La Befana – The Christmas Witch

Models of La Befana at Piazza Navona

La Befana

Visit Italy around Christmas, you might be intrigued to see depictions of an old hag sitting astride her broomstick amongst the holiday decorations. It seems more appropriate to Halloween than to Christmas. This is la Befana, or the Christmas witch, beloved by Italian children for the gifts (and hopefully NOT the lump of coal) that she leaves for them on the night of 5 January – Epiphany Eve in the Roman Catholic calendar, also known as the 12th Day of Christmas.

Roman soldiers marching in La Befana Parade

Roman Legions near Castel Sant’Angelo

In most western countries, during the holiday season, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, or Father Christmas arrive bearing presents. So why the Befana, the only WOMAN who delivers gifts, is portrayed as a witch defies logic! Nevertheless, she is a revered figure in Italy, warts and all.

According to legend, the Befana was minding her own business, sweeping out her house with her broom, when Three Wise Men showed up at her doorstep, asking for directions to where they could find the Christ child. She didn’t know but provided them with shelter for the night.

The next morning, as they were setting out on their journey, they invited her to join them on their quest, but she was too busy sweeping and refused. Later in the day, she had a change of heart and set out on her broomstick to find the baby, taking a bag of sweets with her as a gift. When she couldn’t find the baby (or the Wise Men), she distributed the gifts to children along the way, a tradition she continues to this day.

The Bersaglieri near Castel Sant'Angelo

A detachment of Bersaglieri, Befana Parade

The word “Befana” is believed to derive from “Epifania,” the Roman Catholic religious observance to mark the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. However, there is no agreement on where this tradition started. Some say the tradition began in the 8th century, others during the 13th. Others link it to Strenia, the ancient pagan Roman goddess of the new year whose name comes from the gifts that the Romans exchanged during the holiday.

Traditionally, La Befana is portrayed as a witch with a crooked nose, her face smeared with the soot from the chimney. Wrapped in a black shawl, she rides her broomstick from house to house dropping off gifts and chocolates to good children and a lump of coal to those with a less than stellar record.

Celebrating La Befana, Rome

Carabinieri mounted band, Rome, Italy

Whatever the origins of the tradition, Epiphany is a holiday in Italy, marked by pageantry and celebrations in honor of La Befana. In Rome it includes a colorful parade that wends its way from Castel Sant’Angelo (aka Hadrian’s Mausoleum) along the Via Della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Square. Flags fly, bands play while young and old, dressed in costumes to match various periods of Rome’s history, walk the half mile stretch. There are archers and gladiators, Roman legions and medieval swordsmen, noblewomen and servant girls, the Carabinieri mounted band and the Bersaglieri with their plumed hat. Spectators, sometimes 4-5 deep, line the route cheering on the marchers.

As for the Befana, she rides to the Vatican in a white, chauffeured vintage sports car at the end of the procession. Once she is finished at the Vatican, it is off to Piazza Navona for more festivities in the shadow of Bernini’s famous fountains.

The Christmas witch arrives

The Befana arrives in a vintage sports car


For more photographs visit in the Recent Additions gallery.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018 Diana Russler


Rainbow over the fjord

Rainbow over the Sognefjord

Although most visitors on the “Norway in a Nutshell” itinerary continue their journey directly from the train to a ferry, we opt to spend a few days in the area to explore Flåm.

The village of Undredal on the Aurlandsfjord

Undredal, Norway

The “tourist” village of Flåm is centered around the train station and the docks. Apart from some scattered farmhouses and homes lining the road, a small museum, a bakery and a supermarket, tourist shops and the information center dominate the village.

A few hotels and guesthouses are available. Perhaps the most luxurious of these is the Flåmsbrygga Hotel situated on a pier with views of the Aurlandsfjord just 50 feet away – until a massive cruise ship (shades of Venice) moors in front. Fortunately, these behemoths (which are several stories higher than the hotel) are only there during the day, restoring your view in the evening and early morning.

The hotel with the best view straight up the fjord is the Flåm Marina and Apartments, on the other side of the harbor. This is also where we enjoy our best meal in the area.

The natural beauty of the area, however, almost defies description and is best experienced by fjord cruises, drives, and long walks along the shores of the fjord and into the hills.

A pair of seals on the shore of the fjord near Flåm

Seals in Nærøyfjord, Norway


Clad in goggles, hats and thick Arctic survival suits, we climb into a rib boat for a two-hour trip through Aurlandsfjord and into the Nærøyfjord. Both are arms of the mighty Sognefjord. Norway’s largest and deepest fjord.

Of course, there is a bit of showmanship involved and much storytelling. There is a tale about almost every one of the few villages that cling to the cliff sides and the fjord.

For example, the village of Undredal, an idyllic community on the edge of the fjord, served as the inspiration for the movie “Frozen,” although our guide assures us that Elsa doesn’t live there anymore.

The village consists of about 100 people and 500 goats. Until 1988 it could only be reached by boat, but the construction of the new road has greatly increased the number of visitors who stop here.

It is famous for its brown goat cheese “Undredalsosten,” which you can find at the cheese shop, “Undredalsbui.” (It is an acquired taste). The Eldhuset cheese museum has an extensive exhibit about the product.

