San Gimignano, Italy

San Gimignano was a small village during the 10th century. Travelers on religious pilgrimages stopped there during medieval times. The town flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries. The townspeople sold produce grown in the countryside around the town. Several of the town’s towers were built during that time. The Black Plague decreased the town’s population and it came under the rule of the city of Florence. The town flourished again when it became a tourist destination in the 19th century.

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano in the Piazza del Duomo is also referred to as the Duomo. It dates back to the 11th century. It was transformed from a small village church into a basilica between the 13th and 18th centuries. The Chapel of St. Fina in the church was built in 1468. The church is adorned with artwork from the 13th and 14th centuries.

San Gimignano, ItalyThere are more paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries in the Palazzo del Podesta. The palace is also in the Piazza del Duomo. It has a tower that was built in 1300. There are four other medieval towers in the Piazza del Duomo.

The Palazzo del Popolo is on the south side of the Piazza del Duomo. The entrance to this palace is in a courtyard from the 14th century.

Visitors can see items dating back to the 14th century in the Museum of Sacred Art. Religious items from the 12th to 19th centuries are on display here. This collection includes paintings, sculptures and reliquaries.

The Etruscan Museum has items found in the countryside around San Gimignano. Jewelry and pottery are displayed here.

Items made in Tuscany are available at some of the shops. Beconcini sells painted ceramics. Items made from olive wood are sold at Casa & Cose. Olive oil, wine and cashmere items made at a local farm are available at Ai Quattrorsi.

Local ingredients are used in dishes served at some of the town’s restaurants. The cookies at Bristot are made from natural ingredients from Tuscany. Fresh fruit is used to make the ice cream at the Gelateria dell’Olmo. Tuscan dishes served at Dulcisinfundo include white boar and pork meatballs in a saffron potato cream.

Visitors can stay in hotels or farmhouses. The Relais Cappuccina hotel has a wellness center with a heated pool, a sauna and a solarium. The farmhouses at Sassi Bianchi were built in the 16th century. They are close to woods and a lake. The farmhouse at Poggiacolle is on a hill overlooking the town.

The closest international airport to San Gimignano is in Florence. Travelers can take a train from Florence to the town of Poggibonsi. There is bus service from Poggibonsi to San Gimignano.


Chianti, Italy

The most popular tourist destination in the region, the Chianti area lies just south of Florence, Italy and draws visitors from around the world, not only for the beauty of the landscape and the medieval architecture but the famous wines produced by the local vineyards. Although the area known as Chianti is loosely defined, it can be thought of as the easternmost part of Tuscany, bordered by Florence to the north and the city of Siena to the south.

The Geography Of Chianti
This region is comprised mostly of gently rolling hills, the many wine vineyards and olive groves. A photographer’s dream, the area draws many visitors simply because of the peaceful nature of the landscape, which is dotted with many small villages comprised of stone houses, churches and historic fortresses. The climate is very mild, with no extended rainy period and little variance in temperature from one season to the next. The area is easily reached by automobile from downtown Florence, and visitors will find numerous byways that branch off from the Superstrada highway and enter the very heart of the Chianti region.

Vineyard in Chianti, Tuscany, ItalyThe only difficulty for visitors traveling by car is the decisions to make regarding what villages and landmarks to reach on a day trip. There are a myriad of smaller country roads traversing the area and it is best to take an updated guide book along on the trip. Most of the villages and wine vineyards are clearly marked and planning ahead will save time when multiple destinations are visited.

The Famous Chianti Wine
The village of Greve is one of the more popular stops for tourists on day trips from Florence. Here can be found a number of restaurants and smaller pubs offering all the best known wines produced in the region. The Wine Museum is also located here and is worth at least two hours for visitors. Near the town is the famous Castello di Verrazzano, birthplace of the famous explorer who discovered New York Harbor. Here organizers offer visitors free wine tastings of the famous Chianti Classico and conduct guided tours of the Castello itself.

Panzano, another village in the Chianti area is famous for its local wine brands and also the popular Florentine steak. Just two kilometers outside of town is the Panzanello estate, which is a must stop for wine tasters. The remarkable cellars are accessible to tourists daily and there are a number of appetizers available at the estate to complement each one of the brands.

Guided Tours From Florence
There are numerous bus tours leaving downtown Florence daily and traverse the Chianti region. Most of these include a stop at multiple wineries but also take visitors to the nearby farmhouses and villas where there is ample time to rest, take pictures or video, and visit the local shops in the towns. Each village has its own unique personality and including several of them in the itinerary is not difficult. Of greatest interest to visitors are the towns of Castellina, Gaiole, Greve and Radda.

