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Italy is a diverse country, overflowing with rich-traditions, delicious food, and abundant history. Humans have inhabited the region for more than 200,000 years, and as a result of the Roman Empire’s expansion, it was a major player in the development of the Western society. Today, its influence is still felt on the world stage. Italian fashion and fast cars are the epitome of luxury and style. However, this is a country that offers visitors more than the flash of large metropolitan cities like Florence and Rome. Individuals craving calm will discover that quaint coastal fishing villages, deep blue northern lakes, and the rolling hills in Tuscany are a cool salve for a weary soul.
Regardless of the why, coming to Italy isn't just an opportunity to snap photos of iconic sites such as the Colosseum and Venice’s famed canals, it’s about slowly enjoying a cappuccino at a local cafe, and embracing the Italian appreciation for life.
Italy Interactive Map
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Rome is a bustling metropolis, pulsing with life. Here, tiny gelaterias and contemporary cafes vie for their place along the Rome’s fast-paced and congested roadways. Meanwhile, the city’s old guard, composed of the Colosseum and Pantheon, remain stoically at their posts as they have for nearly 2,000 years. Since the age of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, countless pilgrims have walked its narrow and winding alleyways to see for themselves some of the most iconic sites to be described in history books, and depicted in film. From the Baroque Spanish Steps and the venerated St. Peter’s Basilica, to the dozens of museums overflowing with ancient artifacts and masterpieces by Michelangelo, Rome—the “Eternal City”—is a living museum. In fact, its entire historic district was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Take in the full beauty of the "Eternal City," from its cafes and contemporary art museums to the iconic treasures on display.Courtesy of CNN
Explore Rome with O.A.T. on:
- New! Italy's Western Coast & Islands: A Voyage from Rome to Valletta
- New! Italian Coastal Odyssey: Hidden Italy, Sicily & Malta
- Post Trip:Rome, Italy on Tuscany & Umbria: Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland
- Post Trip:Rome, Italy on New! Undiscovered Adriatic: Eastern Italy, Venice, Puglia & Malta
Venice is an enchanting city where an intricate web of canals replaces motorways, and entire buildings are lost within the lackadaisical incoming fog. Located roughly two and a half miles from mainland Italy, Venice is actually a cluster of 117 islands and islets joined together by more than 450 bridges. The most well-known, the Rialto, spans the city’s main waterway, the Grand Canal. This arched-stone bridge decorated with biblical images was completed in 1591. For centuries, it provided the only means of crossing the Grand Canal on foot. Instead, medieval Venetians would rely on small merchant skiffs and gondolas to go about their daily errands. Today, in the world’s only car-less pedestrian city, water buses, water taxis, and—of course—gondolas are relied upon to get around. In keeping with this 900-year-old tradition, visitors will only find Venice-born men at the helm of these long, sinewy vessels.
The bustling hub of this “Floating City” is St. Mark’s Square. Visitors come to see its namesake basilica and the Gothic-style Doge’s Palace which line this famed piazza. Not quite as popularized, by television and film, is Venice’s Jewish Ghetto. This was the first neighborhood of its kind, and has managed to remain an active community with five synagogues—no small feat in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Beyond the weaving labyrinth of streets, is another side of Venice, with quiet islands such as the peaceful, sparsely-populated Torcello and the colorful fishing village of Burano. In addition to incredibly fresh fish dishes like risotto de gò, the latter island is also known for lace and glassmaking.
Sunrise Diaries - Moving Beauty of Venice
Glide through the serene canals of Venice, and witness the beauty of this iconic city.
Produced by David Conover and Compass Light Productions
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Florence—in the heart of Tuscany—is quite possibly the world’s greatest repository of art. Although up for discussion, Julius Caesar is largely credited with founding this highly-influential city in 59 B.C.
Regardless of its exact origins, Florence’s creative class has been the source of innumerable paintings, sculptures, and architectural styles for more than five centuries. The Renaissance period began here in the 1300s. Prominent galleries such as the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace feature the paintings of master artists, and are among the more than 80 museums found within the boundaries of this forward-thinking capital. Renowned writers and poets—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—have all called this city home. Entirely new forms of creative expression—like opera—were born in Florence.
Over the course of the next three centuries, this new, more humanist age, lead to advancements in the fields of optics, astronomy, and anatomy, through the work of Galileo and other scientists of the era. Florentine know-how also helped pull the whole of Europe out from the Dark Ages with the development of a standard European currency, the florin. The solid-gold coin functioned similarly to today’s euro.
36 Hours in Florence, Italy
Get the inside scoop on what to eat, what to see, and where to shop in Florence.Produced by Alexandra Garcia and Will Lloyd
©2014 The New York Times
Explore Florence with O.A.T. on:
- The Rivieras: Italy, France & the Isles
- Pre Trip:Bologna & Parma: Rich History & Culinary Traditions on Tuscany & Umbria: Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland
- Pre Trip:Tuscany: Florence & Siena on New! Italy's Western Coast & Islands: A Voyage from Rome to Valletta
- Pre Trip:Tuscany: Florence & Siena on New! Italian Coastal Odyssey: Hidden Italy, Sicily & Malta
Part of the Italian Republic, and yet … not. Sicily is a semi-autonomous region with its own parliament and president. Separated from the mainland by more than just legislative boundaries, and water, Italy’s largest region is culturally different as well. For centuries, conquerors from across the Mediterranean Sea fought for sovereignty over this strategically-significant island. It wasn’t until 1861, after a series of ancient Greek and Roman wars, followed by clashes between the Byzantines and Arabs, that the often-besieged island even became part of a newly-unified Italy.
As a result of regular political upheavals, the Sicily of today is an amalgam of cultures and ethnicities. Peruse the island’s prized outdoor markets and see how this rich history has played a part in shaping Sicilian cuisine. Vendors proudly display their fresh, locally-grown produce, and just-caught white fish—a key ingredient in any traditional Trapani-style couscous. Beyond the eclectic cuisine, the influence of other cultures can be seen across this nearly ten-thousand-square mile island.
Fingerprints of Sicily’s diverse past mark more than its humming marketplaces. In Siracusa, an archaeological park is dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Roman Amphitheater and Teatro Greco. The island’s capital, Palermo, was founded in 734 B.C. and is home to a varied collection of medieval structures that combine the Norman style of large-scale and rounded archways with traditional Islamic imagery of stars, moons and complex geometric patterns.
In addition to this island’s assortment of historic gems, it is also the site of Italy’s tallest mountain south of the Alps—Mount Etna. At 10, 991 feet high, this natural wonder is the largest active volcano in Europe. One of the best ways to experience Mount Etna’s power is to watch for fiery red eruptions under the cover of night.
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Each part of the Italian Riviera offers visitors a different facet of coastal life—in Cinque Terre, terraced homes climb up the rugged landscape, while down along the water’s edge traditional fishing villages seem frozen in time. Portofino, on the other hand, is the Riviera’s hot-spot—yachts bob in its turquoise harbor while fancy boutiques beckon along the shore. Elsewhere, brightly colored houses line the small harbor of Santa Margherita Ligure—some featuring frescoes and trompe-l'oeil paintings. From sampling local specialties such as pesto and focaccia, to strolling Cinque Terra’s La Via dell’Amore (the Way of Love), a pedestrian walkway overlooking the sea, the Italian Riviera offers you countless ways to wind-down.
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Since the late 1950s, when Milan's acclaimed fashion houses like Versace and Valentino send their hand-painted leather and neoprene works of art down the runway, the world sits up and takes notice.
For those searching for more than haute couture, Northern Italy’s most heavily populated city offers a number architectural standouts as well. Milan's massive marble cathedral is highly decorated and boasts over 135 spires. Teatro alla Scala shines with red and gold ornamentation, while tucked away on the wall of a refectory, under museum lighting stands Leonardo da Vinci’s revered The Last Supper mural.
When the city’s fashion elite and busy day traders—the Italian Stock Exchange is in Milan—need to unwind they head north to the mountain-bound lakes district. Wealthy Italians, international celebrities like George Clooney, and regular people craving the serene, deep blue waters of Lake Como have been coming to the area since the Roman age. In addition to lakeside villas and lush, green landscapes, the town of Como is also known for its 4,000-year-old silk industry.
