The Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri & Tarquinia

truscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, UNESCO

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When thinking about Italy’s ancient history, the first name that comes to mind – obviously – is Rome. The former global power, the tremendous imperium, the unique architectural and cultural heritage… but what / who was before the Romans? The Etruscans populated the northern part of Central Italy from around 800 BC until far into the second half of the 1st century BC and left many a fascinating cultural evidence still researched intensely to this day; party due to the many mysteries surrounding them. The old burial grounds and rites of the Etruscans are regard as exceedingly interesting. As such, you’ll hardly be surprised to hear that the Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, two especially grand examples of such grounds, were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

About the Etruscan culture

How the Etruscan culture actually came to Etruria – their heartland’s name, which stretches across most of today’s Tuscany, northern Lazio and parts of Umbria – is unknown. Experts believe that migration and emergence of said culture were not too far apart. There are still many theories about where the Etruscans originated – some think they immigrated from Lydia (today’s Turkey), others believe they emerged from the Iron Age Villanova culture of Bologna. First documented grave finds date back to the 9th century BC. Various necropolises reflect significant changes in the burial rites over the course of the centuries. Several practices were carried out either at the same time or after one another allowing the historic placement of the various sites.

In fact, far too little is known about the Etruscans today. Remains of Etruscan architecture are extremely rare – only very few foundations here and there, mostly of temples, survived – objects of art depicting the transition from oriental to Greek imprint are few and far between. The language, too, has only been rudimentarily studied at best due to lack of extensive written records. Thus, the Etruscan culture still captivates researchers to this very day. While it mostly disappeared upon assimilation into the Roman Empire in pre-Christian times – the granting of unlimited civil rights around 90 BC put a formal end to Etruscan history – the hunt for clues remains an exciting challenge.

The Necropolises of Cerveteri

truscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia

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Our first stop takes us near Rome, approx. 42 km west of the capital. The friendly town of Cerveteri is situated between the Monti Sabatini and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Founded by Etruscans, it was originally called Caere or, to give it its Etruscan name, Caisra. Iron ore exports turned Cerveteri into one of the largest and most populous towns in Etruria, about 15 times its current size.

Where there was a lot of living, there was a lot of dying. Admittedly, that sounds quite morbid, but this mere fact grants you fascinating insights into a culture still heavily shrouded in mystery. The two Necropolises of Cerveteri with their thousands of graves were laid-out like a sort of city map with various squares and districts. Size and burial equipment depend on both the era and the importance of the family. Among the most important tombs are:

  • Tomba dei Capitelli: The tomb of the capitals looks like typical Etruscan dwellings. Its flat roofs with timber boards and straw convey a classic, almost family-like look.
  • Tomba dei Vasi Greci: A long corridor, highly evocative of an Etruscan temple, leads into this 6th century BC burial site. If you’re wondering why this area is called “Tomb of the Greek Vases”, well, see for yourself.
  • Tomba dei Rilievi: Presumably only established around 300 BC and, thus, one of the youngest graves, a long stairwell leads you to a magnificent hall supported by massive pillars. Elaborately decorated reliefs around the 13 burial alcoves line this site granting exciting insights into the life (and death) of an affluent Etruscan family.
  • Tomba della Cornice: Another long corridor after the ascending entrance leads to this final resting place. Two smaller side rooms with two deathbeds each aside, the simple yet imposing architecture of the three main death rooms in the central room knows to impress.
  • Tomba Regolini-Galassi: Remember the oriental imprint we mentioned earlier? This feature of early Etruscan culture is visible throughout this 7th century BC tomb, likely the oldest accessible tomb of the city. Originally, it was richly lined with gold. Many of the elaborate burial objects are currently exhibited in regional, even international museums.

 

Cerveteri is faced with the rather severe issue of grave robbery. The town isn’t even close to having fully explored all tombs, even less are accessible to the public. Due to the sheer mass of graves, not all entrances can be monitored allowing grave robbers with high-grade technical equipment to do their appalling deed. International auction houses in London and Los Angeles, among other cities, sell such robbed items every once in a while causing understandable upset.

Tarquinia’s Necropolises

Called Tarchuna in Etruscan times, Tarquinia played an important role in ancient culture as well. Founded during the times of the Villanova culture, the town with high tactical significance was surrounded by an eight-kilometre-long wall. Situated in north-western Lazio, it is now predominantly known for its excavation sites. The main attraction, if you will, is the Necropolis of Monterozzi at the southeast town limits where around 6,100 tumulus-covered burial chambers carved in stone were created between the 6th and the 2nd century BC. Around 150 chambers are decorated with frescoes. They play a key role in Etruscan art and are absolute must-sees. Visit the following burial sites:

  • Tomba del Cacciatore: You’ve always wanted to know what the inside of an Etruscan hunting pavilion looks like? This 4th century BC tomb with its wooden structure provides you with thrilling insights.
  • Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca: The tomb of hunting and fishing displays scenes of these very aspects of life as well as a Dionysian dance. You also get to see portraits of the buried family making this site one of the best-explored in all of Tarquinia.
  • Tomba delle Leonesse: Enjoy deep insights into the life of Etruscan aristocracy surrounded by soaring birds and leaping dolphins. An ash container suggests that the tomb was intended for cremations.
  • Tomba degli Auguri: Sadly, this burial chamber, like so many other Etruscan tombs, fell victim to grave robbers. You can still the marks of the deathbeds on the ground. Wrestling scenes on the wall depict what might’ve been the predecessor of Roman gladiator fights.
  • Tomba dei Tori: This is the only Greek-themed tomb in Tarquinia. A depiction from the life of the hero Achilles – a typical motif of Greek vases – lines this mythologically inclined resting place.

 

If you’ve always wanted to enjoy deep insights into the unique Etruscan culture, this trip to north-western Lazio is a must. The necropolises display various aspects of life (and death) across half a millennium with many other excavation sites and museums in close proximity. It doesn’t get any more Etruscan than this!

The baroque Royal Palace of Caserta

Royal Palace of Caserta, UNESCO

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The charming town of Caserta in northern Campania awaits you around 40 km north of Naples. It is home to a genuine gem that even Hollywood loves. The baroque Royal Palace built in the 18th century is a magnificent architectural masterpiece that originally served as the Bourbon residence for the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. It was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, together with its tremendous, equally impressive park. This site is a peculiarity as it also includes the formal industrial district San Leucio and the water supply facility Aqueduct of Vanvitelli – a unique mix that is worth exploring.

How the Bourbons came to Naples

The death of King August II in 1733 led to a dispute over the Polish succession to the throne, which caused the War of the Polish Succession from 1733 in 1738. Even though military conflicts, particularly in Poland, Italy and at the river Rhine, had already been settled by 1735, formalities of the succession plan delayed the signing of the Treaty of Vienna by another three years. Charles VII, son of the Spanish king, was given the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. He was the first regent in 230 years to actually move his residence to the kingdom. As he felt Naples lacked the representative character necessary, Charles chose to have a planned town of sorts built as his residence. Works on the palace town in today’s Province of Caserta commenced.

