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Posts from the ‘My Special Places’ Category

Best places to homebase in Italy with a rental car | Part Two

More on my favorite places to stay if you have a rental car.  Part One found here.  If you missed my favorite cities to home base in using public transportation click here and here.


Tuscany is a stop on almost everyone’s list when traveling to Italy.  While it is possible to see many areas without a car, to truly get to the places and roads less traveled you need your own set of wheels.  You will have no trouble finding hundreds of places to stay and it can be very overwhelming trying to choose.  My area of choice when traveling here is the area known as Val d’Orcia.

valdorcia italy travel

This area has made appearances in movies like Gladiator and The English Patient.  Just driving through here is enough to fill an entire day.  Drop dead gorgeous!  I have some very special and unique places ran by people I now consider dear friends.  Prices and accommodations vary to fit any budget and luckily I am usually given a price break when I send people.  Cretaiole is an all-encompassing agriturismo just near Pienza and loving run by the family Moricianni.  This is not just a place to stay, it is an experience.  Isa arranges tours, cooking lessons, olive oil tastings and dinners for her guests.  This is where I put my parents and young daughter when I had to be elsewhere on tour.

Day trips from this area are limitless with a car!  The big sites are Siena, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Pienza.  A little further and you can add Volterra and the touristy San Gimignano.  The beautiful Sant Antimo and San Galgano as very close.  I also love simply popping in and out of the small villages not normally seen such as Bagno Vignoni and San Quirico D’Orcia.




To be continued…….

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Best places to homebase in Italy with a rental car

I’m switching gears now and will be talking about the places I stay when I have a rental car and the ability to get out into the harder to reach areas.  If you missed my favorite cities to home base in using public transportation click here and here.

Le Marche

I specifically stay near the small hill town of Monterubbiano at my favorite B&B called the Vento di Rose.  I love this area for several reasons.  The first is that you will be hard pressed to find a bus load of tourists pouring in and out of these little towns.  The feeling while visiting this area is completely authentic.  I also love the fact that the sea is just a matter of minutes away so you can also experience a varied holiday.

Le marche

Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche


The Amalfi Coast is beautiful but it is a crowded place, especially in the summer months.  I prefer to stay in Furore and explore the coast in the opposite direction as most tourists.  There is a lovely hotel here called Fico d’India with a most gracious named Pino.  Tell him I said hi!

furore italy amalfi coast


To be continued…….

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Best towns to homebase in Italy without a car | Part Two

If you missed my first post, click here.  Below are a few more of my favorite towns to home base in without using a rental car and relying only on public transportation.  These are places with quick and easy transportation connections.  Again, I believe there is no better way to get to know Italy while saving money than staying put in one location for an extended period of time.


Siena is the best of both worlds in my opinion.  It has the heart of a small town, but the energy and variety of sites like a bigger city.  Many people stay in Florence and day trip into Siena, but  I prefer doing the exact opposite.  Siena is busy during the day but the evening is absolutely magical.  Easy connections to Florence, San Gimignano, Montipulicano, Montalcino and Pienza.

italy travel


The Amalfi Coast is one of the highlights of most travelers’ itineraries.  Sorrento as a home base makes seeing the surrounding area an absolute breeze.  While this is the biggest town on the coast, it still holds much charms and beauty!  Easy day trips include Naples, Pompeii, Capri, Amalfi Town, Ravello and Positano.

sorrento italy travel


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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Best towns to homebase in Italy without a car

I love finding a place in Italy and parking it there for an extended period of time.  I believe this is THE best way to connect with the people and have as close to a true cultural experience as a tourist.  Not to mention this is a great way to save money, decrease travel time and get to actually relax.

I will be listing a few of my favorites towns to home base in for travelers that are using public transportation only.  Unlike the US, it is fairly easy to get around using just the train systems.


