5 reasons to travel to Italy this fall & winter

Special occasions – whether they are weddings, corporate events, incentives’ or foodie trips – have a completely different and unique taste, feel and sight when they take place in Italy during fall and winter. Here are 5 reasons why you should not miss the opportunity to travel and/or organize an Italian special event during the so-called ‘low season’!

Roasted chestnuts and wine, photo from studiarearoma.it

Roasted chestnuts and wine, photo from studiarearoma.it

Those special flavors

Italian cuisine is largely based on seasonal, fresh ingredients. This means that during fall and winter you will enjoy those earthy, rustic flavors that you will not find during other seasons. Truffles, porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and grapes are just an example… and not only can you savor them in delicious local recipes, you can actually participate in exciting harvest activities with the locals!

Where are the summer crowds? Snapshot at the Vatican, from armidatrentino.wordpress.com

Where are the summer crowds? Snapshot at the Vatican, from armidatrentino.wordpress.com

Less crowds, more savings

During the low season, there are traditionally less tourists, which translates in less crowded museums, attractions and restaurants, and in more affordable accommodation rates! And, if you do not have to stand in line to admire the beautiful cultural and artistic heritage that Italy has to offer, you will also have more time to appreciate that and a lot more.

Daily life in Florence. Photo from turismo.intoscana.it

Daily life in Florence. Photo from turismo.intoscana.it

Traditional events & authenticity

Many local cultural events take place during fall and winter, when Italians have settled back in their towns and villages from the summer vacations. This makes non-peak seasons an ideal time to meet locals and experience their lifestyle in its most authentic light! An example? Have a look at 10 cool places where to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Italy.

Christmas market! Photo from oggiroma.it

Christmas market! Photo from oggiroma.it

Holiday gifts

If you visit Italy before Christmas, you will have no shortage of ideas for holiday gifts for your loved ones at home. You can stock up on special lovely souvenirs, such as handmade maiolica pottery from Faenza  or holiday decorations from the charming Christmas and Befana market in Piazza Navona (Rome). For businesses, this is also a great season for creating personalized gift awards.

Dog sledding in the Val Gardena, northern Italy. Photo fromvalgardena.it

Dog sledding in the Val Gardena, northern Italy. Photo fromvalgardena.it

Sports & seasonal activities

Italy is a paradise for sports lovers. Whether is it skiing, dog sledding and Nordic walking in Val d’Aosta or golfing in some of Europe’s most picturesque and surprising golf courses that are open even in the coldest months, there is something for all tastes! There are also plenty of seasonal activities to be enjoyed... just to mention two of our favorites: Medieval cooking lessons in Siena with Chef Lella, and workshops with fashion artisans in Florence.

If you haven't already seen it, here is a beautiful video on why you should come to Italy, with Itineraries and suggestions for visiting Tuscany. If you need any more ideas or any help with organizing your special event or foodie trip in Italy during fall and winter, do not hesitate to contact Italian Special Occasions!

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Liguria’s mesmerizing Cinque Terre: history and eno-gastronomy

The 'cian' terraces and Manarola, photo by William Domenichini

The 'cian' terraces and Manarola, photo by William Domenichini

The Cinque Terre (literally, “five lands”) is an enchanting destination that stretches for 18 km along the rocky coast of Liguria, in northwestern Italy. The five ‘borghi’ (villages or hamlets) after which the area is named, are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola e Riomaggiore.

The local evocative landscape features bays, beaches and deep ocean floors, and is dominated by mountains that run along the coast. In-between you find the lush Mediterranean vegetation and the traditional ‘terraces’ cultivated with vineyards and olive groves.

A protected marine reserve and a national park safeguard the uniqueness and authenticity of the Cinque Terre, and the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Let us have a look at the history of this destination, where many generations have worked to transform an inaccessible territory into a breathtaking, eco-friendly and stylish landscape.

The first historic documents regarding the Cinque Terre date back to the XI century, and mention Monterosso and Vernazza. The other towns grew during the hegemony of the Republic of Genoa. During the XVI century, the villages defended themselves from Turkish attacks by reinforcing ancient fortresses and by building new towers, which can still be admired today.

The colorful village of Vernazza, image from incinqueterre.com

The colorful village of Vernazza, image from incinqueterre.com

The Cinque Terre started declining around the 1600s, and remained relatively isolated until the XIX century, when a new railway was built to connect Genoa and La Spezia. However, poverty caused many locals to migrate abroad, a trend that continued until the 1960s, when the development of tourism brought the area back to the spotlight and wellbeing.

Over the centuries, Ligurians have carefully built terraces (locally known as "ciàn") on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. These flat lands are supported by dry-stone walls, and host vineyards, vegetable gardens, olive groves, houses, mule tracks, flights of stairs and much more.

