Firenze Card — Access to the Best Museums in Florence, Italy

by Mario 30-Mar 2011

The city of Florence finally released the long awaited Firenze Card that allows access to the 33 most important museums, chapels and art galleries in the city. It also provides free passage on the city's public transit system. Priced at 50 Euro, the Florence card may be purchased online and picked up at one of five collection points in the city.

While the card is a great deal for passionate lovers of art, it may not be ideal for everyone. The moment you swipe your Florence Card at the first museum turnstile the countdown begins. The Florence Cards will expire in 72 hours and the chase is on. Remember, most museums in Florence are closed on Mondays and some are closed Sundays as well. There must be some connection between Italian museums, barber shops and this Monday closing thing that eludes me.

The Firenze Card site is easy to navigate and you will discover that the card also allows access to special exhibitions and events. In some cases you may even be able to bypass lines. A silly benefit that comes with the Florence Card is free admission, when accompanied by a valid cardholder, to a European Citizen aged 18 or under — maybe it's an inducement for adoption?

The greatest benefit will go to those who can carefully plot their entire course and slide into the last museum two minutes before the card gives up the ghost. It's kind of like fasting for days before attending the all you can eat buffet. Unfortunately, museums are not open 24 hours a day, that would be fun. If on average, museums are open nine hours a day, what you are buying is roughly 36 hours. Factor in meals, rest breaks and transit time from one to the other and the most intrepid adventurers might get to briefly visit half the places listed — that's a great deal. Then again, you can always buy another card.

The Other Tuscany — The Mysterious Abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore

by Mario 15-Jul 2010

Ley lines, earth energy vortices and power centers are not often associated with Italy. These terms are usually linked to places such as Sedona, the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Nonetheless, a secluded medieval abbey in southern Tuscany seems to rest on exactly such a spot.

According to locals and expats living in the Tuscan region of Le Crete, the area surrounding the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore abounds with inexplicable positive energy. Inhabitants appear to live longer than the average, enjoy excellent health and everything that either grazes or grows is similarly improved. It is not uncommon to see centenarians, still in good health with all original parts, including teeth, nonchalantly tending fields. Back in the 80s studies corroborated, at least in part, this high level of good health and longevity enjoyed by the inhabitants. The olive oil does taste better and the ground yields a bit more of whatever is planted.

Abbey monks, in accordance with age-old recipes continue to transform simple herbs and berries into quite enjoyable liqueurs that seemingly restore ailing kidneys, digestive systems, urinary tracts and colons. If magic potions are not your cup of tea, you may be tempted to freely taste some of their organic wines, extra virgin olive oil, spelt, honey or Sambuca. The Olivetan monks, a separate branch of the Benedictine Order, have lived here since 1319. Not the same monks mind you. No one lives that long nowadays no matter how much elixir they imbibe.

Aside from the lure of longevity, the Abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a fascinating day trip. As you venture across the drawbridge into this monastic enclave the past embraces you. A wide avenue beyond the gatehouse leads to the impressive Gothic façade of the church. The route is marked by botanical gardens on one side and tall whispering Tuscan cypresses on the other. The tower, library, apothecary, cloisters and church are adorned by works of many Renaissance masters including: della Robbia, Signorelli and Sodoma. You may sample some of their art work here — click on the links at the bottom of the page for more.

Visitors are welcome to tour the abbey compound. It is open daily from 9:15 am to noon and from 3:15 pm to 5 pm in winter or 6 pm during summer. The luckiest visitors are those that can get me to the church on time. Each morning at 7 am the Mass is celebrated with Gregorian chants. At at 6:15 pm the monks are singing their vespers and the rosary. Try to get here early or stay on to enjoy another magical mystical tour at the monastery of Sant'Antimo. This part of Tuscany is filled with enchantment, remains uncluttered by mass tourism and makes a great base for exploring much of central Italy. My next post will reveal some of the interesting hill towns that surround these abbeys.

In the meantime... Cent'anni (a common Italian toast wishing you 100 years of life)

Easy Italia — Italy to Offer Nationwide Tourist Assistance Starting in May

by Mario 09-Apr 2010

Michela Vittoria Brambilla, Italy’s Minister of Tourism (above) has announced that starting on May 15, 2010 visitors to Italy in need of assistance will be able to call Easy Italia by dialing 039039 from anywhere in the country for the cost of a local call. This service, apart from the cost of the call, is free and available in six languages: English, Chinese, Russian, French, German and Spanish. Aptly named, Easy Italia promises to be able to help travelers with a number of tourism related issues including emergency services and follow each inquiry until it has been resolved. 

Italian Coffee Break part 2 — Ordering un Caffè in Italy

by Mario 08-Apr 2010

Start by never asking for latte, unless you want a glass of milk. Italians love their coffee and while most of us are familiar with cappuccino and espresso there are at least 30 ways in which Italians individualize their coffee. To preserve our collective sanity, I have cut the list down to the basic variations.

