This picture is of my friend Paolo dressed in historic clothing during a Palio parade. He was born and raised in Siena and is a passionate Pantera contrada member who works for the Province of Siena. Although I am not baptized into a contrada, I always root for the Selva (Forest) contrada.

SIENA AND THE PALIO HORSERACE

The famous Palio of Siena horserace takes place twice a year, once on July 2nd and a second time on August 16th. This fascinating historical race has origins that go back hundreds of years and the race still plays a treasured and very central role in Siena civic life today.

The city of Siena is divided into 17 historic contrade (listed below) or neighborhoods/districts that participate in the running of the race each year, with ten contrade running in each race. To join a contrada you must be baptized into it and from then on you spend your free time and money supporting your neighborhood in the hopes of winning the next Palio. Contrada members take part in the many events of the Palio including the massive dinners held in the streets and squares, the blessing of the horse, and the historical parade with special costumes, musicians and flag throwers.

Attending the Palio horserace is an amazing experience, and one that not many tourists get a chance to do. There are several ways to be able to feel the thrill and witness the extreme joy as the winner is proclaimed and despair as the loosing contrade accept their fate. Watching the Palio from the center of Piazza del Campo is actually completely free and does not require a ticket. However, people attending for the first time should be aware that the race is very short and the wait is very long, and from the center it is likely you will see very little of the race. Balconies above the square and seating in the stands that circle the piazza are available at steep prices and should be reserved far in advance, some even come with refreshments and facilities.

Another way to experience the Palio is by attending one of the many trial races that occur once or twice a day in the few days leading up to each Palio. These are trial races similar to the actual Palio, but with many fewer spectators and way less waiting time. Or if you are coming to Siena in a different period, I am more than happy to take you on a Palio-themed walking tour of this medieval city. The tour can include a stroll through different neighborhoods, lots of interesting information about the Palio, and even a private visit to a Palio museum (that are usually closed to the public) to see the memorabilia of a specific neighborhood.Here is a complete list of the 17 contrade with name translations according to the Palio di Siena wikipiedia page:

Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Little Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Crested Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower), Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram).

Southern Tuscany: Crete Senese, Truffles and Brunello

Many of my clients are curious to know which area of Tuscany is my favorite. My answer is: all of them! It is so hard to choose a favorite from the many different areas, mostly because they are so diverse. Tuscany has everything from mountains and the sea to bustling art cities and tiny villages, but one of the most special areas has to be the Crete Senese. This is the landscape that you picture when you close your eyes and day dream of Tuscany.

The area to the south of Siena, referred to as the Crete Senese (that roughly translates to clay hills of Siena) is a unique landscape that I love. This region has a heavy clay soil that creates a very particular always-shifting lunar landscape, especially in the winter when the fields lay fallow. In contrast, the spring and summer offer lush waves of green grasses with a line of cypress trees all pointing toward the sky. This area has a history deeply connected to the mezzadria or sharecropping system, in fact you can visit the Mezzadria Museum in Buonconvento to learn how the population lived over the last centuries. Here you will see lots of farming still going on today, with fields planted in crops such as wheat, sunflowers and hay among others. This area also features many pastures for sheep, whose milk is used to make the wonderful local pecorino cheese.

In the area surrounding Montalcino, a charming hilltop village dominated by a Fortress from the 1300’s, you will find extensive vineyards planted with Sangiovese Grosso grapes, used to make the world famous Brunello di Montalcino red wine. The wine is produced only in this small region, requires 100% Sangiovese grapes, and must be aged for five years before being released on the market. One of the most famous wines from Italy, the local wineries and wine shops attract visitors from around the world for visits and tastings of their award winning wines.

If you are interested in visiting this area I would love to be your guide. I can arrange for private wine tastings, take you to my favorite local restaurants and show you hidden gems throughout the region on our day together in the Crete Senese.

