Italy

Lake Como – Bellagio and Varenna

If there is another spot on the planet that is as beautiful when the sun is shining as Lake Como in Italy, I’d like to know about it. This is pretty much my idea of heaven–a long, crystal blue lake with picturesque old Italian villages surrounding it and dramatic mountains as a backdrop. For the tourist, this is about as good as it gets. Lake Como is not far from Milan and therefore it’s popular summer weekend getaway spot for locals as well as a primary tourist destination.

Bellagio

Our base for two nights was Bellagio, at the northern tip of the peninsula that separates the lake into two fingers (the lake is shaped like an inverted “Y”).

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

The cute town of Bellagio, probably the main tourist destination on Lake Como and our home for a couple nights.

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

Evening street scene in Bellagio.

Chiesa di San Giacomo, Bellagio, Italy

Interior of Bellagio’s 11th century San Giacomo Church.

Lake Como Bellagio2

Our apartment in Bellagio.

We arrived on a Sunday in June by car, and as to be expected on a beautiful Sunday, it was a nightmare finding a parking spot. Our apartment was in the heart of the old town (a pedestrian zone), so I had to find a spot at one of the few lots scattered around the loop road. After looping around the narrow peninsula 3 or 4 times, we found a parking spot that was within walking distance of our apartment.

We chose Bellagio because of its central location and it was a good one. We used the regular ferry system by obtaining a pedestrian day pass that took us to the towns on the west and east shores, it was perfect for the amount of time we had. Each crossing was about 20 minutes.

Lake Como, Italy ferry

Example of a Lake Como ferry – this was a tiny one, most had open passenger decks that provided great views of the towns and lake scenery.

Varenna

Varenna is s short distance north of Bellagio and probably the 2nd busiest town in terms of tourists, and it’s easy to see why – a quaint village hugging a little point on the lake with views from all directions.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Arriving into Varenna.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Another view of Varenna, I love the colors captured in this image.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s main town square. Just a block or two off the water and the scene quiets down dramatically!

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s Church of San Giorgio has some 14th -15th century frescoes near the main altar.

San Giorgio Church, Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Interior of San Giorgio church in Varenna.

One could spend weeks exploring the coastline villages of Lake Como, but since our two weeks in Italy were coming to an end, this wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple final days in paradise.

Menaggio, Lake Como, Italy

This is a view of the town of Menaggio, on the west shoreline of Lake Como.

Lake Como is known for its extravagant villas and as being a home for the rich and famous. With the bustling fashion capital of Milan just 83 km (52 miles to the south), this area reeks of wealth.

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy

The 18th century Villa Carlotta, on the western shore of Lake Como, just directly across from Bellagio. It is now a national property.

Lake Como, Italy

A view of Bellagio from Villa Carlotta.

The drive along the shore of Lake Como to Bellagio from Como on the south is beautiful, but the road is extremely narrow with no shoulder – even in a little car I was a bit nervous with the buses, trucks and other traffic, but we made it safely. Just take your time and be alert, and dream of what lies ahead!

Fénis Castle – A Highlight of the Aosta Valley

If you can’t visit all 72 castles (who could?) in the Aosta Valley of Italy then at least visit one–Fénis Castle. Dating back to the 12th century, Fénis is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a medieval viscount stronghold, with crenellated walls, towers and frescoed rooms and courtyard in a dramatic setting in a valley surrounded by tall mountains.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Exterior view of Fénis Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The inner courtyard of Fénis Castle. The frescoes date from the first quarter of the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of the inner courtyard.

The only way to visit the castle is to join a group tour offered at specific times throughout the day. Our tour was in Italian, but lucky for us the castle’s main rooms had explanatory information in English.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A dining room on the castle’s ground floor.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A room believed to be the kitchen on the ground floor.

The castle was built by the Challant family and much of the structure we see today is the result of additional construction work early in the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A bedroom in the castle. The Challant’s living quarters were on the 1st floor (one floor up from the ground floor).

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The 1st floor Great Hall, also frescoed.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

15th century religious frescoes adorn the 1st floor chapel.

