Visiting Italy

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part II

There is so much to see in Milan, one post cannot cover it all. This post covers three churches that really are worth a visit (in addition to the Milan Cathedral), along with a couple other spots we enjoyed, shown at the end of the post.

Santa Maria delle Grazie – The Last Supper

This is a 15th century convent, and home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (known in Italian as Cenacolo), one of his most famous works of art and unfortunately one that has not stood up well to the test of time, due to the experimental technique Leonardo used – painting on dry plaster rather than wet. The fresco started deteriorating almost immediately. Also, the church was bombed in World War II but amazingly the wall with this painting survived intact – thank goodness.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of the Last Supper.

The Last Supper painting by Leonard da Vinci, Milan, Italy

The Last Supper (1495-1498) painting covers an entire end of the convent’s refectory (dining) room. Leonardo’s use of perspective gives the painting depth, almost like the scene is a continuation of the refectory. Some bright person decided to cut a doorway into the lower part of the painting back in 1652.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

A closer view of the Last Supper – Jesus’ apostles asking “is it I?” when he announces one of them will betray him.

The Crucifixion, Giovanni Donato, Milan, Italy.

At the other end of the refectory is another painting, entitled the Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato, 1495. It does not receive near the attention of the Last Supper, but is another amazing work of art.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent (which does not require any reservation or fee).

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

It’s worth spending a few minutes wandering around the main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, there are many other beautiful works of art here.

Note: You must have a reservation to see the Last Supper; we booked our tickets in March for a May trip. Reservations can only be made 60 days in advance, and a limited number of people are allowed to see the painting at one time (groups of 25 or so). The small group was great, because it did not feel crowded in the room, but you are only allowed 15 minutes in the refectory and then ushered out. The site to secure your tickets/reservations is here. The Convent is west of the Milan’s center, we took a metro train to the nearest stop and walked about 15 minutes to the Convent.

Leonardo da Vinci statue, Milan, Italy

This statue of Leonardo da Vinci is just north of Milan’s main piazza and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. He was an artist, inventor, scientist, and so much more.

Sant’ Ambrogio (St. Ambrose)

This church is named after a 4th century bishop of Milan. I loved this old Church, which is a bit off the main tourist route. It’s ancient (the current 11th century structure is built on top of the original 4th century church), and houses a priceless 9th century altar decorated with gold, silver and precious stones.

Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Entrance to the 11th century Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio. There are Roman and Byzantine artifacts scattered around the covered porticos.

Altar, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

The 9th century altar in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio, decorated with gold, silver, gems and pearls. In World War II, it was transported to the Vatican for safekeeping.

Sarcophagus, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Near the amazing altar, a 4th century marble sarcophagus sits underneath the pulpit in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

This monastery, which no longer serves as a church, is now a free art museum. The interior is stunning, and it would take weeks to absorb all the artwork.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Close up of a painting of the story of Noah’s Ark, in the Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Sforza Castle

With everything else we were doing in our short time in Milan, we did not take the time to visit the interior of this castle which is now a museum. It is massive, and impressive from the exterior.The castle is just two metro stops northwest of the main piazza.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Sforza Castle, with a dry moat.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Interior courtyard of Sforza Castle.

Milan’s Canals

If you really want to get off the beaten track, check out Milan’s canals. I didn’t even know that Milan had canals, but we discovered these in our exploration of Milan. No tourists out here, and we found a great little shop with a variety of Arancini (or Arancina) that we had to sample!

Canal, Milan, Italy

A canal in Milan. The canals are south of the central piazza about a mile or perhaps 1.5 miles. We enjoyed the walk through the less touristy part of Milan.

Arancini, Milan, Italy.

A shop with a tasty variety of arancini, they are breaded, deep-fried rice balls filled with a variety of items – meat, sauce, ham, cheese, etc. This fun food is originally from Sicily.

