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Evening View of Modica Sicily

Evening View of Modica Sicily

Modica. A city of intense beauty, part souk, part Renaissance fantasy, a mosaic of buildings reflecting an equally diverse populace.

Over the course of many years of travel to Sicily, I have stayed in Modica numerous times. In this post I will share some of the little known treasures – and some well known – in a Sicilian city I have come to love.

Some orientation will help you understanding the geography and cultural diversity of the city. Modica Basso is located in the center of Modica’s valley. Despite the destruction caused by the devastating earthquake in 1693 (which destroyed the greater part of eastern Sicily), the city has survived and restored its Sicilian Baroque splendor.

Sicilian Baroque? This is a style of architecture established in this area of Sicily after the 1693 earthquake. Known for fantastic sculptures in the facades of buildings and churches, it has come to symbolize a unique style particular to this geographic area of the island.

Until 1902, there were numerous bridges across the river Modicano, formed by two rivers called the Pozzo dei Pruni and the Janni Mauro. After a disastrous flood that same year, the city redirected the river through culverts beneath what is now called the Corso Umberto I, the city’s main thoroughfare. Shops abound along this road offering everything from jewelry to clothing to restaurants.

Over the course of centuries, Modica Alta was established above the city’s valley. It is here that one of the most beautiful churches in Italy is located. (See “Churches” below). This is a residential area of the city offering few shopping options. The views, however, from the high point above the city are spectacular.

Churches:

San Giorgio Modica

San Giorgio Modica

The Cathedral of San Giorgio: Located on the steep hillside above the lower city, this is one of the most striking examples of Sicilian Baroque in Sicily. The facade was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, and the results are spectacular. One of the island’s first meridians, a means of tracing the seasons by the position of the sun on the floor of the cathedral, crosses in front of the main altar. It was in 1895, that the mathematician Armando Perinio received permission from the church to install the meridian.

The rays of sunlight that pierces the high windows of the interior, particularly in the afternoon, create prisms of light on the surface of huge white interior marble column; an evocative sense of the spiritual in a spiritual place.

The Cathedral of San Pietro: Older than San Giorgio, this was the diocesan church of the city until factions formed around Modica Alta and Modica Basso. The  ensuing divisions ended in their being two patron saints of the city – San Giorgio for the upper city and Saint Peter for the lower city. The statues of the twelve saints that stand along both sides of the entrance stairway to the church are beautiful, as is the interior of this historic church.

Saints Entrance San Pietro Modica

Saints Entrance San Pietro Modica

San Niccolo Inferiore: It was in the late 1960’s, when a car repair garage was being renovated, that the workers opened up a cave that had been used by early (4th Century A.D.) Christians as a place of worship. Located almost directly across the street from one of Italy’s premier chocolatiers (see Chocolate below), you have to ring a bell to enter this little known treasure in the heart of the city. Once you ring the bell, a warden leans out of a window above you, descends and opens the cave for you. The walls retain remnants of fourth and fifth century frescoes created by the artists of the day, gorgeous in their simplicity, moving in their beauty.

Frescoes Chiesa Rupestre San Niccolo Inferiore  Modica

Frescoes
Chiesa Rupestre San Niccolo Inferiore
Modica

Chocolate in Modica:

Chocolate Assortment Bonajuto Modica

Chocolate Assortment
Bonajuto Modica

You can find few chocolatiers in Italy that can match the history of Bonajuto (bon-aye-u’-toe) in Modica Basso. Established in 1880 by Francesco Bonajuto, the recipes used in this workshop date to the time of Spanish occupation on the island. The grainy texture of the chocolate,(they do not allow the sugar to dissolve completely)  mixed with ingredients as diverse as red pepper or lemon, are a delight. Guided visits are possible at Bonajuto. See below under “IF YOU GO” for further details.

Day Trips

There are numerous options open to visitors who choose Modica as the base for their visit to this part of Sicily. Easily reached are the other famous Sicilian baroque cities of Scicli, Noto and Ragusa. Lovely small fishing villages dot the southeastern coast and offer quiet (except in July and August!) respite from the cities.

A longer day trip can take visitors to the extraordinary Valley of the Temples near the southern town of Agrigento. (A future post will discuss the Valley in great detail).