VILLA GEGGIANO & CHIANTI DAY

I spend much of my time taking my clients around the museums and monuments of the two major cities of Tuscany: Florence and Siena. So when my clients ask me to create a day in the countryside, I jump at the chance! Even though I was born here, the Tuscan countryside still manages to take my breath away. From the tiny hilltop villages and exclusive villas and castles, to olive orchards and vineyards, it is worth dedicating a day of your trip to getting out of the city to explore this unforgettable landscape.

One of my favorite places to take clients is for a visit to Villa di Geggiano, a property owned by the Bianchi Bandinelli family since 1527, just 20 minutes outside the city of Siena. This luxury villa with winery is located in the prestigious Chianti Classico region and produces straightforward organic wines that respect the local traditions and environment. The property offers an impressive renovated villa, extensive garden and grounds, and winery and has even been used as a movie set for films such as Stealing Beauty with Bernardo Bertolucci, Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons. If you are thinking of planning your wedding in Tuscany, this beautiful complex is also available as a wedding venue or for other private events.

After the visit to Villa Geggiano, we can continue the countryside exploration with a booking for lunch in a great local restaurant nearby where you can try more local Chianti wines paired with typical Tuscan treats such as pecorino cheese, extra virgin olive oil, wild boar, fresh pasta dishes and much more. Of course a day in the countryside isn’t complete without a visit to a charming village so after lunch we can head to nearby Castellina in Chianti or Gaiole in Chianti to enjoy these hilltop Chianti villages for some shopping and a mid-afternoon gelato.

FLORENCE SYNAGOGUE AND JEWISH LIFE

The Synagogue in Florence is one of the largest in Italy and worth a visit. Construction began at the end of the 1800’s, after the demolition of the Jewish Ghetto of Florence, and the synagogue opened its doors in 1882. It is located in the city center of Florence in the Mattonaia district. The architecture combined elements of Moorish, Byzantine, and Romanesque influence and the final result is stunning, reflecting both the Florentine history and Jewish experience.

The Synagogue features a museum within the synagogue complex. The first section shows the historical objects used by the Jewish community in Florence throughout the centuries. The second section has more objects, especially from ceremonies, as well as furnishings, the Hebrew bible on scrolls of parchment, and important drawings. The museum includes a film about the history of Florence as well as documents that illustrate Jewish life over the last 600 years in this city.

Jews were invited to move to Florence in the 1400’s to become moneylenders, a profession forbidden to Christians at the time, but necessary none-the-less for a vibrant city of art, culture, and trade. The history of the Jews in Florence is complex, with periods of intense persecution including long confinement to ghettos, the worst of which occurred during WWII when they faced horrible crimes at the hands of the Italian Facist regime and then by the occupying Germans.

If you are planning on visiting Florence and would like to visit the synagogue or attend a service or event check out the website of the Jewish community of Florence that is written in both English and Italian. Here you can find out information about attending events, read about the history of the community, and learn about how to visit the museum or synagogue. If you would like experience Jewish Florence for yourself, why not join me for a Jewish Florence Tour!

Top 5 Gelato Shops in Florence

If you join me for a tour of Florence, besides showing you some amazing art and explaining the history I will surely propose a stop in a wonderful Florentine gelateria (gelato shop). Strolling the cobblestone streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world on a sunny day with a delicious gelato is one of my favorite experiences to share with visitors from around the world. Here is a list of my top five gelato shops in Florence and my favorite flavors to enjoy from each one. Yum!

Gelateria dei Neri - Best flavors to try: Caramel fudge, Mango cheesecake or Pistachio cream.

Gelateria Vivoli - Best flavors to try: Napoleon (Millefoglie) is unbeatable as well as their Stracciatella (the equivalent of vanilla with chocolate chunks), only downside is that they don’t have cones.

Perchè No - Best flavors to try: Coffee crunch and Bacio (chocolate and hazelnut like the Perugina Bacio candy)… their shaved ice is very good too.

Gelateria della Passera - Best flavor to try: Hands down they have the best Pistachio in Florence

Gelateria Badiani (near the stadium, so not in the historic center) - Best flavor to try: Everything is good here, but my current favorite is their brand new American Consulate flavor created to celebrate 200 years since the establishment of the American consulate in Florence in 1819.

