Christmas in Florence!

Buon Natale! If you’re dreaming of a festive Christmas vacation, Florence fills the bill beautifully. A digital Christmas card to all of my readers

Buon Natale everyone, everywhere!

Christmas chocolates at the Caffe Rivoire in Florence Italy
Caffe Rivoire always has tempting chocolates in its cases. The chocolate Christmas trees taste as good as they look!

If you’re dreaming of a festive Christmas vacation, Florence fills the bill beautifully. I love this city anytime of the year, but to see the Duomo decked out with its majestic tree is a real treat.

As a digital Christmas card to all of my readers, here’s a gallery of images from my holiday trip to one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.

If you’re wanting more Italia, have a look are the two articles below, one on my Christmas trip to Florence, and the other a reading list for anyone heading to this Renaissance city.

The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore -- Cathedral of Florence, is magnificent at Christmas.

My Room with a View

In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me. It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always.  Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?” He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. [. . . .]


Duomo in Florence to inspire books about Italy.

Books about Italy: A Reading List for Florence

Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here. [ . . . ]

Buon Natale!

Did you know? The Fleur de Lis is the symbol of Florence.

Walking Tour of Florence with a Visit to the David

A review of my 2017 small group walking tour of Florence, skipping the line to see Michelangelo’s David, with the family-owned company, LivItaly Tours.

Piazza della Signoria on a florence italy walking tour
On my LivItaly walking tour, a wonderful view standing in the doorway of the Palazzo Vecchio looking out on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On Wednesday, I spent a wonderful afternoon with a small group tour from LivItaly Tours.

This tour was nothing like those groups of 20 to 40 you see herding past where the guide is holding a little flag and chirping at the people on a radio transmitter. If you are trying to choose from among the many Florence tours available, this is not the direction I would go.

The maximum group size on a LivItaly Tour is six people. This means your walking tour of Florence feels more like a stroll with friends than one of those larger, impersonal groups — which frankly make me want to run in the opposite direction.

Walks of Florence with LivTaly Tours - Rape of the Sabine
Rape of the Sabine by Giambologna in the Loggia dei Lanzi. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Our guide, Francesca, met us in the Piazza della Signoria right in front of the famous Caffé Rivoire.

This three hour walking tour started in the Piazza della Signoria, went past the Uffizi to stop on the Arno, lead us through the Piazza Repubblica to the Duomo, then down the Via de Martelli to the Palazzo Medici. We arrived at the Academia, and swept right in past the line to see Michelangelo’s David. The final 30 – 40 minutes of time were in the Academia with the David.

Francesca, a licensed guide for Florence and many other cities in Tuscany, was not only knowledgable — but very funny.

My afternoon with her was like having my own storyteller in the middle of the most important city of the Italian Renaissance. The great thing about the group of six, is that our afternoon was a conversational experience. Everyone had a chance to ask questions.

While I’ve been to Florence a number of times, Francesca connected the Florence of the Roman period, the medieval period, the Renaissance period, and finally the modern period in a way that increased my understanding and connection to the city, really bringing it to life.

walks of italy florence - we stopped in the Piazza della Repubblica
The Piazza della Repubblica in Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Walking tours of Florence with LivItaly - use bronze 3D map of Florence
Our guide from LivItaly Tours uses the 3D bronze map of Florence to show the course of the medieval wall around the city. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Just a block away from the Arno, Francesca led us down one of the remaining medieval streets in Florence as we talked about the cramped city and the lack of light of that period, then out into the Piazza della Repubblica.

This had been the site of the forum during the Roman period, then the old market, and finally the Piazza della Repubblica when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly united Italy (1865 – 1871).

We paused in the Piazza to use the bronze model of the city to discuss the original streets dating back to the Roman period, then to look at where the medieval walls had been, before walking towards the Duomo.

Il Duomo -- walking tours of Florence with Livitaly
Francesca explained the machines Brunelleschi used to build the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore — knowledge that had been lost following the fall of the Roman empire. Walks of Italy, Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher

In front of the Duomo, we stopped at the Baptistry to look at the copy of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (originals are in the Opera del Duomo) as Francesca explained the doors, and then the competition for the first set of Baptistry doors that marked the beginning of the Renaissance. We were a lively group with questions, and the whole thing was a lot of fun and a great learning experience.

Walking tour of Florence - no line for the David
If you have a limited time in Florence, which is true of most visitors, it is very important not to waste your day standing in line to see the David. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Skipping the Line to Visit Michelangelo’s David

If you do not make plans ahead, and you simply arrive expecting to walk in and see the David, you may be out of luck.

When we arrived at the Academia museum, and the line to see the David still stretched most of the way down the block — so far, that with the time left before the Academia closed, that the people at the very back might get to enter.

Long line outside the Academia waiting to see Michelangelo's David.
It’s not unusual to have to wait two hours in line at the Academia to see the David. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Our little group waited while Francesca picked up our reserved tickets, and as we did, a husband and his wife had a very public melt-down outside of the museum.

“I don’t know why you thought you knew SO MUCH BETTER about how to do this than someone who ACTUALLY LIVES HERE!!” said the husband, his face increasingly red as he spoke.

His wife seemed close to tears. “I just didn’t think the line would be this long, since we aren’t here in the summer.”

“We’re not going to get in today, and we leave first thing in the morning! Mary Ellen bought a reserved ticket ahead, like Piero told her to . . .  but now there are no more of those left this afternoon!”

“Joe, I’m so sorry.”

He bellowed, “Well, at least SHE’S going to get to see him!”

“I wish you would just calm down . . . ”

“You knew that the David was the only thing I really wanted to see here, and now it’s not going to happen!! . . . And I’m not going to calm down!”

We saw the David on our walking tour of Florence.
The David, created 1501-1504 by Michelangelo, walking tour Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

At this point, Francesca re-appeared and whisked us straight into the Academia.

I felt incredibly sorry for that couple. Can you reserve tickets to see the David without taking a tour? Yes, you absolutely can, and if you’re not going to take a walking tour, you definitely need to do that.

The reason this is so much better is that visiting the David with a guide gives you the full context for this amazing work of art. Francesca did a fine job of telling the story of how the young Michelangelo returned from Rome after his success with the Pieta and won the contract to carve the enormous block of marble.

The citizens of Florence were awestruck with the David when they first saw him completed in 1504. David was a GIANT then, and he is a GIANT now.

Francesca concluded the LivItaly Tour at his feet, leaving us to spend as much time with this masterpiece as each of us liked.

I finished my day with a cocktail at Caffé Rivoire, to watch the light in the piazza, and to think about my walk — which had been perfect. Returning to sit in the Piazza della Signoria was coming full circle, a contemplation of my afternoon of time-travel through Italian history.

If you’re looking for: walks of Italy, Florence — you’ve found a review of my 2017 walking tour of Florence with Livitaly Tours.

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Small Group Walking Tour of Florence with the David

Disclaimer: Many thanks to LivItaly Tours for hosting me on their walking tour. As always, opinions and experiences are honest and my own. I’ll never recommend anything I didn’t love myself.


Books about Italy: A Reading List for Florence

Ah, so you’re going to Italy — to Florence — the jewel of the Italian Renaissance. Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here.

Duomo in Florence to inspire books about Italy.