The Stigen Bed and Breakfast is another storytelling stop. Stigen means “ladder” in Norwegian. Years ago the only way to reach the farm was by hiking up a very steep cliff, so arduous that a ladder was required to traverse part of the mountain. Whenever he saw the taxman coming, the farmer would pull up it up to prevent him from reaching the farm.

The farmer eventually tired of eking out a living from his small plot of land, so he sold it. The new owner has turned it into an exclusive Bed and Breakfast that has an 18-month waiting list for accommodations. And, yes, you still have to hike up the cliff face although luggage is transported on a zip line.

The landscape is dramatic. As the glaciers withdrew at the end of the last Ice Age, they gouged out deep gorges that were quickly filled in by the sea, forming the fjords, one of the world’s natural wonders.

The Sagfossen waterfall in the Nærōyfjord

Sagfossen waterfall

Steep, granite-faced mountains drop straight into the water. Waterfalls flow down the face of the rock. Perhaps one of the highest and most impressive is the Sagfossen. It tumbles 1,200 feet into the Næroyfjord, one of the narrowest in Norway. You will only get to see this waterfall from a boat. Nearby is a striking mountain, the Beitelen, which marks the intersection of the three fjords – the Nærøyfjord, the Aurlandsfjord and the Sognefjord.

The fjords are home to a few marine mammals. On the rocks near the waterfall, we find a family of seals sunning themselves. A pod of porpoises delights in swimming in circles around the rib, popping up periodically. Our guide relates how killer whales have also been spotted in the fjords. Alas, we do not see any.


Without a car, it requires an effort to reach the stunning viewpoints near Flåm, although there is a bus. So we rent a Twizy to take us around. And what exactly is a Twizy? It is a cute, two passenger, French Renault, electric car that you can lease to explore the area. The battery has enough power to take you around several preplanned routes depending on how long you want to drive. It comes equipped with a talking navigation system so you can’t get lost – or so they say!

French Renault Twizy

A Twizy

After contorting ourselves into a pretzel to climb into the car, one behind the other, we set off for Aurland, a secluded mountain village in the heart of the fjord, just 20 minutes away. The village on the edge of the fjord consists of simple frame houses decorated with window boxes filled with geraniums and other colorful flowers.

To get to the top of the mountain, we drive up behind the village through a series of hairpin bends to the Stegastein viewpoint overlooking Aurlandsfjord.

A panoramic viewing platform juts out over the fjord over 2,000 ft. above the water. At the end of the elegant, smooth, wooden pine walkway, there is only a pane of glass to stop you from falling off the end. From here you can see as far as Flåm on one side and as far as Beitelen Mountain, marking the edge of the world heritage site, on the other.

Looking over the fjord from the Stegastein Viewpoint

The Stegastein Overlook, Aurlandsfjord


The main village of Flåm is a few kilometers away along the river. Small farms and collection of houses line the route. The main attraction is the Flåm Kyrkje, a wooden church built over 350 years ago. Start from the Flåm station, follow the railway line and the river. After 3 km you will find the church, dating to 1667 and surrounded by an immaculately kept cemetery

You can also hike to the Brekkefossen waterfall. Starting from the station, cross the bridge and walk along the Flåm camping site. Continue straight ahead at the road crossing. After 1.5 km follow the sign for Brekkefossen. Walk through the gate and follow a red T-marking on the path. The terrain is quite steep, and you need to be cautious as the rocks on the hillside are very slippery.

Spending a few extra days to explore the area around Flåm provides us with many unique opportunities to photograph the fjords, mountains, and villages of the area.

Brekkefossen waterfall, Flåm

Brekkefossen, Flåm



Flåmsbrygga Hotel

Flåm Marina and Apartments

Flåm Fjord Safari

To rent a Twizy just walk over to the office on the far side of the harbor. You will need a driver’s license. (

Stigen Gard and Tours 


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018 Diana Russler


Looking up the Aurlandsfjord

The Aurlandsfjord

Most travelers to Norway spend only a few days in the country but want to experience as much of its natural beauty (and in particular the fjords outside the cities) as possible. To facilitate their travel, the Norwegian Tourist Board developed the concept of “Norway in a Nutshell,” a series of planned itineraries for visitors to follow independently, using public transportation, including trains, boats, and buses. The first and most popular of these is the Flåm Railway (Flåmbana).

The Flåmsbana Railway between Myrdal and Flåm

Waiting to board the Flåmsbana.

Our journey starts early one morning at the Oslo train station where, coffee and skillingsbolle (cinnamon rolls) in hand, we board the train to Bergen, for the five-hour ride to Myrdal to connect to the Flåmbana.

The Oslo to Bergen line is considered to be one of the most spectacular train rides in northern Europe. The rail line initially was meant to link Stockholm with Bergen; however, when Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905, the line (completed in 1909) was modified to connect the new country’s two major cities – Oslo and Bergen.

Thousands of workers chipped and chiseled, blasted and burrowed through the mountains, many using only hand tools and explosives, cutting through the rock to create 200 tunnels, 18 miles of snow sheds and over 300 bridges. Over 63 workers lost their lives during the years it took to complete the railroad.

