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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Vasari Corridor shut down

Vasari’s famous corridor, as well as one of Florence’s top attractions has been closed off with immediate action as of Monday, 11th of July 2016.

The news was communicated by museum officials, following a fire department inspection which took place due to security and safety concerns expressed.

As it is, there hasn’t been any communication stating if or when the corridor will be reopening for visits.

Prior to this decision, the corridor was not available to the general public – with the exception of exclusive-entry group visits arranged by tour operators.

The Vasari Corridor connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti - and crosses over the famous Ponte Vecchio

The Vasari Corridor connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti – and crosses  the famous Ponte Vecchio

Renovations addressing these concerns where supposed to take place at the end of this year, for around 18 months. It is now unsure whether these renovations will be done earlier than scheduled. These renovations also include the decision to move the precious artworks housed in this corridor to a new dedicated space within the Uffizi Gallery.

This 16th-century elevated corridor houses more than 700 works of art, and links the Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. The same corridor joins the Uffizi Gallery and also crosses the well-known Ponte Vecchio.

Built in just five months, following an order of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565, the Vasari Corridor was built as a result of the Grand Duke’s wish to move freely between his residence and the government palace.

Anyone wishing to visit just the Uffizi Gallery is still able to do so, both individually as well as in groups.

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What to pack for your summer vacation in Italy

Italy – the land of food, culture and fashion.

Packing for your summer vacation in Italy might sound like a headache – you want to look good, but at the same time you need clothes which are comfortable enough for all the walking and sight-seeing there is to do (and also loose enough for all the food there is to eat!)

However there are a couple of things you can bear in mind when packing your suitcase, that will make which clothes to pack and which to leave behind the least of your worries.

Shoes

The keyword here is comfort. One of the best things to do in Italy is to walk around the cities, explore its streets and alleys, and absorb the local life. You will spend time walking around museums, from one attraction to the next. In addition, as most of the historical city centres are closed to cars – your feet will have to be your main form of transport – and in turn, comfortable shoes will be your best friends.

Cobbled streets make very pretty photos, but also make archenemies to heels. Thick-soled shoes are your safest bet – especially if you are planning on spending entire days walking.

Naturally, pack appropriate shoes if you are going hiking – especially if you intend to go to more authentic and remote towns, where you might not always find somewhere to buy the pair of shoes you accidently forgot to pack.

Clothes

Probably a headache for all genders and ages alike – whether we admit it or not. Packing for the best-dressed country can sometimes be intimidating – especially in summer. If you want to blend in with the locals, go for more classic pieces in neutral colours, which you can easily mix and match during your stay.

If you’re taking tours that enter the Duomo, or any other church – make sure you keep the dress-code required in mind. Both women and men need to have both shoulders and knees covered. It’s always a great idea to pack a scarf which you can use to cover your shoulders, and which easily fits in a handbag. In the case of men, it’s best to pack a pair of longer shorts – just in case.

Most nights anything casual will do – but it’s always best to pack something a little more formal and dressy, especially if you’re planning on dining at a fancier restaurant during your trip.

Bags

Prior to just picking one bag and deciding on wearing it for all of your stay in Italy – make sure that it is apt for all the activities you’ve planned. This means that even though a huge backpack would fit in all of the things you want to carry around during your day – you might not be allowed to enter with that same bag at larger museums such as the Uffizi Gallery or the Academia Museum. At the same time, you might be allowed a small purse in the museums – but you will then find it hard, if not impossible to carry your bottle of water, your money, your camera, and the list goes on.

Make sure every bag you decide to pack closes properly – to avoid things falling out, or also being taken.

Odds and ends

Sunscreen and insect repellent. You will thank us after you’ve spent a whole day walking around the city in the scorching sun. Sunglasses will protect you from the sun, and give you a classier look. It’s always best to keep a copy of your passport around with you at all times – and leaving your passport stored safely at your hotel or accommodation. Spare change is useful, as some of the smaller shops might not allow credit card payments.

Forgot to pack something? Well…that’s always a good enough excuse to go shopping.

You can also take a look at our tips on Youtube on how to pack and how to dress in Italy.

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Photo credit Flickr

 

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Around Italy by train: a quick guide

If you’re travelling to Italy, and you want to see more than one city – then travelling by train is your safest bet. Not only are the main cities well-connected between one another, but they’re also connected to smaller, sometimes more authentic towns close-by.

Travelling by train in a new country might sound pretty daunting – there are numbers to remember, platforms to find, and suitcases to carry. However, here are a couple of tips that will make your journey much smoother and hassle-free!

Booking your train

There are a number of ways to book your train ticket. One way of doing it, even before travelling to Italy, would be through the websites for the two main train companies: Trenitalia, the national rail service, or Italo Treno – a relatively new private company which connects Italy’s main cities. Booking this way also means you can save a digital version of your ticket – which saves you the hassle of carrying (and risking to lose) another sheet of paper. Booking online also means you can book way more in advance – which usually means cheaper tickets.

You could also buy your ticket at the actual train station prior to departure – however this way you either run the risk of not finding a place available on the train you wanted to catch  – or finding just the most expensive seats available.

You can find several machines throughout the train stations where you can buy your ticket, or else you could also buy your tickets from authorized stands found in the train station. If you need help, make sure you ask for help from a member of staff – as in some of the main train stations you might find some individuals who offer their help and then ask (or in some cases, help themselves) for money in return.

One last tip, when booking your train make sure you give yourself more or less 15-30 minutes of allowance from the actual time you want to be in a city – especially if you intend to join a tour or check-in your hotel. Usually trains depart punctually, but delays also happen.

Finding your train

There are a couple of terms you need to know. “Partenze” means departures, “arrivi” means arrivals, “binario” means platform, “carrozza” means carriage, and “posto” means seat number.

High-speed trains (Frecce Rosse, Frecce Argento and  Frecce Bianche as well as Italo Treni) usually come with a fixed seat and departure time. Tickets for these trains will also usually tell you which exact train you’re meant to catch, its code – which you can then find on the screens spread throughout the cities.

When purchasing tickets to slower trains (Intercity or Regional), which connect smaller towns and cities, you might find that the ticket has no departure time, no train code, or no seat assigned. This usually means that it’s an open ticket – so you can find which train you can take to your destination using the schedules spread throughout the train stations, or by asking a member of staff.

Make sure you always validate your ticket – as you might incur a huge fine if you don’t.

Then?

After finding your assigned seat, or a seat in case of unassigned seats – there’s not much to do aside from enjoying your trip and the panoramas. Most trains also have power outlets so you can also use that to charge any electronics.

As always, keep your belongings safe and make sure you get off the right train station. When in doubt, ask – more often than not, locals are more than happy to help!

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Vasari Corridor Closing – last chance to experience this unique space in Florence

Uffizi Vasari Corridor tour After much uncertainly about the future of the Vasari Corridor in Florence, it has now been confirmed that access to the passageway as it stands today will only be possible until the end of October 2016.

Presently, the Vasari Corridor hosts a unique collection of portraits and self-portraits that has lined the corridor for many decades. With the nature of the Vasari’s famous passageway not conducive to temperate control, the collection is to be moved to a new dedicated space within the Uffizi Gallery so as to better protect these precious works.

The Vasari Corridor will then be transformed into a walkway connecting the Uffizi Gallery to another museum in the city, with a new doorway to be created for access. While there is talk that some statues or frescoes may line the passageway, for the most part the Vasari Corridor will be left empty to accommodate its newly-determined function as, well, a corridor.

Works are scheduled to take around 18 months to complete, meaning it will likely be a good way into 2018 before visitors can step into this architectural wonder.

It also means there is only a short window of opportunity to have exclusive access to the Vasari Corridor as it is today, which occurs on our Vasari Corridor tour when the doors open just for us.

Vasari Corridor tour

Being that an Uffizi Gallery ticket is required to access the Vasari Corridor, we commence our Vasari Corridor visit with a guided exploration of the Uffizi as a marvellous introduction to the artists and artworks.

Our small-group Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor tour runs each Tuesday and Saturday, with private visits available upon request. The Uffizi Gallery tour (sans Vasari visit) is also offered Tuesdays-Sundays.

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Top Tuber – Truffle Risotto Recipe

cooking in italy

Delicious truffle risotto recipe

As avid foodies in Florence, nothing excites us more than finding fresh truffles.

In Italy, truffles are regularly sold from fool stalls at markets and fairs. Some grocers will sometimes have them, as may certain delicatessens (“gastronomia” or “alimentari”). If you’re truly lucky, you may have a truffle-hunting friend or neighbour who that can keep you in good supply.

Highly prized, truffles are of the Tuber genus in the fungi family. They are also likely one of the ugliest of foodstuffs that humans consume!

Misshapen lumps that grow in relation to tree roots, truffles have a pungent flavour that has a petrol-like smell.

Indeed, some products peddled as “truffle oil” can contain chemical aromas deriving from petroleum. Generally, however, real truffles are not preserved in oil as they present the risk of c. botulinum toxin poisoning.  As fun as free Botox may sound, it’s best to stick to the real and rare thing.

If you cannot avail of true truffles, the next-best option is truffle salt flavoured with real pieces of truffle. It is the ultimate way to pimp up your popcorn, sass up your steak, make elegant eggs or marvellous mash potatoes.

The secret to using truffles is to let them be the star. Italians mostly use truffles on simple bases, with the truffles grated atop at the end of the cooking process. Some examples include pasta coated with a light amount of butter or fried/scrambled eggs (which, incidentally, Italians eat for lunch or dinner, being that breakfast is usually something light and sweet like a pastry).

After finding a couple of “Scorzone” black summer truffles recently, we prepared a simple risotto by chopping an onion that was then cooked in a dash of extra-virgin olive oil until soft and clear. Next, we added carnaroli rice to the pot, stirring it into the oil and letting it toast for a minute. Next, in went a glass of white wine (following the “one for the pot, one for the chef” rule, of course).  Once that had evaporated, fresh vegetable stock was scooped in until the rice was just covered. Additional ladles were added until the rice was cooked, but still quite firm. At this point, a good grating of fresh Parmesan cheese* was stirred in before the heat was turned off. Finally, the truffle was grated then folded into the risotto, with some shavings spared to decorate the plate.

Risotto is served in Italy as a “primo piatto” (first course). As our “secondo” (main course), we kept in theme, preparing grilled chicken breast served with a “contorno” (side) of steamed asparagus coated in truffle and creamy goats cheese.

cooking in italy

Italian recipe: asparagus with truffle and creamy cheese

Discover more about Italian recipes in one of our hands-on cooking classes in Florence and Cooking Classes in a Tuscan Villa.

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* If real Parmesan cheese (“Parmigiano-Reggiano”) cannot be found, it would be better to skip the cheese altogether than use a fake version which may be labelled as “Parmesan” or something similar. The real deal will have only three ingredients –  milk, salt and rennet. You only need a small amount so it’s best to splurge on a small chunk of this cheese gold than use a poor imitation. If you cannot find real Parmigiano-Reggiano, there is the cheaper and somewhat similar Grana Padano. At a stretch, you could also use Pecorino Romano.

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Of pantaloons and cow – The Calcio Storico Fiorentino

The most awaited Calcio Storico Fiorentino is back in town – one of Florence’s most major events, dating back to 16th century Tuscany. Florence’s Santa Croce Square will be hosting, once again, what is thought to be one of the earliest forms of football – providing an exciting event to locals and visitors alike here in Florence.

So what is the Calcio Storico exactly? Firstly, it is important to note that the word “calcio” translates itself to “kick” in Italian, which is an understatement to how “physical” these matches can get – even though there were some slight changes to the rules to make these games slightly less violent.

Some of these adjustments include a no chocking rule as well as that all confrontations need to be one-on-one. However, the aim of the game remains the same: that to get the ball across the lines, in any possible way, as many times as possible.

Calcio Storico Florence

Matches last 50 minutes – and are played in a field that is similar to their modern-day counterparts. The pitch, which measures approximately 80 x 40 meters, is divided into two squares by a white line. On either side of the pitch is a goal net that runs along its width.

There are some other differences from football as we know it today – each team has 27 players and no substitutions are allowed – even if players are injured. Each team has four goalkeepers (known as Datori indietro), five halfbacks (known as Sconciatori), three fullbacks (Datori innanzi), and 15 forwards (known as either innanzi or corridori).

There are four teams, representing each “neighborhood” (known as “Quartieri” in Italian): Santa Croce is represented by the Azzuri (Blues), Santa Maria Novella is represented by the Rossi (Reds), Santo Spirito is represented by the Bianchi (whites) and finally San Giovanni is represented by the Verdi (Greens).

Players play bare chested, however sport brightly-colored pantaloons – which make you feel as though you’ve been taken back straight into the Renaissance.

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Calcio Storico Florence

The prize for the winners? A cow. That’s right – the winning team gets a Chianina – a type of cow. That, and of course knowing they’re Florence’s toughest. For this year at least.

This year’s Calcio Storico kicks off on June 11th, where the Greens (San Giovanni) will be playing the Whites (Santo Spirito). The second semi-final takes place on the following day, the 12th of June, where the Reds (Santa Maria Novella) play the Blues (Santa Croce). Both games will take place in Piazza Santa Croce at 5pm.

The finalists will then play against each other on June the 24th, preceded by a parade that starts at around 4pm. The final starts playing at around 5pm, again in Piazza Santa Croce.

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