Tuscany region (1 hour drive from Pisa or 1½ hour drive from Florence)
Years ago while I was scouting the country for possible new tours, I came upon the ancient Italian town of Pietrasanta in the northwestern corner of Tuscany. My love affair with this town was immediate.
I vividly remember entering Pietrasanta on a late afternoon through the medieval gate of Porta a Pisa and arriving in the large main square, Piazza del Duomo. I sat down at one of the cheerful outdoor cafes and was mesmerized by the contrast between the beautiful rectangular shape of the square, the facade of the imposing white Duomo and the special installation of modern large sculptures, which are changed on a regular basis.
Pietrasanta is located near the famous white marble quarries of Carrara where over 500 years ago Michelangelo came to source marble for his Pietá. Known as “Little Athens” or “City of Artists”, the town's sprawling art studios and galleries have long attracted famous international artists, including Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Igor Mitoraj, Joan Mirò, Fernando Botero and Damien Hirst.
Emilia Romagna region (1 hour by car or train from Bologna)
If you have never visited Ravenna, you have missed an amazing life experience. An extraordinary delight, Ravenna is an art and history lover’s dream featuring splendid 5th and 6th century mosaics pretty much everywhere you look.
Ravenna was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, later the capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths and then one of the privileged provinces to the Byzantine Empire. Its buildings preserve the superb mosaic works and mark the city's glorious past. Eight of the mosaics are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Not to be missed is a visit to the Basilica of Sant’ Appolinare Nuovo, the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The Mausoleum is my absolute favorite. From the outside it seems to be an unassuming small brick building but once inside…. what an incredible surprise...as I find it to have the most impressive and beautiful mosaics in Ravenna! A piece of trivia: Cole Porter visited Ravenna in the late 1920s and was so inspired by the Night Sky Mosaic in the Mausoleum with its 900 glittering stars, that he wrote his famous song Night and Day.
Marche region (3½ hour by car from Rome or 2 hours by car from Bologna)
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Urbino is an evocative and perfectly preserved hilltop walled city in the Marche region and one of the most important Renaissance sites in Italy.
My personal love for Urbino is deeply rooted in my family...located less than an hour from Pesaro, which is my father’s hometown and the place where we spend our summers on the Adriatic Coast.
I visit Urbino at least once every summer, usually on a cool and cloudy a day when I might otherwise be on the beach. The drive towards Urbino from the Adriatic Sea through the gentle countryside is absolutely divine and always fills me with emotion when at the last turn, as if by magic, Urbino appears before my eyes.
When in Urbino I always like to revisit the National Gallery of Le Marche in Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace) a definite must see as it is one of the most impressive examples of Italian Renaissance architecture. It is also home to very important Renaissance masterpieces such as famous paintings by Raphael and many more. My favorite painting in the gallery is the “Ideal City” attributed to Piero della Francesca.
The small town of Urbino is not only the hometown of Raphael, the famous Italian artist and architect, it is also a lively town with one of the oldest universities in Italy. Taking the time to wander through the narrow and charming alleyways and porticos will make you feel as if you are in a medieval fairy tale.
Definitely stop at any of the many cafes or trattorias and enjoy the traditional “crescia”, a flaky flatbread filled with many options: wild greens, grilled vegetables, local prosciutto or salami, sausages and cheese. My favorite filling is stracchino (a soft fresh cheese), arugula and tomatoes.
Tuscany region (2½ hours by car from Rome / 1½ hours by car from Florence / 1 hour by car from Siena)
To tell the truth I am not sure I can explain what makes the tiny town of Pienza so delightful. I do know that just getting there is pure bliss!
The drive through the Orcia River Valley, one of the most beautiful and magical areas of Southern Tuscany...with its winding hills and roads lined by cypress trees, vineyards, olive groves and in summer golden fields of wheat and sunflowers...always sets the stage for a glorious arrival in Pienza.
The town of about 2,000 inhabitants is known as the “Ideal Renaissance City” and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status for its 15th century historic center, urban design and architecture. For most however, myself included, what makes Pienza stand out is its position high atop the most beautiful view of the Tuscan countryside.
I find Pienza to be a great town for strolling or as we say in Italian, passeggiare. I love strolling through its beautiful soft-colored historical center and getting lost in the countless charming ivy-draped side streets with their colorful potted flowers framing the doorways...or walking through the many enchanting squares with people chatting over coffee or lunch at the cafes and restaurants.
Every time I'm in Pienza I have a ritual of finding the three small, super charming streets that legend says brings romance and good luck: Via del Bacio (kiss street), the famous Via dell’ Amore (love street) and Via della Fortuna (good luck street). I would recommend that you at least find Via del Bacio, because of its wonderful panoramic views over the Val d'Orcia, and definitely the ideal place to take a great photo.
Many tourists often skip Pienza for the better known towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino, but please trust me, if in the area, don’t miss this perfect place!
Lazio region (1½ hour by car from Rome, 30 minutes by car from Orvieto)
The surreal 2,500 year-old Etruscan origin village of Civita di Bagnoregio, a UNESCO protected site, is a place suspended in time and space. It is located on the border between the regions of Lazio (Rome is the capital of this region) and Umbria.
Civita di Bagnoregio is one of the most beautiful and intriguing villages in Italy known also as “the dying city” (la citta’ che muore). It is perched on top of a canyon of crumbling volcanic tuff, rising above the Tiber river valley and in constant danger of destruction due to erosion.
It is an adventure getting to Civita as it is accessible only by a 300 meter (approx. 1,000 feet) pedestrian suspension bridge, but it's a walk you will never forget! A truly unique setting like nowhere else in the world. The village, hosts a population of 100 in the summer and about 12 during the winter.
I vividly remember seeing Civita for the first time as a child from the panorama terrace across the valley and in the distance the town seemed floating in mid-air and to my young eyes it looked eerie and enchanting at the same time. I almost felt as though it was a dream until years later as a young adult I went back and totally fell under Civita's spell.
You enter Civita di Bagnoregio through the gate of Porta San Maria which leads you through a cluster of pretty houses, decorated with hammered iron balconies, creeping ivy and overflowing flower boxes to the main square with its beautiful Romanesque church of San Donato.
I suggest wandering around the village, admiring the wonderful architecture spanning several hundred years of various styles with some surprisingly elegant renaissance palazzi and soaking in the unforgettable atmosphere. Also enjoy the small and excellent trattorias and cafes and the local artisans' shops.
A visit to Civita di Bagnoreggio will stay in your heart forever!
Italy travel expert dedicated to opening the real doors to my native country, so that you may have a truly authentic experience… and fall in love with Italy as your own. In every corner of my Italy, I’ve sought out the beauty and the pleasures of its landscapes, cities, villages and people. Many are famous or popular, but many others remain undiscovered or rarely experienced. I know them all well though, and I’m eager to share my knowledge with you.
Contact me for more information about booking a spectacular and affordable small group tour or designing an affordable custom tour of your dream trip to Italy.
With love and gratitude,