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Friday, March 13, 2015

The Exchange Rate Is Falling: How to Cash In and Travel to Italy

Today, the dollar-to-euro exchange rate hit 12-year low against other world currencies, meaning that those dollars will go farther when you travel to Italy. Currently at $1.05 to 1.00€, the exchange rate is expected to drop even further, with some analysts predicting a 1:1 exchange as soon as next month. It’s probably going to stay that way for a while, too.

“Most experts expect that the dollar will continue to gain strength throughout the year. “Currencies move in 5- to 7-year cycles. We are just beginning year 2 of what could be a multiyear rally. The only way the euro could strengthen is if the U.S. economy slows down and the Fed decides not to raise interest rates in the United States,” JP Morgan banker Piers Cornelius  told San Francisco Gate.

That’s not enough to fund your travel and accommodations—but it is enough to mean you might upgrade either or both, and you can definitely plan to get more for the money you do spend on dining, tours, and souvenirs.

How much more? Experts estimate about 10%. Here are a few tips to get the most out of that 10% advantage:

Check Now: Use an online exchange tracker like www.x-rates.com to get the latest information about the best available rates. Just because the dollar is strong today doesn’t mean something won’t change tomorrow. Do your homework.

Book Now: Plan your trip and pay for it while the rates remain favorable to the dollar. Just think—no last-minute dithering or disappointment! Booking ahead also means you can plot out other ways to save money, too, such as investigating a gem of a hotel that’s not smack-dab in a city center.

Buy Now: If you’ve already got a trip planned and purchased, get euros before you go; many experts steer travelers away from buying euros in advance—after all, almost every airport has an ATM, now—but given the current dollar rate, having enough euros for snacks, a taxi, and tips upon arrival makes sense.

How to do that? Most major banks have currency exchange services and offer packages for purchase; see, for example, this Bank ofAmerica page. If you order online by 2:00 p.m., you can pick up your currency at a branch the following day.

There are also services online offering currency exchange packages. Wells Fargo is a trusted source:  and AAA is, too.

Charge Now: Use a credit card with no foreign-transaction fees, and use it as often as you can while overseas; you’ll benefit from the dollar’s strength. Frequent travelers will want to be sure and use cards that provide airmiles or resort points, of course—more credit for next year’s trip to Italy.

Try Now: As noted, the exchange-rate differential isn’t going to make Prada possible if you’ve got a polyester budget—but it’s enough to make it possible for you to try a suite instead of a double, sample the secondi along with the primi when you dine out, and contemplate sending some good Barolo wine home.

Something to keep in mind is that a good exchange rate for us means a weaker euro for Italians—try not to boast loudly about how much you’re getting for your money. Although the citizens wherever you visit appreciate your dollars and custom, they don’t need to be reminded that their trip to the USA may have to wait a year or two. -- Bethanne Patrick

Photo by Mark Hodson, flickr.com

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

For Sale: La Tavola Marche B&B

Here at Dream of Italy, we are big fans of the agriturismo, La Tavola Marche. We've covered their B&B/cooking school in our pages and  included as one of Italy's Best Cooking Schools. Ashley and Jason, two American expats, have put everything into their Le Marche endeavor - introducing foreigners to a little-known area of Italy. But they are ready for something new and are selling their property. We know owning a B&B in Italy is a dream for many of our readers so we talked to Ashley Bartner about the sale.

DOI: So you're selling your B&B in Le Marche. I know you and your husband put your heart and soul into it....

AB: Yes we did and still do put our heart and soul in it! After our honeymoon in Italy in 2006 we were both transfixed on the quality of life from the food, history and people to the simple pleasures of living in the countryside. We felt at home here in a foreign land like never before in our travels and discovered a richness to life that we had yet to experience. We were at a point in our life where we were ready for a change (after living in NYC for eight years).

Jason and I wanted to work together running our own business, learn a new language, start a garden, become as self sustainable as possible and get our hands dirty…and starting an agriturismo (B&B and working farm) was the perfect fit. It was also the solution to how we could live and work in Italy. Starting the inn was our way to move to Italy. The dream was simply living in Italy.