The castle was used as a hay barn, stables and granary in the 19th century until significant restoration started at the end of the 19th century and continued through the 1940’s.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the inner walls of the Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The corbelled dovecote tower on the castle’s western side.

Fénis Castle is about 15 km (9 miles) east of the town of Aosta. Don’t miss this great castle if you visit the magical Aosta Valley, one of Italy’s less visited regions.

 

The Town of Aosta – “Rome of the Alps”

Recently I’ve been sharing posts on the beautiful Aosta Valley in northern Italy. The town of Aosta is also quite lovely, sitting in a spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps. The town’s Roman ruins remind us of the importance of the route through the Alps and this valley in ancient times. The town was founded by the Salassian Gauls, whose lands covered the nearby Little and Great St. Bernard passes over the Alps. In 25 BCE Caesar Augusts (Octavian)  defeated these Gauls and built up a grand city which became known as Aosta.

Arch of Augustus, Aosta, Italy

Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BCE stands at the eastern edge of the old city (the roof was added in the 18th century).

Porta Pretoria, Aosta, Italy

The Porta Pretoria, near the Arch of Augustus, also dates back to 25 BCE.

The flagship sight in Aosta is the Roman Theater, with one tall exterior section of wall remaining. Medieval buildings once stood around the wall, and they were removed during restorations.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Roman Theater in Aosta, built sometime after 25 BCE. The wall is 65 ft. high.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Seating area inside the Roman Theater.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Another view of the area around the Theater.

Cryptoporticus, Aosta, Italy

Some of Aosta’s Roman ruins are underground. This is the cryptoporticus, which sits underneath the Forum (marketplace), now occupied by Aosta’s Cathedral. Its function is unknown – storage, shops, or something else?

Aosta Valley Day 3

There are numerous Roman, pre-medieval and medieval tombs and ruins underneath Aosta, and some are accessible through the churches built on top of these sites. You can buy a pass and map to direct you to the sites.

Aosta, Italy

Part of a Roman chariot. Various interesting artifacts have been unearthed and are on display in the underground museums.

Aosta, Italy

Aosta’s piazza (town square). The setting reminded us a bit of a Colorado ski town, nestled in the mountains.

Aosta, Italy

Another street scene in Aosta.

Aosta makes a good base for exploring the Valley, we stayed in a small hotel just outside the city and enjoyed the quiet and scenic location.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta.

Aosta Valley – Visiting Savoia Castle

Savoia Castle is another wonderful sight in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it’s actually up a narrow side valley not far (33 km or 20 miles) from Bard Fortress. While this “modern” Italian castle does not have the ancient history of typical European castles, it evokes the past by having been built in the 15th century Lombard style. It’s worth seeing for its lovely interior, the mountain setting and to gain some insight into the personality of its builder, Queen Margherita.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

An exterior side view of Savoia Castle.

This castle was the project of the queen of Italy (Queen Margherita, widow of King Umberto I) and completed in 1904. She could escape the summer heat of Rome here in this gorgeous setting at the foot of the Italian Alps.

Queen Margherita, Aosta Valley, Italy

Photo of Queen Margherita (1851-1926). She was a smart, powerful figure who dealt with tremendous political turmoil in Italy at the time. Her husband, King Umberto I, was assassinated in 1900. Legend has it that the margherita pizza is named after her!

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The castle’s entry way leads to this beautiful staircase. Note the fine wood ceiling displaying the royal coat of arms (detail below).

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the castle’s first floor ceiling detail showing the coat of arms and other royal symbolism.

Savioa Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The outstanding woodwork and artwork of the railings, walls and ceiling above the staircase.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Billiard room in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Formal dining area of Savoia Castle. The preparation area is behind the wooden screens. The actual kitchens were separate from the main residence.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A reading alcove in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bedchamber in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bath. The castle had many conveniences not yet in wide use at the time (hot water, heating, electricity, plumbing).

The queen would spend her summers at the castle. She entertained guests here and even took them on sleigh rides in the winter in her unique sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The sleigh the queen used where riders would sit “side saddle” and could have a great conversation! There is a photo in the castle of her with guests on a mountain pass in the sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

This photo shows the dramatic mountain scenery and setting of Savoia Castle. Queen Margherita knew how to choose a location!