Ah, so you’re going to Italy — to Florence — the jewel of the Italian Renaissance.

Perhaps you have just booked your trip, but have months to while away before you board your plane. Perhaps you are packing as we speak, and simply need a great book to take with you. Perhaps you have just returned from Florence, and want to keep this wonderful city close to your heart.

Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here.

This is a list of twenty-one books that will immerse you in Florence. You’ll find Nonfiction (History & Travel Journals) first, followed by Fiction, and finally Books by Famous Florentines. Everything is listed in alphabetical order by title.

Nonfiction Reading List for Florence

Nonfiction – History
 Book/Author/Date Amazon Rating

Dante A Life

R.W.B. Lewis, 2009 Review by Wendy Smith: “History, literature, love, and religion come together in this graceful biography of the world’s most revered and influential poet. R.W.B. Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Edith Wharton, displays the same intelligent understanding here of the complex interplay of inner and outer forces that shape an artist. His lucid account of political and literary conflict in 13th-century Florence (subject of another Lewis book, The City of Florence) illuminates the context in which Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) came of age, fell in love with the unattainable Beatrice Portinari, forged the “sweet new style” that transformed Italian literature, and embroiled himself in factional disputes he would angrily renounce after his exile from Florence in 1302.”

Death in Florence : The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City

Paul Strathern, 2016

Pegasus Books: “By the end of the fifteenth century, Florence was well established as the home of the Renaissance. As generous patrons to the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo, the ruling Medici embodied the progressive humanist spirit of the age, and in Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) they possessed a diplomat capable of guarding the militarily weak city in a climate of constantly shifting allegiances between the major Italian powers.

However, in the form of Savonarola, an unprepossessing provincial monk, Lorenzo found his nemesis. Filled with Old Testament fury and prophecies of doom, Savonarola’s sermons reverberated among a disenfranchised population, who preferred medieval Biblical certainties to the philosophical interrogations and intoxicating surface glitter of the Renaissance.Was this a simple clash of wills between a benign ruler and religious fanatic? Between secular pluralism and repressive extremism? In an exhilaratingly rich and deeply researched story, Paul Strathern reveals the paradoxes, self-doubts, and political compromises that made the battle for the soul of the Renaissance city one of the most complex and important moments in Western history.”


Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Dava Sobel, 2009

Bloomsbury Press: “Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called “the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether.” It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo’s daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”

“Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years’ War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo’s Daughter is an unforgettable story.”

La Bella Figura : A Field Guide to the Italian Mind,

Beppe Severgnini, 2005

A wonderfully funny read! — Ann

Random House: “Join the bestselling author of Ciao, America! on a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors—la bella figura—and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self.

You won’t need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgnini’s fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, you’ll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:

The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretation—Stop! An Italian red light doesn’t warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.

The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? That’s the price of gazing upon perfection.

The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: “a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.”


Magnifico : The Brilliant Life and Times of Lorenzo de Medici

Miles Unger, 2009

 “This portrait of the ‘uncrowned ruler of Florence’ does great justice to this most intriguing of all Renaissance princes. Unger’s diligent scholarship combines with an impelling narrative to give a full-bodied flavor of the splendors as well as the horrors of Lorenzo’s remarkable reign.” — Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and Machiavelli

“Highly absorbing . . . provides a mesmerizing microscope for viewing the entire Italian Renaissance. . . . Magnifico is a wonderful feast for lovers of Renaissance history and art.”
—Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe


Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces

Miles Unger, 2014

“Unger insightfully guides readers through both Michelangelo’s life and the culture and history of the times. . . . [He] displays keen, humane judgments in interpreting Michelangelo’s life by focusing on his motives and talent. The artist’s life was complicated, but Unger finds a narrative path that keeps the reader on course for an enlightened biography.” (David Hendricks San Antonio Express)“This may be the one indispensable guide for encountering the artist on his home turf. There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone, his art and his times. But few bring it all together in such an entertaining and enlightening whole.” (Bill Marvel Dallas Morning News)

“Part biography, part art analysis and thoroughly tantalizing. By focusing on six works, presented in chronological order, Unger presents a portrait of the artist that gives a panoramic view of Michelangelo’s life but also focuses keenly on putting the artwork itself in context, giving readers the whys and wherefores that provide a rich, provocative understanding.” (Catherine Mallette The Star-Telegram (Fort Worth))


Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis

Robert Edsel, 2014

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Monuments Men

“Saving Italy is an astonishing account of a little known American effort to save Italy’s vast store of priceless monuments and art during World War II. While American warriors were fighting the length of the country, other Americans were courageously working alongside to preserve the irreplaceable best of Italy’s culture. Read it and be proud of those who were on their own front lines of a cruel war.” –Tom Brokaw”A suspenseful tale worthy of an Indiana

Jones plot. He pulls you into a dangerous web of intrigue in which the Vatican, top German SS generals, American OSS operatives and Italian officials are entwined in top-secret negotiations to end the war. A must read for any WWII history enthusiast.” –Gordon H. Nick Mueller, President/CEO, The National WWII Museum

Older Travel Writing

Italian BackgroundsEdith Wharton, 1905
Amazon: “Probably one of the most insightful and different of the collection of works written throughout the 19th and early 20th century called travel writings, Italian Backgrounds was one of two books Edith Wharton wrote as a passionate love letter to the country that both she and her husband loved so dearly.What sets this book apart is how far Wharton and her husband, Edward, travel off the beaten path. When her contemporaries were content to explore the well worn paths and streets of Rome, Wharton pushed deep into the Italian countryside, finding exquisite vistas, buildings, and works of art that the rest of her ilk would not discover for decades.

Intimate, intelligent, witty, and thoroughly engaging on every level, Italian Backgrounds is a must for Wharton lovers.

Edith Wharton(1862-1937) was born into a distinguished New York family and was educated privately in the United States and abroad. Among her best-known work is Ethan Frome (1911), which is considered her greatest tragic story, he House of Mirth (1905), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.”

The Stones of FlorenceMary McCarthy, 1959
Amazon: “Renowned for her sharp literary style, essayist and fiction writer Mary McCarthy offers a unique history of Florence, from its inception to the dominant role it came to play in the world of art, architecture, and Italian culture, that captures the brilliant Florentine spirit and revisits the legendary figures—Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and others—who exemplify it so iconically. Her most cherished sights and experiences color this timeless, graceful portrait of a city that’s as famous as it is alluring.””Mary McCarthy (1912–1989) was an American literary critic and author of more than two dozen books including the 1963 New York Times bestseller The Group.

Born in Seattle, McCarthy studied at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduated in 1933. After moving to New York City, McCarthy became known for her incisive writing as a contributor to publications such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Her debut novel, The Company She Keeps (1942), initiated her ascent to become one of the most celebrated writers of her generation, a reputation bolstered by the publication of her autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in 1957, as well as that of her now-classic novel The Group.”

Fiction Reading List for Florence

Perhaps you’re looking for novels set in Italy, that will help you time travel to the Renaissance period. This list of eight novels set in Florence includes both historical fiction, and books set in the early and mid 20th century. For many readers, novels that take place in Italy are the perfect way to get in the mood for a great trip.