On many evenings, I have walked up to the piazza above the Hotel Palazzo Failla – see “Hotels” below (not for the feint of heart!) and looked out over the valley of Modica. Despite the occasional group of local youths who gather as young people are wont to do, the timelessness of the buildings, the rugged beauty of the architecture and the long sifted light of sunset evoke a different time, a different era, a different Italy.

No matter where your travels take you during time in Sicily, visit Modica. You will not be disappointed.

IF YOU GO:

Hotels:

Entrance Palazzo Failla Hotel Modica

Entrance
Palazzo Failla Hotel
Modica

Absolutely and without question, the Palazzo Failla in Modica Alta. The Failla family opened this lovely hotel in their family palazzo. The resultant restoration is gorgeous; the master bedroom, replete with original floor tiles from the Sicilian ceramic city of Caltagirone, are one of the many options for guests. In 2008, the family opened a dependance across the road from the original hotel where suites that include every modern convenience (Spa tubs, steam showers for example) are available. There are two restaurants in the hotel – the Gazza Ladra and La Locanda del Colonnello. The Gazza is one of the finest restaurants in Italy and the Locanda offers more typical Sicilian fare. Both are excellent places to eat in the city.

In closing I must write that the Failla family has cared for many of my company’s clients over the years. Their extraordinary service would be difficult to match in the highest luxury level hotels across Italy. Truly a wonderful place to stay during your explorations of southern Sicily.

Via Blandini, 5 – 97015 Modica (RG)

Tel: +39.0932.941.059

Restaurants:

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti

In addition to the two restaurants listed in the Hotel Palazzo Failla, I also strongly encourage you to enjoy a meal (or meals!) at the

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti - Modica

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti – Modica

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti. This is a treasure of a place to enjoy a fabulous meal in Sicily. The recipes are generations old, traditional in every sense. The translation of the Osteria’s name (The Osteria of Lost Flavors) is not quite accurate as the flavors, rediscovered in traditional recipes, are unforgettable. This is a very affordable place and the service is matched by the owner’s dedication to satisfying even the most discriminating palate.

Corso Umberto I, 228, 97015 Modica, Sicily, Italy

Tel: +39.0932.944.247

Pizzeria Smile

Pizzeria Smile? Yes. A short walk from the Palazzo Failla in Modica Alta is this wonderful pizzeria. After long days of travel and visiting across this part of Sicily, the pizzeria offers simple and flavorful fare served in a very plain atmosphere. Weather permitting, the dining rooms open to the street and absent the occasional motos that rip past the restaurant, the cool evening breezes are a welcome respite from the heat of summer and welcome cool in the autumn and spring.

Via G. Marconi, 17

Tel: +39.0932.946.666

Churches:

San Giorgio and San Pietro: 10:00AM until 6:00PM except Sundays. Sunday 1:00PM – 5:00PM. The schedule for masses are posted on the doors and interior entrances to the churches.

San Niccolo Inferiore: Via Rimaldi, 1. Tel: +39.331.740.3045. Hours vary by request. You must ring the bell at the entrance to the site to gain entrance with no reservation. If you wish to set up a time to visit, call the Italian cell phone listed in this summary and make an appointment. This is a place with no formal hours, absent 10:00AM to 5:00PM. It is catch as catch can, but well worth the effort!

 
 

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Fillipino LippiExorcism of the Demon in the Temple of MarsStrozzi ChapelSanta Maria NovellaFlorence

Fillipino Lippi
Exorcism of the Demon in the Temple of Mars
Strozzi Chapel
Santa Maria Novella
Florence

Fillipino Lippi created one of the most complex frescoes of the Renaissance in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. By some it is called the Exorcism of the Demon in the Temple of Mars. By others, the Miracle of St. Phillip. This is, regardless of its given name, a challenging and surprising work of art.

First, there is a hideous demon, exorcised by Saint Phillip. Lippi has created a malignant beast, one that mythology proclaimed issued breath so poisonous that anyone who inhaled the fumes died.

The god Mars, portrayed on a dais within the temple named for him in the city of Hieropolis, holds a broken lance over his head. Saint Phillip who, taken under arms to the temple to make a sacrifice, chooses to exorcise the demon that lived therein.