The region can also be reached by public bus service from Florence using the SITA line, by trains departing from both Florence and Siena, and by rental car. There are many rental car agencies in Florence and most can be contacted with help from hotel front desk personnel.


Spain’s Regions

Spain’s constituent regions aren’t states or provinces, as in many other countries of the world, but autonomous communities. This political distinction results from the profound differences in culture within the country’s borders. Several of the regions have their own language, all have their own food, and many have their own storied histories as ancient, proud civilizations.

El País Vasco, or Basque Country, is perhaps the most famously independent of Spain’s autonomous communities. The Basque language is notoriously difficult to learn. Luckily Spanish is widely spoken, but any effort to communicate in Basque is appreciated by locals. San Sebastian is the area’s top destination, thanks to its breathtaking Atlantic shores and its reputation as the best producer of the region’s unique food. A local specialty worth sampling is sidra, a slightly alcoholic apple cider.

Spain’s other famously independent region, Catalonia, is located on the country’s eastern shore. Its language, Catalan, is easily learned by Spanish speakers. Barcelona is known for the many structures by famous modern architect Antoni Gaudí, whose style permeates this well-planned regional capital. The beaches of this cosmopolitan city nicely complement the region’s ski resorts to the north and nature reserves to the south.

Andalucia is the intersection of all the finest aspects of Spanish culture, from food to music to architecture. The region invented tapas and is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, while the city of Sevilla is known as the home of flamenco music and dance. This southern region of Spain enjoys a rich Moorish history; sites such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and La Alhmabra of Granada exhibit the height of Arab art and architecture from the Middle Ages.

El Comunidad de Madrid consists of the city of Madrid and its surrounding towns. Despite being the home of Spain’s central government and the Royal Palace, Cathedral, and Gardens, Madrid is best known for its nightlife. The neighborhoods of Huertas and La Latina are filled with revelers at all hours of the night as they scour the city for the best bars and dance clubs.

Even Spain’s less famous regions have their own defining characteristics. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, La Rioja is famous for its red wines, and the windmills of Castilla La Mancha were immortalized in Don Quixote. One of Spain’s ancient kingdoms, Galicia adds another regional tongue, Galician, to the tally of official languages, and another famous dish, empanadas, to the nation’s cuisine. Aragon, another such kingdom, houses a wealth of historical artifacts from the Middle Ages, while Cantabria is home to more Stone Age archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. In Navarre’s largest city, Pamplona, locals and tourists alike run through the narrow streets with bulls during the Feast of San Fermin, and with its soaring mountains and dramatic rocky coastline, Asturias is considered the most beautiful part of the country.

Thanks to the linguistic, culinary, architectural and artistic diversity displayed across Spain’s autonomous communities, a trip to this one country can feel like a tour of over a dozen different nations.


Montserrat, Spain

Millions of years ago, as the Iberian plate converged upon the European plate, masses of earth were thrust upwards, forming what is now the Pyrenees mountain range that borders Spain and France, and depositing rock to form what is now the Montserrat chain of mountains. In Catalan, “Montserrat” means “serrated mountain,” which describes the jagged silhouette of the mountain range, formed by centuries of erosion.

Today, Montserrat is famed for its unique rock formations, as the location of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, and for the historical significance of the area in connection with the struggles of the Catalan people. At 4055 feet above the valley, Montserrat stands at a central point above the Catalan lowlands, and has long played an important role in Catalonian history. Overnight hikes up the mountain to watch the sunrise remain a significant part of Catalonian tradition.

Nestled within the crags of the mountain, the monastery was founded in 1025. The Montserrat Escolania, a world-famous boys’ choir, came into existence soon after. Traditionally, the boys lived and studied in the monastery. Though run by the Benedictine monks, the school’s goal is to prepare students for acceptance into music conservatories, not into the order. In 2005, when enrollment dropped drastically, allowances were made for the children to return home overnight and on weekends. The choir gives brief performances at the abbey every day but Saturday.

The monastery was destroyed by the French in 1811. Monks managed to hide the statue of Mary before the destruction. During the 1830’s, Spanish royalty banned religious orders from building monasteries and convents. The present church was built during the 1850’s. Under dictator Francisco Franco, 300 protestors were held as prisoners within the monastery.

The focus of the basilica is the statue of Mary, known as the Virgin of Montserrat, La Moreneta or the Black Madonna. Pilgrims line up along a decorated passageway for the opportunity to spend a few moments alone with her. All but encased in protective glass, only the orb that Mary holds in her hands is available for pilgrims to touch. The site is also home to the Museum of Montserrat, featuring paintings by El Greco, Caravaggio, Money, Picasso and Dalí.

