5 Reasons Why Ostia Antica Beats the Roman Forum!

Ostia Antica

When most people think of Ancient Rome, the Roman Forum usually comes to mind as the top place to see what life was like in ancient Roman times. There, you’ll find yourself immersed in the grandeur of an ancient city center surrounded by large monuments, stately buildings, and ancient temples and churches.

The Roman Forum

But there’s actually a lesser known place, just outside of Rome, that beats the Roman Forum for providing a more closer, intimate view of what life was really like in ancient Roman times. That place is Ostia Antica.  Here are five reasons why Ostia Antica beats the Roman Forum for giving you a much closer look into what day-to-day life was like in Roman times.

  1. Ostia is in Better Shape

Ostia Antica is Rome’s original Port city. Founded around 600 BC near the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber river, it developed into the headquarters for one of the commanders the Roman Fleet around 267 BC. Ostia started to become an important grain storage area for the military, and from there developed into a major commercial trading center.

Artist's Depiction of Ostia Antica
Artist’s Depiction of Ostia Antica

Because of the booming commercial trade in Ostia, the city soon ran out of capacity to dock ships. In 98 AD Emperor Trajan started work on a new harbor about 3km north of Ostia to provide extra ship capacity. As the urban center around this new harbor (Portus) developed and at the same time Rome’s population started declining, Ostia faded in importance, and around 800 AD it was finally abandoned, hastened by repeated Saracen pirate attacks.

Most of Ostia was gradually covered by silt from repeated flooding of the Tiber and by its changing course.  All of the silt accumulation helped to preserve the remaining structures until excavation of the site started in the early 1800’s, resulting in the really well-preserved ancient city that you can see today.

To help us to better understand the history of Ostia and everything there is to see there, we signed up for the “Daily Life in Ostia Antica” private tour through tripadvisor, which was hosted by Maria from viator. Maria is a trained archaeologist who actually lives in the present-day city of Ostia. Maria’s knowledge of the history and background of Ostia Antica was amazing, and we learned so much from her on our 3-hour tour with her. Here she is pointing out some details of the necropolis, a burial site near the park entrance, to Chris:

Chris and our tour guide Maria
Chris and our tour guide Maria

According to ancient law, burial places had to be located outside of the city walls.  Here we could see elaborate tombs for people of upper social classes.

Raised Tomb in the Necropolis
Raised Tomb in the Necropolis
Tomb of the Little Arches
Tomb of the Little Arches

The entrance to the city, the Porta Romana, is marked by the remnants of an elaborate marble entrance.

Porta Romana
Porta Romana

Inside Ostia Antica itself, we were amazed by the excellent condition of many of the areas we saw. For example, in a shop near the Roman Baths you can clearly see a beautiful marble bar counter with shelves and basins for washing dishes, along with a built-in stove!

Shop Near the Forum Baths
Shop Near the Forum Baths

There are also plenty of well-preserved murals and paintings still visible in their original locations including a mural showing items you could purchase in the shop.

Mural
Mural Showing Shop Offerings

Even some of the mosaic tile floors are still in great condition!

Tile Floor in the Baths of Neptune
Tile Floor in the Baths of Neptune

2. Ostia Isn’t Crowded

Because Ostia is outside of Rome’s historical district and is somewhat off the beaten path, fewer people venture out to see it. We visited Ostia twice, in June and also in September, and on both occasions we never encountered more than 20 people in the entire 84-acre site. You can practically have the place to yourself when you visit!

Decumano Massimo, Ostia's Main Street
Decumano Massimo, Ostia’s Main Street

3. Ostia is Cooler in the Summer

Because Ostia is only 2km away from the sea, it’s cooler in the summer compared to the Roman Forum where you can bake in the noonday sun. There’s quite a bit of shade from the many pine trees on the site. That said, especially during July and August, I’d suggest you visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it’s cooler and when the lighting is more subdued compared to the middle of the day.

Lots of Shady Pines!
Lots of Shady Pines!

4. Ostia Gives You a Better View into Roman Life

A visit to Ostia lets you get a good idea of what day-to-day life must have been like for Romans living and working in a large commercial center.

You can see how people lived in apartments at the House of Diana.

House of Diana
House of Diana

For daily entertainment for the city’s residents, the city had an impressive theatre.

Theatre Entrance
Theatre Entrance
Amphitheatre
Amphitheatre

The city had two bath complexes, with the much of the original structure of the Forum Baths still visible.

Forum Baths
Forum Baths
Form Baths
Form Baths

You can even see the remnants of a complex system of hollow pipes that ran warm water through the floors and walls in the  Forum Baths.

Forum Baths Plumbing
Forum Baths Plumbing

There’s also a museum onsite that houses many artifacts found in Ostia.

Clay Pots Outside of the Museum
Clay Amphorae Outside of the Museum

5. Ostia is Close to the Airport

Ostia is a great place to visit if you’re at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport for an overnight stay or even for a short layover, since it’s only about a 15-min. taxi ride away.

Directions for Fiumicino to Ostia Antica
Fiumicino to Ostia Antica

If you are in Rome for an overnight visit, I’d recommend you stay at the Best Western Hotel Rome Airport; it’s a nice basic hotel with a good restaurant, it has a regular shuttle service to take you to the airport terminals (5 min. away), and it avoids you from having to go into Rome itself for an overnight stay (a 60-euro, 45-minute  taxi ride).

Ostia Antica is located at Viale dei Romagnoli, 717, 00119 Roma RM. Information on tickets and opening hours is at the Ostia Antica website.

Contact us if you’d like more details about visiting Ostia Antica or any of the other exiting destinations in Italy!

Southern Italy’s Most Instagrammable Places

Beach in Maratea

Ciao!

Who doesn’t love Instagram? If you are dreaming of travel or just adding to your bucket list, Instagram is a great place to go to escape even for a short while.

It is lovely to take out your computer on a cold and rainy Sunday, and look at photos of bright sunshine, blue skies and fabulous crystal blue seas.

And for all of the above, there is no place better than Southern Italy for snap after snap of impossibly beautiful images whether in your mind or in your camera.

Diamante
Diamante, Calabria

Diamante, Calabria

Diamante means “diamond” in Italian and a diamond it is.

Diamante rides atop a point that juts out into the Mediterranean and curves inland creating white sand beaches and gorgeous seascapes.

The historic center of Diamante (Centro Storico) is a beautiful blend of ancient Italian houses and tiny cobbled vias interspersed with spectacular views of the sea.

Diamante promenade
The lungomare (promenade) in Diamante

Diamante is also known for its murals which present themselves around corners and tucked into alleyways. A morning spent on a hunt for each mural is so fun as you wind your way through the town taking picture after picture to put on Instagram.

Mediterranean Near Praia A Mare
Mediterranean Near Praia a Mare

Praia a Mare, Calabria

Pete and I just love Praia a Mare. On a Summer afternoon, Praia’s shady, tree lined promenade down the center of town is a treasure chest of Instagrammable snapshots.

