We’ve Moved !

Our Blog is alive and well – but at a new address.

Please visit http://www.insidersitaly.com and click on the tab, MARJORIE’S BLOG, which is located on the menu bar near the top of the page.

Simultaneously, we have launched a Facebook presence, Marjorie Shaw’s Insider’s Italy, which can be reached through our web site’s Facebook link.  We invite you to become a Facebook fan and to suggest Insider’s Italy to your friends !

In addition to the photographs that we include in our Blog, you will find photographs posted to our Facebook pages journaling our life in Italy.  We have started with an album of photographs from our recent trip to Ravenna and photos from Carnival in Venice.

With these pages, we hope to bring a little of Italy to you!

Warm wishes,

Marjorie

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These are a few of my favorite things

Not so long along, a client, trying to select whom to use among the agents listed in the Travel and Leisure “A” List for Travel Agents for Italy, asked me bluntly : “What is it you love about Italy ?”

This question is one I ask myself often, and I kept my client on the telephone for some time, as I explained why our travelers keep returning to Italy — and why I have chosen to make my life here.

Wild flowers in winter.   Nearly all low-lying uncultivated, non urban areas of central and southern Italy now display a blanket of wild flowers.  These are daisies and dandolions, flowering wild mint and spring cyclamen, flowering arugola, malva, chamomile and many others indigenous to the place.

Artisans.  From paper makers to ceramicists to cheese makers..

to toy makers to jewelers to sculptors to mask makers to wine makers to leather makers…

Up and down the peninsula, and across its several islands, the list goes on and on and on !

We introduce you to as many artisans as you would like.  Some hold private workshops just for children.  Many of the artisans are our friends.  Every single one of them we admire.  With his or her hands and passion, each of them ensures the continuity of a traditional Italian art that — with some variations — is still produced in an ancient way.

The Bar.  Every Travel Plan we write includes information on the Italian Cafe Bar — the ins-and-out of ordering, the regional specialties,  and why the Italian café is so consequential in the fabric of day-to-day Italian life.

I start every morning in one (“un veneziano e un cappuccino, per piacere.“)  So do most people I know.  When I am away from Italy I miss intensely the smells, the familiar banter, the delicious and invigorating flavors, the sweet conviviality of the Bar.  If the Bar is combined with a good pastry store, all the better.   We note favorites in all the locations you will be visiting.

Experiences only Italy can provide.  Walking with sheep following a trail and a tradition that are over one thousand years old.

Running through a plateau of flowering lentils and poppies.

Meandering under the boughs of a grape-vine that has produced wines for more than a century.

Vulci.

We will lead you to each if you wish.  Just let us know what interests you.

Gardens.  Italy has continental Europe’s most beautiful gardens.   These range from city gardens (like Rome’s Municipal rose garden below)…

to formal Renaissance parks like Villa Lante…

to the gardens of Villa Melzi on Como…

To my desert island garden, Ninfa…

There are also spontaneous gardens, like the natural rock garden you will see if you join us on the Transumanza

Style. Italians care how they look, are interested in how you look, and put effort into dressing.  Some of the best dressed women I know are over 80, and gather in the sun in our local park every morning, drink cappuccino and chat.   Their shoes are polished, their hair in order, their skirts and coats becoming and elegant.  They care.

And apparently always have.

Ice cream.  We’ve written about this before.  We will write about it again.  The world’s best artisanal gelato (and granita and semifreddi) is made and sold here.  We will tell you where to find it.

Paestum.  To me the single most magical archeological site in Italy.  It moves me to tears each time I visit.

And when I have soaked up the spirit and beauty of the place and feel that I can store it within me until the next visit, I find another sort of magic at Tenuta Vannullo, Campania’s only organic dairy, and with mozzarella that will make you vow never to eat buffalo mozzarella anywhere else.  Below is one of the lovely bufale whose milk makes the splendid cheese.

Swallows and swifts.  One of the distinct, evocative sounds of Italy, heard in every region and nearly every place, is the morning and evening call of the swallows.  These graceful birds dart in and out of bell towers, swoop over tiled roofs, and fill the skies twice a day with their magical call.  No other sound — except the clink of spoons against espresso cups as you walk past a cafe’ bar in the morning — is to me more evocative of Italy.

Cool. The cool air that greets you as on hot summer days, most of all in Rome, as you walk past an ancient palazzo whose great portal is open and the damp shadowed cool of the marble interior oozes out onto the street providing an intense shot of refreshment.

