Happy New Year !

Tantissimi auguri di Buon Anno to you all !

Our January 1 celebrations included a walk along the Servian aqueduct (41-54 A.D.), 20 minutes from city center Rome, followed by the Janiculum Hill marionette show, which on Sunday and holidays is a Roman tradition we urge everyone with small children to consider. (Nathan and Isabel have offered to provide you full details, and can recite the plots in their sleep !)  A three-sip espresso at the Hill’s bar/café comes next for the adults with an apricot juice for the children, and a few minutes later, the Janiculum Hill’s exciting noon-time canon BOOMS, followed by the sound of St. Peter’s bells and the lyricism of close to one thousand other lunch bells ringing from lesser churches spread across the city’s Seven Hills.

All over Italy, Insider’s Italy travelers are celebrating too, some now at lunch tables at restaurants where we have booked them, or out (with a lovely choice of wines and a succulent picnic) on a boat near Capri.  Some are walking in the Cinque Terre today, and another family is soaking at thermal springs in southern Tuscany.

I hope that on this first day of 2011, you will think about places in Italy where you might like to partake in your own special celebrations this year — a birthday, engagement, wedding, anniversary, graduation, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year.  It would give us greatest happiness to partner with you in planning an adventure that will exceed your expectations.

I raise my glass to you all, and with this first blog of the year come my affectionate best wishes for a very happy New Year.

Marjorie

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Nathan in Florence

I am Nathan and seven years old.  This is a blog about my adventures in Florence, which is one of my favorite cities.

First

A nice first thing to do when you are in Florence is to go up to the Duomo — which is the most beautiful place in all of Florence.  It has the second biggest dome in the world.  The biggest is in Rome and is at St. Peter’s.

The Duomo itself is the largest interior space in the world.  A joke that somebody said about building the dome of the Duomo — because you see no one knew before how to put such a large dome on — well, someone said : “what if we fill the Duomo with dirt, and then we put the dome on top ?”  The others then asked : “how shall we then get the dirt out ?” And the first one said : “we’ll put gold coins inside of the earth.”  And the other said : “how will that work ?  We will just lose money.”  And the first one said : “everyone will go and dig out all the money, and of course then also the dirt.”  They of course did not actually do this.  Anyway, where do you think they would possibly get all that dirt ?

What to do if you want ice cream and you are in Florence

It is rather hard to find ice cream that is good in Florence.  Or you buy huge monster ice creams that burst out of their containers and that are all sorts of hideous colors or you buy Ben and Jerry’s which is an American ice cream company that has just opened in Florence and I do not recommend one little bit or what I recommend — the only thing to do —  you can get good ice cream from Perchè no!.

Museums

As for museums I recommend the Museum of the Florentine House, that is quite nice, with all sorts of bedrooms and chamber pots and trap doors and a pulley system for water that goes from the very very top (five big stories high) all the way down to the well.  They have nice big rooms with painted parrots all over the places and little corner rooms that are simple little bathrooms.   You must be here in the morning if you want to see the very top floor which is where the kitchen is.  I won’t tell you much about the kitchen because it must be a surprise. The Museo del Opera del Duomo is a fantastic place  I like it for all its statues and tiny mosaics.  On the second floor they have two sculpted choir lofts of singing children.  One of them has children in perfect order, no one running or making any chaos.  Opposite there is chaos everywhere, everyone running, some instruments being broken.  The second seems like it has glitter on pieces of the marble, but the first doesn’t.   Which do you like more ?  Please tell me.

Restaurants

Good restaurants are a little bit easier to find than good ice cream.  Slow Food is of course what you are looking for I hope.  One restaurant that is very good is Acquacotta.  At Christmas time there is a little Christmas tree that the owners are always decorating.  There is a nice little girl who does the decorating and she has a very nice mother who is the waitress and owner and she is always going into the kitchen and coming to your table to see if all is right.  It is a very peaceful restaurant. The tastes and the smells were superb and I wanted to stay and stay.

Trattoria Cibreo is another fantastic place.

It has just one room, and everyone is there, with very nice waiters that are always making up jokes.  Bring a toy with you and show it to the waiters, especially Fabio (below)  — you will see why.

It is snug and warm, with homemade desserts, and they will bring you surprises to eat.  I said that I didn’t want a primo but they just knew that really I would like something small so a tiny delicious thing appeared not on the menu, and in fact it was just what I wanted.

Francesca

Francesca is our guide for Florence.  She is a very very nice guide. I think that she might be the best in all of Florence. She is very pretty and she’s got a very nice husband who’s named Roberto. After you’ve had a tour with her you can go with her to have an ice cream at Perchè no! She is funny and nice and full of real stories that make Florence interesting.

The day before you leave

A nice thing to do the day before you leave is to go to Pasticceria 2000. Pasticcieria  2000 has all sorts of fantastic biscuits.  If you are not too rowdy especially, the owner, who is very very nice, will give you three biscuits and maybe a few pieces of something else special.

This is the pasticceria I have given my Prize to in all of Florence for the very best cantucci which are hard, crispy almond delicious biscuits that you can dip in wine if you are grown up or if you are a child you eat just like that.

This is very sad day, because next day you will be gone.  But a nice thing to do before saying goodbye is to visit the children’s toy library, where they have all sorts of games that you can play with.  If you are over the age of 8 you won’t like these toys so you should instead stay at your hotel and start packing.  Be sure not to forget anything, mi raccomando !

I hope you will enjoy your trip !

Nathan

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Isabel in Florence

My name is Isabel and I am six years old.

Here I am dancing with lots of other children made of marble and who are playing musical instruments and singing.


I am in Florence.

Please go to Florence, it’s a lovely place.

I recommend five days in Florence.  We took the train from Rome, the trip is one hour and a little bit more. Go to the hotel everyone loves, it’s a hotel we recommend to all of our clients.  If you go there near Christmas it is going to have a presepio.

A presepio is something with little baby Jesus with Mary and other figures and Joseph and the donkey and the ox.  It is in the hotel’s window so everyone can see it and if you are good you can help them to arrange it.  There are also very nice lollipops at the desk.  Try one, they’re excellent.

There are also little candies but I do not recommend these as much as the lollipops.

I suggest that you visit at Christmas.  There is a lovely merry-go-round at that time.  But they will keep it running until May, which is very nice for you if you visit in the spring.

There is a wonderful children’s toy library in the Hospital of the Innocents.

It’s not a library where there are books. No, no, here there are toys.  I recommend playing here, especially if your parents are doing something that is not very interesting to you like a museum that you don’t like.

Maybe your mother can stay with you while your father is at the museum. There are excellent dolls, mirrors, a Noah’s ark, Lego, animals to play with (they are pretend). And children’s books in Italian and in English.

If you get hungry, don’t ever go to a place with enormous ice cream.

Don’t even touch those.  And don’t just go anyplace.  I recommend “Perchè no!” where I had chocolate and lemon.  One was sour and one was sweet but very good sour and very good sweet.

These are the owners.

This lady and this man and their children make all of the delicious ice creams.  They sometimes give children samples.  I sampled pear and it was yummy.

And to eat at lunch or dinner, there is a very good restaurant I recommend. It is called “Acquacotta” , and it is run by a lady who can read your mind.

I wanted to have the dessert menu and the lady brought it.  I had wonderful homemade crema ice cream and chocolate ice cream.  The first thing I had to eat was penne con pesto, which was my first course, which I think you will like.

There is something funny in Florence which is that they don’t put salt into their bread.  You won’t like it at first.  There is one bread though that you will like right away, it is called ciabatta, which is slipper, or ciabbattina, which is little slipper.

This tastes so good and it is cute and it has a little bit of salt in it.

There is a toy store that I recommend, called City of the Sun.  In Italian it is Citta del Sole.

There is a doll’s house. There are magic wands.  If you are very small or a baby, there are a few special things here that I recommend, for example sea creatures that spin.

If your parents insist on a morning museum, you should insist on a morning fratte.  These you can find really in just one place.  These are doughnuts and they are very good.  They have sugar on the top and they are warm.

They look and they smell like a pastry and they taste like a pastry too.  I thought I would never love a doughnut but the fratte is different. You can sit down to eat them or stand up.

There is a very nice store with art supplies in it.  There are many people here buying painting things and chalks and crayons and everything you might want to draw and paint Florence.  It is near the City of the Sun and is very good.

One thing you must not forget to do is to take a tour with our guide Francesca.

I love her.

It’s not that she takes everybody with her on her tours, she takes a few people, like a father and mother and one child or two children with her.

Goodbye from Isabel.

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Your Favorites


Today is the shortest day of the year, and from tomorrow we will have more light.  And as we dream of longer days — remembering that in Sicily, spring begins in just two months, with flowering almonds and early fruit trees — we consider four countryside bases, favorites of ours’, favorites of yours’.   Let us know if we may include them in your next itinerary.

I. The Wine Advocate gives this Tuscan agriturismo’s wines highest marks.  One hundred twenty-eight acres of award-winning vineyards circle the inn, which offers two remarkable rooms in the 15th century villa.

Breakfast is served in the garden.

A dreamy place for a honeymoon.

II.  “We loved this place and the couple who run it.  The lodgings were gorgeous and the setting was breathtakingly beautiful.  Lodovico and Patrizia were both fantastic and made us feel like house guests and not merely lodgers.

Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and the hills beyond, while enjoying fresh-baked cakes and Patrizia’s homemade jams was a truly wonderful experience.”  (J. Mishkin.)

The inn, with just seven suites, is housed within an imposing palazzo surrounded by its own superb vineyards outside Orvieto.  Built in the late 14th century by an important cardinal as a hostel for pilgrims en route to Rome, it was redesigned by its present owner with urban sophistication. Lovely pool and superb restaurant (many have said the best food on their entire trip.)

III.   Northeast of our Orvieto inn, this hotel is also very small — intimate, with superb, warm service, greatest charm in rooms…

and our Insider’s Prize for the best breakfasts in Umbria.


 

A perfect pool, with spa services too.

Come here to celebrate spring’s arrival — the birdsong in April was simply spectacular — and the reviving properties of complete tranquility.

 

IV. A perfect base for Pienza, Montepulciano, Montalcino and much of southern Tuscany — including the Brunello wine country — this special, six-room inn is cited repeatedly as “the best of the trip”.   Intimate, ideal for family reunions, small weddings and complete relaxation.

From D. Cobb : “A belated but also heartfelt thank you for creating our wonderful Italian vacation.  There are so many memories (including) floating in the infinity pool (here).  You are a master at your craft, thank you.”  From B. Madero : “We adored (this inn) ! Giulio was extremely friendly and very helpful. Two of our evenings there, they were kind enough to prepare us a cold, delicious supper of cold meats, cheese, bread, fruit and wine. Fabulous! We loved our room….”

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On a Cold Winter’s Day

On a cold winter’s day, what better place to find solace than in the frescoed house of Livia ?

Off came my  coat when I arrived in this garden of enchantment.  I could hear, coming from behind the trees, the sweet song of the birds.
Dating from 30-20 BC, and adorning four walls of an underground warm weather dining room, these frescoes are the world’s oldest example of a continuous garden painting.
The illusionistic scenes (19 feet by  38 feet) portray birds and a variety of flowers, plants, and trees.
Strawberry trees, olives, oleander, cypresses, date palms, laurel, lemon, oranges and oak are all here, and perched in their branches or flying through the limpid blue air are parrot, blackbird, swallow, thrush, robin and many others.
This pleasure garden is on the third floor of Palazzo Massimo, my single favorite Roman museum, never crowded even in peak tourist season.   Also not to miss in this treasure trove collection (with advanced lighting systems, good placards in English, and attentive curatorial detailing) are the superb Roman busts, mosaics, bronze sculptures, fragments from a shipwreck on Lake Nemi and the mummy of an 8-year-old girl who was found in 1964 on Rome’s Via Cassia. Palazzo Massimo, near the Stazione Termini, requires about two and a half hours for a relaxed visit and is open Tuesday through Sunday 9 AM – 7:45 PM.

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Our Inns Grow the Food that You Eat

While in North America some resorts and hotels are just now cultivating their food in-house, many of our country inns have always done this, offering our travelers the honey, olive oil, wine, vegetables, fruits and herbs produced on their property.

Others Insider’s Italy hotels and inns buy directly from local small producers — mozzarella, vegetables, meats and eggs all come from a distance that is walkable. And standards are exceptionally high.

The photo below show the kitchen garden of one of our most beloved properties, where over the course of the year more than 80 vegetable varieties flourish in arcadian organic conditions. The gardener, a wonderful cook, offers outdoor cooking classes in the garden, with guests watching, participating and feasting in the charming gazebo. Some vegetables are in the soil just seconds before you pop them into your mouth.  Stefano the gardening cook prepares many varieties of bruschetta and pastas; makes pesto; marinates, grills, steams and sautés vegetables; and makes ample use of the estate’s own superb oils.

In Amalfi, our two favorite hotels source their own organic gardens for their lemons, tomatoes, herbs and salads. These are representative examples of how our hotels and inns are so connected with their land — and how one of the delights of a stay in each of them is tasting the wonderful things that that land brings forth.

A new favorite inn in Umbria typifies what we mean.  The herb garden is at the center of the hotel.  Lentils and farro come from a half hour away.  Lamb and beef are raised sustainably and locally by farmers who are neighbors.  Pork meat comes from a small sustainable breeder.  Salumi, made with pork meat, are prepared traditionally by an artisan producer in the same town. Also in town is the cheesemaker whose year-old pecorino cheese, as well as salty and fresh ricotta cheese, appear regularly at the inn’s dining table.

Clients arriving in our Tuscany four-star inn often enjoy dinner on their first evening (and so good is the food, then elect to have further meals in coming days).  They will enjoy the property’s own wines, olive oils and many succulent vegetables.  The cheeses served here are made organically by good friends just a valley away.

Nearly all of our villas offer help yourself vegetable gardens too, as well as fruit trees where the apricots, peaches, plums and figs are all yours’ for the picking.  Here our Maremma villa garden waits for you to pick herbs for use in the kitchen.

Our Umbrian villa favorite has a lovely collection as well, all growing in terra-cotta pots.  The villa’s chef makes ample use of these, but there are more than enough for everyone.
In Amalfi our most requested villa has a private organic garden of help-yourself citrus fruits.

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Family Reunions

Insider’s Italy is a family company run by three generations. My mother provides ideas, my husband Robert and I organize the day-to-day running of business, plan and enjoy research trips, undertake your villa and hotel bookings and keep up to date on events and openings.  Our children’s role is not inconsequential : chief tasters for our annual “Pizza Bianca” prize in Rome, five-city “Gelato Awards” and more importantly still primary guinea pigs in our assessment of a hotel, villa and restaurant’s suitability for children.

Planning family Reunions is both one of our greatest delights and greatest strengths.   This year we organized more than ever before, with participants ranging in age from 3 months to 86 years.

One favorite villa for a Reunion enjoys a superbly beautiful position in Chianti Classico.  It is 19 miles south of Florence and 32 miles to Siena, an unsurpassed location for exploring both cities.  Lucca is an hour to your northwest, while San Gimignano is 40 minutes to your southwest. The wine country around Montalcino is within a morning’s excursion and much of Umbria also accessible for a day trip.  You can walk to a wonderful osteria, and 15 minutes away is Greve, one of Italy’s loveliest “Slow Cities”.

The property is 70 acres in size.  Vineyards and hospitality  here are taken equally seriously. The four wines produced are award-winning, with enviable reviews in Gambero Rosso/Slow Food and Wine Spectator (“I can’t recommend these wines highly enough” writes a recent Wine Spectator critic.)  But there is no wine tourism here, no tour buses arriving for tastings, not a soul in fact to spoil the magical atmosphere or your tranquility.

The villa is in fact an inn, and run like a country home.

WOW, what a find…. [Upon arrival] all four of us were in awe at the beautiful sight before us.  The service was wonderful, the staff very professional in a country way, which was charming.  We had dinner there on Monday night and it was GREAT….  The Rosie wine is delicious…  I would definitely return to this magical place. C. Jensen

[We] loved everything about it; wonderful room, wonderful grounds, wonderful view, terrific breakfast spread and warm and welcoming service; we could not have imagined a spot that better exemplifies the charm and beauty that is Tuscany. G. Butkus

THE BEST of all of them hands down!!  We absolutely loved this place and the wonderful staff were so accommodating.  The suite was beautiful as described with the wonderful terrace, great private tour of the estate vineyard with the wine maker, and the wine is quite amazing… if only we could have carried more than 3 bottles back!!! M. and A. Williams

The main farmhouse, with 15th century origins, has been tastefully restored to maintain many of the original architectural features, including handsome terra-cotta tiled floors and beamed ceilings, and is furnished in excellent taste with antiques and wonderful fabrics selected by the Milanese family matriarch, who was a gifted designer. An adjoining cottage with patio plus a family suite bring the total number of beds here to 18, with all guests delightfully accommodated in double rooms with private bathrooms.

In the morning a sumptuous breakfast including estate fruit, local cheeses, homemade jams and cakes is served on the open-air veranda in the jasmine garden.

The estate’s oenologist, a perfect English speaker, is delighted to organize tastings, vineyard walks and winemaker’s dinners where estate wines are paired with dishes prepared using the villa’s own ingredients – superb olive oil and fruits and vegetables from their own lush vegetable garden.  What is not their own is nearly all produced by neighbors.  While they are not yet certified, the vineyards, olive groves and vegetable garden/orchard are all fully organic.

Culinary and wine-oriented delights are a specialty : the owners plan not only gastronomic itineraries and wine tours to the Chianti and Brunello areas (often sending you to friends who will greet you as friends – and whose wines are as notable as their own) but will also plan lunches and dinners on request throughout your stay.

Olive groves and gardens are ideal for children’s play.  Owing in some small measure to the fact that the owner has two small children herself, the estate is a particularly welcoming place for kids.  The estate is fully fenced.

Our children love to play hide and go seek in the olives, and then visit the Etruscan tomb, discovered on the property during the 1970’s. The charming pool (open May through September), overlooking the herb garden, is well suited to children.

Open from early April through late October, the inn charges very reasonable rates for guests who take the entire villa.  Most unusually, the owners are happy for guests to take the villa for just three nights (a villa experience for less than a week !) For a week, taking the entire property, the charge ranges from 10.800 Euro (low season) to 12.3000 Euro and includes a private concierge (the wonderful Cristina, an Insider’s treasure) plus full housekeeping and a marvelous breakfast.

Let us know if you would like further details.

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