Tag Archives: Italy


The Italian job, inspirational ancient architecture in Rome, Tuscany, and Venice

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The Italian job, inspirational ancient architecture in Rome, Tuscany, and Venice

Anyone with even a passing interest in construction and architecture can’t help but be blown away by the magnificent, gorgeous structures built by the ancient Romans and then later during the Renaissance. So join us on a photo tour of Rome, Florence, Venice, and the Tuscan countryside.


1) Colosseum Interior

Covering six acres of prime Roman real estate, the tiered seating area was originally shaded with awnings. At 50 metres high, it’s equivalent to a modern 16-storey building. The word “arena” is Latin for sand, a convenient floor covering to soak up all the blood and sweat from the gladiators. The sandcovered wooden floor could be removed and the arena flooded to stage naval battles. Much of the original metal and stone building materials were later pilfered and used in nearby medieval building projects, including churches and palaces. An earthquake in 1349 caused much of the southern wall to collapse.

2) Pantheon Exterior

By far, one of the most imposing and impressive buildings in Rome has to be the Pantheon. Originally built as a Roman temple in 27 BC to honour all (“pan”) the gods (“theos”), it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD. The brick exterior shell is filled with poured concrete – a Roman invention.

3) Vatican Mosaics

While the Vatican houses some of the world’s greatest art treasures – including Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam as part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – I was (pardon the pun) floored by the vibrant, three-dimensional effects on these ancient mosaics.

4) Egyptian Obelisks

There are 13 Egyptian obelisks scattered around Rome, brought from Egypt by various Italian leaders over the centuries. They’re typically mounted on top of a sculpture or fountain, and capped with a Christian cross. This one, in Piazza del Minerva just behind the Pantheon, was erected by Pope Alexander VII in 1667.

5) Pantheon Dome

The jaw-dropping domed ceiling is precisely 142′-wide from side to side and 142′-high from floor to ceiling. At the base, the walls are a 20′-thick mix of concrete and stone. The ceiling is thinner, less than five-feet thick, and includes lightweight volcanic pumice in the mix. The 30′-diameter opening at the top, the “oculus,” is the building’s only natural light source. The floors are sloped down towards drain holes for rainy days.

6) Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

All that remains of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine today are three vaulted arches that formed the north end of an enormous building that was originally more than 300′-long and 200′-feet wide, with a ceiling more than 100′-high in the central knave. This government office is where homebuilders of the day would have lined up to apply for building permits.

7) Colosseum Exterior

Of all the ancient marvels remaining around the world, the partially ruined Colosseum in Rome is probably the most instantly identifiable. Completed in 80 AD, it was originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. The stadium built for epic gladiator battles – and using early Christians as lion food – could hold up to 50,000 spectators. The more recognized name is thought to come from a colossal statue of Emperor Nero that once stood on the site.

8) Construction Hoarding

While under renovation, this Roman building – and many others undergoing repair – was draped in a screened hoarding harking back to the structure’s glory days.

Florence and Tuscany

1) Agriturismo Farmhouse

Our home base in Tuscany was Podera la Castellina, an agriturismo or farm property that rents out rooms. The building was first constructed as a convent in the 13th century. In 1504, the property was converted to a farm by a wealthy local family. At one point, the two-storey structure was used as a barn, with the farmers’ family living upstairs and the animals penned on the lower level.

2) Ponte Vecchio

The Romans were the first to build a bridge at this narrow stretch of the Arno River, and there are records of several subsequent bridges built, then washed away by flooding over the centuries. The original Ponte Vecchio was built around 1000 AD. It’s somewhat unique in that it is lined with storefronts, housing butchers in medieval times, jewellers selling to well-heeled tourists today.

3) Roman Ruins in Voltera

Of course Italy is literally littered with Roman ruins, including this theatre at the base of the wall around Voltera in the Pisa region.

4) Orvieto Cathedral

While the Vatican in the most-sought out church on an Italian holiday – though Vatican City is technically an independent City State wholly within Rome – there are countless other postcard-worthy churches to visit in the country, including the cathedral in Orvieto, constructed between 1290 and 1607.

5) Laneway in Sienna

One of my favourite things to do when visiting olde European cities is to aimlessly wander along the narrow laneways. The only thing slowing you down is the urge to constantly stop and take photos. At the end of a T-junction in Siena, I looked right to see these charming stone archways, the left as I headed uphill under this exposed beam walkway.

