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.

PIETRA BISMANTOVA
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.

HISTORY
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)

HOW TO HIKE THE PIETRA
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 along the Portofino Coast.


The Red Carpet Walk from Rapallo to Santa Margherita.  

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.

OUR DIRECTIONS:   WALK THIS WAY.
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.

ABOUT THE MUSEUM
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.


WHALE WATCHING


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).

Below Mighty Massa Castle, a Perfect Tordelli Waits.

Tordelli are Tortelli are Tortelloni.  Enjoy this Many Named Pasta at a Tordellaria. 

Eat Massa's Unique Piatto Tipico in an Authentic Local Restaurant.

Malaspina Castle, Massa, Tuscany.
Malaspina Castle still watches over  Massa, Tuscany. CC by Richard  Avery.
At the northern end of Tuscany, hard by the sea and the Apuan Alps, is an interesting provincial capital with a crazy name - Massa. It is full of history and busy people and stone industry enterprise, and has its own lovely beach community. Although some of Massa's historic areas were damaged in WWII bombing, much of the historic center, and one of the largest and fiercest castles in Italy survived. The Castle of the Malaspina, established before 1,000 AD, and first mentioned in documents in 1164, is still powerful looking and fearsome. The Malaspina ruled the area known as Lunigiana for centuries and competed fist-to-fist with all who challenged.   It's fascinating to visit the castle, and you can tour it on weekend and holiday afternoons.  Generally the tours are in Italian, but we've experienced very helpful guides who recognize perplexity in an instant. For hours and fees, see: Castello Malaspina Massa

Dining room at Abacab Ristorante & Tordelleria, Massa, Tuscany, Italy.
Dining room at Abacab Ristorante & Tordelleria, Massa, Tuscany, Italy.

If you'll be visiting the castle or are shopping in Massa, of course you'd like to know and try some of the food specialties. Well, there's a standout. Tordelli alla massese is rightly famous and it's delicious. It's made with a sturdy egg pasta, a rich and satisfying filling with a 'Massese' taste, and a sauce that's like the country cousin of bolognese: more robust, more sincere, more down to earth. The dish is so much a part of Massa that there are variations on the basic tradition, and there are both shops and restaurants devoted to tordelli.