Gulf of Policastro
Gulf of Policastro

Praia a Mare is so spectacular that Pete and I recently purchased a property that we are now renting out on Air BNB

View from Casa Gorasole
View from the wraparound terrace of Casa Girasole
Tortora Calabria
The beautiful hill town of Tortora, Calabria Italy

Tortora, Calabria

Calabria is studded with gorgeous little hill towns that take your breath away. each one has its own personality and charm however Tortora is one of our all time favorites for billions of Instagrammable views and sights.

Another reason to love Tortora is that our great friend Giacomo and his family live there and they have introduced us to their friends and family.

Roseangela PAsta demo
Roseangela pasta making demo

Any trip to Tortora must include lunch at Al Caminetto, a restaurant in the Centro Storico that is run by the extremely talented Roseangela and her family.

Roseangela is royalty in terms of Calabrian cooking. A meal with her is a feast of traditional Calabrian appetizers, freshly made pasta dishes featuring Chinguale or local wild boar, and freshly made ravioli with ricotta from the local farms.

Pasta with Wild Boar at Al Caminetto in Tortora, Italy
Pasta with Wild Boar at A; Caminetto in Tortora, Italy

While we were there, Roseangela gave us a pasta making demo which you can see here. Enjoy watching me mangle a fusilli. It is quite entertaining how she whips them out perfectly while I struggle trying to make something that might pass for a fusilli noodle if it is buried at the bottom of the dish.

Fusilli at Al Caminetto
Fusilli at Al Caminetto, Tortora, Calabria, Italy

I recommend visiting Al Caminetto with a big group and ordering a selection of traditional Calabrian dishes. You wil be amazed at the variety and how delicious it all is.

Ancient Greek vase Tortora
Ancient Greek vase in the museum in Tortora

Tortora also has a beautiful museum where you can see artifacts that have been dug up in recent local excavations, including Etruscan and Ancient Greek artifacts that date back to the era of the Magna Grecia which encompassed Southern Italy.

Tortora is also one of those villages packed to the brim with Instagrammable images. Everywhere you look is something beautiful.

Maratea_coast
Sweeping Mediterranean views from Maratea

Maratea, Basilicata

There is portion of Italy where you can see three different regions, Calabria, Compania and Basilicata. You can see them all from our Air BNB apartment on the terrace.  In fact the sunsets from our balcony are all Instagrammable and they are different every night.

View from the terrace
View from the wraparound terrace I Casa Girasole

Maratea is just north of Calabria along the coast. Maratea is known for the giant white marble statue of Christ the Redeemer similar to the one in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

This statue is perched high atop the hill in Maratea. A drive up there affords you the most spectacular views of the Mediterranean found anywhere.

Cristo Redentore, Maratea
Cristo Redentore, Maratea, Calabria. Christ the Redeemer of Maratea, at 21 meters high, is the third-tallest statue of Jesus in Europe. The statue was built of pure Carrara marble in 1965 by Bruno Innocenti, a sculptor from Florence.

The beaches in Maratea are also stunning as are most beaches in Southern Italy. The Mediterranean turns crystal blue as you journey down South.

Beach Near Maratea
Beach near Maratea

Matera, Basilicata

Matera used to be called the Shame of Italy. Back in the 1950’s starvation was rampant as was malaria. Many of the people in Matera lived in caves in the rock walls bringing their animals inside with them in Winter for warmth. Carlo Levy, in his book,  “Christ Stopped at Eboli” was the first to shine the light on the deplorable conditions in Matera and this caused the Italian government to come in, repatriate the people in better housing and to care for them.

Matera Morning
Matera Morning

In recent years however, Matera has become an artist’s Mecca with art and music schools popping up, and festivals in Summer. When we visited, we heard music around every corner from opera to jazz to pop. It was quite extraordinary.

Aside from the art aspect however, Matera is, itself a work of art. Made from the local white stone, Matera gleams in the sunlight and glows in the evening as the golden town lights come up.

Matera evening
Matera evening

Most recently, Matera has been the perfect location for movies. The new James Bond movie “A Time to Die” was partially filmed in Matera. (Click here for some awesome footage.)

Church in Matera
Church of the Purgatory in Matera

Santa Domenica Talao, Calabria

Of all of the Instagrammable places I have presented here, my heart belongs to Santa Domenica Talao which is my home.

The Piazza
Our Piazza

When Pete and I first looked for property in Calabria, we saw Santa Domenica Talao and that was it. We knew this was where we belonged.

Every day that I walk around the village I see new and beautiful instagrammable views, from the sweeping views of the sea and the mountains to the fruit laid out at my friend Nunzia’s store and the kids playing soccer in the parking lot. There is so much to take in.

Nunzia's store
Nunzia’s store

We love Santa Domenica Talao so much that Pete and I have purchased a ruin just up from the piazza and a few steps from Nunzia’s store. It is a ruin and we are renovating it and turning it into a BNB so that others can come and enjoy our beautiful village. Check out our renovation project and follow us as we complete it.  Then make sure you are there for the grand opening!

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domenica Talao, our beatiful home.

Santa Domenica is infinitely Instagrammable but beyond that, when you come you will fall in love with the people. We have so many warm friends there and have been welcomed from the beginning.

As you can see, Southern Italy is a photographer’s paradise. Start planning your trip down. Pete and I are experts in the region and can help you plan the perfect visit. Contact us and we can get you started.

How to Navigate Tricky Venice and Bathe Yourself in Beauty

Little Bridges

 

Venice is magic!
Venice is Magic!

Ciao Everyone!

Wow! Pete and I just returned from an incredible cruise on Azamara to the Greek Islands, ending up in Venice.

I was unfamiliar with Venice, all of my knowledge being stories I have read and beautiful photos in travel magazines. Seeing Venice up close and personal was a gift that I hope you all receive. In short Venice is spectacular .

That said, Venice, being built on stilts in a swampy lagoon and being a spot that tourists are drawn to like Winnie the Pooh to honey pots,  has her challenges. Pete and I very sneakily discovered some ways to get around them and to have a beautiful time in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Water taxis and busses are the only way to get around
Water taxis and water busses are the only way to get around.
  1. Make sure your hotel is close to the water taxis

If you have never been to Venice, be aware that it is not a city for the severely mobility impaired. Venice is a series of islands close together with canals running betwixt and between them. They are held together by beautiful little bridges that connect each island to the ones next to it forming a an interconnected archipelago.

There are no cars in the center of Venice so no taxis to pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.  The water buses are great but let me tell you that if you have walking, standing or balance issues they can be intimidating.

There are no cars in the old town, Venice

I have had three hip replacements so in big cities, I walk with a cane and have some balance issues. I had to use great care getting on and off these boats and sometimes the only way on and off was over a skinny plank.

