The Prosecco hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene

The Prosecco hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene

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Italy exports vast quantities of Prosecco every year – around 90 million bottles, to be precise. Originally referring to a grape variety until the tail end of 2009, Prosecco now denotes a specific place of origin. The growing areas of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the province of Treviso are among the most famous Prosecco regions of the entire world. They meet the most superior Italian wine classification (DOCG) for which they can rely on an area that has been shaped specifically for the cultivation of the so-called Glera grapes over the course of centuries. The Prosecco hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene were declared named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. Unique scenery and distinct paths of indulgence await you during a visit.

Prosecco with controlled and guaranteed designation of origin

Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene is a spumante made predominantly from the Glera grape (85% to 100%). This sparkling wine may only be grown in the following 15 municipalities in and around Conegliano and Valdobbiadene:

  • Conegliano
  • San Vendemiano
  • Colle Umberto
  • Vittorio Veneto
  • Tarzo
  • Cison di Valmarino
  • San Pietro di Feletto
  • Refrontolo
  • Susegana
  • Pieve di Soligo
  • Farra di Soligo
  • Follina
  • Miane
  • Vidor
  • Valdobbiadene

 

Aside from the Prosecco di Colli Asolani, which is also grown in the province of Treviso (in Asolo, to be precise), the Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene is the only one of its kind to carry the DOCG classification. DOCG stands for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita” and translates to “controlled and guaranteed designation of origin” – the best wine quality classification in Italy. The wine-growers produce astonishing amounts of Prosecco – approx. 700,000 hectolitres a year with an upward trend – in four different kinds: still, frizzante, Spumante Superiore and Superiore di Cartizze.

Patchwork on steep growing terraces

The Prosecco hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, UNESCO

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The unique wine-growing area and the close interaction between man and nature were decisive World Heritage criteria for the UNESCO. The population faced the massive challenges of the difficult terrain, to put it mildly, head on for century after century eventually forming it into the perfect Prosecco region. This very terrain is known as “hogback” – steep, rugged slopes extending in an east-west direction interspersed with small, parallel-running valleys. “Ciglioni” were used to tame this difficult surface. They are a very particular kind of terrace that use grassy soil instead of rock thereby durably reinforcing the hills. Evidence suggest that these growing allotments were first used in the 16th and 17th century and are especially well-suited for steep areas. As there are thousands of small wine-growers between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, the Prosecco hills look like patchwork – highly fragmented yet closely connected to one another.

Strolling on indulgence paths between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene

While you might have enjoyed this brief-ish Prosecco lesson, you probably just want to taste what the region has to offer, right? Numerous indulgence paths connect the two hotspots leading across steep hills and through dense forests, across tessellated growing allotments and wide agricultural lands. There is even a sort of “Prosecco road” between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. We have chosen a few highlights for you:

  • Conegliano: We kick things off at Italy’s first wine school, founded in 1876. A guided tour shows you the secrets of Prosecco production. Visit old wine cellars afterward and check out the nearby wine museum.
  • Refrontolo: Being one of the most charming villages of this region, Refrontolo is home to a particularly popular grape harvest variety. Do not sleep on the still operational water mill Molinetto della Croda, currently acting as a museum.
  • Villa Brandolini: This building in Solighetto is home to concentrated Prosecco competence being the seat of Consorzio Tutela del Vino Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG. The villa serves as a venue for cultural events and exciting exhibitions.
  • Follina: Follina is one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. The culinary options alone are astounding. Enjoy a rest stop in a trattoria with a hearty regional meal and visit the grand Abbazia di Santa Maria afterward.
  • Farra di Soligo: The hills are becoming steeper and wilder – perfect for a neat little hike! The three Torri di Credazzo, which used to be part of a castle destroyed by the Lombards, and the small church San Martino stand tall among the vines.
  • Cartizze: The home of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene-Prosecco Superiore di Cartizze impresses with spectacular cone-like hills, the so-called “chiocciole”, and “casére”, the region’s characteristic barns. You absolutely must visit one of the many wine cellars.
  • Valdobbiadene: Excellent restaurants serving the best of the Treviso cuisine plus countless spumante wine cellars await you at the end of the indulgence path. By the way, we recommend taking a brief detour to Guia, Campea and Farrò on your way back. The view of the vines is incredibly breathtaking here, particularly during sunset.

 

Discover one of the most beautiful and unique areas in all of Italy, the special symbiosis of man and nature and, above all, particularly fine wines. The Prosecco hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene exemplify competence, innovations, and inventive genius in the Italian art of winegrowing. And do not forget about the incomparable, tessellated scenery! Do not miss out on one of the youngest Italian UNESCO World Heritage Sites – and maybe, just maybe, visit one of the countless wine cellars while you are at it.

Ivrea, industrial city of the 20th century

Ivrea, industrial city of the 20th century, UNESCO

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If you were to look at Ivrea in Piedmont, situated at the northern edge of the Po Valley between Turin and the Aosta Valley, from above, you would notice how the river Dora Baltea pretty much splits it in two. The old town is in the north featuring the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, the imposing castle of the Savoyard count Amadeus VI and the impressive cathedral that saw many a conversion over the course of centuries. The south, however, is home to an industrial city that sprung up after the foundation of the Olivetti company, grew constantly and furthered Ivrea’s development. On 1 July 2018, the UNESCO declared the industrial city of Ivrea a World Heritage Site. This complex of 27 buildings is widely regarded as the predecessor of corporate architecture and shows you a different side of Northern Italy.

Typewriters, calculators, office computers

Looking at the World Heritage Site Ivrea would not make much sense without checking out the corporate history of Olivetti first. The company was founded by Camillo Olivetti in 1908. Assisted by a few engineers, he developed the typewriter “M1” in a small brick workshop over the course of three years and first presented it on Turin’s industrial fair. Olivetti’s typewriter became a roaring success, the business began to expand counting 200 employees in 1920, around 800 in 1933 and even 6,000 during the war year of 1940. The company specifically recruited its workers from the Ivrea region – once making up 90% of the entire personnel – and developed a revolutionary welfare system from company health insurance to kindergarten, mother welfare to holiday homes, and cultural entertainment to sponsoring the gifted as early as 1909.

Camillo Olivetti, son of a Jewish family, signed his company over to his Adriano to avoid fascistic disseizing. Adriano introduced a new management style and declared the design aspect the major Olivetti feature. Previously introduced office furniture lines and the portable typewriter MP1 “Ico” had already been moving in this direction, dark grey structured coating was introduced later. Olivetti entered the electronic calculator market in 1948, produced the first electronic computers with transistors in 1959. Adriano Olivetti suffered a fatal stroke in 1960 resulting in a dispute among his seven heirs. The passing of company president Giuseppe Pero added further fuel to the fire. This was not the first time the company had to battle financial issues; several reorientations – electronics, computers, telecommunications – only brought temporary relief. After taking over Telecom Italia in 2003 and making it the new parent company, Olivetti finally managed to stabilise and even surprised the world by re-entering the computer market ten years ago.

