Romans do it best: Thermal Spas

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” cannot be solely confined to Rome as we marvel over their feats in the farthest corners of the empire.  One of the most impressive structures in Rome are the Baths of Caracalla, where the remnants of the expansive structural complex and lofty vaults pay homage to the once luxurious Roman leisure and bathing centers, fed by aqueducts and equipped with the complete wellness package for run-down Romans!

The Romans were the first to have the genial idea to channel Italy’s natural active springs into fonts of social recreation, hygiene, and a place for revitalization of the body and mind for any Roman, despite his status.  Outside of the Eternal City, trekking to the far-flung northern Italian outposts of the empire at Aosta, they left their mark with Roman ruins such as the triumphal arch of Agustus, fortifications and an outdoor theater.  It was in fact, these same people that first discovered the heated thermal fonts near present day Pré-Saint-Didier in the Valdigne, located in the high alpine valley a few kilometers away from Aosta and other lofty villages such as Courmayeur and La Thuille.

The Terme of Pré-Saint-Didier is a jewel located below the majestic white-capped mountain range highlighting Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the protruding Giant’s Tooth seen off in the distance.  It is one of the last Italian villages before entering France under the mountains.

The thermal springs of Pré-Saint-Didier are located in a grotto, a deep and extremely narrow gorge shaped by the rushing waters of the Dora of Verney, and from the heart of the glacial mountains, the water springs forth at 37°C.  The waters of Pre’-Saint-Didier are famous for their relaxing qualities of low mineralization, capacity to soften the skin and to improve circulation. Physical wellness combines with the moral lifting provided by the peace, purity, and serenity of Mother Nature.

The first testimonies of their therapeutic use arise from the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that a thermal complex was developed around the water source that attracted tourists of high European society.  The year of 1834 marks the completion of the main bathing edifice followed by a luxurious casino in 1888, which has since then been integrated into the spa establishment.  The 19th-century architecture with modern accents blends in its natural context with a spectacular view of the sunrise over the mountains.

After stressful weeks of work and the drudgery of January, we decided that now was the moment to escape the busy city to smell the exhilarating air of the mountains at the terme of Pré-Saint-Didier.  It is open year-round, and it is charming covered in snow.

Pré-Saint-Didier at 1,100 meters altitude is a small quaint town crevassed into a pocket between the peaks and undulous rock formations. The use of local materials lends the town an earthy feel that humbly marriages perfectly with its splendid ambient.  The expert craftsmanship of woodwork extracted from the forests is characteristic of the chalets that are all topped with slabs of pietra di Luserna (a special granite found in these regions). We arrived at the sleepy village in the early morning, and the smoke rose up from the peaking chimneys, dissipating into the crisp air of the crystal sky.

The complex opens at eight am, and it is possible to enjoy the day of wellness until eleven pm, when the establishment closes.  For avid skiers that rise early to hit the alpine slopes nearby, it is possible to work out lactic acids and wind down at the spa starting at five pm until close, the perfect warm down to the sporting venture.

Luckily in Italia, thermal spa experiences are swimsuit only affairs, unlike many of their northern counterparts, and I left my nudist worries at ease.  We were provided with a robe, towel and flip-flops, and we were good to go for a day full of invigorating relaxation.

The complex is a beautiful and clean establishment with rustic interior design, and it includes various amenities: there are three outdoor thermal pools, various saunas (indoor and outdoors ranging from 80-100°C), aroma therapy saunas (lower temperatures of 55°C), aroma therapy relaxation rooms, Turkish baths, Jacuzzis, waterfalls, rain rooms, a Scottish shower, mud baths, and more.  Obviously the massage center’s experts provide various activities and courses of wellness.  There are varied rest and relaxation rooms where guests are invited to dose off to soothing tunes and aromatherapy, some including spectacular vistas, for your break from the water.  The wellness buffet is open all day where a wide array of juices and healthy snacks are continually at the disposal of the bathers.

My favorite activity was the aromatherapy sauna where fresh flowers hung over the wooden lounge directed at the giant windows facing Monte Bianco; it was heaven!

