Weekend in Lombardia

Traveling to Italy often, I am well acquainted with certain of its 21 regions including Toscana with its rolling hills and capital city Firenze, Trentino and Alto Adige with the majestic Dolomites, and Liguria, my second home in Cinque Terre. On this trip, I discovered another region that quickly became a favorite, Lombardia.

The journey began in the town of Varese, just 55 kilometers north of Milan. I soon realized that this was the perfect spot from which to tour the region. The first stop to discover the magic of Lombardia was the Sanctuary of the Sacro Monte of Varese, 883 meters high, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top of the hill stood the Pogliaghi House with its enchanting garden, a museum open to all. An eccentric lover of art, Ludovico Pogliaghi began building his house in 1885 and in the years that followed he collected over 1,500 artworks. An artist himself,  the door of Milan’s Duomo was his most famous commission, with the original plaster door sitting just above his grand piano, which I attempted to play.

With church bells ringing in the distance, I walked along this 2 kilometer long “Holy Way” of Sacro Monte, encountering 14 chapels dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary. This sacred cobbled path dates back to 1604 when Capuchin friar Giovanni Battista Aguggiari set upon creating it.

Each of the 14 chapels are unique in design and feature statues and frescoes created by major Lombard artists of the seventeenth century. With every encounter I felt the mysterious air of a spiritual past.

The following day another grand villa awaited in nearby Gazzada Schianno. Nineteenth century Villa Cagnola was a sight to behold overlooking French and English gardens and views of the countryside. Most impressive were the treasures hidden on the inside. In addition to a large private collection of Italian paintings from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the collection of ceramics, both European and Oriental porcelain is awe-inspiring! Certainly worth a visit and an overnight stay.

From here I walked the historic route Via Francisca del Lucomagno to Castiglione Olona, surrounded by fields of blossoming flowers and the splendor of nature.

The fifth century town of Castiglione Olona charmed even from afar. I couldn’t wait to enter its walls.

A lunch stop at Osteria degli Artisti for a plate of strawberry asparagus risotto? There’s a first for everything!

A site worth visiting is La Collegiata, built where once stood the ancient castle. The Collegiate church along with the Baptistry, makes up the Collegiate Museum. Both were decorated by Masolino da Panicale, one of Florence’s most recognized painters.

From here the afternoon continued to Torba Abbey, a former benedictine convent. The annual flower market was taking place and the entire monastery was in bloom!

The next morning it was time to discover Lake Maggiore, Italy’s second largest lake after Lake Garda. How best to tour this majestic lake than by sailboat. This may in fact be my preferred mode of transport.

The views were stunning, as the wind sent us sailing along the coast of Lombardia. Complete serenity as we reached a breathtaking monastery built within a cliff.

Santa Caterina del Sasso is one of the most ethereal sights I’ve ever seen.  Legend has it that after surviving a storm, wealthy local merchant Alberto Besozzi dedicated his life to Saint Catherine and had part of this Hermitage built in her honor. The rest as they say, is history.

My days and nights discovering Lombardia were filled with so many moments of awe and inspiration, both natural and spiritual. Enough to last until the next time. Meanwhile, here’s a video for more bella vistas.

 

Sicilian Adventures : PART II

Our first stop upon leaving Trapani was at a thermal spa, basically a pond in the middle of nature. I was a little skeptical, but when I felt how warm the water was (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), I sank right in to the sulfur bath. Heaven in the middle of winter!

After a quick lunch (and cannoli) stop in the small seaside village of Trabia, we arrived to the scenic city of Cefalù. With the sun ready to set as we walked along the beach, greeted by a glowing row of homes, it was hard not to become enchanted with our new destination. We soon located our B&B within the narrow streets and began to explore.

The following morning we set our sights on the ancient village set high up above the city with views looking down on the Duomo, a majestic two-towered Norman cathedral.

After hundreds of steps, guided by sunshine peeking through a cloudy sky, we made it to the top. What a view!