Today, trains travel 300 miles over the spine-like mountains between the two cities, climbing through forests and lakes to a height of 4, 266 feet at Finse, the highest station on the line, far above the trees.

Here, racks and racks of bicycles line the edges of the platform, waiting for riders who will undertake the hair-raising, death-defying ride down from the mountains.

As you approach Myrdal, located in Norway’s largest national park (Hardangervidda), the scenery becomes more dramatic. Giant boulders line the green hillsides, while impossibly blue and green lakes add a dash of color. Apart from three or four houses, the Art Deco train station is the only structure in sight, dwarfed by the peaks rising all around it.

A mythical Hygdda at the waterfall

Beware the Hygdda!


As we disembark from the train, we are directed to cross the platform to wait for the small train on a spur line that will ferry passengers down the valley to the fjord-side town of Flåm. Luggage is piled at the end of the platform, ready to be loaded into the baggage compartment.

The connection is usually seamless, with only a few minutes wait for the arrival of the Oslo train and the departure of the Flåmbana. There is a bit of a rush to get on and secure a coveted seat on the left side, believed to be slightly more scenic than the right. Important to note for photographers: Except for the windows at either end of the cars, none of the others can be opened.

With the shrill of the train whistle, the Flåmsbana train starts its vertiginous, hour-long descent from 2,800 feet to sea level. It is one of the steepest railway lines in the world, with five separate braking systems to ensure a safe descent over the 5 percent gradient.

Television monitors in each car provide a continuous narrative of the journey in several different languages.

The track follows the Flåmsdalen Valley, stretching 12 miles from Myrdal to Flåm. It passes through 20 tunnels, many of which have been hand-hewn out of the rock. You half expect to see a cudgel-brandishing mountain troll jump out of the darkness.

Instead, perhaps a Hygdda will appear near the Kjosfossen waterfall, where the train stops for five minutes to allow for photographs.

Rjoandefossen Waterfall in the Flåm Valley

Rjoandefossen Waterfall

According to legend, the Hygdda is a troll disguised as a beautiful woman who will try to entice men to join her. She mimics the sound of the wind and falling water, making humans lose track of time and see visions of treasure. In reality, the Hygdda is a dancer from the Norwegian ballet school, dressed as the seductive siren who cavorts on the hillside to an eerie tune blasted through loudspeakers on the platform.

The 305-foot high Kjosfossen waterfall is on the right side of the tracks and is one of the most visited places in Norway. The spray from the falls can be intense so if you are planning to disembark to photograph, take a rain cover for your camera (and yourself).

As the journey continues down the seemingly bottomless valley, a magnificent panorama unfolds outside the windows of the train. Waterfalls (including the almost 1,000-foot high Rjoandefossen) plunge down the steep mountainsides, while small farms cling tenaciously to the sides, amidst the lush vegetation.

As the train reaches the valley floor, it passes through the old village of Flåm (on the left) with its picturesque old wooden church, built in 1667, before arriving at the end of Aurlandsfjord and the Flåm train station.


Pick up your luggage from the platform and cross over to the pier to continue the “Norway in a Nutshell” itinerary, boarding a ferry for the hour-long ride along the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord to the tiny village of Gudvangen.

Find a spot on deck to photograph the postcard-perfect scenery of the fjord and its shores. The Aurlandsfjord is one of the many arms of the Sognefjord, Norway’s best-known, largest and deepest fjord. It is more than 3,300 ft. deep in the center of the fjord. The cliffs surrounding it are almost sheer as they rise over 3,000 ft. into the azure sky.

The church in the old village of Flåm

Flåm Church

The Nærøyfjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is one of the world’s narrowest, with towering cliffs, waterfalls, idyllic wooden villages, and even wildlife. Seals often sun themselves on the rocks. Occasionally, porpoises frolic around the boat.


In Gudvangen a bus is waiting to take “Norway in a Nutshell” passengers 25-miles to Voss where it connects with a train to Bergen or Oslo depending on where you want to end your trip.

The first stop is the Stalheim Hotel, dating to 1885, built on the remains of an inn that stood here since 1700 when it was a postal relay station.

Leaving the hotel, the bus corkscrews its way down the half-mile long Stalheimskleiva, one of Norway’s steepest roads. Thirteen sharp hairpin bends, flanked by two dramatic cascading waterfalls and a sweeping view of the Nærødalen valley below, produce gasps from the passengers.

At the bottom, the bus rejoins the highway to Voss, following a surging river that eventually leads to the Twindenfossen Waterfall leaping down the cliff. Unfortunately, the bus does not stop for photographs.


The bus drops you at the depot next to the Voss Train station where you catch your connection to Bergen (or Oslo). Some connections are immediate while others can take an hour or so.

Voss is a big center for outdoor adventure, but there is little to do otherwise. At the bottom of the hill overlooking the lake behind the railroad station is Fleisher’s, a refined 19th-century hotel. It is a wonderful place to have a drink or a meal if you have to wait a long time for your train.

