Le Marche: The John Doe Region in Italy you should put on your Travel List


I’m staring at my cookbook Jamie Cooks ITALY and it has me remembering I spent two weeks in Italy last summer (July 2018) that I haven’t written about yet.  If it had been a trip to Rome, it’s unlikely I would have anything interesting to add but since this trip was to a region of Italy you’ve probably never heard of - it  seemed worthy of some virtual ink … even if the details have become fuzzy with time and our folder for Le Marche is mostly a wasteland of restaurant receipts.

You know it’s a place less traveled when AFTER spending two weeks there you still say “Le Marche” with hesitation because not everyone has gotten the memo on the proper way to pronounce it.  This region on Italy’s eastern coast, bracketed by Florence in the north and Rome in the south west or mid calf of the “boot,” I have heard pronounced both “MAR-kay” and “LE MARK.”  I’m still confused.


It’s a region that desperately needs some marketing but here’s my advice: if relaxation is your goal, go here in the height of summer when Tuscany and Venice and the Cinque Terre are getting trampled by people that look like you.  You’ve come all this way for the real Italy after all.  Overcrowding doesn’t look good on any city, especially ones which make garlic sweat a public hazard.

I read somewhere Le Marche described as “Italy in miniature.”  It has it all: coast, mountains, walled cities, great food, wine you can’t say no to, but not one single thing to make it famous.  The city you fly into is Ancona.  I know, I’d never heard of it either! This does means Ryanair or easyJet for direct flights from London and I’m sorry for that or you can connect in Germany or Switzerland via Lufthansa or Swiss. Or, rent a car in Rome and drive.  There are worse things than driving in Italy - I just can’t think of them at the moment.

But remember the upside:  places that are harder to get to are harder to get to for everyone and so if you are willing to persevere, you will be rewarded.  For example, watching a World Cup game in a local bar with passionate French & Croatian supporters because the villa we stayed in didn’t feel the need to have satellite TV (and we agreed.) Or walking down to a nearby family run winery for a scheduled wine-tasting which turned out to be a full meal with wine because in Italy, food always comes first.

One of the region’s most popular grapes is called pecorino, which is tough when you have to share your reputation with the name of much more famous cheese. Pecorino wine - described as “red wine dressed in white” - is so treasured that it is usually consumed all within Le Marche. We did our part.

I’ve written a post with tips for renting a villa in Europe with rental websites I have used in France, Italy and Spain.  That list has expanded with a fourth rental website I used for our trip to Mauritius. For our two weeks in Le Marche, I was on the hunt for similar lodging. The search took a little longer.

I finally stumbled on a website called Italian Idyll run by David and Fiona Sheppard. The English couple specialise in villa rentals in the lesser known regions of Italy, including Le Marche. The website is not slick and impressive, it’s actually quite old school, but Fiona is attentive and knows a lot about the region. In truth, the unflashy website and one-to-one interaction reflects the ethos of the region.

The first house we rented was this secluded, stylish farmhouse set in national mountain park near the town of Amandola and a 90 minute drive from the Ancona airport.  You can rightly infer from the photos that we absolutely loved our stay at Casa Coletta. The house is stunning and the pool setting and kitchen/outdoor seating area were our favourite parts. The owners are clearly cooks as the kitchen was well stocked with all the right equipment and a great collection of cookbooks.  Plus a huge basket of produce waiting for us!

So with the exception of two nights at Restaurant Bella Napoli (no website because why would they need one?) in Amandola (a charming hill town of about 4,000 residents), we ate in and ate well and made very few decisions about anything. The big boys climbed the Sibillini mountains on their road bikes during the day while Lawton and I - and the local lizards - had the pool and ping pong table to ourselves. On a few cycling rest days, we had some awesome hikes.


The second week, joined by Brett’s parents, we traveled 30 kilometers west into the province of Ascoli Piceno near the town of Montalto.  The second house we stayed in is no longer available for rental as it was recently sold. In truth, it was one of our few rental disappointments as the shine and attention to details faded with the pending ownership change (which neither we nor Fiona knew about.) However, the hilltop setting with wide vistas and nearby walkable towns was beautiful and the change of location gave entirely different landscape for the boys to cycle.

It also led to a week of dining out experiences. Our most memorable was a multi-course meal at Ristorante Piceni. (Confession: we actually went twice.) The restaurant, which is also a bed and breakfast, has a fabulous outdoor terrace with a view not even the most restrained guests can help but pull out their phone to take a photo. We grabbed this one right before talking to the people on our right. As "Italy in miniature” would have it, they were the only Americans we saw the entire trip AND they happened to live in Sun Valley, Idaho where my inlaws also live. The once snow birds now turned full-time retirees have since gotten together in Sun Valley.


The light summer footprint in Le Marche means we were able to get bookings in all the restaurants we wanted to try, from a members-only restaurant (where anyone can become a member!) on an organic farm called La Biblioteca to an outdoor table at Osteria Cantina in the main square of Offida. It also means that there isn’t always a back up around the corner in these small towns when a reservation goes bust.  That happened once when we thought we had booked a table for Tuesday night, only to turn up on the confirmed Tuesday night to find the restaurant closed and our next best option 15 hangry kilometres away. 

Pizzeria Mamma Rosa, an award winning pizzeria in the middle of nowhere, cured the hangries. (Confession: we went twice here too.)

In both locations, we were less than an hour from the coast. We are terrible beach people and so we never bothered to go until our last day when we stayed along the coast for one night at the very nice Hotel Emilia. The hotel is perched high in a natural setting with views down to Portonovo Bay with a huge pool and a great lawn.

Unlike where we had been, the footprint is heavy along the coast (as you would expect in July) but mostly with Italians. We found out when we couldn’t park in Portonovo for lunch or dinner without having pre-booked parking months before … or eat without having booked reservations weeks before … but where there is a will and a smile, there’s always a way in Italy. The fish was lip smacking good. Inland was just much more our way in terms of travel … but I’m sure someone else can make a strong coastal case for adding Le Marche to your bucket list.

Tour de Ballbach: A Family Cycling Holiday through Piedmont, Italy


There were two things we knew when we decided to take a week long family cycling trip through Italy in late May/early June 2018.  First, we knew it would require more planning and preparation than any of our four-wheeled trips.  In a car, it’s an inconvenience when you pick the wrong route or an off the beaten track hotel.  On a bike, you risk family mutiny.  Not to mention saddle sores.  We also had a hunch that because two of the four of us lacked any measurable time spent on a bike on actual roads we *might* be biting off slightly more than we could chew.

We were right on both counts.

Yet, it was exactly those things that made the Tour de Ballbach (with a nod to Lynette Martin for coining the phrase) a smashing success.  The intensity of preparation (travel anticipation is a subject I wrote about here) combined with a plan that was certain to get us out of our comfort zones — all in different ways — made for a family trip that will linger longer and sweeter in our collective memories.  It’s the kind of trip I would whole-heartedly recommend and do again. 

With that in mind, my hope is this blog might offer specific suggestions if cycling Piedmont’s is on your bucket list but perhaps more importantly, offer a few tips and lessons learned for planning a family cycling holiday that could be anywhere. Just don’t expect as many excellent options for carbo loading outside of Italy. 

T-Minus 10 Months:  Planning

The more sensible route for a first time cycling holiday would be to work through a touring company who provide the bicycles, the routes and shuttle your luggage from point A to B.  While it was an easy google search to find some of those companies, we quickly decided to take the full plunge by going it ourselves so that we could have more autonomy with the routes and places to stay.  I did however use this touring company’s website for some general guidance on good areas for cycling.

Once we made that decision the next order of business was insuring that all of us had road bikes.  That mountain bike your 13 year old has or that 3 speed cruiser bike you love to ride around town is not going to get the job done.  In our case, that meant buying two new bikes — my first ever road bike and a bigger framed road bike for our sprouting teenager.   While we thought about potentially bringing two bikes and renting the other two bikes, the logistics of that plan — and insuring that the quality of the rented bikes would be comparable to the owned bikes -- quickly became untenable when details like airline travel and bike store hours came into play.  So Tip #1: Do not go hybrid with your sourcing.   Either choose to rent all your bikes or bring all your bikes.

(After exhaustive research I did not actively participate in until sizing specs and a color choice needed to be made, Brett bought both of our new road bikes from the German company Canyon.  If truth be told, it was a much better bike than I needed but it also made me feel like a real roadie.  Tip #2: Get Mom the best bike.

The second order of business was figuring out how to transport our bikes from London to Turin, the nearest airport in Piedmont.  There were two ways to do this: ship our bikes ahead or take our bikes with us as checked bags.  We decided to go the checked bags route which then influenced which airline we choice.  British Airways (in comparison to the lower cost airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet)  had the most generous bags allowance as they consider a bike bag the same as any other regular sized checked bag.  We booked way in advance which made the fares reasonable (£150 round trip per person.)  Tip #3:  Skip the low cost airline and book early.

(We also had an option for renting or buying bike boxes/bags for airline travel.  After another research project on benefits of hard sided boxes versus soft sided bags and factoring in plans for future trips like these, Brett decided to buy these EVOC bike travel bags and was able to get them off Amazon UK.  They were shockingly easy to wheel around and did their advertised job in protecting all the bike components.  Tip #4:  Please borrow our bike travel bags.)

