Saturday, 25 January 2014

What is Ferragosto?

Many visitors to Italy hear some version of the story that August is not the time to visit Italy because everyone is on holiday, off to the seaside leaving cities full of shuttered restaurants and closed museums. There is definitely an element of truth in this, but rest assured that Italy continues to function during August and that Italians on holiday are also tourists and they are well catered for. Nevertheless, at the middle of the month of August, there really is a date when almost everyone really does take the day off. This is Ferragosto, a day on which, in many areas, you can experience Italy with few cars on the roads. It's almost like stepping back into the 19th Century.

Ferragosto at the beach
What is Ferragosto? In the simplest terms, Ferragosto is a holiday that takes place on 15th August every year in Italy. It is, in fact, probably the most popular holiday in Italy other than Christmas day. Ferragosto coincides with Assumption Day, the principal feast of the Virgin Mary, commemorating the day of the assumption of her body into heaven. Not coincidently, Ferragosto is also the modern derivative of the ancient harvest festivals that were formalised by the emperor Augustus in 18 BC under the name Feriae Augusti (Festivals of Augustus), from which its name Ferragosto is derived. During these celebrations, horse races were organised across the Roman Empire and this tradition remains alive today with the Palio of Sienna, taking place on the 16th of August. Indeed the name "Palio" comes from the pallium, a piece of cloth that was the prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

Ferragosto 1970
Milan railway station in 1970 - Neapolitans heading home for Ferragosto.
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under Mussolini. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the government organised popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organisations of various corporations, and via the setting up of the "People's Trains of Ferragosto", which were available at discounted prices. For many families, it was during these trips that they saw the sea, mountains and Italy's many artistic marvels for the first time.

Nowadays, Ferragosto means heading to the family home or a beach resort for a huge lunch, either at home or in a restaurant. Traffic is heavy before and after Ferragosto and trains are usually booked out well in advance for those dates. If you're visiting Italy over Ferragosto, be sure to try for a restaurant reservation - you'll then witness real Italian life in all its noisy glory!

More about festivals in Tuscany.

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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Porter service for Italian trains - Frecciarossa and Frecciargento trains

Most Italian railway stations no longer provide baggage trolleys. If your bags have some kind of wheels on them, it's usually no problem to get to your carriage. If you're evidently having difficulty lifting the bag into the train or, once inside, up onto the baggage rack, usually someone nearby will offer to help. If no one offers spontaneously, just ask the nearest strong-looking man - I've never known this request to be refused.

Porter service for Italian trains
Luggage trolleys are no longer available in most Italian railway stations.
Nevertheless, there is a porter service for Italian trains - Frecciarossa and Frecciargento trains. Passengers who are concerned about carrying heavy baggage to and into their carriage and vice versa might be interested to know that Trenitalia offers limited porter service on an advance booking basis, as follows:

1. The service is available ONLY at Roma Termini, Firenze SMN, Bologna Centrale, Milano Centrale and Venezia SL stations.

2. The service is available ONLY for Frecciarossa and Frecciargento trains arriving or departing between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., daily.

3. You must BOOK the service by calling 892021 in Italy, NO LATER THAN 8 p.m. of the evening PRIOR to your date of travel. You will be asked to provide the details of your ticket, including the PNR reservation code.

4. For departing passengers, the meeting point with the porter is agreed upon with the operator at the time of the booking call (e.g. at the head of a numbered platform). For arriving passengers, the meeting point is directly in front of the carriage in which the passenger is seated, at the time the train actually arrives in the station.

5. The cost of the service is a flat 5 Euros, payable directly to the porter: Official porter service

Separate and apart from the porter service described above, Trenitalia also offers a door-to-door luggage transportation service through a third party company, for people who prefer not to take luggage on the train: Official baggage service

Moving luggage and baggage in Italian railway stations
Those bags are not all hers!
In many large stations there are independent and also organised groups individuals who offer to transport passengers' bags. They are mostly Indians and Arabs. This activity is illegal and the authorities discourage passengers from availing themselves of this service, but no vigorous efforts are made to put a stop to it. I would guess that as long as you fix your price beforehand, there would be no problem letting them move your luggage.

