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Archive for the ‘A Season in Italy’ Category

Santa Maria Nuova Facade

As of December 15, 2015, those who seek an opportunity to discover an incredible collection of art in Florence now have a wonderful option: the Ospedale Santa Maria Nuova. This, the oldest hospital in Florence, now offers guided visits to some of is vast collection of treasures.

Arcispedale_di_santa_maria_nuova,_affreschi_di_antonio_pomarancio,_1614,_strage_degli_innocenti

Fresco by Antonio Pomarancio – 1614

The hospital was founded in 1288 by the father of Dante’s beloved Beatrice, Folco Portinari. He was asked to build the edifice after being approached by the matriarch of the founder’s family, Monna Tessa.

 

Over the centuries, donations have been made to the hospital in thanks for the care and service provided to various families.The rich variety of art  include works by Pietro di Niccolò Gerini, Andrea del Castagno, Della Robbia, Bernardo Buontalenti, and Pomarancio. Visits to this complex offer visitors rare glimpses of an invaluable, little-known, collection of renaissance treasures.

213-483px-Del_Castagno_Andrea_Crucifixion_and_Saints

Andrea del Castango, Crucifixion with Saints

Architecturally, the beauty of the structures, interior arches and various vast superb rooms with ceilings covered in frescoes, add yet another dimension to your visit.

Your visit to Santa Maria Nuova takes you through  many places of historical and artistic interest; the entrance to the area dedicated to Spedalinghi Hospital and the ” Hall of Crosses “, the cloisters of the ” Medicherie ” and ” Bones ” as well as the Church of Sant’Egidio , with its adjoining women’s gallery which once was the area reserved for nuns to attend religious services

In order to visit the Osepdale, you will need to contact them directly through the links below. Tours are organized with no more than twenty in a group, and are always lead by a guide so that the privacy of patients is observed and the size of groups well controlled.

To arrange your visit, here are details:

Address: Piazza Santa Maria Nuova, 1, 50122 Firenze, Italy

Visits last 40 to 50 minutes and groups can be no larger than 20. A professional guide always accompanies the group.

Reservation number, exclusively for these tours:  055 20.01.586
Tours are available to schedule from 9.00 – 13.00 / 14.00 – 18.00
Saturday, 9.00 – 13.00
Email: info@exclusiveconnection.it

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Fishing Boats – Manarola, Cinque Terre 

As I headed out that first morning, walking the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola, I remember being, simply, stunned at the beauty of the coastline. The path, in sections, is a bit of a challenge, but who cares when you have views like that!

The approach to Manarola from the south is not as spectacular as those who encounter views as they near the village from the north. Once inside the village however, I was again surprised and enchanted by the narrow lanes, the friendliness of the people and the sense that these places are straight from a 1950’s Cinecittà vision of bella Italia.

While I imagined that living along the coast, before it was ‘discovered’ was not just difficult, but downright tough, the positive impact on people’s lives from all we visitors is evident in shops, restaurants, hotels and B&B’s.

Poet and writer Eugenio Montale, who lived in Manarola for over thirty years,  wrote of senses heightened, of that compelling dichotomy between poetic beauty and darker truths.

Every moment brings new leaves to you,
amazement overwhelming every other
fleeting joy: life comes on headlong waves
to this far garden corner.
Now you stare down at the soil;
an undertow of memories
reaches your heart and almost overwhelms it.
A shout in the distance: see, time plummets,
disappears in hurried eddies
among the stones, all memory gone; and I
from my dark lookout reach
for this sunlit occurrence. 

As evening descended on this first full day on the coast, I took a seat in a small cafe and observed. Locals stopped to discuss the day’s developments, tourists peered at menus posted outside trattorias and cafes and a gentle breeze en wrapped the lanes as curtains billowed from windows high above. The lull of the ever present sea slowed us all to the pace of Italian life.

There is a question I ask myself all the time in Italy, and it has to do with love. There is not a region, hardly a place, in this incredible country that I don’t find myself asking “How can anyone not fall in love with the . . .?

Such a question is one asked as I sit on the rocks near the harbor and enjoy sunset by the sea.

