My introduction to Italy’s craft beers

I am not a craft beer expert, but I know what I like.  Living in Denver, it seems like we are at the epicenter of an explosion of creativity and flavor that seems to know no bounds. People here really love well-made beer.

So the more I enjoy craft beers, the more I realize that there is much to learn.  And the more I learn…the more I enjoy.

In October, I had the pleasure of spending a day at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, sampling craft brews from all parts of the U.S.

Three days later I boarded a plane for Italy for a business trip, intent on learning more about its fast-growing craft beer movement, the world of birra artiginale.  My research was more casual than comprehensive.  With little time available, there are so many producers I did not see.

My casual research has opened my eyes (and my palate) to something truly extraordinary. Italy has always excelled in things both artistic and culinary, and its approach to craft brewing is no exception. The producers I met are creating something that is both characteristically Italian and unmistakably world class.

As with America’s craft beer movement, these artisans are making their start from small facilities and humble beginnings. You can sense that some of these visionary producers are going to do great things.

The prevalence of craft brewers changes with the geography of Italy, with just a few in the south and an abundance in the north.  In every region, they promised there would be more coming.

In Tuscany, I stopped by Birrificio San Quirico and was happy to find it open and its birraio (brew master) hard at work. They produce a double malted English pale ale called Giulitta and a high-fermentation blonde called Iris. I sampled both and found them to be well-constructed and drinkable.

Birrificio San Quirico

Roughly half way up the boot is Umbria, which has several emerging and dynamic brewers, and great enthusiasm for beer. I first visited Birra Khamen, located in a countryside area on the outskirts of Perugia.

thumb_90_205805Andrea Valigi was there with his mother, who manages the small shop on the premises. Their family business includes beer making, meat processing and the sale of delicious artisan food products of the area. While I waited for Andrea, his mother gave me some samples of salsicce, a tasty Italian sausage.

He then took me through his small brewery, which makes five types of beer. He explained that hops thrive mostly in countries north of Italy, and so most are imported from the U.S., Germany and other European countries. One of their brews, Jewel, is made entirely from U.S. hops.

Birra dell’Eremo is the dream of Enrico Ciani and Geltrude Salvatori Franchi. Located near Foligno, it has been in operation only about a year, and is already exporting broadly to Australia and throughout Europe.

Birra dell EremoGeltrude cheerfully showed me their thriving operation, which consisted of several 500 liter tanks making six different styles. She first gave me a taste of their IPA, which I found to be modestly hoppy in the manner preferred by Italians (who have not yet fully accepted the more bitter aspects of the brew). This was followed by their blonde beer, which turned out to be delicious and easy on the palate.

SanBiagioThat evening, we enjoyed dinner with friends at Il Giardino, on the banks of Lake Trasimeno. By coincidence, it was the night the restaurant was featuring a tasting (degustazione) of San Biagio beers, produced also in Umbria. There was a ‘sommelier’ who went from table to table, describing the beers and recommending appropriate pairings. I ordered a strong ale to taste, but he instead steered me toward the pilsner, which turned out to be a great match for pizza. From time to time, he would come by and refresh the glasses of each guest from the stylish 750ml San Biagio bottles.

P1070418From Umbria, our journey continued to the far north of Italy, to the region of Piemonte. This is an area famous for great wines like Barolo, and also for amazing craft beers. The small and unassuming village of Piozzo is home to Baladin, maker of more than forty types of craft brew which are available throughout the world. We had the pleasure to stay at Casa Baladin, an artsy renovation of an old inn, offering wonderful rooms and a first-class restaurant. Their specialty is a six course meal with an appropriate beer pairing with each course.

Picture 374Our last leg took us to Rome, where we made a reservation at Open Baladin, the most famous and best-stocked brew pub in Italy. In addition to a full tap of Baladin products, they also offer a big selection of alternative craft brews from throughout Italy. The restaurant menu has a choice of cuisine to match to their beers, including the most unusual and delicious hamburgers we have found in Italy.

I’m hoping to do a more comprehensive craft-beer only tour of Italy some day soon. Maybe you’d like to join me?

