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Italy's 'big three' delight travelers


The Colosseum in Rome is not to be missed. Photo: Heather Cassell
The Colosseum in Rome is not to be missed. Photo: Heather Cassell  

It's no wonder that Italy has romanced and captured the imagination of writers and travelers. It is a country known for its natural beauty, its passionate people, and its culinary delights and incredible sense of style. It's hard not to fall in love with Italy and Italians.

My girlfriend has been in love with Florence since her first visit many years ago. Like my auntie, who this month was living out her lifelong dream to stay in Venice, she longs to live in Florence someday with me in tow.

The image of Italy was imprinted on my mind from maps of the boot-shaped country and through books that were later adapted into films, like E.M. Forster's "A Room with a View" and Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun." I admired the beauty of the images and the stories, but the country didn't enrapture me. I had yet to truly experience Italy.

For my girlfriend's 50th birthday in 2018, we joined a group of friends in Florence, taking daytrips to Venice and Rome for our grand tour of Italy's three main cities.

I returned to Italy again this month; this time to join my auntie in Venice.

Through my auntie's love of all things Italian, I began to acquire an appreciation of the country and the warmth of its people, unfettered by the constraints of other travelers like our summertime group and the hordes of tourists.

Traveling in November, the number of tourists dwindled and residents have returned to Venice and Florence after escaping the summertime heat and crowds.


Angelo Alterio is the head and lead guide of Gaily Tour's LGBT tours in Florence, Italy.  

The gay heart of Italy
Florence is the exact opposite of Venice. Not without its own romantic charms, the city known as the cradle of the Renaissance is also the heart of Italy's gay life, as it has been for centuries.

"Florence is the land of the sodomite," said Angelo Alterio, 44, a gay guide with Gaily Tours (http://www.gailytour.com/en/lgbt-experience/gaily-tours-and-excursions). He explained that anal sex is referred to as "Florantine" style and in Germany gays are called "Florence."

The Renaissance City is "one of the biggest cities where sodomy is practiced," he said.

Claims that artists Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who were both from Florence and the surrounding area, were gay have been widely debated.

This year, Florence is celebrating the 500-year anniversary of Da Vinci's death, according to Visit Florence.

I revisited the Uffizi Gallery, where Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" resides, and the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo's statue of David, after my planned excursion was canceled. Unlike during the summertime where there were hourslong waits to get into the museums, I didn't have any trouble entering either.

If you travel during the summer, I highly recommend getting a FirenzeCard (http://www.firenzecard.it/index.php?lang=en). Like any city pass, it provides fast-track discounted entrance into attractions and sites, although that could still mean an hour wait versus a three-hour wait, especially at Uffizi and Accademia in Florence.

"This is a place of beauty, no question," said Alterio over mochaccinos. "This is a place of beauty, crucial beauty."

There are no laws on the books to criminalize LGBT people. However, Italians haven't fully accepted LGBT people socially either, Alterio said, making the point that it's a "subculture" that is "behind the scenes" in the pope's backyard.


Antonio Fabiani is house manager at Axel Hotel in Venice, the only LGBT hotel in the City of Canals.  

Alterio and Antonio Fabiani, the house manager of the LGBT Spanish-owned boutique Axel Hotel Venezia chain (http://www.axelhotels.com/en/axel-hotel-venezia/hotel.html), which opened in March in Venice, both spoke about the discrimination against LGBT Italians due to Catholicism and the affects of the Vatican on gay Italians' lives.

"In Italy, we have the problem of the pope entering Italian politics," Fabiani said.

Not everyone is against LGBT Italians. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is from Florence, actually pushed civil unions through the country's parliament in 2016, legally recognizing LGBT couples' relationships for the first time in Italy, Alterio said.

Florence is, for the most part, "a typical Italian gay city," he said, where the LGBT community is present but not necessarily always seen, despite more Pride events occurring each year throughout the country.

The city is vibrant, offering much to do.

A number of pop-up LGBT bars and nightclubs emerged. People can find them through a variety of apps and by asking gay Florentines.

Alterio believes that gays are attracted to Florence because of its beauty — from art to fashion — and gastronomic affairs. Our group certainly was in August 2018.

"Being in Italy you will get a beautiful point on your lifestyle, on the way of dining, on the way of actually dressing up, [and] on the way of ... an approach on class," he said.

Florentines definitely know leather. The smell of the tanned and dyed skins on hand-made leather shoes, jackets, wallets, and purses wafted out onto the sidewalk from the shops as I passed by.

"Fashion, for us, is important. We love fashion, every day is like a catwalk," said Alterio. "It is something that we love."