In addition we had luggage. We pack pretty light but those who do not will have the massive task of heaving a huge suitcase onto and off of a water taxi then dragging all their luggage to whatever accommodations they are planning to use while there.

When you look at it, it can be a long walk to your hotel if it is far from the  Grand Canal.

Tiny vias in Venice
Tiny vias in Venice

While in Venice we stayed at the Hotel Lux. It is close to the water taxi stations, close to the Piazza San Marco and had some stellar restaurants nearby. Hotel Lux is a three star hotel. The room was small but it was inexpensive and clean and you get breakfast. We would definitely stay there again, especially since hotels in Venice can be extremely pricey.

While we were on board the Azamara ship, Pete had overheard an unfortunate young woman who had reservations at a hotel in Venice. Her mother was confined to a wheelchair and she had no idea how she was going to get her mom, their luggage and herself to her hotel and around Venice. I felt bad for her. It was a thorny problem.

Venice cistern
Venice had cisterns to gather water and provide It to the residents

2. Buy quality luggage and pack as lightly as you can.

I have found recently that quality luggage is the difference between breezing through airports and over cobbled historical centers, and dragging, sweating and possibly even swearing (under your breath of course) trying to get your stuff from one location to the next.

Prior to leaving for this trip, I went and bought a rolly bag made by Swiss Gear. I paid more but after rolling all the bags around the store I decided it was worth is and it really was! This thing is a dream. I walk through the airport barely pushing it. It is light and easy to hoist onto trains. Even over cobble stones it was great.

Venetian Canal
Venetian Canal

3. Check to see what floor you will be staying on because there are very few lifts in Venice.

The only drawback to the Hotel Lux was that it was a tall and skinny hotel. We were on the “third” floor (really the fourth because that is how they are counted in Europe) and there was a stair case that you had to climb to get to reception. Happily we packed relatively light but we still had to schlepp all our bags up the stairs to our room and back down again when we left.

I had a conversation with the hotel manager and he advised me that the building codes are very strict in Venice to the point where inside or outside, you cannot move the ancient walls or take them down. This severely limits building owners and as there are few locations that can actually accommodate a lift, there are very few.

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Bridge

4. Don’t spend all your time at the main attractions.

Sure St. Mark’s Square is stunningly beautiful and you should see it. Go at night, most of the tourists are gone and several restaurants feature beautiful orchestras playing classical music. Sitting at a table in a square surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture ever created  drinking a Prosecco while listening to Antonio Vivaldi, Venice’s favored son, is a treat you won’t want to miss.

St, Mark’s during the day is choked with people as is the Rialto Bridge. See these places after dark.

Venice at night
Venice at night

Meanwhile Pete and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day running around Venice with our cameras looking for the prettiest corners, the most interesting reflections and watching the beautifully crafted gondolas glide soundlessly through the tiny waters with their passengers.

Venice is one of those rare cities that is beautiful through and through. Around every corner is another amazing sight. From the mask maker’s shops to the glass shops, there is so much to delight your eyes that is not shown in guide books.

Little Bridges
Little Bridges

5. Understand that most of the bridges have stairs.

Again if you are in a wheelchair, you will not see a lot of Venice. Along the Grand  Canal the city has provided ramps for those with mobility issues but that is the only place I saw them. The rest of the lanes are held together with little arched bridges with stairs.

Murano Glassworks
Murano Glass Works

6. DO go see the glass works in Murano

While we were there Pete and I took a boat tour to Murano and Burano.

Murano is the island where Venetian glass is made. Since glassmaking is an inherently dangerous activity due to the high temperature fires needed to melt silica and make glass, all of the glassmaking has been restricted to the island of Murano.

Once we alighted on the island, we were treated to a short glass making demonstration during which we watched in fascination as a master glass craftsman took a bubble of glass and create a rearing horse in seconds.

After the demonstration we toured the showroom. We were not allowed to take photos and it is unfortunate because I cannot describe how beautiful these works were.

 Check out this website however for some idea. The picture may or may not due them all justice. The works were nothing short of specatacular.

Burano umbrellas
Pretty umbrellas in Burano

7.  Take a guided tour

Our tour of Murano and Burano was with City Wonders. Our tour guide is a Venice resident and had an incredibly rich knowledge of the city’s history. She answered every question we threw at her including the significances of certain statues, what a normal Venetian would have for dinner and what products we should order this season in the restaurants. On top of that she was immensely entertaining and funny. Her name was Francesca A and we highly recommend her.

Seeing any city with a tour guide is the best way to go. The experience is so much richer when you know what you are looking at.

If you don’t want to do that check out some of the Great Courses. Either way your experience will be much richer when you know the stories behind the magnificent things you are seeing.

Venice is a city full of challenges but also full to the brim of wonder. She is a challenge to negotiate but when you do you will be treated to an experience like no other.

This beautiful little island built on a lagoon to thwart invaders ended up dominating all the cities in terms of trade and drew to herself, architectural and artistic elements from everywhere.

She is a sparkling jewel in a stunning Byzantine jewel box just waiting to be explored,

 

 

 

 

 

 

#calabriaisbooming!

View from the terrace
Orso Marso
Chris at the top of the hill Orso Marso

Ciao Belli!

If you are in any way, shape or form an Italophile, I am sure you are always on the lookout for hidden treasures and tucked away gems. You are interested in tiny hill towns bursting with culture and community and perhaps you have even thought about purchasing a property in one of these little pockets of beauty, tight knit community, culture and history.

Pete and I have been drawn to Italy since we were both teens and young adults when we visited Italy and each made a decision that some day we would make it a huge part of our lives.

That day came in 2011 when we purchased our house in the little Calabrian hill town of Santa Domenica Talao.

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domenica Talao

At that time we saw the treasure that was this town and all the other hill towns and seaside villages that dotted the mountains and shores of Calabria. And we could not believe that they were not overrun with tourists breathlessly discovering the spectacular mountains, the freshest air, the beautiful crystal-blue waters that make swimming a joy and the food, wine, community and culture that are the most valuable hidden treasures here.

Calabria has always been off the beaten path for travelers, in fact a very famous guide book publisher told us that “Americans don’t go to Calabria”. Well, that may have been true at one time but it is not true now.

In fact, I get a lot of emails from people looking to purchase property in Calabria and researching retiring there.

Calabria is an excellent tourist destination and retirement destination for so many reasons.

Calabrian Atmosphere
Calabrian Atmosphere
Pizza Bella Vista
Pizza at the Bella Vista

It is inexpensive.

Properties here are so amazingly affordable. Apartments can be found in the 30,000 Euro range. And with them you have proximity to the beast beaches in the world. In Amalfi, these places would be unaffordable. In addition, a fabulous wood fired pizza in our village costs as little as 6.00 Euros. The cost of living is a whole lot less than just about anywhere.

YUM!
YUM!