The Lakes District isn't the only part of Northern Italy with a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Ossuccio Mountain situated above Lake Como was designated in 2003). To the southwest is another historic locale recognized for its traditional wine making: the Langhe wine valley. Long-low hills, standout vintages, and white-truffle-topped pastas are staples of this sub-region of Piedmont.
Explore Northern Italy with O.A.T. on:
- New! Northern Italy: The Alps, Dolomites & Lombardy
- Post Trip:The Langhe Countryside & Lake Orta on New! Italy's Western Coast & Islands: A Voyage from Rome to Valletta
- Post Trip:Verona & Lake Como, Italy on New! Voyage to Istria: Italy, Slovenia & Croatia
Off the coast of Italy, surrounded by the turquoise Mediterranean, the island of Sardinia has flourished for millennia—continuously populated from prehistoric times to today. Scores of civilizations have landed upon the island over the years, looking for safe passage, a new home, or a land to conquer. The list of these “visitors” includes the ancient Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans; medieval Vandals; the Byzantine Empire; and even the Spanish and Austrians. It was only as recently as 1946 that Sardinia was folded into the rest of the Italian Peninsula under the Unification of Italy. Even so, Sardinia has fiercely retained its own language, culture, cuisine, and traditions.
Today, Sardinia’s visitors come first and foremost for its gorgeous beaches, blanketed with sugar-soft sand in shades of glistening white, gold, and even pink. It seems difficult to think of a reason to leave Sardinia’s stunning coastline, but in fact there are many. The rugged landscape is dotted with remnants of the island’s fascinating history. Thousands of nuraghi—mysterious Bronze Age stone ruins shaped like beehives—are scattered all over Sardinia. And as you delve deeper into the island’s rustic interior, you’ll encounter communities that seem untouched by time, such as the hearty people of the Barbagia, Sardinia’s remote and rustic heartland, where these insular locals stick to old traditions that can be traced back to prehistoric times.
From its ancient beginnings to its modern-day status as a beach-lover’s playground, Sardinia continues to beckon visitors to its tantalizing shores.
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Nestled down by the heel of Italy’s boot, the sun-drenched region of Puglia offers travelers the laid-back atmosphere of a small town, while still claiming the longest coastline on the Italian Peninsula. Best known for its white-washed hill towns, centuries-old farmlands, and ruggedly beautiful shores along the Mediterranean Sea, Puglia is also rich in culture and history.
First colonized by the ancient Mycenaean Greeks, Puglia eventually became part of the Kingdom of Naples after 1282, until the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Signs of its long history can be found throughout the region—from the ancient stone houses of worship of Sassi di Matera and the conical-roofed trulli homes of Alberobello, whose limestone architecture dates back to the mid-14th century, to the elegant Baroque-influenced architecture found in the seaside town of Lecce.
A region few American travelers have experienced before, Puglia remains an unspoiled region full of discoveries.
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- Pre Trip:Puglia: Italy's Undiscovered Heel on Sicily's Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions
Surrounded by the mountainous coasts of Lago d’Iseo (Lake Iseo), Monte Isola and its 1,700 residents live a slow, peaceful life. As a centuries-old fishing community, the people of Monte Isola are known for their hand-made fishing nets and centuries-old practices—you can even sometimes see wooden racks along the piers used to dry the day’s catch.
Monte Isola is also quaint and romantic. Cars are not allowed anywhere, so locals and visitors alike take a slower pace by moped, bicycle, or on foot through the island’s several villages and hamlets. Certain traditions also appeal to a simpler appreciation for beauty—in September during Holy Cross Week for instance, the island’s streets and narrow alleys are decorated in a profusion of roses.
As if sealed away by the surrounding mountains, the misty green hills and quiet streets of Monte Isola will instill a sense of tranqulity. Visiting this destination means entering into a peace of mind with only one way to enjoy the surrounding beauty—quietly.
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Locked away in South Tyrol—a region characterized by picturesque villages, medieval castles, and jagged mountains— Bressanone seems in many ways like a quiet Austrian town staged amid the striking Italian Alps. Walking the medieval streets you will hear Italian, German, and Ladin—a Romance language specific to the Dolomite region—a testament to the cultural crossroads the region has been for centuries.
The highlight of the town is the Duomo Di Bressanone, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Cassiano. Constructed in the tenth century, it burned down and was later reconstructed in a quintessential Romanesque style, dressed with ornate southern European architecture and a reserved façade. Among the cathedral’s many breathtaking frescos, “Christ Welcomes May into Heaven,” is an image so detailed it leaves an indelible and enduring impression on the memory.
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Most Popular Films
Films featuring Italy from international, independent filmmakers
Take a virtual tour of the Rivieras and beyond—a lavish feast for all the senses.Produced by Matt Devir
100 Wonders: Park of Monsters
Monsters are lurking in a sixteenth century Italian garden. This film uncovers how they got there.Produced by Dylan Thuras
Discover Venice’s rich cultural landscape--from the city’s labyrinth of canals to St. Mark’s Square and Doge’s Palace.Produced by Kristine Juergensen and Ian Cross
The Real Sicily
Enjoy this heartfelt personal journey from the vibrant streets of Palermo to a tiny Sicilian hill town where change takes centuries.Produced by Giorgio Litt
Immerse yourself in Italy with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Tuscany's and Umbria’s advanced flavor profiles can take the simplest dish and make them molto delizioso.
Bring the flavors of Tuscany into your home with this traditional pork stew recipe.
Serve up a fisherman's dinner that's straight out of Tuscany.
Discover the rich maritime history of this famed, 25-mile stretch of vibrant shoreline.
The resurgence of the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza
Find out which Italian destinations have made it to the silver screen in this cinematic tour.
From linguistic quirks to hearty cuisine, find out how Sicilians differ from their mainland neighbors.
Get a sampling of what you can expect to savor in Sicily—from hearty stews to crispy potatoes.
Although it’s part of the Italian Peninsula, Sicily has a culture all its own—discover what sets the island apart.
Read about the fascinating history of this ancient Mediterranean cultural hub.
Floating along the Grand Canal of Venice is like a master class in the city's architectural history.
Discover the long-held traditions surrounding Venice's iconic gondolas.
Tuscan and Umbrian Cuisine
Simply sensational food in the Italian heartland
by Catherine Groux, for O.A.T.
Creating dishes infused with the flavors of olive oil, wine, and truffles, locals have mastered the art of turning simple ingredients into bold meals.
Italian cuisine is adored around the world. From the bustling markets of Seoul to the sloped streets of San Francisco, gluttonous gourmands are never far from the flavors of Italy, whether they crave a hot bowl of fettuccine Alfredo or a cold scoop of gelato. But although we tend to view Italian cuisine as a singular, mouthwatering masterpiece, it is better defined as a mosaic, with each region in Italy adding its own unique tile to the complete culinary creation.
Each region has its own specialties, its own go-to ingredients, and its own style of cooking—and Tuscany and Umbria are no exception. Relying on the robust flavors of fresh olive oil, truffles (knotty, pungent mushrooms), and wine, these regions are renowned for creating simple, yet savory dishes.
From the finest ingredients …
Tuscany and Umbria produce some of the highest-quality wines, olive oils, and truffles in Italy—and arguably the world—so it’s no wonder the regions’ cuisine relies on the rich simplicity of these ingredients. Creating dishes infused with the flavors of olive oil, wine, and truffles, locals have mastered the art of turning simple ingredients into bold meals.
It probably comes as no surprise that locals are serious about their olive oil. These oils come in varying levels of acidity, with the highest-quality oils being the least acidic. The more olives are bruised before they are pressed, the more acidic their oils will be, which is why the best olive oils are still picked by hand. Olive oils fall into one of four categories, with the best being extra vergine (extra virgin), as it has an acidity level of 1 percent or less. For this reason, extra virgin olive oil is a staple in most local kitchens—using anything less would be un-Italian.
Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine is also adorned with another prized ingredient: truffles. As both black truffles and rare white truffles can be found in Tuscan and Umbrian forests, they work their way into countless culinary classics, particularly in the fall when they’re in season. In Umbria, truffles are grated over risottos or sliced atop crostini (fried bread), while Tuscany adds truffles to its game and pastas.
But of course, even the best meal would be incomplete without the right wine. In Tuscany, dry wines with decisive bodies pair perfectly with the light and flavorful local cuisine. The region’s most popular wine, Chianti, is said to be suitable for any Tuscan meal, from pastas to poultry. But while any good local meal is served with wine, many Tuscan and Umbrian dishes also include wine as a core ingredient. An example of this is gallina ubriaca (“drunken chicken”), a popular Umbrian dish of chicken cooked in wine.