One word of advice: the ultimate experience is a couple’s getaway; therefore, if you don’t intend to go with your partner or friends, I wouldn’t advise solo ventures.  The spa at Pre’-Saint-Didier does not have a hotel, but there are many hotels in the area that have discounted partnerships.

In the past, my spa experiences have been few and far between, primarily due to the fact that I have never been able to justify spending the money on a massage or any other treatment.  Where I come from, a reasonably priced one-hr massage in the States costs at least fifty bucks, and a girl named Rita rubs my back as I fret about whether or not I should be wearing my underwear.  I am still not keen on self-pampering, but Italy has begun changing my whole view of benessere, or wellness, in general.

You might cringe when you realize that this whole perfect day of  relaxation and union with the wilderness cost only 48£/person(weekend price), and for example 10£ more for a massage or a professional treatment.  So even though Italy drives me crazy on occasion, after ten hours of spa bliss, I’d be willing to bet that these guys know how to live it up, without discrimination.

My weekend in the thermal waters at the foot of Monte Bianco was an incredible revitalizing experience that provided just the right medicine for January blues.  More than medicine, it was an unforgettable day that is for me just about paradise, mentally, physically, existentially, ly ly ly.  The more I experience in Italia, the more I realize how important it really is to “do as the Romans do.”

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The baths at Pré-Saint-Didier are only one offer out of many in Italy; check them out!

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Arcimboldo exhibit in Milan

"Spring" 1563 oil on panel 65x50cm Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

The spring collection of Milan’s fashion week goes floral:  models with rosy cheeks, budding lips, and silky bouquet coiffers are dressed in lush verdant foliage designs with a daisy field inspired high-neck ruffled collar.  Colorful compositions are striking not only to the eyes but to all of the senses, a tribute to the fantastical imagination which created this natural madness.  In an uncanny union of man’s ingenuity and nature’s diversity, texture and content combine this time, however, to create not fashion, but art.

The renowned fashion houses of Italy may be promoting floral designs and green attitudes this spring, but they certainly did not imagine up the Spring designs of the 16th-century artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593), whose works are being exhibited at the Palazzo Reale in Milan with a great attention to the artist’s Milanese roots and inspired milieu.

"Vertumnus", 1590 oil on panel 68x56cm Skokloster Castle, Skokloser

Considered a rather obscure artist before the MOMA’s 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” Arcimboldo was rediscovered for the international acclaim that he received as the Italian court painter for Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague.

He has become most famous for his grotesque composite portrait heads of flora and fauna that are depicted in his renowned series: The Seasons and the Elements. His bizarre compositions create an uncanny union between the scientific observation of nature and its fantastical application to the portrait bust, imbued with metaphor and fanciful metamorphosis!

The Seasons proved to be very popular among the royal court, and several replicas were requested of Arcimboldo.  The peachy cheeks and cherry lips of Summer are mature and juicy, Autumn’s pumpkin-head is crowned with dangling grapes ripe for harvest, the barren gnarly bark and fungus lips of Winter are worse than his bite, and the budding complexion of Spring explodes in over eighty varieties of vibrant flowering species. This mad celebration of nature has no bounds as the Seasons copious yield makes way for the four Elements, whose allegorical depictions arouse curiosity:

"Water" 1566 oil on panel 66.5x50.5cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fire’s hairdo blazes in red licking flames; Air‘s crown of proud feathered friends reign over its aerial kingdom; the bust of Earth is composed of a tangled menagerie of exotic and indigenous species and taxidermy; the body of Water is teeming with marine life pulled from their watery depths, intertwined with seashell ears and a pear necklace draped around the slimy personified bust!  It is believed that the Elements and the Seasons were intended to be paired with one another: a confrontation between the bizarre creatures and their symbolism.

Arcimboldo’s wild imagination was certainly influenced by his time, and this exhibition highlights his role in the transition from the DaVinci school, strongly present in Milan, and later preparing for the Baroque genius of Caravaggio.

Leonardo DaVinci’s dedication to the observation of the natural world and his sketches of “grotesque” caricature influenced a new generation of thinkers and artists that would seek to show scientific accuracy as well as illusion.  Emphasis is placed on the fervid cultural Milanese atmosphere at the turn of the 16th century, one that harbored a taste for intellectual riddles, satire, artifice, and exotic elegance among the European courts.  The show features over three-hundred works that trace Arcimboldo’s formative years and commissions in the Lombard capital, and proceeds to follow him to Vienna, where he creates for intrigue of the court.