The floating city
My auntie and I got a serious taste of life surviving the historic "acqua alta" (high water), that flooded the sinking city earlier this month.

Venice is built on 118 islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon at the head of the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This month's experience was very different from being drowned by summertime tourists that crowded the narrow pathways, bridges, and boats during our group's daytrip to Venice a year and a half ago. Now, day-trippers have to pay about $11 to enter the city.

On my recent visit, my auntie and I sloshed through the water in rain boots provided by our host, Elisabetta Steiner. She owns the Palazzetto da Schio (http://www.palazzettodaschio.it), where we stayed. During the few hours we had to explore the city before the tides returned, we strolled through the Via Garibaldi, the last street in Venice where the Venetian language can still be heard; went to the Rialto Mercato, Venice's market; and rode the vaporetto along the Grand Canal, passing under the Rialto and the Accademia bridges.

In summertime, the sun shone bright, exposing the city's fairytale charms with its waterways being traversed by gondoliers and vaporettos and small bridges connecting the narrow pathways that have romanced travelers for centuries.

We visited most of Venice's major tourist sites. Our first trip was a boat ride to Murano, which features Venice's storied glassmakers. In the afternoon we headed to Saint Marc's Place, the city's famous plaza, and wandered along the canals to the Rialto Bridge and back to the train station to return to Florence.

My auntie and I visited Peggy Guggenheim's collection (http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/default.html), the Pinault Collection at the Punta Della Dogana (http://www.labiennale.org/en), the Palazzo Grassi (www.palazzograssi.it), and some exhibitors at Biennale Venice before the tide rose again.

The lines were short, so we didn't need the VeneziaUnica City Pass (http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/content/how-it-works). However, if you travel during peak season, I recommend getting the card. It will save time and money just like the Florence city pass.

Alterio and Fabiani told me that Venice doesn't have much of a gay life. Axel Hotel Venezia, the first openly gay hotel in Italy, caused a splash in Venice earlier this year when it put out its welcome mat embroidered with "heterofriendly," said Steiner, whose apartments are across the canal from the hotel.

Alterio and Fabiani have their eyes on bringing more LGBT travelers to Venice. Gaily Tours is working on tours specifically to celebrate Carnival, Alterio said.

Fabiani is looking at making Axel the center of Venice's gay life, especially during the city's famed Carnival. The masked festival happens every February.

"I think it will be a big opportunity within Italy," Fabiani said.

The 43-room hotel has already been throwing its support behind LGBT causes, from aiding queer refugees in Italy to supporting local HIV/AIDS organizations, he said.

If the party isn't the reason why LGBTs venture to Venice, it's the romantic setting.

"It's a magnificent city," Fabiani said.

Rome
If you've never seen the Colosseum in person then you should go to Rome, Italy's capital city. The Colosseum was the first site we saw on our self-guided walking tour. It is stunning, especially how the sky looks against the backdrop of the edifice that glows beneath the sun. We only had a day and a half to experience the city, so we made the most of it, walking to each site, past ruins being excavated. We took in the Pantheon and stood in awe at Trevi Fountain.

In 2018, our group's big adventure in Rome was seeing the Vatican. We took a guided tour into Vatican City with City Wonders booked through Expedia (https://tinyurl.com/v94nbhn). It ended up being the gayest non-gay tour I've ever been on; most of the guests turned out to be gay men, and it was well worth it to gain the insight into Michelangelo's work and see the Sistine Chapel.

Where to eat in Florence, Venice, and Rome
It's hard to find a bad meal in Italy, but it can be done. Two restaurants in Florence left me dissatisfied. First at Ristorante Le Colonnine and then at Chef Beatrice Segoni's Konnubio (http://www.konnubio.com). Le Colonnine overcooked my chicken and the spinach and potatoes were lacking flavor as much as the d├ęcor was lacking style. Konnubio served up an overly salty and unflavorful salmon tartar and my osso buco was a quarter fat and gristle. The only good thing about the dish was the sauce, which was delicious. Disappointed, I wish the food had been as good as its reviews and as charming as the interior design and the service.

Fortunately, many other Florentine restaurants and food experiences delivered on flavor, atmosphere, and service during both of my trips.

Some of our best experiences and memories were found on Airbnb (http://www.airbnb.com/s/Florence--Italy/experiences): making pasta at Pastamania (http://www.airbnb.com/experiences/103280?location=Florence, Italy&source=p2), and tasting Chianti wines and enjoying an amazing spread of food on our Tuscan Winemakers (http://www.airbnb.com/experiences/32993?location=Florence, Italy&source=p2) excursion. Unfortunately, my plans for truffle hunting, the only reason I was in Florence this time, ended up being foiled by the weather.