Movimento Comunità

The social aspect has always been important to Olivetti and the same goes for a clear corporate identity. The “Movimento Comunità” (Eng. “Community Movement”) greatly influenced the buildings of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Based on Adriano Olivetti’s book “L’Ordine Politico delle Comunità” (Eng. “The Political Order of the Community”), it was introduced in 1947. The movement demanded a restructuring of the country into autonomous municipalities united by a shared cultural background. Unlike other industrialists, Olivetti realised the necessity of protecting his employees and providing social services. His provision of residential buildings met the rapid industrial – and thereby social – changes of the 20th century. As such, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not just architecturally impressive, but also as a testament to the history of political thought behind it – even though the functions of most commercial buildings declined substantially in recent years.

Extraordinary architecture marking industrial change

Ivrea, industrial city of the 20th century

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Even though AEG had buildings designed in accordance with their corporate identity as early as the 1910s, Olivetti is widely regarded as the pioneer of corporate architecture. Introduced during the 1930s, these buildings fulfilled social capacities and created an identity resulting in brand awareness and recognition value which, in turn, increased workforce productivity. The one-of-a-kind arrangement of the Olivetti complex – conceived and built under the direction of Adriano Olivetti and leading Italian architects utilising Olivetti’s political and social concepts – symbolises a changing industry. Mechanical things were digitised, production mechanisms introduced, social changes incorporated. Every single building, every part of this complex is fully thought through, reflects the corporate identity and is still seamlessly integrated into the townscape. It should come as no surprise that Olivetti’s buildings became major cornerstones for the development of theories about industrialisation and urban development in the 20th century.

27 buildings, one World Heritage Site

70.000 hectares of total area, 145,000 m² of built-up space, 17% of which serve as flats – the Olivetti complex wows with its monumental dimensions. The World Heritage Site encompasses 27 buildings, most of which are used differently these days. They include the heating plant and the carpentry, the former Sertec building and the social housing building Borgo Olivetti, the building 18 alloggi and the housing estate west, which was only planned in 1968. They all bear the signatures of renowned architects while also being highly characteristic of Olivietti’s style that continues to mould the world of corporate architecture to this very day. The company kindergarten shows that father and son were far ahead of their time. Conceived in 1939, the rooms are still used as municipal childcare facilities.

It goes without saying that there are far more striking, dazzling company buildings today with wild design ideas and humongous dimensions. Still, Ivrea’s industrial complex remains special, unique. Experience how Italy changed during the industrialisation during a brief walk around the south of the town. While you are at it, visit the old town in the north with its equally impressive structures. Experience over two thousand years of highly eventful history in fast motion when marvelling at Ivrea.

The art of making Neapolitan pizza

Neapolitan pizza, UNESCO

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By now you are more than familiar with the wide variety of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, know many different natural and cultural landmarks and areas. Actually, there is a third list we have not been talking a lot about so far. The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity deals with cultural expressions and oral traditions, customs, feasts and crafts. Italy currently is on this list a whopping twelve times including the traditional violin craftsmanship of Cremona, transhumance in the Mediterranean and the Alps, and the Sicilian puppet theatre “Opera dei Pupi”. However, we picked one piece of intangible cultural heritage that everyone should know – pizza!

Welcome to Naples

The exact origin of the word “pizza” is unknown. Some traces lead to the Langobardic, the Arabic and Hebrew, but also to different Italian dialects. There’s “piceà” or “pizzà” in Neapolitan, translating to “pulling”, with comparable terms in the Calabrian or the Medieval Latin language. Obviously, that would fit perfectly as the history of pizza is intricately connected to Naples. Even though somewhat contrastable dishes existed as early as in the Neolithic, first modern evidence was provided by Vincenzo Corrado writing about the Neapolitan style of seasoning pizza and pasta with tomatoes between 1715 and 1725. Generally, the evolution of pizza is connected closely to the growing popularity of the tomato in Southern Italy.

Neapolitan pizza

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There is many an exciting myth about the first “modern” pizza. It was supposedly made in Naples – where else! – by Raffaele Esposito on 11 June 1889. King Umberto I and his wife Margherita desired a pizza. Esposito, very patriotically, used toppings in the colours of the Italian flag – green basil, white mozzarella and red tomatoes. This version has been known as Pizza Margherita ever since, Esposito’s Pizzeria Brandi is world-famous to this day. Historians, however, have refuted this exciting tale. A newspaper article by the Washington Post from the year 1880 reports on the Queen’s liking of pizza. She had various pizza bakers deliver their goods to her before eventually selecting eight different kinds. Esposito was the only pizzaiuolo who kept the royal court’s acknowledgement of receipt.

Lived pizza tradition

A look at the narrower tradition of the Neapolitan cuisine only knows two different kinds of pizza:

  • Pizza Margherita with tomatoes, mozzarella TSG in strips, diced mozzarella, basil and olive oil
  • Pizza marinara with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and oil

 

Beyond that, there are many other different variations that can be traced back to Neapolitan tradition (e.g. Capricciosa, Quattro stagioni, Quattro formaggi, Calzone or Diavola), not even considering the countless special regional varieties and strange inventions with weird to bizarre toppings. However, this is not about a pizza with sausages, spaghetti or schnitzel, we are strictly talking classics.

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana for keeping of the tradition of Neapolitan pizza was founded in 1984 in order to protect said classic in times of widespread frozen and fast food pizza. The global members of this association may call their product a “genuine Neapolitan pizza” (“Verace Pizza Napoletana”), production method and ingredients are checked regularly. The EU introduced the trademark for Pizza Napoletana in 2005 with the protection of the traditional composition / the traditional production method as “Traditional Specialties Guaranteed” (TSG). According to this, a Neapolitan pizza consists of the following ingredients:

  • Wheat flour
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Natural drinking water
  • Peeled tomatoes and/or small fresh tomatoes
  • Sea salt or cooking salt
  • Extra virgin olive oil

 

There are some further optional ingredients that can be used as well during pizza baking, namely:

  • Garlic
  • Oregano
  • Fresh basil
  • Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP or mozzarella TSG

 

It is only baked in wood fire ovens reaching the important baking temperature of 485 °C. Furthermore, the cooking time must not exceed 60 to 90 seconds. The slightly thicker crust is another classic characteristic of the Neapolitan pizza.

A festive day for pizza consumption

The Neapolitan pizza and the art of the pizza baker was added to the coveted intangible cultural heritage list on 7 December 2017. Free pizza was served throughout the city to mark the occasion, December 7th has been a Neapolitan holiday ever since accompanied by a multifaceted, multi-day programme with talks, cooking shows and ceremonial acts. This should not be a surprise with about 3,000 pizzaiuoli in this region, not even counting the many amateur pizza bakers.