An additional note - there are no baggage lockers in any Italian railway station (none in Europe, in fact), due to the possibility of bombs being left in them. There are manned baggage storage locations which should not be assumed to be open 24 hours a day - most are not. Usually your passport will be photocopied when you deposit your gear. These deposits are not cheap so you should condense your baggage a far as practical.

Vacation rentals in Tuscany

Today's top links for everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Chianti:

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Saturday, 29 June 2013

What's the difference between First and Second Class in Italian trains?

It seems I'm now an expert on the Italian railway system! Several readers have written in to ask "what's the difference between First and Second Class in Italian trains?" The qualifier is that it depends on the type of train.

Just a reminder - the fast train network in peninsular Italy is faster, cheaper and much more convenient and comfortable than flying. If you are travelling to and from Sicily, there are comfortable, time-efficient, overnight, sleeper trains. Note also that rail passes almost never make economic sense for train travel in Italy.

Let me start with the Frecciarossa and Italo superfast, long distance trains.

Frecciarossa second class seats
Frecciarossa second class seats
Second class seats are two plus two across the width of the carriage. They are airline-style seats but nevertheless perfectly comfortable, especially for smaller people (like me). Taller people, especially men, sometimes find it tiresome to squeeze their legs in and out from under the table. Nevertheless, the general travel experience is perfectly acceptable even for 3 hours. The baggage racks handle quite large suitcases and are made of glass so that it's easier to see if you've left anything behind. For really big suitcases, there is some but not a lot of space in special racks at either end of the carriage. In principle, these latter are not all that secure since someone could board a carriage, pick up a suitcase and take it off while the train is in a station. Up until now I haven't heard of any problems in this regard.

Frecciarossa first class seats
Frecciarossa first class seats
 First class is very spacious. The seats are lounge-type and there are only three of them across the width of the train. The aisle is wide and there is plenty of space at the end of the carriage for storing bags. Passengers receive a newspaper and an insignificant drink and snack. If budget is no object, first class is a very comfortable way to travel. There are in fact more than one type of First Class, Business class being the least expensive. Others include Business Area Silenzio, Business Salottino (a kind of glassed in area of four seats with maximum recline) and Executive. The latter includes a hot meal and drinks.

IMPORTANT TIP: Tickets for the Frecciarossa can and should be bought on-line as long in advance as possible. Be sure to check the prices for different train times (and even days, if you have the flexibility) since the prices vary by train, by time and day of departure and depending on when you're booking. Very cheap Super Economy tickets are often available (note that you CANNOT change these reservations and there is no refund if you miss the train) AND sometimes First Class tickets are available at the same reduced price as for Second Class. These will be displayed during the on-line reservation and represent incredible value for money.

You can and should use the ticketless option for superfast trains within Italy - just make a note of your ticket reference and tell it to the conductor. Many passengers store this on their cell phone. Or you can have a ticket emailed to you and either store that on your cell phone or print it out.

There is good WiFi connectivity - you just need a cell phone with an Italian SIM card (i.e. a 0039 phone number) to register and obtain your password.

There are of course good bar and restaurant carriages in the middle of these superfast trains.

All other trains represent considerable variety and I don't want to describe them all in detail here. They include, in order of decreasing speed, Frecciargento, Frecciabianca, InterCity (IC), Espresso, Regionale & local trains (E, R). For Espresso and slower trains, a reservation is neither needed nor possible BUT you MUST frank (validate) all Italian regional and local train tickets immediately before boarding your train, by putting them into the small yellow or green machines at the entrance to every platform.  There's a painful and unavoidable fine if you don't have a validated ticket.

The differences between First and Second Class on these slower trains: 

Frecciargento: These trains are very similar to the Frecciarossa in terms of level of comfort and differences between First and Second Class. They run on some of the subsidiary routes, notably Bologna to Venice. Maximum speed 125 kph. Air-conditioned.

Frecciabianca: Again running at up to 125 kph and air-conditioned, these are InterCity carriages that have been refurbished for high speed travel and have a good level of comfort.

Intercity train in Italy
Intercity train

InterCity: These are the standard "old time" carriages, sometimes still with compartments with seating for six passengers in Second Class and for four people in First Class. Both classes also sometimes have open plan seating. On many routes there is no reason to take these trains unless your budget is highly constrained or you wish to reach a station not served by a Frecciarossa. Reservations are obligatory for IC trains but there is often space right up to when the train departs.

Regionale: apart from wider and slightly more comfortable seats, plus lower seat density, the First Class seats on the Regionale trains usually recline, unlike those in Second Class. This can mean a difference in comfort on long trips. However, there are relatively few Regionale trains left that have First Class carriages. You find them on longer distance routes such as Florence - Rome, Florence - Foligno and Bolzano - Bologna.

USEFUL TIP: Some Regionale First Class carriages have been "declassed" ("declassato") to Second Class. The "declassment" notice is usually posted on the door of the carriage. In this case, holders of Second Class tickets can sit in the First Class carriage that has been "declassed".

Italian local train
Italian local train

Local trains and railcars usually have a single class of carriage and are satisfactory for journeys of up to 45 minutes or so. They cover distance slowly because of the numerous stops they make, these being the trains you use to reach small towns and villages. Because they are sometimes crowded and make frequent stops, these trains are favorites for train thieves, especially in the area of Naples. Gypsy thieves specialise in the short routes from airports to city centres.

More about high speed trains in Italy.

More about getting around in Tuscany.

More about steam engine train trips in Tuscany.

Timetables and booking: for Milano-Tirano and some local trains in northern Italy. for trains from Naples to Pompeii and Sorrento - buy tickets at the station.

Vacation rentals in Tuscany

Today's top links for everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Chianti:

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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Italo trains, Italy's new high-speed train routes

Today I want to review briefly the Italo trains, Italy's new high-speed train routes.

First some background on high speed trains in Italy. For several years we have had the excellent Frecciarossa fast trains belonging to Trenitalia running on the main north-south route from Turin in the north west as far as Salerno in the south, plus the slightly slower Frecciargento trains on routes to popular cities such as Verona, Venice and Bari. The first thing we saw when these fast trains were introduced in Italy was that the standard prices were high on the Frecciarossa. The old trains still run and are much cheaper but also much, much slower. HOWEVER, if you can plan your train travel ahead of time and if you are flexible regarding departure time, then there are a number of discounted rates, the cheapest of which compares with or surpasses the old slow train ticket prices. A little bit of effort on the Trenitalia website can result in major savings, especially if you're booking two to three months ahead. Reservations can be made on-line and tickets are sent by email. The cheapest reservations cannot be changed.

TIP: Look carefully at the discounted offers, especially on the Frecciarossa trains - from time to time you can travel business class for the same reduced price as second class. The seats are much wider and there is much more space in general in the first class / business class carriages.

Some useful information on the difference between First and Second Class on Italian trains.

Note that some but not all American credit cards can present difficulties on the Trenitalia website. However, as of today's date, some US cards definitely work. European cards work without a problem.

The main site for booking Trenitalia trains, including the Frecciarossa is
Another site seems to be dedicated to the Frecciarossa fast trains only: together with which redirects to

Italo trains, Italy's new high-speed train routes
The Italo train, Italy's new high-speed train
So what is the difference between the Frecciarossa and the Italo Italian high speed trains? At present, they are covering very similar routes. There are therefore two main differences. The Italo is competing on the basis of price. Italo standard prices are lower and the speed of the trains is the same. Inside, the Italo trains are very nice indeed. They have the comfortable seats seen in the Frecciarossa, plus WiFi and other facilities. Furthermore, there is excellent on-platform assistance and a dedicated Italo reception area in the stations that the Italo serves. This really makes life easier for tourists.

HOWEVER, the Italo trains often depart from stations other than the main station of any particular city (e.g. Porta Garibaldi rather than Centrale in Milan, and Tiburtina rather than Termini in Rome). For local people or tourists staying in a given town, this is not really a problem since in the bigger cities the relevant station can easily be reached by public transport. However, if you are changing trains, this can be an inconvenience and result in significant lost time. Study the on-line timetable carefully. The Italo is an excellent option in many cases.

This the Italo Train website:

Today's top links: For everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Chianti: The Chianti Travel Guide and The Greve in Chianti Tuscany Blog.

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Friday, 2 November 2012

The Palio of Città della Pieve

You've all no doubt heard of the Palio of Sienna, the famous horse race where the age-old districts of the city compete for a prize known as the "palio" or "pallium", a banner of painted silk named after the homonymous ecclesiastical vestment. In fact, quite a number of palio competitions are held throughout Tuscany and Umbria. One of the most famous is the Palio of Città della Pieve, a pretty little hilltop town of about 8000 inhabitants and located in Umbria, right on the Tuscany-Umbria border. In Città della Pieve, the palium is a beautiful tapestry painted by the Pievese master Antonio Marroni. The palio competition, the Palio dei Terzieri, is not especially ancient in the case of Città della Pieve, having been invented in 1962 by Don Oscar Carbonari, the parish priest at that time. The Palio of Città della Pieve is now one of the best mediaeval festivals in Umbria and the main tourist attraction of the town.

Palio of Città della Pieve
Historical Parade of the Palio of Città della Pieve
In 2012, the Palio of Città della Pieve took place from 8 to 19 August (roughly the 10 days to the second-to-last Sunday of the month, with the main event taking place on the Sunday). The "terzieri" are the three districts composing Città della Pieve and also many other Umbrian and Tuscan towns. The division into terzieri dates from mediaeval times and in the case of Città della Pieve is said to symbolise an eagle, with the head corresponding to the Terziere Castello (the "Castle Third") or Classe dei Cavalieri (Class of the Knights), the stomach to the Terziere Borgo Dentro (the Third of the people living within the walls) and the wings and tail to the Terziere Casalino or Class of the "little house dwellers". In ancient times, the Terzieri were well-defined with regard to social rank as well, representing three distinct social classes. The Terziere Castello was composed of members of the aristocracy, the Borgo Dentro of the middle class, with the peasants making up Terziere Casalino.

The day of the Lancio della Sfida (Launch of the Challenge), is Ferragosto, 15 August, usually starting at 5.30pm in the Piazza Plebiscito, during which the Pallium is returned by the winning Terziere of the previous year to the Podestà of Castel della Pieve who keeps it until the competition on the last day of the Palio.

The culmination of the Palio usually starts at 5 pm on the second to last Sunday of August when the Corteo Storico, the parade in historical costumes, this year with around 800 participants, starts from Piazza del Plebiscito. Bringing up the rear are the Maestro di Scena (the Master of the Event), the Portagonfalone (the banner carrier), the Armati del Comune (the town militia), the Giudici di Campo (the judges of the competition) and an allegorical float of Classical inspiration. The parade arrives at the Campo de li Giochi (field of the games), the Campo di Santa Lucia, the location for the culminating event. This is the Caccia del Toro, an archery competition inspired by the ancient Sienese “Cacce” (hunts). Each Terziere has three participants, each with three arrows. The targets are three silhouettes of Chianina oxen mounted on a carousel. Every target has the colours of the corresponding Terziere. The targets also turn three times, speeding up with each turn. Whichever Terziere makes the most and most accurate hits wins the Palio.

Throughout the duration of the Palio there are numerous interesting events including mediaeval parades, plays, Renaissance music, juggling and so on, but one of the best parts is probably the Taverne of the Terzieri, where can enjoy the specialities of the traditional Umbrian-Tuscan cuisine.

More about Città della Pieve.

More Umbrian festivals.

Tuscan festivals and events

Holiday rentals in Chianti, Tuscany.

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Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Attending Mass in the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia

St. Benedict (San Benedetto) enjoys a very special place in the life of Norcia (Nursia, in Roman times), where he was born, probably in about the year 480, reaching manhood as the remnants of the Roman Empire slid into chaos. During the subsequent Dark Age, monasteries were often the main focal points of culture, learning, spiritual zeal and readiness for social action, in contrast to the agitated sea of barbarism that surrounded them on all sides. Benedict formulated a humane and reasonable set of precepts for his monks, and this Rule of Saint Benedict became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. For this reason, Benedict is often called the founder of western monasticism and therefore by extension perhaps also the founder of modern Europe. He is, in any case, the patron saint of Europe.

Attending Mass in the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia
The Basilica of St. Benedict on the main piazza of Norcia, Umbria.
For those inspired by traditional services in ancient churches, nothing equals attending Mass in the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia in Umbria. The Basilica is located on the main piazza of Norcia. Vespers and Compline are open to the public every day in the crypt of the Basilica. The time for Vespers varies throughout the year from 5:30 pm in summer, 6:15 pm in autumn and winter, and 4:15 pm in Lent. Compline is at 7:45 PM all year round and, by special dispensation, for Compline, Mass is recited in latin and is accompanied by Gregorian chant. To participate, you should wait at the red rope at the stairs leading down to the crypt on the left side. It's courteous to ask the monk who unlocks the door whether you may participate. The door is locked for the duration of the service (30 minutes).

The monks have recently established a micro-brewery at their monastery. They make a light and a heavy beer, both of which are available in the bars around Norcia and at the monastery gift shop. Here is a video of the inauguration of the brewery.

More about things to see and do in Norcia, Italy.

Vacation accommodation in Chianti, Tuscany.

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Saturday, 15 September 2012

Things to see and do in Orvieto, Italy

The Region of Umbria in central Italy is somewhat neglected by visitors from abroad when compared with its celebrated northern neighbour, Tuscany. This neglect is quite unjustified. Umbria is a Region of varied and magnificent landscapes, charming villages, great food and a number of splendid "art cities", among the foremost being Orvieto.

Orvieto Italy
The Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy
Among the things to see and do in Orvieto, Italy, the first "sight" is in fact Orvieto itself sitting atop a tuffa butte rising 640 ft above the surrounding rolling green hills. This spectacular vision is augmented by the sight of the Cathedral of Orvieto rising above the town, the golden mosaics on its facade glittering in the sun. Orvieto itself is completely pedestrianised and can be most enjoyably reached via a funicular. Orvieto is characterised by an unusually high number of fine 13 C houses and palaces, including a papal palace that now houses Orvieto's municipal museum, and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo.

The site of Orvieto was a major Etruscan nucleus and the butte is riddled with Etruscan excavations forming a virtual underground city of tunnels, galleries, wells, stairs, quarries, cellars, unexpected passageways, cisterns, and superimposed rooms with numerous small square niches. Outside the city is the Etruscan necropolis of Crocefisso di Tufo which is composed of a hundred or so chamber tombs laid along a rectangular street grid, with numerous examples of Etruscan inscriptions.

A more recent excavation is the Pozzo di San Patrizio, "Saint Patrick's" well, a deep well accessed by a double helical stairway and dating from 1528. The energetic visitor can descend the entire 175 ft - and climb back up again. The massive 14 C Fortezza dell'Albornoz is also worth a visit.

More Orvieto tourist information, sights, festivals and wines.

More history of Orvieto.

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Thursday, 13 September 2012

Carsulae Roman ruins in Umbria, Italy

Visitors to central Italy, including southern Tuscany and Umbria, should take the opportunity to visit Carsulae Roman ruins in Umbria, Italy if they do not plan a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano). While Carsulae does not offer intact buildings, frescoes and Roman city streets full of shops, it does nevertheless give a very good impression of the layout of a provincial Roman town.

Carsulae Umbria Italy
Aerial view of Carsulae in Umbria, Italy
Carsulae's growth into a major town was a result of the building of the via Flaminia, in 220-219-BC. Indeed, The Via Flaminia is the cardo or main street of Carsulae. During its golden age, Carsulae supported a large complex of thermal mineral baths, theatres, temples and other public amenities, the remains of many of which are clearly discernible today. Since the present ground level is much the same as in Roman times, not a great deal of excavation has been necessary to reveal the town plan, despite vast quantities of stone having been carted away over the centuries for use in other buildings in the mediaeval towns of this part of Umbria.

The location of Carsulae is pleasantly bucolic even today making it a nice place for a picnic break during your exploration of the site and the nearby towns, including Terni, which is about 20 km away and has a considerable Roman amphitheatre of its own.

More about Casulae Roman ruins.

