Must See Towns in Spain

Spain, home of Picasso, Gaudi, and Dali; just to name 3 of Spain’s great masters.  To many Spain invokes the sun drenched beaches of the Costa del Sol; the Prado Museum in Madrid; the cheers of the bullrings in Madrid, Seville, and Ronda; the whimsical buildings of Gaudi in Barcelona; tapas, and flamenco dancers.

Spain is all that and more!  Of course most tourists flock to Barcelona’s La Rambla and Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and they should!  Both are definitely must see tourist stops when visiting Spain.   But there is more to Spain than it’s big cities.  A visit to the towns along the Costa del Sol, Spain’s sun coast, is a nice respite from the big cities; or a visit to northern Spain’s towns of Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela offer one a different perspective of this country that has a rich and diverse history.

Here are 5 Spanish towns that are definitely worth a visit next time you’re in Spain!

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Santiago de Compostela

Located in North western Spain Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomus community of Galicia.  The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been a famous Christian pilgrimage town since the 9th. Century.

As the story goes in the early 9th. Century a hermit named Pelagius saw a light shining over a long forgotten Roman tomb in the forest.  Word quickly spread throughout the Christian world that the tomb of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus’ beloved apostles, was discovered in northwest area of the Iberian Peninsula.  Very soon a city sprang up around the  holy tomb and the site became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage towns.  Pilgrims came from all over Europe walking the route which became know as the Camino de Santiago.  Smaller towns sprang up along this route where hospitals, churches, and monasteries were built to support the Christians heading to the tomb and eventually the Cathedral that was built over the shrine.

Pilgrims from all over the world still journey to this town, many literally following in the footsteps of the 9th. century pilgrims.  It is very common and even expected to see pilgrims from all over the world with walking sticks and backpacks making their way to the town.  Tour companies even offer pilgrimage packages from France, Germany, or pretty much anywhere in Europe.

The Old Town and its surrounding monasteries and monuments are pretty much the only things in this area that’s visited by pilgrims and tourists.  The Old Town though it can be crowded with people is charming.  Beautiful Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassical buildings line the narrow streets.  The Cathedral is considered a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture.  Over all in spite of the busy streets and plazas the town has a serene feel and is imbued with the feeling of devotion inspired by faithful who arduously make their way on foot to the shrine.  In my opinion it is a wonderful location to sit calmly and perhaps do a bit of soul searching.

Bilbao

Bilbao is the largest city in the autonomus community of Basque Country in northern Spain.  The Basque Country sits on the Atlantic coast and borders France on the north, in fact parts of the Basque Country are in France.

If you didn’t know the Basque Country locally known as Euskadi or País Vasco isn’t like any other part of Spain.  This region has its own language, cuisine, and geographic and cultural identity.

Bilbao is an very industrialized city built on the Nevrión river.  It’s a great place use as a base for exploring Basque Country.  Not to mention it is home to the futuristic looking Guggenheim Museum of Blibao.  This building which opened in 1997 has become an iconic emblem of Bilbao.  It’s built on the once very polluted banks of the Nevrión and has become a symbol of revitalization and marks the beginning of a new era for the city.  You can walk along the river bank for awesome views of Frank Gehry’s masterpiece, this otherworldly building that seems to undulate beneath the warm Bilbao sun.

The museum is home to celebrated works of modern and contemporary art.  Its permanent collection includes works by Klein, Rothko, Kiefer, and other modern and contemporary artists.  This is a must see for all fans of modern and contemporary art; and even if you’re not the building itself is a sight to behold!

Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallorca is the capital of and the autonomus community of the Balearic Islands of Spain.  It is situated on the south coast of the island of Mallorca of the east coast of Spain.

Palma has a rich and checkered past having been conquered and ruled by the Moors then reconquered by the Christians in the 13th. Century.  But even before that was settled by the Roman and Talayotic people.  The Gothic Cathedral of Palma dominated the center of the historic city center.  Radiating from this magnificent building are narrow medieval streets lined with townhouses and Baroque churches.  It’s filled with teeming public squares, bohemian neighborhoods, and outdoor markets selling all the bounty the island has to offer.  You’ll find museums, art galleries, cafes, shops, and beaches all under the golden Spanish sun that seems to shine benevolently over the island year round.

Granada

Granada is the capital city of the province of Granada in the autonomus community of Andalusia of Spain.  It is located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where 4 rivers (Darro, Genil, Monachil, and Beiro Rivers) meet.  Although it is but an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean Coast of Spain it sits at an elevation of 2421 feet above sea level.

Granada like many Spanish towns and cities has a rich and varied history.  The region has been populated since 5500 BC and has experienced both Roman and Visigoth rule.  In 711 AD when the Umayyads conquered the region it brought large parts of the Iberian Peninsula under Moorish rule, this included Granada.

Granada is where the Alhambra, an Arab citadel and palace, and Generalife, the pleasure palace and gardens connected to the citadel are located.

Construction of the citadel began in the 11th. century when the Castle of the Alhambra was developed into a walled town and became a stronghold that dominated the city of Granada.  Construction of the pleasure palace and gardens of the Generalife began in the late 13th. century and the Alhambra is a culmination of Nasrid art and architecture that were undertaken between the 13th. and 14th. centuries.  At this time the Alhambra was a royal residence, citadel, and fortress that housed the Nasrid sultans and their senior officers including servants of the court and elite soldiers.

