Restaurants

Romance in Asolo, “The City of a Hundred Horizons”

Mr. TWS in a romantic mood in Asolo — Photo credit: Federica Donadi

Mr. TWS in a romantic mood in Asolo — Photo credit: Federica Donadi

 

I often think of Asolo. Since our April visit to this town in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, I’ve thought back fondly to many moments of our stay there. The picture-perfect hilltop town exudes romance with its winding lanes, beautiful villas, galleries, cafes, and fabulous views from its lofty position. In part, this explains why great writers and artists have loved the town and found inspiration here. Robert Browning (for whom a street in the city center is named), Ernest Hemingway, and Henry James are just a few who came to Asolo as frequent visitors or residents.

One of Asolo’s stunning views from the panoramic vista point of Queen Cornaro’s Castle

One of Asolo’s stunning views from the panoramic vista point of Queen Cornaro’s Castle

Italian poet Giosuè Carducci called Asolo “The City of a Hundred Horizons”, aptly describing the many beautiful panoramic views of mountains and the Veneto countryside its hillside setting provides. From vantage points during walks in town or from the windows of our EsteVillas Elena apartment, we took in the character and scenery of Asolo for four days and nights — a time that proved to be too short. Like the horizons to which Carducci referred, there are a hundred reasons why our stay in Asolo, a town I only recently learned about, touched us so much. Here are a few of the highlights of our stay.

Our romantic “Elena” apartment in Asolo

Elena-building

“Elena” apartments above Caffé Centrale on Piazza Garibaldi

Fitting the romantic character of Asolo are the two beautifully-renovated apartments (top two floors shown in the photo above) owned by our host Elena Benassi. We stayed on the top floor and the other apartment was on the second floor (1st floor in European terms) just below it. The two apartments are above the iconic Caffé Centrale on the ground level. Our “Elena 3” apartment consisted of three bedrooms, four baths, full bright kitchen, and elegant living and dining areas. Elena’s impeccable style was evident with the carefully-selected antique furnishings and stylish finishes throughout. The decor preserves the architectural style of the building and a sense of a romantic past.

 

Elena 3 apartment dining and living area

Elena 3 apartment dining and living area

 

From the windows of our apartment, I drank in the sights of historic Asolo — the fountain on the small piazza below, picturesque buildings lining the square, and the lane leading up to the majestic castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro. It was a great, central location to feel part of Asolo life and enjoy the town with easy walking to attractions and restaurants.

Room with a view: Queen Cornaro’s Castle seen from our “Elena” apartment on Piazza Garibaldi in Asolo

Room with a view: Queen Cornaro’s Castle seen from our “Elena” apartment on Piazza Garibaldi in Asolo

A warm and delicious welcome to Asolo

We had the pleasure of spending time with Elena and our EsteVillas trip organizer Beatrice at a delightful welcome dinner prepared by a local chef, Maurizio Gallina — right in the kitchen of our charming Asolo apartment. We enjoyed fresh regional dishes and fine wines during a relaxing dinner with lively conversation about the attractions of Asolo and the Veneto region.

Chef-Maurizio

As the chef was busy in the kitchen, we began with a sampling of appetizers including fried parmesan and zucchini flowers accompanied by a refreshing glass of Prosecco. Although I couldn’t fool anyone that I really participated in the meal preparation, Chef Maurizio was kind to let me give the risotto a few stirs, too

Herb, borage leaves and ricotta pie (top right), white asparagus and egg salad (bottom right), and delectable tiramisu

Herb, borage leaves and ricotta pie (top right), white asparagus and egg salad (bottom right), and delectable tiramisu

On the menu for our feast was a delicious array of the chef’s recipes of local dishes using primarily products of the Veneto region. Top among the ingredients was white asparagus that was perfectly in season during in April. While in Asolo, we enjoyed white asparagus served in many dishes and styles, but Chef Maurizio’s asparagus and egg salad was one of the most creative and delicious. Another key component of our special meal was a risotto made with Vialone Nano, a rice variety grown in Veneto. With each course, Chef Maurizio paired an appropriate wine —  Maculan Vespaiolo, a Veneto white wine, was perfect with the asparagus.

It was quite a start for our stay and we would highly recommend including a private dinner of your own prepared by Chef Maurizio when you stay in Asolo. As a “chef on demand”, he specializes in private dinners like this and he also offers cooking classes. These options are among the extra services that you can easily arrange when renting one of Elena’s apartments.

More highlights of our stay in Asolo

Walks around town

Though our hosts kept us quite busy with the many entertaining and informative side trips outside of town, we also enjoyed the time we spent just walking Asolo’s winding lanes past shops and restaurants, medieval buildings, historical sites, and landmarks.

 

Cathy-and-Mr-TWS

Admiring ancient frescoes during a walk in Asolo — Photo credit: Federica Donadi

 

One of the many shops that attracted our attentions as we strolled was Asolo Kilim Gallery where we could have spent hours admiring the colorful and eclectic selection of art, textiles, jewelry and antiques. We were thrilled to get a look at a very special old register signed by many international guests of the hotel that was once located in the building. Be sure to ask to see it when you visit

Asolo-Kilim-001

Colorful and eclectic art and objects at Asolo Kilim Gallery

 

Seen from many vantage points in the area and in town, La Rocca, the city’s ancient fortress, sits prominently atop Mount Ricco. A defining landmark of the Asolo landscape that can be seen for many miles, we always knew when we were getting close to “home” returning from our nearby Veneto excursions.

Above the trees — La Rocca atop Mount Ricco seen from Piazza Garibaldi

Above the trees — La Rocca atop Mount Ricco seen from Piazza Garibaldi

As we walked to the top, there was a mild, but steady winding climb providing good exercise and wonderful views. Although the fortress wasn’t open to visitors that day, we enjoyed the stunning 360 degree views of the hills and valleys of the area from the hilltop location.

on top of Mount Ricco - La Rocca

on top of Mount Ricco – La Rocca

 

The women of Asolo

Guided by the lovely and knowledgeable women of Asolo today, BellAsolo guide Laura Serafin and Discovering Veneto representative Francesca Zuccolotto, we got an introduction to three remarkable women of Asolo past — Freya Stark, Caterina Cornaro, and Elenora Duse. Each of these amazing women are central characters in the stories of Asolo as officially documented in guides and books, but also in the stories of locals who have personal recollections or those passed down in family history.

With Laura Serafin (left) and Francesca Zuccolotto at Villa Freya

With Laura Serafin (left) and Francesca Zuccolotto at Villa Freya

Touring the gardens of Villa Freya we learned about Freya Stark, British journalist and avid world traveler. Freya was a solo woman traveler pioneer who traversed the Middle East and other distant lands beginning in the 1930s. She had come to Asolo as a child near the beginning of the twentieth century and chose to return later in life because she loved the town. Freya died there in 1993 at the age of 100 and is buried in Asolo at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.

