It’s another one of those jewels that somehow gets overlooked on the main tourist routes. The Germans know it well, but beyond that, it’s really off the radar. So, we got to drive to the main attraction in Trenton. Castle del Buoncosiglio. It’s a castle! It has extraordinary murals of everyday life. A nice cafe and bookshop. And nobody really knows much about it. Its close to a cluster of towns that spread like a necklace around the top of Italy. I think of them all. Turin, Verona, Mantua Padua and what’s incredible is that they are remarkable, beautiful and unusual. Close to Milan and not far from Venice they can provide a respite from the main tourist’s sights…Check it out!
Tag Archives: Italy
Driving in Italy can be stressful. People drive fast. City driving is not recommended. Restrictions on city centers driving make it a lost cause. But… I love driving along the highways and the Auto Stradas. I love stopping at the Autogrill places. This past month I drove with a friend of mine from Rome to Ortisei, high up in the mountains of the Dolomites. And in between two funny things happened. My friend was driving. He ran out of gas. And there we were on the bush stretch of Auto Strada and we had to call in for a tow to the Herat Autogrill gas station. We were 6 km away. But it took a while for the guy to show up and then we remained in the car while he hauled us onto his tow truck. Was quite an adventure watching the world go whizzing by us while we sat in the car on the tow truck as it poodles along enroute to the gas pump. A funny experience.
Anyhow on to my next point. These Autogrills are quite a phenomenon. They sell everything. From the regular auto stop necessities like coffee and a sandwich to the spectacular. It’s a full on delicatessen, a fabulous self-serve restaurant with amazing regional dishes and clothes and toys and anything you may have forgotten on the road. We saw 4 trucks of firefighters from Romania buying the place out as they were heading home. It’s a supermarket with fabulous food. And the prices are amazing. Each Autogrill has different specialties depending upon the region. Oh. And you can get gas there too! Thank goodness! 😅
In my travels I love stumbling on the unusual places that don’t necessarily fit into a regular itinerary. Recently while driving through the Dolomites area I got to see the beautiful towns of the Sufvtirol. The Sufvtirol was formerly part of the Austrian Hungarian empire. In a classic land grab after the First World War, Italy apportioned itself the Austrian border towns and created the region Sudtirol. It’s a wealthy beautiful area. The unusual Dolomites with their rust colored dramatic rock towers above beautiful valleys and the largest prairie in Europe. The alpe di susi. In the winter it’s a skier’s paradise. In the summer the lifts keep rolling and skiers are replaced by walkers and bikers. The Dolomites are wide open unlike other alpine ranges. Lots of sun and places to stay on the high mountains. The food is very different. A mix of the best of Austrian and Italian. Wines are very good. Especially the whites. The local delicacies like speck, a type of prosciutto, and the delicious cheeses plus a whole variety of pasta makes this one of my favorite culinary stops. Towns like Bolzano and Ortisei and the glitzy Cortina are a short distance from Venice or Verona.
There is believe it or not, a World Cup Tiramisu tournament in Treviso each year. Now in its 6th year it has two categories. Original and creative. So, I guess gold medals for two which seems fair. They say Treviso is the birthplace of the dish. Invented by Alba Campeol in the early 1960’s from her restaurant Le Beccherie. Inspired by a breakfast recipe of egg yolks and sugar (zabaglione) with espresso it was a sort of energizer to start the day. It literally means “pick me up from down” and I often wonder why people prefer to have it as a dessert that is guaranteed to keep you up all night. It’s probably because it’s so simply delicious and in restaurants it’s easy to prepare and store. So…Best Tiramisu. Better with with alcohol but not mandatory! Egg yolks and sugar folded into whites with marscapone. Savoiardi or lady fingers then soaked with espresso and rum and decorated with grated chocolate.
It’s one of two desserts I always choose. The other is crème Brûlée. But I would say it prefer the Italian to the French!
Roma, non basta una vita!
There is one question that I keep asking myself…when the world opens up once more, where should we go first?!
Will it be Rome? Will it be London? Will it be Paris?
For me, the answer would absolutely be to go to Rome. But what would that first day look like?