To visit the castle you must take a guided tour and they are offered in English only at certain times. However, when we visited, we were the only guests (it was a very rainy day) and even though an English tour was not scheduled at the time, the very kind guide was able to give us a tour and did her best to explain things in English–we were most appreciative. Photos are allowed without flash. There are also Botanical Gardens on the castle grounds, but given the wet weather we did not take the time to visit them.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Magical Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley)

In the northwest corner of Italy (north of Turin) lies a magical region that receives few tourists. The natural beauty of the Aosta Valley along its historical treasures makes it one of my (many) favorite spots in Italy.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the Aosta Valley from Pont-Saint-Martin, near the southern end of the Valley.

The snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, numerous waterfalls, castles and ancient Roman ruins all combine to make the Aosta Valley magical. The Valley leads north to the St. Bernard Pass and into Switzerland, an ancient route through the Alps that has been used since Roman times as a trade route and for invading forces (including Napoleon) to conquer the Italian peninsula. (Going west leads to Mount Blanc and into France).

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

First century CE Roman road and tunnel in the Aosta Valley. Ruts from chariots in the road are still visible.

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

Stairway leading up to the Roman road, with a carved column on the opposite rock wall.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another relic of ancient Roman times, Pont-Saint-Martin, gives the town its name.

Verrès, Aosta Valley, Italy

The town of Verrès, a beautiful small town that has a castle overlooking the town and valley.

Verrès Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Verrès Castle, a 14th century castle open to the public, sits on a rock outcropping above the town of Verrès (note the slate roofs on the right). Unfortunately I lost my camera here with its pictures of the castle’s interior! Luckily all my other pictures of Italy were backed up on a computer.

Because the Valley was such a popular thoroughfare for centuries, medieval lords built numerous castles in the Valley to protect their domains from invaders. Some of these castles are open for visitors while others are inaccessible due to their locations. As you drive through the Valley you’ll see castles on the surrounding hillsides.

Aosta Valley, Italy

There are castle ruins almost at every turn, overlooking the Aosta Valley.

Saint-Pierre Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Saint-Pierre Castle, near the northern end of the Valley. It is currently not open to the public.

Aosta Valley, Italy

Another old castle (I don’t know its name) in the Aosta Valley. There are about 70 castles surviving in the Valley, some of which are open to the public.

Sarre Royal Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of Aosta Valley with Sarre Royal Castle (18th century) on the left.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta. Not a bad setting for our continental breakfast!

More to come on this magical area. I will write separate posts on the town of Aosta, Bard Fortress, Fènis Castle and Savoia Castle. Stay tuned!

Portovenere – An Unexpected Bonus near the Cinque Terre

After a sunny picture-perfect first day, the weather turned a bit stormy during our 2nd day in the Cinque Terre. Since it wasn’t a good beach day, we decided we would visit the other Cinque Terre towns. Luckily, the weather was not so bad that the boat couldn’t run its route. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Cinque Terre, the small ferry boat is a great way to see four of the five Cinque Terre towns, and it includes a wonderful ‘bonus’ stop at the southern end of the route.

We purchased our tickets, got a copy of the schedule for timing our stops and hopped on the boat in Monterosso. We decided to go all the way to the end of the route first and work our way back, stopping in the towns we hadn’t visited yet on the return trip. The woman who sold us the tickets explained the ferry’s route and told us that Portovenere (the last stop) was quite a beautiful town, even though it’s not officially part of the Cinque Terre. She wasn’t joking. Portovenere (also spelled Porto Venere) became one of my favorite spots in this part of Italy. (You can also hike to Portovenere from Riomaggiore, the nearest Cinque Terre town, in about 2 hours).

The travel writer Rick Steves calls Portovenere “enchanting” and I would say that’s an accurate description. I was stunned with our first view of Porto Venere, an old medieval church perched on a rocky outcropping guarding the harbor entrance.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Arriving by sea from the Cinque Terre, the 13th century Church of Saint Peter (La Chiesa di San Pietro) is your first sight.

