Thursday, March 20, 2014


Poppies of Cortona, Italy
Well, it's finally here, folks!!  It may be in name only at this point, but today marks the day on the calendar that spring has officially sprung - and a middle-aged woman's fancy turns to...bella Italia!  (That's "beautiful Italy" in case you aren't as awesomely fluent in Italian as I am wish I was...) :)

I love, love, LOVE to travel (did I make that clear enough? ;-) ) I will save my thoughts on that general topic for another day - but if you've taken the time to read my "about me" page (and you probably have, because I know that's the ONE page I usually make a point of reading when I discover a new blog), you will already know that Italy holds a special place in my heart.  I mean, what's not to love?  It has it all - rugged Alpine peaks dotted with pristine lakes in the north, the verdant rolling hills of Tuscany, the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast of the south...and then there's -  the FOOD!!

I first visited Italy back in the late 80's (in late October - a simply splendid time of year to visit). Although at the time I vowed to return again soon, in true "better late than never" fashion, it was not until April of 2008 - 22 years later (!) - that I finally had the opportunity to return once more.  This time, however, we arrived in late April - and although much has been said in books, movies, and song about the virtues of "springtime in Paris", I'm here to tell you that springtime in just about ANY part of Italy is simply glorious.  The sun is warm, the smell of citrus blossoms is in the air, the poppies are in bloom, the landscape is lush and green - and bonus! - the onslaught of summertime tourists has not yet begun. In fact, we loved it so much, we decided to return again in the spring of 2009 to resume our inch-by-inch exploration of this gorgeous land, rich with history, art, and culture.

Seriously, I could write volumes about my love for this country - its people, its natural beauty, the FOOD!!... :) - but I will spare you my verbosity (for once) and cut to the chase, because as you all know, a picture is worth a thousand words - so I offer you my 17,000 word pictorial essay on beautiful Italy, as seen through the lens of my camera.  I promise, I will try (as best I can!) to restrain my comments, but I will cut in from time to time to offer you a few pertinent details.

Our first destination in 2008, "Italy Farm Stay" (below) was an agriturismo (which basically means a working farm that also provides reasonably priced accommodation) in Italy's wild and rugged Abruzzo region, located near the town of Sora. If you're looking for a truly "off the beaten path", authentic Italian experience, I would highly recommend looking into accommodations here - this is about as "local" as it gets - from the wine in your glass to the food on your plate!

Italy Farm Stay
On our second visit to Italy, we decided our first destination would be its famous lake district in the north, noted primarily for George Clooney its three lakes encircled by snow peaked mountains - Lake Como, Lake Lugano, and Lake Maggiore.  I had been there on my first visit to Italy in the 80's (prompted by a segment I had seen on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous! Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, anyone??) And no, I'm not talking about the song by Good Charolotte (although...I actually sort of liked that song...)  :) mentioned above, I had previously visited this magnificent area of the country 20 years prior, and was excited for Rob to see it for himself.  We headed for Lake Maggiore, and found accommodations in a beautiful little hotel on the charming and very picturesque Isola dei Pescatore, one of a chain of three small islands just off the coast (near the town of Stresa).  This truly is fairytale land, people...the evening we arrived we were almost literally the only guests on the island, and were treated like royalty by our very attentive waiter at the hotel restaurant. Our little bubble of tranquility burst the next day, however, when the island (and the entire surrounding area) was overtaken by what seemed like the entire population of Italy - unbeknownst to us, we had arrived on the eve of an Italian national holiday!  Ah well, nothing to do but join in the fun!  (It was actually a good lesson to learn - when travelling abroad, always be aware of local national holiday dates before you go - it can be a problem when booking hotel rooms).

Isola dei Pescatore, Lake Maggiore
Speaking of Lifestyles of the Rich and trip to Italy's northern Mediterranean coast, or "Italian Riviera", is complete without a stop in tiny, picturesque, Portofino.  What Portofino lacks in size, it makes up in reputation as a playground to the, well....the rich and famous. (I promise, that's the last time I'll use that phrase).  We spent a gorgeous sunny afternoon in Portofino on our 2008 visit to Italy, soaking in the rarified atmosphere, people watching, and hiking the surrounding hills around the bay.  One of my strongest memories of our time spent there was the overpowering scent of money orange blossoms that permeated the air.  SO much beauty in one location - truly a feast for the senses.

Picturesque Portofino
About 90 minutes down the coast from Portofino, is the Cinque Terre (or "Five Lands") area of Italy.  As the name suggests, the Cinque Terre is named for its chain of five small villages/towns nestled in the rugged and steep coastline rising sharply out of the Mediterranean - in order, from north to south: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarolo, and Riomaggiore.  We stayed in Riomaggiore, at the Locanda del Sole hotel - again, a place I would recommend, but be warned - it is located at the top of the town - so be prepared for a steep walk back to your room at the end of the day.  In fact, due to the nature of the region's topography, anywhere you go on foot in the Cinque Terre is bound to involve a steep climb at one point or another.  But this is part of the draw to this exceptionally beautiful region - how else would you be able to witness spectacular vistas such as this?

Sadly, in October 2011, beautiful Vernazza (and other Cinque Terre towns) were devastated by serious flooding and mudslides - but it sounds as if the area is now well on the road to recovery.  Thank heavens, both for the residents of this unique region, and for those of us who have either visited before, or are planning a visit in the future.  Its charms are irresistible, and irreplaceable. 