In 1492 the Catholic Monarch Ferdinand and Isabella finally expelled the last of the Moors from Granada and established permanent residency in the Alhambra.  It was here that Christopher Columbus requested their endorsement for his westward voyage that same year.  Of course the Catholic Monarchs and their subsequent heirs altered the Moorish citadel to suite their needs.  Portions of the citadel were destroyed when the First French Empire had control in the 18th. Century.  Restoration of the complex began in the 19th. century and continues to this day.

In 1984 the Alhambra complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now the most visited tourist attraction in Spain.  Along with being a historic monument it is home to the Museum of the Alhambra and the Museum of Fine Arts.  It is definitely worth a visit!

Cartagena

Cartagena, Spain not to be confused with the city of the same name in Columbia, is a city in the autonomus community of Murcia in Spain’s southeastern Mediterranean coast.  It is also where one of Spain’s major naval stations is located.

Cartagena has been inhabited for over two millennia having been founded in 227 BC by the Carthaginian Hasdubral the Fair.  It was an important port city both during the rule under the Holy Roman Empire and the Umayyad Empire.

The mix of civilizations as well as its strategic harbor in Cartegena has resulted in a unique mix of artistic heritage.  Here you will find an abundance of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, and Moorish artifacts and landmarks including the remains of a Roman theater second largest on the Iberian Peninsula.  Wandering the streets and plazas you will find them lined with a plethora of Art Nouveau buildings including this impressive City Hall which greets tourists walking into the city from the cruise terminal.

It’s a small and compact city and very walkable.  You can find the remains of the Punic ramparts along the hill, and the restored Roman Theater as well as the Roman Colonnade and the House of Fortune in the city center.

Cartagena also has several museums.  Aside from the Roman Theater Museum there is ARQUA Marine Archaeology Museum, the Municipal Archaeology Museum, the Military Museum, the Spanish Civil War Museum, and the Naval Museum.

You can also catch the elevator or walk up the Castillo de la Concepción where you’ll find excellent views of the town, the harbor, and the mountains.

Then you can wander around Calle Mayor the pedestrian street paved with blue marble that connects the Plaza de San Sebastián to the city hall.  It’s lined with modernist buildings that are home to trendy shops, bars, and restaurants.  Don’t be afraid to grab a table for some tasty tapas and a glass of wine as you watch the world pass by!

 

Ready for that Spanish getaway?  Call Savvy Nana Travel, we specialize in family and group travel!

More Must See French Towns

More Must See French Towns

France is one of my favorite countries to visit.  Wine, crepes, fashion, and shopping; what’s not to love? For most of us the mention of France brings Paris to mind.  But there is much more to France than the City of Lights!  Last week I wrote about 4 of my favorite must see French towns.  Well I decided that those four towns though superb aren’t nearly enough!  So this week I’ll write about four more!

Again the must see French towns I’m talking about today barely touch the surface.  But I’ll try to talk about some towns that I think will appeal to different interests.  So whether you’re a history buff, conspiracy theorist, pilgrim, or wine connoisseur I hope one of these towns will spark your imagination!

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must see french townsChartres

Chartres is a commune and the capital of the Eure-et-Loire department of France.  It’s located 90 kilometers southwest of Paris and is easily accessible by car and train.

This medieval town is known world wide for it’s beautiful Gothic Cathedral which features a labyrinth.  This cathedral known as the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is described as “a masterpiece…a high point of French Gothic art.”

The Cathedral we see today was built over the remains of a smaller cathedral that had burned down.  It was mostly constructed between 1194 and 1220.  It is very well preserved with most of its original stain glass windows intact.

Many tourist visit Chartres just to see this beautiful church.  Architectural fans stand in awe at this building.  But it is also a pilgrimage site.

Long before the cathedral was built the city was already an important pilgrimage site where devotees paid homage to early Christian martyrs including Saints Piat, Cheron, and Modesta, whose bodies were believed to have been tossed in the area on the north side of the church now called Puit des Saint-Forts (Well of the Strong Saints).

Chartes is also a church for the veneration of the Virgin Mary.  It is home to the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the tunic worn by the Blessed Mother at the time of Christ’s birth.  Legend has it that this tunic was gifted to the cathedral in 876 by none other than Charlemagne who supposedly got if from Emperor Constatine VI during a crusade in Jerusalem.  This legend has been disproven and it is believed that the gift from Charles the Bald and there is no evidence of its importance prior to the 12th. Century.

The cathedral has also been the setting for many books that claim to explore the mysteries of the cathedral, its symbols, and of course the labyrinth.  So it is a stop for conspiracy theorists as well.

Other than the Cathedral there are museums to visit, markets and fairs to explore, and of course cafes and restaurants to try.

must see french townsVersailles

Today Versailles is a wealthy suburb of Paris.  Located in the Île-de-France region 17 kilometers from Paris, Versailles is a major tourist destination known for the Chateau de Versailles and its exquisite gardens and fountains.

The town was founded by Louis XIV and was the de facto capital of France for over a century between 1682 and 1789.  The chateau is steeped in history having been home to French royalty including Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.

In modern times this UNESCO World Heritage site holds a place in history for being the venue where the Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I were signed.  Today it is mostly a tourist attraction and is the place where the Congress of France gathers to vote on revisions to the constitution.

must see french townsThe chateau and its surrounding buildings are definitely worth the visit.  It is home to several galleries including the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and the coach gallery.  You can also visit the Queen’s Hamlet and the Trianon estates as well as the gardens and fountains of course.

