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On March 5th, 2021 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Forte di Fenestrelle – Italy Has a Great Wall Too!

Posted In:
Culture | Italy | Piedmont | Reflections | Travel Tips

Forte de Fenestrelle

A few years back, at an information center along the Via Francigena (the Italian version of the Camino de Santiago walking trail), I caught a glimpse of a beautiful poster on the wall (see image below).  Had the Great Wall of China found its way to a Via Francigena information point?  A closer look revealed the logo of the Piedmont region in northeastern Italy!

                                                                                                                                                                               Thanks to http://www.turismotorino.org.

 

Wait! This place is only hours from my house?? Why have I never been there? Actually, why have I never even heard of it?!

Further research and conversations with Italian friends helped me understand that I was not alone in this thinking.  It turns out that the Forte di Fenestrelle (the official name of this "Italian Great Wall") is off the radar for all but a few Italians, a fact which reinforced my awe of how much hidden cultural heritage is packed into this country!

I made a mental note of the location, immediately rearranging my "Italian Bucket List," inserting Forte di Fenestrelle towards the top, along with Sardinia and Sperlonga.  And, during my recent trip to Italy's northern regions, I was able to cross this one off the Bucket List!

So I now present to you all… Forte di Fenestrelle.  Italy's answer to the Great Wall of China.

 

Getting there

Forte di Fenestrelle is located in Italy's western region of Piedmont, which shares a border with France along the Alps.

Piedmont is also known for wines from the Langhe region (Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco), the city of Turin, good skiing, and beautiful lakes in the north.

 

North west Italy

 

Located in a remote valley that connects the low-lying Padana Plains to the Alps, this is one of those places that should be accessed by car or private transfer only.  Public transport is few and far between in these parts.  The valley climbs slowly upwards towards the mountain pass, the four-lane highway goes to two, and the road gets narrower and narrower.  When you are at an elevation of about 4.000 feet, look for signs for Forte di Fenestrelle on your right.  There is a conveniently-located parking lot right next to the fort's entrance.

 

Forte di Fenestrelle Fort

 

A little history

Unsurprisingly, Forte di Fenestrelle has been around for a while.  It was originally built in the 16-1700s as a defensive fort to protect the city of Turin from French conquerors.  If you know about Italian geography, you will remember that the flat stretch of land in the north (the Padana Plain) stretches all the way from Turin in the west to Venice in the east, making mountain defense a prime objective.  The fort was first built at valley level, but over time, new wings kept getting higher and higher, and the fort now encompasses one continuous string of structures which rise up into the Alps to a height of over 6000 feet, one and half miles of contiguous defense structure!

 

Forte di Finestrelle Model

 

A local told us that we were visiting the second longest defensive structure in the world after China's Great Wall!  A Google fact-check confirms that it is actually the 11th longest.  Not quite, but still not too shabby!

 

View from Forte di Finestrelle

 

What to do there

As you can imagine for a structure with a vertical elevation gain of 2500 feet, there are a few different tours that can be taken (7 hours, 3 hours, or 1 hour) depending on how much time you have and your fitness level.

For the full experience, you can book a 7-hour guided tour in which you start at valley level and ascend the 4000 steps all the way to the top of the fort.  This experience is obviously only for those who feel up to the challenge of a 2500 foot elevation gain.  Side note: We were told by our guide that locals have an annual race consisting of seeing who can run up all these stairs the fastest, and that the record holder is a young woman who completed all 4000 steps in just 30 minutes!!

 

Finestrelle stairs

 

Those who are not interested in making a whole day out of it can take a reduced 3-hour guided tour, ascending to the "Devil's Garrison" a few hundred steps up.

 

View from Devil's Garrison

View from Devil's Garrison

 

The third option is perfect for those with limited time and/or mobility.  This one-hour tour takes you with a guide around the lower fort area and the museum.

Regardless of the tour chosen, afterwards you can enjoy a nice coffee or some local dishes at the on-site restaurant/café (it wouldn't be Italy if there wasn't a place to eat nearby!)

Important note:  Do call in advance and check times and availability of tours because they will only be offered if there is a minimum number of participants.