VISITING SANTA MARIA NOVELLA CHURCH

If you are arriving to Florence on the train into the main train station, then the initials SMN, which stand for Santa Maria Novella, should ring a bell. The central train station is indeed named after the Santa Maria Novella Church, which is located directly across from it. The church is of the Dominican order and is most likely the place where the very young Michelangelo at 13 years old, worked as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio. It was built in the 13th Century, but the special façade was only finally completed in 1920.  The church rose to fame as incredibly important artists such as Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Giotto, Botticelli and Vasari, among many others, made beautiful works of art specially created for the complex. The Basilica underwent an extensive restoration for the year 2000 grand Jubilee. It is now possible to visit the entire Santa Maria Novella complex including the Museum areas run by the city of Florence such as the Cloister of the Dead, Green Cloister, Spanish Chapel, Ubriachi Chapel and Refectory as well as the church controlled areas such as the Basilica itself and the Cemetery of the Avelli. The church strives to welcome all visitors, but is sometimes closed for worship and prayer, during which times only pilgrims or worshippers are allowed inside. As with all churches in Italy, a dress code is in effect at all times, requiring covered shoulders and knees as well. Silence and respect for the location as a place of worship are also required. The opening hours are normally between 9am and 5:30 or 7pm depending on the time of year, expect for Fridays which usually has a later opening of 11am and Sundays which have reduced hours only in the afternoon. Ticket price is Euro 7.50 for adults, Euro 5 for children ages 11 to 18 and free of charge for children under 11. Valid ID showing age may be requested.

FLORENCE ROWING CLUB

The Società Canottieri or Rowing Club in Florence has its earliest beginnings in the year 1886. The first race along the Arno River was recorded in 1887 with various participating teams celebrating the new façade of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. The club as we know it today was officially founded in 1911 and took the Florentine city colors of white and red. From the very beginning, the rowers came from all walks of life, from nobility to students and laborers. The current headquarters on the Arno River down below the Uffizi was established in 1933. As you walk across the Ponte Vecchio, or observe from either side of the banks of the Arno River, you can see the sleek canoes with athletes training and hear their shouted commands as they row in unison. The team participates in local, national and international competitions with a tremendous amount of success. The rowers today can go from Ponte alle Grazie to Ponte alla Carraia, a distance of about 1200 meters, because the Arno is no longer fully navigable as it was in the middle ages.

During both World War I and then again during World War II rowers were not to be found along the river as young men went to the front lines of these two devastating wars. According to the official Società Canottieri website, after the liberation of Florence in 1944 the first signs of the city’s rebirth was the return of the rowers to their daily practice on the Arno River. However, they rowed against an apocalyptic backdrop of the bombed city streets and destroyed bridges of which only the Ponte Vecchio was spared. Another tragic event for Florence and for the Rowing Society was the historic flood of November 4th, 1966 during which the Society’s headquarters were completely submersed underwater, and the city of Florence was flooded by the raging Arno River. Luckily, the Society members all pitched in to help rebuild and by January 1st they had boats back in the water for the traditional rowing on New Years Day.

Santa Croce Church and Calcio Storico in Florence

The beautiful church of Santa Croce in Florence is wonderful to visit, especially if you love history. It has sculptures, architecture and frescoes to be explored but it is also the burial place of many important Italians such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Every year in June, the square directly in front of the church hosts the tournament of Calcio Storico, translating to historic soccer or football. The tradition of this colorful and lively soccer game dates back 500 years. It is said that aristocrats and even popes played soccer back in the day and that the sport was a predecessor to modern day soccer, American football, and rugby. Today the Calcio Storico matches happen during the 3rd week of June and feature the Azzurri or Blues, the Rossi or Reds, the Bianchi or Whites and the Verdi or Greens. Each of the teams represents a different Florentine neighborhood. The game is chaotic and often violent and has 27 people playing on each team. No substitutions are allowed for injuries! The final game is played on June 24th, which is the Saints day of San Giovanni, the Patron Saint of Florence. Come join me on a private tour of Florence to discover the secrets of Santa Croce and more fun details about the history of soccer in Florence.