While a modern hotel is located near the abbey, visits to Montserrat are most often taken as day trips from Barcelona. By car, it’s a 30-minute drive from Barcelona to the base of the mountain. Many visitors choose to disembark at the base and ride the cable car up to the abbey site. Visitors may also drive up along a series of switchbacks to the site. Trains take visitors to the base of the mountain from Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya. Rack railway is also available up the mountain.


Figueres, Spain

Spain is a country rich in culture and history. Inspiring generations of visitors with the sweeping vistas and stunning mountains, Spain is home to some of the most splendid cities in Europe. Figueres located in Catalonia is often overlooked by tourists who prefer the larger cities that offer more hustle and bustle. Figueres is a charming location well loved by the residents and by those who happen across it.

The city is home to about 40,000 residents. Known for the beaches, the wine, and the gourmet food Figueres offers visitors an array of activities, sights, and sounds.

Dali Egg, Figueres SpainFigueres’ history can be traced to the 10th century and the city enjoys a rich diversity of architectural inspirations taken from nearly every era of its history. The Castell de Sant Ferran is billed as one of the largest castles in all of Europe. Constructed in the 18th century the castle overlooks the city and is a favorite spot for locals. While the grounds are most always open, the interior of the castle can only be viewed during certain time depending upon the season.

SALVADOR DALI MUSEUM IN FIGUERES, SPAINFor those who want to drink in the sights and sounds of Figueres a trip to the Placa de les Patates would be a welcomed diversion. The square is lined with traditional and classical architecture and lined with shade trees visitors can enjoy a lazy afternoon at any of the cafes and small restaurants. When night falls, the square is populated by revelers looking to unwind and relax after a long day.

It is the Dali Museum; however, that remains the biggest draw to the city. Figueres is the birthplace of the eccentric artist Salvador Dali that helped to change the face of art for generations to come. The Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dali is not hard to spot. The facade is bright pink decorated in an eccentric style must like Dali himself. Many visitors will spend the entire day roaming the halls and grounds of the museum. It houses the largest collection of Dali’s work including his sculptures and curiosities designed by the artist.

While visitors will find accommodations in Figueres many visitors come by rail from Barcelona. The trip to Figueres averages about 2 hours which makes for a perfect day trip. Figueres is an incredible town ideal for a quick getaway during a visit to Barcelona or an extended stay while in Spain.


Sitges, Spain

Approximately 22 miles south along the Spanish coast from Barcelona is Sitges, a town of about 26,000 which has been celebrating Carnival for over a hundred years. Carnestoltes (Carnival) beginning on Fat Thursday, continuing throughout the week before Lent, promotes nonstop festivities attracting over 250,000 visitors to one of Europe’s most outrageous parties. Beginning when the Carnival King comes back to life on Thursday through two huge parades until the Carnival King and Queen perform a ritual but doomed conflict with the Spirit of Lent on Ash Wednesday, drag queens change costumes to mourning head gear and black dress, screaming and wailing the death of Carnestoltes for another year.

Other than Carnival, Sitges is famed as the home of an international film festival billed as the world’s number one fantasy film celebration. Beginning in 1968 the Festival is an assemblage fantasy and horror movies lovers worldwide. Attendees have included Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Paul Verhoeven, Jon Voight, Santiago Segura and Quentin Tarantino as well as many others year in and year out during early October.
The economy, based on tourism, offers 5,000 hotel beds weighted heavily with four-star ratings, all of which is easy to understand considering the extensive beaches, exciting nightlife, and active gay accommodations. Yet, it is also charming in winter, although much quieter, with day trips to Barcelona. Never forget that because Sitges’s main industry is tourism, there are many excellent restaurants specializing in seafood as well as local fare.

Sitges began as an agriculture, fishing and commerce center in the 10th century; therefore, its oldest building is the parish church, Eglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla, replete with stone foundations having withstood the past thousand years. By the end of the 16th century monasteries and castles appeared and Sitges became a township, important to American sailing ships by the 18th century. Cau Ferrat museum, commissioned in the late 19th century by Santiago Rusinol, became a center for bohemian art and modernist parties. Paintings by Picasso, El Greco, Miro and Ramon Casas are still shown at Cau Ferrat.

At the border of Catalan wine country, Spanish sparkling wines are in abundance promoting yet another celebration. In August Sitges entertains yet another crowd with its Fiesta Major in honor of Sant Bartomeu parading giant puppets through the streets and executing an outstanding fireworks display at the old cliff-edge church.