I love Cortona.  One of my favorite restaurants is here.  Also my favorite weekly market.  And wine store.  And antique store.  You get the idea.  The town itself can keep you busy for a few days.  Florence, Assisi, Orvieto, Spello and Perguia are all within easy train distance.

cortona italy


My very first hilltown I visited when I was 19.  You can never shake your first love.  Orvieto gets loads of attention because of its location near the autostrada, but it still maintains its beauty and charm.  Evenings are exceptional here.  My favorite handbag store in within the walls of Orvieto.  The views are some of the absolute best.  Easy connections from Orvieto by either bus or train are Rome, Florence, Cortona, Civita, Bolsena, Chiusi and Montepulciano.

orvieto italy


If you are planning time on the coast, stretch it out and really make a vacation out of it.  So many people rush in and out of this area.  Vernazza is my favorite home base for seeing the other four villages of the Cinque Terre.  There is more to be visited in the area by easy train connections like Portofino, Portovenere and Sestri Levante.

Cinque Terre

To be continued…….

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Trattoria da Sandro Open Again | Vernazza

When people ask me where my very favorite restaurant in Vernazza is, without hesitation I say Sandro’s.  It is one of the only restaurants without a view of the harbor, but that doesn’t keep it from being packed every evening.  The crowd Sandro’s draws is also important:  locals and Italians.  Going where the locals go has always been my secret for finding the best places and I wasn’t disappointed here.  So much so that almost one year ago I placed it on my Top Ten Favorite Places to Eat list.


The village of Vernazza

But when the floods hit Vernazza last October, I was afraid Sandro’s would be lost for good.  This restaurant was one of the hardest hit and the owner barely escaped with his life.  The location of the restaurant and the way the kitchen was set up meant a difficult clean up and recovery.

This hardship makes announcing Trattoria da Sandro’s re-opening even more exciting.  If anyone is getting ready to travel to the Cinque Terre, make sure to stop by Vernazza and spend an evening here.  Let them delight you!

For the most recent photos from Trattoria da Sandro, I invite you to my blogging friend’s mouth-watering article at Cultural Comments.  I have been trying not to be too jealous of Nicole, but come on!  Those photos are just NOT FAIR!

vernazza cinque terre

Courtesy of Cultural Comments. And I’m not jealous at all. Really.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

My Special Places in Italy | Angel Tours Rome

While a tour group might not technically be a special place, this is my blog and I will call it so if I want to!

When I first hatched the idea of creating my Italian travel planning business, I met the energetic and charismatic Sean while visiting Rome.  He had recently taken over Angel Tours Rome and with his small army of students completely won me over.  Since that time years ago, he has grown his business and expanded to other cities including Dublin and Florence.

When I first began traveling, I thought naively that I could get what I needed when at the Vatican or the Roman Forum with a simple guidebook.  Once I experienced those sites again through the eyes of Sean’s guides I was amazed at how much more real and alive they became.  It was as if I was seeing them for the first time.  I feel that with every visit.  I have taken the tours several times with my groups and on my personal visits.  Believe it or not, I never tire of them.  Sean finds young people who are so incredibly knowledgeable of history, art and culture you find yourself almost guilty in your ignorance.  But these guides are no snobs.  Every single one injects just the right amount of humor and storytelling.   They are the first to confess to being a bit ‘mad.’

I can’t help but feel a connection to Angel Tours and I am so proud of the growth that has happened since I first stumbled upon them.  For anyone traveling to Italy and planning to stay in Rome, check out Angel Tours Rome and make sure to tell them hello from Andi!!

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Learning When To Run

 **Writer’s Note** 

October of last year, a massive flood and mudslide covered one of my beloved villages in Italy.  Since that time I have been working to help raise awareness and money for the extensive restoration and rebuild.  I am currently writing a book about the village’s history, beauty and the disaster.  I will be donating 100% of the proceeds once published. 

I have been asked why I would spend so much of my time and effort for a place half the world away.

This is my response.

When I was 15 years old a man named Garvin saved my life when he didn’t have to.

I was 4,000 miles away from home and my family when the earthquake hit Costa Rica.  My friends and I stood dumbstruck on that beach trying to comprehend what had just happened.  I can remember grabbing our video camera to film the ocean in its eerie stillness.  I was naive to the pending danger and oblivious of the power that was to follow those quietly receding waters.  From out of the jungle came shouting.

‘Run!  Run girls.  Run!’

A local named Garvin, with his dark bare chest and long dreadlocks haphazardly whipping behind him, was sprinting towards us at full speed.

‘Run NOW!’ he commanded.