If you are now wondering about the right way to eat a pizza, Enzo Coccia, one of Naples’ most prominent pizza legends, has the answer for you – fold twice like a wallet. This way you can taste the flavour of the dough, the mozzarella and the olive oil. The tomato sauce cannot drip out and you get all taste components in a single bite. Cheers!

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes, UNESCO

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The Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway of the Rhaetian Railway were only the third railway lines worldwide to be declared World Heritage Site in 2008. Two sections operate between Thusis in the Swiss canton of Graubünden via St. Moritz, where you change from the Albula to the Bernina Railway, to Tirano in Lombardy, Italy. Upon its inception, the new railway system opened the gate to the world for a plethora of (winter) tourism region. Now it offers regular operations and particularly spectacular panoramic rides. Experience the Alps from an entirely new perspective!

Exceeding altitudes of 2,000 metres by train

At the onset of the 20th century the mountain regions and what would eventually turn into winter sport regions at the border between Switzerland and Italy were mostly isolated from the rest of the world. Enormous gorges, imposing inclines and almost

insurmountable rock giants posed massive challenges to the architects of the Rhaetian Railway. The Albula Railway in 1904 and the Bernina Railway in 1910 not only saw the installation of two high alpine routes, but also the rise of masterful transportation solutions. The countless structures – 196 bridges and 55 tunnels spread across 122 kilometres – displayed grand innovative ingenuity.

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes

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The manner in which these architectural masterpieces were incorporated into the mountain scenery continues to impress to this very day. A pronounced understanding for the region, combined with bold pioneering spirit, created breathtaking harmony – and all of that at altitudes of up to 2,253 m at the Bernina Pass, the tallest alpine railway pass in Europe. The two railways connect Switzerland and Italy during a four-hour journey, completely without any cog technology whatsoever – a genuinely innovative narrow-gauge railway that remains wildly fascinating to this very day.

The Albula Railway

The first part of this World Heritage railway line is entirely in Switzerland. Stretching across 61.67 km, the Albula Railway connects Thusis in the Hinterrhein district with St. Moritz in the Engadine. The 144 bridges have spans of up to two metres, the 42 tunnels and galleries promise spectacular experiences. It is hard to believe that construction of this line started as early as 1898. You cross the Solis Viaduct, the tallest bridge of the entire Rhaetian Railway at 89 metres, after only a few kilometres. Another phenomenon, if you will, is the stretch between Bergün and Preda. It actually has an air-line distance of 6.5 km that covers 417 altitude metres. However, not even the most powerful railway could master such a feat, which is why several civil engineering structures were built to extend this section to twelve kilometres with the railway crossing itself several times in order to reach the necessary height. Don’t sleep on the Albula Tunnel either – 5,865-metre-long and mostly drilled through thick granite.

The Albula Railway was supposed to be much, much longer. Original plans included an extension via the Maloja Pass to Chiavenna in Italy with a subsequent direct connection to Milan via Lake Como. Vague declarations of intent on the Italian side, World War I and the subsequent recession prevented said extension. A PostBus line now operates on this route.

The Bernina Railway

Having arrived in St. Moritz, you change for the Bernina Railway. This means heading for a different platform with different rails due to a different railway power supply system before eventually traveling east. Construction of the Bernina Railway only began after completion of the Albula Railway. The entire route was opened in 1910, winter operations were introduced in 1913/14. During the first years the avalanche barrier costs were enormous, the Railway teetered on the brink of bankruptcy multiple times. It was only once the Rhaetian Railway took over in 1943 that several new structures and modernisations were established to save the Bernina Railway.

The first stop in Celerina Staz is actually the lowest point on the north side of the route at an altitude of “only” 1,716 m. There’s an almost constant rise across the following 20 km reaching its highest point near Ospizio Bernina (2,253 m). Getting there involves a plethora of turns and multiple changes of the valley side. Various tunnels and galleries protect this part of the railway, which is heavily affected by snow drifts, until Poschiavo, furthermore setting in motion the almost constant descent en route to Italy. The hairpin bends behind Alp Grüm with their steep incline and the tight 180° bend are particularly spectacular. You’ll even get to “experience” partial left-hand traffic on tram-like grooved rails during the narrow cross-village links of Sant’Antonio and Le Presse. The Brusio spiral viaduct gains some altitude one last time before you reach the terminal station in Tirano at an altitude of 429 metres. The train to Milan, transporting you to the capital of Lombardy in about 2.5 hours, already awaits you in the adjacent station.

Highlights around the railway lines

The Albula and the Bernina Railway are perfect if you want to take it slow and easy. Due to its unique altitude and the constricted routeing on the narrow-gauge railway, you should expect a total travel time of about four hours. We especially recommend this experience in summer as the observation cars make it seem as if you could just reach out and grab the sky. In addition, there are numerous ski areas, hiking regions and day trip destinations awaiting you along the route and in its close proximity, such as:

  • Bormio: There’s a plethora of winter sport regions along the border between Switzerland and Italy, such as Madeismo, Aprica, Livigno and Santa Caterina Valfurva. Bormio most certainly is one of the best-known ski areas of the Alps, not least due to the legendary Alpine World Cup skiing competitions on the Pista Stelvio. 50 km of perfectly groomed slopes await you.
  • Poschiavo: The scenic townscape of the Grisons municipality is built around flagstone-covered houses from the 16th to the 19th Look forward to San Vittore, a late Gothic collegiate church, the Reformed church Santa Trinità and the Oratory Sant’Anna with its ossuary – a spectacular mix of appealing architecture and astonishing mountain panorama.
  • Sonico: You’re certainly familiar with our World Heritage blog about the rock drawings in Valcamonica about this genuinely special region with prehistoric carvings in bare stone across a length of 25 km. One of the entrance points to this valley, Sonico, is less than an hour from Tirano, the terminal station of the Bernina Railway.
  • Google Street View: To be fair, Google Street View probably isn’t what you’d call a sight, yet it counts as a special experience. In March 2012 the UNESCO World Heritage route Albula / Bernina was the first railway line in the world to be made accessible by 360° panoramic photos. You can find this virtual highlight at rhb.ch.

 

A ride with the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway allows you to unwind in a wonderful way. You gaze at impressive architectural achievements, tremendous downward slopes, enormous rock giants and wild, untamed nature surrounded by many small, inviting villages. Add the various day trip destinations throughout the region to the mix and don’t miss out on this joyful ride!

UNESCO World Heritage Site Val d’Orcia

A new era began in the Val d’Orcia region when the city state Siena defeated the feudal house of Aldobrandeschi. Siena didn’t only expand its capital – rapidly and vastly – it also placed great emphasis on the representative nature of the agricultural hinterland. The Val d’Orcia was altered and enhanced on an expansive level during its period of populating in the 14th and 15th century in order to find the perfect mix of aesthetic scenery and idealised governance. The Val d’Orcia inspired numerous Renaissance artists to create astonishing landscape paintings and remains a popular travel destination to this very day. Even the UNESCO acknowledged the uniqueness of this region and declared it World Heritage Site in 2004.

History of the Val d’Orcia

Val d’Orcia, UNESCO

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The Val d’Orcia has been crossed ever since Roman times being a part of the Via Cassia, the road connecting Rome to Tuscany, before gaining added significance as a stage of the Via Francigenia and being a preferred stopover point during pilgrimages from Francia to Rome. The big reshaping, however, as already mentioned, only began when the city state Siena took over. Corsignano grew to become Pienza in the 14th and 15h century, the magnificent co-cathedral Santa Maria Assunta was built. Successive expansions of the other main villages in the valley – Castiglione d’Orcia, Montalcino, Radicofani and San Quirico d’Orcia – were set in motion as well.

You cannot rate the city state’s importance for the fine arts highly enough. It goes without saying that the Sienese School of painting benefitted the most from the patrons and sponsors. During the Renaissance and the subsequent incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Val d’Orcia turned into a popular destination for painters from all over country. The region blossomed even more during Medici rule, mostly due to improved infrastructure of both the Via Cassia and the Via Francigenia. Numerous artists captured the attractive composition of cone-shaped hills and wide, agricultural areas on their canvasses. The harmony of man and nature became a popular leitmotif.

Trip to Pienza

You might’ve already read our blog on the historic centre of Pienza, which was named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. As such, we will keep things short and sweet, but there are a few highlights in this charming little planned town you absolutely shouldn’t miss:

  • Santa Maria Assunta: There are no two ways about it – the Cathedral of Pienza is the architectural masterpiece of the Val d’Orcia n. Renaissance art and northern-alpine Gothic meet characteristic Tuscan order. Master builder Bernardo Rosselino knew fairly little about the strict architectural rules of the Gothic period resulting in a more than appealing clash of styles from the façade to the interior.
  • Palazzo Pubblico: Originally built solely for representative reasons – Pienza needed a town hall in order to maintain its town status – this small palace acts as a sort of bridge between the religious and the secular parts of Piazza Comunale.
  • Palazzo Piccolomini: Breathtakingly beautiful Renaissance ideals line the courtyard. A walk through the atrium with its garden and the arcade simply never ceases to amaze.
  • Palazzo Vescovile: Pope Pius II had originally planned to accommodate visiting bishops here. The palace now houses several museums. Among the exhibits are religious artefacts, paintings from the 12th to the 15th century and regional textile works.

 

Other villages in the Val d’Orcia

You’re probably already more than familiar with Pienza, but what about the other four villages in the Val d’Orcia? We just have to share their beauty with you:

  • Castiglione d’Orcia: This sleepy little village is situated on a hill and can be seen from afar. Originally a major stage on the Via Francigenia, you still get to experience its original medieval beauty and numerous narrow alleys and small squares. Park at the Parco della Rimembranza just outside the village centre and enjoy the great clear view from the chapel on the park hill. The Pieve dei Santi Stefano e Degna used to house major works by Lorenzetti and Vecchietta, which are currently shown in the Pinacoteca of Siena.
  • Montalcino: Montalcino used to be surrounded by an enormous 13th and 14th century wall with six gates, many parts of which still exist at least in parts. Add the huge castle into the mix and you get an idea of the monumental dimensions of the original fortifications. Things are a bit more leisurely these days with delicious honey being produced in the surroundings. Look forward to checking out the Duomo di Montalcino and another nine churches throughout the village.
  • Radicofani: Originally carrying great significance as a stopover on pilgrimages and a fortification to Siena, the fortress of Radicofani was completely destroyed in April 1555. The ruins have since been turned into an awesome museum with an astonishing 360° panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and hills – that’s something you should certainly check out! Furthermore, we highly recommend a trip to the Pieve San Pietro with various works from 15th and 16th century artists.
  • San Quirico d’Orcia: This village with its vast agricultural fields, where wild asparagus is grown, and countless churches and chapels is located in the heart of the Val d’Orcia. The 12th century Collegiata church stands tall amidst the many medieval buildings. High Gothic elements, hybrid beasts, which are highly unusual for Italian art, and knot columns on the façade and the portals highlight different construction phases. Inside you’ll marvel at the abundance of paintings and frescoes, such as the stunning “Madonna col Bambino in Trono e quattro Santi” by Renaissance painter Sano di Pietro.

 

Sporty and delicious holidays

Val d’Orcia

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Are you looking for some variety? Would you like to experience something different between your trips to the scenic villages of the Val d’Orcia? This region is a dream come true for hikers and bikers with its wide plains and several climbs, some of which can be quite challenging. We highly suggest passing on longer tours on particularly hot and sunny days as the valley offers very little shade. Don’t miss out on stops in Bagni San Filippo and Bagno Vignoni in spring and autumn. Warm thermal spring water will soothe aching muscles get your motor running again. The Val d’Orcia is an important pecorino region as well. You can buy the popular hard cheese in several stages of maturity. You should also try a plate of Pici (thick, hand-rolled spaghetti with a savoury side) or a hearty serving of Ravioli con Ricotta (filled pancakes, optionally with meat and/or oven-baked with cheese).

The Val d’Orcia clearly is a must-visit destination during your next holiday in Tuscany. You’ll certainly fall under the spell of this unique region with its scenic beauty, captivating sports offerings and many a stunning village. We suggest setting aside two or three days for the Val d’Orcia next time you’re in Florence in Siena. It’ll definitely be worth it!

Late baroque towns of the Val di Noto

Late baroque towns of the Val di Noto

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A destructive earthquake struck the Val di Noto in south-eastern Sicily on the evening of 11 January 1693. The result was truly devastating – around 60,000 casualties, 70 destroyed towns and villages across an area of 5,600 km² and powerful tidal waves that wreaked havoc on many more places along the coasts of the Ionic Sea and the Strait of Messina. Despite this catastrophe of inhuman degree the Sicilians seemingly weren’t demoralised and diligently worked on filling all towns and villages with life again. The region gained a very uniform, late baroque look. The geographic and architectural homogeneity of a region under constant threat of seismic activities and the Mount Etna volcano led the UNESCO to declare eight towns World Heritage Site in 2002. “Late baroque towns of the Val di Noto” – perfect for your next holiday in southern Italy!

