Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Experience Tuscany: A Unique Photography Workshop

Joanne Heaviland Photography and New Tuscan Experience
are proud to present:

Experience Tuscany: A Cultural and Culinary Journey 
through a photographer’s lens …

September 20-27, 2014

 Join us on this fabulous week-long journey where we will discover the best things
Tuscany has to offer. Incredible scenery, fabulous food and wine, history, art, architecture and warm friendly people. See first hand why so many choose this destination for a relaxing and inspiring vacation.

Tuscany is also an amazing place for a photography workshop!
With cameras in hand you will visit some of the most panoramic settings in the world that beckon to be captured by a lens. Much more than a course, this is an experience, where Joanne will share her expertise so that you can learn about photography while actually living and enjoying the Tuscan life.

Locations will include: Florence and the stunning Tuscan countryside south of Siena - the Crete Senesi and Val d'Orcia, with excursions to Chianti, Siena, San Gimignano, Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano, as well as visits to the smaller hamlets in the area. 

The trip will feature luxury accommodations and transportation, fine dining, certified tour guides and sommeliers, cellar tours at award-winning wineries, organic farm visits and more... 

Please, contact us to see what we have planned! 

About this trip

Joanne Heaviland is a successful fine-art photographer with a passion for travel.
Her Italian heritage and frequent visits to Italy have led Joanne to develop a special relationship with this incredible country, which she proudly shares by hosting and teaching groups of photo enthusiasts on location. She lends her expertise, fueled by her love and knowledge of this extraordinary place, to help others learn how to express themselves by capturing its beauty through the camera’s lens.

This year Joanne has begun a new collaboration with us at New Tuscan Experience
to create a unique trip to Tuscany, specifically tailored to allow Joanne’s guests to learn about
photography while being fully immersed in Tuscan life.
This photo workshop is not a tour – it is truly an Experience.
And, what better photography studio could there be than the incredible setting of Tuscany?!

So grab your cameras and get ready to learn about:
· How they work
· Exposure/ISO
· Aperture – controlling light and depth of field
· Shutter speeds – controlling light and movement
· Focus – automatic to manual and other modes
· Lenses – types and what they are used for
· Light – hard, soft and ambient
· White Balance and Histograms
· Composition – colors/textures/lighting/landscapes

We look forward to having you as our guests! Feel free to contact us with your inquires or to
sign up for the trip.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why I Love What I Do…

I consider myself very fortunate. Not everyone can say that they really love their job, but I can! 

When I started my business as a vacation planner a few years ago I based it on a few solid principles:

1) to tap into my capabilities and interests
2) to do something I was truly passionate about
3) to share my knowledge and integrity with others
4) to be my own boss (not a small thing)

It didn’t take long to realize that this was something I REALLY enjoyed doing. Luckily, it also turned out that I was quite good at it!

Organizing tailor-made vacations gives me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of interesting clients, who are a great source of personal enrichment. Locally, I have had the privilege to meet quite a few like-minded people who have since become my closest collaborators. Despite all the difficulties in the industry, there are still passionate individuals out there who are willing to invest a huge part of themselves in what they do, and working with them is inspiring.

Rita at work!
Marilena - my assistant.
Chef Francesco
Ellen (front right) with a great group of clients.

The process of building my business has also taught me a lot about myself. I have learned (or perhaps been reminded) that I am very tenacious. Italy is a wonderful place, but to live here you need to be pretty determined, and quite resilient. Unfortunately, over time you can lose sight of the enchantment, and sometimes risk downright disillusionment. It is a country that will capture your soul and try your nerves with equal intensity. So, it’s no wonder that Italians tend to be creative people - because the “art of getting by” is an essential part of life here. Those of us who have chosen to make it our home have had to become just as resourceful.

I have worked hard to open doors (many of which are often kept locked, because fundamentally many Italians are defiant or skeptical when you approach them initially). In most cases I have first needed to prove myself. There have been challenges, frustrations and setbacks but also moments of great satisfaction and unexpected success. I can honestly say that it has been one of the most exciting times in my life.