 

Fenestrelle courtyard

Courtyard: Meeting place for all tours

 

My Experience

Aware that before venturing off into the mountains, it was best to make sure the fort was actually open, we gave them a call the day before visiting.  We were told that viability of the tours depends on having a certain minimum number of participants, and that, for the moment, no groups were booked for that day.   This meant that there was no guarantee that a long tour would be possible.  They told us that we should come anyways in case enough people showed up and that, worst-case scenario, we could at least visit the lower fort and museum.

The next day we got lucky as enough people had turned up, and the tour was on, led by a local volunteer (the fort must be non-profit as it is still technically a military structure, even though it hasn't been used for defensive purposes since World War 2).  Our tour guide actually had multiple other duties at the fort, including chopping wood in the courtyard.

But what a tour he gave!

We were taken to visit the whole lower and middle fort (the 3-hour tour), climbing about 300 steps to the "Devil's Garrison." Our guide's passion for the subject matter really shone through, and his animated stories left us enlightened about the fort's fascinating history and feeling like we had actually been around to witness it.

 

Fort walls

 

I was already excited to visit the fort, but having a guide like that (someone who is so passionate about a place that he volunteers his time to do whatever tasks need to be done, be it lumberjacking, cleaning, or giving guided tours) really enhanced the experience, and I highly recommended Forte di Fenestrelle as a way to get off-the-beaten-path!

 

View from the fort window

 

Thoroughly satisfied but not satiated, I still have the Forte di Fenestrelle on my bucket list; I'm hoping to do that 4000 stair climb next time.  Maybe I'll even go for the record… it is a bucket list after all!!

 

Been to Forte di Finestrelle? We'd love to hear your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

On December 3rd, 2020 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Homeless Jesus – by Artie Martines

Posted In:
Art | Culture | Florence | Spain | Travelers Tales

This post is guest-written by our traveler Artie Martines.

During one of our on-line presentations, our guide Lior Aviv talked about a modern artist’s statue called "Homeless Jesus," which can be found in Florence.

Travel Community member Artie took a deeper look into this and wrote a nice piece on our Facebook page which we would like to share with all of you:

When Lior showed the slide of the statue of Jesus under the blanket which is commonly called “Homeless Jesus,"  I commented that we had seen the same depiction in Barcelona last year while traveling with Tuscany Tours. I did a little research and found that the sculptor is a Canadian, Timothy Schmalz, and the original installation of the sculpture was in 2013 in Toronto at the Jesuit School of Religion at the University of Toronto. It had originally been offered to a church in Toronto and St Patrick’s in NYC. Both churches turned him down.

 

From Wikipedia:

The statue has been described as a "visual translation" of the Gospel of Matthew passage in which Jesus tells his disciples, "as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me." Schmalz intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, admitting, "That's essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It's meant to challenge people."

 

There are now installations of this piece in numerous locations throughout the world. You can find it in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The sites where you can find it include the Vatican.

The one we saw in Barcelona is located near Santa Anna church which houses a soup kitchen run by the homeless.  The statue was installed in February 2019 just a few weeks before we saw it.

It is a very powerful piece, and it certainly evokes a reaction as the artist intended.

I was certainly moved by it, and it made me even more grateful for all that Eileen and I have been blessed with over the years. It also affirmed the support we give – and the work we do (mostly Eileen) for – the Elizabeth Coalition To House The Homeless here in NJ (you can read more about the Elizabeth Coalition here).

Attached is the picture I took in April 2019.

On October 11th, 2020 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Travel Tips in a Covid World

Posted In:
Reflections | Travel Tips

Booking flights in a Covid World

Booking Flights in the Times of COVID – A few tips

If there’s one thing we have come to count on in Covid times, it’s that the unknowns are numerous...

So numerous that it’s hard to wrap your brain around all the various possible outcomes of any given decision.  Recently Jeremy booked a flight from Florence to California and learned a lot of things about the "new normal" in travel!  We believe that his hard earned knowledge can help YOU when travel to Europe opens up again or even with bookings in the US.

When it comes to booking an international flight, uncertainty reigns supreme.  However, there ARE some measures that can be taken to limit your flight-related problems.  Here are some tips to help protect you against a stressful flight-booking experience.

