The medieval beating heart of Siena

Although often in the shadow of nearby Florence, the charming provincial city of Siena is a favourite destinations in Italy.

For a start, the heart of Siena retains much of its medieval character, with most modern buildings located outside the city walls.

Walking through the gates, you enter into a city centre made up largely of narrow, winding streets and stately old buildings.

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This is truly the quintessential Italian medieval town, with more than its fair share of palaces and historic structures.

Our eyes were drawn immediately to the shell-shaped square called the Piazza del Campo, where tourists flock each year to watch horse races, known world-wide as the Palio di Siena.

The races, which are of medieval origin, are held twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August, amid local festivities.

Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in bright colours, race around the Piazza del Campo on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid. The race is run for three laps of the piazza and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds.

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We wandered to the massive Palazzo Pubblico, which serves at the seat of Siena’s local administration.

The Palazzo Publico is an excellent example of the precision and beauty of Gothic architecture.

Sue was keen to see the remains of the Gala Fountain, a fine early example of garden architecture.

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Siena’s awesome duomo

Secondly, all the striking buildings of Siena are dwarfed by the awesome Cattedrale dell’Assunta (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption), a magnificent example of Italian Gothic architecture.

The outside of the cathedral is certainly impressive, built in the shape of a Latin cross, with a projecting dome and bell tower.

Constructed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure, the cathedral is decorated both inside and out in white and greenish-black marble – the symbolic colours of Siena.

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Although it is not on a national highway or big rail route, Siena, understandably, is a popular tourist attraction.

It is also an important market town for the surrounding rural area, which produces cattle, grains, olives and superb wines.

Siena is about 30 miles or 48 kilometres south of Florence in the Tuscany region of central Italy. It is about 144 miles or 247 kilometres from Rome.

 

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The Duomo di Milano: huge yet lacy

Mark Twain sure knew what he was talking about when he described Milan’s Duomo as “grand and vast –  yet delicate”.

The American author went on to add: “What a wonder it is”

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Courtesy Paul Bica, Toronto, Canada, Flickr and Wikimedia

There’s no doubt the Duomo di Milano is a substantial building. Able to hold 40,000 people and standing 108 metres high, it is the biggest church in Italy and the fifth largest in the world. (St Peter’s Basilica is bigger, but is in the State of Vatican City)

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The Gothic Duomo took almost six centuries to build in a number of contrasting styles. Because of this, the building is regarded as a testament to many changing styles of art and culture.

Check this stunning 360 degree panoramic view provided by the Duomo di Milano website.

Centre of the city

The Duomo sits squarely in the centre of Milan, with city streets either radiating from it, or circling it.

Our guide told us that the site of the Duomo was the most central location in Mediolanum, the ancient settlement established about 600BC that later became the capital of the Western Roman Empire.

It was originally the location of a church and later a cathedral that was ravaged by fire.

The brick and marble Duomo has 3,400 statues, 55 stained glass windows, beautiful altars and paintings.

There is also an early Christian baptistery, dating back to Roman times.

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We took the elevator to the roof, where we were able to see the many spires and sculptures – and we climbed the 50 steps to the highest terraces.

There, amid the marble and lacy ironwork,we were amazed by an unexpected feature of the Duomo’s roof – 135 gargoyles that serve both as decorations of sort and very effective drainpipes.

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The view across Milan was also stunning, including a wonderful look over the busy forecourt at the city’s grand shopping area, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

The Duomo di Milano is a wonderful attraction and we thoroughly recommend a visit.

Milan is located in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, about 572 miles or five-and-a-half-hours from Rome.

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It is regarded as a global capital of fashion and design and is also a financial hub known for high-end dining and shopping.

 

 

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Amazing Rome tugs at the heart

“What did the Romans ever do  for us’ is surely the silliest question ever.

One of the world’s most beautiful destinations and the capital of a wonderful country, the Eternal City has long held a special place in our hearts.

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It has a warm embrace of history that you can feel in the air; a sense of walking in the shoes of civilisation and of stepping back centuries.

Built by Romulus in about 753 BC, Rome is a cosmopolitan city with thousands of years of influential art, architecture and culture.

Our favourite sight is the wonderful Roman Pantheon, an ancient temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. On our last visit, we stood transfixed as the marble walls echoed to a solitary angelic voice singing what we took to be an Italian hymn.