Luigi Vanvitelli, the king’s architect of choice, was originally commissioned to restore the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto under papal instruction, but still moved on to work for the king. The final draft was presented on 22 November 1751, constructions began in the same year. It would take close to 100 years until completion which Vanvitelli’s son Carlo being among his fathers successor. Charles VII, however, only rarely visited the palace. He acceded to the Spanish throne in 1759 becoming Charles III and left the construction site to his eight-year-old son Ferdinand, who would reign over the later extended kingdom, with a brief Napoleonic interlude, until his death in 1825.

A tour of the monumental structure

Royal Palace of Caserta

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Charles VII had two awe-inspiring palaces on his “wish list”: Palacio Real in La Granja (Spain) and the astonishing Palace of Versailles. The style of La Granja, particularly that of its gardens, was employed to remind Charles of his Spanish homeland, to which he eventually returned much earlier than expected. There over 1,200 rooms and 1,970 windows in the rectangular royal palace with lateral lengths of 247 and 184 m. Triumphal-arch-like portals adorn the sides facing the town and the garden. Financial reasons led to the abandonment of plans for a cupola over the central block and the wing on the town-facing square. Still, this site impresses tremendously.

Even though the baroque Royal Palace of Caserta was altered multiple times over the course of the last two centuries, you will still see numerous original elements of its construction period. The rooms live and breathe primal spirit with old furniture. The taste of the respective design periods becomes palpable in the different rooms allowing you to see highly different furnishing styles back-to-back and door-to-door. Among the must-sees are the Old and the New Apartment with their lavishly decorated rooms and painting collections, the Royal Apartments hidden behind three grand halls and the palace chapel that was modelled closely after the one in Versailles. Don’t miss out on the art gallery with its Bourbon portraits and the Museo Vanvitelliano with pieces from the palace’s long and illustrious history!

If one or the other room happens to look familiar, you probably love going to the cinema. Some of the rooms inside the palace were used for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” and the Dan Brown adaptation “Angels & Demons” starring Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor. Nowadays, the palace isn’t just a sight and film location, it also serves as a place of education. The technical school of the Italian Air Force is situated in the southwest part of the park, while the national administration college has its own branch here as well.

The astonishing park

Over 100 hectares of park are part of the ostentatious palace. Charles VII departed from his liking for Versailles to transport a piece of his Spanish homeland to his kingdom. The long vista of the baroque mountain garden is an astonishing three kilometres and filled with wonderous water attractions. Numerous cascades and waterfalls bring aesthetic charm to the park and level the sloping ground.

Countless fountains, richly decorated with nymphs, dragons and statues, accompany your foray through the park. How about the Fountain of the Dolphins, surrounded by three massive dolphin statues built on rocks? Or the Fountain of Diana and Actaeon with its astonishing waterfall flanked by 14 huntresses and hunters? Or the imposing Fountain of Aeolus, originally lined with 54 statues of which 23 are still left? Or… or… well, where to begin? The English Garden might be an option. It is a genuine hidden gem in a sea of water attractions with its collection of rare, exotic plants.

Aqueduct of Vanvitelli

All of these fountains, basins and waterfalls needed a lot of water, but water was a rare commodity in this region. Luigi Vanvitelli built the so-called Caroline Aqueduct, also known as the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, to collect the water from various springs in the surrounding region and transport it to Caserta. The route from the springs of Fizzo is 38 km long with the perfectly preserved section at Valle di Maddaloni being a true architectural marvel and, as such, a key part of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

San Leucio

Charles VII wasn’t only a patron of the fine arts; he also tried his hand at experiments. The former site of the hunting castle of the Acquaviva family was turned into a silk fabric with a workers’ village modelled after the latest findings in terms of productivity, innovation and fulfilment of workers’ needs. Ferdinand even wanted to turn it into a fully-fledged planned town, but the French invasion ended such ambitions prematurely. Still, the use of the most modern technology of its time turned San Leucio into an important industrial site of the late 18th and beginning 19th century. The living silk museum grants insights into the revolutionary production methods of this era.

Impressive baroque art, amazing garden aesthetics and revolutionary garden architecture accompany you through this cleverly extended, unbelievably fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caserta is always worth a visit and makes ostentatious history palpable.

Botanical Garden of Padua

Botanical Garden of PaduaDid you know that there are currently around 1,800 botanical gardens around the world? You find them on all continents – let’s put Antarctica aside for one moment – providing a home to special plants and their unique habitats. The mixing of science and pleasure, as the motto of the botanical garden in Kew near London puts it so neatly, has been fascinating people for almost half a millennium. The oldest botanical garden in the world actually still exists today. You can find it in Padua, approx. 30 km west of Venice. It houses various collections and habitats that could hardly be any more different.

The study of medicinal plants

Francesco Bonafede established “Lectrum Simplicium”, the study of pharmacology, in 1533. Medicinal plants played a central role as people wanted to (and had to) make use of nature’s healing powers. The studies also focused on showing the difference between such medicinal plants and similar looking, regular plant species. The Senate of the Republic of Venice founded the Botanical Garden of Padua on the premises of the Santa Giustina monastery, near the eponymous basilica, in 1545. By raising medicinal plants and providing visual aids for students, the most important purposes were established quickly.

Padua’s plant portfolio grew continuously over the course of centuries, in part due to Venice’s commercial activities that led to imports from all across the globe. As such, Padua was cutting edge when introducing and researching exotic plants. The first European lilac, sunflower and potato were all grown here. Roberto de Visiani, named director of the facilities in 1837, led the botanical garden to becoming the leading collection of European botany in the 19th century. “Flora Dalmatica”, his life’s work, described 600 new species with over 1,000 new taxonomic names. Declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the Botanical Garden of Padua continues to serve training and educational purposes for students as well as the research and preservation of rare plant species.

A walk through the garden

Botanical Garden of Padua, UNESCOFour gates, all of which were likely established during the 16th century, lead into the oval site. Exotic plants are entwined around the wrought-iron portals giving you a first taste of what’s behind them. Geometrically laid-out paths run to the various beds around the fountain. A pharmacological museum and a library with scripts dating back to the 15th century are also part of the garden. Five central habitats accompany you on your walk:

  • Mediterranean Maquis: The characteristic coastal vegetation of the Mediterranean area with its hot summers and mild winters is represented by this maquis. You will mostly find climbing plants, prickly bushes and lots of shrubbery here.
  • Alpinum: In stark contrast, this habitat is all about the alpine flora. The vegetation above the highland consists, among other things, of boulders held together by roots, scrubs and small trees. The mugho pine and the dwarf juniper escort you on your tour through this area.
  • Fresh Water Habitat: Special freshwater tanks were installed to grow characteristic aquatic plants. The Botanical Garden of Padua is known for its exact observance of the conditions in the classic freshwater habitat allowing it to settle an impressive variety.
  • Succulent Plants: The desert is alive in Italy. You should absolutely visit this area in spring and summer when it blossoms, as the climatic conditions keeps it under wraps outside this time. Here you see various plants from the agave family, parsley family and cactus family.
  • Orchid Greenhouses: Heat and high humidity create tropical conditions, quite literally. A wide variety of orchids grow in these greenhouses. Exciting shapes, shining colours and enchanting smells accompany your foray.

