Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Great Visit to Palazzo Davanzati

This year my house was full of guests for the holidays, something I really enjoy. So, besides all the Christmas feasting that symbolizes the Italian tradition, I wanted to show my visitors the beauty of being in Tuscany (and close to Florence) during this special time of the year. The weather certainly didn’t cooperate much, as we had rain and fog for the better part of the period, but I did my best to counteract Mother Nature all the same.

One of the best choices was to attend Aperitivo ad Arte at the Palazzo Davanzati. It had been years since I had been to this museum, so I was looking forward to it as much as everyone else. This wonderful event is a great opportunity for locals, as well as tourists, to discover one of the city's lovely museums in a unique and captivating setting. In fact, I noticed that many Florentines present that evening became increasingly excited as they realized how beautiful this historic palazzo was. Many commented on the fact that they had never been there before, acknowledging that they had really missed something special. These observations made me reflect on how many of us live in cities that we only know in part.

In the major art cities of the world, monuments and museums are almost always flooded with tourists, making them unpopular with locals who prefer not to brave the lines or deal with the crowds. Thus, residents often overlook so many things which are literally sitting right under their noses.

This is a major reason why initiatives like this one, held in the off season, are particularly useful. It is a chance for Florentines to enjoy their city and become acquainted with some of its most beautiful venues.

Palazzo Davanzati was originally built for the Davizzi family, wealthy merchants and bankers, in the mid 14th century. In 1578 it was purchased by the Davanzati family, who retained possession until 1838 when it was divided into several apartments and subsequently suffered extensive damage.

In 1904 the building was bought by Elia Volpi, an antiques dealer who restored and furnished it to create a private museum, The Old Florentine House, in 1910. Future events and misfortune eventually led to the demise of the museum and its belongings until the State took it over in 1951 and reopened it to the public five years later. However, in 1995 the museum was closed for major restoration until 2005 and only this year (2012) was it fully reopened.  

The building is a rare architectural example of the transition from the medieval tower house to the Renaissance palace. In fact, the Davanzati family united several tower houses to achieve their grand palazzo. The façade originally had an open three-arched loggia on the ground floor that was used as a shop. Today it is closed and on the top floor there is an open loggia (with a great view of the city) which was added in the 16th century.

Upon entering the building you are transported back in time. The impressive courtyard has an irregular shape marked by arches, octagonal pillars with decorated capitals and a majestic stone staircase leading to the living quarters on the three upper floors. Throughout the visit you will feel as if you are really inside a historic residence where time has stood still. The elegant reception rooms and spacious bedrooms are decorated with fine antiques, paintings, sculptures, tapestries and pottery. A large kitchen, located on the top floor, boasts a series of utensils and antique household appliances. The original architectural elements like hand painted wood ceilings and wall decorations, and the unique feature of having bathrooms on every floor, an uncommon luxury in a home from this period, underscore the elite origins of this beautiful palazzo.

 Another thing not to be missed is the stunning collection of fine lace and embroidery representing the most exquisite samples of European manufacture between the 17th and 20th centuries.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christmas in Tuscany

Traditionally, in Italy, the holiday of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8th marked the official start of the Christmas season. Today, as is the custom in many other nations, the date has been pushed back and by late November the countdown to Christmas usually begins. Street lights and decorations go up, stores windows display their festive regalia while piping in Christmas carols and offering special promotions (among the foreign customs which have now been adopted here to promote the commercial side of the holidays). However, one of the nicest traditions that has taken hold over the years are the local holiday markets and fairs.

Originally a custom in northern Europe, Christmas markets are now an important part of Italy’s holiday tradition. Throughout Tuscany, both in the larger cities and the small towns, this is the season to experience the festive atmosphere of these charming markets. Beautiful handicrafts and wonderful food specialties fill the stands that line the major town squares. The churches display beautiful nativity crèches – with handmade figurines that attest to the ancient artisan tradition which has made Italy famous around the world. Some towns hold medieval markets which evoke the historic origins of this customary celebration – with jugglers and street performers dressed in period costumes to create the proper setting.

So, thankfully, there still is a way to enjoy the holiday season in a more traditional fashion. 
Clearly one can purchase gifts and decorations, but the nice thing is that there are unique products to choose from which defy the current trend of global commercialization. It is the perfect chance to sample some of the delicious seasonal foods that can only be found at this time of year. And, of course, all of this takes place in some of Tuscany’s most beautiful cities and towns, which become even more magical when decked out in their holiday best.

There are many locations to choose from, and most locals and visitors often try to see more than one during the season.
Florence pays homage to the Germanic origins of the Christmas market by hosting the German Christmas Market in Piazza Santa Croce from Nov. 28 through Dec. 16. 

