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Italy

by Silvia Pe

If the landscape of human emotion were to exist in a country, it would be in Italy. -Lisa Fantino

A candlelight dinner and a rose are simple and sweet signs of romance, but if you want to seriously get your partner’s attention, organize a weekend in Italy and take love to the next level.

It is often said that it does not matter where you go, but with whom you have the pleasure to spend a romantic holiday. That said, Italy can be seen as the perfect set for a love story: striking locations, delicious food, excellent wine and a fascinating lifestyle are yours to experience with the one you wish to woo.

Italy has so much to offer, and each trip to this stunning country can be personalized according to your imagination for a romantic weekend. Here are three ideas for a lovers’ retreat in Italy…

By the Sea

PetraSegreta-SardiniaIf you are a sea lover, then you could combine your romantic weekend with a stay in Sardinia.

Set in the heart of Mediterranean sea, Sardinia is practically preserved from every kind of pollution. Thanks to this setting, the island boasts amazing beaches surrounded by natural beauty. Thanks also to its insular nature, Sardinia still retains rites and traditions from ancient times, as well as many rural landscapes to roam around.

If you are looking for both romance and privacy, then you should avoid the most highly touristed Sardinian destinations and choose the middle season for your romantic getaway. Try a trip to San Pantaleo, a rare traditional Galluran village tucked in among the mountains. Northeastern Sardinia is one of the prettiest areas on the island, featuring a perfect mix of stone-built cottages, a relaxed atmosphere and about 10-20 minutes’ drive to the many beaches of the Costa Smeralda and Arzachena.

When to go: May, June, September
What to try: Fish soup, mussels, and urchins. A sublime way to cook fish in Gallura is in the oven, topped with the local wine, Vermentino di Gallura.

Slow Travel

Zafferana Etnea -SicilyIf you like the slow travel philosophy and the countryside, and if you love art and history, then you could combine your romantic weekend with the discovery of Sicily.

A succession of different rulers over the centuries has influenced Sicilian culture and strengthened its identity: as a result, Sicily is today a land rich in history and traditions. Between palaces, Doric temples, gardens and archaeological sites, you will partake of the charm and magic that pervade the land of Sicily. This feeling of wonder will give a touch of romance to your dreamy holiday.

When to go: Spring is the best period to enjoy Sicily in bloom and the wonderful colors of nature. Summer is another option for trips that mainly visit the seaside.
What to try: Wines from the Etna region, which has become the third most important Italian region for wine production. Etna DOC wines are white, red and rosé and are all produced in the province of Catania. Do not forget to buy a jar of the popular honey produced in Zafferana Etnea, called “the gold of Etna,” also used to prepare delicious desserts and dishes.

Art and Culture

LocCandeli-FirenzeIf you like art cities, then you could combine your romantic weekend with a cultural stay in Tuscany.

Tuscany is the region of lyric love poetry, and its renaissance beauty is a hymn to romanticism in and of itself. Without doubt, Florence is the art city par excellence with a nearly endless list of sights to see. Like the art, romance is also abundant here. For something special, take a short trip to Candeli, a little destination located 10 km away from Florence. Go up to the southern Arno river and you’ll find yourself in the shade of cypress trees, holm and oaks: a perfect place to relax, enjoy horseback riding and country life, and still make it back to Florence in time for a hand-in-hand walk across Ponte Vecchio bridge.

When to go: From March to June, and September
What to try: A Florentine steak, Cantucci biscuits and a glass of Chianti.

Silvia Pe is an Italian travel enthusiast, compulsive reader and sea-dependent! She works in the tourism field and runs the blog CharmingItaly.com, in which she shares information about Italy.

I first visited Arenzano, a small town just outside of Genoa, as one stop of many as I traipsed around Western Europe with two girlfriends, freshly out of high school. Whereas we had elected the backpacking-and-sleeping-in-hostels route, one of my other good friends and two of his buddies had decided to do nearly the same trip, with a higher parental monetary participation allowing for them to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.

While we loved our version of the trip, we were more than happy to spend a couple of nights in the middle of our five week adventure camping out on their floor in their hotel in Arenzano, cleaner than many hostel beds. After a train-train-bus-bus sort of scenario, we finally arrived in the beautiful seaside town, and we spent the next few days getting to know my friend’s group of Italian amici that he had made during a study abroad stint several years before. One of the first things we did when we met the group of them, all dressed to the nines, with gelled hair and ironic glasses several years before they were cool, was find a place to eat.