Catania

The earthquake almost destroyed Catania completely. Nearly two thirds of the population perished. Still, the town was resurrected in the now characteristic late baroque style as if it was nothing. Many buildings are at least partially made of black lava rock giving Catania a very distinct look. Don’t miss out on the following architectural masterpieces:

  • Palazzo degli Elefanti: The combination of the earthquake and a previous Etna eruption destroyed the entire original Palazzo Municipale. Roman monumentality – the imposing entrance portal is surmounted only by the tremendous balcony – turned the Palazzo degli Elefanti into one of the most important buildings of the new town. An elephant figurine from Roman times discovered randomly in the debris was given a saddle pad made of black lava rock and put on top of the elephant fountain in front of today’s town hall.
  • San Nicola: The Benedictine abbey was located at several different places throughout the centuries, once even on a hill of Mount Etna. Even though the monumental rebuilding remained incomplete, the abundance of figurines and the characteristic lava rock give today’s university building a more than fascinating look.
  • Cathedral: Originally built during the 11th century as a Norman fortified church, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini created an entirely new baroque façade for the Cathedral Sant’Agata, dedicated to the town’s patron saint. The Norman look of the mostly undestroyed eastern part was kept as it was and incorporated into the new building. A lot of the baroque adornment has since been removed in order to recapture the church’s original look.
  • Palazzo Biscari: Catania’s likely most important palace is in private hands at the moment and, unfortunately, not open to tourists. The façade is incredibly rich in detail and features astonishing embellishments, while the interior is dominated by rococo stylings.

 

Caltagirone

Caltagirone, too, was heavily affected by earthquake and eventually rebuilt at the same location over the course of ten years. Several expansions and conversions over the course of the following decades and centuries added more modern elements to the prevalent late baroque style. Ranging from the early 17th century perron Santa Maria del Monte, a remnant of the days before catastrophe, to the neo-Gothic Villa Patti built around 1900, you’ll discover new elements and influences at every corner of Caltagirone. If you’re really going all in on late baroque architecture, you should check out the astonishing churches Santa Maria del Monte and San Giacomo Apostolo and the splendid town museum.

Militello in Val di Catania

Founded in Byzantine times, Militello welcomes you with a mix of the expected late baroque architecture and rather well-preserved survivors of previous eras. You will most certainly be wowed by the architectural variety embedded in-between rolling hills and the wide river valley of the Lembasi. You absolutely must visit the mother church San Nicolò e Santissimo Salvatore for its monumental façade alone. By the way, the cupola is actually a 20th century piece. Additionally, we recommend Santa Maria della Catena and Santa Maria della Stella, both richly adorned with carvings and stuccowork.

Modica

You could say that Modica is split today. Luckily, the earthquake wasn’t quite as devastating here. Parts of the ancient town centre at the southern hills of the Monti Iblei – likely founded before the 7th century BC – survived, a second town centre was built along the valley. The church San Giorgio, founded in the Middle Ages and carefully rebuilt after the earthquake, is probably the most beautiful building of this small Sicilian gem. There are lots of impressive things to discover from the massive façade to the imposing cupola. Don’t miss out on the Cathedral San Pietro in the new town centre either. The tremendous staircase with statues of the twelve apostles and the characteristic Sicilian bell tower are genuine eye-catchers.

Noto

Late baroque towns of the Val di Noto, UNESCO

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Noto was completely destroyed by the earthquake. A new location – on the left shore of the river Asinaro – and a rectangular street grid based on plans by Giovanni Battista Landolina were chosen for the reconstruction. The town’s master builder Rosario Gagliardi and architect Vincenzo Sinatra were responsible for the new, late baroque look, which is more than impressive as the special grid system granted more than enough space for each and every building. San Nicolò, the vast cathedral with the double tower façade and the monumental cupola, is a definite must-visit. Take a close look at the various palazzi with their impressive embellishments as well. You’ll discover new, amazing details everywhere you go, such as the balconies of Palazzo Villadorata or the rather astounding town hall Palazzo Ducezio.

Palazzolo Acreide

Inhabitants of Syracuse founded a new settlement in 664 BC, Akrai. It later lost significance and was destroyed, only to be built around a Norman castle, thereby finding new glory, as Palazzolo in the 12th century. Seemingly dealing with the seismic devastation with ease, Palazzolo Acreide is now regarded as one of the most beautiful places in all of Italy. Several gorgeous churches await you between the medieval town centre and the second, newer town centre. San Sebastiano Cathedral with its gigantic perron and the spectacular façade of the Basilica di San Paolo are must-sees. The excavation site of the ancient town Akrai is located outside of Palazzolo Acreide. It might not be a part of the late baroque World Heritage Site, but it’s still more than worth the trip.

Ragusa

Pre-Christian roots, Byzantine heritage, traces of the Normans, the Hohenstaufen and the Crown of Aragon – all of that was destroyed by the devastating earthquake. Ragusa’s population still didn’t give up and rebuilt their stunning town on a slightly more elevated rock plateau west of the original location. The town centre is now divided in two by a deep ravine crossed by four bridges. While Ragusa Superior utilises a fairly geometric and straightforward style – it is mostly home to residential and administrative buildings aside from Ragusa Cathedral – Ragusa Ibla features an abundance of splendid late baroque buildings. A total of nine main churches and seven palazzi will accompany your tour.

Scicli

Despite playing a key role during the rule of the Normans, only very little remains of Scicli’s heyday. Even the original mother church San Matteo high above the town was abandoned and is now slowly decaying despite remaining an impressive landmark. Astonishing churches, museums and palaces await you around the protected baroque street Via Francesco Mormino Penna with the Palazzo Beneventano being an absolute must-see. Its extensive embellishments with a keen eye for detail attract tourists from all over the world.

We highly recommend spending at least an entire week in the Val di Noto region to fully immerse yourself in the late baroque flair. Each one of the eight towns is a little masterpiece by itself, and they only become more and more amazing when experienced in their entirety. You’ll soon recognise certain stylistic and planning similarities only to realise – and fully understand – why the UNESCO deemed this region a representation of the “final flowering of Baroque art in Europe” and, thus, very much worth protecting. Time to book your next holiday in Sicily!

Places of power of the Lombards in Italy

Calling the fall of the Western Roman Empire a time of great changes and upheavals might just be the teensiest bit of an understatement. Numerous peoples tried their luck over subsequent decades and centuries, the ancient Migration Period was in full swing. The Lombards came to Italy in 568 AD and would rule most of the country for the following 200 years. Over those two centuries the Elbe Germanic tribe erected fascinating places of power, seven of which were collectively declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. And they’re spread across five different regions as well! Time for a tour from north to south.

How the Lombards influenced medieval times

Places of power of the Lombards in Italy

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According to the UNESCO, Lombard architecture played a major role at the threshold between the ancient world and the Middle Ages. The synthesis of various architectural styles, combined with the development of a culture of their own, united Ancient Rome with Christian spirituality, Byzantine art with the Germanic Northern Europe. The origin of the name “Lombards”, however, has been lost to history.

They ruled over most of the country as Kings of Italy. Only Rome, Sardinia, Sicily and a few smaller parts in the southernmost and north-easternmost parts firmly remained under Byzantine control. While the Lombards might’ve never conquered the former centre of Western Roman power, they most definitely left their mark on the rest of Italy. Charlemagne eventually managed to dethrone the last Lombard King in 774, the last remaining traces disappeared from the regency name about 100 years later.