Manarola at dusk 
Leaving the Cinque Terre, moving further south and inland, we headed for the heart of the Italian Renaissance, Tuscany's magnificent capital city, Firenze (Florence).  Let it be known that I adore everything about Florence - its relatively compact size, Brunelleschi's monolithic Duomo, the galleries, the architecture...but probably most of all, the sense of history that literally throbs within its ancient cobblestone streets.  I swear - I can see the ghosts of all who have walked those streets before, and hear the clip-clop, clip-clop, of horses hooves echoing upon them.  Of course all of Italy pulses with history (all of Europe for that matter) - but for me, there's just something about Florence specifically that brings the past to life - and I love it.

The Ponte Vecchio on the River Arno, Firenze
A favourite memory of one of our trips to Florence was getting up early to watch the sun rise over the was a tad chilly as I recall, but well worth it - having the streets of this storied city to ourselves, if only briefly, was pure magic!

A rare sight on the Ponte Vecchio - no tourists!
Best place to view Florence?  From the Piazzale Michelangelo, of course: 

Classic view of Florence, from the Piazzale Michelangelo
As you may or may not know, Italy is a country liberally dotted with countless ancient hill towns - waaaay back in the day, settling your village on top of a hill, and barricading it with a massive and impenetrable stone wall was a sure fire way to have an eagle's eye view of your approaching enemies - and making sure they stayed OUT.  Well thankfully, this is no longer a problem - and even more thankfully, many of those ancient towns continue to thrive as places where modern day Italians still live, work, and play.  These days, the only marauding hoards they have to worry about fending off are the invading tourists - although there is one particular hill town, Civita di Bagnoregio, that looks as though it could still exist in the land of long ago.  In fact, the only connection between present day and the medieval past is a long foot-bridge - indeed, as Italophile extraordinaire Rick Steves calls it, this jewel on the hill is a sight to behold:

A bridge to the past - Civita di Bagnoregio
Okay, are you still with me?  Or is this the modern version of being forced to watch a slideshow of your great aunt's visit to Atlantic City?  Well, then, I guess it must be time for a little trivia interlude - are you ready? QUICK! Name this movie:

I'll wait...and give you a few more seconds to think about it...while you look at this:

Does it look familiar?  No??  Well how about this then?

The road to Terrapille
Okay, I think you can see what I'm getting at here.  Of course, the movie still above is from Ridley Scott's Academy Award Winning "Gladiator" (that soundtrack gets me every time) - and if you haven't figured it out by now, the famous wheat field that Maximus (Russell Crowe) so tenderly grazes his hand across as he returns home to his family was shot on location - in what is simply one of the most beautiful places on this planet - Tuscany's stunning Val d'Orcia region.  In fact - I'll (somewhat hesitantly) let you in on a little secret - do you see that villa that lies at the end of the  road?  It's an agriturismo.  And yes, that means you can stay there.  Agriturismo Terrapille, to be exact.  And on both our visits to Italy, we were beyond fortunate to call Terrapille home during our time spent in this region.  From the top of that hill, you're surrounded by a 360° vista of heaven on earth: 

The incomparable light of Val d'Orcia
From Terrapille, you are central to many of the other famous neighbouring hill towns of the region  - Siena, Montepulciano, Montalcino, San Gimignano, Cortona, and the nearby Pienza - not to mention some of the world's best food and wine.  Just a short drive from here, you can also find such classic Tuscan landmarks such as the Capella di Vitaleta: 

And that famous lone stand of Cypress trees: 

Let's take one last look down that long and winding road together as we leave Terrapille, shall we?

I simply can never get enough of this place.  And although photographs can do it justice, it truly MUST be seen to be fully appreciated...


Okay. Enough.

Thanks Cher.  I needed that.  :)

Although the pleasures of Tuscany are indisputable, Italy is a country of infinite pleasures - and
from the moment I saw Diane Lane walking the beaches of Positano with her Italian lover in "Under the Tuscan Sun", I knew that one day, I too, would have to visit this cliffside town on the famed Amalfi Coast.  Well, fortunately for me, the man in my life (no, he's not an Italian lover, but he'll do just fine, thank you) promised me that one day, we would do the same - and lucky me, he was true to his word.  Standing on the (pebbly) Positano beach with Rob remains, to this day, one of my life's most memorable moments.  It goes without saying that Italy continues to beckon - and I think next time we visit (should I be so lucky), we will pick up where we left off in Positano, and continue our journey south.  There is still much to be seen!!

Positano - the jewel of the Amalfi Coast
In closing then, may I say....*felice primavera a tutti! (happy spring, everyone!)  Thank you for indulging me my little trip down memory lane...besides helping me re-live my own memories of an Italian spring (that sounds like a President's Choice BBQ sauce, doesn't it?), I'm hopeful that it may have given those of you who have also been fortunate enough to visit Italy, a little reminder of your own time there.  I'd sincerely love to hear about YOUR memories of Italy - please feel free to post them in the comments below.  And if you've never been, I hope I've motivated you to visit - and would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Ciao! :)

*brought to you by Google translate, lest I offend those who really know the language!  :) 

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