On its way to Bergen, the train passes a few scenic lakes, following the Veafjord until it reaches Bergen’s huge glass domed railway station.

If you opt to do Norway in a Nutshell in one day, it will take between ten and twelve hours to complete the trip, but it provides you with a glimpse of Norway’s many natural attractions. Of course, there is always the option of staying in Flåm for a few days, but that is another story.


The 19th century Fleisher's Hotel, Voss

Fleischer’s Hotel, Voss

Our trip was designed by 50 Degrees North which specializes in Scandinavian travel. However, you can also reserve direct online at Fjord Tours.

For additional photographs see the recent additions folder at Allegria Photos.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

Trabucchi – The Rustic Restaurants of Puglia

A trabucco soars above the waves near Peschici, Puglia

A trabucco along the coast of the Gargano Peninsula

From the winding, coastal road along the Adriatic Sea in Puglia, a giant spider-like structure appears ahead. As we approach, an enormous net rises from the water, carrying with it a mass of wriggling fish. It is a trabucco, one of the traditional fishing contraptions that pepper the coast of the Gargano Peninsula.

The Gargano Peninsula north of Vieste

The Puglia coast between Vieste and Peschici

Known as the spur on the heel of Italy’s boot, the Gargano Peninsula is a rocky promontory in northern Puglia, characterized by white limestone cliffs, crystal green seas, olive trees, medieval castles and picturesque white-washed villages. Unlike the rest of Puglia, here, steep mountains rise directly from the water, providing expansive views over the sea.

Throughout history, the region has attracted its share of conquerors including the Greeks, Normans and Frederick II of Prussia (who lived here for most of his reign). And let us not forget Hannibal, who fought the Romans at Cannae, a few miles from here.

Other foreign visitors (possibly the Phoenicians) are credited with introducing the trabucco to the region. The earliest references to these fishing devices date to the 1600s, although some sources say they existed already in the 15th century. Whatever their actual origins, along the 44-mile stretch of the Adriatic Sea, known as the Costa dei Trabucchi (the Coast of the Trabucchi) these intricate contraptions are a throw-back to ancient times.

The trabucchi consist of a wooden platform attached to the nearby rocks with wooden antennae-like arms that extend over the sea. The fishing net is attached. One or more giant capsans and pulley wheels, on a large, fixed pole, are used to drop the net into the water where the currents make it favorable for fishing. Also on the platform is a small weathered wooden hut that serves as a shelter for the fishermen.

A portrait of Mimi above the Trabucco that bears his name.

The Trabucco di Mimi restaurant

Watching the fishermen at work is fascinating. A lookout sits on top of one of the antennae, sometimes for hours, waiting for the shoals of fish to approach. He alerts his companions who drop the net (known as a Trabocchetto) before stamping on the platform. One fisherman explains to us that the noise stuns the fish long enough for the net to capture them and then bring them to the surface.

Unfortunately, this age-old tradition of the Adriatic Sea is now endangered. Apart from the fact that the waters here have been overfished, recent studies show that the Mediterranean Sea is warming up at 2-3 times the rate of the rest of the world’s oceans. The impact on the fishing industry is dire.

Most of the people we speak with tell us that they can no longer earn a living from fishing. Increasingly they are turning to an alternative – using the trabucchi as  rustic, open-air restaurants.

One of the most well known of these is the Trabucco di Mimi, (located on the hillside a few miles south of Peschici above the Bay of St. Nicola on the Gargano Peninsula). A winding, steep road leads down to a collection of wooden buildings, festooned with fishing nets, driftwood, and shells, presided over by the trabucco on which hangs an enormous portrait of Mimi, the patriarch of the Ottaviano family, who passed away a few years ago. His sons and grandsons (Mario, Carlo, Domenico, and Vincenzo) now continue the tradition.

Cable spool wooden tables line the terrace, flanked by wooden benches facing the sea. Bottles of white wine sit in ice buckets. Simple paper place mats line the table. A nearby enclosed area with tables and chairs offers shelter for cooler evenings.

A  chalkboard near the entrance lists the menu. It changes daily depending on either what has been caught in the net or what is available at the local market.

Menu at the Trabucco di Mimi

The daily menu

You order your food at the counter and find a seat overlooking the crashing waves. Come late in the afternoon to secure one of the best tables and watch the sun settle into the sea while you sip your aperitivo. Then tuck into your al fresco meal.

The preparation is traditional and simple, similar to what fishing families might make for themselves – Oysters from Manfredonia, prawns, mussels, spaghetti alle vongole (clams), and our favorite – tiny sardines, fried in extra virgin olive oil. You eat them whole, spritzed with some lemon juice.

This rustic dining experience in one of Puglia’s trabucchi is probably one of the most unique that you will find in your travels in Italy. Don’t miss it!


If you are driving down the Adriatic Coast, take the A14 (Bologna to Taranto) and exit at Poggio Imperiale. Continue on the SP144 towards Peschici until you cross the SS89. The Trabucco di Mimi is located on the SP 52 less than 1 km south of the center of Peschici.

If you are coming from Vieste (south of Peschici), take the SS89, merging onto the SP 52 or directly from the SS89, taking the last exit on the right for the Bay of St. Nicola just before Peschici.

