Italian fashion, and the cult of the Italian male

Italian men are beautiful. This is what my travel companions and I concluded as we sat on café terraces, sipped Campari cocktails and watched (ogled?) the men as they passed by. We found Roman men, of all ages, to be quite tantalizing. This sounds and probably is sexist, but it’s the truth.

They’re everywhere, and they’re splendid-looking. Men standing in a cluster in a piazza. Men drinking espresso at the bar of a caffè. Men zipping down the Via del Corso on their sporty little scooters. Men engaged in, oh, all the things that cosmopolitan men engage themselves in.

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Marcello Mastroianni

They’re also very stylishly dressed, oftentimes more than the women. Dotted around the city you’ll see a multitude of small shops dedicated to the dressing, grooming, accessorizing and beautifying of men: shirtmakers, shoemakers, suitmakers, barbers and the like. The cult of the male thrives in Italy. In public life it appears to be a patriarchal society. But in private life, it’s mama who rules!

As for me, I was in search of leather gloves. One day, as I was strolling up the Via dei Due Macelli on my way to Spagna metro station, I happened upon a marvellous glove shop called Catello d’Auria.

Displayed in glass cases and housed in over a hundred drawers were hand-made Italian gloves lined with cashmere, silk or wool. I had serendipitously stumbled into glove heaven.

Here’s the lovely saleswoman who greeted and served me. I’m sorry, but you just don’t get smiles like this in Paris.

Placing a small velvet pillow on the countertop, she asked me to place my elbow on it (with my forearm pointing upwards.) Then she slipped a glove onto my hand. This is how she measures your glove size. These gloves below were my favorite, but I didn’t buy them. Looking at them here, I regret not buying them. A reason to return to Rome!

I ended up buying a plainer pair in an oxblood color.

Isn’t this the most beautiful flat sandal you’ve ever laid eyes on? I didn’t buy them, far too costly. But I did lust after them through the window. Oh, didn’t you know? I have a fetish for footwear.

I recommend visiting the upscale Rinascente department store on the via del Tritone at number 61. It’s like Le Bon Marché in Paris, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, and Harvey Nichols in London. The stunning, newly refurbished top floor is where the food hall and a number of restaurants are located.

Here’s a comment someone wrote on a travel website – “You might try the Food Hall on the top floor of the new La Rinascente flagship store on Via del Tritone. Some of the restaurants have good views and outdoor terraces. There’s also a large rooftop bar, one flight up, with great views. My recollection is that the restaurants aren’t outrageously expensive. There’s an express elevator to the Food Hall, but the store itself is an amazing piece of architecture that’s well worth visiting. Casual dress is perfectly OK, but I wouldn’t go looking too ragged.”

I’ve always found the Italians to be more stylish than the French. I found the center of Rome to be immaculately clean, far cleaner than Paris. Crossing streets at pedestrian crossings though can be dangerous. I risked my life trying to get to the Santa Prassede church, one of the best examples of Byzantine mosaics in Rome. Unfortunately, it was closed when I got there. I was unaware of the visiting hours, 7 am – 12:30 pm, 4 – 6:30 pm. Another reason to return to Rome!

A small museum recommendation is the Leonardo da Vinci museum that we visited, “a world of genius in the heart of Rome.”

I really enjoy visiting churches, especially the smaller, less known ones. A hidden gem, Santa Prassede is a 9th-century basilica with glorious Byzantine mosaics in the apse and filling a side chapel. There’s also a piece of the scourging column of Christ, brought over from Constantinople in the Middle Ages.

And that’s it, folks! Thanks for travelling with me.

Roman Holiday – Part 1

I’m an EasyJet member because the planes are new (Airbus), there’s lots of leg room, and I like their efficient service. For short-haul flights within Europe, I recommend EasyJet. The flight to Rome was about two hours, sunny all the way. During my entire time in Italy I had perfect weather: cool and sunny with a light breeze.

I loved Rome. Three days were not enough, I’ll have to go back and stay longer. I had been to Rome before, but a long time ago. I met up with an office colleague and her friend, so we were three women. They were in another hotel in the Trastevere district. I was more central in a charming, small, family-run hotel called the Hotel Fontanella Borghese. I recommend it and will go back because of the district, its central location, the nice rooms and the helpful staff. (more about the seagulls later …)

TREVI FOUNTAIN

We had wanted to avoid this site because we had heard it was overwhelmed with tourists. By mistake we ended up here. This is where Federico Fellini, back in the 60s, filmed La Dolca Vita in which Marcello Mastroianni cavorted with Anita Ekberg in the fountain.

