Many years ago, as a kid living in Italy, I remember seeing copies of Holiday magazine on my parent’s coffee table. The colorful covers enticed me to enjoy the photos and dream. It was those magazines, the evocation of exotic places to visit, that started this never satisfied yearning and desire to travel; to feel air under the wings of aircraft, the rumble of pavement meeting tire, the steady vibration of sleek ships, their long iridescent wakes reminders of where we had been, of tantalizing us to ports yet unseen.

A quiet and reportedly unassuming man, Frank Zachary, is credited with bringing a unique vision to post war Americans who were finding that they had time and budget to travel in a peace time world. He served as picture editor, art director and managing editor of Holiday from 1951 to 1964.

I am constantly astounded at the clear graphic design of 1950’s/1960’s Holiday magazines. They are repositories of visions evoking a bygone time, of ‘seeing’ the places of travel through new eyes.

June 1960 Cover

What stunning and unique pared down design of what we only glance, yet know immediately location and significance. It was not only graphic design in which Holiday excelled; photography took on rising significance after Mr. Zachary began working with photographers like Arnold Newman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Slim Aarons and Robert Capa.

Some memorable work by these photographers.

Cartier-Bresson – Abruzzo 1951

Temple of Zeus, Suonion, Greece, 1951, Aarons
French Actress, Balcony, Capa
Pablo Picasso, Cannes, 1956, Cannes, Arnold

Such photographs as these, combined with exceptional graphic design and articles written by the likes of E.B. White, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Alistair Cooke, Jack Kerouac and Joan Didion, captured the spirit and adventure of travel like few ever could or ever have.

The magazine folded in 1977. In 2014, a reinvented Holiday magazine appeared, published by Parisian art director Franck Durand.

I, however, long for the days of the original Holiday, of elegant travel, steamships, great trains, leather luggage and the memories of a time gone by.

Some other covers of Holiday Magazine to enjoy

La Piazzetta, Capri, 1959
Fishing Village, Amalfi Coast, 1962

Pisa, April 1958

Travels Across Italy is written by author, tour operator and inveterate traveler Mark Gordon Smith. He is the author of three books about traveling and living in Italy. His company, Private Italy Tours Ltd, offers small group explorations across various regions of Italy. http://www.private-italy.com.

In late December, Mark Smith, Owner of Private Italy Tours Ltd, was invited to an interview on a national travel show, Speaking of Travel. Marilyn Ball, who is the creator of the show, was the host.

Image result for Marilyn Ball speaking of travel

Marilyn Ball – Speaking of Travel

The interview (link below) covers some current topics of interest to travelers about Italy.

Additionally, we talked about southern Italy as a travel destination as well as our company’s 2020 tours to Puglia and Amalfi/Sicily.

We also discussed the work of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, based in Florence. The critical work of this amazing organization continues to support the restoration and correct attribution of Renaissance artworks by female artists. Private Italy Tours has been an active donor to this incredible organization for several years.

We hope you will enjoy the interview and thanks for listening!

Radio Interview

Mark Smith with Marilyn Ball

January 4 2020

We are pleased to share this brief introductory video regarding our 2020 Season.

With the addition of an incredible twelve day exploration of the province of Puglia in the Fall of 2020, we now offer six distinct and unique itineraries across various regions of Italy. Our accommodations on the Puglia tour are in a beautiful winery estate as well as a luxurious, restored, 16th Century castello.

In addition to Puglia, we are pleased to offer a two-week exploration in the Fall 2020 to the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. Client accommodations during the week on the Amalfi coast are based at a gorgeous four-star hotel in Sorrento. On the Amalfi Coast our clients are based in a spectacular five-star villa on the eastern coast of Sicily.

Visit our web site for further information regarding our array of tours.

We are also pleased to announce a two week tour of Switzerland in 2021. Please watch for  future announcements.

We take care of all the details so that you can relax and enjoy your journey.

