TRAVEL

Giants, Spirits and the Holy Grail? Unravel the Mysteries and Legends of Venice

Unlock some of Venice's most mysterious legends. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gondoliers who can walk on water. Monster masks that can ward off the devil. Haunted palaces, meandering ghosts and magic stones. Venice is a city built on legends, lore and mysteries.

Every calle leads to a new mystery, and through every sottoportego is a new legend to explore. Below are some of the most intriguing tales.

Witches Wake-Up Call

In the labyrinthine streets near the Accademia Gallery is the quiet Calle della Toletta, where a so-called “witch’s clock” keeps the neighborhood ticking. Hanging off exterior piping (look for a yellow house) is an old-school alarm clock.

Legend says that a witch once lived here and dabbled in the business of black magic. She used the alarm to remind her customers their payments were due. When she died, the local residents hung an alarm clock on the building in jest.

Years later, it was removed, and the neighbors began to talk of strange happenings, odd sounds and random accidents. The clock was returned to its position, and the events stopped. Years later the clock was removed, and the neighbors again claimed unexplained events, so the clock was placed back permanently.

Death in Venice

Walk by the columns of San Marco and San Todaro — but not between them. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Council of Ten — a feared governing body — ruled the city from 1310 to 1797 with eyes everywhere thanks to its hundreds of anonymous informants who shared residents’ secrets and lies, condemning many to prison and death.

According to gossip, the narrow Calle della Morte was the Council of Ten’s “death alley,” an advantageous location where condemned people would be tricked into visiting only to be killed on site. Most likely, the street is named after a dead body found in that location.

What is fact is that the secretive Council of Ten were very forthcoming with public executions and designated the small area between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro at Piazza San Marco as a site for city-sanctioned deaths, and to this day, Venetians do not walk between the columns. Take a stroll here from the nearby Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice.

The Giant of Corte Bressana

Listen for the bells. (Photo: Alamy)

Venice is a chameleon of a city, changing its personality drastically from daytime charm to nighttime fright. According to Castello neighbors, if you find yourself meandering the streets surrounding the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo after midnight, you may meet a giant looking to buy his bones back.

Who’s the giant? According to legend, he’s one of the last bell ringers of St. Mark’s Bell Tower, clocking in at nearly seven feet tall. The Bell Ringer’s height made him such a local celebrity that the director of a scientific institute offered him a small fee to leave his skeleton to science upon death. The giant bell ringer agreed to the offer, rationalizing that he would outlive the institute director and the deal would be forgotten.

To the contrary, the bell ringer died shortly thereafter, and his skeleton went on display at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia. Castello residents say that every night, just before midnight, the skeleton walks out of the museum to Piazza San Marco, where he climbs to the top of the bell tower, rings the bells and then walks the streets toward his home on Corte Bressana (Castello) begging for money to buy back his skeleton.

The Holy Grail

Pretty much everyone agrees that the most coveted artifact for would-be Indiana Joneses is the Holy Grail, aka the chalice that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

According to legend, after Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood in the cup, the Grail was removed from sight for centuries and eventually secreted away to Glastonbury by the Knights Templar.

Here’s where the Venetians have a bit of a deviation. At some point before the Grail’s journey to the British Isles, it was hidden in none other than the throne of the Apostle Peter (a marble seat), forcibly removed from Constantinople during the Crusades and brought to Venice with the rest of the plunder. Where’s the chair today? Inside the Basilica of San Pietro in Castello.

House of the Spirits

Are you a believer in dark magic? (Photo: Alamy)

A quick 6-minute vaporetto ride from The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, at the edge of the Fondamenta Nuova in Cannaregio sits a beautiful 16th-century palace overlooking the water. For centuries, the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, better known as the Casin degli Spiriti (house of the spirits), has been notoriously recognized as a hub of dark magic; a preferred location for cults, orgies, pirates and smugglers; and as a gathering place for the restless spirits of Venice.

One ghost in particular can’t seem to leave — that of Pietro Luzzo, a painter who shot himself in the palace grounds, despairing of unrequited love. The day after he died, his tormented ghost appeared at one of the palace’s windows, prompting the owner to cover it with bricks.

Luzzo appeared at another window and then another, until the owner walled in all of the palace’s windows. Supposedly, Luzzo continues to haunt the palace, returning on dark evenings, screaming throughout the palace.

This article first appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.

The 6 Sestieri: An Insider’s Guide to Venice’s Distinct Neighborhoods

Explore Dorsoduro's church of Santa Maria Della Salute. (Photo: Getty Images)

Thanks to its labyrinthine streets and impossible canals, Venice is one of the world’s easiest cities in which to get lost. But with a bit of research, it is also the easiest town to understand. From a bird’s-eye view, Venice is made up of two central islands that look like intertwined hands.

Neighborhoods, called sestieri, subdivide the islands into six characteristic areas, which range from busy marketplaces to quiet communities. Here’s a look at each of these distinct sestieri.

Dorsoduro

Traverse the wooden Accademia Bridge to arrive in Dorsoduro, known for its charming artsy vibe thanks to a mix of families and university students. Its beautiful palazzi and campi (squares) are picture-perfect, and the area is peppered with bars, galleries and restaurants.

The southern neighborhood spans from Punta della Dogana, the old customs building at the very eastern tip of the island, to the Port Authority in the most southwestern edge and includes Giudecca, the long residential island immediately to its south.