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How not to speed in Italy

When you travel on Italy’s super highways and through its small villages, you will notice that electronic speed controls are everywhere.  This is actually a very good thing which has altered driving habits in Italy and improved traffic safety.

If you know where to look, you can avoid getting caught driving too fast.

There are two main systems of control.  The Autovelox can track your speed at a particular point.  As you fly by the machine, its radar calculates your speed and the built-in camera records your license plate number.

For those who think they can fool the system by speeding up between machines, there is also the Tutor system, which can track you from point to point and calculate your average speed between the points.

So it pays to always maintain the speed limit and be alert to the machines. Fortunately, there is always a posted warning:

Italy speed warningFor the Tutor system, the cameras are often posted on the signs that cross over the highway:

Italy Tutor speed system

For the Autovelox system, it is usually a sinister looking box on the side of the road with small openings for the cameras.  There is a smaller version in a little green structure you will see in the villages.

This is all well and good, but what is the speed limit?  Although it’s getting better, the speed limits are well know by the Italians, but not always posted along the roads.  On the major superstrada highways, it’s generally 130 kilometers/hour and on the smaller highways, it’s 110.  Through the countryside and small towns it will vary, generally between 50 and 70.

One good way to get some help is to use the information on your GPS and to listen for the audio warnings.

Italy GPS

You can see the current speed limit in the lower right with the red circle, like you see on the roadside.  Your actual speed (velocita) is next to it.  The actual speed will turn red and you will hear a beep when you exceed the speed limit.

Notice also the warning in the middle of the screen that you are in an Autovelox zone, and there is one just ahead!

By the way, you can set your GPS to English, so don’t worry about the language difference.

If you do get a speeding ticket, you will first receive a notice from your car rental company and they will charge your credit card with an administrative fee.  Shortly thereafter, you’ll get a notice from the municipality where the infraction occurred, with the amount and instructions to pay it.

If you expect to travel again in Europe, it’s probably a good idea to go ahead and pay it.

However, with enough knowledge and vigilance you can avoid this decision entirely.

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Thinking back on Il Palazzo di Mantova

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our stay at Il Palazzo di Mantova, and how much we enjoyed visiting the medieval city of Mantova (also called Mantua–you remember, Romeo was ‘banished’ to there.)

We had an in-depth personal tour of the Ducal Palace across the street from the Palazzo, the sprawling and beautiful headquarters for the Gonzaga family dynasty that lasted centuries.

We stayed in the marvelous apartment called L’Arco, named for the impressive arch that defines the alcove where we slept.

Il Palazzo di Mantova

Our gracious hosts at the Palazzo are the direct descendants of Baldassare Castiglione, who is the subject of a famous painting by Raphael that hangs in the Louvre.  He was a prominent 15th century courtier, diplomat and author, who is known for “The Book of the Courtier”, a guide to the life of the nobleman at court.  It still contains lessons for modern society, as the Wall Street Journal has recently explained.

If you’re looking for an authentic experience of the best of medieval Italian life, take a look at the Mantova apartments for yourself, and get in touch with us.  We’d love to let you know more!

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Sacre Monte – The Sacred Mount above Lake Orta

We often find ourselves going back to Orta San Giulio, the warm and friendly medieval town on Lake Orta.  There is something artistic about it, to be sure.  But there is also a sacred atmosphere here as well.

This year we visited Sacre Monte, a beautiful and spiritual estate just above the town.  Here we found a fascinating complex of chapels devoted to episodes in the life of Saint Francis.  Construction was begun in 1583 and ended in 1788.

Moving from chapel to chapel on a rainy day in early November, we were entranced by the images created by the beautifully preserved terracotta figures contained in each one.  There was no crowd that day, so we were able to take it all in virtually alone with them.

What a joy it was to discover these ancient and entertaining scenes!

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Italy’s new tourism tax: What you should know

In March 2011, the Italian legislature passed a decree that created a new tourism tax to be paid by visitors to Italy, and collected by the accommodations where they are staying. The purpose is to raise revenue that municipalities can use to maintain local facilities and infrastructure and to help in the preservation of cultural and historical treasures, all of which benefit tourists.