As we cruised further into the harbor, I could also see remnants of a castle fortress on the hill behind the town and an old wall with towers extending down the hill to the harbor. We hopped off the boat and wandered the town for a couple hours, which gave us time to visit the Church of Saint Peter, Castle Doria and explore a few of the old town streets.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of Portovenere from the inner harbor.

Portovenere was purchased by the city-state of Genoa in 1116, which ruled this part of the Italian peninsula and was a rival of Pisa [which is about 92 km (57 miles) further south with its famous Leaning Tower], and other Italian states at the time.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Walking up the rocking outcropping to the Church of Saint Peter.

Cinque Terre Porto Venere18

Interior of the Church of Saint Peter, which is actually two churches – the older part dates from the 9th century and the “newer” church (above) is 13th century, from the Genoese era.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the rugged coastline, cliffs and Castle Doria, taken near the Church of Saint Peter.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

Taking the stairs up into Castle Doria. There is not too much of the castle itself remaining, but the views of the surrounding area from the grounds are remarkable.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the castle grounds with the Church of Saint Peter in the distance. The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century as a coastal fortress.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

I love this view of the Church of Saint Peter with an old castle window in the foreground.

Porto Venere, Italy

Looking down on Portovenere’s harbor and the walls extending from the Castle, with the old town directly below.

After enjoying the great views from the castle grounds, we meandered through the old town on our way back down to the harbor. The Genoese left their mark on the town, including two churches from the 13th and 12th centuries, San Pietro (Saint Peter) and San Lorenzo.

Church of San Lorenzo, Porto Venere, Italy

The 12th century Church of San Lorenzo, another Genoese contribution to Portovenere. Over the main doorway (a little hard to see) is a sculpture of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo who was roasted alive on a grill. Yikes.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of a residential area near the Church of San Lorenzo.

Porto Venere, Italy

A focacceria with some yummy pastries and pizza and a window covering made out pasta! I wonder how the pasta holds up in a heavy rain?

Porto Venere, Italy

A light rain doesn’t deter tourists and shoppers in the old streets of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

A typical street scene in old town Portovenere, looking toward the medieval gate.

Porto Venere, Italy

Just outside the walled portion of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

I always love exploring new places and Portovenere didn’t disappoint. If you get to Cinque Terre, be sure to visit this great town too!

 

Some Tips for Visiting Cinque Terre

Let’s state the obvious…the word on Cinque Terre is out. Many years ago this little corner of Italy would have been a unique find – five colorful quaint villages hugging the coast overlooking the clear turquoise waters of the Ligurian Sea, all connected by hiking trails. While all of the above still holds true, just be prepared to share this “secret” with thousands of your closest friends. We were there in May and it was pretty busy. I cannot imagine what it would be like in July and August, when many Europeans take their holidays. Since the towns are small, there are not many hotel or B&B rooms available (and there’s really no place to build more) and hence why the rates are rising and more people are visiting Cinque Terre as a day trip from either the north (Levanto) or the south (La Spezia). We’ll share a few tips for your visit in this post.

What to Do

Because the towns are small, the main attraction are the towns themselves. Things to do in each are similar: exploring the little streets and alleyways, the town squares and shops, people watching (you will find tourists from all over the world), taking a peek in a few old churches or other buildings, sunbathing, eating wonderful food and gelato, and of course enjoying the local (white) wines. This area has been a wine producing region since Roman times.

Cinque Terre Manarola19

All kinds of interesting pastas were available at a shop in Manarola.

Here is a little bit about each of the five towns, from north to south.

Monterosso al Mare

This is where we stayed and it was a good choice for us. It is the largest of the five towns and has the most hotel rooms, the best and biggest sandy beaches with easy access, including parking. We were able to drive our rental car down into the town since we had a confirmed hotel reservation and the hotel had a tiny car park garage a short walk away (see more info below on transportation).

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy.

The beaches of Monterosso. The newer part of town is just in the distance.

