Touring Tuscany: The Val d'Orcia Valley

by Mario 21-Jun 2016

If you're planning a vacation to Italy, the region of Tuscany is a must-stop travel hot spot that you need to visit during your trip as it's known for its landscapes, traditions and rich history! While you search for Tuscany villas for rent to accommodate your stay, you might be wondering where to start your sight-seeing vacation once you get settled. While you could certainly traverse through the popular Tuscan cities of Florence or Pisa, you may want to take the road less traveled and start your adventure in the scenic valley area south of Montepulciano.

Most tourists know Montepulciano for its highly rated red wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, however, traveling through the beautiful hills of Montepulciano will truly take your Italian vacation to another level. This part of the Tuscan region, scattered with small, well-preserved medieval villages, enormous fortresses and ancient thermal springs, remains unaltered and mostly unaffected by mass tourism. On top of that, restaurant prices throughout the valley are consistently modest. With that said, it's worth spending the day in the area and Parker Villas has a great suggested itinerary you can follow starting in Montepulciano!

An Unforgettable Adventure

First, head toward the village of Pienza, which is the unforgettable pastoral setting for the film "The English Patient", by taking the SS146, known as one of the most scenic drives in Tuscany. The valley between Montepulciano and Pienza is scattered with herds of sheep and famed for its Pecorino cheese. For anyone visiting in the Fall, make sure to experience the Fiera del Cacio, a cheese festival, which takes place in Pienza on the first Sunday.

If you continue west to San Quirico d'Orcia you'll come across a lively pedestrian thoroughfare lined with restaurants, cafes, wine shops and boutiques. It's the perfect place to stop for lunch and pick up souvenirs of locally made herbal soaps and lotions. If you are there during the third weekend in June make sure to attend the Festa del Barbarossa, a festival with a medieval costume procession through the village ending at the Horti Leonini Italianate gardens, where neighborhoods compete in archery and flag throwing.

Arriving at the Thermal Spas & Hot Springs

A 10-minute drive south leads to the sleepy medieval gem of Bagno Vignoni and a Roman-era thermal bath occupying the main square that's bordered by a few small shops and restaurants. During the Renaissance, this became a popular resort thanks to Lorenzo il Magnifico who came here to bathe in the medicinal water as the thermal water rises up 3200 feet to reach the surface at a temperature of 125 degrees F. The parking area for the village, beside the ruins of a 12th century mill, has a phenomenal view across the entire valley. Be sure to stop and take pictures of the breathtaking scenery!

Our next recommended stop is a small village called Bagno San Filippo that features hot spring pools, waterfalls and calcified formations. This spot was frequented by the Etruscans and made into a resort area by the Romans. Visitors are able to swim under the waterfalls and in the natural spring pools, so bring your bathing suit if you want to take a dip. If you want get the most out of this little village, the "Terme San Filippo" is a hotel spa offering day passes, skincare treatments and products made from the springs' curative waters.

Continue the southern scenic loop across the valley toward the medieval village of Cetona, a perfect stop for a coffee or gelato at one of the cafes aligning the charming town square. Fun fact: Giorgio Armani has a summer residence in the area. When not searching for the elite, visit the Mount Cetona Archaeological Park (open July - September), home of the prehistoric Belvedere caves.

From Cetona, pick up the Chiusi exit on the A1 highway, which is a short 15-minute drive away, to head back home to your Tuscan villa in Montepulciano. If you don't get a chance to visit Tuscany this summer, you can still plan your trip for the fall because there's still plenty to see and do!

If you are traveling in late fall, don’t worry. There are plenty of the medieval festivals the area is known for:

  • The Sagra del Fungo e Castagna, is the feast of the mushroom and the chestnut, which takes place on the 2nd and 3rd weekends of October in Vivo d'Orcia. Food stands offer mushrooms dishes, roasted chestnuts and jams.
  • The Sagra del Marrone is the feast of the chestnut in Campligia d'Orcia, held on the last Sunday in October. The village's three neighborhoods compete against one another in decorating, performing arts and food. Visitors walk through each area to judge their favorites and cast a ballot to decide the winner, who is announced that evening.
  • The white truffle festival in San Giovanni d'Asso takes place on the 2nd and 3rd weekends in November, to highlight the truffle season, which runs from September through December. The town has an imposing castle that houses the Museo del Tartufo, which is open on weekends.