 Book/Author/Date Amazon Rating
Novels set in Italy - the Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Irving Stone, 1961

Berkley Press: “From the tumult of life, his brilliant work made a grasp for heaven unmatched in half a millennium. Now, in a special edition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s David, Irving Stone’s towering triumph: The Agony and the Ecsatasy.””It might not be too far-fetched to say that calling The Agony and the Ecstasy a ‘biographical novel’ is as inadequate a description as calling the Sistine Chapel ceiling a large religious mural . . . . The book is a living, pulsating thing with all the pageantry, the brilliance, and the drama of life.” — Los Angeles Examiner
Italy books - the birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

Sarah Dunant, 2004

From Publisher’s Weekly: “In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants-and she finds out why on her wedding night.

Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola.As the wealthy purge their palazzos of “low” art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family’s chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra’s family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge; Transgressions; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola’s reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra’s fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Dunant’s vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil.”

Books about Italy - Brunelleschi's Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome

Ross King, 2000

Filippo Brunelleschi’s design for the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains one of the most towering achievements of Renaissance architecture. Completed in 1436, the dome remains a remarkable feat of design and engineering. Its span of more than 140 feet exceeds St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome, and even outdoes the Capitol in Washington, D.C., making it the largest dome ever constructed using bricks and mortar. The story of its creation and its brilliant but “hot-tempered” creator is told in Ross King’s delightful Brunelleschi’s Dome.”Both dome and architect offer King plenty of rich material.

The story of the dome goes back to 1296, when work began on the cathedral, but it was only in 1420, when Brunelleschi won a competition over his bitter rival Lorenzo Ghiberti to design the daunting cupola, that work began in earnest. King weaves an engrossing tale from the political intrigue, personal jealousies, dramatic setbacks, and sheer inventive brilliance that led to the paranoid Filippo, “who was so proud of his inventions and so fearful of plagiarism,” finally seeing his dome completed only months before his death. King argues that it was Brunelleschi’s improvised brilliance in solving the problem of suspending the enormous cupola in bricks and mortar (painstakingly detailed with precise illustrations) that led him to “succeed in performing an engineering feat whose structural daring was without parallel.” He tells a compelling, informed story, ranging from discussions of the construction of the bricks, mortar, and marble that made up the dome, to its subsequent use as a scientific instrument by the Florentine astronomer Paolo Toscanelli.” –Jerry Brotton,

Novels set in Italy - A gift for the Magus

A Gift for the Magus

Linda Proud, 2012

The Historical Novel Society: “A Gift for the Magus is a stand alone prequel to Linda’s wonderful Botticelli trilogy (also available from Godstow Press), in that the young Sandro Botticelli appears as apprentice to the main protagonist, Fra Filippo Lippi. Lippi is conventionally devout for his time but, given to the Carmelite order as a young child, he is deeply flawed as a friar, being altogether too human in his desires. He loves food, drink and gambling; he enjoys women; and is frequently in trouble. He is fallible and gullible, but so extremely likeable that it is impossible not to have empathy with him while he also struggles with procrastination and the desire to be perfect in his painting.

Lippi was the favourite painter of Cosimo de’ Medici; first citizen of Florence, founder of a dynasty, banker, patron of the arts, re-founder of the Platonic Academy, astute and ruthless politician and the magus of the title. But Cosimo is also a human being, with his own desires and fears and the relationship between the two men is deep and extremely well drawn. Lippi’s scandalous relationship with the nun, Lucrezia, defies the conventional belief that ‘to be a good painter you must be a good man’. But what is the nature of goodness? Is anything in the lives of human beings ever that straightforward?

This is really excellent writing with characters who live real lives with humour and self-reflection. There are some lovely images that fit so well with the whole ethos of the story. It will inspire you to look at the art and discover more about the minds of the great Renaissance thinkers, and you will want to read the trilogy that follows. I cannot recommend it more highly—this is a most excellent read!”

The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales
Elizabeth Spencer, 1960

Amazon: “In The Light in the Piazza (a novella which has become both Spencer’s signature piece and a Hollywood film) a stranger from North Carolina, traveling with her beautiful daughter, encounters the intoxicating beauty of sunlit Florence and discovers a deep conflict in the moral dilemma it presents. “I think this work has great charm,” Spencer has said, “and it probably is the real thing, a work written under great compulsion, while I was under the spell of Italy. But it took me, all told, about a month to write.”

In Knights and Dragons (another novella and a companion piece to The Light in the Piazza) an American woman in Rome and Venice struggles for release from her husband’s sinister control over her. Spencer sets this tale in the cold and wintry dark and here portrays the other face of Italy. In “The Cousins,” “The Pincian Gate,” “The White Azalea,” and “The Visit,” Spencer shows the exceptional artistry that has merited acclaim for her as one of America’s first-class writers of the short story.”

Light in the Piazza was made into a musical and won the Tony for Best Musical in 2005.

Books set in Italy - the passion of artemisia


The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel

Susan Vreeland, 2002

Amazon Review: “Like her bestselling debut, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland’s second novel, The Passion of Artemisia, traces a particular painting through time: in this case, the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s violent masterpiece, “Judith.” Although the novel purports to cover the life of the painter, the painting serves as a touchstone, foreshadowing Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, an assistant in her father’s painting studio in Rome; the well-documented (and humiliating) trial that followed; the early days of her hastily arranged marriage; and her eventual triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence.

Although Vreeland makes a bit free with her characters (which she admits in her introduction), attributing some decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at the time, her book is beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas, keeping her focus on Artemisia and her family. Beyond the paintings Artemisia left behind, Vreeland’s vision may be as close as we can come to understanding the anger and ambition that kept this talented woman at the doors of the Accademia, demanding entrance, in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes.” –Regina Marler

A Room with a View
E.M. Forster, 1908

Bantam: “This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England.A charming young Englishwoman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson—who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist—Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England, she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.

The enduring delight of this tale of romantic intrigue is rooted in Forster’s colorful characters, including outrageous spinsters, pompous clergymen, and outspoken patriots. Written in 1908, A Room with a View is one of E. M. Forster’s earliest and most celebrated works.”

A Tabernacle for the SunLinda Proud, 2005
Amazon Review: “A Tabernacle for the Sun is a novel set in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici and is the first part of The Botticelli Trilogy. Freedom – is it Florence without the Medici, or a condition of the soul? This is the question facing Tommaso de’ Maffei, an apprentice scribe who cannot forgive Lorenzo for sacking his native city of Volterra. But if he would join the Platonic Academy and take the journey of the soul, he must reconcile himself to Lorenzo. Meanwhile his family draws him into a conspiracy against the Medici. To avoid the turmoil, both inner and outer, he takes refuge in the painter’s workshop where his friend, Filippino, is an apprentice.This book draws the reader into the Renaissance, to walk the streets of Florence, meet its famous men, loiter awhile in Botticelli’s workshop and see one of the world’s greatest paintings grow from first sketches through to finished panel, even as daggers are drawn and blood begins to spill.

Since its first publication in 1997, A Tabernacle for the Sun has met rapturous response from readers and reviewers and has become a classic travel companion for anyone going to Tuscany, as recommended by Lonely Planet guide to Florence and Tuscany. ‘The historical detail … is exemplary and [it’s] a cracking good read.'”