More about Roman Umbria.
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Gubbio in Umbria, Italy

The town of Gubbio in Umbria, Italy, is a must-see for anyone visiting this part of Umbria (Perugia is 45 km away to the SE). Its location on a steep hillside surrounded on the higher levels by alpine forest, is especially charming. Gubbio's historical centre has a good selection of mediaeval, Gothic and Renaissance structures built of gray limestone and has great views over the beautiful countryside. Just outside the town is a Roman amphitheatre, one of several substantial Roman remains in the area.

Gubbio Umbria Italy
The town of Gubbio in Umbria.
The main sights of Gubbio include:
  • The Roman Theatre dating from the first century BC.
  • The Roman Mausoleum.
  • The Palazzo dei Consoli (14 C), housing the Eugubine Tablets.
  • The Palazzo and Torre Gabrielli.
  • The Duomo (Cathedral - alte 12 C) with its striking rose-window.
  • The Palazzo Ducale, built starting in 1470, for Federico da Montefeltro.
  • The Church of San Francesco (13 C). The frescoes in the left side date from the 15 C.
  • The Church of Santa Maria Nuova, a typical Cistercian structure of the 13 C.
  • The Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo, with a nave and four aisles, is located outside and above the Gubbio.
Gubbio is famous for a festival known as the Corsa dei Ceri, a race held annually on 15 May, in which three teams, devoted to Sant'Ubaldo (the patron saint of Gubbio), San Giorgio, and Sant'Antonio, run through crowds of cheering supporters (clad in the distinctive colours of yellow, blue and black, with white trousers and red belts and neckbands), up much of the mountain from the main square in front of the Palazzo dei Consoli to the basilica of Sant'Ubaldo, each team carrying a statue of their saint 4 mm tall and weighing about 280 kg, mounted on a wooden octagonal prism. The race is one of the best-known folkloric events in Italy.

More about Gubbio and its sights.
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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Norcia Umbria Italy

For anyone who enjoys good food, the little town of Norcia, Umbria, Italy, is worth a visit. Norcia has been famous for centuries for its pork-based foods, including sausages, capocollo, salumi and hams. The best black truffles in Italy (the same species as Perigord truffles) are found in the area around Norcia and the countryside produces an excellent variety of lentil. In fact, even if you're in Norcia for only half a day, don't miss trying a plate of pork sausages and lentils for lunch or dinner.

Norcia, Italy, was also the birthplace of Saint Benedict and has the architecture appropriate to celebrate this important event. And, unusually for Umbria, Norcia lies on flat ground, despite its high elevation, which makes it a pleasure to stroll around its main sights. The air is fresh and clean, and excursions into the villages of surrounding Sybelline hills add to the pleasure of visiting this area of Umbria, Italy.
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Sunday, 6 February 2011

What to see in Perugia Italy

Perugia Italy sometimes has its reputation as one of the great cultural centres of Italy obscured by its more recent reputation as "party central" for American and European students abroad. Either way, Perugia should be at the top of the list of sights for any visitor to Umbria. Here we provide some links on what to see in Perugia, Italy.

The frescoes of the Palazzo dei Priori and the Sala dei Notari alone are sufficient reason to spend a day in Perugia. Add to this a myriad of exquisite churches, one of them, the Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo, dating from Roman times, plus the charming ambience of Perugia's piazzas.

Useful information on the sights of Perugia and Lake Trasimeno is provided on the following web sites:

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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Deruta Italy Ceramics

The attractive little town of Deruta Italy is famous for ceramics, meaning, in this case, Italian majolica. Deruta is located on a hillside above the Tiber valley (the Valtiberina) in Umbria, not far from Perugia, and its economy is dominated by production of hand-made and hand-painted ceramics.

Much of the work is literally a "cottage industry" with potters bringing in their work to be fired, taking it away to paint it and bringing it back again to be glazed. These plates, bowls, vases etc are then sold in the outlets within the town and on the valley floor below. The style is extremely characteristic, being dominated by symbolic decorations depicting dragons, mythical animals and highly stylised flowers. Very good copies, labelled as such, of antique vases and other vessels are also available. For anyone interested in Italian pottery, Deruta is worth a full day visit both to buy and to visit the ceramics museum to admire the antique output of this Umbrian town.

More about Deruta, Italy.

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