Are you ready to plan your vacation by finding the perfect Tuscany villa for rent so you can experience everything Italy has to offer? Search for villas or apartments in Tuscany with Parker Villas today!

Planning a Family Reunion at a Tuscan Villa

by Mario 19-May 2016

A reunion necessitates a lot of planning. Organizing the travel, accommodations, transportation, and activities while keeping everyone happy is always a challenge of the first order. Thankfully, with Parker Villas to help you out, a lot of the work won't really fall on your shoulders. In addition to renting beautiful, hand-picked villas to rent all over Italy and Tuscany we also arrange almost every aspect of your trip.

You know your family better than anyone, and most of these trips are multi-generational and include people with varying interests. It’s important to take a few of these key pointers into consideration when collaborating with us:

Consider the special and varying needs of all

·      • Accommodate grandparents - Take into consideration any guests who may need bedrooms on the ground level with fewer steps. They also may not be up for an aggressive touring schedule and wish to spend more time at the house relaxing. Living areas and kitchens should be easily accessible. Having a large patio or garden area with particularly scenic views of the surrounding countryside is a plus.

·      • Plan for little ones / kids – Younger family members need space to run around, such as a large lawn or garden. All rental homes have kitchens - allowing parents to prepare meals that will make picky kids happy. Many children are not adventurous eaters (no matter how good the cuisine), so having a kitchen to make grilled cheese, snacks and portable sandwiches for the day out can be a real lifesaver.

·       • Allow for some separation – Elders or those without kids may not be used to traveling with kids - a baby crying in the middle of the night impacts everyone’s vacation. By assigning family groups separate floors, renting a house with a detached cottage or opting for an estate with multiple housing units everyone gets a better night’s sleep.

·      • Choose a large space for dining and socializing together – If you feel your family is apt to spend time at your vacation house rather than sightseeing, the living and dining areas become more of a priority when selecting your home away from home.  

Don't overdo togetherness

Reconnecting with family that you haven't seen in years is a special occasion and a rarity. While you want to enjoy precious time on this memorable trip, you also want to be mindful of too much togetherness.  Everyone needs a little alone time, even on a family reunion trip, so don't plan out every minute of every day.

• On a weekly trip, plan 3 or 4 scheduled day trip activities – These could include a guided city tour, a cooking class, a wine tour, a shopping expedition, etc. Remember to include a variety of activities so that everyone has something to look forward to.

• Plan 2-3 group dinners at the villa, but not every night – Vacation rentals can arrange for a cook so that everyone can relax and socialize instead of worrying about cooking and cleaning. However, there will be some days when guests want to venture out on longer day trips and dine in the town they are visiting rather than rush back to the villa.

• Make Wednesday a free day – Mid week is always a great point to leave open as a free day. This allows Mary to go buy her shoes, Bob to go golfing, and Betty to relax by the pool. Time for pursuing individual interests, keeps everyone happier on the trip.

• Arrange for daily breakfast at a villa rental – This is a great way to get started before heading out on a tour or a short day trip to the coast. No one has to get up early to make breakfast or spend time doing the dishes when they could be out enjoying the Italian countryside.

• Suggest one week for the family reunion and a second week for your own family – A combo vacation is a great way to spend time with the entire gang and also a little bonding time with your own family – two great experiences in one vacation!

Transportation

• Consider renting a couple of smaller cars instead of a group van – A Partridge Family- style bus with sing-alongs sounds great, but what happens when the group wants to separate? Maybe one person wants to spend hours at the Roman ruins while another cannot leave Italy without buying a new Gucci bag. Families have diverse interests and you want everyone to enjoy the trip. Renting several smaller cars rather than a large van allows everyone to have some independence and no regrets about missed opportunities. Getting two smaller cars also costs less than getting a large van – and are easier to drive on curvy country roads!

• Rent a bus for a day – For an outing such as a winery tour or scenic drive through Italy's hill towns, it is possible to rent a bus with a driver for a day to make the logistics easier.

