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 www.trenitalia.com.
Another site seems to be dedicated to the Frecciarossa fast trains only:  
www.fsitaliane.it together with www.lefrecce.it which redirects to www.fsitaliane.it.

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: www.italotreno.it

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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