Pisa

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Pisa, found astride the River Arno in Tuscany, is famous the world over for its leaning tower. The city offers much more than just its peculiar bell tower however: in Piazza dei Miracoli, where the leaning monument is located, are the Duomo di Pisa and the Baptistry of St. John, both stunning examples of Pisan Romanesque architecture.

Located between the Arno River and the Serchio River, Pisa’s founding is shrouded in mystery, as the Romans who later settled in it already referred to Pisa as an ancient city. Due to its proximity to the coast, Pisa quickly developed as a maritime power, reaching a golden age in the 11th century. The city’s naval strength could rival that of Venice, Genoa and Amalfi, three of the most powerful maritime republics in Italy at the time. Pisa was also an important commercial centre, both by land and sea, allowing a stream of wealth to enter the city.

Things to see

Leaning tower of Pisa

The Leaning tower of Pisa, located in the Piazza dei Miracoli, is the city’s most famous attraction that is recognized the world over. In actuality, it is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the Duomo di Pisa. Its crookedness is due to the instability of the ground, the slow decline noticeable even before the tower’s completion.

Construction began in 1174, although it is unclear as to who designed the final plans. Unfortunately, the process had to be halted shortly after the completion of the second floor due to the fact that the Republic of Pisa was at war with Genoa, Lucca and Florence, some of the biggest powers of pre-unified Italy. Construction resumed in 1272 under the direction of Giovanni di Simone, the architect of the Piazza dei Miracoli. The seventh and final floor was not completed until 1320, with the bell chamber finally added in 1372. Each floor has a bell corresponding to one of the notes in the major scale.

The tower underwent several renovations, particularly to its structure to make sure that its continuous decline did not lead it to topple altogether. It was completely closed to the public in 1990, where the biggest renovation efforts were taken to even it out, reopening again in 2001. Today, visitors are able to visit the tower and climb to its top to enjoy a beautiful panorama of the area –assuming a private tour was booked well in advance.
Cathedral of Pisa

Found in the middle of the Piazza dei Miracoli is the Duomo di Pisa, a stunning masterpiece of Pisan Romanesque architecture. Indeed, this is the structure which launched the style throughout Pisa, later spreading through Tuscany. Like the leaning tower of Pisa, which is actually the bell tower of the cathedral, the building has visibly sunk into the ground, resulting in a slight incline.

Construction began in 1064 under the direction of the architect Buscheto; it was meant as a display of Pisa’s power and wealth, and possibly a challenge to other great cities, such as Venice. The cathedral was consecrated in 1118 however by the mid 12th century it was already being expanded by the architect Rainaldo, to whom we owe the façade we see today. Over the years, the cathedral underwent several renovations and interventions, namely following the fire in 1595 that destroyed much of the roof and front.

The interior was also subject to a number of changes over time, most notably the addition of “quadroni” (large paintings) that decorate the walls. The inside of the Cathedral is also embellished by detailed mosaics and exquisite ceiling frescoes. Furthermore, there is an impressive collection of sculptures and artworks such as marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano and bronze crucifixes by Pietro Tacca.

Ponte Vecchio

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Renowned the world over, the ancient medieval stone bridge Ponte Vecchio casts a familiar reflection over the waters of the Arno River, in Florence. Ponte Vecchio was built and destroyed many times since Roman times, although it did not begin to look as it does today until the mid 14th century following a terrible flood. The shops today host jewelers and souvenir sellers but they once hosted butchers and fishmongers, turning the bridge into a real market hub.

Composed of three wide segmental arches, Ponte Vecchio is lined on both sides by its famous shops, some of which have expanded sections, called “retrobotteghe” (“back shops”), that face out to the river, supported by wooden brackets. At each corner of the bridge was once a tower to protect it, though now only one, Torre dei Mannelli, remains. Today, a gelato shop occupies the bottom floor.

Things to see

In 1565, the architect Giorgio Vasari built a corridor to connect Palazzo Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti at the behest of Cosimo I de’Medici, who wished to avoid mingling with his subjects. Now called Vasari’s Corridor, this passage goes through the Uffizi Gallery toward the Arno River, crossing above the Ponte Vecchio, and then follows the river’s bank until it reaches the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Pitti.

During World War II, Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge that had not been destroyed by the German army, though it sustained considerable damage when they blocked access on both sides by bombing the nearby buildings. As a result, the surrounding structures are much more modern than the rest in the area, following a hasty reconstruction process during the 1950s.