 

Other highlights in the Botanical Garden of Padua

That’s not all you get to experience during your garden visit by a long shot. Here are a few additional highlights you mustn’t miss out on:

  • The collections: In comparison, greenhouses are a rarity in the Botanical Garden of Padua. Most of the more than 6,000 plant species are outside and, the five habitats aside, were grouped into different collections. These include:
    • Medicinal and poisonous plants (with scientific information on display)
    • Mediterranean plants
    • Aquatic plants
    • Orchids
    • Carnivorous plants
    • Alpine plants
    • Plants from the area surrounding the garden (Euganean Hills and Triveneto Region)
  • Garden of Biodiversity: This greenhouse facility was only established in 2004. A whopping investment of 20 million Euros guaranteed modern and resource-friendly construction. You find around 1,300 plants species sorted according to vegetation geography.
  • Old plants: The long garden history yields many a particularly old plant. Unfortunately, the chaste tree planted in 1550, a genuine rarity, died in 1984, but there’s a massive sycamore in the arboretum. It was planted in 1680 and has had a hollow trunk ever since a stroke of lightning. The small greenhouse in the Hortus Sphaericus is known for its “care of the elderly”. Aside from Europe’s oldest magnolia (mid-17th century) and the oldest ginkgo of the continent (around 1750), the oldest plant of the entire garden grows here. The dwarf fan palm was planted in 1585 and referred to by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his essay “Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums” about his studies of botany.

 

The Botanical Garden of Padua is a collection of extraordinary plants and habitats, skilfully combines scientific aspects with delightful garden indulgence and whisks you away on a sort of brief trip around the world through highly different habitats and climes. Don’t miss out on this piece of world heritage!

Medici villas and gardens in Tuscany

Borgia, Este, Sforza, Grimaldi – Italy’s history is also the history of influential families and noble dynasties. They left their marks on cities, even entire areas, and acted as patrons for the fine arts. The Medici most certainly belong on this list. This Florence-based family had great influence from the 15th to the 18th century. Several Grand Dukes of Tuscany, two Queens of France and even popes came from this family. The Medici patronage moulded the Renaissance in Florence and its surroundings. Twelve of their villas and two gardens in Tuscany were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. Time for a tour through this stunning region!

Who were the Medici?

Medici villas in Tuscany

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The family likely originates in the surroundings of Florence with first documentation dating back to the second half of the 13th century. They belonged to the guild of merchants and were civic patricians. Salvestro de’ Medici was the first of the family to gain power about 100 years later, but his dictatorial manner got him banished quickly. The establishment of Banco Medici brought prestige, standing and wealth to the family. Cosimo de’ Medici, “Il Vecchio” (“The Elder”), would decisively contribute to the rise of Florence through his patronage of the arts and education.

The Medici reigned over Florence until 1537 with two disruptions before the city became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Cosimo I was declared Grand Duke of Tuscany setting the stage for another successful line of rulers. It only ceased to exist in 1737 when the childless Grand Duke Gian Gastone died, and the duchy was given to Francis I of Lorraine. There are still living descendants with the famous name including Italian author Lorenzo de’ Medici. He wrote a fascinating family biography and hosted a five-part documentary series about his family’s palaces.

The Medici gardens

Medici villas in Tuscany, UNESCO

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Here’s the big question surrounding this massive UNESCO World Heritage Site: Where on earth should you start? We’ll kick things off by taking you to the two gardens in and around Florence. The Boboli Gardens are behind Palazzo Pitti, the former home of the Medici. It is widely regarded as one of the most famous 16th century Italian gardens with its drawn-out axes, impressive stone elements, the plurality of fountains and statues, and the grottos and nymphs creating a border between the public and semi-private areas. The creation of Eleonora of Toledo – the wife of Cosimo I – has since been turned into a garden sculpture open-air museum of sorts with exhibits dating back to Roman times.

Pratolino, a district of Vaglia, is located a few kilometres outside the city. The amazing park of the Medici villa, also known as Villa Demidoff, unfortunately lost many of its statues over the centuries. Some disappeared completely, others were re-located, e.g. to the Boboli Gardens. Only a few remained, such as the mighty Apennine Colossus by Giambologna. Written works and paintings testify to the former glory of the garden.

The villas in Florence

Now it’s finally time for the villas, and there are a whopping twelve of them, four of which are in Florence. They illustrate the power and wealth of the Medici in many different ways and date back to different eras. Where to go… well, why not to all of them!

  • Careggi: Unlike later buildings, the Careggi villa, of the oldest Medici villas, looks fairly rustic. While its appearance carries fortress-like qualities, there’s many a treasure hidden behind the walls. The garden with its geometrical arrangement is a true gem.
  • La Petraia: One of the most famous Medici villas was built on the foundations of a Brunelleschi castle toward the end of the 16th You reach the ostentatious manor, which now serves as a museum, by crossing the multi-terraced garden that was incorporated into an English landscape garden during Lorrain reign.
  • Castello: In all fairness, the villa amidst the rolling hills of Florence is not that important at all. The spectacular main event, however, is the garden behind it. It is widely regarded as being the best-preserved ideal of Leon Battista Alberti’s Italian garden with three terraces and compact, geometrical form. Don’t miss out on the magical animal grotto!
  • Poggio Imperiale: Ready for another trip to the hills? This multi-time altered building rises near the panoramic road Viale dei Colli. Magnificent frescoes by Matteo Rosselli and his students depict the close relationship to the House of Austria. The villa is now used as a school.

 

Other World Heritage villas of the Medici

That was just the beginning – we have another eight Medici villas waiting for you! Their location is mostly of strategic nature planned to protect hunting grounds and valuable sources of income. However, fine arts and summer resorts played a key role as well.

  • Cerreto Guidi: This amazing hunting seat is situated about halfway between Florence and Lucca. The protected hillside location makes the villa of Cerreto Guidi visible from afar. It currently houses an interesting little hunting museum.
  • Fiesole: Unlike many other older Medici villas, the one in Fiesole is still in pretty great shape. The Medici used to relax here and found intellectual stimulation. There’s another fascinating garden with lemon trees behind it. Sightseeing is, however, rather difficult, as the villa is privately owned.
  • Poggio: The former Medici summer resort has been turned into one massive museum. Here you can experience frescoes, musical instruments and other items from the life and rule of the family. However, little remains of the former decoration. Instead, the spectacular architecture – Poggio is likely the first manorial villa of the Renaissance – impresses quite a bit.
  • La Magia: This building in the heart of Quarrata is rather small but nice. Grand Duke Francesco I bought La Magia in 1583 to extend his hunting grounds. Now owned by the municipality, the villa has a rather simple and clean look including an inviting garden.
  • Artimino: This villa on the ridge of Monte Albano features no garden whatsoever due to lack of water in this mountainous region. Instead, a lot of heart and dedication was put into this building, currently serving as an event venue to rent, with many restorations allowing it to retains its original charm.
  • Cafaggiolo: This former castle was already owned by the family in the early 15th century before its conversion into a still rather fortress-like villa a few decades later. Unfortunately, the Borghese had the walls and towers torn down in the 19th The Renaissance garden was lost along the way as well.
  • Trebbio: Visits of this early Medici villas are a rarity due to private ownership. If you get the chance, go for it! This particularly old building with its truly tremendous terrace garden still impresses to this very day.
  • Seravezza: Several paintings, such as the one by Giusto Utens, adumbrate the former charm of this villa in the Province of Lucca. The Seravezza location allowed Cosimo I to secure his claim to the marble quarries, the silver and lead mines. As such, the building was mostly a means to an end. The old garden sadly disappeared.

 

There’s a lot of work waiting for you if you really want to visit all Medici gardens and villas. It is most certainly worth the effort as you get to see exciting buildings, amazing gardens, wonderful cities and cute villages in idyllic Tuscany. Enjoy your truly unforgettable journey!

Aeolian Islands

Aeolian Islands, UNESCO

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Volcanos are a big part of Italy, particularly of Sicily. It is home to what are likely the most active fiery craters of the entire continent granting the field of volcanology important insights into the geological processes connected to it. The Aeolian Islands in the Province of Messina with their two active volcanos play a key role in this context. They’ve been serving as important research and training grounds for over 200 years as they were created as the result of volcanic activities and even have two different kinds of eruptions named after individual islands. The seven islands – Lipari, Vulcano, Stromboli, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea – were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and invite you to go on amazing expeditions. In all reality, the Aeolian Islands indeed have more to offer than “just” volcanology.

About the Aeolian Islands

As mentioned before, the Aeolian Islands, which are also referred to as the Lipari Islands, are of volcanic origin. The extraordinary hang is at least partially responsible for this, as the edge of the African Plate presses against the Eurasian Plate. This collision caused the sea floor to partially rupture leading to magma eruptions. Due to its location in a subduction zone, the volcanic activities might not be overly explosive, yet remain pretty lively. This is due to the Apulian Plate taking a 90° degree turn from the African Plate here effectively changing its tectonic direction. It is now believed that the islands are fairly young and were formed in three phases. Filicudi was first, Panarea, Salina, Lipari and Alicudi followed later. Eventually, Vulcano and Stromboli came to be while Lipari gained its southernmost part of the island.

Aeolian Islands

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Excavations show that the Aeolian Islands were populated as early as the Neolithic and achieved a certain wealth as a provider of obsidian. Repeated destructions, settlements and pillages established a highly eventful history. There were attacks from Athens and Carthage, the first Christian church was founded on Lipari in the 3rd century, even pirates once populated the region. Tourism only hit the archipelago in the mid-20th century after out-migration had already heavily drained population numbers. “Stromboli”, a Roberto Rossellini movie from 1949, was partly responsible for bringing change. Tourism is now the main industry on the islands. You’ll even frequently find more tourists than actual residents in July and August.

Lipari

We start our round trip in Lipari, the largest and most important island – we call them “Lipari Islands” for a reason after all. The first thing you’ll probably notice is the 60-m-high rock with a 16th century castle. Inside the walls is the neat baroque church San Bartolomeo, which was built in 1654 after its medieval predecessor had been destroyed by Ottoman pirates. Some of the limestone capitals date back to the origins in the 11th and 12th century. The Archaeological Museum is also mostly located on the castle complex. Here you find gripping insights into the primeval settlement history and the region’s close connection to volcanology. Several quaint beaches invite you to enjoy a divine sunbath. By the way, walking through central Lipari in swimwear is forbidden and punished by a fine of 500 Euro.

Vulcano

According to Roman mythology, the smithy of Vulcano, god of fire, was on the island Vulcano. Its volcano’s unique eruption pattern – short, gunshot-like explosions with shock waves – even yielded the term “Vulcanian eruption” in volcanic research. The so-called “Dead Field” gained notoriety. Heat and toxic gasses after volcanic activities in the 1910s destroyed all plants. A bath in the groundwater mud pool, which can heat up to 52 °C due to the hot gasses, is said to bring medicinal benefits to those suffering from arthritis, rheumatism and various skin diseases.

Stromboli

Europe’s most active volcano rarely rests. While the last big volcanic event was over a decade ago, continuous eruptions are part of Stromboli’s everyday life – the phenomenon of constant eruption patterns with mild bursts is known as the “Strombolian eruption”. It was the movie “Stromboli” with Ingrid Bergman that turned the island into a popular tourist destination after 1949. You can even climb the volcanic cone with a local mountain guide or watch the spectacular eruptions at the observatory near Punta Labronzo, which is particularly awe-inspiring when it gets dark. If you’re lucky, you might even see Sciara del Fuoco, the lava stream flowing into the sea. Looking for a more serene type of holiday? Visit the small port village San Vincenzo with its characteristic white houses or hike to the old lighthouse.

Salina

The twin volcanos Monte dei Porri (860 m) and Monte Fossa delle Felci (962 m) left a decisive mark on Salina. It is the only island of the archipelago with a fresh-water spring giving it lush vegetation. Monte Fossa is covered in stunning forests that drop down almost vertically to the equally amazing beaches. Salina produces the divinely sweet white wine Malvasia delle Lipari and, together with the Sicilian island Pantelleria, covers 95% of all Italian caper harvesting. Don’t miss out on visiting the pilgrimage church Madonna del Terzito, which was built on the foundations of an ancient Roman temple, or the location of the multi-award-winning Radford film “The Postman”.

Filicudi and Alicudi

These two small islands in the western part of the archipelago mostly consist of inactive volcanic craters. You will be enchanted by the wonderful scenery with wild nature and scenic sea floors. Filicudi particularly lends itself to snorkelling and diving, even sailboarding in autumn. Familiarise yourself with the wildlife during botanical hikes and birdwatching. The rock cliffs in the northwest are the home of extreme climbers from all around the world. Alicudi doesn’t even have a road network. Century-old stepped paths connect the houses with one another. A brief walk through the inhabited east part of the island fascinates with a rustic atmosphere of yesteryear.

Panarea

Finally, we visit the smallest and lowest-rising island (the tallest “mountain” tops out at 421 m). Gentle underwater eruptions attract many tourists to Panarea and its adjacent islands. History becomes palpable here – the excavations of a villa on the Capo Milazzese or the ruins of a Roman villa with an underwater pier and thermal bath on the Isola di Basiluzzo grant deep insights into the region’s illustrious settlement history. Panarea’s most beautiful beach is at Cala di Junco in the southeast. The three villages on the east coast, San Pietro, Ditella and Drauto, almost blend together.

The Lipari or Aeolian Islands are a genuine treasure chest. You’ll probably be most interested in their fascinating volcanic activities and their geological as well as topographic phenomena. However, there are countless other amazing options to experience the diverse nature of the archipelago, its unique settlement history and, without a doubt, the awesome beaches waiting for you. Time to board the next ferry!

Mantua and Sabbioneta

Mantua

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Two towns, one noble bloodline and a World Heritage Site: The old towns of Mantua and Sabbioneta were added to the illustrious UNESCO list in 2008. Both show how town planning and urban development worked in the Renaissance, but in very different ways. The Gonzaga are behind these endeavours. They allowed Mantua and Sabbioneta to blossom from the 14th century onward and far into the 17th century. With the extended and renewed metropolis on one side and the ideal town on the other, they illustrate evolution, revolution and humanistic influence. Time for a not-so-brief trip to Lombardy!

How the Gonzaga became Dukes of Mantua

Let’s start by taking a look at the noble family who left their mark on Mantua and built Sabbioneta. First documentary evidence of the Gonzaga brings us to the 12th century, when they were liegemen to the Duke of Casaloldo for Castle Gonzaga near Mantua. As successors of the Bonacolsi family, they ruled over Mantua from 1328 to 1708 – first as imperial vicars, then as dukes and margraves before Federico II received the title “Duke of Mantua” in 1530. Marriages and acquisitions bestowed Montferrat and Guastalla upon the family seeing them hit the peak of their power around 1539. Vespasiano Gonzaga began building the ideal town Sabbioneta soon after.

When the main branch of the Gonzaga bloodline disappeared in 1627, the War of the Mantuan Succession “chose” their successors. The Habsburg Emperor – the Gonzaga were politically connected to the Habsburg – wanted to assume control of the now vacant imperial fief. However, French intervention brought Mantua to a younger, French cadet branch of the Gonzaga. It only returned to imperial control during the War of Spanish Succession. The duchy was united with the Habsburg Duchy of Milan on 30 June 1708; part of Montferrat was given to the Savoyards. Most Gonzaga cadet branches died out during the 18th century, the only one still existing today being the Gonzaga di Vescovato.

Mantua

When the Gonzaga began their reign over Mantua in the 14th century, they changed the townscape dramatically. The 16th century in particular saw decisive shifts in order the illustrate the wealth and power of the ruling family. The Renaissance brought new ideas with it expanding the existing medieval town rather impressively. You will discover witnesses of this evolution in urban development at every corner ranging from stunning squares to rich embellishments and hidden details. You absolutely must visit the following three buildings:

Palazzo Ducale

The ducal palace is, without a doubt, the heart of Mantua. Its oldest parts – Palazzo del Capitano and Magna Domus – even date back to the Bonacolsi reign with Castello di San Giorgio following shortly after. Even more extensions would be added until the 17th century including Domus Nova, the church Santa Barbara and the palace chapel. Hefty corridors and galleries connect the different building parts which are enhanced greatly by gardens and inner courtyards. As a whole, the brick complex comprises around 500 rooms spread across approx. 34,000 m². A walk through the Palazzo certainly amazes, as you’ll constantly discover even more splendid details and artistic brilliance. The wedding room (“Camera degli Sposi”) in Castello di San Giorgio is an absolute must-see. Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes gained international renown, and with good reason, as you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Mantua Cathedral

Mantua, UNESCO

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This Romanesque five-nave basilica actually dates back to the 9th century, but it was extended decisively in the 15th century under Francesco I Gonzaga. Unfortunately, a devastating fire destroyed most of the cathedral. During the reconstruction in 1545, an early Christian version of St. Peter’s Basilica served as inspiration. The marble façade was only finished over 200 years later. You can still see the old gables and king’s tower from before the fire on the right side, now accompanied by a neoclassical façade. Mantua’s masters of Mannerism left their mark on the stunning interior. Countless breath-taking paintings and works of art even turn the cathedral into a massive art gallery in places.

Basilica of Sant’Andrea

Upon purchasing a Relic of the Holy Blood, Ludovico Gonzaga had an entire church built for it in 1470. It was no other than Reniassance genius Leon Battista Alberti who put the ambitious plans into practice adding elements from Italian antiquity. Chapels replaced the side aisles – a radical innovation for building churches in the Renaissance and the baroque. In order to achieve the monumental effect of his ancient ideals, Alberti implemented an ancient temple front with unusual flat pilasters. The crossing and the tambour cupola were only added in the 18th century. Andrea Mantegna is closely connected to this building as well. You won’t just see his wonderful paintings inside the basilica, but also the tomb of the Renaissance painter.

Sabbioneta

Vespasiano Gonzaga, Duke of Sabbioneta, inherited a castle complex in the 16th century and planned on turning it into a baronial residence. Actually, he created an ideal town following humanistic ideals resulting in the first autonomous founding of a town of the Renaissance period. The massive town wall is particularly impressive, especially for such a fairly small town. It is shaped like an irregular hexagon featuring star-shaped, protruding bastions. The meticulously planned old town was built between 1554 and 1571. Vespasiano wanted to make Sabbioneta a town of art and culture like Athens, yet it was completely neglected after his death and almost fully abandoned soon after. The monuments remained untouched, the urban structure intact.

You can now enter Sabbioneta via the two town gates Porta Vittoria and Porta Imperiale. Splendid churches and monasteries aside, here are some places to visit:

  • Palazzo Ducale: There’s also a ducal palace in Sabbioneta. Glorious horse statues and artistically carved wooden ceilings await you.
  • Teatro Olimpico: Modelled after the eponymous theatre in Vicenza, it is the first free-standing theatre in Europe built as such. Corinthian pillars with god-like representations resting on their cornices line the gallery.
  • Galleria degli Antichi: Vespasiano’s collection of antiquities is among the largest of its kind in Italy. You’ll see the 32 marble statues and 18 busts he inherited from his father and grandfather.
  • Palazzo del Giardino: The ducal villa looks rather plain from the outside. However, the amazing view of the garden and the numerous frescoes with historical and mythological scenes spread across 15 painted rooms have many a surprise in store.

 

Naturally, this is only a small selection of all buildings and sights that await you in the scenic old towns of Mantua and Sabbioneta. Look forward to exciting tours through both Renaissance gems with exciting insights into a truly different time. Lombardy doesn’t get any more beautiful than this!

Cathedral of Modena, Ghirlandina and Piazza Grande

Cathedral of Modena, UNESCO

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A new architectural style made its rounds through Europe in the 11th century. Romanesque architecture with its round arches, thick walls and small windows quickly conquered the entire continent developing many an exciting regional subset. Italy in particularly opened itself up for these new influences that were especially welcomed in Emilia Romagna. Among the most important Romanesque buildings is San Geminiano, the Cathedral of Modena. Together with its 88 m high bell tower (Torre Ghirlandina) and the adjacent Piazza Grande, it is the pride and joy of the Modenese, which is why there was understandable elation when the entire ensemble was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Nowadays, the Piazza with its Romanesque buildings is Modena’s main tourist attraction. We’ll gladly show you why you absolutely must visit this beautiful city in Emilia Romagna soon.

A foray through Modena’s history

The Romanesque extension from the 11th century onward was only one of many highlights in Modena’s highly exciting history. Did you know that the city actually has Etruscan roots? Modena was originally called Mutina before the Boii conquered it before it eventually fell into Roman hands in 222 BC. The now Roman town satisfied important export functions for wine and pottery, but it was left to decay after Attila’s pillages and the Lombard invasion. It took until the late 9th century before reconstruction and fortification commenced.

Modena’s rulers changed several times over the following centuries. It was owned by a margravine when cathedral constructions began, then became a free commune that eventually fell to and was extended by the Este. French occupation and Austrian rule were to follow from the late 18th century onward. Finally and eventually, Modena became part of the centralised state of Italy. The last descendant of the House of Austria-Este died in 1886.

Cathedral of Modena

Naturally, the political unrest left its mark on the cityscape. You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that Duomo San Geminiano isn’t the first church on this lot by a long shot. Actually, there were even two churches here before the city was destroyed after the fall of Rome, both likely built around the 5th century. They were desolated, destroyed and left to decay. Another church was established in mid-11th century, just after the fortification of the city, but it quickly became too small. In addition, the grave of Saint Geminiano, patron saint of the city, was discovered and understandably needed a more prominent place. Plans for a new cathedral were developed quickly, the decision for which was made solely by Modena’s inhabitants in complete imperial and ecclesiastical independence. The Cathedral of Modena became a symbol for freedom and autonomy, the aforementioned free commune was founded only a few decades later.