Barcelona Spain, Day Trip Girona

Girona, a small capital city in Catalonia, Spain, of about 100,000 people north of the Mediterranean coast city of Barcelona, has been an important focus for the region for the past few thousand years. The city, active since the days of the Roman Empire, sits at the joining of the rivers Güell, Galligants, Ter and Onyar, making the inland city a natural trading center. The nearest airport, named for both Girona and Barcelona, is an hour away from both cities — Barcelona itself is only 98 km (61 mi) from Girona for a bus or train trip between the two of slightly less than a hour and a half.

The Old Town of Girona is on the east side of the many rivers within the old city walls. One of the highlights of any trip to Girona is a stroll along the top of the ancient walls, from which you can see beautiful views of the entire city. The architecture throughout the Old Town is all fascinating, especially the Jewish section. Two places to seek out are the church of Església de Sant Feliu and the Banys Arabs, or Arab baths.

The Rambia, a neighborhood that runs parallel to the river, has many atmospheric restaurants; the tourist office can be found at the south end of the Rambia. Every Saturday, a market is set up in a park on the river bank northwest of the centre of town — you’ll find stalls selling all types of goods cheaply. You’ll also find both modern and tourist shops throughout the city. Many streets in the Old Town are paved with large cobblestones and lined with steep stairs — though this type of old street-scaping is quite authentic, it does make it difficult to roll wheeled luggage or walk in high heels.

The New Town is along the west river banks and has more hotels and shops, wider streets and more affordable restaurants. Nightlife is also very lively in the cafes and discos. Both the New Town and the Old Town are not suited for car travel and are easier to navigate by foot. Car rentals in town are available for short trips into the nearby countryside to explore the old castles; golf courses are also fine nearby destinations for a day’s jaunt.


Girona, Spain

Capital of the province of Girona in Catalonia, Spain, the city is known as a fantastic starting point for tours of Catalonia, but it is also a lovely place to stay awhile. Its famous, historic Jewish community is a well-preserved site as well as their ancient cemetery, located on a hill in the north of town. Visitors will find the Office of Tourism on the right side of the river near Old Town beside the Municipal de Girona building. The neighboring area by the river has many restaurants, museums and other sites of interest. Girona has the old walled city and the new side, and the sprawling city is a favorite getaway only an hour’s drive from the beach.

Girona is several thousands of years old and its first inhabitants were Iberians. The Romans constructed a bastion that was called Gerunda. The Visigoths settled in the area and then the Moors. In 785, Charlemagne reclaimed and captured the region. Then, in the 1000s, Alfonzo I. of Aragon officially made the metropolis a city.

Next, Jews began to set up the Girona community in the 1000s. They established a significantly prestigious Kabbalistic school. Then, in 1492, the horrific Spanish Expulsion took place when the country was cleared of all Jewish people. 1492 was same year that Columbus made the famous voyage for Spain to the Americas. Many hundreds of years later the Jews came back to settle in their former community. Then from the 1600s on to the 1800s, the city lay under siege twenty-five times and different kingdoms occupied the area.

In modern times, the damaged parts of the wall of the ancient city have been restored and the district is visited by many thousands of people every year who want to see this enduring old city. The wall and the Old Town inside is a favorite attraction. The narrow streets in and around this historic district are set aside for pedestrians and bicyclists. The castle is a must-see site, as is the Eglesia de Sant Feliu, the second church ever built in Girona.

Additionally, people enjoy the traditional Arab baths and the many walking tours available. Those who desire can even walk right on top of the old city wall. Guided tours are available and friendly, knowlegeable guides from the local area take individuals and groups on tours of anything in and around the city. Booking a guide is one of the best ways to get to know the city and the region, and the guide can enhance the visit by helping visitors find the excellent cafes open all night and businesses most frequented by locals.

Girona is a lovely city for extended stays and relocation. Citizens of this urban center are well satisfied with their city and are glad to live in Girona. Several golf courses surround the area. The climate is mild and enjoys all four seasons. Still in August, much of the city goes to the beach every afternoon if possible because of the heat.


Barcelona, Spain, Day Trip to Tarragona

Tarragona is a beautiful and historic city located in Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. The city which is the provincial capital is situated on the Mediterranean Sea just 100 kilometers southwest of Barcelona. The history and culture offered by the many attractions in Tarragona makes it the idea place for a day trip from Barcelona.