In the gardens of Villa Freya

In the gardens of Villa Freya

The gardens in the large area behind the villa were beautiful with a wide diversity of flora, some varieties brought here by Freya from her travels. Although much of it was in bloom, the long rows of its popular English roses were not yet budding. Behind the garden are ruins of a Roman theater and views down into the valleys below.

On the grounds at Queen Cornaro’s Castle; Bell tower of Asolo Cathedral visible on the right

On the grounds at Queen Cornaro’s Castle; Bell tower of Asolo Cathedral visible on the right

Married at the age of 14 and widowed at 19, Caterina Cornaro (1454 – 1510) ruled Cyprus as queen for 15 years before being deposed by Venetian merchants in 1489. It was then that she came to Asolo, retaining the title of queen and had her palace built just up the hill from Piazza Garibaldi. It was quite an occasion when she arrived in Asolo, an event commemorated annually with a festival that includes many donning fancy 15th-century attire. Queen Caterina hosted Renaissance artists and intellectuals during her reign giving Asolo the early distinction of being a center of literature and the creative arts. An interesting connection to the United States is that the theater built there in 1798 was dismantled and stored in 1930, then purchased by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to be reassembled and reconstructed in Sarasota, Florida in the 1950s where it has been in use ever since.

Elenora Duse (1858- 1924) was an actress called “Divine” by her fans. She had said of Asolo, the place in which she chose to live, that it was a “small town of lace and poetry”.  A theater named after her is located in Queen Cornaro’s Castle. She is highly regarded as one of the great actors of the period and was reviewed favorably in comparison to her contemporary and rival, the acclaimed Sarah Bernhardt. Fitting our theme of romance, Elenora was celebrated for her acting but she was also known for her famous romances. Like Freya, Elenora is buried at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.

A taste of Asolo

Although it may be tempting to stay in the comfortable Elena apartment for all meals, there are great dining options within a few minutes (some a minute or two) walk from there. From our experiences, we can recommend these places for wining and dining.

Caffé Centrale

How lucky we were that Caffé Centrale, an important center of Asolo’s culture, was in the same building as our apartment. But I would have made it a point to go there even if it wasn’t so convenient. Over scrumptious croissants and cappuccino, Mr. TWS and I reveled in thoughts of the many literary figures and celebrities who frequented the cafe and who have been memorialized with their names on the red director’s chairs on the patio of Caffé Centrale. During our breakfast ritual, we could imagine a young Hemingway in the 1920s writing a novel while sitting there. Besides our morning breakfast ritual, we also had a great lunch of lasagna and salads sitting on the patio on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, an afternoon gelato, and a late night liqueur.

 

Caffè Centrale, a meeting place for literary greats and celebrities of the past and present

Caffè Centrale, a meeting place for literary greats and celebrities of the past and present

Lele and Ezio Botter are the two brothers who own and operate the bustling cafe. We enjoyed a chance to sit down with Lele who graciously shared part of his busy day and enthralled us with marvelous stories of Asolo’s celebrity residents and visitors during his years of working at the cafe as well as those found in records and original letters dating back to 1796, some of which are in the cafe’s possession. From those documents they learned that the building was initially an exclusive club for noblemen, but much to the patrons’ dismay the owner opened it to others because the owner said that others will pay, the noblemen don’t. Among his stories, was one of Napoleon and a plot ostensibly to kill him that was centered in Asolo and particularly the club. The club was closed for several years (reopening as a coffee shop) and the conspiracy suspects were imprisoned. He also mentioned that a descendant of Robert Browning had visited just a few days earlier.

Antica Osteria Al Bacaro

Smiling service and delicious simple Italian dishes at Osteria Al Bacaro

Smiling service and delicious simple Italian dishes at Osteria Al Bacaro

 

Al Bacaro is a small osteria on Via Browning that has been operating since 1892. It was one of our favorite Asolo experiences. In fact, we went there twice to enjoy the ambiance of a spot frequented by Asolani (as locals are called) as well as the local delicious cuisine and very friendly service.

Trattoria Due Mori

For dinner with a spectacular view, reserve a window table at Trattoria Due Mori. Everything during our long, leisurely dinner from the appetizers to the tiramisu was excellent.

Dining with a view at Trattoria Moderna Due Mori

Dining with a view at Trattoria Moderna Due Mori

 

Tappo Bar

Our choice for our last dinner in Asolo was Tappo Bar a few steps across the piazza from our apartment. The meal was very good as was the service and it appeared that the other customers were locals.

Perfect combination — pasta and tiramisu (one of the best we’ve had) at Tappo Bar

Perfect combination — pasta and tiramisu (one of the best we’ve had) at Tappo Bar

Farewell to Asolo

We said our goodbyes to our lovely and gracious host Elena over afternoon tea at the Hotel Villa Cipriani. The villa was once owned by Robert Browning who bought it in 1889 shortly before he died. Passed on to his son, subsequent owners transformed the property into a country inn (including the famous Guinness family of Ireland) before Giuseppe Cipriani took over management and it became Hotel Villa Cipriani. The hotel is just a short walk from Elena’s apartments and is a perfect place for tea time and a walk in the garden to admire the views of the surrounding countryside.

Elena at Hotel Cipriani

Elena at Hotel Cipriani

 

On our last night in Asolo, Mr. TWS and I stopped in for a nightcap of Amaro Montenegro (an Italian herbal liqueur) at Caffé Centrale, trying to prolong the night and our stay. We were already missing romantic Asolo

Caffé Centrale on our final night in Asolo

Caffé Centrale on our final night in Asolo

What else to see and do during a stay in Asolo

In a future post, we’ll be talking about some of the excursions we took outside of Asolo that included art, architecture, wine, and beautiful towns. There are many outdoor activities like golfing, hiking, biking, boating that are available nearby. In the city center, there are flea markets every second Sunday of the month throughout the year. Asolo also plays host to special annual events such as Palio di Asolo (late June) and the Asolo Art Film Festival (August 29th to September 7th in 2016).

Distances from Asolo to key cities

Treviso – 30 km
Venice – 51 km
Verona – 81 km
Padova – 40 km
Vicenza – 39 km

Highlights of four nights in Asolo, Italy — a beautiful and romantic town on a hilltop in Italy’s Veneto region. Where to eat, sleep, and see the sights.

By Catherine Sweeney may 2016

Instagram highlights of northern Italian treasures

“Open my heart and you will see

Graved inside of it, ‘Italy’ .” — Robert Browning

It shouldn’t be surprising that art, literature, and music are essential aspects of northern Italy. Surrounded by stunning natural beauty, dramatic history, and deep cultural traditions, it’s easy to understand why writers (such as Browning), artists, and musicians have been enamored of and inspired by various locations in the four regions of Italy we visited on our latest trip — Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. We were captivated each day by the lakes, gardens, cities, countryside, and historic sites. Of course, this is Italy, so culinary delights are also an important part of any visit and we savored a delicious diversity of regional food and wine. In particular, Mr. TWS seemed to be tasting heaven in every bite.

We covered a lot of territory traveling by car from Lake Maggiore (Piedmont) to Mantua (Lombardy) to Asolo (Veneto) and finally to Tredozio (my third visit to Emilia-Romagna and second to Tredozio) with interesting side trips each day and varied accommodations — lakeside cottage, 12th-century palace, romantic apartment, and countryside villa. (We also spent a few days in Venice, but that’s for another story.) So there will be much to show and tell beyond this preview, and we will in future posts. These photos from our Instagram gallery are an introduction to our trip to whet your appetite.

Casa del Lago in Lesa (Lake Maggiore) — our base in Piedmont

Pictured below was the gorgeous, peaceful sunrise that we captured from the waterfront at Casa del Lago, the lovely villa we called home for four nights on Lake Maggiore. What a beautiful place on earth! We could have happily spent the entire four days here, but it was ideally located providing easy access to many sights and activities we experienced

View from Casa Del Lago Lake Maggiore

View from Casa Del Lago Lake Maggiore

 

What a glorious first day we had on Lake Maggiore as we traveled by boat from the town of Stresa to the Borromeo Islands of the lake. The view below was from the palace and gardens on Isola Bella (meaning beautiful island — and indeed, it is). There was still a bit of snow showing on the Alpine peaks in the distance.

Isola-Bella-palace

Tulips of all colors and types were on display in the expansive and gorgeous botanical gardens of Villa Taranto in Pallanza, a must-see when visiting Lake Maggiore. I loved this combination of purple and orange/pink tulips.

Villa Taranto Gardens Pallanza Lake Maggiore

Villa Taranto Gardens Pallanza Lake Maggiore

Don’t tell anyone! Let’s keep this old village in the Piedmont region a secret. Well, it’s probably too late for that, but Orta San Giulio is a quiet and romantic treasure in the Italian lakes area. The town is situated on a hillside on the shores of Lake Orta, lesser-known than other lakes of northern Italy. Pictured below are colorful buildings with shops and restaurants on Piazza Motta.

Lake Orta Piemonte

Lake Orta Piemonte

 

Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua — our base in Lombardy

 

Mr. TWS and I have fond memories of the view pictured below from our private Tower Suite rooftop at the grand Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2016 Italian Capital of Culture, Mantua is well-known for its annual literary festival and is rich in history, the arts, and culture

 

 

Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua — our base in Lombardy

Mantova, Lombardy, view from Palazzo Castiglioni

Mantova, Lombardy, view from Palazzo Castiglioni

Mr. TWS and I have fond memories of the view pictured below from our private Tower Suite rooftop at the grand Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2016 Italian Capital of Culture, Mantua is well-known for its annual literary festival and is rich in history, the arts, and culture

Palazzo Castiglioni Mantova, the frescoed wall in the tower

Palazzo Castiglioni Mantova, the frescoed wall in the tower

We were fortunate to catch a rehearsal of a fantastic chorale group during a tour of beautiful Teatro Bibiena. The theater is one of the main venues of the Mantova Chamber Music Festival organized by the Mantua Chamber Orchestra. Of great historical note, Mozart performed his first solo concert on stage here at age 13. About the theater, his father wrote that he had never seen anything more beautiful of its kind

Bibiena-Theater Mantova Chamber Orchestra

 

Go ahead … have a taste. These were a few of the totally delicious specialties of Mantua that we had for lunch at Locanda delle Grazie in Curtatone — fruit (apples and pears) mustards, pumpkin ravioli, and Sbrisolona (a crunchy almond dessert). Lambrusco Mantovano, a local Lombardy DOC, paired perfectly

Locanda Delle Grazie Curtatone Mantova

Locanda Delle Grazie Curtatone Mantova

Elena 3 in Asolo — our base in Veneto

Beautiful Asolo! Pictured below is the panoramic vista of residential buildings against the backdrop of the Alpine foothills seen from Queen Cornaro’s Castle.

Asolo, Veneto

Asolo, Veneto

Having cappuccino and pastries at historic Caffè Centrale (pictured below) was a delightful ritual while in Asolo. Literary greats (and other notables) like Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and Robert Browning hung out in this very place in times past. Our lovely in-town apartment was on the 2nd floor (3rd in U.S. terms) above Caffè Centrale which faces the quaint Piazza Garibaldi with a lovely fountain, the cathedral, and a few small shops and restaurants

Asolo Caffè Centrale

Asolo Caffè Centrale

A beautiful side trip from Asolo took us to Prosecco wine country and a drive along the Prosecco Road. Inside the extensive underground tunnels beneath the Villa Sandi wine estate are a million bottles of aging wine (pictured below). There’s also interesting history here — the tunnels were used by the Italian military during World War I to get troops to and from the front line. Villa Sandi offers a great tour through the tunnels as well as the villa with a taste of their Prosecco Superiore

Villa Sardi winery

Villa Sandi winery

When visiting the lively town of Treviso, always be on the lookout for beautiful frescoes on the facades of buildings in the historic center. How beautiful is this? The historic city has many similarities to nearby (and much more famous Venice), which had considerable influence on Treviso style and architecture. It is very accessible as a day trip from nearby Asolo.

Treviso Veneto

Treviso Veneto

Torre Fantini in Tredozio — our base in Emilia-Romagna

Irises were in bloom at Torre Fantini, once a lookout tower, now a beautifully-restored cozy hillside villa, where we stayed in Tredozio. It’s a gorgeous setting with a spectacular view (one of our favorites anywhere) of hills covered with vineyards, fields, and woods. It is a very peaceful place for a relaxing stay. This was our second stay at Torre Fantini and we’d would love to return.

Tredozio Torre Fantini Garden

Tredozio Torre Fantini Garden

One of the many convenient and scenic side trips from Tredozio is the medieval town of Brisighella. In the photo below, the clock tower is seen from La Rocca. the ancient fortress on a nearby hilltop. I love the patches of clouds in the blue sky of this spring day, which enhanced the spectacular views in many directions from many observation points.

Brisighella

The bright sunshine highlights the pretty buildings of the historic center of Brisighella where the colorful facades follow the curvature of the ancient city walls.

Brisighella

Brisighella

I’ll close this series of photos with a little romance. I really like this photo of Mr. TWS (his first appearance on Instagram) and me (2nd time) in the ballroom of Villa La Collina, an elegant luxury holiday rental on a hilltop high above Tredozio. It was a memorable experience visiting the villa and meeting its lovely owner Contessa Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli (who is also seen in the photo). The contessa graciously provided a tour of the villa and gardens, and also a delicious lunch of local dishes

Tredozio Villa La Collina

Tredozio Villa La Collina

Disclosure: During our trip, our accommodations and activities were sponsored by EsteVillas and local hosts

Posted on May 6th 2016

Written by Catherine Sweeney  Travelling with Sweeney

Casa del Lago Lake Maggiore , Isola Bella , Locanda Le Grazie  Via S. Pio X, 2, Grazie MN, Italy tel +39 0376 348038

Palazzo Castiglioni Mantova , Mantova Chamber Orchestra,

Elena 3 Asolo, Caffè Centrale , Villa Sandi ,

Torre Fantini Tredozio , Villa La Collina Tredozio

Picture a stay in an elegant 16th-century Tuscan villa in the luxurious style of Renaissance nobility, but with all of today’s modern conveniences. Imagine a setting overlooking vineyards with views of majestic mountains. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? To that picture, add convenient access to the fascinating medieval city of Lucca and many top sites in the region and you have Villa Buonvisi, where Mr. TWS and I spent the second part of our Tuscany visit.

Buonvisi Estate, Lucca Tuscany

Buonvisi Estate, Lucca Tuscany

 

 

Driving along the road lined with vineyards and woods, I caught my first sight of the villa. There on a slight slope, Villa Buonvisi was perched, grandly overlooking the vineyard. We arrived at noon on a perfect sunny Saturday in May — the roses were in bloom and the only sound was the cheerful chirping of the birds.

 

Roses in bloom with a mountain backdrop on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Roses in bloom with a mountain backdrop on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

 

Walking on the red carpet to the entrance of the villa, I suddenly had the feeling that I should have been more elegantly attired – that perhaps Gucci would be more appropriate than Banana Republic. (I could picture walking up the red carpet from a horse-drawn carriage with a gorgeous Renaissance-style gown swirling around me, too.) My concern was diminished immediately by the warm greeting of our hostess, Gianna Dini, the owner of Villa Buonvisi. Gianna is very fashionable and chic, but her gracious hospitality made me feel completely at ease. She exudes a stylish flair which accompanied by her genuine warmth and sense of humor make her a joy to be around.

A tour of Villa Buonvisi

As we explored the grounds and rooms of the villa, Mr. TWS thought that he had stepped onto the opulent estate from Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon. He said he could picture the mid-18th century gentry and nobility moving around inside while the film’s theme song by Handel played. My first impressions of Villa Buonvisi were more associated with the music of the great composer of La Boheme, Turandot, and Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, who was born in Lucca in 1858.

The Villa

On the red carpet of Villa Buonvisi

On the red carpet of Villa Buonvisi

 

The villa, one of the largest in the area, was originally built in the 16th century by the wealthy Buonvisi family who had made their fortune in the silk trade, an industry in which Lucca had been famous. Gianna and her late husband Joseph bought the villa in 1992 and made extensive renovations to bring it to its current splendor with modern conveniences yet retaining elegant ambiance and historic features. It was a daunting task. The villa was in severe disrepair and there were certain restoration requirements because Villa Buonvisi is a registered historic landmark. But Gianna was determined and with her innate sense of design and style, she took on the challenge and accomplished her goal.

Much consideration went into the restoration with authenticity always in mind from the custom-made drapery to the period murals to the large exposed beams. Gianna took great care in choosing and customizing the interior decor, antique furnishings, and works of art to retain the villa’s singular period character. Gianna and Joseph lived in the villa with their two sons until opening it as a holiday rental in 2008.

High ceilings and large windows create open and bright spaces in the villa, such as those in the ground floor living room shown below.

IMG_1076-001

With 11 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, and ample living and dining areas, it’s perfect for weddings (ceremonies can be held on the property), family reunions, business retreats, and other group events. To accommodate additional guests in the party or to be rented separately are two apartments (where Mr. TWS and I stayed) in the renovated farmhouse adjacent to the villa.

On our first night at Buonvisi, Gianna invited us for dinner at the villa with her son Nicola, a certified pizza chef and wine connoisseur. We began with aperitivos in the wine cellar seated at a table surrounded by their impressive wine collection. Gianna and Nicola talked about their family history and stories of the villa’s interesting past which includes a secret passage in the wine cellar discovered during the renovations.

In the kitchen and formal dining room on the ground floor, our lively conversation about food, politics, festivals, and life in Lucca continued as Nicola prepared and served us a wonderful Tuscan meal.

Dining table set for our dinner being prepared by Nicola

Dining table set for our dinner being prepared by Nicola

Originally, the second floor bedrooms and salon were for nobility while the third floor housed the servants’ quarters. Now all of the rooms throughout the villa are luxuriously designed and appointed with fine furnishings.

 

Second floor salon and view from the Juliet balcony; one of the 2nd floor bedrooms

Second floor salon and view from the Juliet balcony; one of the 2nd floor bedrooms

A few of the tastefully and colorfully decorated bedrooms, each one unique, are shown in the photos.

Colorful and uniquely decorated bedrooms of Villa Buonvisi

Colorful and uniquely decorated bedrooms of Villa Buonvisi

There are many exquisite displays of art and antiques throughout the villa. The religious art in the servants’ quarters (such as the fresco below on the wall of the servant’s secret stairwell leading to the “noble floor”) was a reminder to the maids of their faith in an effort to dissuade any less-than-honorable activities with the guests. Of course, we don’t know if it actually worked.

Religious fresco in old servants’ quarters, art by Dini family friend, sculptor Ron Mehlman, and ornate antique table and mirror

Religious fresco in old servants’ quarters, art by Dini family friend, sculptor Ron Mehlman, and ornate antique table and mirror

On the third floor, there is a large playroom for kids with a pool table and other games. The room is also used for presentations and screenings.

The grounds

Sunshine and blue skies really added to the already amazing setting as we toured outdoors.

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

The estate’s 300 acres include olive groves, vineyards, gardens, a gated pool, tennis courts, and outdoor entertaining areas with a BBQ and pizza oven. I would like to take a walk sometime through the imposing stone gateway at the rear of the villa through the olive trees and up the hill behind.