 

Always book flights directly with an airline (avoid discount or third party sites).
Better yet, book through a trusted travel agent who can advocate for you!

This was a tough one for Jeremy as he's always been one to seek the best deal possible, gravitating towards these aggregator sites.  In the past this has worked out fine… except for the times when his flights were cancelled in advance, or when he had to make itinerary changes.  The reason is that when a booking is made through a third-party site, any changes to the itinerary can’t be made directly with the airline; they have to be made with the third-party site. In non-Covid times, this can lead to delays and a reduction in the level of customer service.  Nowadays, booking directly with the airline may even be the difference between getting a cancelled flight refunded and only being offered a travel voucher.

Also, more levels of communication create more confusion so, in complicated times, better to deal straight with the source or via a travel agent.

Travel agents can book direct and have access to the number of passengers on a flight allowing you to find those which are closer to being full and thus less likely to be cancelled.

We recommend using www.skyscanner.com or www.google.com/flights to do a little research for the best dates and prices for your destination and then booking the same flight directly on the airline’s website or through your travel agent.

 

Try to limit your flight connections.

Once again, Jeremy has been notoriously known among friends and family for getting great deals on long flights by accepting itineraries with one or more connections. A few years back he scored a flight from Italy to California during a New Year’s Holiday weekend for under $300!

Connecting flights

Unfortunately, with every leg you add to a flight, you add one more flight that can be cancelled, putting your whole itinerary at risk in the process.  Flights with connections also tend to involve shorter routes which airlines cancel more frequently.

Airlines are struggling due to the COVID travel stoppage causing them to cancel flights that will not make them money.  It is best to reduce your exposure to cancellation risk by minimizing the number of legs/flights in your itinerary.

 

Always book the same air carrier or its partner airlines for the duration of your trip.

Most of the large air carriers are part of global airline alliances such a OneWorld,  SkyTeam, StarAlliance, etc.  When booking flights to/from any international destination, it's best to book all of your flights on the same carrier the entire way OR booked on partner/alliance airlines.  This is the case for several reasons.

  • If any individual leg of your itinerary is cancelled - and you are booked on the same airline or a partner airline - it is up to the air carrier to rebook you.  If any single leg of your itinerary is with a non-partner carrier, it is up to YOU to figure out how to get a cancelled flight rebooked, and unfortunately, the airlines are not very helpful in helping you figure it out.
  • If one of your legs/flights is delayed and you miss your connection, it is up to the airline to get you on the next available flight without additional fees.  However, if you've booked a separate leg on a non-partner airline and that delayed flight causes you to miss your connection on another airline, you are mostly out of luck.   You may have to pay a fee to rebook on a later flight.
  • Finally, it aids in getting your luggage safely to your final destination!  When you book on partner airlines, they have what's called "interline agreements" - meaning they agree to move your luggage between different air carriers (for example, from a United flight to a Lufthansa flight).  This allows your luggage to be checked all the way through to your destination – ALWAYS a very important question to ask when booking flights with connections on different air carriers.  If you book outside of the airline partnership, you may have to collect luggage at your connection city, go back through security, and then re-check your bags for the new airline!  No one wants that headache!!  That's a recipe for disaster - both losing your luggage and missing your connection.  This is where advice from either your Tuscany Tours Trip Advisor or your travel agent will come in handy.  Though Tuscany Tours does not book airfare, we are happy to provide routing suggestions and answer questions as best we can.

 

As the Italians say “armati di santa pazienza” - “Arm yourself with holy patience.”

Be flexible and be ready to adjust your itinerary (maybe even multiple times!) by a few dates or change departure and arrival airports if need be.  In the event you receive a cancellation email, call your airline or travel agent immediately and ask what other options you have.

If you are joining one of our small-group tours, we always recommend arriving 1-2 days BEFORE the tour start date.  This allows you some breathing room in case of flight delays or cancellations and gives you some time to adjust to the jet lag and to acclimate to the time change so you can be refreshed and raring to go when it's time to meet up with your tour group!

 

Travel is on its way back, so be ready to travel smart and (hopefully) stress-free in the post-COVID world!

We can't wait to welcome you back to Italy, France or Spain!