Before I get to “If You Go” and the details of staying in, and enjoying meals in, Manarola, I leave you with a photograph from National Geographic.

In its capture of the restless sea and the fishermen’s boats and homes, I see an encapsulated summary of the Cinque Terre’s attractions: rocks, precipitous cliffs, quiet lanes and extraordinary beauty. Enjoy.

Manarola – Photo: National Geographic

IF YOU GO:

Hotels Manarola

As is true with all of the villages along the coast, you are strongly encouraged to book your hotel rooms(s) well in advance of your travel dates. If you visiting during late October – late March, then you will find accommodations available for ‘last minute’ arrivals. Regardless, reserve in advance and you will have one less worry for your trip.

These are all places I have stayed, over the years, in Manarola. You may well have a favorite, yet I can recommend these with confidence that you will enjoy a safe and fairly-priced stay.

La Torretta   

Vico Volto, 20 | Piazza della Chiesa, 19017 Manarola, Italy

Tel: +39.0187.920.327

Carugiu B&B  

Via Ettore Cozzani, 42  19017 Riomaggiore Province of La Spezia, Italy

Tel: (Italian Cell Number) +39.349.346.9208

Affittacamere San Giorgio  

Via Discovolo 280 – 19017 Manarola (SP)

Tel. +39.0187.760.542

Restaurants Manarola

During high season, you should reserve for dinner in most places in Manarola. The restaurants are, in general, very small and fill quickly for the evening meal. I recommend these places. I have eaten in them and have enjoyed wonderful meals and refreshments at a fair price.

Trattoria Locanda il Porticciolo 

Via Renato Birolli, 88  Riomaggiore, Province of La Spezia, Italy

0187 920083

Aristide (no web site)

Via Discovolo  19017 Manarola, Province of La Spezia, Italy

Tel: +39.0187.920.000

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My introduction to the Villa Garzoni and its gardens was during my childhood.  Our family lived in Tirrenia, a seaside village about midway between Pisa and the port city of Livorno. Those early impressions have been solidified over many years of subsequent visits to the village and the park named for its most famous son, author Carlo Lorenzini. There will be more on his impact on this tiny town later in this post.

Where, exactly, is Collodi?

Villa Garzoni and Collodi

Between Florence and Lucca, along the foothills of the Apennine mountains, is the city of Pescia. A bit north and west of that city, strung along a small ridge, is the village. The village’s main walkway is far too steep for cars or even the infamous “Vapi”, that noisy impossibly small three wheeled transport used by so many Italians. To walk along the cobbled steps and street through town is to encounter an increasingly rare Tuscany. It is a place, above the roads that approach the old city gate, that harkens to black and white photos, to grieving widows dressed in black, to less complicated eras.

In 1652, the Garzoni family began construction on a country villa. The site for this home was along a steep hillside near a 10th Century fortress. From the villa’s location, the family enjoyed a view over the valley below. The gardens were designed to complement the villa, while taking into consideration the very steep land upon which it would be built. The results of the design , completed in 1752, were gorgeous. In 1786, members of the family selected a local landscape architect, Ottavio Diodati, to design a water cascade that would run from the highest point of the garden to a grotto constructed at the point where the steep hills met the parterre.

When you enter the garden, the first impression is one of grandeur and beauty. Now known as one of only a few high Baroque gardens in Italy,

Garden View, Villa Garzoni

the centuries have proven the worth of both the Grazoni family’s and Diodati’s efforts.

Three flights of balustrade stairs lead to a Grotto. At each terrace, as visitors ascend the garden, there are long flat planting areas, almost like ribs, that splay out and away from the central axis of the garden. Yews, Eucalypti, palms and other local plants and trees provide welcome shade from the piercing Tuscan light.

At the top of the garden, and it is a steep climb, visitors arrive at a statue of Fame, Jove’s messenger. From the large sea shell that Fame holds to her mouth is a long arch of water that ends in a small pond at her feet. On the descent from this high point, visitors can walk to the Villa for a tour, descend through the lush Bamboo forest and return to the entrance gate of the property.

Pinocchio Park

Less than a five minute walk from the entrance to the Villa Garzoni and gardens is the entrance to the Pinocchio Park.