There is a newer part of Monterosso (the north section, where our hotel was) and the older part (southern section) with more typical old world European ambience, separated from each other by a rocky point with a pedestrian tunnel (or you can hike up and around the point). Since we were only staying a couple nights the new section was fine for us and the hotel was very comfortable.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the rocky point that separates old Monterosso (show here) from the newer town (behind the point). An old convent sits above the town.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

Street scene in old town Monterosso.

Cinque Terre, Italy

A view along the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza. The hike took about 1.5 hours with lots of stops for photos (and to catch my breath). This is probably the most popular section of the trail between the towns. The trail had a lot of up and down sections, so be prepared to burn some calories. Please note that a Parco Nationale della Cinque Terre pass is required to hike the trail. Better to pay the €7 fee than to pay a fine if caught without the Pass. There is a little booth right by the trail a short distance south of Monterosso to get your ticket and there are probably other locations on the trail or in the towns too.

Vernazza

Perhaps the most scenic village (a very difficult call), with a little castle and tower overlooking the bay and the town center. Vernazza is probably the second most popular location for staying in the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from the trail leading north to Monterosso.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the little beach in Vernazza.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from Castle Doria.

Cinque Terre Vernazza31

Inside the church in Vernazza, which dates from 1318.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

An alleyway in Vernazza, with a cat checking things out!

Corniglia

We did not visit this town since it is more difficult to access (there is no boat connection) and my guess is for that reason it is the quietest of the five towns.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Corniglia.

With more time, we would have hiked to the Corniglia from Vernazza. You can also hike to other locations from Corniglia via a higher trail that connects town above the Cinque Terre. Because it is a bit more remote, Corniglia attracts more backpacker tourists.

Manarola

The best views of Manarola are from the northern side of the tiny bay, from a little park that overlooks the town and bay (Punta Bonfiglio).

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from Punta Bonfiglio.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from the upper town looking towards the harbor.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Boats are parked like cars in Manarola.

I believe that the trail along the coast between Manarola and Corniglia is closed, as is the section between Manarola and Riomaggiore. This is a real bummer since the hike in both directions from Manarola would be pretty easy. The closures are due to slides and unsafe trail conditions. It is not clear when or if these trails will reopen.

Riomaggiore

Probably the third prettiest town after Vernazza, once again a very tough call. I thought the little harbor was so unique and scenic.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Another view of Riomaggiore from an upper street.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Stairway in Riomaggiore.

Some Practical Advice about Transportation
There are three ways to get from town to town: 1) a “hop on, hop off” type of boat service, which I heartily recommend; 2) train service, which is fast, crowded, somewhat pricey and less scenic; 3) taking a hike between the towns (note the trail closures mentioned above). Hiking a least one section of the trail should be on your list of “to-do’s”.

Cinque Terre Manarola0

A view of the passenger unloading process at Manarola.

Cars are worthless here. The roads are extremely narrow, steep and curvy down into the towns. There is almost no place to park, and you will probably be stopped on the road above each town, with the police telling you not to attempt the drive down. Check with your hotel or B&B beforehand on what to do if you are traveling by car. The boat service allowed us to “hop on and hop off” all day long, and provides great views of the coastline along the way. Keep in mind that the boat service will not be operational in the winter. Also, the boat does not stop at Corniglia since there is no dock access. Keep your boat ticket in a safe place! We used the train once from Vernazza back to Monterosso. It is busy and is the main transportation method between the five towns and into and out of the Cinque Terre. In some cases you’ll have to hike a bit from the train stations into the towns – there is only so much room. It must have been a huge job to build the train tracks through these rugged hills and coastline.

The boat service did provide a ‘bonus’ stop (probably my favorite place in this region) that I will discuss in my next Italy post!

 

Urbino — Birthplace of Raphael and Home of the Palazzo Ducale

From the Republic of San Marino we headed south and visited one other town in the afternoon before heading back to our home base in Ravenna, Italy. Urbino is about 45 km (28 miles) south of San Marino, via a winding country road that meanders through the hills and valleys of this beautiful region of Italy.

Urbino, Italy

View of Urbino from the west.