… To the last crumb
Featuring the flavors of some of the world’s best wines, olive oils, and truffles, Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine comes with a certain level of sophistication. (In fact, many locals say Tuscany invented French cuisine—the epitome of culinary pretension—when Catherine de’ Medici brought her array of chefs to France upon wedding the Duke of Orléans.) However, in reality, Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine hasn’t strayed far from its humble, rural roots.
Many dishes still rely on the simple, inexpensive ingredients—such as game, beans, and seasonal vegetables—that have been consumed by peasants in the Italian countryside for centuries. To this day, most traditional restaurants serve dishes like minestra di fagioli (bean soup), zucchini ripiene (zucchini stuffed with minced meat), coniglio arrosto (roasted rabbit), and pasta e ceci (chickpea pasta).
And of course, holding true to its humble roots also means that in Tuscany and Umbria, no scrap of food is wasted. This is particularly evident in their use of bread. Fresh bread is typically served on the side of every meal, but when that bread goes stale, it is certainly not thrown out. Stale bread can be used in dishes like panzanella (cold bread salad) and pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), or even crushed to create delicious bread crumbs. As the old Italian saying goes, “A chi ha fame e buono ogni pane” (“All bread is good when you’re hungry”).
From their medieval hamlets to their grape-laden vineyards, Tuscany and Umbria are gastronomical gems. As they cling to the pastoral traditions of their ancestors and plunge onto the mainstream culinary scene with some of the world’s finest ingredients, these regions are proudly adding to the mosaic of magnificence that is Italian cuisine.
Simply sensational food in the Italian heartland
Reaping the Harvest
The flavors of Tuscany’s cultural heritage
by Julia Chrusciel, from Dispatches
A gastronomic Tuscan favorite, pork, hearkens back to the ancient Romans, who hunted wild boar for meat and sport. Besides being a source of food, there is another practical reason for hunting wild boar. Overpopulation of the animal causes destruction to forests and farms due to the pugnacious scavenger’s tusks. Along with domesticated pigs, the boar’s cultivated cousins, wild boar yields many of the foods for which Tuscany is so famous, such as prosciutto and porchetta (Tuscan roast pork). Another hearty classic, Tuscan pork stew, centers upon pork while drawing on distinctive flavors of the region: olive oil, sage, rosemary, garlic, and—of course—red wine. Not all Tuscan culinary traditions are ancient; though it’s hard to imagine the Tuscan table without it, polenta did not come to Italy until the early 16th century after transatlantic trading brought corn to Old World kitchens.
Tuscan Pork Stew
1 bottle dry red wine
4 rosemary sprigs
4 sage sprigs
1 red onion, coarsely chopped
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon juniper berries
2 teaspoons whole cloves
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon very finely chopped sage
11/2 teaspoons very finely chopped
Crushed red pepper
1 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
- In a large, re-sealable plastic bag or container, combine the wine, rosemary, sage, red onion, celery, carrot, bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries and cloves. Add the pork and seal the bag, pressing out the air. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
- Remove pork from marinade. In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, cover the pork cubes with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain. Pat the pork dry.
- Wipe out the casserole, add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. Add the pork cubes, celery, carrot, red onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
- Add the sage and rosemary, season with salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and simmer over moderate heat until it’s nearly evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the chicken stock and spice bundle and bring to a boil.
- Partially cover and cook over very low heat until the meat is very tender and the liquid has reduced by half, about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
- Skim the fat from the stew and discard the spice bundle. Stir in the parsley and season with salt. Serve piping hot, and top with fried polenta.
The flavors of Tuscany’s cultural heritage
Cacciucco Alla Livornese (Fish Stew)
by Philip McCluskey from Currents
Though there are scores of famous Italian culinary creations, Cacciucco Alla Livornese is one that is quite popular. It’s a hearty fish stew with origins that stretch back centuries to Livorno, a Tuscan port town you’ll visit on The Rivieras: France, Italy & the Isles. Cacciucco was once a simple fisherman’s dinner, made with the leftover catch that was unsold at market.
Since then, however, it has become a sought-after delicacy in fine restaurants, and remains one of the region’s most-beloved dishes. It is said that there should be at least five types of fish in any cacciucco—one for each “C” in the name—to go along with a variety of vegetables and spices. Our version has four, but you can add scallops, clams, or anything you’d like. Buon appetito!
1¼ lbs. calamari, cleaned, and cut in 1-inch strips
One 2 ½ lb. veal roast from the leg or loin, boned and tied
1 lbs. mussels, debearded and scrubbed
7 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, and 1 whole garlic clove
¼ bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped to yield cup
1 celery stalk, diced into ¼-inch pieces
1 Spanish onion, diced into inch pieces
½ lb. cod or other flakey white fish
1 red chili pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup of dry white wine
1¼ lbs. fresh or canned tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
8 large shrimp or prawns, peeled and deveined
16 slices of Italian peasant bread, toasted or grilled
- Clean all the seafood. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan (with a lid). Heat on medium-high until hot, but not smoking. Add the mussels and cover, steaming until the mussels open (about 5 minutes). Remove the mussels, leaving the juices in the pan.
- In a sauté pan, add the remaining oil and heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the chili pepper, celery, parsley, sliced garlic, and onion. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the garlic turns golden brown. Add the wine, allowing it to boil and then evaporate. Add the chopped tomatoes and salt to taste, and continue cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Pour in 2 cups of water, the reserved mussel juices and the remaining fish (whole) and bring to a boil. Let the mixture cook at a bare boil for about 20 minutes uncovered, until the fish is flaky and opaque.
- Place the fish in a wide soup tureen and set aside in a warm place. Bring the liquid to a boil. Add the shrimp, then lower the heat and let simmer for about 3 minutes, until the shrimp are opaque. Add the calamari and the shucked mussels. Allow it to simmer for about 2 minutes until all the calamari is cooked.
- Add some flavor to the toasted bread by cutting the remaining garlic clove in half, and using the cut end to rub the bread.
- Serve the soup in warmed bowls with the garlic toast on the side.
Italy’s Amalfi Coast
By Tom Lepisto from Insider
At the spot on the “boot” of Italy where the shin meets the ankle, a 25-mile stretch of mountainous Mediterranean shoreline offers striking vistas that have awed visitors since ancient Roman times.
Called the Amalfi Coast, for the town at its center, it’s also known as the Divina Costiera (divine coast) because of its scenic beauty. Its charms also include a pleasant Mediterranean climate and a long history that has endowed this area with a romantic blend of treasures from many centuries. Extending along the southern shore of the Sorrentine Peninsula from Positano to Vietri sul Mare, this gem of the Italian landscape has inspired artists, authors, and composers from many countries— and even offers one vista so infinitely enticing that legend says it is the one Satan showed Jesus to tempt Him to rule on Earth rather than in Heaven.
Fortunately, there’s no reason for mortal visitors to resist the temptation to enjoy the Amalfi Coast’s delights. A drive along the coastal highway Strada Statale 163 provides a gallery of views as you round its many twists and turns, each seemingly more impressive than the last. Steep, rocky slopes rise abruptly from the water’s edge, sometimes concealing crescents of beach below cliffs in secluded coves. Colorful towns climb the vertical contours of the landscape, yielding to terraced slopes green with lemon groves and vineyards. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 (under its Italian name Costiera Amalfitana), this area was recognized for its extraordinary blend of land, sea, culture, and nature.
Anchoring the western end of the Divina Costiera, the fishing village of Positano has a distinctive topography that impressed American author John Steinbeck, who wrote in a 1953 Harper’s Bazaar article that “Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it.” In addition to having foundations cut horizontally into the mountainside, rather than underneath them in the usual manner, some houses in this town of about 4,000 permanent residents are painted in bright colors. This custom is said to have originated as a way for local fishermen to quickly identify their homes from a distance.
