Parma, Italy

Parma is a beautiful old city.   Before we went to Italy all we knew is that Parma is the source of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. We discovered a busy and appealing city with a very long history and a collection of fine old buildings. Parma dates from 183 BCE. An earlier Celtic settlement existed in the same place. It’s small and easy to explore because the center is laid out in a grid pattern which is unusual for a city this old.  It has many glorious churches and palaces.  Today it is a rich and proud small city, one of the most prosperous in Italy.

The Baptistery stands alone to the right of the cathedral and its tower. In medieval times only baptized persons were allowed to enter Italian churches causing baptisteries to be adjacent to churches.

Parma’s most notable structure is the Baptistery at the cathedral, called “the most perfect medieval structure in Europe” by every book I’ve got, a building which illustrates the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.  It is seven stories high, octagonal, made of pink marble.  The exterior carving is very fine and the signs of the zodiac run in a band around the outside.

This doorway is 800 years old. The skill of medieval sculptures, working only with primitive tools, astonishes me. The “tympanum” is the carved half-circle piece above the door.

Scenes from the life of Christ and other Biblical views are carved around the three exterior doors.  Each of them has an exquisite tympanum, two of which still have some of their original paint.

The extraordinary interior of the Baptistery.

It is the inside of the Baptistery which is spectacular. Sixteen “rays” made from stone extend from the floor seven stories to the roof. The interior is entirely covered in beautiful, bright frescoes, originally created by famous native artists of Parma.  This building dates from around 1250 AD.  Think about how difficult it must have been to design, to construct and the paint.

One view of the interior of the cathedral, with apologies for the poor quality of this old photograph.

The Parma cathedral is beside the Baptistery. A purely Romanesque cathedral built in the 12th century, small looking from outside but feeling huge and deep inside.  It too is made of pink marble and is covered inside in floor to ceiling frescoes.  The nave is smallish but serves almost as an ante-chamber to the altar which is raised and is reached by many marble stairs.  Side altars on either side of the main altar add more richness and beauty.  There is a tall bell tower from the 14th century standing beside the cathedral, slightly tilting.

Some of the kids who visited Parma shown in front of the 12th century cathedral.

During our visit to the Baptistery a large group of school kids came in.  They were part of a larger group, probably a hundred and fifty or more.  Kids are the same everywhere – funny, cute and noisy. They were getting their art lessons with the icons and items in the churches as teaching aids.  Few of them will remember much of it for long I suppose, but how great it must be to grow up among all this beauty and history and art.

The government building in the center of Parma was a palace many years ago. Note the sundial beneath the clock.

Today’s city center is focused on a large, bright yellow building with a massive clock tower on top known as the Palazzo del Governatore, once the palace of governors and princes. The city streets are lined with upscale shops and fine restaurants. A narrow river runs through the center of the city, crossed by five classic bridges.

This picture makes you wonder who thought the building on the right was a good idea, doesn’t it?

Parma has many historic sites to explore. There’s a five-pointed “cittadella” (fortress). The “Parco Ducale” is an enormous park and garden open to visitors today  It was originally part of the Farnese-built ducal palace.  This small city requires several days to fully enjoy, but taking your camera and your taste buds there for a night or two will keep you busy.



Wikipedia’s entries about Parma are very detailed and have excellent photographs. Some of them are:

The Cathedral: Wikipedia’s page is found here.

The official webpage for the cathedral, in English, is very detailed. Find it here.

The Baptistery – click the blue text for the link.

The Parco Ducale (in Italian but instantly translated by Google’s translation button at the top of the page.)

The Parma tourism office has a very complete site here.

Ancient Ravenna Italy

Imagine a city filled with 1600-year-old buildings richly decorated with original artwork. Ravenna, Italy, is just that place. The capital of the Western Roman empire from 402 AD until the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Ravenna’s earliest extant religious buildings date to that period. The larger, grander buildings were constructed in the 6th century. Mosaic tile artwork covers the interiors of many of the ancient churches, baptistries and mausoleums begun between 400 AD and 550 AD that remain in perfect condition today. Here are some of my photos of many of them.

The Neonian Baptistry, ca. 430 AD, is one of the oldest buildings in Ravenna. The interior is lavishly decorated in mosaic tilework and sculpted stone.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, also dates to the early 5th century.

This is the ceiling of the Arian Baptistry, built in the late 5th or 6th century. It was placed next to the ancient cathedral which was destroyed long ago.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dedicated in 504 AD, features a row of 22 Virgins along one wall and 26 Martyrs along the other.

Possibly the most beautiful because its interior is covered in ancient mosaic art, the Basilica of San Vitale was constructed in the mid 6th century. The building is considered to be one of the best examples of early Christian architecture in Europe.

Sant Apollinare in Classe is another beautiful mid 6th century Christian church in Ravenna.

In addition, two other important buildings of this era, the Archiepiscopal Chapel (ca. 500 AD) and the Mausoleum of Theodoric (ca. 520 AD) can be visited.


Find more about Ravenna’s ancient churches at the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

Wikipedia’s entry for Ravenna is a detailed history of the city with links to entries about each of these ancient religious buildings.