Vendors come from abroad to share their countries’ typical crafts and gastronomic specialties in one of the city’s most beautiful piazzas.

Many churches throughout the city have nativity scenes that are worth a visit, but DO NOT miss the stunning crèches displayed at the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, best known as the Duomo, from Dec. 8th. 

The exquisite terracotta figures in this majestic setting are truly impressive. 

Another unique event in Florence is the Cavalcata dei Magi
(the procession of the three kings), held on Jan. 6th.

In the Mugello area there are Christmas markets on the weekends throughout the month of December: Marradi, Barberino di Mugello, Dicomano and Palazzuolo sul Senio – where there is also an event called the 1000 Cribs of Pallazuolo which is obviously dedicated to the most beautiful nativity scenes.

Arezzo and the Casentino area will also host events throughout the holiday season. 

Siena’s Medieval Market in Piazza del Campo will be held on December 15th  and 16th
Although it is not a traditional Christmas market, there will be over 160 stands with typical regional foods and artisan crafts. In addition, the historic atmosphere will be re-enacted by street performers and artists. There will also be guided tours available to discover the city as it was in the Middle Ages.

In Chianti there will be various Christmas markets: Greve in Chianti: Dec. 8-9
Barberino Val d’Elsa: Dec. 8, 9 and 23
Mercatale: Dec. 15-16
In the historic center of Casole d’Elsa a there will be a live re-enactment of the nativity with over 250 participants on Dec. 26, 29 and 30 and on Sunday Jan. 6.

If you are in the area of Pisa, the city’s Christmas market runs from Nov. 24 to Dec. 24, with over 55 exhibitors. San Miniato, the town of the White Truffle, has one of Tuscany’s most beautiful crèches from Dec. 7 to Jan. 3rd in the church of San Giovanni Battista di Cigoli.

The city of Lucca also has a medieval Christmas market from Dec. 6-9. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Attention all Cycling Enthusiasts

Paolo Bettini
Another great reason to visit Tuscany next September is to see the 2013 UCI World Road Race Championships. This is the first time Tuscany will host this prestigious cycling event.
From September 22-29 the cities of Florence (and Fiesole), Lucca, Montecatini and Pistoia (and their local countryside) will be the race track to decide who will wear the world champion’s rainbow jersey for 2013.

Enthusiasm is very high here, since Tuscany is notoriously a cycling heartland and home to many of the sport's greatest champions, like Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, Mario Cipollini and Paolo Bettini. Great care has been taken to prepare for the race, which will be Florence’s biggest sporting event ever. Local authorities are also hopeful to lock in participation as a stage for both the 2013 Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 2014, giving them the prestigious honor of hosting a grand slam of events – never before achieved by any other city.

The various routes will pass through the cities as well as the countryside, and there will be flat courses and hilly circuits that promise to challenge even the best racers –  in fact the men’s elite race is predicted to be the toughest since 1980, at the French championships in Sallanches. But after all, this is Tuscany and amazing hills are its trademark!

Record attendance is expected for the event and the region is already organizing to offer its best hospitality. So think about coming to cheer on the cycling champions while enjoying the beautiful climate and scenery of September. It really is a unique opportunity.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The New Florence Opera House

After years of talking about the need to provide Florence, and its renowned opera festival Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, with a modern opera house, last year the dream was (partially) realized. A 255 million Euro public investment was planned to finance the ambitious project of the New Florence Opera House which represents an avant-garde music center for all of Europe. After having received a 150 million Euro grant for the 150th anniversary of the Italian Republic, which was in 2011, the Opera House was able to have its inauguration in honor of this celebration last December in the main auditorium. 

However, as is almost always the case in Italy (with government funding especially), the money has run out and, without the missing 80 million, completion of the complex is still a mirage. Unfortunately, the current economic situation doesn’t bode well for a quick solution to the problem. So, for now, Florentines and the world must make the most of the sporadic performances that are being offered in a more subdued form.

Both from an architectural and artistic perspective, this new theater is state of the art. The challenge of successfully incorporating a very modern structure into the fabric of a Renaissance city like Florence is always great – especially when considering that many Florentines have the tendency to resist change.

However, the final result seems to have received general consensus. The abstract building, designed by Paolo Desideri of the Studio ABDR in Rome, is impressive. The location is strategic, between the Leopolda Station and the Cascine Park, offering spectacular views of the historic city center from the open-air amphitheater on the roof. 

From an acoustic standpoint, it is considered to be one of the best in Europe. Another valuable asset is the opera house’s illustrious general director, Zubin Mehta, who has followed the project every step of the way, contributing his valuable talent and experience towards the realization of the main auditorium, to ensure maximum comfort and quality.

In addition to the completed main auditorium which accommodates 1800, the project promises a smaller third hall, for a total capacity of nearly 5000 spectators, including the amphitheater. Planned are also 18 rehearsal studios, offices, a café, a huge garden and a large parking area. Fingers crossed… 

Under the circumstances, we will have to make due with what there is, so tomorrow’s opening of Puccini’s Turandot shouldn’t be missed. Performances will continue through Dec. 5th. The complete schedule can be found on the Maggio Fiorentino’s website.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Many Landscapes of Tuscany: Garfagnana

Many people around the world associate the word “Tuscany” with the typical Chianti landscape of rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves and of course cypress trees. Not everyone is aware that Tuscany is a region of Italy covering an area of 23,000 square kilometers that offers many very diverse landscapes, and it is precisely this variety that makes it so incredible.

The entire western border of the region is coastline, bathed by the Tyrrhenian Sea, and there are also seven beautiful islands that belong to the Tuscan Archipelago. Though hills make up nearly two-thirds of the region, mountain ranges account for 25% of its territory, with the Apennines, which run through the center of the region, being the highest.  The remaining areas are plains and river valleys. All of this geographical diverseness results in many unique and extraordinary landscapes.

I will try to take you on a virtual tour of some of these incredible places – one at a time – to help you discover all the nuances of this famous “triangle” of Italy called Tuscany.

Let’s start in a lesser-known location, the amazing mountainous region in the northwest that belongs to the province of Lucca, called Garfagnana. This beautiful area is situated between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines in the upper Serchio River valley, which makes the scenery particularly striking as it is incredibly verdant with an abundance of forests. As a result, it looks almost nothing like the “typical” image of Tuscany that most people have.

Famous for its lakes, grottos and natural park preserves, this area is a nature lover’s paradise. However, it is also known for its history, boasting impressive fortresses, castles and charming hamlets known for the hospitality of their residents and the delicious cuisine based on local ingredients. 

Medieval villages like Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the area’s capital, are definitely worth a visit. Also not to be missed is Bagni di Lucca, a spa town famous for its thermal springs, often referred to as “the Italian Switzerland”.

As in the rest of Tuscany, there are plenty of seasonal events, fairs, and tourist attractions in the area (although they remain rather low-key). One of the strong points of Garfagnana is that it has yet to be discovered by the majority of travelers, so it offers the opportunity to sample a more authentic taste of Tuscan life.

The proximity of LuccaPisa and the coastal area of Versilia (famous for its beach resorts Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi) has brought attention to this stunning natural paradise. Also, Tuscany’s best ski resorts are under an hour away, making Garfagnana a draw in every season. Visitors can easily enjoy the more mundane lifestyle of the beach or the slopes, as well as the historic charm of the cities and also escape to experience the natural unspoiled beauty of this extraordinary mountain valley. 

photo credits: Frank Andiver

Thanks to Paradiso...Toscana for the beautiful photos.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving in Tuscany

This week Americans celebrate Thanksgiving – the holiday that truly belongs to everyone. As an American I have maintained this wonderful tradition here in Italy, sharing its meaning and its delicious food with my acquired family and closest friends. It is a day dedicated to expressing gratitude for the things we have, and taking pleasure in being with our loved ones. Of course, gathering around a plentiful table to enjoy a roasted turkey with all the trimmings is an essential part of the ritual.

In the US many people must travel to reunite with their families, all too often scattered around the country. Perhaps this is part of the reason that there has been a growing trend to combine the Thanksgiving celebration with a family vacation. In essence, it is an ideal occasion to meet somewhere beautiful to enjoy the holiday.

Tuscany offers a great setting for such a get together. A beautiful villa in the countryside can serve as a fabulous home away from home. Dinner can be prepared in a spacious, fully-equipped kitchen – or a chef can come in to do the honors. Elegant dining rooms can accommodate a large number of guests in grand style, while providing a unique atmosphere. The group can also participate in other activities and excursions to complete the vacation and spend quality time together.

November is still a great month to visit this lovely region. The autumn colors and numerous local festivals make it very worthwhile. Airfares are lower than at other times of the year, as are the villa rental costs. It’s no wonder that we have seen a growing number of reservations by Americans for this very special holiday. In response, local stores have started to carry traditional ingredients and Italian chefs have mastered the art of preparing a heavenly stuffed turkey – with all the proper trimmings! Visitors and even expats (who would prefer not to cook) can now find plenty of restaurants that offer a great Thanksgiving dinner.

So, if you have ever thought about going away to celebrate Thanksgiving – keep Tuscany in mind. You might be one of those people who does it once – and then keeps coming back year after year!