Colosseum

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The Colosseum is the most famous building of Antique Rome. Located in the Eternal City, capital of Italy, its construction began in 72 A.D under the reign of the Emperor Vespasian and was finished around 82 A.D. In the beginning, the Colosseum was named “Flavian Amphitheatre” since Vespasian founded the Flavian dynasty. It is composed of three different levels of arches and it is about 48 meters high. This Amphitheatre was able to welcome about 70 000 people for the different shows and games it held. There were 80 entrances; one was personally dedicated to the emperor and his family while three entrances were dedicated to the Roman Elite. Inside, the different terraces were organized in a way that the different social classes were separated from one another while watching the various games. The name “Colosseum” first appeared in the Middle Ages because people were fascinated by the huge statue of Nero (known as the “Colossus of Nero”) that once stood next to the amphitheater.

Things to see

The Colosseum offered different kinds of entertainment to the Roman people such as animal fights, hunts of wild animals such as lions and tigers, gladiator fights, and reconstructions of different battles, including naval battles. Said naval battles were permitted due to the ingenious machinery which brought water inside the Colosseum.

The Colosseum is listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Unfortunately, its structure suffers from bad weather, pollution and time. The parts of its walls that are missing and which give it its famous silhouette were taken away during the Middle Age to build other buildings, such as Saint Peter’s Basilica. In other words, Saint Peter’s Basilica was built with stones originating from the Colosseum!

Trevi Fountain

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The Trevi Fountain is the largest and most famous fountain of Rome, though not the oldest. A fountain was first built in 19 B.C. by Marco Vipsanio Agrippa in order to bring water through an aqueduct to the thermal baths near the Pantheon. According one legend, the aqueduct was named “Virgin Water” in honor of a little girl who told thirsty soldiers of Agrippa where to find a source of water previously undiscovered.

In 1453, Pope Nicholas V ordered Battista Alberti to construct a fountain in the “Trejo” neighborhood (which later became Trevi). With this new fountain, Romans got used to spring water instead of water from the Tiber River. Over the years, there were more changes and some renovations.

Things to see

The Trevi Fountain that we know today was not built until 1735 by Nicolo Salvi under the orders of Pope Clement XII, the construction process lasting for 23 years. The decorations were actually realized by several of Bernini’s assistants. On the left we see Agrippa who presents the first aqueduct project to the Roman Emperor Augustus. On the right we see the meeting between Augustus soldiers and the virgin who showed them the spring. In the middle under the vault of his palace, Neptune stands on an oyster carriage pulled by two flying horses which are pulled by tritons.

A popular legend claims that if you throw a coin in the fountain while facing away from it, you will undoubtedly return to the Eternal City. Another legend refers to Trevi as the lovers’ fountain and claims that if couples drink from its water, they will stay faithful. Unfortunately, the water that feeds the Trevi Fountain is no longer safe for consumption.

A theory says that the famous custom of throwing coin in the fountain started when Ancient Greeks had to pay for their final trip. Another theory says it was a payment in order to come back to the Eternal City and if the coin sank, it meant the payment was accepted. Nowadays, around one million Euros are thrown into the fountain each year. Because this custom attracted thieves, City Hall decided to collect coins every morning and give the resulting money to charity organizations.

Vatican Museums

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The Vatican Museums are located inside the Vatican City State. The entrance is situated on the northern part of Saint Peter’s square.  The Vatican Museums are composed of several smaller museums such as the Classical Antiquities Museum, the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the Pinacoteca, the Ethnological Museum and Raphael’s Rooms, just to name the most famous.

The complex of the Vatican Museums owns a very rich collection of artefacts, sculptures, frescoes, mosaics from antique to modern times and originating from all over the world. Popes started to collect objects from ancient Egypt, ancient Rome and the Etruscan civilization, as well as from the first churches and basilicas ever built; they pursue this task to this day.

Excursions from the Vatican Museums

Two of the museums in the complex are considered wonders from the Renaissance period: the Sistine Chapel with its vault painted by Michelangelo, and Raphael’s Rooms. Pope Julius II was the first pope to collect, gather and display to the public sculptures and artefact from Ancient History but it was under Pope Clement XII that the two museums opened.

Pope Julius II chose the painter Raphael to decorate the four rooms of his apartment. Raphael started to paint in 1508 but the decorations were finished 16 years later by his students following the artist’s death in 1520. The four rooms are the following: the Room of Constantine, the Room of Heliodorus, the Room of the Segnatura, and the Room of the Fire in the Borgo. The first room was designed for receptions and official ceremony, and was decorated by Raphael’s students following his original drawings. The room of Heliodorus was used for the Pope’s private audiences while the room of the Segnatura was used as a library and private offices. This latter room contains Raphael’s most famous frescoes and it is considered a masterpiece marking the beginning of the High Renaissance. The room of the Fire in Borgo was used by Pope Leo X as a dining room. For this last room, Raphael painted the walls while the ceilings were painted by his teacher Pietro Vannuci.