The roll-out of the tax has been gradual, with each municipality determining the way it should be implemented.  In the larger cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, the collection was begun for hotels in 2011 and was transparently worked into the room rates last year.

For villas and other kinds of vacation rentals, it will begin on April 1, 2012 for many locations, and — at least for now — it will be collected separately on site.

At this point in time there is no central point of information about it, and individual municipalities are gradually posting the details on their sites.  As times goes on, more and more towns are adding this information to their web sites, and we will update the list below as we learn about them.

The tax is charged by guest per night, with an upper limit to the number of nights that can be charged.  The rate is determined by the rating of the accommodation.  With hotels, this is easier to do, as there is a fairly standardized system of star ratings.

With villas and vacation rentals, there are differences from town to town in how this is determined.  For example, the link below for Cernobbio on Lake Como explains that the tax will be .50 Euros (half a Euro) per person per night for a maximum tax of 4 nights.

The link for San Casciano val d’Elsa specifies the tax for vacation houses as 1.50 euros per person per night for the first 7 nights.

Those excluded from the tax are children under 14 years of age, patients waiting for hospital admission, guides and bus drivers for groups of 20 or more people, disabled persons with special needs (including one companion) and employees of companies that have an agreement with the accommodation.

As we receive more information about the tax, we will post as much as we can here, and will clarify as much as possible.

The links below are in Italian.

Tuscany
San Casciano val di Pesa
Empoli – includes much of Chianti
Florence
Castellina in Chianti (English)

Lake Como
Cernobbio

Liguria
Genoa – includes Portofino

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Okay, we’re going. So where do we begin?

This is an excerpt from A Villa of My Own, our guide to selecting and enjoying your Italian vacation rental.

Select the link to download a free copy.

 

Before you start searching for a villa, you’re going to need to gather the basics and make some notes:

What dates would you like to travel?

Keep in mind that most villas rent from Saturday to Saturday, so your selection will be much greater if you can stay during that period. Generally, a villa’s calendar will be divided into a low season (winter months), a high season (peak summer months) and one or more middle seasons, which tend to be in spring and fall.

How long can you stay?

It’s great to spend a week in Italy. It gives you a good feeling for the sites and the culture. It’s even better to plan a longer stay, which will give you a sense of living there and learning more about the ways of the Italians.

What is the makeup of your group?

Take note of the number of adults and children. Italy has something for all ages. Is access a consideration? Does anyone in your group have a walking difficulty? By the way, if you are not traveling with school age children, think about traveling outside of the summer months, which can save you money. The ‘shoulder’ seasons (May-June and September-October) can be attractive because the weather tends to be good and the towns can be less crowded.

What kind of budget do you have for your rental?

There are several things to consider here. One is that if you are able to organize a large group, you can consider higher quality villa if everyone is able to share the cost. It’s really quite amazing how inexpensive it can become.

Another way to control your costs is to look at rental properties with multiple units rather than a private villa. There are a lot of high quality accommodations like this, and the bonus is that you will likely meet some very interesting people!

What would you like to do and see in Italy?

Making the decision to rent a villa comes with certain expectations and…dreams. Want to learn how to cook some authentic Tuscan dishes? Would you like to see some of history’s most important works of art? How about great wine? Is someone in your group a history fanatic?

Put together a wish list of must-see places and must-do experiences. You’ll be surprised at how many you can do!

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What is a ‘Chiavetta’ and Why Would I Need One?

The Internet is an important part of Italian life, and there are various ways to access it. If you are carrying a smart phone, this will usually have access. If you are carrying a lap top or iPad, it’s possible that your villa will include either wireless (WiFi) or connected access.

Otherwise, you can look into purchasing a ‘chiavetta’ at one of the mobile phone shops that you see in city centers, train stations and shopping areas. A chiavetta is slightly larger than a thumb drive and connects to a USB port on your computer. It accesses the Internet through the mobile phone system. Where there is a good signal (which is an ever expanding area) it can provide speeds that range from adequate to very fast. If your villa turns out to be in a blind spot, the problem can usually be solved by going into the village for a coffee with laptop in hand, or talking a walk to a more open area.

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