Why aren’t Dan Brown’s books listed? I don’t like them. While the mystery and drama are fun, the historical inaccuracies and fabrications get under my skin, and I just can’t. I will, and do, watch the films. Hey, I love Tom Hanks, and the scenery, and somehow the complete fiction annoys me less than when I read the novels. If you love them, I’m thrilled for you, and by all means enjoy them — and put them on your list.  They simply don’t go on mine.

Books by Famous Florentines

If you’re going to be in this lovely city, I heartily recommend delving into these four classics. Even if you don’t read all of each one — simply reading several of the tales from the Decameron, parts of the Divine Comedy, and picking and choosing a few artists from Vasari — these works are classics for a reason. I re-read parts of the Divine Comedy a couple of years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

 Book/Author/Year  Amazon Rating

The Decameron

Giovanni Boccacio (Wayne Rebhorn, translator), 1353, 2013

From Publishers Weekly: “In time for Giovanni Boccaccio’s 700th birthday, . . . a strikingly modern translation of Boccaccio’s medieval Italian classic. Fleeing Florence and the plague of 1348, 10 young men and women retreat to a country estate, surrounded by meadows and marvelous gardens, where they spend their days in leisure while the Black Death ravages the city.

To fill their time, and affirm life in the face of death, they tell stories: on each of 10 days, every character spins a tale on a theme. Thus, there are 100 stories in total, which range in tone from tragic to triumphant and from pious to bawdy, and which serve as monuments to the rich medieval life and society that the plague was to fundamentally alter. Rebhorn’s translation is eminently readable and devoid of the stilted, antiquated speech associated with the classics.  The Decameron affords a fascinating view into the lost world of late-medieval Italy, and the variety and volume of tales offers us a refuge and relief from the tragedies that haunt our own world.”

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri (Robin Kirkpatrick, translator), 1320, 2013

A stunning 3-in-1 deluxe edition of one of the great works of Western literature

An epic masterpiece and a foundational work of the Western canon, The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s descent into Hell with Virgil as his guide; his ascent of Mount Purgatory and reunion with his dead love, Beatrice; and, finally, his arrival in Heaven. Examining questions of faith, desire, and enlightenment and furnished with semiautobiographical details, Dante’s poem is a brilliantly nuanced and moving allegory of human redemption. This acclaimed blank verse translation is published here for the first time in a one-volume edition.

(Amazon mistakenly says this is the Mandelbaum translation — it is not, it is Kirkpatrick’s).


The Lives of the Artists

Giorgio Vasari (Julia Conway Bondanella, translator), 1550, 2008

From Oxford World Classics: “These biographies of the great quattrocento artists have long been considered among the most important of contemporary sources on Italian Renaissance art. Vasari, who invented the term “Renaissance,” was the first to outline the influential theory of Renaissance art that traces a progression through Giotto, Brunelleschi, and finally the titanic figures of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael.This new translation, specially commissioned for the Oxford World’s Classics series, contains thirty-six of the most important lives. Fully annotated and with a brand new package, Lives of the Artists is an invaluable classic to add to your collection.” Note: while Vasari was not born in Florence, he is Tuscan, and certainly thought the world revolved around Florence. 🙂

The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli (Peter Bondanella, Translator), 1532, 1992

 Dover: “As a young Florentine envoy to the courts of France and the Italian principalities, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was able to observe firsthand the lives of people strongly united under one powerful ruler. His fascination with that political rarity and his intense desire to see the Medici family assume a similar role in Italy provided the foundation for his “primer for princes.” In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies and the treatment of conquered peoples.

Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars and general readers as well.”

Well, I hope twenty-one books is enough to keep you busy for awhile. I’ve read Magnifico, Brunelleschi’s Dome, The Agony and the Ecstasy, A Room with a View, the Decameron, the Divine Comedy, the Prince — and parts of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and the rest of these are on my reading list. As I write this, I am in Florence, and I’m currently working on two of these books: Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces and The Birth of Venus — both of which I am greatly enjoying.

If you have books you’d like to see added to the list — please feel free to share them in the comments below!

(Quick jump back up the page:  Nonfiction (History & Travel Journals), Fiction.)

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Some of the links on are affiliate links. If you buy a product or service by clicking on an affiliate link, I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to you, my reader. This helps support the writing and photography work I do. Many thanks!

Rome: Beating the Crowds

Classic Fiat Rome
In June 2016, when my sister and I took a cruise onboard the Royal Clipper, we spent additional time in Italy on both sides of the sailing trip.

Ciao Roma!

My sister and I spent a week in Rome before heading to Civitavecchia to board the Royal Clipper — always a wonderful pre-cruise or post-cruise extension to a vacation. You’ll find my article on the Royal Clipper cruise here.

The Coliseum on our After Dark tour. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.
The Colosseum on our night time tour. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Rome is a bustling city, and the summer is the height of the tourist season. It’s hot. There are long lines for many of the major sights — ungodly long for things like the Colosseum. This can be a recipe for vacation disaster, when patience runs short and tempers flare.

A little pre-planning makes everything run smoothly. Last year, my friend Joyce came with me to Italy — her first trip, so of course we had to see all of the big sights. I had heard there were evening tours of the Colosseum, and I figured it would be one of the best ways to see it. I found several options for touring at night through Viator, which was great, because we could pick one really tailored to what we wanted to do. We used Viator for a guided tour of the Colosseum after dark, breakfast at the Vatican, and a tour to Pompeii, and had a  great experiences with this company last year.

Lord Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome. By engraver James Tibbitts Willmore or Arthur Willmore, after the original composition by William Westall.
Lord Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome. By engraver James Tibbitts Willmore or Arthur Willmore, after the original composition by William Westall.

My sister was interested in doing both the Colosseum and Vatican, so we booked with Viator again. We did the Night Tour of the Colosseum with the rooftop dinner. Dinner came first, at the roof garden restaurant at the Forum Hotel that overlooks part of the forum. Gorgeous view and good food. Our night tour of the Colosseum was wonderful. No lines. No heat. So very quiet. This tour includes the underground part of the Colosseum, where you can get a sense of what it was like for the gladiators and the animals beneath the floor. It is a gift – to be able to truly feel this amazing space.

After our time in the Colosseum, we returned to the Hotel Forum. They have a lovely a roof top bar one flight up from the restaurant. After dinner drinks looking out over the Imperial Forum — wonderful.

Update: I’m heading back to Rome in the fall of 2017, and I’m starting to make plans. When I reviewed tours, I see a new option for those who want to see the Colosseum during the day, but would like the VIP experience: check out Breakfast overlooking the Forum, followed by a tour of the Colosseum.

Breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard at the Vatican.
Breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard at the Vatican.

We also did the Vatican VIP Experience: Breakfast at the Vatican tour. Having breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard inside the Vatican is a very special experience, and this for me makes this one of the best Vatican tours available. Following breakfast, you are among the first visitors entering the Musei Vaticani. You’ll have a guided tour through many of the Vatican Museum galleries before visiting the Sistine Chapel. The tour ends inside St. Peter’s, where you are free to spend as much time as you like. Be aware: if you book this tour on a day there is papal mass in St. Peter’s, you will not get to see the Basilica. Benefit: the Vatican Museum is less crowded on those days. So if you have already seen St. Peter’s, this could be perfect. If you have not, it could be heartbreaking. There is a papal mass every Wednesday the pope is in Rome. Here is the Papal Audience Schedule.

