Category Archives: Tuscany

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artisan Woodworker of Cortona

Fifteen years ago on my second visit to Italy, I went to Cortona. Why? To have tea with Frances Mayes, of course. I planned to spend the following year under the Tuscan sun – a sabbatical from my law firm life. Who else would be the best source of info?

We did not sip tea under the shady arbor of grapevines, near the fragrant lavender patch, behind the golden and peach-colored walls of the restored Bramasole villa. No, we sat in the back of the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the main square of Cortona for two hours over countless cups of ever-weaker tea. I can’t remember what I learned about how to have an exceptional extended vacation in Italy, but I remember the author was charming and was a major proponent of buying a second home in Tuscany.

Umberto Rossi's showroom at the corner of Piazza della Repubblica
Umberto Rossi's shop in Piazza della Repubblica

On the same visit to Cortona, I also met Umberto Rossi. Some would call him a falegname – a craftsman of wood – although the better term would be artisan. Umberto is a master craftsman in “turned” wooden objects, using a lathe to make the thinnest possible wood bowl or objet d’art. But it was the fruit he created that caught my eye – apples of acacia or palisander wood, pears of tulipwood, and two cherries of cherry wood, joined by stems of lemonwood, no thicker than the real thing.

Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.
Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.

I met Umberto in his small shop on the same square where I had tea with Frances. After a long discourse on how each item was made and the decisions that go into choosing the wood, the preparation, the tools and the amount of skill and labor that go into each item, I bought three pieces.

Umberto said he couldn’t understand why someone would buy a piece of his work and not ask about the type of wood or how it was made. That wasn’t a problem with me. I wanted to know about all of it. I had never seen such intricate craftsmanship with such an eye to detail outside of a museum. He invited me to visit his workshop just down the hill on Via Guelfa. My memory of this place is that it was crowded, dark, cold, and full of sawdust and pieces of wood, as well as all of the equipment needed for his work – but it was a long time ago, I may have the details wrong. It was there, looking at rough chunks of chestnut and olive wood, small logs of mahogany and rosewood, and even a cube of ebony, that the philosophy attributed to Michelangelo came to mind – Umberto seemed to look at a piece of wood and envision the form contained inside and it was his mission to bring it to life.

An apple made of palisander wood.
An apple made of palisander wood.

Then, Umberto invited me home to meet his wife, Dee, who, like Frances Mayes, was from the American South. Maybe it was that southern hospitality, but Dee kindly interrupted her dinner preparations to make coffee for the tourist her husband brought home with no warning. I never did learn how Dee Morton, an artist from Georgia ended up in a cozy apartment in a soon-to-become-famous, but now a definitely obscure, rocky hill town on the edge of Tuscany, with woodworker Umberto Rossi. Besides cooking dinner and making coffee, she was wrangling two kids, the youngest just one year old – it didn’t leave a lot of time for personal histories.

Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.
Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.

Last week, I went back to Cortona. Frances Mayes has since moved to North Carolina. Umberto’s shop was closed tight by ancient faded green wooden doors – no way to peer in, no big sign to say it was still his shop – but there was a small card taped to the door that gave a phone number and directions to the workshop. “Open on request.” As I debated the issue, a woman arrived wearing a warm coat and jaunty beret. It was Dee Morton.

Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.
Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.

The shop is now a showroom – same size, but with elegant glass cases. Umberto’s exquisite work remains the focus, but now also there are Dee’s drawings and paintings on the walls and the artwork of their talented now-teenaged children on display.

Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona
Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona

I, of course, added to my collection. Then we went off to one of the best restaurants in Cortona, La Bucaccia, (Via Ghibellina, 17), for a lunch full of local specialties, but that’ s for a later post …

Italian Food Rules – No Cappuccino After 10am

“Italians, it so happens, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about digestion. The predilection towards a before-dinner drink-known as an aperitivo – is due in large part because Italians believe a drink such as Campari and soda “opens the stomach.” If you launch into your bruschetta – followed by pasta, followed by grilled fish, followed by panna cotta – without first awakening the digestive tract with an aperitivo, you’re just asking for trouble.” (The Daily Traveler for Condé Nast)

Cappuccino Classico
Cappuccino Classico

To sip a cappuccino after lunch is a direct and major violation of an Italian Food Rule. Italians believe the fresh whole milk that makes up over half of the contents of this drink plays havoc with digestion. To order a cappuccino after 10am, unless you are breakfasting after said hour, is seen as suspect behavior worthy of at least a slight frown, advancing to a worried shake of the head, and can escalate to outright ridicule.