During the age of discovery, the Habsburg family was one of the great patrons of intellectual pursuits and the arts.  Arcimboldo’s naturalist illustrations of flora and fauna created for nature catalogues are featured in the exhibition, and this study as well as the royal family menagerie and botanical gardens, served as great reference to the artist for his paintings.  New species found in the “new worlds” were brought to the court’s collections to inspire exotic additions to his creations.

"Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit" 1590 oil on panel 55.9x41.6cm French & Company, New York

Many of Arcimboldo’s most famous works such as the Seasons and the Elements are displayed in nine rooms of the Palazzo Reale; the show includes gems such as his tricky reversible paintings as well as the portrait bust of Rudolf II depicted as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, posing like a three-dimensional cornucopia!

A re-elaboration of the exhibition held by the National Gallery in Washington, “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” Arcimboldo returns home to once again stake his fame at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, “Arcimboldo-Artista Milanese tra Leonardo e Caravaggio.”  The show runs from February 11th-May 22.  Instead of going to the runway, check out Arcimboldo for fanciful inspiration!

Philip Haas "Winter (After Arcimboldo)"

Italians debunk food “science”

In a recent conversation, my grandmother was describing the new diet recommended by her nutritionist: small portions, all whole-wheat, no cheese, low-fat yogurt, no trans fat, etc.  As she recounted the litany of dieting tips, dos and don’ts with the melancholy of losing old friends, I started becoming very perturbed with this “dietary specialist.”  My blue-eyed grandmother is an honorary Italian-American, cooking up delicious home-cooked meals for my Italian-blooded grandfather for over fifty years.  She is a fabulous cook that has fed her family since she was a teenager with traditional recipes and new tasty experiments, and to me, she is my personal Martha Stewart, without jail time, of course.   Who is this dietary specialist to tell my grandmother to not eat cheese?!

Since when do we need someone to monitor what we put into our bodies?  What is missing from our alimentary common sense that makes us cling to new fads or these “dietary specialists” that claim to know no more about our own bodies than our nosey neighbors?  Two renowned European examples for culinary expertise and slim waists are the Italians and the French, cultures that traditionally don’t skimp on the fat when necessary.  In Italy, as one strolls past the alluring scents of the bakeries, glazed cakes in the pastry shops, and glistening displays in butcher shops and cheese stores, all the while watching these hearty Italians scarf down personal pizzas and bottles of wine, one poses an interesting question: with this delectable food culture, how do they stay so slim!?

We already know the answer to this question: They have a food culture.   The question comes down to education and an innate understanding of the organism (us) related to what we put into our bodies, more or less the history and future of our food.  Italians live by the phrase, “you are what you eat,” quite fitting for the highest omnivores on the food chain, don’t you think?  Italians are born with this close relationship to all of the nutritional sources that make up their cuisine, and it doesn’t take an expert chef to tell you the ingredients of every traditional Italian product or dish; my twelve year-old Italian students could tell you.

Food is their passion, and the regional specialties are connected with the local history and unique landscape.  The quality of the products is craved and demanded, and in many cases, it is controlled by quality and geographical standards established by the EU.  Since I have moved to Italy, I have been ever fascinated with the food culture that is worshiped in this country, and I have now begun my own journey to salvation via the Italian forchetta (fork).  Its great flavor and goodness are found in the pure simplicity of natural ingredients, all of which are distinguishable in the supermarket.

As I gaze at the multitudes of products aligned on the supermarket shelves in America, I am instantly inundated with brands, labels, promotions, varying claims of negated fat, different shapes and sizes!  The head-spinning options create confusion, and I can’t distinguish what is the real substance behind all of this processed “food”!  In the end, I waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, what is the difference, and where it is from?!

In contrast, a stroll through a normal Italian supermarket (although increasingly affected by the food industry) is a liberating experience because despite problems in translation, the choices are much more limited, and the lack of superfluous information is relieving to the hungry shopper (for example, most only carry two brands of chips!).  The provenance of foods such as meats and vegetables are clearly identified and are usually local or Italian; it is pleasing to know that this information is clearly made available to the customer.  Italy is also the leading producer of organic or “biologico” products in Europe.  Outside of the supermarket, I always prefer the farmers markets, which are always colorful, exciting, and alluringly nutritious!