Ravenna is jsut 85 miles south of Venice and is linked to that city by train and highways.

Slowly Exploring Italy

“Slow travel” means taking time to explore the places you visit. It’s a “hub and spoke” way to travel.  Staying in one cottage or apartment for a week or longer and taking day trips to surrounding places is an ideal way to discover more than just the touristy centers of major cities. Italy, for example, offers many opportunities for exploration of historic, artistic cities and beautiful agricultural areas.

The early spring view from “our” kitchen window in Montaione.

On our first trip to Italy my husband and I stayed for three weeks in Montaione, a village in Tuscany. We caught the train from a nearby town for day trips to Florence several times. We explored Siena twice —  one of those days was Easter Sunday. We spent days in San Gimignano, Pisa, Cortona, Assisi and Volterra. We explored the Chianti region. We enjoyed just roaming the countryside, poking around in small ancient villages, going inside very old churches. (Here is a link to the place where we stayed in Montaione.)

The villa called Castel Marinoni in Barbarano, Italy.

Another time we spent ten days in the Veneto, the region in northeastern Italy that includes Venice. We stayed in a very Italian apartment (that means a kitchen and a bedroom – no living room) in a village named Barbarano near Vicenza. (Here’s a link to gorgeous pictures of the property where we stayed and the surrounding area.) We made three train-trips into Venice, several drives to Vicenza, went twice to Padua and to Verona. We were there in the off-season when the rent was very low. That trip was really our introduction to Italy and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin.

The village children of Cetona after their performance, dressed as winter, summer and autumn.

On our third trip to Italy we stayed in a small village named Cetona on the line dividing Tuscany and Umbria. Although we were tourists who visited Orvieto and other small cities, what I remember best was the experience of “living” in a small Italian village for a week. We were there in May when the school year was ending. One evening all the children in the village put on a performance with all the village in attendance. Children dressed in homemade costumes representing summer, autumn and snow danced in the village center. Although we didn’t understand a word, we loved the experience of temporarily being part of life in a small Italian town. (The place we rented on that trip seems to no longer be advertised on the internet. Prices of rentals in that area have sky rocketed but some good deals are still available on AirBnB.)

I plan to share with you in my next few posts some of the beautiful but less well-known places we have visited in Italy. I hope you’ll discover that renting a small place and exploring the Italian countryside can be very affordable and very interesting, and that you’ll plan your own trip there soon!


The photo at the top of this post is of the doorway of our apartment in Cetona.


Memories of Venice


It’s been my good fortune to visit Venice several times. On my first visit in 2002 the sun was shining and the sky was blue. That was lucky because we were there in March and Venice tends to be pretty gloomy at that time of the year. Because it lies between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea fog is a frequent wintertime occurrence.

But we were there on a glorious day. I’ll never forget walking along the canals, through the ancient city of Venice. We were staying in a vacation rental about 40 miles away which enabled us to return a few days later. That day the sky was gray and the fog hung on all day but still we loved exploring. We bought a pass that allowed us to visit several of the largest churches, all of them old and impressive. We discovered the church called Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. A rare gothic church in Venice, the Frari (as it is commonly called) dates from around the turn of the15th century. It is filled with intricate, centuries-old carving. The choir pictured at the top of this post is an example. The great Italian artist known as Titian is buried in this church in an elaborate marble tomb. Perhaps his greatest work, The Assumption of the Virgin, is installed over the main altar.

In my days as a travel agent I often booked passengers on the ships of the company known as Star Clippers. I escorted two groups on cruises, once from Rome and the other from Athens. Each time I had the memorable experience of sailing into Venice at dawn on a true clipper ship. Seeing that magnificent city in the early morning light while standing on the deck of a small ship is a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

I’ve created a slideshow featuring a few photos of Venice. For readers who have been there, I hope these pictures of Venice will bring back good memories. For those who haven’t seen Venice yet, I hope it will inspire you to visit Italy and this important city.

NOTE: Some people are having trouble viewing my latest slideshow. I contacted WordPress, the company providing software for this blog, and was told that it requires JavaScript to be installed in order to properly view slideshows. You can easily download and install it here: There has been a change in the program since the last time I posted a slideshow.  My apologies for any inconvenience this may cause you. ~~ Libbie

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Learn more about Star Clippers cruises here

Learn more about the great church called Frari here

Learn more about Titian and see The Assumption of the Virgin here


Linda’s Adventures in Venice


This post was written by my friend Linda Dodge. It’s about her three stays in Venice. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

I have been to Venice three times. Thinking back on those three times, I see an evolution in how I booked our accomodations. I moved from picking something straight out of a guidebook to feeling very independent as I surfed the web and selected something on my own. Some of the growing independence came from more experience as a traveler and some came from the wonderful interconnectivity of the world due to the Internet.