Buoys festoon the Trabucco di Mimi restaurant, Puglia

The Trabucco di Mimi

Reservations are required at the Trabucco di Mimi. Book on line. The restaurant is open from April to October, seven days a week. Lunch is served between 1215 and 1400; Dinner is from 1900 to 2100.

For additional images visit the Italy/Puglia gallery at Allegria Photos.



Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

Driving Across the Length and Width of Italy

Recently renovated Fountain of Trevi, Rome

The Fountain of Trevi, Rome

There is nothing quite like the freedom of a road trip, trundling along to wherever serendipity takes you. Perhaps more than any other country, driving across Italy lends itself to this type of exploring. The ever-changing succession of remote hill towns, winding mountain roads, coastlines, and castles ensures that there is always something new to see.

View of the Colosseum from the Hotel Palazzo Manfredi

The Colosseum by night

Our trip is ambitious – driving across Italy in a month, from Rome north to Tuscany and Liguria, from Liguria south along the Adriatic coastline, through Le Marche and the Abruzzo into Puglia before heading back to Rome. As winners of a seven-day Auto Europe Road Trip Sweepstakes (which is part of this journey), there are three specific locations we must visit – Rome, Camogli (Liguria) and Puglia. For the rest, we wander freely, visiting iconic landmarks and unknown corners, sampling the various regional cuisines, and enjoying life on the road.


The adventure starts in Rome on a beautiful sunny autumn day. No matter how many times we visit the city, there is always something new to discover or revisit. This time, recent renovations to the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Circus Maximus and other iconic treasures make Rome shine.

Our hotel, the ultra-luxurious Palazzo Manfredi, overlooks the newly restored Colosseum. From its rooftop Michelin-starred restaurant, Aroma, spectacular sunrise and sunsets over the ancient arena, as well as mouthwatering cuisine, are a treat.

Sunrise over Monteriggioni

Hilltop town of Monteriggioni, Tuscany

A food walking tour of Trastevere (part of the prize) takes us through cobblestone streets with ivy-covered buildings to the neighborhood where the traditions of Roman cuisine are still preserved. Along the way, we stop at a restaurant/wine bar with a cellar that is 150 years older than the Colosseum, a trattoria with an eclectic menu and mismatched chairs, a shop specializing in pork sausages and a hole-in-the-wall selling Roman street food — fried rice balls and pizza! A cookie bakery and a gelateria round out the walk and our “meal.”


Driving out of Rome is an adventure all on its own; however, we eventually find ourselves heading north to Monteriggioni. This spectacular Tuscan hill town near Siena is entirely surrounded by a wall, protected with 14 watchtowers. We make this our base for a week exploring the iconic areas of the Crete Senesi and Val d’Orcia, the wine country around Montepulciano and the Strada Chiantigiana between Siena and Florence, including a stop at the Castello di Verrazzano (home of the famous explorer) near Greve.

Iconic image of Pienza, Tuscany

Pienza, Tuscany


From Monteriggioni the road takes us northwest towards Genoa. South of the city, the Riviera di Levante (Sunrise Coast) with its cliffs and bays is home to picturesque towns and villages. A hair-raising drive down the cliff road leads to the charming Cenobio Dei Dogi Hotel in Camogli. Its terrace overlooking the sea is the perfect spot to enjoy an evening aperitivo as the sun dips into the Mediterranean. Steps lead down to the beach where the water is warm enough to swim, even in October.

From here, a short walk along the colorful seafront promenade takes us to the harbor where ferries leave for Portofino, the quintessential, most luxurious, coastal village favored by the rich and famous, whose super yachts dot the harbor.

An aperitivo at sunset, Camogli

Camogli from the porch of Cenobio dei Dei

Just south of Camogli are the legendary Cinque Terre – five dramatic medieval cliff-top villages accessible only by train, ferry or on foot. Basing ourselves at the Hotel Pasquale, a delightful family-run residence on the edge of the harbor in Monterosso al Mare, we hike to the village of Vernazza and take the train to Manarola, Riomaggiore and Corniglia. Each has its special charms, and it is difficult to tear oneself away from the magnificent vistas.


From Camogli the road leads all the way east, to the province of Abruzzo, one of the least known in Italy. Its national parks, high mountains, deserted hilltop hamlets, medieval villages, coastal towns, and castles provide some of the most spectacular panoramas in Italy.

One of the five medieval villages of the Cinque Terre

Vernazza in the Cinque Terre of Liguria

In the mountaintop village of Civitella del Tronto, we are the only guests at the Hotel Zunica, housed in a 17th-century building under the brooding walls of the Fortezza, the largest medieval fortified castle in Europe. The views from our room extend from the Grand Sasso Mountain to the blue Adriatic coastline, shimmering in the morning sunlight.

Considered to be one of the best in the province, the hotel restaurant serves a menu that changes with the seasons. A private three-day cooking school provides a hands-on experience shopping for fresh ingredients and then working with the chef to prepare dinner.