Just CoffeeUn espresso or un caffè normale is the national beverage of Italy. Espresso, meaning quick, is served in a small cup filled to less than half. The crema or coffee foam should be a third of an inch thick and if using sugar, the sugar should slowly seep through the crema without dissipating the foam. Most espresso is drunk standing at the bar and the average cost of a cup in Italy is 1 Euro or less. Sitting at a table costs more. Extravagant exceptions are fancy hotels and famous cafes such as the Florian in St. Mark’s Square in Venice topping the charts at around 5 Euros per cup. Then again, at the Florian you get to sit in Italy’s most renown square, listen to the orchestra play show tunes and watch the world stroll by. Most folks who order a Florian coffee tend to nurse the cup for at least an hour. It may be the best hour of all in Venice and 5 Euros sounds quite fair. 

Serious Italians and coffee lovers everywhere may ask for un caffè ristretto or un caffè corto (short shot). This potent brew is served in the same small cup and uses the same amount of coffee as does an espresso. The only difference is that less water is employed resulting is a more concentrated, less bitter coffee flavor. Don’t fret over the caffeine content. There is more caffeine in a cup of American style coffee than in an espresso.

If you are fretting over the caffeine content — as in you need more — order un doppio ristretto. This is a double shot of concentrated espresso. With this potion under your belt there is no need to come home by plane, you can fly right from the bar!

If fretting over caffeine content — as in you need less not more — order un caffè decaffinato (decaffeinated) or try the leading decaf brand by requesting un Caffè Hag. A European Sanka wannabe that sounds much like it tastes. If you dislike coffee, and quite a few younger Italians do, ask for a trendy alternative called orzo. Orzo means barley and that is what it’s made from. I have no clue what orzo tastes like and less desire to find out. However, orzo allows non coffee lovers to share in Italy’s favorite pastime — hanging out at the bar — and that can’t be a bad thing.

For those who crave more liquid in the cup request un caffè lungo (long). It is still served in the little cup and made with the same amount of coffee, however, the cup is more than halfway full. The final option is to breakdown and ask for un caffè Americano. A large cup is filled with espresso broth that tastes nothing like American coffee. Dunkin Donuts, found throughout Europe, tried a few locations in Italy. They eventually packed their tent and left, not before leaving a bunch of young Italians hooked on donuts.  

Coffee & Milk — Cappuccino is Italy’s breakfast drink of choice. The word cappuccino means little hood and this coffee is literally an espresso with a frothy, little hood of milk.

Caffelatte, another breakfast drink (coffee and milk), is typically served in this fashion: One large cup, one small pitcher of espresso coffee and a separate pitcher of foamed milk. Mix and and serve yourself.

While it is bad form to order either of the above anytime after noon, it is always the right moment to ask for un caffè macchiato or un marocchino. Caffè Macchiato is an espresso served in a small cup with a dollop of foamy milk. A Marocchino, is a mini cappuccino, with a hint of cocoa, usually served in a small glass.

Coffee Plus — Caffè Corretto means a correct coffee. The only way to correct coffee in Italy is with booze. The choice is yours to ask for un caffè corretto con: whisky, grappa, anice, Fernet Branca. The latter (Fernet) is a horrid, bitter digestive. I’ve seen Italian hunters in countryside bars drink these up at dawn and proceed to run out and shoot at anything that moves.

Italian Coffee Lingo — Now that you know the basics you can mix and match to suit your taste. Don’t worry, Italians do it constantly to stress their individuality. You can order anything in vetro, meaning in a see-through glass. Ask for the milk senza schiuma (without foam) a parte (served on the side) in tazza grande (in a large cup) con latte freddo (with cold milk). So let’s try un caffè doppio ristretto in tazza grande con latte freddo a parte. Got that? 

If you need it and don’t see it ask for either zucchero (sugar) or dolcificante (aspartame).

Easy Guide to Supermarket Shopping in Italy Part2

by Mario 14-Jan 2010

Fruits and Veggies — Produce sections offer a vast variety at low prices. The trick is knowing that you need to bag, weigh and tag the items yourself. Picture coded electronic scales are located in the produce area. Press the image on the scale that matches your selection and simply affix the sticker that pops out on the bag.

Deli Counter — The cold cuts, cheeses and other delicacies defy description. Start by taking a number and closely watching the monitor so as not to get skipped over if you are not familiar with every Italian number from 1 to 100. When it does come up you may want to say eccomi (here I am) to get the person's attention. Cold cuts are sliced wafer thin and individually placed on waxed paper sheets so they don’t stick to each other. Italians use the metric system so the word to learn is Etto, which means a tenth of a kilo. A kilo is 2.2 pounds. Un etto is just shy of a quarter of a pound. To get closer to half a pound ask for due etti. If it's an abundant pound you want, just say mezzo kilo (half a kilo). When asking for a wedge of cheese, say una fetta di... taleggio, fontina, gorgonzola or point at whatever you can’t pronounce and say quello. Typically, the person will demonstrate the size of the wedge they are planning to cut. By nodding yes or by spreading or closing your thumb and forefinger you can signify the amount.

