In northwestern Italy, there is a quiet, beautiful place called the Aosta Valley. Known for its castles, the valley is snuggled into the Italian Alps. Taking its name from the charming alpine town at the far end, the journey to the once-Roman town of Aosta takes the traveller past castle after castle. While Fenis Castle is certainly magnificent, it’s hardly the only option. With at least 10 castles hugging the valley’s slopes alone, the smallest region in Italy has no shortage of ancient strongholds. Fenis Castle dates back to the fourteenth century and exemplifies both military might on the outside and cultural riches on the inside. Less than 15km from the regional capital of Aosta and roughly 100km from the city of Torino, Fenis Castle is located in between the villages of Fenis and Nus on the dramatic backdrop of Dora Baltea River and the Italian Alps. Getting there with public transport can be tricky; check in with the tourism office in Aosta to plan your trip accordingly, and do not (under any circumstances!) attempt to visit on a Sunday afternoon – northernmost region or not, Aosta is still in Italy, and in Italy, Sundays are still the day of rest!
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Known for once hosting the Olympics, and probably more importantly, for hosting the infamous Shroud of Turin, Torino is still often overlooked. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the ruins of Rome and the canals of Venice, Torino does not fit into the typical Italian mold. And yet—Torino can hold its own. It is a superbly beautiful and elegant city. The banks of the Po River (here) are charming. The streets are grand, everything is clean. Because of its location in northern Italy and on the doorstep of the Alps, even the air feels cleaner. The city has a pulse; it doesn’t take much to hear its beating heart. If you continue across the river, you reach the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio which rather looks like the Pantheon, and just past that, a hill that leads to a monastery. From there, you can see the whole of Torino, and, just beyond, the Alps. Torino may be a big city, but it is also a mountain city. The simplicity and tranquility often associated with Alpine towns can be found here, in one of Italy’s largest cities!
Dramatic mountains rise up behind this small Italian town. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the bustle of Rome or the art of Florence, Aosta offers something else entirely. Aosta, or Aoste in French, is a border town, lying close enough to the French border to render the inhabitants bilingual. Towns like Aosta in northern Italy are a far cry from the hillside farms one imagines of rural Italy. The people of the Aosta Valley are a study bunch, known for their great wines, easy temperaments, and simple lives. Aosta itself is a charming albeit small town, peppered with Roman ruins, narrow streets and pastel-colored houses. The Italian Alps paint a beautiful backdrop to this already-beautiful place. This town, snuggled into the valley of the same name, is beautiful in a rugged sort of way, as if the mountains and the townspeople are somehow connected to each other. And after just a moment, the visitor too feels as if they are part of this ancient, dramatic landscape!
Torino, like much of Northern Italy, often gets ignored. When potential tourists hear the word, “Italy,” they think of rural Tuscany, the bustling centre of Rome, or the artsy Florence. Italy equals Mediterranean ocean views, Roman temples and gelato by the beach, right? Not necessarily. And Northern Italy…well, it’s spectacular. Nothing at all like the south, Northern Italy is a bit of a combination of Italy, France, and Switzerland. Torino (which you may know as “Turin”) is certainly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The eclectic architecture, genuinely happy (and multilingual!) people, elegant streets, delicious cheeses as well as amazing pizzas and wines make Torino a city full of surprises. But if you really want a treat, take the time to hike up the hill, Monte dei Cappuccini, to see the whole of Torino spill out below you. On a magnificent backdrop of the towering Alps, the glittering Po River and the beautiful red roofs with white walls, the enormous spire if the Mole Antonelliana rises up to the sky, as if reaching for the heavens. Originally built as a synagogue in the late 1800’s, the building (which now houses a cinema museum) sports the highest work of masonry in all of Europe. Take your time–this view is worth it!
Contrast, at its base, is a comparison between two contrasting items in order to highlight their differences. Classic examples include the contrast between light and dark, black and white, hot and cold, up and down, big and small, tall and short, happy and sad, ancient and modern, science and religion. The simple perpendicular lines of the cross populate our world in so many ways. Here, we see two types of crosses found throughout in the world today: one representing the “old” way of thinking, ie religion and faith–and the other representing the “new” way of thought ie modern science and technology. Yet–do they have to be at contrast with each other, or can they complement each other? As Dan Brown says, “Faith is universal ; our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth that which is greater than ourselves.” And on this quiet mountain path in this quiet Italian village, everything seems to come together perfectly !