The last museum to be opened was the Historical Museum in 1973. Today, the Vatican Museums welcome four million visitors each year.

Positano

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Situated on the Amalfi Coast, which was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 as a cultural landscape, is Positano, a charming little town built on a cliff and surrounded by turquoise sea.

The coast in Positano is considered one of the most beautiful areas of the Amalfi Coast. It was once a Roman resort location, as evidenced by the archeological discovery of ancient remains of a villa. Positano was also a prosperous port city during medieval times, its trade and riches only expanding during the 16th and 17th century. Unfortunately, its wealth declined and by the mid 19th century, Positano was little more than a poor fishing village, much of its population having moved elsewhere. It began to revive during the 1950s, following a rising interest and a nascent tourist industry. Today, Positano is one of the most popular attractions on the Amalfi Coast.

Things to see

The town is composed of small white houses built on the rocks of the cliff. Looking down, its streets seem to disappear into the sea; this is due to the shape of the streets and the city as a whole, which create an interesting optical illusion. Climbing at the very top rewards visitors with a wonderful panorama that allows for spectacular pictures. Also worth a visit is the church of Santa Maria Assunta with its colorful majolica-tiled cupola.

Tivoli

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Tivoli is one of the most popular day trips from Rome.  It has been a summer retreat from the Roman times because of its lovely climate during the hot muggy months.   It is set on Monti Tiburtini hills where the air is cleaner and cooler than Rome.  Historically it has been a town for the rich who built their holiday homes in this area.  In the suburbs of the town you can still enjoy the thermal springs that attracted the Romans of the past.   You can still see the ruins of the ancient town wall from the 4th century BC and ruins of temples as well.

 

Of course Tivoli is most know for its two famous villas; the Villa d’Este from the Renaissance period and Hadrian’s Villa built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  Both are Unesco World Heritage Sites and both are worthy of a visit.

Pompeii Archaeological Park

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Pompeii is an amazing archeological site that showcases the day in the life of the Romans. On that fateful day in 79AD the town was covered by ash and lava from the eruption of the overshadowing volcano, Vesuvius.
Everything stopped at that moment and was preserved for 1500 thousand years when it was first rediscovered.

The ash and lava that spewed from the volcano tragically killed the citizens of Pompeii but due to the volcanic material which was soft, the city was wonderfully persevered.  Not only the buildings but also the interiors of the houses and shops were left just as they were on that day creating a great opportunity to experience the daily life in Roman Pompeii.    As you study the walls of the buildings you will find painted messages or advertising for an electoral campaign.  On other walls there are crude jokes directed at particular people.  On the shop walls and entrances you can find the service or product sold there and the name of the owner.  All this gives a fascinating insight into the culture and social fabric of the people of the city.

Things to see

On the outskirts of the town you can view working class and peasant houses and workshops.  You can still see furniture and tools and kitchenware inside the homes.  Also in this area are the brothels what are very clearly marked.

Pompeii was first discovered in the 16th century but it was not until 1738 that excavations began in a systematic way.
For over 250 years now Pompeii has had a steady stream of visitors.  In 1997 Pompeii was designated part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.  It is one of the top attractions in Italy drawing over 2.5 million visitors.

Dolomities

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In the northern part of Italy, in the Eastern Alps, are some of the most beautiful mountains in the country: the Dolomites. These mountains are a little bit different from the rest of the Alps because of the minerals that compose it, giving them a light pink, coral and light red color when the sun sets. In 2009, the Dolomites Mountains were registered on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List.

The Dolomites are located near Austria and are spread over three regions: Trentino-Altino-Adige, Veneto and Friuli. Several charming villages and ski resorts are located near or on the slopes of the mountains. The Dolomites are the perfect region for sport lovers: during the summer it is possible to go hiking, parachuting and paragliding while during the winter, skiing is one of the most popular sports.

Things to see

The highest summit of the Dolomites is the Marmoada with its 3343 meters in height but in fact, the Dolomites boast 18 different summits reaching higher than 3000 meters. As such, this region offers visitors many breathtaking panoramas over the mountains, valleys and clear water lakes. It is unsurprising then that there are several legends related to the Dolomites Mountains, most of them involving kings, princesses, fairies and elves.

While the population in the Dolomites is technically Italian, they consider themselves Tyrol people. In this region there is also a small population that speaks Ladin. Ladin is a language composed of a number of dialects, related to Swiss Romansh, and spoken almost uniquely in this area.