Sites not to miss: Gallerie dell’AccademiaPeggy Guggenheim CollectionIl Redentore, Campo Santa Margherita, Chiesa Le ZitellePunta della DoganaSanta Maria della Salute.

Castello

Campo Santa Maria Formosa. (Photo: Getty Images)


Named for a former fortified palazzo, Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Its western border lines up with the edges of San Marco and Cannaregio, so expect a bustle of tourists and souvenir shops.

Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, you’ll find Castello becomes a charming microcosm where the tourist flow trickles down to a near standstill.

Eventually, the eastern half of Castello becomes a large public garden and shipyard — the Biennale Giardini and Arsenale — home of the annual La Biennale festival. The cemetery island San Michele is also part of Castello.

Sites not to miss: Basilica of Santi Giovanni e PaoloChurch of San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Complesso dell’Ospedaletto

San Marco

St. Mark’s Square. (Photo: Getty Images)

Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco is the most visited of all Venetian sestieri. The sestiere’s heart is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the number-one destination for all visitors to Venice. Here you’ll find tourists taking photos of the inimitable Basilica San Marco or enjoying a spritz at the square’s historic cafés.

The San Marco neighborhood spans from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, so once you’ve visited the piazza, head deeper into the neighborhood. Wander past small-scale piazzas and peek into lavish museums, and keep an eye out for waterfront photo ops across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island, also part of sestiere San Marco.

Sites not to miss: Basilica di San MarcoDoge’s PalaceTeatro La Fenice, Campo Santo Stefano, Palazzo GrassiScala Contarini del BovoloMuseo CorrerCaffe Florian

San Polo

To many, this tiny sestiere is the heart of Venetian life. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Venice, San Polo is a dynamic neighborhood filled with families, shops and students who all seem to converge on Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice.

San Polo is also a thoroughfare for tourists walking toward San Marco after visiting the Rialto market, the historic and picturesque fish market.

Sites not to miss: San Giacomo di RialtoSanta Maria Gloriosa dei FrariGrande Scuola San Rocco, Campo San Polo.

Cannaregio

The Rialto Bridge. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. Starting from the steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and extending eastward on the famed Strada Nuova to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.

The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, while its side alleys lead to niche communities like the Jewish Ghetto, which dates back to the city’s original 4th-century Jewish settlements. Fondamenta Nuova, the northern edge of Cannaregio, connects to the island of Burano via vaporetto (boat).

Sites not to miss: Ca’ d’OroMuseo EbraicoChurch of Santa Maria dei MiracoliChurch of Madonna dell’Orto and the Oratorio dei Crociferi

Santa Croce

This sestiere is said to have a dual personality. The southwestern area of Santa Croce is a transport center, with Piazzale Roma as a hub for buses and taxis. Its northeastern area is more typical of Venice, filled with canals and alleys lined with historic palaces. Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary.

Sites not to miss: Fontego dei TurchiSan Giacomo dall’OrioSan Zan DegolaPonte della Costituzione (Constitution bridge) and Palazzo Mocenigo


This article is part of a series which appears
Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.

Andiamo! A Local’s Guide to Island Hopping in Venice

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, March 2019.

The Island of San Giorgio. Photo: Getty Images

With 118 islands making up the Venetian archipelago, there is far more to see in Venice than St. Mark’s Square. Whether an afternoon or a weekend affair, island hopping is the best way to get to know Venice and its 1,500-year-old culture. Here’s a guide to some of Venice’s most must-see islands.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The emblematic San Giorgio Maggiore is one of those islands that is always photographed but rarely visited. Dominated by the San Giorgio Maggiore church, a multilevel marble landmark designed by Renaissance phenom Andrea Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore seems to float impossibly in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.

Today, exhibition spaces Le Stanze del Vetro, a former boarding school, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini showcase contemporary arts projects, while the rest of the island remains green — impeccably pedicured gardens hiding mazes and more.

Discover the art of glass blowing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Murano

For centuries the tiny island of Murano produced the world’s most beautiful glass pieces behind closed doors. Its reputation seeped out of the lagoon, and now Murano is the most popular of the Venetian islands.

Master glass artisans open studio doors to give tourists a select glimpse into their secretive workshops with organized, behind-the-scenes experiences at historic fornace (furnaces) like Seguso. The key to best experiencing Murano is to get past the souvenir shops and explore deeper into the island. Visit the Museo del Vetro to learn Murano’s glassmaking history.

Catch the colors of Burano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Burano

Of all the Venetian islands, Burano is the one most remembered. Here visitors find a mini version of Venice, with a rainbow of brightly colored houses lining picture-perfect canals.

Burano, like most of the outlying islands, is a microcosm of locals who have grown up with one another for generations and for generations have been making its famous lace products by hand. The Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) chronicles Burano’s more than eight centuries honing lace craftsmanship.

Mazzorbo

Linked to Burano by the Ponte Longo, a wooden bridge, Mazzorbo is a quiet island of less than 400 inhabitants and was once an important political and commercial scene in medieval Venice.

Mazzorbo’s draw today is that in the midst of Venice’s tourist-laden streets, it remains untouched and out of the way of clutter and kitsch. Charming residential areas line up with stretches of cultivated land, including vineyards such as Venissa, a walled-in vineyard reviving heritage dorona di Venezia grapes. The 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the island’s last remaining church, has a bell tower with one of Europe’s oldest bells and is also worth a visit.

San Michele

Within a gondola ride from the fondamenta nuova, Venice’s northern waterfront, you’ll find the mysterious San Michele. Beautifully landscaped with tall cypress trees and surrounded by a pedicured redbrick wall, San Michele has served as the city’s official cemetery ever since a Napoleonic decree banished burials from Venice churchyards.

