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ITALY

Compare Our Trips

Trip Itinerary

See a detailed overview of the experiences that await when you combine new our eastern and western Italy cruises.

08:29 | 257 views
3

28 DAYS FROM $13,090 • $ 468 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

Get a glimpse of this journey’s highlights, from gazing at Mount Etna to sampling Sicilian cuisine with a local family.

10:21 | 278 views
0

16 DAYS FROM $3,395 • $ 213 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

Trip Itinerary

Get more information about your detailed itinerary, optional tours, exclusive Discovery Series events, and more.

09:26 | 1776 views
6

16 DAYS FROM $3,195 • $ 200 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

Trip Itinerary

See a detailed overview of the experiences that await in Italy and Malta on our new Small Ship Adventure.

08:20 | 1007 views
4

17 DAYS FROM $7,595 • $ 447 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

See a detailed overview of the experiences that wait in Italy, Sicily, and Malta on our new Small Ship Adventure.

07:59 | 617 views
1

17 DAYS FROM $7,295 • $ 430 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

Take a look at the destinations you’ll discover in Northern Italy.

08:43 | 255 views
2

15 DAYS FROM $3,595 • $ 240 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

16 DAYS FROM $5,595 • $ 350 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

See a detailed overview of the experiences that await in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia on our new Small Ship Cruise Tour.

08:03 | 1621 views
44

12 DAYS FROM $3,995 • $ 333 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

Discover the legendary landmarks you’ll explore and the cultural connections you’ll make in the Mediterranean.

03:16 | 540 views
0

19 DAYS FROM $7,395 • $ 390 / DAY
Small Ship Adventure

Trip Itinerary

Get more information about your detailed itinerary, like optional tours, exclusive Discovery Series events, and more.

08:40 | 514 views
0

16 DAYS FROM $4,195 • $ 263 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

Compare Trips

Find the Adventure That’s Right for You

Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

Activity Level 1:

1 2 3 4 5

Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderate

Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

1 2 3 4 5

Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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Recommended Viewing

Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable

Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa: Naples & the Amalfi Coast

Discover southern Italy’s exuberant culture and the stunning beauty of the Amalfi Coast with Emmy award-winning travel expert Rudy Maxa.

Produced by Small World Productions
26:47 |   7649 views   
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Italy: Month-by-Month

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
  • Mid-January: 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

Must See

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.

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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

Must See

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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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

Must See

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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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

Must See

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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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
  • Late June: 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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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. 

Must See

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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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

Must See

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. 

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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

  • Early December: The Feast of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan; and 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 

Must See

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.  

Watch this film to discover more about Italy:

Local Perspective

Meet the people who call Northern Italy home through conversations with a food vendor, a sculptor who works in bronze, and a woman in Verona who answers letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.

10:28 | 1378 views
1

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Italy Interactive Map

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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations

Rome

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.

Explore Rome with us on:

Florence

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.

©2014 The New York Times
04:24 | 5859 views
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Explore Florence with us on:

Italian Riviera

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.

Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa: Genoa and the Italian Riviera

Trace Italy's Ligurian coast with Emmy award-winning travel expert Rudy Maxa, and discover the best of the Riviera.

Courtesy Small World Productions
27:04 | 3745 views
1

Explore the Italian Riviera with us on:

Northern Italy

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.

Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa: Italy’s Veneto and Dolomites

Immerse yourself in the beauty and culture of Northern Italy alongside Emmy award-winning travel expert Rudy Maxa.

Courtesy of Small World Productions
25:31 | 4310 views
6

Explore Northern Italy with us on:

Sardinia

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. 

Explore Sardinia with us on:

Sicily

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.

Bazaar: Sicily

Allow travel expert Judith Jones to lead you on a tour through eastern Sicily, where she visits the island's famously raucous open-air markets, sips wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, and delves into the history and traditions of Sicilian puppet-making.

Courtesy Silvia Santamaria and Ian Cross
24:24 | 4371 views
4

Explore Sicily with us on:

Venice

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.

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Verona

A former Roman settlement, Verona is a compact Italian city not far from Milan and Venice that is noted for its elegant churches, magnificent red- and white-striped Duomo, and picturesque core of cobblestone streets lined with medieval buildings. Verona, of course, is also renowned for its association with the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Yet Shakespeare actually had two more plays set in this romantic canal-laced city nestled along the banks of the Adige River—The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

While Verona is filled with charming palaces, merchants’ houses, and bustling gathering spots such as Piazza delle Erbe, its most famous square, the primary reason that Verona has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site is for its wealth of Roman ruins—in fact, tiny Verona claims to have more Roman ruins than any Italian city other than Rome itself. Verona’s landmark architectural wonder is its vast Roman amphitheater. Constructed outside the city walls in about AD 30, the impressive structure could accommodate some 30,000 spectators. In 1913, as it celebrated the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, Verona’s Roman arena became the world’s largest open-air opera venue. Even today, a highlight of the summer opera season is witnessing a performance here, at one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters in all of Italy.

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Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in Italy with this selection of articles, recipes, and more

RECIPE

Check out the recipe for this famous Tuscan soup with peasant origins.

ARTICLE

Find out which Italian destinations have made it to the silver screen in this cinematic tour.

ARTICLE

In a land where olive oil is as good as gold, it all starts with the perfect harvest.

ARTICLE

Learn the story behind this centuries-old symbol of Florentine strength.

ARTICLE

Discover the rich maritime history of this famed, 25-mile stretch of vibrant shoreline.

ARTICLE

Discover how one influential family, the Medicis, shaped the Renaissance in Florence

ARTICLE

Learn more about the fateful eruption in AD 79 that froze this Italian city in time.

ARTICLE

Discover the long-held traditions surrounding Venice's iconic gondolas.

ARTICLE

Learn to cook this popular Sicilian vegetable dish, featuring fresh eggplant as the key ingredient.

RECIPE

Serve up a fisherman's dinner that's straight out of Tuscany.

RECIPE

Learn how to make an Italian staple.

ARTICLE

Although it’s part of the Italian Peninsula, Sicily has a culture all its own—discover what sets the island apart.

ARTICLE

From linguistic quirks to hearty cuisine, find out how Sicilians differ from their mainland neighbors.

ARTICLE

From The Godfather to The Sopranos, find out where this underworld organization got its roots.

ARTICLE

Northern Italy has a distinct culinary personality—see what defines this regional cuisine.

ARTICLE

Read about the fascinating history of this ancient Mediterranean cultural hub.

ARTICLE

See how a Tyrolean market town became a crossroads of cultures, resulting in one of the most unique cultural blends in Europe.

ARTICLE

Learn about the healing powers of the thermal springs of Chianciano, which have been prized by humanity for more than 7,000 years.

Recipe: Ribollita (Bread and vegetable soup)

Imagine the aroma of fresh herbs hanging from the stalls of a local Tuscan market. The scent of pizza eaten on the piazza wafting through the air. Creamy gelato dripping from the side of your cone onto the sidewalk. When you hear the city of Tuscany mentioned, visions of mouthwatering cuisine comes to mind.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups wet cannelloni beans
  • 2 cups wet borlotti or pinto beans
  • ½ Savoy cabbage
  • 1 lb. Swiss chard
  • 3 ripe or canned tomatoes
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 onion
  • 1 leek
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation:

  1. Cook the beans (after soaking them overnight), retaining all of the cooking water. Take about three-quarters of the beans and strain through a sieve right back into their water. Set the rest of the beans aside.
  2. In a large pot, sauté the finely chopped onion with a clove of garlic in eight tablespoons of oil. When they’re brown, add the sliced celery, carrot, and leek.
  3. Sauté for a while, and then add the chopped tomatoes, rinsed and sliced Swiss chard, Savoy cabbage, thyme, salt, and pepper.
  4. Pour in all of the liquid from the beans and cook the soup very slowly for an hour, adding a little warm water if necessary. Towards the end of cooking time, add the beans.
  5. Place slices of bread in the bottom of the soup bowl, pour half of the soup over them, cover with another layer of bread, and then pour in the rest of the soup.
  6. Before serving, let the soup stand for a few minutes. Serve with a splash of good extra virgin oil.

Servings: 6

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.

Picture-perfect Procida


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.

Find out which Italian destinations have made it to the silver screen in this cinematic tour.

Gold in the Groves

Sicily’s autumn olive harvest

by David Valdes Greenwood and Amanda Morrison from Insider

Laughter echoes among the trees in the thick Sicilian groves, as husbands and wives, old friends, grandparents and children alike join in the annual olive harvest. Each fall, these edible treasures become the focus of Italian village life in a ritual that stretches back at least two millennia here. As ancient historian Pliny the Elder wrote, “Next to the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” To this day, his countrymen would likely agree with that assessment: olives are the island’s most dependable renewable resource.

Hand-picked harvest

With short trees and a rugged landscape, Sicily’s groves are inhospitable to the kind of mechanical olive-harvesting trucks used in some parts of the world. Almost all olive-picking here is done the old fashioned way, by hand. From mid-September until the last chilly days of November, men and women spread mesh nets beneath the trees like fishermen catching fruit and then shake the branches until they rain olives. It’s not uncommon to see harvesters troubling the highest limbs with a garden rake, so as not to miss a precious orb or two.

What happens next depends on the olive’s final destination. If it is headed for the table, it will need to rest—olives picked off the tree are far too hard and bitter to just pop in your mouth. They must be washed, then brined (in a bath of water and salt) for weeks or months before they are ready to eat. Only then can the pungent fruit be chopped and added to a fresh caponata of eggplant and capers, or a left whole in a simple Sicilian salad of olives, celery, carrot, onion, and garlic.

Preparing the perfect press

If one dreams of making olive oil, however, time is of the essence: The flavor is best if the olives are pressed the day of harvest—and good flavor is no small issue in a place where olive oil is known as “liquid gold.”

Olive oil aficionados debate which other factors come into play as well. Some argue that the specific village makes a difference and some claim that the style of press alters the flavor, but nearly everyone agrees that handpicking method matters most of all.

The gold standard of all oils is Extra Virgin. A low acidity oil made from olives pressed only once, it’s most ideal for making a salad dressing, drizzling on vegetables, or for dipping bread into. In most olive-growing countries, Extra Virgin oil makes up less than 10% of all the olives produced, but nearly half the oil pressed here is Extra Virgin, a fact of which the locals are justifiably proud.

Though Sicilians don’t go quite as far as the ancient Greeks, whose athletes slathered themselves in the oil, they do see olives as crucial to their culture and their economy alike. So when you visit Sicily, make sure you sample both the olives and the oil, savoring a culinary tradition that helped earn the island the nickname “God’s Kitchen.”

Michelangelo’s David

An underdog hero and symbol of the Florentine Renaissance

by Lyette Mercier

In a city bursting with iconic art, Michelangelo’s David might just be Florence’s most iconic image. A 17-foot-tall, six-ton, nude statue would be hard to ignore in any setting, but the story of Michelangelo’s masterful sculpture also encompasses many significant aspects of the city’s history, including the construction of the iconic Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the infamous de Medici family, and Florence’s spirited independence from the larger and more powerful Rome. Both its artistic magnificence and its historical significance make Michelangelo’s David a unique symbol of Florence, as well as a global icon of the Renaissance.