Verona

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Located in the Veneto region, Verona was founded in the first century B.C. This city is still the second most important city of the region, having been built on a strategic place on the edge of the river Adige. In 216 B.C. after the battle of Cannae, Verona was united to Rome and became one of its provinces. It earned the nickname “small Rome” since the city was such an important hub, but also for its wonderful monuments and houses. During the height of the Roman Empire, the city grew quickly: several bridges, theatres and temples were built.

During the 5th century, the city became property of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric and as a result, several conflicts began with the other cities nearby. In 1405, Verona was owned by the Republic of Venice, which led to many improvements. Indeed, the Republic of Venice affected the cultural, social and artistic development of Verona until 1797, when the city was invaded by Napoleon (and after that by the Austrians). Finally, in 1866, the city was incorporated to the Italian kingdom founded by King Victor Emmanuel II in 1861. Verona was eventually recognized under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List in 2000.

Things to see

The beautiful pink city of Verona became famous thanks to Shakespeare and his tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. That play is the reason why nowadays, Verona is seen as a romantic city: tourists can see Juliet’s statue, Juliet’s house, Juliet’s tomb and many other places which reference the story of the two star-crossed lovers. There are many other monuments in Verona which have been preserved from Antiquity, the Middle Age and the Renaissance. The latter artistic period left the strongest mark and can be observed on the different buildings, which are a blend of Renaissance influences from Lombardy and Renaissance influences from Veneto.

Each year during the summer (June to September) the great Opera Festival of Verona takes place in the Arena of Verona. The most famous operas in the world can be enjoyed here, such as Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Bizet’s “Carmen” or more fittingly, Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet”.

Bridge of Sighs

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Il Ponte dei Sospiri (“the Bridge of Sighs”) is one of the smallest and most famous bridges in the world, its mere 11 meters linking the courthouse to the jail. The bridge gets its name from the prisoners who were going to the courthouse or coming back to the jail –although prisoners were often convicted to death and would yell more than sigh. Stretching over the canal called Rio de Palazzo, it was built in 1600 out of white limestone.

The bridge is composed of two different corridors, one for prisoners coming to the courthouse and the second for those returning to jail. The corridors were convenient since they made it possible to move two different prisoners at the same time without allowing them to talk to each other. The bridge is completely closed so as to prevent the prisoners from jumping into the canal and escaping. At the same time, it prevented people from seeing prisoners being brought into the courthouse.

Things to see

As the years passed, the Bridge became one of the main attractions in Venice. It is now considered as a romantic bridge that people, particularly lovers, come to photographs. One of the ideas about why the bridge became a romantic place to see comes from a poem of Lord Byron in which he mentioned it. The poem is a song which comes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and is named Canto the Fourth. It starts as following: “I stood in Venice, on the “Bridge of Sighs;” A Palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise”.

Doge’s Palace

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A long time ago, Venetians built a castle to house their government and all their leaders in a single place. The first Doge’s Palace was a medieval castle composed of the Doge’s apartments, the government of the Republic of Venice, the courthouse and a jail. As time passed, the castle became too small for the government and finally it was destroyed by a fire. The Palace was rebuilt in pink marble between the 4th and 5th centuries, though it was made more spacious so as to contain a room for the Great Council. Over the years, several other fires partially destroyed the palace and many renovations and extensions were made, giving it the aspect it has today.

The Doge’s Palace has a very particular and fascinating structure, in that it was built differently from the other buildings in Venice: instead of having a strong base, its architects decided to put a first level made of galleries and thin arcades. Shockingly, the whole building stands on this elegant first level.

Things to see

The interiors of the Doge’s Palace were decorated by several famous Renaissance artists such as Veronese, Tintoretto and Titian. Tintoretto is the creator of “The Paradise” in the Great Council room. This giant canvas is considered one of the biggest masterpieces in the world, reaching nearly 25 meters in length.

Due to its location, each of the four sides of the Palace faces an interesting part of Venice. One side faces Saint Mark’s Square and where the courthouse once stood while another faces the lagoon and the Grand Canal. The view that the latter side offers was reserved for the government. The third side faces the canal called Rio de la Canonica, where the Bridge of Sighs can be admired.  This side is where the Doge had his apartments. The last side shares a wall in common with Saint Mark’s Basilica.

For several centuries, the Doge’s Palace was the only building in Venice allowed to be called “Palace”. The others palaces had to name themselves Ca’ which was the short form for “casa”, meaning “house” in Italian.