Parco Pinnochio
Statue by Emilio Greco, 1956

The park was named after a character created by author Carlo Collodi. Born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence (1826), he became a well-known political author. In the course of his journalistic career, he began to write political allegory. After many years of work, he took his mother’s home town as his pen name (Collodi) and wrote Pinocchio. The now famous marionette was used by Lorenzini as an allegorical figure who represented the liberating metamorphosis from strict forms of his creation, wood, to the freedom of being a truly human boy.

Lorenzini died in Florence in 1890, a mere seven years after Pinocchio was published. He did not live long enough to enjoy the spectacular success that his book created. Now translated in over 100 languages, it is one of the world’s best-selling books of all time.

You can read the entire book, on line, or download an e-book copy at this site. Special thanks to the Guttenberg project and the phenomenal work they do.

Adventures of Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi

The “Parco Pinocchio” was opened in 1956, the result of country-wide artistic collaboration. Artists from across Italy participated in the creation of sculptures and mosaics that appeal to child and adult alike. Scenes from Carlo’s fable are represented within the small confines of the park. A visit gives you the unique opportunity to enjoy yet another treasured corner of Tuscany.

It has been decades since my first visit to this tiny, magical, place. Every time I am in Tuscany, I return. Take time to enjoy this extraordinary and little-known village perched on a hill between Florence and Lucca.

IF YOU GO:

If you do not have the use of a car, you can take an inexpensive regional train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station and, for Euro 10.40 per person, arrive in Pescia.Trains between Florence and Pisa leave nearly every hour between 6:00AM and 10:ooPM. The trip to Pescia takes about one hour.

Schedules and more information about train schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it

From the Pescia train station you can take either a local bus (VaiBus) or taxi. Their complete schedules for the Pistoia region, which includes both Pescia and Collodi, can be found at: VaiBus

Taxi fare between the Pescia station and the town of Collodi averages Euro 30 per taxi (not per person!)

Entrance tickets:

You have a choice of purchasing three different tickets, depending on your interests:

Pinocchio Park, Euro 11.00

Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 13.00

Pinocchio Park, Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 20.00

Official Web site of the Villa and Gardens

Villa Garzoni and Gardens

Official Web site of the Parco Pinocchio (Pinocchio Park)

Parco Pinocchio

Information for the Park.

Tel: Parco di Pinocchio TeL: +39.0572.429.342

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A beautiful hilltop retreat, and the gardens of a Medici Villa, beckons from the valley of Florence. This easy day trip north from Florence takes you directly to both the Abbey of Monte Senario and the Villa Demidoff Parco di Pratolino. These are two little-known corners of Tuscany, rarely visited by tourists.

View of Monte Senario

A brief history:

Monte Senario, as it is now called, was one a wild, untamed, place where winds whistled through limestone caverns and wolves prowled the land. In the midst of religious upheaval in Florence, seven friars began a long and arduous journey in search of retreat, a place where they would avoid the temptations of the city.

Hilltops in the Mugello, directly north of Florence, attracted the friars. It would be in the beautiful hills of that area, they believed, they would find the best, remote, location for their hermitage. Their struggles were rewarded when, in 1241, they reached the top of Monte (as it was called at the time) Sonario – named for sounds made by winds in local limestone formations. The small group immediately went to work on a house that would serve as their retreat.

Over the centuries, the Servite order (named for their dedication to serve the Holy Mother) friars have built a large Basilica and many other buildings on their property.

Why go? The hills north of Florence are famous for their beauty. Winding roads cut through forests, pass along vineyards and provide visitors incredible views. Between Florence and Monte Senario, you pass the gates of another famous Tuscan Villa, Pratolino.

Built by Francesco I, First Grand Duke of Tuscany, the villa was completed in 1581. Designed by Buontalenti, Francesco’s favored architect and landscape designer, the villa has recently been restored. Why did Francesco choose such a remote site for this villa? His mistress, Bianca Capello, desired a county home.  The gardens were completed before Francesco’s marriage to Bianca in 1579.