The last three years, I’ve traveled to Italy in the summer because work conflicts made it impossible for me to take a long vacation at other times of the year. No choice but to deal with the heat and the summer crowds. I was impressed with the tours through Viator. The quality of the guides on all of the tours both years was outstanding, and if I go back to Rome with another friend who wants to see the tourist sights, I will use their services again. Their tours not only allowed us to do some special things, but also they saved a lot of time and frustration.

I love the Roman Forum. I love standing and imagining what it would have been like to stand here 2,000 years ago. But in the summer, it’s HOT — and the later in the day it gets, the hotter, and more crowded it’s going to be. My advice, get here early. The Forum opens at 8:30 in the morning — get on it and be there! Secondly, avoid the most crowded entrance which is the one directly in front of the Forum — go instead to the Palatine Hill entrance.

Another day, we did a private tour in the Castelli Romani area with Laran Tours, a small husband and wife company offering a great assortment of day tours out of Rome. My only hardship was trying to pick just one day trip out of a very tempting set of options. We had a fabulous day with Emma and Alex. The Castelli Romani is a beautiful region near Rome with volcanic lakes; it was a favorite spot for Roman summer villas, and it’s easy to see why. We had wild strawberry tarts in Nemi, toured two different wineries, then went off on our own for lunch. Big thumbs up for Laran Tours — the experience that day was very personal and fun.


Sughero Ristorante is at the top of my list of restaurants we visited on this trip to Rome. Last year I met Lavinia De Santis who was working as a wait person at a restaurant near our hotel.  While that restaurant was good, it was really Lavinia that made the dinners there special.

My sister and I returned there this year, only to find out that Lavinia had left to start her own restaurant. I found Sughero on the internet, and we were able to make reservations with the Fork.

Lavinia de Santis in her restaurant Sughero in the Parioli neighborhood, Rome.
Lavinia de Santis in her restaurant Sughero in the Parioli neighborhood, Rome.

It was an easy 10 – 15 minute cab ride from our hotel. And wow! Absolutely superb meal! Sughero is an all-seafood restaurant, with great fresh fish and a good wine selection. One of the things that impressed me about Lavinia last year was her knowledge of wine, and that is certainly in evidence at her place. She is passionate about good food and wine, and truly charming. Her business partner, Daniele Mangiaracina is talented chef. Isn’t it wonderful to see two people doing what they love, and doing it well?

We ate at Sughero three times. It’s easily one of the best seafood restaurants I’ve eaten at in Rome. Each time we did a Chef’s Tasting menu, and only repeated one selection. Everything was great — but the thing I had to have every time was the alici fritte, the fried sardines with fennel and orange.

Go see Lavinia and Daniele! It’s worth a quick cab ride. Sughero is small, and as a great new restaurant in Rome, it has developed a following; this means you will definitely want to make a reservation – easy to do through The Fork. Check out the Sughero Facebook page, if you’d like to pop by and see what these two talented restaurateurs are up to each week. But I warn you. It’s going to make you hungry!

Fried sardines with fennel slaw and fresh orange. Sughero Ristorante, Roma. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Fried sardines with fennel slaw and fresh orange. Sughero Ristorante, Roma. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Carciofi alla giudia at Piperno in Rome. So good!
Carciofi alla giudia at Piperno in Rome. So good! Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Another big favorite this trip was Piperno, a well-known and well-loved Roman restaurant. Piperno dates from 1860 and is located on the edge of the Jewish ghetto in Rome. They are famous for their artichokes, carciofi alla giudia.

My sister ate at Piperno in 1989, and she’s been thinking about it ever since. We had a lovely evening there, sitting outside. I figured we would share the artichokes as an appetizer, but Carolyn wasn’t willing to share :-). So yummy!

Combining dinner at Piperno with a walk in the Jewish quarter is a perfect way to spend part of a day in Rome. “Hidden in the heart of the city, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is one of the best attractions in Rome and also one of its least-known. As the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe, this beautiful, thriving neighborhood is as central to the history of the city as it is to the Jewish faith. Follow us into the Jewish Ghetto, Rome, to see how Jews have shaped the Eternal City.” — From Walks of Italy, a great site for putting walking tours together, either on your own or with their company. Viator also offers fifteen different touring options for those interested in learning more about the historic Jewish quarter in Rome.

Our “executive double” room at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.


I’ve had friends ask, “where should I stay in Rome — and what is the best location?” If you are staying in Rome for the first time, being centrally located so that you can walk to many of the sights is key.

When I travel, I often do a combination of luxury and tourist class hotels. On this trip, our splurge hotel was going to be the Bauer Hotel in Venice. In Rome, I wanted a centrally located hotel with decent reviews but a more reasonable price. Hotel Quirinale was a good find. We had an “executive double” room, which was lovely — it was large and overlooked the garden.

We also stayed one final night at the Hotel Quirinale at the end of our trip before flying home. That evening we were in a Superior Double room, which was significantly smaller, although still nice and quite comfortable. Based on our two stays, I recommend going with the “executive double,” particularly if you are staying in Rome for more than two nights. Also, request a garden view.

The Hotel Quirinale’s greatest strengths are the size and comfort of its rooms, its location, and its garden bar. We had cocktails in the garden many evenings before going out to dinner.

The hotel’s biggest weaknesses: service at the front desk and breakfast. These are the two places where you know that you are staying in a tourist-class hotel. They are processing lots of people, and you feel it. The breakfast, which is included in the price, is a just-adequate buffet. There is plenty of food, but it’s nothing special. Would I stay again — yes. For exactly the reason that I chose it in the first place.

Last year, Joyce and I stayed at the Sofitel near the Villa Borghese. It was a great hotel with impeccable service and a lovely breakfast buffet. The downsides to the Sofitel: small room for the price and not as centrally located for walking to major sights. Additionally, when I was looking at hotels in the spring, the Sofitel’s rates were considerably more expensive this year.

Parting Thoughts

Rome is such a wonderful city! Vibrant and stylish, the ancient, the old, and not so old mixed together. Great food and wonderful people. Can I get on a plane and head back right now?

I invite you to share your favorite Roman restaurants and hotels in the comment section below, and feel free to link to your Trip Advisor reviews or blogs. The more the merrier — it’s always great to find new places!

Etruscan she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, the Capitoline Museum. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Etruscan she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, the Capitoline Museum. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Book now on Viator

Disclaimer: While I have paid full price for all of my tours with Viator (– twice now!), I do now have an affiliate relationship with them. I will receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you book a tour with them through the links on my site. Thank you for your support!

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.

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For the Love of Tall Ships

Royal Clipper in the Adriatic

The first glimpse of her, across the harbor in Civitavecchia, made my heart jump — how I love this ship!

And then our driver blew right past Royal Clipper . . . he was looking for, you know, A SHIP — one of the current behemoths carrying 3,000 passengers or more.

My sister and I were saying, “No, no — she was right there — go back, go back! Royal Clipper is a sailing  ship!”

As we pulled even with her, I could understand the driver. Royal Clipper is diminutive in comparison to the Royal Caribbean ship just down the dock. She looks like she’s  time traveled to sit between huge modern ships.

In an era when the mainstream cruise lines race one another to see who can have the largest ship, bigger has become the norm. Companies like Royal Caribbean build ships that look like a cross between resort hotels and shopping malls.