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

The Vera apartments

From top right: Renovated farmhouse with Vera private apartments, Vera 3 dining and living area, one of three bedrooms in Vera 3, and lovely early morning view through bedroom window

From top right: Renovated farmhouse with Vera private apartments, Vera 3 dining and living area, one of three bedrooms in Vera 3, and lovely early morning view through bedroom window

We were very comfortable in our private apartment, Vera 3, spacious and lovely with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a dining/living area. There is a small private pool and patio for the Vera units.

City, countryside, and coastal experiences

With all that the villa has to offer, it can provide for a complete countryside holiday, but its location makes it convenient for touring other city and coastal areas of northern Tuscany.

Scenes of charming Lucca

We appreciated that Lucca’s city center was so accessible from Villa Buonvisi, just three miles away. With the guidance and recommendations of Gianna and Nicola, we saw highlights of this ancient city founded by the Etruscans and quickly fell in love with the town. The historic center is mostly pedestrian and bike traffic which really added to its appeal. Lucca was very much abuzz with locals and visitors as we walked around on this Sunday afternoon. In the summer months, it comes even more alive with festivals, such as the Lucca Summer Festival which brings big name headliners and the Lucca Comics and Games Festival. Gianna is an excellent ambassador for Lucca — proud, knowledgeable, and eager to show others her city.

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca

The oval-shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was the site of the ancient Roman amphitheater. As we entered through one of the four arched entrances, it was a lovely surprise with many cafes and restaurants.

Clockwise rom top left: Basilica di San Frediano, Duomo di San Martino, San Michele in Foro

Clockwise rom top left: Basilica di San Frediano, Duomo di San Martino, San Michele in Foro

Of the many churches that can be found in Lucca, on our walk we passed three that are the most notable in the city. Duomo di San Martino (above right) was built between the 12th and 13th centuries in Romanesque style with an intricately decorated marble facade. Puccini was a choirboy and played the organ here in his youth. Construction on the Basilica di San Frediano (top left above) was begun in the 12th century and in the 13th century was decorated with byzantine-style mosaic tiles mostly made with gold leaf that glows in the sunlight. San Michele in Foro (bottom left above) was built between the 12th and 14th centuries with a beautiful marble Romanesque facade and is topped with a statue of  St. Michael, the Archangel.

We got glimpses of Tower Guinigi at various points during the day, but didn’t have a chance to climb its 130 steps to the top where oak trees were planted by the Guinigi family to represent birth and renewal. Now one of the few remaining towers in the city, it’s interesting to note that when it was built in the 14th century, there were many of these structures on the Lucca skyline as a tower’s height was a reflection of a family’s prestige.

A glimpse of Tower Guinigi through the medieval buildings of Lucca; Statue of Puccini in front of the family home, now a museum

A glimpse of Tower Guinigi through the medieval buildings of Lucca; Statue of Puccini in front of the family home, now a museum

And of course, there is Puccini! Although we didn’t visit the family home which is now a museum with his musical scores and other memorabilia, we marked the moment by having a beverage at a cafe on Piazza Citadella near the bronze statue of Lucca’s native son.

Shoppers and browsers at one of the venues of the monthly Antiques Market; Taking an evening stroll along one of Lucca’s charming streets

Shoppers and browsers at one of the venues of the monthly Antiques Market; Taking an evening stroll along one of Lucca’s charming streets

Many locals do their shopping for food, wine, household goods and furnishings, clothing, and accessories in the city center. There are high-end designer shops and boutiques along the popular Via Fillungo, but many do their shopping at small and unique establishments that are individually or family-owned. We did a bit of window shopping and stopped in at Ottica Vogue to chat with Gianna’s lovely friend Andalusa and browse the glamorous eyeglasses. Of course, there are some stores that cater to tourists, but helping the city keep its character, they are not as prevalent as in other places.

Our timing was right to catch the antiques market which takes place the third weekend of each month. As we quickly browsed, we saw textiles, lamps, paintings, glassware, books, and many other collectibles.

There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars of all kinds in the piazzas and along the side streets for dining al fresco, people watching, and enjoying the company of friends.

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

At Osteria Miranda on Via dei Carrozzieri, a popular place with locals that comes highly recommended by Gianna. Our waiter (who is also a chef and owner of the restaurant) was friendly, the food was delicious, and the ambiance was very cozy and welcoming. Before dinner, we had aperitivos at a cleverly-themed cocktail bar, Franklin ’33, a nod to the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933 during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Music of the 1920s and 1930s and photos of celebrities of those days create a fun speakeasy atmosphere.

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

One of the most impressive features of Lucca are the still-intact ancient walls built in the 16th and 17th centuries with a 30-foot wide biking and pedestrian path on top. Mr. TWS and I rented bikes for an hour to ride all the way around twice. It was so much fun and quite beautiful with trees lining the path in many places. There were couples, families, and people of all ages biking, walking, stopping to talk, and looking at the sights. From vantage points around the path, there are great views of Lucca’s buildings, squares, parks, towers, and the countryside.

Day trips from Villa Buonvisi

Florence, Pisa, the quarries of the Apuan Alps, Viareggio and other sites in Tuscany are convenient for day trips from Villa Buonvisi

Florence, Pisa, the quarries of the Apuan Alps, Viareggio and other sites in Tuscany are convenient for day trips from Villa Buonvisi

In addition to having Lucca so close by, the villa’s location is ideal for sightseeing famous attractions, such as the cities of Pisa (8 miles) and Florence (45 miles). It’s also convenient for exploring other areas of Tuscany, some of which may surprise you as they did me. I never thought of Tuscany having beaches, yet it has a long coastline, the Versilian Riviera, on the Ligurian Sea with very popular beach resorts of Forte dei Marmi and the vibrant seaside city of Viareggio. I was especially taken with the rich art culture of Pietrasanta and the amazing marble quarries of the Apuan Alps where Michelangelo procured his white marble.

Quiet nights and sparks of light

On our final night on the Buonvisi estate, we were in our apartment when Nicola came to our door to tell us that the outside lights of the estate were going to be turned off to best see the fireflies that were swarming. My childhood memories include distinct recollections of chasing fireflies in our backyard in the Chicago area during the summers, but that was nothing compared to the thousands we saw this evening. Apparently, it is very common to see these swarms in Tuscany in early summer. We didn’t get any photos, so you’ll have to use your imagination to picture the vineyard completely aglow with tiny lights; trust me, it was a stunning sight.

I found a poem by Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) who was at a spa in Bagni di Lucca (about 20 miles from Villa Buonvisi), when he wrote this in the late 19th century:

… The fireflies, pulsing forth their rapid gleams, Are the only light That breaks the night…

And so it was this evening, as we lingered outside breathing in the fragrances of the Tuscan air, mesmerized by the flickering lights.