The statue was originally conceived as part of a much larger project. It was going to be one of a dozen biblical figures created to decorate the buttresses of Florence’s Basilica—also colloquially called Florence Cathedral, or the Duomo for its recognizable dome. Construction on the cathedral began in 1296, but the structure was not finished until 1436, when Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the leading architects to come out of the Italian Renaissance, engineered and oversaw the dome’s construction.

In 1416, the majority of construction on the cathedral was done, but no one had yet figured out how to build a freestanding dome as large as the planned duomo without the use of flying buttresses to safely distribute the structure’s weight—and Renaissance architects considered these Gothic-style buttresses ugly and unwieldy. No dome this large had been built since antiquity, and architects feared it would collapse under its own weight.

Brunelleschi’s solution was to make the dome as light as possible, structuring it as a double shell. He also gave the dome eight visible vertical ribs, with more built into the structure to bear most of the weight—these were held in place by a series of horizontal wood, iron, and brick ribs also built into the structure. Brunelleschi’s genius didn’t end there, though. Because the project required lifting more than 37,000 tons of material, Brunelleschi also invented a variety of pulleys and hoists. The finished duomo rises 375 feet above the roof of Florence Cathedral and contains more than four million bricks.

The idea to adorn the buttresses with statues of figures from the Old Testament began before Brunelleschi even started work on the dome, when the Overseers of the Office of Works of the Florence Cathedral (the Operai) asked Donatello to sculpt a terracotta Joshua for the cathedral in 1410 . But nearly a century elapsed before Michelangelo began work on his David. The commission wasn’t even originally given to him; two other sculptors between 1464 and 1476 worked on a gigantic block of marble purchased for the project.

The partially-carved marble languished for twenty-five years, until in 1501 the Operai decided they had to do something about the expensive rock sitting in the workshop courtyard and ordered it raised to a standing position so that they could hire a new sculptor to do something with it.

Although Michelangelo was then just 26 years old, he had already established himself as a master sculptor after carving his Pieta (now located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) two years earlier. He convinced the overseers that he was the man for the job, and spent the next two years crafting his masterpiece.

The ambitious design to make a dozen statues for the cathedral had long been abandoned, so David was intended to stand alone atop a buttress of the cathedral, protectively overlooking the city. When the finished statue weighed roughly 12,800 pounds, this plan also had to be changed. The Operai was out of ideas, so they brought together a council of 30 of Florence’s prominent citizens, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea della Robbia, and Perugino, who were to decide where the statue should permanently reside. (It’s a testament to the lasting influence of the Renaissance that prominent Florentine’s of 1504 are still recognizable names 500 years later.) After debating for months, the council finally decided on a spot at the entrance to the city’s main square, the Piazza della Signoria.

Even with the ground-level location, it still took four days to transport the statue from the Operai workshop to the piazza, with David contained in a wooden framework and rolled along on greased beams. The sight of the pale, muscular, massive David traveling through the streets of Florence in a wooden cage must have been a sight its citizens didn’t soon forget.

The installation of David marked Michelangelo’s triumphant return to Florence. He’d been forced to leave the city when its ruling family, the de Medici clan, was deposed in 1494. Michelangelo had been in the de Medici’s employ since 1489 and was living at their court when they were forced from Florence. He spent the ensuing years in Bologna and Rome, while Florence was under the rule of evangelical (and anti-Renaissance) friar Girolamo Savranola.

Michelangelo’s sculpture itself is a triumph as well. David, the youthful Old Testament underdog who defeated the giant Goliath, served as an unofficial symbol of the republic of Florence, a city-state under constant threat from larger Italian kingdoms like the Papal States of Rome. Michelangelo’s David broke from the traditional depiction of the young man standing triumphantly over Goliath’s body.

Instead, this David stands in the moment between decision and action. His weight rests heavily on one leg, and he holds his sling and stone close to his body while gazing warily and defiantly at an unseen opponent. It was no coincidence that David was placed facing towards Rome.

After four centuries exposed to the elements, David was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia in 1873 to protect the stone from weather-related degradation. In 1910 a copy of the David was placed in the spot the original formerly occupied, and it remains there today. Many visitors just visit the nearly identical copy, but there is something to be said for trekking to the museum to view the original.

Indoors, the statue’s imposing height becomes even more dramatic, and the lighting upon the statue highlights Michelangelo’s amazing achievement at creating such an ideal expression of youthful strength and vitality on such a large scale. Visitors also have a better chance of examining the sculpture’s quirks. There is David’s outsized right hand, sometimes explained as representing the hand of God. The statue’s head is also on the large side, possibly in order for viewers to more easily see David’s facial features, had the statue been placed in its planned location on the roof of Florence Cathedral. Viewing the statue from the side, it’s notable that David is unusually slim from front to back, perhaps because Michelangelo was working from a block of marble that had already been carved into.

Today, restoration and maintenance of this treasure remain major issues. In 1991, a mentally ill man attacked the statue with a hammer, breaking off part of David’s toe. Though unfortunate, this vandalism allowed scientists to study fragments of the marble used in the statue. They discovered that it was more porous than other types of marble. This, coupled with the statue’s 500th anniversary, spurred the Accademia in 2003 to undertake the David’s first major restoration since it was moved to the museum one hundred and forty years prior.

Today, conservators worry that the constant, minute vibrations caused by the footfalls of David’s 1.3 million annual visitors may damage the statue as much as the weather ever did. But after surviving half a millennia of artistic and political turmoil, it seems David, like Florence, will find a way to continue to thrive.