We all know that Romans were some of the most advanced builders of all time. Things they constructed not only still exist today, but are often still in use. Here in Aosta, a “bilingual” city in northern Italy (not far from the French border), one sees many Roman vestiges. Why? Well, around 25 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro conquered the local people and “founded” the Roman colony, Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, and a few years later, it became the capital of the ‘Alpes Graies’ (“Grey Alps” if you couldn’t guess!) region of the Roman Empire because of its strategic location on the crossroads from Rome to modern-day France and Germany. Of course, everything is aligned on a grid, all is divided equally, centered around the main road–these are the Romans we’re talking about! As for the theatre itself, it dates back to the reign of Claudius, and held up to 4000 people. It’s no longer in use today…but just next door is the marketplace, which is still regularly used! The city itself sits on a impressive backdrop of the Alps. Along with the rest of the castle-filled Aosta Valley, the city is also well-known for wine. With the Roman ruins, the magnificent Alps, the surrounding landscape of flowers and villages, the happy Italians, the lovely blend of French and Italian, and the delicious wine (and pizza…this is Italy after all!), Aosta is the place to be!
Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.
Ah, Florence, city of art and fine dining. City of Dante and his Divine Comedy, of Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo, Botticelli, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. How has one place produced so many great artists? And don’t forget the architecture–museums, palaces, churches, the Duomo. Bridge after bridge cross the Arno River—though of course the most famous is Ponte Vecchio, the beautiful covered bridge in the centre of Florence. The bridge dates back to medieval times. It was once common for bridges to be enclosed and lined with shops and stands, but few such bridges like this remain. Once the site of a Roman bridge, the Ponte Vecchio connects the two banks of the Arno at its narrowest point. Over the course of time, it has been weakened or swept away by floods and other disasters but has always been rebuilt. A common legend proposes that the Ponte Vecchio created both the term and phenomenon of bankruptcy, as any merchant on the bridge who could not pay his bills had his table or “banco” broken (“rotto”) by the authorities to render any further sales impossible (hence, “bancorotto.”) Oh, did I mention that, along with Pulteney Bridge in Bath and the Rialto Bridge in Venice, the Ponte Vecchio is the only other remaining bridge with shops on it in Europe (all of which I’ve visited…)? Pretty cool!
Antica Mulattiera in the Val de Susa (near St Ambroiso), Italy
Hidden among the curves of this ancient mule path (antica mulattiera) that carves its way up the mountain carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years, one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” a reminder to the route’s many pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by millions of pilgrim’s boots line the rugged path that hugs the mountainside. For those who want to leave behind the 21st century–travelling back in time to the middle ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer, take this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views and hillside villages. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Construction began in the 12th century on this marvelous French chateau resting on the beautiful shores of Lake Annecy. Though little is known about its beginnings, it served mainly as a residence for the nobles of Geneva for centuries. Located in the Haute-Savoie (Savoy) region of France, this chateau has long graced border of the ever-changing frontier. In fact, until relatively recently, Savoy was an independent region. It was annexed to France in 1792 under the First French Republic, was given back to the Kingdom of Sardinia 23 years later, and then alongside Nice, it became a political bargaining chip used by Napoleon and the King of Sardinia to settle the Treaty of Torin (a city with strong connections to the region)–all of which aided in the process of unifying Italy, which is pretty interesting to remark. Speaking of remarkable, did I mention that Italy was only unified in the middle of the 19th century? Rome only became the capital in 1871–making Rome as the capital of our unified, modern-day, boot-shaped Italy roughly the same age as Mark Twain’s infamous Tom Sawyer. Just something to interesting to keep in mind!