The food is unparalleled

We have dishes in Calabria that are now setting the world on fire with their uniqueness and flavors.

Recently there was a festival in our village where we had speakers and cooking demos using the products unique to Calabria. I learned that there are 380 food products unique to Calabria. The cedro and the Calabrian Black Truffle are only two of the products that grow only in Calabria and famous chefs who love Italy are discovering the food treasures found only here.

Scalea
Scalea

Calabria has some of the most spectacular landscape on the planet.

Our village of Santa Domenica Talao is between the mountains and the sea and you get spectacular views of both. The Pollino Mountains rise up forming a rocky spine just inland. In one sweeping view from our terrace you can see the most spectacular mountains anywhere and the endless Mediterranean.

Anywhere in Calabria you are close to a spectacular beach, a beautiful town or village and art and architecture that takes your breath away.

Roseangela at Al Caminetto
Roseangela at Al Caminetto
My Beautiful Friends Nunzia
My Beautiful Friend Nunzia

There is a special culture unique to Calabria.

You see, Calabria is the REAL Italy. Now this is no dis to Rome or Florence or Venice who all have their charm but they are big famous celebrities while Calabria is, well, its home.

I love my friends there. They made us feel welcome from the very beginning and we are a part of something bigger than ourselves or our families. We are part of a village with all its joys and sorrows, all its trials and triumphs.

I feel that much of this feeling of belonging is missing for a large number of Americans. Depression and loneliness are almost foreign here, Since my husband is still working in America, I spend a lot of time solo. When I get lonely I simply go up to the piazza and see all of my friends.

We are parts of their lives and they are part of ours.

Most recently I have seen a huge interest in Calabria not only from our website but from many sources.

Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun just wrote an article in National Geographic Magazine all about the cultural and culinary riches of Calabria,

In addition, Air BNB’s recent magazine prominently featured Calabria as a tourist destination.

In short, Savvy Travelers everywhere are finally discovering Calabria and the Italian government and the local towns and villages are all aligning in the same direction,

Last Summer while I was there, our village featured  a major culinary festival spanning two days. A famous local chef was invited and a panel discussion was held and later cooking demonstrations featuring typical Calabrian products.

A week later, I was honored to speak at Santa Domenica Talao’s 350th anniversary. All of the mayors of the local towns and villages were there and wanted to know what it was about Santa Domenica that drew Pete and me there and made us decide to invest in a business there.

They listened intently as I told them how much we felt loved and welcomed into this amazing village and how it gives us things we have not found at home, things like a real sense of community, and a feeling of being a part of something important. We are now a part of this Italian village and we could not be prouder or more humbled.

Happily a local reporter was there who interviewed me and wrote a nice article on the event.

Here is an exerpt in English:

Great astonishment was aroused by the testimony of Chis, a naturalized Cristina, a middle-aged woman from California, who found her dimension in Santa Domenica Talao. The American citizen explained how after a trip she fell in love with this place, even coming to buy a house in the middle of the historic center, where she now spends five or six months a year. The passion for this land has also infected his sister, who has become her neighbor. And that's not all, because a year ago Cristina decided to buy a second building, this time to turn it into a b & b. To make it known to overseas tourists, Chris writes about it on his blog, which can be found on the website www.supersavvytravelers.com, in which he describes, in detail, what comes in the small community that overlooks the Tyrrhenian coast at an altitude of 304 meters. Between thunderous applause and great enthusiasm, the evening ended with the cake cutting tradition.

 

In addition many of the mayors who attended stood up and spoke. I learned that the Italian government has provided certain grants to these villages and towns in Calabria to assist them in promoting themselves.

As a result we have seen a lot of new interest in Calabria by travel magazines, famous chefs, and travel writers. All of this has created the beginnings of a boom in our beloved part of Italy.

Nunzia's Store
Local Calabrian products

There has also been a surge of new businesses, including a gorgeous new BNB in Praia a Mare owned by our friend Giacomo’s son and his two friends. Together they purchased a crumbling ruin in the historic center of Praia a Mare and renovated it into a high end luxury BNB called Praja Vecchia.

Their message to the young people of Calabria is that you don’t have to go away to find work in Rome, Milan or London. You can create your own work where you are. You can stay with your families and in the place you grew up.

And this is what they have done.

Pete and I have also purchased a ruin to renovate and turn into a BNB in our village. While I was meeting with Antonello, our amazing architect, and designing our new BNB, he told me that this last Summer, every BNB, every room in a house and every apartment in Santa Domenica Talao was full all Summer.

And that makes me tremendously happy.

Since #calabriaisbooming, perhaps you want to come and be the first among your friends to discover its charms.

Chris in Santa Domenica Talao
Chris in Santa Domenica Talao

Pete and I can help you arrange you trip. Recently we have purchased a rental property in Praia a Mare with sweeping views of the Mediterranean from your private terrace and private patio.

We can help you arrange all of your travel to get here and a property manager will be there on scene to ensure that you have everything you need.

Your morning view
View from Casa Gorasole
View from the wraparound terrace of Casa Girasole

 

Autumn in Calabria, Food, Culture and Wine

AUTUMN IN CALABRIA
AUTUMN IN CALABRIA
Autumn in Santa Domenica Talao

There is something uniquely magic about Autumn in Calabria.

Gone is the white hot afternoon where La Pausa, our afternoon siesta, rescues us from the brutal sun of the Mezzogiorno creating a womb of dark, relative cool where no one expects you until evening.

In its place is the honey colored light that slants in sideways and bathes everything in a golden glow which gives our hilltop village an air of peace and magic around every corner.

Our village, Santa Domenica Talao goes from the quasi frenetic July/August tourist/service pace to instantly more relaxed as though life moved from Allegro to Andante the minute the calendar page turned over.

Santa Domenica Flower Shop
Santa Domenica Talao Flower Shop

The village is turned back over to its residents while the evenings remain warm and long, and the magic light turns its houses gold.

After a long flight from San Francisco then a direct jump onto the train and a stop in Praia Mare to pick up my rental car, I finally alighted in Santa Domenica Talao.

Normally I stop off in Rome for a night to catch my breath but just prior to booking I had received an email from our architect, Antonello advising me that there was a grand festa happening which included several days of discussion about how to spread the beauty and flavors of Calabrian cooking far and wide. This news propelled me to Santa Domenica in record time as I am never one to miss a spectacular meal.

Santa Domenica in Autumn
Santa Domenica in Autumn

 

Calabria has really been moving forward in its quest to become an actual destination rather than a foot note in a guidebook which skips Southern Italy with barely a mention and takes up again in Sicily as though almost half of Italy, with all its culture, cuisine, wine and Produtti Tipici don’t even exist.

And one of the speakers last night brought up the fact that the fault of this has been lack of PR and marketing. He was right, How could you have all this wealth of amazing products including the freshest and most amazing seafood, the cedro, that misshapen citrus fruit which only grows here, and the Calabrian black truffles, and still go unnoticed.

