A Month in Italy – Florence

Florence, or Firenze, was the center of European trade during the Middle Ages. The constant influx of people and knowledge (and wealth) birthed the Renaissance, and it continues to be a cultural Mecca even today. It is commonly believed that Florence has the greatest concentration of art per square meter of any city in the world.
Founded atop Etruscan ruins as a Roman garrison in 59 BC by Julius Caesar, Florence is a treasure trove of Renaissance buildings. The many self-guided and guide-led walking tours of the city will thrill anyone with even the slightest interest in architecture, especially in the city center, which still contains glimpses of medieval, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

The many palaces and historic buildings provide a breathtaking view of Florentine history, and there are numerous museums scattered throughout the city, including the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, which does double duty as an art museum. It was here that Michelangelo’s David was installed in 1504. While the statue currently in place is a replica (you must travel to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the original), there are numerous other statues by Donatello, Giambologna, Cellini and Ammannati as well.

A simple, unassuming building, Galleria dell’Accademia, is a must for any aficionado of Renaissance art. Along with the original David, the Gallery of the Academy of Florence also hosts other works by Michelangelo as well as a plethora of historical art from the 14th and 15th centuries. There is even a “skip the line” guided tour of the museum, which will give you priority entrance to the Gallery as well as historic information on the life and times of Michelangelo.

The city is dappled with numerous squares (piazze) such as Piazza del Duomo in the center of town, home to Florence’s Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly referred to as Il Duomo. One of the most celebrated cathedrals in the world, it is visible for miles as it looms over the surrounding buildings. Choose one of the piazza’s coffee shops and sit outside to people watch as you sip an exquisite Italian caffè. Tourists can climb up into the top of the dome, with its incredible views over the cathedral and the city. These tours are breathtaking and inspiring but they are not for the faint of heart!

Florence also offers unique opportunities for tourists to experience what the old city was like. Perfume has played an important role in the history of the city with aristocrats demanding new and personalized scents to modern day visitors wanting to enjoy the unique and new scents. If you look, you can find master Perfumiers leading short workshops where each participant designs their own personal scent and leaves with a bottle of their creation and a recipe for future batches.
Major thoroughfares connect Florence’s piazze, which include Piazza della Repubblica (home to several bourgeois palaces), Piazza Santa Croce (named for the Basilica of Santa Croce), Piazza Santa Trinita (a triangular square featuring the church of Santa Trinita), as well as Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza Beccaria and Piazza della Libertà. If you are traveling by car, however, pay special attention to streets which are often restricted, one way and/or bus-only roads. A traffic ticket is a pricey and unpleasant souvenir.

For those who prefer a little shopping with their tourism, Florence has been a center of textile production since the year 1300. Currently, the city is home to fashion companies such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Emilio Pucci. You will want to visit Via de’ Tornabuoni with its luxury fashion houses and elegant boutiques.

Before you depart Florence, be sure to walk up the shady via Michelangelo from Piazza Ferruccio to visit Piazzale Michelangelo. The panoramic views of the city’s skyline are wondrous and inspiring for any photographer. No matter the time of day, the views are breathtaking and not to be missed. So, let Endless Travel help you plan the perfect Florentine vacation.


Recommended Reading:

The City of Florence, R. W. B. Lewis
Dark Water, Robert Clark
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

A Long Weekend in Venice, Italy

Venice is actually a city that spans 118 small islands located in the Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay that sits between the mouths of the Po and the Piave rivers.  The canals that separate the islands are spanned by over 400 bridges, but Venice is so much more than bridges and canals.

If you aren’t fond of crowds, the best time to see Venice is during the low season. There are fewer crowds, prices are lower, and best of all there are no lines. Even parking on the island is cheaper during the low season. On our long weekend stay in Venice, we were able to walk right into the splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the best-known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. And without crowds, the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square were excited to see us as we posed for photos holding the birds.

While some of the restaurants in the city are closed during the low season, many of the local dining options are still open, giving you a better glimpse into daily life for Venetians, and a delightful sampling of local pizza, pasta, Limoncello and Aperol. Dining in a local establishment can be a more accurate taste of what the culture and food are about. Authentic recipes often include ingredients that tourist spots do not invest in so the real food is missed. Some of the local pubs even have local musicians performing in the evenings.

Many stores have significant low season sales on leather bags, clothing, purses, perfume, and even some of the high-end couture featured during Venice’s annual Fashion Week. Shops like Nardi in St. Mark’s Square feature beautiful jewel-encrusted Moretto brooches, a wide variety of wearable jewelry, decorative trinket boxes, and silverware in the traditional sense, which includes candelabras and other dinner table accouterments. Stop in and look around even if you have no intention to buy! The treasures are sure to delight your inner prince or princess. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi serves as a high-end shopping mall for designer wear, restaurants and free art shows in its top floor space. Be sure to check out the spectacular views from the roof terrace! The back alleyways house many small stalls and shops that have vendors looking for clients. Stop in, make conversation and see what they have to offer. You can probably bargain for a lower price if you are friendly about it!  

A short ferry ride will take you to nearby Murano and Burano Islands where you will find a myriad of things to explore. Murano is famous for its glass factories and gelato while Burano is home to colorful buildings and shops with amazingly intricate lacework. Murano glass can be seen in the big shops and factories but we prefer to wander into the small shops and see what the individual glass blowers were working on right then. Some were making huge abstract art and others were working with tweezers to fashion Christmas ornaments. If you are purchasing glass souvenirs, make sure they have the official “Murano Glass” trademark, as foreign-made cheap knock-offs are plentiful.

Burano is a storybook island with picturesque buildings in every color of the rainbow, and then some. Stores here display a wispy array of spectacular and beautiful lace, tablecloths and napkins, curtains and even dresses and clothing. Take the time to enjoy a coffee or gelato and watch the world go by or watch a local artisan at their craft.

No visit to Venice is complete without a boat ride in the canals.  Whether it is in a classic black gondola, or up and down the main canal, be sure to take daytime and nighttime rides in order to experience the strikingly different views. While the daytime tour allows you to appreciate the details of the architecture, a nighttime tour brings the energy of the city to life as the lights twinkle on the water around you. If you’re looking for a “Bargain Tour” check out the Vaporetto, a local water bus that slowly takes passengers from point to point through the city. It’s an inexpensive and fantastic way to tour the Grand Canal, riding from the lagoon, past the Rialto Bridge, all the way to the train station. Regardless of how you spend your day, make sure to be at the pier point for sunset. Get there early and bring a bottle of wine and your camera. Locals and tourists alike gather and this is the location where many iconic photos of Venice have been taken as it’s a favorite of professional photographers and Instagrammers from around the world.

Venice has been captured in thousands of images, films and books, but nothing can beat exploring this ancient city in person by foot and by boat, making memories that will last forever. Endless Travel can help make your gondola riding dreams a reality, so call us today.


Recommended reading:

Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, Candide by Voltaire, and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Guatemala – Land of Eternal Spring

By Alison Barnes

This past January, I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful country of Guatemala in Central America. Why Guatemala? First, a little history… In Summer 2018, I was in Cabo San Lucas researching hotels and met a fellow travel advisor from Guatemala. The pictures, stories and enthusiasm he shared about his country were contagious and I was determined to visit and experience Guatemala firsthand. Fast-forward to January 2019, and a colleague and I were on our way to Guatemala, also known as the Land of Eternal Spring.

We spent our first night at the AC Hotel by Marriott in the city. We had a gorgeous view of the bustling city from our ultra modern room. The next morning, we left early to avoid traffic and started our tour of the countryside. On our way, we stopped for a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of cheese-stuffed tortillas, beans and fried plantains along with a steaming cup of sipping chocolate.

Our first stop was the small village of Chichicastenango (ChiChi) for shopping in the local market. It was mid-morning and already bustling with residents and a few tourists. Everything you could imagine was on display in blocks and blocks of booths manned by entire families selling their handmade and homegrown goods. The colors and weaves of the clothing differed depending on the village they were from. Vibrant reds, pinks, blues and even black mixed with all of the colors of fruits, veggies and spices made for a fantastic sensory display! Negotiating is encouraged when purchasing, but we did not feel any pressure to buy.

