Italy Travel

Florence in the Rain: The Genius Renaissance Artists of Lorenzo de Medici, Part-1.

View of Florence from Boboli Garden, Florence, ItalyStory and Photos by John Sundsmo.

Historic Florence (Firenze), the seat of passionate Renaissance artistic creativity, more than five-centuries have passed, and yet the art stays vibrant and engaging. Knowing there was a chance of rain, my wife and I hoped a visit in mid-March might avoid the summer crowds. Unexpectedly, walking in the light Spring rains added to the ambiance, with glistening rain-soaked cobblestones providing high relief for the architectural marvels of the 15th century. The tour groups were probably thinned relative to Summer, but Florence’s attraction was too compelling to dissuade visitors. Approaching the trip, I pondered how best to experience such an enormous cornucopia of artwork. I had three questions: i) why did Florence play such a prominent role in the early Renaissance; ii) why Florence, and not elsewhere; and iii) what fueled this explosive creative artistic expression in Florence? Browsing for answers, I came across “Magnifico” by Miles Unger. His fact-filled biography of Lorenzo de Medici answered many of my questions and helped me contextualize the upcoming trip.


Florence in the Rain: The Genius Renaissance Artists of Lorenzo de Medici, Part-2.

Sunset on the Arno River in FlorenceStory and Photos by John Sundsmo.

Continuing from Part 1, where my wife and I walked the Spring rains in Florence to view the Palazzo Medici, the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi Gallery. With the rain gone, we took advantage of our skip-the-line tickets to gain early entry to the Accademia Gallery.



From Trieste to Pula Along the Coast of Vanished Empires

Piran on the Slovenia CoastStory and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

The Adriatic is the closest sea to the heart of Europe. But its waters stop at the foothills of the Alps. The countries on the other side of the mountains remain separated from the sea forever. They can only watch with envy how the Italian northeast, Slovenia, and Croatia enjoy the beaches and the culture that came with its prosperous Adriatic history. It was not always this way. Until the First World War, the landlocked peoples and their coastal neighbors lived in the same big polity, “the great and mighty empire” of Austria-Hungary, in the words of Stefan Zweig. This empire was peculiar. in that it was terrestrial, multinational, and sleepy. It could not compete with the naval powers of its time. It kept trying, however. It anxiously hung on to the fragment of the coast it had—the province of Austrian Littoral, which reached from Trieste in present-day Italy all the way to Pula, at the tip of the Istrian peninsula in Croatia.



Palermo, Sicily’s Cultural Gem

Fountain of Shame, Palermo, Sicily, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin.

Defined by restless splendor, a maze of street life and dynamic architecture, Palermo is a must for curious travelers. Dominating the northwestern region of Sicily, Palermo has survived and borrowed 2700 years of history and conquests to become Sicily’s cultural and economic capital.



In Sicily, Dining with the Deities

Domo, and restaurant Cefalù, Sicily, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin.

If I could sum up the Italian character in three words, I would say: emotive, social, gastronomic. Of course, one cannot define a culture in three words; that’s an absurdity, particularly for a country as varied and steeped in both culinary and social traditions as Italy. In the gastronomic arena, Sicily is no exception. Here, gastronomy reigns supreme from the large northeastern city of Catania to its quaint southern tip, Syracuse. And while differing vastly in size, Agrigento, sitting along the expansive southwestern coast compared with tiny Cefalù, dotting the northwestern coast, both share their generous appetites for gastronomy.


Sicily for the Magic, the Lore and the History of Three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Temple of Concord, Valle die Templi in Agrigento, Sicily, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin.

A month is a trickle of time to tackle Sicily’s landscape, temples, and architecture. I flew into Northwestern Sicily, next to the calm Ionian Sea  but under the feared and loved eye of the Mount Etna Volcano. I landed in Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other two sites I visited were Syracuse and Valle dei Templi in Agrigento.








Sicily With Unpredictable Events Connecting to Chance Encounters

Benediction statue, Villa San Giovanni, Sicily, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin.

