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MARK-itecture: Savor a Tour Through Italy Through an Architect’s Eyes

Florence Italy Skyline at dusk

Photo by Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock

Mark Candelaria has a passion for architecture and design, and a love for all things Italy. He shares his most recent journey to the European hot spot in this three-part series. We start in Florence.

Welcome to MARK-itecture, a collaboration between ICONIC LIFE and Mark Candelaria, founder and principal of Candelaria Design, whose award-winning designs, visionary architecture and international reputation make him an expert voice on architecture, food and travel when you bring them all together. He will share his travels and perspective as a regular contributor right here.

Ah, Italy. The more times I visit, the less of Italy I realize I have seen. Italy is truly endless. Virtually every year, over the course of the last 20 years, I have hosted a tour to Italy. This year marked my sixteenth tour and my twentieth trip to Italy overall. And, I am so lucky that I get to go back again this month to visit a window company! Given all of my other travels and tours, I forget how much I truly love Italy until I return each year, and I am reminded how amazing this country really is.

Florence Italy steet

Photo by Barat Roland / Shutterstock

My first trip to Italy was sparked by a client who wanted me to design a Tuscan home. I casually suggested we go to Italy and check it out authentic design. My client excitedly and instantly agreed. At this time, I had just started my own firm and had never been to Italy, but I offered to set it up and take them not knowing how in the hell I was going to pull it off!

Luckily, at the same time I was designing a home for a travel agent, told her the story, and she enthusiastically said, “I’ll set up an amazing trip for you in some farmhouses I know in Umbria, which is near Tuscany, and my husband and I will join you!” Thus, the first Candelaria Tour Italy was born! That was in 2000, and we have taken almost 250 travelers since then.

Store fronts Florence Italy

Photo by yingko / Shutterstock

The tour has evolved over the years, and the stories from these 16 tours is a book in itself. We start each tour now in Florence, then move to a farmhouse compound consisting of three lovely stone homes high in the hills of Umbria for a week, and then finish our tour in a different spot every year. This year we finished in northern Italy in the village of Asolo, Italy.

Every tour is unique not only because of where we go, what we see, and what we experience, but what makes each trip so special and so memorable are the people who travel with us. This year’s tour was no exception and only adds to the fabric of all of my memoires, so sit back and enjoy a quick trip through Italy with me in Candelaria style. (My publisher Renee Dee has divided my story into three parts—Florence, Umbria/Tuscany and The Veneto/Asolo—as I have so much to say about each stop, and we don’t want you to miss a thing.)

Ponte Vecchio over Arno river in Florence, Italy

Photo by muratart

For many years now, we’ve started our Italy Tour in Florence—Firenze! It is an easy airport to fly into, navigate and be on your way. After flying for some 22 hours, that is what you want when you finally land. Amazingly, as with all of our trips, the adrenaline kicks in and everyone is excited to get the tour started. So, we grab our bags, meet the transport, and it’s a short 20-minute drive from the airport to our hotel, the fabulous Hotel Brunelleschi located right in the heart of Firenze. We have been staying there for most of the 20 years I have been leading these tours, and we know the staff quite well. Of course, they know us quite well, too!

Every tour is unique not only because of where we go, what we see, and what we experience, but what makes each trip so special and so memorable are the people who travel with us.

We only have two nights and one day in Firenze, so we don’t waste time getting things going even with flying all day and night. We check in, freshen up and meet in the hotel bar for spritzes, a glass of wine or cocktail, and a quick group picture—the official start to every tour!