Handbag heaven

Looking to buy a handbag? You’re in the right place. Italy is handbag heaven. I bought two inexpensive ones. But not an Orciani one … too expensive!

This is the post office. It looks like a museum.

So late one afternoon I was strolling down the Via Della Scrofa on my own (a few minutes away from my hotel), when I passed a restaurant called Alfredo. A simple enough name. I kept on walking. But then I saw a plaque on the wall that stopped me dead in my tracks: see below.

An overwhelming sense of déjà vu passed through me, so strong that I nearly shuddered. Suddenly I was a child again, sitting in this exact restaurant with my mother, my father and my sister eating fettuccine. I remembered the scene perfectly: the smiling, platter-carrying waiters, the white-clothed tables in a long line, noise and bustle and a party-like atmosphere, and my father speaking Italian with the waiters. I had eaten in this restaurant when I was 12 years old.

My parents took me to Italy when I was a kid. It was magical. We visited Milan, Florence, Rome and Santa Margherita, a small town on the Ligurian coast. I learned how to make fettuccine Alfredo. When we returned to Toronto, I’d make it at home using lots of cream, butter, pepper and grated parmesan.

I approached the restaurant and saw that it was closed (it was around 5 pm), but there were a few staff members smoking on the sidewalk. I had to see the inside of the place. I told them that I had been a girl – una ragazza – when I ate here, twelve years old – dodici anni – and could I please see the inside. They let me in, it’s completely unchanged. I remember so well those long rows of clothed tables. It was a moving experience. After taking a few photos I walked away feeling exalted, but kind of sad at the same time.

Gelato rhapsody

Oh, my. Never have I seen so many people eating so much ice cream. But this isn’t ordinary ice cream, this is Italian gelato and in some select emporiums they’ve taken the choice, flavors and quality to new heights. In the evening especially everyone eats gelato, all ages, either sitting or strolling.

Pastries are also sold in the gelato shops.

A few random photos taken in Rome:

Now about those gulls: my hotel room was high up and overlooking the rooftops of the city. As I lay in bed with the window open, I heard the oddest sound: a piercing, screeching, chuckling, gurgling noise (all at the same time.) What the heck? It turned out to be huge gulls that have invaded the city in search of food. They are apparently quite aggressive. Capable of stealing food right out of your hand, they circle the city and swoop down onto garbage bags, street litter, and have even been known to fly into people’s homes and eat food straight from their kitchens. When I mentioned their strange sound to the woman at the reception desk, she said it sounds like they’re killing babies.

Next and final post: Rome fashions, men and women.

eating my way through Lecce

You’d think that with all the walking, bag-carrying and climbing of stairs during my eleven days in Italy, I would have lost a few pounds; but no, that was not the case. The food (and drink) was far too good, and I wanted to taste it all. Above is the Aperol spritz that everyone’s drinking, a blend of Prosecco and Aperol. Below is a Campari Spritz. Aperol is 11% alcohol content and Campari 24%, so I tended to stick to the Aperol.

I found two excellent pizzerias in the Old Town of Lecce. Here’s the first one.

And this one, more authentic in my opinion, that sells by weight. The other one sells by the slice. In both places the pizza crust is superb and made from organic Italian 00 wheat flour. This place is called PIZZA AL TAGLIO.

To be eaten sitting on the bench directly across the narrow street. The simple life.

In another shop, freshly-squeezed orange juice. And below that, fresh coconut slices.

That’s a lot of plastic, I’ve just noticed.

After enjoying my pizza, I’d go for gelati.

Around 4 pm, I’d go into a café, stand at the counter and drink an espresso and eat a slice of cake. I could get used to this life! Except that I’d become very fat.

I found a brilliant café near my hotel. I went every single morning for breakfast. As I entered, this glistening espresso machine greeted me, as did the friendly baristas behind the counter. Italian coffee in all its delicious variations is my idea of heaven.

I find Italians to be infinitely more stylish than the French; in all forms, especially design and décor. The café is called the 300mila Lounge and it’s to be found at Via Reggimento Fanteria, 11. 

