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Last week, thanks to the downloadable Mobike app, I spent a whole day whizzing through Florence on three or four bicycles – which I used one after the other, not simultaneously, in case you wonder.

In Italy, where public transport is not always quite up to the mark, bike-sharing doesn’t just make for an ecological, but also for a very practical choice. Whether you set your heart on Mobike or on any other bike sharing provider, you’ll be able, at your convenience, to pedal through many of the large cities of Northern Italy. Have a look at this world bike-sharing map and its updated Italy section.

In other great cycling locations, like Lucca or the Maremma Natural Park, bike-sharing may not have been implemented yet, but you can easily rent bikes from local suppliers… Enjoy the ride!

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April 1st,1939. The spectre of an all-out war in Europe is looming. The Anglo-American writer and philanthropist Iris Origo – then owner of the La Foce estate in the Val d’Orcia – has just written the following words in her diary:

‘Chamberlain’s pronouncement about Poland has been received with unexpected moderation in the press and with some enthusiasm privately – as being likely to put a brake on Hitler.
A country neighbour (small farmer – a shrewd, sensible, elderly man) has just been to lunch, and has made no bones about expressing his disgust at recent events. He is particularly indignant at Mussolini’s phrase about peace being “a menace to civilization”. “What about Sweden and Norway?” he says. “Aren’t they more civilized than us? And happier?” (This is unexpected, he would not have said that five years ago.) He tells us that all his peasants, like ours, are terrified.’

Iris Origo (1902-1988) wrote many memoirs, essays and biographies during her life. She is probably best known for Images and Shadows, The Merchant of Prato and the gripping War in Val d’Orcia, a 1943-1944 war diary originally published in 1947 by Jonathan Cape (London), and which I told you about in a previous article. The above excerpt, however, is from a pre-war diary that has only been rediscovered lately and published last year as A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940.

In this latest work, Iris Origo proves once again to be a most sagacious observer of the shifting political landscape surrounding her. Elegantly written and favourably reviewed by The New Yorker, A Chill in the Air may not be the usual happy-go-lucky holiday read, but it is a surprisingly relevant and thought-provoking book in current times, as well as an unsettling reminder that things in this world can go pear-shaped very quickly.

On July 20th, 1939, Iris is writing: ‘‘Have just been to tea with some charming anti-Fascists, the Braccis. They – and they say all their friends – are very pessimistic about the prospect of war and regard the optimism of Fascist circles as either propaganda or wishful thinking. Contessa Bracci, who has two sons of twenty-two and nineteen, is particularly depressed. “It would be bad enough,” she says “if they were fighting for something they believe in. But to know that they will be fighting for what they hate and despise…”’

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Years ago, during a dinner in Montalcino, I overheard winemaker Donatella Cinelli Colombini tell the story of her winery. When she started producing her own Brunello wine in 1998, she wanted to hire a young cellar master. So she got in touch with the University of Siena to ask whether there were any graduates looking for a job. And the answer was: No, unfortunately they have all been snapped up by other estates.

Well, this was not entirely true: there happened to be, at that time, several female graduates who were in quest of jobs, but nobody would bother to mention them, as Tuscan wineries were only interested in hiring male staff.

As soon as she got wind of this, Donatella decided that it was high time things changed. She affixed the words Prime Donne (First Women) to the name of her estate, Casato, and would manage to prove to the world, soon afterwards, that excellent first-class wines could also be produced by women.

A few weeks ago, in the lovely thermal town of Bagno Vignoni, I walked into a handicraft store to have a look around. While chatting with the lady who was pulling out for me beautiful linen table cloths, I found out, to my great surprise, that this little Aladdin’s cave was another brain-child of Donatella! – who had opened the first Toscana Lovers store in Siena some years before. And her selection of Tuscan linens, hand-made ceramics and traditional Scarperia knives were such a success that she went on to set up two more stores in Cortona and Bagno Vignoni…

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In large cities, one of the greatest challenges posed to car owners is, of course, parking one’s beloved motorcar.

This is one of the top five questions I hear from our clients visiting Florence: “Will I easily find a place to park?”

Within walking distance of Florence’s main sights, like the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, there is the underground Santa Maria Novella parking lot (parcheggio in Italian), located right below the train station of the same name. And for those of you who are planning to explore the city’s artisan quarter – which I told you about in a previous article –, there is the Oltrarno Calza parcheggio, less central than the former but cheaper, nearer to sights such as the Palazzo Pitti, and within easy reach if you’re coming from the Chianti. You can access it from the Porta Romana.

Another good news: the City of Lilies has just added to its transport infrastructure a new tramline which will prove to be a godsend to visitors unwilling to get trapped either in rush hour or in the “restricted traffic areas” – about which Google Maps is not always fully reliable.

The new T1 tramline links the city center to the Villa Costanza parking lot, which is located right next to the Rome-Bologna highway – with its own dedicated highway exit. The journey to downtown Florence takes just over 20 minutes, and trams leave every 6 to 8 minutes.

The parking area costs 5€ for stays ranging from 4 to 10 hours, and 7€ thereafter. As for the tram tickets, they can be bought right at the stop, sell at 1.50€ each, and are valid for 90 minutes. Always remember to validate them at the yellow ticket machine once you get on the tram. And one more piece of advice: purchase a return fare on leaving the parking lot, so that you won’t have to worry about getting another ticket when, after a long taxing day of sightseeing, you’ll be making your way back to your automobile…

Buon Viaggio!

