Fashion in Milan

shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

The main shopping street of Milan was almost deserted.  The famous designer’s stores were still open, but there were few customers. It was late August in Italy and many people were on vacation.  The sales clerks in the stores clearly wanted to be on vacation.  The bored stares of the well-dressed Italian girls indicated that they were counting the minutes until closing time.

It was a sweltering afternoon.  The temperature was in the mid-90s and humid.  I darted into the high priced shops to cool off.  I had no intention of buying anything.  Thank you Mr. Versace for letting me get a respite from the heat.

Versace store in Milan
Thanks for the AC, Gianni

Milan is one of the capitals of fashion design.  Many of the shoes worn by the people of the western world are designed in the city.  The designer shops on the Via Monte Napoleone are some of the fanciest and most expensive on the planet.

fashion and statue in Milan, italy
The old and the new in Milan

None of the clothes interested me.  I was more interested in finding the nearest gelateria.  I think the flavor for me that day was stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chunks).

After much wandering, I stumbled upon the Four Seasons Hotel.  Great, I have to go to the bathroom.  Toilets can be tough to find in big European cities when you need one.  Indeed, the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel had the nicest bathroom in Milan based on my unofficial survey of one location.  Black marble, gold faucets, and individual cloth towels to dry your hands.  Excellent.

I took a seat in the lounge.  My feet hurt and a few minutes rest would do me good.  I was thirsty too.  Perhaps some needed liquids would perk me up so I could continue my tour of the old part of Milan.

A tall, impeccably dressed, handsome young man approached me.

“Good afternoon, sir.  Welcome back to the Four Seasons,” he said in a perfect BBC London accent. “What would you like, sir?”

It was actually my first time trespassing in this particular lobby, but I’m not telling. What I would like is to look like him and speak like him, neither of which was going to happen.

“I’ll take a look at the menu and let you know,” I said.  I was a little annoyed that he spotted me for an American.  Of course, the big camera around my neck and the baseball cap didn’t help my disguise.  I picked up the drinks menu on the table.

One peak at the menu and I knew I was in the wrong place to get something to drink.  A can of Coca-Cola was 11 euros.  That was about $16.  The same can back home at the grocery store would be between 30 cents and 45 cents, depending on whether you’re buying a twelve pack or a 24-pack, and depending on the sale.  Even less for a Big Gulp at 7-11 on a cost per ounce basis.  I guess location makes a difference.  It was a nice lounge, but not that nice.

shopping arcade in Milan, Italy
A shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

The mission to satisfy my immediate bodily needs was accomplished.  When the waiter was looking the other way, I sneaked out of the hotel.  I would get a drink somewhere else.  Maybe even at McDonalds.

shopping street in Milan
Louis Vuitton and McDonalds on the same street?

A Drive Down the Amalfi Coast

beach scene in Italy

The huge bus sped towards the hairpin turn.  The driver tooted his horn as he started to make the turn.  He spun the wheel around and around.  He suddenly slammed on the brakes.  A car was coming from the opposite way.  The tiny car screeched to a stop before a devastating impact with the bus.  It was another close call.

The driver was muttering various Italian obscenities while gesturing with certain fingers.  The guide said that it’s a good thing we don’t speak Italian or we might be offended.

driving in Italy
Watch out for the bus!

We couldn’t go forward until the tiny car backed up. The bus driver yelled out his window at the car and motioned with his hands.  By this time three more cars had caught up to the tiny car from behind.  The whole string had to back up about 20 yards so our bus could make the turn.

Positano, Italy
The famous view of Positano, Italy

Welcome to driving the Amalfi coast road in Italy on a Sunday afternoon in August!  It was the busiest time of year.  Many families were here for their annual vacation at the coastal resorts to beat the heat and swim in the cool Mediterranean Sea.  The traffic was horrendous and the very windy road was built into the side of the mountainous coast.  I said every five minutes that I was glad I wasn’t driving.  Our bus driver was doing a masterful job.  Every hairpin turn was handled with finesse.

A view of the Amalfi coast
Summer on the Amalfi coast

The scenery was beautiful.  It’s a cliché, I know, but in this case absolutely true.  At times I looked out the window straight down hundreds of feet to the sea.  The views of the yachts and pleasure boats out in the azure bays were entrancing.  Each sight of the small fishing villages, cliff side resorts, and the world famous town of Positano was worthy of a post card or a jigsaw puzzle.

Amalfi coast view
Let's go for a sail

In the town of Amalfi we walked around the port and the main shopping street.  Strolling the streets of an Italian coastal town while eating a gelato is a nice way to spend a sunny summer afternoon.  It was so hot that I wanted to be swimming in the sea.

Back in the bus, the driver was refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the coastal road.  Soon we came to a tight pathway between the mountain on one side and a building on the other side.  Coming the other way this time was an enormous municipal bus.  Behind the municipal bus was a large line of traffic.  Behind us was another line of cars. No backing up this time!

the beach in Amalfi, italy
The beach in Amalfi, Italy

The buses slowed to a crawl.  They were going to pass each other on the narrow road.  Inch by inch the vehicles moved forward.  The drivers looked at each other with a grin as they slid by.  They were so close they could have picked each other’s pockets.