Gastaldaga and episcopal complex in Cividale del Friuli

Time to focus on the seven places of power of the namesake UNESCO World Heritage Site now. Our first stop is in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, more precisely: Cividale del Friuli. You’ll discover the church Santa Maria on the former Gastaldaga area in the old Lombard district Valle. When it was still called Tempietto Longobardo, it was widely regarded as the most original creation of Late Lombard times reaching new levels of complexity. See medieval stucco adornments and frescoes with Byzantine influence in the presbyterium. The former episcopal complex, originally consisting of a basilica, a baptistery and the Patriarch’s Palace, is also part of this religious area. Experience fascinating Lombard sculpting treasures, such as the Baptismal Font of Patriarch Callisto and the Altar of Duke Rachis, at Museo Cristiano and the cathedral treasury.

San Salvatore’s monastic complex

Feel like going west… to Lombardy? Three years before he would ascend the throne, Desiderius had a convent built in Brescia in 753, later to be presided over by his daughter Anselperga. The monastic complex San Salvatore saw many an alteration over the course of centuries. Among the most impressive parts of the complex is the eponymous church, a splendid example of early medieval sacred architecture with extensive stucco works. We recommend checking out the sweeping archaeological area around the monastery. Here you’ll come across the ruins of numerous ancient ceremonial buildings that were overbuilt by or incorporated into various accommodations, production facilities or burial sites in later centuries. The Capitolium from the first century AD and the Roman theatre are particularly awe-inspiring.

Castrum of Castelseprio and Torba Tower

We stay in Lombardy for now, we like it here. The archaeological park of Castelseprio extends around an ancient Roman fortification site that the Lombards converted and enlarged to create the Castrum castle. Sadly, it was fully destroyed in the late 13th century with only a massive wall ring, several accommodations and the basilica plus baptistery of San Giovanni Evangelista surviving. Another show-piece of Lombard military architecture is Torba Tower, which used to house a Benedictine convent. Don’t miss out on a trip to the church Santa Maria foris portas outside the city walls to see their very important frescoes with clear Byzantine imprint.

Basilica of San Salvatore at Spoleto

Time for a change of scenery. Spoleto is at the foothills of the Apennines in south Umbria. Basilica San Salvatore likely dates back to early Christian times and, according to lore, was built around the tombs of two Christian martyrs. The Lombards carried out extensive renovations in the 7th century and added numerous details that were expanded on during subsequent conversions in Romanesque times. As the classic Roman use of forms was upheld, you get to see both the original ancient architectural fragments and marvellous replicas with a richly decorated façade. Sadly, almost the entire stucco and painting décor was lost.

Tempietto sul Clitunno

The small village Campello sul Clitunno located at the eponymous river is close to Spoleto, its small, early medieval church having been built on the site where, according to Roman lore, the Roman river god Jupiter Clitumnus resided. Architecturally inspired by Corinthian temples from ancient Greece, this small sanctuary will impress you with its monumental pillars and the massive architrave with its skilful engraving of Roman capital letters. Even with all the recycled Roman elements and specifically created decorations, the 7th century frescoes are a – no, the sight to behold.

Santa Sofia complex at Benevento

Our journey leads us even further down south, to Campania. Arechis II, the Lombard Duke of Benevento, had Santa Sofia built as his personal chapel around 760 for his soul find redemption in the great beyond. We do not know how this worked out for him. The baroque façade aside, which was constructed during refurbishments after two devastating earthquakes, the church was mainly restored to its original appearance. As such, you get to experience a gloriously Lombard building with many a Romanesque element added to the mix. Fragments of frescoes from the late eighth and early ninth century exemplify the unique school of illuminators of Benevento with distinct Lombard imprints.

Pilgrimage church San Michele at Monte Sant’Angelo

Places of power of the Lombards in Italy, UNESCO

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Our final stop is in the south-easternmost part of Apulia. Stunning Monte Sant’Angelo might have “only” been founded in the 11th century, but its history of settlement dates back much further. Actually, ruins of a 2nd century BC Hellenic temple were only discovered last year. It is said that archangel Michael appeared to a bishop on the hills of Gargano around 490 AD and one more time during a battle half a century later leading to a worship of Saint Michael in the region. The Lombards likely thought him to be consubstantial to the pagan Wodan. After conquering Gargano they worshipped the sanctuary as well. Now reconstructed and provided with a pilgrimage church, San Michele in Monte Sant’Angelo attracts pilgrims from all over the country.

Visiting all places of power of the Lombards in Italy would be equivalent to a multi-week round trip through the country – and why not? Italy is always worth a visit and these magnificent churches, sanctuaries and monasteries are more than breathtaking. Retrace Lombard steps and discover parts of this astonishing UNESCO World Heritage Site during your next holiday!

Historic centre of the city of Pienza

How does a town become an ideal town? Opinions differ greatly on this matter and changed just as much over the course of centuries. The Renaissance and humanism most certainly left a massive mark on this discourse, and that’s something you can both see and experience when visiting Pienza. This architectural and rational marvel with Piazza Comunale serving as its urban hub is truly extraordinary, particularly for a small town. Pienza’s historic centre was even declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and should be an absolute must-visit for your next trip to Tuscany.

Time to build an ideal town

Historic centre of the city of Pienza, UNESCO

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For the longest time Pienza in Val d’Orcia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, flew under the radar. The village was originally called Corsignano. Its first documentary evidence dates back to the 9th century, but things only turned interesting after parts of it became property of the Piccolomini family. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born here in 1405. This name might not ring a bell, but he would eventually become Pope Pius II many years later. He had Corsignano rebuilt into an ideal town starting in 1459 and even named it after himself: Pienza.

This intended retreat from Rome created a trend that was quickly adopted by other Italian towns before taking Europe by storm. In a somewhat ironic twist, Pienza’s full urban planning concept was never put into effect. Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino, a student of Leon Battista Alberti, completed the main buildings and structures within three years, but the pope’s death in 1464 prevented further extensions and developments. Still, the historic centre of the city of Pienza is a genuine gem even without this potentially crowning finale.

All roads lead to the piazza

Historic centre of the city of Pienza

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The airy, centralised design of Pienza’s historic centre became the model for numerous Italian towns. Roads lead to Piazza Comunale, the main square of the humanistic ideal town, from all directions. Every spot, every place on the piazza reveals appealing, completely new perspectives on the four main buildings, perfectly complemented by the almost magical scenery of the Val d’Orcia. The travertine fountain with the Piccolomini family crest, a model for numerous Tuscan fountains in its own right, emphasises the intended asymmetry of the square and adds yet another, highly special dimension to its unique look and atmosphere.

Santa Maria Assunta

Four ideal town buildings flank Piazza Comunale, and the Cathedral of Pienza certainly is the most important specimen of the grand architectural arts. Santa Maria Assunta, to give the co-cathedral its full name, was built as a three-nave hall church from 1459 to 1462. Even though the façade clearly is a Renaissance brainchild, a lot of the cathedral was heavily influenced by the northern-alpine Gothic style, likely due to papal visits to German-speaking countries. A lot of the façade is geared toward the Tuscan order and rural region architecture, e.g. the entrances with their overarching side arches, the four colossal pilasters and the aedicula alcoves. Comparisons to Santa Maria Novella in Florence and Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini by Leon Battista Alberti are fairly obvious as Rossellino was heavily influenced by his teacher.