My reverie was broken.  The rushing wave of water suddenly in focus.  I did not know the word tsunami at the time, but I certainly understood the fear.  We dropped everything and fled for the safety of the jungle, Garvin pushing us on from behind.  I was first up the steep embankment and several feet into the trees before I dared turn around.  I watched as the water overtook the last of my companions, the wave rising up and over her head.  Garvin reached down and plucked her to safety.  She was shaken and drenched, but she was alive.  We all were.

That afternoon I experienced four new things:  the power of an earthquake measuring 7.4 from which I was less than 10 miles from the epicenter, the unrelenting force of the ocean knocked off balance, the comfort of a pull of whiskey straight from the bottle and the kind selfless bravery of a stranger.  Garvin.  One man who could have looked the other way and sought safety for himself.  Instead, he took a risk to save three others who were nothing more than visitors in his land.

The beach after the earthquake and tsunami.
Courtesy of Steve Casimuro

Over 20 years later on October 25, 2011 I woke to bits and pieces of news about a devastating flood and mudslide to an Italian village that had long ago captured a piece of my heart.  Vernazza.  Just the name rolling off my tongue makes me smile, evoking warm memories of lazy days and deep conversations running well into the night.  The thought of my special place trapped in mud was unbearable.  To make matters worse there was nothing I could do to help from across the ocean.  I wanted to pick up a shovel but instead I settled for this pen.  I began to write.  To write of what was, what is and what could be.  I found I was not alone.  So many others shared my bond and reached out to help.

This became more than a book.  This became my love story to Vernazza.  For the heroes, the brave, the fallen and the stubbornly resilient.  This is about kindness and beauty; this is about past history and new beginnings.  This is also my chance to pay forward for a sacrifice made many years ago on a Costa Rican beach.

My hope is to move you, to inspire you and give you courage.  Courage in your own life to make a difference and to understand that no support is too little nor act too small.  We have all been saved in some way by someone at sometime in our lives.  The time has now come to be the brave, the one to pluck the suffering from the water.

The one to yell ‘RUN!’

Cinque Terre

Beautiful Vernazza before the flood.

Cinque Terre

Water raging through the harbor square.

Joining up again with the fabulous writers at yeah write. Click the button below to read some truly wonderful writers and don’t forget to return on Thursday to vote for your five favorite posts.

Copyright 2012  Andi Brown  Once in a Lifetime Travel

My Special Places in Italy | Civita B&B

Following my article about the magical hill town of Civita di Bagnoregio, I had requests for more information about the B&B I stayed the night in.

My room in Civita.

I would like to introduce Civita B&B, run by the talented Franco.

Trattoria Antico Forno

Trattoria Antico FornoThis amazing little place is has three rooms on the top floor of a building overlooking the main piazza.  Franco runs this B&B as well as the restaurant Trattoria Antico Forno.  We had the pleasure of dining with him each night and enjoying his simple yet delicious traditional meals.  I say dined with him because he spent as much time sitting at our table entertaining us with stories as he did preparing our meal.  Not many chefs are able or willing to do that!

To contact Franco about availabilities, following the link here.

If you plan on arriving in Civita on a Sunday, be aware that the tractor he usually uses to haul luggage up the hill is not allowed.  I suggest taking your necessities and valuables in a day pack instead of dragging all of your things up the steep  bridge.

And, yes, I learned this the hard way!

antico forno civita B&B

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

My Special Places in Italy | Civita di Bagnoregio

View of Civita from across the valley

Regally perched high atop a hill of tufa is the magical but dying town of Civita di Bagnoregio.  This tiny village near Orvieto in Umbria has everything one could hope for when exploring the Italian countryside.  Civita is quaint, so perfect you might wonder if you have stumbled upon a movie set and not a real village.  Civita has views, breath-taking panoramic views from all sides that any photographer would drop dead for.  Civita has history, a story with every step and in every stone.

History is evident in the layers here.  Its origins are Etruscan and date back over 2500 years.  Civita had a prime location because it was situated along a major trade route to Rome and the town remained an important stop even as the Etruscan power gave way to the growing Roman Empire.  The town continued to build upon itself over the centuries.  Many of the existing structures were built during the Renaissance time period upon existing Roman walls whose foundations were Etruscan.  A classic example is the cathedral on the square.  It is located on the site of a Roman temple which was built over the original Etruscan temple.  From pagan to Christian over the course of thousands of years.  Looking at the buildings circling the piazza, you can see where the stones of one age end and another begin.

Civita’s main square

Maria, courtesy of Miriam

Currently there are less than two dozen people living in Civita, none of them original residents of the village.  Little Maria was the last of the living inhabitants that was born and raised within the walls, but she has sadly moved elsewhere because of her ailing health.  Many of you might remember her as the old woman who would wave passersby into her garden for sweeping views of the valley.  Now her gates are locked and her smile just a memory.  But while people and places seem to be in constant flux, Civita itself is timeless.

Climb up the deceiving steep cement bridge put in place after earthquakes and bombings destroyed the natural land connection.  Pass through the impressive stone gate carved by the Etruscans 2500 years ago.  Wander down the main street, ducking in to see the 2000 year old press along with all the little nooks and crannies.  Continue to follow the path as it takes you outside the back of the village and further down to the ancient caves that have been used for everything from storage of food and animals to shelter from the bombings during the war.  Creep up the dirt trail and peer into the dark Chapel of the Incarcerated, thought to originally be an Etruscan tomb turned jail and currently now a chapel.  When you make your way back to the village be sure to step into the cathedral on the main square.  There is a fresco on the left called the Madonna of the Earthquake, named after the shaking that broke loose a layer of white wash that had kept it hidden for years.  There is a wooden crucifix over the altar from the School of Donatello that has been a source of pride for the little community.

Civita is in the details

When visiting tiny Civita, a person could sprint across its entirety without so much as breaking a sweat.  In fact, many do.  Most come during the day spending less than an hour wandering around, missing much of the subtle hidden beauty and altogether ignoring the trail that takes you out the back of the village to the treasures below.  Some tourists do feel the pull of Civita and find themselves lingering over bruschetta or even a meal.  Rarely, a few choose to spend the night.

I was fortunate to be one of those visitors.  There is a stillness that settles over Civita as the evening turns to night.  A quiet calm feeling, like taking off your shoes and digging your toes into the sands of history.  I could imagine what this place must have been like in her peak before earthquakes and time had reduced the population from thousands to a handful.   As the time got late, the tourists disappeared and the few residents slowly left the main square for their own beds.  I had a hard time sleeping that night, the silence roaring in my ears and thoughts of all those here before me dancing in my mind.

Peaking out the window of my room in Civita.

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copyright 2012  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

La Bottega dei Vasai

Italian pottery

Kiln inside the bottega

There are moments when traveling that are so rare I hesitate to breathe in too deeply for fear of breaking the spell.  My day with Annamaria in her pottery studio was one of those times.

Located in the small village of Montottone in the lesser known region of Le Marche, La Bottega dei Vasai has been using traditional techniques here since 1851.  By following in the footsteps of her father and the family before him, Annamaria Bozzi became the first female master potter.  She and her brother passionately carry on the age-old traditions giving new life to a trade that was once slowly dying.

italian pottery

Inside the studio

We found the unassuming entrance of bottega just outside the town walls along a narrow road.  Chickens scattered as I stepped out of the car and I hesitated momentarily, not sure I was even in the right spot.  As we entered, Annamaria greeted us warmly and immediately began to show us around.  This was like no other place I had seen before.   The studio was cool from the thick stone walls and it smelled of time.  Vases, bowls and plates were tucked into every corner; wooden steps lead us up and down to each room.  We were able to crawl around the kilns, watch her brother glazing pots and see all the finished works in the modest showroom.

italian pottery

My daughter at the wheel with Annamaria

Then Annamaria lead us up to the corner of the studio where she sat at her pottery wheel and gave us a first hand demonstration.  Watching her so effortlessly create a delicate bowl from a mound of clay was hypnotizing.  Unexpectedly she invited us to try our hand on the wheel.   Unfortunately my efforts were neither effortless nor hypnotizing.  But there was something magical about sitting there, my hands wet with clay, creating at the same seat as Annamaria, her father and his father had done for decades before me.  Patiently she guided each one of us, even teaching my young daughter.

This became more than a pottery studio; this became a tactile look into a way of life that has been virtually unchanged for centuries.  As we left the bottega the experience clung to me, just like the clay that stuck under my fingernails.

italian pottery

Getting started on the wheel with Annamaria’s help

Not as easy as it looks

copyright 2011  Andi Brown  Once in a Lifetime Travel


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