DOI: Why the change?
We moved to Italy and started our business at 26 years old; eight years later we are ready for the next step in our evolution and while bittersweet, this has always been our plan. We are ready for our next challenge and adventure!

DOI: Can you give us a preview of what's next? (Will you stay in Italy or come back to the U.S.?)
We love Italy, Le Marche, our neighbors and friends that have become our family. Yes we will continue living here!! When we began this business eight years ago, we felt like we could connect travelers to the locals in a way that wasn’t being done in Le Marche, starting with the food and local artisans. It is still something we are very passionate about.

We plan to continue to do our best at sharing this slice of paradise with others, how beautiful life in Italy is, country living, the incredibly talented local artisans, etc. just to a larger audience. We realized that through our videos, cooking classes, photos and blog we were connecting this foreign world to much more than the guests that arrived at our farmhouse, but even more so with those that may never have a chance to board a plane.

DOI: Many people DREAM of running a B&B in Italy. What have been the highlights? And what are the challenges that most people don't realize?
AB: The highlights are the relationships we made not only with our wonderfully warm and welcoming neighbors and locals (the Marchigianni are wonderful) but with our guests, some of which have become great friends and even feel like family! Plus the incredible diversity of the guests arriving from of course North America and Europe, but also South Korea, Brazil, New Zealand and Hong Kong has made the world a smaller place for us and ignited interest in travel to foreign lands we never dreamed of.

Another highlight for me is that we have seen families grow, guests that have returned year after year, is not something we expected to be honest - the world is big and to think that someone has enjoyed themselves so much to return, is beyond gratifying for us. We’ve had couples come on their honeymoon, return twp years later pregnant and then the following year with baby and new grandparents in tow, it’s been amazing to be part of their lives! It is the most profound compliment, that we have become their family holiday destination. Breathing life into an old semi-abandoned farmhouse, we need her as much as she needed us.

 Finally, it is the feeling of accomplishment and pride in having a vision and seeing it to fruition. That is very powerful. In all honestly, it was a crazy idea to take two young Americans, move deep into the Italian countryside with no Italian blood or language skills and offer "authentic" Italian experiences and cooking classes with an American chef, classically trained French. But I believed wholeheartedly that we could do it, never once doubting what we could do together as a team or the talents that we had individually. And sure enough, we did it! I am amazed but not surprised by our success, yet humbled to be included in Top 10 lists of culinary destinations from such esteemed publications like The Guardian, Gourmet Traveller, USA Today and Lonely Planet.

Challenges? Yes! From the language, starting a garden/farm (yet never planting a seed before & being from the city) to frozen pipes (not that we didn’t expect there to be challenges, we were ready for whatever was going to be thrown at us.) We certainly had no idea how finicky a 300-year-old stone farmhouse would be! Most people seem to think it’s all about lounging by the pool, lazy afternoons in the garden and drinking wine with guests…well we never use the pool, the garden is incredibly satisfying but a TON of work and if we’re just hanging out drinking all afternoon…who is cooking dinner?!

So it's a juggling act to create the laid-back atmosphere that it all happens naturally. But keep in mind its the hard that makes it worth it. Living in Italy is difficult there are many challenges, including the famous bureaucracy but if you are willing to roll up your sleeves, be open to change and  a different way of doing business, and not compare it to ‘back home’ wherever that may be, it is incredibly rewarding. Honestly,  we knew it wouldn’t be easy but we were ready for that challenge. If it were easy, everyone would live here!

DOI: Can you give us details on the sale of your place? How large is it? What is the price or price range?
AB: The sale or lease of the property includes three stone structures, fully furnished comprising of about 600 meters squared, including six apartments and 20 hectares of land. The brand “La Tavola Marche” is for sale separately as well. We are happy to share more details by request: jason@latavolamarche.com

DOI: What kinds of skills does a B&B owner need?
AB:  Here are a few:
• people-person (a background in hospitality wouldn’t hurt)
• passionate about what you are offering; not only the B&B but of the area as that is why people are visiting to begin with
• hardworking and willing to learn/become a jack of all trades: from mowing the lawn, cleaning toilets and learning the basics of plumbing to pool maintenance to how to drill out a lock when a key gets stuck in a guest’s door (and it will happen)
• a problem solver - there will be many!
• an understanding on some level of how business is done in Italy
• tons of energy
• independent
• cool under pressure

