Monthly Archives: May 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #248: Costiera Amalfitana

Posted by on May 26, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #248: Costiera Amalfitana

UNESCO World Heritage Site #248: Costiera Amalfitana

From the World Heritage inscription:

Costiera Amalfitana is an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, with exceptional cultural and natural scenic values resulting from its dramatic topography and historical evolution. The area covers 11,231 ha in 15 [16?]communes in the Province of Salerno. Its natural boundary is the southern slope of the peninsula formed by the Lattari hills which, stretching from the Picentini hills to the Tyrrhenian Sea, separate the Gulf of Naples from the Gulf of Salerno. It consists of four main stretches of coast (Amalfi, Atrani, Reginna Maior, Reginna Minor) with some minor ones (Positano, Praiano, Certaria, Hercle), with the mountain villages of Scala, Tramonti and Ravello and hamlets of Conca and Furore behind and above them.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic materials have been found at Positano, and the area was favoured by the Romans, judging from the villas of Positano, Minori and Gallo Lungo. However, it was not intensively settled until the early Middle Ages, when the Gothic War made it a place of refuge. Amalfi was founded in the 4th century AD. A new Roman colony in nearby Lucania came under barbarian attack and the inhabitants moved to the fertile and well-watered hilly area around modern Scala. In the first written reference to Amalfi (596) it was already a fortified town and the seat of a bishopric. It resisted Lombard attacks until 838, when it was conquered and looted by Sicardo. However, after his death the following year the town declared its independence. The new republic was governed by a ruler whose title had become Doge by 958. This political autonomy enabled Amalfi to become a maritime trading power between the early 9th and late 11th centuries, when the sea power of Byzantium was in decline and a free market developed. Amalfi had a near-monopoly of trade in the Tyrrhenian Sea, with vast networks of links, selling Italian products (wood, iron, weapons, wine, fruit) in eastern markets and buying in return spices, perfumes, pearls, jewels, textiles and carpets to sell in the West. The layout of the settlements showed eastern influence: the closely spaced houses climbing up the steep hillsides, connected by a maze of alleys and stairs, are reminiscent of the souks of the Levant. A distinctive Arab-Sicilian architecture originated and developed in Amalfi.

With the eclipse of the mercantile importance of Amalfi by Genoa, Venice and, above all, Pisa, and its conquest by Spain, it fell into an uninterrupted decline. The only significant change to the landscape was the reinforcement of the system of watchtowers along the coast, to give warning and protection against Turkish attacks. The towns and villages of Costiera Amalfitana are characterized by their architectural monuments, such as the Torre Saracena at Cetara, the Romanesque Cathedral of Amalfi and its ‘Cloister of Paradise’, with their strong oriental influences, the Church of San Salvatore de’ Bireto at Atrani, where the Dogi of Amalfi were elected, and Ravello with its fine cathedral and the superb Villa Rufolo.

Inland the steep slopes rising from the coast are covered with terraces, revetted with drystone walling and used for the cultivation of citrus and other fruits, olives, vines and vegetables of all kinds. Further inland the hillsides are given over to dairy farming, whose roots are ancient in the area, based on sheep, goats, cattle and buffalo. In some parts of the Costiera the natural landscape survives intact, with little, if any, human intervention. It supports the traditional Mediterranean flora of myrtle, lentisk, broom, euphorbia, etc. Elsewhere there are stands of trees such as holm oak, alder, beech and chestnut. Other biotopes shelter pantropical ferns, butterwort, dwarf palms and endemic carnivorous species. The Costiera is also rich in wildlife. The higher mountain areas are noteworthy for the characteristic mule tracks (mulattiere ). There are many small streams which in places drop over impressive waterfalls. There is an immense diversity of landscapes, ranging from the coastal settlements through the intensively cultivated lower slopes and large areas of open pastoral land to the dramatic high mountains. In addition, there are ‘micro-landscapes’ of great scientific interest resulting from topographical and climatic variations, and striking natural formations in the limestone karst at both sea level and above.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the highlights of Italy and is considered by some to be a world wonder.

The houses and towns along the coast seem to defy gravity by perching on cliff faces and hills that no sane person would ever want to live on. The effect, however, is absolutely stunning.

There are several ways to explore the coast. There are water taxis available that will go between the cities of Amalfi and Positano. This is a great way to see how the cities look from sea. There are also buses that run between the cities, which are an experience in themselves.