Colossus of the Apennines
Parco Pratolino

Gardens with monumental statuary, including one of “The Colossus of the Apennines” over twelve feet tall, provide a shady and cooling retreat for visitors. The gardens evoke a sense of Romanticism, an intentional decadence and decay that still attract those fascinated by Italian, specifically Tuscan, gardens. The original Pratolino gardens were categorized “Mannerist”, a style that includes water features and statuary with water hydraulic systems that animate man-made structures such as doors, gates and playful water games.

After Francesco’s and Bianca’s deaths, the villa fell into disrepair. It was, after over 100 years of abandonment, that the villa was demolished. Leopold II, former Grand Duke of Tuscany, sold the property to a Yugoslavian prince, Pavel Pavlovich Demidov.

Villa Demidoff
1872 Restoration

He wished to have a residence on the grounds and set about restoring the original building where the Pages that served Francesco and Bianca lived. Hence, the current name of Villa Demidoff.

He also had the gardens redesigned in the English style. While retaining some of the large sculptures that were built at the time of the Medici, he focused on simplifying the layout of the gardens so that they were easier to both maintain and explore. The property, which the prince expanded from approximately fifty acres to nearly two-hundred, is now the property of the province of Tuscany.

The grounds, park and villa are truly worth a stop during your travels further north to the Monte Senario complex.

So it is on an easy day trip from Florence. From the remains of a powerful Medici Grand Duke and the moneyed influence of a Yugoslavian prince you arrive at a place of retreat and sacrifice where friars gave everything away in dedication to their religious beliefs.

IF YOU GO:

Villa Demidoff and Parco Pratolino

Vaglia, Via Fiorentina 282

Tel: 39.055.408.0734 or 39.055.408.0777 (office)

Tel: 39.055.409.427 (Reception)

Hours:

from April 1, 2018: All Fridays through Sundays 10:00am – 8:00pm. Beginning October 1, the park closes at 6:00PM.

The park is closed for national holidays with the exception of Liberation Day (April 25th) and Labor Day (May 1st).  The park is open on these two Sundays even though they are National Holidays.

You can request special visits during the week and obtain other information via email:

parcomediceodipratolino@cittametropolitana.fi.it

Visits during the week there is a charge for visits. Please request further details directly from the management via email listed above.

Visits are free of charge

 

Driving Directions

From Florence, driver to the Piazza della Libertá

As you enter the Piazza, watch for overhead sings in the direction of Mugello, Pratolino and Bologna (Old State road to Bologna, North)

Stay on SR 65 and you will arrive at Pratolino. The car park is on your left, directly across from the main gate of the Villa/Park property

Take SR Route 65 NORTH toward Pratolino.

 

To return to Florence, return on the same route, headed south

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Villa Balbianello
Lenno Lago Como

Italians have always been passionate about gardens. Whether their hands work the soil for their kitchen or if the ground is meant to produce places of retreat and beauty, the Lake Region offers within a relatively small geographic area more gorgeous gardens than any other comparable region in bella Italia.

Many years ago, I was privileged to make the acquaintance of Alessandro Tombelli who is both a garden historian and a landscape designer. From the city of his birth, Florence, he has traveled the world to work in gardens as far flung as Chicago and Sicily. His passion for the lush verdant land is unquenchable.

In the years we have worked together, he has proudly shared his incredible knowledge of gardens, particularly those in the lake region. His 2008 book, The Garden Connection, tells the story of his life, lived amongst the beauty of Italian gardens.

Over many seasons, I have had the opportunity to return to many of the gardens Alessandro first shared with me. While what follows is hardly a complete list of the gardens in the lake region, these are the ones I know and love the best.

Cernobbio-Villa de’Este

As visitors take in the ravishing beauty of the coast road north of Como toward Tremezzo, they can hardly believe the stunning beauty of the Villa d’Este. To use the words ‘awe inspiring’ seem futile. Originally named the Villa Garrovo, its name was changed by the wife of George IV’s wife. This now famous five-star luxury hotel maintains a gorgeous garden. You can visit the gardens by parking at the hotel and asking at the desk. Inquiries are always welcomed.

In the event you are intimidated by the luxurious surroundings of the lobby, keep a mind this story a friend once told me.