DOI: People can still come stay with you in 2015, right? Any special programs that you have up your sleeve?
AB:Yes! 2015 will be a bucket list year at our farmhouse for sure!! We are not slowing down or taking it easy in our final season, in fact just the opposite we are looking to celebrate it with the same joy & excitement as our first season!! We have always been so thankful of the guests that have chosen to stay with us, we understand the great responsibility that comes with hosting guests. Some people only have 1 week off for the entire year and to think that they have chosen to spend it with us is a great responsibility we take seriously. We do our very best with each and every guest to show them the most authentic experience with the utmost passion and enthusiasm! Depending on the time of year, we’ve always got something cooking, click here for our culinary packages.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lake Como, The Movie Star

Our December 2014/January 2015 issue featured the best of Lake Como. The lake is so beautiful and enticing that at least 26 director  have set at least part of their films in Lake Como and 82 movie stars have performed in these scenes.

Here are some of the best known:

  • Casino Royale  with Daniel Craig, filmed at Villa La Gaeta in San Siro and Villa del Balbianello in Lenno, 2006
  • Ocean’s Twelve with George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, filmed at Villa Erba in Cernobbio and Villa Oleandra in Laglio, 2004
  • Star Wars: Episode 11 – Attack of the Clones with Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen, filmed at Parco Civico in Tremezzo and Villa del Balbianello, 2002
  • The Other Man’with Laura Linney and Liam Neeson (2008)
  • The Luzhin Defence’with John Turturro and Emily Watson (2001)
  • Bobby Deerfield with Al Pacino (1977)
  • The Last 4 Days of Mussolini with Rod Steiger and Henry Fonda (1974)
  • The Pleasure Garden’ directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1925)
Film buffs and Lake Como enthusiasts alike who want more details may pick up the complimentary Stars of Lake Como guidebook at the tourist office in Como at Piazza Cavour, 17.  -- Barrie Kerper

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Siena Museum Reopens

The Museum of Santa Maria della Scala, a former hospital in Siena, has opened following renovation, featuring a new segment dedicated to the history of Siena and several ancient silver, gold, and precious stone Byzantine reliquaries. The building opened to the public as a museum in 1995; extensive renovation began in 1998 and has continued in phases since then, with about half of the complex currently open to the public.

One of the oldest hospitals in Europe, it was founded in 898 and served as such for more than 800 years. In the 14th century, the hospital commissioned several altar paintings and exterior and interior frescoes by artists Simone Martini and brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti; time has worn down the exterior frescoes, but those on the interior have been restored. The museum also houses Etruscan artifacts, chapels and several other paintings.

The museum, at Piazza Duomo 1, is open daily. Opening hours vary. Admission is nine euros per person. -- Elaine Murphy

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Explore Tuscany with SimpleItaly

Dream of Italy contributors Sharon and Walter Sanders will host Tuscany Tour with SimpleItaly with four week-long immersion programs in 2015: April 11-18, April 18-25; October 3-10, October 10-17.

Sharon and Walter met, fell in love, worked, and married in Tuscany. Their award-winning blog SimpleItaly.com helps people all over the world celebrate their Inner Italian. SimpleItaly partners with the Donati family who own the magnificent Montestigliano estate, just south of Siena, where the luxury Villa Pipistrelli is situated.

Sharon is a Certified Culinary Professional and cookbook author. Walter, a brand consultant and writer, formerly developed escorted tour programs to Europe and earned a Certified Travel Counselor designation. He wrote about Villa Pipistrelli in the October 2012 Dream of Italy newsletter.

“We share the experience of unpacking just once, settling into the luxurious Villa Pipistrelli and feeling the rhythm of a secluded and majestic Tuscan location,” says Sharon. “The meals, prepared by private chefs, reflect the culinary integrity and wine heritage of Tuscany.”