At one point the giant buses were about six inches apart.  There was a slight bend in the road so the drivers needed to compensate for this fact or the buses were going to scrape each other for most of the length of each bus.

Each bus curved the exact amount needed to get by.  And on we went down the Amalfi coast road, until the next hairpin turn or tight spot, when the bus driver….

beach scene in Italy
Bird's eye view of an Amalfi beach

Three Days In Rome

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

If you have a limited amount of time, you can see the main highlights of Rome in three days.  This will give you a good introduction to the city.  Here are my picks for things to do in Rome.

Day One

Most American flights arrive in the morning to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.  Catch a ride to your hotel, eat a light lunch, and take a nap.  In the late afternoon, wander the narrow backstreets of old Rome in the area by the Campo de’ Fiori.  Stop for excellent traditional thin crust pizza at the tiny Pizzeria da Bafetto (on the corner of Via Sora at Vial del Governo Vecchio 114). Take a leisurely stroll around the Piazza Navona, Rome’s most interesting night scene.  Check out the art for sale by local artists.

strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk
Strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk on a summer evening

Next, walk over to the 1,900 year old Pantheon.  At night the inside is closed, but the view of the building lit up in the dark is mesmerizing.   Stop for a chocolate hazelnut gelato in one of the many gelaterias near the square.  Keep walking these streets if you aren’t tired; else go to bed.  It will be a busy day tomorrow.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy at night
The Pantheon at night

Day Two

In the morning put on your comfortable walking shoes and take the metro or a taxi to the Colosseum.  Originally called the Flavian Ampitheater and built in 80 AD, the stadium was an arena for spectator sports in Roman times.  It’s an impressive structure.  Afterwards grab a sandwich and a drink from a food stand. Next door is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.   The Forum is ancient Rome’s birthplace and civic center between the seven hills of Rome.  Today it is mostly ruins, but it is easy to image what happened here so many centuries ago.  Stand in the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered!  The Palatine Hill is where the Emperor’s palaces were.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum

After seeing those sights, you will be ready for a snack and a rest.

fresh fruit stand in ROme
A healthy snack for the tired traveller

Next, walk most of the length of the Via del Corso, the main shopping street of Rome. Look for leather jackets, handbags, and briefcases, or whatever fashions catch your eye. Take a right at Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps.  Climb the steps for a view of the surrounding area.

By this time, your feet will probably hurt.  Maybe instead of walking, you can ride a Vespa.  But watch out for the crazy Roman traffic!

the blue Vespa
The best way to get around Rome - a Vespa!

Sit outside to eat dinner at a café in one of the side streets near the Trevi Fountain.  After dinner, sit by the fountain to see the sculptures and watch the people of the world walk by.  Try to guess which country they are from.

Day Three

This morning go to the Vatican City.  Sign up ahead of time on the Vatican’s website for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum in English. You’ll be able to avoid the long ticket line, but not the crowds you will encounter inside.  The Museum tour includes a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and concludes with a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  The end of the tour deposits you in St. Peter’s Square.

One of the ceilings in the Vatican Museum
An example of a ceiling in the Vatican Museum

If you still have the energy for more walking, take a taxi to the Villa Borghese Gardens.  It is a large park perfect for strolling or napping on the grass in the shade of a large tree.  When you are refreshed, if you are an art lover, visit the Borghese Gallery.  Next, walk down the Via Veneto, through the old Roman wall.  If you have been traveling for a while, you may be tired of the pasta and pizza menus and crave some American food. In that case, go to the Hard Rock Café on Via Veneto, just before the Piazza Bernini.

Arrivaderci!

Hill Towns of Central Italy

Siena, Italy

In the Middle Ages the people who lived in the countryside in central Italy were frequently threatened by neighboring city-states.  In response, instead of living in the valleys, the people built fortifications on the top of hills for safety.  These forts grew into towns.  Each town typically had high walls built into the top of the hill and a massive gate to protect the townspeople from attackers.  It was very difficult to attack uphill and scale such high walls.  The protection provided by the hill town allowed the people to prosper and develop their economies.

Montone
The front door of a home in Montone

There are many hill towns to visit in Italy today.  Here are a few of them.

back street in Montone, Italy
Walking the back streets of Montone, Italy

Montone

High above the valleys of Umbria is the tiny, picturesque hill town of Montone.  Little known outside of Umbria, Montone has few tourists.  As a result one can see how hill town residents live today without the crush of the tourist crowds. It is easy to walk around the town in fifteen minutes.  Get yourself a chocolate hazelnut gelato and relax in the small piazza and watch the old men outside the café argue about the politics of the day or their favorite football teams.

