A Lunch Visit to Chiavari - Our Favorite Ligurian City

Beautiful and Sophisticated - Visit Chiavari to Appreciate Liguria. 

Try Ligurian Specialties at Osteria Luchin - a Chiavari Insitution Since 1907.

Streets with colorful buildings & arcades in Chiavari, Liguria
Behind Piazza Mazzini, the streets become smaller as do the juxtapositions. These card players filled the street with shouts.

Chiavari couldn't be more peaceful. Although it was once a border city with mighty walls to protect against incursions by rivals such as Lavagna just across the Entella river, today it is unwalled and relaxed.  This part of Liguria has many slate quarries so a dark stone predominates, creating a comforting urban gravitas to complement the traditional warm Ligurian colors. Most of the beautiful streets have arcades supported on the street side by squat columns of diverse designs, and in the shadows of the arcades are specialty shops with elaborate old woodwork, bright pastry stores with mouth-watering window displays, and busy cafes with movie-set perfect patrons. On a recent Saturday morning the streets were filled with family after family shopping and doing errands, trailed by socializing pre-teens.

Mazzini speaks still on Piazza Mazzini in Chiavari, Liguria.
Mazzini speaks still in Chiavari, Liguria.
On the central Piazza Mazzini, the outdoor market was in full swing, as it is every morning. The huge assortment of colorful vegetables took up most of the space, but the cheese stands did their best to match the array, and the truck with roast meats added that great aroma to the market vibe.

The buildings around the piazza are a triumph of Ligurian variety. A bold gold building with dramatic window surrounds is next to a centuries old stained stucco building in need of attention, next to a vivid display of trompe l'oeil on a rose colored field..

On the west side is the white mass of the Palazzo di Giustizia. It's tempting to assume it's of ancient medieval origin, but it's from only 1886 in a style called Tuscan Gothic, which we presume is a disguised Italian slur.

A little further west towards the ocean is the Basilica cathedral of Nostra Signora dell'Orto. A very large church, it's not old by Italian measure but pretty interesting. It's origin is the 17th century, but it was refashioned in 1907. This influence provided an art nouveau feeling in the graceful golden embellishment inside.  In one chapel near the alter, there are works by Anton Maria Maragliano of Genoa, one of Liguria's most famous and original sculptors who worked wood in a style all his own.

Trompe l'oeil building facade on Piazza Mazzini in Chiavari, Liguria
Trompe l'oeil building facade on Piazza Mazzini in Chiavari, where the building diversity magically creates a unified city.

Osteria Luchin in Chiavari, Liguria.
Osteria Luchin in Chiavari, Liguria.
When the streets mysteriously become less busy, it means Italy is calling you to lunch. We once again chose a Chiavari institution with good food and an irresistible panache. Osteria Luchin was founded in 1907 and it's still going strong. It's popular because there's something for everyone, a really good variety, all at an affordable rate.  Passing through the doors will feel like passing back through time. It's busy and bustling with long tables used family style.

Menu Notes: many of the daily unique dishes are listed on chalk boards outside, and there's no information inside, so either have a look before you go in, or just wander back out and take your time.  Also. while they have an English language menu, it's not quite the same as the Italian menu, so if you can muddle through in Italian you'll have more choice.

The farinata oven is one of the reasons that Luchin is famous - the chickpea pancake is baked in very heavy pans so that the top gets brown and crispy while the bottom stays creamy and smooth.  We sat near the oven and could watch the whole thing - it's an art to balance the pan, shift it, keep the fire just right.  Lots of people got the farinata as an appetizer, it looked wonderful.

Italian City & Town Guidebooks Reviewed 2019 - Rome, Florence, Venice & More.

What are the Best Travel Guidebooks for Italian Cities & Towns? 

Which Guidebook is Better? Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, DK Eyewitness or Frommer? 

Old Italy Guidebook, The Spell of Southern Shores Caroline Atwater Mason, 1914.
1914 Ms. Mason began in Liguria and visited
Portofino: 'the quaintest fishing village under
the sky'.Cinque Terre was not yet famous.

Let's start off on the right foot: there are no best travel guidebooks. All have strengths and weaknesses, and all travelers have different approaches and needs. We have recently finished our independent review of almost all the popular Italy travel guidebooks. We give you our recommendation along with enough description help you decide if it fits your needs.