In comparison, the pure ship-ness of Royal Clipper is magical. I have enjoyed modern cruise ships, and I would definitely go on a regular cruise again. But having traveled on the large ships makes the experience of sailing on Royal Clipper even more amazing. It is so different. It is so special.

Allure of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. In an era when cruise lines build ships that look like resort hotels, the pure ship-ness of the Royal Clipper is magical.
German ship, The Preussen, built in 1902. Painting by Roger Chapelet.

For people who love tall ships and sailing, Royal Clipper is a destination all by herself.

A destination, you say? But isn’t that huge Royal Caribbean ship just that? Rock climbing walls and zip lines and diving shows and an ice skating rink and Central Park and 20 dining venues? How could a little ship with one restaurant, no theater, and no wave pool be a destination?

Michael Kraft, the Swedish entrepreneur who founded Star Clippers, believed that people who loved sailing and tall ships wanted something different. The first two ships, Star Clipper and Star Flyer proved he was right. The Star Clipper experience is akin to being on a private yacht, and it’s offered at a price that is close to the cost of better mainstream cruises. Royal Clipper can anchor in small ports — in whatever part of the world she is sailing. It means her guests see things large cruise ships cannot offer.

The Star Clipper company likes to say, “small is beautiful.”

Royal Clipper, which launched in 2000, was modeled on the great ship, Preussen. Royal Clipper is 439 feet (133 m) long, with a beam of 54 feet(16.5 m), and she has 42 sails comprising 54,000 square feet of sail. 9 kilometers of steel ropes and 14 kilometers  of regular rope hold the masts and rigging in place. She is only the second five masted full-rigged ship ever built, and she is the largest squared-rigged ship in the world. To be on her under full sail is extraordinary.

This cruise on the Royal Clipper in June of 2016 in the Mediterranean and Adriatic was my third cruise with the ship. In January of 2016, I spent one week sailing on her in the Windward islands, and liked it so much that I didn’t want to leave — so booked a second week and stayed onboard for the Grenadine Islands (Review of my southern Caribbean cruise is here: Onboard the Royal Clipper). Yes, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. I am a big fan of the Star Clipper experience, but I am not alone. On any given Star Clippers cruise, 40% to 60% of the passengers are repeat customers which often means that half the ship attends the Captain’s champagne reception for returning passengers.

A very special part of taking a cruise with Star Clippers, is that with this small ship — the crew remembers you. Stewards, the bar staff, the spa masseuses — start to feel like family. My waiter Marlon gave me a big hug, “Miss Ann – you came back!” Well, of course I came back — how could I not?

Raising the Main-Staysail.

How does the sailing experience in the Mediterranean compare with sailing in southern Caribbean? It was different. On this particular itinerary, we did not sail as much as we had in the Caribbean. Why? Two reasons. First, Royal Clipper is a square rigged ship. Square sails work best when the ship is sailing before the wind. Obviously the wind is not always going to come from directly behind the ship, which is why sailing ships tack back and forth. In parts of the Mediterranean with heavy shipping traffic, particularly ferries, this is not practical. We often had a combination of sail and engine going.

My sister and I shared cabin 116, a category 4 cabin, and we found it worked well. Staterooms on all Star Clippers ships are smaller than rooms on the big ships — obviously. It is more appropriate to compare the cabins on Royal Clipper to those on a yacht. There was ample storage and I found the marble bathroom very spacious for a sailing ship.

I have listed the approximate sizes of the Royal Clipper staterooms below..

Cabin Category Size
Owner’s Cabins 320 sq. ft. (39.7 m2)
Deluxe Suite 255 sq. ft. (23.6 m2)
Category 1 226 sq. ft. (21 m2)
Category 2, 3, 4** 148 sq. ft. (13.7m2)
Category 5 113 sq. ft. (10.5 m2)
Category 6 108 sq. ft. (10 m2)

Cabin size: Please note: In categories 2, 3, and 4, there are exceptions to the average size of 148 square feet. Please look at the deck plans — you will see that as the ship tapers towards the front, the most forward cabins are slightly smaller. Also, cabins near the atrium vary. Be sure to verify with Star Clippers the exact size if it is important to you.

Cabin size information on categories 4 and above came from Star Clippers directly. Category 5 and 6 came from

Laying in the bowsprit net watching the sun go down.

Sailing on Royal Clipper is an intimate experience. You are close to the water, not 5 to 10 stories above it. The ship’s bridge? As a passenger, you are right there. Time to raise the sails — move out of the way — the deck crew is on it! I have had friends ask whether passengers act as crew on Royal Clipper, and the answer is no. If you want to do the sailing yourself, you are looking for a different company. You may spend time asking the captain questions on the bridge, you might raise a glass of champagne as the ship sets sail, but you do not crew the ship.

What is there to do on the Royal Clipper? On most of their cruises, there are ports of call every day, so there is no time to get bored. On a day at sea, there are typically talks presented by the crew or the captain, and the Captain Nemo spa is always a treat. When we were in Sicily, a group of folk dancers came onboard following supper and entertained us with music and dancing.

Briggs & Riley New Products
For the brave of heart, there is mast climbing (with a safety harness) as ship sails. One of my favorite pastimes is riding in the widow’s net on the bowsprit of the ship, the water rushing just below me.

The food on Royal Clipper continued to be excellent on this trip in the very capable hands of Chef Rudy from the Philippines. The galley on Royal Clipper is the size of two standard state rooms, so approximately 300 square feet. And what a feat it is to serve the ship of 227 passengers and 105 crew!

There are six meal offerings each day; in addition to the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there is also an early bird breakfast, afternoon snack (British tea), and a midnight snack. Dinner is full-service, and the other meals are served as buffets. Each evening there is a selection of two appetizers, always a soup, a salad, at least four entrees — one of which is vegetarian, and the two desserts. Additionally, sirloin steak with pommes frittes and a pasta dish of some type is available every night. I found our server Marlon to be outstanding at selecting the best thing on the menu for the evening.

Chef Rudy oversees preparation of the deck lunch buffet.

Interested in reading about the ports of call? Part II of the cruise is coming soon, with a focus on the ten ports we visited in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic.

History of the Clipper Ships

For 135 years, The Flying Cloud held the record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco: 89 days & 8 hours.

Clippers: the fast ships of the final period of the great age of sail. Even as the most famous clippers made their record setting voyages, it was obvious that steamships would soon make sailing obsolete for the shipping industry.

Narrow for their length and built for speed,  clippers could not carry as much cargo as many 19th century ships, but they were fast. Very fast. Tall spars (masts) designed to carry massive quantities of sail meant these ships could “clip” the waves, and dramatically cut sailing time on long voyages. Think of them as express services for special cargo and passengers.

Tea clippers and opium clippers were designed to handle the two major cargos coming from China. Then the gold rush made fast travel between New York and San Francisco desirable. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Between 1848 and 1852, nearly 160 ships set sail from the east coast, bound for San Francisco. Pre-goldrush: only two ships per year made the trip from the Atlantic to San Francisco.

In 1853, clipper ships began publishing ship cards that advertised their departure date.

Long distance shipping: Early steam engines on ships were inefficient, ran at low pressure, and consumed a lot of fuel. Steamships couldn’t carry enough coal to make long ocean voyages and still have enough space for cargo to be commercially viable.