St Mark Square

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The Piazza San Marco is one of the most famous squares in the world. The elegant space has been used for the political, religious and commercial life of Venice for hundreds of years.

The square is composed of several buildings with different types of architecture, all of them boasting a rich past. First is the Basilica of Saint Mark, built in the Byzantine style in 828 to contain the mummy of Saint Mark. This basilica is a good example of the connections that existed between Venice and Constantinople. Next to the basilica is Saint Mark’s Campanile, one of the most symbolic monuments of Venice, its recognizable shape visible from quite a distance away. This huge tower of 96 meters collapsed in 1902 but was rebuilt exactly as it was. It is possible to reach its summit and enjoy a breathtaking view over the Piazza San Marco and the rest of Venice.

Near the entrance of the campanile is the Logetta, made by Sansovini in 1540. It was first a meeting room for the Venetian aristocracy then later became a room for the guards of the Doges’ Palace. The clock tower is an interesting early Renaissance building worth admiring while exploring the square.

Things to see

The Palazzo Ducale, facing both the piazzetta and the water, is a symbol of the power the Republic of Venice once held. It was the political center of the Doge as well as his living quarters. Interestingly, the Doge’s Palace is full of secret passages which allowed people to go between several bedrooms and offices.

The columns of San Marco and San Todaro on the quay frame the main entrance into the square for people coming from the sea. The two columns of granite were brought from Constantinople in 1172. The column of San Todaro honors the homonym figure, who was the first patron saint of Venice before the body of Saint Mark was stolen from Egypt by two Venetian merchants and brought to the city in the 9th century. These columns were once the place where people were executed; to this day, some Venetians refuse to walk between the two columns as they believe it would bring bad luck

Capri

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Probably one of the best known islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Capri can be found just off the coast of the Sorrento Peninsula. Some of the main tourist attractions are the main city of Capri and above it, the smaller Anacapri; the panoramic promenade between ancient gardens and villas; and the beautiful Grotta Azzurra (“Blue Grotto”).

Inhabited since ancient times, Capri did not start to develop until Emperor Augustus came to live the rest of his life in peace. He built twelve villas as well as gardens, temples and other improvements to the island. His successor Tiberius later built more villas, the most famous of which is Villa Jovis, its foundations still visible today. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Capri fell prey to frequent pirate attacks that continued up until the early 19th century.

Things to see

Capri counts many influences to its art and culture: from the Byzantine and Islamic architectures of the 1st century to the churches, watchtowers and fortifications of the medieval era. Capri was also captured a number of times; it passed hands from the Kingdom of Naples to the invading Ottoman Empire to Napoleon’s French troops until finally being returned to Italian rule. By the 19th century, things had quieted down and Capri quickly became a popular resort visited by artists, intellectuals and many celebrities. Today, it is a thriving wedding and tourist destination.

When visiting Capri and Anacapri above it, there are some attractions which stand out from the rest; Grotta Azzura is one such attraction. The Grotta Azzura is a sea cave which is famous for its dazzling blue illumination that is a result of sunlight reflecting off the water onto the cave walls. Throughout history, this grotto has inspired artists and writers with its magical charm. On the other side of the island are the equally fascinating Faraglioni, a natural rock formation resulting from thousands of years’ worth of erosive forces.

Villa San Michele, located at the top of the ancient Phoenician Steps, was built in the early 1900s by the Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe. Its location on a ledge between Anacapri and Capri grants it a beautiful view of the main harbor and surrounding bay. Incorporating Roman ruins as its base, the villa and surrounding gardens boast a large collection of sculptures and various relics from Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt and other classical ages. Nowadays, it has become a museum.

High above Capri, on the hills to the west, is Anacapri. To visit, one can either take the bus from Marina Grande (the main harbor) or brave the long and steep Phoenician Steps. Once there, many visitors take the chairlift ride to Monte Solaro, which offers breathtaking views of the southern coast. The French composer Claude Debussy is one of Anacapri’s most famous visitors.

 

Villa San Michele

Located in the town of Anacapri, on the island of Capri, is a surprisingly recent building: Villa San Michele. Built in the early 1900s by the Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe, it takes its name from an ancient chapel that Munthe bought and renovated before building the villa. What is interesting about the construction of Villa San Michele is that its foundations are actually Roman ruins which were discovered and incorporated into the villa’s design.

The villa and surrounding gardens boast a large collection of sculptures and various relics from Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt and other classical ages. Its lovely portico offers a grand view of Capri and the clear blue waters around it; in the distance, Mount Vesuvius seems to rise like a giant from the sea.