We cover everything you need in three articles:

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Cities & Towns (This Article)
⬩Rome ⬩Florence ⬩Venice ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Naples

⬥Guidebooks for Italy (click)
⬩All of Italy ⬩Best of Italy ⬩Southern Italy
+ Italy Guidebook Series - The Publishers Reviewed
     ⬩Rick Steves ⬩Lonely Planet ⬩Rough Guides
     ⬩DK Eyewitness ⬩Fodor's ⬩Frommer

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Regions (click)
⬩Amalfi Coast ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Italian Lakes ⬩Liguria, ⬩Puglia ⬩Sardinia ⬩Sicily ⬩Tuscany

▸Guidebooks in each category are in order of preference.▸All books have Paperback and Kindle editions.
▸ On Amazon UK the Kindle editions may be in the Kindle store.
▸Clicking links doesn't affect the price, but helps us help travelers. See About Us and Disclosure below.
▸See Who Are The Reviewers below to read about the criteria of the reviewers.

Florence - The Best Guidebooks

Florence & Tuscany Rick Steves  (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
702 pages  (late 2017) next edition late 2019.
Besides full Florence coverage with itineraries, it includes Siena, Lucca, Pisa, and a bunch of hill towns. Good maps and extra consideration like Florence with kids and suggested itineraries. Good info on opening hours, fees, etc. This book has more coverage of the subject than the full Rick Steves Italy Guidebook - useful for a stay of four days or more.
Early Italy Guidebook from TCI, Touring Club Italiano 1908
Begun by bicyclists, Touring Club Italiano
has produced outstanding guides and maps
since 1895. Now with 300,000 members.

Pocket Florence Rick Steves   (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
2018    200 pages    7 ounces
Largely the same info as in the full Italy Rick Steves Guidebook. The reduced size makes it good for a 2 or 3 day Florence visit.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Florence (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
2019    256 pages    13 ounces
Visually very appealing, but the total amount of information is less. This book uses DK's new design which seeks more utility in the internet age and weighs less than previous versions (by not using coated paper). The Amazon reviews are conglomerated with the older edition so use date-sorted reviews when judging.

Streetwise Florence Map   (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
We would still be lost if not for Michelin's laminated maps.

Brunelleschi's Dome  (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
Florence's Duomo is stunning; so was its creation. Ross King's bestselling historic novel takes you back to 1418 to relive the building's development and understand this engineering marvel.

Guidebooks for Italy's Regions Reviewed 2019 - Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Sicily & More.

What are the Best Travel Guidebooks for Italian Regions?

Which Guidebook is Better for Driving Through Tuscany or the Italian Lakes?  

Early Italy Guidebook 'The Spell of Southern Shores' 1914
1914 Ms. Mason began in Liguria and visited
Portofino: 'the quaintest fishing village under
the sky'.Cinque Terre was not yet famous.

Let's start off on the right foot: there are no best travel guidebooks. All have strengths and weaknesses, and all travelers have different approaches and needs. We have recently finished our independent review of almost all the popular Italy travel guidebooks. We give you our recommendation along with enough description help you decide if it fits your needs.

We cover everything you need in three articles:

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Regions (This Article)
⬩Amalfi Coast ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Italian Lakes ⬩Liguria, ⬩Puglia ⬩Sardinia ⬩Sicily ⬩Tuscany

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Cities & Towns (click)
⬩Rome ⬩Florence ⬩Venice ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Naples

⬥Guidebooks for Italy (click)
⬩All of Italy  ⬩Best of Italy   ⬩Southern Italy
+Publishers of Italy Guidebook Series Reviewed
⬩Rick Steves ⬩Lonely Planet ⬩Rough Guides
⬩DK Eyewitness ⬩Fodor's ⬩Frommer's

▸Guidebooks in each category are in order of preference.▸All books have Paperback and Kindle editions.
▸ On Amazon UK the Kindle editions may be in the Kindle store.
▸Clicking links doesn't affect the price, but helps us help travelers. See About Us and Disclosure below.
▸See Who Are The Reviewers below to read about the criteria of the reviewers.