Regional differences.  When Italy was unified in 1861, it was likely that two Italians living 200 miles apart would be unable to understand much of what the other said.   To take the train from Bolzano to Sicily (an absolutely extraordinary 14-18 hour train trip through ten regions) means hearing a dizzying number of accents as passengers get on and off — but more amazing still (and without leaving your train window) experiencing an ever changing tableau of architecture, station styles, trees, agriculture, vineyard trellising techniques, colors of shutters, ways of hanging laundry…

Imagine a country that is the slightly smaller than the New Mexico.  That can bring you the diversity represented by these three pictures :

Please mix your regions, and bring as much diversity into your trips as you can.  This is one of the great joys of traveling in Italy.

Communication.  We tried out last week a hotel in Paestum.  My Italophilic mother in law remarked : “This is the first hotel in Italy I have ever been where the staff at the desk did not smile.”  Italians do smile.  Luigi Barzini and so many others can describe much better than can, without falling into cliche or generalizaitons one of the national qualities of Italians that I love is a willingness to communicate through word, smile, song, gesture…

Delicious water.  We’ve written about Italian water before.  With very few exceptions (Florence), it is simply delicious, and the waters that runs through Venetians’ and some Romans’ taps are the same ones that, bottled, retail for $6 and up in American gourmet stores.

Olive oil.  Our clients have picked olives, made olive oil, brought it home.  They have learned how to cook with it, how to differentiate between oils, and how to store it.   This autumn in Tuscany we should be offering seminars (two to three days) for olive oil enthusiasts (we hope to join in ourselves.)  Isabel here samples oil in the Sabine hills, made just two hours before.

Insider’s Italy is a company run by a family that loves Italy.   I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, but my family has been here since the 1920s.   To share my love for this, my birthplace, is the whole reason I run Insider’s Italy.

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Non la digerisco

Italy wide, wander any market (with your Travel Plans we will tell you about favorites in every city that you visit) and in front of each stall, more likely than not, a conversation is going on.  The market person may be looking for a particularly nice salad for a customer, or chopping up the vegetables for a minestrone, or selecting a fish, but all the while chattering.  Again more often than not, the conversation will be about food, but also about weather or day-to-day life or family or politics. 

But most often about food. When I market, which is daily when I am in Rome, I go out with no ideas.  I soak in conversations — and recipes, and ideas — as I meander slowly up and down Via Nicolini and the 42 market stalls that are there.  Of course I am looking all the time — noting that finally the local romaneschi artichokes are in (“Paola, will you clean me six of those lovely artichokes” ?)  or that Carla has today cleaned her puntarelle particularly well (“200 grams of puntarelle please Carla”)…

or that the blood oranges that have not been waxed (sold with their leaves) are

small and particularly fresh (“one kilo thanks, Vincenzo”).

Today however, what I was most taken by was a conversation ongoing at the third stall on the right, after the fish monger.

Non la digerisco” (I do not digest it”). An elderly lady, with a small poodle on a red lead, straining to get at a pigeon, was deep in conversation with the Sisters.  The Sisters are two affable, very plump ladies, who work with their truly ancient mother and one of their husbands.   The mother sits on a rickety chair behind the stall and de-roots and slices vegetables, dropping them into a large wicker basket, which is then whisked to the front of the stall and put on sale. Everyone was concentrating on the problem at hand.

“Finocchio” (fennel), suggested one sister.  Raw fennel to be eaten at the beginning of the meal would help with digestion (I unfortunately did not catch the reference to what was not digestible.)

“Cook it for a shorter time, and then sauté it with spring onions, the sweet ones.  No parsley”.

“Cook it for 40 minutes, with lid on, and then take the lid off, and let it sit. That is what my mother does and we all digest it very well”.

“It is very difficult to digest in the hot weather, but in the cold weather it is easier.  You must be very careful not to drink much water when you eat it.”

“Have you tried preparing it with some peperoncino (chile peppers) ?  They tend to stimulate the digestion”.

And on and on the conversation went. When I came back to the stall, after going all the way down to the other end of the market, the talk was still ongoing.  The poodle had sat down.  The pigeon had flown away.  The elderly lady was holding a fennel, some spring onions, a bottle of wine with a bottle cap (homemade by the husband) and a bunch of peperoncino.

Once again I marveled at the marvelous country that is Italy, and how the world slows down when food is involved.