In any case, the region has made a decision that the world needs to know about Calabria and her treasures and they have set out with a vengeance to ensure that the world is brought to our door.

Rinaldi
Ristorante Rinaldi Da Vittorio

Calabria has 380 unique products typical to the region. And its cuisine is second to none in terms of creativity and sheer deliciousness. Cucina Povera (Poor cuisine) originated here and celebrates the creativity needed to create the nourishing and delicious dishes with only a handful of the ingredients that they had available at the time.

You see, Calabria, despite her wealth of typical products, has not been considered a wealthy region for a very long time. Long ago Calabria was part of the Magna Grecia or Great Greece. It was a region of learning and culture before the days of the Roman Empire.

Somewhere between then and now, her grand Greek heritage had become somewhat lost and poverty took over.

Many Americans don’t realize it but the majority of Italian dishes that we consider “Italian food” originated here in Calabria. It was the Southern Italians who fled their homelands back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s to find a life where survival was easier and where one did not have to battle the environmental extremes in order to eke out a living. And they brought their recipes with them.

Lunch!
Lunch!

The first night before I arrived in Santa Domenica Talao, there was a cooking competition. The judge was a local chef, Vincenzo Grisolia who has made a name for himself with his restaurant, Vigri, down in Scalea.

Scalea is right on the coast and perfectly perched to pull the freshest of fish from the sea and serve it to you immediately. Vncenzo’s restaurant, Vigri. is well known for local seafood and it is the place that I first tasted the most perfectly prepared, fat, sweet shrimp that I have ever experienced.

Chef Vincenzo Grisolia has spent his career presenting Calabrian cuisine to the world and had come to our beautiful village to work with others to spread the word.

During the forum held last night on our communal terrace that overlooks the Lao plain and the Mediterranean, we were treated to discussion about all the cuisine of Calabria and exhortations to not only preserve these amazing dishes, many of which are unique to each tiny hill town that grace the mountain crest of the region, but to disseminate them.

Calabria is a rich cornucopia of natural resources. Wild fennel grows everywhere, Cedros are plentiful and ONLY grow here, and the aforementioned black truffles fetch a fierce price in the markets all across Europe.

Antipasti
Antipasti

There was much discussion among the panel about the famous Pepperoncini festival in Diamante where you can buy peppers that are said to cure anxiety, cancer and even impotence.

The pepperoncino festival is one of the most widely attended in Europe and is a local success story that could be duplicated with other products and in other areas.

When Pete and I first started looking at property here in 2010, things were very different. There were relatively few public works that ever got started much less completed. Some of the areas around our village had an air of seediness to it that try as they might, the locals could not overcome.

Most recently the Italian government has seen the potential of this and other Southern Italian regions as a tourist destinations and has decided to handle the barriers that stood in the way. As a result, our mayor has been able to secure funding for projects that will create a demand for everything Calabria has to offer and it is all starting.

And Pete and I are so lucky to be in on the ground floor and see it all roll out before our eyes.

Our BNB
Our BNB

Last Winter we purchased a grand old building in our village just up from the piazza.  We are working with the architect and builder here to turn it into a spectacular and luxurious BNB. From the moment we arrived here the first time we looked at Calabria and our village and decided it was a no-brainer to invest time and treasure to help push this vision forward.

This afternoon, I met my friend Bonnie for lunch at the Bella Vista restaurant. I ordered my favorite, Antipasti di Stagione (Antipasti of the season) which means you never know what treats will show up on your table.

Plate after plate arrived with fresh vegetable dishes, Patate e Pippi (potatoes and peppers), Fritatta, and lots of little stuffed and baked or fried things that I cannot name but are delicious little surprises that explode in your mouth with a flood of flavors.

For 12 Euros, we ate our fill and we both took the rest home for dinner.

It was a tiny microcosm, an analogy of our beautiful region and all that it has to offer.

Watch this site for culinary, wine and  photography tours of the Riviera Dei Cedri, our beautiful area of Calabria. Pete and I can’t wait to take you round to all the best restaurants and wineries and for you to sit out on the roof terrace with your glass of Ciro watching while the village goes from gold to the pink of sunset and back to gold as the lights come up illuminating this amazing little place that is somehow stopped in time.

It is a place whose time has come.

And you will want to be the first to experience it.

Paestum; The Magic and Magnificence of the Magna Grecia.

Temple of Neptune
Guide book at the ready! We bought these fab hats at the gift shop! Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

 

You have been to Rome and seen the ruins and remnants of ancient Roman civilizations piled bit by bit on top of each other until they sometimes seem to blur into a vague category in your consciousness entitled “Ancient Roman History”.

As you whiz through Rome amongst the crazy traffic and high speed buzzing scooters, you can get lost in a world dating back to before Christ when gladiators were rock stars and Roman emperors and their courts were living, breathing reality shows.

You love history but it gets a bit crazed and overwhelming at times doesn’t it?

Chris at the Temple of Athena
Chris at the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

This is why you need to visit Paestum.

Nestled along the coast among farmlands sprouting olives, artichokes and the famous buffalo (mothers of the creamy delightful mozzarella da bufala that gracefully crowns the best pizzas on the planet) you will find an ancient archeological treasure containing the best preserved Greek ruins in the world.

Paestum not only features miraculously preserved Greek temples (The temples of Hera, Athena and Neptune) but is an entire ancient Greek city laid out exactly as it was 500 years before Christ.

Ancient Road
Ancient Road in Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

As you wander this ancient city looking at the temples, the marketplace, the gymnasium with its grand pool, and the houses still containing the mosaic tiled floors, you can blink and suddenly find yourself back in that time period.

You can see the columns and loggia (columned walkways) bordering the government buildings and marketplace. You can hear the voices of the vendors in the market selling wine, fruits and vegetables cultivated nearby, and fish just pulled from the sea. You can smell the food being cooked to purchase and take away and the bread baked in the early morning hours in time to be sold fresh at the market later in the day.

Ancient loggia
Ancient columns. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

It is a perfect snapshot of history still fresh although it existed almost 2,500 years ago.

Bonnie Chris and Barbara
A perfect morning walk through Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Paestum was founded at the mouth of the Sele River by the Achaeans (from Achaea in the area of the Peloponnese in Greece) who had originally landed in Sybaris  (across the Italian boot on the coast of the Ionian Sea) but fled from there in about 600 B.C and found their way here. *

Before the Roman Empire took over the vast majority of Europe and ultimately parts of Africa and Egypt, the Magna Grecia was in full flower.

The Magna Grecia started in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and covered much of the southern areas of Italy’s famous boot including areas in Campania, Baslilcata, Calabria, Apulia and Sicily.

Wild flowers
Spring flowers and Greek temples. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Settlers from Greece began arriving on these coasts bringing with them the Hellenic culture, philosophies, agriculture and the basics of Greek civilization.

