Como – city of arts with many different ruler

Como, capital of the eponymous province in Lombardy, is situated at the southwest shore of Lake Como. This tourist town in close proximity to the Swiss border and only 45 km from Milan is genuinely stunning. It goes without saying that the lake alone is worth the visit for swimming and lots of different water sports. However, there’s many a lesser known highlight hidden behind the walls of the city of arts that is Como. Let’s learn more about them together.

Como then and now

City of art Como

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It would appear that the lake and its surrounding hills have always been very popular as some finds hint at settlements as early as the 10th century BC which would thrive until a devastating Celtic raid. It is believed that Comum, to use the Roman name, was actually founded by the Gaul. The eventual Roman colony was heavily expanded and fortified under Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo and Caesar for protection against Rhaetian attacks. The lake of the once wealthy place with a flourishing iron industry used to be home to numerous villas.

Early Germanic invasions heavily affected Como with people only returning in Lombard times. A latent conflict with the archbishops o Milan resulted in a gruelling cycle of war, occupation, relief and devastation. Frequently changing rulers during the Middle Ages eventually brought Como back under Milanese rule in 1450 before the town – like the rest of Lombardy – became Spanish dominion. Later centuries saw Como fall to Austria, the Cisalpine Republic, Napoleon’s Italian kingdom, and back to Austria before Giuseppe Garibaldi freed the town in 1859 for it to become part of the new Kingdom of Italy.

Como Cathedral

City of art Como

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This extensively short overview – we stan oxymorons! – shows that Como’s history is everything but linear. Changing rulers and dynasties left a highly multifaceted cityscape dominated by the cathedral. Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, to use its full name, is in the heart of the historic centre and was the final Gothic cathedral to be built in all of Lombardy. There actually had already been a cathedral – Santa Maria Maggiore near the lake was built in the 9th century – but the planned restoration that started in the late 14th century eventually turned into a completely new building.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that things didn’t quite go as planned leading to several construction phases. The main apse, the sacristies and the wings were done by 1519, the south and the north apse only followed about a century later and the cupola wouldn’t be completed until the mid-18th century. Even though the construction phases extended into and far beyond the Renaissance, there’s very little to be seen of these different architectural and artistic eras. Como Cathedral is decorated with numerous grand works of arts including statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both natives of Como, and astounding altarpieces. The cathedral treasury contains the reliquary shrine Urna Volpi with hairs of the Virgin Mary and a hairpin of Mary Magdalene.

Churches and castles in Como

Numerous medieval and Romanesque churches, grand palaces and castles inside and around the ancient city walls that were fortified and rebuilt in the Middle Ages give you an idea of the architectural diversity of Como. Time for a brief look at a few select religious and profane building:

  • San Fedele: This late 12th century church near the cathedral might be a bit hard to find. San Fedele is nestled between residential buildings both left and right. In addition, the façade was reconstructed in 1914 for harmonious incorporation into the overall cityscape. What is interesting is the rather unusual three-conch chancel. It was likely modelled after a church in Cologne and has ever since been an object of research of possible medieval relationships between Como and the Rhine city.
  • Sant’Abbondio: Like San Fedele, Sant’Abbondio is older than the cathedral. The nave was likely built during the second half of the 11th century when members of the Ottonian dynasty brought German Romanesque architecture to Como. The ornamentation and the towers were evidently modelled after various Northern European structures, the cylindrical columns likely are of French origin, and the 14th century frescoes clearly work with stylistics from Umbria and Tuscany.
  • Castello Baradello: How about a neat little trip to the hill towering above the town? Castello Baradello is located where the original Roman settlement was established. It can look back at a long and astounding history, at one time restored and given to the people of Como by Barbarossa. Emperor Charles V had everything but the tower dismantled in the 16th century in order to prevent the castle from falling in hands of French troops. The extensive restoration only took place in 1971. Over all these years the tower with Byzantine walls, likely dating back to the 6th or 7th century, survived.