The noxious fumes emitted by the demon, so the myths continue, killed the high priest’s son, along with a few others. Not surprisingly, the high priest was not happy for not only had he lost his son; the object of veneration in the temple had also been removed. In a frenzy of retaliation, the priests crucified Saint Phillip. It is written that he was placed on the cross upside down, as was Saint Peter.

Now, for the back story.

It was in the latter part of the 15th Century that the buried corridors of the “Golden House”, the sumptuous palace built by Nero, were rediscovered in Rome. The ‘house’, a huge complex in reality, was connected to the Palatine Hill by those subterranean passages. What the Romans did not expect were the frescoes and what they depicted; inhuman depravity of the most extreme. The church classified the frescoes as “damnatio memoriae”, essentially a conviction of Nero and his excessive style of living, in abstentia, for the crudity displayed. The Romans eventually built directly over the remains of the temple and tunnels in an attempt to banish them from memory.

In spite of the church’s condemnation of the frescoes, artists of the day flocked to study them, to better understand Roman fresco technique and style.

Lippi was one of the artists who viewed those frescoes and there is no doubt, Lippi wrote about this in his papers, that the images he saw in the frescoes deeply affected his work on the fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel. On the left side of the fresco are people who hold their noses against the ghastly odor of the beast. Some of those in the temple are overwhelmed by the fumes.

Detail LippiExorcism of the Demon

The beast,  a vision from the  imagination of the artist as to what hell, sin, paganism created must surely have been affected by the frescoes that Lippi studied in those Roman tunnels.

The symbolism of the fresco is complex. Here, in one fresco, is a depiction of Christianity confronting Paganism. Saint Philip’s right arm is raised in the course of the exorcism (a clear reference to the reliquary of the saint’s arm that was at one time housed in the baptistery in Florence-and was reported to have created many miraculous cures) as the pagan god seems to glare at the saint in a direct confrontation. Lippi depicts the victory of Saint Philip’s exorcism and the evocation of Christ by portraying a cross carrying Christ  appearing in the far upper corner of the fresco, an indication that the saint is not only a true communicant of Christ’s; he is able to call for the sanctification of an unholy, pagan, temple.

Discussions abound about the symbolism of the wolf and the bird (woodpecker?) that are on the dais with Mars. These were signs of nature attributed to the god Mars in mythology and, were that god blind as he is often depicted, the position of the head and the posture of the body clearly still direct their attention to Saint Philip.

There is one other possible interpretation of the fresco. Fillip Strozzi II was married to Clarice Medici, she a daughter of Piero de Lorenzo de’ Medici. While he was, indeed, married to a member of the most famous and wealthy family of Florence, Fillipo was vehemently against the social, cultural and political power of the Medici. So strongly opposed was Fillipo II that he became a leader in the 1527 uprising against that family.

Perhaps it is not too liberal an interpretation to imagine that Fillipo’s commission was a not so subtle snub at the Medici family. The demon might represent the exorcism of that family’s power, the stench of the animal’s breath a direct reference to the despised proclamations of the renaissance city’s leaders. The hand of Saint Phillip raised in the course of the exorcism, the evocation of a cross carrying Christ, a sign of hope for a day when the Medici’s would no longer rule.

Regardless, this is an unforgettable fresco, but one panel of a series painted in the Strozzi Chapel, and one that should not be missed during a visit to bella Firenze!

Strozzi ChapelSanta Maria Novella, Florence

Strozzi Chapel
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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Piegaro, Umbria, Italy

Piegaro, Umbria, Italy

This small walled village holds within its medieval walls, one of the most treasured secrets in the province of Umbria and of Italy; the creation of stained glass.

Situated above the Nestore River in central Umbria, the town became a destination for glass artists from Venice. In 1292, the Venice Proclamation, declared that all glass artisans must move to the island of Murano. Fires from the many glass blowers that had operated in the city for centuries had caused too many fires. The Proclamation was intended to diffuse growing anger and concern among the Venetians that their properties were at risk from those fires. Murano was selected as the site for all future glass makers.

One of the unexpected results of the 1292 edict was the migration of a large number of glass artists from Venice in search of solitude and protection in other cities. Piegaro became the primary location for many of those artisans. The nearby river provided the sand needed for their furnaces, plentiful and easily accessible forests provided fuel.