After Munthe’s death in 1949, the property was bequeathed to the government of Sweden and was later turned into a museum. Today, it also hosts special cultural exhibits and concerts of classical chamber music.
Faraglioni Rocks

Rising from the sea just off the south-eastern coast of the island are the imposing Faraglioni, a natural rock formation resulting from thousands of years’ worth of erosive forces. These rocky monoliths have been an inspiration to countless artists and writers, as well as the backdrop for innumerable holiday photos.

The Faraglioni are three individual rock formations called Stella, Faraglione di Mezzo and Scopolo. The Stella, the closest to Capri, is connected to the island via a natural rock extension. The Faraglione di Mezzo, the middle rock stack, is characterized a central cavity which is large enough to allow small boats to pass through it; this is a popular tour highlight for visitors exploring Capri from the sea. The third and final rock stack is the Scopolo, most famous for its native population of blue lizards that cannot be found in any other habitat in the world.
Blue Grotto

Probably Capri’s most famous natural wonder, the Grotta Azzurra is neatly tucked away in the north-western part of the island. The Grotta Azzurra, or Blue Grotto, is a sea cave renowned for its dazzling blue illumination that is a result of sunlight reflecting off the water onto the cave walls. Throughout history, this grotto has inspired artists and writers with its magical charm.

First discovered by the Romans who settled on the island, Emperor Tiberius is said to have used the cave as his private temple. Ancient sculptures depicting Neptune and Triton have been recovered from the grotto and are now on display in the museum of Capri. It was “rediscovered” by the German writer August Kopisch, who wrote about it in his book published in 1838, quickly turning the grotto into a popular tourist attraction the world over.

The only way for visitors to access this cave is via small rowboats operated by experienced guides. If the weather is good and the sun is shining, you will be able to see the stunning crystalline blue reflections which have given this grotto its name.

Montalcino

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Not far from Siena is another, smaller medieval hilltop town by the name of Montalcino, famous above all for its production of Brunello wine.

Like most of the towns in the area, Montalcino was originally an Etruscan settlement that remained relatively small until a sudden population growth in the 10th century. In the middle ages, Montalcino gained some importance due to its location on Via Frencigena, an ancient and important Roman road, as well as its production of quality leather goods. The 14th to 16th centuries were tumultuous, with the town getting caught between the warring Florence and Siena, as well as the various battles between the local noble families. Montalcino was eventually conquered by the Florentine Republic in the mid 16th century and remained under their control until the unification of Italy. Today, Montalcino is very well known for its production of Brunello wine, made from the Sangiovese Grosso grapes that are cultivated in the area surrounding the town.

Things to see

Aside from its delicious wine, Montalcino also offers some fascinating sights such as the medieval Fortress that dominates the highest point in town and offers a stunning panorama from its towers. There is also the Church of Sant’Agostino, an imposing Gothic style religious structure from the 13th century, and whose beautiful cloisters were later added in the 15th century. Finally, a little outside of the town is large and mysterious Abbey of Sant’Antimo, whose true origins are still obscure today.
Brunello wine

Made from the Brunello clone of the Sangiovese grape, these red wines are among the most complex and rich expressions of Sangiovese. The soils in these hillside vineyards yield robust, voluptuous wines with great depth and aging potential. Notes of leather, earth, plums, and spices are typical. Brunello is the most tannic and the most potentially age-worthy expression of Sangiovese. Rosso di Montalcino, however, is a much more approachable red. Rosso is what Italians drink while they wait for their Brunello to mature.

Chianti Wine Region

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Chianti Classico refers to an area in the Chianti region renowned and protected for its wine production. Considered the oldest and most important area of Tuscany, the borders stretch between Florence and Siena (respectively north and south), and between Val d’Elsa and Val d’Arno (respectively west and east).

The region was established as far back as the 12th century, where vineyards were raised on the verdant hills and produced wine locally. Over the centuries, the area grew progressively more famous for its high quality wine production until Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, issued an edict in 1716 protecting the region as the only one allowed to officially create Chianti wine. Over the years, the Chianti Classico region expanded and today it covers a very large area that includes 14 municipalities.

Chianti Classico also refers to any of the seven wines produced in the region. These wines are marked as superior to the rest by the Black Rooster seal on their labels; this seal guarantees their quality and legitimacy, since wine fraud is a very real threat to the industry.