Francesca, my guide to all of the pitfalls that lead to violations of Italian Food Rules, once had a hilarious exchange with a waiter after two German tourists at a nearby table unwittingly ordered cappuccini after dinner. Scornfully, she wondered if they were going to order breakfast for dessert.

Origins of Cappuccino

Most believe that cappuccino was named after the light brown hoods worn by a hard-core, split-away order of Franciscan monks, founded in the early 16th century – the Capuchin monks, or Cappuccini. The word cappuccio means “hood” in Italian, and the “ino” ending is a diminutive. Thus, cappuccino means “little hood.”

Cappuccino - the Italian breakfast
Cappuccino – the Italian breakfast

Others credit Capuchin monk Marco D’Aviano with the invention of the drink, allegedly after he discovered a sack of coffee captured from the Ottomans during the battle of Vienna in 1683. (D’Aviano was beatified in 2003 for his missionary work and miraculous power of healing.)

In reality, the popular coffee, topped with foamed milk, dates back to the early 20th century, but the name wasn’t associated with the beverage until just before 1950.

Cappuccino – Breakfast of Italians

Fresh Milk & Espresso = Cappuccino
Fresh Milk & Espresso = Cappuccino

To the Italians, milk is almost a meal in itself. So having a cappuccino at the neighborhood bar in the morning on the way to work or school requires no other food to be considered a complete breakfast. (A small pastry may be included, but not always.)


Cappuccino is more milk than coffee, so it is full of calories. Perhaps the reasoning is that slender Italians (the ones that don’t order the pastry) are more likely to burn off the calories through the day. Drunk later, those pesky calories stay on the hips

Some say that cappuccino is best in the morning because the milk has lactose (a sugar) and the body absorbs the lactose and milk fat quickly, so the carbohydrate energy is available immediately before the caffeine stimulant kicks in.

Food Rule – No Cappuccino after Meals

The real reason behind the Food Rule, however, is that Italians are firmly convinced that drinking milk after any meal will mess up the ability to digest food properly. So having a cappuccino at any time after lunch, or after dinner, in Italy is unthinkable.

Tourists, therefore, shouldn’t be shocked when the waiter refuses to grant their cappuccino requests “for your own health.”

Capuccino Valentine
Cappuccino Valentine

For further reading:

Best Writing about Italian Coffee

How to Order an Italian Coffee in Italy

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback (United Kingdom) (Italy) (Germany) (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Museum Passes in Florence: Part One – Amici degli Uffizi

September 2015 — Effective as of June 15, 2015, the Regional Secretary of the former Superintendency of the State Museums of Florence stipulated that Amici degli Uffizi members, holding valid membership and ID cards, are eligible for the free entrance and the priority pass to the Uffizi Gallery only. This severely limits the benefits of the card

June 14, 2011 — Tuscan Traveler has compared the two museum passes available in Florence. Check this link.

As the prices of reserved tickets to the Uffizi or the Accademia hit 14 euro ($19) or above (depending on if an extra exhibit is included, such as last year’s Caravaggio or Mapplethorpe shows), there is much talk in Florence about a multi-day museum pass. And, in fact, the mayor has announced that soon a three-day 50 euro pass ($67) will be available.

But Florence already has a great museum pass – the Amici degli Uffizi membership card.

Membership cards to the Amici degli Uffizi - Friends of the Uffizi
Membership cards of the Amici degli Uffizi – Friends of the Uffizi

Established in Florence in 1993 by a group of concerned citizens, following a terrorist bombing that damaged the Uffizi Gallery and some of its precious artworks, Amici degli Uffizi (Friends of the Uffizi) embarked on the task of restoring and maintaining the artistic heritage of the Uffizi Gallery.

Since 1993, the Amici degli Uffizi has supported the Uffizi Gallery in Florence by facilitating acquisitions, supporting restorations and organizing special temporary exhibitions. The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery (the American sister organization), in conjunction with the Amici degli Uffizi, raises funds to support all of these activities through an international group of members and patrons.

Over twenty important restoration projects, designated priorities by the Uffizi Gallery, have been completed over the last several years and include important paintings, altarpieces, sculptures and tapestries. The organization also underwrites special free exhibits for the public such as the recent one of Self-Portraits of Women Artists.

Original symbol of the Amici degli Uffizi
Original symbol of the Amici degli Uffizi

But best of all, for residents and visitors of Florence, Amici degli Uffizi offers its members a year-long museum card for 60 euro ($80) for individuals, 100 euro ($134) for families (2 to 4 members included in the one price), and 40 euro ($54) for students. Memberships can be purchased online or at the the Amici degli Uffizi Welcome Desk located between Entry Door Nos. 1 and 2 at the Uffizi Gallery.