The main tourist sight in Urbino is the Palazzo Ducale, considered Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance Palace, built for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino from 1444-1482. One of Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists, Raphael, was born in Urbino in 1483, and thankfully he is represented in the Ducal Palace through some of his works as well as those of his talented father.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

It’s difficult to get an overall view of the Ducal Palace due to its location in the heart of Urbino.

The Palace is in the center of the hilltop medieval town of Urbino. It contains a number of priceless works of art, including paintings, tapestries and beautiful three dimensional inlaid wood panels.

Urbino Duomo, Urbino, Italy

Urbino’s Cathedral (Duomo) with the Ducal Palace visitor’s entrance on the left.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The inlaid woodwork gives a 3D look to the walls of the Studiolo, the former study of the Duke. The artist Botticelli is said to have designed some of the images in this room.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Another inlaid wood panel in the Studiolo.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

One more panel in the Studiolo. It feels like you can walk right through the porch and out into the landscape.

Angels' Room, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The Angels’ Room, one of 500 rooms in the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

A Great Hall in the Ducal Palace.

La Muta, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Raphael’s La Muta (or Portrait of a Gentlewoman), oil on wood, from about 1507. One of the great paintings housed in the Ducal Palace, and often compared to the Mona Lisa. Raphael died at the young age of 37, but left an amazing legacy of art in that short lifetime.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The entire first floor of the Palace is filled with fine Renaissance art.

Cortile d'Onore, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Central Courtyard of the Ducal Palace (Cortile d’Onore).

In addition to the main rooms of the Palace, the basement level contains stables, kitchens and storage areas that are worth a look.

Ducal Palace basement, Urbino, Italy

Hallway leading through the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

This is a cistern-like ‘refrigerator’ in the basement of the Palace. Snow would be packed in here during the winter to keep stores fresh for months.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Washing/kitchen area underneath the Ducal Palace.

Horse stables, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Horse stable area and storage facilities in the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Toilet area near the stables. The servants would sleep in this area too!

The Ducal Palace was pretty quiet with just a few visitors roaming. Urbino is another Italian town that has few tourists in May. The town of 24,000 inhabitants, is largely made up of students at Urbino’s university, the primary ‘industry’ in town.

Urbino, Italy

Street scene, Urbino.

Urbino, Italy

One of the steep narrow streets in Urbino.

We enjoyed wandering the streets after visiting the Palace–be prepared to get some exercise!

A Tour of Ravenna–A Roman and Byzantine Marvel

From our stay in Ferrara (Italy) we moved on to Ravenna, about 87 km (54 miles) southeast, near the Adriatic Sea and not too far south of Venice. Ravenna has been on my bucket list for a long time. It has a glorious history as the capital of the western of Roman Empire between the fall of Rome (5th century CE) and the rise of Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul). The main tourist sights are the beautiful early Christian mosaics found in the churches and baptistries from the 5th – 6th centuries, amazingly still intact. They are incredible!

Shown below are most of most main sights to see in Ravenna.

Basilica di San Vitale

This church is probably the most stunning of all the locations. The mosaics date from 526 – 547 CE, and look like they were finished yesterday.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Vitale, which may have been designed by someone from Constantinople.

San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The apse of San Vitale – perhaps the most stunning mosaics in all of Ravenna. One has to just stand there in awe and absorb all the detailed work that went into creating these murals.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

A close-up of the mosaics in San Vitale, showing stories from the Old Testament of Abel and Melchizedek making offerings.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

Right next to San Vitale is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Despite its name, this structure became a private chapel rather than a tomb. The Mausoleo was begun in 430 CE.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of the Mausoleo. The alabaster windows were an early 20th century gift from the King of Italy.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

One other view of the interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Battistero Neoniano (Neonian Baptistry)

This is Ravenna’s oldest monument, from the early part of the 5th century CE. It is located next to Ravenna’s Duomo (cathedral) and the very cool 10th century leaning bell tower.

Neonian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy

The Neoniano Baptistry is on the right, the leaning 10th century bell tower is in the background and the Duomo on the left.

Battistero Neoniano, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of the Battistero Neoniano, showing the baptism of Jesus in the ceiling of the dome.