During our earlier summertime trip, my girlfriend and I wandered the streets of Florence for a day. We stumbled upon celebrity chef Alessandro Frassica's Ino (http://www.inofirenze.com). Frassica crafts delicious artisanal sandwiches made from cheeses and breads in his shop and serves them with a good selection of wine.

Another great accidental find were our memorable meals at Le Antiche Carrozze (http://www.leantichecarrozze.it); our group ate here twice during our weeklong stay.

After my experience at Konnubio, I followed one of Alterio's recommendations, dining at Osteria Vecchio Cancello (http://www.vecchiocancello1635.com). The rustic restaurant filled with antiques served a perfectly cooked porcini risotto paired with a glass of Ciliegiolo 100% Campo alla Puneta from the family's vineyard. The family-run restaurant serves wine and olive oil produced on their ranch located just outside of Florence, where they also offer wine and olive oil tastings.

For dessert, I returned to Gelateria Santa Trinita (http://www.gelateriasantatrinita.it/it), the best gelato in Florence. (I confirmed with Alterio.)

To top off a memorable trip to the Renaissance City, I highly suggest having your final dinner at La Buchetta Restaurant (http://www.labuchetta.com) or hosting a private dinner at your vacation rental. During our summer trip, I hired Chianti Cooking Experience (http://www.greve-in-chianti.com/elisa) and chef Elisa Berghi prepared an amazing authentic Tuscan meal paired with artisanal wines from a local small winery. Both experiences will make you want to return to Florence sooner rather than later.

My auntie's friend, chef and Italy tour guide Paulette Licitra, simply known as Chef Paulette in Nashville, Tennessee where she is based (http://www.chefpaulette.net), suggested a couple of good restaurants during our stay in Venice. We only made it to one of them, Gino's, where we enjoyed good, inexpensive pasta dinners on my final night in Venice. The rest of the time we ate at the apartment.

Rome served up more hand-made pasta at Alla Buona Cucina and Cotto Restaurant (www.dharmagroup.it/cotto). Both meals were exceptionally good.

Where to stay in Florence, Venice, and Rome
Airbnb provided several great apartments and a room during both of my stays in Florence and Rome. I found a great top floor apartment, the Ponte Vecchio four bedroom four bath, for our group in Florence. The luxury apartment had beautiful large individual bathrooms in each room in a walkup building a block from the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, and Gelateria Santa Trinita, and just over the bridge from the heart of the city.

I found a similar apartment, the "4 bed 4 bath flat w/Balcony near Termini," on Airbnb in Rome.

On my own for my second trip to Florence, I stayed in a room in a sweet apartment across from the Accademia Gallery that I found on Airbnb for a great price. Not too fancy, but cute (http://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1250106).

Airbnb isn't for everyone. If you like the feeling of being at home, but want the amenities of a hotel, LGBT-friendly, family-owned Residence Hilda (http://www.residencehilda.com) is an excellent option. Centrally located, the 12 apartments are spacious, and come with fully equipped kitchens, but you don't have to do the dishes. Housekeeping does them for you. Unlike the Airbnbs I stayed in, the Hilda has an elevator, making it accessible. It is pet- and kid-friendly.

Breakfast and coffee are delivered daily to the Hilda or to your room from OK Bar (http://www.okbarfirenze.it/english/eindex.html). The bar and cafe are owned by Cristina Trambusti and the kitchen is headed up by lesbian executive chef Cristiana Baronti. They recently started hosting a monthly LGBT event at the bar.

Sometimes, travelers just want the comforts of a hotel. If this is you, I highly recommend the LGBT-friendly and family-owned Cellai Boutique Hotel (http://www.hotelcellai.it) for a charming and stylish stay in Florence.

In Venice, I recommend staying at Axel Hotel or at Palazzetto da Schio.

Getting to and around Italy
I arrived comfortably in Venice aboard Lufthansa after a brief stop in Munich. I can't say my flight home from Florence aboard Swiss Air, which is operated by Lufthansa and code shares with United Airlines, was just as comfortable. Quite the opposite. The ticket was inexpensive dollar-wise, but the lack of comfort for 12 hours was the real price paid.

Next time, I might try Air Italy (www.airitaly.com/en), which now flies non-stop between San Francisco International Airport and Milan's Malpensa Airport. The airline company, which launched earlier this year, is one of the sponsors of WorldPride in Milan in June 26-29, 2020. (Gaily Tours is also a sponsor.) On ItaliaRail (https://www.italiarail.com/), reserved seats are easy to book online up to three months in advance for a decent price.


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