Villa Buonvisi at night

Villa Buonvisi at night

Walking along the lane in front of the villa with the stars above us was quite magical, actually – which is how I remember our stay at Villa Buonvisi — magical, elegant, and filled with wonderful activities and surprises.

Our thanks to Villa Buonvisi and EsteVillas for helping us to create our Lucca memories.

by Catherine Sweeney   Travelling with Sweeney

august 10 2015

 

Osteria Da Miranda Via Dei Carrozzieri 27, | 55100 Lucca, Italy tel +39 0583.952731 – Typical local restaurant with great local food. indoor / outdoor seating –  reservation necessary.

 

Ciclo Divino Via Michele Rosi 7, Lucca, Italy   tel +39 0583471869+39 0583471869 – Happy Hour : A bike shop that sells great wine and great food. essentially you get wine by the glass and small “bites” for 1 euro/piece or 10 for only 7/euro

 

Prospero via S Lucia 13 Lucca – Local food tasting at Prospero, an extremely ancient and typical grain shop

 

Franklin Via San Giorgio,43, 55100, Italy tel +39 328 4677416+39 328 4677416 – Happy Hour

 

Dining al fesco at La Fattoria in Tuscany

Dining al fesco at La Fattoria in Tuscany

Alice’s words nicely summarize many of the highlights of our first Tuscany visit. Tuscan hospitality, lifestyle, flavors, and scenery came together for us many times throughout our stay in the region. I really like when the last day of a visit to a place positively reaffirms the impressions you’ve gotten during the rest of the trip and that’s exactly what happened during the final day of our Tuscany tour. We especially savored many aspects of the essence of Tuscany with Dizzi Alfons, owner of the luxury villa, La Fattoria and our guide Alice Dami, whose culinary talents were also a highlight of our day.

But before we take you to lunch, let’s sample some of the flavors and freshness introduced to us by Alice to on our way to La Fattoria from Lucca, through the countryside and villages of Lucca province. This rural area is rich in agriculture — vineyards, olive groves, and farms producing many of the fresh products we enjoyed during our stay in Tuscany.

Wine and high spirits

We began at Enoteca Vino e Convivio, a family-owned wine and food shop located in the village of Guamo, just a few miles from Lucca’s city center. Not only did we get to see a place where locals shop, but we were treated with the hospitality of husband and wife owners Giovanni and Giuseppina and buyer and wine consultant Lido, who first offered us coffee and then showed us around the relatively new shop (having moved from their original location of many years).

Indulging in Italian meats, cheeses, and Chianti while enjoying laughs and conversation at Enoteca Vino e Convivio with Alice, Lido, and Giuseppina

Indulging in Italian meats, cheeses, and Chianti while enjoying laughs and conversation at Enoteca Vino e Convivio with Alice, Lido, and Giuseppina

 

The walls of each of the four rooms were lined with shelves holding fine wines from around the world (primarily Italy and France), spirits, and local foods. The counter in the main entry room displays typical Italian meat specialties and Italian and French cheeses. There’s something for everyone, even vegetarians like Mr. TWS. Each room had a table and chairs for guests to relax, enjoy a glass of wine, and talk to friends in a comfortable setting. Their open hours are on the Vino e Convivio website, and I found it fun that it notes that the food section is closed on Saturdays from 3.30 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. because “Giuseppina needs to rest!!!”

It was still morning when our friendly and generous hosts served us assorted Italian hams and cheeses accompanied by one of the region’s signature Chianti Classico vintages. It was a great way to start our last day, and I thought it would take nothing to get me used to la dolce vita of Tuscany.

Getting fresh

From Enoteca Vino e Convivio we headed to another small village, Pieve di Compito, to visit Frantoio Sociale del Compitese, a cooperative of over 1000 olive oil producers that includes an olive mill and market.

Legumes and vegetables, Canestrino heirloom tomatoes, olive mill tour with Elisa

Legumes and vegetables, Canestrino heirloom tomatoes, olive mill tour with Elisa

We took a short tour of the olive mill, although it was not running since it wasn’t harvest season. As we learned in other parts of Tuscany and during our Provence trip in December, olive production was devastated last year by an insect that destroyed nearly all of this part of Mediterranean Europe’s olive crop.

We also got an insider’s look at another place where the locals shop for the best of fresh produce, pasta, honey, cheese, and other staples of Italian cuisine. We saw a steady stream of local shoppers, most of whom seemed to be regulars knowing exactly what they needed and quickly making their purchases. I was craving a taste of the Canestrino tomatoes, a type of heirloom tomato distinctive in the Lucca area.

Glorious gelato

When in Italy, you must have gelato, and we were pleased to watch the process and sample the sumptuous offerings at what is said to be one of the best gelaterias in Tuscany at Pappagrappa.

 

Freshly-made chocolate gelato, cones and specialty desserts at Pappagrappa

Freshly-made chocolate gelato, cones and specialty desserts at Pappagrappa

 

Owner and gelato-maker Marco uses only the freshest ingredients in his organic approach. He says that his key objective in starting the company 14 years ago was to use only the best ingredients, and whenever possible, local products, such as sheep’s milk and fruit from nearby farms.  For other ingredients, he selects the best from other places known worldwide for having the very finest, such as pistachios from Sicily and chocolate from Ecuador. It was the first time we’d seen someone making waffle cones manually and at Pappagrappa they are handmade fresh on site every day. The care in the selection of ingredients and preparation certainly showed in the finished product — the gelato was delicious.

Relaxing at the villa

Ready for lunch and eager to see La Fattoria, an EsteVillas holiday rental property, we turned off the main road outside of Pieve di Compito toward this beautifully restored 17th-century farmhouse. Tucked away down a narrow gravel road surrounded by woods and gardens, La Fattoria gives guests a feeling of luxurious seclusion while restaurants, shopping, and attractions are within easy reach.

La Fattoria

La Fattoria

Having already met the villa’s owner, Dizzi Alfons, by chance at Pappagrappa earlier (he was buying dessert for our lunch), we already felt like friends as we were warmly greeted by him at the house

Alice happily at work preparing lunch in the sunny, spacious La Fattoria kitchen

Alice happily at work preparing lunch in the sunny, spacious La Fattoria kitchen

While Alice got busy in the villa’s large and bright kitchen, Dizzi took us to the covered patio to talk and sample his homemade elderberry juice drink (made with elderberry flowers, water, sugar, lemons, lemon peel, mint, a little tonic) — a totally refreshing concoction. Alice had also prepared for us Olives Ascolane (stuffed olives lightly breaded and fried) as an antipasto. They were so tasty that if I hadn’t wanted to save room for lunch, I would have devoured them all.

