Italy's Picture Perfect Wheels

From Absolut Vodka ads to Pixar films, nothing has been used to symbolize Italy's unique knack for blending pragmatism with design like the iconic Vespa scooter and Fiat 500 compact car. And after the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum, nothing is more often photographed than a brightly painted Cinquecento or Vespa parked jauntily in narrow Roman backstreets or against the backdrop of a bustling historic piazza.

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Putting Up: Italy's Fruit Preserves

It's that time of year when grocery stores in Italy are stocked with a dozen different shapes and sizes of glass canning jars and bottles, and many Italians spend the weekend chopping and seeding fruit to make a variety of different sweet and savory preserves. The canning season peaks in summer, as tomatoes ripen for canned sauce (or, for the purists, whole peeled tomatoes), and peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, and other stone fruits are at their best. But Italians preserve well into the winter, cooking up pots of orange and lemon marmelade and jams made from quince and persimmon to give as Christmas gifts or brighten up breakfast.

DSC_0118(Photo by Brunifia via Flickr)

Italy has a strong tradition of preserving everything from meat to vegetables, rooted in millenia of poor rural agricultural economies where frugality made the difference between surviving the winter months and leaner seasons. Though most Italians now live in cities and no longer have a kitchen garden or orchard, come summer you will still see customers purchasing cases of fresh seasonal fruit or ripe San Marzano tomatoes at the local market to make homemade preserves just like their grandparents. Though most of this goodness is limited to family consumption, there are also excellent artisan and farm preserves which can be bought and samples at local gourmet shops and farm stores.

DSC_3987red(Photo by BestKevin via Flickr)

Here are a few to seek out and bring home:

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Three Perfect Itineraries for a First Trip to Italy

Nothing is as magical, or as memorable, as your first trip to Italy. Though subsequent trips may be those in which you pick up a few sentences of Italian, get off the beaten path a bit, and start to choose your favorite cities and regions, that maiden voyage is one of pure discovery. Your first glimpse of iconic monuments like the Colosseum in Rome or Venice's Grand Canal, your first sips of Brunello or Barolo, your first sunset from the Ponte Vecchio or the Amalfi Coast...these are all an epiphany of the senses, and will color your affection for this stunning country for years to come.

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though it's a fun challenge to plan unique trips for travelers who have already explored Italy in the past, organizing a client's first trip is always a particular delight. We still remember our first trip years ago, and know how easy it is to get bitten by the “Italy bug” if your first trip dazzles. Here are three of our favorite itineraries for first timers, and some tips to help you plan a trip that will begin a long-lasting love affair with the Bel Paese!

Venezia - canal(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Historic Jewish Sites in Italy

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of Venice's historic Jewish ghetto, which has recently undergone a 2 year, multi-million dollar renovation and has been inducted into UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. But Venice isn't the only city in Italy where there are fascinating traces of Italy's historic Jewish population, which is one of Europe's oldest and was founded by early immigrants to Rome when Judea was part of the Roman Empire.

Ghetto ebraico di Venezia 10(Photo by Giovy via Flickr)

Ancient Rome was particularly tolerant of Jews, and as the Roman empire fell and Christianity took hold, Jews who lived closer to Rome were less persecuted by the Papacy than in other European countries, where there were often mass deportations during the Middle Ages. In modern times, more Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy than almost any other country in occupied Europe and historic synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites were largely left intact, even during the harsh reign of Fascism.

Ostia Antica(Photo by Herb Neufeld via Flickr)

Because of this long history of vacillation between tolerance and peaceful coexistence, Italy is home to a number of interesting Jewish monuments and sites, some of which date to the very first Jewish settlements. Among the most interesting Roman ruins are the remains of the Ostia Synagogue in the archaeological site of Ostia Antica. Dating from the 1st century AD, this is believed to be the oldest synagogue ever discovered outside of Israel.Very little of the original building remains, though there are inscriptions referring to a series of Torah arks and there is a carving of a menorah on one of the remaining columns.

Other Jewish sites are better preserved, and many synagogues and neighborhoods are still active in Italy's small but vibrant Jewish community. Here are some of the most interesting to visit:
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Sicily's Stunning Mosaics

Italy is home to a number of important Byzantine mosaic masterpieces, most famously in Rome's Church of Santa Cecilia, Venice's Basilica of Saint Mark, and San Vitale and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The extent of the Byzantine Empire was not limited to mainland Italy in the 6th century AD, however, but extended across the Strait of Messina to include Sicily, as well.

monreale-sicily-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Byzantine influences can be seen in some of the most stunning Norman churches in Sicily, and breathtaking mosaics decorate a number of churches and cathedrals in and around Palermo. The most famous of these are in the Cathedral of Monreale, home to the largest cycle of Byzantine mosaics in Italy. The interior of this imposing Norman church is almost entirely covered with ornate mosaics, and it is estimated that craftsmen from Constantinople used over 2,200 kilograms of gold to make the 100 million tessarae (individual tiles) featured in these magnificent works.
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