After a refreshing cup of papaya, mango and pineapple, we continued through local villages until we arrived at Lake Atitlan, one of the crown jewels of Guatemala. It is

Guatemalan Market

the largest lake in Central America in a volcanic valley basin. The lake is surrounded by small villages, each with its own culture and traditions, with Mayan and Spanish influences. There is no road connecting villages around the lake, but you can take water taxis to each one for a unique experience. We stayed at the lakefront Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo in Panajachel (Pana) where the afternoon was spent in a hammock with a drink and a snack. That evening, we listened to the waves lapping at the shore while watching the sunset. Ready for more adventure, the next day we ventured onto the lake in kayaks. Once on the lake, we felt the true enormity of the landscape; surrounded on three sides by towering, extinct volcanoes and green, terraced-farmed mountains opposite. Just like the village before, Pana was filled with the warm, friendly faces of the Guatemalan people. In addition, and true to its claim of the Land of Eternal Spring, the weather was gorgeous—cool in the morning and evening with a nice warm-up during the day. The majority of the restaurants were open air and the food is full of flavor, yet not spicy. A daily afternoon coffee and dessert kept us going for a later dinner at a taco stand along the main street.

The next morning, we said goodbye to Pana and arrived in Antigua, one of the more popular tourist destinations. Antigua qualifies as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) city by the World Heritage Convention (WHO) for its cultural, economic, religious, political and educational influences in Guatemala. As a UNESCO city, Antigua is full of a variety of museums, activities, tours, restaurants, markets and experiences.

We checked into our hotel, Hotel Camino Real. The interior reveals beautiful, lush courtyards with fountains, flowers and luxury accommodations. However, sunsets in Antigua are an event not to be missed. The first part of the evening was spent at Cerro San Cristobal (with coffee and dessert, of course) watching the sun set behind one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, Fuego. During our time in Antigua, we actually heard Fuego “talking” a bit with small booms and puffs of smoke—quite a unique sound for someone from the Rocky Mountains!

 

Guatemalan Countryside
Guatemalan Countryside

The following day, we took advantage of the cultural offerings of Santo Domingo del Cerro Museum and Sculpture Garden. What a gem! We enjoyed the peaceful displays both inside and out. They also had an exhibit of influential Guatemalan artists through the country’s history including the artist who designed and decorated many of the government buildings we saw in Guatemala City. We had lunch at the museum’s restaurant, El Tenedor del Cerro, that included a lovely view of Antigua’s hillsides. Another highlight of Antigua was a visit to Filadelfia Coffee Resort  &  Tours.   The  tour was informative and included a tasting of freshly dried, roasted and brewed coffee. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and explained how the volcanic soil lends to a unique flavor of the coffee in Guatemala. I think they may have created a coffee aficionado!

After Antigua, it was back to Guatemala City for a night on the town with dinner and dancing! After seeing the Mayan and Spanish influences in the country and so much history in Antigua, it was wonderful to see the connection in the city. Guatemala’s history, people and landscape now hold a permanent place in my heart, and I am anxious to return. Next up—the Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala. Who’s with me?! Call Endless Travel to book your experience to Guatemala or any of your travel needs!

Antigua Sunset

 

 

Cinque Terre, The Five Lands

The area known in Cinque Terre, a series of five villages along the Italian Riviera northwest of Florence, is mentioned in documents dating as far back as the 11th century.  Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore and the coastline connecting them make up the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Limoni
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.
— Nobel Laureate in Literature, Eugenio Montale, 1921

While Montale originally trekked to the village on foot, these days there is a train from La Spezia that will take you to any of the five villages within a half an hour. Even if you have a car, it is recommended that you park in La Spezia and take the train the rest of the way, as the mountain roads are often only one lane, and the main road stops about a kilometer from Vernazza. Walking the historic trails, however, is something not to be skipped. The walking (and biking) paths spider web across the area, connecting the villages and surrounding sights.  Plan for a multiple day visit to give yourself enough time to walk through the vineyards and olive orchards, to trek between villages, and just to explore.

While many of the trails are perfect for a short walk, for some of the village to village paths, plan on bringing a picnic lunch and enjoying the view of the Mediterranean as you eat. You will need a trekking pass to access the trails during peak season, but during the off season it’s not something you need to worry about.