In the early 1950’s a young newlywed couple from England were making their way, late at night, in a small sports car along the lake. As they left Como, they decided to stop at the first hotel they saw. They approached the front desk at Villa de’Este and, with few coins in hand, explained to the manager that they were just married and hoped to pay for a room at the hotel. The manager took a long look at them, called the porter to the front and the couple was courteously escorted to the Bridal Suite of the hotel. The couple returned every year that health allowed, and were always treated with the utmost courtesy. Such service remains a hallmark of a hotel known for an incredible garden.

Tremezzo-Villa Carlotta

Further north along the western shore of Lago Como, near Tremezzo, is the Villa Carlotta. This stunning villa ascends the steep flanks of alpine foothills from lake to garden. Constructed between 1690 and 1745.  Owned by one Marquis Clerici, the gardens have become a well visited botanical garden. There are, during high season, hoards of tourists, yet this is a space of green and flowers well worth the visit.

Chapel Villa Melzi
Bellaggio, Lago Como

Bellagio – Villa Melzi 

Ah, Bellagio. The approach by ferry from the docks at Cadenabbia is breathtaking. Deep glacial depths of the lake, the reflection of a rainbow of colored stucco palazzi on the surface of the water, the haze shrouded alps in the distance all conspire to move visitors into a dream. As you disembark at the ferry dock, and walk to the right, you are quickly guided to the entrance of the gardens at Villa Melzi, yet another treasure of a garden, this time on the eastern shore of Lago Como.

The villa was constructed as the residence for Francesco Meli d’Eril, who was the Duke of Lodi and, later, the Vice President of the Italian Republic under Napoleon.  He retired to the villa and devoted his energies to the English garden. Subsequent owners have added to the complexity and beauty of the estate. Stendhal wrote of the garden’s beauty, and of the villa’s extraordinary location along the lake, in his book  “Rome, Naples, Florence.”

Lenno -Villa Balbianello

Garden view -Villa Balbianello
Lenno – Lago Como

(The photo at the beginning of this post is a view of Balbianello ).

I have saved the most beautiful villa and gardens for last. Villa Balbianello was built in the lake side village of Lenno. Located not far from Tremezzo, the villa occupies a promontory that thrusts itself out into the cerulean waters of the lake, the golden stucco towers and emerald green Italian cypress sentinels along the shore. This villa was built in 1787 on the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery. The church towers of that monastery still stand. It was after decades of neglect that an American Army office by the name of Butler Ames purchased and restored the property. The first man to lead an Italian team to the summit of Mount Everest, Guido Monzino, purchased the property in 1974 and lived there until his will donated the property, in perpetuity, to the National Trust of Italy.

I now head west to the shores and islands of Lago Maggiore.

Lago Maggiore

Isola Bella – Gardens of the Borromeo Villa

View of Isola Bella and Gardens
Lago Maggiore, Lake Region

It was in 1632 that Carlos III of the House of Borromeo began to build a villa dedicated to his wife, Isabella D’Adda. The island, originally named l’isola inferiore or isola di sotto,  is named in Isabella’s honor.

The completion of the villa and gardens was delayed by  epidemics  of Plague and political power plays.It was not until the latter part of the 18th Century, under Gilberto V Borromeo, that the villa and its gorgeous gardens were finally completed.

The gardens and villa were designed by the Milanese architect Angelo Crivelli. In 2008 the gardens reopened after detailed three year restoration and the results show. From the upper level garden terrace with its multilevel grotto to the views of the lake and villages along the lower steps of the south garden, this is one of the finest and most beautiful gardens in Italy.

Please see, also, the July 2012 blog post Borromeo Islands-Isola Bella.

Verbania – Villa Taranto

As visitors continue east from Isola Bella across Lago Maggiore, they will have the opportunity to disembark at Villa Taranto. From the dock, little can be seen of the spectacular gardens above. It was in 1931 that a Scottish Captain, Neil McEacharn, came across the property and decided, within hours, to purchase it. The previous owner, the Marquise of Sant’Elia, was thrilled to be rid of something he considered a monumental responsibility.