An underdog hero and symbol of the Florentine Renaissance

Italy’s Amalfi Coast

by Tom Lepisto from Insider

Steep, rocky slopes rise abruptly from the water’s edge, sometimes concealing crescents of beach below cliffs in secluded coves.

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.

Precipitous Positano

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.

Patrons in the Palazzo

The Medicis and the Making of Renaissance Florence

by David Valdes Greenwood from Insider

Botticelli’s “Venus” and Michelangelo’s David. Il Duomo and The Gates of Paradise. Boboli gardens and mulberry trees. The treasures of Florence are legendary. And yet, the very existence of so many of these gems depended on something as fickle as young love. If a beautiful girl with money to spare had not seen something special in an odd-looking boy with big plans but near-empty pockets, the Italian Renaissance might never have happened.

In 1386, Piccarda Bueri, the famously attractive daughter of one of Florence’s wealthiest families, married a young banker whose sloping forehead, thick brow, and wide-set eyes called to mind a Neanderthal. Thankfully, Piccarda wasn’t concerned with the looks of this young suitor named Giovanni. Though he couldn’t yet offer her the lifestyle she was used to or the prestige that attended her lineage, she saw much in him to admire: He possessed a clever mind and an ability to think ahead, skills he said he’d use to turn his modest, newly opened bank into a force to be reckoned with.

Her faith in Giovanni was rewarded. Within two decades, his bank was the most powerful in Italy, and his last name would eventually become synonymous with power: Medici.

Over the course of the next 300 years, the Medicis built monuments, commissioned artists, funded scientific experiments, and amassed the largest library collection in all of Europe. These achievements began in earnest with Piccarda and Giovanni’s son Cosimo, who grew up to become the leading cultural figure of 15th-century Florence. Cosimo was well-known for pennypinching at home so that the Medici wealth could be used to fund the arts and charities. His generosity was expanded upon exponentially as the Medicis who followed him became not only Florence’s default rulers but its richest citizens by far. Though not every Medici was as noble as the elder Cosimo, their dedication to arts and culture never wavered.

If you can name a painter or sculptor who worked here during the Renaissance, it is likely that the Medicis had something to do with him.

Champions of the Arts

The painter of The Birth of Venus was born Alessandro Filipepi, but he is better known by the nickname his brother gave him: Botticelli, which means “little barrel.” By his teens, Botticelli was already an accomplished painter, and the Medici talent scout snapped him up, offering him his own studio space inside the Medici Palace. There, he became comrades with the young bucks of the dynasty, Lorenzo and his ill-fated brother Giuliano (later killed by enemies). With freedom from financial worry and friends in high places, Botticelli was prolific. The brothers were not only his patrons—sometimes they were his subjects. In his Adoration of the Magi, the brothers are present at the nativity, as is Botticelli himself, staring out from the canvas at the viewer.

His most famous piece reveals two sides of the Medicis at once: the political and the personal. As a replication of a lost Roman masterpiece from the reign of Caesar Augustus, The Birth of Venus is meant to suggest that the Medicis were on par with the ancient Roman emperors. But the painting is also a piece with a private subtext: Venus bears a notable resemblance to a Tuscan bombshell upon whom both brothers had nursed unsuccessful crushes, something only a friend like Botticelli would know.

Today, the piece hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s best art museums. One of Lorenzo and Guiliano’s later relatives, Cosimo I, had the vast Uffizi building built as a way to house all the administrative offices of Florence under one roof. It took 21 years to complete, with his son Francisco overseeing the final flourish: the creation of an art collection in the upper piano nobile. With the gallery, administrative offices, state archives, and an interior courtyard designed to allow views of the Arno River, the Uffizi—as much as any of its treasures— is now considered one of the masterpieces of Florence.

Perhaps the second-most-visited art gallery in the city also came about due to the vision of the Medicis. The Accademia was first envisioned by Cosimo I as an artistic version of Plato’s Academy. Originally named the Academy of Art and Design, it was the first formal arts training institution in Italy. Later renamed the Academy of Fine Arts, it was a source of patronage that came to house some of the great works of the Renaissance, most notably when it became the permanent home of one of the most famous artworks in history: the statue of David by Medici all-star Michelangelo.

At the tender age of 13, the budding sculptor Michelangelo so impressed Lorenzo Medici that he was brought to live and work in the family’s home. For the rest of his life, he was torn between accepting their largesse and resenting their control. He was off their payroll during the near-sleepless two years he worked on his ravishing marble David, a sculpture which so caught the public imagination that it became the symbol of Florence. The Medicis were proud to see their protege make such a splash, but chagrined to learn that the slain goliath at David’s feet was widely interpreted as a reference to the family’s power. Nonetheless, they turned to Michelangelo for several more commissions in his lifetime, and he reluctantly said yes more than once. Today, his David is the centerpiece of an institution that wouldn’t have existed without the family he often resisted.

Battling for the Spotlight

Others, however, spent lifetimes trying to curry the favor Michelangelo shrugged off. One man more eager to please the Medicis—or at least to dazzle one of them—was the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. When Florence announced a competition in 1401 to find a sculptor who would create magnificent new doors for its baptistry, the competing artists had to win over a distinguished panel whose most powerful member was Giovanni Medici. Giovanni took his adjudicator status seriously and even visited the studios of contenders, eventually casting his vote—thus swaying his fellow judges—for Ghiberti.

Ghiberti spent more than 20 years on 28 door panels of New Testament figures, only to learn that another competition was being held to craft Old Testament panels on the opposite side of the building. After convincing the city elders that he could outshine his own first body of work, he spent the next 24 years refining the art of bronze-casting. The results were so detailed, so fully alive, that even his most esteemed peers were starstruck. It was Michelangelo who dubbed the new doors The Gates of Paradise, high praise that validated Giovanni Medici’s foresight in choosing Ghiberti in the first place.