The gardens are amazing and vast.  There are rivers and fountains, statues, and of course trees and flowers.  I find the best way to get around the garden is by renting a golf cart for a couple of hours.  It’s fun and allows you to see more than when you’re on foot.

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must see french townsRuoen

Ruoen is the capital of the Normandy region of France.  It is situated on the River Seine 135 kilometers north of Paris.

It was one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe and was the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy during the Middle Ages.  It was also where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.

Today a simple field of wild flowers marks the place of her martyrdom and a modern church dedicated to St. Joan d’Arc stands nearby.

I’m sure a visit to this church is a must when in town, but Ruoen’s main claim to fame is it’s majestic Gothic Cathédrale de Ruoen.  This cathedral became Claude Monet’s obsession and inspired him to paint its facade in a series of 30 painting depicting it in all seasons and times.

Le Gros Horloge, the big clock in the center of town is another attraction.  You can climb to the top for some city views.  There are also several art museums, of course they feature Monet’s work, to visit as well as some really great markets.  You can also stop by to see the macabre ornamentations on the building of the Aitre St-Maclou.  This was the site of a mass cemetery during the Black Plague of the Middle Ages then turned into a boys’ school in the 18th. century.

must see french townsCarcassone

Carcassone is a fortified city in the south of France.  It is located in the Languedoc-Rousillion area of the Occitanie region.

It is known for its double walled city that is a castle.  This UNESCO World Heritage site is a popular tourist destination where one can wander around the enchanting city, walk between the walls, and visit museums,churches, cathedrals, and shops.

Carcassone is located in the middle of what used to be Cathar country.  Cathars were a sect of Christianity who believed that their religion was basically the purest form of Christian religion.  They were strict adherents of the teaching of Jesus Christ and had little faith in priests and clergy.  Of course their beliefs were directly opposite of the accepted beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church who labeled them heretics.  During the Inquisition the Roman Catholic Church teamed up with secular kings to capture and convert the Cathars and confiscate their lands.  Needless to say it did not end well for the poor Cathars.

Carcassone is a popular place for folks interested in Cathar history, conspiracy theories, the quest for the Holy Grail, and fans of the Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code.   It is a good place to base yourself to explore the city and its surrounding areas.  The Languedoc region is steeped in secrets, mysteries, and lore connected to Mary Magdalene, the Merovigian bloodline (the bloodline many believe to be the descendants of Jesus Christ and his wife Mary Magdalen), and the Knights Templar (you had to know they’d pop up in this region somehow!).

Located just 84 kilometers away is Montségur and its fortified hilltop château.  This castle was the site where the Cathars made their last stand against the conquering armies of the Crusades.  The siege lasted months and finally ended with many of the Cathars choosing to march into the flames rather than be captured and converted.  The stronghold built on the site of an older castle and Cathar Church is also believed to be home to many treasures including the Holy Grail.  You can walk around the hill or make the climb to the top to see the castle.

Renne-le-Château is 44 kilometers away.  It is a very popular place for conspiracy theorists and Grail hunters.  The small hilltop village is steeped in Magdalene and Merovigian lore.  In fact it’s church is dedicated to the Saint.  One of its mysteries involves the 19th. Century priest Berénger Saunière who is believed to have dug up a vast treasure (that’s one theory) or discovered some sort of deep dark secret he used to extort money from the church (that’s another theory).  What ever he did he somehow one day came up with large sums of money which he used to restore, rebuild, and build his house, the church, and the Magdalene Tower.  Other village lore say that Mary Magdalene lived there after the crucifixion and raised her child there.  Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist, a Dan Brown fan, or just a casual tourist you won’t be able to resist the mystic lure of the village when you visit.

So there you have it 4 must see French towns.  Each has something to offer folks with varying interests.  Ready to plan  your French adventure or perhaps your personal quest for the Holy Grail?  Call Savvy Nana Travel, we’ll help you build an awesome itinerary!

Must See French Towns

Must See French Towns

Ok I admit it!  When I hear France I automatically think of Paris, specially Paris in the Spring time.  I mean seriously, food, wine, art, fashion, and shopping, what’s not to love?  But there is more to France than the City of Lights.  There are many enchanting French towns that one must see.

Let’s face it Paris is amazing but can be overwhelming.  It’s always busy no matter what time of year you visit.  The museums are packed with crowds and enough art and artifacts that you’re head will spin.  And just how many days can you survive shopping til you drop?  (I can last about 3 before I call it quits!)  That’s when a visit to one or more of these enchanting French towns comes in handy, if only to get away from the maddening crowds!

French towns are as diverse as they are charming.  Each one holds a special charm that will appeal to folks with various interests.  If you’re a great fan of Impressionist artists there are French towns for you; history buffs will find most French towns are steeped in history from prehistoric times to the not so distant past; conspiracy theorists will love the “mysterious” Languedoc region; and wine connoisseurs will love sampling wines from the different regions.  So where ever your interests lie there’s a French town just waiting for you to explore!

Here are a just four of my favorite French towns to get you started.  Maybe one of them will capture your imagination enough to plan a visit!

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french townsÈze

Located just 12 Kilometers from the French city of Nice, Èze is a fortified Medieval village in the Alpe-Maritime region of southeastern France.

This lovely village is the most accessible perched villages of France.  It towers like an aerie above the coast and is surrounded by stone ramparts and crowned by the ruins of an old medieval chateau.

french townsThe towns cobble stone streets can get pretty steep, thank goodness for the handrails! Some parts of the uphill street is not for the faint of heart, it’s quite a trek.  But trust me the climb is so worth it!  When you reach the top you will be treated to a jaw dropping view of the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding countryside.