As I strive to convey the beauty of Tuscany to others, I am constantly reminded myself of what it was that made me decide to stay. Yes, becoming a full time resident is very different than coming here for a vacation. Daily life anywhere has its difficulties. Yet, if you remember to step back once in a while and practice what you preach, you will realize that you really are living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is this conviction that makes me credible. I am not trying to “sell a product” I don’t believe in. When I plan someone’s itinerary, I put myself in their shoes and work to share with them my own love of the territory and its treasures, so that they can come away with that same special feeling I had when I first discovered this extraordinary place so many years ago. 

Italy is struggling at the moment: with its economy, its national identity, its government. There are many reasons to be concerned. However, if we all try to make our small contribution to find the good and make it better, there is truly unlimited potential here. So, in the bigger scheme of things, this is my tiny effort to help build the image of a place I believe in, which has touched me profoundly and become a part of who I am. Italy does that to people, even when it tests your patience and your stamina; in the end it always works that subtle magic and you are once again under its spell! 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Should You Visit or Avoid Tuscany’s Tourist Locations?

Just the other day I was privy to a discussion about whether or not one should encourage clients to visit the most famous “tourist locations” in Tuscany. While it is true that the crowds and commercialization of several of the region’s most renowned towns have diminished some of their charm and authenticity, it is also true that they have become this popular for a reason. So even for those of us who pride ourselves on helping people to discover the real Tuscany,  the answer is not quite so straightforward.

San Gimignano - photo:

I always suggest for my clients to include some off-the-beaten-path experiences in their itineraries. There are still places, unknown to the masses, which allow you to discover a more genuine side of Tuscany – less exploited and very authentic. Although, as the world becomes more and more fascinated by this small Italian region, and the number of visitors increases (including those who return several times seeking to expand their area of exploration), even these “secret” places are becoming fewer and fewer. 

San Gimignano off season - photo: Auro Giotti

Yet for the first-time visitor, the question often comes up, “Should we go to Pisa (or San Gimignano - for example), or is it too touristy?” While other clients premise the argument with, “I figure we should go to see what all the fuss is about, right?” Inevitably, my answer is always, “Yes, it's touristy, but if you can deal with that, then yes, you should go.” And in the end, I am happy to say that almost no one regrets it - especially if they are lucky enough to visit in low season, when the payback is extreme.

San Gimignano's skyline in Autumn - photo: Auro Giotti

Unfortunately, during peak season the risk is very high that you will encounter the barbaric invasions at some of these sites – but missing the chance to visit them is really a shame. No matter how many photos of the Leaning Tower you see, they will never convey the impact of actually standing next to it (or climbing to the top). It’s true, the town of San Gimignano has become a tourist mecca – and in the summer you are hard pressed to remember that you are in Italy. Yet, if you can look beyond the crowds, it is really a place of incredible beauty and amazing character. For those lucky enough to visit after October and before Easter, I challenge you to tell me you don’t like San Gimignano!

San Gimignano courtyard - photo: Carlo Boccacci

So, in the final analysis, if you are coming to Tuscany for the first time, I do think you should include some of the typical tourist sites in your itinerary. As a general rule for sightseeing, the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons - but if you have to come during high season, avoid these popular places on weekends and holidays - as then you will also find Italian tourists! Ideally, one day you’ll be able to come back during the slower season and enjoy these places again under different circumstances. One reason for my conviction comes after a client recently commented on their day in Pisa, “I never expected it to be SO amazing! Looking at the Tower from up close, I was awestruck. History came alive for us, and I don’t regret the visit (or even waiting on the lines) one single bit. In fact I am so happy we went!”  And I’m glad I didn’t tell them not to bother!!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Makes Tuscany’s Bread Unique

I have to be honest, one of the things I have NOT grown accustomed to in Tuscany is the bread. For those who have never been here, it might be a surprise to learn that Tuscan bread has no salt. Referred to as pane 'sciocco' (the term in Tuscan dialect for saltless, but which in modern Italian means “stupid”) this characteristic distinguishes it from almost all the other breads in Italy (and maybe in the world, except for Umbria). Personally, I don’t enjoy saltless bread – but be warned, never tell a Tuscan you don’t think their bread is good! They get very defensive, and make you feel like you don’t have a clue about the subject.

