—Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun
Discover Italy’s Best Places
Imagine creating your Italian dream vacation with a fun-loving savvy traveler girlfriend whispering in your ear. Go along with writer Susan Van Allen on a femme-friendly ride up and down the boot, to explore this extraordinarily enchanting country where Venus (Vixen Goddess of Love and Beauty) and The Madonna (Nurturing Mother of Compassion) reign side-by-side. With humor, passion, and practical details, this uniquely anecdotal guidebook will enrich your Italian days.
Enjoy masterpieces of art that glorify womanly curves, join a cooking class taught by revered grandmas, shop for ceramics, ski in the Dolomites, or paint a Tuscan landscape. Make your vacation a string of Golden Days, by pairing your experience with the very best restaurant nearby, so sensual pleasures harmonize and you simply bask in the glow of bell’Italia.
Whatever your mood or budget, whether it’s your first or your twenty-first visit, with 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, Italy opens her heart to you.
—Nan McElroy, author of Italy: Instructions for Use
“Forget throwing that coin in the fountain. No matter how many times you’ve been to Italy and think you know it, reading Susan Van Allen’s 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Goalmost guarantees a return trip. Now I must visit Siena, not for the Palio, but because it was here that St. Catherine bucked family expectations and proclaimed her commitment to Christ, thereby becoming a medieval woman to be reckoned with. Susan took her exhaustive research and whipped up a delightful book you’ll only put down long enough to check the flights to that fascinating country.”
—Carol Coviello-Malzone, author of Flavors of Rome: How What & Where to Eat in the Eternal City
Nana, with her apron tied up under her marshmallow-baggie arms, lit the candles. My mother and aunts carried in platters heavy with mozzarella, roasted peppers, shiny black olives, steaming bowls of macaroni. I sat propped up on a telephone book, clinking my tumbler of half-red wine/half-water along with the grown-ups toasting, “Salute!” By the time the feasts were finished, the candles had burnt to their bottoms, dripping onto the lace cloth. Papa poured Strega, a golden liqueur, into curvy glasses, and sliced a dome-shaped, slathered-with-whipped-cream rum cake.
This was my first Italy: a big, delicious, loving heart.
Every August Papa would get on a ship to visit his sisters who still lived near Naples. He’d send back postcards of statues and churches. He’d return after Labor Day with beads from Venice, rosaries blessed by the Pope, rocks from Mount Vesuvius.
Italy became magical and mysterious, beckoning me—a billowy cartoon finger wafting out of a pot of bubbling tomato sauce.
When I got there for the first time in 1976, I arrived in Roma Termini with a pack on my back and a bursting anticipation. The trip was a sweltering August blur of standing awestruck in the Sistine Chapel, tasting my first gelato, getting my bottom pinched. Naturally there was romance: on the train I’d met a bel ragazzo named Luciano who’d sat across from me in the compartment. We fell madly in love for forty-eight hours and rendezvoused in the Forum: moonlight, a Chianti bottle with a straw-covered bottom, two nineteen-year-olds singing Beatles songs to each other.
Feeling transformed into a woman of the world, I headed to my Roman cousins where I was embraced with smothering-lovering and seated at their dining room table, coming full circle to my childhood Italy.
The spell was cast. Italy grabbed hold of my heart forever. Over these many years it’s drawn me back, again and again.
Tonight as I’m sitting here in an apartment on Rome’s Piazza Paradiso, way past bedtime, even for Italy, I’m realizing there’s been absolutely no logic to my times here. The trips started off with visits to the major sights in the big cities, but then out went the plans, and instinct flung me to such spots as a classroom near Rome’s Colosseum where I struggled to tackle the subjunctive, a quiet farm road in Puglia surrounded by old olive trees, dancing at the Excelsior in Florence with my husband one New Year’s Eve.
I became the “girlfriend with the lists”—scribbling down places I’d loved visiting and passing them along to my traveling pals. If I was back in the States counting the days till my next trip, I lived in Italy vicariously—knowing that Babs was in Rome seeing all those provocative Bernini sculptures with my notes in hand, Sheila at a glove shop in Florence, Louise drinking wine at my favorite bacaro in Venice.
When the opportunity to write this book came along, so did elation, gratitude, and then a freezing panic. How could I choose 100 out of the infinite pleasures I’d experienced in Bell’Italia? So let’s just get the most obvious fact out of the way: there are more places than any one book could hold. I’ve even left out some of the most obvious—such as the Sistine Chapel, Pisa, and Michelangelo’s David—things well covered in other guidebooks.
In these pages, I’m sharing with you some places from my list of favorites, along with those my savvy Italian and American friends have raved to me about. I’ve put a spotlight on goddesses, the Madonna, female saints, beauties who’ve inspired masterpieces, women who’ve taken power. After all, isn’t the fact that women have been worshipped here for thousands of years one of the reasons we love Italy so much? Though in modern times females haven’t yet triumphed as far as business and political realms go, as Luigi Barzini inThe Italians says: “Men run the country, but women run men.” Here where la famiglia is the power source, women are at the core of it.
What about your male traveling partners? They’re likely to enjoy a lot of these places, too, whether it’s a museum, beach, or spots for adventure and learning. O.K., the guys probably won’t be into buying lace in Rapallo, but they’ll certainly enjoy Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks in Naples!
Italy seduces both sexes, with irresistibly feminine appeals. Shaped like a boot we’d love to strut around in, she transforms herself as she transforms travelers. She’s the nurturing mama, the drop-dead-gorgeous vixen, the compassionate spirit. She’s even the unreliable girlfriend who exasperates you with travel snafus, but you forgive her because she’s so darn charming. She’s constantly coaxing, “Come on, lighten up and enjoy my beauties and flavors.”
Treat this book like a cookbook. What do you want a taste of? Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? The best chocolate in Rome? A ceramic painting class in Deruta? A wine therapy spa treatment in the Veneto? Allow your mood to be your guide, savoring the experience Italian style, letting it unfold with an unhurried Old World pace.
To make a full meal of it, I’ve included suggestions for Golden Days—matching a place to a nearby restaurant, just like I do when I send out lists to girlfriends. These are only suggestions, because each of us has our own deeply personal experience of encountering Italy.
But as unique as each encounter is, I’m amazed at always hearing, even from travelers without a drop of Italian blood in them, the same words: “It felt like home.” Home, in the sweeping sense of a place that brings peace and comfort, a place that stirs the soul.
For me, it’s that childhood dining room table feeling. It sneaks up on me now, looking out the window of this apartment in late-night Rome. There’s a light shining on a little Madonna altar across the way, her robe the same rose as those dining room walls. Out of the shadows, from a nearby restaurant, comes a dark-haired signorina, walking as if she absolutely knows she’s a descendant of Venus, with her Adonis—a bel ragazzo in a leather jacket—linked to her side. They stop for a smooch under the Madonna, pressing up against each other as if this was their last night on earth.
Italy, once again, playing an endless beautiful song.
My wish for you is to enjoy her many places of pleasure, wherever your desires lead you to go.
—SUSAN VAN ALLEN
I — THE DIVINE:GODDESSES, SAINTS, AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
The Campidoglio, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
The Pietà, Saint Peter’s Basilica–Rome
Santa Maria Churches–Rome
Churches Dedicated to Female Saints–Rome
Bernini’s Beautiful Broads and the Galleria Borghese–Rome
Venuses, Madonnas, and Judith at the Uffizi–Florence
Mary’s Sacred Girdle and Salome Dancing–Prato, Tuscany
Museum of the Madonna del Parto–Monterchi, Tuscany
City of Saint Catherine–Siena, Tuscany
Town of Saint Margaret–Cortona, Tuscany
Santa Maria Churches–Venice
Madonnas by Titian, Bellini, and Tintoretto–Venice
The Scrovegni Chapel–Padua
Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks and Other Museo Archeologico Nazionale Treasures–Naples
Cloister of Santa Chiara–Naples
Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl–Cumae, Campania
Goddesses and Madonnas–Palermo