The hilltop town of Civitella del Tronto, Abruzzo

Civitella del Tronto


Most recently in the news because of the spate of earthquakes that have devastated part of this area, Le Marche is another of Italy’s lesser-known regions filled with national parks, medieval villages, castles and a rich history. For us, it is a day-trip to visit the picturesque town of Ascoli Piceno.

Located on the banks of the Tronto and Castellano rivers, Ascoli Piceno is even older than Rome. Known as the ‘City of 100 towers,’ 50 medieval structures still stand over the “City of Marble,” with its expansive piazzas and unique architecture.


The traditional fishing equipment in the Abruzzo.

A Trabucco in the Abruzzo, Italy

Puglia looks like a short drive from the Abruzzo. However, distances are deceptive because the narrow roads serpentine up and down the cliffs. What looks like a short 30-minute drive turns into a two-hour odyssey.

Our first stop is Vieste on the Gargano Peninsula, the spur on Italy’s boot. Built on top of the steep Pizzomunno cliffs, the city perches on a promontory jutting into the azure Adriatic.

Basing ourselves here, we explore the area with a number of day trips, including to the magnificent Castel del Monte, a 13th century citadel and castle built by Emperor Frederick II. Trabucchi, the old, traditional, fishing contraptions dot the coastline, while the rarely visited Tremiti Islands sit a few miles offshore in the Adriatic.

Our last stop in Puglia is the fantastic Masseria Il Frantoio near the so-called “White City” of Ostuni (in the Salento region). The region is filled with fantastical, conical, stone Trulli structures, medieval castles, and beautiful white sand beaches. Olive trees, some over a thousand years old, stretch to the horizon between ancient stone walls. From here you can explore the iconic towns of Alberobello and Locorotondo as well as several coastal towns, including Ostuni.

The rain washed entrance to the Masseria Il Frantoio, Puglia

Courtyard of the Masseria Il Frantoio, Ostuni, Puglia

The Masseria is a 500-year old fortified farm, its unique rooms decorated with some of the artifacts that Armando Balestrazzi and his wife, Rosalba, found when they bought the property some years ago.

The dining room is the scene of lavish eight-course meals prepared by an army of grandmothers in the kitchen, using the homegrown produce from the farm. In all our travels there are few places we have found as welcoming as the Masseria Il Frantoio. We leave reluctantly, having adopted a 1,000-year-old olive tree as part of a plan to preserve them for future generations.

Our road trip to Italy ends all too soon with a long drive back to Rome for our flight home. There is so much more to Italy than the major cities. If you are the slightest bit adventurous, have an open mind about wandering aimlessly with no firm destination and don’t mind getting lost from time to time, then consider an Italian road trip.


We spent a month traveling across Italy. Although this itinerary can certainly be done in a shorter period, there are some constraints such as the speed you can travel on the back roads and mountain roads, the sheer number of places to visit, and the desire to make the adventure about the journey as well as the destinations.

The following is a brief outline of where we went driving across Italy, and some of the places we stayed.


Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche, Italy

City of 100 Towers, Ascoli Piceno

Hotel Palazzo Manfredi
Via Labicana 125
Tel +39-06-7759-1380

Eating Italy Food Tours

1 Rome to Monteriggioni – Driving time 3 hours (156 miles)


Hotel Monteriggioni
Via Primo Maggio 4
Tel +39-0577-305009


Greve and Castello di Verrazzano (This is the correct spelling of the name)
Strada Chiantigiana
Val d’Orcia
Crete Senesi

2 Monteriggioni to Camogli, Liguria – Driving Time 4 hours (175 miles)

The Gargano Peninsula, the spur on Italy's boot

Vieste, on the Gargano Peninsula, Puglia

Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi
Via Nicolo Cuneo 34
Camogli, Genoa
Telephone: +39-0185-7241


3 Camogli to Monterosso al Mare driving time 1 hour (50 miles).

Monterosso al Mare is the only village in the Cinque Terre where you can park. Many hotels have parking available (for a fee) but you must be sure to reserve your spot when you book your room. They go very quickly.

Hotel Pasquale
Via Fegina 4
Monterosso al Mare
Tel +39-0187-817477

4 Monterosso al Mare to Civitella del Tronto, Abruzzo – Driving time 6.5 hours (400 miles)

Hotel Zunica 1880
Piazza Franciscus Filippi Pepe 14
Civitella del Tronto, Teramo, Abruzzo
Tel +39-0861-91319


Castel del Monte built by Frederick II

Castel Del Monte, Puglia

Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche
Gran Sasso National Park Abruzzo
Santo Stefano di Sessanio Abruzzo
Atri Abruzzo
Vasto Abruzzo

5 Civitella Del Tronto to Vieste, Puglia – Driving Time 4 hours (186 miles)

Vieste is a resort town with many luxury hotels but they are seasonal. When we traveled in October, very few were open. We stayed at

Rocca Sul Mare Bed and Breakfast
Via C. Mafrolla 32
Vieste, Foggia, Puglia
Tel +39-0884-70-27-19
Although the rooms are quite basic, the views from the seafront rooms are spectacular.