Well, arrival day in Rome is always filled with both confusion and amazement. During the cab ride into the city, you pass flat fields on either side and through a modern suburb that houses a replica of the Pantheon of the ancient city that I am heading to. And then suddenly you take a left turn and up the Aventine Hill. Now I am on one of the most beautiful of the seven hills. Time to visit the orange orchard and look through the key hole from which you can see the dome of St Peter’s. Fairly dramatically across the road sits the villas of Ancient Rome along the Palatine embankment. And just below, there are the remnants of the great circus Maximus. Dogs walk where great chariots once raced.
The ride becomes breathtaking now – there’s the Mouth of Truth, two ancient temples along the river, the theatre of Marcello, and then the great Cordonata Capitalina leading to the Campidoglio. Next to that are the medieval stairs of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli and underneath are some Roman houses that provided a foundation for the 19th century Vittorio Emmanuel II “wedding cake” monument. It’s a sightseeing and tourist landmark but not much else! But now we are in the Piazza Venezia. Down one end through the myriad of streets is the Pantheon and down the other end, the Colosseum. And then we have disappeared into Rome.
Rome is truly an open-air museum in itself. My favorite Roman walk begins in the medieval square in Trastevere, heads across the ancient Roman bridge, and continues through the piazzas that tumble like centuries before arriving in Bernini’s Piazza Navona. To get there, you first pass through the Piazza Farnese with its beautiful Palazzo, now the French Embassy, and the two bathtubs from Caracalla that anchor the square. The Campo di Fiori is next with its exciting bars and marketplace. Here the statue of Giordano Bruno marks the square. The best pizza and the best pasta carbonara are available here! Also this is not far from what once was Teatro di Pompeo, precisely where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
Across the busy road, you make your way into the Piazza Navona. This is probably the most famous square outside of St. Peter’s. Bernini went to town here with three fountains, the most famous being the fountain of the four rivers.
You continue the long walk via the Pantheon along the Corso to the Spanish Steps and ultimately to the Piazza del Popolo. In between, I love to grab a coffee at a bar, have a Campari, and maybe do some shopping on one of the tiny streets that surround the Senate Building. If I could sneak to Rome in January with the winter sun and empty streets, it would be the start of my reconnection to travel that I have sorely missed. Roma, non basta una vita!
Observations: How Arriving in Rome Leads to Magic
Let me just say, I miss Italy – the walks, the food, the friends, the light, and the myriad of personalities represented by each tiny kingdom that makes up this crazy country. Whenever I travel to Italy, I find myself in a reoccurring predicament sort of like Groundhog Day…the arrival day. There is a reassuring madness and transition that takes place every time.
In Rome, if you made the mistake of checking your bag, you are often resigned to a long wait by the carousel where I am convinced the baggage handlers gather underneath and watch us poor checkers of bags wait and wilt, teasing us with an early movement of the carousel, encouraging us to jostle to claim the best spot for a smooth departure. Mistake number one. You checked your bag! Rome’s airport is so convinced that it will be a long and possibly fruitless wait, that they have installed a children’s playground and coffee/wine bar to ease the pressure of the moment as the baggage handlers do whatever they need to do to maintain their part in this commedia dell’arte.
And then at some point, if you’re lucky, the bags show up. There is a frantic grab as everyone, except the unlucky ones, retrieve their bags and head to the uscita. And then the next round of fun begins.
Taxi? No grazie.
Metro? Dove? Bus al centro, mi dispiace! Nothing comes easy.
The signs at airports in Italy are always confusing and there are often a couple of exit points so that somebody waiting for you may be in the wrong place. It only adds to the story. By nature, Italians are overly detailed and under sourced in terms of organization. So there are rules that make no sense and rules that are deliberately confusing. And everyone in Italy think they make perfect sense – which they do if you’re Italian.
Confusion, chaos, where is the metro, how do I get a ticket, where is the motolaunch in Venice, which way do I go?! Italians almost revel in that power of perfect and complete orderly chaos. It’s their word after all – caos.
At some point, you survive the airport arrival and end up in your hotel. A little frustrated, but how bad can it be as we are talking about Italy!
Then the arrival moment…the passegiata.