Ravenna Duomo, Ravenna, Italy

Although not part of the historical tour ticket, this is an interior view of Ravenna’s Duomo, located next to the Battistero Neoniano. The Duomo has been rebuilt over the centuries, the current structure dates from the 18th century.

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

This is a 6th century CE church, named for the first bishop of Ravenna, and it has a bit different feel to it than the other monuments above (rectangular, lighter and more open). It was constructed by Theodoric the Great, as his palace chapel. It is also included as part of the combination ticket. There are mosaics of scenes from Christ’s birth, his miracles and resurrection as well as representations of numerous saints and martyrs in this church.

Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo church (6th century CE).

Sant' Apollinare Church, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of Sant’ Apollinare Church. On the left lower panel is a procession of 22 virgins traveling towards the Madonna and Child (located near the apse).

Sant' Apollinare interior, Ravenna, Italy

This image captures part of the succession of martyrs (lower panel), opposite from the procession of the virgins. The structure to the right of the martyrs represents the Palace of Theodoric.

To visit the main sights above, go to the tourist office in the old town, and purchase a ticket (€11.50 at the time of our visit) and a map of the sights included.

ravenna-battistero-neoniano1

This sign, at one of the main sights, shows the places included in the combination ticket.

The streets are also pretty well marked, with arrows pointing and providing directions towards the main churches.

ravenna sant' apollinare nuovo4

Example of a street sign providing directions to the sights.

Keep in mind that you will be walking quite a bit, although the points of interest are not too far apart and can be easily visited in 2/3 of a day. During our visit in May, the sights were not crowded, there were no lines to enter any of the churches. However, later in the summer, it will likely be quite a bit busier, we saw ropes to handle long lines at least at a couple of the more popular locations.

In addition to the sights above, there are some other places you should see in Ravenna.

Battistero degli Ariani

I’m not sure why this little late-5th century CE baptistry is not part of the ticket above, but it’s worth taking a look. I think it cost €1 to visit. It is located a few blocks from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Battistero degli Ariani.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

The cupola of the Battistero degli Ariani, showing the Apostles ringed around baptism of Christ.

Basilica di San Francesco and Dante’s Tomb

The Italian poet Dante died in Ravenna in 1321, and his tomb is just to the side of the Basilica di San Francesco, which is also worth a visit for its flooded crypt.

Basilica di San Francesco, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Basilica of San Francesco. Dante’s tomb is on the left side, out of view of this photo. The church was built between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, and then underwent modifications a couple hundred years later.

Basilica San Francesco crypt, Ravenna, Italy

The flooded 10th century crypt (complete with gold fish) in the Basilica di San Francesco. You pay 1 euro to have the crypt illuminated. The marshy land and high water table in Ravenna has kept the crypt flooded for centuries.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Dante’s tomb.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of Dante’s tomb, he was 56 years old when he died.

San Giovanni Evangelista

This church, close to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was rebuilt over the centuries, and has some very interesting fragments of old mosaics along its aisles.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of San Giovanni Evangelista, which looks similar to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Examples of the mosaic fragments in San Giovanni Evangelista.

Everywhere you turn in Ravenna, there is something interesting to see…

Ravenna, Italy

An old Roman building on a street corner in Ravenna.

The old town has a pleasant main square, with restaurants surrounding it.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna’s main square, Piazza del Popolo.

Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna street scene. In the afternoon, the streets are pretty quiet, until the residents come out for their evening stroll.

We stayed in a lovely B&B just south of the old town, perhaps a 1/3 mile walk to the center of the old town.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

Bologna – the Other Italian City with Leaning Towers

We all have heard about the leaning tower in Pisa, Italy, but have you heard of the leaning towers in Bologna? While these towers may be less famous, they are the signature feature of this beautiful city, which is located roughly halfway between Florence and Venice. Two of the most famous towers in Bologna are Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, which are mere feet from each other. These towers were built in the 12th century by two important families, trying to outdo each other by the height of their towers, as a way of demonstrating their power and wealth.

Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

The Asinelli and Garisenda towers. It is difficult to get a photo of these two towers given the proximity of all the surrounding buildings.