At the end of a long day’s scenic walk, you can enjoy one of the area’s many divine restaurants featuring such specialties as Monterosso Anchovies, Ligurian Pesto, and Farinata, a savory pancake-like snack made from chickpea flour. And, of course, the gelato made with honey from Corniglia is the perfect dessert. Once your appetite has been properly satiated, it’s simple to catch a train or shuttle back to your starting point. It’s actually a bit safer to do that than walk back as the area is populated by wild boar who like to roam the trails at night.

The predominant industry in Cinque Terre was traditionally grapes and olives, but in the 1970s, the brightly painted fishermen’s cottages perched on the terraced cliffs and hills began to be marketed as a tourist attraction, and tourism has been the primary industry since. In fact, tourism has become so important in Cinque Terre that even when there is a transport strike, at least half the trains through the area continue to run to ensure that vacations go on as planned.

With beaches, exceptional hiking trails and historic World War II bunkers, there is a little something for everyone in Cinque Terre. Endless Travel can make your trip to Italy a walk in the woods. Reach out to us today.

Literary and Popular Media References

Dante compares the rugged cliffs of Purgatory with Cinque Terre in the Divine Comedy.

In Faville del Maglio, Gabriele D’Annunzio mentions the region’s Sciachetrà white wine.

Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street shot scenes in Cinque Terre.

Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted in what may be one of the most famous disasters of all time. While eyewitness accounts of the eruption were recorded, records of the towns surrounding Vesuvius’ base, including Pompeii, were lost to history. The city lay buried in volcanic ash until 1592, but excavation wouldn’t start in earnest until 1764, and since then Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum have been popular tourist destinations, attracting nearly 2.6 million visitors a year by the early part of the 21st century.

The ruins of Pompeii

Even though barely a third of the excavated buildings are accessible to the public, the open sections of the city are extensive, and you may be better off hiring a guide to take you through the ruins — it’s worth every penny. You should set aside at LEAST a whole day to explore Pompeii to get a solid understanding of the city and its history.

There is a weighty seriousness as you walk around the arena and cemetery… the people who lived here fled in terror nearly two thousand years ago, and some of those who didn’t escape have been preserved as plaster casts which are viewable near the public entrance. But their homes and their art have been left behind for us to explore. Frescos, mosaics, and beautifully carved fountains are around every corner. And every one of those fountains is carved differently as they served as street signs as well as meeting point designators. Finally, at the end of the day, when your feet are tired and your brain is full, stop and enjoy the mystical sunset.

If time permits, spend a second day exploring the city of Herculaneum. Unlike Pompeii, the ash and lava that encased Herculaneum carbonized, preserving wood and other organic materials such as beds, food, and skeletons.  Herculaneum’s library was found to contain over 1800 carbonized scrolls, which are slowly being unrolled and deciphered digitally thanks to modern technology that allows us to differentiate between ink and carbonized papyrus.

When your historic explorations are done, it’s time to hop in a car and head south towards Sorrento. Sitting on the southern shore of the Bay of Naples, Sorrento is one of the most notable tourist destinations in Italy.  Visited by such venerable figures as Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Keats and Walter Scott, it is a popular tourist spot for many reasons. First and foremost, the views from Sorrento and the surrounding area are beyond picturesque. The city itself may be one of the most photogenic spots in all of Europe. With small shops, museums, and the 14th century Cathedral of Sorrento, it is a picturesque stop on your way towards the Amalfi Coast.

The part of the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by Italy, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily is more commonly known as the Tyrrhenian Sea. Jutting out from the ankle of Italy’s boot, on the southern coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula, is the Amalfi Coast. As you drive through the mountains and along the shore, you may recognize some of the vistas as the island of Themyscira from 2017’s Wonder Woman. Stopping in Positano for gelato, you’ll find yourself in the middle of some of the filming locations from Under the Tuscan Sun. And if you are a fan of Fellini, you may recognize shots from his movie Roma while you make your way back towards mainland Italy.

Rich with history and breathtaking vistas, the area around the Gulf of Naples could occupy a significant part of any Italian adventure. Let Endless Travel help you plan your trip so you get the most out of your time under the Salerno sun.


Literary References:
John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.
John Steinbeck’s short story Positano.
William James’ Finding Positano, A Love Story.
You can also find several works by M.C. Escher featuring the Amalfi Coast.