As soon as I opened the menu, I was told, via a series of hand gestures and Italian words that sounded like babbling to my ears, to try the trofie with pesto. I’m a fan of local specialties and an even bigger fan of pesto, so I did as I was told. The trofie reminded me of spatzle, a German pasta that my mother used to serve with green beans and pesto when I was growing up. But while the pasta, technically new to me, seemed familiar, the pesto was a horse of a different color: the flavors were brighter than anything I had ever tasted before, and I don’t know if it was the combination of the view on the water and the circle of friends — some of whom I barely knew, or whether the pesto really was that good, but ever since, I’ve been making my own whenever I have the chance.

A true Ligurian would jump down my throat for changing the traditional recipe at all, but I’ve found my own ways of doing things, namely adding bitter carrot greens to the traditional basil, and subbing pine nuts, which are expensive and go bad quickly, for pistachios. You, however, can make the recipe either way: it will be delicious and fresh no matter what you do.

by Monica Cesarato

Here in Venice, every occasion is good to celebrate, above all if it can be done with cakes, drinks or otherwise. All through Fall we have various events and celebrations, but November is the time in which Venice celebrates San Martino (on the 11th) and La Madonna della Salute (on the 21th), two very Venetian local events, which are not celebrated anywhere else in Italy and which have survived through centuries.

On 11th November of each year all over the province of Venice and in Venice Historic city, bakeries and cakes shops, to celebrate San Martino, sell the traditional San Martino cake: a short-crust cake covered in sweets and icing, made in the shape of a Knight riding his horse. In the old days, housewives used to make this cake at home and give it to their loved ones. Nowadays, parents usually buy the cake for their children from shops. The cakes are usually prepared or purchased a few days before the 11th and unwrapped and eaten on the day of San Martino, for the joy of children and adults alike.

Now let’s take a look at the reasons why Venetians celebrate this Saint…

The Legend of San Martino

Martin was born in 316/317 A.D. in the Roman province now known as Hungary. His father, a soldier, called him Martin in honour of the War God Mars. Martin wanted to become a catechumenate, but because he was the son of a Roman Veteran, he was only allowed to become a soldier and at 15 he was forced to enter in the army. Martin became a circitor, the man in charge of doing the night rounds. It was during one of those nights that Martin met, right in the middle of winter, a half naked poor man. Martin felt sorry for him and using his sword, cut his cape in two and gave half of it to the poor man. When he went to bed, Martin dreamt of Christ smiling at him while he was wearing the cape.

Martin was a soldier for over 20 years but always acted as a real Christian. When he was about 40, he left the army and became a monk, dedicating his remaining life to the study of God. Martin retired in a villa near Poitiers, in France, were he preached the word of Jesus and created the monastery of Ligugè, the oldest in Europe. After many years he was declared bishop of Tours and he lived there for 26 years. He became a missionary and he created Marmoutier, the first centre where priests were trained into the word of God. He died the 8th November 397 and his funerals took place on the 11th November, hence the Venetian celebration.

The Tradition

In the old days in Venice, the children used to celebrate by going around the town banging on pots and pans and ringing bells, singing:

Oh che odori de pignata Se magnè bon prove fazza Se ne de del bon vin cantaremo San martin, San martin n’à mandà qua Perchè ne fe la carità Anca lu co’l ghe n’aveva Carità ghe ne faseva. Fe attenzion che semo tanti E fame gavemo tuti quanti Stè atenti a no darne poco Perchè se no stemo qua un toco!

What a lovely smell of pots, if we eat well we will rehearse well, if you give us good wine we will sing, We were sent by Saint Martin so you can do some charity, since he did a lot of charity. Be careful, we are many and we are all hungry, Do not give us little otherwise we will stay here for long!

If they managed to get sweets and cakes at the end of the songs, they will then sing:

E con questo la ringrasiemo Del bon animo e del bon cuor. Un altro ano ritornaremo. Se ghe piease al bon Signor Viva viva San Martin

And with this we thank you for your good will, we will come back next year if you will, Viva Saint Martin

If they did not get anything they will sing:

Tanati ciodi gh’è in sta porta Tanti diavoli che ve porta Tanti ciodi gh’è in sto muro Tanti bruschi ve vegna sul culo

For all the nails there are on this door, so many devils you will get; for all the nails on this wall, so many pimples you will get on your back!

This amusing tradition is now brought back by many nurseries and primary schools, so do not be surprised if on that day you will see long lines of small children walking with their teacher and knocking at every door!

Santa Maria Della Salute

Another famous Venetian celebration that takes place in November is Santa Maria Della Salute. On 21st November of every year – the day of the presentation to the Virgin Mary – Venice celebrates the end of the plague of 1636. This is the dearest to the Venetians of all the city celebrations, the only one which still preserves the religious character with which it was started originally. The night before the 21st , Venetians build the pilgrimage bridge made of boats, starting from Campo Santa Maria del Giglio up to the church of Madonna Della Salute, crossing the Canal Grande. This is the bridge that allows the pilgrims to perform their ritual walk up to the church. The little campo in front of the church is filled with stalls selling religious candles of all shapes and sizes and with all local traditional sweets and cakes, specially cooked for this occasion. The amount of local Venetians coming up to the church brings the memory back to the times when Venice was a proud and powerful Republic and the sense of religion was strong in the city.

