric patterns on a section of mosaic marble floor in the basilica

We were particularly fortunate in the timing of our visit to St. Mark’s because it was April 25th which is St. Mark’s Day (Festa di San Marco). It is also Italy’s Liberation Day, the national holiday celebrating the end of Nazi occupation in World War II and also the end of the Italian Civil War.

With this annual celebration, 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.

Panels are opened for St. Mark's Day to enable worshippers to see the altar in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice

Panels are opened for St. Mark’s Day to enable worshippers to see the altar

High Altar of the basilica holding the remains of St. Mark seen on an exclusive after-hours tour with Walks of Italy

High Altar holding the remains of St. Mark

Elisabetta pointed out the highlights and described aspects of history, symbolism and art as we walked through the interior to the altar where we saw the stunning gold, silver, and gem-laden Pala d’Oro altarpiece.

Byzantine altarpiece with over 1,900 gems in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice

Byzantine altarpiece with over 1,900 gems

There are interesting tales relating to the saga of the remains of St. Mark and how they were transported from Alexandria to Venice, including the story about their mysterious disappearance and the subsequent miracle of their rediscovery in a church pillar in the 11th century.

A section on the right side of the basilica where it is said St. Mark's bones were miraculously rediscovered in a pillar

A section on the right side of the basilica where it is said St. Mark’s bones were miraculously rediscovered in a pillar

Downstairs in the crypt we learned more history, including that of how the remains were previously kept down here in a sarcophagus though the crypt flooded completely during the acqua alta tides until preventive measures were taken.

Stained walls of the crypt of St. Mark's Basilica -- evidence of previous flooding

Stained walls of the crypt — evidence of previous flooding

Our recommendation

Of course, St. Mark’s Basilica is a must-see landmark and from our experience, the best way to visit is on the “Exclusive Alone in St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours” tour. We enjoyed the features covered, the pace, the duration, the VIP access, and our excellent guide.

Disclosure: Our tour was hosted by Walks of Italy, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.

We’re linking up to:

Budget Travelers Sandbox
May 062016

Instagram highlights of northern Italian treasures

“Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, ‘Italy’ .” — Robert Browning

It shouldn’t be surprising that art, literature, and music are essential aspects of northern Italy. Surrounded by stunning natural beauty, dramatic history, and deep cultural traditions, it’s easy to understand why writers (such as Browning), artists, and musicians have been enamored of and inspired by various locations in the four regions of Italy we visited on our latest trip — Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. We were captivated each day by the lakes, gardens, cities, countryside, and historic sites. Of course, this is Italy, so culinary delights are also an important part of any visit and we savored a delicious diversity of regional food and wine. In particular, Mr. TWS seemed to be tasting heaven in every bite.

We covered a lot of territory traveling by car from Lake Maggiore (Piedmont) to Mantua (Lombardy) to Asolo (Veneto) and finally to Tredozio (my third visit to Emilia-Romagna and second to Tredozio) with interesting side trips each day and varied accommodations — lakeside cottage, 12th-century palace, romantic apartment, and countryside villa. (We also spent a few days in Venice, but that’s for another story.) So there will be much to show and tell beyond this preview, and we will in future posts. These photos from our Instagram gallery are an introduction to our trip to whet your appetite.

Casa del Lago in Lesa (Lake Maggiore) — our base in Piedmont

Pictured below was the gorgeous, peaceful sunrise that we captured from the waterfront at Casa del Lago, the lovely villa we called home for four nights on Lake Maggiore. What a beautiful place on earth! We could have happily spent the entire four days here, but it was ideally located providing easy access to many sights and activities we experienced.

Sunrise on Lake Maggiore taken from our rental villa, Casa del Lago,

What a glorious first day we had on Lake Maggiore as we traveled by boat from the town of Stresa to the Borromeo Islands of the lake. The view below was from the palace and gardens on Isola Bella (meaning beautiful island — and indeed, it is). There was still a bit of snow showing on the Alpine peaks in the distance.

In the palace gardens on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore in the Piemonte region of Italy

Tulips of all colors and types were on display in the expansive and gorgeous botanical gardens of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, a must-see when visiting Lake Maggiore. I loved this combination of purple and orange/pink tulips.

Tulips in bloom in the amazing gardens of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, Italy along Lake Maggiore

Don’t tell anyone! Let’s keep this old village in the Piedmont region a secret. Well, it’s probably too late for that, but Orta San Giulio is a quiet and romantic treasure in the Italian lakes area. The town is situated on a hillside on the shores of Lake Orta, lesser-known than other lakes of northern Italy. Pictured below are colorful buildings with shops and restaurants on Piazza Motta.

Orta San Giulio is a scenic side trip from Lesa, Italy to Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta

Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua — our base in Lombardy

Mr. TWS and I have fond memories of the view pictured below from our private Tower Suite rooftop at the grand Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2016 Italian Capital of Culture, Mantua is well-known for its annual literary festival and is rich in history, the arts, and culture.

View of Mantua from our Tower Suite at Palazzo Castiglioni -- Lombardy region of northern Italy

Inside our suite at Palazzo Castiglioni, we had more beauty to admire. This is a small section of an 8-meter high frescoed wall representing the “tree of life” on the wall behind the bed. It dates back to 1300 and is one of the oldest non-religious frescoes in Europe.

Gorgeous frescoes on the walls of the Tower Suite at Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua, Italy

We were fortunate to catch a rehearsal of a fantastic chorale group during a tour of beautiful Teatro Bibiena. The theater is one of the main venues of the Mantova Chamber Music Festival organized by the Mantua Chamber Orchestra. Of great historical note, Mozart performed his first solo concert on stage here at age 13. About the theater, his father wrote that he had never seen anything more beautiful of its kind.

Chorale group rehearsal at Bibiena Theater in Mantua, Italy

Go ahead … have a taste. These were a few of the totally delicious specialties of Mantua that we had for lunch at Locanda delle Grazie in Curtatone — fruit (apples and pears) mustards, pumpkin ravioli, and Sbrisolona (a crunchy almond dessert). Lambrusco Mantovano, a local Lombardy DOC, paired perfectly.

Food and wine specialties of Mantua at Locanda delle Grazie in Curtatone, Italy

Elena 3 in Asolo — our base in Veneto

Beautiful Asolo! Pictured below is the panoramic vista of residential buildings against the backdrop of the Alpine foothills seen from Queen Cornaro’s Castle.

View from Castello di Asolo, the castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro in Asolo in the Veneto region of Italy

Having cappuccino and pastries at historic Caffè Centrale (pictured below) was a delightful ritual while in Asolo. Literary greats (and other notables) like Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and Robert Browning hung out in this very place in times past. Our lovely in-town apartment was on the 2nd floor (3rd in U.S. terms) above Caffè Centrale which faces the quaint Piazza Garibaldi with a lovely fountain, the cathedral, and a few small shops and restaurants.

Our delightful morning ritual -- cappuccino and brioches at Caffe Centrale in Asolo, Italy

A beautiful side trip from Asolo took us to Prosecco wine country and a drive along the Prosecco Road. Inside the extensive underground tunnels beneath the Villa Sandi wine estate are a million bottles of aging wine (pictured below). There’s also interesting history here — the tunnels were used by the Italian military during World War I to get troops to and from the front line. Villa Sandi offers a great tour through the tunnels as well as the villa with a taste of their Prosecco Superiore.

Walking through the tunnels beneath the Villa Sandi estate now used as wine cellars in Veneto region of Italy

When visiting the lively town of Treviso, always be on the lookout for beautiful frescoes on the facades of buildings in the historic center. How beautiful is this? The historic city has many similarities to nearby (and much more famous Venice), which had considerable influence on Treviso style and architecture. It is very accessible as a day trip from nearby Asolo.

A walk through Treviso provides many sightings of beautiful facades and frescoes

Torre Fantini in Tredozio — our base in Emilia-Romagna

Irises were in bloom at Torre Fantini, once a lookout tower, now a beautifully-restored cozy hillside villa, where we stayed in Tredozio. It’s a gorgeous setting with a spectacular view (one of our favorites anywhere) of hills covered with vineyards, fields, and woods. It is a very peaceful place for a relaxing stay. This was our second stay at Torre Fantini and we’d would love to return.

Irises in bloom at Torre Fantini in Tredozio, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy

One of the many convenient and scenic side trips from Tredozio is the medieval town of Brisighella. In the photo below, the clock tower is seen from La Rocca. the ancient fortress on a nearby hilltop. I love the patches of clouds in the blue sky of this spring day, which enhanced the spectacular views in many directions from many observation points.

View of the imposing clock tower of Brisighella from La Rocca in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy

The bright sunshine highlights the pretty buildings of the historic center of Brisighella where the colorful facades follow the curvature of the ancient city walls.

The colorful facades of Brisighella along the ancient city walls

I’ll close this series of photos with a little romance. I really like this photo of Mr. TWS (his first appearance on Instagram) and me (2nd time) in the ballroom of Villa La Collina, an elegant luxury holiday rental on a hilltop high above Tredozio. It was a memorable experience visiting the villa and meeting its lovely owner Contessa Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli (who is also seen in the photo). The contessa graciously provided a tour of the villa and gardens, and also a delicious lunch of local dishes.

In the ballroom of Villa La Collina in Tredozio, Italy --- a lovely ending to our visit to these regions of Italy -- Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna

Disclosure: During our trip, our accommodations and activities were sponsored by EsteVillas and local hosts.