 

Other sights you have to check out

Would you like a bit more of Como? Well, duh, it’s not like we can get enough of this riveting city of arts either. Here are some additional favourites:

  • Casa del Fascio: Como is not only home of fascinating witnesses of former rulers. Casa del Fascio is widely regarded as a landmark of modern Italian architecture, the so-called Razionalismo. The former seat of the local section of Mussolini’s Fascist party now houses the Guardia di Finanza and its museum.
  • Villa Olmo: You are interested in neoclassical architecture? Como has got you covered as well! Marquis Innocenzo Odescalchi ordered the construction of Villa Olmo in the late 18th Later owners would make extensive alterations – the foyer was turned into a large hall, the garden into an English park – but the original spirit remained.
  • Tempio Voltiano: Alessandro Volta invented the first electrical battery in 1800. This neoclassical museum was built in on the 100th anniversary of the scientist’s passing and shows various scientific tools, early voltaic piles, and personal belongings from Volta’s life.
  • Funicular: Brunate is situated on a hill above Como. The area was populated as far back as the 4th century BC and turned into a popular tourist destination after the Second World War. As such, the funicular mono-railway that connects Como and Brunate evolved from being the main mode of transportation for locals into a popular tourist attraction.
  • Broletto: And finally, we take a trip back into the Middle Ages. The most important medieval secular building of city is situated just northwest of the cathedral façade, a clear sign of the era’s close connection between religious and secular power. Mason pillar arcades lead into the building adorned with numerous figurines, balustrades and loggias.

 

While Como might be one of the lesser known cities of arts, it is still worth a visit, not just because of Lake Como. You will discover many a hidden gem from the town’s ancient roots to the very distinct medieval heritage to the eventful later periods and the modern era. Oh, by the way, don’t forget to jump into the lake in summer!

Genoa – from naval power to magical city of arts

Genoa used to be a naval trade power and the “gateway to the vast world”, an imposing republic and a colonial power. Christopher Columbus and Niccolò Paganini were born here, the city’s university is around 550 years old looking back on an illustrious history. However, we rarely talk about Genoa as a city of arts, about the fascinating palaces and magnificent structures along the ostentatious UNESCO World Heritage roads Le Strade Nuove, about the countless churches and art galleries. Time to change that – join us on a tour of Genoa, the city of arts on the coast of the Ligurian Sea!

The legendary Republic of Genoa

City of art Genoa

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Come on now, you didn’t seriously think we’d ignore Genoa’s rich history, eh? It. Is. Genoa. Well then, let’s get this show on the road. The name likely derives from “genu”, the Latin word for “knee”, somewhat based on the shape of the coastline. Experts believe that the natural harbour was already used as just that in pre-Christian times. Finds hint at Greek settlements during the 4th century BC. The Romans started to turn the city into their headquarters for battling the Ligurians in 216 BC. Reports of classical writers, however, are rare, and we thus know little about the ancient city. In stark contrast, the ever-changing rulers after the fall of the Western Roman Empire sound familiar. Distinct seaworthiness helped the Genovese along to quickly achieve a civic constitution, to see the fast rise of its navy, and to turn into a medieval colonial power.

Inner conflicts slowed down Genoa’s rise to naval trade power – a role that was gladly taken on eventually. The republic turned into a trade hub, several colonies were established. Trading in oil, wine, leather, soap, grain, silk, but also in slaves flourished. Andrea Doria’s reformation of the republic tried to battle growing Spanish and French influence, but even more domestic discord resulted in the gradual loss of the colonies. Napoleon occupied Genoa in 1796 and founded the Ligurian Republic which, in turn, was eventually annexed by France. However, the republican spirit would not die, and the region later became part of Italy. Remaining an important seaport, Genoa played a decisive role in the Italian economic miracle after World War II. It remains an important worldwide player in trade thanks to its hinterland with Milan, Turin, and connections to Switzerland.

Genoa’s palaces and the World Heritage Site

City of art Genoa

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Right then, let’s finally crack on with the city of arts itself. We don’t want to spend too much time with Le Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli as we’ve already taken a fairly close and comprehensive look at these 163 palaces – predominantly built in the 16th and 17th century by rich patrician families during the peak of Genovese trade power – as part of our article on the eponymous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only 42 of the 163 palaces gained World Heritage status… and there are even more palaces in Genoa.