The best part of having the Amici degli Uffizi card, besides free entry to more than twenty museums, (at the end of this post is a list of all of the museums included in this card) is the ability to skip the line.  At the Uffizi and the Accademia visitors wait for hours unless they have the foresight and the extra 4 euro to make a reservation. With the Amici degli Uffizi card you go to the ticket office, show your card and a photo i.d., and you are given a ticket for immediate entry into the museum.

Not to belabor the point, but the Uffizi is a huge museum, mind-numbing in its number of paintings. With the Amici degli Uffizi card you can go in to sit for an hour or so in the Botticelli Room and come back the next day (or after a nice lunch) to enter again with a new free ticket to peruse the Titians and pop by the monolithic Byzantine enthroned madonnas.

In 2010, the Amici degli Uffizi and the Polo Museale Fiorentino, launched a permanent welcome service for the association’s members. “We wanted to create a welcome point for local citizens and visitors equal to those that have been available in the world’s other great museums for some time,” said Maria Vittoria Rimbotti, President of the Association. “This is the first time that an Italian state museum is offering such a service.”

The Welcome Desk is located between entrances #1 and #2 of the Uffizi museum. Its hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Tel. +39 055 213560 and +39 055 284034)

Today's Friends of the Uffizi
Today’s Friends of the Uffizi

Although the Welcome Desk will be a reference point mainly for Florentines, it is an easy place to purchase your Amici degli Uffizi museum card. Greeted by polite and helpful (attributes frequently hard to find elsewhere in Florence) staff members (who also speak English) you will be able to register and become a member or renew your membership within minutes. (Remember to bring your passport.)

At the Welcome Desk, members will also be able to access useful information about the museum and the city, information about cultural programs sponsored by the province of Florence and the Tuscan regional government, and via the online connection with the APT (Agenzia Per il Turismo), visitors can obtain real-time information about current cultural programs.

The Amici degli Uffizi membership card provides free entrance to the following museums:

Galleria degli Uffizi,
Galleria dell’Accademia,
Palazzo Pitti:  Galleria Palatina,
Galleria dell’Arte Moderna,
Galleria del Costume,
Museo degli Argenti,
Museo delle Porcellane,
Giardino di Boboli,
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Museo delle Cappelle Medicee, Museo di Palazzo Davanzati,
Museo di San Marco,
Giardino della Villa Medicea di Castello,
Villa Medicea della Petraia,
Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano,
Villa Medicea di Cerreto Guidi e Museo storico della Caccia e del Territorio,
Cenacolo di Ognissanti,
Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto,
Cenacolo di Fuligno,
Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia, and
Chiostro dello Scalzo.

The Amici degli Uffizi membership card also provides:

– Reduced price tickets for concerts of the Teatro Comunale (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino)
– Reduced price (15%) tickets for concerts of the Orchestra della Toscana at Teatro Verdi
– 20% discount on price ticket for premières and Saturday performances at Teatro della Pergola

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Happy 150th Anniversary Italy!

Italy will spend 2011 celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification – known as the Risorgimento (Resurgence). From a land of city-states, many under foreign domination, Italy became a country in 1861.

Most historians agree that the unification of Italy started in 1815 with the end of Napoleonic rule, but it took a tortuous path through the insurrections of the 1820s and 1830s and the abortive revolutions of 1848-1849. The War of 1859 created the Kingdom of Sardinia that encompassed most of northwestern and central Italy, including Tuscany. But the move to unify the peninsula stalled there. The rich north had had nothing to gain and little interest to take on the burden of the poor south or to confront the pope in the Papal States.

Garibaldi and his army of Red Shirts
Garibaldi and his army of Red Shirts

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the true hero who kick-started the final unification of Italy. In early 1860, he gathered about a thousand of volunteers (I Mille) in Genoa for an expedition by sea to Sicily.

Progress by December 1959
Progress of unification by December 1959

The Kingdom of Two Sicilies (yellow on map), which ruled over not only the island, but most of the southern third of the mainland, had long been a corrupt government, oppressing a restive underclass. Although the Garibaldi Red Shirts were less skilled and ill equipped, they had tremendous success, gathering thousands of volunteers as they moved through the countryside. They occupied Sicily within two months. Garibaldi claimed Sicily in the name of Victor Emanuel II, King of Piedmont, Sardinia and Savoy. He then crossed to the mainland and marched his troops to Naples.