Glass Mosaic, FranchiFacade Duomo Siena

Glass Mosaic, Franchi
Facade Duomo Siena

The first of four major vetreria, glassworks, were established in 1292. These glassworks continued in use, including several 15th century expansions, until immediately after World War II. From the glorious glass mosaics that cover portions of the facade on Siena’s Duomo to the glass windows in churches and cathedrals in Bologna, Milan and other cities, the vetreria artisans of Piegaro created stunning artistic glass.

Today, the village is the location of one of the largest commercial glass manufacturers in Italy. With a small vetreria museum located along the city walls, the fascinating history of these artisans is available to be enjoyed.

IF YOU GO:

The village of Piegaro is located in the central Italian province of Umbria. Easily reached in less than an hour from the towns of Chiusi, Marsciano and Perugia, the village is a wonderful destination for a relaxing day in the Umbrian countryside.

If you are interested in visiting the Museo del Vetro (the Glass Museum) in the village, it is

Lane, Piegaro, Umbria

Lane, Piegaro, Umbria

best to email them directly, using the email address below, to confirm open hours and other details. You can also contact the local Cultural Office in Piegaro at the numbers and email address listed below:

Museo del Vetro – Comune di Piegaro

Tel. +39.075.83.58.525

Tel. (Cell) +39.333.79.07.764

Email: museodelvetro@comune.piegaro.pg.it

Cultural Office, Piegaro

Ufficio Cultura – Comune di Piegaro

Tel. +39.075.83.58.928

Email: turismo@comune.piegaro.pg.it

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The Hills of Tuscany

 

We are very pleased to announce a substantial reduction in the price for photography workshop participants. After renegotiating with vendors in Italy, and with Private Italy’s Italian support team, we are now offering this exceptional workshop for $2950.00 per person, land only. This is a nearly $1000.00 per participant reduction from our prior announced price and in no way affects the quality or itinerary of the workshop.

If you book before January 31, 2013, there is an additional $100.00 per person discount applied to the workshop price.

JOIN US!

There are few words on earth that evoke a sense of place more than “Tuscany.”

Visions of villas gold flecked in long afternoon light, hillsides of patterned olive trees, vines bearing luscious Sangiovese grape and hilltop villages whose towers pierce cerulean blue skies are all yours to capture during this photography workshop.

Our first few days are spent within, or close to, the Renaissance city of Florence. The workshop venues balance the well-known with some surprising corners of a city whose narrow lanes and quiet corners offer keen insights into Italy’s elusive beauty.

During the second part of this workshop, we move to a quiet retreat in the hills of central Tuscany. Villas, medieval abbeys, the pattern of cobble-stoned streets and the glory of Italy’s elusive, special luminance await your discerning and creative vision.

Classic Italia – Florence

This is a limited opportunity to join a group of like-minded, passionate, photographers who will learn from world-renowned photographer and teacher, David Simchock. With time for expert critique both during and after days of work ‘in the field’, this workshop will inspire you and expand your creative comfort zone. The texture of earth, the subtle play of light on stucco and stone, luxuriant gardens and the natural palette of one of the most beautiful places on earth are waiting for you.

For full details about this rewarding workshop, including our itinerary and pricing, visit 2013 Photography Workshop in Florence & Tuscany

We look forward to your joining us in bella Italia!

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palazzo davazatti florence

Palazzo Davanzati Florence

I have walked past this imposing Renaissance palazzo for many years, paying little heed to what, at the time, I thought was just another historic building in Florence. Talk about being wrong!

The Palazzo Davanzati is now a gorgeous, living museum. Rooms, frescoes and furniture from the Renaissance have all been beautifully restored. What visitors experience is a sense of being in a wealthy Florentine family’s home and come to better understand how those families lived.

The Palace was built by the Davizzi family in 1365. The property passed through various family members. In 1578 financial difficulties required that the palazzo be sold. The Davanzati family purchased the building and it remained in their hands until the early 19th Century.

Due to the palazzo’s size, it was decided that is should best be used as apartments. This reconstruction’ caused a great deal of damage to the original structure.