One you must not miss is Palazzo Reale. Sure, we already talked about it in our very UNESCO piece, but the palace is simply too beautiful and too important to be somewhat ignored. Built for members of the patrician family Balbi between 1618 and 1620, the palazzo was extended, reconfigured and amended over the course of the following decades. The building is mostly known for its monumental façade and the almost magical garden. Palazzo Reale currently is home to an art gallery with over 200 paintings by Genovese and other Italian and international masters. It also features impressive frescoes and rather masterful furniture made between the 17th and the 20th century.

Genoa’s churches and cemeteries

City of art Genoa

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There’s even more to the city of arts than the impressive palaces of pomp and grandeur. You will find countless religious buildings and monumental cemeteries throughout Genoa. We have picked some of our favourites for you:

  • San Lorenzo Cathedral: Genoa’s cathedral proudly displays its extensive building history from 1100 until the end of the 15th Romanesque and Gothic elements alternate and accentuate one another. The interior with its monumental paintings and equally imposing sculptures is particularly splendid.
  • Santa Maria Assunta: It goes without saying that there’s a hint of Renaissance architecture in the heart of the city. Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta is situated on the Carignano hill right in the city centre. Construction of the central-plan building began in 1549 and took five decades. The basilica managed to retain its original charm despite extensive 19th century remodelling.
  • Synagogue: Unlike other Genovese churches the synagogue is fairly young. The eclecticism-style building made of reinforced concrete with rock cladding was constructed in 1934-35. The upper floor houses a Jewish museum.
  • Santo Stefano: Situated on a lift, this church overlooks the main road Via XX Settembre. Legend has it that Columbus was baptised in Santo Stefano. This prime example of Ligurian Romanesque architecture was compacted over the course of several centuries – some chapels were demolished for lack of space – yet the church really shines ever since its de facto new construction after World War II.
  • Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno: The district of Staglieno is located a bit outside the city and is mainly associated with its cemetery of the same name. It stretches across an area exceeding 1 km² with numerous terraces, some of which are pretty steep. The cemetery even has its own minibus line for easier accessibility. Many tombs are exorbitantly pompous and form a sculpture park of sorts with 150 years’ worth of sculpting history in one place.

 

Even more sights in Genoa

Palaces, churches and cemeteries aside, the city of arts Genoa certainly has even more to offer. Here’s a selection of additional highlights:

  • Porto Antico: This list would be incomplete without the public, touristic harbour. It took until 1992 for the former industrial harbour to be enhanced and expanded, just in time for the Expo, Nowadays the Porto Antico equally attracts tourists and locals. Among the many highlights is the Acquario di Genova, Europe’s biggest aquarium.
  • Lighthouse: Genoa has two landmarks. One of them is the harbour lighthouse Torre della Lanterna di Genova on the hill of San Benigno. Europe’s tallest lighthouse stands at 76 metres. It is open to the public on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and has its own museum.
  • Fontana di Piazza de Ferrari: The second landmark stands on Piazza de Ferrari, the city’s central square. This imposing bronze fountain by architect Cesare Crosa di Vergagni, created in 1936, charmingly dominates the piazza.
  • University: One of Italy’s largest and most renowned universities is in Genoa. About 37,000 students are enrolled at the Università degli Studi di Genova. It was founded as early as 1471 per papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV and has additional faculties in Genoa as well as along the coast in La Spezia, Imperia and Savona. Among the most famous students are the popular Italian president Sandro Pertini and Pope Benedict XV, the pope of peace.
  • Teatro Carlo Felice: The former site of the Dominican church San Benedetto now accommodates of one of Italy’s most renowned operas. Air raids destroyed most of the original building from the 1820s including the valuable rococo ceiling. The old façade was eventually reconstructed. Teatro Carlo Felice now consists of a main hall with 2,000 seats and a 200-seat auditorium.

 

There’s so much more hidden behind the familiar gates of the former naval power Genoa – a genuine city of arts, that is! We recommend a multi-day stay on the Ligurian coast in order to fully experience and enjoy these and many other highlights. Best connect your visit with a tour up and down the coastline. You will not be disappointed.