Through the busy piazzas and the bits of Bernini, past the fountains and the Baroque and Roman stone, you stop and take an espresso, or a gelato, or a beer, or a Campari. And you look out onto the movie set walking by and you know something beautiful has happened without your knowledge. You have passed to the other side. You have disappeared into Italy, and have become an observer of all those things that you found frustrating and they have turned into beautiful moments. The transformation is complete.
No need to toss coins in the fountain. The spell is cast and without even a thought, but with a skip in your step, you go about your day secure in the knowledge that you will return.
And I Found Myself in Venice
A Trip to Slovenia
I had been to Slovenia once many years ago when I was in Venice for a couple of days. We had spent an hour in Trieste before driving to the Slovenian border. The border was long gone but the thrill of crossing over into the former Yugoslavia was amazing. Slovenia was incorporated into the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2007. I remember that we drove to the Postojna Caves but they were closed. We spent a bit of time there and then returned to Venice. The most thrilling part of the day was crossing the border.
Honestly, I never thought much more about Slovenia. A few people I know had visited Ljubljana and loved it, but I had never returned. That is, until my son met a wonderful woman from Slovenia and they decided to get married. So, off I went again with new purpose and renewed interest! A return across the border and a chance to see a little more of this tiny country.
First of all, Slovenia is easy to get to. The capital, Ljubljana, has its own airport with frequent services to and from most European airports. There is a decent train hook up and if you rent a car, it is a short drive from either Trieste or from Venice. The journey time to Ljubljana is about 2 and half hours from Venice. The border is invisible, but you do need to buy a vinjeta. The vinjeta is a 15 Euro toll sticker that substitutes the awkward toll booths in Italy. It is easy to find – all motorway auto stops have them – and you simply stick it on your windshield. Without this little thing, a hefty fine awaits you!
The roads are great, even better than Italy in fact, and most people on the border speak perfect Italian as well as English. All roads lead through Postojna (where the famous caves are) and Nova Gorica on the border. Everything is well sign posted and the countryside is incredibly beautiful.
Slovenia has a wide compendium of landscape. From the vineyards in the Tuscan-looking rolling hills of the Friuli area, to the mountains that peer over Lake Bled in the north. It’s really a perfect country for a short break or an adventure break. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking and sightseeing. Famous chefs abound as well. The world’s top female chef is Ana Ros, chef of restaurant Hisa Franko. The food has all of the great influences of Italy – as does the white wine with a strong background of Austrian and Slovenian tastes. It’s a gourmand’s delight. There are probably more top-quality restaurants in Slovenia per square mile than any country in the world.
In addition to meeting the in-laws, we had in mind to see a variety of places with only three days at our disposal. The “must-see” things you must see are Lake Bled and its 1,000-year-old castle, the Postojna Caves, the second largest limestone cave formations in the world, and of course, the capital Ljubljana. In between, there is a tiny piece of coastline with beautiful Piran as its centerpiece and the fascinating border town of Goricia and Nova Gorica. The only walled city that divided East and West after the second World War. In the Friuli area that borders Italy, beautiful towns like Šmartno are tucked into the rolling hills.
The city of Ljubljana is so picture perfect that you have to keep pinching yourself. It’s a charming Austro-Hungarian town with the famous Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city. The river that runs through the town hosts mini boat cruises and the bars and restaurants that line the banks are full of action and fun. Bicyclists are everywhere and there is a new pedestrian zone that has just been opened and adjoins the old town. If you can spend three days here, you will know it well. A few more days to taste the cuisine and drink the wine and you will be overjoyed. It is a fairytale town tucked into beautiful countryside; clean and picturesque with great food and lots of things to do outside the capital.
We didn’t stay long enough. A short drive back to Trieste for an overnight before heading home. However, new connections mean more visits. You never know, we may even get the hang of Slovenian!
La Dolce Vita – Zermatt Style
Today was so cold and the temperature at the top of mountain minus 40 Celsius. The cable car stalled every five minutes because of the temperatures. But…the sun was out and with seven layers and a balaclava I was ready.
We were going to ski Italy today.
The amazing thing about Zermatt is that you get two countries, two huge mountains and therefore two cuisines. Two cultures and frankly extreme cultural differences. On the Swiss side, all the lunch places are privately owned. On the Italian side, it’s local government concessions. Even the toilets are terrible on the Italian side because they don’t care to spend the money. They just lease the premises every three years. But, hey, it’s la dolce vita so who can knock that?! It’s rosti versus polenta. Let the games begin.
At nearly 13,000 feet, the Klein Matterhorn is the highest ski station in the Alps. It’s breathtaking. From there we took the one hour ski journey to Valtournenche, a town and commune in the Aosta Valley region of northwestern Italy. What a ride – 16 kilometers of winding ski terrain. It’s something everyone should try once in their life.
Lunch at the top of course would be polenta. The sun stayed on us all day and it was glorious.
The London to Venice flight on BA is always a treat. Once you clear the cloud cover of England, you have the beautiful Alps to greet you. No matter how many times I cross the snow capped peaks, it never ceases to amaze. This year has seen tons of snow. Still, the beauty was way up high. Below it was cloud and rain and down into another gray day. But it was Venice!
I love the slow descent into the airport here. The shape of the island, the clock tower, the canals clearly visible…It’s such a strange place. Such a trip. It’s the only place where everyone on the plane looks out of the window. It’s a wow. You want it to last forever.
Venice Upon Arrival
And then the bubble burst. Immigration was a mess. There were two people for hundreds of arrivals so it took a while. It was pure Italian theater. Nobody had a clue. The immigration officers looked in no rush at all. People were getting frustrated. It was one hour before we got to our bags!
Then there was the slightly complicated journey to the motor boats. The Venice Marco Polo Airport has recently had renovations so getting to the motor boats that bring you to the center of Venice is a new experience. It’s quite complex and not obvious to the newly arrived passengers. You have to go up the escalator to departures. Ugh. What?! And then you lose the sign. It just disappears. So, use your instincts, look for a sign, do anything. But then it pops back into view! There is a long walk along a moving escalator and down into the speedboat taxi area.
There is the usual confusion here (something’s never change!) but it is worth the wait because now it’s the greatest ride in the world. Across the lagoon and through a narrow canal and then it hits you. The grand canal. The Santa Maria della Salute, the Doges Palace, and the Piazza San Marco.
Venice in Winter
There is plenty of rain in the winter and the boards are stacked high for the Acqua Alta. In the distance the Alps beckon with snow painted across the horizon. San Marco is busy with tourists and umbrellas which always reminds me of a Prendergast painting.
I wandered back to the hotel across a couple of delightful bridges. Watched the gondola guys organizing their business and took a moment to study their technique. I tried being a gondolier once. It’s impossible! The oar, the movement, the control. It amazes and mesmerizes. Dinner later would add the final touch. Black ink squid with spaghetti.
Making My Way Around Naples
Let me start out by saying that I visited Naples on my own a few years’ back. It was just a quick
stroll from the station and around the city for about two hours before heading back to Rome. It was interesting but I really didn’t get a sense of the city. Now we have a client that I know that would like to go to Naples but the rap on the city is that it has a lot of petty crime. So off I went with my man bag in hand for a virgin overnight in Naples.
First of all, it’s only a 63-minute journey on the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples. The train is super fast. The Italians love their high-speed train links. They’re really good at this stuff! After a particularly dreadful on-train coffee served by a particularly disinterested on-train steward (the Italians are really good at this stuff too), we had arrived in Naples. My mate had organized a taxi (booked) from the station and so far, so good. We safely got to our hotel on a nice stretch of the promenade that sits opposite the island of Capri. In between, there were the usual underground excavations for a project that would never be finished, but no matter, we were here. The trip had been entirely uneventful, no muggings, no hassles and now with the light of the early evening, we decided to go for a walking tour.
Here’s the thing about Naples – it’s handy to know your way around, there are lots of hills, it’s a chaotic, and there are lots of different areas with very different characteristics. The first stop was the Palazzo Mannajuolo which holds an incredible staircase; probably the most breathtaking internal staircase in all the world, la scala ellittica. We strolled around the hilly Chiaia and stopped at an old-world candy store in San Ferdinando. We came across a beautiful piazza with the pantheon-like structure of the church of San Ferdinando. The piazza here is open and full of light with Vesuvius in the background. The opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was showing La Traviata. There is a spectacular galleria, the Galleria Umberto I, close by as well. It houses thousands of panes of glass sitting in a cross formation with a whole series of panels of Jewish stars that form part of the glass decoration. The history of Naples is more or less the entire history of the our ancient civilization. One thing’s for sure, it makes Rome look like a young lad.