Serene and tranquil, San Michele is the final resting place for Venetians and famed outsiders, including American poet Ezra Pound, Italian painter Emilio Vedova and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Lido di Venezia

Everybody loves Lido, the large Venetian island best known as the home of the Venice Film Festival, the august cinema fest where the world’s best directors and actors celebrate their films.

What most people don’t know is that all year round, Lido remains a charming community of families. The seven-mile-long Lido is also a jewel box of art nouveau and art deco architecture — including villas, hotels and ornamental gardens.

In the warm months, Venetians from all over the islands head to Lido’s stabilimenti balneari, beautifully coiffed and colorful waterside establishments on the island’s six miles of uninterrupted beach.

Torcello

Located on the northern edge of the lagoon, Torcello is one of the most remote islands in the Venetian archipelago and the oldest that has been continually populated — in fact, its origin story predates Venice.

Once a busy settlement, today Torcello is sparsely populated. What remains from its resplendent past are a few structures, including the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta with its beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics and a head-spinning bell tower that overlooks Burano. It’s definitely the place to clear one’s head.

Find your way to remote Torcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

How to visit the islands

The only way to travel the islands is by water. A network of vaporetti (waterbuses) zigzag the Venetian Lagoon, connecting the islandsThe best option is the ACTV tickets offering unlimited travel within a 24-hour period at 20 euro. Less economical and far more efficient is a motoscafo, a sleek, wood-paneled water taxi, which can privately arranged through Consorzio Motoscafi.

5 European Cities To Visit In 2019

Prague. Credit: Prague City Tourism

2019 is all about your next European adventure — it’s not just where you’re going but what you’re going to do. We’ve got a lineup of incredible events happening in five of the continent’s most dynamic cities.

Prague
A haven for culture lovers, the Czech Republic hot spot was named a UNESCO Creative City of Literature in 2014, thanks in part to its incredible array of browse-worthy bookshops (the historic city has Europe’s highest concentration of tome-lined storefronts) and literary cafés.

Throughout the year, Prague celebrates its book smarts through a series of festivals dedicated to literature and art, including May’s poetry-focused Microfestival and October’s Prague Writers’ Festival.

Four Seasons Hotel Prague.  Credit: Four Seasons Hotel Prague

Four Seasons Hotel Prague. Credit: Four Seasons Hotel Prague

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel, January 2019.

One of the more delectable draws is the 17-day Czech Beer Festival (May 9 to 25). In recent years, the event has become a culinary attraction, where chefs and restaurants partner to showcase a wide breadth of classic cuisines and pairings.

When you’ve had your fill of local dishes, digest at Four Seasons Hotel Prague, a true Bohemian rhapsody sitting on the Vltava River in Old Town. The posh property is a beautiful labyrinth of the Czech Republic’s varied architectural styles, uniting three historic structures (classical, Renaissance and 18th-century baroque) with contemporary builds to create an irreplaceable compilation both inside and out.

Milan
It should come as no surprise that Italy’s fashion capital is also a top global destination for design. Nothing shows off Milan’s stylish side better than Salone del Mobile (aka Salone), a five-day showcase bringing together the world’s best designers (interior, industrial, fashion, tech and fine arts) in a celebration of upcoming trends and movements.

From April 9 through 14, expect fabulous exhibitions, clever collaborations and electrifying launches as well as coveted parties by artists, designers and fashion houses.

Between gatherings, rest your head at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended ME Milan Il Duca, a stunning, strategically located stay within walking distance of the famous Quadrilatero della Moda (fashion district) and the modern Porta Nuova quarter.

The boutique luxury hotel fits Salone’s vibe well with 132 chic rooms adorned with Molteni&C furnishings and a buzzy rooftop bar.

Altis Avenida Hotel. Credit: Altis Hotels Group

Lisbon
Portugal’s sun-drenched capital has been making its way onto everyone’s travel bucket list over the past few years, and its time you made it to the city. From May 17 to 20, Lisbon hosts Festival Internacional da Mascára Ibérica (International Iberian Mask Festival), a costumed parade and four-day celebration of the historical and cultural ties that exist between Spanish and Portuguese regions.

But if you want a more contemporary vibe, book a weekender in July for Super Bock Super Rock (July 18 to 20), one of Europe’s top music festivals. The 2019 lineup includes Lana Del Rey, The 1975, Metronomy, Kaytranada, FKJ and Superorganism.

Whenever you choose to visit, be sure to book a room in the historic Altis Avenida Hotel. The 1940s-era building charms with art-deco touches, a central locale and the spectacular Rossio rooftop restaurant

Le Richemond Genève. Credit: Genève Tourisme

Geneva
As headquarters of the United Nations, this scenic Swiss city is a cultural melting pot. Just stand on its pristine sidewalks and you’ll hear dialogue in more languages than you can imagine.  

Summer is prime time to visit this mountainside metropolis. Stop by in June to take in the internationally renowned Montreux Jazz Festival (June 28 to July 13), then drive over to nearby Vevey for the epic Fête des Vignerons (July 18 to August 11). Held only five times a century (last celebrated in 1999), this UNESCO-recognized event is Switzerland’s oldest and largest wine festival.  

Perched on the banks of Lake Geneva, Five-Star Le Richemond Genève provides a picturesque respite between outings. With nearly 145 years of history, this is a grand masterpiece of marble floors, gold-filigree finishes and vintage pieces.

Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat, France. Credit: Manuel Zublena

Cap Ferrat, France
This unspoiled promontory on the French Riviera is a historic haunt for the wealthy and rowdy, including actor Charlie Chaplin, The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and U2 front man Bono.

Situated midway between Nice and Monte Carlo, this tiny peninsula offers a gorgeous getaway during the 77th Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix (May 26 through 29).

Consider Five-Star Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel the perfect pitstop between races. This glamorous, 17-acre waterfront retreat puts you just 20 minutes from the glitz of Monaco. You can even organize Riviera boat transfers from the harbor of Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat to the main event.

Before you make any plans official, remember that the high-end hotel is a seasonal property and closes each winter until March 1. Visit after April 26 to take advantage of its renowned alfresco restaurant, Club Dauphin.

Why We Are Going to Amsterdam This Spring

This article originally appeared in Forbes Travel, February 2018.

Rijksmuseum. Credit: Koen Smilde Photography

Amsterdam has always been pretty high on the travel bucket list for backpackers and studying-abroad weekenders, thanks to an epic party scene just as colorful as its tulip varietals. But it’s time to forget that old reputation. The capital city of the Netherlands is in the midst of 21st-century Golden Age, which is why we’re headed there this spring.

A culture time warp

Though often eclipsed by its other European counterparts, Amsterdam is a must-visit destination for art aficionados. The Netherlands was the center of the 17th-century art scene, immortalizing painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, and laying down the foundation for modern masters like Van Gogh and Mondrian.

The city is lined with museums and galleries that are filled with beautiful Baroque still lifes and landscapes, but the best place to start is the Rijksmuseum, the queen mother of Amsterdam’s museums for its impressive collection of works by the Dutch Masters.

Once you’ve completed your introduction to the capital’s cultural past, simply walk out the front door to explore the famed Museum Quarter, a microcosm of art with a choose-your-own-genre vibe. On either side of the boulevard, you can step back in time.

The futuristic Van Gogh Museum brings you into the world of The Starry Night painter and his contemporaries, while Moco keeps you firmly in this century with its rotating collection of Banksy works and complimentary exhibitions. For more modern pieces, stop by the Stedelijk Museum, which focuses on contemporary art and design.

Shopping in Amsterdam. Credit: Merijn Roubroeks

Shop till you drop

You know that perfect pair of seamless leisure trousers or the timeless end table you’ve been looking for? They are both in Amsterdam, a city of industrial and inventive creatives who are helping to transform it into the next global shopping destination.

If you only have a weekend, start out in the De Negen Straatjes (the Nine Streets), a hamlet in the historical center lined with beautifully curated boutiques and galleries filled with vintage to cutting-edge items. Must-visits for fashionistas include the sustainable denim shop DenhamRain Couture for fabulous wet-weather gear and the nearby Museum of Bags and Purses.

Other stylish shops along this popular retail avenue include Mendo, a bookstore for all your coveted artsy editions; The Frozen Fountain for one-of-a-kind Dutch design; Lekker for luxury retro bicycles; and the self-explanatory Likestationery.

Flower Power. Credit: Keukenh of Holland

Color Me Spring

Amsterdam in the spring is all about color. From March 22 to May 13, nearby Keukenhof is a flower frenzy with more than 800 varieties of tulips — totaling more than 7 million bulbs — exploding in full bloom across one of the largest gardens in the world.

On April 21, the flower parade of Bollenstreek heads out for a 25-mile road trip from Noordwijk to Haarlem, stopping in Keukenhof. Think of it as the floral answer to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, where colorful floats decorated with hyacinths, daffodils and tulips (of course) promenade through the gardens. Go Dutch and take the train — Keukenhof is an easy 50-minute ride from Amsterdam’s central train station.

Spring progresses from a technicolor explosion to a single-hued celebration with oranjegekte (orange madness) on April 27 for Koningsdag, the city-wide party also known as Kings Day. Europe’s largest open-air festival, King’s Day celebrates the birthday of Dutch King Willem-Alexander with concerts, parties, events and street markets, all day and night.

The 24-hour extravaganza keeps the city at a standstill, both on land and in the canals, so the best way to avoid the pedestrian crunch is to hop on a party boat. If you’re staying at the nearby Pulitzer hotel, take advantage of the revelry by reserving a few hours on the property’s wood-paneled vintage saloon vessel.

Conservatorium. Credit: Conservatorium

Where to Stay

There are so many incredible hotels in Amsterdam that it’s hard to choose. But if the focus is a weekend of full art immersion, book a room at the Conservatorium, a neo-Gothic red brick monument and former music conservatory. Along with the ideal address near the Museum Quarter, this luxe lodging is an Instagram-perfect mash-up of Italian design and Dutch minimalism.

After a day of exploring the city’s cultural highlights, be sure to treat yourself to some time in the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, the hotel’s subterranean spa.

Culture may be king, but if your ideal weekend is all about Amsterdam, drop your bags at Pulitzer, a canal-side hotel in the Nine Streets neighborhood. Made up of 25 restored townhouses from the 17th and 18th centuries, the property is the most stylish labyrinth you’ll set foot in. Escher-like staircases transport you through the hotel to jewel-toned rooms of indigos, emeralds, garnets and amethysts.

When you’re ready to explore beyond your personal space, check out the see-and-be-seen scene at the gorgeous, street-side Pulitzer’s Bar, a sultry art-deco-inspired speakeasy. 