The plague arrived in Europe at the beginning of the 14th Century, it reached Venice in 1348 when the mortality in the city was 50% of the population. A second big plague struck in 1575-1577 (in that occasion the Venetian built the church of the Redentore) and finally the city suffered again in 1630-31. During those dark times 14,300 people lived in Venice and more than 30% of the population died. The plague of 1630 was brought to the city by the ambassador of Mantua and it spread immediately. The city dropped into a state of terror, all activities with the outside world stopped and entire buildings were quarantined. Everything that had been in contact with the disease was destroyed and those who were infected where confined to the lazzareti (the word Lazzareto comes from the island of Lazzareto Vecchio, where all the infected people where confined). Even letters were disinfected to make sure they did not carry the disease.

Remembering the results that the building of Redentore brought to Venice (the end of the plague in 1578), the Senate pledged to celebrate the end of the plague by building a church in the name of the Virgin Mary and they pledged to celebrate the ending of the disease every year by organizing a pilgrimage to the same church.

The Senate chose a project by Baldassare Longhena and they started building in 1631. The enormous dome (in stone and artwork) required 1,156,627 foundation poles and 50 years of hard work. Longhena just managed to see his masterpiece completed when he died in 1682. The church, while novel in many ways, still shows the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice.

The night before the 21st, the bridge of boats is built to allow pilgrims to cross over to the church to participate in the celebration.

Mass is usually celebrated every hour starting from 6am and continuing through 8pm (last mass).

So if you thought the winter season did not offer much in Venice, think again! This is a 365 days a year city, where all times are good to party and have fun!

Monica Cesarato runs her own B&B on the Riviera del Brenta, just outside Venice, teaches Venetian cooking at http://www.cookinvenice.com and also blogs about life in Venice and Italian lifestyle in her own blog.

by Rebecca Winke

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy”, Giuseppe Verdi famously said. I offer you instead Umbria’s postcard-perfect rolling hills, if I may only keep the dramatic craggy mountain peaks of the Valnerina.

Within the off-the-beaten-track central Italian region of Umbria, the Valnerina is even further off the map. Virtually inaccessible until 1998 (when the 4 kilometer Forca di Cerro Tunnel near Spoleto was completed), now it’s an easy trip from the gentle rolling hills of northern and central Umbria to the wild and rugged scenery in the Nera River Park at the southern tip.  That said, its long history of geographic isolation means that this perfect daytrip destination remains largely unknown to travellers. Here are a few highlights.

Nera River Valley

The valley offers one of the prettiest drives in the region along highway SS209, which skirts the crystalline Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously.  It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where dragons and witches lurked in caves, and where – just to make the area a bit more hostile – each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.

Marmore Waterfalls

My favorite stretch of the Valnerina begins at the southern end with the bucolic Marmore Waterfalls – the highest in Europe – with its climbing walking paths along the falls and breathtaking scenic overlook, and ends at the northern town of Vallo di Nara, a pretty example of the tiny medieval hilltowns for which this region is famous. I also love to stop in at Scheggino, a village criss-crossed with miniature canals full of trout and crayfish (a local specialty, along with black truffles), and the hamlet of Castel San Felice, where the 12th century facade of the San Felice in Narco church tells the story of the historic slaying of a local dragon by Saints Felice and Mauro.

San Pietro

If you only have time to see one thing during your visit, don’t miss San Pietro in Valle. Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne, this former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage and was home to abbots for the next 800 years. The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon. Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in recently restored frescoes from the 12th and 13th century, and filled with stone work including Etruscan and Lombard altars, and a Roman sarcophagus.

Mummies of Ferentillo

The Valnerina is also home to one of the oddest sights in Umbria: the Mummies of Ferentillo. Housed in the tiny village’s 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–this odd museum holds roughly twenty mummies, the most intact of which are displayed behind glass. The combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries, which were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. The guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings, disease and plague, and grim human tragedy—is both surreal and compelling.

I love all of Umbria, from the gentle, undulating hills around Lake Trasimeno, to the vast vineyards covering the landscape near Montefalco, to the lovely pink stone hill towns of Spello and—my home—Assisi. But if I were to choose just one area of this exquisite region as my favorite, it is the mysterious Valnerina which continues to fascinate, bewitch, and draw me back.

Rebecca moved to Italy in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband’s renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria.  She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante (www.brigolante.com), blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca’s Ruminations (www.brigolante.com/en/blog), and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a farm in Umbria.

