Things to do in Italy

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.

Aosta Valley – The Mighty Bard Fortress

One of the great attractions in the Aosta Valley, Italy (see my overview of Aosta Valley here) is Bard Fortress. Named for the lords of Bard, it is a massive, stern-looking fortress complex sitting atop of a rocky outcropping in the narrow Aosta Valley along side the Dora Baltea river. It demands attention as you drive by.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Bard Fortress complex. You take a series of trams to the top, known as Opera Carlo Alberto Headquarters, which in its military capacity housed a church, hospital, barracks and storage rooms.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Taking a tram up to the fortress – it’s worth the ride just for the views.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress is built right on top of the rock – it must have taken some effort to get the foundation secured!

This strategic spot has been a defensive outpost since the 5th century CE and Bard Fortress sits atop ruins of past castles. It was a perfect place to control traffic passing through the Valley from Switzerland or France into Italy. There have been numerous conflicts here over the centuries ranging from the Goths and Burgunds, to the Lombards and Franks trying to seize control of this route and territory.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress commands an impressive view of the Aosta Valley, this view is looking north.

Control of the passes through the Alps was critical to protecting pilgrims working their way south to Rome and the passage of goods flowing from southern to northern Europe as well as marking geographic boundaries for numerous kingdoms.

Napoleon, who became Emperor of France and conqueror of most of Europe, laid siege to the Fort on the 19th of May, 1800. Four hundred soldiers at the fort held back his army of 40,000 for nearly two weeks.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Covered passageway in the fortress to move soldiers and goods from one level to the next.

It wasn’t until Napoleon was able to get a 12 inch cannon blasting away on the 29th of May that the fort finally was destroyed and the small defending force surrendered on June 1st, a few days later. The fortress was rebuilt in 1830.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Some of the prison cells located in Bard Fortress.

Thousands were imprisoned here at Bard Fortress in World War I. More recently it was used as a movie set in Marvel’s Avengers – Age of Ultron and the buildings now house exhibits, museums and music performances throughout the year.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

A sign commemorating Bard Fortress as a movie set location.

Bard Medieval Village      

As interesting as the Fortress is, the little medieval village (Bard village) nestled below it is fun to explore too – many of the buildings date back to the 14th century and have signs providing historical information.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

A street in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

An old stairway in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Pockmarks remain from past battles in the streets of Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Remnants of 14th century decorative paintings on a building in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

One more street scene in Bard Village.

Bard Fortress and the medieval village should be on your list if you visit the Aosta Valley!

 

 

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!

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!