After Garibaldi’s success made full unification of Italy a real possibility, Piedmontese troops, under the command of Victor Emanuel II, used the riots and uprisings in the Papal States (red on map) as a reason to move south under the pretext of maintaining order. In 1860, two thirds of the Papal States joined the Kingdom of Sardinia and Rome was left alone. The Piedmontese army bypassed Rome and the remaining Papal States and marched south to Naples to help Garibaldi’s troops defeat the remaining armies of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

1861 Italy - Orange Unified - Red Papal State - Green Austrian Venetia
1861 Orange & Pink Unified - Red Papal State - Green Austrian Venetia

On September 18, 1860, Garibaldi gave up command of his army and all lands to the south, including Sicily and Naples, to Victor Emanuel II, signifying the unity and formation of the Kingdom of Italy, which was formalized by the new parliament on March 17, 1861. Victor Emanuel II was crowned the first King of Italy.

Although a Kingdom of Italy had been formed, it did not include all of Italy. The missing parts were Rome and Venetia. Venetia was annexed in 1866. Rome and the remaining Papal States became part of the union in 1870.

Throughout the year Tuscan Traveler will highlight events and stories relating to the unification of Italy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Happy New Year from Tuscany!

Auguri di Buon Anno!!

Tuscan Traveler is looking forward to another year in Florence and Tuscany, writing about the less traveled paths, the hidden courtyards, as well as the objects or places seen every day, but for which the stories have been lost.

Via dello Studio view of the Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo seen from Via dello Studio

In 2011, Florentine food will be a focus and so will Tuscany for tots (or just for those very young at heart). Italian politics is too difficult for Tuscan Traveler to translate, but 2011 promises to be a year of great change (hopefully), therefore the best alternative web sites for current events will be brought to focus (of course, most likely under the theme Burnt To a Crisp).

2011 is the Year to Visit Tuscany with Friend In Florence

Tuscan Traveler and Friend In Florence expect to welcome friends back to Florence and Tuscany, as well as meet visitors new to the history, art, food and wine of this fascinating city and a diverse region of beaches and mountains, vineyards and olive groves, hill towns, markets, and so, so much more.

Tuscany in the summer in a sunflower year
Tuscany in the summer in a Sunflower Year

Friend in Florence offers you a virtual friend, who has both the experience of a native Florentine and the imagination and curiosity of a visitor, who after 12 years still looks at Florence and Tuscany with the eyes of a foreigner. Offering custom walking tours of Florence and chauffeured expeditions throughout Tuscany, Friend In Florence provides minute by minute information and experiences to create memories that will last for years.

For those who want to explore on their own, Friend in Florence offers self-guided itineraries of Florence and/or Tuscany with information about special events, introductions to friends of Tuscan Traveler and Friend in Florence, directions to workshops of craftsmen and small select wineries, and reservations at the best Florentine restaurants or countryside trattorias.

Montefioralle - one of the small hill towns of Tuscany
Montefioralle - one of the small hill towns of Tuscany

In the New Year, experience the Joy of a Florentine Kitchen!

Tuscan Traveler will post descriptions of the best places to eat in Florence and Tuscany, but if you have a desire to experience the joy and simplicity of cooking the Florentine way, ask Friend in Florence to arrange a class in your apartment kitchen in Florence or at your villa in Tuscany. If you don’t want to cook, but also want the comfort and privacy of eating at your home away from home, request a catered lunch or dinner from Friend in Florence.

Tuscan vegetables with zucchini flowers
Tuscan vegetables with zucchini flowers cooked up by a Florentine chef (email: (email:

Dove Vai? – Travel To Italian World War II Sites with Anne Saunders

One of the joys of living in Italy is not only the chance to visit places where Renaissance artists, poets, dukes and popes wandered the same hallways and alleys, but to visit locations where no less dramatic, but much more recent history took place.

To Americans under 60 years of age World War II in Europe is often a vague set of facts found in a history book – a short chapter or two. Italy, like Normandy, provides a full semester’s course on the sociological background, politics, alliances, military strategies, and both tragic and victorious outcomes, especially from 1942 to 1945 – the Italian Campaign.

American Sicily-Rome WW II Cemetery at Anzio/Nettuno
American Sicily-Rome WW II Cemetery at Anzio/Nettuno has a special interest in the American Cemeteries, located at Anzio/Nettuno and Florence. So it is a pleasure to find that Anne Saunders, an American researcher, has compiled a guide to almost every location in Italy where one can undertake a full study of the history of World War II and the Italian Campaign.

Front Cover
Front Cover

A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy describes and provides directions to over one hundred World War II museums, monuments, cemeteries and battlefields. The tours, with complete directions, travel times, maps and other helpful hints, focus on a particular city or region, following the Allied and German armies as they battled from southern to northern Italy.