The best restaurant with the freshest, most delicious seafood  is just around the corner
Osteria Degli Archi
2 Via Ripe
Vieste, FG, Puglia
Tel +39-0884-705199


Ostuni, Puglia

Ostuni, the White City on the Hill, Puglia

Isole Tremiti (by boat)
Foresta Umbra
Castel del Monte

6 Vieste to Ostuni Driving Time 3.5 hours (167 miles)

 Masseria Il Frantoio
Strada Statale 16, Km 874
Ostuni, BR
Tel +39-0831-330276;


Alberobello near Ostuni, Puglia

Trulli rooftops in Alberobello, Puglia

Martina Franca
Polignano a Mare

7 Ostuni to Rome – Driving Time 6 hours (335 miles)

For additional photos from this trip, visit



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Valentine’s Day in Romantic Rome

Sunset over the Colosseum from the Hotel Manfrdi

The Colosseum from the Hotel Palazzo Manfredi

There are so many beautiful places in Italy, it is hard to choose which location is the most romantic, but Rome is certainly a top contender. After all, Roma spelled backwards is Amor or Love. So it is the perfect place to spend Valentine’s Day, especially if you subscribe to the story that St. Valentine was Roman.

But, who exactly was St. Valentine? According to legend, a priest named Valentinus lived in Rome in the 3rd century AD, when Claudius II (also known as Claudius the Cruel) was Emperor. Valentinus refused to obey an edict from the Emperor outlawing marriage between young couples. Claudius sentenced him to death but before his execution, he was able to smuggle a note to a young woman  and signed it “From your Valentinus.” The rest, as they say, is history. Although there are several other Valentines in history, for this particular legend, St Valentinus’s skull and bones are kept in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where the Mouth of Truth is located). They are brought out on his feast day – February 14, also known as Valentine’s Day


If you are lucky enough to spend Valentine’s Day in Rome with the love of your life, here are seven places that are likely to make you feel romantic.

A couple in the Giardino degli Aranci, Aventino

Giardino degli Aranci, Aventino

The Aventine Hill

On top of one of Rome’s seven hills, across from the Circus Maximus, is the Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Oranges). Surrounded by the 12th-century walls of the Savelli castle, the Garden offers magnificent views of Rome through a grove of orange trees. In season the aroma fills the air. Next to the Garden is the medieval Basilica of Santa Sabina where St. Dominic lived in the 13th century. He is credited with planting Rome’s first orange tree.

Ponte Sant'Angelo leading to the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo

One of the most famous and beautiful bridges in Rome, lined with ten beautiful sculptures of angels (designed by Bernini). It leads to the CastelSant’Angelo. Visit at sunset or in the evening for beautiful views of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Vista over Rome from the Gianicolo

The Gianicolo, overlooking Romantic Rome

Gianicolo Hill

The Gianicolo (Or Janiculum Hill), high above Trastevere, is probably Rome’s most famous spot for lovers. The panoramic view from above the city is breathtaking, especially at sunset when the lights come on below and the entire city sparkles.

Villa Borghese gardens, Giardino del Lago

Giardino del Lago, Rome

Giardino del Lago

In the middle of Villa Borghese is a small lake in the middle of which stands an Ionic-themed Temple dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of medicine. You can rent a rowboat to enjoy some time alone with only a few ducks and swans as companions. As you wander back into the city center, be sure to stroll through the equally romantic hanging garden of pines, cypresses, cedar and citrus trees.

John Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome

Tombstone of John Keats, Rome

Protestant Cemetery

In Testaccio, beneath the ancient Roman walls and an improbable Pyramid, is Rome’s cemetery for Protestants and other non-Catholics. Intuitively this would not be considered a “romantic” spot. However, some of the most famous Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, are buried here. If you wish to pay your respects on Valentine’s Day, the garden offers a welcome zone of tranquillity in Rome’s chaos.

View from the rooftop of Grand Hotel de la Minerve

St Ivo alla Sapienza from Hotel de la Minerve

Rooftop bar of the Hotel MInerve

Behind the Pantheon is the Hotel Minerve with its rooftop bar and spectacular views over the city, including the unique spire of St. Ivo. Come at sunset for an apperitivo and watch as the rooftops and domes turn different colors.

Sunset over the Colosseum from the Hotel Manfrdi

The Colosseum from the Hotel Palazzo Manfredi

Aroma restaurant on the roof of Hotel Palazzo Manfredi.

This Michelin star restaurant on the rooftop of Hotel Palazzo Manfredi has unparalleled views of the Colosseum. If you happen to visit on the night of a full moon …. It is magical! The perfect place for Valentine’s Day dinner!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

Celebrating Carnevale in Venice

Costumers on a bridge, Venice

Models on a Small Bridge, Venice

Venice during Carnevale (Carnival) is a magical, mysterious, place. Stunning architecture, hidden romantic corners, dreamy canals, and history around every corner provide the perfect backdrops for the hundreds of models who arrive from around the world to celebrate the ancient festival.

Solange posing on the steps

Solange on the Grand Stairway of a Venetian Palazzo

For two weeks the alleyways and piazzas, the churches and cloisters, the bridges and towers are enveloped in the most lavish, colorful costumes and masks that you will ever see. It is as if you have stepped through a portal into the Renaissance.