Come experience “la dolce vita”  today by booking your vacation rental in Italy!  The rich history and culture coupled with extraordinary food and striking landscapes make a visit to this country an unforgettable experience.  Explore the ruins of an ancient world in Rome,  go snorkeling in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sardinia, or relax at an olive grove in the Umbrian Countryside!  Wherever you go, an Italian vacation will surely be the trip of a lifetime.

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This charming Mediterranean villa on the southeast coast of Sardinia boasts access to incredible white sand beaches and a  majestic view of the ocean and nearby mountain villages. The crystalline warm waters are perfect for snorkeling, water skiing and sailing, while the mountains  have incredible horseback riding trails.When in Rome, Do as the Romans do.  If you want to feel like a native Roman, then stay in this home.  Labeled an “oasis of calm, in the heart of Rome” this classic farmhouse is a stone’s  throw away from Vatican City and the center of town.  The serene terrace is surrounded by trees and the perfect place to relax after exploring the ancient city.

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This restored stone farmhouse is located in the picturesque Italian countryside and perfect for a romantic getaway.  Surrounded by olive groves in the hills of Mount Subasio, the view of the lower valley is unparalleled.  Take an afternoon swim in the pool and then pick the best herbs and vegetables from the on site garden to try your hand at cooking some  traditional Italian fare.Que Bella! Minori is an enchanting small village situated on the alluring Amalfi Coast.  Featuring captivating views overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea you won’t want to leave the balcony.  If you manage to avoid being mesmerized by the view visit the larger coastal cities like Positano or hike through the stunning lemon groves in Ravello.

Americans tend to place a lot of importance on where your family is from: people who have never even been to Ireland dress in green on St. Patrick’s Day, and those who happen to still sport the Irish patronym get extra brownie points. As for Italian-Americans, a large part of our (yes, I’m part of that clan) heritage involves our food: food made by our nonnas in giant pots that smell of garlic and basil, things smothered in red sauce and parmesan cheese and the sorts of dishes you find in New York City pizza joints with chianti in straw-covered glass carafes and red checked tablecloths.

This isn’t, however, the Italian food, nor the Italian culture, I encountered when my parents first took me to Milan, several years ago. The Italy I had pictured was the southern tip of the boot and Sicily – the little rock it’s kicking. The sunny skyscapes and warm Italian mammas are nowhere to be found in this northern Italian city, where you’re more likely to find slim, fast-talking Milanese women sipping an espresso in two mouthfuls before jetting off somewhere very, very important. At least, that’s the impression I got when I set off to explore with my brother in tow.

Thanks to frequent international flights, my internal body clock hardly ever suffers the repercussions of jet lag, so while the rest of our family crawled into bed for a mid-morning nap, my brother and I set off into the city to see what it could offer us. My brother has even more Italian-American pride than I, but he of the Sicilian complexion was just as out of place as we strolled the cold northern city and basked in its architecture: the Gothic spires of the Duomo, the symmetry and stark whiteness of the Scala. We sat at an outdoor café over perfect cappuccinos and watched as local Milanese smoked, sipped, talked… all immaculately.

We walked the galleria Vittorio Emmanuele: a mall of sorts, but not as I knew malls to be. It was old in its architecture, yet new in the haute couture stores that lined its corridors, indoors, yet not completely enclosed, with domed glass ceilings and vaulted archways leading to the rest of the city.

Milanese food is Italian, but not Italian in the way we know it in America. The red sauces of my childhood are nowhere to be found, but there’s an elegance that I don’t find in that honest, peasant food either. There’s something to be said for spending the time to make a perfect pot of risotto, simple ingredients coming together, only to be embellished by a bit of saffron: Milan’s impeccable class shining through.


Recipe: Risotto alla Milanese

Ingredients

  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbsp. Butter
  • 1 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 heavy pinch saffron threads
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Bring the chicken broth and water to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the butter and olive oil over medium low heat in a wide, heavy skillet with high sides. Slowly sweat the onions with a heavy pinch of salt, stirring often, until translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Add the rice and cook until slightly translucent, 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the white wine and stir the rice until the liquid is absorbed. Add the hot chicken broth by the ladleful, stirring as the liquid is slowly absorbed each time before adding more. Continue until the rice is al dente, about 20-25 minutes. Add the saffron and taste for salt. Continue adding liquid until the rice is cooked to your liking.
  4. Turn off the heat and stir the cheese into the risotto. Serve immediately.

Number of servings (yield): 4

Emily Monaco is native New Yorker, living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves discovering new places and, of course, their local cuisines! Read about her adventures in food and travel at tomatokumato.com or follow her on Twitter at @emiglia