6) Florence Cathedral

The cathedral in Florence, clad in green, pink, and white marble, is better known as the Duomo for its impressive domed ceiling. The dome’s architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, studied the Pantheon in Rome to understand how to cover the opening at the top of the church.

7) Gratuitous Family Selfie

The Britnell-Malik family, posing in front of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The upper level includes part of passageway known as the Vasari Corridor that the powerful Medicis would use to cross the Arno from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti without having to mix with the peasants crossing the bridge.


1) Venice Rooftop Deck

With no backyards to speak of in most Venetian homes, if you want a deck, you put it on the roof. While they look a little precarious, they’d certainly offer spectacular views.

2)Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute overlooks the eastern end of the Grand Canal. There are more than 170 Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance-era buildings lining the two-mile long canal, constructed between the 13th and 18th centuries.

3) Da Vinci Museum

There’s a unique museum in Venice that houses working models of 60 different machines designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, including wooden ball bearings, the first flywheel, a self-supporting bridge, a parachute, glider, and various pieces of military equipment.

4) Venice by Gondola

Yes, taking a gondola ride is a clichéd touristy thing to do. It’s also not cheap – about $120 for a half-hour tour. But you know what they say: When in Rome. Er, Venice. Travel tip: Avoid the traffic-clogged Grand Canal. Instead, find a gondolier who’ll serenade you on a route through some of the narrower waterways.

5) Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge is the oldest and most famous of four bridges that span the Grand Canal. The stone bridge was completed in 1591, permanently replacing earlier wooden structures. Today, it’s lined with shops catering to the hordes of tourists.

6) Laundry Day in Venice

Electricity is prohibitively expense in Italy and only the largest palaces in Venice have enclosed yards, so clotheslines are strung across the narrow streets.

7) St. Mark’s Square

The Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, covers about three acres, all built on top of wooden pilings driven deep into the soil below. It’s barely above sea level so the square is frequently flooded. The original bell tower collapsed in 1902, but was rebuilt 10 years later.

8) DHL Delivery

While Venice’s 118 islands are all linked by more than 400 bridges, everything has to be brought in – and out – of the city by boat, including garbage and recycling. The city has a fleet of floating buses for residents and tourists to get around.


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Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

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Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

By Marc Atchison

GUARENE, ITALY — I swing open the large shuttered windows of my palatial Castello di Guarene suite and there, under a cobalt blue sky, Italy’s legendary Piedmont wine region spreads out in all directions.

The handsome sandstone castle’s elevated position allows me a bird’s eye view of the lush valley below and the patchwork quilt of vineyards that make this one of the world’s great wine producers.

The surrounding UNESCO-protected hills where the famed Piedmont wines are produced — Barolo and Barbaresco being the best known globally — are covered with a fine dusting of freshly fallen snow. The vines that only a few months ago were flush with fruit have been stripped bare by the winter winds that constantly whip through the fertile valley. Off in the distance, the snow-covered Alps — France and Switzerland lie just north of charming Guarene — billow up on the horizon like large mounds of meringue.

What a magical sight.
The valley is also dotted with lots of small red-roofed villages, each with its own ancient watchtower and castle. None, though, is quite as beautiful or prominent as the Castello di Guarene.

Built in 1726 by an aristocratic family from nearby Turin — the industrial hub of northern Italy and host of the 2006 Winter Olympics — Castello di Guarene flourishes today as an exquisite 5-star Relais & Châteaux hotel where guests come to enjoy the scenery, fine dining experiences — there are many Michelin star restaurants in the area — and sip the vintages produced from the Nebbiolo grape, which thrives in Piedmont’s rich soil.

The 30-room property — a miniature version of Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame — was bought by two local industrialists five years ago and then closed for three years during a massive renovation where it was brought up to 21st-century standards. The results are nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider none of the castle’s original stately charm was compromised in the modernization. In fact, 80 per cent of the original 18th-century furnishings remain in the rooms and public areas. However, each of the 15 guest rooms now features modern bathrooms that are wrapped in white Italian marble. Satellite TV and free WiFi keep guests connected to the modern world while enjoying ancient pleasures like canopied beds and walls draped in delicate fabric. The 18th-century silk wall coverings used throughout the castle were imported from China at the time and during renovation were removed, cleaned and replaced. The results have to be seen to be appreciated.