#ExperienceRome, Let's Get Digital

Piazza di Spagna in the rain.

Rome.

The Eternal City as been one of my favorite topics since I was little. As kids, our parents would shuffle us to Rome to visit family, and we'd return back to the US telling stories of fabulous pyramids, playgrounds in fortresses, ice cream vendors on top of churches, forgotten cities, cities within cities, cities under cities and futuristic cities.  No one believed us.  So we told them how we had pizza for breakfast, how our favorite playground was so old that steps sprung out of the earth and turned into columns, and how everyday there was a guaranteed explosion to mark the beginning of lunch*.  They still didn't believe us. 

Rome wasn't a fantasy world and it wasn't always fun, I was told in few words, emphasized by a punch. No, it was a chaotic city with long lines (to the Vatican Museums and Colosseum) and great pasta.  It was a requisite three-day stop on a week-long Italy vacation where everyone spoke with their hands.  I couldn't convince my elementary school classmates otherwise but I didn't care.  I knew I was right so I took the punches and kept talking.

Fast forward to the 21st century and my gift for gab is now an interactive career writing and photographing Rome, Italy and travel through a Pandora's box of tech, i.e. the internet, my laptop and iPhone, a bunch of apps, and now a hashtag. 

#ExperienceRome

 #ExperienceRome is not quite as simple as a lone hashtag.   It's a collaborative and interactive project with TurismoRoma where I create and share in depth, Rome-centric content on my social media platforms in the hopes of engaging and enticing you to talk and visit Rome.  Not too difficult, right? Just point and click.   Exactly plus a little bit more. My goal is to bring you into an interactive story more delicious than a plate of  Luciano Monosilio's carbonara and more invigorating than a run around the Circus Maximus. 

With social media as my palette and Rome as my subject,  I am digitally painting pictures on how to enjoy Rome to the max, whether a day, a weekend or a lifetime.  We'll peruse art exhibitions and artisan workshops, visit markets and monuments, walk around neighborhoods and wait for public transportation, and contemplate the contemporary city.  The  objective is full immersion Rome.

Sergio Esposito (r) and team making Roman recipe sandwiches at Mordi e Vai, Testaccio Market.  Quartiere: Testaccio.

How?

#ExperienceRome is centered around the dynamic multi-verse of immersive social media.  Huh?  Open up Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Periscope and it's right in front of you.  You join in without having to hop on a plane just by following me @EricaFirpo on Instagram, Erica Firpo on Facebook and @moscerina on Twitter.   You click and follow hashtag #ExperienceRome on all platforms where you'll have the chance to see Rome through my lens,  as well as the eyes of @DariusAryaDigsRome Insider (Russian/English) and Viagem na Italia (Portuguese).  If a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm making it logarithmic more with video and live streams, and Instagram Stories.  (Yes, it's not too late, you can catch up by checking out my Instagram Highlights, saved stories that appear below my IG bio).

We want #ExperienceRome to be on your mind and in your feeds as much as possible so help out by commenting and sharing your favorite tweets. Please give us feedback:  tell us what you like, what you want to see and what you want to see more of.  Take a second to visit and follow Turismo Roma, the City of Rome tourism office.  And once you're in Rome, tag your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts with #ExperienceRome -and make sure to tag me as well so I can say hello!  It's that simple.

Ice skating at the Parco della Musica/Auditorium in Quartiere Flaminio

Postscript

*Curious as to what was the Rome of my childhood?  It was my kind of Wild West, where we  We walked like Egyptians around the Pyramid of Cestius, burnt off some energy by running around  the moat of Castel Sant'Angelo and even the moat-thing around the Mausoleum of Augustus, we climbed to the top of St. Peter's dome just for an ice cream at St. Peter's Basilica's terrace caffè, we went back to the past at archaeological site Ostia Antica, and then took it further by going underground at the Domus Aurea (and later my cousin Giampiero would take me for a night walk around the tunnels of the Roman Forum) and finally we wondered why everyone said Rome was so old if there was EUR, a microtown of Luna Parks, caffes, boatrides and a lot of white, minimalist buildings.  We started our mornings picking up fresh and hot pizza bianca from Antico Forno Roscioli, and reminded ourselves it was time for lunch with my zie Cesarina, Peppina and Doria when we heard the noontime cannon ball shot from a canon from the Janiculum hill.   Nothing changes.

The average 5pm in Campo de' Fiori, historic center.

Day Trip: Venice

"Where should I go for a day trip out of Rome?" That's probably the most popular question question people ask me when planning a trip to Italy.  Tivoli, Napoli, Cività di Bagnoreggio, Bomarzo, Caserta, Spoleto, Siena... so many sites, towns and cities up my sleeve and all within reasonable distance.  But here's one I never, until now, bothered to suggest:  Venice.

Venice? Impossible, you say.   Not at all. . .

Door to door Roma Termini- Venezia San Lucia is a 3 hour 45 minute train on the Alta Velocità (high speed) trains.  Double down for the return and you're only 7.5 hours seated where you can contemplate time travel by catching up on most of the entire first season of Dark.  To make the most of a Venice day trip, you're going to have to get up early.  The best Rome departure is on the Italo 6.15am train*, arriving in Venice at 10am with a return train at 7:00pm- that gives you nine full hours to do whatever you want in La Serenissima.  And to make the day trip evening sweeter, Italo Treno offers day return fare at great prices, the kind of incentive if you are competitive and thrifty like me.  