Nymphs, Goddesses, and Santa Lucias–Ortygia, Sicily
Temple of Segesta–Sicily
II — VILLE, PALAZZI, AND AN APARTMENT
The Costume Gallery at the Pitti Palace–Florence
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection–Venice
Villa Valmarana Ai Nani–Vicenza, Veneto
Palazzo Ducale–Mantua, Lombardy
The Royal Apartments in Palazzo Reale–Turin, Piedmont
Oplontis–Torre Annunziata, Campania
Villa Romana del Casale–Sicily
III — GARDENS
Villa d’Este–Tivoli, Lazio
The Park of the Monsters–Bomarzo, Lazio
Gardens Outside Florence–Tuscany
The Tarot Garden–Capalbio, Tuscany
Villa Cimbrone–Ravello, Campania
Parchi di Nervi–Liguria
Gardens of the Isole Borromee–Piedmont
IV — BEACHES
Forte dei Marmi–Tuscany
Santa Teresa di Gallura–Sardinia
V — BEAUTY TREATMENTS AND SPAS
Hair Salons and Spas
Grand Hotel Abano Terme–Veneto
L’Albergo della Regina Isabella Spa–Ischia, Campania
Masseria Torre Maizza–PugliaBR> Hammam–Palermo, Sicily
VI — INDULGE YOUR TASTEBUDS
VII — SHOPPING
Embroidery and Lace
VIII — ACTIVE ADVENTURES
Yoga and Pilates
IX — COOKING CLASSES
Cooking with Daniela–Rome
Tuscan Women Cook–Montefollonico, Tuscany
Monday at the Market–Florence, Tuscany
Cooking with Micaela, Parma–Emilia-Romagna
Mamma Agata Cooking School–Ravello
Cook at Seliano–Paestum, Campania
Cooking in Tropea–Calabria
X — LEARN ITALIAN CRAFTS AND CULTURE
Maskmaking at Tragicomica–Venice
International School of Ceramic Art–Deruta, Umbria
Leathercraft at Scuola del Cuoio–Florence
Jewelry Making Classes–Cortona and Florence
Landscape Painting–Buonconvento, Tuscany
Giuditta Brozzetti Weaving and Embroidery Workshop–Perugia, Umbria
Italian Language Classes
Mosaics at Orsoni Studio–Venice
XI — BE ENTERTAINED
XII — ADVICE FROM WRITERS
Mary Taylor Simeti
XIII — LA FAMIGLIA EXPERIENCES
Places for Children
An Italian Wedding
Go Find Your Mammas
Tips for Italian Travel
Calendar of Madonna Holidays and Female Saints’ Feast Days
About the Author
Chapter 1. The Campidoglio, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
You’ll never forget your first time. You’ll be walking along or speeding in a cab from the airport and then will appear… the Colosseum…the Arco di Tito…the whole glorious spread of jaw-dropping triumph and ruin.
It’s a place to let your imagination run wild. Picture women rattling tambourines in torch-lit processions, chariots carrying tanned muscular men in togas to the baths.
Goddesses’ temples, Empresses’ tombs, and churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary are all to be discovered in the thousand-plus years of history that surrounds you. It’s impossible to absorb it all in one shot. Hiring a good guide is best since hardly any of the sculptures and ruins are marked. Or just stroll around and surrender to your fantasies.
Here are some places where women take center stage:
The Michelangelo-designed piazza is a perfect place to begin, where Minerva (just behind Marcus Aurelius) sits on a throne holding her mighty spear. To either side of her are the Capitoline Museums, packed with sculptures of characters who once roamed the area surrounding you.
In the Palazzo Nuovo (museum to the left of Minerva) head to the first-floor hallway to see The Capitoline Venus. She’s featured in a sunlit niche, posed as Venus Pudica (modest Venus), with one hand over her breast, the other covering her Cupid’s cloister. Yes, she’s modest, but also teasing, as if to say: “Look what I’m hiding…”
Venus was the deity who flitted from passion to passion. She was married to Vulcan, God of Fire, but even the best couple’s counselor couldn’t have kept this beauty tied to that angry, crippled god. Venus had hot affairs with Mars (God of War), the devastatingly handsome Adonis, and disguised herself as a mortal for trysts with men she found attractive. Every year she bathed herself in the sea from which she was born to renew her virginity.
In the same hallway, you’ll see a statue of a Roman Woman Dressed As Venus (hardly dressed), proving how closely Romans associated themselves with the Goddess. The Roman woman breaks out of the Modest Venus pose, standing proud and naked with one hand on her hip. For a laugh further down the hall, check out the Drunken Old Woman, who’s crouched, laughing, and guzzling a jug of wine.
The Roman Forum
Here in the ongoing archaeological excavation, is the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, now rows of pillars with remains of female statues.