Bring a favorite babysitter along

• It will be worth it in the long run – The extra airline ticket is a good investment, since wine tours and museums are traditionally not kid favorites.

• Bringing someone you trust allows for worry-free vacationing – Rather than trying to engage a stranger for the job, bring someone you feel comfortable entrusting with your children's safety and well-being. This allows you to enjoy your time at a wine tour or late dinner without wondering if your kids are ok, have gotten to bed on time, etc.

• Your kids will be less anxious – Many kids can be unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings, especially if their parents leave to go sightseeing. Having someone they know and trust helps them settle into their new environment and enjoy their time too.

When it's time to start the planning, everyone says "count me in," but how do you get the ball rolling?

• Select a group leader – Group e-mails are fun when initial ideas are being tossed around, but you'll need a leader to move things along and make some final decisions.

• Collect a deposit by a given deadline – Setting a firm deadline for payments is a great way to see who is serious about the trip and who is content to dream. This is important because, whether you rent a house, book a tour, reserve hotels, etc., establishing the number of people involved is often the first thing you have to do.

• Include travel insurance in the budget – While some people debate the value of travel insurance for smaller trips, it is invaluable in an endeavor as large as a family reunion. But should you purchase a group policy? Individual insurance? Actually, the best option is to have each family buy their own policy. This means that if one family group has a mishap and cannot make the trip, said family can get a refund and the trip continues on.

• Start planning at least a year in advance to find available space – Since most large groups rent in June, July, and September, be sure to book well ahead of time to find accommodations during these months. If you are planning a trip at the last minute, searching for shoulder or off-season months may be your best option for availability. Prices can be pleasantly lower as well.

At Parker Villas, we've helped  thousands of people plan their family reunions and know the questions to ask to help you consider everyone's needs. All of our large villas offer the option of breakfast and dinner service, cooking classes, and additional cleaning. We also arrange for hotels, rental cars, day tours – our one-stop arrangements help make it easy to keep a large group trip organized. Contact us for more information today!

Why May is a Great Time to Visit Italy

by Mario 06-Apr 2016

At Parker Villas, we've noticed an odd trend: not as many people seem to be visiting Italy in May. For the life of us, we can't figure out why that would be. Could it be that Americans just don't travel before Memorial Day? Or perhaps people aren't aware of how great a time it is to visit? Whatever the case, we're here to let people in on the secret and explain why May might actually be the best month to come to central Italy.

Beautiful Weather

If you are looking for comfortable temperatures, late spring is a great time to visit areas like Tuscany and Umbria. While May in the past was considered strictly a shoulder season, recently the temperatures have been heating up during this month, making it warm, but not blistering. Since outdoor activities are an essential part of any trip to Italy, this will make your time here much more enjoyable. Rent a villa in Tuscany and enjoy spending time on the terrace, or take advantage of the many cafes that will just be opening their outdoor seating.

Of course, it can still be a little cool out during this month and some rain is possible, so check the forecast right before you go to see what type of clothing you might need and bring a jacket for evenings in any case. For the most part, however, expect sunshine and blissfully mild weather.

Flowers

Speaking of outdoor activities, May is one of the best times to catch all of the blooming flowers in the central Italian towns and countryside. The month actually sees the transition of the landscape from the vibrant green of spring to the dusky golds of summer. Bright red poppies and purple wildflowers dot the hills, and gardens fill with blooming roses, azaleas, and jasmine. You may even be able to smell some of these scents wafting across the fields.

More particularly, Florence's Giardino dell'Iris is a must-see for any flora lover. This garden almost exclusively features a fabulous array of Irises, and is only open from May 2nd-20th each year. This is a rare treat that many people who go in August will never get to experience!

Festivals & Holidays

When travelling to Italy, enjoying the unique culture is just part of the fun, and one of the best ways to do that is to attend one of the many festivals. Different towns hold events throughout the year, and May is no exception. You could attend one of the crossbow competitions (there are several, usually performed in late medieval garb), head to one of the many product-related festivals (often dedicated to wine, nuts, cheese, or other goods of the region), or enjoy one of the religious or historically-based affairs.