Tourism is the main economic driving force, and it has led to the disappearance of many traditional activities - such as fishing and agriculture. Nonetheless, the few remaining farmers enjoy and excel at producing quality olive oil and wines, thanks to the fact that the ciàn are protected from the northern winds and enjoy a sunny location.

Lemons and Sciacchetrà wine, photo by lincemiope on pxleyes.com

Lemons and Sciacchetrà wine, photo by lincemiope on pxleyes.com

The “Five Lands” produce two D.O.C. wines: the Cinque Terre, which is a delicate dry white wine that matches perfectly with fish dishes and local focaccia bread; and the Sciacchetrà, a passito sweet wine that is ideal for desserts. The latter has a very limited production, and is obtained from the white-wine grapes that are left to dry naturally on the racks for about two or three months.

Local food falls under the category of the historic ‘cucina povera’, which refers to the frugal genius of poor Italian fishermen and farmers who made the most out of gardens, forests and oceans to create their dishes. Fish is definitely the main protagonist of the local cuisine, above all anchovies, bream, bass, cuttlefish, octopus and calamari. Fresh, locally grown aromatic essences season the dishes, including oregano, thyme and marjoram.

And of course, the Cinque Terre – like the rest of Ligura – are known for the pesto! A delicious sauce made from basil leaves, garlic, salt, olive oil, pine nuts, parmigiano reggiano and pecorino cheese. Want the recipe? Have a look at this video by Giallo Zafferano, one of Italy’s leading cooking authorities on Youtube and the web!

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Expo Milano 2015, a journey of tastes and seasonality across Italy

"The Italian Pavilion" Exhibition Site, Expo Milano 2015

"The Italian Pavilion" Exhibition Site, Expo Milano 2015

The next Universal Exposition will be taking place in Milan, Italy, from May 1 to October 31, 2015. The massive exhibition site, which is expected to welcome over 20 million visitors over the course of 184 days, revolves around the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”.

This huge event and process will have unique and innovative features that aim at opening up a dialogue between international players on the problems of nutrition and the resources of our planet. The exploration of these issues will take place along five main Thematic Routes that connect the spaces within the exhibition site:

  • The story of man, stories of food: It offers a compelling view of the history of food for each of the world’s populations, from their agricultural and farming techniques, to how foods have changed and developed over time.
  • Feast and famine, a contemporary paradox: Half of the world suffers food deprivation and malnutrition, while the other half deals with diseases due to a poor diet and being overweight. Can this paradox be solved through education, cooperation and engineering?
  • The future of food: What will humanity eat in the future? We should increase our understanding of new food technologies, scientific discoveries and research that today forms the basis for improving the nutrition of tomorrow.
  • Sustainable food = an equitable world: How can we make humanity more sensitive to maintaining a better balance between food production and natural resources? An interesting discussion platform for both biodiversity and traditional cultures.
  • Taste is knowledge: Combinations of different tastes and flavors within different cultures tell their own particular story. Cultural events and tastings allow visitors to learn about different ways of cooking to help keep or change flavors.

In other words, Milan – which had already hosted another edition of the Expo long ago in 1906 – will offer an irresistible meeting and discussion  space that will stimulate all the senses in an effort to promote eco-sustainability.

That sounds just like the concept and driving force behind the Seasonality Movement by Italian Special Occasions. In fact, we believe that working within the seasons is great: by choosing the right season for your travel destination not only do you avoid overcrowding during your vacation or special event, but you also help the environment and the local economies.

It is in the name of seasonality and sustainability that Italian Special Occasions is preparing a number of activities in the most unexplored parts of Italy, such as in the regions of Marche, Basilicata, Molise, Calabria, Sicily and Umbria. But we also have something in store in the least known areas of the most renowned regions, such as the Maremma in Tuscany or the Tuscia and Castelli Romani in Lazio, near Rome.

All of our activities aim at bringing the visitor closer to the local culture and traditions, exploring the most authentic and least touristy aspects of Italy, in a way that is friendly to the environment.

If you are planning a trip to or special occasion in Italy between May and October 2015, here is an idea for a fun and rewarding experience… visit the Expo Milano, and then start applying and experiencing the “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” concepts right away in Italy! You could enjoy a customized journey with authentic, eco-friendly eno-gastronomic activities in and around Milan, or across the Bel Paese!

Contact Italian Special Occasions to create and plan your unique journey of taste and seasonality… Join the movement for a more educated tourism!

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A journey through Sicily’s historic castles

Castello di Caccamo, near Palermo

Castello di Caccamo, near Palermo

To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.       - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

German writer, philosopher and statesman von Goethe had got right already in 1787, and so many other famous personalities celebrated Sicily with glorious quotes – just to mention a couple: Guy de Maupassant, Leonardo Sciascia, Roger Peyrefitte, Giovanni Pascoli, Giosuè Carducci, Alexis De Tocqueville.

Italy’s largest island conquers so many admirers thanks to its striking nature, cultural mix and history, which also have a positive impact on its gastronomy, lifestyle and local activities. In fact, throughout its history, Sicily was controlled and inhabited by a number of different powers, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and the Bourbons!

The innumerable changes between the 8th century BC - when Sicily was colonized by the ancient Greeks, and 1861 - when the island was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, have created a distinct culture and unique melting pot that is quite evident in all the aspects of the daily life. One of the most immediate testimonies of the past, which any visitor can identify and appreciate right away upon arriving in Sicily and throughout the journey, is the architecture.

Baroque churches, gothic buildings, Spanish neighborhoods, medieval hamlets… the list is never ending. But in today’s post we would like to focus on some of the most magical remains from the past: castles! Built initially as unconquerable fortresses to defend the cities, nowadays they conquer the hearts and imagination of tourists and even of the locals.

There are more than 200 castles across the island, but we have selected some of the most striking, that are also ideal locations for fantastic family & friend reunions, weddings, foodie trips and corporate occasions.

Castello di Milazzo

Castello di Milazzo

Starting from the north-eastern tip, Castello di Milazzo and Cittadella di Messina dominate the sea that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. The former was probably built by the Arabs around 840, and was subsequently modified by the Normans, the Swabians, the Aragonese and the Spanish. In the early 1600s, the ancient Milazzo Cathedral was built inside the castle, which also features Neolithic necropolises! The latter, the pentagon-shaped Cittadella di Messina, was built by the Spaniards in the 1500s and later changed by the Bourbons, and became one of the most important fortresses of the Mediterranean.

Fortezza di Aci Castello

Fortezza di Aci Castello

Proceeding our journey clock wise along the Sicilian coast, we reach Europe’s most active volcano - the majestic Mount Etna, which has had an impact on many local buildings… including the Fortezza di Aci Castello, our next castle. This fortress was built with dark volcanic rock, and is perched on a cliff on the sea. It was used as a fort since Roman times for its strategic location; in 1072 it was conquered by the Normans, and in 1126 it became a property of the Bishops of Catania, who brought the relics of Saint Agatha to reside in the building. After even more changes of ownership, in 1797 it became a prison under the Bourbons.

Castello di Paternò

Castello di Paternò

In the countryside near Mt. Etna and Catania, there is one of the most remarkable monuments built by the Normans, specifically by Roger I of Hauteville. Castello di Paternò is a massive, 34-meter high parallelepiped with dark-stone walls and Gothic-style windows in white limestone.

Our next stop is south of Syracuse, at Portopalo di Capo Passero, where the beautiful Spanish Fort was erected to fend off pirates attacks. It is of Swabian-Aragonese origin, and its gate features a stone coat of arms representing an imperial eagle.

Turning around the southern corner towards western Sicily, we bump into Ragusa and its charming Castello di Donnafugata. Contrary to what the name suggests, the building is not an actual castle, but a lavish noble dwelling of the 1800s. It has a façade in neo-gothic Venetian style, and is surrounded by an 8-hectare park with a small temple, artificial grottoes and a unique stone labyrinth.

Castello di Donnafugata, Ragusa

Castello di Donnafugata, Ragusa

We proceed our trip and reach the city that is famous for the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento. Nearby is the Castello di Naro, built in the 1300s by the noble Chiaramonte Family. Located on a hilltop, this solid building features a square tower, added by Frederick II of Aragon, and massive surrounding walls that alternate cylindrical and square towers.

Leaving the coast and exploring the Sicilian hinterland, we can reach the Castello di Mussomeli, near Caltanissetta. It is a masterpiece of military architecture from the XIV and XV centuries, and is probably one of the most inaccessible forts of the island. Built by Manfredi III Chiaramonte, it looks like the building is fused with the calcareous rock on which it stands. The façade is decorated with gothic elements. Inside, there are majestic halls with vaulted ceilings, but also macabre places like the "Prison of Death", where the condemned were lowered through a trapdoor and drowned.

Castello di Mussomeli

Castello di Mussomeli

Back on the road trip, let’s finish crossing Sicily diagonally and reach the unique, breathtaking Castello di Erice (also known as the Castle of Venus). It enjoys a location that is beyond panoramic, on Mount San Giuliano, from where you can admire Trapani, the Egadi Islands, Mount Cofano and the coast. It was built by the Normans as a defensive fortress in the XII century on the ruins of an ancient sanctuary dedicated to Venus.

Castello di Erice

Castello di Erice

We finish the castle tour around Sicily by reaching the capital, Palermo, which features different remarkable buildings, such as Palazzo Steri and Castello a Mare. But we will dedicate a few words to the largest Sicilian castle, given its particular historic importance and attractiveness: Castello di Caccamo. It was built during the Norman rule, set on a rocky spur overlooking a valley. The views from up here are simply breathtaking. Among the relevant historic episodes that took place here, is that Matteo Bonello and his fellow conspirators found refuge in the castle following the Barons’ Revolt (1160-61). Inside, you can admire the stables, the auditorium of the theater, the chapel, the servants’ rooms, the prisons, the Conspiracy Room and the impressive Arms Room.

If you would like to share your favorite Sicilian castle from this list or from your own experience, feel free to leave a message in the comment box below!

Are you looking for an authentic location where to organize your special Italian occasion? Contact us now and let us help you create an unforgettable event!

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Cooking School of Siena: interview with Chef Lella

Lella Cesari Ciampoli in action - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Lella Cesari Ciampoli in action - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Today we have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Lella Cesari Ciampoli, owner of Siena’s first school of international cuisine, which she founded in 1996. The mission of her culinary institution is to maintain the tradition of Sienese and Tuscan cooking and recipes.

Lella teaches Italian, Tuscan and Medieval Cuisine, as well as pastry-making, natural leavening dough preparation, and health and nutrition. She is an expert and researcher of antique recipes of Tuscan and Medieval Cuisine.

At Italian Special Occasions, we had the opportunity to chat with Lella about her school and passion.

You are an authority and an expert researcher of antique recipes. In particular, how did you become so passionate about medieval cuisine?

Learning and knowing about where we came from helps us to understand where we are and where we will go. The same applies to cuisine: understanding how food was treated and what we ate in the past centuries, helps us understand the evolution of taste and how to deal with food. From the ‘garum’ (a fermented fish sauce used in Roman times) to the medieval ‘camelina’ (a popular sauce in the 1400s) to today’s tomato ketchup, we have come a long way.

The Scuola di Cucina di Lella offers an impressive variety of courses: for baby chefs, newlyweds, for singles, quick summer cuisine, homemade bread, pastry, the use of left-overs, vegetarian menus, seasonal cuisine, gluten-free dishes, cake design… What is the most requested course by foreigners and what does it involve?

“Tuscan Cuisine” is the most requested cooking lesson by foreign visitors. Usually I hold intensive lessons that go from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the number of participants. They learn about regional cuisine and the Menù Tipico Toscano (a traditional meal from starter to dessert), and create recipes using only fresh local products. At the end of the lesson, dinner or lunch is served with what was prepared during the course, and the meal is accompanied by excellent wines.

What makes your school different from others? What do you try to transmit to your students?

I have the presumption of wanting to transmit to my pupils the passion, the knowledge, the respect for traditions, the pleasure of cooking for the ones you love, for the family. The importance of food in the relations between people is such that, for example, it is at the table where business deals are concluded, where new sentiments come to life, where we share our stories.
Cooking lessons at Scuola di Cucina di Lella - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Cooking lessons at Scuola di Cucina di Lella - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

What ingredients do you prefer to use in your recipes?

The products that I use the most are seasonal vegetables, garlic (which I cook in a way that is digestible to all… it is a small secret of mine…), extra virgin olive oil (EVO) from the Sienese territory or from Tuscany, red Chianina meat, Cinta Senese pork, local poultry and lambs.

What dish do you think that best represents the culinary tradition from Siena?

Certainly the Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan soup) and the traditional sweet pastry like the ricciarelli and the panforte di Siena.

When you go to the restaurant, what is your favorite dish and why?

I rarely go to the restaurant, and I do not have preferences because I love everything! But when I do go, I always ask for recommendations from the Chefs – who are usually old friends of mine – or tips from the members of the Siena Chefs Association, of which I am part as president of the Lady Chefs.

On TripAdvisor, the profile of the “Scuola di Cucina di Lella” has been collecting many positive comments and your rating is ‘excellent’. What was the nicest compliment you received from a person who participated in your cooking course?

The recurring and gratifying compliment is that the meals that my students cook and then eat at my school are the best that they have tried all over Italy. Also, the cooking lessons are considered as a proper gastronomic course and remain impressed as one of the best memories of their Italian trip.

For more on Lella, visit her website scuoladicucinadilella.net

Lella's authentic cooking lessons are great for bringing the family closer together, and for fun friend reunions in Italy. If you would like to combine this and other culinary experiences with more unique activities in Tuscany or across Italy for a special occasion, contact us now!

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