Sicily to Rome by train was never on the map of my travel itinerary; then nature intervened. My flight sat on the tarmac when Etna abruptly erupted, spewing volcanic ash from Catania to Palermo, cancelling all incoming and outgoing flights for two days, or until the volcano settled down. I’d been in Sicily a month, hiked Etna on a stunning warm day, and the largest volcano in Sicily decided the hour of my one-hour flight to Rome to flex its volcanic muscle.





Hidden Rome: A New Way to Explore the City

View from the terrace at the back of the Capitoline Hill, Hidden Rome, ItalyStory and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

In June 2021, Italy opened its borders to tourists from a range of countries, including the U.S., and allowed the vaccinated arrivals to skip quarantine. Soon afterward, I flew straight into Rome because after all, who knows how long the window of opportunity may last. After eighteen months without an international trip, I walked out of my guesthouse at Piazza di Spagna, and began staggering around the hot streets of Rome, not knowing how to travel anymore. Should I immediately start taking photos as usual, or should I run to the Colosseum just to cross an item off a list? The confusion began to feel like a hangover after a long and thorough delirium. The kind of hangover, which makes you want to start a new life. With that, I made a decision—no return to the pre-Pandemic way of traveling; no hunt for pictures considered iconic; no visiting of the famous sites, or at least, not only the famous sites. I was in Rome, and I was craving to feel it, explore it, and learn from it. But how to turn the lofty sentiment into reality? Maybe by turning the trip into a search for the most underrated places in Rome, even perhaps for what I came to term Hidden Rome.

Monferrato— A unique wine landscape of Piedmont, Italy

Monferrato region route, UNESCO heritage site, Monferrato area, Piedmont, ItalyStory and Photos by Deborah Grossman.

When friends ask me to choose my favorite region of Italy, I never hesitate. It is always Piedmont. This usually provokes two responses. What about Tuscany? Or, what’s to see in Piedmont? Friends who like Italian wine respond differently. “Ah, the land of Barbera and Nebbiolo wines. I’ve always wanted to go there.” I love all of Italy from the northern reaches of Alto Adige where German is spoken to the wide expanses of Puglia on the Adriatic Sea. But Piedmont holds my heart. In addition to presenting outstanding wines, the region extends warm hospitality and beautiful landscapes. After a trip four months before the pandemic began, I bonded even more strongly with Piedmont. In the Monferrato area, we visited historic cities, tasted delicious food, stopped by wineries and explored areas designated as UNESCO heritage sites. Bottom line: I fell in love with Piedmont all over again.



Peggy Guggenheim: At Home in Venice

Peggy Guggenheim home on the Grand Canal, VeniceStory and Photos by Lee Daley. On the Grand Canal of Venice if you look carefully, you will see -–almost hidden, overshadowed as it is by  the multi-storied palatial homes along that waterway – a low white stone palazzo that belies the treasures held within. This was the home of Peggy Guggenheim, an American heiress and art collector who single-handedly saved modern art. Peggy Guggenheim is known for her art collection and her outrageously unconventional life. Many have called her risqué, a term with which she would most likely agree.  If Peggy Guggenheim had lived in our time, she would be the ideal candidate for a reality TV series—her expertise, her “shoot from the hip” dialogue and colorful personal lifestyle meant scandals stuck to her like paint on a canvas. Case in point: In the prim 50s, Peggy needed no beau to escort her into Harry’s Bar for an evening cocktail. At her beck and call was her own private gondola propelled by her personal gondolier. He would ferry her along the canal and wait dockside while she savored a cocktail and took in the evening sunset: If anything can rival Venice in its beauty, it must be its reflection at sunset in the Grand Canal.” Peggy Guggenheim.



Venice For The Weekend

Accademia Bridge, Venice, ItalyStory and Photos by John Sundsmo.

On an island in a shallow lagoon, Venice came to dominance by sea power and now the power of the sea is threatening its very existence. My wife and I arrived in Venice two weeks before the catastrophic Acqua Alta (high water) tides that submerged Saint Mark’s square under more than five feet of water. The rushing sea wrought havoc with local merchants, restaurateurs and hostlers and damaged priceless works of art in Saint Mark’s Basilica. Vladmiro Cavagnis, a fourth generation gondolier, said: “It’s a city full of history. A history that, little by little, with water, will end up like Atlantis. People are destroyed, anguished, sad. They see a city that is disappearing.” (Alex Horton, Andrew Freedman – The Washington Post –  November 15, 2019). The November 2019 flood was the worst in the 700 years of recorded history at Saint Marks Basilica.  Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, described the disaster as: “..a blow to the art of our country. While it’s still too early to quantify the extent of its havoc, chances are it will leave indelible marks.” (Marianna Cerini, CNN –  November 16, 2019 ).