Whether meandering or must-see, if you're really going to day trip to Venice, have a plan.  Or better yet, download a Google map for an idea of where you want to go and how you will need to get there- your choices are walking, water bus (see below) and water taxi.  If you want to be clever, customize a My Maps by dropping pins on cultural and food sites and download it onto your phone.  It's going to be a long day, so I suggest powering up on protein and excitement or coffee, and wear your most comfortable (and waterproof) walking shoes.    

Most importantly, know where you're going to eat.  For the daytripper, my only suggestion (and latest mantra) is get thee to a few baccari..  Baccari are those  no-frills bars overflowing with people queued up for cicchetti, whimsical appetizers like creamed cod, pickled onions or braised artichokes on a bread, usually accompanied by a glass of wine. Service is quick, once you are front and center at the counter, and the cod (bacalà mantecato) is an excellent protein solution to fuel you through Venice.  My go-tos are Da Fiore (San Marco/San Stefano), Cantine del Vino già Schiavi (Dorsoduro) and Osteria da Carla (San Marco).

And the best tip? Keep spare euro in your pocket for cicchetti and also the vaporetto, Venice's water bus public transport system.  The 1-Day fare costs 20 euro, while a single 75-minute fare is 7.50 euro (and can be bought on board). Again, cash is king and makes everything go faster.

Is a day trip to ambitious and frivolous? Yes, just like Venice and at times, just like me.

*Daytripping from Florence is even easier: just 2.05 hours by train, and you don't have to get up in the dark. Departure: 7.54 am.

La Biennale is the perfect excuse to visit Venice for the day. A heptathlon of cultural events, the Biennale's big draws are art, architecture and cinema. Every odd numbered year, the islands are inundated with contemporary art  for the international art festival, a six-month art fest from  May through November.  Architecture and design lovers head to Venice in even number years as the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale transform into the very cutting edge for the Architecture Biennale May through November.  At the end of every August, Venice's Lido island illuminates with a galaxy of silver screen stars at the annual Film Festival, an eleven-day affair which is both the both the worst and best time to book a reservation at a five star hotel.

My latest day trip to Venice was an intense attempt to visit all 120 artists and 86 country participants in the *57th International Art Exhibition - Viva Arte Viva in less than 8 hours. My take? Christine Macel's curation for Viva Arte Viva was more introspective, and had more humor and human interaction than biennales past.  The Italia Pavilion was finally something to talk about and at times, amazing like a Neil Gaiman story, whereas Russia was a disappointment. The USA Pavilion was somewhere in between, but that was artist Mark Bradford's point.  The Biennale's roster of artists was solid-  enough new entries to make you feel like the art world's wheels are moving more aggressively.

PHOTOS FROM THE 57th INTERNATIONAL ART EXHIBITION

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There's Something About Florence

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A version of the article appeared in Forbes Travel, October 2017.

There’s something about Florence.  Birthplace of the Renaissance, Dante’s hometown, font of the Italian language, and constant ranking in the top three places to visit on the Grand Tour, or better yet, the Bucket List.  Florence has had it going on for centuries, and it relishes in its rep as the Cradle of Modern Culture for nurturing homegrown artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as earning the title as the fifth fashion capitol thanks to bi-annual Pitti Uomo and several pioneering tech meets fashion/luxury summits. Maybe it's the proud Roman in me, but for years, I've written off Florence as a "mausoleum" or "cute tourist town", a necessary stop on your whirlwind Italy tour and a great place for a photo op, giving it only a bit of cred for its awesome art collection. Lately, however, I''m thinking otherwise-  Florence is fabulous. 

What changed my mind? Well, a little bit of handholding by local champions Georgette Jupe-Pradier, GirlInFlorence and Coral Sisk, CuriousAppetite, and here I am,  celebrating the town the Medicis built because of its, here we go, 21st century incarnation.  To the visible eye, nothing has changed in Florence but what is makes the city so invigorating is its community of artists, makers, creators and entrepreneurs who are putting a new perspective on a charming town.  According to Jupe-Pradier, who dedicates her blog GirlInFlorence  to the city’s contemporary stories and makers, there is a palpable city revival the “celebrates the past with a willingness to evolve and inspire especially in new contemporary spaces and artisans”.  Is it a 21st century Renaissance? I don't know but I'm liking the vibe.

Window Shopping

It took me a while to learn that Florence is far more than Via Tornabuoni and the Ponte Vecchio.  Jupe-Pradier's favorite area of the city is her backyard-  the Oltrarno, the river Arno’s left bank.  Ever since she started her blog, she encouraged exploration of the literal “other side” and her Oltrarno love concentrates around San Frediano which she brought to the pages of Lonely Planet as one of the world's coolest neighborhoods. I tagged along as she made afternoon rounds, stopping in to personally talk with every shop owner and artisan in the area.  Favorites include & Company a beautifully curated boutique for design lovers where you can find vintage furniture, hand-crafted stationery, Blackwing pencils and original creations by calligrapher and co-owner Betty Soldi.  Officine Nora, a working studio for a collective of jewelry makers where I picked up a handmade silver necklace by Valentina Carpini whose filigree work is divine,  Il Torchio- bookbinder studio and shop filled with luscious handcrafted books, restorer Jane Harman's  eponymous boutique Jane H where she features her original wood designs , and Albrici, a decades-old antiques shop with wing devoted to vintage clothing and accessories.