Street Markets

Although I tease the Italians for their haphazard sense of organization, we Americans lack the roots and common food sense that these Italians utilize to maximize the quality of their agricultural output and demand for the “made in Italy” stamp.  In return, they eat better, and their food tastes generally better.

It’s all a question of priority: Recognizing good quality, as I said before, is the main characteristic that drives and determines their cuisine, and all Italians flock to a good meal.  Are you looking to go to a good restaurant in the city?  A fail-proof way of finding a gem is by choosing the most crowded restaurant; they Italian patrons are all experts!  In the same way, an Italian will tell you which olive oil is best, which tomatoes have had a good season, and why they will eat pesto only if it is from Pra, near Genova, where the best basil grows.  Can we Americans match this local food knowledge?

Folks, in the end, the Italian style can be boiled down into five main concepts:

  1. Food education: know your ingredients
  2. Food appreciation: demand high quality
  3. Food application: simple natural products in tasty combinations
  4. Food priority: eating good food is important; love the experience
  5. Food consciousness: stop when you are feeling full

Michael Pollan, a leading writer, NY Times journalist, and advocate for food awareness has masterfully delved into the art of eating food, from its origins in the market today to the way in which we can be more aware of our own eating habits.  I highly recommend reading all of his books, starting from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in the order in which they were written.  He focuses on breaking down the spam of food myths, the massive influx of food information and nutrient marketing into simple explanations.

Pollan encourages us to think about how our great-grandparents cooked before our supermarkets quadrupled in size.   One way to stay on the right eating track is to avoid highly processed products that contain bushels of corn syrups, forget about the soda, eat green, and go local for your food!  As many Italians profess: go easy on the butter, use a dash of milk instead (an Italian mom’s secret).

In a world in the midst of an economic crisis, it is surprising that we haven’t taken our nutrition into our own hands, demanded quality products and organic production from our own American soil.  As for these dietary specialists that tell us how to eat, I say ignore them and get back to basics!  Let’s not obsess over weight loss and nutrients, carbohydrates, and fat.  Forget about the food science, don’t look at the calorie count, and eat healthy products!  Let’s enjoy a balanced meal for what it is—good food prepared with love.  Wash it down with a glass of wine, for heaven’s sake!

Pour on the Gravy Milan!


Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.

Books and their covers: Rana Pescatrice

Prince Charming

Flashback: The pungent odor pervading the air led my curious nose to happen upon Venice’s fresh fish market, the Mercato di Rialto, in the midst of the vending commotion.  I was enraptured by the colorful sights, textures, and smells lifting up into the neoclassical loggia structure, and the bustle of busy shoppers and curious tourists was almost too much for my camera lens to take!  At a certain point, I pointed my camera at the “pescivendolo” (fish seller) to capture some fish-gutting and chop-sui action when the monocle eye caught a hideous slimy slug-like fish plopped on the display table!

I jumped back in disgust and strange wonderment at the Jabba the Hut-like creature staring at me with its googly glassy eyes, oversized head, fatty wide mouth and its antenna protruding from its head.  It almost looked like a sci-fi “Eatn’ Park” cookie with its big old gaping smile.  I exclaimed to my sister, “Oh how NASTY, don’t tell me that anyone takes this home and eats this creature!”  We both agreed that neither of us would ever ingest Jabba, but my sister had the courage to touch its dark slithery skin.  I took a picture of the poor fellow, so brutto (ugly) when compared to its other fished marine companions.  I read the name, “Coda di Rospo” or (Toad Tail).

Fash Forward:  I accompany my boyfriend and his family to a lovely rustic restaurant in Arenzano, a quaint Ligurian costal town located just above Genova.  This was a casarecco (home-style) place with a limited menu written on a hanging chalkboard, an automatic guarantee to leave contented with a loosened belt.  As I squinted to see the menu, my eyes fell on “tagliatelle with ragu di pescatrice.”  Given that I love ragu’ sauce of any kind, my boyfriend encouraged me to try this fresh homemade pasta with a fish stew sauce.  Yumm!