“Instead of spending precious time behind the windows of a tour bus, we immerse you in a splendid destination,” says Walter. “We bring artists, cheese makers, foragers and other experts to the Villa so our guests can engage with them. The jaunts off property open windows that are usually closed to tourists, such as a private Palio contrada tour in Siena with author Dario Castagno.” (Dario made our list of Italy's best tour guides.)

“We especially like spring and fall in Tuscany,” says Sharon, “The region comes to life in April with a freshened tempo. And October is a harvest dance, celebrating the finish of the agricultural year. It’s these seasonal experiences that create authentic experiences that become exceptional memories.”

James Martin, the About.com Europe guide, Martha Bakerjian, the About.com Italy guide, author and master sommelier Jennifer Criswell, will be among the special guests.

Tuscany Tour with SimpleItaly experiences are limited to 12 guests. The cost is $2,995 per person, double occupancy, land only. All meals, with wine at lunch and dinner, are included.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Introducing "Dream of Italy" on TV

Dream of Italy, the travel newsletter is now Dream of Italy, the public television series! The 6-part travel series, hosted by editor Kathy McCabe, will begin airing on PBS stations around the country in May 2015. Each episode will feature one region, including Naples/the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Puglia, Tuscany, Umbria and Puglia. Here's a sneak peek:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jewish Museum in Venice to Be Restored

To mark its 500th anniversary, the Jewish Museum in Venice will undergo a $12 million restoration project focused on the museum and three of the Jewish Quarter’s five synagogues, to be completed in 2016. The Venetian Heritage Council announced the project on Monday, supported by its chair Joseph Sitt, vice chair Diane von Furstenberg,and director Toto Bergamo Rossi.

Venice’s Jewish Quarter dates back to 1516, when the Republic of Venice forced Jews to move to a certain area of the city, and residents remained confined to the area until Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797. The result, a rich history and culture, has survived for 500 years, but the Jewish Ghetto and its structures have fallen into disrepair.

“This is a project long overdue and hugely important to European and Jewish identity. There are 500 years of cultural and religious importance residing within this community and it’s imperative that we revive and revitalize it,” said Sitt.

During the project, overseen by architect Renata Codello, the superintendent for architectural and landscape heritage of Venice, the buildings’ walls and structural elements will be repaired, and decorative elements such as gilded, Biblical wood carvings will be restored. The restoration will also improve traffic flow in the museum.

“In addition to the structural revitalization of the synagogues, we are vastly improving and upgrading the museum space, adding space and streamlining room-to-room flow to accommodate the incredible interest in this piece of history. This is a huge component of European culture and it can’t be ignored,”  Rossi explained. -- Elaine Murphy 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Ode to Sfogliatelle and Other Neapolitan Pastries

Whenever I travel to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, I always have to take into account a bit of extra baggage on the return trip. I’m not, sadly, talking about the extra baggage you get to check, but the extra baggage that takes a bit longer to unpack and makes your jeans just that much tighter around the middle.

Umbria, my home for the past twenty years, is a land of simple yet excellent food. Pork charcuterie, sheep cheese, heirloom legumes, forest treasures like mushrooms, truffles, and wild asparagus are all daily treats on the Umbrian table, and it’s easy to become inured to the quality and flavor of these local dishes.

The one category where Umbria falls short is dessert, unfortunately. A landlocked region, Umbria hasn’t had centuries (if not millenia) of contact with foreign trading ships stocked with exotic spices, sugar, and cocoa. A mountainous region, Umbria doesn’t have the climate for citrus, dates, almonds, and other base ingredients of many of the Mediterranean basin’s best delicacies. A poor, rustic region until recently, Umbria traditionally cooks with olive oil and water, not butter and milk.

All this adds up to a meagerly sum in the dessert column. Hard tozzetti cookies dunked in wine, dry crostate tarts baked with olive oil, a rather sad version of strudel...nothing that leads you skipping down the path of perdition, in other words.