Things to see

Radda in Chianti

Located in the Chianti region is Radda, a beautiful medieval town resting on a hill top between the valleys of Arbia and Pesa. The area has been inhabited by the Etruscans as far back as 2000 BCE, and a document from the 2nd century confirms the existence of a settlement named Radda. In the subsequent centuries, the settlement grew into a village, leading to the birth of a feudal society and the construction of medieval fortifications, some of which can still be seen today. When Radda eventually fell into the hands of the Republic of Florence in the 13th century, the town became the capital of the Chianti League as well as the seat of the Florentine governor, who lived in the beautiful Palazzo del Podestà. The historical centre was badly damaged during World War II but it has since been renovated and restored. The nearby Church of San Niccolò, which was also damaged and restored, is an ancient Romanesque church first built in the 13th century, with various improvements and extensions occurring over the years and giving it its present appearance.

Close to the town square is a more recent and curious monument: the Ghiacciaia of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Built in the 19th century, this peculiar pyramid-shaped construction served as an ice box, preserving snow and turning it into ice.

Not far from this square is the Grand Duke’s Ice house, built at the end of the 19th century to preserve snow and turn it into ice. The Museum of Sacred Art of Chianti deserves a visit. Set in the Franciscan Convent of Santa Maria in Prato, it displays several works of art from the Chianti region, including a valuable polyptich by Neri di Bicci (1474) depicting the Virgin Mary with child and saints.

In the surroundings of Radda you’ll find many castles and parish churches, such as the medieval Castle of Volpaia and the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria in Prato with beautiful flowered capitals in the Romanesque style.

Today, Radda in Chianti and its surroundings are famous destinations for relaxing holidays in Tuscany. Several restaurants and wine shops in town offer excellent Tuscan dishes and the opportunity to taste the Chianti Classico DOC produced in the area. A quick stop at the tourism office within Radda will help you find the nearest winery open for tastings on the particular day you visit.
Gaiole in Chianti

The city of Gaiole in Chianti is another important city within the Chianti Classico region, located along the river Massellone and on the road connecting Chianti to Valdarno. Thanks to this position, Gaiole has always played an important role as market center for the castles and towns nearby.

I have to say that the main attractions in Gaiole in Chianti are the wineries in its surroundings. Since it was a marketplace, it never had the need for defensive walls such as those in Radda in Chianti. In fact, its center was destroyed and rebuilt many times, and few buildings have been preserved from the past.

Despite this relative “newness”, I still recommend a stop in Gaiole for a short walk before moving on to your next destination. In fact, the real attractions of Gaiole, beyond its Chianti Classico wine, are its surroundings which include beautiful castles and parish churches.

Among the most beautiful is the Parish Church of Spaltenna, displaying a valuable 15th century crucifix, the Castle of Vertine,a small medieval walled village, and the Abbey of Coltibuono, a former monastery now turned into a wine estate.

Another important castle in the area I highly recommend visiting is the Castello di Brolio. Founded by Longobards, it has been home to the noble Ricasoli family since the 12th century who has produced wine for centuries. Descendants of the family still live in the castle so while you can’t visit the castle, I recommend you visit the gardens from where you can admire the breathtaking view of Chianti with the city of Siena at the horizon

Cinque Terre

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A large area located on the Italian Riviera in Liguria, the Cinque Terre spreads over lush hills and the turquoise coast, and encompasses the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The land, coast and villages are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The only ways to reach or explore Cinque Terre is by way of trains, ferries and hiking trails. Part of the appeal of the area is its relatively untouched and urbanization-free appearance, the villages having retained their rural charm throughout the centuries.

Things to see

Monterosso and Vernazza are the oldest villages, having been built during the 11th century. The others appeared later due to strong influences from the Republic of Genoa. These villages were relatively small, relying on fishing as their main industry, then later wine. During the 16th century, several forts and towers were built or renovated to defend against Turkish raids, a number of these structures still standing today.

The Cinque Terre area experienced a sharp decline during the 17th century, in part due to the villages’ isolation from the rest of the country. This did not change until the mid-1900s, when tourism developed and grew; today, the Cinque Terre National Park is one of the most popular attractions in Northern Italy, capitalizing on ecotourism and food & wine tourism

Siena

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Probably the most famous medieval town in the Tuscan countryside, Siena offers a wealth of culture, art and cuisine. The town is also renowned for holding the always exhilarating Palio, a historical horse race held twice a year.

Originally an Etruscan settlement, it later became a small Roman town which unfortunately did not prosper under the Roman Empire due to its isolation. It was not until the 4th century, when the Lombards invaded, that Siena began to grow. The town’s medieval period saw the construction of many churches, houses and fortifications that have been wonderfully preserved and can be visited today. Because of its beauty and history, Siena was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Things to see

The Piazza del Campo is the famed shell-shaped town square that hosts the Palio horse race. It also houses the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia, two stunning examples of Sienese medieval architecture. The Duomo di Siena, located near Piazza del Campo, is a beautiful 12th century Romanesque-Gothic cathedral housing an impressive collection of artworks. These include the famed lion-decorated pulpit by Nicola Pisano, perfectly preserved Renaissance frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio, and bas-reliefs by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Jacopo della Quercia.