Cortona, Italy
The Main Square of Cortona, Italy

Cortona

The drive from Calzolaro over the mountains to Cortona in Tuscany was treacherous.  The road was very windy, but with fantastic views of the Lago Trasemino, a large lake in Central Italy.  After an hour of white knuckle driving we got to Cortona.  It gets a lot of attention and many tourists because of the “Under the Tuscan Sun” book and movie (the film is a “chick-flick” bore to me…).

man and dog in Cortona, Italy
Like me, these two were quickly bored with shopping.

We walked around the old streets and shopped.  I didn’t think there was much to see in Cortona.  It didn’t have the charm of Montone.  We had dinner at a ristorante outside of the theater.  A car pulled up and parked outside the theater.  A very British-looking gentleman, expertly attired in a hounds tooth jacket and fancy cravat, got out of the car on the right side and went in for the concert.  At first I thought the car was an old Jaguar, but when I inspected it later I realized it was an Aston Martin DB5.  It was the same model and color of car that James Bond drove in the film “Goldfinger.”   I don’t know if this one had revolving license planes, a machine gun behind the grill, and an ejector seat.

James Bond car in Cortona, Italy
Ejector seats and machine guns are standard equipment.

Siena

Siena is my favorite hill town.  I believe it is the largest hill town in Italy.  In the Middle Ages it was a powerful and wealthy city-state.  Today it survives largely on the thousands of tourists flooding into the town every day and leaving every evening.  The main square, called the Campo, is the site of a famous horse race called the Palio.  The riders race their horses around the outside of the large square at breakneck speed.  The race is a competition between neighborhoods of the town.  Each neighborhood has a horse in the race and the jockey wears racing distinctive colors.  The neighborhoods are adorned with flags in their racing colors.  While we were there, the town was preparing for the second of two annual races, coming up in a few days.

A view of Siena, Italy
The Siena skyline

I recommend stopping in at least one hill town, if possible, during any visit Italy.

Siena, Italy
The main square and clock tower in Siena.

A Villa in Umbria

La Preghiera

Calzolaro is a tiny village in the middle of Umbria.  As you drive through it, your eye catches the faded sign of the Rio Rosso café.  Old men play cards at an outside table while drinking their grappa.  Old peasant women shuffle along the sidewalk on the way back home from doing their shopping.  Boys are kicking a soccer ball around the field.

Welcome to rural Italian life in Umbria.  Where the pace of life is slow, the air is clean, and the hills are heavily forested.  Tuscany, Umbria’s neighbor to the east, gets more attention, but the small towns of Umbria are as tranquil as they come.

La Preghiera
La Preghiera, Calzolaro, Umbertide, Umbria, Italy

I found the bed and breakfast hotel called La Preghiera on the Internet.  I was looking for a place to hold a small destination wedding in Italy.  It looked very promising on its website, but you never can tell until you get there.  In my case, the villa was everything it was advertised to be and was the perfect place for the wedding.

The villa is owned by an elderly British/Uruguyan couple named John and Liliana Tunstill.  They bought the property approximately twenty years ago.  The buildings, consisting of a large house (formerly a monastery), smaller house, and chapel, had been built in the mid-19th century.  When they found the property, it was in ruins.  John, an architect, led a meticulous renovation project to transform the wreckage into a comfortable and modern, yet rustic Italian villa.

The house has nine bedrooms which can be reserved individually or as a group and a large veranda on which to sit when having breakfast or pre-dinner cocktails.  The view from the veranda is across the neighboring farm fields to the forested hills beyond. Currently the farmer next door has a tobacco crop planted.  I didn’t know they grew tobacco in Italy.  John explained that tobacco had been grown in the area for over a hundred years but was being phased out due to the health risks.  However, the farmers have hung on to tobacco as a cash crop because there is more profit in it as compared to other crops.

The view of the neighbor's field

The small house is a self-contained vacation apartment with three bedrooms.  The property also has a large pool which is a welcome respite on hot, muggy August afternoons.

View of the pool at La Preghiera

The unique feature of the property is the chapel.  Built in 1871, it is ideal for a small wedding with no more than 40 people.  In our case, there were only nine people (including the bride and groom), so we fit nicely in the first two rows of the chapel.

The Chapel at La Preghiera
inside chapel
Inside of the Chapel at La Preghiera

Despite being in the countryside, the villa is only a few hundred yards from the village of Calzolaro, and a mile or so from the small town of Trestina.  The town has the usual amenities, such as a bakery, a flower shop, small grocery stores, and a few restaurants.  We were there in August, when many locals take vacations, so the stores and restaurants were closed everyday from 1pm to 4pm.

In the evenings we ventured out to suggested local restaurants in the countryside for authentic Italian cuisine.  These restaurants were far from the poor quality and expensive tourist traps in Rome and Florence.  The food and service were good, the prices reasonable, and every dinner was a three hour affair.

Our time in rural Umbria was relaxing and pleasant.  If you are thinking of visiting Italy, I recommend getting away from the big cities and seeing how the locals live in the countryside.  Consider La Preghiera for your stay.

la Preghiera sign
The entrance gate at La Preghiera