A Moveable Feast Tuscan Style

Food traditions are a big part of Italian culture so it’s no surprise that eating well is a tradition of our Italy trips! A highlight of a recent trip was a marvelous dinner prepared for us by Chef in Tuscany at our accommodations near Florence.

Three Chefs

Chef in Tuscany Team

Graziella and her staff arrived cheerful and efficient; settled us at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, a crostini sampler, prosciutto and local cheeses served with organic honey. From that vantage point we enjoyed watching her and her staff bustle about, chattering and laughing while we peppered them with questions about recipes, inspirations and preparation techniques.

The first course was a heavenly, buttery zucchini risotto with truffle cream.

Chicken Glazed with Balsamic Vinegar

Chicken Glazed with Balsamic Vinegar

Sautéed chicken breasts served on a bed of arugula, accompanied by grilled eggplant was a simple and delightful second course

Although we didn’t think we could eat another bite, we managed to find room for freshly made chestnut cake with ricotta mousse light and tasty, and an almond torte served with vin santo.

For this team, no job is too large or too small, whether it’s a cooking class or a gourmet meal for two or an entire wedding party. Chef in Tuscany will travel to your location and can custom tailor to your needs. A family with four young children who stayed in one of our Tuscany properties

The 3 "C"s: Crostini, Chianti and Cheese

The 3 “C”s: Crostini, Chianti and Cheese

praised them for rescuing Mom with the preparation of several meals in advance that could be easily reheated at the end of a busy day of sightseeing. Another group had a cooking lesson for 6. Enjoy a variety of mouth-watering themed menus: Old Chianti Menu, Flavors of Florence, Lands of Siena, Maremma Village. Everything can be custom-tailored to meet your needs or any dietary restrictions.

Reserve now for your feast in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany.

 

 

Italian Easter Traditions

Easter Eggs beautifully packaged for presentation.

Easter Eggs beautifully packaged for presentation.

There is nothing like Rome during Easter. From Palm Sunday through Easter Monday, the Eternal City is a symphony of pilgrims, tourists, Christian tradition, flowers and dove-shaped Easter cakes.

On Holy Thursday night, the streets of Rome are filled with jovial energy while Roman faithful and visiting pilgrims pray in seven churches, a tradition dating back to ancient times when the early Christians visited seven Roman basilicas. Good Friday night features the Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis in front of a dramatically candlelit Coliseum. Easter Vigil is the most solemn Mass of the year with St. Peter’s Basilica dramatically dark. On Easter Sunday, Mass is celebrated in St. Peter’s Square with an altar surrounded by 40,000 flowers from the Netherlands. The holiest week of the Catholic liturgical year concludes with jubilant Roman church bells celebrating the Resurrection.

Florence has its own traditions. Pan di Ramerino, a slightly sweet bread made with raisins and rosemary (a Tuscan staple), is enjoyed by Florentines every Holy Thursday when the ovens of Florence are blessed. Try centrally-located Forno Top on Via della Spada.

For Easter Mass in Florence’s majestic Cathedral, the streets are lined to watch the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart). In the Crusades, a noble Florentine was rewarded with three pieces of flint from the Holy Sepulchre (original tomb of Christ). Following a centuries-old tradition, the Florentine archbishop lights a candle with the Holy Sepulchre flint, which lights a mechanical dove that travels on a wire from the Cathedral to ignite a cart of fireworks. If the fireworks explode, a good year is predicted. Interestingly, in 1966, the year of the famous devastating Florentine flood, the dove did not work properly.

Traditional Dove-shaped Easter cake.

Traditional Dove-shaped Easter cake.

Throughout Italy, children wake up to find an Uova di Pasqua – large chocolate Easter egg wrapped in shiny foil. Italians attend Easter Sunday Mass in their local parishes, tuning in at noon to watch the Pope’s message to the world. Then they enjoy a long lunch of ravioli and lamb, followed by an Easter cake, the ricotta Pastiera Napoletana (typically in the Campania region) and or a pearl sugar and almond topped Colomba (dove-shaped cake symbolizing peace). Easter Monday, Pasquetta, usually includes a long walk or day excursion in good company. Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi. (“Christmas with your family, Easter with whom you’d like”) as the saying goes in Italy.

Palazzo Valentini – A Rome ‘Must See’

Make it a ‘Must See Top Eleven’ list for your Rome visit with the new Domus Romane of Palazzo Valentini. Deep under the palace conveniently located in Piazza Venezia, near the gleaming Victor Emmanuel Monument (fondly called the wedding cake), is a modern exhibit that promises a fascinating 1.5 hour tour.

Original mosaics under the ruins

The remains of two luxury Roman homes with their original baths, mosaic floors and colorful frescoes are exhibited as-is, and then with computer generated projections of their original appearance. Good audio and guided commentary. Walking in the dark on vast glass floors over the illuminated ruins is fun. The guided tour ends in a super video that unrolls the story depicted in friezes on Trajan’s Column, detailing how the freizes illustrate the story of Emperor Trajan’s fascinating two campaigns two thousand years ago to Dacia (where you now find Romania) and the process of Roman military campaigns. Must book ahead, better to use online service by clicking here.  www.palazzovalentini.it/index.php?lang=eng

See Italy Perfect’s wonderful selection of apartments in Rome. The Archetto apartment is a five minute walk from the Palazzo Valentini.

La Bella Figura — Italian Style Decoded

Fare una bella figura (make a good impression)  – an unspoken Italian cultural objective that entrances expatriates and tourists alike. In the 1920s, astute F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the idea of la bella figura: “When a girl feels that she’s perfectly groBella Figuraomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That’s charm.”

The Italians have a justified reputation for being the most charming people. Everything is bella, bellisimma and bellina. Italians appreciate beauty, charm and to this theme, the art of fine presentation…of themselves, of their character, their homes and their family. The bill is never split but often fought over for the luxury of paying. For a trip to the Montevarchi Prada outlet, one dresses as if for a Harper’s Bazaar feature.

In every possible way, Italians live their lives to show their bella figura. Italian children are admonished by their mothers to “non fate brutte figure.”  More important than simply “behave” or “stop screaming,” Italians learn at an early age that it is important not to embarrass one’s self or family with bad behavior.

Fortunately, la bella figura can be easily achieved! All one needs is attention to detail, Emily Post manners and a little imagination. Clothes must always be ironed and not a hair out of place. A good scarf can go a long way. And Italy will do its part in return: a piece of Mediterranean sunshine and a frothy cappuccino enjoyed in a medieval piazza should never be undervalued.

Train Travel Tips – Italy Perfect’s tips to make train travel in Italy a fun and relaxing experience.

How to travel in Italy by train.

Lisa and Pat of Italy Perfect taking apartment supplies from Rome to Florence by train.

Here’s a collection of our wisdom regarding trains, including:

  • Reserving train tickets
  • Seat selection
  • Rail protection insurance
  • Changing reservations
  • Rail pass?
  • Cheaper to drive?
  • First or second class?
  • At the station
  • Validate tickets
  • Paperless tickets
  • Boarding train
  • Changing seats
  • Food onboard
  • Call your greeter
  • Landing in Rome/Milan + same day train to Florence

Reserving train tickets

Consider purchasing your train tickets in advance from RailEurope. It will save you from waiting in long lines and will assure you that you get the train you want. If you don’t purchase tickets in advance you may find that peak travel days and times that includes weekends, holidays and throughout the summer, for the popular routes are sold out when you arrive at the station. While there may be trains leaving to your desired destination every 30 minutes, you might have to wait a few hours before there is availability. Or your party may find themselves spread out across random seats in multiple cars, particularly difficult for families. Or you may have to take the slower train which makes numerous stops, increasing your travel time by several hours.

For more information about train travel, schedules, prices please contact the experts at RailEurope.

If you prefer to wait until you get to Italy topurchase tickets, look for local travel agencies in Italy that sell tickets, although there may be a small service fee, often the wait is shorter and the service better than in the train station.

Some cities have multiple stations so do your homework to determine which station to choose.

Rome – Rome’s main train station is Stazione Termini, but there are several other stations throughout the city for commuter trains. The Rome Tiburtina station is a little further outside of the center but also offers high-speed, non-stop trains between the major cities.

Florence – Florence has 3 stations. The main station is Santa Maria Novella also shown as SMN on the schedules. Overnight trains often arrive at the Firenze Rifredi or Firenze Campo di Marte stations, less centrally located.

Venice – Santa Lucia station is the train station that is right in Venice, but you can go to Mestre on the mainland and catch a frequent onward train to Santa Lucia.

Seat selection

When you reserve your tickets on RailEurope, don’t put in seating preferences;  the automated system defaults to trying to put your party together. If you do select window/aisle preferences things can end up badly. For example if you request two window seats and the only available are in separate carriages, that is where you will end up. Better to be seated together and then to negotiate your desired seat.

You cannot reserve forward facing seats only. It doesn’t make sense, actually, because trains pull into the main stations going in one direction and then leave the station by reversing direction. So you may be facing forward when you arrive but backwards when leaving.

Rail protection insurance

We recommend NOT purchasing the rail protection insurance offered by some of the rail booking sites; it’s pretty useless, only covers the tickets and only if you cancel before you travel for a partial refund. A general purpose travel insurance policy such as those offered by Travelex gives better coverage and covers a broader spectrum of issues.

Changing reservations

Officially, you may change your reservations up to three days before travel and if you wish to go on a different train, you may have to repurchase tickets. You might be able travel on another train to the same destination on the same day maybe without a seat assignment, go to the service desk for assistance with changing trains.  If you miss your train ask at the train station what your options are.

Should you buy a Eurailpass?

It depends on the amount of train travel you plan to do. A rule of thumb is that for four or fewer train trips, point-to-point is usually less expensive than a Eurailpass. Keep in mind that the Eurailpass does not include the seat reservation fee, so factor that expense and advance effort to reserve seats. When you book point-to-point tickets you are simultaneously reserving seats. Use the RailEurope site to check the costs and with some careful planning you can calculate which option works best for you. They will provide telephone assistance but usually the hold times are long.

Is it cheaper to rent a car?

For four or more people, renting a car might be a less expensive option and provides more schedule flexibility and spontaneity. Factor in the extra time and hassle factor required to pick up and drop off the car which includes potentially slow, inefficient lines at the car rental counter, navigating and getting lost, the cost of parking, gas, tolls. Car rentals, gas and parking in Italy can be pricey and many historic cities have limited traffic zones to discourage private vehicles in city centers. But for visits to many of the ancient hills towns a car is often the best option since some are not accessible by train. You can obtain a car rental quote from AutoEurope.

First class or second class?

First class has nicer, roomier seats that recline, more luggage storage space. Second class just fine for the relatively short trips between Venice-Florence-Rome. In either class, luggage storage will be at the ends of each car in a communal area, like an airport shuttle.  There is also room for luggage between the backs of seats and for smaller items, in racks above the seats. You are responsible for getting your luggage on and off the train. As the train approaches the station people will crowd the exits. We tend to keep a close eye on our luggage as the train pulls into the station. People exit quickly to snag a luggage cart on the platform.

At the train station

Arrive at the train station 20 minutes before your train, longer if you want to purchase a snack or bottled water for the ride. Keep a close eye on luggage at all times.  Look for large electronic boards with destinations. The tracks are usually not posted until 5 or 10 minutes before train time. The word for track is BINARIO, which you may see abbreviated BIN.

Get on the right train. Match the train # on your ticket to the train # on the big board. There may be several trains to the same ultimate destination, fast and slow.

The train destination may be the major city beyond your station, so if you are traveling from Rome to Florence, the schedule board may show Milano because that is the ultimate destination of the train. Match departure times and train numbers to find your train. This is one of the most counterintuitive things to deal with. You’re at Rome’s Termini station and are taking the train to Florence. You see the track posted for the train to Florence, hurry over to the track, get on the train, settle in and discover you are on the “milk run” train which takes nearly 4 hours not the express 1 hour, 35 minute train which was leaving at almost the same time but had a posted final destination of Milan. The only way to know this is to match the train numbers posted on the board to the train numbers on your ticket.

Validate your tickets

Conductors validate onboard with a mobile phone app. You may see older style yellow validator machines at the beginning of the track. Look like yellow parking meters about 4 feet high. They are disappearing, but now I validate with them just in case.

Paperless Tickets

For Italo trains, which operate on the major routes within Italy, you can reserve e-tickets through RailEurope and receive the confirmation via email. If e-Tickets are available for your train it will appear as an option during the online ticket purchase check out process. You will need the ‘PNR’ confirmation code from the email and a valid ID to provide to the conductor.  Tickets for all other trains within Italy or between countries require paper tickets, mailed to you by RailEurope.

Boarding the train

Match your seat reservations to both car/carriage and seat. The word for car/carriage is CARROZZA. There are first and second class cars. First class have a big 1 on the doors, second have a 2.

Changing seats

Consider negotiating a seat change an opportunity in international relations. You may certainly try to explain in English but pantomime works well in Italy. Remember, also, that your fellow travelers may be foreigners themselves, making communication more interesting. Courtesy and smiles are your best tools; speaking loudly doesn’t improve understanding.

Food onboard

First or second class, don’t expect anything interesting in the way of food service in either class; a snacks and drinks trolley will pass through with a very limited selection of beverages and food for purchase. Best to buy something before you board the train. The larger train station have good cafeterias with take-away options.

Call your vacation rental greeter

Call the greeter before you board the train to reconfirm your check in appointment. That way if there is a problem using your phone in Italy you can seek out a pay phone.

Landing in Rome or Milan + Same Day Train to Florence

If you land in Rome or Milan and are catching the train to Florence the same day here is how to estimate which train to catch, barring flight delays or lost luggage. Landing time + 2 hours to clear passport control, get luggage and find transportation + 1 hour to reach train station + 1 hour at station = 4 hours before you board the train from the time you land. If you are an experienced traveler or are not checking luggage you can reduce the estimated time.