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San Gimignano… A lovely Tuscan town famous for its 13 medieval “tower houses” – and which I invited you, in a previous article, to visit in the much quieter wintertime. But the “Manhattan of the Middle Ages”, as it is nicknamed, is also one of the best places in Italy to see… contemporary art!

Inaugurated in 1990, the Galleria Continua boasts two exhibition spaces in San Gimignano: one in a forsaken and characterful movie theatre, the other looking onto the beautiful Piazza della Cisterna. The Galleria has also successfully branched out to Beijing, Habana and Boissy-le-Châtel, near Paris.

As a side note, when you are in the Piazza della Cisterna, look for the Dondoli gelateria, reputed to make some of the world’s best ice creams – I fully acquiesce in this opinion! So, after getting your eyeful of contemporary art, treat yourself to a Dondoli gelato, which you’ll enjoy while soaking up the winter sun on the steps of the Cisterna, alongside the locals…

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The Serenissima’s water parade is a kaleidoscope of sounds and colours!

At any time of the year, our Palazzo Ca’nova Borsato apartment offers a breathtaking view of the Serenissima’s Grand Canal. But during the world-famous Carnival, this view becomes nothing less than spellbinding. The above is a snapshot I took last year of the Venetian Rowing Association water parade, which I watched right from the Borsato apartment’s window.

The 2019 edition of the Venice Carnival will be launched on February 16, and extend over 18 colourful and boisterous days until Shrove Tuesday, on March 5. The beautiful water parade on the Grand Canal will be starting at 11 AM on Sunday, February 17. In other words, should you happen to be staying in our Borsato apartment, you’ll be able to party the night before, have a long lie in, and then watch the dazzling spectacle in your pyjamas while sipping a cappuccino or, why not, a glass of champagne!

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Rumour has it that the great Tintoretto, born Jacopo Comin in 1518, and nicknamed Il Furioso for his phenomenal brushstroke energy, had written this inspirative motto on the walls of his studio: MICHELANGO’S DRAWING AND TITIAN’S COLOUR.

Tintoretto’s 500th birthday is being celebrated with a series of superb exhibitions that will chiefly take place in Venice’s most important museums as well as in Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

Scheduled to open on March 10, 2019, the Washington exhibition won’t be preventing visitors to the Serenissima from getting their eyeful of Tintoretto’s work. Their monumental size protecting them from being moved around, most of the Furioso’s masterpieces are remaining in Venice.

While some of these pieces, like the Il Paradiso in the Doge’s Palace and the outstanding Miracle of the Slave in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, are right on the tourist track, many others can be peacefully admired away from the large crowds, as is the case for the ones exhibited in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco as well as in the Venetian churches which travellers hardly ever set foot in.

The Venice Civic Museums Foundation has put together a handy Tintoretto map which visitors can use to ferret out the lesser-known Tintoretto sites. Should you be tempted to undertake such a marvellous tour, I suggest you read what Jason Farago recounts in his New York Times article after seeing 150 Tintorettos in just three days…

A presto !

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Every once in a while – and always when I’m embarking on a New Year – I feel the urge to gorge myself on a delicious cecina, a chickpea flatbread which is the typical street food of Liguria and Northern Tuscany.

In Livorno, the cecina comes in the shape of a sandwich: a chickpea cake filled with marinated aubergines and nestled between two slices of crusty bread. It’s yummy, low-priced, and Italians call it a cinque cinque, a “five-five”. You’ll find the best wood-oven cooked cinque cinque at Da Gagarin, a small eaterie opposite Livorno’s market. . Washed down with the traditional glass of spuma, a carbonated drink, your simple and scrumptious feast won’t set you back more than a few euros!

Not in Livorno? Well, here’s a sweet alternative: Elizabeth Minchilli’s recipe

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I really love giving books as Christmas presents, especially books about Italian art, handicrafts, touring, food and wine. And there won’t be any exception to the rule this year, since I’ll be offering to three of my friends the beautiful “Woodworking : Traditional Craft for Modern Living”.

The authors of this book, Andrea Brugi and Samina Langholz, an Italo-Danish husband-and-wife duo, very nicely show how anyone, without the tools or expertise of an artisan, and by blending Tuscan elegance with the sleek lines of Scandinavian design, can turn bits of reclaimed wood into stools, egg cups, clothes racks, and what have you.

Exclusively crafted in their Maremma workshop, Andrea and Samina’s olive wood creations can be found on their website, in selected shops around the world, and on their Instagram.

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You certainly are familiar with the sound of the harpsichord, and would probably recognize the instrument itself if you saw one. But have you ever seen how it is built?

Last week, I was walking across Castelmuzio, a lovely Tuscan village not far from Pienza, when I randomly peeped through the window of an artisan workspace, expecting to see leather bags, wrought iron or the like… Instead, I stumbled upon harpsichords in the making!

Bruce Kennedy has been building harpsichords for more than 40 years, in Switzerland, the Netherlands and now in Tuscany. He has also founded the Piccola Accademia di Montisi, which organizes a festival each summer, as well as master classes and harpsichord lessons all year round. Find more photos of Bruce’s skills on our Instagram page!

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