The Calendimaggio celebrations are held in Assisi, Umbria, on the first Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May (not including the 1st of May). It portrays the drama between two separate groups who clashed with one another in the streets of the city during the 14th century with vibrant costumes, parades, contests, and ceremonies. You may need tickets for some parts of this festival, so get them ahead of time!

Worth noting also is the Italian Labour Day on the first of May. In many places, there are special events and concerts to commemorate the institution of workers' rights, and you can attend some of these if you so choose. One of the other ways that many locals celebrate is by taking short trips to the countryside to relax and picnic, which is never a bad way to spend time in Italy. There will be some businesses that close for the holiday, however, so plan accordingly.

The Giro d'Italia

If you've ever thought you would love to catch some of the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia is a great alternative. This is considered one of the top cycling races in the world, and is one of three European races that constitute the Grand Tours (these include the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and the Vuelta a España).

The route for this year's race has already been determined, with one leg of the competition traversing the Chianti region vineyards for 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) in an individual time trial. This means that you won't have to go far out of your way to experience this exciting event firsthand. The Giro d'Italia would be an incredible thing to get some pictures of and tell people about at home, so check out the schedule and plan ahead.

On the other hand, if bike racing isn't your thing, keeping this event in mind will help you to avoid a major road delay while on your trip. 

Fewer Crowds

Did we mention how perplexed were that there weren't more people here in May? That's all to the good for you, if you decide to book during the month. Many people who are looking to avoid the mid-summer heat and the crowds come in September, which, though a beautiful month in central Italy, often ends up just as crowded as June or July. But, possibly because kids aren't off of school or people simply haven't accrued much vacation time, May is often neglected. This will make everything from taking a wine tour to visiting the Uffizi less chaotic, more personal, and more pleasant. You'll feel a bit less like a tourist, and more like you actually live here, which is always the goal of a great vacation!

While we think coming to central Italy is worth it at any time of year, May is a highly underappreciated month. Take advantage of it by booking a villa or apartment with us at Parker Villas today!

Unveiling the Secrets of Rome's Past

by Mario 09-Aug 2013

With all the renewed attention Rome is enjoying with Pope Francis, James Papandrea's most recent outing "Rome  — A Pilgrim's Guide to the Eternal City" comes at a providentially opportune time. The guide is indispensable for unveiling many of Rome's ancient secrets — especially those that go unnoticed in plain sight. In an easy, colloquial style, yet packed with detail, Jim probes behind (and often beneath) the most famous and sometimes long forgotten facades and artworks on a journey of unique discovery. Those in need of a mere lodging & good eats guide should read no further.

While Jim uncovers tangible evidence of Rome's early church, the book reveals so much more. Regardless of one's belief system, this guide is a bag of pearls. Each find is a glimpse into a hidden Rome. Catholics and other ecumenical denominations will appreciate age-old invocations and devotions to a panoply of early saints. However, students of history be they peoples of the Book, followers of the Way, agnostics or adherents of any faith will be fascinated with how Babel's pantheism morfed into the Roman Catholic rite.

One interesting tidbit regarding Julius Caesar's coronation required his becoming Pontifex Maximus — the empire's chief priest. However, this was in BC (before Christ). The church Julius headed, with all the familiar trappings of today's pontiffs, originated long before Christ in ancient Mesopotamia. The question one begs is whether all this evidence points to Catholicism donning a pagan mask to survive or was it the other way around?

"Rome  — A Pilgrim's Guide to the Eternal City" opens a doorway into a hall of mirrors encompassing masterpieces of art and architecture, traditions and doctrines and reveals an origin far older than Rome. You needn't visit the city to enjoy this read or its photos, but the sheer number of insights and curiosities will likely make your eventual appearance inevitable and rewarding.

Eager forensic detectives may even choose to personally accompany Dr. Papandrea on future explorations of the Eternal City. For more information preview the book, read about the author and ckeck his 2014 travel schedule or just simply visit him at www.JimPapandrea.com. You may also purchase a copy directly from the publishers: Wipf and Stock Publishers or from Amazon in either print or e-version.