The narrow streets are lined with shops and restaurants so there’s always somewhere close where you can stop for a short break before continuing to the top.

Located 1310 feet above sea level you can visit the Jardin Exotique.  It’s a garden filled with rare succulents, typical Mediterranean vegetation, and Jean-Philippe Richard sculptures.  But most importantly it is blessed with spectacular views.  On clear days you can see all the way to Corsica!

When you’re done admiring the views, sampling the cuisine, and wandering the shops walk down to the Fragonard Perfume factory located at the bottom of the road.  The factory makes perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics and has free tours daily.  After the tour you can browse the showroom, I’m sure you’ll find something that will catch your eye, and nose!  I bought a few yellow duck soaps for the grandkids!

french townsReims

Reims, pronounced RaNs, is a very important city not far from Paris.  In fact it’s a mere half an hour away from Charles de Gualle airport.

Wine lovers and Monet fans will love this great city.  Located in the middle of the Champagne region and sitting on top of a labyrinth of chalk caves Reims is the headquarters of many of the great champagne houses collectively known as le grandes marques.

french townsThe houses of Tattinger, Veuve Cliquot, Piper Heidsieck, and Ruinart to name a few have their main offices in the city and age their champagne deep in the caves below.  Many of them offer cave tours followed by champagne tasting year round.

Many of the caves date back to Roman times and the tour is really quite interesting.  Of course your reward for walking down into the caves is a wonderful glass or two of the bubbly.  It really is like drinking stars!

 

Monet fans will recognize the Gothic Reims Cathedral.  The famous Impressionist artist painted this lofty catherdal over 30 times!  He painted it at different times of day to capture it’s glory in all types of lighting.  Aside from being a Monet favorite the Reims Cathedral was where French kings were crowned for about 1000 years.  The well decorated cathedral features many stained glass windows including those done by Marc Chagall.  One of the transept windows by Jacques Simon features a portrait of Dom Perignon the monk credited with the invention of champagne!

There are many other sites to see in this pedestrian friendly city.  You can also spend some time kicking back at one of the many cafes.  Go ahead treat yourself to a bottle of the bubbly and just people watch, I recommend it!

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Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Saint-Paul-de-Vence is then one of the oldest fortified medieval villages in the Alpe-Maritimes region of France.

This little hilltop town is known for its modern and contemporary art museums and galleries.  One can hardly walk a few feet in this village without stumbling upon an art gallery.

Many notable artists and actors have visited this old French fortress town.  Some including Marc Chagall and Donald Pleasence have called it home.  Here you will find the grave of Marc Chagall.

french townsA walk in the south side of the village will bring you to some steps at the top of which you will find the Vu (view) which overlooks the charming cemetery, surrounding hills, and the mountains.  On the west side of the village at Bastion St. Remy you can catch a glimpse of the sea.  Here you will have a view of the snow covered Alps on one side and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea on the other.

And don’t forget to check out the shops.  Aside from beautiful artwork you’ll find some unique and moderately priced crafts and costume jewelry.  I’m sure you won’t be able to resist buying a trinket or two!

french townsChenonceaux

The tiny agricultural village of Chenonceaux is in the Loire Valley.  It sits on the right bank of the River Cher which is a tributary of the Loire River.

It’s a tiny little town that has about 500 permanent residents.  Its claim to fame is the Chateau de Chenonceau one of the most photographed chateau in the Loire Valley.

The Chateau spans the River Cher.  There have been written accounts of the estate of Chenonceau dating back to the 11th. Century, but the current chateau was built over a ruined mill in 1514-1522.  The bridge expanding the chateau over the river was erected in 1556-1559, the gallery over the bridge was built in 1570-1576.

french townsThis chateau has seen a fairly long list of owners beginning with the Marques family in the 13th. Century.  It was purchased from the Marques family by Thomas Bohier (chamberlain to King Charles VIII of France) in 1513 and it was him and his wife who are credited for building the main part of the chateau.

It was later confiscated by Francis I of France for unpaid debts to the crown and upon his death gifted by Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers.  It was she  who built the bridge over the river.  Upon Henry’s death the chateau was wrested from de Poitiers by none other than his widow Catherine de’Medici who added the gallery over the bridge and expanded the gardens.  And so it went from owner to owner until it ended up in the hands of Henri Menier a member of the Menier family who are known for their chocolates.

A day trip to Chenonceaux can be part of a Loire Valley excursion where you can visit one or two other Loire Valley Chateaux like the nearby Clos Lucé in Amboise where Leonardo Da Vinci lived the last 3 years of his life, and Chateau de Chambord.

These are just 4 of my favorite French towns.  Check back for more French towns that I love.

Ready to plan your French getaway?  Call Savvy Nana Travel where travel is our passion!

 

 

 

Quaint Little Towns in Italy You Should Check Out

Quaint Little Towns in Italy You Should Check Out

I’m not even gonna lie, Italy is packed with quaint little towns it’s hard to decide which one to check out.  If you’re in the school of thought that thinks one quaint little town is the same as every other then you’d be surprised to discover they’re really no

t!  I belong to the school of thought that every little town in Italy has is own charm and every one of them is worth the visit!  But let’s be realistic that’s just not possible, at least not for me.  So I pick and choose which quaint little town to explore each time I’m in Italy.  Here are some more of my faves!

 

Lake Como

Lake Como is not a town it’s a lake that’s surrounded by many quaint little towns.  In fact there are so many it’s hard to decide which one as each has it’s special charm and best of all you could if you want to see several in a day.