The tallest, Asinelli, can be climbed, but get your ticket in advance. We got ours on my phone while waiting in line, not knowing how busy it would be and we were lucky to get a ticket for an immediately available time. These towers are probably the busiest spot in Bologna from a tourist standpoint. Otherwise, Bologna is fairly quiet.

Asinelli Torre, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Asinelli Torre. As can be seen, it leans a bit to the left in this photo.

From the top, you get an amazing view of Bologna and look down on the Torre Garisenda, which had to be shortened by about 36 feet in the 14th century due to its significant lean.

Asinelli and Garisenda towers, Bologna, Italy

Looking down from the top of Asinelli tower towards the Garisenda tower.

Bologna, Italy

A view of Bologna’s skyline and a few other surviving towers from the top of Torre Asinelli. At one point there were 200 towers in Bologna, they must have been quite a sight.

Bologna, Italy

Another view from the top of Torre de Asinelli looking towards San Petronio Church, which can also be climbed for a great view of the leaning towers, shown below.

Torre Asinelli, Bologna, Italy

A view of some of the 500 steps descending from the top of Torre Asinelli.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda towers. Torre Garisenda (the shorter) leans 10 feet off of vertical. Torre Asinelli is 318 feet high and the fourth highest medieval tower in Italy.

In addition to the towers, there are lots of other fun sights to visit in Bologna. Several of these are described below.

San Petronio Basilica

This church, named after Saint Petronius, who was bishop of Bologna in the 5th century, was founded in 1390 and was originally intended to be larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Funding for the building was diverted for other purposes and the church was scaled down and never fully completed.

San Petronio, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of San Petronio. The facade was never finished.

San Petronio Church, Bologna, Italy

The immense interior of San Petrino, with 22 chapels off the main aisle. A bit hard to see, but in the lower left of the photo is a meridian line, drawn by the astronomer Cassini in 1655, providing a precise solar method to determine a day of the year.

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

Piazza Maggiore, next to the San Petronio Basilica.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano

A connected maze of four medieval churches, known as Abbazia di Santo Stefano, was one of my favorite sights in Bologna. There is a long history of churches on this site, originally dating back to about 80 CE. Over a thousand years, the site expanded with additional chapels and other structures.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, located just a short walk from the leaning towers.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The 11th century church of the Crocifisso, part of the Abbazia di Santo Stefano complex.

San Sepolcro, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

San Sepolcro, containing the tomb of Saint Petronius, is polygonal in shape, not unlike the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

One of the courtyards in Abbazia di Santo Stefano. Note the intricate brick design on the exterior of the San Sepolcro.

Fontana di Pilato, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The Fontana di Pilato in another courtyard of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, with a basin from the 8th century.

Bologna University

Bologna is home to the oldest university in continuous operation in Europe, founded in 1088. A few rooms are open to the public and a couple of these are shown below.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

This is the Anatomy Theater, the cadaver would lie on the table shown for dissection and study by students in the surrounding galleries.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

The “3-D” ceiling of the Anatomy Theater at Bologna University.

Stabat Mater Hall, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

Stabat Mater Hall, a former reading room for law students.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church

Another beautiful church, not too far from the towers is the 13th century San Giacomo Maggiore Church. The Bentivoglio family chapel within, consecrated in 1486, has famous 15th century frescoes.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

Exterior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church, with its porticoed walkway on the left side, so common in Bologna.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

The interior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church. The church contains numerous famous works of art.

Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Bentivoglio family chapel, with the famous “Triumph of Death” fresco by Lorenzo Costa (1483).

Bologna is a great city to visit with a lot to interest the tourist, and yet it receives far fewer visitors than its more famous neighbors to the north and south respectively, Venice and Florence. If you want to stay in a smaller city, Bologna can be done as a day trip from Ferrara, about 52 km (32 miles) to the north.

Bologna, Italy

Street scene in Bologna, with the 13th century Palazzo del Podesta at the end of the street.

Neptune's Fountain, Bologna, Italy

Neptune’s Fountain, (1566), another famous landmark in Bologna.