For generations, the Reoro family occupied the 30-room manner house. It was the life-long dream of Count Giacinto Reoro of Guaene, an industrialist and amateur architect, who sadly died before the castle was completed. His sons, Traiano and Teodoro, finished what their father started and the Italian gardens they laid out around the castle in the first half of the 18th century have bloomed into one of Europe’s most impressive. The house was later sold to another prominent Piedmont family before becoming one of Italy’s most sought-after accommodation.

I’m instantly impressed upon arrival at Castello di Guaene. A long sweeping driveway leads me to the main entrance, where high-end cars bearing licence plates from privileged places like Monaco are parked.

Once I push open the massive wooden door guarding the three-storey castle I’m awed by a stunning double staircase filled with a giant Bohemian crystal chandelier. It leads to the Salon of Honour on the first floor, where important guests were received. The salon is dominated by an enchanting chandelier made of fine coloured Murano glass. Off the Salon of Honour, hotel guests can explore the museum, a remarkable library filled with 300-year-old books and transcripts and a picture gallery featuring lots of original art — many are portraits of the kings, princes, ladies and knights who visited the family in ancient times.

There are over 200 crystal chandeliers hanging throughout the spacious castle hotel, along with countless paintings and frescoes.

The main floor has a small reception area that flows into a large, cozy lobby filled with a giant fireplace, a unique red brick arched ceiling and lots of overstuffed furniture where guests gather for drinks and to socialize.

The Castello di Guarene’s gourmet restaurant, Vele, also resides on the main floor and features an escape route — it’s not for guests trying to duck out on the check, though. Fearing invaders, the count included a long escape tunnel in the original design. While it apparently was never used by the Reoros, it gets plenty of use today because it connects the hotel’s amazing grotto swimming pool that’s bathed in colourful recessed lighting with the property’s compact but impressive spa, staffed by highly-trained therapists.

The main floor also features a small billiards room, a lovely little bar and a cute bistro restaurant — the castle’s original kitchen —that’s used when the main dining room is closed.

While each of the 15 guest rooms is unique in its own right, there are several that stand out from the rest in grandeur and are always in high demand. A perfect example of that is the sublime Castle Luxury Room named after the count’s father, Andrea Traiano. Located on the third floor, the Traiano Room’s main feature is a white arch that runs from one side of the spacious suite to the other. Fine Chinese fabrics dating back to the 1700s and silk velvet draperies adorn the room’s impressive four-poster bed.

Another highly sought-after room is the one named after Vittoria di Revello, whose family bought the castle from the Reoros. The room is wrapped in warm red fabric and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, named after the Roero family, and the far-off Alps.

The Bishop’s Room, which was intended to be Count Reoro’s bedroom, features a priceless Bandera fabric bed and the room’s furniture is covered in multi-coloured wool embroidery, which was inherited by the count from his cousin, the Bishop of Alba, the nearest city to Guarene.

One of the main activities of guests staying at Castello di Guarene is to visit the area’s many wineries for tastings, or to pull up a chair at one of the area’s famed restaurants which have earned Michelin stars.

There’s even a wine route through the Langhe and Roero hills — separated by the Tanaro River — that takes you through the small villages, rolling vineyards and thick woods that make up this idyllic area of Italy. Oh, and the Alps are never out of sight.

Because this wine region gets less traffic than Tuscany, the winding roads are less travelled and accommodation is plentiful. Three wineries experts say you must visit to truly appreciate the products produced here which are the Manzone vineyard, maker of the best Barolo in Italy; the Ca’ del Baio estate, where Barbaresco, considered the poor cousin of Barolo is produced — it’s actually velvety in taste and really quite good; and the large traditional wineries run by Adriana Marzi and Roberto Bruno, where the art of wine making has changed little over the centuries.

While exploring the area’s wine region, you’ll come across plenty of small restaurants and trattorias where nona (grandma) still rules the kitchen, but there are 39 — at last count — Michelin star restaurants within driving distance of Guaene and, unlike their big city cousins, these gourmet rooms are affordable.

One of the highlights of my trip was a table the Castillo di Guarene staff reserved for me at the one-star Michelin Massimocamia Restorante in nearby La Morra, on Alba Road.