There’s a ferry that plies the waters of the lake, it starts at one end which is the town of Como and stops at the towns around the lake, a couple of the small towns on islands in the middle of the lake; there’s another route that starts from Lecco on the western branch of Lake Como.  (Lake Como is like an inverted Y with Lecco the southern most point in one branch and Como on the other.  The northern part of the Y includes the town of Colico.  Both lines meet at the town of Bellagio farther north along the river.  To reach towns on the Como branch of the river you must transfer to the Como route from the Bellagio stop.

 

Tremezzo is a town on the western shore of Lake Como.  It is a popular vacation spot with a five star luxury hotel and some fine restaurants.  Best of all it’s situated just across the lake from the town of Bellagio so it offers spectacular views of that little town as well as awesome views of the lake.

While in Tremezzo you can visit the Villa Carlotta and its gardens.  Though there are many beautiful villas around the lake Villa Carlotta is one of the most visited.

 

 

Bellagio

Bellagio is a town situated at the point where the 2 branches of Lake Como meet.  It is considered to be the Pearl of the Lake and is a popular romantic town in Italy.

The town is actually spread out along the lake but its historic center is atop the hill accessible by foot on the wide stairs or alleys.  The stairs and are lined with shops and restaurants.

Bellagio has some luxury hotels that pretty much scream romance, it is after all deemed to be one of the most romantic towns in Italy.  There is also a beautiful villa and gardens, Villa Melzi, which is known for its colorful display of azaleas and rhododendruns.  Once can also visit the San Giacomo Church at the top of the hill and the Villa Serbelloni Park above the historic center.  The park offers great views of the lake.  There are also walking paths along the lake and over the hill that wind their way past hamlets and picture perfect spots around the lake.  In the summer months there are many festivals and musical events held in this little town.

Brunate

The little mountaintop town of Brunate is connected to Como via the funiculare.  The line opened in 1894 and is the quickest way to get to and from Brunate.

The funiculare ride alone make this quaint little town worth visiting.  The funicular offer stunning lake views as it slowly makes its way up and down the mountainside.

The town itself is popular with tourists during the summer months.  It has some very pretty villas which I believe can be rented during the season.  There are walking paths that wind around the town with view points where one can enjoy awesome views of the lake below.  And of course there are restaurants with lake view seating.  There is also a very beautiful church called Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

There are many more quaint little towns around Lake Como, that I can’t really name them all.  My best advice is to buy a 24 hour ferry ticket and hope off at any of the towns you find interesting!

Stresa

The town of Stresa in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy is the official gateway to Lake Maggiore.  Located at the best part of the lake Stresa commands fantastic views of the lake and the Borromean Islands in the lake.

Stresa’s docks are the starting points of t he ferries that ply the waters of this lake.  The ferries can take you to the 3 delightful Borromean Islands where you’ll find beautiful gardens complete with wandering peacocks and fantastic villas.  Then you can have a wonderful seafood lunch a Isola Pescatori.

Stresa is a pretty little town with charming streets, waterfront cafes, colorful markets, and even a cable car to take you to the top of Mount Mattarone for some 360 degree views of the lake and the Alps.

Martina Franca

Martina Franca is a small town in Italy’s Puglia or Apulia Region in Southern Italy.  It’s located on the heal of Italy’s boot.

The historic center is a delightful mix of narrow winding streets, baroque and rococo buildings, and colorful bursts of flowers.  It’s also not very crowded, and that’s a big plus in my book!

Martina Franca is not on many tourist’s bucket list mostly because it’s not so easily accessible.  I mean it’s easy enough if you’re okay taking the slow train, and I do mean the very slow train from Bari.  And from the town’s train station it’s kind of an uphill trek to reach the centro storico.  But it is so worth it!

It’s a charming little town where you can wander the streets virtually alone, peek into small churches, then relax at a cafe without anyone hovering waiting for you to vacate your table.

Alberobello

The Puglia region is famous for these little round houses called Trulli houses.  They dot the Itria Valley but many are concentrated in the quaint little town of Alerobello.

The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features narrow winding streets, rows and rows of these white washed round building topped with black stones.  Many of the building are now homes, churches, shops, and restaurants.  Standing in the cobble stone streets surrounded by Trulli make one feel like they’ve entered Smurf Village!  It’s enchanting and definitely worth a visit.

 

 

There are many more quaint little towns in Italy and the best way to explore them is by renting a car and driving around.  That way when you spot something that catches your eye you can pull over for a quick stop!

Call Savvy Nana Travel to  help you plan your Italian getaway!

 

Still More Must See Italian Towns Off the Beaten Path

Still More Must See Italian Towns Off the Beaten Path

Italy is a very popular destination no matter what time of year.  I seriously doubt they have an off season like other vacation spots.  I’ve only seen 2 seasons, busy and busier.  It’s said to be empty in August during the dog days of summer when the Italians leave the cities to head for the shores.  Yes it’s less busy in August mostly because the natives are on holiday so you may find shops and restaurants closed for the month, this is true in the smaller towns and cities, not so much in the major ones.  But although the locals have fled the heat the tourists still flock to the big cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice.  That’s why we like to leave the big crowded cities and head over to these 5 Italian towns off the beaten path.

Mind you though we head for the less crowded Italian towns off the beaten path it doesn’t necessarily mean we stay there for days on end, some of them don’t have the accommodations we prefer, like large hotels with air conditioning!  We usually use one of the cities as a hub and take day trips from there when possible.  For us this works out better, but if you’re ok with small hotels, B&Bs, and other types of accommodations then go for it!

