Thursday 24 June 2010

Villa Palmieri: the villa where the famous Boccaccio's novel, "The Decameron", is set

The Villa Palmieri, is a patrician villa in the picturesque town of Fiesole that overlooks Florence, Italy. The villa's gardens on slopes below the piazza S. Domenico of Fiesole are credited with being the paradisal setting for the frame story of Boccaccio's Decamerone.

The group of storytellers stay in two villas above Florence which have been determined to be Villa Palmieri in Fiesole, and the Podere della Fonte, or the so-called Villa del Boccaccio near Camerata. Villa Palmieri is open to visitors, and it’s gardens during Boccaccio’s time are described in great detail in The Decameron at the beginning of Day Three.

“Whereupon they went to a walled garden adjoining the palace; which, the gate being opened, they entered, and wonder-struck by the beauty of the whole passed on to examine more attentively the several parts.
'It was bordered and traversed in many parts by alleys, each very wide and straight as an arrow and roofed in with trellis of vines, which gave good promise of bearing clusters that year, and, being all in flower, dispersed such fragrance throughout the garden as blended with that exhaled by many another plant that grew therein made the garden seem redolent of all the spices that ever grew in the East.
'The sides of the alleys were all, as it were, walled in with roses white and red and jasmine; insomuch that there was no part of the garden but one might walk there not merely in the morning but at high noon in grateful shade and fragrance, completely screened from the sun.
'As for the plants that were in the garden, 'twere long to enumerate them, to specify their sorts, to describe the order of their arrangement; enough, in brief, that there was abundance of every rarer species that our climate allows.

'In the middle of the garden, a thing not less but much more to be commended than aught else, was a lawn of the finest turf, and so green that it seemed almost black, flanked with flowers of, perhaps, a thousand sorts, and girt about with the richest living verdure of orange-trees and cedars, which showed not only flowers but fruits both new and old, and were no less grateful to the smell by their fragrance than to the eye by their shade.
'In the middle of the lawn was a basin of whitest marble, graven with marvellous art; in the centre whereof--whether the spring were natural or artificial I know not--rose a column supporting a figure which sent forth a jet of water of such volume and to such an altitude that it fell, not without a delicious splash, into the basin in quantity amply sufficient to turn a mill-wheel.
'The overflow was carried away from the lawn by a hidden conduit, and then, reemerging, was distributed through tiny channels, very fair and cunningly contrived, in such sort as to flow round the entire lawn, and by similar derivative channels to penetrate almost every part of the fair garden, until, re-uniting at a certain point, it issued thence, and, clear as crystal, slid down towards the plain, turning by the way two mill-wheels with extreme velocity to the no small profit of the lord.
'The aspect of this garden, its fair order, the plants and the fountain and the rivulets that flowed from it, so charmed the ladies and the three young men that with one accord they affirmed that they knew not how it could receive any accession of beauty, or what other form could be given to Paradise, if it were to be planted on earth.”

The villa was certainly in existence at the end of the fourteenth century, when it was a possession of the Fini, who sold it in 1454 to the noted humanist scholar Marco Palmieri, whose name it still bears. In 1697, Palmiero Palmieri commenced a restructuring of the gardens, sweeping away all vestiges of the earlier garden to create a south-facing terrace, an arcaded loggia of five bays and the symmetrically paired curved stairs that lead to the lemon garden in the lower level. The often-photographed lemon garden survives, though postwar renovation stripped the baroque decors from the villa's stuccoed façade. Villa Palmieri has suffered from having been a 'show-place' and the alterations of many owners to suit the fashions of their day, so that little of its original character remains.

The Villetta, an outbuilding formerly part of the extensive Villa Palmieri grounds, was purchased in 1927 by Myron Taylor, the American ambassador to the Holy see, who recreated a Beaux-Arts version of an Italian terraced garden and named it Villa Schifanoia. This portion is erroneous here, as in so confused the Villa Palmieri with the Villa Schifanoia.

Villa Schifanoia was built over the remains of the ancient Villa Palmieri. The main core of the villa, of 15th-century origin, belonged to the Cresci family until 1550. It has changed hands many times over the centuries, and seen many alterations and additions, such as the family chapel, built in the mid-19th century, and the large gate from which the avenue leads through the garden and up to the main entrance of the villa and a small two-storey outbuilding known as la villetta. In 1927 the property passed into the hands of Myron Taylor, the United States Ambassador to the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Taylor restored the villa to house his own art collection and also laid out a beautiful Italian-style garden on the generous stretch of land on the south side, divided into three elegant parterres edged with box hedges and arranged around a series of small fountains. The beautiful formal garden is enlivened with statues and other stone decorations, small pools and fountains, of which the one on the upper terrace is skewed off the main axis. In 1986 the villa was bought by the State and converted into a European University Institute.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

The Market of the Gaite in Bevagna

The colours of Bevagna among workshops and age-old trades. The daily life of the Middle Ages is the theme of the Market of the Gaite (Mercato delle Gaite),which takes place in Bevagna from 16 to 25 June. For the event the town is divided into four districts : San Giorgio, San Giovanni, San Pietro and Santa Maria which compete against each other in the recreation of craftsmen''s workshops and trades of the period. The taverns, open during the festivities, give the visitors the opportunities of tasting Umbria''s delicious cuisine in an informal but characteristic setting. The painstaking historical research and the enthusiasm of the Bevagnese have enabled the market to recreate the intense atmosphere of the world of the cratsman with its sounds and images recalling the bygone era. In the small workshops of the hemp worker, the potter, the dyer and the smith skilled craftsmen create products employing exclusively the art and techniques of the Middle Ages. Walking along the streets of the centre you easily reach the main square of Bevagna which with its medieval character provides the scenario most appropriate for the Market of the Gaite as well as the setting for the most representative moments, such as the opening and closing ceremonies and the contest between the districts.

Friday 18 June 2010

Villa Altachiara in Portofino

Villa Altachiara was built in 1874 by Henry Herbert the 4th Earl of Carnarvon on a promontory near Portofino. It was the home of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who is better known as 'Lord Carnarvon', Howard Carter's sponsor in the discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb. Thanks to him the property became very popular. In 2001 the mysterious death of Countess Vacca Agusta made headlines all over the country and now the luxurious villa in Portofino where the countess lived her last hours before falling to her death from a cliff near her house is up for sale!

Built at the turn of the last century, the villa comprises 30 sumptuous rooms and it is surrounded by a huge beautiful park (35,000 square metres in size).
The house also features a swimming pool and private heliport. From its luxurious rooms furnished with antiques one can enjoy one of the most breathtaking views of the Italian Riviera. Villa Altachiara was put up for sale in 2009 for €34m. It is a very posh villa with a mundane trail of owners- On the death of the 5th Earl, the villa passed to one of his other sons Aubrey Herbert.
By 1933 Villa Altachiara was rented by Elizabeth C Patterson, who made it available to the Indian mystic Meher Baba and shot the film 'Western Disciples Visit India and Portofino'.

The house was bought by the beautiful Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta who disappeared on January 8th 2001. Did she fall? Was she murdered? It was 3 weeks before her body was found, washed up 200 miles from Portofino on the French coast. There were no signs of blood on the cliff face, but reportedy blood was found on the terrace and divers retrieved her ripped bathrobe from the sea of the cliffs. The autopsy concluded that there was no water in her lungs and that she had died of a serious head injury sustained before she entered the water. The verdict was that her death could have been caused by 'accident, suicide or homicide'. There are reports that she had been drinking heavily on the evening of her death so an accident would seem plausible; however, the shape of the cliffs means she would have hit rocks at least three times on her descent and there was no evidenceof blood on the cliffs. Some observers believes this proves she neither fell, nor was pushed but was murdered on the terrace and then her body was deposited in the sea.

Her brother believes she was murdered and her lawyer, Ennio Amodio, said: 'In light of what the French authorities have ascertained, the theory of homicide becomes more likely. The injuries to the head may have been caused by being struck and not by a fall.' Villa Altachiara is a beautiful seaside retreat, with elegant Victorian interiors, perfectly restored, open in all their bright beauty.
This is an exceptional house on the promontory above Portofino, one of the most panoramic spots on the Tigullio Gulf. Villa Altachiara is one of the loveliest oasis of charm in the world!

Friday 11 June 2010

Featured property

This luxury Todi villa is situated on a hill top and it dominates the underlying valleys and hills and offers magnificent views in all directions. The villa, easily accessed by an asphalt road, guarantees total privacy. The beautifully kept lawns, multicoloured flowerbeds and hedges are all within the fencing that surrounds the estate. Built into the top and side of a hill, the villa is on three levels and has several entrances, most of which open onto the porticos that surround it. These porticos are ideal for enjoying meals and admiring the panorama. The house is exquisitely furnished with art collections and antique pieces. Most of the ceilings are wooden beamed and the handmade terracotta floors are set in traditional designs. A short flight of stairs leads from the living room to a sitting room in an open gallery overlooking the formal dining hall with its beautiful ceiling. A huge majolica stove is set between the French windows that open onto the portico facing the pool. The kitchen has a central island and is completely decorated with ceramic tiles designed by the owner, while at one end of the kitchen there is a breakfast niche surrounded by glass bay windows with a door leading to the garden.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

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Friday 4 June 2010

The infiorata in Spello

Spello in Umbria will hold its infiorata from 5th to 6th June this year, covering all its streets with elaborate pictures created from flower petals. This is a competitive infiorata so the townsfolks work in teams and prizes are awarded in several categories. At midday on Sunday 6th June a bell will ring in Spello and this is the signal for the Bishop to begin his procession through the town.

The Infiorata of Spello is an historic religious evocation, taking place between May and June, in the day of the Corpus Domini. In ancient times the streets of the city were adorned with flowers for the passing of the procession, then from year to year people begun to make the flower adorning more and more artistic. From simply throwing flower petals on the street they started creating drawings and nowadays the infiorata have reached a very high artistic level. The people of Spello work all the year long for the preparation of their infiorata (flower adorning) gathering flowers and leafs in any season. Most of the work is done in spring indeed in the period preceding the event, groups of people are committed in flower gathering on mount Subasio. The preparation of the drawing and the flower gathering takes several days. Some flowers are used fresh, while others are dried to obtain different chromatic scales. Usually the drawings have a religious subject and are made by nationally renowned artists. The infiorate are created on the street.

The infiorata of Spello starts the Saturday preceding the religious celebration, and goes on all the night until 8 o’clock in the morning. During this night the little streets of the historical centre of Spello are animated by thousands of people who want to se the way drawings are made. The entire town of Spello gets involved in The infiorata from the youngest to the elderly, and people divide into groups or teams to work together to try and create a winning design. Children as young as 6 join in by helping to collect the flowers, which are then taken apart and sorted in color shades by older members of the team. Once work has been completed and the awnings come down the streets of Spello fill with people admiring the colourful spectacle. On Sunday morning the jury judges and awards the best infiorata, just before the procession passes over them. This event is considered the most famous of Italy in its kind.

Tips for Attending Spello's infiorata - I was uncertain exactly what time viewing would be allowed and arrived in Spello at 8am last year. The streets at that time were packed and parking difficult. I would certainly try to be in Spello by 7am on the Sunday, or even earlier and I believe the large canopies would still be up not allowing much of a view of the larger designs as they were just removing them when I arrived. Be prepared for heavy crowds along the narrow streets and dress comfortably. I spotted a number of tourists wearing very uncomfortable looking high heeled sandals having great difficulty handling the uneven cobblestone streets. The crowded atmosphere would be a pickpocket's dream environment, so keep valuables in either a fanny pack worn in front, in a purse worn across your chest in front, or in some other safe fashion. As well, the crowds were so thick in some areas that I really could not imagine pushing a stroller through Spello with babys or young children.

If you are in Umbria on the Sunday after Corpus Domini do make an effort to travel to Spello for this event as it really is worth seeing. If I were you I would make a point to attend this event if possible.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Truffles in Umbria

Rossini called them the "Mozart of funghi". Italians have dubbed them the "diamond of the kitchen". Gastronomes describe them with words such as pungent, earthy, musky, savory, odiferous, intoxicating, heavenly and sinful. For centuries they have been considered addictive aphrodisiacs. They grow wild, they are difficult to find and they are quite expensive. They are truffles, the Mediterranean equivalent of fine caviar, and more of them are unearthed in Umbria than anywhere else in Italy.
To be in Umbria in October and November during the height of the truffle harvest is to experience food, festivity and sport in enchanting doses. There are nearly 10,000 registered truffle hunters in the province and the rivalry between them is passionate. Truffles grow four to eight inches underground attached to the roots of certain trees including oak, poplar and chestnut. Hunters use dogs and sometimes pigs to sniff them out. It is like panning for gold.

Getting involved in the truffle harvest can range from taking part in an actual truffle hunt with an expert and his dogs, to visiting a full-up festival where truffles of every variety are featured along with spreads of wonderfully prepared local food, to enjoying the delicacy on your own over a quiet meal at home. Truffles are celebrated not only in Umbria but also in Piedmont at Alba, in Le Marche at Acqualagna and in Tuscany at San Miniato. Umbrian truffle centers during the months of October and November include Norcia, Città di Castello, Apecchio and Gubbio, to mention but four. To find a comprehensive overview of truffle-related tours and events be sure to get your hands on The Italian Truffle Guide, prepared and edited by the Touring Club of Italy.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Getting married in Tuscany

'Rod proposed to me in December of 2009, following a gorgeous day of skating in London,' says happy newlywed Jenny. 'He had planned to propose in the restaurant but a group of loud tourists made him wait until we got home to our flat, where he presented me with a ring- a beautiful solitaire set in white gold.'

Jenny, English, from New Castle, and Rod, half Italian and half English, were married this spring in Tuscany. Soon after the engagement, they agreed they’d get married Italy, partly because Rod’s father would be unable to travel to the UK, but most importantly, because Rod grew up near Cortona which was the perfect setting for a wedding. I am very organised,' says Jenny, ‘some might say a control freak! And I like to have things well planned. With 80 guests arriving from various locations, we decided to set up a website via and gave the address to all our guests via the invitations. The website gave lots of travel advice, a list of local hotels at various costs and information on how to get from the airports etc. It also had a forum where our guests could co-ordinate shared lifts, travel together and so on.

Jenny and Rod both agreed they didn’t want a religious, church wedding so they immediately knew it was going to be a civil ceremony. Originally they had set their hearts on doing everything in one venue (i.e. ceremony and reception), but this wasn’t possible for the date they wanted. However, after some research, they came up with a good alternative. Now all they had to do was finalise the details.

But even the most organised souls have pre-wedding nerves. Jenny remembers: 'I think my big panic moment was about two months before the day, when there still seemed like a lot to do, but after our trip to Italy three weeks before the wedding, I managed to calm down. Though even then there were some iffy moments. Jenny and Rod wanted to visit the town hall in Cortona where they were going to be married. 'It was a gorgeous, rich red room,' says Jenny, 'but it was set up like a huge meeting room.

When we asked if they’d be reorganising the hall before our wedding, they said no, and that the room would stay as it was. I had sudden visions of my wedding photographs with people crouching behind microphones and with a fax machine in the background. I was trying to hold it together but could almost feel my bottom lip start to tremble. Rod saw the look on my face and said, ‘Just leave it to me.’ He went off to talk to the gentleman from the comune who listened carefully to him. He disappeared, then returned a few minutes later with a key, and let us view another room full of light and beautiful chandeliers and frescoes. And when he saw how much we liked it, his face lit up and he said, ‘Just leave it to me’. The gentleman’s name was Signor Fioravanti and he must have taken a shine to us, as he was as good as his word.

'I had decided early on that I didn’t want a strapless dress,’ says Jenny, ‘but at Berketex Brides, the assistant said she’d like to suggest a few dresses to me that she thought would suit me. One that she picked out was the Angelique model, but as it was strapless, I didn’t think it was going to be right. It was the first dress I tried and as soon as I put it on, I felt absolutely amazing in it! It had a Hollywood glamour feel to it that suited my personality and style and both my mum and I just loved it.

As it was too early to make a decision, I decided to look around, but 18 months and plenty of dress shopping later, I went back and bought the very first dress I had ever tried on. And it was so amazing to wear it on the day. It really was The One!

'The days running up to my wedding were part of what I enjoyed most,' says Jenny. 'My mother, my sister-in-law and I got to do lots of girly things, and pampered ourselves in Tuscany while my husband ran around ticking things off his husband todo list, like chasing up the best man, and rounding up errant DJs. And in the evenings we had lots of family dinners with Rod’s uncles and aunts who live near Siena, and I was happy and relaxed and not the least bit nervous. 'Jenny decided on a theme of deep red roses for her wedding, so she used the red detail for the bouquet, the flower-girl dresses, her hair accessories, the flower decorations at the Town Hall and the reception. She also had silk red rose petals scattered at the Town Hall and around the wedding cake.

'Our wedding in our beautiful hall at the comune was perfect, 'she says, 'and, much to our pleasure, our friend Mr. Fioravanti was present. And in a gesture of incredible generosity, he brought a bottle of chilled champagne from his own house to serve Rod and I and our two witnesses after the ceremony, and gave us special ornamental silver serviette-rings that used to be given to all couples that got married in Cortona as a memento. And at that point we invited him to our wedding reception and dinner and were delighted when he turned up later with his wife!’

Jenny and Rod’s reception was held in the gardens of a private Tuscan villa, a place they’d had their eye on for some time. 'To be honest,' says Jenny, 'Rod and I had visited the villa various times through  and had really set our heart on getting married there, but it was booked solidly and it was impossible to find a date that suited us. We had really wanted to get married and have the reception all in one place.

'About half way through our wedding day, our photographer said to us that if we didn’t get away for an hour or so we wouldn’t see each other at all. He was right. So we took off for a walk through Cortona. I slipped on a pair of flip flops under my wedding dress and Rod carried my shoes in one hand and our white wedding umbrella in the other! We stopped off for a coffee in a bar and everyone cheered. Then we went into the piazza where everyone clapped and shouted ‘Auguri!’ We just felt like superstars!

'You know, if I hadn’t come to Italy to get married, I would probably have had a really nice wedding day somewhere in England, but this way it really changed my whole experience. Looking back, I couldn’t have had a better day, and most of what made it so special was Italy, its wonderful generous people, and its unique heart.'