Another great thing to do is hike the Walk of the Gods from Bomerano to Positano. It is approximately a 4-6 hour walk, mostly downhill. Part of the path is paved but most of it is rocky trail. It provides some of the best views of the entire coast.

There are no trains on the Amalif coast due to the terrain. You have to arrive by car, bus or boat. Evenings are the best time to explore the cities as the tour buses and cruise ships have left by then.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #247: 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex

Posted by on May 25, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #247: 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex

UNESCO World Heritage Site #247: 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex

From the World Heritage inscription:

The monumental complex at Caserta, while cast in the same mould as other 18th-century royal establishments, is exceptional for the broad sweep of its design, incorporating an imposing palace and park, and also much of the surrounding natural landscape and an ambitious new town laid out according to urban planning precepts of its time. The industrial complex of the Belvedere, designed to produce silk, is also of outstanding interest because of the idealistic principles underlying its original conception and management.

In 1734 Charles III, son of Philip V, became King of Naples, a self-governing kingdom that was no longer part of the Spanish realm. He decided in 1750 to build a new royal palace, to rival the Palace of Versailles. It was designed to be the centre of a new town that would compete with leading European cities. He employed architect Luigi Vanvitelli, then engaged in the restoration o St Peter’s in Rome. The Bosco di San Silvestro, on the two hills of Montemaiuolo and Montebriano, was covered with vineyards and orchards when in 1773 Ferdinand IV decided to enclose it and create a hunting park.

The hill of San Leucio takes its name from the Lombard church at its top. A hunting lodge, the Belvedere, had been built at its foot in the 16th century by the Princes of Caserta. The fief had been purchased by Charles Ill, and in 1773 Ferdinand IV initiated work on the Old Hunting Lodge, to be abandoned after the death of his son. In 1778 the king decided to begin the production of silk. His architect, Collecini, converted the building for this purpose, as the centre of a large industrial complex, including a school, accommodation for teachers, silkworm rooms, and facilities for spinning and dyeing the silk. He issued a series of laws in 1789 to regulate the San Leucio Royal Colony: this laid down piecework rates of pay, abolished dowries, and prescribed similar clothing for all the workers, in a form of proto-socialism. During the next decade plans were made for enlargement of the village, and Collecini produced designs for a town, to be known as ‘Ferdinandopolis’, but this dream was not realized because of the French occupation.

The fishponds in the gardens of the Royal Palace, the Royal Silk Factory and the planned new town all required large amounts of water, and so the Carolino Aqueduct was built (completed in 1769) to bring water from the Fizo spring over a distance of 38 km to the top of Montebriano. In 1744 Charles III acquired the rich Carditello estate. The hunting lodge there was built in 1784, as part of a complex of rural houses and roads radiating fanwise from the main building. This had the royal apartments in the centre and rooms for agricultural and stock-rearing activities on either side.

I was very impressed with Caserta.

I knew nothing about this site before I visited and I came away wondering why I haven’t heard more about it. Caserta is easily on the same level as Versailles and Schönbrunn. Not only had I never heard of it, but most of the people who were visiting were Italians, not foreigners, which is the exact opposite of what you see at almost every other Italian monument or attraction.

The real highlight of Casearta is the enormous waterworks which extends out several kilometers from the palace itself. As can be seen in the image, it extends up a mountain with waterfalls bringing the water down to the fountains and pools on the level of the garden. To experience the entire garden will take several hours of walking.

Despite being 30km from Naples, I had a very difficulty time visiting Caserta. I made the mistake of visiting on a Sunday, when many of the buses and trains were canceled. If you visit any other day (other then Tuesday when it is closed) getting there from Naples should be quite easy as there are regular trains and buses. The palace is short walking distance from the train station can can’t be missed.

I highly recommend visiting Caserta to anyone who visits Naples. This site is very overlooked and should be better known.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

Posted by on May 24, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

From the World Heritage inscription:

an Gimignano bears exceptional testimony to the civilization of the Middle Ages in that it groups together within a small area all the structures typical of urban life: squares and streets, houses and palaces, wells and fountains.

San Gimignano is situated in the Val d’Elsa, 56 km south of Florence. Its walls and fortified houses form an unforgettable skyline, in the heart of the Etruscan landscape. San Gimignano was a relay point on the Via Francigena for pilgrims journeying to and from Rome. Originally under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Volterra, it became independent in 1199 when it acquired its first podestà. The free town, known as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri, entered into a long period of prosperity that lasted until 1353, when it fell under the sway of Florence. In 1262 an enceinte measuring 2,177 m, later to be reinforced with five cylindrical towers, girdled the small town.

The town was controlled by two major rival families – the Ardinghelli, Guelph sympathizers, and the Salvucci, who were Ghibellines – and was the scene of incessant conflicts between the two clans. As symbols of their wealth and power, 72 tower houses were built. Of these, 14 have survived, including the Cugnanesi house on the former Via Francigena (Via San Giovanni); the Pesciolini house on the Via San Matteo, on the Via del Castello, in the town’s oldest quarter, the Palazzo Franzesi-Ceccarelli house, whose unsymmetrical facade ingeniously circumvented the law of 1255 which stipulated that no new residence should be wider than 12 arm spans for a linear depth of 24 arm spans.

The town grew around two principal squares, the Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo. The triangular Piazza della Cisterna is ornamented with a lovely well that stands in the centre. The piazza is bordered by tower houses: the twin towers of the Ardinghellis to the west, the tower of the Benuccis, the Casa Rodolfi and the Palazzo Razzi to the south, and the Palazzo dei Cortesi to the north.

San Gimignano is a wonderful little Tuscan town best known for its towers. The towers are very reminiscent of the ones I saw in Regensburg, Germany. The town has much more of a medieval feel than most towns in Italy.

San Gimignano is a tourist town, but it doesn’t get anywhere near the level of visitors that other Tuscan towns like Sienna or Florence get. Most people have never heard of it, so the crowds will be much smaller.

It is also much more difficult to get to via public transportation because the town doesn’t have a train station. The closest train station is in the town of Poggibonsi. From the Poggibonsi station, walk outside and you can take the 130 bus to San Gimignano. You purchase the bus ticket in the cafe in the station, not in the bus. Likewise, the bus back to Poggibonsi is purchased in the tabacci store just inside the city walls.

I visited San Gimignano from Lucca which was long, but doable as a day trip. Florence, Sienna or even Pisa would be easier places to reach it from.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

Posted by on May 23, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

From the World Heritage inscription:

Mantua originated as an Etruscan settlement and developed in Roman times to a small fortified town. It was situated on the highest point of what was then an island in a marshy area along the river Mincio. Some traces of the walls and main streets can still be found in today’s urban fabric. In 804 AD Mantua was made a bishopric. Thanks to a relic of Christ’s blood the city had become an important religious centre. In the 10th century, new walls and a moat were built and, in 1115, Mantua became a free commune.

Through history water regulations have been very important to Mantua and distinguished hydraulic engineering was carried out on many occasions. In 1190, the system of lakes around the city was created with a dam and a bridge across the river, which raised the water level of the upper lake more than four meters. On the dam, twelve water-mills helped to regulate the water. To the south of the city, a canal (the Rio) was dug in the 13th century. It soon became the limit of the extended city – the second ring of growth. At the eastern end of the canal a protected harbour, Porto Catena, was constructed. In the 13th century several towers and palaces were built in the city and two squares, today’s Broletto and Piazza delle Erbe. In 1272, the Bonacolsi family seized power and carried on the building activities.


Sabbioneta was the capital of one of the smallest states in Italy, created when Mantua was divided into several parts in 1478. These parts were still ruled by different branches of the Gonzaga family. It has been known since Roman times as a locality along the Vitelliana road but, even though it has a long history, it can be considered a new foundation. Sabbioneta is the creation of one man, the ruler of the little state Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (1531-1591). He had studied the writings and theories of ideal city planning but his aim was to build an impregnable fortress and functioning capital of the state. It is believed that he himself designed the plan and the fortifications with the help of military expertise. The work began sometime between 1554 and 1556.

Between 1588 and 1590, Vincenzo Scamozzi was employed to construct the Teatro all’antica. This is the first properly functioning modern indoor theatre, with specific spaces designed to fulfil the requirements of the theatre. After the death of Vespasiano, Sabbioneta declined. In the 17th century it came under Spanish administration but returned to the Gonzagas of Mantua in 1703. Five years later, however, it was annexed to Guastella and, in 1743, taken over by the Habsburgs.

I have no idea why these two cities are lumped together. They have little to do with each other and aren’t that close together like Úbeda and Baeza in Spain.

I visited Mantova, which is the more popular of the two locations to visit.

I wasn’t that impressed with the city. There was nothing about it which jumped out at me and I found it to be just another old European city which happened to get world heritage status. The romanesque cathedral and duke’s palace were interesting, but nothing I haven’t seen in many other European and Italian cities.