Mark Candelaria Florence Italy tour

Photo by Mark Candelaria

The Duomo Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore Italy

Photo by Mark Candelaria

While the sun is beginning to set on our first few hours in Italy, our excitement and anticipation is just starting! We walk just a few blocks from our hotel, past Brunelleschi’s fabulous Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore, and the temperatures start to cool, and the plethora of tourists seem to slowly evaporate. It is there that we have our welcome dinner right there with the Duomo as our backdrop at the Ristorante Buca San Giovanni You cannot find a better venue to start this trip. We started with the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a Tuscan delight from the Chianina cattle which is an ancient Tuscan breed, aged, seasoned with local spices, grilled over hot wood coals and served “rare.” With the 22 hours of jet lag, the unimaginable backdrop of the Duomo and several glasses, ok bottles, of wine flowing, you virtually enter a dream state of scenic and savory bliss. Welcome to Italy my friends.

We start our first morning in Italy robustly, of course, by meeting in the hotel lobby at the crack of dawn, where we depart for my completely optional morning walk through Firenze minus tourists.

We start our first morning in Italy robustly, of course, by meeting in the hotel lobby at the crack of dawn, where we depart for my completely optional morning walk through Firenze minus tourists. I cannot stress how much I encourage my guests to do this in any major city we visit as we see the city in a whole different light—no people, quiet, cool and you get to watch the city as it slowly comes alive. It is one of my favorite experiences and a great way to get the macro overview of any place you choose to visit at the beginning of a trip. Our walk begins at the Palazzo Vecchio, from where we make our way across the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. With the sun starting to rise we make our way through the winding streets and back across the Arno River to the Santa Maria Novella Church then finally to one of my favorite spots, the Mercato Centrale.

Mercato Centrale Florence

Photo by Mark Candelaria

The Mercato is a foodie’s paradise of endless culinary vendor booths and displays on the ground floor with dining venues on the second floor. Needless to say, I could stay here the entire tour, and I wish I had one of these in Phoenix, but since I don’t, I load up on spices, risotto, truffle honey and polenta, and bring them home in my suitcase.

With our morning walk completed, we grab breakfast at the hotel, which is fabulous by the way, and then go hike to the top of the Giotto’s Campanile, which is the bell tower next to the Duomo. It’s a great work out with a spectacular view, and for me, my morning is complete.

Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence Italy

Photo by Mark Candelaria

The rest of the day is a free day for my travelers to explore Firenze! My wife, Isabel, and I, along with a couple of our travelers enjoyed the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is just fabulous and is the burial sites for the fabulous Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini and Machiavelli, to name just a few. It is such an experience to wander, pray, daydream and imagine all the people and souls who have built and experienced this treasure—some of whom are spending eternity here.

Harry's Bar in Florence

Photo by Mark Candelaria

Next, we made our way down the Arno River to Harry’s Bar for a signature Bellini, which is a refreshing peach puree and prosecco cocktail, and a light lunch. We did a little shopping, took a power nap and later got decked out for dinner in the hills above Florence.

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Belmond Villa San Michele Florence

Belmond Villa San Michele Florence

We gathered the troops and all took taxis through town and up the hills to the magical Belmond Villa San Michele. A former 15th-Century monastery now converted to a hotel, it is truly off the charts and has been one of our stops virtually every year since starting this tour. We started with some photos out front, which is spectacular. It is hard to image that it only gets better as you make your way through the monastery to the back-garden terrace where more Bellini’s are waiting and a view of Firenze below that is unimaginable. As the sun sets, the music plays, and it was at that moment that two of our travelers wandered to a special spot where he got down on his knee and proposed to his girlfriend. Talk about goosebumps! This was over the top. This was actually, our second proposal on one of our tours. I truly believe this moment solidified the bonding of our travelers in a unique way, as we all shared in this moment.

With hugs and toasts, the sun set over the panoramic view of Firenze, and we made our way from the garden, through the cross-vaulted loggia to our table at the far end where we would be hosted and served by my waiter we’ve seen for nearly 20 years, Antanello. We enjoyed a fabulous pre-set dinner with wine pairings, allowing my travelers to relax, enjoy the view, savor the cuisine and treasure newly found friendships.

Stay tuned for my next installment in this series. Bon Giorno!

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