And Paestum was one of the beautiful Magna Grecian cities that was born at that time nestled within its defensive stone walls running along the banks of the Sele River and the crystal blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

A visit to Paestum today is a short and beautiful train ride south from Naples or north from Reggio Calabria.

Swimming pool
The community swimming pool at Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

From our village of Santa Domenica Talao, it is an hour and a half of gorgeous scenery as you wind your way along the glorious coast to the shady avenue that leads you directly from the Paestum train station into the archeological park.

Trip hazards
Watch for falling Chrises! Beware trip hazards! Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

As soon as you arrive within the walls that protected this ancient Greek city, you can see outlines of walkways and buildings and in one glorious sweep you take in the magnificent temple of Neptune (or Poseidon if you are an ancient Roman) rising up and glowing pinkish gold in the Tyrrhenian sunshine.

Temple of Neptune
Interior of the magnificent Temple of Neptune. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

How to Best Explore Paestum

Most visitors see Paestum in Spring, Summer or Fall. At any of these times the weather can be quite hot and humid making it challenging to see all of the park and the museum.

Paestum museum
Paestum museum with Bonnie, Chris and Barbara. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

The best way to see Paestum is to arrive as early in the morning as you can and explore the city before the heat of the afternoon sun chases you inside.

Delle Rose
Ristorante Delle Rose. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Take a break at lunch and have a fantastic meal at the Ristorante Pizzeria Delle Rose which is on the corner of the tree lined street filled with gift shops that runs the length of the park.

Normally I do not recommend eating anywhere near monuments and attractions but Ristorante Pizzeria Delle Rose seems to be an exception to that rule. We had an amazing meal with fresh pasta and fish dishes at a great price. The service despite the busy lunch crowd, was warm and efficient.

artifact lion bowl
Lion miniature Paestum Museum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

After your refreshing lunch, head over to the air conditioned museum to see the myriad of artifacts that have been unearthed and put on display.

It is amazing that these every day items are so perfectly preserved giving us a glimpse of a long ago civilization as though we were looking in the shop windows alongside the people who lived there at that time.

rain gutter Paestum
Ancient Greek rain gutter. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Beyond the miraculously preserved Greek temples and the historical snapshot of a bustling city, Paestum is a place that has a very special feel. It is a place of unrivaled aesthetic and spiritual expansion that mortal words cannot really describe.

In short, Paestum has to be experienced to fully understand the inherent beauty, not only of the remnants of a magnificent civilization but of the very civilization that sired it.

Chris Paestum
Chris on the road to ruins. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Southern Italy, the home of the Magna Grecia is a treasure chest of Ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan civilizations and artifacts. It is also home to some of the most magnificent beaches and glorious stretches of coastline on the planet.

Super Savvy Travelers are Southern Italy experts. We have a home here and spend our waking hours exploring and learning about all aspects of this spectacular region that has been completely ignored by travel guidebooks and is only now being discovered by Savvy Travelers and culinary experts.

The diver
Paestum The Diver. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Call us if you want to visit this dazzling region. We will set up a trip that you will never forget.

* Historical data gleaned from Guide Arte”m Paestum The archaeological park, the museum/temple of Hera Argiva” and Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Love and Renovation Italian Style!

Our lady's generous back side

 

Our grand old lady
Our grand old lady

Ciao Everyone!

Who hasn’t wanted to rescue an ancient house that was once filled with families, honor, fine food and love?

Millions of us have watched “Under the Tuscan Sun”, some of us many times (that would be me!) and as we did so we dreamed of perhaps one day, finding a house that speaks to us and begs us to give it a second chance at glory.

As you may know, my husband and I purchased a house in the Calabrian hill town of Santa Domenica Talao, Italy.  Our village, like so many others in the area, has a lot of abandoned ruins.

Ruined grand house
Ruined grand house

Back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s many Italians fled Italy to America looking for a better life. Most of them were from Calabria and, although they have made great contributions to us in America in terms of food, family and culture, they left holes in their villages.  As a result the abandoned homes have been left to degenerate into a sad state of disrepair.

As you wander through our village you see these empty old beauties and you can’t help but think about how they might look all done up like new. But many of them have been salvaged and brought back to life, once again filled with love and family.

Houses lining the street leading to the piazza
Houses lining the street leading to the piazza

The street leading to the piazza is lined with beautifully renovated houses, all except for the ancient beauty that rises up over the street like a grand old lady, the only house on the block that needs a redo.

And, ever since my husband and I looked at her when we were in the market for our current house, we have never gotten free of her mysterious pull and finally after 9 years, we decided to purchase her and turn her into a BNB.

This lovely lady standing at Via XXIV Maggio, is ours at last.

Not the new one, the pink building next to it
Not the new one, the pink one next to it.

This was not a simple Italian property transaction. My husband and I decided to use some retirement money to set up a self directed IRA and purchase, renovate and run the BNB through this company. This means that we had to set up a separate company and deal with all of the tax and bureaucratic infrastructure that goes along with it.

Add to that the trouble we ran into getting the tax ID number and some other assorted bits of trouble and, well it took a bit to get it done.

View from the roof terrace
View from the roof terrace

Happily we had some big hitters and “get it done” people on our side. I want to take the opportunity to send out massive kudos to Antonello Lucchesi, our architect and Ivan De Luca, our estate agent and all around get it done guy. These two ran into so many obstacles and found ways around them all. It was really epic!

OMG! Where do we start?
OMG! Where do we start?

I also have to thank our seller Anne for being to gosh darned patient with our bits of trouble and hanging in with it all.

At Last it is Time to Renovate!

Ok, lots to do
OK, lots to do.

While Pete and I were in Santa Domenica last time, we had the opportunity to sit down with Antonello and his staff and go over the layout of all the rooms.

From the front, the house looks a lot smaller than it is. She has a ground floor and another floor above it however her generous backside rolls down the hill giving two more good sized floors that can be turned into accommodations.

Our lady's generous back side
Our lady’s generous back side

In the end we will have four “studiette” apartments with ensuite bath and coffee and fridge facilities and a full sized, one bedroom apartment.

Most of the apartments will have views of the mountains and the sea and one will have a balcony overlooking the street. We also have a large roof terrace where residents can enjoy sweeping views of the mountains and the sea from high above the village.

Balcony view
Balcony View of the mountains and sea

We have decided that we wanted a communal kitchen and eating area where breakfast will be served daily and where we can have events and classes.

And the best news we received while we were there? The cooking school that our mayor has been wooing is finally going to arrive!

As our renovations progress we plan to be in conversations with the cooking school to see about putting together vacation packages for those who want to learn real Calabrian cooking from the masters. In addition we will have ladies from our village teaching classes on everything from pasta making to meats to all of the seemingly millions of appetizers that one finds here.