Midnight Truffle Hunt

truffle tasting, midnight truffle huntStory and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler.

Somewhere in the distance a church bell chimed the midnight hour. A heavy mist made visibility along the valley road challenging. Nearing our rendezvous site we spotted two small nondescript Italian cars hovering by the side of the road. The drivers flashed their lights at our mini-bus then, with a squeal of tires, sped off along the twisting country road. Our driver, not intimidated by their speed, followed closely behind as we bumped our way into the hills near Alba in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. We were on a midnight truffle hunt in search of the legendary “White Diamonds,” tartufo bianco, or white truffles. At a market price of nearly $2,000 a pound, truffle hunters are willing to secretly go to amazing extremes to find and retrieve these incredible tubers.



Carnevale Di Venezia is hot but Baby It’s Cold Outside

Carnevale di Venezia, Carnival of Venice, Carnival, Venice, ItalyStory and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Tuesday was the last day of Carnevale – and my last chance to wear one of the getups that were now all bunched up on the bottom of my suitcase. I looked at them with dismay. I couldn’t imagine venturing out in anything so light-weight and there was certainly no way I could layer enough clothing underneath one of my costumes to keep warm. I finally admitted that I would freeze to death in my thin little ensembles. So, attired in almost everything else I brought, I headed for the Piazza San  Marco. My Venetian friends had invited me to come to Venice for Carnevale. They said I could use the studio apartment kept for family and friends.  This was an offer I couldn’t refuse so I arranged my schedule to be in Venice the last week of Carnevale. Then, as an added treat, stop off in Paris for the weekend before heading home.





In Italy, the Fire of Mount Etna

The Fire of Mount Etna, Antico Souvenir shop near the summit. This is where shop keeper, Enrico, offered samples of various olive oils.Story and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Mount Etna, Italy. As I stood pondering the wares of the Antico Souvenir, near the summit of Mount Etna, a hand suddenly appeared in front of me, offering a small piece of bread smeared with a greenish-colored concoction. I looked up into the smiling face of the proprietor of the shop. “Signora, piacere,” he indicated for me to taste. I sniffed at the bread. It smelled heavenly. Then I slid my tongue over the paste. It tasted delicious. Happily, I popped the entire piece of bread into my mouth and smiled in appreciation.




Impressions of Venice Then and Now

Impressions of Venice, then and now. Venice street art watercolor, Venice magic spell revealed, Venice, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin

My last memory of Venice was as a 21 year old, running to catch a train with a backpack the size of my body molded to my spine. Too young, and too inexperienced a traveler, the magic spell Venice casts over first time arrivals completely washed over me. Now, decades later, I have returned to Venice, a seasoned traveler, a much older woman traveling alone with eyes and senses wide open, and as I enter the island on the Alilaguna boat from the airport, the immensity and expansiveness of Venice far surpass the impressions an eye or film can capture. The domes and cupolas asserting their architectural puissance, the palette of terra cotta and sunset colored palaces are a testament to the heart and soul that define Venice.



In Italy, a Slice of Tuscany

A slice of Tuscany, Sunset in Pogiacolle agriturisn, Tuscany, ItalyStory and Photos by Stephanie Levin

When Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun, became an overnight success, traveling to Tuscany became De rigueur. But with an aversion to following crowds, I circumvented Italy in my travels. Then a year ago, I would wake up in sweat dreaming about Italy; I dabbled in Italian, and listened to opera. Eventually, I bought a ticket to Italy fully aware I was not going to have a Frances Mayes experience-no Italian lover whisking me off for a brief tryst, nor a perfect villa with a view of paradise. Yet, as Italy beckoned like a languid lover, I sensed the land, or perhaps the people would offer something I hadn’t yet experienced in my travels. Tuscany did not disappoint.


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