Olives Ascolane and elderberry juice on the garden patio at La Fattoria

Olives Ascolane and elderberry juice on the garden patio at La Fattoria

Dizzi, an Austrian who fell in love with Tuscany many years ago, spoke of his background in the fashion industry, his travels, and how he came to acquire this lovely property. His enthusiasm and sincere appreciation of Tuscany were similar to sentiments I heard often during our visit, whether from lifelong Tuscans or those from other places who had made the region their home. It was a treat to be sipping our drinks on this warm, sunny day in this idyllic setting with a backdrop of the villa’s grassy knolls and flowering gardens. I warned Dizzi that it might be difficult to get us to leave!

Dining al fresco

What could be better than dining al fresco in Tuscany with a meal prepared by our own cook? Alice says that the bounty of fresh ingredients available in Tuscany inspires her cooking, and she uses only the freshest, locally-sourced ingredients. We felt very fortunate to sample her creations at La Fattoria, dining on the terrace with Dizzi.

La Fattoria’s outdoor dining terrace

La Fattoria’s outdoor dining terrace

 

Alice talked about the key to Tuscan dishes — their simplicity, relying on fresh, local ingredients from trusted suppliers, such as the extra virgin olive oil she buys from local mills.

Our delicious lunch, burrata cheese with anchovies and cherry tomatoes followed by fresh egg pasta with asparagus, was topped off with a delectable assortment of gelato flavors. We were so eager to indulge that we forgot to take photos of the dessert!

Lunch prepared by Alice Dami at La Fattoria: Fresh egg pasta with asparagus, burrata with cherry tomatoes and anchovies

Lunch prepared by Alice Dami at La Fattoria: Fresh egg pasta with asparagus, burrata with cherry tomatoes and anchovies

Alice was right when she said, “If you cook, you’ll make others happy. If you cook, people will remember you.” But I know that we will also remember Alice for her excellent guidance, enthusiasm, and vibrant personality.

As we relished the afternoon, our conversation with Dizzi and Alice was lively and informative, covering topics such Italian colloquialisms, life in Tuscany, tips about Rome (which was our next destination) and amusing personal stories. Dizzi and Alice were so warm and made us feel so comfortable with them. It was characteristic of the many people we met on our visit.

The look of luxury

Before leaving, we toured the rooms of the villa — six bedrooms, four bathrooms, living areas, and kitchen which were all restored in 2012. I loved the décor that seamlessly combined the original architecture and antiques with contemporary furniture and decorations, highlighting aspects of the historic villa while offering modern comfort.

The lovely décor of and views from the rooms of La Fattoria

The lovely décor of and views from the rooms of La Fattoria

As we explored the bright, colorful and tastefully decorated interior, I was thinking about which of the six bedrooms would be my favorite. Each room, including the spacious bathrooms, had a warm ambiance and lovely pastoral views of the grounds, beautiful flora, the hills and countryside.

Enjoying the cheery sitting room in La Fattoria

Enjoying the cheery sitting room in La Fattoria

As we went room to room, Mr. TWS and I could easily imagine staying there with a group of family and friends. What fun that would be!

The pool at La Fattoria

The pool at La Fattoria

The pool situated in a large expanse of lawn just above the villa was tempting on this warm day in May, especially for Mr. TWS who loves being in the water.

 

The villa has a private chapel on the premises that adds to its appeal and I think would be great if celebrating a small wedding or wedding anniversary. Now that’s an idea for another reason to return.

Arrivederci La Fattoria and Tuscany!

We said our goodbyes to Alice and Dizzi making our way along the garden path to our car, taking several glances back and wondering when we might come back to hike, bike, eat, drink, relax and soak up more of the fresh essence of Tuscany.

The chapel at La Fattoria

The chapel at La Fattoria

Grazie to EsteVillas, Dizzi Alfons, and Alice Dami for making our last day in Tuscany so special.

Take a look at the EsteVillas website for details and booking information for La Fattoria and other properties in their collection. Mention “Traveling with Sweeney” and you’ll get a discount based on the length and location of your stay!

Travelling with Sweeney

Posted by Catherine Sweeney on june 15 2015
Villa la Fattoria Lucca countryside
Alice Dami  guide and cook in Lucca
Vino e Convivio wineshop Via di Coselli, 6, 55012 Lucca LU
Frantoio Sociale Campitese Via di Tiglio, 609, Provincia di Lucca
Pappagrappa, via Sottomonte  Massa malcinaia Capannori Lucca

 

Restaurants  Lake Maggiore

Restaurants Lake Maggiore

You know the trusted friends you call  when you need a restaurant reccomendation? That’s us.

 


 

Close to Arona

  • Aldo Piazza Del Popolo 32,|  28041, Arona –NO – tel  +39 0322-243195 –  Right on the city square, excellent pizza. Remind to  reserve in advance (25/30 € pp cl Mon)

 

  • Antico Verbano S.S. del Sempione, 62 | P.zza Marconi, 28046 Meina –NO tel +39 0322 65718. Lovely setting by the lake and great food (35/40 € pp cl Mon.)

 

  • Il Castagneto Via Gianni Vignola, 14  | 28041 Montrigiasco di Arona-  NO tel +39 0322 57201 .  A traditional Piemontese countryside family-run restaurant, located  at the top of Montrigiasco, a little known village, on the outskirts of Arona. Excellent food, great wine , helpful and friendly staff  and reasonnable prices. (35/40 € pp cl Mon.)

 

  • Hostaria La Speranza  via alla cartiera 11, |  Solcio di Lesa , No-  tel +39 032 277803 – A great dining experience  There is no menu, Fabrizia the owner  guides you through the menu. (70/80 € pp cl Wedn)

 

  • Lo Squero  Via Novara 302, | 28078 Romagnano Sesia, tel  +39 0163 834961 – One of the best seafood restaurant I have ever tasted.  Not easy to find. Worth a detour. Better  avoid the weekend (40/45 € cl Mon & Tues )

 

  • Serenella : Via Quarantadue Martiri, 5 , Feriolo – Baveno tel +39 0323.28112 . Cold and warm  buffet, homemade ravioli of duck, risotti, lake and sea fish, mushrooms and truffles in autumn . (45/50 €)

 

 

 

 

We are not professional food critics. Our opinions are based upon our personal tastes.

You know the trusted friends you call  when you need a restaurant reccomendation? That’s us.

 

 

  • Osteria Da Miranda Via Dei Carrozzieri 27, | 55100 Lucca, Italy tel +39 0583.952731 – Typical local restaurant with great local food. indoor / outdoor seating –  reservation necessary.