Join us in our 18th year of providing unforgettable experiences in bella Italia.

Harry Cochrane

DECEMBER 4, 2019

NOTE: I wish to thank Harry Cochrane, staff writer for The Florentine English Newspaper in Florence, for the access to his article.

Late October saw the official opening of the new Mercato delle Pulci, or flea market, in largo Annigoni. Nearly four years have passed since the stalls were moved from piazza dei Ciompi, which they had occupied for more than six decades, but until last month their housing in the clearing near the Sant’Ambrogio market was no more than temporary tenting. 

The permanent new structure, which was inaugurated by mayor Dario Nardella, is instead made of steel and is intended to invoke the covered markets of 19th-century Italy. Designed by Florentine architect Alberto Breschi and costing around one million euro, it certainly makes the stalls look less nomadic, but has put pay to any hopes their tenants might have had of returning to their original home.Costing around one million euro, the new building certainly makes the stalls look less nomadic, but has put pay to any hopes their tenants might have had of returning to their original home.

The new flea market in largo Annigoni, Florence

As early as mid-2015, the City of Florence had mooted the idea of clearing the market to make way for renovation work on piazza dei Ciompi. A few months later, however, initiative became imperative when asbestos was found in the sellers’ cabins. Local residents were reportedly glad of the exodus on account of the evening noise that was apparently generated from the square, though that probably owed more to patrons of surrounding bars rather than those of the stalls.

One of the stall owners is Paolo Giugni, who sells silverware and other ornate household items. He was not part of the market during its piazza dei Ciompi days and he could therefore only speak about largo Annigoni, but he found it hard to believe that the relocation had not cost them business. The Mercato delle Pulci used to be visible from the main street, he said, so people would presumably just peel off for an idle browse; now it is difficult to draw new clientele. “But,” he added, looking on the bright side, “the new covering keeps the rain off.” He shows me his wares, which include some beautiful, fatally tempting collector’s edition coffee makers. Antiques are his staple, but using a digital design programme he has cut a couple of accurate Florence skylines out of steel. “I make these for the tourists,” he laughs, “and then they’re bought by the Florentines.”

The former interim stalls in largo Annigoni, Florence / @giusi.dilo on Instagram

Again, this suggests that most business is done with habitués rather than casual shoppers, but according to Marzia Gabellini, another stallholder, it was ever thus, even in the market’s previous home. This comes as a surprise, especially in the weeks before Christmas, which one would think the exact time that a market seller might regret any loss of visibility. But for all her attempts at even-handedness, Signora Gabellini unequivocally prefers piazza dei Ciompi—“it was there for 63 years”—and has little good to say about her new home. “It doesn’t rain in here,” she says, gesturing to her cabin, “but it does there”. She points at the ground and then the arched covering that spans the structure, indicating the panel gap running along the length of its crown.

There is no doubt that the vacated piazza dei Ciompi looks better now than it did three years ago, when its post-market makeover began. It is now one of the centre’s greenest squares, and stalls selling trinkets, flowers or food spring up fairly often and unpredictably, especially now that the Christmas lights have been switched on. Antiques are sold here on the last Sunday of every month, and one wonders how this goes down with the new occupants of Annigoni. The piazza has clearly benefited from a gentrification drive on the part of the local administration, who are no doubt keen, in such a central, international part of the city, to present the best possible face of a square that has always carried a slightly dubious reputation.

A detail from the piazza dei Ciompi flea market / @chiara.caroli on Instagram

The council, once apprised of the asbestos threat, could hardly have let the life of the flea market continue in the old cabins, which were built after the devastating flood of 1966 by order of the then-mayor Piero Bargellini. They posed a grave risk to the health of customers and a graver one to that of the vendors, who worked in the same static air every day. The question that a number of those vendors seem to have is why their new, safe shelter could not just as well have been erected in their original square which, pace Signora Gabellini, is certainly a better place than largo Annigoni for the attraction of trade. The answer, one assumes, is that the aesthetics of the new construction would have made an odd backdrop to the piazza’s famous Loggia del Pesce, a colonnade built by Giorgio Vasari at the behest of Cosimo I de’ Medici. It lacks the piled-up, jumble-sale charm that typified the old market and which typifies others of its kind, like the Sunday antiques market in piazza Santo Spirito.