My first visit was in 1999, when the Internet for travel purposes was in its infancy. We stayed for three nights in a hotel near St. Mark’s Square chosen from one of Rick Steve’s recommendations. It was pleasant enough and featured many Murano glass chandeliers. The bathroom was definitely an add-on, located up two steep steps from the floor of the bedroom to get it squeezed in over a staircase. Negotiating those stairs and opening the door which swung outward was a bit of challenge, especially in the middle of the night when the door seemed to want to sweep me off the steps before I could step inside. Best feature was the large shuttered windows that opened on to a canal that was frequently used by the gondoliers so it was not uncommon to hear the strains of Ole Sole Mio in the evenings. Breakfast was in the overly decorated breakfast room with loads of pink frou-frou and plates of cookies that were popular with the French travelers.

My second visit came in 2006 when we booked through Untours ( ). This time we spent two weeks in the Dorsoduro section, which is located behind the Guggenheim and Academia art museums. We had nice water views over the Guidecca Canal. We chose Untours because they offered a two-week rental plus a local contact who met us at the airport, arranged a brief walking orientation to the neighborhood, a vaporetto pass, and a few half-day activities scattered over the two weeks. Housekeeping with fresh linens were provided once during our stay. We could also call this contact if we had any questions during our stay. This felt a bit more adventurous than staying in a hotel but not so adventurous that we didn’t have someone to call on. The apartment was lovely, comfortably furnished, light and airy. We bought museum passes and visited many of them, learned to use the *vaporetto as a refreshing way to rest our feet between museums and enjoyed getting to know the layout of the city well as we cruised the waters, jumping off at stops when we felt refreshed or curious about something on onshore. Every day we stopped for a spritz (a cocktail peculiar to the Veneto region). After shopping around we settled on our favorite watering hole the second week and stopped there every evening, nodding politely to some of the other regulars. We wondered if they asked each other ‘where are those American girls’ after our vacation ended. At the end of two weeks, we wished we could stay longer.

The third visit came in 2015 when we went solo on the booking. After trolling the internet, I found and was very pleased with them. This time five of us were looking for a place and we found a three bed/two bathroom apartment located in Cannaregio. I wanted to see Venice from a different perspective than the previous two neighborhoods. This company provided someone to meet us at the taxi boat stop, walk us to our apartment, explain how everything worked, and provide light housekeeping halfway through our stay. This time we picked up our own vaporetto passes at the airport. My friends who hadn’t been to Venice before questioned the price of the vaporetto passes initially but were the first to say at the end of the trip that they were worth every euro and more!

We love staying in one place for two weeks or more so we get to know the neighborhood. Also having the option to cook in or just munch on cheese and crackers is a nice alternative to dining out every night. Visiting the open produce and fish markets in Europe is always a pleasure for me and it’s nice to buy and eat what we see and not just be onlookers. An on-site washing machine means less to pack.

*Vaporetto is the name for a boat that serves as a public bus in Venice.

Exploring Venice


Not so long ago I had the good fortune to spend two days in Venice. On the first day I toured the city with a group of my travel agency’s clients. They left the following morning but I stayed for an extra day. A day to explore Venice! I’ve been there several times so I’ve seen the famous places including St. Mark’s Basilica and Square, the many other beautiful churches and the Rialto bridge. I wanted to use this day to explore the “real” Venice, the places where ordinary people have lived for many centuries.


This formerly grand mansion in the Dorsoduro section of Venice is now likely divided into apartments.

I began my explorations in the southwest corner of Venice, in an area called Dorsoduro. I’d read a good book (Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers) which is set in one corner of this neighborhood. In the novel, a recently retired British school teacher rents a small apartment in Venice for the summer. The area where Miss Garnet stayed plays an important role in the book. In seeking the square and the churches described in the novel, I discovered a small street market, many ancient houses – some grand, some not – along the canals, and beautiful small churches.


A small daily market on a large square in the Dorsoduro neighborhood.

My next stop of the day was Burano, a tiny island in Venice’s lagoon. The ferry that goes there also stops at Murano, the island of glass factories popular with tourists. Burano is traditionally an island home of fishermen and their families. Today it may be best known for its brightly colored houses. As in Venice, people in Burano own boats, not cars. Canals lace the island, crossed by lovely old bridges. Laundry flies from the upstairs windows of many apartments. A tall church tower leans precariously. Old cafés are filled now with tourists. I enjoyed a perfect afternoon there with my camera.


A typical “street” in Burano is a canal lined by colorful houses draped in laundry.


An old, small seafood café in Burano.


When I returned to Venice the sun was low in the sky. The ferry docked in the northeast corner of the city, in a neighborhood called Cannaregio. A late afternoon market served people on their way home from their jobs. Cafés lined the streets. I found an old synagogue just opening that Friday evening. I remember the gelato cone I enjoyed there. It was a comfortable place to end my day exploring Venice. I had rediscovered the enjoyment to be found exploring beyond the famous “must see” places in the big, old cities of Europe.


Returning to Venice by ferry as the sun began to set.


On the main square in Cannaregio, a fresh fruit and vegetable market was set up on the crates that carried the produce.

I have been reminded of that day twice recently by conversations with my friends Carole and Linda about their experiences in Venice. I’ve asked each of them to write about their time there for this blog. I’ll be posting their recollections within a few days.