McEacharn went to work, first naming the villa after a distant relative who was awarded the Dukedom of Taranto by Napoleon.The results of the Scottish Captain’s, and of the estate’s administrator Antonio Cappelletto’s, efforts show an extraordinary level of dedication. The gardens now contain one of the finest botanical collections found anywhere. The entrance gate to the estate is easily reached from the ferry landing in about three minutes.

Lago Orta-Orto San Giulio and the island of San Giulio

Tiny Lake Orta lies west of Lago Maggiore, an easy forty minute drive from the lakeside village of Stresa on the western shore of Maggiore. Not known for a large number of gardens, many consider the lake ‘the jewel of the Lake Region’ in and of itself. Here are two places you will enjoy visiting as time allows.

Villa Bossi
Orto San Giulio
Lago Orta

Villa Bossi

The village of Orto San Giulio uses Villa Bossi as the municipalities town hall. The gardens, known for their extraordinary compact beauty, run from the stunning rear facade of the villa to the lake.

The gardens are open every day and, on frequent occasions, are closed for private weddings and receptions. The views over to the island of San Giulio from these gardens is unforgettable.
Isola San Giulio

I have included the island of San Giulio, located about 100 meters from the shores of the village of San Giulio, as it is a lovely island. Cobblestone walkways ring the ancient convent and church, yet the views between villas, the glimpses of the lake and alps create the sense that visitors are surrounded by the gardens of Italy’s Lake Region. An earlier post on our blog, Lake Orta-Jewel of Italy’s Lake Region, has more details for those who are interested.

IF YOU GO:

LAGO COMO:

Villa d’Este

Via Regina, 40

22012 Cernobbio

Tel: +39 031 3481

No ticket required for garden visit.

Tremezzo-Villa Carlotta

Villa Carlotta

Vila Regina, 2

Tremezzo, Provinica di Como

Tel: +39 (0)344 40405

Entrance tickets: Euro 9.00 per person (check at desk if over 65 years of age for possible discount)

Season: Mid March to end of October (Check web site for details about season schedules)

Bellagio-Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi

Via Lunolario Manzoni

Bellagio

Tel: +39 339 4573838

Entrance Tickets: Euro 6.00 per person

Season: Late March to end of October (Check web site to confirm when gardens are open)

Lenno-Villa Balbianello

Vila Balbianello

Lenno, Como

Tel: +39 (0)344 56110

LAGO MAGGIORE:

Isola Bella

Isola Bella-Gardens of the Villa Borromeo

Tel: +39 (0)323.30556

Entrance tickets: Euro 13.00 per person (check on ticket prices for multiple islands when you purchase your tickets at Isola Bella)

Season: End March to end September. Daily. Open 9am to 12 noon and 1.30pm to 5pm. (Check web site for details about season opening times)

Verbania-Villa Taranto

Villa Taranto

Via Vittorio Veneto, 111

28922 Verbania

Tel: +39 (0)323 404555

Entrance Tickets: Euro 9.50 per person

Season: Mid March to end of October (Check web site for details about season dates)

LAGO ORTA

Orta San Giulio-Villa Bossi

Villa Bossi

Open year round, no admission cost

Isola San Giulio
Lago Orta

Isola San Giulio

For ferry schedules to the island from the village of Orto San Giulio, check with the Navigazione del Lago Orta

You can also talk directly to the many boat owners who play their trade on the lake. They can make arrangements to take you to and from the island.

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Where Italy and Switzerland Meet

Lugano, with its temperate climate, is a city with an incredible history and musical heritage. Sited on the northern shore of a crystal clear alpine lake, this is the largest Italian speaking city in Switzerland.

Lago Lugano, the city that gave its name to the lake, clings to the shore and hills above the water like the icing on a delicate Swiss pastry. Along the impeccably clean promenade, couples stroll as ferries come and go from the dock.  In the distance, the Casino beckons with visions of James Bond, tux and all.

When I have the opportunity I plan at least a two day visit to Lugano.

The first day is spent on the lake enjoying lunch served aboard a special ferry that calls on various towns along the shore of the lake. I have always found this to be a wonderful way to experience the pace of life in this region of Italy. Spectacular views of the alps from the comfort of my table or from the open air seating on deck are always memorable.