As the hunt for stocking-fillers starts to intensify, it is a shame that such a treasure trove should have been moved ever so slightly off the beaten track. Now it is a touch harder to chance upon the antique books, the mini statuary and the wads of black-and-white postcards, one or two of which, no doubt, show piazza dei Ciompi in its old, innocent glory.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I drive south out of Florence into the spectacular hills of the Val d’Orcia south of Siena. This area of Tuscany is sparse and wide; recently plowed fields the color of burnt umber undulate across a countryside of dreams. The quintessential vision of Tuscany unfolds before me. Cypress tree lined gravel driveways approach gorgeous villas on hilltops, bell towers in the distance signal a village, a borgo, a city. The road winds its way toward the hills near Asciano where my accommodation for the evening, Villa Armena, awaits. 

The approach to the villa is straight out of The English Patient. A rough gravel road passes a few restored country estates, the infinite blue of the sky is pierced by cypresses. 

Laura, whom as I later learn wears many hats on the property, warmly greets me upon arrival. The room – actually a suite – is stunning, with views over the hillside from one set of windows, the pool and formal gardens from the other. The place is so quiet that I can hear the wind whisper around and through the trees that surround the property. 

The nearby Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore has been a destination on my Italy “hope list” for many years. After registering at the small front desk and leaving my luggage behind, I head to this incredible and historic abbey. (More to follow in an upcoming blog: Monte Oliveto Maggiore – A Stunning Abbey on an Emerald Hill).

After weeks of work with our small group tours, this place offers a welcomed retreat. Dinner begins at 19:30. Laura is also a sommelier and to accompany my selection of local pecorino cheeses with orange marmalade and honey, to be followed by sliced Chianina beef, she recommends a lush, flavorful Ciliegiolo

Dessert is hand made cantuccini (biscotti with pistachio-a unique twist on the traditional almond or pine nut) served with local Vin Santo. To top off a lovely dinner, I enjoy just a taste of the locally produced Grappa Reserva. 


Morning mist at Villa Armena

Upon rising the next morning, I open the windows to take in the garden view. Fog wraps the garden in the early light, making the view even more breathtaking.

The breakfast buffet is ample, replete with local meats, cheeses, fresh juice, cappuccino, yogurt, breads…the offerings go on and on.

After checking out, I head south from Buonconvento on the S2 highway.

The drive from the Villa Armena to Orbetello is stunning. The road winds across fields recently veiled in mist. As the sun breaks through the morning fog, soil shimmers as if crusted in diamonds, heightening the effect of near indescribable beauty.

Montalcino rises in the distance, a russet sentinel above the valley below. Once away from the hills of the southern Val d’Orcia, the road straightens and the land opens wide; Maremma. As I leave my car for an espresso at a local cafe, I know I’m close to my destination;  I can smell the sea. 

Thick emerald green umbrella pines, Pini di Roma as they are called, line the road. Bougainvillea in full bloom begin to appear as the road continues south. 

Orbetello is a wonderful surprise; a walled city whose leaders once controlled this area of Tuscany, later subjugated by the forces of Grosseto.  The white marble gate is at once an historic reminder of warning and an unforgettable way to enter the city center. 

Image result for porta orbetello

My destination is a lovely, lovingly and recently restored B&B on the Corso Italia; Casa Iris. Matthew and his husband, James, acquired the property several years ago and have created a beautiful retreat in the heart of the city. Steps from the Piazza Cortesini, the location could not be better. There are shops and many wonderful restaurants only minutes walk from the accommodation.   