Ghiberti’s wins, of course, meant disappointment for the other artists who had applied for the commissions. The one who took his loss the hardest was Filippo Brunelleschi. He left the city in anger and lived in Rome for a decade. But, in the end, Brunelleschi secured his own place in history. When he returned to the Florence, the Medici-controlled Silk Merchant’s Guild pegged him to build a new orphanage, in which he used classical lines and enormous Roman pillars. Between this impressive work and his redesign of the Medici’s parish church, he had the credentials to win the biggest design commission of all time: the challenge to build a massive dome over Florence Cathedral.

A brilliant but self-taught hot head, Brunelleschi spent 16 years raising the unsupported dome with the aid of workers whose food, drink, and safety he monitored zealously. To make his design—which involved neither pillars nor concrete—he invented a reverse hoist for lifting internal support elements into place. Composed of four million bricks and weighing an estimated 37 tons, Brunelleschi’s masterpiece was not mere construction, but the first example of modern engineering. Consecrated by no less than the duo of Cosimo Medici and the Pope, Il Duomo has remained the city’s most iconic structure ever since. (Sadly for the Medicis, one of their grandest triumphs later became the scene of one of their biggest tragedies: Giuliano Medici, brother to Lorenzo the Great, was murdered here in broad daylight during Easter Services.)

Art in Bloom

The Medicis saw potential for artistry in all corners. They nurtured not only creators who worked in blocks of marble or oil paints, but those who made the earth itself a canvas. Nowhere is this clearer than the Boboli Gardens at Pitti Palace. The 15th century palace was first built by one of the family’s enemies, only to be taken over in 1540 by the Medicis themselves, and greatly expanded as the pet project of Eleonora da Toledo, wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I.

With its eleven acres stretching from Pitti Palace uphill to a vantage point overlooking the city, the vast garden complex became not only the model for Italian gardens in the 16th century, but the standard for royal gardens throughout Europe (including Versailles). The garden was known for its blend of man-made elements and serene flora, its grounds including grottos and temples for semi-private spaces, vast public spaces like a statue-ringed amphitheatre, and an array of stone-paved walkways through stands of cypress.

Like the Duomo, Boboli Gardens required engineering skill to make its artistic vision achievable. Without its own source of water, it would have been impossible for the garden to sustain thousands of plants, so a complex irrigation system was linked to conduits running from the Arno River. Once running water was in place, it was easy enough to move beyond irrigation to decoration, allowing first the creation of the Neptune Fountain, and then an entire man-made lake, which in turn became a source of nourishment for the gardens.

The Medici imprint changed the landscape well beyond their own property: They rewrote the treeline of Florence as well. In the 13th century, silk—a fabric synonymous with elevated class status—became a major element of trade in Florence, but the valuable silkworms and the mulberry leaves they ate had to be imported at great cost. When Ferdinando Medici became Grand Duke in 1587, he decided it was time to cut out the middle man. He drained marshlands to build major roads, then planted thousands of mulberry trees along these routes, so that Florence—and eventually all of Tuscany— could sustain its own silkworm enterprises.

Driving into Florence from the countryside today, you’ll pass countless mulberry trees, their branches spread wide as if to welcome you. It’s hard to believe that they haven’t always been part of the landscape, that they’re here because someone imagined all that Florence could be. The same may be said of so many of the city’s gems. From the Duomo to the David, much depended on visions nourished by the Medici.

It all started with a rich man’s lovely daughter being able to see the future in a homely banker’s face. In choosing each other, Piccarda and Giovanni began a family saga that forever transformed a city and, in turn, inspired the world.

Discover how one influential family, the Medicis, shaped the Renaissance in Florence.

Pompeii’s Darkest Day

by Philip McCluskey for Insider

The morning of August 24, AD 79 started out like any other. Well-heeled Romans hurried about their business, frequenting markets, preparing meals, chatting with neighbors. Noblemen and ordinary citizens discussed the recent election.

Just hours later, everything changed. Nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted with such force that its ash plume climbed more than 15 miles skyward. We know in alarming detail what happened that day because a young eyewitness to history recorded the destruction: Pliny the Younger lived to tell the story of the most famous and destructive eruption of all time, and shared it in his letters to the historian Tacitus.

In the early afternoon, small pieces of cooled, hardened lava, called “lapilli,” started raining down on Pompeii. It continued for hours, increasing in intensity. Panicked residents began to flee the city under an ever-increasing rain of ash and pumice. Houses shook violently, “swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations.” Pliny describes how the terrified citizens fled, tying pillows on their heads for protection from the rocks that flew around them. The ash cloud blotted out the sun, causing a blackness that was “darker and thicker than any night.”

Soon the streets were buried under the accumulated rocks and ash. Roofs began collapsing under the weight. More toxic debris rained down on Pompeii, breaking through windows, slowly burying the city and those who remained inside. People on the streets trying to escape suffocated from the poisonous air. Finally, early on August 25th, surge after surge of superheated lava burst through the city walls, instantly killing any last survivors—and forever silencing Pompeii.

After making their escape, Pliny and the survivors of the nearby town of Misenum returned to a deathly still landscape. “The sight that met our still-terrified eyes was a changed world, buried in ash like snow.”

A city lost—and found

Following the devastation, Pompeii was abandoned and even its name and location were eventually forgotten. It wasn’t until 1748 that the first scientifically backed excavations began in earnest at the behest of the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. What archaeologists found and continue to unearth to this day is an entire and almost wholly preserved provincial Roman city in which remarkable details of Roman life were found, taking visitors back to a moment literally frozen in time.

Walking around Pompeii today, the imaginative visitor can almost hear water pouring through the ancient baths, horse hooves clicking on the pavement, and Roman voices shouting through the streets. Often, it’s the mundane details that resonate most powerfully: 2,000-year-old graffiti that wouldn’t be out of place on any present-day city wall (‘Satura was here on September 3’) … perfectly formed loaves of bread fresh from the oven, left in haste while the baker ran for his life … alabaster jugs that held the cremated remains of loved ones.

One of the most moving sites in Pompeii is the Garden of the Fugitives, which holds many of the casts of the victims. The casts tell a grim story, as adults, children, and even tiny infants were found. One can almost see the outlines of terror writ large on their faces. Many hold their hands up to their faces as a last effort to ward off the ash and flames. Two casts lie intertwined, urging the viewer to ask, who were these people? Slaves, forced to stay by their owners? Lovers in a final embrace?

Preserving a living monument

Preserving Pompeii for the future is a daunting task. At 109 acres, the sheer size of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a mixed blessing. The biggest challenge is trying to stop the city’s decline and decay, while at the same time accommodating more than two million visitors a year. Rainfall and flooding have caused several collapses in recent years. Conservation efforts are ongoing, but costs have been mounting. Grand Circle Foundation is proud to have contributed $150,000 to the World Monument Fund toward restoration efforts.

Pompeii is among the world’s most unforgettable archaeological sites, offering visitors unique insight into the culture and society of an ancient Roman civilization while recalling the last tragic moments of its inhabitants. Hopefully, with ongoing conservation efforts, this city frozen in time will continue to live for another two millennia.

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.

Boy’s Club

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.

Recipe: Caponata

Caponata is a popular Sicilian vegetable dish dating back to the 18th century. In leaner days, it was a cooked as a stew and served as a main course, but in modern times, it’s more commonly taken as an antipasto, a side dish for fish or meat courses, or a relish spread atop crusty bread.

Follow along with the recipe below and try it yourself. While it can be served warm and fresh, many say that it’s best to let it chill overnight to bring out the full flavor of its ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • 1 eggplant
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 12 pitted green olives, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon minced oregano
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley for garnish

Preparation:

  1. Cut the unpeeled eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes, then toss with salt. Place in a colander set over a bowl and let sit for 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry, then set aside.
  2. Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet, and turn up to medium heat. Add celery and cook until softened, about 4 minutes—be sure to stir often.
  3. Add onion and garlic to the skillet, cooking and stirring approximately 5 minutes until onion is golden. Use a slotted spoon to place the entire mixture into a bowl.
  4. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the skillet and heat. Cook the eggplant, stirring continuously, until lightly browned; it should take 5-7 minutes. Stir in your mixture from steps 2 and 3, as well as the tomatoes, olives, capers, tomato paste, and oregano. Bring to a boil then turn heat to low and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes or until caponata is thickened.
  5. Use vinegar, sugar, salt, and black pepper to season caponata to taste. Transfer to a bowl, garnish with parsley, and either serve warm, or let chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Servings: 16

Learn to cook this popular Sicilian vegetable dish, featuring fresh eggplant as the key ingredient.

Recipe: Cacciucco Alla Livornese

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!

Ingredients

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

Preparation

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Add some flavor to the toasted bread by cutting the remaining garlic clove in half, and using the cut end to rub the bread.
  6. Serve the soup in warmed bowls with the garlic toast on the side.

Serves: 8

Serve up a fisherman's dinner that's straight out of Tuscany

Recipe: Pesto

With just six ingredients and no cooking required, pesto is beautiful in its simplicity—but when it comes to getting it just right, things can get downright complicated. Fortunately, there’s an official consortium in Genoa, Italy, to ensure that “the only true pesto”—more than just a recipe, but a Genovese cultural symbol—gets the respect it deserves. The Consorzio del Pesto Genovese aims to protect the authenticity of this classic combination of basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil. In fact, unless you’ve been to Genoa, they’ll argue that you’ve never had a true Genovese pesto—because the basil grown in Liguria tastes nothing like anything you’ll find in the U.S. The difference was notable enough to earn Genovese basil D.O.P. status—Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or, “Protected Designation of Origin.” Its leaves are tender and vivid green, with a more fragrant, less peppery flavor than other varieties of sweet basil.

D.O.P. basil is just one crucial element specified in the official Consorzio recipe. The term “pesto” literally means “to pound,” and an authentic version must be prepared with a mortar (of marble, please) and pestle (of wood)—never a food processor or blender. Once you’ve prepared your pesto to these exacting standards, you must decide what to do with it. According to purists, you have two options: serve it over pasta (of a typical Ligurian variety) or stir it into a minestrone soup. The Genovese would never spoon pesto over meat, or use it to top a pizza—the sauce should never be cooked.

Of course, the Consorzio won’t come knocking down your door if your pesto breaks from tradition—and while we adapted our recipe from their official version, we (like many modern cooks, even in Italy) condone the use of a food processor. High-quality ingredients in the proper proportions will still yield delicious results. 

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups fresh basil leaves (as small and tender as possible)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tbsp pine nuts
  • 6 Tbsp grated parmigiana Reggiano
  • 2 Tbsp grated pecorino Romano
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Preparation:

  1. Rinse the basil in cold water and gently pat dry—do not rub the leaves.
  2. If using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and pine nuts first, followed by a pinch of salt and the basil. Use a light, circular motion until the basil has released its liquid. Add the cheese and the oil, continuing to mix until incorporated.
  3. Alternately, add all ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth.
  4. Season to taste with salt.
  5. Serve over pasta cooked al dente or potato gnocchi. Leftover pesto freezes well.