 

 

  • Osteria Pasqualino Gubitosa- Mondovino- Via del moro 8| 55100 Lucca – The passion for good wine and good food. Cl.Tuesday

 

  • Trattoria Baffardello Via Nuova per Pisa 1029 | 55100 S. Michele in Escheto, Lucca, tel +39 0583 379319 mobile +39 338 3350905 –  Great seafood restaurant right outside Lucca

 

  • Enoteca Vino e Convivio Via di Coselli, 4/6 | Guamo, 55060 Capannori, tel +39 0583 403573 – A winery, 3000 different wines and champagne, 4 rooms, 4 tables,

 

  • Ciclo Divino Via Michele Rosi 7, Lucca, Italy   tel +39 0583471869 – Happy Hour : A bike shop that sells great wine and great food. essentially you get wine by the glass and small “bites” for 1 euro/piece or 10 for only 7/euro

 

  • Prospero via S Lucia 13 Lucca – Local food tasting at Prospero, an extremely ancient and typical grain shop

 

  • Franklin Via San Giorgio,43, 55100, Italy tel +39 328 4677416 – Happy Hour
Manota Palazzo Te : Room of the Giants

Manota Palazzo Te : Room of the Giants

By  Eileen Ogintz

  • Published January 09, 2015· FoxNews.com

 

After all, I’m staying in a palace — the Palazzo Castiglioni, which dates back to the Renaissance, located right across the piazza from the 500-room Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Italy.

Where? That was my reaction when Kit Burns, whose company Doorways specializes in booking villa vacations to Italy, suggested we spend a few days in the palazzo that has been owned by the same family since the Renaissance, in a city just 40 minutes from Verona. (If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll know this is where Romeo came to buy the poison.)

Today you won’t find that many tourists here, but you will find the quintessential Italian experience — restaurants spilling out onto cobblestoned piazzas, locals starting their morning with a cafe, the weekly market that takes over the entire Piazza Sordello (we see it from our window) selling everything from socks to cheese and sausage. During the Renaissance, we learn, Mantua was famous for its music, art and the powerful Gonzaga family. I’m so glad we’re here but we nearly missed the opportunity. Burns acknowledges that suggesting visitors stop here can be a hard sell when there are so many more famous sites to see in Italy, but that makes Mantua (Mantova in Italian) all the more special. “It’s hard to find a place that’s off the beaten track in Italy,” Burns said. “Here you can immerse yourself in what was and what is.” Without tripping over other tourists, she adds.

skyline 2

At one time, Mantua rivaled Florence for its art. But sadly, the Austrians and then Napoleon stole much of it. There’s still amazing architecture and frescoes like the Camera Picta painted room in the Ducal Palace with huge wall paintings by Andrea Mantegna. There’s the amazing Biblena Theater where Mozart played as a young teen; In June, there is a music festival where chamber musicians play short pieces in the ancient rooms of the Ducal Palace.

I was nervous suggesting Mantua to the extended family traveling with us, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought. The stop turned out to be a high point of the trip. We met Guido, Luisa and their father, Baldesar Castiglioni, whose family own the Palazzo Castiglioni where we stayed (a portrait of their ancestor by Raphael hangs in the Louvre right near the Mona Lisa). There are also impromptu pasta-making lessons in a tiny restaurant outside of town, the local Sbrisolona traditional tart, amazing frescoes in the Palazzo Te, the pleasure palace Federico II Gonzaga, a young duke, built for himself with the help of Raphael’s top pupil Giulio Romano, to get away from his mother — some things never change!

Most important, unlike other Italian cities packed with tourists and cruise passengers, the locals were genuinely glad to see us and show us their city. That’s why in 2015 I’m going to aim to get off the tourist track more — and I encourage all of you to do so as well. Of course, when you let the kids lead the way you always go in new and unexpected directions.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always find a hidden gem — like Mantua — but when you do, you remember why you’re traveling in the first place — to get out of your comfort zone and share something new with those you love most and, of course, eat great food!

Locanda Le Grazie Mntova

Locanda Le Grazie Mntova

“Come see our pasta maker,” said Daniela Bellintani, who with her husband, Fernando, owns the charming La Locanda delle Grazie in the village of Grazie just a few miles outside of Mantua. The pasta maker turned out to be Chef Fernando and three smiling young men who were happy to show us how they make the local specialties — the pumpkin ravioli, which we happily sample along with pasta with homemade duck ragout, an assortment of local salamis and ham and local Lambrusco wine.

“My father says if you don’t share your recipes, they just die with you,” says Anita Aldighieri, the couple’s daughter, explaining their plan to offer cooking classes, including those for families who will want to visit the Santa Maria del Grazie church. This is a church like none other you’ll visit — and one the kids will remember most. Even before the church was built in the 15th century, pilgrims came to pray for miracles. You’ll see the strangest statues of those whose prayers were heard — a man fished out of a well; another who couldn’t be hanged when a beam broke. Perhaps the strangest and what kids love most is the embalmed crocodile hanging from the ceiling that’s at least 500 years old.

 

Daniela Bellintani Le Grazie Restaurant

Daniela Bellintani Le Grazie Restaurant

 

Every August, thousands make a pilgrimage of a different sort here for a unique festival during which artists from around the world are chosen to create chalk paintings on 10-by-10-foot squares of pavement about something that relates to the miracle-making Madonna.

 

Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

The Castiglioni family — Luisa owns a villa rental management company in Italy — has turned a few rooms of their palazzo into the most unique inn I’ve ever seen. (Think sleeping in a palace room — there is even one with an ancient fresco on the wall — but with all the modern conveniences and breakfast, starting at under $200 a night.) While they don’t want their city overrun with tourists, they certainly would like more people to discover its charms — like the Palazzo Te, which is considered one of the great Renaissance palaces.

Kids love the Hall of Horses with life-sized paintings of some of the young duke’s favorites from the 1520 and the astounding Chamber of the Giants with paintings that cover the walls and ceilings, telling the story of the fall of the giants who tried to climb Mount Olympus. When a big fire was going in this room, we’re told, with light playing on the walls, it was like a Renaissance 4-D experience.

It’s pretty great in the 21st century, too.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver

 

Where :  Mantua / Mantova  Lombardy Italy – Milano  189km/117ml ; Venice 159 km/85km

Palazzo Castiglioni www.palazzocastiglionimantova.com

Palazzo Te  http://www.palazzote.it/ viale Te 13 Mantova  Italy
Palazzo Ducale piazza Sordello 40 Mantova

Locanda delle Grazie

Address: Via San Pio X, 2, Grazie MN
Phone: +39 0376 348038