We will have morning field trips down to the world famous Pasticceria Arrone for coffee and to die for cakes, beach trips, photography tours and whatever else we can think of.

So with the final signatures on all the documents and the money having changed hands, we are ready to start phase 2, renovations!

And a one bedroom apartment
And a one bedroom apartment

Stay with us along the way and watch as this beauty regains her past glory and takes her rightful place as one of Santa Domenica’s leading ladies of the piazza.

The Piazza
Our Piazza

 

 

 

 

 

Pasticceria Arrone, Calabrian Pastries to Die For.

Perfect coffee and cakes
Pasticceria Arrone
Chris and Bonnie at Pasticceria Arrone

Ciao,

Ok so you have arrived in Italy and by some great good fortune you have found your way south.

You wake up hungry and decide that nothing would be quite so perfect as light, crispy, sweet Italian pastry and a perfect cappuccino as you soak in the bright Calabrian sun just as the day is warming up around you.

Down the Mediterranean coast, halfway to Reggio from Naples you come to where we live.

Just south of the Gulf of Policastro and a short hop from the border from Basilicata you enter Calabria and her gorgeous stretches of azure coastline, magnificent beaches, dramatic jutting mountains and a culture deep and rich as the Magne Grecia from which it was born.

Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro
Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro

Little train stops dot the coastline, Maratea, Praia a Mare/Aieta, Scalea/Santa Domenica Talao, And Santa Maria Del Cedro. And here is where you will get off.

Pasticceria Arrone is located in Santa Maria del Cedro just along the train line heading down to Reggio Calabria. It is perfectly located to provide you with the perfect coffee and treat before or after your journey. But we have found that Pasticceria Arrone is a destination unto itself.

One early morning, my husband and I gathered our friends around us and made a  pilgrimage.

Heaven
Heaven! (Chris, Carolyn Oliver, Barbara Oliver and Bonnie Gale Oliver)

Happily our friends Bonnie and Carolyn Oliver had their other sister, Barbara visiting for Summer so we all headed down licking our lips along the way.

Those little red ones, tiny cakes covered with the lightest crispy sugar coating. Give me a moment.
Those little red ones, tiny cakes covered with the lightest crispy sugar coating. Give me a moment.

Pasticceria Arrone is the labor of love of two master confectioners, Adolfo Arrone and Luigi Barone. Together with a team which they consider more of a family, they are dedicated to creating master confections mostly with the local citrus, the cedro (which is like a Bergamo or a very delicately flavored lime.)

Treats Arrone
A selection of deliciousness at Arrone, pistachio creams, cedro creams, little tiramisu rectangles, each one a word of art.

Their dedication to quality transcends any wish to save money by using inferior ingredients and when you see, smell and taste the magnificent creations, you can tell that they have found their calling.

The best way to enjoy the creations is to go in the morning with friends, order a perfect cafe and a selection of cakes. Share them all so you get a variety of different flavors, fragrances and textures.

More treats at Arrone
Cakes and more treats, each one a bite of heaven.

Although everything you try there is amazing, my favorite was the light crunchy phyllo type pastry filled with pistachio cream. It is knee weakeningly delicious and you have to close your eyes and “have a moment” with every bite.

Perfect coffee and cakes
Perfect coffee and delicate cakes

Pasticceria Arrone makes cakes to order and every dinner that ends with a Pasticceria Arrone package coming out, suddenly becomes epic.

Pasticceria Arrone can be found at Via Orso Marso 3, Santa Maria Del Cedro. +39 0985 42577

 

 

 

 

Port of Call: Civitavecchia – A Home Away from Rome!

Civitavecchia Port

Civitavecchia is Rome’s main cruise ship and ferry port, and was one of the stops on a Royal Caribbean cruise last month that Chris and I took from Barcelona.  I had first imagined Civitavecchia to be just another busy, grimy port that would just be stopover for other places to visit.  But after noticing a medieval fort right at the end of the port, we thought the city might be interesting enough to see on its own. Instead of joining the busloads of cruise ship passengers bound for Rome on their day-excursions, Chris and I decided to spend the day at Civitavecchia to check it out.

The city has quite an interesting history. The present city sits atop an ancient Etruscan settlement. After the Romans occupied the city around 100A.D., Emperor Trajan built the port, and it has  remained Rome’s main port for the last 2000 years.

The city runs a very well-organized system of free shuttle buses that connect between the cruise ships and a small bus terminal just outside of the city center.  It’s easy to connect from the bus terminal to trains to take you directly to Rome or to other destinations.

Signage at the bus terminal

The bus terminal is to the left of city center on the map. We made our way to the historical city center toward the center of the map.

Civitavecchia Map

Along the way, we noticed lots of signage throughout the city making it easy for us to find our way around. We didn’t need any guides and didn’t have to contend with large crowds of tourists crowding the sidewalks!

Sign to historical center

Soon we ran into one of the largest local traditional markets that I’ve seen in any Italian city.  The market occupies the entire Piazza Regina Margherita. Vendors were selling everything from vegetables, household goods, clothing, and meats.

Along one side of the market we walked into a building that was a dedicated fish market. We both noticed the market didn’t smell “fishy” at all, a testament to the freshness of the fish that’s sold there!

Just a block away from the bustling market, we noticed how peaceful the residential areas of the historical center were, with no crowded tourist shops or expensive handbag stores to be seen anywhere!

Civitavecchia Residential Area

We had a tasty seafood lunch at an L’Acqua Salata and enjoyed sitting outside along a quiet pedestrian-only street.

Continuing our walk toward the other end of the historical center, we found ourselves on a terrace overlooking the Forte Michelangelo and the adjoining harbor.  Our Oasis of the Seas ship on the right looks close, but it’s about a 20-minute walk away from the fortress.

This fortress was commissioned by Pope Giulio II early in the 16th century, and was completed in 1535 when Michelangelo finished its construction after designing and building its central tower.

The fortress is surrounded by lots of grassy areas and walkways, and is now used mostly for exhibitions and cultural events.

Walking back to the bus terminal along the port, we noticed some remnants of the original ancient Roman port, including what is left of “Il Lazzaretto”, a contagious-diseases hospital.

Right behind this building, we saw a reconstruction of the bow portion of a second-century Roman warship.

We made our way back to the bus terminal and had no wait at all to get on a bus to take us directly back to our cruise ship.

Chris sums up our visit in this video:

Next time you’re in Civitavecchia, either to begin a cruise or on a cruise stopover, consider taking some time to enjoy the peaceful, traditional Italian town. We found it to be a great “home away from Rome”!

How to Make Your Trip to Italy Surpass All Expectations

Pieta
The Colosseum In Rome

Ciao!

So you are heading off to Italy! You researched flights online and got the best deal or you went with a travel agent. You have your hotels, your trains, your cars all figured out. It is going to be GREAT! 

And it will be. You almost cannot go to Italy and have it be anything other than great.