The lush hilly countryside that surrounds Siena is also well worth exploring. Perhaps consider stopping in one of restaurants in town to taste the delicious local cuisine and try some of the wines from the area.

Academia Gallery

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Founded in 1562 by Cosimo I de’Medici, with the help of artist and architect Giorgio Vasari, the Accademia di Belle Arti was the first institution of its kind. The Accademia Gallery, located in the same complex, was later founded in 1784 by Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Home to an impressive art collection by various Italian masters, its most famous piece by far is Michelangelo's David. Created in the early 16th century, this sculpture is a marble masterpiece that stands over five meters tall, towering above visitors from its pedestal. Originally meant as one of a series of biblical figures to decorate the roof of the Duomo di Firenze, it was deemed too heavy by the time it was completed and was instead installed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Piazza della Signoria, in 1504. The David was not moved to its current place in the Accademia Gallery until 1873 to preserve it from both human and weather damage. The replica that now takes its place in the Piazza was added in 1910.

Things to see

Some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, sketches and lesser known art can also be found in the gallery. Other works housed by the Academia Gallery include Florentine paintings by artists such as Paolo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli; several Florentine Gothic paintings; and even Giambologna’s original full-scale plaster for “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (one of the sculptures displayed in the Loggia dei Lanzi).

Castel Gandolfo

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Castel Gandolfo is situated on the edge of the lake Albano which itself is located inside a crater of an ancient volcano. Castel Gandolfo is one of the smallest cities in the Castelli Romani region, only boasting approximately 8840 inhabitants. On the other hand, it is one of most scenic and beautiful places in Italy. From its position on top of a hill, it offers a wonderful view on Lake Albano.

Castel Gandolfo is best known for the summer residence that Pope Urban VIII had constructed in 1628. Plans for the palace were designed by the architect Carlo Moderno. As time passed, Castel Gandolfo became the official summer residence for the different popes.

Things to see

Castel Gandolfo became one of the ancient Romans’ favorite summer destinations. Many aristocratic families built their own houses and palaces, such as the Villa Domitian. Domitian was the last emperor of the Flavian Dynasty. Villa Domitian had been built on the western part of the hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Emperors Hadrian, Septimus and Constantine all enjoyed the villa as well. In 1221, the villa was the Savelli family’s property but because of the numerous debts they had, Pope Clement VIII added the villa to the Holy See’s property. In 1929, via the Lateran Treaty, Benito Mussolini offered the villa back to the Vatican City and was listed among the buildings with extra territorial privilege.

In spring 2014, Pope Francis opened the gardens of the pope’s residence to the public so now, it is possible to admire the Barberini Gardens and enjoy a breathtaking view of Lake Albano. There is even a small guided group visit which lasts approximately one hour. In August, some Papal audiences were given in Castel Gandolfo.

St. Peter’s Basilica

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St Peter’s Basilica takes its name from the martyr Saint Peter, who was killed in 64 A.D. during the time when Nero was persecuting Christians.

The original Saint Peter’s Basilica was built by the Emperor Constantin, the first Christian Emperor, in memory of the martyr. The basilica became a symbol of the Christian religion as the official religion in the Roman Empire. The construction started in 324 A.D. and integrated Saint Peter’s grave; the basilica was then consecrated in 329.

By the end of the 15th century, the Saint Peter’s Basilica had fallen to disrepair. In 1503, the architect Bramante was asked to renovate it by Pope Julius II and construction began in 1506. Bramante decided to renovate the basilica following the form of a Greek cross covered by a dome however he died a few years after the renovations had begun. Michelangelo continued the renovation project after Bramante’s death and transformed the dome, taking part in its construction until his own death in 1564. The dome was eventually finished by Giacomo Della Porta in 1590.

Things to see

Many artists and architects worked on this massive undertaking. During the 17th century, Carlo Maderno was inspired by Michelangelo’s plans and built the façade of the Basilica. This façade is 115 meters long and 48 meters high, the capitals of its many columns decorated according to the Corinthian style. The balcony situated above main door is where the pope usually pronounces his blessings. It was the sculptor Bernini who finally finished Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1666.

Nowadays, with its 190 meters in length, the Saint Peter’s Basilica is able to welcome 20 000 people. It is possible to take the stairs to the summit of the dome, which offers a breathtaking view of Saint Peter’s square below and Rome all around.