The third decision was figuring out how we would transport our stuff.  Bike panniers for all of us or one bike trailer for Brett to pull?  As if this was really a decision.  Here's the Aevon bike trailer Brett found.  Aside from some back and forth on getting the right hitch,  Brett was wowed by quality of the French/German company's excellent product.  Tip #5:  Please borrow our bike trailer too.  Your use will help to amortize the cost faster and make us feel better.

Once our biking gear was in place, we moved to planning the route and places to stay.  We had everything booked by the end of September 2017.  Finding places to stay is my research jam and because I was booking everything 10 months in advance, we didn't have any issues in not getting our first choice.  

Day 1: Bon Courage

You know your teenager is living in an alternate universe when the day before departure he says, “Wait, we’re taking the bike bags on the plane?”  Apparently some important details were missed when communicating how we’d be traveling to Italy for our cycling holiday.  I only wished for a log of the 87 tasks completed including biking attire, spare inner tubes, bike tools, etc before Day 1 to wave in his face.

Bike bags packed, we hailed two cabs from our house in London to Victoria Station.   Brett called me from the other cab saying his driver suggested we be dropped off at the "Back of Palace Road" for step free access at Victoria Station to the Gatwick Express. He called back 30 seconds later to say that his driver was actually saying "Buckingham Palace Road."  Heavy British accents are not always easy to understand.  Miscommunication averted. 

Four big green bags on rollers in a crowded train station is its own kind of celebrity.   People stare and point and ask questions.   And while we managed dodging people through the train station, on to the Gatwick Express, and through Gatwick Airport, it was a relief to say goodbye to the big green bags at the airline check in counter.   Tip #6:  Have a good made up story for what's in the bag.  It's surprising how many people don't guess bikes.


After the 1 hour 45 minute flight to Turin, we arranged to have a van transfer to the hotel.  Watching four people and four bike bags squeeze into a van is what I imagine making Italian sausage is like.  I did however send bike bag measurements in advance and our driver was imbued with confidence that is was "ok!"   And it was.

In Turin, we stayed at TownHouse 70, a centrally located hotel that was easily accessible to the train station where we would be departing from the next morning.  In our planning it became clear that we needed a solution for storing our bike bags while we were cycling around Italy. The easiest solution we could come up with was to chose a hotel for our first and last nights that would be willing to store our bags for the week.  TownHouse 70 was happy to do that for us along with arrange our airport transfer both directions.  And while we didn't know to ask, the hotel rooms had plenty of non carpeted floor space so it was no problem to assemble and break down the bikes in our rooms.  Tip #7:  Pick one customer friendly hotel to bookend your trip and then tip them well because you will be a presence.

We arrived to the hotel early in the afternoon which gave Brett time to get two of the bikes and the trailer assembled before dinner.   Colin stayed in the hotel to do homework revisions and Lawton and I went out for gelato plus spontaneous outlet store shoe shopping.   Because why not buy some new Italian wedges on a cycling trip when a) we have no room for extra stuff and b) I have a foot injury and shouldn't be wearing wedges.   

We had dinner at Pastificio Defilippis, a pasta restaurant that started in 1872.  We carbo loaded on traditional ravioli with meat and sage,  gnocchi with sausage and rosemary ragu, ovali with chicken, olive and oregano, tajarin with bacon and smoked burratina and our first Piedmont red - a Barbera d'Alba.  Fortified for the journey until ...

If the teenager started the day being clueless, the 11 year old ended it after dinner with an air of blah when he announced: "I'm not really ready for a holiday." 

Bon courage would be needed for us all ...

Day 2: Grind it Out

Brett, who has a history of being intimidated by anything mechanical,  finished assembling the last two bikes before breakfast.  It was impressive how organized and thorough he was with all the equipment and tools.  Once the trailer was packed we realized we were running a little heavy and so we jettisoned a few more things to store with the bike bags.  Like my new wedges.   And maybe the second pair of sandals I bought outlet shopping.

By 11am we had checked out and were on our bikes in route to the Porta Nuova Train Station.  We stopped in this Turin square to capture the start of our journey.  This was a highlight moment for Brett.  After all the planning, the gear, the self-instruction, he had got everything to work. 


At the train station we bought tickets to Carmagnola which was a 30 minute train ride to get outside the city.  By 12:30 we had started cycling.  We arrived at our hotel at 8:30pm.  It was 8 hours of cycling with one cafe stop and lots of "catch your breath" stops.   Tip #8: There's no better place for your 15 year old to order their first cappuccino. Cycling and cappuccinos are a thing.


We rode 70 km and the last 20 km was virtually all uphill, much of it at 12% grade.  The larger point being: IT WAS AN AMBITIOUS FIRST DAY.  When planning, it's easy to think you're going to take the fastest route but once you are on the road, the best route for cycles is usually not the shortest route.  And I now know to notice elevation on a map when picking hotels.  Tip #9: Do not use Google Maps for cycling.  You need detailed paper maps. 

We got our detailed maps before we left from Stanfords.  They were well worn by the end of our trip.  The rocks on the map are our start and end points for the first day.  From Camagnola through Guarene and Neive to the pink highlighted X at Benevello was our route along the yellow highlighted top line.  The goal is to avoid red roads and find the white roads. 


It was a day that required all of us to grind it out.  Colin learning to use his clips to avoid a clipastrophy.  Lawton understanding what it means to endure when you are physically spent.  And me learning to not freak out watching truck drivers going 90kph pass my babies who are no longer babies.  Honestly I hated the first 15 kms which were on busy, poorly paved service roads but when we turned onto our first "white road" and the rolling hills of Piedmont came into our first view, I had my highlight moment.  Colin had his highlight moment on his first long serpentine downhill where his need for speed for satisfied.  And Lawton had his when he pulled up to the hotel and realized he had done it.     

Day 3: Divide So Some Can Conquer

We stayed at Villa D'Amelia , a charming very Italian hotel with restaurant and pool, for our second and third nights.  We all walked into the small hilltown of Benevello that looks over the Langhe Valley - home to hazelnuts, beans, and lean beef -  in the morning.  Lawton and I lounged around the hotel pool which we had to ourselves in the afternoon while Brett and Colin rode a picturesque 55km loop to Monforte d'Alba.  They saw more cyclists on that stretch of road than anywhere else during our week.  Monforte d' Alba is also the town my good friend Jeannie stayed in and she recommended both Dimora I Manichei and Hotel Villa Beccaris as two places to stay.  

Tip 10: Spending two nights at the same hotel is a great way to plan a cycling trip.  It's nice to have the second day to have an out and back ride for those who want it and a rest day for those who don't.  

We then took a cab into the lovely, "moneyed' town of Alba in the early evening to wander (while the boys sat in the square and did revisions) and then have dinner.  We ate at La Piola, the modern restaurant on one of Alba's main squares with a simple chalkboard menu and Piedmont specialities.  

Day 4: The Day the Wheels Came Off

Day 4 had us leaving the Langhe region (home of Barbaresco & Barolo) heading into the Monferrato region. The first 35km was beautiful riding along a ridge line and up and down moderate hills.  The roads were quiet and we were outriding the rain clouds.  Everything was going splendidly until the last 3km steep descent into the town of Canelli. 

On the descent, Lawton lost control of his bike on a tight turn and crashed into a wall.  Thankfully he wasn't badly hurt, only banged up but he blew his front tire and was pretty shaken.  We didn't see it happen as Brett was ahead and I was behind but we heard his screams.  A young English guy who saw the crash stopped to help Lawton.  What was less helpful was him telling me: "That was horrid. Sickening to see."

Brett fixed Lawton's tire and we rode slowly into Canelli to find lunch.  Lawton was naturally timid to get back on his bike but he pushed through.  He pushed through finding a bike store to buy him a new helmet, through 2 more flat tires on his bike post crash, through a costly wrong turn. At 55km in, when we knew there was something more wrong with his tire, we called our destination hotel for help. A car came for Lawton and I just as a thunderstorm rolled in. Meanwhile, Brett and Colin carried on riding in search of a bike mechanic. 

Unfortunately the bike mechanic determined that there was something permanently wrong with the tire but they didn't have a replacement one in the right size and it was unlikely that any bike store in the area did.  Our only option was to order it from Amazon Italy and hope that priority delivery worked.

The route was from the rock on the left up along the yellow highlighted line to Canelli up to Nizza Monferrato and to the pink X at Casalotto.


Adventures do have their highs and lows and Day 4 was a low day for all of us.  But it was also the kind of day that shows character.  Brett's calmness and ability to problem solve through any issue was on full display.  His judgment is always sound, his temperament always kind and stressful situations only magnify those qualities about him.  Colin, in growing maturity, stepped up to take a leadership role for the family like finding a lunch spot while Brett was busy fixing the bike.  Lawton had to ride on when the last thing he wanted to do was get back on the bike.  And I did not let fear take hold and make me spiral (something I am prone to.)  

It helped too that our landing place that night was at La Villa Hotel.  The hotel (which is mostly a romantic getaway for couples) is owned by an English family who bought it 13 years ago and beautifully restored it.  The outdoor space and gardens are particularly lovely.  It's a gem of a place with an outstanding set four course dinner at their restaurant La Vie for those who wish to eat in.  We most certainly did.  

Tip 11:  Book hotels that have excellent restaurants on site so you have flexibility on staying in or out depending on how tired you are.

Day 5: Chewing the Handlebars

With Lawton's bike out of commission, he and I were forced to take a second rest day.  After a morning at the pool, we took a nice hour long walk into the nearby hilltown of Mombaruzzo.  The plan was to meet up with Brett and Colin after their ride for lunch.

The guys had another incredible ride but rolled in to lunch an unacceptable 50 minutes late and chewing the handlebars in pain.  The second wrong turn of the trip meant several kms of unexpected uphills between them and the doghouse. Although with a turn success rate of something like 68 out of 70, it was hard to be annoyed for long.

After a sweaty lunch at a charming La Marlera we stopped by Moriondo Virgilio, a local cafe where they serve fresh amaretti cookies. (Mombaruzzo is actually the town where the amaretti cookie started.)  After the walk back and a late afternoon ping pong tournament, we dined in again at La Vie.  Us with all the couples.

Tip 12: If you do take a rest day, take a walk instead.  Something about walking and the fresh air is great for conversation.

Day 6: Amazon Delivers!

Back in the saddle! Checkout was at 11am and the Amazon package with Lawton’s new tire arrived at 10:58! No plan B or C needed. We had a smooth 60km ride to our next destination, not even a snake in the road made us flinch (for me, this is growth!) 

Day 6 was about heading North from Casalotto to Grazzano Badogli which is still in the Monferrato region. This area of Monferrato was particularly beautiful.


We stayed at a gorgeous guesthouse on a vineyard called Tenuta Santa Caterina.  The guesthouse has only six rooms and only one of the other rooms was occupied when we were there.  


The guesthouse doesn't have a restaurant on site but it's in a small village and so we walked to the local osteria for a late dinner.  The breakfast in the morning was excellent but we didn't have time to enjoy the guesthouse or tour the vineyard as this was the only place we stayed for one night.  (I did however order some of their wine to be shipped back to London.)  It's definitely a place to come back to for an adults only weekend.


Day 7: Save the Best for Last

The last day of riding was perhaps the one I was looking forward to least.  We had to make our way back to Turin and it was too far to cycle the whole way back so we knew a train would be involved.  After much map huddling we decided to train back to Turin from Asti which meant that we could do a cycling loop near the area we we staying.

At these things often go, our last 60km ride before we hopped the train in Asti was the best ride of the trip.  Fewer cars, gorgeous scenery, just right lumpy terrain.  We had also found our riding grove.  With Colin leading and then lying in the grass like a lion in wait for all of us to catch up, Brett shredding the granny gears to pull the 60 pound trailer up the hills, Lawton finally relaxing on the downhills, and me no longer worrying that we sometimes had to share the road with cars.

Of all the maps I've shown here, this yellow loop is the one not to miss.  (Asti is the red area in the lower left corner where we caught the train.)


We did have a snafu in Asti on the first intercity train we tried to take.  Apparently you can't bring bikes on the intercity train but no one told us and so we got kicked off.  A very angry woman literally pushed us and our children off the train.  It was actually bizarre how physical it was.  Lawton suggested the woman might have been part bull dog.  An hour later, we were on another (bike legal) train in route to Turin.  The conductor on the second train however was so friendly and restored our faith in Italian train travel. 

In Turin, we zigzagged through a busy city center to get back to our hotel.  We had a fabulous final dinner at Ristorante Consorzio.  After a week of traditional Piedmont food (which we loved more than any other region in Italy) it was nice to have a modern take on it.  We might have licked our plates.  Lawton especially enjoyed his starter which was anchovies four ways (not pictured.)

The next morning we got everything packed back up in their bike bags and flew back to London in the afternoon.  It was notably how much easier it seemed to all of us wheeling the green bags on the journey home.  After a week of much harder challenges, that part seemed like a piece of cake.  

Tip 13:  If you are half-wheeling the idea of a cycling trip, it's time to get out of the saddle!  Ping us with specific questions and remember - we have gear to borrow!

Sardinia, Italy: Beyond Flip-flops and the Costa Smeralda

Italy is always a good idea.  An island in Italy before the heat and crowds of July and August is a jolly brilliant Half Term School Break idea.

In terms of island size, Sardinia is like the Ohio State of universities.  In the same way you would only know a small percentage of your classmates after 4 years you can only cover a fraction of Sardinia’s vast natural beauty in 4 days.  Sicily, another place we have seen a sliver of, is bigger but Sardinia is still the third largest region in Italy with almost 2,000 meters of coastline.  This then is fair warning to balance this post with a more authoritative source on what not to miss in Sardinia.

However, if you should fly into Olbia in the North of Sardinia … a few suggestions:

First, don’t assume because the Olbia airport is small you will transit through it quickly.  Even if you are the only flight to land at 8:30pm on a quiet Wednesday night.  It took us one hour, a portion of it (weirdly? unsafely?) standing outside adjacent to the tarmac, to get through the two men/one chatty supervisor passport control line.  Either it’s payback for having chosen EasyJet or a welcome to island time.   I wish I could report I managed the wait time with an attitude of dolce vita that every other person not holding an American passport seemed to be capable of but my countenance was unmistakably prima donna.  My Global Entry passport carrying husband wasn’t doing much better.  Thankfully our children, who haven’t had as many years to be conditioned for efficiency and customer service, recognized the daggers darting from our eyes to the supervisor and redirected us.  By the time we reached the front of the line, our impatience had melted but our hunger for pasta had kicked in.

Second, because it is Italy and food is central, a late arrival is “no problem” for the kitchen.  Not only was the restaurant at the farmhouse we stayed at happy to serve us dinner at 10pm but the owner delayed her departure home for the evening so she could welcome us.   Guided by our gracious, grey-haired, quadrilingual Italian waiter, our first bottle of big but not bossy Sardinian red wine was at our table by 10:10pm.

There are many agritourismos/farmhouses scattered throughout Sardinia.  We choose Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru, a relaxing rural hotel with 10 suites, a great pool and grounds, and easy car access to a variety of sites in Sardinia’s northern tip.  It was a lovely choice and one we would recommend but there are probably many in the same vein.  Like the masserias in Puglia where you can follow coastline for miles on end, if you had the time and inclination Sardinia is the ideal place to cover more ground by hopping from farmhouse to farmhouse by car, motorcycle or road bike.  

Unlike other trips where we work to find special restaurants, we allowed ourselves to settle in to Stazzo Lu Ciaccuru for all but one of our four dinners.  We all took turns ordering the risotto with local pecorino cheese (80% of Italy’s pecorino comes from Sardinia), gnocchi with sausage ragu, tempura sardines, and the highlight was a Friday night grilled fish set dinner.  While Sardinian food didn't stand out as much as the food from other Italian regions, it did offer a little bit of everything.  We skipped the maggot cheese and donkey meat.

Rather than park ourselves at one of the stunning beaches along the Costa Smeralda to soak up the sun (which was in full supply in early June), we decided to hit the hiking trails along the Northern coastline and mountainous interior.    A car rental and a willing driver is therefore critical for this kind of trip.   However, as Sardinia is the only region in Italy without a motorway, the continuous landscape payoffs along winding but mostly generous two lane roads appeals to even back seat passengers.

Day 1: Hiking a village town and the natural beaches of the Costa Smeralda

Lucky for us, the traditional village of San Pantaleo which sits high between movie-set like granite mountains, has a weekly market on Thursdays which was one of the days we were there.   We were expecting fruits and vegetables but this was that plus truly special artisan crafts, clothing and jewelry.  We later learned that San Pantaleo is the inland playground for the glamorous people who come to the Costa Smeralda. 

After wishing there was room in our suitcases to bring something back and a lunch at the local pizzeria, we spent the afternoon scrambling around rocks, cliffs, and sand to see the best jaw-dropping natural beaches (the ones that don’t rent beach chairs and often require a short walk to get there) along the Costa Smeralda: the interconnecting beaches of Capriccioli, Romazzino, and Portu Li Coggi.   With only one afternoon, we intentionally avoided glitzy Porto Cervo, the resort heart of the area but we wished we had made it to the long walking beach of Liscia Ruia.

Day 2: Hiking inland on Monte Limbara

Designated national parks and wildlife reserves take up 25% of the island.   When we were told by the farmhouse (we think erroneously) the only way to tour the main islands of the Maddalena Archipelago was via chartered boat, we opted instead to drive inland to Monte Limbara.  It was a place that jumped off the map at my husband but largely skimmed over by the guidebooks.  The husband was right.

From Vallicciola which is roughly 2/3 up the mountain, there are several well signed trails that lead you through dense forests and ridge lines to the highest point in Northern Sardinia for some grand views.  Apart from an epic thunderstorm that had us take cover for 45+ minutes, the 5 mile hike we choose was one of the best hikes we’ve had in Europe. 

In route from the farmhouse to Monte Limbara, we detoured to see a lake we had read about as a hidden gem which was ho hum (Lago di Liscia), stopped in a cork forest near Calangianus,  and circled a number of out of the way, gorgeous roads on the map should we ever return on bikes.  With the delay and drenching of the thunderstorms, we skated by the town of Tempio on our way back but it seemed a look-see town.

 Day 3: Coastal hiking in “Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa” in Santa Teresa Gallura

Trading the inland mountains for coastal granite rocks, we spent our last day hiking in the Northwest corner of the island in an area called Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa a few kilometers from the town of Santa Teresa Gallura.  A small isthmus separates the two areas, best described as massive granite rock sculpture gardens. 

We passed on the easy “A” and “B” routes in favor of the more challenging but rewarding “brown Natural Trail hike” which dipped and turned through rocky outcrops and scrubby vegetation, delivering countless dramatic views of nearby Corsica, for about 4 miles.   It was the kind of hike that makes you glad for a large camera memory card and sympathetic companions for when you inevitably twist your ankle because you are too busy looking out instead of down at your scrambling feet. 

The town of Santa Teresa is an easy one to navigate and enjoy for a post hike lunch and a good pivot point for the nearby beach and dunes of Rena Maiore.  Like so many places in Sardinia, it turns out that Rena Maiore deserved more than an afternoon drive by.  Though gelato fueled, there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to hike the cliff hike trail that extended generously in both directions but it was a great place for a late afternoon swim and a circle on the map for another time.

Sicily in Seven Acts

We spent 72 hours in Sicily this past weekend.  Here's a few of our most memorable encounters from the trip.

Act 1: Giacomo, the sweeper

Early one morning on the terrace, a cheerful, Sicilian man in his early 60s came to sweep. “English? Deutsch?” he asked.   We answered “English.”  He nodded, said "No English" and proceeded to talk to us in German. Thanks to the ein bisschen German my husband knows we learned the sweeper’s name was Giacomo, he had worked for Interpol for 7 years in Wiesbaden, Germany but was now retired from the police force and collecting his pension.  After 15 minutes of careful sweeping and constant chatter in the second language he was proud to know, he downed an espresso, bid us "Arrivederci" and hopped in his car, on to the next terrace.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 2: Lovers at Sea

One afternoon we were trekking along a long, mostly deserted beach with sand dunes and a scented eucalyptus park on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.  So strong was the head wind that we bundled up in all the clothes we had, only our toes in the water.   After not seeing a soul for a long time, we spotted a couple in the distance who were changing into their bathing suits – she only half of one and he in a very small one.  Locals, we reasoned.  By the time we reached them, which was truly no time at all, they had already run into the sea and were kissing, seemingly unaware of the wind or water temp.  Love does, cold water be damned.  Not long after, wind now at our back, two young emboldened American boys shed their wind breakers and took the plunge too.

The beach of the Forest Reserve, Randello - Sicily

Act 3: The American

While playing cards in the hotel lobby I overhead a conversation at the front desk.  Without line of sight, the accent confirmed the guest was a fellow American, though from the opposite and more candid coast than I.  Said she to the obliging woman at the front desk:  “We don’t want a late dinner.  Does this restaurant have their menu online?” Stuffing down laughter given what even I knew to be an absurd question in Sicily, the woman at the front desk did not miss a beat when she responded: “No, no menu online … but if you’d like, I can call them …” What happened next was a protracted three-way conversation where dinner was pre-ordered and would be ready on arrival but not before the American asked, “Can you ask them if they have anything with beans.  My husband likes beans.” It is hard to make slow food go fast, but some are willing to try.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 4: Roberto, the waiter

Speaking of slow food, one night we were seated at a four top in a much too brightly lit restaurant at 8pm.  In walked a man, who took off his coat, spoke to the hostess and made a bee-line for our table.  Roberto had been called in from his night off to speak to the Americans.   Dinner he explained was a set menu of 12 starters, two pastas and a whole fish.  The only question was whether we wanted a mix of cooked and uncooked seafood.  We said we’d take both, our two boys included, and he turned to the hostess and said with conviction, “QUATTRO.”   When we jokingly asked Roberto why the restaurant was full of men, he said without a note of sarcasm: “It’s like that every day except Saturday night and Sunday brunch.”  “By the way” he continued, “the only rules are to say STOP when you are done."

During the next four hours we tasted everything the sea had to offer, several things requiring explanation, twice involving Roberto’s wife feeding me with a spoon.  As our adventuress children eventually fatigued, Roberto’s wife serendipitously poured them half a glass of Coke Zero while she bounced between the tables of men, sipping the rest of what was left of the can.  The Owner, whose photos on the wall suggested he was both restaurateur and local politician, roamed the tables of the men he clearly knew well, helping himself to their mussels as he went.  

By time the eleventh starter came, or so we thought, our middle son asleep at the table, with his long checked out younger brother, woke briefly and laughed out loud when three more starters came all at once. After our third attempt at STOP was insistent enough to be received, the second pasta and whole fish were waved off.  It came as no shock at the end of the meal, given the squishy counting of starters, when there was a shotgun exchange between the servers.  Out came a calculator, a shrug of approval and the presentation of the calculator screen in lieu of a bill with the final question:  “Lemoncello?  Grappa?” 

Skallelo, Scoglitti - Sicily

Act 5: Antonio, the shopkeeper

At 2:10 pm in the central square of a Baroque town in Southern Sicily, gelatos in hand, we stood nose to glass at a trendy little t-shirt shop.  It teased us come hither with its colorful window signage only to find on approach it closed for siesta.   Sensing our curiosity and perhaps our wallets, the shopkeeper unlocked the door and invited us in.  Right away it was clear Antonio was less interested in our wallets and more interested in telling us the story of the shop. 

The shop was mostly t-shirts with unique pithy Sicilian proverbs – such as “The more you think about something, the bigger will be your mistake.”—which had been given life in an ironic way through their designs.   Started in this small town there were now 43 of their shops across Sicily.  Proud of their proverbs, Antonio showed and explained each one of the “joking” shirts which we heard as “jogging” shirts until about the 4th one. Once our private consultation with the lively Antonio was finished, we left the store that should have been closed for siesta with a souvenir of Sicilian wisdom: “If you want the bike.  You have to pedal.” 

Siculamente, Ragusa Ibla - Sicily

Act 6: airport passengers

Before the plane had come to a full stop, in a collective disregard for the seat belt sign the Sicilians stormed the aisle.  Only when we deplaned into the brilliant Sicilian sun did I understand.  The prize they were racing for was coming home.  When we were boarding the plane 72 hours later, I chatted up a friendly looking passenger.  “Are you from here?”, I asked.  “Yes, but it had been 10 years since I’ve been back.” he said without a note of longing.  “How was it?” I asked.  “The same as when I left 30 years ago.  Same roads.  Same problems.  Same everything.” No matter where you're from, I remembered, coming home can cut both ways.  

Comiso Airport - Sicily

Act 7: Anna's father

At breakfast one morning we had a lovely conversation with some people:  Anna, a Sicilian born, now living in Brussels part owner of the hotel we were staying in; her husband Carlos who of all things was head of Tourism & Emerging and Creative Industries for the European Commission; and Anna’s elderly father who was still living in Sicily only 30 kilometers away.  Anna's father eagerly shared with us many of his favorite places in the nearby towns. 

Later that day after repeatedly striking out in search of a simple pizza lunch, we ended up at a fish restaurant by the sea mentioned by Anna’s father.  Given the bleak exterior we only went in because we were dejected and it was recommended.  As is often the case when we judge a book by its cover, we were led upstairs to a beautiful dining room full of well-dressed families overlooking the sea.  Lunch, the server explained, was either pasta or fish.  After, he said - in a barely audible voice - 22 starters. Believing our marathon dinner the night before to be a once in a lifetime experience, we agreed to chuck our desire for “simple” and tucked in for remainder of the afternoon.  If we were going to have back to back epic meals at least we were following a true Mediterranean diet.

An hour into an even better meal than the first, a group obviously well-known to the restaurant staff and clientele walked in.  It was Anna and company.  Only 6 hours into our friendship we were the first people they warmly greeted.  Anna’s father, whose zest for life and people reminded me of my Sicilian grandfather, told the waiter to bring us the best bottle of Sicilian champagne. Maybe it was the 22 starters or the champagne or both but for the hours that followed my vision blurred between restaurant and family table. 

Viri Ku C'e, Scoglitti - Sicily

In loving memory of my Sicilian Poppop, James Baldanza.  At the table of course.

Tips for Renting a villa in Europe

Years ago I overheard someone in Seattle talking about their plans to rent a villa in Italy for a week with friends.   Thick in the vortex of the child rearing years and booking out friend dinners three miles away two months in advance I remember thinking “who does that?” and “how… could…you…possibly…” Then I gagged on my not-so-jolly rancher.  

There’s something about the word “villa” that sounds obnoxious and faux European.   Add in Italy and now you’ve created a puddle of Chianti-stained jealousy around you and your friends, all of whom must be the lucky ones with more than 2 weeks of vacation to burn. 

Even if you had the money and time, the thought of planning that kind of vacation seemed daunting and completely out of reach.  I never asked how the trip went but I did file the idea away for later.  I assumed the later would be when I turned 50, when my children fled the nest, or when I sold my screenplay for villa money. 

Then of course I moved to Europe three years ago and became that “someone” who talks about renting villas and then posts pictures of them.  I’ve become that person who no doubt has given you occasions to gag, wonder and lament.  I know this and am sorry for it so please only read on if you’re not in a place of wanting to poke me in the eye. 

My intention is to share what I’ve learned about renting a villa in Europe in a way that could be helpful to those thinking about a trip or aspiring to one in the future.   Most people think about a pan European trip where they travel from big city to big city but if you want to give yourself space to more fully experience the culture, it’s worth considering carving out a portion of your trip for the countryside. 

One important bit of clarification that would have been helpful to me those years ago in Seattle:  When people in Europe say “villa” they are really saying “detached house.”  You need not have sold a screenplay or a company to be villa eligible.  There is a sliding luxury scale from mansion villas with cooks included to modest 2 bedroom villas where linens aren’t always included.  The thing they do generally share in common is that they are somewhere in the countryside where the slow life happens and you really get the chance to use your rusty French, Spanish, Italian or speak the language of hand motions. 

Here then are a few things to consider if you are thinking about renting a villa in Europe:

1.  Most people think about villas in France and Italy and for good reason.  They have a robust rental market and the countryside is full of provincial towns and farmers markets (especially in France) during the summers.  You have to work harder to find villas to rent in Spain that aren’t on the crowded and much less interesting Costa del Sol.  There are lots of websites out there doing villa rentals but the ones I have used are Pure France for France, Tuscany Now for Italy, and Rustic Blue for Spain.  Whatever website you use there is value in having a company that acts as the intermediary between you and the owner and a company that has visited all their properties.  Most of the villas you will find to rent are second homes.

France, exhibit A. (my favorite of all the rentals we have done is this one)

2.  Wherever you choose, you will be driving there.   Of course you can rent a car in Rome, Paris, or Madrid but consider taking a cheap intra-country flight to get closer to your villa and rent a car out of smaller airport which would be easier and potentially cheaper. 

3.  Travel in any month but July or August if you can.  Prices are highest when demand is highest in July and August and you can often get rates 20-30% cheaper in May, June, September, October.  Many US schools get out in mid-June and so if you are school dependent, my strong advice would be to do your Europe travel and villa rental the last two weeks of June if possible.  Most villa rentals also require a Saturday-Saturday stay but may offer some flexibility in the off-season months.

France, exhibit B. ( I loved the summer kitchen in this one.)

4.  Travel with a group.  Generally speaking, the bigger the villa, the more amenities you get.  Many of the villas available to rent are geared towards large parties and we all know how math works.  Two families or a group of friends splitting the cost of one villa opens up a lot more options.   Honestly it doesn’t take much to get the per night charge cheaper than a hotel rate in a big city.

Spain, exhibit C. (a group trip example of remote but excellent villa with promixmity to Granada and Cordoba.)

5.  Book early.  You can find available villas anytime but the good ones get plucked up early, especially the smaller and more affordable ones.  I try to book mine in November for the following summer. 

6.  Pick a villa that is further inland or in a region you’ve heard less about.   You’ll pay top dollar in Tuscany and Provence.  Umbria and Dordogne are lesser known but just as charming regions.   The prices go up the closer you are to the water but given that most villas won’t be directly on the beach who cares if you have to drive 45 minutes or 15 minutes if you get a nicer villa further out.  If they say "remote" they do mean it so just make sure you are prepared for what that entails in terms of eating and necessities.

7.  Pick a villa and then map out what you can see in day trips from there.  Almost anywhere you go in France or Italy will have more options for day trips than you could do in a week.  In Dordogne you can even get to the Basque region in Spain for a day trip.  You can find listings of summer farmers markets online and if in France almost be guaranteed a daily market within a 25 km radius.  It’s great to have dinner out in a city but when you are in the French or Italian countryside, it’s better to have lunch out when you are day tripping and then have dinner in.  You’ll also save money on food and wine if you eat most of your dinners in.  I don’t think that’s just my age talking …

8.  Prioritize the outdoor space.    It’s easy to get taken with beautiful interiors but if you are renting during the summer months you should put more of a premium on the outdoor space.   The pool is an easy one to focus on but I also pay attention to the outdoor eating area, the views, and the proximity of neighbors.   If you are choosing to be in the countryside, setting matters a lot.

9.  Pick a villa that is private but walkable to a village.   They aren’t always easy to find but when you find a villa that has lovely outdoor space with privacy AND is walkable to a village, book it!  There’s something about walking into a village for a coffee or baguette that never ever gets old…

10.  Study the reviews closely.  Most people say generally positive things but you can often tell when a place is “fine” and when it’s “truly special” by the tone of the reviews.  “Thanks for a great holiday” is not a review, it’s a warning.  

11.  Look for newly added villas.  This can be a risk because you won’t have reviews but sometimes you can find a gem before the word gets out.  That happened with this one where we were the first renters and now it is almost fully booked for this upcoming summer.

12.  Look for the cheapest villas on the high end rental sites.  Sometimes I will troll on higher end villa sites looking for their smallest properties as you know the quality will be there but the smaller size may not appeal to those looking for a reunion sized villa.

Fall in Puglia, Italy

I haven't been to Cornwall but I read somewhere that Puglia is like the Cornwall for Italians.  With 800km of beach-lined coast, in the last 10 years Puglia has become a hot destination for for the Italian socialites in summer.  Our boy's research informed us that Justin Timberlake got married in Puglia, not Tuscany or Lake Como, three years ago.   Like our trip to Croatia last October, we decided to chase the last of the sun (Puglia is further south than Naples) and explore Puglia during the quieter shoulder season which aligned with our school Fall Break (October 31-November 8.) 

We loved the time of year for our visit and the warm mid 60 degree weather but if we were to advise others who are coming from further away, we’d recommend you plan your trip to Puglia sometime before November 1 (All Saints Day) which seems to be the official day that things start shutting down.  It didn’t detour us, but many of the towns were dead and we needed assistance in finding open restaurants.   Late September and all of October would be ideal.

To get to Puglia, you can fly into either Bari or Brindisi.  Neither are particularly interesting cities to visit but they are easy in and out places to fly into.  You will definitely need to rent a car to explore the area.  We stayed first outside of Fasano which has a number of interesting hilltowns to visit (or read in, see photos below): Ostuni, Locorotondo, Martina Franca and Pogliano a Mare were white-washed charm even with the quiet.   

We ended up in Martina Franca on a Sunday night when the whole well-dressed town seemed to be out for a Sunday evening stroll.  Due to time, we skipped the “smurftown” of Alberobello with his unique cone roofed stoned houses and the limestone caves of Grotte Castellana in favor of hiking along the gorgeous coast of the Toree Guaceto Nature Reserve. 

The second portion of our trip was further south in the "Salento" region near Otranto and Lecce.  Otranto is a picturesque town with a harbor and castle and Lecce is a lively university town that is often referred to as the “Florence of the South.”   Lecce was still buzzing even in November but Otranto wasn't at full capacity.   Here there are fewer small hilltowns to visit but Otranto and Lecce could keep you busy for a few days.   With a more accessible coastline, there is a spectacular drive (and potential bike route) following limestone cliffs from Otranto to Castro.  Of the two areas, we'd give the nod to the Salento region (also a wine region.)

Puglia is filled with beach clubs in the summer, kite surfing is big, and it would be a fantastic place for a cycling trip.  We met one couple from New York who were bicycling when we were there and it's ideal given the terrain and the sprinkling of guest houses.

More than other places we’ve visited, I would highly recommend you plan your visit around where you want to stay.  Southern Italy is filled with these charming “Masserias” which are farmhouses that were built to function as self-sufficient communities but now have been converted into guest houses. There is a huge range of them, some of them double as spas and some of them double as agriturismos, some are in small villages but most are out in the country.  Unlike a hotel, each Masseria has its own unique vibe and set of services so it’s worth hunting around until you find one that is “your speed.”  We stayed in two of them. The first one near Fasano was fine but the second one Masseria Prosperi, outside of Otranto and Lecce was special. 

Masseria Prosperi, a farmhouse with indoor and outdoor pool near Otranto and located 1.5km from the beach, opened two years ago by the wonderfully relaxed Mercedes (who speaks English) and her husband Antonio (who speaks the language of food.)  You have to be comfortable with communal dining and like animals (it’s on a farm but think chic farm not hippy farm where your children and pets are very much welcomed).  If you are a foodie, having Antonio cook a multi-course Puglian dinner set out on the terrace while you mingle with other guests – sending your children to bed upstairs when they are tired – is an Italian experience you won’t get visiting a big city.  If you like a very quiet night of sleep, this may not be the place for you especially if all the rooms were occupied and you were staying in one of the two downstairs rooms. 

There are six guest rooms (the two upstairs back rooms being the best) and it’s possible to rent out the entire house with a group of friends.  The furnishings are nice but not at all fussy.  The only person worrying about a trail of water from the indoor pool to the room will be an American mother.  Service is attentive and always welcoming, tested by multiple cappuccino orders at breakfast. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of curb appeal when you first arrive at Masseria Prosperi because once you step inside and around to the back, you’ll forgive the tired, unloved property that sits in front of it.   Mercedes' sister and mother run a more well-known nearby Masseria called Masseria Montelauro.

Other places to recommend:

  • Borgo San Marco – a family-friendly 15th century Masseria with 18 rooms outside Fasano.  Like Masseria Prosperi, one of 16 places to stay in the region recommended on i-escapes (my most reliable website for finding places to stay in Europe) and one we considered.   We ended up staying at Masseria Alchimia instead which is more self-service but given the time of year and the "magic" of the guest house experience, I'd choose a more immersive Masseria.
  • Le Capase Resort Salento – We drove by this resort which has a beautiful natural setting on the Salentine Peninsula.  Prices look reasonable.
  • Borgo Egnazia – a large, village sized Masseria with 63 rooms and the location of Justin Timberlake’s wedding outside Fasano.  Recommended in this recent Conde Naste article which has 10 other Masserias to recommend (Masseria Prosperi among them) which would be an excellent read (and much more helpful than my post) if you were considering a visit.

Walks along the coastline are wonderful, perhaps even more in the off season where you often have the place to yourselves.  If you go, we'd recommend:

  • Beach walk along Toree Guaceto Natural Reserve north of Brindisi or a sandy beach mixed in with rocky coves.  No beach clubs or services except for trash cans. 
  • Baia dei Turchi public beach north of Otranto (probably very crowded in summer)
  • Torre Sant’Andrea north of Otranto (the link here is for a listing of many other beaches in the area.)
  • Along the Salentine peninsula between Otranto and Castro. 

The food in Puglia with it's focus on fish and greens is the best we've had in Italy so far.  Before Antonio's cooking, we were given excellent lunch and dinner recommendations by the woman who owned the first Masseria near Fasano.  The best of those were:

  • Il Punto, an elegant fish restaurant on the water in the ugly - and I mean ugly- town of Torre Canne.  One of the only times traveling when we arrived embarrassingly under-dressed for Sunday brunch.
  • Il Cortiletto, an unassuming place in the small town of Speziale, where you get a 9 course antipasta feast before the main dish.  A truly special dining experience worth going out of the way for.
  • Chichibo, a typical large well-established fish restaurant serving locals and tourists in the heart of Polignano. 


Travel Tip from Rome

For most, summer travel to Rome means a gelato-stained tick sheet of “must sees” a mile long.  My glossy travel guide claims you can see all the major highlights in four days, an ambitious proclamation for a city with ancient remains everywhere you step, over 900 churches and only two metro lines.

A long weekend and third trip to the Eternal City, sans children, means you can put the tick sheet down and (mostly) wing it.   Except if you are like me and you can’t help yourself from doing restaurant research.  If you’re going to commit to a pasta carbonara, you want to enjoy every calorie.  [I have recommendations on this front of course.]

Regardless of your chosen pace, the truth is that you will get caught up in the whirl of a big city like Rome.  You will never see it all or find the best place to have a pair of shoes made.  You will be completely overwhelmed – not just by the size of the city – but the history it holds.

So, my travel tip for whatever new place you travel to this summer.  Find an hour on your busy itinerary where you can escape to a quiet corner of the city and just sit.  I found my spot at the SS Apostoli Church, a second tier tourist attraction not heavily circled on any map.  First time we passed there was a mass going on.  Second time there was a long line of people waiting to take a picture of the apostle James and Phillips tombs, a ridiculous photo really given that you are in a dark crypt.  Third time, it was early Monday morning and there were only two of us in the church.  Complete silence for 30 minutes. 

The travel writer Pico Iyer says, “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.  [In stillness], a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes.”

I recommend you add that to your “must see” list.

Some Recommendations

Three dinners, three winners.  Armondo’s Al Pantheon, a well-known, family run at moderately priced traditional Roman trattoria, adjacent but not on the square near the Pantheon with excellent food and a kitchen staff all over the age of 50.  Recommend view of the kitchen for anyone with an Italian grandfather.  Giulio Passami l’olio, a moderately priced, casual but hip (late arriving bridal shower party confirmed) Mediterranean kitchen with a long wine list and helpful sommelier 600 meters from Piazza Navona recommended to us by a Roman friend of a friend.   Antico Arco, an upscale modern Italian restaurant in Monteverde (taxi required) with a twist on Roman classic dishes and attentive service.   For a glass of wine, research told us to check out Mime e Coco on busy Via del Governo Vecchio but we preferred the lively local vibe of Il Bar del Fico near Piazza Navona and the more quiet but comfortable, Kindle-friendly Etabli.    

No need to put the Pantheon on your tick sheet.  You will pass by it multiple times during your stay and at first you will wonder, “How on earth did they build that 2000 years ago?” then you will start to wander the streets around it for shopping.  Rome is all about leather, cashmere, shoes and other things to drain your travel budget.  There is good shopping for all these things around the Pantheon including Cosimo Colonna where you can dress your man in Euro duds without gasping at price tags or committing to a summer scarf if you don’t want to.  You should however make him get a pair of colorful Gallo socks.  When in Rome … black socks will not do.

The most enjoyable shopping however was in the Monti neighborhood which is behind Piazza Venezia and the ColosseumVia del Boschetto and Via Urbana are lined with designer shops of Italian made goods and vintage shops in a range of price points.   The most fun was being there on the weekend for the MercadoMonti, an indoor urban market we read about in the NY Times March 2015 “36 Hours in Rome.”  With about two dozen young designers selling their handcrafts, my Euro dude was able to pick up a snazzy jacket for under 100 euros.


Part Italian and part cosmopolitan, Milan feels like a cross between Florence and Berlin.  It's also a city that requires some work to find it's underlying beauty, but it's there in spades as you venture out into the neighborhoods.  Milan is old meets new ...

We stayed at the Palazzo Segreti, an 18 room boutique hotel in the historic center near the  Duomo and the trendy Brera district and within easy walking distance from the train station.  A little pricey and best suited for couples, the prime location (though a bit noisy) and nice rooms made it worth the splurge. 

(NOTE: If you like boutique hotels, I highly recommend finding them on this website.  Palazzo Segreti was the fourth hotel I've stayed in on a recommendation from i-escape - the others in Berlin and Croatia - and all of them have been fantastic.   They also offer a range of prices and have very useful reviews.) 

The Duomo is the third largest church in the world after St Peter's and Seville Cathedral.  It's spectacular from the square, on the inside, but perhaps most especially from the rooftop.  It's well worth the 7 euros and 250 steps to climb to the top.

There's also shopping of course, much of it way too hip for us.  Bring your cutest clothes as you'll want to fit in.  You'll likely start your shopping at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautiful iron and glass shopping arcade near the Duomo and lined with expensive shops but we found shopping everywhere we went. 

There is a well-worn mosaic art of a bull in the center of the shopping center where people take turns spin their heels in three times for good luck.  There is also excellent people watching (and photographing.)

One of our favorite places was 10 Corso  Como - a  store, bookstore, cafe/restaurant, photography gallery tucked away in a courtyard.  The merchandise is high end but it's worth a stroll through and there's a wonderful rooftop deck to sit and relax.  Apparently they have an outlet too which we missed.  We did hit the DMagazine outlets which if you are a savvy high fashion shopper would be worth the hunt.

One of the highlights of the visit was being in Milan over Palm Sunday.   We happened on two churches just as services were ending which was a real treat.

First at the Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio ...

Then at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a late 4th century church in the round.  I have a thing for churches in the round. 

Milan is gearing up to host the World Expo 2015, a world's fair with a food theme.  An event expected to bring around 20 million visitors between May 1 and Oct 31, we were happy to be in the city before the rush.  Evidence of the coming global trade fair was most obvious in the Porta Nuova business district. 


Sometimes you just hit it right.  We scored by being in Milan on the last Sunday of April which meant we got to enjoy strolling through the Naviglio Grande Antique Market.  A very cool part of town with bars and restaurants spilling onto a not so pretty canal on a day when you wish you had a truck.

Of course, we love eating.  If you like risotto, you'll really like eating in Milan.  We had some of the best risotto we've ever eaten including one with nettles.  We got some good recommendations before going.  Here's some places to share:

Pisacco: lunch or dinner.  Former chef of 2 Michelin Star restaurant (but not expensive.)  North Brera neighborhood.  Recommended by a friend of a friend from Milan.   The roasted vegetable starter with pickled rhubarb, romanesco broccoli and a smattering of other perfectly roasted vegetables was an inspiration.  Don't miss.

Taglio: lunch or dinner.  Modern, casual Italian with floor to ceiling open shelves.  Recommended in NY Times.  Great service, fun vibe, excellent food.

Obica: lunch.  Mozzarella Bar.  It's a chain restaurant but still above average for a tasty lunch and a must do if you crave the real mozzarella and didn't realize they were even mozzarella choices.  Recommended by a friend.

N'Ombra de Vin: an informal, destination wine bar in the Brera neighorhood.  Worth a stop before dinner.  Was packed before we left.

El Brellin:  dinner.  Popular in guide books. In Naviglio.   Very good but you'll be in tourist company. 

Carlo e Camillian: dinner.  We couldn't get reservation so book ahead.  Second restaurant of a chef who owns 2 Michelin Star restaurant Cracco.  Recommended by a friend of a friend from Milan.  

More of pretty Milan on this Good Friday.

It's a Winter Waterland - Venice

You might be surprised to hear that among The Lonely Planet’s Top 25 Experiences in Europe, #5 on their list is “Venice in Winter.”  Having now been in Venice over New Years, I understand why it rates so high. There is something magical about Venice on a sunny winter’s day.  The light bounces off the water creating unbelievable photo ops, the tall buildings with narrow streets provide cocoon-like wind protection, and there’s the bustling of enough tourists to make it feel lively but not overrun. And when you’re not competing with 60,000 daily visitors in the summer, you are more likely to snap a photo without Susie from Tulsa photo bombing it.


Venice’s photographic overexposure might lead you to believe it’s a city you already know.  But can you really imagine a city without any cars, where all deliveries are done by boat, and where the smell of the sea – not GPS - is your guiding light?  It is not normal Italy.  Not everyone pinches your blonde haired/blue eyed seven year old.  English is the default language more quickly.   And, MOST service is not with a smile.  Venetians are notoriously grouchy, and with the exception of a few people, we found the locals to be some of the most unfriendly of all our European travel.  Then again, you wouldn’t like it either if your streets were clogged with untrained Paparazzi in trainers hoisting a map in your face with a directional question that can’t be answered.   Venice can’t be an easy city to live in.  We saw more pet stores than grocery stores, and while seeing food delivered by boat was picturesque imagine trying to get your IKEA wardrobe home.  Even with the lack of Venetian warmth, the magnanimousness of the city draws you in a way that catches you by surprise.


Venice is a city that is only truly understood through walking and getting lost.  Conventional wisdom tells you to toss the map and welcome the experience of getting lost, which works most of the time except when you are trying to get across the Grand Canal.  More useful advice is to keep the map, study the street names of those that cut through to get to the next neighborhood and don’t sweat the names of the other ones – 75% of which will dead end anyway.  Following the pack is also good advice as there are only a few routes that go through.  This funnel like experience means that you will be forced to crisscross the highly touristy areas to get from point A to B.  Once out of the fray however, the payoffs for going off-piste in the neighborhoods of Dusodoro, lower Castello, and Cannaregio are quiet back streets, charming cafes and unique stores.  In these parts of the city, you won’t find Venetian Universidad tee-shirts or masks made in China.  Instead you’ll be wowed by artists painting hand-made masks (some places which offer workshops) and shops with eye-popping Venetian glass and glass jewelry made on the neighboring island of Murano.


We (Brett) made some games out of walking by having each family member take turns in deciding which way to go at every crossroad.  My game idea (which I read online) was to go “Lion Hunting” in teams with our iPhones, only to realize that there weren’t near as many lions (the symbol of Venice) as we thought there would be.  I tried to audible by making  it a team game of snapping photos of bridges instead, but clearly I didn’t  “sell it” because no one was feeling my flow.  Instead I was told it was my turn to pick “which way” and “that, by the way Mom, you can’t pick straight again.”  Game or not, with 400+ bridges the visual rewards that come with every turn was more than enough to keep the troops moving.

We took the Vaporetto (water bus) when we arrived in Venice and again when we left with our luggage, but otherwise we did everything on foot.  We had no intention of breaking the bank by taking a taxi or gondola ride, and although the gondolier’s would consistently offer “Gondola, Gondola” every time you passed, it was never a hard sell.  The gondolier’s got plenty of business without having to beg for it, and our enjoyment was standing on a bridge watching them navigate the tiny canals and each other.  It all made parallel parking look so very JV.  


We stayed centrally located in a small six room bed and breakfast called La Villeggiatura near the Rialto Bridge and market.  We read about the place from a NYTimes “36 hours in Venice” article written in 2006. It was a great location and very comfortably and tastefully decorated, and a place we’d recommend staying for couples or families with older kids.  With any small place, voices carry and you’ll want to make sure that your children’s voices don’t disturb what could be honeymooners in the room above you.  Breakfast was included, but if you don’t already know this, Italian breakfast is really just tasteless white bread, marmalade croissants, and yogurt.  AM protein is not the Italian way. 

The best thing about our location was the proximity to some of the most well-known bacaros (Italian bars) serving cichetti (Venetian tapas) and wine.  Every early evening, we would return to the hotel to let the boys rest by watching a movie filmed in Venice (“The Italian Job” and “Casino Royale”) while Brett and I grabbed some cichetti and a drink to wash it down before dinner.   Cantina Do Mori (the oldest bacaro in Venice), All’ Arco (express-made cichetti with no tables or menu), and Osteria All Ciurma (a neighborhood bacaro) are all within three minutes of each other in San Polo neighborhood.  The bacaro experience is not to be missed.  Once you have your first glass of Prosecco, you won’t even sweat what’s happening with those voices back at the hotel.

Any sought after place, especially a floating theme park that absorbs tourists year round, requires a degree of vigilance.  You must mind your step at all times.  Slippery stone footbridges are aplenty.  Not all canal banks have railings.  With 100% of the population on foot, cutting a corner too tight comes at a cost.  Piles of domesticated litter rival the streets of Paris.  Similarly, there is good food to be had in Venice, but you have to work to dodge the abundance of spurious places pushing Tourist Menus and Free Wifi.  In Venice’s few thoroughfares, very bad (and often overpriced) restaurants are so successful in enticing undiscerning tourists that they don’t even bother to take down the computer printed “We have Air Conditioning!” window signs during the winter.   More than in other places in Italy, dining out on recommendations in Venice is highly advised. 

Venice has both Italian restaurants and Venetian restaurants.  In our experience, the familiar traditional Italian restaurants with pizza, lasagna, and red sauce tops out at good.  The better and more interesting options are the smaller-menued Venetian restaurants where fresh seafood and briny pastas take center stage.  Here then are some of our dining recommendations.   None of them have a Tourist Menu.   Many of them had seasonal radicchio braised into their seafood pasta dishes which caused me to swoon.

  • Oniga: nice, cozy Venetian restaurant in Dorsoduro.  Located on a main square, so easy to find.  18 euros for lunch special that included pasta with mussels and a whole piece of grilled sea bass with polenta.  They stop serving lunch at 2:30.  Around the corner are two other restaurants that were highly recommended for dinner that we didn’t have time for: La Bitta (one of the few restaurants with a non-fish menu) and Osteria ai 4 Feri (a small place that was written up in Time.)
  • Grom: gelato in Dorsoduro.   Unlike in Southern Italy, there is not gelato or cappuccino on every corner so you have to map out your gelato stops more strategically.  If you can stand the squeaky door and cranky service, stop in one of three Grom locations – including the one adjacent to Oniga in Dorsoduro – for a dark chocolate or pistachio scoop of gelato goodness.
  • Rosso Pomodoro: a large, modern pizza and pasta restaurant in San Marco.   Because sometimes you need a go-to restaurant RIGHT now.  Located a stone’s throw from the commotion of San Marco square, Rosso Pomodoro has authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas made in wood burning ovens, above average pastas, a nice atmosphere and a kitchen that stays open all afternoon.   As a couple, you can skip it.  As a family, you may find yourself there more than once.  I had read somewhere that wood-burning pizza ovens weren’t legal in Venice (just like the glass blowing that was moved out to the island of Murano), but  something was lost in translation when I tried to get to the bottom of this conundrum with our harried server.
  • Imagina: a casual café for an inexpensive lunch in Dorsoduro.  Great paninis and a hearty salad with tuna.  Off the main square where Oniga was located, along a canal – a good spot for either lunch or a drink.
  • Birraria La Corte:  a large, modern Italian restaurant in San Polo.  Another solid family place (and one of the few that was open on New Year’s Day) with a bigger menu that worked for everyone.  Better than expected gnocchi.  Get the front room where the ambiance and lighting is better if you can.
  • Antico Giardinetto:  a 7-8 table Venetian restaurant run by a nice couple in San Polo.  Each seafood pasta was fresh and special, and worth the more expensive price tag.  Though the fish options were the most memorable, there were also some lovely non-fish choices on the menu Two dinner seatings – one at 7:30 and one at 9:30.  Exactly as a cozy neighborhood restaurant is meant to be.  140 euros for a family of 5 with a bottle of wine.
  • Caffe del Doge: a sit down coffee shop worth seeking out for a great cappuccino, interesting coffee drinks and decadent hot chocolate that will keep you kids motored for hours.  In San Polo.  A routine morning stop for us.
  • All Frasca: an even smaller Venetian restaurant in Carnnaregio specializing in simple seafood dishes.  Hard to find, but worth the trip for a taste of simple mixed fish grill, pasta with anchovies and onions, fusilli with swordfish, olives and tomatoes and penne with shrimps and radicchio.  Front of house run by very friendly guy named Bruno.  Would be even more special in summer when restaurant spills out to many more tables onto quiet courtyard.  Only minor complaint was ordinary tiramisu and crème brule desserts.  Like Antico Giardinetto, also has two seatings and similar price point.  More talked about and expensive restaurant Boccadoro (which we didn’t have time for) is a few streets away. 

Of course I don’t need to tell you about the big sights like the Basilica di San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale and the Secret Passages Tour (book before you come!), and the Gallerie dell Accademia.  You will read all about then and no doubt visit them.   What I should mention however were some of the smaller sites and museums we visited that are worth a look, and perhaps depending on the attention span of your traveling company – a better alternative. 

  • Ca’Rezzonico : an 18th century Venetian palace on the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro.  It is three floors of palace rooms with paintings, frescoes and decorative arts and a fourth gallery floor.  It’s small, manageable and interesting for all ages. The seven year old starting crying and heading for the exit with some of the disturbing art on the fourth floor, but don’t let this detour you. The first three floors are well worth the price of admission.
  • Naval History Museum & Arsenale: A maritime museum in the Castello neighborhood that spans some 40+ rooms featuring scale models of Venetian built vessels and gondolas.  At less than 2 euros a person to get in, it’s dirt cheap and a welcome change of pace when you’re churched out.  It’s also worth the great views looking back at San Marcos and out to Lido.
  • Da Vinci Museum:  Though not specifically Venetian, a permanent exhibit of over 120 different of his machine inventions is a fun hands on museum experience.  Exhibit housed in an old church in Dorsoduro.  Also includes dramatized video of DaVinci’s unsettled life in a sordid time with English subtitles (not for the squeamish.)

I apologize in advance for the obscene number of photos.  This was the short list.  My camera and I were having a mini love affair during our four days together in Venice.  Do not forget yours, and remember to pack your extra long lens.  And now for the rest of the Canalbum.

3 Days in Chianti, ITALY


In last weekend’s NY Times Travel section, there was an article about Chianti, Italy.   It was one of those 36 hour travel stories.   If you are contemplating a trip to Chianti (the Tuscan region between Florence and Sienna) without children, this is the article you should read.  If you are contemplating a trip to Chianti with children, you should expect to do roughly half of this list in double the amount of time.

Our family travel brand is becoming one where we like to mix city and rural travel in the same trip.   That combination isn’t possible without the luxury of a car or time, but when we get both – we find ourselves gravitating towards a balance of urban sightseeing and the active boy version of quiet retreat.  With that in mind, we decided to stay in a redone old farmhouse in Strada in Chianti (the circle closest to Florence.)  Too far to be a suburb, more like an exburb of Florence, the farmhouse was in the middle of vineyards and olive trees with enough grass to play football (Mama joined in too) and a nearby forested area teeming with wild boar hunters.

There is not much to suggest in Strada itself, save for the one recommended restaurant, the Padellina.  Known for its Bistecaa alla Fiorentina, we choose it among the four restaurants in town for our inaugural Tuscan dinner.  Arriving just before the dinner rush at 8pm on a Saturday night, we were turned away (rudely I might add) because we did not have reservations and they were “full” although there wasn’t yet a single patron in the restaurant.  If felt spurious in the moment, but upon reflection – it was consistent with other experiences we’ve had in Europe.  With value placed on unhurried dining instead of turning tables, the results are often only one to two seatings a night.  I just wish he could have been less patronizing about it so as not to cause even a hairline fracture in my certainty that Italians are the continent’s most warm and friendly people.

The irritation of that miss dissipated exactly 20 minutes later when we took a seat here.  Located up a steep zigzagging road from the town of Greve (also circled) is a hamlet called Montefioralle, population 100, with this small family trattoria called La Castellana.  With only ten tables, a prudently placed call from the car got us a Saturday night seat for what was not only a memorable first Tuscan meal – but one of the best meals we’ve had so far in Europe.   There was most definitely wild boar on the menu, and complimentary house-made grappa and limoncello to encourage us to linger long enough for our youngest to fall asleep.  By night, I was dreaming of spending a month in the kitchen of La Castellana working alongside the chef matriarch and her daughter learning how to make traditional braised beef, gnocchi with wild boar ragu, taglierini with fresh truffle, and squash blossom ravoli.  By morning, I was calling to make a reservation for the following night.  Eating at the same place twice in a row is not our family travel brand, but there are exceptions to every rule and this was one.

Day 1:  Florence

After some pointless discussion about driving or busing into Florence, we made the decision to drive the 30 minutes from Strada and park.  Totally the right call.  If you have a car and there are plenty of parking garages, best not to roll the die with Italian public transportation.  With only one day in Florence, we decided to “plaza hop”, tour The Duomo, walk across the Ponte Vecchio and past the Uffizi, and find the best pizza in the city.  I don’t know if was, but Gusta Pizza had us and crowds of other people eating out of the palms of their well-floured hands.   The boys unanimously rated Rome higher than Florence, but that could have been because we were packing everything into one day or we spent a smidgen too long in the colorful but gritty outdoor market near the Church of San Lorenzo.  Even children can sniff out cheap leather, clothing, and souvenirs.  With a second day, we would have gone into the Uffizi … but instead we moved to the countryside.


Day 2:  Spin the Bottle and pick a Winery

So there’s a lot of Chianti in Chianti.  Chianti has apparently evolved a lot since the 70s where it used to have a reputation of being low quality, but nowadays with the modification of the DOP grape mix (80% sangiovese grape + rest as you like) you can find a huge range of it.  There are eight Chianti regions for starters.   Without any predestined organization, it turned out that we were in the classified region of Chianti Classico – the most highly regarded of the eight regions.  Designated by the Black Rooster trademark, there are more farm houses/tasting rooms making/serving Chianti Classico per capita than Dunkin Donuts in Boston.  Given this abundance of opportunity, you need a guiding principle.  Ours was to listen to our Italian host Lucca who recommended a guided tour and tasting at Carpinento in Dudda (circled on map).  Learning from the previous day’s failure, we called ahead to make a reservation and confirmed that yes, of course, children would be welcome – it’s Italy!  Given the time of year, we were the only ones there and so were able to get a well-informed and generous private tour in English.   The boys especially liked seeing the bottling production in process and absorbing all the stats and figures (export to 70 countries, 2.5 million bottles per year, etc.)  The highlight for Brett and I was leaving with two cases of tasty wine (12 bottles) for just over 100 euros.  

Dudda is tiny, but also home to a small trattoria, with the unexceptional name Casa Al Chianti.  Lucca, our host who has several rental properties throughout Italy, told us that it’s the one place he eats every time he comes to Chianti because of the quality and price.  Having just dropped the 100 euros on vino and seeing that Lucca had been right about everything so far, that sounded good to us.   Fittingly we were served by a couple of Italian grandmothers where there were no printed menus, only a portable chalkboard (in background of photo below.) 

Fueled again, we then explored the bigger town of Greve – enjoying the beautiful triangle square that was written about in the NY Times article.  We also stopped in Le Cantine (also written about in the article) – perhaps the biggest wine store in Chianti.  The boys were able to taste test olive oils for free as Brett and I went to look for specific Chianti we had had for dinner the night before.  Had we not just come from the Carpinento tasting with boys winding down in endurance and understanding (“Didn’t you just buy wine?”), we might have stayed for the sheer enjoyment of using their automated system where you insert a card you purchase the register and press the button for the wine you want to taste.  It was a lovely, if not Americanized, version of a modern tasting room.  By the end of the afternoon, the boys were piled in the car while Brett and I did our best to choose a sausage from the overwhelming huge butcher shop also mentioned, Antica Macelleria Falorni.  The plan was to leave the boys at home with the sausage and other antipasti while Brett and I returned to one of the many enticing looking restaurants in Greve for dinner … but that was before we got the fireplace fire going back at the barn … 

Day 3:  Countryside Villages

By Day 3, it was time to check out and continue our trip further south into Umbria.   We had a late check in in Umbria, and so we wanted to take our time experiencing the village life of Chianti by driving along the Chiantigiana Road (SS222).  I should qualify that the “we” is this scenario was Brett and I.  The older boys made sure we knew exactly how much time we would save by taking the motorway.  Our first village stop was Panzano (circled).  This is what the 36 hours writer had to say about Panzano:

“A hilltop village may be an unlikely location for stylish fashion, but at the leather-specialty shop Verso x Verso, in the small town of Panzano in Chianti, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Even more surprising is that all the beautiful clothing and accessories on display can be made to order. So would you prefer a rounded or square toe on that handmade pair of caramel-hued oxfords? Or would you like to be fitted for a bespoke jacket — the double-zippered style in orange goat suede is gorgeous — by the Florentine-trained designer herself? After placing your order, stroll down the cobblestone alleys of this medieval village and indulge in the sunset views.  Remain in Panzano to partake in the evening’s carnivorous feast at Officina della Bistecca, a restaurant owned by the eighth-generation butcher Dario Cecchini…”

There was no strolling down the cobblestone alleys of this medieval village.  In fact, we didn’t end up getting out of the car in Panzano.  Someone (I don’t even remember who now) was in a mood and at 10 am it wasn’t exactly prime time to see a butcher.  As a substitute, we took this moment to clarify with everyone that a) yes, we would be getting out the car at the next village, b) we would all have good attitudes about it and c) no one would mention the motorway again.

By the time we got to Volpaia, everyone was on board with the reiterated plan allowing us to relish this unspoilt village -- now used exclusively as a wine estate.   Evidence of the wine production is in all the ancient houses, deconsecrated churches and all the village inhabitants are directly involved in the winery, osteria or lovely café where we stopped for an espresso and piece of coffee cake.  It felt like something out of a movie.  We learned that they have guest houses nearby, host weddings and offer cooking schools (which I bet are fabulous given the surroundings.)  We wandered in and out of the cobblestone streets, making up for missed time in Panzano, spotting vines of the berries we had just enjoyed in our pastry treats and forgetting that we had any place to be.  Brett declared it his favorite Italian hillside village thus far in our travels ...

Next stop was only 7 kilometers away in Radda in Chianti, another hub of Chianti tourism.  We bypassed Castellina in Chianti ( a stop in the 36 hour writer’s visit) in favor of Radda, a smaller but more charming (and probably more touristed in high season) version of Greve.  While we only had another yummy lunch (it’s hard to miss with fresh pastas) and a quick walk through in Radda, we decided that if we were to come back to Chianti we would lean towards staying in this area.   Without the need to do Florence, Chianti gets more and more appealing the further south you go and Radda is a good hub from which to visit Volpaia again, Siena (a place we didn’t get to on this trip) and would also be more convenient to Montalciono and Montepulciano  for a full Italian wine experience. By midafternoon, it was finally time to high tail to the motorway for Part 2 of our fall trip to Italy ... but that is for another post.  Now I need a lie down and perhaps ... a small glass of Chianti Classico.