A final note — Jim is a Parker Villas client and I'm always thrilled to share our guests' deepening love affair with Italy. While I am neither a writer nor a critic, I do profess to know Italy very well. Having lived in Rome and visited the city countless times, Jim's book left me happily humbled by how little I knew and by how much more I look forward to returning to my favorite corner of Rome. This review was not prescreened by the author.
mario

Help Bring Marilyn Monroe Home To The USA From Italy

by Mario 13-Mar 2013

This appeal is going to sound a bit odd from someone who is neither an avid museum goer, a fashion flower nor celebrity buff. Perhaps it's all the more interesting. A few months ago I was taken on an afternoon conference break, with a slew of other foreign travel buyers to see the Marilyn exhibit at the Ferragamo Shoe Museum in Florence. It was designed as an hour to kill after lunch.

Sixty minutes later, with tears running down my cheeks, I approached the woman who was acting as the guide — but who possesed far more passion than any ordinary guide — and in my abrupt American fashion blurted out: "Who are you? Are you the person who sells this dream?" The answer was: "Yes, but we are not done yet. Please, follow me." The grand finale was a jaw dropper. When everyone left, I lingered behind to ask the "guide", a director level official: "When is Marilyn coming to the United States?" She sadly replied: "She's not". The exhibit in Florence ends at the beginning of April and opens in Prague from May through August 2013. Then, that's it. After Prague, once all the pieces go back to their respective museums and private collections, it's a lot harder to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Let's back up. Aside from the shoes, clothes, pictures, sound, film and writings of Marilyn, masterfully presented in a Fellini dreamlike sequence, the genius is in how it's all done. Here's Marilyn in an all too familiar pose next to an even more famous painting or sculpture hundreds or thousands of years older in the exact same position. This is art, universal and timeless. A tragic American icon and an ephemeral Greek, Roman or Renaissance nymph, goddess and madonna become indistinguishable, nearly interchangeable! The presentation is nonetheless filled with drama and controversy. It's an emotional roller coaster. No matter the forewarning, jaws will drop aplenty.

The Ferragamo Museum is a true accredited museum and separate from the Ferragamo brand. Once a stateside museum does get involved, the brand may surely want to sponsor a great deal of things. But until then it does not get involved.

So, if you want to help:
Step 1. Get infected. Visit Marilyn in Florence this month (March 2013) or in Prague in May.
Step 2. Once you see it, you'll agree that wherever Marilyn lands in the USA there will be day-long lines for blocks.
Step 3. Six degrees of separation. What's needed are introductions between interested museums here and Marilyn's mentors there.

I have returned to Florence three times in as many months, with more trips to come, on Parker business. Each time, I try to move the dream along. We have already established some contacts on Marilyn's behalf from ambassadorial levels on down. With your added help we maybe can get her home soon. If you are serious and have the right contacts, I'm quite easy to reach and can open the doors there.

Venice Carnevale—Life’s A Masquerade!

by Admin 15-Jan 2013

It’s the week before Lent and the calendar says “Party!” And while Rio dances in the street 24/7 and New Orleans jazzes the blues right out of winter, Venice puts on a show that rivals the rest. If you’ve never experienced Carnevale, then be sure to bump it to the top of your bucket list ... The breathtaking, exuberant pageantry of masks, festooned boats, and centuries-old rituals draw participants and revelers from across the globe for reasons you have to see to believe.

There are so many events going on, so many traditional celebrations and pageants, that it’s impossible to describe them all — much less their origins. So, here’s our short list of what not to miss and what to look for “behind-the-mask.” Carnevale runs from Jan. 26 to Feb. 12, 2013.

The 2013 Theme: LIVE IN COLOR!
The kaleidoscopic image relates to the amazing colors that Venice emanates, from its pastel buildings to the nuanced reflections in the waters. It’s a tribute to the painters who first captured the light and colors of the city: Canaletto, Guardi, Titian, Bellini, Veronese. And it will be present in every aspect of this year’s feast, from the foods to the colorful regalia on buildings and boats everywhere.

• Saturday, January 26
The Grand Parade of Masks in Piazza San Marco. This opening ceremony is dedicated to the citizens of the city of Venice, many of whom arrive in traditional Venetian costume and a spectacular array of painted masks.