Amalfi Coast - The Best Guidebooks
Snapshot: Naples & the Amalfi Coast  Rick Steves  (Amazon US)   (Amazon UK)
160 pages    7 ounces   June, 2018
The Snapshot edition is an excerpt from the Italy Rick Steves Guidebook. Covers Naples and the Amalfi Coast, including Pompeii, Vesuvius, Positano, and the town of Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Road Trips Lonely Planet  (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)
136 pages     June, 2016
For a driving orientation, this streamlined and adapted edition of the larger guidebook can make decisions easier. A word to the wise: read some reviews - driving the Amalfi coast is torture for some drivers. Covers Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, the Cilento Coast.

Early Italy Guidebook 'The Spell of Sicily' 1922
1922 Monroe had a special perspective on
Sicily. A Stanford-educated Professor of
Psychology, he wrote 5 books on Europe.
Michelin Campania Basilicata Map 1:200,000  (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK) For driving, this yellow series 1:200,000 has the right level of detail. We use a paper map for overview and a smartphone with Google Maps for detail.


Cinque Terre - The Best Guidebook
Pocket Cinque Terre Rick Steves 2017
(Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)  (Kindle UK)
2017 187 pages (next edition 2020)
This edition contains contains the same info as in the RS Italy guidebook with the addition of a good Cinque Terre map.  We've written a lot on the Cinque Terre and this is the guide we'd want - hands down the best.

          Don't miss our Cinque Terre articles:
          Every Answer You Need for Your Cinque Terre Trip
          Cinque Terre - 16 Tips for Avoiding the Crowds 
          A Guide to the Local Food of La Spezia & Cinque Terre 

Best Italy Guidebooks 2019 Reviewed - Advice on Choosing & Planning.

What's the Top Italy Travel Guidebook for Rome, Florence & Venice? 

Which Is Recommended? Rick Steves Italy guidebook or Lonely Planet Italy guidebook? 

Early Italy Guidebook 'The Spell of Southern Shores' 1914
1914 Ms. Mason began in Liguria and visited
Portofino: 'the quaintest fishing village under
the sky'.Cinque Terre was not yet famous.
Let's start off on the right foot: there are no best travel guidebooks. All have strengths and weaknesses, and all travelers have different approaches and needs. We have recently completed our independent review of almost all the popular Italy travel guidebooks. We give you our recommendation along with enough description help you decide if it fits your needs.

We cover everything you need in three articles:

⬥Guidebooks for Italy (This Article)
⬩All of Italy  ⬩Best of Italy   ⬩Southern Italy
+Publishers of Italy Guidebook Series Reviewed
⬩Rick Steves ⬩Lonely Planet ⬩Rough Guides
⬩DK Eyewitness ⬩Fodor's ⬩Frommer's

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Cities & Towns (Click)
⬩Rome ⬩Florence ⬩Venice ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Naples

⬥Guidebooks for Italian Regions (Click)
⬩Amalfi Coast ⬩Cinque Terre ⬩Italian Lakes ⬩Liguria, ⬩Puglia ⬩Sardinia ⬩Sicily ⬩Tuscany

▸Guidebooks in each category are in order of preference.▸All books have Paperback and Kindle editions.
▸ On Amazon UK the Kindle editions may be in the Kindle store.
▸Clicking links doesn't affect the price, but helps us help travelers. See About Us and Disclosure below.
▸See Who Are The Reviewers below to read about the criteria of the reviewers.

⬥Italy - Entire Country - The Best Guidebooks

No guidebook fully covers all of Italy. Use the Amazon 'Look Inside' feature to see the Table of Contents or Index to make sure your areas of interest are covered.
Early Italy Guidebook 'The Spell of Sicily' 1922
1922 Monroe had a special perspective on
Sicily. A Stanford-educated Professor of
Psychology, he wrote 5 books on Europe.

Italy Lonely Planet 2018 (Amazon US)  (Amazon UK)  (UK Kindle Store)
Color  992 pages    27 oz.   Feb. 2018 (next edition 2020)
Approachable and fairly thorough with straight ahead writing. The comprehensive coverage has good clear maps interspersed in the articles and it includes more out of the way sights. The index can be somewhat spotty.