Since I have been drawn into this debate before, I will explain the reasons they give to justify the lack of salt. The first reason has historic origins. It is said that in the 12th century the great rivalry between the republics of Pisa and Florence led to an embargo on salt by Pisa, leaving Florence without this precious commodity. The Florentines, rather than capitulate to their enemy, opted to cook and make their bread without salt. In fact, there are even references made to this in Dante’s The Divine Comedy – where he says that 'you will taste the salt in your enemy’s bread.' Another explanation is that there was a heavy tax on salt in Florence during the Middle Ages, so as a result, the population made do without it for the most common foods, like bread.

The second reason you hear has to do with the traditional Tuscan cuisine. Most of the region’s famous dishes are actually quite salty – so having a salt-free bread to accompany them is a better choice. When the hearty vegetable soup called Ribollita is made, the bread without salt helps to temper the savory flavor of the broth. Even Tuscan prosciutto is much saltier than its counterpart from Parma.

Still today, Tuscans will defend their bread – and claim it is better than most others, not only for its taste but for its texture and longevity (as it tends to stay fresh longer if carefully preserved).  In addition, the ancient custom of never throwing away stale bread remains, and there is a dish for every season to reclaim leftover loaves. From Panzanella in the summer to Pappa al Pomodoro in the winter and Bruschetta and Crostini all year round, you’ll be sure to find a way to use your old (saltless) Tuscan bread. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Shattered Myth of the Carefree Italians

Surprisingly, Italians were found to be among the unhappiest people in Europe according to a recent survey conducted by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Earth Institute of Columbia University. Despite its great climate, excellent food, and extraordinary natural setting, Italy doesn’t seem to make its natives happy (anymore). Those who ranked at the top of the list were Denmark, in first place, followed by Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Sweden. In Europe, Italy is only ahead of Greece, Malta and Portugal.

Without work there is no future
As someone who lives in Italy, I don't think it requires a rocket scientist to understand what’s behind the current “depression” of Italian citizens. It’s enough to look at the statistics: the happiest European nations are the ones whose governments and economic situations are much more stable and florid than those of the Bel Paese. After years of “going with the flow” and placidly accepting the shortcomings typically associated with their country, Italians are beginning to tire of this “make the best of it” attitude they have been forced to adopt for so long.

Taxation pressure as a % of GNP
The past ten years have created major upheavals in the precarious equilibrium of the Italian lifestyle. Membership in the EU has meant that there are new rules and standards which must be respected, and as a result, much of the art of getting by for which the Italians are so famous has been lost. This is not to say that Italians are intrinsically corrupt, it is merely to point out that when you live in a country where the rules exist, but they are rarely enforced (and those who make them are the first to ignore them) you tend to get lax yourself. It’s true, there is a tremendous problem with tax evasion, but over the years, rather than finding and fining the culprits, the government simply continued raising taxes and adding new ones to try and make up the difference. As a result, those who are honest find themselves paying among the highest taxes in the Western world! Yet, unlike their Scandinavian counterparts who are also heavily taxed, the Italians have very little benefit from their “investment”. 

In northern Europe, social services and public administration function like clockwork, hence the population has many advantages in return for their tax contribution, which in turn produces "happiness". In Italy, this is not the case. Bureaucracy has always been, and continues to be, an outright nightmare. Local governments are broke, and as a consequence they are constantly cutting back on services. Politicians across the board have lost respect among the population, as they have proven themselves unworthy of their office -  many are corrupt and most have been unable to provide any ongoing stability or effective governance for years.

Today, with unemployment at a record high and the worst economic recession in decades it would be very odd to find the majority of Italians defining themselves as “happy” in a survey which includes factors like job security, political stability and corruption. The figures are staggering: presently almost 5 million Italians are living in poverty, more than double since 2008. During the first 6 months of 2013 there were 21,000 businesses that folded; construction and real estate are on their knees; industry and the auto market are plummeting. However, the greatest risk for the country would be if people lose hope that things will improve. Bolstering public optimism by providing concrete solutions to the current situation is where politicians and statesmen must focus their efforts.