The light was dropping so we wandered back to the harbor to prepare for dinner near the Castle Nuovo (not very nuovo actually). That is where I had the most incredible spaghetti alle vongole I had ever eaten. So, this was Naples and we had only been there a few hours. More to come. Wow.
Eataly in Italy
We drove out of Rome past the Protestant Cemetery and stopped to take a look at Eataly.
This is the biggest location worldwide of the chain and it is in a very cool building.
The building itself was constructed with public funds and opened in 1989 as the air terminal to handle the traffic from the 1990 World Cup. It was designed by the Spanish architect, Julio Lafuente, and is a very retro building that easily could have been designed in 1960’s. From the beginning, nobody could find taxis (in those days it was in the middle of nowhere) and it was not easy to cart luggage from the nearby Ostiense train station across to the air terminal. Ultimately it was abandoned and remained empty for years until it was purchased for not a lot by the financiers of Eataly. What luck that Eataly picked up on this slightly dilapidated post-modern structure!
I had been to the Eataly in Turin before but this one is huge and feels more like making a trip to an American mall than being in Rome.
For me, I would rather do my shopping in the Campo di Fiore but I shouldn’t knock it – Eataly is coming to Boston and opening in the next few weeks. Just imagine, wheels of parmesan, hocks of prosciutto, pasta from every region, restaurants and shops galore, and all within walking distance of my house! I’ll take that any day.
The drive down the Italian coast from Rome is a mixed bag.
After a scattering of fairly dull seaside places, we eventually got to Anzio where the allies landed in 1944. It is a fairly unmemorable town but there is the haunting Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial there which we visited.
It is also the jumping off point if you want to go to the glitz and glamor of Rome’s chic island, Ponza.
This is the Martha’s Vineyard of the Roman World. Ponza is one of six islands in an archipelago that sits a short distance from the Italian mainland. We carried on our journey and the landscape brightened up quite a bit.
We eventually ran into a lovely town called Sperlonga only about one hour outside of Rome. Sperlonga is probably the nicest, closest resort to Rome. There are lots of stabilimenti, beachside restaurants and cafes, and the climb up to the top of the town is lovely. It may not be a Greek village like Symi but after all, you are only an hour away from Rome.
We were halfway to Naples and after a delightful spaghetti alle vongole everything went downhill fast. Trash started to pop up everywhere. The trash collection services in most of these southern coastal towns gave up long ago. We were in Mafia country now. There are 4,000 deaths every year around this part of the world.
It’s like the Wild West – row upon row of crumbling tenement buildings and Vesuvius sticking out with its ominous cone top rumbling.
The traffic was starting to build up as we moved into Naples proper and we had some time to get off and head into the center. Many people get nervous about Naples but I actually love it. It has great restaurants, beautiful architecture, and with its location facing the island of Ischia and only 45 minutes’ drive from Sorrento, it becomes a tempting place to stay. However, you have to be careful and mindful of all of the usual city stuff in the evening. We were moving on pretty quickly and picked up the small road that takes you literally through the Bay of Naples and into the town of Sorrento. We were nearly there.
Positano and the Island of Capri
So if you had to choose a place in all of Italy to hang out for a few days in super-luxury, relatively car-free, and using a boat to access restaurants and islands nearby, where would you choose?
I would choose Positano in late September.
Positano is one of those rare places that you find that has just about everything with some gorgeous hotels (Le Sirenuse and Hotel Covo dei Saraceni) and some very cool restaurants that you either have to walk along the cliffs to or rent a private boat to access. Positano has a constant flow of ferry traffic as it serves all the way through the end of September as a main jumping off point for tourists from Sorrento and a jumping on point for tourists to get to the island of Capri. The beach is typical of this area – stony with plenty of stabilimenti. The water is clear although it is good to stay inside of the swimming lanes because of the boat traffic.
I had not been to Capri for more than 30 years so we rented a boat and sailed clear around the island. We landed at the Marina Grande and went to the Marina Piccola for a swim.
Capri is good for a day; no more, and maybe a bit less.
It was good to go but it was crowded and the wait on the funicular was not worth it. The cab drivers all seemed to be satiated for business. To make it worse, the water was choppy so the famous Blue Grotto was not available. One thing’s for sure, Capri is beautiful but no Greek island.
Positano is spectacular and has almost the enchantment of a Greek island.
The colorful houses as they sit along the horseshoe cliff face are like no other in the world. The smell of lemons in the lemon groves pervade this place. The fact that you can buy fresh mozzarella di bufala makes this one of the great wonderlands of Italian cuisine. It’s expensive, it’s trendy, it’s glitzy, and it’s a bit of a hassle to get to, but honestly, for three or four days at least once in your life, you should give yourself up to Positano. Tom Brady did while he was sitting out his four games for Deflategate. My only regret was that I didn’t bump into Gisele while taking my morning cappuccino. We were there at the same time!
Getting Lost in Corsica
It’s tough to find a place in the Mediterranean that is not overrun by tourists, especially the hordes from the north who populate and destroy the character of places in Spain and Portugal.
But there are times to visit the Mediterranean and there are places during those times that remain relatively untouched by the scourge of modern tourism.
Corsica is one of them.
One hour from Paris by plane or a slow boat from Marseilles will get you to this magical island that sits just off of the coast of southern France, west of the Italian peninsula, and north of the island of Sardinia. I made the most delightful wrong turn upon arrival in the airport and what should have been a 35-minute drive to the picturesque town of Saint-Florent, turned out with my GPS to be a two-and-a-half-hour journey through the hinterland, climbing mountain tops, and going through several weather changes, on my way back to, as it turns out, the airport!
As I discovered, Google Maps has bouts of unreliability nevermore than when you need it most.
But we covered mountain passes, pig farms, delightful stone villages, and oodles of bougainvillea that acted as hedge rose.
Driving was a little dicey but with my stick shift knowledge I was able to navigate some treacherous climbs and take a few stops to grab some time to take in the scenery. The scenery in this mountainous island was spectacular. Even in June there were 8,500 foot peaks of snowcapped mountains peering down across the turquoise Mediterranean Sea.
I had been to Sardinia some 30 years ago but this landscape was altogether different.
Eventually we picked up the road that we had ought to have picked up on the drive from the airport and started all over again. As it turns out, the confusion was because the sign for Saint-Florent had been crossed out by some angry Corsican separatists which left only the sign in Corsican that looked completely different.
A combination of Corsican separatists and Google Maps had conspired to give me an incredible introduction to this magical island!
A Tale of Two Museums – Leonardo Da Vinci and Armani
What to do on a beautiful spring morning in Milan?
In light of the fact that we had a long day ahead of us with a soccer game that would stretch until midnight, what better compliment to il calcio than a bit of culture and fashion.
I had never seen The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. We had figured out a way to jump onto a sightseeing tour without doing the sightseeing (always handy to avoid mediocre guides) and thus gain entrance to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In an airtight salon, with strict procedures by group, I got to see something that had been on my to-do list for years. The room that The Last Supper is in is austere and simple. At the far end of the chapel is a crucifixion scene by Giovanni Donato. It faces Leonardo’s Last Supper where Jesus announces his betrayer. Someone always lets the team down! This is one of his greatest works, badly deteriorated and suffering the ravages of time and vandalism, but it still provides an experience unique and spiritual.
What better way to compliment a 15th century mural by one of the world’s greatest ever painters than a visit to the ultra-chic Giorgio Armani’s Armani/Silos that was opened in 2015?
Housed in what was a granary, Armani captures his passion for fashion in a place whose central force was all about the beginnings of food. There are more than 600 outfits and around 200 handbags and accessories from 1980 to the present. There is a fabulous little café outside with great sandwiches and incredible olive oil for dipping. The whole experience capped with an espresso and an Armani sugar cube. Made me want to rush out, grab an Armani jacket somewhere, and wear it for a day.
If only to know that Armani’s designs are as timeless as the painting that preceded it in the morning.
Artists are artists. Lucky to get a glimpse into a Renaissance mind in the year 2016.