All basic ingredients of the Renaissance await you inside the cathedral, colliding rather charmingly with Gothic elements. Rossellino only knew very little about the strict architectural rules of the Gothic period. The odd capitals on the bundle pillars, the imposts below the groined vaults and the slightly misaligned placement of the lateral secondary choir chapels speak volumes. Add the modern, electric organ and the classic Gothic paintings by Sienese artists into the mix and you get an equally monumental and unusual religious building that will wow you.

Other World Heritage highlights in Pienza

It should go without saying that the massive tremendous cathedral is widely regarded as the peak experience of your Pienza tour, but it’s far from the only highlight on Piazza Comunale. Another three buildings flank the centre of the town planning ideal, and you shouldn’t sleep on those either:

  • Palazzo Pubblico: Corsignano needed its own town hall when it became a town in order to maintain this status. As such, the palace was more for show than anything else. Experts believe that Rossellino wanted this free-standing building to become a sort of mediator between the religious cathedral area and the secular market square. Additionally, he consciously kept the town hall’s belfry shorter than the cathedral’s to maintain its status.
  • Palazzo Piccolomini: Leon Battista Alberti didn’t only inspire Rossellino’s cathedral. Palazzo Piccolomini is clearly based on the teacher’s Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. Ranging from the rectangular layout to the cleverly placed family crests and apostolic letterings around the windows to the rock façade itself, you might see some familiar features. The small, rectangular courtyard with its garden and the arcade, however, meets Renaissance ideals. Enjoy the gorgeous view of Val d’Orcia and Pope Pius’ beloved Monte Amiata from the loggia on the south-facing back of the palace.
  • Palazzo Vescovile: Extended papal plans envisioned additional palaces built by various cardinals. As you already know, these plans remained just that due to Pius’ death leaving Palazzo Vescovile as the only memento, if you will. Financed by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, the future Pope Alexander VI, it was intended to accommodate the bishops visiting Pius II in Pienza. It currently houses the Diocesan Museum and the Museo della Cattedrale. You get to see religious artefacts, paintings and the 12th to 15th century and regional textile works.

 

It’s hard to imagine what the historic centre of Pienza could have looked like as Piazza Comunale with its four impressive buildings is a breathtaking must-see experience already. The ostentatious cathedral with its stylistic plurality and monumental dimensions plus the three highly different yet harmoniously imbedded palaces emphasise the humanistic ideal of Renaissance town planning in a complex, multifaceted manner. Don’t miss out on Pienza with the adjacent Val d’Orcia and get to experience two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once!

The fossils of Monte San Giorgio

A brief trip up to an altitude of 1,097 m at the border between Italy and Switzerland unearths divine views. Monte San Giorgio in the Lugano Prealps in Canton Ticino, nestled between the two southern arms of the equally splendid Lake Lugano, is a popular hiking and day trip destination, a genuine natural gem with a sweeping territory stretching as far as the Province of Varese. Hidden beneath the strongly forested surface, however, are numerous caves with unexpected primeval treasures. They bare marine fossils that are in part over 200 million years old. The Swiss part was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the Italian area followed in 2010 now comprising the entire fossil compound and excavation site with its stunning, surrounding region.

The sea basin in the rock

Monte San Giorgio, UNESCO

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How did these fossilised primeval creatures actually manage to get inside those caves? Scientists believe that the rock of Monte San Giorgio used to form a large, approx. 100-metre-deep sea basin amidst a lagoon around 245 to 230 million years ago before the actual mountain came into being. Being a subtropical region back then with likely low-oxygen water at the bottom, numerous vertebrates could thrive securely without having to fear its natural enemies, the scavengers. Thus, the retrieved fossils frequently contain fully-conserved skeletons making them key for research. Fish, reptiles and invertebrates, such as insects, were discovered in the five worldwide unique archaeological layers. Among these finds are hundreds of mixosaurus skeletons, a type of ichthyosaurs (also known as “fish flippers”) from the Middle Triassic. To date, over 20,000 fossils were extracted from the archaeological layers of Monte San Giorgio.

The most important fossils

We’ve already briefly mentioned one of the most astounding finds. Here’s a neat little overview for you to give you an idea of the excavated highlights throughout the years:

  • Reptiles: Around 25 different species were found inside Monte San Giorgio. The already mentioned mixosaurus aside, this group also includes the eosauropterygii. They had pointy teeth and paddle-like extremities. The protorosaurus, however, had an extraordinarily long, giraffe-like neck.
  • Insects: Tintorina, the “midge” of Monte San Giorgio, is likely the oldest insect species of the region that had already been highly differentiated in its development. It is part of the ephemera group. Current studies are mostly dedicated to fascinating bug and dragonfly finds.
  • Fish: Aside from reptile finds that were in a transitional state to becoming fish-like beings, around 50 different fish species were discovered as well. Cartilaginous fish, such as sharks, were preserved poorly during fossilisation. Usually, only the teeth and fin rays survived. The discovered crossopterygians, however, remind experts of the living fossil latimeria that lives in the Indian Ocean.
  • Conodonts: These creatures remain mysterious. They likely were fish-like vertebrates, around five to ten centimetres long, and probably resembled what is now known as the lamprey. In addition, Monte San Giorgio unearthed fascinating cluster finds and numerous traces and imprints of shells, snails and cephalopods.

 

Fossil museum in Meride

Sounds great, but you’re probably wondering what use this fossil overview is to you. Well, you can check out a wide array of finds from Monte San Giorgio in various museums spread throughout the region. A brief trip to Switzerland most definitely pays off as the fossil museum in Meride, just under four kilometres from the Italian border, provides you with fascinating insights. Opened on 13 October 2012, it features fossilised plants and animals from the UNESCO World Heritage Site on spread across four floors. Among the highlights is the reconstruction of a ticinosuchus. This 2.5-m-long land dinosaur lived at the edge of sea basin. We recommend joining a guided tour of the museum to discover each and every treasure with fascinating facts to go along with it. Special children’s tours are offered for younger visitors.