Today I’m sharing my 5 favorite Italian towns off the beaten path.  They are by no means the only Italian towns off the beaten path that are worth a visit; in fact in my opinion all Italian towns are worth the visit!

Though many of them don’t boast the large museums and famous art work you’ll find in the larger cities, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find in many of them.  From quiet piazzas, little trattorias serving awesome regional specialties, quaint wineries where you can participate in the harvest, and interesting festivals and events that some towns are known for.

Matera

Matera is a city in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy.   The modern city of Matera is pretty much a typical town and there’s not a whole lot to do there. It does however boast a very nice pedestrian free zone that connects the two Sasso Districts, Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso.  This zone is lined with shops, restaurants, and churches including the cathedral.  But the main attraction in this city are the Sasso Districts.

Matera  or more specifically the Sassi di Matera (meaning stones of Matera) in my opinion is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets.  Probably because during the years between the late 1950’s to the early 1990’s Italy would have liked to hide the town from the map.

Matera is definitely off the beaten path.  It’s not so easily accessible and is not on every tourist’s bucket list, although that is changing!  Thanks to Hollywood Matera is getting noticed!  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ and the most recent Wonder Woman film were both filmed there.

The couple of times we visited Matera it was basically empty, we went in the fall and spring, a great time to go weather wise, specially if you want to walk down to the Sassi.   We didn’t see a lot of tourists in the modern and old sections of the city.  There were a handful of tour groups milling around, but finding a seat at one of the restaurants wasn’t difficult at all!

Matera is said to be the third oldest continuously inhabited place on earth.  Proof of its habitation dates back to the Paleolithic age, yes that’s caveman days, when ancient man found shelter in the caves that dot the walls of the gorge.

Over the years inhabitants built homes, shops, wells, and churches in the caves.  By digging in the soft tufa rock they were able create new spaces and enlarge existing ones.  The cave dwellings and churches don’t look like caves from the outside, everyone one of them has an intricate facade and many are grouped into little “neighborhoods” where several homes share a courtyard.

This worked out well for many years until the town became over populated and living conditions became very unsanitary.  People were living stacked in the caves with no running water, electricity, and poor ventilation; and raw sewage was literally running through the streets.  Diseases were rampant and the infant mortality rate was very high.  It became the shame of Italy and so in the late 1950’s residents, many forcibly, were moved to the modern city above.

The Sasso district was left abandoned for years until some enterprising folks along with help from the government began transforming the caves into luxury hotels, shops, and restaurants.  This pretty much started after the Sasso and the Rupestrian (stone) churches within all became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  So slowly the tourists are beginning to trickle in.  But the tourists that do go are very determined ones because as I said it is quite off the beaten path.

Getting to Matera isn’t difficult if you’re staying in Bari and the surrounding area.  It is connected by light rail the FAL line to Bari.  You can take this very slow train from the FAL tracks located in Bari’s main train station to Matera, that’s the end of the line.  Depending on the train you might have to transfer in Altamura  but no worries, the trains are marked and there are only 2 tracks in Altamura.

For more information on Matera check out my article here!

Bolzano

Another one of my favorite Italian towns off the beaten path is Bolzano.  Again it’s not on every tourist bucket list and those that do make it up to Bolzano are pretty determined tourists.

Bolzano is in the South Tryol region of Northern Italy.  It’s not easily accessible, but can be reached by public transportation for those with a mind to do so.

Located in the the Dolomites/ Italian Alps Bolzano can get fairly busy in the winter as there are ski lodges up in the mountain top.  It’s also a popular place for hikers as there are many beautiful trails in the area.  But having said that it’s still a pretty quiet town, specially in the early fall and late spring when the ski season is over.

Even if you’re not into winter sports or even hiking or trekking there are still plenty of things to do in Bolzano.  You can visit Otzi the iceman, he resides in a freezer in the archaeological museum in town.  His well preserved body was discovered in ice in the Italian Alps and the museum is pretty much dedicated to studying ice mummies.  You can also visit the cathedral located across from the town’s main square, Piazza Walter, some castles in the area, ride the cable car up to Sopra Bolzano where there is a bee museum and other interesting sites, you can dine in the many restaurants, and of course shop in the mall and the open markets.  Or you can stroll by the river and relax in the park along side it.  It’s a wonderful spot for a picnic!

Bolzano is an Italian town with a German feel.  The residents speak both languages, the buildings look more German than Italian, some folks do dress in lederhosen, and the cuisine features both Italian and German/Austrian dishes.

You can get to Bolzano by train from Italy, Germany, and Austrian.  From Northern Italy there is a high speed train that leaves from Verona Porta Nuova station.  The ride takes just under an hour and a half.

For more information on Bolzano check out my article here!

Padua

Padua is a town located in the Veneto region, a train ride away from Venice.

It’s a college town that’s a bit off the beaten path, at least the tourists don’t crowd there as they do in nearby Venice and Verona.  It does get a bit busy when there are festivals and concerts in town, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.

There are several churches and chapels in town that are worth visiting, but to me the best feature is the Prato della Valle, the oval green space in the middle of town.  It is a huge space said to be one of Europe’s oldest and largest squares, even though it’s oval shape it’s still considered a square.  It is bordered by a moat and is accessible by crossing one of the 4 bridges. Positioned around the moat are statues of Padova’s important citizens.  I love this place!  It’s a great place to let kids run around!