But Italy, with all its beautiful cities, amazing structures and fabulous art can be a bit overwhelming. Everywhere you look there is something spectacular to see. Italy is a giant art bath and it literally takes your breath away. 

So how do you somehow get everything in order in your mind so that you don’t see it all in a giant blur and then not remember any of it? 

My husband and I are avid Italophiles. We have a place in Calabria and get over there whenever we can. We always stop over in Rome and many times Florence before taking the train down south and every time we go we see new and exciting things. 

Florence is a very special city and the birth place of the Renaissance. 

Medieval Italian Home
Medieval Italian Home

But Rome and Florence can also be a giant blur unless you know the history and at least have an idea of the chronology of the events and the personalities that have shaped these cities and made them bright stars in Italy’s crown. 

Since we first realized that we needed proper context in order to really enjoy these cities on a deeper level, my husband and I started purchasing courses through The Great Courses. 

In addition we found  a great series on YouTube that anyone can view for free. There is so much available that it is difficult to pick out a few favorites. 

Roma
Roma

1) “The Rise of Rome” by Professor Gregory S. Aldrete Ph.D. (The Great Courses Plus)

In his course The Rise of Rome, Dr. Aldrete explains in entertaining detail how from the 8th century BC, Rome rose to a massive civilization that controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and beyond. 

Dr. Aldrete not only goes over the chronology of the rise of Rome but puts in perspective all of the main events and characters that shaped Rome as she rose and then started her demise. 

Dr Aldrete is as entertaining as he is brilliant sometimes giving his lecture in a Roman toga and inserting anecdotes that enlighten and add color. 

Many of the Great Courses lectures are offered in DVD format or you can stream them. They come with an accompanying text with pictures and important information but even if you simply watch the lectures you will gather tons of great data that will put the entire city in perspective for you. 

Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica, Roma

2) “Meet the Romans” series by Dame Mary Beard  (YouTube)

Dame Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge as well a a fellow of Newnham College and the Royal Academy of Arts. Honestly she has so many achievements that it would take pages to list them all, however despite her amazing depth of knowledge of all things Roman, Dame Mary Beard has managed to create a series that is intimate and understandable. 

The most fascinating part of her series is that she follows the steps of the Roman Empire and on the way, translates various monuments and grave stones from Latin to English and gives historical context to each one. 

Apparently back in ancient Rome, when someone died, a lot of information about them was written on their grave markers. Since these are in Latin, we pass them by in the streets, in alleyways and lining the Via Appia, and never know what secret treasures they contain. 

Dame Mary opens up this treasure trove of intimate information so we see how the inhabitants of Ancient Rome lived, from the emperors to the men and women in the streets. 

Happy Travels
Goofy Tourists in the Piazza Navona

3) “The Prince” by Professor William Landon (The Great Courses Plus) 

The Prince is a lecture series that follows the life and downfall of Niccolo Machiavelli and the impact his book “The Prince” has had on society up to and including present day. 

Machiavelli lived in Florence during the Renaissance and is a contemporary of Michelangelo, Lorenzo De’ Medici, Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and the insane Franciscan monk, Savonarola. 

Political situations were volatile back then and one could be in a cushy government job one minute and hanging upside down in a bonfire in the piazza the next. 

This lecture series gives a close up look not only at the political situation and surrounding events during that incredibly active time, but also how the crucible of political upheaval helped create Machiavelli’s brilliant work and how his ideas have permeated our culture today. 

Walking the streets of Florence, you can’t help but understand better everything around you and to see the city in its ancient context bringing the Renaissance to life. 

Roman ruins
Roman ruins

4)  “The Genius of Michelangelo” by Professor William E. Wallace.  (The Great Courses Plus) 

Of all the courses my husband and I have studied, this is my favorite because I have a deep love and respect for the genius that is Michelangelo. 

Professor Wallace shares that love and respect and takes you through the journey of Michelangelo’s life from his relatively ignoble birth to his rise in Florence and to the associations with various popes who commissioned him to create some of the most beautiful art works ever created anywhere. 

Florence is a treasure trove of Michelangelo’s works and one of the homes he owned is now a museum dedicated to him where you can see up close and personal his early works like “The Madonna of the Stairs” and “The Battle of the Centaurs”. 

Walk in Michelangelo’s footsteps in both Florence and Rome and see where they cross those of Machiavelli and Leonard Da Vinci. Glimpse of the personality of the artist and understand the barriers he had to overcome to create everything he created in one short life time. 

This lecture series more than any other take both Rome and Florence from one dimensional tourist destinations to multi dimensional story tellers with every street, palace or museum contributing to the tale. 

5) “Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City” by Professor Steven L. Tuck (The Great Courses Plus)

In the days of the Roman Empire, Pompeii was a thriving port city and a playground for the rich. That all changed in 79 AD when an explosion blew the entire top off the mountain of Vesuvius and created a pyroclastic flow that killed everything in its path and enshrouded the entire city and all its inhabitant in volcanic ash where they lay for centuries.

It was not until the 1700’s that Pompeii was properly discovered and excavations began uncovering a city almost perfectly preserved as if in amber right down to a loaf of bread that was cooking in a bakery as the eruption began. 

Walk with professor Tuck through the ancient city and get a taste of life on the Mediterranean in ancient times. 

6) The Life and Operas of Verdi” by Dr. Robert Greenberg (The Great Courses Plus) 

In addition to being an Italophile and Renaissance addict I am also a musician. I have purchased and studied many of Dr. Greenberg’s lectures and find him uniquely understandable and highly entertaining. 

Travel with him through the life and the operas of Italy’s favorite musical son up through the Italian Risorgimento. 

Verdi’s operas are beautifully constructed and anyone who loves opera has seen one or more of them. 

Dr. Greenberg gives us a glimpse of Verdi’s character, his trials and tribulations as well as his resounding successes. This is all presented within a rich historical context giving us a unique slice of life in Verdi’s beloved Italy. 

If you love music, you will love this set of lectures. On another topic, Dr. Greenberg has similar lectures exploring the life and works of Beethoven and an all around favorite “How to Listen to and Understand great Music”

These lectures and other similar studies have deepened our understanding of these unique beautiful Italian cities and of Italy itself. 

Italy has the deepest and richest history of any European country. It boasts of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and gave birth to the most compelling and greatest artists, architects and statesmen the world has ever seen.

If you study even one on the above lecture series, you will have a depth of understanding that will allow you to remember your trip long after you return home and will also you to reignite your memories when you rewatch them. 

The Great Courses offers the courses we referenced above and much more through the Great Courses Plus video-on-demand service  offering over 8,000 engaging video courses taught by university professors from top schools. We have viewed many of their courses and recommend them without hesitation. The Great Courses Plus has a free 30-day trial that you can take advantage of by clicking on the banner link below. We do receive a commission from signups through this link, but it’s at no extra cost to you and helps us fund additional content for this site.