A tour of the city of arts Turin in Piedmont

Cars, football, industry – that’s pretty much Turin in a nutshell… or is it? Footie fanatics are drawn to the eternal rivals Juventus and Torino FC, the world-renowned car manufacturer was founded here in 1899, and many other companies, such as Kappa, Lancia and Lavazza, made their first steps in Turin. And then there is the Cathedral with the Shroud of Turin, one of the most important artefacts of Christian belief. In all actuality, Turin – located in north-western Italy, about 100 km each from the French and the Swiss border – is a fascinating city of arts with gripping history and a plethora of equally awe-inspiring sights. We invite you to join us on a tour through the capital of Piedmont.

From Roman military camp to the industrial boom

City of arts Turin

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By now you probably will not be surprised to hear that we first draw your attention to the history of Turin, which really is quite something. The name likely derives from “tau”, the Celtic word for “mountains”. Additionally, the Italian name “Torino” can be traced back to the folk-etymological expression for “small bull”, which is why Turin’s flag and coat of arms feature a bull. The Celtic-Ligurian Taurini tribe initially lived here before the Romans, who built a military camp around 28 BC. Its characteristic city structure with perpendicular streets remains present in the Quartiere Romano district. Around 5,000 inhabitants used to live inside Turin’s city walls back then.

Turin was ruled by the Lombards and the Franks after the fall of the Western Roman Empire before being conquered by the Dukes of Savoy in the late 13th century. They set in motion a full reconstruction of the city in the 15th century. Many of the famous gardens and palaces date back to this period, the university was founded in 1404, and Turin eventually even became the duchy’s capital. A 117-day siege of French troops during the War of the Spanish Succession was unsuccessful. After the unification of Italy Turin served as both its capital and seat of the king for four years. Then, the industrialisation resulted in an unprecedented boom. However, the industrial crisis of the 1980s put a devastating stop to this upswing. The population dropped significantly below one million where it has remained ever since.

The churches and basilicas

City of arts Turin

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Bevor becoming the Savoy capital in 1563, Turin had a predominantly medieval look. This was changed during the extensive transfiguration leading to, among other things, new road axes and the destruction or alteration of all 21 parish churches. Turin is still home to numerous world-renowned churches and basilicas you absolutely must visit. We recommend:

  • Turin Cathedral: You probably will not be surprised by this first entry. After all, we briefly mentioned Turin Cathedral during our introduction. The Duomo di Torino is actually a rather plain building with a fairly unsophisticated design featuring classic Renaissance shapes, a marble façade and a campanile with baroque upper floors. We primarily mention Turin Cathedral because of the chapel behind its crossing, especially built for the Shroud of Turin and richly adorned. Looking to the heavens above you will be amazed by the imposing cupola. Despite having been debunked by science, many believers still venerate the linen sheet as the very sheet Jesus was buried in after the crucifixion.
  • Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians: The Virgin Mary appeared to the Salesian Don Bosco in a dream in 1844 or 1845 showing him the place of martyrdom of the Turinese saints Solutore, Ottavio and Avventore. Don Bosco had the Basilica di Maria Ausiliatrice built on this very spot. It was constructed during the second half of the 19th century and houses the relics of the saints as well those of its canonised constructor.
  • San Lorenzo: Embedded rather inconspicuously in a row of palaces, this church on Piazza Castello looks like many buildings in this quarter. However, fascinating elements of Islamic architecture with skilful lighting tricks and imaginative shapes are hidden behind its façade.
  • Superga: Take the cog railway to the Superga hill in the city’s east to reach the eponymous church at an altitude of 672 m. You can even see the Alps if the weather is right. Immerse yourself in the world of baroque art from the huge perrons to the equally impressive cupola.

 

Turin’s palaces and castles

We do not want to spend too much time on the castles and palaces of Turin. It is not for the lack of breathtaking beauty – quite the opposite! – but rather because we have already dedicated an entire World Heritage article to the Residences of the House of Savoy which we cannot recommend highly enough for more information. Five of these 14 residences are situated directly in Turin:

  • Palazzo Reale
  • Palazzo Madama
  • Palazzo Carignano
  • Castello del Valentino
  • Villa della Regina

 

We must not forget Palazzina di Stupinigi, located about ten kilometres southwest of Turin and also part of this impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site. You most definitely should visit this baroque hunting seat, if only for its stunning architectural painting.