Note: We provide information to the best of our knowledge, but we always recommend that you check with your travel agent or airline for any specific questions regarding booking flights.

By:  Jeremy &  Karen, Trip Advisors - Tuscany Tours

On August 27th, 2020 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Glamping in Chianti

Posted In:
Life in Tuscany | Radda | Reflections

Another “first” in this odd year that is 2020: my first time glamping… at one of Tuscany’s finest “glampsites!”

 

Finally, free from Italy’s lockdown, but with the pandemic still lurking in the shadows, my wife and I decided to take our 9-year-old nephew on an adventure.  We needed a place where we could get offline, without huge crowds, but where we could relax and shake off some of the stress of the past few months… and so a glamping trip it was!!

 

The Beautiful Chianti Region

 

We jumped in our car and slowly wound our way through vineyard-laced wooded hills, up and up, as far as we could possibly delve into the depths of Chianti.  As we approached the town of Radda in Chianti, our city-dwelling nephew commented “Wow, this town is really in the middle of nowhere!”  He was right, and that’s the beauty of exploring the bel paese.

 

The Beautiful – yet isolated – Radda in Chianti

Photo Credit: Wikipedia (Radda-in-Chianti)

 

Growing up in California, my experiences with camping had always been on the rugged side.  You drive as far as you possibly can from “civilization,” leave the car, and set up shop.  A week’s worth of food was brought from home and stored in a thermo cooler along with a giant ice block. Restrooms were outhouses, baths taken in lakes, and the only semblances of electricity were emitted from gas lanterns or transistor AM radios.

 

Typical campsite from my youth

Photo Credit: www.publicdomainpictures.net (Haanala)

I had never been camping in Italy before, but I already knew that Italians have a bit of a different take on things.  You are never THAT far from a village here, and campsites offer more services and amenities. Bathrooms are a must, and bars and restaurants are staples.  So, when glamping came into fashion a few years ago, the transition from camping to “glamping” was probably quite smooth.

 

Now, you may be wondering – what the heck is “glamping?”  Essentially, it’s luxury camping.  You get most of the amenities of a resort or hotel room, but you are still in the middle of nature.

 

Our research for “glampsites” yielded quite a few options: everything from tree houses in Tuscany, to yurts in olive groves in Abruzzo, or even staying in a bubble (!?) in Basilicata. In the end we chose to stay close to home at Orlando Glamping,  nestled high in the Chianti region’s forested hills.

 

Orlando Glamping

Photo Credit: www.orlandochianti.it

 

Air Lodge Accommodation

Photo Credit: www.orlandochianti.it

 

Upon arrival, we noted the license plates on the cars: half from Italy and half from the Netherlands, an interesting mix.  Our accommodation was known as an “Air Lodge,” a sort of two-story wooden structure with tent walls and roof.  The loft has a tent ceiling that could be unzipped, yielding a skylight.  Very quaint, but complete with bathroom, a tiny kitchen reminiscent of Ikea’s eco-house, and even an electric “BBQ.”

 

This resort had various types of accommodations at different price points: cabins, RV parking, tents, and something that looked like a rustic version of a Japanese capsule hotel which they call a “cube.”  Something for everyone.

Most guests were families with children aged 12 and under, and this was the target age for most activities.  The entertainment schedule featured balloon animals, kiddy water gym, and a disco. In addition, there was an off-road driving course with baby quads for kids under 10.

 

Where most people spent their days

 

In the end, most of our time was dedicated to the pool, switching from waterslide to jacuzzi to pool to lounge chairs… just what the doctor ordered!  A great way to soak up the Tuscan sun, this is how many of the “glampers” spent their days.    Social distancing was in effect by  the guests… somewhat.

 

Food will always be a central theme of my travels. If you know me, you know I tend to be skeptical (rightly or wrongly) about culinary quality in all-inclusive type resorts (Especially Italian locations frequented by high numbers of foreigners).  However, I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the meals (the typical Sienese “pici” pasta with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh tomato sauce, and hot pepper and sauce was superb) and their presentation (truly works of art).

And when the food is right, you can’t go wrong, so all in all, I was quite pleased with my first Italian glamping experience.  Great fun and great food for the family!!

 

Pici All'Aglione

 

 

Breakfast Spread

 

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