Republic Square, or Prokurative as it is known locally, is Split’s magnificent (and largest) of public squares. Because of its Neo-Renaissance style and usage of Venice as a model, walking through Trg Republike is like stepping into Venice. And it’s not only this square that one has the feeling of being in Italy—Croatia and Italy share a long history dating back thousands of years. Located just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatia was geographically located at the centre of the Roman Empire. This proximity bound the Dalmatians to the Venetians—who were regarded as the Mistresses of the Adriatic—as they shared both culture and language. Today, though Croatia and Italy are two separate countries speaking languages from two separate language families, the pair have much in common: architecture, food, weather, lifestyle, landscape. Yet still, even with all of these superficial similarities, the people still hold onto their own traditions, their own uniqueness, their own culture—and Croatia is a country worth getting to know.
Ah, lost deep inside the labyrinth that is this little Italian port city of Bari. Bari is a lovely, oh-so-typically Italian town overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Rude bus drivers, confusing (or nonexistent) signs, women hanging laundry on balconies while shouting across to each other three stories up, mopeds zooming down narrow streets, pizzas baking in corner shops, men playing chess on makeshift cardboard tables, teens drinking in the square, children racing each other on tiny bikes, gelato stands spilling out of windows, shoppers haggling over miniature markets. Amongst the chaos, you feel content…because, after all, this is southern Italy – and the chaos is mandatory. Italy wouldn’t really feel quite right without it!
You can’t usually see the original Holy Shroud, as the Church only occasionally brings the famous artefact out for public viewing (the last time being in 2010). However, you can visit the museum to learn a lot about it, later viewing a life-size reproduction displayed in a chapel. The Holy Shroud is an ancient relic passed down through generations and closely guarded, as many believe it is the shroud that once wrapped Jesus’ body after death. And if you study the cloth, it’s true that the wounds evident on the shroud do correspond with the wounds dictated in the Bible (blood stains on the man’s feet from a nail hole as well as on the wrists – interestingly not the hands; this has to do with a lack of difference between ‘hand’ and ‘wrist’ in ancient Greek. The man also has a postmortem cut on his side, his back is injured as result of a whipping and multiple puncture wounds appear on the forehead as well as signs of a beating). However, according to carbon dating, the Shroud is at best 1,000 years old – bringing up the question of how accurate carbon dating is (if contaminated by chemicals, linens especially can be affected). Here, lit from below, is a Polish artist’s rendition of the moment that Christ comes back to life, gasping for air after lying dead and buried for days. Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you think that by staring at the Shroud you are literally staring into the eyes of Jesus, you have to admit that the idea that it could be him is powerful and arresting – and enough to make your spine tingle. “And let there be light,” you whisper as you eventually tear your eyes away from the powerful figure who may or may not be Jesus Christ.
What you you think of when someone says “Milan,” “Italy” and “art” in the same sentence? For most of us, it’s marble statues of naked, beautiful but armless women, magnificent painted masterpieces the size of your bedroom, and artistic greats like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Donatello, right? Well, how about an enormous, white, volcano-shaped mound with what looks like giant toy horses popping out of it and tumbling down the sides, in the middle of a the cathedral square? Hmm. Well, it’s certainly unexpected! Milan is already a surprise because it is often overlooked or thrown onto an itinerary as a wildcard; yet, Milan is one of the nicest Italian cities. Cleaner, calmer, and more functional than Southern Italy (sorry, but true), it’s also quite a pretty place. The Piazza del Duomo square, probably the most elegant square in the city, is the cultural and social heart of Milan; it’s also where this statue is located. Though as for the statue…besides its central location, little information is available on it. The best I can find is, “A modern art exhibit in the Piazza,” which is, well, vague. It’s very interesting though, and as Milan is the site of Da Vinici’s well-known horse statue with its tragic history as follows – started in 1482 but never completed by the master artist, later destroyed by marauding French soldiers in 1499 and not to be completed for 5 centuries – perhaps this modern art piece is a nod to that? Or perhaps it is a comment on today’s society, comparing us to stiff, faceless toy horses struggling to climb out of an suffocating mountain of salt and sand. Perhaps it’s just something to turn heads and differentiate Milan from the rest of Italy’s “big” cities. Whatever it is, it’s definitely unexpected!