No one is quite sure where the practice of wearing costumes and face coverings originated. Some think it was a throwback to an ancient Celtic tradition of covering your face on All Hallows Eve to confound evil spirits who might be lurking. Others believe that it comes from ancient Roman pagan festivities. Perhaps because Venice was at the crossroads of East and West, the veils and turbans favored by travelers from the Orient may also have contributed to the tradition.

The first known instance of Carnevale was in 1162 when people spontaneously came out to celebrate the victory against the German Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city on the edge of the lagoon), Ulrico di Treven. By the 1500s, it developed into a way of life, with Venetians authorized to wear masks for up to six months of the year. They covered a multitude of sins, including by providing a means to avoid the strict class structure imposed by society.

Eve rides a gondola through the canals of Venice

Eve posing in a gondola, Venice

Austria outlawed Carnevale when it conquered this part of Italy (in 1797). It was only in 1979 that the festival reignited the public imagination after the Italian Government decided that it would be a perfect way to showcase the history and culture of Venice, also known as La Serenissima.

Today’s Carnevale is one of Italy’s most important festivals with up to a million visitors traveling to Venice to take part. It lasts for two weeks before Lent, ending on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.

According to Catholic teachings, during the 40 days of Lent, practitioners are not allowed to eat meat or sugar. Celebrating beforehand was a way to use up whatever supplies might remain in the house. It may well be that the word “Carnevale” comes from the Latin words “Carne” and “Vale”, or “Farewell to Meat.”

Costumer outside a medieval church, Venice

Andrea with her leaf mask during Carnevale, Venice

The date of the festival changes with the calendar. This year Carnevale runs from 11 to 28 February. Generally, the second week is the most exciting. Countless parades take place, including a flotilla of gondolas on the Grand Canal. A multitude of parties and balls in some of the city’s most exquisite palaces fill the days and nights. The most extravagant and expensive of these is the Grand Masquerade Ball. Attending any of these events, especially if you want to rent fancy dress, will set you back thousands of dollars.

Betty Blu across from Piazza San Marco

Betty Blu on Punta della Dogana

However, there is plenty to see that won’t cost you a penny. Every day, starting just before dawn, costumed and masked models appear along the waterfront of St. Mark’s Square. They pose near the gondolas as the sun rises over Isola San Giorgio Maggiore; in front of the Bridge of Sighs; on the stone bridges spanning the minuscule canals; in the cloisters of the churches or in front of the doors; in La Fenice Opera House or in the Bovolo Staircase. You will also find them on the islands of Burano and Murano and in the ballrooms of the palazzi.

The costumers, who are a variety of ages (some even in their 70s), are mostly European, predominantly Italian, French, German, and Belgian. We do find one group of costumers who are American teachers in Europe.

Most models have 2-3 different outfits each year, traveling to Venice with several trunks and suitcases. The clothes are handmade by the participants over the course of the year. Some of the dresses are so heavy, small wheels are sewn into the hem so that the person inside can move around more effectively. The headdresses can weigh as much as 7 lbs. Most wear masks on with only the whites of their eyes and irises visible.

As you follow the models around Venice, you have to admire their imagination, spirit, and dedication. They are out every day from early in the morning to late at night. Most will tell you that it is both exhausting and exhilarating.

The Bovolo Staircase, also known as The Snail with Costumers during Venetian Carnival

Models Posing in the Bovolo Staircase, Venice

Crowds of more serious photographers follow them, looking for “the perfect shot,” while tourists surround them clamoring for selfies. Photographing them is addictive. Whether it is taking photos of them in context or close up, you keep coming back for more, looking for different venues or light.

There is a certain etiquette to photographing the costumers. They rarely, if ever, speak. Instead, they communicate with hand gestures. However, if you ask them, they will almost always agree to let you take their photo and will even oblige you by posing in specific ways. All they ask in exchange is for you to send them a copy of your photos by email. Unfortunately, most people never bother, which is a great disappointment for the models.

When you have finished shooting, thank them, and ask for a business card or “cartolino” or “carte de visite.” Or you can use gestures to show that you want their visiting card. Most models carry them tucked away in a pocket or a glove. Sometimes they will ask you to photograph the card as a means of obtaining their contact information.

In addition to the costumers, there are countless visitors who rent fancy dress to get into the spirit of the festival. Even if you choose not to dress up yourself, there is much to see and do in Venice that will make you feel as if you have been transported to another place and time.

Posing in front of the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

The American Contingent near the Bridge of Sighs


If you decide to travel to Venice independently, make your hotel reservations for 2018 as soon as possible. If you would rather travel on a tour with a professional photographer who organizes specific shoots with the models, Jim Zuckerman is one of the best. He has been running photography tours to Carnevale in Venice for over ten years. His photo tours sell out almost instantly, so book early.

During the winter, Venice is often the victim of exceptionally high tides – L’Acqua Alta – that regularly flood the city. Remember to pack a pair of rubber boots or else pick up a pair of colorful clear plastic overshoes sold throughout the city. It is the only way to get around during the flooding.

For more photographs of Carnevale go to

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler