This is the blog of Steve Burkett of Italy, Our Italy

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Don't let your fear of the Italian language keep you from going to Italy! You will be able to converse. You will be able to eat and drink. You will be able to get around. 

Today let's talk about the language barrier that might be keeping you from visiting Italy. When it comes to traveling to Italy, this should not worry you one bit. Really...don't worry about it. 

They can usually peg you as American pretty quick and give you an appropriate menu

I have heard a lot over the years about how we in the USA don't speak several languages like the nice folks in Europe. But, I say...we don't typically need to, and they do. Within a 700-mile radius of the geographical center of the United States (located just outside of Lebanon, Kansas), you will be well contained within the borders of our large country. Make a circle of a 700-mile radius from Vienna, Austria, and you will encompass around 35 countries, virtually every country in Europe (except far-flung Norway and Finland), along with their varied languages. Well, that's my excuse anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

So, don't feel guilty about not knowing Italian...just get there, anyway. There are several reasons that I say this, all based on our experiences.

They Speak English

First, in the 6 trips we have made to Italy, we have run into only 2 people who did not speak English! One was in a little gift shop in Varenna on the shores of Lake Como, and one was in a wood-carver's shop in Venice in the dead of winter (i.e. it wasn't the 'tourist season'). If you don't stray too far from the beaten path, you will have no problem with communication.

I've asked many Italians why they speak English so well, and most give me two reasons. One is that it is the language of the tourist -- its a matter of doing business with those traveling within Italy. The second is that they love our movies and television shows, which are often projected and broadcast in English. Witness the posters to the right plastered in Capri. Italians are big on celebrity...think about the origin of the word 'paparazzi'! 

After listening to an Italian-language CD for several months and studying up on vocabulary, on our second trip I tried to get checked into our hotel using my well-rehearsed Italian. The desk clerk's first words after I went through my routine were, "You want to try that in English?". 'Nough said.

Dual Signage

Nearly everywhere you go, you will see signs in two languages -- Italian and English. Here are some examples.

Waiting to catch your train...

...notice that each of the salient words in Italian are echoed in English?

Here is a sign in Florence for the Accademia gallery where the David statue is housed.

Whatever it says in Italian, it also says in English.

Need to take a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice?

Dual language, once more.

Ordering from a printed menu...

...often has an English translation with the Italian, like this menu from La Taverna at the Banfi winery. They probably have menus like this in at least French and German, also.

Often the menu is just in English. They can usually peg you as American pretty quick and give you an appropriate menu, like this one from La Pergola in Rome (make your reservation at least four months before your departure -- and be sure you have a sufficient balance on your credit card). 

[Just a note about the menu shown above: this is the man's menu...the woman's menu has no prices...don't you just love those Italians?!]

Here is a menu board at a small restaurant on Campo di Fiori in Rome. 

I don't think you would have any problem at all ordering breakfast, do you?

Nor, would have much problem with liquid refreshment, either. Just ask for 'vino rosso' or 'vino bianco', or say 'coco-cola light, per favore'. And speaking of wines, we have found the house wines, often served by the pitcher, to be delizioso. Ask for, 'Vino rosso della casa' for instance, if you would like red house wine. You probably figured that out on your own, didn't you?

Bottled water is everywhere. You just need to decide on 'senza gas' (no carbonation) or 'con gas', with carbonation. Your waiter will ask, and you will usually just need to say the words, "Yes", or "No". It's pretty simple.

At the Market

There are fresh-produce and seafood markets throughout Italy calling out their freshness. Now, there isn't much need for signage interpretation on most items, as they are obviously sitting right there in front of you for you to see. But you may need a bit of 'translation' on the Euros and kilos.

See those nice Italian pears? Based on my calculations (and today's value of the Euro), I'd say they cost about $1.95 in dollars-per-pound. Multiply the Euro-price-per-kilo by about 0.55 to get the price in U$D-per-pound...maybe round to 0.5 or 0.6 to get a rough estimate. 

These squash blossoms are sold by the 'mazzo' or bunch/bouquet and would cost you about $1.11 at today's conversion rate, which is a fabulous rate...excuse me whilst I go online to make a plane reservation!

OK, I'm back.

Sometimes you do actually need to know a bit of translation. Want some of this salami?

Grab a bottle of wine and a link of this salami for your picnic this afternoon. But, I didn't know that you like donkey! What you don't know probably won't hurt you.


Here is where you need to learn a bit of signage...but it is mostly graphic in nature these days. Your rental-car agreement will probably have a brochure included, as does almost all guidebooks. Be sure to know what the no parking sign looks like if you want to avoid hefty parking fines...and they will catch up to you here in the good ole USA, won't they, Scott?!

How about directional signs, like these?

Do I need to translate the arrow symbol for you? I thought not. And the mileage in most of Europe is in kilometers. To convert to miles, multiply the distance in kilometers by 0.62...just round to 0.6 and you will be OK. Siena is roughly 12 miles, isn't it? Close enough.

Common Sense

Often, you have no problem translating words from Italian because you can use your common sense. Take the photo to the right, for instance. Can you guess to what this ticket would give you admission?

Some of the words or phrases that are used in Italy actually come from the USA. We were in a glass shop on the Piazza San Marco purchasing some nice glassware. The radio was playing. The announcer was speaking lots of Italian that we could not understand, and then all-of-a-sudden, we hear worked in, "...Top 40 Weekend..."  Some things just don't translate well, evidently. 


Friendly People

Italy is absolutely full of friendly people.'s the friendliest place we've ever been. Have a problem finding something? Just ask. Need help ordering? Just ask. Lost? Just ask.

Here are just a few of the friendly people who have helped us over the years (I'll share more in a future blog).

Even the police in Rome will give you a hand when you need it.

Web Research

Obviously, when you go, you will be doing some research on the web. There are scores of sites that focus on Italy...and many of those are Italian sites. But, don't worry -- most have a way to get an English language version -- other than using Google Chrome hit-and-miss translation. 

Here are a couple of examples.

Here is the site for museums in Florence. See the row of flags under the words 'Florence Museum'? Click on the British flag (they speak English pretty well there, too) and you get the English-language pages served up to you. Sometimes its the Stars-and-Stripes. This site was very thoughtful in their tourism-directed information to provide information in eight different languages. This is rare.

Though it is rare to find that many language version for a website, many have Italian and English versions, like the two that follow.

This one for La Terrazza del Principe overlooking the Boboli Gardens in Florence...a beautiful setting for beautiful food and beautiful people just like you (park on the sidewalk, by the way)...has the flags of Italy and Britain to guide you.

This website for the vaporetto service in Venice has a drop-down box for you to select from Italian or English. 

And on some sites, you see just abbreviations like "It" and "En" on which you can click.

The Universal Languages

And then there are two other, more universal languages with which you are already familiar. 

A pat on the back for man's best friend says, 'Good doggie!'...

...and the universal language of music needs no translation...and you will find it on almost any piazza or campo in the evening.

Sometimes, Just Give Up

As I say, sometimes, just give up. Here is one of those instances. 

This poster recognizes that an election is approaching. As we can't vote, there isn't much point in being able to read all it says. But, I just wanted to show you this poster because of the political parties...there are twelve represented here, along with their slate of candidates. Thank goodness for the two-party system...I guess.

Having Said All That...

Yes, it is fun to learn something new, and Italian is no exception. Go to almost any guide book and you will find phrases for various situations (e.g. ordering food, taking a taxi, getting emergency help, asking directions [women only, please], etc).

Go to your local bookstore, or order on line, and you can use CDs and books to learn a bit more. I haven't learned all of the conjugation and tenses, but I could use the bit of wording I know, plus some charade-like pantomiming, to get my point across if it came to that. And, I believe it shows a bit of respect for the host country to use their language, if at all possible.

But again, its not essential for all of the reasons I've outlined above. And for sure, don't let your lack of the Italian language keep you from heading to Italy, and then enjoying yourself while there. As they say, 'A life lived in fear, is a life half lived' -- and we want to live life to the fullest -- so pack your bags without apprehension and just do it! 

If you need some help, and you happen to see me there, call me over and we can surely get something worked out.


Ciao or now,


ps: By the way, it's 'per forvore', 'grazie', and 'dove il bagno'. 

Securing Your Haven

[Note: This article has two parts: the usual transforming the snapshot part, and a part about this doors mysterious and flabbergasting security]

Formidable is the word for this green door with its complex locking mechanism. Maybe this old timer was the home of someone with a lot to protect, like a Venetian jeweler.

I have an affinity for old, Italian doors. That affinity is somewhere between I-think-they-are-swell and I-have-an-old-door-fetish.

I am captivated by their historical significance. Like, for the door below: who lived beyond that entrance? How many lifetimes were experienced here?

What was their profession? How large was the family? What was their fate? Did they help to shape the fate of Italy? Or were they maybe early-day couch potatoes just whiling away the day doing nothing?

Whatever happened behind those closed doors, it happened a long time ago, and over many, many years. 

And these particular doors? Formidable is the word for this green door with its complex locking mechanism. Maybe this old timer was the home of someone with a lot to protect, like a Venetian jeweler.

And regarding its level of security, I was flabbergasted! So don’t miss the ‘Extra-Added Bonus’ at the end of this article.


The Door Transformation

When I took the original snapshot to the left, I made a big mistake. That mistake was in my framing of the original shot and my unwittingly not accounting for a more robust aspect ratio for later printing. What I mean is that if I wanted an 8x10 print, and if I cropped down from the top to the spot I wanted so that I could eliminate uninteresting space above the door, I would have white or blank space to the left and right of the door.

To avoid this problem, I usually try to back away from the subject of my photo to capture more than I think I will need. Using a Nikon D800 with its 36mp sensor, gives me a lot of image area in which to crop to common printed photo sizes without losing resolution. 

What all of that gibberish boils down to is that I needed a bit more image to the left and right of the door to allow me to keep the composition I wanted while satisfactorily allowing me to print to, let’s say, an 8x10 photo. But as usual with Photoshop, where’s there’s a problem, there’s a solution.

That solution can be seen in this next photo, where I’ve added more image to each side. In the photo above, notice that there are not quite 3 long-carved-out-thingies to the right of the top of the door; where in the photo below, there are 4 ½ of these long-cared-out-thingies. [Please forgive me for using such technical photographer’s terms here] You can see a similar transformation to the left of the door. Now, with the extra added bit of photo to the left and right, if I crop down to the point that I want, I can have a pleasing composition.

Next I can work on aging the door a bit, primarily through color, texture and making it richer through darkening, as in this next photo. 

But we’re still not there.

I’m not sure exactly when mail slots in doors came about, but it was surely after the time period that I wanted to portray for this door. So I eliminated the modern mail slot. And note that in the version just above, I had already eliminated the round-key-hole-thingie in the center of the door (sorry about using those technical terms, again). 

As I found the door color and finish to be a bit bland, I transformed it a bit to brighten it up, as you can see in this final image.

Pretty cool huh? But that’s not the half of it, folks!

So, there you have it! One more door transformed to satisfy my door mania.

When I run out of doors to transform, I think another trip will be in order!

You can find this door and many more on my website in the Venice-Doors gallery.

Extra-Added Bonus

But, here is an extra-added bonus about this door and its locking mechanisms. And first, let me say that though I did eliminate some of the elements on the door as described above, I have added absolutely nothing to the image with Photoshop. What you see below is actually there.


When you look at the finished photo above, see that long squiggly bar going from the top of the right door to the mid-point of the left door? Well, that little orangie thing in this photo…

…has a key hole to release that bar so that it stops doing its security thing. Open that lock and you can then rotate that squiggly bar away to open the doors.


Then, just below the door pull on the left part of the door is a small key hole that takes a squarish key – as seen in this photo.

What’s that about?







And for even more mystery, there are two keyholes in the lower part of the right door – seen in this photo. Why are they way down at the bottom of the door, and why are there two of them?

Hmmm, the plot thickens.


Pretty cool huh? But that’s not the half of it, folks! 



In the finished door photo way up above, see that long bar that hangs down to the steps in the lower part of the right door?

When you swivel that bar up to the left to its horizontal position, and when you put a pad lock on it through the ring on the left door –seen here…




…that horizontal bar covers up the two keyholes you just saw so that a key can’t be inserted into either of them. Holy my golly, what is that all about?! This is like some dawn-of-man combination locking system.

I must say that this door, with its complicated locking mechanisms, really appeals to the engineer that still lurks somewhere inside of me. 

I hope you found this door interesting. Tell me what you think about this door using the comment box below.


Ciao for now,





The Rialto Market of Venice

One of the pleasures of Venice is the Rialto Market. Located near a ninety-degree bend of the Grand Canal, and just a bit northwest of the Rialto Bridge, the market offers both fresh produce in the erberia (vegetable market) and caught-the-night-before seafood in the pescheria (fish market).

All of these photos were taken at the Rialto Market.

[click on an image for a larger view]

One should plan to go around sunrise if you want to see the stevedores unload crates from barges which traveled up the Grand Canal in the early-morning hours. Or, if you want to sleep just a bit longer, plan to arrive around 8:00am to see the market in full swing. But, don’t bother to go in the afternoon or on Sundays or Mondays, as the market is closed.

Is this a working market? With over 100,000 visitors and locals in Venice on any particular day, this is the main source of food for the islands which make up Venice. If you show up early, you will see chefs from virtually all of the Venetian restaurants gathering items that you will find on their menus later in the day.

So, how is the Rialto Market different from the typical farmer's market in the U.S.? There are three main differences. For one thing, there is an abundance of seafood -- like fish, octopus, squid, crab, scallops and several mollusk types.

Second, the produce that is brought to your farmer's market most likely did not arrive by boat -- virtually everything arriving in Venice comes by boat.

The last difference is that your local farmer's market did not exist until the Rialto Market was about 800 years old. The Rialto Market has been serving Venice's food needs since 1097!

Produce of the Erberia

Talk about fresh produce! Just like our farmer’s markets, fruits and vegetables arrive daily fresh from the farms of Italy and surrounding countries. The photos you've been looking at are examples of this veritable cornucopia.

Seafood of the Pescheria

Though I really like the produce that’s in abundance at the market, the seafood is what I find the most interesting, as we just don't have access to such a fine market as the Rialto where I live. There are ‘creatures’ in this market that I’ve never seen in the U.S. seafood markets. Here are just some of the tasty denizens of the sea that you will find at the Rialto Market.

So that's the Rialto Market in Venice, Italy. If you have a chance to visit, I'm sure you will be as wowed with the seafood and produce as I have been. And by the way, all of the photos above can be found in the Food+Wine section of my website...just click on 'Print Store' below for easy access.

I'll close with a photo that was published in Black & White Magazine as part of a four-page spread on Venice a couple of years ago. This photo was taken during the daily cleaning-up-the-seafood-market event each afternoon. And yes, they still use stick brooms in Venice. The photo at right shows that sticks have been delivered, ready to be attached to broom handles. Amazing, isn't it?! 

Thanks for visiting. Feel free to leave comments, below.

Ciao for now,



Transforming the Copse

This posting is not just to show you some nice trees. The gist of today’s blog post is ‘emotional transformation’.

Today, I want to focus on a small, but very famous, group of trees in southern Tuscany.  You can find this copse of Tuscan cypress just a bit east of Montalcino, the home of Brunello wines. The basic photo below was taken in late spring and gives you an overall idea of the copse of which I write. But this post isn't really about a stand of trees.

The Cypress Stand

Straight-out-of-the-camera version of the famous copse sitting in a field of wheat

I’ve taken photos of this copse in both the spring and fall. As you will see, the copse and the wheat land surrounding it take on a completely different personality with each season.

This map shows you the exact location, should you want to find this lovely Tuscan cypress copse on your own. Be sure to click on the map image (and any other image) to see a larger view.

Map showing the location of the famous cypress copse

This famous stand of trees actually has a name – “Cipressi di San Quirico d’Orcia – which you know from your high school Italian to be ‘Cyresses of San Quirico d’Orcia". San Quirico d’Orcia a small town just east of these trees in this valley known as Val d’Orcia.

Transformation to Add Emotion

But this post is not just to show you some nice trees. The gist of today's blog post is 'emotional transformation'. Though the photo above is a nice snapshot, it does not appeal to my artistic sense, and it surely doesn't convey my emotional feelings for this stand of cypress.

Beginning the transformation process for this photo, I decide that the sky is a bit too blah for my taste, so I added clouds photographed on some other day. Here is the next iteration of the photo, with clouds that form leading lines to the copse of cypress.

Added clouds to bring focus on the cypress copse

This might have been a good place to stop, however, each time I see this copse, I feel that some mystery surrounds this tight stand of cypress…what’s in there that creates the need to protect these trees from the farmer’s plow? Why is it fenced in? To keep us out? Or is it fenced to keep something in? Since the photo thus far does not express much mystery for me, I chose to express a darker mood. This final version has much more appeal for me on an emotional level. What do you think?

A darker and more emotional rendition 

Going back into my archives, I retrieved a photo taken in the fall. The field had been harvested and plowed.  Once again, I wanted more than the out-of-the-camera photo, so I worked a bit to create this square version of the photo – I surely do like a square format for many photos, and I think it works well here.

Square rendition of a fal-season version

Square rendition of a fal-season version

For still more drama, I adjusted the lighting and added clouds that conveyed a late afternoon feel.

Later afternoon dramatic clouds rendition

Later afternoon dramatic clouds rendition

And finally, to go even darker, I created a black and white version that transformed day into evening.

Black and white in a late-evening rendition

Black and white in a late-evening rendition

From Photo to Painting

Lately, I have been working on my digital painting skills.  I have always appreciated the painting arts, but I am not adept at handling all of those gooey tubes of paints, and cleaning up the mess is daunting.  With digital painting, I am able to use various ‘brushes’ and techniques to provide you a realistic ‘painting’ from my own photos.  

In this first digital paining, I decided to take the liberty to show storm clouds just beyond the horizon, and since the storm has not yet reached us, I brightened up the cypress copse a bit for contrast. I'm imagining how the air will smell after the storm passes.

A storm is coming digital oil painting

And finally, being a fan of Van Gogh, and having just visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in April, I tried to emulate his use of bright colors and the swirly strokes for which he is so famous.

My rendition in the style of Van Gogh

Turn Around

Now, if you are photographing this cypress stand, besides the fact that you are most likely among others photographing the same sight, you are looking due south from the edge of the highway. Don’t forget one of the cardinal rules of photography – after you take your photo, turn around to see what is directly behind you. My friend Terry Gipson mentioned this recently. After a long hike to an overlook of the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, he said in a recent blog post...

The hike back was seeing all the things I missed when I walked out to the overlook…seeing everything as new for the first time.
— Terry Gipson

So, as I turned around, I found the genesis of one of my favorite Tuscan plowed-field photos.

Here is the view in the fall…

Looking north in the fall

…and here is the view from the same spot in the late spring when the wheat is doing its part in the creation of tasty, rustic, Italian bread, and pastas.

Looking north in the spring

I hope you have enjoyed a few emotive views of my favorite copse of Tuscan cypress. The next time I’m there, I’ll look for you!  Until then...

Ciao for now,


Beautiful Places: Castello Brolio

Today I want to tell you about a beautiful and important Tuscan castle in Italy -- Castello Brolio. What makes this castle so important? Well, read on.

The Castle

Here is a photo of Castello Brolio as it sits today in mid-eastern Tuscany. 

Castello Brolio today

Castello Brolio today

This still-inhabited castle is owned by the Ricasoli family, who has lived in the castle for almost 900 years. Though the first stones of the Brolio Castle date back to the middle ages, the castle did not pass into the hands of the Ricasoli family until an exchange of lands in 1141. 

Barone Ricasoli winery is the fourth longest-lived company in the world in the same place. Barone Ricasoli is the oldest winery in Italy.

Castello Brolio is on the border between the former city-states of Sienna and Florence and has been the stage for numerous disputes, with the heavy-weight Florentine city-state duking it out against fearsome Sienna. In the photo below, taken from the ramparts of the castle, you can see Sienna in the distance to the right of the photo. [This photo has been made into a tile backsplash which sits behind our kitchen range] 

View from the ramparts of Castello Brolio looking toward Sienna at top right

Battle-scarred brickwork of Castello Brolio

Being a castle, one would expect it to be attacked, right? And it has been, as through the centuries the castle has suffered attack and destruction in numerous historical battles; from Aragonese and Spanish attacks during the 15th century, disputes in the 17th century, to bombings and artillery attacks during the Second World War. Evidence of attack can still be seen today, as in this photo.



Here are a few more photos of this well-built castle. As always, click on an image to see a larger view.

And the expansive views from the Castello Brolio are magnificent.

Panorama from the ramparts of Castello Brolio

My wife as she sketches a beautiful contryside

An on-site villa for rent

The Baron

Here is photo of Baron Bettino Ricasoli. 

Baron Bettino Ricasoli

What he lacked in looks he made up for in money. At 3,000 acres, the Ricasoli vineyards are the largest in the Chianti Classico area. Because of his integrity and austerity, he was known as 'The Iron Baron'. 

This elaborate family tree, reproduced in a print dated 1584, is also one of the first paintings depicting the Chianti area.





The Baron as the Creator of Chianti

Besides being the second and then seventh Prime Minister of Italy, Baron Bettino Ricasoli was a far-sighted wine entrepreneur. As a matter of fact, it was the Baron who created the age-old formula for Chianti wine.  After more than thirty years of research and experiments, he divulged his formula in a letter in 1872, where he wrote, 

...I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto [today’s Sangiovese] (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…
— Baroln Bettino Ricasoli in a famous letter addressed to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa


You've probably seen wine labels with the designation "Chianti Classico". The geographical location of Castello Brolio puts it in the Chianti Classico region. And note that the 'Classico' extension does not designate more quality per se, but means that it is produced within the classic region of the official Chianti region. If the Chianti region were a donut, Chianti Classico would be the donut hole.

Here you see the neck of a bottle of Barone Ricasoli's Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva (And how do I know that's what wine this is? Because I drank it!).

This seal with the black rooster is your guarantee that you will be drinking Chianti Classico. It is also a DOCG wine, which stands for 'Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita' and is your guarantee that the wine meets the government's control standards for Chianti Classico. 

Since 1993, Baron Francesco Ricasoli, 32nd Baron of Brolio and Bettino's great-grandson, has taken the hundreds of years of wine experimentation and experience into the plantings of new varietals and newly created wines. 

Our Favorite Barone Ricasoli Wine?

How many times have you been at the wine store and seen a pretty label and you turned to your partner and said, "Hey, this wine looks good"? 

With our favorite Barone Ricasoli wine, you can have a pretty label and a pretty wonderful wine. Pictured below is the Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva that we consumed at a little restaurant in Radda in Chanti one fall afternoon. 

And hey, there are several. yummy Barone Ricasoli wines. You can see all of them on their website.  

And if you happen to be in Tuscany, our instant-friend Barbara here can help you put together a selection for shipment back home. The wine shop is located just below the castle.

And, if you join the Friends of Ricasoli Club, you will get discounts and other special offers. 


So, I hope you enjoyed a tour of one of Tuscany's classic wineries, it's creator, and the castle that still guards the ancient vineyards there.


Ciao for now,