• Sunday, January 27
Parade of Boats. Thousands of watercraft, small and big, sail the Grand Canal to the fabled Canareggio district where countless food and wine stalls serve forth traditional Venetian specialty foods and beverages late into the evening.

• Twice daily
The Best Mask Contest: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. in Piazza San Marco. Originally made of glass, today’s finest masks are made of leather, porcelain, or carta pesta (papier maché), elaborately painted and often themed with the traditional motifs: Bauta — full-faced and often worn with a black cloak; Columbina — the half-mask, usually highly decorated with gold and feathers; Medico del Peste — the bird-beak mask; and the Volto — the popular all-white mask, often worn with a tri-corner hat and cloak.

• Sunday, February 3
Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel). A tradition since the early Renaissance, an anonymous Venetian “guest” flies along a rope from the bell tower of San Marco and lands in the middle of the Piazza, greeted by throngs of masked festival-goers.

• Three times daily on weekends
The Secrets of Venice – Walking Theater Show. Beginning in the 15th century, nobles and wealthy Venetians were escorted in the evenings by a codega, a story-telling servant who lit the way home down the alleyways with lanterns. Today, theatrical actors play the part of the codega, leading the “audience” through the streets of Venice, stopping at secret places and watching other actors appear in the dark to tell tales tall and true.

• Tuesday, February 12 (Mardi Gras)
The Silent Water Parade & Closing Ceremony. Starting at the Rialto and ending at the Punta della Dogana in the Grand Canal, this moving and dazzling ceremony features a huge flotilla of gondolas and traditional rowboats, all lit with candles and bringing to life the Venice of another era.

For more information and tickets, visit the comprehensive Italian site, which translates into English.

Experience Carnevale up-close ...
... from one of Parker’s Gondole Apartments. Rented on a nightly basis, with plenty of living space, cooking facilities, and drop-dead views, each apartment makes a perfect home in the serene Giudecca neighborhood, just a 10-minute vaporetto ride to St. Mark’s Square. Take a moment to check out views from Tortuga and Gandalf

Book-it to Venice: Insider Travel Tips

by Admin 08-Jan 2013

Venice is on everyone’s “places-to-visit-in-this-lifetime” list—for a million great reasons. It’s not, however, one of the most straightforward places to get to. Since we’ve had many years of experience in sending travelers to Venice and the Veneto, we’d like to share some of our “insider” tips to help make your own travel planning easier.

Venice Airport & Transfers
During certain periods Delta flies direct to Venice from the U.S. It’s worth checking out. Venice's Marco Polo Airport is easy to navigate with water taxi service directly from the airport to locations along the Grand Canal. Private water taxi cost €110 for 1-4 persons and takes about 20 minutes; the private waterbus (vaporetto) company, Aliguna, goes to Piazza San Marco for €25 and take about an hour.

Getting Around
If you’re planning to explore Venice for a day or longer, the Travel Card (ACTV) offers substantial discounts on water and land buses within the county of Venice, the Lido, and Mestre (excluding the airport). As an example, just one vaporetto ride costs €7 while an entire day’s worth of unlimited travel along the canals costs €18 with the Travel Card. Buy as little as a 12-hour card or one good for up to 7 days. Cards can be purchased from the ACTV in Piazzale Roma (the staff speaks English). Visit Moving Venice for more details.

Book Venice Early
Venice is a hugely popular weekend destination for Italians. Hotels tend to fully book by February, especially for Friday and Saturday nights.

July is Off Season in Venice

If you’re on a budget, plan to visit Venice in July. July is considered low season for most Venetian hotels and there are great deals to be had especially from Sunday through Thursday nights.


Ride a Gondola
Yes, it’s pricey (a 30-minute ride costs around
100), but it's an experience you'll treasure forever. If there’s a moon out in the evening, that’s the best time to go—and be sure you pass under the fabled Bridge of Sighs.

Experience the majesty of Venice’s skyline (literally) ...
... from one of Parker’s Gondole Apartments. Rented on a nightly basis, with plenty of living space, cooking facilities, and drop-dead views, each apartment makes a perfect home in the serene Giudecca neighborhood, just a 10-minute vaporetto ride to St. Mark’s Square. Take a moment to check out views from Tortuga and Gandalf


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Orvieto Underground: The city beneath the city

by Admin 12-Dec 2012

When you’re standing in one of the arched stone caverns deep inside the Parco delle Grotte (park of caves), consider that there’s a cathedral right atop your head.