But Naples! Ah, Naples...Naples is a siren of sweets, tempting you with a thousand years of delicacies that Umbria has been denied. One of the most important ports in the Mediterranean since Roman times, Naples has been unloading ships stocked with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sugar, dates, rum, and cocoa for generations of pastry chefs. The much more tropical climate means that the area is rich in lemon, orange, and almond groves, the heat makes it easier to dry and candy figs and other sweet fruit, and the herds of grazing cattle along the fertile plain give milk enough for an army hungry for sweet ricotta. 

In Naples, I am happy to do my part to maintain this rich gastronomic history and tradition...all in the name of culture, of course. I make a bee-line for a promising pasticceria (you can tell the good ones by the crowd of customers), order up a small (ahem, medium) tray of local delights, watch as they wrap it up in paper and ribbon like the gift it is, and guard my precious cargo until I find a quiet spot to savor my goodies while watching Naples frantically get on with being Naples.

Here are a few of the most classic Neapolitan pastries you should try on your next trip, but make sure you’ve packed a pair of roomy pants: 

Sfogliatelle: Though her crown is often challenged by babà au rhum (see below), for me the divine sfogliatella will always reign supreme. There are two versions of the sflogliatella: riccia, or ruffled, and frolla, or shortcrust. 

My favorite is the riccia, which is also the more elegant and classic version. Here a sweet orange-infused ricotta filling is enclosed in a delicate pastry made of countless parchment-thin layers, which separate out into ruffles or leaves (from which the name sfogliatella is derived) as they bake, crispen, and form a golden, shell shaped pastry. They can be bite-sized (my favorite, with the perfect pastry to filling ratio), or as large as a lobster tail (overwhelming, even for a die-hard sweet tooth).

In a pinch, I have been known to enjoy the frolla version, generally preferred by Neapolitans (probably because it had also be made at home). Here the same ricotta filling is enclosed in a short crust which forms a small ball and baked; these can also be various sizes, but are most commonly a bit smaller than a tennis ball. 

Neither of these are first date foods—at the first bite, both shatter in a shower of pastry flakes or short crumbs covering your cleavage and lap, and are almost impossible to eat with cutlery—but a bit of unseemly collateral damage is a small price to pay for the pure pleasure of this local specialty, invented on the Amalfi Coast and wholeheartedly adopted by Naples in the early 19th century.

Babà au rhum: Just as there are cat people and dog people, so are there sfogliatelle people and babà people, and it’s not easy to broker a peace between them. Babà is an airy sponge cake (most commonly baked in individual portions, so shaped like tall muffins) made with eggs, milk, and butter and, once cooked, soaked in a sweet rum syrup. It made its way through Europe from Poland to France in the 1800’s and finally to Naples, where it was adopted with much relish and is now one of the most beloved of “local” pastries, and the source of much strife in sfogliatelle vs. babà debates around dinner tables throughout the city.

Zeppole: If you happen to be in or near Naples around the feast day of Saint Joseph (La Festa di San Giuseppe) on March 19th, you’ll be able to feast on “le zeppole di San Giuseppe”. These are deep fried fritters, dusted with sugar and filled and topped with piped custard and a candied cherry. They are roughly a gazillion calories each, so eat one and then go light a candle and pray to Saint Joseph to help you burn it off.

Pastiera: At Eastertime, Neapolitans make pastiera to serve at the holiday meal with family. This is a deeply traditional tart (indeed, said to have pagan roots) with a shortbread bottom crust, a rich filling of ricotta, eggs, boiled wheat kernels, candied citrus, orange water, and spices, and a latticed shortbread top crust. It includes symbolic ingredients representing rebirth and fertility, which happily are also delicious baked together, and is prepared no later than Good Friday to be eaten on Easter Sunday. Once made almost exclusively by the nuns in local convents for the city’s wealthy families, now it is often homemade or bought the few days before Easter at Neapolitan pastry shops.

Any of these delicacies can be found in the city of Naples, Sorrento, or further south along the Amalfi Coast. Unless you have a heroic sugar tolerance, you’ll probably have to pace yourself over a couple of days: these are not light desserts. Plan at least an overnight, staying at one of the area hotels listed on ItalyTraveller.com and walking off your daily indulgence exploring this beautiful area of southern Italy. -- Rebecca Winke