This week we visited two newly-opened B&Bs in areas of Northern Tuscany that are less-visited by tourists then Tuscany's top places. Both are in old houses that have been carefully remodeled, keeping many original features while adding modern comforts. English speaking owners help make it easier for those who don't speak Italian to visit places where fewer people speak English. There's an emphasis on using local products so you'll get to try typical foods of the area and they grow herbs and some vegetables right on the properties. These owners go out of their way to assist you with planning your day and will make dinner at home so you don't have to go out again at night if you don't want to.
Sporting beautiful mountain and forest views, Settimo Cielo Retreat sits in the tranquil countryside of the Lunigiana area, the northern-most tip of Tuscany. Bedrooms have private bath, one of them very big, and an outdoor terrace. Guests can make themselves at home in the house's comfortable sitting room, there are outdoor areas for relaxing or eating, and walking paths lead into the wooded area. Breakfast is included but other meals can be arranged, using fresh ingredients from the garden and local shops and eggs laid by free range hens. Special art, photography, and writing retreats are scheduled during the year also. Settimo Cielo, Seventh Heaven, is a great place to relax, take hikes, visit small medieval towns and castles, or go to the seaside towns of Cinque Terre or Lerici and the Gulf of Poets.
In the Versilia hills, Le Stipe di Sopra is in a tranquil village about 10 minutes up a windy road from the art town of Pietrasanta. Silvia, the owner, remodeled a 19th century house to keep many of its original features and some of its furniture, making 3 guest rooms with modern private baths that have unique sculpted sinks. Silvia prepares breakfast with local cheeses and homemade products and will make dinner for guests on request. There are nice sitting areas both inside the house and out doors in the garden or courtyard with its old communal laundry basin. The views are amazing - on clear days you can see the sea and sometimes all the way to the island of Corsica. In town there's a store and inexpensive osteria, open on weekends. From Le Stipe di Sopra you can hike in the hills or visit Pisa, Lucca, and Versilia coast towns.
Food is an important part of Italian culture so taking a food related tour is a great way to experience Italy. Here's a selection of upcoming small group tours, from 5 to 9 nights, fit for foodies:
- Sorrento With Rossella Culinary Tour - Join Rossella, of Cooking with Nonna, for a week in a Mediterranean villa on the hills above Sorrento, starting August 30. Tour includes cooking lessons and pizza making at the villa, tours of Pompeii and Amalfi Coast towns, dining in authentic local restaurants, and visits to food markets, an artisan pasta factory, and wineries.
- Authentic Italian Experience with Luisa - Although this isn't specifically a food tour, there are several local food activities including a cooking class where you'll cook with flowers and wild herbs, wine tastings, and a rare chance to have a special dinner with the Accademia del Padlot, a local fraternity of men dedicated to wine and food. Starting September 1, you'll spend the week in a historic Palazzo, or mansion, right on the main square of a small town in le Marche. It's a great way to experience an off the beaten track area, as you'll be hosted by the English-speaking owner, Luisa Donati. I've stayed in Palazzo Donati myself and had a meal prepared by the Accademia del Padlot, an excellent experience! Other weeks for groups available by request.
- Walking, Cooking, Eating, and Drinking in the Cinque Terre - Spend 5 nights with cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns in September where you can hike to work up an appetite, then dine on local specialties at selected restaurants. Tours include wine tastings, cooking classes, and a visit to a fantastic seafood market. I recently joined Pamela for a delicious lunch and wine tasting during her May tour so I know the food is good! Pamela also offers wine and food workshops at her Tuscan agriturismo. Read More...
In spring 2014, gas prices I've been seeing in Italy are generally between 1.69 - 1.89 euro per liter, which is roughly equivalent to over 9 US dollars per gallon (with current exchange rate of $1.38 for 1 euro). While gas is expensive, cars often get much better mileage than what you may be used to, especially cars with standard transmission. Diesel usually costs about 10 cents per liter less, and diesel cars get even better mileage so if you plan to drive a lot on your vacation, it's worth trying to rent or lease a diesel car.
The Renault Clio4 diesel I'm driving (through Renault Eurodrive) is rated at 69 miles per gallon (with standard transmission). Read more about the Renault Eurodrive buy-back lease program for tourists driving in Europe for 17 days or longer.
Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, is a vast archeological site that can easily be visited as a day trip from Rome. Nicoletta Di Livio, a licensed tour guide with Overome, a Rome tour company that offers Ancient Ostia tours, gives us an insight into the people of Ostia during the 2nd century when Hadrian was Emperor and Ostia was at its peak as an important port city. Nicoletta says:
Ostia Antica was a very important city during the Roman Empire. But why this name? In Latin Ostium means "river's mouth"; in fact, the ancient city was founded in the 4th century BC at the mouth of the Tiber River, a strategically important place. It was the entrance to Rome for people coming from the Tyrrhenian Sea and it was only 30 kilometers away from the city.
Initially, Ostium wasn't a city but a castrum, a military fort for defense and control. The first village was near one of the most precious products of ancient times: salt. Ostia's salt pans were a great source of wealth for Romans. Salt was used to keep food fresh and it was so important that the Italian word salario (salary) derives from the custom to pay the soldiers with a bag of salt. Once extracted and shaped into slabs, salt was carried inland along Via Salaria. Then it reached the Adriatic Sea passing the Apennines. The importance of Ostia and its salt is still remembered today.Read More...
The Roman arena in Verona is one of Italy's most spectacular venues for summer music festivals and the world's largest opera theater. Friends of mine who have gone say going to an opera in the Arena is an experience not to be missed.
The 92nd edition of the Verona Opera Festival starts June 20 with Un Ballo in Maschera. 54 performances of 6 different operas, including 3 performances of Romeo and Juliet, round out the 2014 season. What better place could there be to see this romantic story of than in Verona, known as the city of Romeo and Juliet. In addition to operas, a special Placido Domingo Sings Verdi event is scheduled for July 17. Tickets to many performances sell out so be sure to book in advance.
Verona and the Summer Opera Festival:
- See schedule and buy tickets on Select Italy
- Where to Stay in Verona
- Things to See in Verona
- Summer Music Festivals in Italy
Verona arena photo © 2009 by Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com
Except for the part of the trail between the villages of Monterosso and Vernazza, the popular Cinque Terre hiking trails that connect the five villages (blue, number 2 trails) remain closed as of May, 2014. It's possible that the Via del Amore, the short path between Riomaggiore and Manarola, will open at the end of May if the weather cooperates for repair work. Many other scenic hiking trails in the area are open, however, and the Cinque Terre villages themselves can still be visited.
Currently the best way to get between the villages is by train or when the weather cooperates, by ferry. The five villages see big crowds during the day but since they're aren't many places to stay, evenings and early mornings are usually tranquil. To appreciate the beauty and charm of the villages, spend a few nights - see our suggestions for where to stay in Cinque Terre and be sure to book in advance as places fill up quickly.
Photo of Corniglia from a high trail © by James Martin, Europe Travel
I received an email from Ed Mucha, one of our readers, who just returned from a trip to Southern Italy and recommends the following:
- Paestum Greek Temples: A 2nd class round-trip ticket from Naples station was 11 euros and was about a 1'20" ride with some beautiful and spectacular views of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples! The site is approximately 1 km walk from the station. There are several inexpensive places to eat or snack just outside the site and no hustlers around, either. Paestum has three of the most beautiful and well-preserved ancient temples all in one place, is easily walked about and enjoyed, and there is a first class restaurant one can access from the site, open only for lunch 12:00-15:00. There is a new, well-filled museum of artifacts from the surrounding area. Its downside is very few books in English.
- Naples: In Naples proper we highly recommend the Carafa di Maddaloni, hidden away just off via Toledo about 2 blocks from Piazza Dante, with six rooms, great breakfast, and fonts of info. The owner is a concert pianist. We had no problems w/crime but we've traveled extensively and know how to be alert and prepared. We ate pizza all around the area, rode the metro and the funiculares, and walked a lot, even late at night. Highly recommend the Museo Archeologico which is nearby plus the view from atop Castel Sant'Elmo. Thanks to the Carafa owner's suggestion we were able to get opening night, private box seats to the opera Othello.
- Montecassino Abbey and Caserta Royal Palace: We stayed several nights at Hotel la Pace, a family-run place in the town of Cassino, while visiting the Abbey and surrounding area. Pino, the hotel owner, was extremely knowledgeable about the Abbey and WWII events related to it and the rooms had spectacular views of the Abbey. We visited the Royal Palace which is loaded with art-work and well worth a visit. Caserta is a very lively, vibrant city.
Ed says they rented a diesel car (great mileage and cheaper than gas) when they left Naples and had no unpleasant experiences droving to Cassino, Caserta, down the coast to Reggio Calabria, and on to Catania, Sicily. One thing he mentioned is that at sites, shops, and restaurants, he was often asked why so few Americans visit the area. So now is the time to go!
Paestum photo by James Martin, Europe Travel
Recently when traveling on the regional train we saw three different travelers receive a citation from the conductor and they had to pay a fine. The most important rule of traveling on Italian regional trains it to validate your ticket. Simply slip your ticket into the machine (shown in the photo) to stamp it. You'll usually find machines near the ticket window or as you exit the station to go to the tracks. Why do you have to do this? Italian regional train tickets are valid for 2 months after purchase and can be used any time within that period. So when you're ready to use it, you must stamp it. After stamping, it's valid for 6 hours.
Not all train tickets need to be validated. Tickets that are for a specific train will have the train number, date, and time already printed on the ticket (for example when you buy a ticket online or a ticket for a high speed train at the station). These tickets do not need to be stamped before boarding the train. But if the ticket does not list the train number, date, and time it must be validated. If in doubt, ask a train official before boarding.
The other reason we saw for getting a fine was not having identity documents. So when you're traveling in Italy, be sure to carry your passport to show with your ticket (tickets for a specific train will also have your name so you may be required to show your identity document along with the ticket - in Italy this would be your passport).
More about trains in Italy:
Photo of Ticket Validator by Mike Mazzaschi, a Path to Lunch
Spend a week in Tuscany during autumn harvest season at the luxurious Villa Pipistrelli near Siena with SimpleItaly's Harvest Celebration Tuscany Tour. You'll go to a local fall food festival, a winery, a farm, and tour medieval hill towns including Siena. This isn't one of those exhausting tours where you're on the go every minute or have to change hotels. Your week will be at the villa, part of an estate that produces olive oil, where you'll have dinners with wine and enjoy local foods. Some activities will be held right at the estate including pizza and pasta making classes, olive oil tasting, guest speakers, and an art class. You'll also have free time, giving you the opportunity to explore the walking trails and the farm at Montestigliano, capture photo images, write, sketch, or relax in the game room at the renovated Granary.
I participated in SimpleItaly's spring tour as a guest speaker and got to partake in several interesting activities, including wine tasting and gathering and cooking wild greens. Although it was a relaxing day, there was plenty to do and participants were very happy with their week. Meals, always a highlight of a stay in Italy, were fantastic! For details see Tuscany Tour: Harvest Celebration with SimpleItaly (12 participants maximum).
More Fall One-Week Tours:
Photo by SimpleItaly, used by permission
Central Italy's Marche region is a great place to rent a vacation house and now it's easy to find one that you like. Marche Owners Direct is a collaborative of accommodation owners offering a wide range of holiday properties, making it a one stop shop for vacation homes. Their properties range from B&Bs and agriturismo lodging to vacation homes with 1 to 5 bedrooms. Many properties have a swimming pool, very welcome in summer.
By booking directly with the owner through Marche Owners Direct, guests avoid agency fees and potential scams as well as gaining from the local expertise that each owner brings. Although the prices at the top of most listings are shown in British pounds, you can usually find the price in euro by scrolling down to the end of the listing.
Le Marche is one of Italy's lesser-known regions but it has a lot to offer the visitor. The region extends from the sea on Italy's east coast inland to beautiful rolling hills, vineyards, and medieval towns. A couple of top places to visit are the Renaissance city of Urbino and the Frasassi Caves, one of Italy's top places to see spectacular caverns. For more about the region, see our Marche Map and Marche Region Highlights.
Photo of Il Nascondiglio Farm House Apartments provided by Marche Owners Direct