The one thing that I did find interesting was the Basilica of Sant’Andrea, which is by far the largest building in the city. It is enormous for a city of its size. Way out of proportion for what you would expect to find. Had the basilica alone been listed, it would have made more sense.

Mantova is a 45 minute train ride from Verona, where I stayed.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

Posted by on May 20, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

From the World Heritage inscription:

Vicenza represents a unique artistic achievement in the many architectural contributions from Andrea Palladio integrated within its historic fabric and creating its overall character. Through its architecture, the city has exerted exceptional influence on architectural and urban design in most European countries and throughout the world.

Vicenza is situated in the Veneto region of northern Italy on the low hills between the mountains of Berici and Lessini, on a natural communication route. The city of Vicenza was founded in the 2nd or 1st century BC by the Veneti and was granted Roman citizenship with the status of municipium in 49 BC. The ancient town plan is still recognizable in that of the modern town, Corso Palladio being the decumanus maximus and Contra Porti the cardo maximus . Among the public buildings erected from the time of Augustus that survive are the remains of the theatre, now incorporated in a more recent structure, and sections of the aqueduct to the north of the city.

The city became the See of a Christian diocese at the end of the 4th century AD. In the 5th century it was on the route of successive barbarian groups, whose ravages were exacerbated by a series of disastrous plagues, which left the region depopulated. It formed part of the Langobardic kingdom and became chief town of one of the 36 duchies. Eventually the pope called on Charlemagne to drive out the Lombards, and Vicenza became a Frankish Countship within the March of Friuli. It was during this period that the first Benedictine communities of San Felice and San Pietro were established. The disintegration of the Carolingian Empire saw fresh invaders, this time the Magyars, whose depredations led to the construction of city walls. The bloody wars between episcopal feudatories and the Ghibelline Counts that disfigured most of the 12th and early 13th centuries raged around Vicenza. The region became divided into a patchwork of small seigneuries, which fought among themselves, only uniting to defy the Holy Roman Emperor. Like most Italian cities of the period, Vicenza evolved its own administration, which in 1208 introduced controls on building within the enceinte of the walls. A new urban perimeter was created by the Della Scala family, enclosing the most important streets within the city.

A movement by the small states in the region towards coalescence was interpreted by Venice as a threat and so in 1404 La Serenissima annexed the entire region. Vicenza remained part of the Venetian Republic until its fall at the end of the 18th century. The feudal aristocracy was stripped of its powers and replaced by a dominant mercantile class. Feudal lands were expropriated and sold to patrician Venetian families, who created great agricultural estates on which they built sumptuous mansions. The city also prospered under Venetian rule, benefiting from its situation on a major natural communication route. The town became polarized around the four main piazzas that still exist. There had been limited expansion to the east and west in the late 14th century but the city retained its basic form throughout the succeeding centuries. The wealth of its leading citizens resulted in the erection of many lavish buildings, strongly influenced by Venetian taste, but it was the advent of Andrea Palladio that gave Vicenza its enduring form.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) was profoundly influenced by his study of the surviving monuments of classical Rome and of the works of Vitruvius. For Vicenza he created both public (Basilica, Loggia del Capitaniato, Teatro Olimpico) and private buildings. A total of 26 individual buildings or parts of buildings known to have been designed or reconstructed by Palladio or attributed to him make up the World Heritage site – 23 in the city itself and three villas in its immediate environs. The palazzi or town houses were fitted into the urban texture of the medieval city, creating picturesque ensembles and continuous street facades in which the Veneto Gothic style combines with Palladio’s articulated classicism. These urban compositions closely related to theatre design, which link reality and make-believe, are unique to Vicenza. A similar approach to composition is shown by the location of the suburban villa known as La Rotonda, as seen from the Villa Cricoli.

It is easy to categorize Vincenza as another historical European city type of UNESCO site. In fact, it is really an architectural site designed to showcase the work of Andrea Palladio.

The site consists of two parts: the city of Vincenza and many villas located outside the city in the surrounding area. In the city, the primary Palladio buildings are the Basilica and the Teatro Olimpico (shown above). The basilica is actually not a church and contains the Torre Bissara, one of the highest towers in the city. The Teatro Olimpico is a greek style theater created for the city. The villas are harder to reach as they require a significant amount of walking or a car.

Vicenza is an easy day trip from either Verona or Venice, which it lies between. It can be reached by many of the high speed trains which leave from Venice as well as slower (and cheaper) regional trains.