Orvieto’s history reaches deep into Etruscan times. Built high atop a tufa “mountain,” the town’s soft porous stone was easily cut and carved into a warren of labyrinthine passageways sometime around the 5th century B.C. When the Romans arrived in 264 B.C., they nearly demolished Orvieto, but the town rose from the proverbial ashes in the 14th century when approximately 30,000 people settled here and rebuilt the glorious little city that still rises above the broad valley below. The noblemen, who brought their business to town and who built churches and the mighty cathedral, dug and expanded the passageways beneath their homes, creating escape routes in case the city came under siege. As time went by, other citizens altered and conformed the subterranean halls and passages for their own industrious purposes, creating wells, cisterns, pigeon-breeding centers, a cement quarry, kilns for their ceramics, and storage for olive oil.

As the centuries rolled by, the caves were abandoned, their storied past fading from public knowledge. It has only been since the late 19th and 20th centuries, when archaeologists began combing the Umbrian countryside for Etruscan artifacts, that this underground world resurfaced. In 1985, a huge well was discovered, and next to it, the remains of two ceramic kilns. One dates to the Renaissance when it was used in a process called the “third fire.” The result was a hard, shiny ceramic, whose iridescent gold and red finish remains unique in the world.

As you’re wandering about Orvieto, you can gain access to many of the caves through local shops and restaurants—some even advertise entry on their signs—and we recommend dining in one of the city’s grotto restaurants for the enchanting atmosphere. It’s also well worth the time to take the “Orvieto Underground Tour,” a guided adventure where you can climb up and down the winding stairways, photograph ancient olive presses, and marvel at those little symmetrical square holes in the walls. You’ll find out what those are, along with these other fascinating facts about this magical and mysterious world:

• Many caves are connected underground, perfect for chatting with the neighbors.
• The 57-degree F temperature is steady through the labyrinth, which is just right for processing the excellent olive oil famous throughout Umbria.
• “Ladders” for climbing into higher chambers were carved into the walls using a series of alternating foot and hand holds.
• That strange sequence of uniform niches in the larger galleries? Those are pigeon holes, where the birds nested and laid eggs, an important source of revenue for the locals.

********

Parker’s VILLA MIRABELLA offers your own perfect go-to grotto, its stone walls and terracotta floors a beautiful use of local materials. Whether for 8 guests, or up to 14, the very private villa features a pool and a bocce court. The covered portico with a wood-fired barbecue make al fresco dining a memorable experience. Orvieto, with its many restaurants, shops, fabled cathedral and underground caves, is just 15 minutes away. Click here for more information.

Saint Nicholas: A tale of two Italian cities

by Admin 06-Dec 2012

Long before Santa Claus and his toy business moved to the North Pole, the benevolent Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (Demre in today’s modern Turkey), delighted poor children with candies and small gifts.
 
Born in A.D. 270, and orphaned at a young age, Nicholas devoted his life to Christ and the poor. He was made Bishop and his reputation for generosity was celebrated far and wide; after his death in 343 his grave in the Myra Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage­. By popular demand, Nicholas was pronounced a Saint in the year 400, and December 6th
was established as his official Feast Day.

After Myra fell to Islam in 1081, the Christian faith was suppressed and churches, including the Cathedral of Myra, were shuttered. Ever opportunistic, yet keeping a penitent eye toward holy heaven, Italian merchants—from Bari and Venice in particular—vowed to bring the sacred relics of Saint Nicholas to their respective cities for safekeeping, aware that an influx of pilgrims would also significantly boost the local economy.

On May 9, 1087 the contingent of three ships from Bari returned home first with the remains of the good saint. The sailors pledged to build a magnificent church and, in 1089, Pope Urban II placed a hand-carved casket in its crypt. For the next three centuries the Basilica of San Nicola remained one of Europe’s main centers of pilgrimage and May 9 continues to be a day of celebration in Bari.
 
Meanwhile... The Venetians doubted that the sailors from Bari had recovered all of the relics.
In 1099, during the First Crusade, Venetian contingents stopped in Myra and, digging through the mostly abandoned church, discovered an ossuary engraved with the words: “Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea.” They returned to Venice with the container in 1101 where it was laid to rest in the church already dedicated to the saint—San Nicolo al Lido. Of course, the origin of the relics was highly disputed in Bari and beyond, but the Venetians never once reconsidered their claim. It took 891 years to vindicate them.
 

In 1953,
Luigi Martino, anatomy professor from the University of Bari, took samples from both cities and measured, X-rayed, and compared the bone fragments, concluding that they were indeed the remains of the same man—the patron saint of children, mariners, merchants, bakers, and the early Christian church. Bless both Bari and Venice!

Panettone: A Love Story

by Admin 29-Nov 2012

Disclaimer: Based on a multitude of “true” stories, the origin, at least, of the beloved Christmas bread, Panettone, is anchored in 15th century Milan. The names of the heroes and heroines are real, according to history, and the recipe has remained fairly consistent through the centuries. Following is a compilation of facts, undoubtedly some fiction, and likely the omission of a few details, which we secretly hope Hollywood will one day fill in ...

Once upon a time, in 15th century Milan, there was a young nobleman and falconer named Ughetto Atellani. He liked to train his birds near a bakery and would watch the beautiful baker’s daughter, Adalgisa, at work. Ughetto introduced himself to the girl one day and they fell in love. Because the nobleman’s family would not hear of his marrying so far beneath his place in society, the two met in secret.

Adalgisa’s father, Toni, had fallen ill and the young girl had to work extra hard and for long hours. Ughetto felt sorry for his beloved and devised a plan to help. He disguised himself as a poor peasant and offered to work in the bakery in exchange for an occasional loaf. Knowing that the local gentry found the taste of the bread too unrefined, he used his own funds to buy more expensive ingredients: butter, eggs, candied lemon and orange peel. The result was a cake-like bread he named Pane di Toni for Adalgisa’s father, and word spread quickly of the light, sweet confection found only at this particular bakery. Business boomed. With the coming of Christmas, Ughetto added golden raisins to his confection—a Midas touch that secured the destiny of Panettone as the official celebratory holiday bread throughout Italy.

Meanwhile... Ughetto finally emerged from his peasant disguise and the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza, agreed to the marriage of the enterprising falconer and the lovely baker’s daughter. Leonardo da Vinci, himself an enthusiastic promoter of the panettone, attended the nuptials.

Panettone: Just the Facts

• Literally translated, panettone means “big bread” (but surely that’s coincidental).

• Creating the sweet bread is somewhat labor-intensive, with a triple-rise series that often takes 15 to 20 hours to complete.

• Panettone can be kept for months in its packaging, and even once opened, it doesn’t stale quickly (because of its “dry” ingredients, not because it has preservatives—it doesn’t). The linger-longer factor makes the bread a perfect treat to serve throughout the holiday season with rich coffee or sweet wine, such as Moscato d’Asti.

• While it originated in Milan, today’s best Panettone comes from all over Italy: Modena, Padua, Vicenza, Pescara, and Sicily.

• Our favorite is Panettone Pepe from Salerno along the Amalfi Coast—soft and bursting with flavor, the candied fruit is moist, not over-powering, and the rich aroma of vanilla and orange is just heavenly! Click here to visit their website.

More than one hundred million Italian-made Panettone are sold worldwide.


While in Italy, enjoy your Panettone fireside at one of these cozy Parker homes:

Cottage la Vita, a charming cottage for 4 just ten minutes from Siena, offers a country kitchen with a blazing fireplace to gather around. Medieval Siena celebrates the holiday season in splendor and the Nannini pasticceria (c. 1909) is said to be the best bakery in town stocked with Panettone and other festive cakes. Click here for details and photos.

Villa Spago, a classic country farmhouse with its original open hearth, is an ideal gathering spot for a group. In the heart of Umbria’s Montefalco wine region, the area’s dessert wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito, is a fantastic match for Panettone and makes for a great gift during this festive season. Click here for details and photos.


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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....

 

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