Steinbeck was also struck by the attitude of the Positanese, whom he noted “have been living here since before recorded history and they don’t intend to change now.” The town’s residents in past millennia included millers who ground the flour used to bake bread for the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who feared being poisoned if he used sources closer to Rome. In a later era, Positano was home to seafaring traders who brought home the wealth to build the 16th- and 17th-century mansions that still dot the town. The dome of the church of Santa Maria Assunta, rebuilt in 1700 during that era of prosperity, is a landmark visible from many points in and around the town. Because of the way the whole town is built into the steep slopes above the beach of Spiaggia Grande, with higher mountainsides rising above, Positano’s historic architecture blends in with the landscape to present a spectacle that has been many centuries in the making.
A route for keen eyes
To the east along the coast, the next town is Praiano, another cliff-perched village that was one of Positano’s historic rivals for the bounty of the sea. In times past, observers from all of the Amalfi Coast’s communities kept an eye out to sea from up in the hills. When they spotted a school of fish, or a salvageable shipwreck, they alerted local sailors, who would then race to the scene because a strictly enforced code gave the first ones to arrive the right to claim marine resources. On a broader scale, one of the first international maritime codes—the Tavole Amalfitane—originated in this seafaring region in the twelfth century as a way to regulate trade throughout the Mediterranean.
The Amalfi Coast is also dotted with visible evidence of a less orderly side of its sailing history: some 30 seaside watchtowers built in medieval times to detect the approach of Turkish or Saracen pirates. Sentinels would light fires atop the towers when they spotted an approaching pirate ship, alerting defenders and giving villagers time to seek safety by literally “heading for the hills.”
East of Praiano, the coastal road crosses the Vallone di Furore, one of the deepest of several gorges that cut their way through the cliffs along this stretch of coastline. Here, as at many places along the road, the construction of the highway itself is an impressive feat, involving many bridges, tunnels, viaducts, and hairpin turns. Completed during the time of the Bourbon dynasty in the early 19th century, and often simply called the “Amalfi Drive,” the road is a masterpiece of the highway engineer’s art that ranks among Italy’s most eye-catching autostradi.
Amalfi, a town with a storied past
The coast’s namesake town, Amalfi, is located where the road crosses another gorge, the Valle dei Mulini. It’s a town of about 7,000 year-round inhabitants with a picturesque harbor where fishing and pleasure craft moor today. The scene was markedly different in the eleventh century, when this was a major commercial trade port whose power rivalled that of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa. As the seat of the Amalfi Maritime Republic, the town ruled the entire region and conducted extensive trade with the North African ports of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli, which has left traces of Arab influence in some of the local architecture to this day. During its medieval heyday, Amalfi’s “Arsenal of the Republic” was one of the preeminent shipbuilding centers in the Mediterranean, launching 80-foot-long vessels that boasted 120 oars. Amalfi’s most prominent historic landmark, the Cathedral of St. Andrew (Duomo di Sant’Andrea), has borne witness to local history since the ninth century. Inside are relics of Andrew, the town’s patron saint and one of the Twelve Apostles. The bronze doors at the main entrance date from 1060 and demonstrate the town’s maritime reach, having been brought across the Mediterranean from Constantinople.
Into the hills for time-honored vistas
On the slopes of the Lattari Mountains above Amalfi, towns perched more than one thousand feet above the seacoast offer famous vistas and their own distinctive histories. Ravello is home to the Villa Rufulo, built by a 13th-century noble family whose taste in selecting a viewpoint has stood the test of time. The villa’s landscaped grounds, with their sweeping vista of the coast below, were the inspiration for the garden of the magician Klingsor in Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. At the nearby Villa Cimbrone, the view from the “Terrace of Infinity” has impressed artists including J.M.W. Turner, and is said to be the panorama of Earthly grandeur that the Devil used to tempt Christ.
Higher in the hills, the village of Scala is one of the oldest communities on the Amalfi Coast. Founded in the fourth century AD, it boasted 130 churches at its height during the medieval reign of the Amalfi Maritime Republic. Some historic sanctuaries, including the twelfth-century Cathedral of San Lorenzo, still stand, while others lie in ruins that in their own way evoke the region’s remarkable heritage. Scala is also home to extensive stands of chestnut trees, whose nuts contribute to this area’s selection of tasty treats.
From its beaches to its lofty viewpoints, the Amalfi Coast offers a combination of scenic beauty and maritime history that many visitors find soul-stirring. To trace its shoreline, and to climb the innumerable stairways that make up many streets in its towns, is to make a pilgrimage through one of the world’s most enchanting seascapes.
A stunning seascape with a rich history
Standing the Test of Time
The resurgence of the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza
by Julia Hudson from Currents
When traveling through Europe, what often strikes the eye is the sheer age of the villages, and the traditions that have prevailed through the generations and still contribute to local life in the modern day. It can feel as though Europe has found permanence, a comfortable relationship with its own heritage that allows each of its nations an individual identity founded on centuries—and sometimes millennia—of building communities around a common cause.
In Liguria, Italy’s northwestern coastal region, history is immediately visible. A fishing tradition still holding strong, seen in the small boats bobbing peacefully in the harbor … a language stubbornly holding on to its distinctive dialect, even in the face of spreading Italian and English vocabulary … Medieval architecture lending the landscape a look of cozy chaos, as houses seem to tumble on top of one another as they vie for a view of the glittering sea. It’s hard to imagine that, as durable as the region appears, it was very nearly lost to the world.
A jewel in Italy’s crown
It’s difficult to reconcile images of near-complete destruction with the more familiar reputation of Liguria, particularly the beloved Cinque Terre, the five villages—Monterosso, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza—that line the Italian Riviera and make up one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
A favorite pastime of travelers is to walk the steep trails connecting the five villages, which allow for views of the ocean as you traverse the hills, pausing along the way to enjoy a gelato or espresso in a scenic local cafe. Nothing is as peaceful as quietly taking in the wild, cliff-side views and meeting local people in town where they grew up.
Vernazza was founded in 1080 as a base for a local noble family, the Obertenghis, to protect their lands against piracy. A small village, it calls to mind a topsy-turvy, fairy-tale town. Vernazza alone attracts many of the approximately 2.5 million travelers who visit the Cinque Terre each year—flocking to this nook of the world to take in the gorgeous scenery and charming, tiny lanes winding between close-set, pastel-colored houses. The town itself was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, and many people consider it to be the loveliest of the five villages, boasting a collection of captivating sites, including a seaside church and an ancient castle, Castello Doria, as well as a delectable local wine industry. It’s difficult to conceive of such an idyllic landscape suffering the level of damage that Vernazza has seen.
On October 25, 2011, an unprecedented storm hit Liguria, dropping 22 inches of rain in just four hours after an unusually dry summer. Receiving one-third of the region’s annual rainfall so quickly proved devastating to many of the villages in the area, which, being steeply mountainous, suffered severe mudslides and flash floods. Vernazza was the worst hit of all the Cinque Terre’s villages.
Walking trails, local businesses, and homes were all but decimated by the rushing water and waves of mud. Potable water, telephone lines (including cellular towers), gas, and electricity were all taken offline by the storm. Residents fought to make it through the deluge.
As the rain continued to pour, tourists were taken into local homes for shelter, and the higher-ground Chiesa dei Frati (Church of the Friars) was turned into an emergency shelter. A frightening night was had by many parents in nearby Corniglia, as many of their children attended school in Vernazza. Without power, there was no way for them to know if their children were safe (most of the children ended up spending the night sheltered in one of the local schools). Not all were so fortunate, though—ten Ligurian residents died as a result of the storm.
Apparently, the death toll risked being much higher. Residents reported a pause in the flooding at around 2:45pm, when the water seemed to recede for about 15 minutes. It’s unclear whether this was because of a particularly large landslide blocking the water from running down the hill, or from a pile-up of cars damming the path. It does appear, however, that this brief respite allowed many people still trapped at or near sea level to scramble for higher ground, saving an untold number of lives. The relative peace was shattered when the town’s gas tank crashed down from the hills, spouting gas over 30 feet into the air and causing residents to fear an explosion (which fortunately never came).
Local authorities, fearing that more vehicles would be washed off the road, told people to stay home during the storm unless they absolutely had to evacuate, leaving residents frozen and fearful as they watched their village suffer. As the main street, Via Roma, filled with water, Vernazza was split into two halves, causing even more chaos and confusion as people tried to figure out where their loved ones had ended up.