Here are some random street photos of the small city of Lecce (in the Old Town):

Final post to come: Rome.

Polignano a Mare (Puglia, Italy)

I fell in love with this town five years ago. Perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, it was the perfect escape from crowded polluted Paris.

I’d stand on this promontory and breathe in deep gulps of clean air. There was always a cool wind blowing in from Croatia, Albania and Greece beyond. I loved the color of the sea: deep Adriatic blue.

An afternoon slice of cheesecake and caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla, a blend of almond milk, almond syrup and espresso poured over ice cubes.

I was touched by the gesture of this mother and daughter, madre e figlia, holding hands in a supermarket. Family is tight in Italy, especially in the south.

As I was crossing a town square, a woman whose hair bounced and shone in the sunlight was walking in front of me. I loved the color. I wanted my hair to look like that. I stopped and complimented her, then asked where she got her hair done. She gave me the name and address of the salon.

Lovely people. The further south you go, the more expansive and outgoing they are. There’s an exuberance in Italy that appeals to me greatly. On my last day, I went to this rooftop bar, ordered myself a glass of Prosecco, and sat contemplating the sea.

For me, Polignano is a cleansing place.

Arrivederci! I’ll be back.

Two more posts to come: Lecce and Rome.

24 hours in Bologna, Italy

Coming up from the south and on my way to Milan, I passed through Bologna and spent the night there. When in Bologna you must eat bolognese sauce, so I went to a recommended restaurant called the Drogheria della Rosa located at Via Cartoleria 10.

I started with this delicious bowl of tortellini in brodo and drank a glass or two of that crisp, white Sicilian wine. Green lasagna with bolognese sauce followed. The owner came round (photo below) and chatted with people while offering little tasting dishes of antipasti.

Many people ask if I am comfortable eating alone in restaurants. The answer is yes, I am. I’ve been travelling alone since I was a teenager. (I also travel with others!) Plus, I don’t see why I should forego a good meal just because I’m on my own. The adventures and experiences of the solo traveller should be as full and enriching (and inclusive) as anyone else’s, is my opinion.

Yum. Dinner for one.

Bologna is a city of arcades. I left the restaurant at around 9:30 pm and walked through them back to my hotel. I stopped to chat with this father and son who own a shop selling prosciutto, mozzarella and other foodstuffs. It was a warm, early summer night and everyone was out, all ages.

My excellent hotel, located ten minutes from the train station and ten minutes from the town center, was the Royal Hotel Carlton.

More to come.

why do we travel? (plus three great hotel websites)

I had an existential moment as I stood for three hours on the train from Naples to Rome. Why do we travel?, I asked myself. The train was packed solid, but for only 12 euros I could buy a ticket that allowed me to stand with others in the standing-only area. The three hours passed faster than I thought they would. I chatted with a nice man from Atlanta. I self-consciously ate two slices of pizza while eight pairs of eyes stared at me. I witnessed an angry exchange between two Italian women and didn’t have a clue what it was about (and didn’t want to know.) I looked out the window at the passing landscape. And I watched as two policemen boarded the train and accosted two black men. It turned out they were African boat migrants who, no doubt, had paid a smuggler to break into Fortress Europe. At the next station they were escorted off the train. What awaited them?, I wondered. A detention camp, maybe, and deportation. I felt sorry for them.

And I guess that’s one of the reasons why we travel – to see the world, in all its splendor and misery. To see how other people live. To step out of our lives – for some people, their ivory towers – and observe the diversity and destiny and danger of our fellow humans, even if that view is voyeuristic or from a privileged perch.

Other reasons to travel – to unstick oneself from routine (I hate routine). It’s good to change our daily habits and shake things up. Or, as the French say, “changer les idées”.

To step out of our comfort zone, to test and challenge ourselves, to not stand still, to feel inspired. To connect with humanity. To have great conversations with complete strangers, until they’re no longer strangers but new friends with whom you’ve exchanged email addresses. To see great art and taste gorgeous foods that we normally wouldn’t see or eat at home. To extend our boundaries and stretch our minds. To feel the sea wind in our face and hear a foreign, lyrical language in our ears. To unplug from our computers and our hard drives and see things from another perspective because there are, in this world, differing points of view.