The square has some restaurants and bars around it, but for more food choices and shopping you can wander the shaded streets that connect the square to the museums and university.  Like I said it’s hardly ever crowded and is a relaxing place to spend half the day just wandering and sipping wine with a fine meal in one of its many restaurants.

For more information on Padua check out my article here!

Vicenza

Vicenza is a city in the Veneto region of Northern Italy.  It’s about a 45 minute train ride away from Venice.

For those interested in architecture, particularly the designs of Palladio then Vicenza is on their bucket list.  This little Italian town is home to most of Palladio’s work.

Here you’ll find his Basillica, Teatro Olipico, La Rotonda (the villa that inspired Thomas Jefferson when he designed Montecello), and a handful of other villas.

You can also make your way up to Monte Berico where you’ll find a church and a spectacular view of the town below.  Other tourist sites in the area include a museum dedicated to all things Palladio, wineries, olive groves and presses, and a lively market in the main square on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more information on Vicenza read my article here!

Marostica

Marostica is a town on the side of a hill in the Vicenza province in Northern Italy’s Veneto region.  It’s claim to fame is its live chess game the town puts on ever 2 years – every even year to be exact.

Yes a live chess game right in the main town square in front of the castle.  Very Alice in Wonderland!  It is definitely an Italian town off the beaten path!  It’s not the easiest place to get to unless you have a car.  The closest train station is in Bassano del Grappa and from there you must take the bus to Marostica.  But unless the chess festival is going on (September on even numbered years) you’ll more than likely have the town to yourself.  There’s not much to do there, specially when there are no chess matches, but you can explore the 2 castles and the churches then relax at the town square.  Very restful!  A great place to get away from the maddening crowds!

Ready for an Italian adventure?  Call Savvy Nana Travel, we’ll help you plan an adventure of a lifetime!

 

 

 

 

5 More Must See Italian Towns Off The Beaten Path

5 More Must See Italian Towns Off The Beaten Path

Last week I share 5 must see Italian towns that were not quite off the beaten path but were far enough down the bucket list to be less crowded.  This week I’m share 5 more towns that are a bit more off the beaten path and will more than likely be even less crowded.  These 5 must see Italian towns will surely be less crowded than any of the major cities that tourists flock to.

These 5 must see Italian towns may not be home to works by the Masters, boast huge cathedrals, or have major archaeological excavations,  but each of them have a charm of their own.  Many are home to some fine churches with beautiful works of art and some interesting ancient sites.  And of course they all have charming piazzas and cobble stone alleys just waiting to be explored.  Best of all you might be lucky enough to find that you have the place almost to yourself, at least you don’t have to worry about inattentive or rude tourists shoving you out of the way or photo bombing your pictures!

Assisi

Assisi is a must see Italian town in the province of Perugia in Italy’s Umbria region.  Though not quite off the beaten path, it is after all easily accessible by local trains and buses, it is a town rich in religious, historical, and archaeological sites.

Assisi is most famous for being the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi who was born in this town in 1182.  He founded the Franciscans in 1209 which are a related group of mendicant religious orders with in the Catholic Church.  The Sister of St. Claire are part of this order as Francis and Claire were contemporaries in Assisi and both were dedicated to prayer and ministry of the poor, the sick, and animals.  And yes, St. Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint of Italy as well as the Patron Saint of Animals, Merchants (he was a fabric merchant before he founded his order), and Ecologists (because of his great love of nature).

Today the Basilica of St Francis is a huge complex built to follow the slope of the mountain side.  The lower basilica houses the tomb of St. Francis.  Facing this basilica on the other side of the town is the Basilica of St. Claire and is where St. Claire is entombed beneath the main altar.

Assisi is also home to the ruins of a first century Roman amphitheater.  It has seen its share of war and blood shed throughout the ages having been sacked by the Ostogoths in the 4th. century, conquered by Fredrick I (Barbarossa)  in the 12th. century, and sacked again by Napoleon.  It also played a heroic role during WWII when the city gave asylum to persecuted refugees, mainly Jews whom the locals hid in convents dressed as nuns and friars.  Many were provided with false documents. Assisi became one of the main centers for the Italian Resistance movement.  Such generosity and heroism earned the city a gold medal for civilian honor.

Assisi’s winding streets are filled with shops selling local crafts and religious artifacts.  It is a popular pilgrimage destination and is filled with devout pilgrims on Sundays and the feast days of the Saints.  So unless you are on a pilgrimage it’s probably not a great idea to visit town on those days.  A weekday visit is much less crowded and you have the town almost to yourself!

Getting to Assisi is fairly easy.  You can get there by train, bus, or private car, and of course you can take a day tour from Rome or Florence.  To get there by train take the train heading to Cortona, get off at Terontola and transfer to a local train to Assisi.  Get off at the main station which is located in the valley and take a taxi or bus up to the town on the mountain.  Of course you could also hike up and pass the areas on the mountains where St. Francis spent time in prayer and contemplation.

Tarquinia

Tarquinia is a must see Italian town located in the Northern Lazio region.

Ancient Tarxuna, as Tarquinia was known is one of the 12 Etruscan cities.  The Etruscans were Italy’s first known civilizations settling in what is now Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio.  Ancient Tarquinia was one of Eturuia’s most important cities and today is probably the best place to see Etruscan Tombs.  The town and it’s ancient Necropolis is one of central Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The town is also home to one of the best museums of Etruscan finds outside of Rome.  There you’ll find these fabulous terracotta winged horses that date from the 4th. century BC.  You’ll also see Etruscan sarcophagi and statues as well as clay vessels and intricate funerary gold jewelry.  The archaeological museum is housed in the Palazzo Vitelleschi on Piazza Cavor  the town’s medieval center. The town’s Cathedral boasts good frescoes dating back to 1508 and other interesting churches.

But the town’s real attraction are the Etruscan tombs in the Necropolis.  There are about 6000 tombs dug into the soft tufa dating back from the 6th. to 2nd. Centuries BC.  The tombs are decorated with beautiful frescoes which still look vivid even today.

The Necropolis is located just outside of the town wall.  There is a free bus that run from town to all the sites including the tombs but it’s a nice walk through the town and up to the tombs.

If you wish to visit both the tombs and the museum there’s a combination ticket which allows entrance to both.  I would recommend having a look at the tombs first, there are about 15 or so open each day.  Each tomb is from a different period allowing one to see the different styles thru the ages.  The tombs are protected by these concrete “houses” and you’ll have to walk down some stairs to view the frescoes, definitely worth looking at several at least.  After the Necropolis you can head back to town and make your way to the museum to see some of the artifacts found in the tombs.  Then you can wander thru the medieval streets or have a snack at the piazza.  One of my favorite treats is the ricotta pizza you can find at the local pizzaria!

Getting to Tarquinia is very easy.  From Rome take the train to Tarquinia, it’s about a 1 1/2 to 2 hour ride.  From the station take the bus to the town center.  If you’re on a cruise ship that’s docked in Civitavecchia you can take the Cortal (Blue bus) from Piazza Vittorio and get dropped off by the Tarquinia InfoPoint.  The ride is about 25 minutes.

Bracciano

Bracciano is a small town in the Lazio region.  It is situated above the volcanic lake from whence it’s named.  Lago di Bracciano is the 2nd. largest lake in the region and the 8th. largest in the country.

One can canoe, swim, sail, and even dive in the lake specially during the hot summer months.  The town above offers beautiful views of the lake below.

But it’s real claim to fame is the very well preserved medieval castle called Castello Orsini-Odescalchi which dominates the hilltop town.  This castle was also the venue for Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes.

You can take a tour of the castle, it’s huge and very cool!  After you can wander the streets of the old town and stop at one of its fine restaurants for a meal.  In the summer you can camp down by the lake and lounge on the beach or swim, sail, or canoe.  There’s also a ferry that will connect Bracciano to the other 2 towns on the lake.

Getting to Bracciano from Rome is super easy.  Just take a train to Bracciano from Rome’s Ostiense Train Station.  (This is a main hub where the Blue metro line meets the train station – it’s where the Pyramid of Cestius is by Porta San Paolo)

Ostia

The modern town of Ostia is basically a suburb of Rome.  There’s not a whole lot to see and do in the actual town itself.  The main attraction of this town is it’s vast archaeological site called Ostia Antica.

Back in the day it was a very important city because it was Rome’s ancient seaport.  The sea has long receded and it’s no longer a coastal city, but the Archaeological site is fairly well preserved and offers a glimpse at how it was when it was a bustling seaport with over 60,000 residents.

To get to there make your way to the Ostiense Train station or the Piramide Metro (the lines are intertwined here).  Walk over to the Lido line – it uses a metro ticket or pass – and hop on a train.  Get off at the 7th. Stop – Ostia Antica.  From the station walk over the bridge and follow the street to the park entrance.  Buy your ticket at the kiosk before the gate.

 

 

 

Volterra, Palazzo dei Priori

Volterra

Volterra is a walled mountaintop town in Italy’s Tuscany region.  It’s history dates back from the 7th. century BC and has many structures from the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval periods.

It was one of the 12 cities of the Etruscan League and was a very important center in those days.  After the Etruscan era the city became allied to ancient Rome then by the end of the 3rd. Century BC.  In the 5th. Century it was a bishop’s residence the by the 12th. Century was conquered by Florence and fell under Florentine rule.  When Florence fell in 1530 it ended up in the control of the Medici family then from there followed the history of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

In pop culture it was an important part of the popular Twilight series written by Stephanie Meyer.  In this series Volterra was home to the Volturi, a group of powerful ancient vampires who essentially ruled over all the vampires in the world.

There are many interesting sites to in Volterra including the remains of a Roman Theater, Volterra Cathedral, the main piazza, museums which house works of Tuscan artists and ancient Etruscan funeral urns and other artifacts.  And of course there are the city walls and some very well preserved gates.

Volterra is definitely one of the must see Italian towns which is not on the regular tourist agenda, and that’s a good thing.  Because it’s not on the regular tourist route it’s not at all crowded.  It’s a great town to visit to experience the authentic Tuscany.  But it’s a bit hard to get to.  The easiest way to get to Volterra is by car or if you don’t want to drive or hire a service by tour bus. If you want to get there via public transportation it’s doable, but not so easily done.

Getting there by public transportation involves a couple of train or bus transfer.  You can get there from any of the main Tuscan towns like Florence, Siena, Pisa, or Livorno.  The closest train station to Volterra is Saline di Volterra which can be reached by only by the line running from the coastal town of Cecina.  So from any Tuscan city take the train to Cecina where you can transfer to the coastal line, but be aware that train service is intermittent.  So most folks take the train to Cecina then transfer to a bus to Volterra.

So there you have it; 5 more must see Italian towns that are a bit off the beaten path.  A day trip to any or all of these towns will give you a taste of the real Italy!