In late December I was at a lunch party with 11 friends, all Romans.  Talk was animated and varied and jocular.   We sat down at a sunny long table.  The pasta arrived, steaming and fragrant.  Conversation — precipitously — dwindled.   The hostess served the fettuccine, golden ribbons steaming in the winter sun as the pasta was raised from the serving bowl.  The friends remarked on the fragrance, the appearance, past experiences with this same dish, but using few words.  Their eyes never left the pasta. Soon talk ceased entirely. Wordlessly,  we all dipped into our primo piatto.  A few seconds of silence. Then everyone had a remark to make, a praise, a comment, a reaction to share.   Even the quietest among us had things to say.  And slowly, as the second and third bites were twirled, and we reached for the bread, the parmesan and our wine glasses, animated conversation began once again, swelling to the high volume levels that always accompany these friends’ lunches.

One of the principal delights of visiting Italy is that food — and the experience of enjoyment at the table — is central to life. The enjoyment of food is central to me too.

Food cannot be other than central to the Travel Plans I write for you.

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An Antidote to Winter: Paestum

Temple of Poseidon, west facade

Temple of Poseidon, east facade

When I am in New York in the dog days of winter, with cold and snow and grey the theme of the season, the Italian place I think most of is Paestum.

The Temple of Hera

Why Paestum ?

Temple of Athena

Because Paestum lifts and speaks to my spirit in a way that few other places can.

Paestum offers unearthly enchantment, and each time I am there I cannot believe that such a place exists.

Declared a United Nations World Heritage site, Paestum provides the opportunity — even in mid-summer — to be often quite alone with three extraordinary 6th to 5th century B.C. Greek temples.  Come in winter, as did we, and you will share the site with just one Siamese cat.  A marked contrast to the site’s famous neighbor Pompeii, which for most of the year is over-run and unsustainable.

Were all this not enough, 20th century excavations revealed a number of exceptional public buildings of both Greek and Roman periods including a theater, forum, public buildings, covered market and many charming villas.  It is worth visiting Paestum just for these !

The three temples are circled by a magnificent, unbroken wall cycle (nearly three miles) outside of which lie flourishing vegetable gardens.  When we were there earlier this month, the famous round artichoke of Paestum shared the space with various forms of broccoli.  Wild flowers covered the ground, and the smell of wild mint, fennel and arugula rose up with each step we took.

Behind the site are green rounded mountains that gather shadows in their innumerable folds.

And of course there is the joy – before or after visiting Paestum – of proceeding a few minutes away to what surely is the source for the world’s best buffalo mozzarella.   The buffalos seem pleased to receive visitors, and the organic buffalo milk products here — in this Insider’s favorite destination, one non locals rarely visit — are quite extraordinary. A blog next month will tell the story of our adventures here, and introduce you to more of the lovely animals whose milk produced the delicacies we enjoyed — and we hope, on your next trip to Paestum, you will too.

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Two Tuscan Inns with Award Winning Wines

Either of these Insider’s Italy inns would be top favorites even if their vineyards did not produce wines that win top international and Italian wine awards.  We have worked with both inns since their inception, and been sending our guests to each of them for two decades.  A honeymoon trip where guests stayed at one inn  was followed ten years later by a family trip with the couple’s three children.   Other clients have come back — to one inn or the other — as many as four times.

The inns are both sited near Greve, an Italian Slow City with a charming arcaded square, good osterie, and a lively Saturday market. They are in Chianti Classico, which for many of our clients is the quintessential Tuscan landscape, a timeless one of exceptional beauty. Vineyards, olives, cypresses and villas compose pictures that could be Roman or Renaissance. The sense of continuity here, and the deep-rooted equilibrium between man and bounteous nature, is particularly striking in Chianti.

Florence and Siena are each half an hour away.  San Gimignano is about 45 minutes to the west.  Umbria is easily accessible on a day trip.

The first inn is family owned and managed.  Ilaria run this 11 room villa-hotel while her brother, with a winemaker, is responsible for the wines.

Tastings are of course possible.  We love the estates Rosi, a sangiovese and cabernet blend, and it has become our house wine !   The estate has recently received very high praise in the Wine Spectator. The estate oil is also very special.

Accommodations are tasteful, with a charming quiet elegance, and maintain many of the farmhouse’s original architectural features, including handsome terra-cotta tiled floors and beamed ceilings.


The inn feels like a private villa — and on more than one occasion, clients have taken it over as a perfect week’s retreat (superb for wedding, birthday and anniversary parties !)

The pool faces the herb garden.  And there is a dedicated staff member, Cristina, available 8 – 8 daily,  who will answer any questions and provide wonderful assistance and attention — she becomes a personal friend to many clients !   We have received praise after praise after praise about this special villa inn.  Doubles are 240 Euro and suites 260 Euro per night, both with a delicious breakfast, taxes and service.