Even more sights in Turin

City of arts Turin

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Still, we stay in Turin for now as the city of arts has so much more to offer. Here are some more essential sights:

  • Porta Palatina: Thick city walls used to enclose Turin in Roman times. One of the three large city gates survived, likely in part due to serving as a prison in the 18th and 19th century after several conversions. Porta Palatina has been restored and reconstructed since. Two modern replicas of ancient statues flank the brick gate with its two tall watchtowers.
  • Museo Egizio: This Turinese museum is solely dedicated to Egyptology and accommodates one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian pieces in the world. Around 6,500 of the approx. 32,500 artefacts are on display. Numerous statues aside, Museo Egizio is particularly known for its extraordinary papyrus collection.
  • Galleria Sabauda: Located inside the World Heritage palace Palazzo Reale, this picture gallery predominantly features Italian, French and Dutch art from the 15th to the 17th Marvel at works by Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Guercino, Buoninsegna and many others.
  • Mole Antonelliana: This building was originally supposed to be a synagogue. When the Italian capital shifted to Florence during the second half of the 19th century and the costs exploded, all such plans were cancelled. The enormous tower with a height of 167.5 m is now regarded as one of Turin’s landmarks and is home of the National Museum of Cinema. The lift takes you up to around 85 m for a gorgeous view with a hint of the Alps.
  • Lingotto building: Fiat’s Lingotto building used to be the largest automobile factory in the world. It even had its own test track for new cars on the roof. After the factory closed in 1982 during a devastating industrial crisis, the building was converted and modernised. It is now the home of a conference centre, a concert hall, a hotel, a shopping centre, and the art museum Pinacoteca Giovannni e Marella Agnelli with pieces from the collection of the Fiat couple. By the way, the test track on the roof still exists. You can check it out and even walk on it.

 

Turin has all sorts of highlights in store. Visit world-famous pilgrimage sites, be enchanted by ostentatious palaces and castles, and experience the city’s eventful industrial history up close. And yes, you absolutely should visit one of the awe-inspiring football stadiums. Enjoy your trip to the heart of Piedmont!

Aosta – a look at the alpine city of arts

City of arts Aosta

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Aosta Valley is located in the outermost northwest of Italy, bordering on France and Switzerland. The small region is known for its natural beauty and tourism, the numerous regional and national parks, and the prestigious, mostly cross-border ski regions. In addition, Aosta Valley’s municipalities’ names are French – a pointer to the more than 900-year-long affiliation with the dominion of the House of Savoy. However, only few outside the regional borders know the names of the individual villages. The capital Aosta – the only place in Aosta Valley with an additional Italian name – actually is a genuine city of arts with its highly fascinating history and enthralling sights. Time to take a closer look at this somewhat hidden and wrongly overlooked gem in the north of Italy.

How Aosta became Aosta

The site of today’s capital of Aosta Valley used to accommodate prehistoric settlements some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The native Salassi managed to fight off Roman invaders for a long time thanks to the natural alpine barrier. Eventually, A. Terentius Varro Murena conquered Aosta Valley in 25 BC. Most of the Salassi were sold as slaves. Augustus had the city Augusta Prætoria founded on the site of an existing camp of the Roman legion.

You can still see the original Roman chequerboard pattern in the old town of Aosta. 64 residential blocks (insulae) formed Augusta Prætoria, surrounded by a massive city wall with one gate each on all four sides. Larger structures were built on pre-defined “chequerboard squares”. The Franks and the Lombards fought over the territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne later had the Via Francigena to Rome built through the city. Humbert I, Count of Savoy purchased the region in 1025; it remained part of the Savoy dominion until 1946, even after its incorporation into the Italian Kingdom in 1861. Fascist reign forced Italianisation on Aosta Valley making it one of the leading centres of resistance during World War II. The region received special autonomous status in order to counteract self-governing efforts as well as annexation plans by France. To this day nearly 80% of the population speak French. Nearly 70% speak the traditional Franco-Provençal dialect.