When construction of today’s cathedral, under the direction of the master builder Lanfranco, eventually began in 1099, Margravine Matilda of Tuscany, one of the most powerful women of her time, supported the city by laying the foundation stone. Pope Lucius III consecrated the Romanesque cathedral on 12 July 1184, but it would take quite a while until all construction were actually completed – 1322, to be precise. What makes the Duomo with its free-standing bell tower, the campanile Torre Ghirlandina, special is the skilful mix of several stylistic periods. While the Romanesque obviously dominates, Gothic elements and Renaissance characteristics create a particularly lively appearance.

You can see the shining white marble of the outer walls from afar. It alternates with grey and reddish stones – likely remains of the former Roman churches. Obviously, you will find characteristic Romanesque elements everywhere, such as the blind arcades and dwarf galleries. The breathtakingly beautiful Gothic oculus attests to the cathedral’s extensive construction history lasting close to 250 years. Numerous reliefs by the sculptor Wiligelmus, a contemporary of Lanfranco, adorn the façade. If you look closely, you discover scenes from the bible as well as depictions of prophets and patriarchs. The King Arthur myth reliefs on the outstanding northern porch of the cathedral, Porta della Pescheria, are just as awe-inspiring.

Rather surprisingly, the interior is lacking the classic cross layout. You won’t find a transept, but a whopping three naves instead. The crypta with a sarcophagus containing the remains of Geminiano can be found on the lower apse level. The central apse was altered decisively in the 18th century and revetted with precious marble. Simultaneously, the altered vaults were given rich stucco embellishments. Anselmo da Campione’s marble parapet with a depiction of the Passion of Christ is just as stunning.

Torre Ghirlandina

Cathedral of Modena

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However, the Cathedral of Modena wouldn’t be half as amazing without its campanile. The bell tower Torre Ghirlandina is the symbol of the city, visible from afar and a great point of reference. Originally called Torre di San Geminiano, it rested on a quadrangular base and grew to five floors by 1179. The rivalry with Bologna progressively led to extensions and annexes. An octagonal spire by Arrigo da Campione, who’s also responsible for the cathedral’s pulpit with its terracotta sculptures, followed soon. It was decorated with two festoons (Ital. “ghirlande”) made of marble railing, thus the name Torre Ghirlandina. A look inside the campanile leads you into Sala della Secchia with 15th century frescoes. Don’t miss out on the carved capitals in Sala dei Torresani on the fifth floor either. The five bells in C major date back to the Renaissance.

More attractions on Piazza Grande

The cathedral with its campanile most certainly dominates the stunning Piazza Grande. It is the place where the religious and the secular power of Modena meet. Here are a few more things to discover:

  • Palazzo Comunale: Several medieval buildings were linked to form Palazzo Comunale in the 17th Today’s city hall found its home behind the impressive façade with eye-catching arches. In addition, several rooms of historic value are open for visitors. Sala del Fuoco and Sala del Vecchio are lined with glorious paintings and, as such, absolute must-sees.
  • Palazzo dell’Arcivescovado: This cute palace with many small details spread across its entire façade is hidden away diagonally opposite the cathedral. Find a small but stunning baroque chapel behind its gates.
  • Preda Ringadora: Important personalities, orators and scholars spoke from this massive stone in front of Palazzo Comunale in the Middle Ages. Later, it would serve as a place of rest and peace for the city guards. Eventually, the stone was converted into a pillory for debtors and frauds from the 15th century onward.
  • Bonissima: The exact meaning of this mythical medieval statue is unknown. Bonissima has been looking down on the hustle and bustle on the Piazza for centuries. A multi-day culinary festival in her honour has been taken place every October since 2010.

 

Walk across Piazza Grande with open eyes, the tremendous Torre Ghirlandina always in sight, drawn to the cathedral as if by magic. This particularly magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Modena continues to amaze. Are you already looking forward to your next city holiday in Emilia Romagna?

Ancient and primeval beech forests in Italy

Ancient and primeval beech forests in Italy

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Most UNESCO World Heritage Site are restricted to a single place or region rarely crossing borders. However, there are a few quite gigantic exceptions. One of them was summarised under the extensively long name “Ancient and primeval beech forests of the Carpathians and other regions of Europe”. While being limited to several areas in Germany, Slovakia und Ukraine until its expansion in 2017, this site now also includes various regions in Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia and Spain – and Italy, obviously. Six beautiful regions with a total area of 2,127 ha stretch across swaths of the country. Are you ready for this particularly natural experience?

Why the ancient and primeval beech forests deserve protection

But why is it that “some forests” made it onto the illustrious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Well now, the ancient and primeval beech forests are everything but that. Bearing witness to the last Ice Age, they cover Central Europe. However, their number and total area shrunk decisively over the course of centuries during growing regional populating and industrialisation. The European beech per se is unbelievably adaptable and even impressively weathered sufficient changes in its environment. At the same time, their expansion ran parallel to the history of human sedentariness. As such, the use of the beech from the Middle Ages onward with the concurrent reduction of primeval beech forests carries great importance in cultural studies.

Ancient and primeval beech forests in Italy, UNESCO

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The protected beech forests are located in realms that are as unaffected by human interference as possible and spread across various climes from alpine to Mediterranean. The six sites of the ancient and primeval beech forests in Italy are spread across both western and eastern coasts in some of the most picturesque regions of the country perfectly illustrating the versatility of this unique tree. You’d like to learn more about the various parts of this Italian World Heritage Site? Time to go on a little journey.

National Park of Abruzzo, Latium and Molise

One of the biggest national parks of the country also holds the largest beech forest area in the Italian part of the conservation area. An astonishing 936 ha are spread across the forested Coppo del Morto, Selva Moricento, Val Fondillo, Valle Cervara and Coppo del Principe. The beeches at Valle Cervara at an altitude of up to 1,850 m are up to 560 years old making them the oldest in all of Europe and even the entire northern hemisphere! Several streams run through Val Fondillo enlivening this already unique habitat even more. Rare species, such as the fire salamander, are native to this moist forest. The other beech forests in the National Park of Abruzzo, Latium and Molise are also home to a ravishing diversity of flowers and species. Wolves and brown bears settled down here as well as the chiffchaff and rare bogs and fungi.

Pollino National Park

In contrast, the ancient beech forests of Cozzo Ferriero in Rotonda are a fairly small yet neat affair. The 96 ha in the Province of Potenza in Basilicata on the border to Calabria are a bit younger – up to 500 years old – also forming the core of the southernmost old beech forests in Europe. The imposing tree giants on an altitude of up to 1,750 m provide scientists with interesting insights into the effects and impact of climate change on the tree population. Guides hikes and mountain tours in small groups on pretty steep paths bring you closer to this natural idyll – surefootedness and mountain experience are a must.

Gargano National Park

The large national park in Apulia is actually better known for its sweeping pine tree forests. However, our beech trees dominate the scenery in Foresta Umbra, which approximately translates to “dark forest” or “shady forests”. The region can be divided into four different zones. D and C invite you to go on divine walks while B is the actual conservation area. However, all walkers and tourists are prohibited from entering zone A. The holly oak of Vico del Gargano in front of a Franciscan monastery among the forest remnants of Nemus Garganicum, one of the largest Central European broad-leaved forests, carries special significance. It is shrouded in many a legend.

Monte Cimino

Find just under 60 hectares of beech forest on the 1,053 m high Monte Cimino, part of a smaller low mountain range in the Province of Viterbo in Latium. Here you come across genuine survivalists. Many beech forests were gradually converted into larch forests over the course of centuries (some parts even as early as the Bronze Age) by utilising clear felling and selective cutting. The remaining beeches were quickly put under environmental protection. Nowadays, they are only partially accessible via walking and hiking trails, but they are situated in a region of particular historical significance that you simply have to visit.

Regional Natural Park Bracciano – Martignano

The lowest-altitude beech forest of the Italian World Heritage Site is near Oriolo Romano. Monte Raschio’s comparatively plain location at 542 m is extraordinary by itself. Why, you probably wonder, did the beech forests still manage to grow and thrive in the Regional Natural Park Bracciano – Martignano in quaint Latium? Above-average levels of volcanic earth allowed these giants to sprout. They provide wonderful shade during highly enjoyable walks.

Foreste Casentinesi National Park

Your final stop is Emilia Romagna, where you travel to Sasso Fratini, a conservation area that was established as early as 1959 and is very difficult to access. The craggy rock slopes prevented deforestation, access ways are extremely scarce. This allowed the ancient beeches to grow and thrive gloriously. Some of them are over 500 years old. Accessing this nature reserve, however, is strictly prohibited. You’ll still find numerous walking and hiking trails throughout the entire Foreste Casentinesi National Park, which, by the way, also stretches into Tuscany, bringing you in close proximity to the amazing tree giants. You’ll most certainly be able to see a few of them.

Are you ready for your journey to Italy’s majestic natural sites? Even though you might not always be able to access the ancient and primeval beech forests themselves – with good reason, as you’ll surely agree – there are still so many options and opportunities to actively explore and experience the parks and conservation areas in peace and quiet. There are only very few places left where natural history is as palpable as here. Let’s keep them alive and well together.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Villa d'Este in Tivoli

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When it comes to the Renaissance period, you’re probably thinking of architectural masterpieces, the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman ideals mixed with contemporary knowledge of the 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Renaissance revolutionised far more areas including the art of garden design. The classic Italian garden, usually designed and created with a villa, experienced a massive boom. Only few other sites are as grand and diverse as Villa d’Este in Tivoli near Rome. Both the villa and the garden were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, but an important election in the 16th century almost prevented its construction.

From papal candidate to master of garden design

Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este was the French candidate in several conclaves including the marathon election of 1549 and 1550 that eventually gave way to Pope Julius III. Becoming Governor of Tivoli, Ippolito had a former Benedictine monastery converted into a palace starting in 1550. An idea to lay out a garden on the steep hill below the monumental building was developed rather quickly, but it took another ten years until its implementation. Pirro Ligorio, a painter and architect from Naples, created the splendid draft, court architect Alberto Galvani took care of radically reshaping the entire valley.

Works were almost complete when Ippolito died in 1572. The project, however, was everything but finished. His successor Cardinal Alessandro d’Este prompted substantial alterations to the garden concept, renewed the buildings and fountains. The site noticeably deteriorated in later years under Habsburg ownership. It wasn’t until 1851 when Gustav-Adolf Prinz zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst had this magnificent estate revived and renewed completely. Composer Franz Liszt would become a regular and gave one of his final concerts here in 1879. Villa d’Este was once again restored elaborately after bomb damages in the Second World War. Maintenance works have been taking place almost continuously ever since. Don’t be surprised if you see some hoardings and barriers during your visit.

The villa

Villa d'Este in Tivoli, UNESCO

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Before focusing on the amazing gardens, we take a look at the villa itself, skipped and overlooked far too often. Today’s entrance next to Santa Maria Maggiore was hardly used during Ippolito’s time. Instead, guests and visitors would walk up the garden stair by stair making them visible from afar. Passing the foyer with Old Testament depictions and a hall with scenes from the life of King Solomon, you reach the wide courtyard with the neat Fountain of Venus. After the salon, where Ippolito would receive people, you enter the cardinal’s apartments. His bedroom offers a particularly gorgeous view of the entire garden. Ambling through the ground floor, you cross countless lavishly decorated halls. Mosaics and wall paintings by famous Renaissance artists adorn these stunning, pompous rooms. Each hall has its very own theme, such as ancient Greece, certain characters from the Bible or hunting scenes.

The gardens

Time to get to the main attraction, and what an attraction it is. More than 500 fountains, nymphs, grottos and water attractions are spread throughout the gardens of Villa d’Este. They utilise the slope perfectly embedding all of that and much more fascinatingly into the two main parts. The comparatively flat main garden supposedly even had two labyrinths in the 16th century. It now comprises of several smaller gardens connected by access balconies. Multiple ramps, terraces and stairs run through the hill garden making the valley slope accessible through an alcove corridor with far-stretching crosscuts along the fountains. There’s another impressive cross axis path with three fishponds, astonishing views and even more highly exciting terraces below all of that.

The fountains

Countless fountains line the imposing gardens. There’s an almost unbelievable mass of garden design for you to discover ranging from Cento Fontane, a collection of one hundred fountains along one single alley, to various fountains with animal depictions, historical, mythical and religious pieces. We’ve prepared a selection of our favourites for you.

  • Fontana dell’Organo: The organ fountain is among the most famous fountains of its kind and was replicated multiple times throughout Europe. Being the first water organ ever, it amazed guests creating giddy excitement. The delicate mechanics were restored over the course of many years and only became operational again in 2003. From its monumental architecture to the countless little details and hidden statues, the water organ will most definitely enchant you as well.
  • Fontana di Proserpina: Statues of four Roman Emperors – Julius Caesar, Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian – were originally supposed to line this small, neat fountain. The triumphal arch with twisting columns distantly similar to those of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome are evidence of this idea. Unfortunately, the statue of the namesake Proserpina was lost to the trials of time.
  • Fontana della Civetta: The rather formulaic design of the owl fountain utilises distinct symbolism. Diligently arranged mosaic decorations, numerous smaller figurines and the Este coat of arms held aloft by two angels give the Fontana a representative look. The birdsong-producing mechanism was only reconstructed and installed in recent years.
  • Fontana dell’Ovato: This oval installation was one of the first fountains to be completed. Pirro Ligorio’s water theatre draft was given an artificial mountain. People would meet in the appertaining Grotto of Venus hoping to see hot summer days pass by quicker.
  • Fontana dei Draghi: Ligorio was inspired by the Hercules myth for his dragon fountain. The statues depict the picking of the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. Ladon, the apple-guarding dragon, is sort of the leading character of the Fontana dei Draghi. By the way, you can find even more depictions of Ladon and Hercules inside the villa with its countless frescoes.
  • Fontana di Rometta: A miniature model of ancient Rome in the shape of a fountain marks one of the most important places in the garden. Fontana di Rometta symbolises the course of the Tiber River from its spring in the Apennine Mountains to providing water supply to the city. The artificial mountain was added later.
  • Fontana di Nettuno: The newest fountain of Villa d’Este was only created in the 20th century to replace a deteriorated rock waterfall. Attilio Rossi turned the remains into this particularly imposing fountain with tall waterspouts around 1930. He recycled a statue of Neptune, originally intended for a different, unfinished fountain, as the centrepiece of the Fontana di Nettuno.
  • Cento Fontane: An alley with hundred smaller fountains, Cento Fontane, runs between Fontana dell’Ovato and Fontana di Rometta. Even though the once rich decorations have since deteriorated or been overgrown by lush green, you can still neatly see the various rock masks and water terraces that line the way of what likely is the garden’s most beautiful walk.