This course was served, and the pasta drenched in its savory seafood sauce literally melted in my mouth!  This phrase may seem trite, but there is no other English way to say it!  Although I don’t claim to be a food expert (yet), I am a connoisseur of the gastronomic experience.  My stomach started singing hallelujah, I ignored my company, and I floated to the seventh culinary heaven where I tried to make it last, forever.  It was only until later that I asked my friend, “What was the fish used in that delicious ragu?”  The response shocked and appalled my ears!  Rana Pescatrice is another name for Coda di Rospo!  Dust my ears deceive me?

Fun Facts: The Rana Pescatrice or the Monkfish, can be found both in Northern European and Mediterranean waters under the alias of Lophius piscatorius, and his counterpart, Lophius americanus, hanging around in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  Both species offer up quite popular dishes, so much so that it is now difficult to find.  The monkfish is known variously attractive pet names such as a goosefish, angler fish, bellyfish, frogfish, all-mouth, or sea devil; it is a bottom-dwelling creature where its spine ends in a flexible, extendible cord, which it dangles to lure unexpecting prey.

Monkfish used in the kitchen provides delicious meat that is dense, boneless, sweet and often referred to as “Poor man’s Lobster” for its delicate flavor and texture.  Besides its liver that is primarily sold to the Japanese for sashimi, the muscular tail is the only edible part of the fish (Its head is too big!), and it splits cleanly in two nice filets.  The membrane surrounding the meat must be removed before cooking! This ugly duckling also happens to be a great meal for weight watchers!  It is a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of Protein and Vitamin B.  Who would have known?!

Due to over-fishing, the Rana Pescatrice is difficult to find in Italian restaurants, and I imagine also in the USA.  However, I have heard it may pop up in your Whole Foods market.  In any case, I would like to introduce a recipe for a ragu sauce of “Rana Pescatrice” with fresh Tagliatelle pasta:

Ingredients:  (for 2 people) 45 min.

  1. 200g Monkfish meat
  2. ½ onion
  3. 1 small carrot
  4. 1 celery stalk
  5. 8-10oz Dry white wine
  6. Fresh thyme and parsely
  7. Ex Virgin Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Vegetable or fish broth.
  10. 10. 200g of fresh Tagliatelle pasta.

Before starting, make sure that the membrane of the tail fillets is removed, and if possible, save the head to boil in order to create a fish broth.  If not, a vegetable broth will work well.  Cut up the fillets in small cubes and put aside.  Mince the onion, carrot, and celery stalk and place in a skillet that is lightly covered with 2 spoons of EV-Olive Oil.  When the chopped vegetables are simmering and softening, reduce the flame and add the monkfish cubes.  As the meat is cooking in the stew, turn up the flame and add some white wine.  When the wine has evaporated, add 1 ladel of fish broth to flavor the sauce.  Regulate the salt, add fresh ground pepper, and add chopped fresh parsley and thyme.  Let the sauce evaporate and cook together on a low heat for another 5-10 min and turn off the flame.  Add sea salt to the boiling water in the pot. Cook the fresh tagliatelle for a small amount of time (2-3 min), one minute prior to being cooked al dente.  Drain the pasta, add it to your skillet, and restart the flame.  Have the noodles cook in and take on the flavors of the sauce.  Serve.

I enjoyed this recipe because it recalls the ragu that I ate in Genova.  It is light and very tasty! One may substitute it with a white fish such as cod or halibut.

I have learned my lesson, a lesson applicable to all of our daily judgments based on appearance.  Mary Shelley would not be pleased with me, and this is one Frankenstein that deserves a chance!  This fish might not be the bell of the ball, but it certainly is yummy!  My initial revulsion has past, and I am opening up to the awkward beast with open arms, into my kitchen, stomach, and ultimately, my heart.  Next ugly fish served…Scrofano, better know as the Scorpion Fish!

Dress Like the Italians Do!