Taking just a bit over an hour by car and by train, Tarragona is a delightful place for visitors to spend the day and enjoy the city. One of the main attractions in the city is the ancient Roman ruins of Tarraco. Tarraco has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. These ruins include the 2nd century amphitheater that is located on the coast, a monument called the “Tower of the Scipios,” an aqueduct, the citadel and multiple other ruins or structures that have inscriptions from the ancient Roman era.

The Archaeological Museum is another stop to view ancient artifacts, coins, sculpture and relics from the past. The Head of Medusa is a featured attraction in the museum. Other museums in the area include the Necropolis Museum and the Casa Pau Casals, an early home of cellist Pablo Casals.

The Cathedral of Tarragona is a Roman Catholic church dating back to 1154. The cathedral features Romanesque architecture and remarkable stained-glass windows. Also inside are notable carvings and artwork that represent the Catalan culture. Other religious structures including several convents, a Jesuit college and a monastery can be found in the city.

For those interested in leisure activities, Tarragona has a number of beautiful beaches fronting the coastline. Many beaches such as Arabassada Beach are just a few minutes walk from the city center. Crystal clear water and sea breezes draw many to the beaches of the Mediterranean where sunbathing, swimming, strolling and volleyball are among the activities that occur there.

A prime recreational and leisure place to visit is PortAventura. PortAventura is a theme park and resort located in Salou which is just a few kilometers outside of Tarragona. It is the most popular theme park in Spain. It features rollercoasters, rides, several areas with themes such as Mexico, the Wild West and Polynesia, and shops and restaurants. It is definitely worth the trip over from Barcelona.

Numerous shops, restaurants and galleries can be found in the central part of Tarragona. Placa de la Font is one of the streets in the old town section of Tarragona that has several restaurants with many featuring Catalan cuisine. Many shops and restaurants can be found along Rambla Nova, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Tarragona. Others are scattered throughout the central business district.

Tarragona provides a great side trip from Barcelona. It is not overwhelmed with tourists yet it offers a variety of attractions and things to do for the day


Tarragona, Spain

Tarragona is a city located in the southernmost part of Catalonia, Spain, by the Mediterranean Sea. It is the capital of the Catalan Comarca Tarragones and as of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 155,443, with the metropolitan area’s entire population an estimated 675,921.
Tarragona was an ancient Roman port city situated on a rocky bluff above the sea, and is one of the greatest sightseeing centers in Spain, although it took many years for the city to achieve its recognition as a tourist destination. Featuring authentic medieval remains and architecture, it is the second-oldest city of Catalonia and sheltered over one million people when occupied by the Romans in 218 B.C.

Tarragona was also one of Catalonia’s four capitals when it was a medieval principality and Julius Caesar once lived within the city’s walls. The city was once endowed with a vast array of fine structures, many of which have been revealed in a series of archeological excavations. While the majority of the remains are fragmentary and obscured by more recent buildings, they still provide a vivid picture of this provincial capital’s grandeur. Southern Tarragona consists of houses with connecting balconies and other old-style architecture and has a decidedly medieval flair, while the northwestern section of the city is much newer with more contemporary buildings.

From the artistic point of view, Tarragona offers a higher number of tourist attractions and monuments than many other Spanish cities. Visitors can view Iberian civilization remains, which are plentiful throughout the region, or explore multiple Roman vestiges in Tarragona city, where one can trace the timeline of Catalonia’s splendorous past through carvings and architecture.

Certain sections of the city are still enclosed in a well preserved wall, which is a popular tourist attraction all by itself. Perhaps one of Tarragona’s most notable landmarks is the Roman Amphitheater, the size of which many tourists find impressive. The Cistercian monastery in Poblet is also a celebrated Tarragona attraction, and guided tours are available throughout most of the year for those who wish to take a glimpse into the lifestyle of contemplation and prayer experienced by the ancient cistercian monks.

Attractive capes, sunny shores and massive cliffs make up the unique panorama of Tarragona’s coastline. The city’s beach region has gained considerable popularity throughout the world over the past decade, and those who have experienced an unforgettable visit to Tarragona can easily see why this is so.

Tarragona is very accessible by rail and trains run frequently to Barcelona, Valencia, and down the coast to Andalucia. National buses run daily from Tarragona to cities such as Pamplona and Madrid and there is a local bus service which serves the city and its outskirts Monday through Friday.

Throughout the summer season, the average temperature in Tarragona is 87 degrees Fahrenheit, although the humidity often runs at 100 percent. Winters in Tarragona are almost always calm and pleasant, and there is little rainfall throughout the year. Similar to the rest of Spain, Tarragona features over 290 sun-drenched days each year, making it a perfect location for those who enjoy plenty of sunshine.