So, while there is probably no Italian who will deny that they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, many will confirm that it is not an easy time to live here. It’s obviously not enough to have wonderful restaurants in your country if you can’t afford to eat in them. The extraordinary scenery and plentiful sunshine are great, but people want to be able to vacation and enjoy the seaside, countryside and art cities. When you begin to take all the fun out of life, anyone would feel unhappy – especially those as jovial as the Italians. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

New Trends in Travel – Carbon Footprint Tourism

Although the 2013 World Cycling Championships in Tuscany were a success in terms of attendance (in fact finding a hotel in Florence with availability during that week was nearly impossible) it seems that from a commercial point of view the results were rather disappointing. The figures just out reveal that sales went DOWN by up to 50%!

This means that all the additional people who came for the race didn't buy much, and since the locals were (for the most part) kept out of the participating cities due to traffic closures, stores suffered losses. Unfortunately, this outcome is a sign of our times. Here in Italy they have coined a term for it: “turismo mordi e fuggi” (literally, bite and run). In general, tourists are staying fewer days and spending less and less during their visits - both in terms of shopping and services. Travelling on a shoestring is on the rise and those merchants who have invented strategies to combat the new phenomenon are doing better than the others. Just take a look around at all the panini venues, selling cheap, quick alternatives to a sit down lunch, or those shops and stands filled with trivial gadgets (NOT Made in Italy and often counterfeit) that are cropping up like mushrooms.

The widespread instability of the global economy is forcing commerce to change worldwide, but the result is rather depressing. Everyday there are fewer places where you can find good quality, reasonably priced products. The high-end goods (for which Italy in particular is famous) are becoming totally out of reach for the middle class customer. Today, buying a well-known designer brand is no longer an option for many who just a few years ago could afford to “splurge”, even if only once in a while, on some of these products. Yet, for the most part, the alternative is to have to purchase things that are of significantly inferior quality – and still feel like you are probably over-paying for what you are getting. So, what’s the result? Buy less, spend less, and wait for better times (or sales!)

As we cut out the superfluous from our spending, those who work in the retail sector are feeling the brunt of it. Many people don’t want to eliminate travel from their lives, so they trim the excess in order to make it work. Rather than an expensive souvenir, they buy a small keepsake. That beautiful leather handbag they see in a shop window remains in its place, since in the end, “We can probably find the same thing for less, on sale, back home.”  - after all, we are globalized now. And thus, a growing number of tourists is simply leaving their footprint as they “pass through”. 

What solutions are available? Trying to defend Italian crafts and artisan production is one. There are still things here (even inexpensive ones) that cannot be found online or at the local mall back home. Italian officials should try to limit the sale of cheap (and fake) imported products that have nothing to do with Italy or its traditions which are beginning to flood the market. Merchants need to work harder to offer good quality at fair prices – no matter what they sell. Tourists should also be enlightened about the consequences of their “just passing through” behavior – because one of the main reasons that draws them to Italy is the old world charm of this beautiful country. Unless they too help us to defend it, we all risk losing a huge piece of the nation’s fabric – and that would really be a great shame.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Catherine de’Medici – the Florentine Queen of France

Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de’Medici.
Born in Florence on April 13, 1519, at the age of only 14, her uncle, Pope Clement VII,  sent her to France to marry the Duke of Orléans. Her destiny was to become the Queen of France in 1547.

When her husband, Henry II, died in a jousting accident in 1559, Catherine was thrust onto the political stage as she fought to defend the rights to the throne of her sons: first Francis (who died only one year after his coronation), then 10-year-old Charles, for whom she acted as regent throughout his 14-year reign, and finally Henry.

The ongoing struggle in France between Catholics and Protestants led to civil war in 1562. Catherine’s efforts to bring reconciliation included marrying her daughter Marguerite to the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre. However, their wedding day became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when the leader of the Protestant Huguenots was murdered together with hundreds of other Protestants gathered for the celebration. Catherine’s hand in this violent event was suspected, casting a shadow over her public image. For many she became the Black Queen. In fact, her portraits depict a cold and heartless woman dressed in black (despite the custom that royals wore white for mourning). She was compared to Lucrezia Borgia and Machiavelli, for her cunning and conniving, but was also recognized by some historians as the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe.

Recent historical analysis has cited some injustice regarding this harsh evaluation of the Florentine Queen, concluding that her influence in France was not completely negative. She was also responsible for the cultural enrichment of the nation through her patronage of the arts and her efforts to refine the manners at court by introducing the use of the fork and serving savory and sweet foods separately. She also brought with her the Tuscan cuisine, including besciamella (béchamel) – which was to become a staple in French cooking. And last, but certainly not least, it is said that she taught the French to wear underwear, something which had been unknown to them before…  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Intricacies of Having Coffee in Italy...

For years I have had to explain to foreign visitors why Italians (myself included) often do not sit down in coffee shops to have their espresso. In a country famed for "taking it slow" - even too much so – it is clearly a contradiction that the Italian-style coffee break normally involves standing at a counter to quickly drink a cappuccino and eat a pastry. Especially unusual is the fact that there are often plenty of charming tables inside the coffee shop, or even more invitingly just outside the door facing a pretty piazza, sitting empty (unless occupied by tourists).

So, why is it that most Italians don’t like to sit and enjoy their coffee? The answer is simple, because they prefer not to pay double (and sometimes even more than six times) what they pay at the counter. Yes, sitting down comes at a high price in most establishments. When you are in the historic center of a major city or tourist town, you’d best be aware of this “little” secret. Too often foreign visitors are stunned to receive their bill after ordering a simple espresso or a common beverage, and many are downright outraged if they have dared to order something more costly, like a mixed drink or a glass of wine. It is true that the coffee shop will present you with a menu, where you can clearly see the hefty cost of their offerings. However, many unknowing tourists who just want something commonplace, like a cappuccino, don’t even ask for a menu – they just order directly, and that’s where the rude awakening is guaranteed.

Unfortunately, this practice has been in force forever – and it is unlikely to change. The country’s prominent coffee shops defend their prices by citing the elegance of their venues and the prime location (after all it’s hard to defend a 9 Euro espresso, no matter how good it is!) So, the best thing is to be forewarned. Sometimes, it might even be worth it to pay 10 dollars for a Coke in order to spend a half-hour respite looking at something as beautiful and unique as the Pantheon in Rome or the Duomo in Florence – after all how often do you get to do it? However, for many (especially the locals) paying this high toll is a bit steep, and certainly not something you can do daily. So, unless you find the coffee shop that is a bit removed from the tourist circuit, which will allow you to sit down with your order at no additional charge, you are best to read the menu first, before you sit down, or just join the Italians at the counter!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Palio of Siena

It’s Palio time again in Siena. August 16th signals the second event of the summer (after the one held on July 2nd), when 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade (city wards) compete in a traditional bareback horse race in the famous Piazza del Campo. The August race was added in the 18th century, probably as a way to continue the festivities from the holiday on August 15th dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In fact, this Palio bears the name “Palio dell’Assunta”.

This important annual event has become one of Siena’s most famous tourist attractions – drawing thousands of visitors from all over Italy and the world. Prior to the race there is a magnificent pageant, called the Corteo Storico, where participants are dressed in the regalia of the Middle Ages to celebrate the historic customs and greatness of the Republic of Siena. The procession includes marching bands, flag throwers, musicians, horse riders, and an array of historical reenactments.

In the evening, it is time for the horse race, which lasts only three laps around the piazza, covered in several inches of dirt for the occasion. The intensity of the local rivalries and the relatively dangerous race track often make the 90-second competition quite treacherous for both the horses and the jockeys. The winner is always the horse that crosses the finish line first – with or without its rider – and it is typical to see whips being used not only on the rider’s own horse, but also on those of others, to spook or distract them.

In many ways, the Palio is a real journey back in time – as the people of Siena resort to using techniques and behavior typical of another era. The lack of fair play, by plotting against rivals and rejoicing at their defeat, is all part of this historic game, which is not always looked upon favorably by humane associations or those citizens who feel it represents a violent and outdated ritual that too often results in serious injuries to both the horses and their jockeys.

The Palio is without a doubt a majestic pageant, but it is also controversial for the obvious absence of good sportsmanship and its often dubious practices – rooted in centuries of tradition, rivalries and passion, as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


August 15th is called Ferragosto in Italy – the holiday synonymous with summer vacation.

In the past, those forced to stay in the city during the month of August would be faced with living in a ghost town - especially during the week of Ferragosto. Factories and businesses throughout the country would close their doors at the beginning of the month and workers would flock to the beach, or the mountains, for their annual month-long holiday. For decades, Italy basically shut down during August. Most everything was closed (usually for the entire month – but definitely for the week of Ferragosto) and finding something to buy or to do if not in a tourist location was nearly impossible.

However, times are slowly changing. Whether it’s because of the global market or the hurting local economy, this year the August city dwellers will find themselves in good company. To start, very few businesses can afford to close for a month, and the “innovative” concept of having employees take their vacations in turns – and not allowing them to use all 4 weeks at once – has become commonplace. Another reason is certainly that most families are hard-pressed to finance extravagant long vacations. In fact, this year is showing a huge drop in summer travel by Italians. Most are remaining within national borders and limiting their stays to a week (or even less) – and an unprecedented number is not taking a vacation at all.

Going on summer vacation in the 1950s -  photo:

In many ways, this shift in vacation patterns was inevitable. Italy could not expect to be part of the European (and global) economy while continuing its 11 month work calendar. The hope is that the recession will soon ease, so that people who have worked hard will at least be able to take some vacation, and those who lack work will soon find it. 

In the meantime, for those “stuck” in Florence this August, the good news is that not everything is closed. You can even go to a museum on Ferragosto! Many of the city’s major galleries will remain open - so the 15th  might prove to be a good day (with fewer crowds) to take advantage of the city's cultural offerings.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Intrigue Behind the Façade of the Palazzo di Bianca Cappello

One of the reasons I always suggest for people to take a tour of Florence (and the other major historic cities) is that you can learn so many interesting things about the history of the monuments and the city itself. When walking the streets of Florence there are so many beautiful buildings to admire that often people just pass them by, without even noticing the particular architectural features and certainly unaware of their historical significance. Except for the major monuments, most visitors don’t realize how many of these lovely palazzi have a story to tell.

Due to its particular façade, this building might stand out when walking down Via Maggio. Known as the Palazzo di Bianca Cappello, it was built between 1570 and 1574 by the architect Bernardo Buontalenti, on the foundations of the original structure dating from the early 1400s. However, it’s the story behind the building that makes it unique. Commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Franceso I de’Medici, for his mistress, Bianca Cappello, a Venetian noblewoman with whom he had fallen madly in love. He chose the site especially for its proximity to the Pitti Palace, his official residence, making it easy for him to visit his lover frequently. Their affair proved to be one of the most scandalous of the Renaissance period – as Francesco was married to Giovanna of Austria, and Bianca to Pietro Buonaventuri – who was (conveniently?) murdered on the streets of Florence in 1572.  

Bianca Capppello
After Giovanna’s premature death, Francesco was able to marry Bianca in 1579 and she then moved into Palazzo Pitti. Yet their story did not have a happy ending, as the Medici family was opposed to their relationship from the start and it is suspected that the couple’s death at the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano only 8 years later (and within hours of each other) might have been the result of poisoning.

The palazzo had been donated to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova when Bianca became grand duchess and it was then that the façade was painted with this particular decoration called sgraffito by Bernardino Poccetti. Today, the building belongs to the city of Florence and is used as an archive for the scientific and cultural institute Gabinetto Vieusseux.