The midday cruise boats leave from the Lugano Paradiso dock at 11:50AM each morning, early April through late October. Lunch is served shortly after heading across the lake. A  fixed menu is served offering excellent food (not fancy). With five stops along the lake in each direction, the pace of enjoying the meal moves at the pace of the boat. The boat returns to Lugano Paradiso at 1:50PM. You can also board/return from the main Lugano Ferry Building. For further details, see “If You Go”.

Piazza della Riforma
Lugano

When I return to the city, I usually choose a table at one the lovely small cafes in the Pizza Riforma. Directly off of the waterfront park, this is great place to relax with an afternoon coffee or aperitif.  The main shopping streets of the city lead away from the square and there is no denying that window shopping in this country of watchmakers offers temptations aplenty.

My evening meal is usually enjoyed at Bistro Cyrano. Located an easy walk from the central city square, the small space, while not fancy, offers delicious meals at a reasonable price, especially in Switzerland. The chef uses only the freshest ingredients and there is everything about the Italian table to enjoy. Great wine list, as well!

On the second day, I take time to visit two of the most beautiful churches in this area of Switzerland, Santa Maria degli Angioli and San Rocco.

The church of Santa Maria was originally part of a Franciscan Monastery. The buildings were started in the late 15thCentury, with subsequent improvements and additions made over the centuries. What makes Santa Maria so very special is Bernardino Luini’s masterpiece, and the largest fresco in Switzerland, The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. The fresco covers the main part of the interior wall that separates the nave from the altar. The intricacy and detail are amazing, and to be able to spend time studying an incredible art treasure without the usual crowds is a gift. The church is easily located on the western size of the city, not far from Piazza della Riforma.

The other church, San Rocco, is on the opposite edge of the main city center and only steps from the Giardini and Piazza della Riforma. The 17th Century structure has a very plain façade, yet the interior offers gorgeous frescoes depicting the life of San Rocco di Montpellier, a venerated saint in the Catholic Church. During the summer months, there are a number of world famous music festivals in the city. Last year, I walked into San Rocco and enjoyed hearing a young pianist practice a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.  Unforgettable.

Sunrise on Lugano

This is a city for those less inclined to the busy day to day bustle of tourist sites. An easy drive from Milan or Lago Maggiore or Lago Como, the lanes and byways of this lovely city offer time for contemplation and relaxation. A city more known to the European visitor, fewer Americans are encountered here especially after the day buses depart. Evening offer well lit streets, the quiet of a Swiss town and time to enjoy yet another jewel of the Lake Region.

IF YOU GO:

Lugano Tourism offers plentiful resources.

Navigazione del Lago Lugano (Lugano Ferry System information and timetables) For lunch cruise information, click on “Midday Cruise” on the left side of the home page.

Hotels:

There are plenty to choose from. I’ve stayed at each of these over the years. They offer clean rooms for a fair price. Nothing fancy, mind you, but for a clean bed and a great location, they are difficult to equal.

Hotel Aquarello

This lovely hotel is located within the arcades of shops in the center of Lugano. Easy access to the lake and sites right outside your door. The town is usually very quiet after 8:30PM and you need not worry about traffic noise. The Balmelli family offer attentive service.

www.acquarello.ch

Piazza Cioccaro 9 – 6900 Lugano

Tel: +41 (0)91 911 68 68

Hotel Delfino

Due to its position south of city center and in a more residential area, the Delfino is both a bit higher in price, yet offers lovely rooms with balconies and lake views (request such when reserving). It takes about ten minutes to walk to the center of Lugano from the Delfino.

www.delfinolugano.ch

Via Cassarinetta 6  6900 Lugano, Switzerland
Tel: +41 (0)91 985 99 99

Restaurants:

Bistro Cyrano

Corso Enrico Pestalozzi 27

6900 Lugano

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Isola S. Giulio
Lago Orta

It is a dream, this island illuminated by ocher lights amidst a golden hazed sunset. Alpine born breezes carry the scent of jasmine and lemon blossoms. As if the lakes of northern Italy could hold no more surprises, you discover Lago Orta.

Lago Maggiore, east of Orta, is by far the larger lake. With over 150 miles of shoreline, Maggiore dwarfs the twenty-one miles of this lake’s lovely shores.