See this remarkable moment:

Completed by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD on the site of a building that dates to about 27 BC, the Pantheon is the best preserved  building of ancient Rome

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Michelangelo is said to have studied it before starting work on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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The oculus, the only source of natural light in the Pantheon, is a round opening in the centre of the dome. It is 27 feet in diameter and open to the sky (the floor is gently sloped to allow for runoff of rainwater).

Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a church, informally known by the locals as ‘Santa Maria Rotonda’ with its striking stone pillars and incredible acoustics.

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The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda and is surrounded by cute Italian coffee shops.

There is so much to see and do in Rome – from the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, to the sparkle of the Trevi Fountain; the treasures of Vatican City; the Spanish Steps; the mysterious catacombs; and the wonderful monument known as the Altare della Patria, or ‘Altar of the Fatherland’.

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But, if you haven’t seen it  before, make sure you find time to visit the Pantheon during your visit to the Eternal City.

The Pantheon is located right in the heart of ancient Rome. It is open to the public daily except for some national holidays and if a Mass is taking place.

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Limoncello: nectar of a wonderful land

Italy’s magnificent Sorrentine peninsula, Amalfi Coast and Isle of Capri are some of the most beautiful places on earth.

With astonishing scenery; picture-postcard towns and villages; and a gentle laid-back lifestyle, this part of the Campania region of southern Italy is largely unspoilt, despite its appeal to travellers.

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And, in recent years, the area has also become well known for Limoncello, a locally-produced lemon liquer whose fame has quickly spread around the world.

On our last visit to Campania, we sampled Limoncello before and after meals and were told that, traditionally, it was made from the zest of the Femminello St. Teresa lemon – also known as Sorrento or Sfusato lemon.

Put simply, lemon zest, or peels without the pith, is enriched by water, alcohol, sugar and syrup.

The process takes about three months and we were told that varying the sugar-to-water ratio and the temperature affects the clarity and flavor.

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A popular ingredient in cocktails, Limoncello gives a strong lemon flavor without the sourness or bitterness of pure lemon juice.

In typical Italian fashion, there seems to be a debate about the origin of the popular liquer, depending on who you ask – and where.

We were told that Limoncello was first made about 1900 on the Isle of Capri, that jewel of an island much beloved by the rich and famous.

However, ask that same question on the Amalfi Coast, and you are likely to hear that the liquer is actually much older – possibly first used by fishermen to fortify themselves against the cold.

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Yet others, are convinced that the recipe was actually born inside a monastic convent.

But, regardless of Limoncello’s origins, sales of the liquor – with its unique taste and the aroma – has grown like Topsy.

It is is also produced in Sicily; Sardinia; the Maltese island of Gozo; several other places in Italy; and even in France and the United States.

Limoncello is the second most popular liquer in Italy and is also a big seller in the US; Canada; the United Kingdom; Australia and New Zealand, to name a just a few areas.

We were told that the lemons of southern Italy are particularly good for making Limoncello, because the Mediterranean climate produces fruit with a thick and colourful skin.

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So …. do we recommend Limoncello? Without hesitation.

And, for us, the liquer is just another reason to visit a particularly stunning part of the planet.
Photo attributions: Lemons courtesy Wikimedia Commons photo by user BigFan; homemade Limoncello courtesy Wikimedia Commons photo by user Alejo2083.

Amalfi Coast Tramonti

Oh, take us back to Baveno and the mountain lakes

Baveno, in northern Italy, is one of our favourite destinations.

Sitting on the shore of Lake Maggiore, the town is literally a slice of heaven: a world away from the pressures of modern living and a great advertisement for the dreamworld that is Italy.IMG_0364

The lake – the second biggest in Italy and the largest in southern Switzerland – nestles into the southern side of the Alps and Baveno is set in typical prealpine countryside, part of the region of Piedmont.

We’ve been fortunate to spent time in the town, visiting the wonders of the Borromean Islands; touring the famous Isola Bella and its magnificent Baroque palace; taking day trips to neighbouring Lake Como and Lake Garda; and checking out the area’s many villas, castles and wonderful gardens.IMG_1314

Isola Bella, we were told, dates from 1630, when local Governor, Carlo Borromeo the Third, apparently obtained land on what was then known as the island of Isola Inferiore.  He soon began planning a residence there – and renamed  the island after his wife Isabella.

Carlo’s sons later created not just a simple villa, but a palace worthy of entertaining the greatest nobility of Europe.