I had always planned to be married at our second inn (plans changed and instead I wed in Washington DC !), in the rose garden, with cypresses standing sentry and the strawberry pink villa as my backdrop.

My connection with this inn goes back as far as my friendship with the owner, a lawyer-winemaker, who acquired the 500 acre estate in 1989.  Here too you will receive warm and personal attention.

This agriturismo inn is housed in and around a Renaissance villa. Accommodations are extremely spacious and full of character, and there is a choice of one of the two grand, historic rooms in the main villa or charming country accommodation with kitchenette.  Suites range from 200 to 450 Euro per night, as ever with breakfast, taxes, service.

There are two delightful swimming pools — two — circled by lavender and rosemary. Wonderful breakfasts and dinners and pool-side lunches, the latter two made all the better when accompanied by the wines of the estate.  Excellent walks from the door.   A very special place.


If we may include either of these accommodations in your next itineraries, just let us know.   We book with owners and managers directly, as we do with nearly all of our hotels, and always chose your room by number.


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Week of Culture

From April 9th through 17th, every national museum Italy wide is free.   National museums are already free for European citizens under the age of 18 or 65 or over. But this delightful week — when we see that many of you will be here — is a unique opportunity to save, for a family, several hundred dollars if you are planning two museums a day, as museum-lovers often like to do.

And what museums Italy provides up and down the peninsula ! In the course of this extraordinary week there are 2800 special openings, new exhibitions, concerts, guided visits, kids’ workshops and other planned events which celebrate the cultural and artistic cornucopia represented by Italy’s heritage.   Such variety across the 20 regions !

Among our favorites is Rome’s National Museum of the Pasta.

By April, spring will be well advanced.  What a joy to be outside and exploring, at no cost, Herculaneum !

Ostia Antica !

Villa Lante !

Paestum !

The Forum ! One special site not to miss here is the newly restored House of the Vestal Virgins, which will open again after an extensive restoration on April 9.

And Palazzo Massimo.

Cerveteri

Ravenna’s Museo Arcivescovile

And on and on the list will go.  We will be in Verona during those days, exploring at least six museums in and around town.  Many of Italy’s national collections can be visited with our outstanding guides (here Nathan Louis is on a private Children’s Tour of the Coliseum) but we always provide our own materials — with an Insider’s perspective — for every museum we recommend.

Come join us !

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Future recall and wonderment

Surely one of the things we most wish for our children is that they tuck away experiences for future recall and wonderment.

These are the years for piling up sights and sounds and flavors and images and surprises and amazements.

In Italy, amazement is everywhere.

Robert and I are parents to children ages six and eight, and one of our great joys as parents is watching our children discover Italy.

A first trip to Venice..

A first view of the Dolomites, a first ascent up Florence’s Duomo dome, a first viewing of Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a first step into the garden of Ninfa…

These experiences are particularly precious to me personally as I grew up in Rome, and remember so many of them myself.

When we plan trips for families with children, we start by asking you all about your children : their names and ages, what they enjoy, what they do not enjoy..

Whether they have studied or are interested in anything related to Italy (which might be gladiators or Ancient Rome or Renaissance history or art history or Latin)..

Are curious about archeology, or enjoy art activities or drawing or painting…

Perhaps animals ? (Like these water buffalos who make superb mozzarella in Paestum, below.)

What do they enjoy ?

We listen.

We are just as interested in our youngest travelers as we are in their parents.

Here is an example : when we know that a child likes medieval armor, for their first full day in Florence we will propose the Museo Stibbert, an off-the-beaten track museum with a remarkable arms collection.

When we know that a child loves animals, they visit the Museo La Speccola. This is next door to the Palazzo Pitti, which parents may want to see, and everyone will enjoy the adjoining Boboli gardens.

If your children are not as interested in visiting the wine town of Montalcino why not combine it with Niki de Saint Phalle’s magical Tarot garden, not far away ?

A long morning in Pompeii is so well complemented by a long afternoon of idyllic swimming.

Alternating and combining children’s and adults’ destinations proves remarkably easy when you have our help, and creates a harmonious ordering for each day.

Do your children like to cook ?  We organize children’s cooking classes in many of their favorite places.

Our children were in strollers just a few years ago — please ask us for questions regarding babies too, and special locations that will delight littler children as well.

We have a Children’s Reading List and Children’s language tape ideas.

Guides and docents are one of our strong points.  We select many of our docent guides for their special expertise in engaging children. Here a Lion Treasure hunt is in progress.

Planning independent trips for family travelers is one of the single most enjoyable parts of Insider’s Italy.   Please contact us if we may help your family too.

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