 

If you’re happy to walk quite a bit, Villa d’Este with its breathtakingly beautiful gardens is always worth a visit. It is an excellent destination during your city holiday in Rome, being less than an hour east of the Italian capital. Let yourself be enchanted by this Renaissance masterpiece – a genuine experience both inside and outside.

The Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast, UNESCO

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The extraordinary beauty of the region Campania spawns many stunning villages, towns and landscapes – you’re certainly already familiar with Naples, Pompei and Mount Vesuvius, just to name a few. Such a list absolutely must include the Amalfi Coast as well. The coastal strip at the Salerno Gulf is part of the Sorrentine Peninsula and is made up of 13 fascinating municipalities – some idyllic and sleepy, some quite lively – as well as stunning natural sceneries between tall rocks and the deep-blue sea. An area of an astonishing 11,231 ha was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Join us on a little trip to the coast!

Nature and economy

The UNESCO committee named the Amalfi Coast a place of extraordinary beauty and natural diversity colliding with the exciting architecture and multifaceted art of the individual municipalities in a fascinating manner. The coastal region already blossomed in medieval times, which you can see in many a village. Still, living space is fairly limited due to the particularly steep coastal location, not to mention the heavily limited agricultural production space.

As such, most villages and towns of the Amalfi Coast primarily focus on tourism, the biggest economic factor of the region by far. Awe-inspiring art treasures, idyllic peace, long-running hiking trails and glorious views make holiday dreams come true. But that’s not all. Lemons are grown on the terraces above the sea, their peels being used to produce excellent Limoncello – tastings are most definitely an option. Additionally, the coastal region is also home to fine wines. Red wines, white wines and rosés display a wide variety of different taste with many a surprising flavour.

Municipalities at the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

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One single road leads through the entire Amalfi Coast. Strada Statale 163, probably better known to you as the Amalfitana, runs for 50 km from Meta di Sorrento to Vietri sul Mare. While the view from the steeply sloping coast is pretty breath-taking, the drive on the narrow, hardly two-lane route sections with overhanging rocks can be quite the thrill. Large busses may only travel the Amalfitana with special approval and caravan sets are only allowed to drive at night. And don’t even get us started on the narrow hairpin turns to Ravello.

For now, let’s take a deep breath, because we want to present the 13 municipalities of the Amalfi Coast to you and start with the three most important villages and towns.

Amalfi

First, we send you to Amalfi, the place that gave this region its name. The small town was apparently founded by Emperor Constantine’s soldiers around 320 AD and quickly became a maritime trade power before Pisan attacks and a severe earthquake led to political and economic dependence.

Now Amalfi, which stretches across steep hills, is known as a touristic hotspot and home of particularly excellent Limoncello, which you can try and savour in the numerous cafés, bars and restaurants. Additionally, there’s lots of art and culture to discover in this town. The Cathedral on Piazza Duomo has 11th century roots and was initially converted to Arab-Norman, later to baroque style. This glorious building with a colourful mosaic façade and three-nave interior with the remains of the apostle St. Andrew is the town’s landmark. Furthermore, we recommend a brief trip to the civic museum in the town hall and the shipping museum in the old shipyard. Both places introduce you to Amalfi’s riveting history.

Positano

Tourism also takes centre stage in the friendly village Positano. Walks through the steep alleys and over numerous stairs to the beach are part of your daily routine. Here you set up camp and swim in the clear water or catch some sun. Mind you, the early bird catches the worm as Positano is a highly popular beach resort. During your walks through an area that was likely inhabited as early as antiquity – excavations unearthed ruins of a Roman villa – you’ll meet cheerful people vested in Positano Moda. This rather rustic style displays strong colours, creative cuts and lots of lace. It has even become a neat little export hit in recent years. Numerous churches, including Santa Maria Assunta with a black Madonna and Santa Caterina, and the rock Montagna Forata with its many holes accompany your relaxed walks.

Ravello

Many centuries ago Roman patrician families supposedly retreated to the hills between the valleys Regina and Dragone when fleeing from the barbarians and founded a small estate. In all actuality, Ravello attracted a rich burgess class that left a decisive mark on the place. During your tour you’ll see numerous splendid, well-preserved villa. 13th century Villa Rufolo is probably the main attraction. This imposing, playful complex of buildings now mostly serves as the backdrop for contemporary exhibitions. Its tremendous garden with numerous smaller buildings provides welcome recreation and gorgeous views. Richard Wagner found inspiration for his Parsifal here. Even more villas, churches and sanctuaries allow you to discover something spectacular and mystical at every corner of Ravello.

Other municipalities at a glance

These three main places on the Amalfi Coast aside, another ten municipalities await you along the Amalfitana. Things are usually a bit quieter here, even sleepy, but just as beautiful. Your trip through the UNESCO World Heritage region leads you to:

  • Vietri sul Mare: Colourful ceramics have been made in this small village since medieval times. You absolutely must visit the ceramics museum!
  • Cetara: A humongous tower watches over the sleepy village with around 2,000 inhabitants that’s all about fishing and agriculture.
  • Maiori: Maiori’s history stretches across many centuries and is palpable at every corner. Look forward to the splendid Palazzo Mezzacapo, Santa Maria a Mare rising high on a rock and Santa Maria Olearia, the Benedictine monastery founded in 973.
  • Tramonti: Nuns produce the fine herbal liqueur Concerto in the convent Conservatorio di San Giuseppe e Teresa. Cappella Rupestre, the chapel in the rock, also needs to be visited.
  • Minori: What was once a popular holiday destination among Roman aristocracy remains a small but nice touristic village with a stunning Roman villa and the imposing Basilica di Santa Trofimena.
  • Scala: The erstwhile bishop’s see of the sea republic Amalfi amazes with the massive 12th century Cathedral. Its now baroque face creates an exciting clash of styles.
  • Atrani: Rich merchants of the sea republic had their villas built in Atrani. The now baroque churches San Salvatore de’ Bireto and Santa Maria Maddalena were their places of worship.
  • Conca dei Marini: The Etruscans founded one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Life is delightfully relaxed in the quaint municipality with less than 700 inhabitants.
  • Furore: This small municipality on the coast has its own fjord with a breath-taking beach. Furore, too, is among the most beautiful villages in Italy.
  • Praiano: Numerous hotels and several imposing churches represent Praiano’s two sides. Discover splendid Renaissance paintings inside San Luca Evangelista.

 

Whether you’re touring the Amalfitana, tackling one of the numerous hiking trails or head down to the beach after a short walk, the Amalfi Coast is always worth the journey. The gorgeous mix of bustling activity, touristic infrastructure and natural countryside idyll makes holiday dreams come true lining one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy. Time to get ready for your tour of Campania!