On the way back from touring the palace, we stopped at neighbouring Isola Pescatori, where there is a quaint fishing village and some excellent fish restaurants.IMG_0365

The island ferries provide a striking view across the waters of Lago Maggiore toward the Swiss canton of Ticino.

Only a short drive away is the picturesque Swiss city of Lugano, with its eye-catching lakeside and mouth-watering hot chocolate.

The water wonderland around Baveno is set against a backdrop of striking green hills and impossibly steep roads.IMG_0317

In these hills, north west of the town are famous red granite quarries, which have supplied the columns for the Cathedral of Milan; the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura at Rome; the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele at Milan; and other important Italian buildings.

Baveno itself is a quaint town with a tangle of cobblestone streets; a notable 16th Century square; and excellent restaurants and cafes. Many of the villas around the town boast extraordinary grounds that benefit from the region’s moist and temperate climate.IMG_0345

Our hotel – the Grand Hotel Dino

Our favourite hotel in the area is the Grand Hotel Dino, part of the Zacchera group and sitting plumb on the waterside with views over the Lago Maggiore to the mountains.

With two swimming pools and colourful gardens, Grand Hotel Dino combines the benefits of a large hotel with the tranquility of the lake shore.IMG_0340

From the eye-catching stained glass ceiling in the foyer, to the lavish furnishings, well equipped rooms and health club,  the Grand Hotel Dino manages to be modern and plush while still at one with the peaceful lakeside environment.

We cannot speak more highly of both Baveno and the Grand Hotel Dino.

It is a very nice part of the planet indeed.

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Venture into Rome’s historic catacombs

Not all the wonders of Rome, Italy, are above ground.

If you are able to walk down steep stairs and along narrow tunnels, a visit to the catacombs – or underground cemeteries – of the Eternal City is both fascinating and memorable.

There are several choices, but we’ve been to the Catacombs of Callixtus, which are beneath a 90 acre site off the famous Appian Way – contain a network of galleries in four levels, more than 20 metres below the surface.IMG_0606

In this catacombe – which dates to the middle of the second century – were buried tens of martyrs, many Popes and hundreds of thousands of Christians.  Their graves were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits.

Tours of the Catacombe of Callixtus are conducted in several languages and we were told of an area known as ‘The Little Vatican’, so called because it was the official burial place of many Popes.

Our guide explained that in tunnels explored to date, archaeologists had found the tombs of about 500,000 people.

He also pointed out that the patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia, was initially buried in the catacombe, though her body was later removed.

The Catacombe of Callixtus was almost lost during the Middle Ages, when the area was no longer used and fell into disrepair. Centuries later, the underground cemetery was explored and studied in the 1500’s and again in the 19th Century – and is now open for visitors to inspect.

We thoroughly recommend it, however stress that ascending the steps into the tunnels can be steep and somewhat arduous. See details of opening times.

We made our way to the site by train and local bus.

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Add Cassino war cemetery to your Italian itinerary

Visiting a war cemetery isn’t a fun occasion.

But it can be moving and a cause for reflection – and, as such, these cemeteries are usually a worthwhile destination for travellers.

This is certainly the case with the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, on the western outskirts of Cassino, Italy.

Located in Frosinone Province, about 139 kilometres or 86 miles south-east of Rome, the cemetery is a burial place of hundreds of Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, British, Indian, Gurkha and South African casualties of World War II.

The Cassino cemetery also contains a memorial to commemorate more than 4,000 Commonwealth servicemen who took part in the Italian campaign and whose graves are not known.[1][2]

Cassino was the scene of some the fiercest fighting of the Italian campaign of the Second World War and most of those buried in the cemetery died in various local battles, from January to May 1944.

One soldier memorialized on the cenotaph is Yeshwant Ghadge (1921–1944), who served in the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry in the British Indian Army. For gallantry, Ghadge was awarded the Victoria Cross.

There are other cemeteries in the area for American and Polish troops.

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Operations in and around Cassino included the bombing of Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia.

More than 11-hundred tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on the great abbey on February 15, 1944, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.

In keeping with its beautiful Italian surrounds, the Cassino cemetery was flawless condition when we visited, with manicured lawn and headstones well maintained.

Like all such sites, it is an important part of our heritage, yet a sobering reminder of the human toll of our conflicts. We are pleased that we visited.

Main photograph courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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