In 1904, a famous Italian antiques collector, Elia Volpi, purchased and restored the entire building. He furnished the palazzo in period pieces of furniture and opened it to the public as a museum of the home . Financial challenges caused Signor Volpi to sell off the majority of the original furniture. Along came Vitale and Leopoldo Bengujat, also antique dealers, who purchased the home in 1927 and for a few years successfully operated the museum.

Elia Volpi

Elia Volpi (with thanks to Palazzo Davanzati archives)

Financial ruin eventually faced the Bengujat brothers and, in 1940, the museum was sold to the state. The basement of the structure was made in to a bomb shelter and, after the war, the palazzo languished, nearly forgotten.

In 1951, the building was purchased by the Italian government and, in 1956, a new refurnished and restored palazzo was again opened to the public. In April of 2010, the museum was reopened to much fanfare, having been completed renovated, renewed and restored.

The Palazzo – Exterior

The exterior of the building has undergone numerous changes. The original arched loggia that was at the ground level of the building and used as a store, was closed in during the late 15th Century. In the 16th century, the owners enclosed the top level and formed a lovely arched private loggia for the family’s use.

Fresco Palazzo Davanzati

Fresco
Palazzo Davanzati

The Palazzo – Interior

You enter the palazzo at the street level into a lovely open atrium. The four upper floors have open walkways and balconies which permit visitors to view down into the small courtyard of the palazzo. The construction of the home is true to the time of its original occupation with terracotta used in the ceilings to support the upper floors and many beautiful frescoes on the walls.

The most beautiful rooms are the Sala dei Pappagalli (The Parrot Room) and the Bedroom with scenes of the life of the Lady of Vergi.

parrott room davanzatti

“Parrot Room” Palazzo Davanzati

stairwell davanzati

Stairway and hall, Palazzo Davanzati

IF YOU GO:

Palazzo Davanzati

Via Porta Rossa, 13  50123 Florence, Italy

Tel: +39.055.238.8610

Entrance Tickets: Euro 4.00 per person

Open hours:

Monday – Sunday, 8:15AM to- 1:50PM

Closed the 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month

Closed the 1st, 3rd and 5th Monday of the month

Please note that as of this writing, those requiring a wheel chair or who cannot climb stairs will find that they only have access to the ground floor of the palazzo.

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Ponte Santa Trinita Florence

Ponte Santa Trinita Florence

We walk across them everyday, these beautiful bridge of Florence, yet rarely if ever do we take the time to reflect on their history and beauty. I wanted to create a post about one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, the Ponte Santa Trinita.

She has been destroyed by the Arno River’s fury three times in her history. Near the end of World War II, she was destroyed by man’s hands in the name of war. Yet, she survives. Her sunrise golden spans arching across her purpose, and her sunset shimmering reflection reason for pause.

As the city of Florence has grown, so has the number of bridges that span the Arno River. Once a heavily used source of commerce, the river has remained as unpredictable and temperamental as she has ever been. During the early 13th Century, a wooden bridge that stood for nearly fifty years was swept away in a flood. Replaced based on a design by Renaissance architect Taddeo Gaddi (his design offered a total of five arches across the river), the river again claimed it in a flood in the mid-16th Century.

A promising architect by the name of Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was born in Settignano, a town well known to Michelangelo, was commissioned in 1569 to create a bridge that would, with all of that time’s engineering knowledge, withstand future floods. Ammannati studied under Jacopo Sansovino , a passionate student of Michelangelo’s structural designs.  Bartolomeo proposed a design of three wide and shallow arches, graceful and strong, to cross the river.

Architect plan Ponte Santa Trinita
Ammannati designed prow-like supports for the bridge. These have been the saving graces for all of the floods that have followed the bridge’s construction. Water, fast moving or slow, is directed away from the supports and directs the strongest currents and all of the detritus that floods bring between the arches and away from further damage to the structure.
Over the course of the next four hundred years, the bridge remained strong. It took the hand of man, in August 1944, to destroy the bridge. As the German’s retreated north along the Italian peninsula, one of their primary goals was to slow the allied advances. On August 8th of 1944, the Germans blew up all of the bridges across the Arno, yet thankfully saved the Ponte Vecchio. It was not until 1958, after excavations retrieved most of the original stones (some additional stones required were quarried from the same quarry used by the Renaissance builders), from the riverbed.
Primavera Ponte Santa Trinita Florence

Pimavera-Spring
Ponte Santa Trinita
Pietro Francavilla

What happened to the head? An interesting mystery.