American soldiers in battle Lucca (November 1944)
American soldiers in battle outside of Lucca (November 1944)

It might be more accurate to call this book “A Short History and Travel Guide of the Italian Campaign” because in this small volume (100 pages) Anne provides concise descriptions of the years leading up to Italy’s alliance with Germany, the Allied landing in Africa and Sicily, and the subsequent important battles and strategic decisions that led to the German surrender. Sections recounting the history lead into to description of the pertinent museums, cemeteries (American, Commonwealth, German, Polish, French and others), memorials and monuments.

Gothic Line near Lucca
Gothic Line near Lucca

I learned that the Gothic Line was built by forced labor and that I want to go immediately to see the dramatic mountainside German Military Cemetery at Traversa where more than 30,000 German soldiers are buried. My only quibble with Anne’s book is that she fails to describe the beautiful flower gardens in which the Commonwealth soldiers are buried – not on the outside of the plots, but actually around each tombstone, as if they lie in an English country garden forever.

Commonwealth Beach Head Cemetery in Anzio
Commonwealth Beach Head Cemetery in Anzio

Anne, a true researcher, provides an exhaustive bibliography and even a list of films about the Italian Campaign.  She also provides hotel and transportation suggestions. Archival WWII photos illustrate the guidebook. For more information regarding the Italian campaign, read about WWII Italy and/or visit Anne’s complete and informative online page of news and links.

Anne Saunders has a BA from Wellesley College, MA from Columbia University, and PhD from the University of South Carolina. She taught for over twenty years at the College of Charleston, where she is now a research associate. A lifelong fan of Italy, she spent four summers there doing research for the guidebook. I would like to know more about how she got the inspiration to undertake the years of travel and study that resulted in this informative and very helpful guide.

Connect to Anne’s Amazon Author Page. To view the book’s table of contents and selected pages, click on its Amazon web page. Visit where to buy for a list of stores and web vendors in the USA, Canada, the UK, Italy, and elsewhere.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – It’s a Sunflower Year in Tuscany

“A Sunflower Year?” asked Francesca as we drove through the rolling Tuscan hills southwest of Siena. I pointed out to this Florentine that some years there were no sunflowers to be found in Tuscany, but in others the golden flowers created the Tuscan landscape of movies and postcards and tourists’ fantasies. 2010 is a Sunflower Year.

Southern Tuscany during a Sunflower Year
Southern Tuscany during a Sunflower Year

Twelve years ago, the first Italian film I saw was Il Ciclone. I’ve seen it about three times because as a failing beginning Italian language student, I’ve taken a lot of classes. It seems to be the film-of-choice for first-level Italian language teachers. Not because it’s easy to understand – most of the actors have Florentine accents – but because it is funny. The parts I remember the best are the scenes when the cute guy on a scooter speeds to the family farmhouse through fields of sunflowers. It was the perfect depiction of my dream of the Tuscan countryside – not vineyards or olive groves, but with fields of yellow flowers surrounding a golden rustic house with a terra cotta roof.

Tuscan Traveler's Fantasy Tuscany Made Reality
Tuscan Traveler's Fantasy Tuscany Made Reality

So why are some years filled with sunflowers and in others nary a bloom to be found. I had a client – a photographer and painter – who wanted to take photos of Tuscan sunflowers. We traveled the back roads from Florence to Siena to Montepulciano for five days before we found one field near Montalcino.

Of course, the answer that comes to mind is that Italian farmers are rigorous in their husbandry of the fertile soil and therefore, rotate their crops to preserve the nutrients and decrease the pathogens to allow for healthy crops every year. But it is incredible to think that Italian farmers are so cohesive to agree en masse that they should all grow sunflowers in a given year. Especially on the years that the sunflower crops have failed dismally when lack of rain wilted them on the stalk just as the flowers came into bloom.

Fields of Sunflowers on the Chianti Back Roads
Fields of Sunflowers on the Chianti Back Roads

No, of course, it is all about subsidies. It appears that the Italian government and the European Union have for years subsidized certain crops and that determines a Sunflower Year. Now in the age of biofuels, new subsidies have been created to Save the Planet. (Of course, the cost and amount of CO2 emitted from farming sunflowers and burning sunflower biofuel far outweigh the value of the relatively small amount of fuel that can be obtained from the plant.)

Turning its Face to the Tuscan Sun
Turning its Face to the Tuscan Sun

But after the momentary distraction brought by the realities of farming in Italy and EU subsidies, I am back in my golden haze, loving Tuscany during the summers when millions of the giant flowers turn their faces to the sun. I wish every year was a Sunflower Year.