Then in 1869, the clipper trade with China collapsed. The Suez Canal opened, making it possible for steam ships to make the China run quickly. Sailing ships couldn’t get through the Suez without tugs to escort them — which was expensive and impractical. Steamships could carry more cargo, were more reliable than the sailing ships, and cost less to insure. Clipper ships continued to do service all over the world, but the numbers of them being built each year dropped dramatically. Transcontinental rail across America caused the clipper trade between the east and west coast to decline.

The Preussen (pronounced Proysin), built in 1902 was first five-masted fully rigged ship ever built. Under full sail, she was capable of 20 knots, making her faster than any steamship of the day. It was her speed that led to her untimely demise in the English channel. On November 5, 1910, a small British channel steamer, the Brighton, grossly underestimated Preussen’s 16 knot speed and attempted to cross in front of her bow. Preussen rammed the Brighton, causing severe damage to the sailing ship. She drifted onto the rocks under the cliffs of Dover. Gale force winds in the channel prevented her rescue.

Note: The Star Clipper’s new ship, Flying Clipper is due to launch in late 2017. Word from the crew on the Royal Clipper is that the build is running behind schedule, so perhaps early 2018 is more likely. She is modeled after the great ship, La France II, built in 1911. La France II was the largest merchant sailing ship ever built, and Flying Clipper will be bigger in beam than Royal Clipper. However, if Flying Clipper is a jubilee rigged ship (also known as a bald-rigged ship) like La France II was, she will lack the royal gallant sails above the upper top gallants, and then Royal Clipper would retain the title of the largest full-rigged ship in the world.

Returning to Royal Clipper. Going home in more than one sense of the word.

Classic Fiat in Rome
Visiting Rome in the summer? Tips for seeing the sights while avoiding the crowds.

Planning to do a cruise from Civitavecchia?

We spent a week in Rome, pre-cruise: Beating the Crowds in Rome; you may find the information on seeing major attractions like the Colosseum and the Vatican helpful.






Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

Thank you for visiting! 

I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.








I’m happy you’re here — for other articles on life and travel, browse the home page:

More information on clipper ships and the Star Clippers company:

“Clipper Ship Cards.” American Antiquarian Society. American Antiquarian Society, 2012. Web. 14 Aug. 2016.

“Full-rigged Ship.” Full-rigged Ship. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

Ross, Kelly L. “Masts and Sails.” Masts and Sails. N.p., 2013. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

Royal Clipper: A Dream Come True. Dir. Tibor Somogyi. Prod. Alexander Von Sallwitz. 2001. DVD.

“Star Clippers – Americas.” Introducing Star Clippers. Star Clippers, n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

Of Paper and Books and Ink

In an age where everything is increasingly digital, why do we love paper so?

It’s the delicate scrollwork of a printed design. The fragrance of a leather book. The way a thick sheet of paper folds under your hand, pushing back up at your fingers . . .

Florentine paper framing our room with a view.
Florentine paper framing our room with a view. Photograph and digital imaging work, Ann Fisher.

What do I bring home from Florence? Paper, gloves, and wine.

Florence is famous for two kinds of paper designs: the printed variety, inspired by traditional Renaissance patterns, and carta marmorizzala — handmade, marbled paper.

Florentine paper history: travelers first brought marbled paper, “Turkish paper” or ebru (art of the clouds) to Florence in the 16th century, and it was not long before local artisans began producing it. Florence is now one of the few places in Europe still making hand-marbled paper. Giulio Giannini e Figlio, founded in 1856 and located across from the Pitti Palace, is the oldest marbled paper maker in the city.

In Venice, I found a shop with leather books, journals, Murano glass writing pens, all hand tooled. The quality of the work, really breathtaking. I brought a small journal back for a friend, and one for myself. The books were so very beautiful, I doubt he has used his. I know I have not. It’s a thing to remember, that when a notebook is so special, one hesitates to mark in it . . . it defies rough drafts. It asks for Shakespeare. Who can live up to that?

My mother says that my family has always had the book disease. In college, I would go hungry to buy a book I wanted.

Fine paper and books bring pleasure to those who love them.

Independent booksellers are jewel-like. They offer a curated selection of books — it is as much about what is not there as it is about what is there. Which edition of a classic book did they choose? How are things displayed? What volumes are next to one another? These bookstores offer the serendipity of finding things we might never see otherwise.

Faulkner House Bookstore, New Orleans.
Catherine browsing in the Faulkner House Bookstore in New Orleans. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

The Faulkner House Bookstore is one such favorite. Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas.

My book disease is a problem as I downsize my life. My daughter has one more year in high school, and rather than rattle around in a large house for another year, we are moving into a condominium. I may not be retired yet, but downsizing my life so that I can travel more is an appealing idea. But going from a 3500 square foot house to a 1400 square foot condo presents challenges – downsizing many possessions, but not with choosing which furniture to take.

It’s the books.

Who comes? What goes?

Yes, I use the Kindle app on my iPad, but the books we choose to live with say something about us. And the physicality of being in the room with books is most definitely not the same as having the collection digitally. Library you say? Well, if I were better at returning things, perhaps.

Even with the downsizing move looming, my daughter Catherine and I brought home another half-dozen books from the Faulkner House Bookstore when we were in New Orleans. She picked up a lovely edition of Pride and Prejudice. You’ll see the the same Canterbury Classics design for Persuasion to the left.

Edition of Jane Austen's Persuasion with quotes on the cover,
The Canterbury Classics editions of Jane Austen’s books appealed to my daughter. Now Catherine is reading her first Austen. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

My husband Drew loved American history — particularly biographies of the presidents. When I look at his shelves of books — at Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, I can see him.

Books tell stories about various points in my life. The group of art history books and a collection of Edith Wharton remind me of my college years. Percy Shelley brings to mind the crazy, deconstructionist professor ranting in front of the class. I see the yellowing paperback of A Moveable Feast, and all of a sudden I am at Shakespeare and Company when I was seventeen. George Whitman sold me that book.

What to let go of? It’s not so easy.

Drew’s brother Eddy has worked on his own library with these criteria, choosing particularly good editions of books, gradually getting rid of poor paperback copies. I think that’s going to my strategy for culling down collection: creating an elemental collection of editions of the books I want to live with, using digital editions of books when it makes sense, and selling books back to the second-hand bookstore.

I leave for Italy in two weeks, and I will inevitably come home with more paper. I use Florentine stationery for notes at work, birthday greetings, small thank-yous, and the notepads for lists and thoughts. The sensuality of the thick, creamy paper with the delicate designs pleases me. I will go visit the man of the leather books in Venice. I promise to share . . .

Florentine paper narrow


Outside of Shakespeare and Company, December 2012.
Outside of Shakespeare and Company, December 2012. Photograph by Drew Dennard.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Additional Information on paper:

McDonnell, Sharon. “The Magic Of Marbled Paper.” National Geographic Traveler 28.2 (2011): 29. Hospitality & Tourism Complete. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Lumsden, Susan. “Marbled Paper from Florence.” The New York Times 13 December 1987 

My Room with a View

The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore

In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me.

Brunelleschi's Dome through one of the apartment windows
Brunelleschi’s Dome through one of the apartment windows

It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always.

Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?”