Milan Duomo, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part I

Milan feels a world apart from the other areas of northern Italy I’ve described in my most recent posts. The mountains, lakes and small villages of northern Italy seem a far away place when one is in Milan. Milan is to Italy what New York is to the U.S. – a center of fashion, business and finance. For the tourist, there is a lot to see, and Milan is worth a day or two for the tourist, before or after visiting the surrounding lakes and mountains. Listed below are just a few sights, I will cover others including the renown Last Supper fresco in “Visiting Milan, Italy Part II”.

A good place to start your visit is in the heart of Milan, at the Piazza del Duomo, home of the huge Milan Duomo (Cathedral) and the predecessor of today’s shopping malls – the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Duomo (Cathedral)

This is the #1 tourist sight in Milan. The cathedral is huge – 514 feet long, 301 ft across. Highly recommended is a visit to the roof – you can walk on the roof among the forest of spires, statues, and gargoyle figures with great views of the surrounding Piazza and cityscape–almost like being the hunchback of Notre Dame! I can’t imagine how all the weight of the marble stone work (and people!) has been successfully supported for over 6 centuries! As shown in the images below, there’s lots to see above, below and in the main cathedral, so plan a couple hours for your visit to the Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

One of the many interesting figures on the roof of the Duomo.

Milan Duomo roof

The massiveness of the Duomo is felt as you wander through the archways and flying buttresses on the roof.

Milan Duomo

Getting up close and personal with the beautiful stone work on the roof of the Milan Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

A view of the Piazza del Duomo from the roof of the Duomo, looking west. The entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is to the right, under the short towers.

Milan Cathedral (Duomo)

Exterior view of the Milan Cathedral – it’s so large that it’s hard to get a good perspective on this marvel of engineering and art.

Milan Cathedral interior.

Interior of the Milan Cathedral – 52 pillars support the weight of the roof and expansive ceiling. The stained glass, statues, carvings and huge space all contribute to a feeling of awe.

Milan Catheral, Italy

Another interior view of the Milan Duomo. As can be seen, the restoration and upkeep work (with netting and scaffolding) on this size of building is never done.

San Bartolomeo, Milan Cathedral, Italy

A statue of San Bartolomeo (the apostle Bartholomew) with his own skin draped around him (legend says that his martyrdom was the result of his being skinned alive).

Milan Cathedral Museum, Italy

Your visit to the Duomo includes a visit to the interesting Duomo museum, well worth the time for a wander through. Some of the relics here are from ancient churches that existed on this spot prior to the present cathedral.

Milan Duomo Museum, Italy

Also in the Duomo Museum is a scale wooden model of the cathedral, used by the architects and engineers to build the actual cathedral. The model’s front facade is somewhat different from the final result.

Milan Cathedral Archeological museum, Italy

As is the case for many European cathedrals, the current Milan Duomo is built on top of earlier churches, and a visit below the current structure allows one to see excavations, such as this 4th century octagonal baptistry.

 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Located just a few steps from the Duomo, is perhaps the world’s first covered shopping mall – the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, this symbol of Milan dates back to 1865 (completed in 1878). The Galleria is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Kingdom of Italy (1861 – 1878). It has an expansive glass ceiling, mosaic floors and expensive shops and restaurants (and of course a McDonalds!), and the occasional model posing, since this is the fashion capital of Italy (if not the world!).

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy.

View of the interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its beautiful 19th century architecture and glass ceiling.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, Milan, Italy

A photo shoot in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, showing the mosaic floors along with this redhead model!

 

Street Scenes of Milan

Northeast of the Duomo is the where the high end shopping action is, and with the ‘guards’ at the store entrances, I didn’t even feel comfortable walking into the shops, plus in our travel clothes we felt a bit underdressed! The main ritzy shopping streets are Via Montenapoleone and Via Spiga. Bring your (fat) wallet and drive your McLaren up to the door and you’ll fit right in.

McLaren, Milan Italy.

Drive this little McLaren 720 S around Milan and you can park where you want while you do your shopping!

Milan, Italy Shopping

One of the window displays on Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

Another window display along Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

This chocolate display looks very tasty!

MIlan Italy

For those of us with dreams but few Euros, you can be entertained by the street performers in Milan.

In my next post we’ll cover some other interesting sights in Milan, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Cenacolo).

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!

 

Visiting “The Most Serene Republic of San Marino” – Europe’s 3rd Smallest Country

As a day trip from Ravenna, we drove south about 78 km (48 miles) to the hilltop Republic of San Marino. As we sped down the motorway, we could see the striking Monte  Titano in the distance and wondered if it was the little country of San Marino. Sure enough, it was, and what a sight. San Marino’s location is one of the most scenic spots in the Italian peninsula, and the country lives up to its formal name.

Mt. Titano, San Marino, Italy

A view of the Monte Titano and the fortifications of Guaita Castle as you approach from Borgomaggiore, the largest town in San Marino.

San Marino is the oldest Republic in Europe. It is only 7 miles (12 km) across at its widest spot (about 23 sq. miles overall), and the 3rd smallest country in Europe (after the Vatican and Monaco) and the 5th smallest country in the world. You can learn more about this little country here. Other than a bridge noting the border you would have no idea you’ve entered a different country.

San Marino0

The road border crossing. San Marino on the left, Italy on the right.

From the border on the eastern side, we drove up (and up) the mount until we reached a parking area right below the town of San Marino.

San Marino3

One of the car parks below the town of San Marino. We had no trouble finding a parking spot in May. You can also take a cable car to the top of Monte Titano.

From the car park we walked up into the town of San Marino, which like so many old walled European towns is very enchanting.

City Gate, San Marino, Italy

One of the old gates into the hilltop town of San Marino.

San Marino, Italy

Nearly every street in San Marino provides a postcard view.

San Marino, Italy

Another street scene in San Marino.

As you climb the narrow streets, you will come to Liberty Square, the main plaza in San Marino and the seat of the national government.

Public Palace, San Marino, Italy

A view of the Public Palace, home of San Marino’s General Council or Parliament, and other government officials. Under this square are ancient water cisterns, extremely important for a fortified hilltop medieval citadel.

One of the most striking features of San Marino is its amazing fortress, Guaita, that sits at the top of the town, on the eastern cliff edge of Monte Titano. The fortress consists of three towers, you can buy a ticket that allows you access to all three.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

This view is from the 2nd tower of Guaita Fortress, looking north to the main or 1st tower, also called Rocca Tower.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

This view is also from the 2nd tower, looking south to the 3rd tower on the next hilltop ridge. The surrounding countryside is beautiful in May.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

This is a close up view of the 2nd tower of Guaita Fortress.

I have to say the view from the fortress of the surrounding countryside is one of the most beautiful views in Italy.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

Climbing up to the Rocca tower from the 2nd tower.

Guita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

The main tower (known as Rocca Tower) of Guaita Fortress, is built on top of a narrow rock outcropping on Mt. Titano. You climb up a narrow steep stairway to get to the top.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

The fortress grounds are well manicured.

San Marino, Italy

View of San Marino and the surrounding countryside from the top of the Rocca tower.

Guaita Fortress museum, San Marino, Italy

Inside Guaita Fortress is a small museum and a prison.

Guaita Fortress, San Marino, Italy

One of the prison cells in Guaita Fortress. The paintings were done by 19th century prisoners. Prisoners had to pay for their keep here, and punishments were harsh. The “rack” and lashings were commonly used. In 1821, San Marino abolished these forms of punishment. The death penalty was outlawed by San Marino’s Parliament in 1848.

San Marino takes its name from a monk, Saint Marinus, who fled persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century CE and came to this (at the time) remote spot. The mountain (Monte Titano) was given to him in appreciation for his acts of healing. Saint Marinus died in 301 CE.

Mt. Titano, San Marino

This wooden stairway leads up to the little cave-like area where Saint Marinus lived. It is on the north side of Monte Titano.

Saint Marinus Cave, San Marino, Italy

The lovely view from Saint Marinus’ cave, looking northeast to the Adriatic Sea in the distance.

Basilica of Saint Marinus, San Marino, Italy

The 19th century Basilica of Saint Marinus, in the town of San Marino is built on the remains of a medieval church and contains an urn with the bones of Saint Marinus, which were found in the 1500’s.

If your travels take you down the east coast of Italy, be sure to visit San Marino. You can see a new country, take in incredible views, visit a great medieval fortress and town, all in one place!

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.

 

Ferrara, A Non-Touristy Gem in Italy

Located in northern Italy only 112 km (70 miles) south of Venice or 108 km southeast of Verona is the “undiscovered gem” of Ferrara. This town isn’t really on the tourist map and is one of those places I love finding and exploring. The vibe in Ferrara felt “authentic”, with just a handful of tourists and primarily locals going about their daily business. It is a compact old city, easy to explore in one day.

Ferrara, Italy

A view of central Ferrara from a tower of Estense Castle.

The two main sights in Ferrara are Estense Castle and the Duomo, both adjacent to the main piazza (town square). In addition to these sights, we enjoyed wandering the back alleys, which felt like they had not changed much in a few hundred years.

Estense Castle

Ferrara is home to one of the great castles in Italy, right in the heart of the town.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Street view of Estense Castle.

The castle was constructed in 1385, and although it has undergone many remodels since, it has the classic features that one would expect in a medieval castle–moat, dungeons, kitchens, halls and courtyards.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

One of the castle’s halls. The mirrors on the main floor allow the visitor to get a closer look at the marvelous ceiling paintings.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Stone cannon balls in the castle courtyard.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Entrance to one of the dungeons in Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Prisoner graffiti in one of the castle’s dungeons. One prisoner spent 43 years here, and when he left he was proudly wearing clothes that were 43 years out of fashion!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

The castle’s kitchen, with room for the fires below and the big pots above on the counter.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Two levels of dungeon doors, you didn’t want to get on the bad side of the d’Este family!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Another view of the castle, with draw bridges – a difficult place to attack!

The d’Este family, who ruled Ferrara hundreds of years, built this castle and imprisoned their political enemies here. There were also at least two executions.

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Illustrated bible of the d’Este family. The family, although ruthless, was a great patron of the arts.

Ferrara Duomo (Cathedral)
Unfortunately the 12th century Duomo exterior and interior were undergoing restoration work during our visit, but we were still able to see the interior.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

Interior view of the Ferrara Duomo.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

One of the chapels in the Duomo.

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Interesting display in the Duomo. Note the diversity of figures all working together on restoring the church.

The facade of the Duomo is one of the great architectural achievements of early renaissance Italy and I wish it would have been visible! Look it up.

Piazza Municipale and Surrounding Area

This is the central town square and like most in Italy, it is beautiful, with the Duomo on one side and the Palazzo del Commune (palace) on another side.

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara, Italy

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara. The Duomo is on the right. The Palazzo del Comune is straight ahead. Note the old medieval shops nestled right next to the Duomo.

Ferrara, Italy

A shopping street in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy.

One of many quiet alleyways in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara has an interesting feel to it, with the quiet cobblestone streets and old brick buildings.

Practical Matters

We stayed in a 15th century apartment (Nel cuore di Ferrara, you can find it on various accommodation booking sites), located about 5-10 minutes walking from the main piazza. What a quaint setting it was, in an old house with an enclosed courtyard and exposed ancient wood beams.

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Our apartment in Ferrara.

ferrara famous bread

This bread is a trademark of Ferrara, but we didn’t find it all that great, kind of dry, more like a cracker!

Ferrara, Italy

Another delicious Italian meal in Ferrara!

Like many Italian cities, Ferrara has a ZTL (zone of limited traffic) which means that you must park outside the city walls and walk to the center of town (only 10-15 minutes). I am glad Italy has created the ZTL’s, they remove noise, pollution and traffic from the city centers. But be careful, unless you have a pass, you will get a steep fine if you drive in the ZTL area.

We made Ferrara our home base for a couple of days, visiting Bologna (only 50 km or 31 miles) from here, which also is not overrun with tourists – this will be my next post. We like staying in smaller towns which are easy to get in and out of. Ferrara is also close to Modena, home of Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, if you’re an Italian car enthusiast.

Verona – Beyond Romeo and Juliet

Located about halfway between Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Verona can be visited as a day trip from those locations, but this magical city deserves more time than just a day trip.

Verona, Italy

Street scene in Verona

Although Verona is most famous for being the setting of the story of Romeo and Juliet (Giulietta in Italian), the city has much more to offer, like all of Italy.

Roman Verona

Of course there are reminders of Roman times, including a huge arena which is still in use, a bridge, a gate, and walls and foundations underneath the streets and churches.

Roman Amphitheater, Verona, Italy

Verona is home to the third largest amphitheater in the Roman world. It dates from the 1st century C.E. It is located in the spacious Piazza Bra, near the old city walls.

Old city walls, Verona, Italy

Part of the old city walls, near the Roman Amphitheater.

Roman ruins, Verona, Italy

Roman foundations below the current street level.

Roman gate, Verona, Italy

Roman gate in Verona.

Verona, Italy

The bridge in the foreground is of Roman origin, it was partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Verona’s Cathedral (Duomo) stands out with its tower.

It is easy to see why the Romans chose this spot – Verona sits on a u-shaped bend of the Adige River, providing a natural defensive setting, an ample supply of water and a central location that would become a hub for major trade routes across northern Italy, through the Alps and into the rest of Europe.

Map of Verona, Italy

Old map of Verona, showing its defensive position along the Adige River.

Other Sights

The only tourist sight that was crowded in Verona was the (supposed) house of Juliet, with its famous balcony (O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?). There is no confirmed link between this building and the story of the two doomed lovers.

Juliet's home, Verona, Italy.

The courtyard of Juliet’s “home” which was a 13th century inn.

Verona House of Juliet0

Graffiti on the walls from zillions of tourists passing by, with their stories and symbols of love, leading into Juliet’s courtyard. The panels are changed twice a year to allow more room for memories. The panels keep tourists from writing on Juliet’s house itself.

The rest of this city with its multiple treasures was pretty quiet. In Verona, one can find beautiful piazzas, interesting churches, a castle and huge city walls, along with the magnificent natural setting.

Pizza Erbe, Verona, Italy

Verona’s Piazza Erbe has been a center of activity going back to Roman times.

Sant'Anastasia, Verona, Italy

In the 13th century church of Sant’Anastasia we find this beggar figure supporting the holy water stoup, carved in 1495.

San Zeno bronze door panels, Vernona, Italy

The 12th century church of San Zeno, just outside the old city, houses many treasures including these 11th and 12th century bronze door panels containing biblical scenes.

Verona Duomo San Giovanni, Italy

In Verona’s Duomo (cathedral) complex, there is an 8th century baptistry, carved with biblical scenes.

Piazza Signori, Verona, Italy

Another of Verona’s Piazzas, Piazza Signori. The crenellated brick building was the 13th century Scaligeri family residence, the ruling aristocrats of Verona.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy

Verona’s medieval castle (Castelvecchio) is now an art museum. At Castelvecchio, a passageway leads to a pedestrian bridge over the Adige River, heading west out of the old city.

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The Castelvecchio Bridge.

Of course you can find fantastic gelato and even British-like chips (french fries). Just about everything a tourist could want!

Verona Chips2

Hard to pass up those almost British chips in Verona!

Finding spots with fewer tourists was part of our quest on this most recent trip to northern Italy. Most tourists concentrate their time in Rome, Florence and Venice, and while I understand why those spots are popular, there is so much more to see in this stunning country. In future posts, I will share some additional less-visited gems, all hiding in plain sight.

Put Verona on your list of places to see in Italy, it is just 115 km (or 71 miles) west of Venice or 156 km (or 97 miles) east of Milan.