Accounting for the damage
Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore survived in the end, because the local topography allowed them to drain enough water. Monterosso and Vernazza, however, were hit much harder. Monterosso was said to “no longer exist,” in the words of its mayor, Angelo Betta. Vernazza was evacuated by sea, with stranded locals and tourists alike gratefully accepting the assistance of the Italian Coast Guard. The mudslides tore through town, decimating bridges, obstructing railways, taking out the sole access road … even knocking a petroleum tanker on its side. After all, the flood waters were sloshing against second-story windows.
The hiking trails that attracted so much tourism—and revenue—were washed away, and Vernazza was essentially cut off from the rest of the region by land. To those trapped there during the storm, it must have seemed as though the rivers of mud would never stop flowing from the hills behind the village.
Called a “meteorological explosion” by regional president Alberto Monaci, it seemed as though recovery after such a disaster would be little less than a miracle. Fishing boats from the harbor were swept all the way to the Moroccan coast. All in all, more than 100 mudslides covered Vernazza in 15 feet of mud—totaling 883,000 cubic feet of mud in all—irreparably damaging many shops and homes, killing three local people, and causing 108 million euro (approximately $132.7 million) in damage.
The challenges mount
A local charity, Save Vernazza, was founded to raise money for needed repairs and keep the community connected through discussions focused on rebuilding efforts. Michele Lilley, one of the founders of the organization, called the storm “a powerful force of nature that ripped out the guts of town, the insides of our lives, and left them lying scattered in the street.”
It’s easy to see why the storm was so heartbreaking for residents—Lilley goes on to describe the local spirit in this way: “If someone gives you fruit from their garden or a bottle of wine they produced, that person is giving you something to chew on: a piece of a proud, hardworking culture which has been passed down by generations to carve out a territory to call home.” With the legacy of those generations buried under several feet of sludge and twisted metal, many felt a deep despair. What’s so astonishing, however, is that Vernazza’s people wasted no time in self-pity.
Rebuilding a legacy
The village shut its doors to tourism for 150 days—a nearly unthinkable risk for an area so heavily dependent on revenue from travelers—taking that time to focus entirely on meeting the needs of its residents, and avoiding compromising the safety of visitors as buildings were rebuilt.
It was difficult for residents to gain a toehold in the reconstruction efforts—it took a month just to dig out Via Roma, and it was mid-January of 2012 before military camp cooks could leave the town, and another week after than before work could even begin on hillside stabilization, aqueduct repair, and sewer work. The upper part of town still didn’t have water, electricity, phones, or gas.
The lean Italian economy was not able to offer overmuch in the way of financial support. As a UNESCO site, there are strict limitations on the types of infrastructure projects that can be undertaken in the Cinque Terre (this is intended to preserve the unique historical character of the village and the region). Work to restore the terraced farmland, situated on the region’s steep cliffs, was eligible for international assistance on the basis of local farming techniques being integral to the town’s cultural value.
According to UNESCO reports in the spring of 2012, the village faced grim challenges. “Still recognizable” was the best the committee in charge of evaluation reconstruction efforts was able to say. There was “limited damage” to the town’s historical paving, and some of the buildings escaped with only minor damage. Local authorities had to undertake intensive evaluation of every property in Vernazza, as well as the rest of the Cinque Terre and its neighboring islands Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto.
In order to safeguard their heritage, those same authorities instated a ban on new construction and any additional work on existing buildings that went “beyond mere conservation work.” Essentially, it was a mission to find the past buried under the rubble. To honor the traditions of the people who built the region, there were to be no ambitious expansion or modernization projects that would risk damaging the beloved character of the area. There have been plenty of efforts to protect against future damage, though (the Ligurian government has redrawn maps of hydrogeological damage risk, to ensure they would understand any future potential dangers).
The jewel, restored
Reconstruction was exhausting, and the obstacles seemingly endless. However, the residents’ determination to rebuild their home was successful. Tourists were able to return to the area by April 2012, just in time for the onrush of springtime tourists.
Martina Manfredi, one of Save Vernazza’s co-founders, paid tribute to the hard work of local residents. “Thinking about the way people were working together to unload the emergency supplies or to dig out the piazza with their bare hands … I knew Vernazza would survive and rebuild thanks to the strength of its people and its community.”
The resurgence of the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza
Italy Through the Viewfinder
By Sarah West for Grand Circle Cruise Line
Packed with history and teeming with spirit, Italy has long been a destination for filmmakers intent on capturing its assertive beauty and mysterious charms. But the European peninsula is not merely a backdrop in these cinematic exploits—it’s a star in its own right. Italy's sheer variety of locales—rolling vineyards, ancient cityscapes, and sun-soaked shores among them—give it a unique ability to match any emotion a story calls for, and the country's A-list appeal never fails to draw visitors.
The Many Faces of Rome
Known as the "Eternal City," the Italian capital of Rome has played an eternal role in cinema, continually luring both filmmakers and audiences alike with its multi-faceted persona.
The city's up-market glamour contrasts sharply with its workaday realities in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Laden symbolism and stylish cinematography, this thought-provoking 1960 social commentary chronicles a gossip-columnist's desperate search for the Roman "sweet life." From sleepless nights in the clubs lining the famed Via Veneto to dalliances in Trevi Fountain, the film's antihero zigzags through his days in search of an idealized—and hopelessly unattainable—lifestyle.
The stoic Rome of emperors and popes lend an air of disquiet to the historical thriller Angels and Demons. Based on the best-selling book by the same name, the film follows a Harvard symbologist as he deciphers clues to a religious conspiracy hidden throughout the city, whose beloved sights—like the ancient Pantheon and the lively Piazza Navona—transform into ominous entities as they get swept up in the action.
Rome may be a versatile performer, but when filmmakers want to set a sumptuous scene, they look no further than vibrant Procida on Italy’s western coast.
Director Michael Radford selected the tiny island as one of the romantic settings for his Academy-award-winning tragi-comedy, Il Postino. Pastel-hued homes, zig-zagging scalatinelli (staircase streets), and hilltop city squares serve as beautiful backdrops to a budding romance forged by the lovely lyrical stylings of poet Pablo Neruda.
But it’s not all poetry in Procida. The island’s colorful facades and cozy cobbled streets provide a stark contrast to the sinister overtones of the psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film’s scheming anti-heroes (among them a down-on-his-luck musician and an indolent Princeton grad) bask in opulence of Italian island life—until they turn on each other, and a deadly game of who’s who ensues.
A Softer Side of Sicily
Perhaps most famous for its mafia connections, Sicily has long been typecast as a gritty gangster's paradise. But there's more to this warm Mediterranean island than Corleones and Tattaglias.
Sicilian humanity is on full display in the Academy Award-winning film Cinema Paradiso. With the enchanting fishing village of Cefalu as its backdrop, this coming-of-age, Italian-language classic—about a filmmaker returning to his small-town roots—celebrates the kind eccentricity of everyday Sicilians and, fittingly, the romance of the cinema.
And for breathtaking views of the island's centuries-old architecture and magnificent seaside vistas, Ocean's Twelve can't be beat. While technically a crime caper, this visually indulgent romp through Castellamare del Golfo off Sicily's northwest coast is decidedly more about getting away from it all than going to the mattresses.
From its stylish cities to its serene hamlets, these films and countless others have explored nearly every inch of Italy—and have brought cinemagoers along for the beautiful ride.
A Cinematic Journey through the Country's Most Alluring Locales
Sicilian or Italian?
from Jerry O'Brien for Grand Circle Cruise Line
“He’s not Italian. He’s Sicilian.” What exactly does that mean? Are Sicilians different from mainland Italians in any way? And if there are differences, do they mean anything today?
Humans have lived on the island of Sicily at least since 10,000 BC. Since then, this small island—not much bigger than Vermont—has been inhabited by its original, indigenous population of Sicanians, Elymians, and Sicels, followed by a long and colorful succession of visitors and conquerors, all of whom left their mark. Among them are the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Goths, and Spaniards, as well as large groups of many other people who fled persecution elsewhere, including Albanians and Jews.
A common stereotype of Sicilians is that those with red hair show the Norman background and those with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion show a Moorish background. It isn’t so. Yes, there is a fascinating range of complexions and other characteristics in Sicily—from blue-eyed brunettes to dark-eyed blondes—but such combinations are not unique to the world’s most conquered island. And the often-repeated observation that northern Italians are “lighter” than southern Italians is flat out wrong, contemporary statistics show. Labels of any kind, we are learning, are more misleading than helpful. After all, Italy did not become a unified nation until 1871, with Rome as the capital. So the concept of “the Italian,” much like the concept of “the American,” is a fairly recent one.