He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. Where was his oxygen coming from? I had no breath for talking. I worked just to make it look like the stairs and the suitcase were not too tough. Then we were there. The terrace and sitting room so close to the Duomo — it seemed I could reach out and touch it.

Mid-December was cold, and dark came early. The lights for the cathedral popped to life. I sat in the upstairs room with a glass of Chianti hardly able to take my eyes off of the beautiful giant. I put on my coat and went out and watched the people and looked down towards the Christmas tree in the piazza.

On this trip, I fell in love with Florence so deeply that it only takes an image of one of its streets to make my heart skip and beat more vigorously.

Il Duomo next to me at night
Il Duomo next to me at night.

My husband, Drew, died in July of 2013 after a long fight with cancer. That November, I began to think about Christmas; the idea of putting up a tree was overwhelming. I had an extra week of vacation that year, while my daughter Catherine was still in school. She would be with her Dad then and I began thinking about taking a week long trip by myself. No one would give me a hard time if there wasn’t much Christmas.

I considered New York . . . San Francisco. I even thought about taking the train across the Rocky Mountains. Nothing was compelling. Europe? Drew and I had visited London and Paris the previous year, his final Christmas, and I had no interest in returning to those cities anytime soon.


I had not been since 1997. And suddenly, that was it. I wanted to go to Florence.

Save up to $500 when you book your flight +hotel!

Time-Life book on Michelangelo from my childhood
Time-Life book on Michelangelo from my childhood

When I was seven, my mother began getting a series of Time-Life books on the great artists of western civilization. Each month, when a new book arrived, we would sit together and look at it. The images of the Duomo have been with me — deep inside of me, almost since I can remember anything. I went on to get a degree in Art History and I have always had a particular love of the Italian Renaissance. So when visiting Florence occurred to me, my heart leapt up.

I looked at hotels, but then I thought, Drew and I had talked about trying apartments abroad. After looking at several apartment websites, I saw this one place — I was transfixed.

The apartment interior was lovely, and it was next to the Duomo — the terrace right there — the cathedral seemed to touch it. It is owned by Ron Blitch, a well-known architect from New Orleans. What a small world, since I had grown up there.

Cheap — oh, no. The cost of a very nice hotel. And it was an 88 step climb to get there. Okay, not a problem for me really; besides, it’s a built in pasta burner. And the view! With no hesitation, I booked it.  I spent the remainder of Thanksgiving reading about Tuscany and starting Rosetta Stone for Italian.

I exchanged several emails with Paolo and his wife Sonia, who manage the apartment, to make arrangements for my arrival. They  offered additional services for a fee, of course. Would I like to have some wine and cheese at the apartment when I arrived? Would I like to hire a driver? What about cooking lessons? Yes!

Where would I like to go the day I had the driver? Hmm. I had been to Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza, Montepulciano . . . I looked at a map of Tuscany and found Montalcino. When I googled it, up popped the small Abbey of Sant’Antimo. What an exquisite Romanesque church! Paolo’s next email said, “well, if you’re going to Montalcino, you must do a Brunello wine tasting.” I had a reasonably good knowledge of California wines. Italian? Past Chianti and Pinot Grigio . . . I’d had Barolo, but  I didn’t really know much about Italian wines.

The weather was sunny and cold for the trip to Montalcino. I had a wonderful driver, Ewan — a Scot who had moved to Florence a dozen years earlier. Many people have the reaction to Florence that I have. We just — we just don’t want to leave.

Brunello region of Tuscany
Headed to the Caparzo Winery in the Brunello region of Tuscany

Brunello. May I just say, had nothing else happened all day, it would have been a perfect experience. I discovered Brunello, and I love it — it is now one of my favorite wines. The wine that day ignited a new passion, and I have been reading about Italian wines, tasting, and making vineyard visits ever since.

At the Caparzo Winery, waiting for my first taste of Brunello.
At the Caparzo Winery, waiting for my first taste of Brunello.

Caparzo did a nice job with the tasting. The three reds that I particularly liked were their Brunello Riserva — wow, what an amazing wine. (I’ve found it fairly easy to get in the U.S. — here is a link to reviews). I also really, really liked La Casa, their single vineyard Brunello. La Caduta is their single vineyard Rosso de Montalcino — I liked it very much, particularly for the price. Their regular Rosso di Montalcino — no, not for the price. Their regular Brunello, very nice, I enjoyed it, but particularly since that point, there are just others I like much more. I have not been able to find La Casa here in Houston; I would consider shipping some back the next time I visit.

Following a late lunch in Montalcino, Ewan took me to Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey church of Sant'Antimo
The Abbey church of Sant’Antimo

There are spaces — holy, quiet, and they fill us with a deep peace. Sant’Antimo is one of them. A small community of monks lives there, and they filed into the Abbey for None prayers — the mid afternoon, 3 p.m. service.

The interior of the Abbey of Sant'Antimo
The interior of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo

Ewan and I took seats midway down the nave. We were the lone visitors. Then the sound of monophonic, unaccompanied male voices, in stepwise progression through the phrases, resonated in the air.

The thick stone walls held us all together; the monks, Ewan, myself, this space, the chant, we became something else for a time.

I did not, would not, take pictures during the service. The photograph of the interior is from before the monks filed into the Abbey. I’ve put a Gregorian chant below to help you imagine the sound.

Each night, I returned to sit next to the dome. With my massive companion, it was quiet. I had time to think, to begin putting some perspective to Drew’s trip through the final months, through hospice, into dementia and finally into death. Each morning, I came up for coffee and listened to the cathedral bells ringing from the campanile.

This is, well. I love this place, with all of my heart.

The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore
The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore

And when I returned home, I was so ready to make Christmas. Catherine came home from her father’s and we headed straight out for a tree. We took on a bit more tree than two short people can handle — it was quite a struggle, but we woman-handled it into place.

Wrestling the tree
Wrestling the tree


I returned from Florence ready to make Christmas
I returned from Florence ready to make Christmas









Teaching Catherine to make pasta
Teaching Catherine to make pasta

I look forward to sharing more about this trip, along with the two other trips to Florence over the last year and a half. Ciao!

Interested in learning more about my room with a view?

You’ll find Ron Blitch’s apartment on VRBO – Home Away. It’s pricey, but amazing — I returned six months later to stay again, and brought my daughter and sister with me.

The terrace of my apartment with a view

Update, 2017

I have become friends with Paolo and Sonia, and they now have two apartments in the center of Florence that they lease to visitors.

One is a small, but very lovely apartment a block from the Duomo, called Divina. While it does not have a view, it is gorgeous and very reasonably priced. I am making more frequent trips to Italy, and I have stayed in Divina — lovely space and perfect location just steps from the cathedral.  Oh, and it’s on the first floor (in America, we would call this the second floor), a short set of steps.

The Divina apartment in Florence, owned by Paolo and Sonia.
The Divina apartment in Florence, owned by Paolo and Sonia.

They now also have a a larger apartment they call Milord, with a fabulous view — I think even better than my first ‘room with a view’ because the terrace is larger, the apartment can sleep up to nine people, AND it has an elevator:

Room with a View Milord Apartment terrace view of il duomo
Paolo and Sonia’s rental apartment – amazing terrace views of the Duomo and Giotto’s bell tower (campanile).


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