The Cult of Vesta, Goddess of Hearth and Home, was the oldest of the Ancient Roman world, which carries through in today’s Italy, where la famiglia remains as the country’s core. Back then girls from noble families, between the ages of six and ten were chosen to guard Vesta’s perpetual flame, vowing to “not lie with men” for their entire thirty-year term.
The upside for the Vestals, in a time when women didn’t have that much freedom, was that they could come and go as they pleased and got perks all over town, like special seats at games and festivals. The downside was gruesome: if they let Vesta’s flame go out they’d be flogged and if they had sex with anyone they’d be buried alive.
The Palatine Hill
Walking up from the Forum, you come to this pretty and serene place, where Romulus (great grandson of Venus) chose to begin the city. It went on to become the Beverly Hills of Ancient Rome, where noble palaces were built. In the sixteenth century the Farnese family created gardens here, so you can wander through rows of boxwood shrubs, cypress trees, laurel and rose bushes, and enjoy lovely views of the sights below.
As for the palaces, the Home of Augustus is now open to the public, but be prepared to wait in a long line to see the emperor’s frescos unless you get there when the site opens. His wife Livia’s house is closed for restoration, but the Palatine is still a great place to fantasize about the grand days of Livia and Augustus, who ruled Rome for forty-five years, bringing the city into its Golden Age.
Back in 39 B.c., just after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Livia was a beautiful nineteen-year-old, married to the much older Tiberius Claudius Nero, and pregnant with their second child. Along came Octavius, a rising star on the military scene, married with a pregnant wife. Octavius fell in love with Livia, divorced his wife the day she gave birth, and married the pregnant Livia. Livia’s husband gave her away at the ceremony, even throwing in a dowry. It turned out to be a good political move for all involved and in those days the citizenry didn’t even blink over it.
Octavius became Emperor Caesar Augustus and ruled Rome with his perfect mate Livia, who took charge of all the biz at home when he set off to conquer distant lands. Livia was an exemplary Roman wife. She was famously chaste, “worked wool” (made her husband’s togas), and never showed off with fancy jewelry or dress. The couple lived simply here throughout their fifty-one years of marriage, with Livia putting up with philandering Augustus, who was known for his S&M exploits. Together they revived Rome, restoring monuments in the Forum and building new ones throughout the city.
Livia’s become famous in fiction, particularly through Robert Graves’ I Claudius, where she’s portrayed as a conniving woman who poisoned potential heirs to make sure her family line would inherit the throne. Whatever version of the story you believe, Livia’s descendants did end up ruling Rome. She died at the ripe old age of eighty-six and was honored as Diva Augusta. Her image was revered in the streets that surround you, carried in celebrations by elephant drawn carriages.
To get a more vivid experience of Livia’s life- style, head to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near the Termini station. The entire garden room of her suburban villa has been moved to the top floor of this museum, so you can stand in the midst of amazing frescos that feature a harmonious, abundant landscape of trees, flowers, and birds.
TIPS: Don’t go to the Forum between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the heaviest tourist times. The museums, on the other hand, are rarely crowded, and in addition to the Palazzo Nuovo, the Palatine Museum, with its mosaics and sculptures, is a good choice.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: Via di Villa Peretti 1 (near Termini), Tuesday-Sunday 9-7:30.
Capitoline Museums: Tuesday through Sunday (Closed Monday) 9-8.
Roman Forum and Palatine Hill: Daily 9 until one hour before sunset.
Golden Day: Start out at the Capitoline Caffè (to the right of the Campidoglio’s steps) to rev up with coffee or even have lunch, enjoying beautiful views from its terraces. Time your visit so you’ll be on the Palatine Hill at sunset, or circling back to the caffè at the Campidoglio to unwind with a glass of wine and go in for that view again.
For the best guided small group tours, contact Context Travel at www.contexttravel.com.
A Traveller in Rome by H. V. Morton
A Traveller in Italy by H. V. Morton
In the decades following, Sophia crisscrossed the country many times, every which way, by car, by airplane, and by Greyhound bus. She packed up and left New York to move to Texas. She took up travel writing, publishing stories in The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, American Way, Delta Sky, World Hum, and many other publications and websites, including The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2006 and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007. Sophia’s other books include The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas and The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.
Sophia lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and an ever-changing cast of canines. She remains avid as ever about exploring the USA.