Spending Christmas in Italy

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…and it gets slightly more wonderful when spent the world’s most beautiful country – Italy (we might be slightly biased here…)

As in many other countries, Christmas in Italy comes with a series of traditions starting as early as November – where in most towns and cities, one can see Christmas markets being set up – such as the Weihnachtsmarkt market in Florence – where one can find a selection of traditional German and Italian Christmas products in the Santa Croce Square.

Come early December, shops, squares and also houses put on their festive look – with most houses being decorated on the 8th of December- which marks a public holiday in Italy celebrating the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when most Italians take the opportunity of a free day off work to decorate their houses together with their families.

Spending Christmas in Italy is as magical as it sounds – our favourite Christmas celebrations are attending midnight mass at the Duomo (or any other church really!) and also, obviously, Christmas Lunch which is taken very seriously!  If you intend to have lunch on Christmas day our advice would definitely be to book in advance – as most places will either be fully booked, or else closed as smaller family-run restaurants might choose to close and spend the day with their loved ones. No Christmas is Christmas without gaining an extra pound or two…which is an excellent reason to indulge in the many Christmas desserts and sweets such as Pannettone, Pandoro, Panforte, and anything in between.

Following the intake of one too many calories, we would recommend you take a walk around, and observe how landmarks magically transform themselves in something more magic on Christmas day. Most museums will be closed on Christmas day, which is why we would recommend you schedule your trip to the museum to the following day: as most museums are open on the 26th December – including the Uffizi and Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Whichever way you choose to spend Christmas in Italy, you’re bound to experience a different yet wonderful day – in a country that cherishes traditions which have shaped its history and people for a long time, and which are bound to give you a Christmas to remember!

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Unique Souvenirs to take from Italy

Souvenirs – that lovely token sitting on our desk that helps us deal a little better with our post-holiday blues once we’re back home. Be it a figurine of Florence’s Duomo, a traditional mask from Venice or a t-shirt saying “I love Rome” – we like to look at these mementos of our unforgettable experiences away from home.

However, there is nothing more unforgettable and eternal than learning and experiencing when we’re on holiday. There is something much more special when preparing homemade pasta or picking up a paintbrush on a Saturday afternoon, and painting a portrait – and remembering you were taught how to do so on your holiday in Italy. So, here are a couple of things we think you should try when in Italy:

Get your hands messy in the kitchen

Be it pasta, pizza or a 5 course meal – Italy’s cuisine is famous for a reason. Perhaps there’s nothing that could cure our post-holiday blues than a nice, comforting plate of homemade pasta – reminding us of that amazing evening spent in great company over some good food.

Get to know your food (and your wine)

Food and wine are the staple of Italy’s lifestyle – and what else could be better than knowing the history, the culture and the traditions behind the food you’re eating or beverage you’re drinking. Also, taking that tradition back home, reminiscing your trip over dinner? Quite priceless!

Learn how to paint or sculpt

We like to think that the A in Italy stands for art – with cities and towns bursting at the seams with works of art at every corner. Learning the principles of painting or sculpting is pretty much like riding a bike – you will never quite forget them – and who knows – maybe you could discover a love for art, or also a skill previously known to you!

Immerse yourself in art

Even walking around the streets in Italy means absorbing all of the art that cities like Florence, Rome and Venice have to offer. Art is a witness to history’s happenings – from ancient times to contemporary times. We can learn so much about our history, our countries and our traditions – and also about ourselves just by exploring different works of art.

Or Learn to be a Gondolier…

Save the most unique for last! Going to Venice and looking in marvel at gondolas gliding on the canals is one thing – learning the skill behind it is another. Understanding what goes on behind the scenes, and also the history of this wonderful tradition is definitely a memorable experience (and it also looks great on your CV…)

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Photo credits: Nicolas Nova 

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Vasari Corridor re-opens – Last opportunity to visit before its closure

After its closure last July, the Vasari Corridor has now re-opened to the public. Visitors now have the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the famous secret passageway before it is closed once again this December. It should then be open again more than a year later, as major renovation works are expected to take place, which include moving the precious artworks housed in this corridor to a new dedicated space within the Uffizi Gallery.

The closure was a direct consequence of a fire department inspection which deemed the corridor as lacking apt safety and emergency measures. Now that it has re-opened, there are naturally a couple of compulsory limitations which were put in place.

Entrances are now limited to groups with a maximum of 19, plus a guide, as well as another two custodians. There is a maximum number of 88 people allowed in the corridor at once – which also includes members of staff. Other safety measures have been implemented.

This is the very last opportunity to see the Vasari Corridor as it is – and we’re making sure to offer an unforgettable experience to all those who wish to visit it with us. Given that one can only access the Vasari Corridor through the Uffizi Gallery, our tour starts off with a guided visit to the highlights of the Uffizi Gallery – introducing the main masterpieces within the museum before moving on to the corridor.

We’re offering our small-group tours on selected dates at selected times – with our first Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor tour running tomorrow, Tuesday 5th of October at 12.30pm! Other dates are available throughout the rest of October, as well as November.

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Art Lesson in Florence: Learn to Sculpt or Paint

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Florence is synonymous with its artists and architects that forever changed the world landscape in their artistic fields.

Considered the forefathers of painting are Cimabue and Giotto, together with art ‘uncles’ Andrea Pisano and Arnolfo. Then came Donatello, Masaccio, Bronzino, Raphael, Filippo Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Orcagna, Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico, Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benvenuto Cellini, Della Robbia, Nanni di Banco, Andrea del Sarto, Leon Battista Alberti, Bernardo Buontalenti, Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci – all who lived and worked within Florence.

As a result, Florence is home to some of the greatest artworks and museums, including the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia, with many churches also housing masterpieces by illustrious figures. Then there is, of course, the iconic Florence architecture that renders the city and its skyline so breathtakingly unmistakable.

The artistic tradition in Florence has never waned, with many art schools in operation today.

For anyone interesting in dipping their toe (or at least paintbrush) in the art lesson in Florence waters, we offer a half-day painting or sculpting lesson in Florence in a private studio.

As the photos show, this art lesson in Florence is fun for all ages and skill levels!

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Top reasons to visit Italy this Autumn

The days get shorter; the weather gets colder. Sulking, children and adults alike head back to school and to work after the summer holidays. Yes, autumn is right around the corner.

Different seasons, different charms. We might sound like a proud mother when we say that all seasons here in Italy are beautiful, and autumn is no exception. If you’ve considered visiting Italy in autumn, here are a couple of reasons which will further convince you to make your way to the Bel Paese.

It’s cool(er)

Following scorching summers in the cities – autumn means a sigh of relief for tourists and locals alike as temperatures drop, and make exploring and walking around much easier. Early autumn days still allow you to take a dip in one of Italy’s gorgeous seas, and you are likely to experience more sunny days than rainy ones – especially if you are headed to central-south Italy, but not only. Usually, most autumn days, albeit cooler, are nice and sunny even further north.

It’s less crowded 

During autumn, the cities start getting less crowded – as all summer vacationers head back to their normal routine back home. This usually means shorter lines at museums and attractions, as well as the luxury of having more space and time to enjoy the numerous wonders this country has to offer.

It’s harvest season

Spring is the season during which nature comes back to life – but autumn is the season during which it makes its way to your table! Most of Italy’s mouth-watering specialities are harvested during autumn – including olives and grapes (i.e. olive oil and wine!) A once in a lifetime opportunity would be participating in the production of wine, especially if you are a wine enthusiast. Learning about the harvest process and getting the opportunity to participate hands-on in the procfess is definitely an experience you will never forget!

It’s beautiful

The crispy auburn leaves, the streets glistening after the rain – Italy’s beautiful cities get a little more beautiful in autumn. Exploring the countryside – now the shade of autumn makes it really picture-perfect! Enjoy your time in Italy by either walking around the cities, and exploring the many wanders they have to offer – or discovering the beauty of its countryside on foot, on bike, or by even just by driving (or being driven) around.

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Grape Stomping in Tuscany

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Grape stomping is a traditional form of maceration that dates back to Roman times, at least as far back as 200 BC.

Freshly-harvested grapes would be placed in a barrel before people would climb in, barefooted, and squish the juice out of the grapes using their own bodyweight as the ‘press’.

The juice would then be collected and fermented to produce wine.

The wooden barrels would range in size from single-person to large enough to accommodate numerous people who turned this ancient practice into quite a spectacle during harvest festivals.

Also known as the pigeage method, eventually wooden presses and then more technological means developed over the centuries replaced this traditional grape stomping method.

Nonetheless, grape stomping is still a fun way to step (or stomp) back in time and engage in the days of yore.

To this end, throughout each harvest season (varying from around August to October). Taking place at a stunning historical villa in Tuscany, guests are given a tour of the vineyard, the modern cellar and the historic wine cellar before partaking in a good ol’ fashioned grape stomp.

After all that ‘exertion’, a typical light lunch comprising delicious Tuscan delicacies is served in the estate garden or by the pool  before this unique thing to do in Tuscany concludes with the return transfer to Florence.

The Grape Stomping tour in Tuscany is available during harvest season only, which varies each year. Throughout the rest of the year, we also have a great range of small-group Tuscany tours and private Tuscany tours to choose from.

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Why you should visit Sicily now

Delicious cuisine

It’s hard to imagine a trip to any part of Italy without food being one of the key elements. Sicily claims a diverse cuisine mainly attributed to its history, which has shaped not only the island, as we know it today, but also its foods and customs.

From its famous ricotta-filled cannoli and its famed granita and brioche, to its arancini and pasta alla Norma, you are bound to fall in love with Sicily’s simple yet scrumptious cuisine – be it sweet or savoury.

It is also perfectly acceptable to eat granita and brioche for breakfast in Sicily – just when we thought our dreams couldn’t come true!

Perfect combination! (Photo: Wikipedia)

Granita + Brioche = Perfect combination! (Photo: Wikipedia)

Marvellous landscapes

Mountains? Check. Hills? Check. Marvellous sea? Check.

Beautiful scenery from Taormina

Beautiful scenery from Taormina

Most of Sicily is mountainous, with its highest point being the famous Mount Etna which dominates its east coast – currently standing at more than 3,000 metres high, and covers an area of more than 1,000 km2 , which makes it the highest mountain in Italy south of the alps.

The famous Mount Etna which dominates its east coast – currently standing at more than 3,000 metres high

The famous Mount Etna which dominates its east coast – currently standing at more than 3,000 metres high

Its central plateau then slopes to the coastal lowlands – which then gives Sicily its stunning beaches which draws Italians and not alike during the summer months, especially given the warm temperatures and beautiful weather that characterise these months.

Fascinating history

Sicily’s strategic position meant that it was invaded for centuries by different powers, including the Romans, the Greeks as well as the Phoenicians. One can still see this history reflected in its architecture, ruins, foods, customs and the dialect used by locals.

Ortygia - is a small island which is the historical centre of the city of Syracuse, Sicily

Ortygia –  a small island which is the historical centre of the city of Syracuse, Sicily

Different areas of the island provide to different elements of its history – visit Taormina for Roman ruins, Syracuse and Agrigento for Greek ruins, Palermo for Arab ruins – amongst many others.

Unique atmosphere

Although Sicily is now part of Italy, it has been an autonomous island for much of its history. That, and also more recent history has created one of the most diverse regions in Italy, and one of the most unique islands on earth! A definite must-see.

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Ferragosto – what is it, and what can I do?

There is one thing that is constantly on an Italian’s mind during the month of August – “le ferie”, the holidays.

Italians seem to look forward to their period of holiday a little more than the rest of us – especially to the period in August known as “Ferragosto”, which is also the main reason why you walked to your local grocery store only to find a “chiuso per ferie” (closed for holidays) sign proudly attached to the shutter. It is also one of the main reasons why the main cities in Italy during the month of August seem to be deserted of locals – as they all flee towards the seaside – ready to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation and rest. It is also what feels like the final morsels of summer to Italian children, who will be, eagerly or not, heading back to school during the month of September.

The actual Ferragosto holiday is celebrated on the 15th of August. The history behind its celebration goes a long way, way back to the 18th century. Emperor Augustus had introduced celebrations called the Feriae Augusti (Festicals of the Emperor Augustus) to mark the end of intense agricultural labor, and so celebrated the harvest made during that year. These celebrations, which included horse races, served also as a period of rest to those who had been previously during that year involved in agricultural labour. Some remnants of these celebrations are still alive today, as for instance, Siena celebrates its Palio dell’Assunta on August the 16th.

Fast-forward to many years later, and nowadays Ferragosto is still all Italians (or almost) look forward to. With celebrations happening all over Italy, you are bound to find something you enjoy! If you happen to find yourself in Italy during this period – it would be a great idea to plan from beforehand. Most shops, stores and restaurants in the city centres should still be open during this period, however you will find that they might be working on reduced hours, or that some of them might close during a certain week or days.

One of the best things to do during this period would to head towards the seaside – although you might find that most of them might be over packed with locals and tourists alike. One other alternative would be to take a dip in a pool, enjoying the beautiful countryside landscape Italy can offer, whilst savouring its wonders of food and tasting some chilled wine.

For those of you who wish to stay out of the sun, you might want to head towards the museums. Some museums have special opening hours on the 15th of August, which also includes the famous Uffizi Gallery Museum as well as the Accademia museum in Florence, which will both be open from 8.15am till 6.50pm on that day. You  might also want to visit the Uffizi Museum and the Accademia museum these museums during the days prior or following this day – and leave the 15th free for enjoying some fun in the sun.

Again, should you want to stay in the city, but you’re concerned about the heat, you could try visiting cities which are breezier than the rest – which is something usually characteristic of hilltop towns such as Siena and San Gimignano, whose location makes them a little fresher.

Whichever option you take, this period is an occasion to experience Italy as the locals do –do not forget to stay hydrated, and obviously, do not forget to cool down with some gelato!

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Siena: what to do and where to visit

Famous for its cuisine, medieval cityscape and its horse race held twice every year, known as the Palio, Siena is a must-see for anyone willing to explore what Tuscany has to offer in its different cities and towns.

Local legend has it that this medieval hilltop town was founded by Senius and Aschius – which happen to be the two sons of Remus (and so, the nephews of Romulus, i.e. the one after whom Rome was named). It’s said that following their father’s murder, they fled Rome taking with them the famous Capitoline Wolf statue – which is now the symbol for the town – whose name is said to thus originate from the name Senius. This is just one of the many theories behind the etymology of the word Siena – other theories being it originated from Saina – the Etruscan tribe that is said to have inhabited it first; or from the Roman family name Saenii, amongst others.

Fast-forward through years of battles, victories and losses – Siena is nowadays rich in history, art and culture – home to many landmarks and masterpieces worth visiting.

Firstly, head towards the town’s cathedral – an example of an Italian Romanesque-Gothic architectural masterpiece. The original plan for this cathedral also included a huge basilica, however due to lack of funds, this over-ambitious plan was abandoned. However works had already began, and you can still see the east wall of what had to be an east-west nave still standing today, close-by to where the cathedral is.

After that, you can head towards Piazza del Campo – one of the largest medieval squares in the world, which distinguishes itself from others through its shell-shape form. This square also hosts the famous Palio – a historical horse race that dates back to the 12th century, held twice a year during summer – once in July, and once in August. Ten horses and riders, dressed in the respective colours of their contrade (different city districts whose emblems can be seen throughout the whole town) compete to win this prestigious race. There are seventeen contrade, however not all of them take part in the Palio, which goes further than being a simple horse race. Through the years, intense ongoing rivalry and competition have characterised this race – where the trophy is that of the drappellone or palio (banner), which is delivered to the contrada that wins the race.

You can also spot the palace where all of Siena’s political history is encased – the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall), which nowadays houses the Civic Museum of Siena, where you can see the Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous The Allegory of Good and Bad Government – a series of three fresco panels depicting everyday life in Siena during the Middle Ages.

It’s impossible to visit Piazza del Campo and not see the Torre del Mangia. Overlooking the piazza is a tower 88 metres in height. You can also choose to climb the 400 steps that lead you to a breathtaking view of the town. The tower got its name after its first guardian, Giovanni di Duccio – or better his nickname of “mangiaguadagni” which can be roughly translated to “the one who spent all his earnings on food”.

Speaking of which, no trip to anywhere in Italy would be complete without sampling some of the traditional cuisine. Our Best of Tuscany tour not only includes a visit to Siena, but also gives you the opportunity to sample some of the exquisite Tuscan food and wine in a traditional  Tuscan estate – all whilst enjoying the beautiful panoramas only the Tuscan countryside can offer.

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Bookstores in Florence

Whether it’s to keep you company on a long train ride, or a newly-found interest, or simply token to take back home – shopping for books is part of almost anyone’s itinerary when on holiday.

With Italy having culture and the arts so deeply rooted in its daily life, it comes to no surprise that shopping for books should be a piece of cake (or better, a piece of tiramisu).

Taking Florence as an example, here’s some of our favourite book shops, where you can also get books in English, about pretty much everything:

La Feltrinelli

With it being one of Italy’s leading bookstore chains, it comes to no surprise that La Feltrinelli is one of the best-stocked bookshops in Florence. There are a number of branches spread around the city, including two in the Santa Maria Novella train station, one on Via de’ Cerratani (one of the streets that lead to the Duomo Square), as well as one on Piazza della Repubblica. This one also features a cool café where you can sip on your cappuccino whilst reading your newly purchased read. All branches have a range of books in English, including books about Florence and Italy.

IBS + Libraccio

Another leading chain here in Italy – with its store in Florence being on Via de’ Cerratani. You can find a wide range of books, including a section that sells second-hand books as well.

The store also has convenient seating where you can sit and read your book surrounded by fellow book-lovers, whilst relaxing after a day walking around the city.

Todo Modo

This is the place you want to go to if you’re looking for an experience that goes beyond just buying a book. This independent bookshop houses several events during the week, including readings – and also includes a space where you can have your coffee (or glass of wine). Their only branch is on Via de Fossi, 12/R – just a stone’s throw away from Santa Maria Novella.

The Paperback Exchange

This is the go-to bookstore for books in English – once a small family business, this independent bookshop has grown into one of the most important English-language bookstores in Italy.

This bookshop also stocks second-hand books, aside from new ones, which vary from university textbooks, to books about history, art and literature. You can also sell your paperbacks and use the credit towards more books – hence the “exchange” part in the name. It’s also very centrally-located, with it being a few steps away from the Duomo on Via della Oche 4R.

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Photo credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr

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