As part of the celebrations for the marriage of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de Medici and Christine of Lorraine, four statues the represented Roman Gods were placed at each corner of the bridge. The four statues were temporary and, after the festivities concluded, sculptors were named to carve four marble statues representing the four seasons to replace those temporary pieces: Fall (Giovanni Caccini) and Winter (Taddeo Landini) on the Otrarno (south) side, with Spring (Pietro Francavilla) and Summer (Giovanni Caccini) on the Santa Trinita (north) side of the bridge.
The only piece missing, after the German destruction and the 1958 restoration, was the head of the statue of Spring.
If there is a group of art experts in the world who can locate and restore missing pieces of art, it is the Italians. The search continued until 1961 when an excavator discovered the missing head, deeply buried in the centuries old mud beneath the bridge. To much pomp and ceremony, the head was re-attached and celebrated. A mystery solved.
IF YOU GO:
The Ponte Santa Trinita connects the north side of the city, near the church which gave its name to the span-Chiesa Santa Trinita-with the Oltrarno, the south side neighborhood of the river.
Best views are at sunrise from the mid-span of the Ponte Vecchio and at sunset from the next bridge west of the Ponte Santa Trinita, the Ponte alla Carraia.
Take a moment, the next time you are in Florence, to give a few minutes pause to the history that supports us as we cross the ever-unpredictable River Arno.
Evening View-Ponte Santa Trinita

Evening View-Ponte Santa Trinita

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Spring Sunrise
Bergamo

Medieval towers pierce mauve infused sunrise fog. Visions of another time are easy here, so close to Milan yet centuries away.

This city of a thousand, so named for the citizens role in Italy’s unification, is a unique surprise about an hour by train northeast of Milano. Though the city has become increasingly industrial in focus, the upper town (La Citta Alta) offers visitors unique insights into Italy’s political and architectural history.

With commanding views over the Val Brembana and Val Seriana, coupled with its position on alpine foothills between Milan and Venice, made Bergamo ripe for conquest. Beginning with the 6th Century, and continuing through the mid-1800’s, the city has experienced the political control of governments from Bohemia to France. Above the fray, the upper city’s residents retains a spirit of independence and fierce pride.

The highest point in the upper city is Castello di San Vigilio, a fortress with a tiny group of buildings. The small chapel of Santa Maria Madallena  was used by defenders of the city as early as the 11th Century. The views from this highest point in the city are unforgettable. It is very easy to understand why this fromidable structure has been so coveted over the centuries.

After visiting the Castle, you can easily walk down to the Piazza Duomo, the main square of the Upper City, stopping for visits to the Museums of Archaeology, Donizetti – Bergamo’s most famous composer and Science. All of these are well worth the visit. If you time is limited, I recommend, at a minimum, the Archaeology museum. The Accademia, the Carrara Museum, is absolutely worth a few hours time as well.

For those whose interests tend to the influence of religion on the life of Italian cities, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a must.

Construction on the church started in the mid 12th Century, with additional works continuing through the latter part of the 16th Century. Classically styled in a Roman, nearly Byzantine style which is referred to locally as Roman-Lombard style, the facade is spectacular.

The narrow lanes and byways of this part of the city invite time to linger, to allow all five senses to absorb the city’s profound history.

IF YOU GO:

I have a preference to visit Bergamo during the winter, when fog often wraps the streets and the absence of other visitors lends a more romantic and historic feel to time in the upper city.

Bergamo is reached by train in about an hour from Milan’s Centrale Station.

Upon arrival, I recommend buying a bus ticket at the information booth just outside the station. The A1 Bus will bring you up to the level of the second Funicular railway, which takes you all the way up to the Castello di San Vigilio. From there, you can easily walk down into the city. Return buses to the train station depart from all of the bus stops in the upper city.

Timetables for the bus and funicular systems are found here: ATB Bergamo.

If you wish to check the timetable for trains from Milano to Bergamo, check www.trenitalia.it.  Click on the British Flag at the top of the screen for English and search “Milano” to “Bergamo” and the time of day you wish to travel.

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