Earthly Delights

Catherine de' Medici, the woman who upgraded French cuisine by introducing Italian, in particular Florentine,  recipes and the fork to France, would be proud of her native city.   A collection of sturdy stalwarts, including  Cibreo and the century-old Trattorio Sergio Gozzi, are stewed in Florentine tradition, as long as you can get a table.  Perennially positive Jupe-Pradier loves the family Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano, Oltrarno for its sixty-year-long dedication to serving seasonal, local dishes. .

Tradition aside,  intrepid food writer and culinary guide Sisk says “the city is responding to a demand for a more dynamic food scene”.  Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo ranks high on her list of Florentine eateries for its strong ethos on ingredient sourcing and traditions. And she loves modern bistrot-bar Zeb Gastronomia for its daily home made pastas and cool modern design, while her contemporary/creative dining picks are Michelin starred Ora d'Aria and Cibleo, Cibreo's Asian-Tuscan fusion.

For a taste of Florentine luxury, Il Locale is the spot- a restaurant and bar in a Renaissance palazzo designed as a modern Medici court with decoupage walls and velvet damask, sandstone columns in sandstone, vintage design pieces and contemporary sculptures. (Note:  I had great drinks but service was delayed, so I opted out of dining.) Charming Bar e Cucina is modern retro.  Designed by Paolo Capezzuoli, (aka Zero T, who collaborated the  Rock Steady Crew!), the vibe is a Golden age diner meets Florentine caffè, the perfect pit stop during those days at Pitti Uomo.

Just desserts at Trattoria Sabatino.

Eye Candy

Along with the usual suspects (we’re looking at you, David), Florence likes to keep you entertained with exhbitions and museums that traipse between traditional and unexpected.  Opened in 2005, Palazzo Strozzi, a fabulous example of 15th century palazzo architecture is a dynamic cultural foundation whose exhibition line up includes the ongoing Radical Utopias (design and architecture movement from the late 1960s), as well as previous blockbuster ringers like Bill Viola, Ai Wei Wei.  A blast from the past and my personal meditation is Museo di San Marco, a former Dominican convent now museum with the most extensive collection of in situ Fra Angelico frescos, and Jupe-Pradier loves the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art.

Radical Utopias, courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi.

View from the Hotel Savoy.

Pillow Talk

Where you rest your head in Florence is just as important as what you do. For a stunning Renaissance-meets-modern stay, head to Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. This gorgeous urban resort complex features two refurbished buildings in which you can drift off to sleep — the 15th-century Palazzo Della Gherardesca or the former 16th-century convent, the Conventino.  For center stage its Hotel Savoy is Florence’s grande dame, whose timeless elegance yet au courant chicness redefines the meaning of “historic.” Savoy’s enviable Piazza della Repubblica location puts in the very center of everything.  Hotel Brunelleschi captures the best of Florentine architecture in a labyrinth of Renaissance-era palaces and medieval towers. And if it’s good enough for an overnight stay for Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s prolific The Da Vinci Code protagonist, it should be an adventure.

Mastering Italy's Trains with Masterpass by Mastercard

Yes, that's me on the beach with my phone, and if you read through, you'll get why. . .

There are few, if any, forms of transport that I like more than trains. I love thesci-fi vibe of a maglev and the needle nose of a bullet train. Italy’s stuffy regionali (regional trians) make me just as excited Switzerland’s vintage Bernina Express carriages.  Along with trainspotting, I love the experience - from packing my bag (yes, I am an origami artist of efficiency, practicality and portability), and walking around the train station to interpreting seat etiquette and meditation to the ever-changing landscape.  For me, a rail adventure is more than just a journey to a destination and I’m lucky to live in Italy, where regional, intercity, and high speed rails crisscross to the most beautiful towns in the world.

What I’ve never enjoyed, however, has been the purchase of a train ticket. Back in the day, I used to walk into a ticket center, queueing for what seemed liked hours and often arguing about supplements (supplemental charges). When the macchinette (ticket machines) arrived at Termini, I was both ecstatic and frustrated over its simplistic tech thanks to its arbitrary credit card and change service.  The internet upgraded everything, but it also meant an increase of email in my inbox about purchasing tickets “Um, Erica, is Trenitalia’s payment down? What am I doing wrong?”

Here’s a clue: you are doing nothing wrong. Sometimes the Trenitalia payment system is finicky,  sometimes it just doesn’t work.  It’s almost like the payment system deliberately wants to derail its clients, allowing potential trips fall by the wayside.  I know, I know, it’s gotten better, and even though I have my own hack, I thought I should test another payment option: Masterpass.  Over the years buying tickets on Trenitalia, I’ve had my eye on Masterpass but always managed to lose patience in the system before I tried it.  It was about time I gave Masterpass chance.

In basic terms,  Masterpass is a free subscription, secure digital wallet.  Once signed up, payment data (i.e credit cards including Mastercard, Visa and American) and shipping information are entered, plus the necessary encryptions, and you’re logged in, ready to use it as a one-stop click-n-go payment method. I decided to test it out for next trip to Napoli.  Trains selected and voilà, Masterpass clicked.  No additional data entry, no worries. So far its the easiest option on the site.  Dare I say this is the light at the end of the tunnel for Trenitalia purchases. .  .


Disclaimer:  Mastercard Italia invited me to test out Masterpass and asked me to share my thoughts.  For a first time user, I found it easy and secure, aka the verified love child of Apple Pay, PayPal and others.  Would this be something my mom be comfortable using? Most likely not, but it is a reliable next gen payment system and I‘ll be checking out more of its in store/one click functionality.