I don’t pretend to be a fashonista chick that is up on all of the latest and seasonal trends in the world of alta moda; however my time spent in Milan has slowly whipped me into vesting shape. An American girl that grew up in a swimming pool, painted her way through college, and preferred on many occasions to wear a comfy pair of paint-spotted sweats had surely a lot of guts to move to Milan, or to Italy for that matter. Although fundamentally I consider myself to be far removed from the “fashion makeover” category, I will admit that I had become rather lax with my look and with the essential understanding of what it means to dress well.

Italia prizes beauty, wellness, and above all, the “bella figura”. The expression “fare una bella figura” means to “make a good impression” or to present oneself with the utmost taste and propriety on every occasion, or in other words, your reputation projected by both physical presentation and comportment. This short phrase succeeds in capturing a wide range of social customs and behaviors, while it primarily explains the Italian’s deep-rooted affinity and dedication to being in vogue.

The sidewalks become runways as they flaunt their passion for personal style and that innate flare for the ensemble. One passaggiata down the main street of any Italian city will give you the perfect definition of what it means to be truly Italian: refined, studied, tailored, and simply classic. Although numerous styles may be scatted along Italy’s streets, the traditional Italian “look” is everlasting and unmistakable like Chanel n5, the Rosso (red) of Valentino, or an aged DOC bottle of Italian wine. The impeccable mixture of occasion, creativity, practicality, trendiness, and personality is paramount in displaying your individuality on a day-to-day basis.

Dress to the nines. I first realized that I was losing touch with my old ways when I dressed in a sundress to attend a baseball game in America. I don’t think my sisters laughed so hard all summer because my outfit was absolutely absurd for the occasion. One notable difference between America and Italy is that our general definitions of casual and formal tend to contrast greatly. For instance, I normally wear what we consider dressy-casual attire on a day-to-day basis in Milan, always making sure to throw a pair of sunglasses and a scarf in my purse for good measure. When in America, I don’t hesitate to put on my college T-shirt to shop and run errands. An Italian has an outfit for every occasion, whether that is for a light aperitivo, a dinner invitation, a night at the discothèque (discoteca), a shopping spree, or simply a meandering stroll to center-city. To dress correctly, we must always be aware of our company and destinations.

Quality above quantity: Especially when compared to my own culture of fast convenience and discount stores, Italians have a deep-seeded reverence and acknowledgement of quality materials and products. Extending in all sectors of consumerism, this conviction is especially pertinent when considering Italy’s renowned fashion houses of luxury items of design. Strong traditions of artisan workmanship, textile manufacturing, and sartorial expertise hailing from all regions of the boot, solidify Italy’s appreciation of know-how or “saper fare” and time-tested processes that ensure quality and endurance. For example Italy’s famous leather markets make items such as boots, jackets, and purses a sure bet even if you don’t understand the particularities of leather treatments or workmanship. By purchasing the goods of higher intrinsic quality, one should always be sure to hold his or her side of the bargain by taking good care of the product.

Although the prices of companies such Forever 21, H&M, or even some items from Express or the Gap are appealing to a young teacher-artist expatriate, I have also noticed that these clothes have a short closet-life, quick deterioration, and I end up not receiving the value for my investment. The Italian way has slowly seeped into my brain, and through experience, I have found that it is more profitable to buy two sweaters from Benetton, NaraCamicie, Max & Co than six from a store like H&M. Obviously a Prada or Gucci is out of the question, but looking never hurts! Cough, rich boyfriend, anyone? Despite what brand you choose, on a tight budget such as my own, the most important aspect is to find clothing and accessories that seem well-made, fit in your wardrobe, and look nice on your body. The old adage rings true, “less is more” when considering quality.

Dress like an onion: Dressing in layers, like an onion, is a saying that many Milanese use to describe the nature of their dress, especially considering the extreme humid conditions of the area throughout the year. Coming from the dry cold temperatures of Northeastern USA and spoiled by the luxury of hopping in my heated car made me lose touch with the idea of dressing for the season. After a few harsh sicknesses last year, I soon learned that vesting in many peelable layers was the key to success and a new personal style.