So perhaps Milan is not the most beautiful of all the Italian cities. But you know what? It’s certainly one of the nicest. It doesn’t have Rome’s dirtiness, it doesn’t have Venice’s massive influx of tourists or Florence’s intensely long lines, and it has plentiful amenities that all those cute little Italian 2,000-person paradises don’t have. Milan is a decent-sized city that is, unfortunately, rather ignored. It shouldn’t be. Milan is a lovely place. Here, for example, is Sforza Castle, a 15th century fortification built by the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, on the remains of a 14th construction. When Italy was finally unified in the 19th century, it was transferred from military to cultural usage, now housing several of the city’s museums. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (who frescoed several rooms along with Bernardio Zenale and Bernadino Butinone) and Bramante, who added frescoes in the Sala del Tesoro, have contributed to Sforza. After obtaining the castle, the city turned its grounds into a park, hence these two bikers. Italians, as do most Europeans, love to get around town on two wheels as opposed to four – perhaps accounting for their overall general state of healthiness!
Bari is a popular spot to take a cruise; people rarely visit the city for any other reason. Yet, one should also keep in mind that Bari is a place full of charm, and unlike more popular Italian cities, it’s not overrun by obnoxious American tourists. Bari is more typical of Italian life. Its streets are quiet yet lively, and for the most part, free from the reaches of annoying vendors and souvenir stands. The streets are nervously narrow and form a dangerous maze, filled with people and gelato stands and tricycles and motorbikes – and no wider than a SmartCar. It’s so anti-touristy that it’s hard to find a place to eat! (Although there is a fantastic hole-in-the-wall pizza place by the church that will make your mouth water months or perhaps even years later!). If you do come to Bari for a cruise, this is the view that will greet you. Whether you’re heading to Albania, Croatia or Montenegro, many of the cruises leave at night (to allow passengers to arrive in the morning). Therefore, as you stand on the sombre deck, this is that last thing you will see: Bari, lit up like a candle as the sun slowly sets along its picturesque shores. And then the boat slowly starts to move, and it’s time to say a silent goodbye that pretty little Italian city.
Sorry, having some problems with my photo archive. Pictured here is Lake Como in Italy. While Lake Como is undoubtedly famous and relatively pretty, it was not what I expected. This is the lake where George Clooney has a house, so it must be something special, right? Pretty as it is, Lake Como is stereotypically Italian, having little to set it a part from all the others. It’s main selling point is the lake it self, which is indeed quite pretty. Taking the boat around the lake would certainly have been worth it if we’d had the time. As it was, Lake Como was quaint and relaxing–but perhaps lacking something, lacking that little click that truly sets it apart from everywhere else.
Welcome to the Adriatic Sea, the little body of water to the right side of Italy. Being connected to the Mediterranean, it is, of course, gorgeously blue. The Adriatic contains over 1300 islands, with a max depth of 1233 meters (which is over 4000 feet)! It’s 800 km long, 200 km wide with an average depth of 252.5 m. Facts aside, the Adriatic is a beautiful part of this continent – and there’s no better way to get a feel for its beauty then from the window of a descending plane (even if it IS Ryanair). This is the sea that accommodates the terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik and the stunning Dalmatian islands, this is the sea that traders sailed up and down making Venice one of the richest cities for a good chunk of history, this the the sea that divides Italy from Greece. The Adriatic is wonderful in so many ways. Whether you want to swim at lovely beaches, relax in gorgeous coastal towns, eat fresh seafood prepared by some of the best cooks the world has to offer, take beautiful photographs of villages on the water, or sip wine with a view, the Adriatic has it all.
Welcome to the tiny village of Fiesole. Occasionally visited by writers and artists, there isn’t much here beyond your typical Italian village buildings. Well, except for the Etruscan tomb, that it. The Etruscans are an ancient Italian civilization in central/northern Italy (still used today as the modern name, “Tuscany”). They existed until the 4th century but the Romans conquered this city in 90BC, meaning that this small tomb is over 2000 years old! This tomb is one of the six Via Bargellino tombs in the city. Made of square slabs, it also included urns, bronze artifacts, and terracotta unguent containers.