My 5 Tips to Surviving a Sweltering Summer in Rome

It's 8am, the sun is shining hot and the barometer is reading 30 C/86 F.  Welcome to Rome in the summer where mid-morning feels like high noon in the desert and walking on those beautiful sampietrini (black basalt cobblestones) feels like traipsing across hot coals.  By mid-June, the Eternal City literally becomes the Infernal City, a Dantean hot spot of high temperatures and lots of bodies get a glimpse of every historic and cultural site in the city.  Romans have known since antiquity that there are only two options to survive in the summer- either close the shutters, turning your home into a dark cave, and stay inside from 11am to 3pm, or else, pack your backs and relocate to the beach [or mountains] from as late as July 1st through September 1st.  But that's not going to cut it, you've got places to go and churches, archaeological sites, museums and restaurants to visit.  Here are my five tips to beating the Roman heat.

1.  Rise and Shine

I'm up every morning by about 6.30 am, an unnatural and ungodly hour to rise but I do so because summer sun comes in high and strong (we don't do caves), and we like to take advantage of the city in the early morning.   At 7.30am, Rome is still somewhat empty of tourists so I get a front row spot at the Trevi Fountain, and snap an empty shots of the entire Piazza Navona.  Just before it's 8.30am opening, I'll swing over to the Pantheon so I can have that look up at the Oculus all by myself.  But those are just the basics.  If you want to spend time in must-see sites like the Roman Forum, Colosseum and St. Peter's Museum and Dome that require tickets, set your alarms and plan to arrive at the site by no later than 15 minutes before doors open (8am or 8.30 depending on the site).  Each site require visitors to queue for entry in outdoor spaces-  piazzas and areas that offer absolutely no shade and whose lines can be hours-long waits, and by midday, sites like the Forum and Colosseum become Petri dishes under intense sun.

 

Top of the Dome, St. Peter's, 8.15 am, June. Look closely at the piazza- no one is waiting in line... yet.

2.  Give Yourself a Break.

Romans are absolutely right. By midday, you need to give yourself a break and ricaricare, recharge or better yet replenish all those electrolytes you lost just by walking down the street.  To the Roman, this means a long lunch,  a few hours indoors, or preferably both.  I know, I know, you are here to see the sites, not sit around or stay inside, so here's my pro-tip: plan to visit Rome's not-to-miss museums during the midday break.  Here are my favorite air-conditioned art spots: for Baroque artGalleria Borghese (reservation required) and Palazzo Barberini (park yourself on the velvet divan in the Grand Salon and look up),  for ancient Palazzo Massimo and The Capitoline Museums,  for modern and contemporary: La Galleria Nazionale.  N.B.  This does not include churches as clergy and staff take a lunch break too.

Pantheon.

3.  Go Underground.

I'm lucky, I live with Darius, uber-archaeologist who thinks that the best kind of date means a trek a few meters below ground level to ancient Rome.  Sexy times include investigating Roman insulae, Republican temples, imperial cisterns, Christian catacombs, pagan necropoli and even a 2500-year-old public sewage drain all for the love of antiquity.  Over the years, I've realized that there is nothing better than a trip down under- plus a great pair of shoes.   There is an underground site open every day of the week, so you can jump into a cooler climate for a few hours every day.  My latest line-up: Domus Aurea - Nero's Golden Palace with its kickass VR, old faithful San Clemente is always a crowd pleasure with its multilevels, the somewhat overlooked Citta dell'Acqua and any catacomb- lately I love Santa Domitilla.  Pro Tip for the church goer- ask any priest at any centro storico church if there is something below the pulpit, and you'll find a fewRepublican-era buildings or an imperial temple.

You gotta go under-  the layers of Santa Domitilla.

4. Night Vision.

One of the most important lessons to learn in Rome is that just as the city was not built in a day, nor do you have to see it all in a day.  That's why night visits were created.  Rome has an incredible cityscape of ancient monuments, Renaissance palazzi and Baroque domes, gorgeous as much in an inky navy blue evening, as in daylight.  Over the past few years, cultural sites have finally caught and opened theirs doors to unforgettable evenings.  Why walk with the masses to the Sistine Chapel when you can have the Vatican Museums to yourself- and have an aperitivo in the Cortile della PIgna? How about a walk around the Colosseum and its underground chambers? Personally, I'm all about the flashback experiences at the Fori Imperiali where animated projections are set to melodramatic musical scores as you walk through history , and the evening visit to Castel Sant'Angelo never ever gets old.
 

5.  Grattachecca.

In the summer time, it snows in Rome. And by that I mean grattachecca, the onomatopoeic solution to surviving the Roman heat, and everyone's favorite treat.  Not to be confused with granita, Italian ice found at the local gelateria, grattachecca is a cup full of hand-shaved ice flavored with fruit syrups and preserved cherries or fresh lemon juice and pieces of coconut.  Ingested quickly, it is a ferocious brain freeze.  Savored over an afternoon walk, it is a hand-held cooling system that can change your attitude as quick as it changes your body temperature.  Where can you find one? Walk along the Lungotevere - the street-side sidewalk that borders the Tiber river - from the Ara Pacis to Isola Tiberina and you'll bump into a green chiosk lined with bottles of syrup and manned by two grattacheccari- one person for shaving the ice and the other for flavoring it. FYI- Grattachecca is usually a cash-only operation, so remember to bring spare change.  For more- here's my map of grattachecca spots in Rome

Darius is faithful to tamarindo and orange with cherries. I am a lemoncocco kind of girl.