Prosciutto — The word literally means ham. In the US, we use this word to denote the cured version. If you want to order this type of ham in Italy, then ask for crudo. If you want it less salty say: dolce or sweet. Otherwise, simply point and say: quello (that one). There are dozens of varieties including nostrano which is the local version of whatever is being sold. Lovers of boiled ham should ask for cotto. Indicate the one you like or say quello in offerta which means: give me the one that is on sale.

Olives & Appetizers — Point at the item and ask for un vasetto meaning small container. The counterperson will show you a plastic container. Indicate again with your fingers or hands if you want it larger or smaller.

E poi? — This question means: what else? When you are done say basta cosi, grazie (that’s enough, thanks). The person will usually wrap all of your items into one package and affix the label.

Dairy Section — Sliced cheese only exists in prepackaged versions in the dairy chest. You can also find pre-packaged cold cuts here but the deli stuff tastes better. Let’s not kid each other, all of the prepackaged items at the dairy counter taste 100 times better than anything bought outside of Italy. Fresh milk called latte fresco is at dairy chest; however, most Italians drink UHT (ultra heat treated) milk which only requires refrigeration once opened. You can find it in the aisles. Latte Scremato is skimmed milk, Latte Parzialmente Scremato is low fat milk, Latte Intero is whole milk and Panna is heavy whipping cream.

Water — Italians drink plenty of acqua minerale (mineral water) often sold in six- or 12-packs. Look for the word Naturale if you want still water or the word Frizzante if you want it sparkling.

Bread — If you want sliced bread for toasting, the supermarket is where to find it. Some supermarkets have great bakeries. The aroma and number of people lining up to buy loaves and pastries are good indicators as to whether you should pick some up here or move on to a proper bakery. Un kilo di pane is just over two pounds. Mezzo kilo is closer to a pound.

Butter — Those who speak Spanish should not be afraid to buy some burro. It means butter in Italian and there is no connection to donkeys.

Basta cosi, grazie!  


Easy Guide to Supermarket Shopping in Italy Part1

by Mario 14-Jan 2010

Wherever I travel, visiting the local supermarket is among the first order of business. Supermarkets are a measure of a population’s culinary sophistication revealing the level of cuisine diners may expect when eating out. When it comes to food, Italy is at the pinnacle worldwide and so are its markets. Foreign shoppers marvel at the variety, freshness and very low prices found in Italy’s supermarkets. In future segments, I delve into the nuances of outdoor markets, bakers, butchers and specialty food shops. Can you tell this is one of my favorite topics?

Supermercato — The major supermarket chains are: Coop, pronounced more like cop, Conad, CRAI, Esselunga, Pam, Standa, Carrefour and Auchan. A supermarket may be part of a shopping center known as a Centro Commerciale.

Hours — Italian supermarkets open most days from morning until evening or 8 pm. Many are open on Sundays even if only until noon. If you happen to find a market closed on Sunday, it’s very likely that the market in the next town over is open.

Variety — The word iper in front of the name denotes huge, such as IperCoop, and in these colossi, you may find anything ranging from electric fans to lawn mowers. Passable wine and spirits are commonly sold in markets but do not expect to find prized vintages here. Serious wine lovers need to find an enoteca (wine shop) for the best variety or trek to their winery of choice.

The Cart (carrello)  An adventure to the Italian supermercato begins in the parking lot. Shopping carts are chained together so they don’t mysteriously wander off to Germany or ding parked cars. To unlock one, place a 1 Euro coin in the slot of the mechanism located on the handlebar of the cart. Push the coin in until it releases the chain latch attached to the other carts. When you return the cart, push the prong at the end of the short chain into the next cart in line, and your coin will automatically pop out. If you are fortunate someone may approach you with a coin in hand as you are loading up your car. This is not because they sense you are a tourist and are taking pity on you. They simply wish to exchange your cart for a coin. This unspoken reciprocity saves both parties a trip to the shopping cart chain gang.

Checkout — Bring your own bags or you must purchase them at the register. Plain plastic bags may cost up to 50¢ each and you must estimate how many you will need as your cashier begins. There are no baggers. Shoppers bag their own groceries, and it’s best to start immediately and move very quickly to avoid infuriating those in line behind you. Paying by credit card is the norm, yet cash is always welcome. If the checkout person offers you some bonus stamps for the store’s frequent shopping promo, just pass them to the person behind you in an effort to partially quell their annoyance at your dreadfully slow bagging technique. 

About this blog

Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....


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