Italy Rick Steves 2019  (Amazon US) (Amazon UK)  (UK Kindle Store)
Mostly B/W     1244 pages      21 oz.     2019 (next edition late 2019)
Complete info on the frequently visited sites in Italy presented in an effective format. The writing imparts a feeling because the places are actually selected by RS himself. Includes excellent maps, suggested itineraries, good info on opening hours, fees, etc. They don't include many of the less traveled places.  No coverage on Sicily, Sardinia, or Puglia (Apulia).

Dining with Artusi - Where Italian Cookbooks Began.

Enjoy The Original Artusi Recipes from 'The Art of Eating Well'. 

Visit the Restaurant or Fabulous Festival Dedicated to Artusi in his Emilia-Romagna Hometown. 

The Founder of Italian Cooking with 'L'arte di Mangiar Bene' Becomes Real for Food Lovers.

In a country of epic heroes, grand empires, and daring military conquests one of my very favorite famous people is a mild mannered retired silk merchant who enjoyed eating the local dishes when he traveled around Italy in the 1800's.

Why is he of any note? Because he is Pellegrino Artusi - the author of  'Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well' (La Scienza in cucina e l'Arte di mangiar bene).  Today anyone with a word processor and access to the internet can be a culinary author - I'm guilty myself. But in Artusi's day it was a new concept, and although to the modern reader the recipes sometimes appear a bit vague (a pinch of salt, cook until done) they were marvels of precision in their day.

Not only that, he was so committed to his endeavor that when publishers rejected his book, he self-published the work. One of the best-selling non-fiction books in Italian history - in 1891.

And today in his hometown, there's a restaurant that offers dishes made from his original recipes, as well as a large festival dedicated to Pellegrino Artusi.

Pellegrino Artusi's 1846 Papal State passport from Pope Pius IX
Artusi's 1846 passport from Pope Pius IX was
required to travel the Italian peninsula even
from the Papal State to the Duchy of Tuscany!

Artusi oversaw the recipes, while his cook and butler, Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffili, measured, recorded, tested, tasted, tweaked, and refined. Not only was the approach new, the timing for a national cuisine was perfect: Italy had been fully unified only in 1871, and 20 years later his book was on sale to the first truly Italian generation. Making Italy into a unified nation was a long process that continues to this day. To form a modern republic from the individualistic dominions that had occupied the Italian peninsula for centuries presented some serious assimilation issues.

Recognizing dishes from any region other than Tuscany as Italian was radically inclusive. Recipes from Piemonte, Liguria, Calabria, even Sardinia and Sicily were included in a book about Italian food! Artusi is widely recognized as one of the important cultural unifying forces in changing Italy from an area of fiefdoms and regions into a national entity. He wrote engagingly and fluently in the new “Italian” language, was elegant and polished and comprehensible, and he interspersed his recipes with anecdotes and reflections to make the book enjoyable reading.

Rocca Albornoziana  fortress of Forlimpopoli, Emilia-Romagna.
The Rocca Albornoziana  in the center of Forlimpopoli, Emilia-Romagna.
The 14th Century fortress is surrounded by the Artusi Festa each June.
Artusi was born in 1820, when the world was very different. His hometown, Forlimpopoli, was close to Bologna, and after a prosperous and comfortable childhood he spent a lot of time in Bologna, socializing with the students at the University and enjoying life. So far, so good, but in 1851 there was a famous bandit called “ Il Passatore”, The Smuggler, who terrorized the wealthy. The Smuggler came to Forlimpopoli with his band of thugs and raided the local theatre on the night of a popular play. He held the audience hostage until they paid up, then released them slowly, and his men attacked and raped some of the young women. Artusi's sister Gertrude was among the victims of the vicious attack, and never recovered; she was institutionalized for life. The times were violent, disorderly, dangerous, and it was no coincidence that the next year the family moved to Firenze.

A Classic Italian Hike for Families, Couples, Trekkers.

A Guide to One of Italy's Best Easy Hike Destinations. 

  A Great Thing To Do with Children & Teens. A Stunning Picnic Spot. 

An Excellent Attraction near Reggio Emilia (1 hr.)  Parma & Modena (1¼)  Liguria & Lunigiana (1½).  

The Pietra of Bismantova provides spectacular views & an easy hike.
The Pietra of Bismantova provides spectacular views, but the easiest trail only takes 20 minutes and it's family friendly.

Treat yourself and your family to one of the great natural attractions of Italy. This spectacular geologic feature will remain in your memory and your photos for much longer than a postcard or the next spaghetti bolognese.

The oddly named Stone of Bismantova will surprise you with a majesty that speaks to the nature in your soul. It stands above its surroundings as a sentinel, as a symbol, as an aspiration. Primitive man climbed it, ascetics were drawn to it, local culture incorporated it, Italian youth are introduced to nature by it, and you can easily experience it for yourself.

The Pietra of Bismantova dominates the surrounding area
Dante alluded to the mountain as Purgatory and the top as the
Garden of Eden. So says every hiker.  CC by Paolo da Reggio
You will see its unmistakable form rising isolated from the landscape from miles away. The Pietra dominates the surrounding area - overlooking it from a height of about 300 meters (1,000 feet) and many sections of the cliffs are 100 meters high!  It is roughly one kilometer long by 240 meters wide.

The unique shape is due to the type of limestone which forms the mountain. Simply put, it resisted erosion better than the surrounding area over the last 20 million years. The rock was formed from sediments in an ancient sea and there are fossils in some areas as well as visible patterns from undersea currents during deposition. The rocks are partly sandstone but mostly calcarenite which is the limestone equivalent of sandstone. This is formed from deposits of carbonate bits that were pressed together into rock from diverse sources such as sand-sized limestone fragments, shells, corals, shark teeth, oodles of ooids (precipitated calcite), etc.

Of course, it was inhabited by prehistoric people - there's a Copper & Bronze Age archeological site and a necropolis near the Pietra's base at Campo Pianelli.  Subsequently, there's evidence that site was used by Etruscans and Celtic-Ligurian tribes. Naturally, the Pietra was fortified, probably until the 15th C. - first by the Romans, then the Byzantines, the Longobards, then Charlemagne, and finally by Matilda of Canossa. There little evidence left of the fortifications today.

The views from the cliffs of Italy's Bismantova are endless.
The views from the top of Bismantova are endless.

For the surrounding towns. the history concerning the Pietra is religious - involving devotion and pilgrimage to the Madonna della Pietra. The Eremo di Bismantova (Hermitage) at the base was established by Benedictines in the 1400's and rebuilt in the 1600's. There are frescos inside from the 1400's, including a depiction of the Madonna. Today, the Eremo is part of the Marian order.

Dante Alighieri visited Pietra di Bismantova in 1307. The Mountain of Purgatorio, mentioned in Canto IV of Purgatorio in the "Divine Comedy", was seemingly inspired by Pietra's unique formation. As if to inspire hikers, the Garden of Eden was located on top.

In the last few centuries, the summit was only used for grazing which explains the nice pastures and the easy views we enjoy. Slowly, the trees are regaining control, but it's slow going due to the altitude and the nearby Alps.  Today the Pietra di Bismantova is protected as part of the National Park of the Apennines. Parco Nazional Apennino Tosco-Emiliano (EN)

The starting point of Pietra di Bismantova activity is Piazzale Dante at the end of Via Bismantova in Castelnovo ne' Monte (RE). See GETTING THERE below. There is free parking as well as the Eremo (Hermitage) nearby, the Rifugio di Bismantova bar-restaurant and the Albergo Forestiera.

Before you go: Download this Pietra Bismantova Hiking Map to a portable device. Why? It is clearer than the posted map on site, and there are no trail signs or maps on the actual summit. There are also no services on the summit, so at least take sufficient water with you.

The easy hiking trail on Italy's Pietra di Bismantova in October.
The easy hiking trail on Italy's Pietra di Bismantova in October.

This is an active recreational attraction, so there are several choices.  The most popular climb is a section of Trail 697 which angles directly to the top. It's the shortest, it's not particularly hard, and takes about 20 minutes. The second most popular is the 6 km. 'L'anello della Pietra' (Ring around the Stone) using Trail 697 which combines a very scenic nature walk around the Pietra with a visit to the summit. It takes about 2 hours.  Both routes leave from Piazzale Dante and below we describe both ascents, as well as the most popular part of the summit and the descent they share. We think school-aged children who like hiking will have no problems with these two hikes.

Other recreational options include:
-Several other trails, such as Trail 699, which are steeper, rockier, and reach the top from different directions.
-Two via ferrata routes are in place for an alpine experience (i.e. straight up).
-There are also many sport rock climbing opportunities on the cliffs with numerous bolts apparent.
-Climbing (bouldering) is also an attraction on the gigantic fallen rocks around the base of the Pietra.

A Beautiful Seaside Walk from Rapallo to Santa Margherita.

The Red Carpet Walk from Rapallo to Santa Margherita & Portofino.  

A Great Thing to Do - Explore Between Rapallo & Santa Margherita.

 Enjoy the Attraction of Villas, Free Beaches, Grand Hotels and a Baroque Church.

Aerial of San Michele di Pagana with Pomaro, Trelo (Travello), & Prelo Bays.  Beyond is Santa Margherita & Parco Naturale di Portofino.
A beautiful coastal walk through San Michele di Pagana with its three bays: R. to L. Pomaro, Trelo (Travello), & Prelo.
Santa Margherita is beyond with Parco Naturale di Portofino as a backdrop. Photo: Archivio Storico della Regione Liguria.

It's now a pleasure to walk from Rapallo to Santa Margherita Ligure (SML) along the coast between these pretty Ligurian towns - thanks to recent sidewalk improvements. The walk was inaugurated with the World's Longest Red Carpet - 8 km. from Rapallo to SML to Portofino. The carpet is gone now, of course, but the beauty remains.  This article covers the first half of the coastal walk, the second half is our popular article  Walk or Hike from Santa Margherita to Portofino  which also describes an easy hill hike with beautiful overviews.

The route is full of sea scenes and garden glimpses and villa views so you can really get a feel for this beautiful area.  We recently explored it and we discovered four free beaches (spiaggia libera); a WWI Memorial forest; a Baroque church; and all the while we were surrounded by grand mansions and hotels, gardens and the sea. 

Villa Lagomaggiore in Rapallo on Capo Pomaro (Punta Logon).
Our walk passes inland behind Villa Lagomaggiore on Capo Pomaro.
The walk is great for both kids and adults and the hills are gentle. This route is about 3 km. (2 miles) and it can be done in 45 minutes, but don't you dare hurry. Allow 90 minutes to be leisurely, and it's easy to spend a couple of hours if you are experienced in smelling the roses. It is quite doable with a stroller except harder in the Punta Pagana section where there are two short sandy beaches and two staircases. There are some services at the first beach at Pomaro about 1/3 of the way, but bring some water anyway.

You can create a personalized round trip using the bus that runs along the seaside road or by boarding the ferry at SML or Rapallo or Portofino. See the links at MORE INFO below.

We begin on the western side of Rapallo - across the canal-like Boate river - where we follow Corso Cristoforo Colombo as it heads toward the sea from the intersection with Via Aurelia Occidental. This is near the Hotel Stella and there are blue traffic signs pointing the way to SML and Portofino. As you start, there are good views of Rapallo's extensive harbor which is a major port for private boats of every description and tax bracket. Soon the road  curves away uphill past the Hotel Excelsior Palace. Corso Colombo changes names, but it's always the largest choice. It's known later as Via San Michele di Pagana then as Via Bridiga Morello a/k/a Strada Provinciale 227 (SP227).

We walk all the way from Rapallo to SML on the sidewalk along this road and we just take one detour at Travello. We describe several sights you will miss without that detour around Punta Pagana (a small peninsula), and we add details on some places you'll see along the way.

Pisa Attractions - Whale Watching with Dinosaurs.

The World's Oldest Natural History Museum is a Hidden Gem.

The Answer to: What to Do in Tuscany with Children or on a Rainy Day in Pisa.

A Top Attraction for a Visit Around Pisa - Surrounded by Tuscan Countryside.

Civilization made a giant leap one day in 1591 when a light bulb glowed in the head of Grand Duke Ferdinado I de' Medici of Tuscany. Like a parent teaching a child, this Medici ruler had the noble idea to help ordinary citizens learn about the world while fostering the advance of knowledge. So bright was his light bulb, that it shines still as the Museo Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History) just 10 km. outside Pisa in Calci.

Pisa Museum of Natural History Mammalian Department diorama of Early Man
Mammalian Department diorama at the Pisa Museum of Natural History. Strutting your stuff never gets old. 
This excellent museum primarily uses the good old tried-and-true, get-up-close-to-the-glass-case method, and it still works wonderfully. There are a some dioramas for the nostalgic, and a few interactive displays for the moderns, but most of the collections wait patiently for your curiosity. The museum is divided into twelve departments so there are too many attractions for our humble article – we'll just try to motivate you to see for yourself.

This Museum is one of the hidden places of Pisa. You won't be crowded and it offers a nice change of pace and subject if your feet are protesting and Renaissance paintings are all starting to look alike. FYI, it's so unknown that only 5% of TripAdvisor reviews are in English yet all the reviews are Good or Excellent. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, the town of Calci is pleasant and has a knockout Romanesque church (see below).

Charterhouse (Certosa) of Calci.
CC by Marco Botta Chinnici
The Museum of Natural History was organized by 1595 from diverse existing Medici collections, making it one of the world's oldest museums. It was created as part of the University of Pisa and located at the even older Pisa Botanical Garden – which also still exists near the Leaning Tower. In 1981, the Museum was moved to a wing of the gigantic Carthusian monastery building in Calci, 10 km away.

The Museum has two separately ticketed sections – 1.) The Core Natural History Exhibits and 2.) The Aquarium & Special Exhibits. Our story describes our visit to some departments in both sections. We saved some sections for our next visit.

The Museum's displays are generally English friendly, and the building is quite well adapted for visitors with mobility issues.  Below are sections on TICKETS  and GETTING THERE .

The Carthusian Monastery (a Charterhouse in English, Certosa in Italian) is a separate and interesting Museum well worth a visit. Website: Museo Nazionale della Certosa Calci (IT)  or @certosadicalci on Facebook.  You can download an app named MusAR (IT) to guide you. Even though the app is in Italian, there are a lot of graphics which makes it helpful if you don't parla bene.


The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum
The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum. One of Europe's largest collection of whale skeletons.

This is Italy's largest collection of whale skeletons. Many are displayed full-sized in a long purpose-built hall, and they are really impressive. You can walk right up to some of them, under some others, and actually inside one. There are collateral displays to help advance your understanding of our blubbery brothers. You will never take whales for granted again.

The Best Tour of Rome's Colosseum Reviewed.

Classic facade of the Roman Colosseum
Today's iconic facade of the Roman Colosseum is actually the original interior facade. The original outer wall was 100,000
 cubic meters of  travertine stone. That stone was later used to build many Roman churches and several  palaces of Popes. 

Is a Colosseum Guided Tour Worth it?

Read our Third Ring Colosseum Tour Review with Tips and Advice. 

Where to Get the Best Photos.   Can We Skip the Line?   Colosseum Guided Tours in English.

Should You Book a Guided Tour or Tour on Your Own?
We have done both, and we believe that a Colosseum tour / Roman Forum tour is the best choice. We visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum by ourselves on our first trip to Italy in 1984. We enjoyed it a lot, and it was easier then – inexpensive and no security. However, we now know that we missed a lot of the best stuff, and our little guide book skipped over many features that would have really interested us. Both of the sites are just too packed with layers of history and ancient buildings to be enjoyed fully without help.

The arena floor was wood covered with sand, 270 by 160 feet. Underneath were these walls of the hypogeum, a two-story underground of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for wild animals, and storage rooms hidden under the arena floor. Elaborate machines lifted scenery and animals into the arena. Photo from 2nd level with lens at 55mm.

Switch to a new millennium. In May, 2018, we went on a guided tour* of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and we were blown away by the wonderful experience. Not only were the lines at entry and the security check made easy, but the sites themselves came alive. Our guide presented fascinating history, facts, and anecdotes at every stop, and answered every question we had. It was very much like we had never been there before. Self-guiding is a fun way to see many places, but not the Colosseum and the Forum.

Which Tour - Top Level, Underground or At Night?
Rome Colosseum has good views from Level 1, but it's crowded sometimes.
Access to Level 1 is included with general admission. The
views are good but sometimes you'll have to wait for a spot.
We booked our tour with the The Roman Guy. Founded by a young American - Sean Finelli - just 10 years ago, we selected them because they have a strong customer-oriented attitude and consistently good reputation.  For the Colosseum we chose the 3 hour Restricted Areas Belvedere Top Levels Colosseum Tour which also includes a Roman Forum tour. We especially wanted the special viewpoints for better photos and this tour includes the restricted access third level - a/k/a the Belvedere.  Our second, back-up choice was the best-selling Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill.  The group was manageably small – about 15 people, and we each had an earpiece receiver for easy listening. Our guide was Giulia and she was hands down the best guide we’ve ever had in decades of travel. This smart Roman has several advanced degrees in history and was so knowledgeable she never needed to use a script. She is also friendly, unflappable, and dedicated to seeing that we had a good experience. Which we certainly did.

TIP:  If you book a tour with The Roman Guy, use the DISCOUNT PROMO CODE shown below.

Our Top Levels Colosseum Tour Described.
Rome tour guide with Colosseum in background.
Our Top Level guide Giulia making
sense of the Colosseum's history.
The Colosseum. After we met outside the Colosseum, Giulia guided us through the entrance lines and security with just a small wait. FYI, there's no way to truly Skip-the-Line at the Colosseum. The best you can do is take a guided tour where the wait time to enter and get through security is minimized. Our tour was a morning affair, which we strongly recommend because the longest waits occur when the 3,000 person maximum capacity is reached and new entries are paced – often around late morning.

Once inside, our Roman Guy guide, Giulia, gave us a brief but fascinating architectural and historical overview of the Colosseum so we'd know what we're seeing. Things like where it got it's name (it's not the building size), why there are holes in the walls, why was it preserved at all, how the seats were allocated, what is the connection between the Colosseum and the word 'fornication'. Did you know that the present exterior is actually an interior wall – the original exterior wall is gone – 100,000 cubic meters of stone! Did you know there's no evidence any Christians were martyred here? Freshly and smugly knowledgeable, we then headed up the steep entrance ramp ( a vomitorium in Latin ) to the first ring. 

Italian Food Specialties - The Tramezzino Sandwich

One of the World's Great Sandwiches is Celebrated in Cremona.

The English Tea Sandwich inspired This Edible Palette for Gourmets and Food Artists.

Tramezzino sandwich at Ugo Grill, Cremona with bresaola, caprino, rucola.
The Marcolino Tramezzino at Ugo's in Cremona. Bresaola, caprino, rucola.
Photo Courtesy of Ugo Grill.
Who doesn’t want a delicate and delicious English tea sandwich? I do, you do, pretty much everyone in northern Italy does. The Italian offspring born of this tea sandwich desire is the famous tramezzino. In 1925, Gabriele D’Annuzio invented these sandwiches as an inspired variation on the English version. He worked at Caffè Mulassano in Torino (still there) and he really knew the hungry inclinations of the Torinesi.

So why should a traveler care about a sandwich? Long lunches in Italy are a pleasure, and reason enough to travel to Italy.  But after a few days of long lunches and dinners it can be a relief to have a meal that isn't such a big deal. But a plain ham sandwich isn't an experience you'll remember dreamily in the depths of winter.  This is the time for tramezzini - simple, quick, authentically Italian, delicious and the food of dreams. Can you even imagine prosciutto, shrimp, and cream of asparagus.  How about a gorgonzola and salami tramezzini with mayo?

Cremona Duomo (Cathedral) and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Cremona Duomo and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Duomo begun 1107 AD, the Tower finished 1309.

The classic tramezzino is a small delicate sandwich made with two slices of soft white bread, crustless, spread with mayonnaise and filled with any combination of ingredients that satisfies, challenges, or amuses a needy epicure. Of course the concept has evolved and in some places now you might see the name tramezzino applied and/or misapplied to rolled-up sandwiches or toasted creations, and they might be the size of a matchbox or a multilayered affair half the size of a cigar box. Let others do what they may, here we are speaking of the classic version as celebrated in Cremona. They are hand-sized and the filling-to-bread ratio optimizes the taste, not the appearance.

Tramezzino is a diminutive of the word tramezzo, and it’s originally an architectural term meaning the division between spaces. So if you have an empty space involving your stomach between breakfast and lunch, here’s your snack. Today, it’s also used as an inexpensive, infinitely variable, and delicious lunch, an anytime bar snack, or a consolation for Hungarian train passengers (true).