Tag Archives: Tuscany


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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Cover Story : Debbie Travis Living Her Dream

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Cover Story : Debbie Travis Living Her Dream

by Fay Splett

To most people in Canada, Debbie Travis is a household name. We were first introduced to her through her instructional painting videos, books and a hit television series called Debbie Travis’ Painted House, which won her two Gemini Awards.

Additional series, guest appearances and creative projects followed, and it’s here in Canada that she runs her production company. However, with homes in Tuscany and in London, her time is now stretched between the two continents.

Photo By: Max Rosenstein

Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, England, Travis immigrated to Canada in the late eighties and raised her family here. While living in Montreal, Travis redecorated the Victorian house that she was living in, using various paint effects. She formed a small decorating business, which grew to include commissions from department stores, theatres, reception halls and private homes – ultimately attracting media attention..

Photo By: Max Rosenstein

To her credit, Travis has now published nine books, with a new one in the works about following your dreams. She has created several home decor product lines, including The Debbie Travis Home Collection at Sears, inspired by her Tuscan lifestyle. Pilliterri Estates Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake produces Debbie Travis Pinot Grigio, and they have plans to expand the line. Travis also writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, and has produced several documentaries and hit television series that are aired around the world.

Guests make limoncello with fresh lemons from the trees on her terrace. Photo By : George Ross

Adding to her list of accomplishments, Travis owns and runs a villa in Tuscany, and has developed her own line of olive oils, rosemary and lavender products, which are available through her online store. When asked if she has any intention of retiring, she said, “I’m not one to stay idle. In England, I think the retirement age for women is around sixty-seven, sixty-eight. Our generation is living so much longer. Women in their fifties are so much fitter and healthier. So many people are looking for their next chapters – not retirement or inactivity. I’ve had the privilege of getting to a certain age, and I can choose to do what I want with my life – I can choose to do what I love and what makes me happy.”

Photo By : George Ross

Fresh, farm-to-table produce from the villa’s organic garden. Photo By: Max Rosenstein

Her home in Tuscany is at the top her happy list. First aired on Oprah’s OWN Network, the transformation of this home was documented in a series called La Dolce Debbie. Over a period of five years, this centuries-old villa was lovingly restored. Today, Travis, along with her husband, Hans, and their extended family, host women’s getaways, as well as gourmet and business retreats.

Photo By : George Ross

“I’ve had the privilege of getting to a certain age, and I can choose to do what I want with my life – I can choose to do what I love and what makes me happy.” – Debbie Travis

I had the pleasure of visiting Travis’ property in Tuscany last year. Each room is stunning and unique with her personalized accents and tasteful decor. Travis is in her element and delights in showing her guests around her villa, commenting on found objects and where her inspiration came from for each space. “It’s like watching someone opening a present.” said Travis, referring to her guests’ reactions when she shows them their room.

Photo By: Max Rosenstein

Her attention to detail was apparent everywhere I looked. Travis hired local craftsmen and artisans to hand plaster walls and restore the stonework. She sought out materials from architectural salvage sites in order to repair the floors, ceilings and the buildings. Found items, like old doors, were repurposed as coffee tables, and water troughs were transformed into sinks and planters.

The kitchen is a chef’s dream filled with shiny copper pots, and open shelves lined with both old and new items. Extensive countertops accommodate guests for cooking classes, where participants learn to make hand-rolled pasta and tiramisu, as well as limoncello from lemon trees on her terrace. Fresh, chemical-free vegetables are grown in her garden, and the organic wine and olive oil that she serves are products from her 100-acre property. “People are craving the real deal,” said Travis. “Farm-to-table food, homemade and homegrown products. More than ever, people are escaping. People are being drawn to simpler lifestyles, going to retreats, eating organic, and focusing on their health and well-being.”

Photo By: Max Rosenstein

Travis’ Tuscan retreats aren’t all about food and wine. With her flair for design, she’s created an exquisite setting where people can come to relax in an environment that’s free from work-related schedules and personal obligations – where people can reflect on their lives and next chapters. “That’s what makes me happy – giving people an experience on a one-to-one basis. Giving them a leg up to have the courage to follow their dreams and, in doing so, being a part of their lives forever.”

Following my return to Canada, as we chatted on Skype, Travis tossed another log on the fire at her villa in Tuscany and was enjoying a glass of wine, while I was sitting in Toronto. We talked about the ability to work remotely in this technical day and age. She had just popped down from her home in London, only two hours away by air. “I can work anywhere,” she said. “I am choosing to do what I love and it makes me happy. I am living my dream.”


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