Chef Massimo Camia, a delightful man with a moonbeam face and an infectious smile, serves up classical dishes that are among the best this traveller has ever enjoyed. The taste of his veal cheek smothered in a Barolo reduction and the green ravioli pasta he infuses with pesto still linger on my tongue weeks after my visit.

Castillo di Guarene will treat you like royalty when you visit Piedmont.


  • Guarne is in the Piedmont wine region and is a 90 minute drive from Turin.
  • The best way to get to Turin from Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary is with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines via Amsterdam.
  • There are over 30 Michelin star restaurants in the Piedmont area and each tries to outdo the other with fabulous dishes using local farm-to-table ingredients. Staff at the Castello di Guarene will be more than happy to recommend one that suits your palette.
  • There are many wine tours available of the fabulous Piedmont vineyards. The best time to visit is in late fall at harvest time but winter, when rates are low, is a great value.
  • Rates at the Castello di Guarene start around $500 a night but the experience is priceless. For more information on Castello di Guarene and to see rates, go to https://www.castellodiguarene.com/

Marc Atchison — a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller — is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/


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Travel : Matera – Italy’s medieval city of biblical impressions

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Travel : Matera – Italy’s medieval city of biblical impressions

Photograpy, Murray Sye

We’re standing in a trance-like state, perched on an elevated plateau. Our eyes scan the tumbling grey stone facade that envelopes us like a backdrop to a movie set. Below us, lies an eerie, urban landscape of some 1,500 cave dwellings that flank a steep ravine, which descends deep below us.


There’s a reason why the movie The Passion of the Christ was filmed here. Matera has played a prominent role in several religious-related films, serving as a stand-in for ancient Jerusalem. It’s hard not to gasp when you first see Matera for yourself – it evokes far-reaching images, and feelings.

We’ve encountered many of Italy’s take-your-breath-away moments during our travels, like Amalfi, Cinque Terre, and Venice, to name a few. But, and I stress the ‘but’, we have never seen anything like Matera.

This medieval town is ensconsed in Italy’s remote southern region of Basilicata – famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts. Many people think that Matera’s cave dwellings are called ‘sassi’. They’re not. The word sassi literally means ‘stones’, which refers to the two neighborhoods of stone dwellings in this ancient town.


These two districts fill a narrow valley that run along the side of a large gorge. The Sasso Barisano, the heart of the sassi, is on the north side, and a portion of this area has been commercially developed. The Sasso Caveoso, on the south side, is historically interesting. It was once the poorest part of the sassi, and is still largely abandoned. You can wander through uninhabited caves and get a sense of what it was like to live here thousnds of years ago. The streets, in some parts of the sassi, often run on top of other houses.

The once-fortified acropolis of the town, the Civita, rises from the the dividing valleys. You can visit the dome, which as built in the 13th century in Romanesque style, on the Civita hill. The Civita dates back to medieval times and is considered to be the first human settlement in the city. Below the Civita, but above the sassi, is the Piano – the postmedieval Old Town, beyond which stands the contemporary Matera.


If you haven’t heard of Matera, you’re not alone. It’s only since the 1980’s that this historic city has been gaining in popularity due to word-ofmouth, as its off-the-beaten tourist track. In 1993 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has also helped to boost interest.

The best way to see Matera’s sassi, is to wander on foot. Cars are limited in the city, so I’ll caution you now, you’ll do a lot of walking. Climbing up and down stairs are prerequisites to getting anywhere, so be prepared to give your Fitbit a workout. Tight, twisting alleyways, uneven staircases, courtyards and vistas that lead to abrupt about-turns, as well as dead-ends, are a common occurrence.


To say that Matera is picturesque is an understatement. If you’re a photo nut like I am, your camera will be on overdrive. Everywhere you look begs to be captured. A labyrinth of lanes, contorted alleys and stairs wind their way up, and down, through neighborhoods of cave dwellings – many of which are now occupied by B&B’s, luxury hotels, restaurants, boutique shops, museums and beautiful churches.


If Italy is on your bucket list, I’d highly recommend you take a few days to discover this fascinating 15th century relic for yourself.

Follow Mary and Murray Sye’s travels on instagram.com/ciaomary/ and CiaoMary.com


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