Jonah Lehrer, a British journalist, wrote this –

We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

 

To plan your next escape, take a look at these (terrific) hotel websites –

https://www.hiphotels.com/

https://secretplaces.com/

https://www.tablethotels.com/

And this website for the best hostels –

http://www.hostelworld.com

see Naples and die…

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Naples is a slap in the face, a hard slap. Within 5 minutes of my arrival – in plain daylight and in the middle of a street – I was attacked by a purse-snatcher and found myself tussling with him over my handbag. I won and he lost, but more on that in a minute.

My arrival into Naples was as inauspicious as my (shortened) stay there. As the Air France jet started its descent, we flew into thick black cloud which hovered menacingly over the city. An omen? I found the presence of the clouds odd because the two hour flight from Paris had been sunny and uneventful all the way down. Suddenly a rainstorm of biblical proportions broke out. Turbulence ensued and we landed, rather rockily.  The taxi ride to the hotel was worse. We descended a slippery slope (in the pouring rain) with such velocity that I found myself sliding across the back seat from one side of the car to the other. I groped for the seatbelt. It was broken. To worsen matters, every time we passed a roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary – of which there were many and erected for each fatal road accident that had occurred there – my pious taxi driver made the sign of the cross, not once or twice, but three times. Kissing the side of his index finger, he then touched his fingers to his forehead, chest and two shoulders. Three times. All without lifting his foot from the gas pedal.

Not knowing how to say “Slow down!” in Italian, I invented a word. “Tranquillo!” I squeaked, now clutching a shred of leather strap that dangled from the ceiling. My taxi driver laughed uproariously. “Calmo! Calmo!” he said, then slowed a tad. The phrase “See Naples and die” ran through my head. Only I hadn’t seen Naples yet … just the airport, black cloud, rain, and a portion of shrine-studded road.

Then his cell phone rang and he launched into a lengthy and animated discussion with his mother. I know this because every sentence was punctuated with “Mamma”. “Oh dear God, if there is one,” I muttered to myself, “Must he speak with his mother now??”  With the phone clamped to his ear, he spoke and made gestures with his one free hand – all the while reaffirming the Holy Trinity every time another Virgin Mary appeared. We continued our descent into Dante’s inferno, or rather, the city.

Finally reaching the hotel, I staggered out of the car, checked in, dumped my bag in my room, went out again and was immediately attacked by a purse snatcher.

And it’s funny because just as I entered the road marked Via Alessandro, a mere four minutes from the hotel, I had a flash-like premonition. A small voice in my head said “What if something should befall you in this street?  Like a car running you over or a flower pot landing on your head from an above balcony?”  And it was while I was looking up that a motorcycle drove by, driven by a male whose face was covered like a jihadist. Slowing down, he grabbed the strap of my handbag which was wrapped around my torso, causing me to spin around. I remember standing there, visibly shaken, and staring at the back of this cowardly brute with disbelief and defiance as he drove away. The next day my torso would be black and blue.

But he had failed to snatch my bag, so he turned around and came back. By this time I was walking quickly back to the hotel. He reached out and grabbed the strap of my bag again. I was now holding the bag with all my might while he was pulling on the strap which broke. Babbling unintelligible words to me in Italian, I shrieked intelligible words to him in English.

There was NO WAY he was going to get his hands on that bag. Everything essential was in it – my passport, my bank cards, my phone, my brand new YSL fuschia lipstick…. My determination was greater than his and in the end he drove off, bagless.  Vigliacco!  That’s “coward” in Italian (I looked it up). It’s too bad I didn’t know this word at the time because when you say it with force accompanied by a flamboyant hand gesture, it comes out as a guttural rasping utterance which is very satisfying.

VI-LIA-KKO!

Marching into the hotel, me and my broken handbag, I recounted my street scuffle to the two men at reception. They were embarrassed because only ten minutes earlier they had greeted me with a hearty “Welcome to Naples!  We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in our fine city!” They apologized profusely. “We are very sorry, Signora,” they said. They instructed me to leave everything in my room safe and go out with nothing.  “Nothing?” I said.  “But I need to take some cash, at least. And a map.”  They told me to put a few things in zippered pockets or in a secure money belt hidden under my coat.

And so I went out again, unhappily, sans camera, sans handbag. But for someone like me who lives and breathes freedom, I found this restriction on my personal liberté very depressing.

Photos taken from my hotel balcony.  I only took two photos the whole time I was there. I left earlier than planned and took the train up to Rome.

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