Each suite provides luxury, comfort and privacy.  17th and 18th Century frescoes enliven the walls and ceilings. The couple was able to engage Maria Rosaria Basileo and her team of five other experts, whose previous work includes restorations in Rome’s Villa Borghese and the Sistine Chapel, to lead the property’s fresco renovation. 

Image result for casa iris

The furnishings were all carefully and lovingly selected to add an eclectic edge to the rooms. It took months of work with architect Giorgia Cerulli to bring the entire concept together. The results are stunning. 

A travel writer recently observed, “A great hotel experience often has less to do with the quality of the turn-down service and more about the fantasy that it creates…a great property is a microcosm of place, often representing a region’s or a culture’s mythology and aspirations for itself.”

Casa Iris achieves that sense of place, of a culture’s mythology, in a remarkable way. After a painstakingly long and involved restoration, the owners have created a retreat that entices you to stay, to learn more about this lovely area of Tuscany, to relax and take in a sense of the ages. 


Map of Orbetello 

Casa Iris Bed and Breakfast


A fascinating new documentary about the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, an orphanage established in the 15th Century, will be premiered in Florence on May 17, 2019.

Image result for ospedale degli innocenti panorama

Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (white facade) and the Ospedale degli Innocenti

Read an article about the orphans of the Renaissance, and this unique institution, on our blog.

Ospedale degli Innocenti.

Director Davide Batistella will be present at the premier of this latest documentary.

Trailer: The Innocents of Florence



From the Advancing Women Artist’s announcement:

“In this 90’ minute feature-length documentary film, Battistella explores the themes of art, motherhood, Florentine humanism and how a progressive-thinking Renaissance society created one of the first Children’s hospitals in the world. He tells this story through the restoration of a painting that was created as the banner for the Innocenti Institute in 1446.”

In addition to learning more about the fascinating story of the Innocenti, I also invite readers to review the incredible work that is being conducted by the AWA, based in Florence.

This dedicated group of passionate art experts, along with those who love the work of female Renaissance painters, is leading the way for the restoration of work by female artists of that period, while ensuring the correct attribution of their work. If you are interested in supporting the work of this important organization, here is a link with more information.


The work of restoration never ends


It was in 1950 that then director of NBC’s opera programming, Peter Herman Adler,  commissioned composer Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911 – 2007) to compose the first ever opera for the American television audience. This was no easy task and it is one of the many credits due to the exceptional talent of Menotti that he made the decision to compose an opera for the child, for the faiths, in all of us.

First Broadcast on NBC, Christmas Eve 1951, the opera has become not just a holiday favorite, but one of the most often performed operas in the world. It is, in the canon of opera, a very short piece of only fifty minutes in length.


Bosch, Adoration of the Magi

Menotti was inspired, it is said, by Bosch’s “The Adoration of the Magi” which is shown in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Menotti wrote about his moment of deepest inspiration:

One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.

I clearly recall holidays of the past when our family would gather to watch this always magical story unfold before us. The story is timeless; a widow with a troubled crippled child is visited by three wealthy night visitors as they make their way  following a certain star in the East. Everyone is forever changed by the time they share within the walls of a humble shelter.

The lessons this opera teaches are numerous; humility, generosity, love, community and faith are but a few. The story encompasses so many of the basic tenants of all faiths and, in those terms, is a gift for all.



A link to the entire digital conversion of that 1951 performance, including an introduction by the composer himself is provided below.

As we experience yet another holiday season, it is my hope that this gorgeous music, the story of forgiveness and miracles will further enrich your season, regardless of location, faithful belief or language.

Take the time to experience this incredible story. It’s only fifty minutes long – and it may change your life.


To view the full 1951 program, click on the photo below: 

1951 Amahl and the Night Visitors


For those more musically inclined, the link below provides the entire score of the opera.

Gian Carlo Menotti   

Amahl and the Night Visitors 

An Opera in One Act

%d bloggers like this: