Posts Tagged ‘italy’

Venice – Five Things

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Ahh…the romance of Venice. The mysterious canals, hidden corners, and artistic treasures make it easy to fall in love with one of Italy’s most picturesque cities. Famous for its Carnivale, Venice has much to offer travelers all year round.

Venice in the soft light of early morning Photo: Jessica Engler

Venice in the soft light of early morning Photo: Jessica Engler

Here are five things you might not know about Venice:

— The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its architectural integrity and for the presence of some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

— The Doge’s Palace was not only the seat of Venetian goverment until the Napoleonic conquest, its design has been imitated around the world. Let us know if Romania’s central rail station or the Scottish National Portrait Gallery look familiar.

— The island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon, is famous for it’s glass-making. It wouldn’t be, though, if Venetian authorities hadn’t ordered the city’s glassmakers to move there to reduce the risk of fire.

— Ever wonder why certain window coverings are called “Venetian Blinds?” Venetian gondolas once had small cabins with louvered shutters to afford privacy, important in a city where there were once eight to ten thousand of the boats in use. Today’s gondoliers must be admitted to a guild and pass a stringent licensing exam.

— The Venetians love their appetizers and small plates. Visit a local pub in the city and enjoy fried mozzarella, artichoke hearts, or one of an endless variety of topped crostini.

What else do you know about Venice? Please share!

If you’re ready to lose yourself in the winding streets and explore the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, click here for travel to Venice with Smithsonian Journeys.

Q&A With Opera Expert Fred Plotkin

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Study Leader Fred Plotkin is an expert on music, food and wine, and everything related to Italy. Opera is his great love—he has worked for Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera—and he’s passionate about sharing opera with others. Fred is the author of Opera 101, Classical Music 101, as well as six books on Italy, and can be heard regularly on NPR. Here, he sits down with us to talk about his first love. Click here for more information on Fred and traveling with him.

These Trulli were originally used as storehouses and were built without cement or mortar to avoid taxation. Today, people in Locorotondo, Italy, live in them.

Q: Fred, in your approach to Italy, you often seem to like the path less taken…

A. True. I certainly love the famous spots such as Rome, Florence, and Venice, and I return to them all the time. But they have in some ways become victims of their popularity so that they lack some of the authenticity they had some decades ago. But Italy is a nation that historically was composed of city-states that were little jewels unto themselves, with local food and wine, music, dialects, and traditions. To a great extent these still exist, so going to a small Italian city is to find a true Italian flavor that is harder to come by in the tourist capitals.

Q. For example…?

A. I could name places in all twenty regions. In the past, I have taken Smithsonian travelers to the Marche, the region with 76 jewel-box opera houses, two world-class opera festivals in Macerata and Pesaro (the latter dedicated to hometown boy Rossini) and we visited stunning art towns such as Urbino (birthplace of Raphael) and Ascoli Piceno. While there, we had a cooking class, explored the history and geography, and had time for gorgeous Adriatic beaches. It was much of the best of Italy in one small region that no one had been to.

Q. Where would you go next?

A. Many Smithsonian travelers have told me that they are very interested in southern Italy, which is to say the regions south of Rome. Some of them have been to Naples, Capri,  and Positano, but not much else. These are the regions where most North American Italians have their roots, yet they are not well-known and are very misunderstood. They have divine food, beautiful scenery, very welcoming people and almost no tourism compared to the famous places up north. So each visitor is treated as an honored guest. To me, the two most beautiful towns of many in the South are Martina Franca (in Puglia) and Ravello (in Campania). To me, Martina Franca looks like a set from a Zeffirelli opera production. Whitewashed buildings, churches dominating sunny piazzas, laundry flapping in the breeze, and a bustling passeggiata, the characteristic afternoon stroll that all Southern Italians partake of. Nearby are the famous trulli, ancient conical structures that are the homes people have occupied for centuries. It is the real Italy, but most people don’t know it. Martina Franca also is the home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival that is famous for presenting lesser-known operas by popular composers. We can only see La Bohéme or La Traviata so many times without craving something else, and this festival provides that.

Q. And Ravello?

A. Wait, there’s more to tell about Martina Franca! Nearby is Lecce, a gorgeous town known as the Florence of the South. There are good cooking schools there, and nearby, and I would have us take a class. Then, this area has an institution called the masseria, a sort of walled farm dating from the times when they were built so that invaders could not get in. These magnificent buildings exist to this day, many still serving as farm buildings, others as hotels. I like the ones that produce wine, and I would have a group visit one. And then there is Matera, in the neighboring region of Basilicata. There is no place like it anywhere else in the world. It is a city full of caves that people live in. It is beautiful and mysterious and so off the beaten path that you feel like you are arriving in uncharted terrain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. … And Ravello?

A. Ravello is perched above the Amalfi Coast  in Campania. It is far from the hubbub, a supremely beautiful little jewel where Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, Wagner wrote the second act of Parsifal, John and Jacqueline Kennedy  spent their honeymoon, and other notables such as Greta Garbo and Igor Stravinsky lived in quiet seclusion. I spent five summers there in the 1980s. My favorite restaurant in southern Italy is there, called Cumpa’ Cosimo. I have eaten there on every visit since 1973. The chef/owner is named Netta and she makes the gold standard of dishes that Americans think of as Italian food. But once you taste her ravioli, tomatoes and other products, you will understand what they really are supposed to taste like.

SJ: Is there music in Ravello?

FP: It has a wonderful festival of classical music in gorgeous gardens. This year, for the bicentennial of the birth of Robert Schumann, there will be a lot of his music played there. After stays in Martina Franca and Ravello, we will head to Rome to see a pull-out-all-the-stops production of Verdi’s Aïda at the Baths of Caracalla. I saw it on my first visit there, in 1973, but the festival was soon abandoned for many decades. It only recently returned so I can’t wait to see this great opera in that magical setting.  After this wonderful visit to the best of Southern Italy, many travelers might choose to stay on in Rome for a few days before heading home. I know I will, and will be glad to give tips and suggestions for what to do and where to eat while they are there. For me, that is a pleasure!

Packed yet? Click here  to reserve your spot on our Opera Lover’s Italy tour with Fred Plotkin.

What do you like best about Italy? The scenery, food, people, or music? Comment below.

Video: A Night at the Opera: Aida

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Musicals are known for being cute, perky, and usually have jazz hands at some point in the performance. Then, there is opera, which has a completely different kind of fanatical fan base. Known for intense passion for the art, opera’s loyal followers are drawn to the huge stage sets, elaborate costumes,  and the drama of the performances on and off stage. It has been known that when certain performers call out sick, European fans have continued the time-honored tradition of booing for as long as two minutes. Imagine being the understudy performing that night after such a public display of disgust. Americans tend to be more polite, and tend to believe in a more conservative  interpretation of their opera. Either way, opera fans love the passion, love, death, suicide, and drama that these performances provide. Here is a video of the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida, which you can see on our Opera Lover’s Italy tour.

Afterwards, you might be inspired to go to Egypt next.

Are you a musical or an opera fan?

Love Italian food, wine and opera? Opera Lover’s Italy has them all.

Video: Do You Know the Code?

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

We are thrilled to launch our new Smithsonian Studies Abroad program, designed specially for high school students looking for unique experiences this summer. One of our most popular programs is located in gorgeous Florence, Italy, where students will learn Italian while focusing on the art, architecture, and history of the Renaissance.

Even before the Renaissance, Italy had a fascinating history of conflict between pagan Romans and early followers of Christ.  Issues date back as early as 64 A.D., far before Italy became the predominantly Catholic country we know today. To be Christian could mean prison, torture, or being put to death. As a result, codes were required for Christians to travel throughout the region. What kind of codes were used? Find out by watching this video from the show Decoding Christianity courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel.

The deadline to sign up for Smithsonian Studies Abroad for Summer 2010 is quickly approaching! Click to learn more.

Which program do you want to explore? Share below!

Photo: Five Things to Know about Sicily

Thursday, January 21st, 2010
Fishing Boats in Beautiful Sicily

Fishing boats in beautiful Sicily

  1. One of the first groups to live on the island was the Sicani, who arrived from the Iberian Peninsula. Evidence of this group were found in the form of cave drawings dating back to 8000 B.C., and included images of now extinct dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants.
  2. Sicily produces more wine annually than New Zealand, Austria and Hungary combined. The best known local wine is the Nero d’Avola, named after a town near Syracuse.
  3. Many Sicilians are bilingual in both Italian and Sicilian. Although the Sicilian language is taught secondary to the Italian language to its youth, the language is still commonly used on the island. It includes a sizeable vocabulary of over 250,000 words including loan words from Greek, French, Spanish and Arabic.
  4. Sicily is known to be home of the world’s largest and oldest chestnut tree. The Chestnut Tree of One Hundred Horses is believed to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the “Greatest Tree Girth Ever” with a listed circumference of 190 ft. when it was measured in 1790. The name originated from a legend about Joan of Aragon and her one hundred knights, who during a trip to Mount Etna, found shelter under the tree after a terrible thunderstorm.
  5. Goethe has said of the island, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything”

Have you been to Sicily? Share below.

Experience the beauty of the island on our Crossroads of Sicily tour featuring Palermo, Siracusa, and Taormina.