Other sights and activities throughout the region

The fossil museum in Meride most certainly is a must-visit institution, but not the only highlight on and around Monte San Giorgio by a long shot. Countless hiking and walking routes aside, you shouldn’t miss out on these places:

  • Fossil museum of Besano: The Italian part of the Monte San Giorgio region has a palaeontological museum of its own. It features an almost six-metre-long skeleton of a mixosaurus with four embryos in its abdomen as well as a massive saltriovenator.
  • Val Mara: The observation deck in the heart of the border region grants insights into the fossil deposits of the Triassic sea. Picture boards, casts, binoculars and fossil models plus reconstructions of the Middle Triassic surroundings await you high above the gorge of the Gaggiolo stream.
  • Geo-palaeontological path: A long path for hikers and arduous walkers runs between Italy and Switzerland. It leads through the heart of the region and gives a closer introduction to various geological and palaeontological aspects. The UNESCO World Heritage excavation sites are part of the itinerary, too.
  • Natural history museum of Clivio: Also known as the visitor centre of the Monte San Giorgio region, this museum takes a look at various aspects of regional nature and wildlife. You won’t be surprised to hear that the fossils of the famous mountain – 4,000 finds, to be precise – make up a major part of the permanent exhibition. You get to see a whopping six lariosaurus skeletons. The natural history museum covers various mineralogical, zoological and botanical aspects as well and features a large park with a stratigraphic path dedicated to regional rocks.
  • Linea Cadorna: The Cardona line of defence was built at the border to neutral Switzerland during the First World War. Named after General Luigi Cadorna, it successfully discouraged attacks on Lombardy – Linea Cadorna remained unused. You can now explore the renovated fortifications with its caves as part of six signposted round paths and learn more about their history and the region’s diverse nature.

 

Monte San Giorgio is a region of unfathomable value – not just for scientists and researchers, but also for nature aficionados and hobby discoverers. You’ll come across fossilised contemporary witnesses everywhere, enjoy enthralling insights into the evolution of insects, reptiles and fish, and will most definitely fall under the spell of gorgeous sceneries with enticing views. Time for your journey to the Swiss-Italian borderland!

Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica

Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica

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Did you know that parts of Sicily were populated as early as the Bronze Age? The settlement history of the island in the southernmost part of Italy can be traced back thousands, even tens of thousands of years. Even today you can retrace the historical steps of cultures long gone thanks to old monuments and ruins with an almost mythical touch. A particularly attractive compilation of ancient and antique documents was included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005. Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica consists of three separate parts with a total area of nearly 900 ha plus a buffer zone almost six-times that. Join us on a tour of the very, very old Sicily!

Why is this site so important and worthy of protection?

When choosing new sites worthy of protection during its conferences, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee usually lists several criteria. Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica first and foremost are named a remarkable testimony of Mediterranean culture where prehistoric settlements, Greek colonisation, brief Punic influence and, finally, Roman conquests come together. Don’t sleep on the cultural variety of the combined site spanning across three millennia. After all, the ruins throughout Syracuse and Ortygia exemplify how several cultural concepts from Greek and Roman beginnings to modern baroque aspects advanced architecture from all angles. The ancient significance of the city, even if it’s “only” for being the home of Archimedes, is another key factor.

Necropolis of Pantalica

Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, UNESCO

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But first, we start about 35 km west of Syracuse in the small town Sortino. Several churches with stunning frescoes dominate its centre, but things get even more exciting once we reach the outskirts. They are home of the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, one of the largest necropolises in all of Sicily. It is located in the former settlement Pantalica, the namesake of the so-called Pantalica culture which left its mark on the island in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The sheer size of the burial ground with over 5,000 chambered tombs suggests a very long-term use with actual finds dating the utilisation to a time between the 13th and 8th century BC. Greek colonisation would eventually cause the decline of the settlement. While the tombs were used as dwellings in early Christian times, hardly anything survived of Pantalica itself.

Tour the area with a guide to gain access to all areas of the necropolis and to learn everything about Pantalica’s exciting history. Five tomb areas retrace the evolution of burial rites. It wasn’t only the openings to the various chambered tombs that changed over the course of time. Climbing the hill of the old settlement, you’ll discover the anaktoron. The structure of this former princely palace is at least partially visible to the naked eye. Many other finds from the settlement and the rocky necropolis, such as ceramics, weapons and household articles, are currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse.

Ortygia

Syracuse wasn’t actually founded on the mainland, but rather on a small island separated from the rest of the city by just a small channel. First testimonies of human settlement on Ortygia even date back to the Neolithic Age followed by several finds from the early and mid-Bronze Age. Syracuse’s history effectively begins in 734 BC when Doric settlers from Corinth founded the city on Ortygia before quickly extending it onto the mainland. The ideal location had Syracuse quickly rise to becoming the biggest and most important polis of old Sicily. Roman troops only managed to conquer the city during the second Punic War, thereby kicking off an architectural blending on both the island and the mainland. Severe destructions after a major earthquake in 1693 led to reconstructions in a more baroque style. That’s why you’re met by this truly special architectural plurality in Syracuse.

Ortygia served as the city core in ancient times. As such, there’s a plethora of old buildings and ruins for you to see, such as:

  • Temple of Apollo: Built in the early 6th century BC, research believes it to be the oldest larger Sicilian temple. It’s situated at the entrance to the historic city centre and suggests several conversions into Christian churches and Arab mosques in later times.
  • Porta Urbica: Fragments of this city gate erected at the end of the 5th century BC are the only thing remaining of the island’s city walls. Dionysius I had it built as protection against the Carthaginians. The gate likely connected the Temple of Apollo to the Temple of Athena that would eventually become the…
  • Cathedral of Syracuse: Also known as Santa Maria delle Colonne, it used to be the site of the aforementioned Temple of Athena. Instead of tearing down the entire Doric temple when construction of a Christian basilica commenced in the 7th century AD, parts of it were incorporated into the new building. Partial pillars are still visible from the outside and the inside. Some bricks and stalactites are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum.
  • Castello Maniace: Unlike many other buildings, this impressive fortress was only constructed in medieval times. Various stylistic elements, such as the Stauffer portal, the Gothic portico and the modern Stauffer stele, attest to this structure’s unusual history.

 

Ancient sites of Syracuse

Finally, we leave the island and head into the city itself. Discover ruins of monuments from very different eras throughout Syracuse. Don’t miss out on the following ancient sites:

  • Parco Archeologico della Neapoli: Founded in the early 1950s, the archaeological park of Syracuse encompasses the major ancient structures of the mainland. The craggy shapes of the more than ten old quarries, the so-called latomie, will put you under their spell, while the ruins of Hiero’s Ara make the rush of history palpable. A Greek theatre and a Roman amphitheatre are also part of this vast area. Don’t miss out on the fascinating Ear of Dionysius.
  • The sanctuaries: Ruins and fragments of several sanctuaries are hidden throughout the city. The ancient neighbourhood south of the church Madonna delle Lacrime unearthed the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore from ancient Greece. Sadly, this part currently isn’t open to the public due to further archaeological evaluations.
  • Castello Eurialo: The fortification of Dionysius I was situated at the highest point of the ancient city, now located approx. seven kilometres outside modern Syracuse. Originally planned as the corner point of the northern and western city walls, it was connected to various districts by secret passages and could harbour up to 3,000 soldiers and 400 horsemen. The surviving ruins display Byzantine conversions of later periods.

 

We could go on like this forever as your tour through this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is easily extended at will. You could easily spend a second or even a third day in Syracuse and Ortygia alone, not even including the amazing rocky necropolis. It’s now or never for your holiday on Sicily!