The making of a language
Sicily’s history of conquest and occupation differs from the Italian mainland, so it’s not surprising that the Sicilian language reflects a different set of influences. About a thousand years ago, Sicily was controlled by Muslim Saracens from northern Africa, though Greek-speaking enclaves remained robust. Well, about a hundred years later, the Muslims were ousted by the Normans, and they brought their language with them, while the resulting re-Christianization of Sicily brought in Latin. That’s quite a stew—and it was spiced with Germanic influences, the songs of Provençal troubadours, and Catalan from Spain. In time, Sicilian emerged as a language distinct from the Tuscan dialect, popularized by Dante, which would become the Italian language of the mainland in the 13th century.
The Sicilian language has a few other characteristics that make it different from Italian. Contractions, for example. If a friend says to us, “Jeet jet?” we know we’ve been asked, “Did you eat yet?” Sicilian abounds in contractions like this, making it extremely difficult for newcomers to the language. Another feature is the subtle lengthening of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, depending on the vowel ending of the word that precedes it. The result is that the letter “J” can have three different pronunciations. Good luck, students!
Given the modern rise of mass media, the future of the Sicilian language is not bright. Most young Sicilians speak Italian and English, while very few local elementary schools teach Sicilian at all. In time, the Sicilian language will be as distant as the Norman language is to us now. Such are the ever-changing linguistic currents around the world.
A medley of fresh ingredients
Sicilian cuisine actually has a better chance of surviving. Unlike food on mainland Italy, Sicilian cooking shows the influence of its Greek, Arabic, and Spanish heritage, as well as its ties to the north, and use of local ingredients from the garden and ocean. Take pasta con le sarde, for example. The sauce is made from sardines, raisins, pine nuts, fennel, saffron, parsley, and capers, a combination of ingredients that evokes the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Arabs who once thrived here.
The use of apricots, citrus fruits, rice, clove, and cinnamon shows the lingering Arab influence, while the Spanish connection lives on in recipes using cocoa and tomatoes. Beloved staples of the Sicilian kitchen include eggplant and peppers, lamb and goat, and swordfish and sea bass. And once established, the recipes have real staying power. Arancini—fried balls of rice stuffed with meat, tomatoes, or cheese and covered with breadcrumbs—date back to the tenth century. Dating to the 15th century is pani ca meusa, a sandwich made of fried calf spleen served with a slice of lemon and grated caciocavallo cheese. You’ll still find it served fresh and hot in Palermo.
Sicilian desserts have their own identity, too. La pignolata is a delectable serving of lemony, deep-fried, battered balls covered with vanilla and chocolate icing. Frutta marturana is a traditional marzipan sweet that takes the form of realistically rendered fruits and vegetables, colored with vegetable dyes. Legend has it that nuns in a convent in Palermo decorated the empty fruit trees in the orchard with the treats to impress a visiting archbishop. They are traditionally placed by the bedsides of sleeping children on All Saints Day, November 1.
Another treat that all travelers to Sicily must try is cassata siciliana. This unforgettable dessert begins with a round sponge cake moistened with either fruit juice or a fruit-based liqueur. It is then layered with ricotta cheese, candied fruit peel, and a vanilla or chocolate filling like that used in cannoli. Cover it all with a marzipan shell, followed by green and pink frosting. And as if that’s not enough, this mound of delight is finally topped with candied lemons, apricots, and cherries. No wonder it is said that Sicily is a great place to start a diet—after you leave.
A pedigree for success
Like a fine wine, nurturing a Sicilian heritage in an American context produces a vintage that gives endless joy. Just take a look at the enduring contributions of Sicilian-Americans to world culture. In motion pictures, Al Pacino, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Ben Gazzara, Steve Buscemi, and Sylvester Stallone are all of Sicilian descent. In music, Sicily has given us Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli, Joe Venuti, Frank Zappa, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Pass, Jon Bon Jovi, Frankie Lane, and Louis Prima. Athletes include baseball greats Joe and Dom DiMaggio, and golfer Gene Sarazen. There’s cartoonist Joseph Barbera, novelist Mario Puzo—author of the The Godfather trilogy—and late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose contributions as a member of our country’s highest court will reverberate for generations to come.
Snack like a Sicilian
Your guide to the island’s best antipasti
by Tom Lepisto
In Italy, antipasti is a variety of tasty tidbits served “before the pasta” in a multi-course meal. And if there’s a spot that’s serving it best, Sicily is a top contender. Here’s what you can look forward to savoring if you find yourself on the island:
This classic, stew-like appetizer has a sweet-and-sour flavor, and is made from sautéed eggplant, tomato sauce, Sicilian olives, onions, capers, celery, and sometimes anchovies.
Polpette di melanzane:
Cooked, shredded eggplant is mixed with eggs, then breaded, fried, and rolled into balls. They’re typically served with tomato sauce.
Whole artichokes are stuffed with sautéed garlic and breadcrumbs prior to being steamed. If you want to mix it up, you can fry the hearts and eat them on the side.
These are a smaller version of arancini (rice balls), blending risotto with pasta sauce or besciamella—the Italian version of béchamel.
The baked peppers in this colorful dish are stuffed with pine nuts, currants, and cheeses that can include Caciocavallo and grated Pecorino Romano.
Though simply seasoned with parsley and salt, the chickpea flour gives these fritters a subtly nutty flavor. (It’s best to eat them while they’re hot.)
This omelet-like wonder of layered eggs, cheese, and tomato sauce is often cut into bite-sized squares.
Potatoes are a regional staple, and in this dish they’re mashed, pressed into mini logs, breaded with parsley, and fried.
Portobellos are sliced and flavor-soaked in wine, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, pepper, and bay leaves.
Your guide to the island’s best antipasti
Sicily: The Soul of Italy
The rise of a unique culture just off the Italian mainland
by Amanda Read for Grand Circle Cruise Line
If Venice and Rome are like exquisitely made up divas, then Sicily is the naturally gorgeous girl next door who is blissfully unaware of her charms. Those who dare to unlock Sicily’s mysteries will find an authentic, Old-World Italian island full of life and character—a true diamond in the rough.
A tumultuous past
The Greeks were the first to be attracted to Sicily’s shores almost 3,000 years ago. Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards followed—just to name a few. Each of these peoples left their unique mark on Sicily, before being pushed out by the next wave of intruders, resulting in one of the most captivating cultural mélanges in the world. Where else can one see ancient Greek temples, Roman amphitheaters, Norman fortresses, and Baroque cathedrals all in one place?
While the cultural treasures left behind by Sicily’s numerous conquerors were certainly a blessing, almost 3,000 years of foreign domination also took its toll on the island. Plundered and subjugated by so many different powers, Sicily ended up a rather poor and impoverished region. Having been exploited for so long, Sicilians built up a strong sense of kinship among themselves while trying to survive in a cruel world, as well as a deep-rooted mistrust of all sorts of government authority. This is originally how the mafia gained a toehold here. Formed as a secret organization to fight against the rulers who had crushed the country and its people for centuries, it later became something more sinister.
Sicily is different
Locals think of themselves as Sicilian first and Italian second; when Sicilians visit the Italian mainland, they are off to “Il Continente.” Although the Strait of Messina separating Sicily from the rest of Italy is only 2.5 miles wide, the cultural gap couldn’t be greater. Sicily seems a world apart.
And speaking about differences: not only does the Sicilian dialect sound distinctly different than those of other parts of Italy, the cuisine here differs even more. The food alone makes a trip here worthwhile. One could consider it the original fusion cuisine—a blend of ingredients from Arab, North African, Greek, Italian, and Spanish traditions to create exquisite and exotic dishes. This diversity makes the Sicilian kitchen the most versatile in the Mediterranean. Sicily’s rich culinary tradition dates back to when the first Greek colonists arrived here in the eighth century BC. In fact, the very first cookbook in Europe was written in Sicily by the ancient Greek chef Mithoecus. And one of Sicily’s classics, Spaghetti con le Sarde—pasta with sardines, pine nuts, wild fennel, and raisins—is thought to date back to the Arab’s first expedition into Sicily in the year AD 827. The story goes that the army cooks were ordered to forage for food and found sardines at the port, wild fennel from the fields, and raisins drying in the vineyards. Somehow the combination worked.
Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes Sicily from the rest of the country, though, is its people and their unique way of living. Those who enjoy Italy for its warm-hearted people and their joy of life (la dolce vita) will never forget the intensity of the Sicilian experience. It is here where they have truly mastered the sweet art of doing nothing (dolce far niente). Sicily is still authentic, Old World Italy at its best.
The rise of a unique culture just off the Italian mainland
The city of antiquity
by Philip McCluskey for Grand Circle Cruise Line
Cicero called Siracusa “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.” Archimedes had his famous “Eureka!” moment here, and luminaries such as Plato, Sappho, and Caravaggio were drawn here during the city’s artistic and intellectual awakening. The city is mentioned in the Bible as a stop for the proselytizing Saint Paul, and is the celebrated birthplace of Greek theater. Siracusa has many claims to fame, and its history is as fascinating as it is long.
From colony to colonizer
Siracusa was originally settled by the Corinthians in 734 BC, and the settlers chose an ideal location on the southeastern coast of Sicily: It had two natural ports, was near fertile lands, and could be easily defended from attackers. Within 100 years, the city had become so successful that it was sending out colonists to other parts of Sicily. It soon became a locus of power on the island: a status that drew those in search of power themselves.
Dionysius the despot
The city reached its peak during the tyrannical reign of Dionysius the Elder, who ruled from 405 until 367 BC. Rising from humble beginnings as a clerk in public office, Dionysius used his impressive military prowess (and considerable guile) to become ruler of the city. His rule saw a number of wars—most notably with Carthage—yet it also saw the development of the city walls and its reputation as a strong military power. One site in Siracusa is named for the famous tyrant: the Orecchio di Dionisio, or “Ear of Dionysius.” The entrance to this 200-foot-long cave is similar in shape to a human ear, which may help explain the cave’s remarkable acoustics. Any sound made inside the cave can be amplified up to 16 times; it is said that the eponymous dictator would cast his prisoners here at night so that he could hear every word they said.
A stream of conquerors and a string of bad luck
After the Romans took over in AD 211, Siracusa retained its status as a provincial capital but gradually started to lose its power and influence. Subsequent periods of Frankish, Norman, Byzantine, Arab, Swabian, and Spanish rule only further depleted its standing in the Mediterranean. Earthquakes in 1542 and 1693 destroyed a number of important buildings. By the time it was being bombed by both Allied and German forces during World War II, much of the city’s rich cultural heritage had been destroyed or was in disrepair.
Thanks to impressive reconstruction efforts undertaken in Siracusa, some of the most interesting pieces of the city’s history have been restored. The most important reemergence has been the island of Ortygia, the nucleus of the city. Strolling through the medieval streets here, travelers see the remnants of Greek, Roman, Norman and Baroque architecture, recalling the many iterations of life on this tiny isle. They are all clustered around the Piazza de Duomo, the attractive city square that is home to the city’s famous Cathedral.
You can also find the Fountain of Arethusa in Ortygia, a site which is featured in Greek mythology. It is said that the river god Alpheios fell in love with a water nymph named Arethusa. Arethusa, the story goes, ran all the way to Ortygia to escape the river god’s advances. When she arrived, she asked for the help of the goddess Artemis, who protected all women. In order to hide Arethusa from the pursuing Alpheios, Artemis turned her into a freshwater spring. Alpheios was clever however, and rerouted his river to mix with Arethusa’s. Now, it is said that Arethusa and Alpheios mingle forever in this fountain.
Siracusa is also said to be the birthplace of Greek theater, and was the only school of classical drama outside of Athens. The Greek Theater, originally built in the fifth century BC, was carved from rock on Temenite Hill and was home to performances of legendary playwrights Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Though it certainly shows signs of age (and you would too if you were 2,600 years old), the theater is remarkably intact—so much so that it is still a center of public life of the city. In fact, Siracusans still gather here for Greek tragedies, especially in May and June for the city’s annual Greek Theater Festival.
A fascinating past, a bright future
In naming Siracusa a World Heritage Site in 2005, UNESCO noted that the city offered “a unique testimony to the development of Mediterranean civilization over three millennia.” The city is now among the most popular places to visit in Sicily, thanks in large part to the edificial evidence of its rich and varied history. Perhaps it is fitting that Siracusa’s past is a big part of what will no doubt be a promising future.
The city of antiquity
Gliding Through the Eras on the Grand Canal of Venice
David Valdes Greenwood
For more than two miles, the Grand Canal of Venice winds like a snake through the floating city; it’s both the heart of water traffic, and a showcase for the best architecture over the centuries. If you know what to look for, a simple vaporetto ride can offer a master class in the art of Venice.
Many of the 12th- and 13th-century buildings are in the Venetian-Byzantine style, with tall arches of varying sizes and fresh air loggias. Look for the four-story Ca’ da Mosto, with its nesting balconies (a smaller one above a larger one), once the palace of the slave-trading Mosto family. It was passed down through the family until 1603 when a disgruntled widow—who felt ill-used by her Mosto in-laws—gave the estate to a nephew of her next husband to make a point.
Peaked arches, lacy decorative patterns, and an abundance of quatrefoil symbols announce the Gothic period in Venice. The grande dame of this era is the 1430 Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold), named for its gilded filigree. You can still see the ornate beauty as you glide by, despite a few changes: an 18th-century ballerina moved in and demolished a famous stairway and removed the original balconies, which the prima donna deemed not tasteful.
The Italian Renaissance was an artistic burst and a building boom as well. The new buildings boasted straighter lines, symmetrical portions, and angular geometry. The pale gray 16th-century Palazzo Papadoli is a good example, with triangular pediments above windows, lending the façade a more austere air (despite the stunning art collection on the inside). In a surprising turn, when they family sold the palace, it allegedly went to the person who bid the most … zucchini. Yes, the lucky buyer won the house with 100,000 summer vegetables.
As the Renaissance wound down, the Baroque era was kicking into high gear. In the 16th and 17th centuries, every detail was considered, from elegant cornices to statuary adornments. That’s clear in a glance at the Palazzo Labia, where sculpted balconies underscore double-high French-paned windows topped with glass half-shell portals surrounded by arched pediments, each adorned with a different face. The owners were considered new money by the Venetian elite and their taste was questioned, but the family had the last laugh: It’s considered one of the city’s masterpieces.
In the 20th century, a lavish ball at Palazzo Labia boasted Salvador Dali and Christian Dior among the guests and was captured in photographs by Cecil Beaton, giving a new generation a look at an old tradition: living the high life along the Grand Canal.
Gliding Through the Eras on the Grand Canal of Venice
Paint It Black
The enduring art of the gondola in Venice
from the Inside Scoop
Think of Venice, and you’ll likely imagine elegant black gondolas steered by rowers clad in horizontal stripes. But were it not for a 16th-century decree, Venice’s canals would have been overtaken by brightly colored paint and gilded flourishes—a far cry from the understated beauty of today’s gondolas.
In the early 1500s, rich and powerful Venetians used gondolas as their personal coaches—and decorated them sumptuously as a way of flaunting wealth. The brighter the color, the more expensive the paint, so garish hues were preferred. Many festooned their boats with real gold. While these wealthy Venetians may have impressed one another, they did not impress city leaders, who looked upon the custom as wasteful and unnecessary. In 1533, they passed a law banning the painting and decorating of gondolas, forcing their owners to see-and-be-seen in the blackened, pitch-stained hulls left behind after waterproofing.
Today, paint is used to give gondolas their black veneer, but little else has changed in terms of their construction—or in terms of the traditions surrounding their use.
Labor of Love
It takes an experienced builder around 500 hours to build a gondola in one of three designated boatyards. Each boat is made from 280 individual pieces and eight different types of wood: oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut, and mahogany. In the 16th century, an estimated 10,000 gondolas plied the canals of Venice. Today, there are only a few more than 400 that remain and only about 20 new gondolas are built per year. These gondolas are used exclusively for scenic canal cruises.
Just as these structures need an experienced craftsman, they require an experienced gondolier as well. But breaking into the profession is notoriously difficult with only 425 licenses in play at any given time. For one, licenses tend to stay within families, so most gondoliers are born into the job. Less often, experienced gondoliers with no children will take apprentices under their wings. Regardless, obtaining a license requires years of apprenticeship and rigorous testing. And with good reason: it is not easy. Only three or four new licenses are granted each year.