Prehistoric Aosta

We suggest working your way through the many facets of Aosta chronologically, which is why we are kicking things off in prehistoric times. Saint Martin de Corléans on the western outskirts is one of Italy’s largest megalithic areas. It was discovered in June 1969 and excavated in 22 different layers with a depth of up to six metres and carefully analysed. Experience the evolution of this site from the end of the Neolithic Age to the Copper Age and Iron Age and, eventually, the Iron Age on a total area of approx. six hectares. Experts believe that the oldest phase of human activity began around 4200 BC. Ploughed crenation suggests ritual acts. The actual construction of the megalithic area likely started somewhere between 3000 and 2750 BC. 22 in-row timber piles – believed to be totems by experts – were installed, more than 40 anthropomorphic steles would follow. They are presumably festive monuments honouring heroes and gods. Saint Martin de Corléans is also a necropolis. The sepultural period lasted into the Bronze Age with various types of tombs and rites having been identified. Some finds suggest that the necropolis was even used until the Roman conquest. A humongous museum complex across two buildings grants you fascinating insights into the excavation site. Here you learn more about the various archaeological stages and the evolution of Aosta, then as now.

Roman ruins in Aosta

City of arts, Aosta

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As previously mentioned, you can still see the Roman layout of Aosta when strolling through its old town. Some buildings and structures from ancient times actually survived, at least partially. The Roman city walls of Aosta are certainly something special. Medieval rulers continued to use them, which is probably why they still are almost entirely intact. The walls enclose a rectangular area of 724 x 572 metres and, for the most part, exceed heights of six metres. Furthermore, the eastern and southern gates survived as well. The main gate Porta Prætoria, built in the 1st century AD, was later covered with marble while otherwise mostly retaining its original form. The Arch of Augustus in front of the gate and the Roman bridge Pont de Pierre that originally crossed a river also date back to this period.

However, not all buildings are quite as well-preserved. While some of the city wall towers are still Roman at their core, many experienced comprehensive alternations. Picking a fairly prominent example, the Tower of Bramafam was built on the ruins of a Roman bastion in the 11th century and served as the residence of the viscount of the House of Savoy. In other Roman news, only the south wall of the monumental, four-storey theatre survived, and the forum is mostly gone as well. Do not miss out on a trip to the Roman estate on the hill above Aosta, though!

Other sights in Aosta

But that is certainly not all that Aosta, the city of arts, has in store for you. It goes without saying that the centuries after the end of the Roman rule left their marks on the capital of Aosta Valley as well. As such, we warmly recommend the following highlights:

  • Cathedral: Cattedrale di Aosta was originally built in the 4th century but disappeared about 700 years later to make way for a new building. Even more modifications took place during the 15th and the 16th The late Gothic look, the Renaissance façade, the neoclassical porch of later years in combination with the mosaic floor and the glass paintings from the 12th and the 13th century create an astonishingly spectacular architectural mix.
  • Sant’Orso: The roots of this former collegiate church, too, can be traced much further back as well – to the 5th century, if we are being precise. A full early Romanesque rebuilding eventually made way for today’s late Gothic look during the 15th While the five-nave crypt built on twelve Roman pillars carries an air of the preceding building, the cycle of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ and his apostles is deeply immersed in 11th century tradition.
  • Ponte di Grand Arvou: Increased populating of Aosta Valley, combined with livestock breeding, led to water supply shortages. The Rû Prévôt Canal was built during the 13th and the 14th century, numerous aqueducts followed. Among the most splendid structures of this initiative is Ponte di Grand Arvou which, by the way, is still operational.
  • Riserva naturale Tzatelet: One of the region’s most beautiful nature reserves is situated a bit outside Aosta. See many rare bird species and the diverse Mediterranean vegetation, an absolute rarity for the Alps. Another Neolithic necropolis, presumably established around 3000 BC, was found on the Tzatelet hill.

 

While there definitely are better-known cities than Aosta in Northern Italy, you absolutely must not miss out on the capital of Aosta Valley. The gripping historic heritage of the regional capital from time immemorial to the Roman Empire to the late Gothic period unearths many a hidden treasure deserving of a closer look. Explore this alpine gem, best combined with a certainly unforgettable hiking or skiing holiday in the surrounding mountains.

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

©Bigstock.com/Jorge Anastacio

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

©Bigstock.com/Alessandro Lai

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

©Bigstock.com/MikeMareen

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

©Bigstock.com/alexino

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

©Bigstock.com/Alvaro German Vilela

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

©Bigstock.com/elxeneize

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!