Shopping tips: Shopping is an area of catastrophic weakness for me, and I usually have to pay for accompaniment. I enter a store like a deer in headlights, and it is usual that I descend into a dark personal crisis when I am confronted with a space full of things! In the past, this was complicated by the fact that I was never fully aware of where to start or what I needed to build upon. Moreover, my natural artistic tendency towards pretty things and their textures took me on a distracted and prolonged voyage of a fruitless and frustrating bad decisions and non-ventures. I was attracted by unique shirts and outfits that were lovely in my eyes but essentially too individual without matching anything in my “collection”. What have I learned? Although I can’t help my nature, I have found inspiration from the Italian way that is worth sharing:

1. Composition is a key word, and Italian style has taught me to appreciate the many different pieces that can come together in order create an overall “design.” Never undermine pieces that might be simple or seemingly inane. For instance, I have always been prejudice towards socks and stockings because I always considered them as an inferior element in my dress. On the contrare, my friend, the stockings and “calzini” in Italy function in a primary role of unifying or accenting a “composition.” Don’t hate on socks!

2. Rediscovering your possessions is key, and I recommend a personal fashion show to imagine the items in new and different contexts.

3. The cohesive closet of well-maintained outfits will make it easier for you to be a more intelligent shopper, and don’t be afraid of simple additions that can tie all of your random purchases together! Not everything can accent!

4. Buy at least one pair of awesome boots that you can match well with many outfits. Once you got the boots folks, there is no turning back!

5. Scarves can become addicting, as I testify from experience, but try to choose these babies based on your general clothing colors and jackets.

6. Every woman needs a hat—its cute, fun, and it serves the amazing function of maintaining your body temperature. I tend to love throw-backs that recall classic romantic movies.

7. Given the fact that sales are barely offered here and returns are impossible, I have become a more decisive shopper, which was a hard lesson for someone who likes to “buy all five and decide at home!” However, it is good training!

In the end, it is not only what we wear that counts, but in this country, it is how you wear it. Without much expense, name brands or not, rock out what you like and show off your personality! Whether or not you claim to be a fashion disaster like myself, dress as the Italians do and you’ll begin to rediscover new possibilities!

Agritourism’s Allure

A journey from the buzzing city of Milan culminates with a rugged gravel road that winds up to the hill’s summit. As we continue to ascend, the outstretching vistas of the Umbrian landscape slowly reveal their natural splendor in the late afternoon sun. The warm autumn colors contrast with the soft purple-blue undulating waves of the peaks receding into the distance. Textures abound with olive groves spotting the terrain, green wispy pines sprouting vertically, and vineyard lines glowing yellow and red after the season of the vendemmia, or the grape harvest. Off into the distance, we can indicate cities such as Perugia, Assisi, Todi, Orvieto, and Spoleto: vibrant witnesses to the region’s Etruscan roots and rich cultural heritage.

At the end of this road, our car finally rumbles into the parking lot at our destination: a small 13th century quartz monastery complex, complete with a humble stony church, the old observer of time over the bucolic landscape. As guests on our weekend getaway, we receive a warm and casual welcome, and we are given a tour of the surroundings. Even though the panorama is overwhelming, I am eager to explore the quaint building whose materials reflect their local origins. The refurbished sleeping rooms are complete with rustic creamy stone interiors finished with handcrafted wooden rafters, a cozy fireplace, small Byzantine replica paintings, and a bella vista of the hills beyond the window frame. A delightful breakfast is on the house in order to energize guests for a day full of simple relaxation, hiking, or a full itinerary of the scattered medieval borghi and castles to be discovered in the area.

At night, stars and Orion sparkle over the distant lit webs of civilization, and the muted indigo blues are inhaled as we return from our daylong journey, fatigued, but not in spirit. Entering inside from the night air, we find ourselves in the old renovated stall of the monastery with five other couples whose conversations hum above lit candles. Soft music serenades tables furnished with local Umbrian wine from Trasimeno, while the typical plates of the “contadino’s” or farmer’s kitchen are served in four courses. At this particular place, vegetarian cuisine is offered, to the great joy of Albertina, the name that I gave to their beautiful bovine beast who roams the territory. Even though I am a fan of meat, especially when close to the motherland of the Florentine steak, there is no need for dismay. Especially during the season of the prized white and black Tartufo (Truffle), this cuisine provides a pleasant change from heavier meals.