Servings: 6

Learn to make this classic and versatile Italian sauce the old-fashioned way.

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 exquisitely adorned divas, Sicily is the guilelessly gorgeous girl next door, unaware of her charms.

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.

Although it’s part of the Italian Peninsula, Sicily has a culture all its own—discover what sets the island apart.

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.

The Sicilian Mafia

by Jerry O’Brien from Insider

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Ah, The Godfather. Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel sold more than 20 million copies and remains one of the best-selling books of all time; Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 motion picture and its sequel two years later are undisputed classics, and for good reason. The characters are unforgettable, and many of us can quote the incisive, dramatic dialogue from memory—probably with a reasonable accent.

Origins of the Mafia

The Mafia started up in western Sicily in the mid-19th century, with the vacuum created by the repeated failure of municipal officials to guarantee and enforce inherited property rights. Private entrepreneurs and their teams stepped in to make deals, offer protection, and collect payments. It wasn’t long before law enforcement, the courts, and politicians were drawn into the increasingly powerful web of the families that controlled their respective districts.

The word mafia is generally believed to be derived from the Sicilian word mafiusu, meaning boldness. But the word’s connection to a group of organized criminals stems from a very popular Sicilian play of 1863, The Mafiosi of the Vicaria, about a Palermo prison gang with a leader, a rite of initiation, and an omerta, or code of silence.

Rise to power

Although the Mafia’s role in Sicilian life decreased substantially under Mussolini, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops—and millions of dollars for reconstruction projects— gave the Mafia fertile ground for growth in Sicily in the years following World War II. The Allies replaced many Fascist mayors with Mafia officials, who were favored because they were rigorous anti-Communists. Soon the whole of the construction industry—from quarries to bricklayers—was under Mafia control.

Turning up the heat

As the money flowed, clan rivalries increased, leading to gun battles often played out in the streets. As scores of innocent people died in the crossfire, a public outcry led to thousands of arrests in the early 1960s, but to little effect. In the next two decades, the growing worldwide demand for narcotics brought more money than ever to the Mafia, and increased their control over politicians all over Italy. Judges, prosecutors, priests, and journalists who went after the Mafia were murdered, in Sicily and on the mainland—a campaign of violence that largely drew to a close in 1995 with the ascension of Bernardo Provenzano as chief. A decade of Pax Mafiosi was underway.

Provenzano was arrested in 2006, near his hometown of Corleone, after eluding capture for 43 years. Within weeks, more than 50 Mafia officials were arrested in Palermo alone. Provenzano and many other Mafia bosses are believed to still control criminal activity from behind bars. Despite aggressive, ongoing police investigations and prosecutions—all with the support of the Italian Parliament—law-enforcement officials estimate that the Mafia costs the Sicilian economy more than $12 billion annually in protection money alone.

Terroir, Italian Style

by Julia Chrusciel, for Grand Circle

Regional culture can sometimes trump national affiliation in Italy ...

When you think of Italian food, what comes to mind? Pasta in marinara sauce, eggplant Parmesan, and other dishes swimming in olive oil may be among the first … but all of these popular menu items in the U.S. actually belong to the southern Italian cookbook. When you travel to Northern Italy—a land of mountainous terrain, and shared borders with Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, and France—prepare yourself for a different experience … and a decidedly different meal.

Genoa

Though Genoa doesn’t get much publicity in terms of its regional cookbook, the city has boasted a bustling maritime trade since the 12th century AD. The Ligurian region boasts many seafood dishes such as burrida, a soup with white fish, shrimp, and mussels. These offerings pair well with Cinque Terre, an internationally lauded local wine produced from the Italian Riviera. For those who prefer the terrestrial to the aquatic, Genoa is the birthplace of pesto, the basil-and-pine-nut sauce that has recently enjoyed a revival among foodies in the United States. Sample the pesto atop corzetti, a round pasta imprinted with a design. The practice derives from the Middle Ages when wealthy merchants would eat their corzetti stamped with their family crest.

Venice

Another northern Italian city with a culture revolving around its relationship to the water, Venice’s many canals served as a bustling center for trade from the ninth to 15th centuries AD. A distinctive Venetian dish, baccala mantecato, fittingly features dried salted cod imported from the Baltic Sea which is then rehydrated and prepared with olive oil, garlic, and parsley. The creamy entree pairs well with Pinot Grigio, a wine produced widely in this region. A more recent addition to the Venetian menu (and quickly after that, to dessert plates around the world) is tiramisu, the origins of which are debated. While some stories claim the dessert first appeared on the plates of rich Italians in the 17th century, most believe that the recipe’s birth can be traced back to the late 1960s.

Bolzano

The Italian city of Bolzano has perhaps the most unpredictable bill of fare, as it often seems more Bavarian than Italian. The Austro-Germanic influence on the city (which is called “Bozen” in German) extends to language, architecture and food. Not surprisingly in this city where 26% of the population speaks German, apple strudel is one of Bolzano’s specialties. Another treat that reflects German and Italian Christmas traditions is called zelten di Bolzano. Unlike its reviled cousin, the American fruitcake, zelten di Bolzano carries connotations of local flavor and freshness. The sweet bread is typically made with produce such as figs, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and oranges and then spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and honey. The finishing touch for zelten di Bolzano is a splash of red wine or brandy in the batter.

Speck, another local delicacy, sways more towards the Italian side of the spectrum. A type of cured ham, speck is prepared by seasoning a piece of ham with a mixture of spices including salt, juniper, laurel, pepper, pine, and cinnamon.  After the encrusted piece of ham is slowly smoked over many months, it is thinly sliced to produce a product similar to prosciutto. Sample speck with grappa, a stiff grape brandy common in the colder mountainous regions of Italy.

Bolzano’s mix of influences may seem out of sync with the rest of Italian culture—though often overlooked for the climate and attractions of the Mediterranean South, northern Italy surprises most travelers with its diversity. Regional culture can sometimes trump national affiliation in Italy, a facet of Italian existence which manifests itself strongly in food culture. From canals to winding mountain passes to shorelines, any way you travel to northern Italy will lead you to a meal to please the gourmet within.

Siracusa

The city of antiquty

by Philip McCluskey for Grand Circle Cruise Line

Siracusa has many claims to fame, and its history is as fascinating as it is long.

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.

Restoring Siracusa

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.

Then & Now: Bolzano

Bolzano, the capital of the Italian province of South Tyrol, is a storied region that has been situated at a crossroads of cultures for thousands of years.

With its rich copper deposits, and its strategic location near the Resia and Brenner Passes through the Alps, Tyrol has seen the passage of travelers, merchants, and civilizations since before recorded history. Bronze Age settlers built the first permanent dwellings here, and in 15 BC, the Romans subdued the territory and absorbed it into their ever-expanding borders.

When the empire collapsed, the region fell to the mercy of Ostrogoths, Lombards, Bavarians, and other Germanic tribes who invaded, and eventually built their own settlements there. By the year 1363, these German populations would be part of the unified County of Tyrol, a territory of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty.

Under the Habsburgs, Bolzano flourished as a market town. Because of its vital location at the passage through the Alps, it quickly became a center of trade for the commercial powers of the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.

In 1918, following their defeat in World War I, the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved, and Tyrol was split into two; Bolzano found itself in the southern province, in the nation of Italy. During this interwar period, Mussolini’s fascist regime instituted a policy of harsh Italianization, in an effort to stamp out the influence of Austrian culture in the region. When Mussolini’s regime allied with Hitler, Southern Tyrol’s Germanic residents were given a choice: accept assimilation, or expatriate and become citizens of the Reich. Many chose the latter, but were allowed to return and take back their Italian citizenship in 1948 after the end of World War II.

A period of postwar strife ensued, as the South Tyrolean Liberation Committee, an underground Germanic secessionist group, began a violent campaign of terror. The attacks reached a climax with the “Night of Fire” in June 1961, during which dozens of electric pylons supplying electricity to Bolzano’s industrial zone were sabotaged, bringing the question of Tyrolean citizenship to the world’s attention.

In 1972, the Italian government—after negotiations with the United Nations and Austria—ratified a statute of autonomy, granting the provincial government of South Tyrol a wide degree of administrative authority, deeming it uniquely qualified to respond to the needs of its complex population. Although there are still open questions of what it truly means to be Tyrolean, the statute successfully brought peace to the region.

Bolzano today reflects South Tyrol’s long history and multicultural influences. Wandering the alpine city, lined with pastel stucco houses and Austrian-style wooden chalets, you’ll hear residents speaking both Italian and German, with street signs offering both languages as well.

The city’s cuisine is reflective of this cultural fusion, too. Along with apple strudel, local specialties include zelten di Bolzano, a fruitcake-like sweet treat that features a splash of red wine in the batter, and speck, a spiced and smoked ham sliced thin like prosciutto.

Bolzano also proudly embraces its heritage as a trade town, featuring one of the liveliest open air markets in Europe. Each day, stalls of colorful flowers and fresh produce tantalize visitors, and the market regularly features weekly and seasonal fairs, where traditional clothes, arts, handcrafts, and other special wares are available.

Come experience the fresh mountain air and unique culture of Bolzano for yourself on our Northern Italy: Florence, the Riviera & Bolzano vacation.

Then & Now: Chianciano

Much of Italian history traces its roots to the Romans, but Chianciano’s story starts even earlier, with the Etruscans, the Romans’ enigmatic early neighbors. In the 5th century B.C., Etruscan settlers, drawn by the restorative properties of the area’s mineral waters and hot springs, erected a town in the area, as well as a temple dedicated to their god of good health.

Later, as Roman influence spread throughout the peninsula, they too took note of the curative nature of Chianciano’s waters, and citizens throughout the realm would come visit to treat their ailments. Wealthier Romans built luxurious villas in the town itself, for on-demand access to the thermal baths.

As time passed into the Medieval age, Chianciano fell under the auspices of the city-state of Siena, and then taken by the Medici of Florence, whose influence can still be seen in much of Chianciano’s well-preserved architecture today.

Modern Chianciano began to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as advertisers and developers realized and publicized the city’s potential as travel destination. In the 1920s, Italian architects including Marchi and Loreti built spas to attract and delight locals and visitors from around the world. Among Chianciano's most notable resorts are those built within the Acqua Santa ("holy water") Park, set around a spring of thermal mineral waters within an ancient forest. The waters there boast a range of healing and detoxifying properties, and are said to improve metabolism, digestion, and the absorption of dietary fats.

Today, this quintessential Tuscan hill town is lauded as one of the best health resorts in Europe, its thermal waters having lost none of their luster over the interceding millennia. In addition to its many spas, the town is an attractive destination for any traveler looking to wander the grand piazzas and soak in the medieval ambiance of its Medici-era old town, or to witness the beauty of the surrounding countryside, a gentle landscape of rolling hills, thick with forests of chestnut, ilex, beechwood, and oak.

In addition to the charms of the city itself, its convenient location in the heart of Tuscany makes it an ideal base of exploration for day trips to the region’s many gems, including Florence, Siena, and Rome.

Come see this splendid spa town for yourself when you join us on our Impressions of Italy: The Amalfi Coast & Tuscany vacation, and experience the rejuvenating energy that have drawn people to it for more than 7,000 years.

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