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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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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