Being a gondolier in Venice is not only a coveted position for men—they make more money than nearly anyone else in Venice—but a highly sought after position for women. Unfortunately, the 900-year-old Gondolier’s Guild refuses to grant a license to a woman.
Only two so far have even come close. Alex Hai, a German woman, failed her test so many times, she went to court and won permission to operate independently of the guild—the only gondolier in Venice to do so. Venetian-born Giorgia Boscolo, daughter of a celebrated gondolier, actually did pass her navigation test and receive a license in 2010—but could only operate a gondola if a male colleague requested the day off.
As the Guild chooses whether it will change with the times, one thing remains constant in Venice—the gondola’s timeless appeal.
The enduring art of the gondola in Venice
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Italy in January & February
Winter in Italy means smaller crowds and cooler temperatures—both prime reasons to visit this time of year. In fact, the weather throughout most of Italy is actually quite mild and comfortable during January and February. If you’re looking for more traditional winter weather, the north provides with its lower temperatures and snow-capped mountains. Locals and visitors alike can enjoy wintry activities from ice-skating rinks that pop up in the piazzas to skiing in the legendary Alps.
With fewer tourists to compete with, your travel dollar will go further. Of course, that also can mean some attractions will keep shorter hours in winter or close all together—so it’s best to check ahead of time.
Holidays & Events
- January 6: The Epiphany
- January 17: Feast Day of San Antonio Abate
- January 20: Feast Day of San Sebastiano
- Carnevale: Numerous festivals are celebrated throughout the two weeks prior to Lent
Carnevale (Carnival) festivals are held all across the country, but Venice is the place to be during this two-week party. During Carnivale, the City of Canals is transformed into a magical mélange of masquerade balls, pageants, gondola parades, and throngs of masked revelers filling the streets. You should expect a crowd during your visit, and access to some attractions may be limited. But the main attraction is the city itself—awash in color, confetti, and celebration.
If you’re craving a quieter celebration, head to Sicily. Every year on the first Sunday of February, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento hosts an annual almond blossom festival with parades, traditional dances, and exhibits featuring local artisans’ crafts. The almond blossom is considered a harbinger of spring in Sicily, so expect a joyous, jubilant experience.
Italy in March
Much like the beginning of spring in the States, March in Italy is a mix of sunshine, rain showers, and milder temperatures—perfect weather for exploring. The primarily Roman Catholic country is also gearing up for Easter this month, so expect sites, hotels, and attractions to awake from their winter hibernation and offer full hours again for the spike of visitors expected.
Depending on when Easter falls during your visit, religious celebrations will be held all across Italy in the days leading up to and during the holidays. This is an excellent opportunity to experience local culture and traditions up close and personal.
Holidays & Events
- March 8: La Festa della Donna, more widely known as International Women’s Day, is celebrated throughout Italy with flowers, wine, and decadent mimosa cakes
- The Rome Marathon: Held on the third Sunday of March each year
Should you visit Rome during Easter Week, there is no shortage of celebrations. The Pope is your host, leading numerous religious events including a Palm Sunday Mass in Saint Peter’s Square and the solemn Stations of the Cross procession, held on Good Friday at Rome’s iconic Colosseum.
Italy in April
Avoid the summer crowds—and its climbing temperatures—when you visit Italy in April. Balmy spring weather and plentiful sunshine make a visit here this time of year a pleasure. Tuscany’s countryside is especially beautiful under its new blanket of wildflowers. All sites and attractions are officially open, but you won’t need to share space with as many visitors.
April also ushers in myriad spring celebrations—from tulip festivals in Umbria to spectacular artichoke festivals, some featuring magnificent sculptures created entirely of artichokes.
Holidays & Events
- April 25: Liberation Day; a national holiday that marks the anniversary of the fall of Mussolini
If you visit Venice on April 25, be sure to bring a rose with you. Venetians celebrate the Festa di San Marco (Saint Mark)—patron saint of the city and the namesake for its most famous square. This day is also referred to as the Rosebud Festival during which men offer a single red rose to the woman in their lives as a symbol of love.
Italy in May
One of the most ideal times of year to visit—Italy in May offers sunshine, warm (but not too hot) temperatures, and the last month of quiet before the summer crowds descend. Also known as the “month of the rose,” May gardens are at their peak—which makes outdoor explorations extra scenic.
Holidays & Events
- May 1: Labor Day; similar to our Labor Day celebrations, Italians reserve the first of May to recognize workers’ achievements in fighting for their rights by taking a day off to eat, socialize, and dance with family and friends
- May 1: The Sant Efisio procession, a four-day celebration and Sardinia’s most important festival
Near Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, the Giardino dell’Iris, or Iris Garden, is open to the public for just a few precious weeks in May. Home to more than 1500 species of irises—including 15 rare varietals near extinction—the garden is a flower-lover's and photographer’s dream.
Italy in June-August
Summer in Italy ushers in the country’s famously hot weather—temperatures can even rise above 100⁰F in the south. These summery conditions send locals and visitors alike to Italy’s beaches and attract tourists to the cities. This time of year is also the most expensive time to travel in Italy, so it’s best to plan your visit in advance.
Summer is also prime season for cultural and folkloric festivals—travelers can find everything from jousting tournaments in medieval hill towns, to free outdoor movies projected against the walls of Roman ruins, music concerts held in the ancient Greek theaters of Sicily, and more.
Holidays & Events
- June 2: Republic Day is a national holiday commemorating the day the country voted to abolish the monarchy and become a republic and is traditionally celebrated with parades
- June 24: The Feast Day of San Giovanni is celebrated in Florence with spectacular fireworks shows and an annual Florentine soccer game
- August 15: Assumption Day is celebrated in honor of Jesus’s mother Mary with processions, fireworks, and even a horse race around Sienna’s famous medieval piazza.
Italy in September
September days remain warm in Italy, but the nights begin to cool down to more comfortable temperatures. Italians have returned to work and school, but that doesn’t lead to a decrease in celebrations. September marks the beginning of harvest season, punctuated by myriad festivals dedicated to everything from prosciutto to olives. La Vendemmia, Italy’s grape harvest, begins towards the end of September, which means wine festivals are plentiful as well.
If you visit Venice on the first Sunday of September, you will find yourself in the midst of the city’s Regata Storica—a unique gondola race that has plied the canals of Venice for thousands of years. The storied event kicks off with true Venetian pageantry: a spectacular parade of 16th century-style boats and gondoliers in period costumes.
Italy in October & November
Fall in Italy heralds the last of the summer heat, a lessening of crowds, and food festivals aplenty. Mushrooms, chestnuts, olives, grapes, and white truffles are all in season and widely celebrated across the countryside. The decrease in crowds and temperatures also make visiting the cities a more comfortable affair.
Holidays & Events
- White truffle fair and market: Takes place every weekend from early October through mid-November in Alba, a town in Italy’s Piedmont region
- November 1: All Saints’ Day is a day devoted to the dead; locals attend Mass and hold processions to cemeteries
One of the most important film festivals in the world, the Rome International Film Festival, takes place in the Eternal City throughout the month of October. The event attracts world-premiere films and cinema stars from all across the globe.
If you’re interested in something a bit sweeter, head to Perugia in October for its famous Eurochocolate Festival. The best time to attend is the first Sunday of the festival to view intricate sculptures carved from massive blocks of chocolate.
Italy in December
Early winter in Italy is cooler, but still relatively mild—you’ll have to head north to get in some early-season skiing. The cities are quieter and easier to navigate, though hotels, attractions, and hiking sites outside major hubs are likely to be closed in the off-season. It’s best to call before your visit.
December also marks the beginning of the festive Christmas season. If you happen to be in Italy on Christmas Eve or Day, attending Mass in one of the country’s many beautiful, historic churches is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Holidays & Events
- December 7: The Feast of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan
- December 8: Feast of the Immaculate Conception
- December 25: Christmas Day
- December 26: Saint Stephen’s Day—while Christmas Day is traditionally celebrated at home, Italians reserve the day after for visiting local nativity scenes and churches, and generally filling the streets with well-wishes and cheer
For a larger-than-life holiday experience, visit the towering Christmas tree and life-sized Nativity scene displayed in the Vatican’s St. Peter's Square.
December is not limited to Christmas celebrations, of course—in early December, Tuscany’s Wild Boar Festival attracts revelers and foodies to the medieval town of Suvereto.
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