Located in the natural park of Monte Tezio, “il Romontorio” is a restructured agritourism establishment that offers a peaceful R&R experience in the heart of Umbria. Although this particular destination purposefully requires a more rugged journey, many similar places are scattered throughout the region.

You might ask, what is agritourism in Italy?

Agritourism or agricultural tourism is an increasingly popular phenomenon in Italia that appeals to local rustic tradition, hearty appetites, and the discovering of the simple pleasures in life while surrounded by the quiet environs of nature. An agritourism institution distinguishes itself by providing a combination package of enjoyable, didactic and unforgettable experiences that create a greater appreciation for the labors of passion, seasoned expertise, and time-tested processes which reveal the goodness of earthen fruits locally inherent to the landscape and to the culture itself.

Agricultural tourism was initially born years ago as a form of simple hospitality and accommodation offered to travelers by peasantry of the rural countryside. It was organized in old farmhouses where these farmers or ranchers would offer joint sleeping arrangements as well as provide a chance for the visitor to experience the produce of its land and livestock. Even in these primitive years of agritourism, the desire of travelers to come in contact with nature far from the city limits was the primary catalyst driving the service. Following the agricultural crisis after WWII, the activity became a more diffused method for farmers to preserve their way of life. In the face of modernism and changing economies, agritourism has gradually renovated its look to promote a more organized and comfortable conception of hospitality focused on the regional characteristic and cultural setting and tailored to the needs of today’s tourists. The regions that are most populated by agritourism are Tuscany, Tentino-Alto Adige, and the Veneto region, but you can discover many in every region.

Today, agritourism continues to thrive in Italy as an attractive destination that is prescribed by law to be solely managed by independent farmers or agricultural companies in their preexisting rural edifices, utilizing and promoting their individual agricultural initiatives to the general public. In many cases, the line that separates certain family-owned trattorias and agritourism outposts can be thin and easily misleading. However certain guidelines can help us distinguish the two relatively rustic experiences. While a trattoria may provide you with a delightful gastronomic evening of casalinga home-cooking, it is solely a dinner destination, sending you home with gluttonous contentedness and an exploding waistline. Agritourism is inspired by its roots, and in addition to its culinary and cultural attraction and orientation, it offers you the complete hospitality package that usually includes lodging to its travelers.

It is a home away from home that boasts of providing you with a unique opportunity to sample site-specific homemade products, which includes meals that present you with delightful recipes constituted primarily by the yield of their business and traditional kitchen flares. They are required to offer you the unique products characteristic of the territory, seasonal ingredients, and of course its approved specialties by authenticity branding: DOP, IGP, DOC, etc—all titles attesting to the controlled and protected origins of the products, based on regional, natural, and human processes to maintain the quality of the famous Italian stamp. Wow! Complicated, but rightly so–these Italians are masters of their trade, trained by ancestral techniques; it’s not packaged American transfat cheese folks!

One of the most alluring aspects of this stay is that visitors may have the opportunity to have up-close and personal encounters with the land and its goods. This usually family-owned business takes charge of organizing tastings of company products, for instance, wine from their vineyards that rest safely and preserved in stone wine cellars!

On a more didactic level, many agritourism farms offer services to welcome students and interested groups to witness and understand the different aspects of business, including the preparation of many foods, such as wine, olive oil, honey, cheeses, salami, ect. Encountering a product helps you appreciate it on a new level, comprehend its function in our diet, and also value the hands that labored with love for the sake of quality and tradition. In addition to understanding the family business, most places also offer many recreational, leisure, sporting and cultural events that also enrich the vacation. For example, these popular package activities can include hiking and horse-back riding, picnic rendezvous, baths in the swimming pool, bike rides, hunts for chestnuts, mushrooms, or berries, and cultural tours of the area.

If the guests don’t already have enough to do, they can also take advantage of the amazing surrounding cities and sites. The possibilities are endless considering the incredible heritage of the country and the fact that you can always choose to be located close to Italy’s characteristic mountains, lakes, hills or the glistening Mediterranean Sea–or all at once depending on your position! So whether you are an eno-gastronomic specialist, an artist, an impassioned lover of tradition and beauty, or just in search of a quiet and economic getaway in the peace and tranquility of a home away from your own—I’d say it’s a perfect bet!

 

 

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