In the midst of Orta’s crystal clear waters is the island of San Giulio. It was in the 5th Century that the local patron saint, Julius of Novara, was buried on the island. Subsequent improvements to the island were made between the 6th and 19th centuries, most notably the seminary built at the end of the 12th Century. A castle was also constructed on the island at the beginning of the 13th Century.

In 1844, a convent was built on the ruins of the medieval fortress. It is in that same building where the Sisters of the Monastero Mater Ecclesiae, Convent of the Mother Church, now reside and work. In cooperation with the association of the arts in Florence, these sisters repair priceless tapestries. Well after sunset, a number of them carry their completed work down to the water’s edge where the  tapestry is lovingly transferred to a small boat and, from thence, to a truck on the mainland. The Sisters usually pick up yet another aged tapestry for repair.

To watch their small boat surreptitiously float across the midnight blue lake, a small lantern hung from the bow of their boat, is nothing short of breathtaking. It is, as well, an unusual gift to catch a glimpse of a white robed Sister during the day as she makes her way among the corridors and small bridges that cross the encircling paths of the island. They are phantoms from our imagination in a place of indescribable peace.

The Sisters also tend to the task of maintaining the reverence of the island. In the latter part of the 19th Century, they created two pathways –  the Way of Silence and the Way of Meditation. Depending on the direction you circle the convent buildings, you are greeted with signs which encourage you to stop and meditate on place and silence.

An examples “If you can be yourself, you are everything.”

Another reads as a poem.

Ascolta il silenzio
Ascolta l`acqua, il vento, i tuoi passi
Il silenzio è il linguaggio dell`amore
Il silenzio è musica e armonia

Listen to the silence
Listen to the water, the wind, your steps
Silence is the language of the love
Silence is music and harmony

Some of the frescoes on the main pillars of the Basilica’s nave are etched with notes made by members of ancient religious communities. Inscriptions as mundane as the weather, jealousies between Brothers and thoughts about their faith cover many of these treasures of Renaissance art. As visitors take time to study the labor of generations, all are reminded of those whose humanness reflects our own.

When your visit to the island is completed, you can retreat to the small village of Orta San Giulio. The medieval lanes of the town are little changed over the centuries. The Renaissance Town Hall dominates the main square, small though it may be, and the quiet of the tiny piazza is only interrupted by the occasional arrival of the parking area’s shuttle. (See “If You Go” below for information about parking and access to the village square).

I admit a strong preference for staying along the shores of Lago Orta. This is a treasure still not well known by visitors, a retreat for those seeking anonymity and escape from the tourist crowds. Far from cities, away from the madness of trains and buses, cars and ferries, this is a place to treasure for its uniqueness, a place special and apart even in the midst of Italy’s northern lake region.

IF YOU GO:

Lago Orta is easily reached by car from Lago Maggiore in about forty-five minutes. Best train connections from Milano Centrale Station are to the city of Gozzano, locate at the southern end of the lake. You can take a bus or taxi from the Gozzano train station to the ferry landing where you can purchase a ticket for travel on the lake.

Ferries on Lago Orta operate on a regular schedule throughout the day.  A wonderful way to pass time here is to take the ferry around the entire lake-only an hour’s trip. Gorgeous lake side villas and small towns dot the shores and hillsides.

For schedules of the ferries on the lake, go to www.navigazionelagodorta.it

Visits to the Basilica and pathways of the island of San Giulio (visitors are not allowed in the convent at any time) are possible from 9:30AM – 12:15PM and from 4:00PM – 5:45PM. These hours are strictly enforced as the Basilica is used by the Sisters who live on the island for their services. Photographs without flash are frowned upon, but permitted.

NOTE: If you are driving, you must park above the village. There are shuttle trains that will carry you into the village center of Orta San Giulio. Once you ride through the perilously narrow lanes to get to the main square in the city, you will understand why you have to park way from the village center!

Places to Stay:

Hotel San Rocco

Residence La Casa Sul Lago

Also, check out the many apartments for rent around the lake. If you are staying for longer than a few days, these are exceptional options especially if you rent in a town where there is direct ferry service on the lake.

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