We could have stayed longer, as there is always more to discover, but it was time to head south to Ragusa, with a stop for Roman history along the way. The Villa Romana del Casale, a vast villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century, contains the largest and most impressive collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

As we walked through the many rooms, learning about the symbolism of each mosaic, I couldn’t believe how intricate and detailed these scenes were, and how well preserved! We even caught sight of what could very well be considered the first bikinis.

A few hours later we arrived in Ragusa Ibla, the old part of Ragusa destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in Baroque style. We soon settled into our home for the night, a charming centuries old B&B. The following day we had a date with one of Italy’s top chefs, 2 Michelin starred Ciccio Sultano, at his famed Restaurant Duomo. This was one meal we couldn’t be late for, even on Italian time.

After a meal to remember, we continued to explore this elegant city. I couldn’t get over how picture perfect the views were, both from high above Duomo San Giorgio, and down below. It was a short but sweet encounter.

Upon our exit, we were graced with the most stunning vista of Ragusa Ibla, certain that we’d return again, even if only to dine with Ciccio. Our next stop was where we’d settle in for New Year’s Eve, and a place we knew from our last trip to Sicily, Siracusa.

There was something about the island of Ortigia that left an impression on us. Perhaps it was the food, or the warmth of the people, or in my case the cassata… Whatever it was, we were happy to be back, and to begin a new year in this, one of our favorite Sicilian settings. This time we discovered impressive new wine and food bar Cortile Verga set in a gorgeous courtyard, and SunSet cafe, for exactly that.

Following a night of great feasting and mild revelry, we got in the car for a final drive to Punta Secca, home of Montalbano. It was here that my Italian began the year with a swim in the sea following an incredible meal of freshly caught fish and homemade pasta. After one last sunset we were ready to return to Paris.

Sicilian Adventures : PART I

This year we headed south for the holidays, destination Sicily. I fell in love with this vibrant island on our first jaunt two years ago, and decided where better to spend a few days over Christmas with the Italian family, and ring in the new year. For part one of the trip, we made our home the city of Trapani at Sicily’s western tip. It wasn’t the old city’s charm that enticed us (I’ve seen better), but its proximity to so many sights and ancient ruins, not to mention the Egadi Islands. What we quickly discovered is that Trapani is a food haven, with Trapanese specialities including Fish Couscous, influenced by neighboring Tunisia, and Pesto alla Trapanese made with tomatoes and almonds. The many fresh fish dishes were exceptional and every day became a dining adventure, with local wines of course (my favorite being a red blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola grapes). Here’s a list of our top restaurants, all in the old town.

Antichi Sapori for the best traditional dishes (the seafood antipasti alone is worth the visit)

Serisso 47 for fine dining in an elegant setting (rumor has it the chef might be awarded a Michelin star soon)

Sood for live music and small plates of Sicilian specialties with a bio twist (great local vibe)

After settling into our apartments and enjoying the rooftop views, we took to the road. Our first stop was Scopello, a tiny village near Castellammare del Golfo, and what was once a tuna fishing port. The coastline was breathtaking! We also discovered that this is where scenes from our favorite Sicilian detective series Inspector Montalbano were filmed.

From here we drove to Segesta, one of the most notable Siceliot (Sicilian-Greek) ancient cities. We walked the path leading up to the Greek temple, a sight to behold, lit by the late afternoon sun.

Continuing up to the hilltop site where the ancient city was inhabited into the Middle Ages, we discovered the remains of a Norman castle, a small church and a mosque, and a classical amphitheater with admirable views.

The next day we decided to explore another highly esteemed archaeological site, Selinunte. Walking through this abandoned town founded by Greeks in the  7th Century BC, with its main street, homes and temples,  you can imagine the life that once took place here.

The day after Christmas we headed for the largest of the Egadi Islands, Favignana, less than an hour by boat. It being winter and the holidays, the island was quiet and most of the restaurants and shops were closed. We did however find a bakery with some of the most delicious cassata and cannoli to date. (Read more about Sicily’s sweets here.) The most stunning landscape on the island was the little gulf called Cala Rossa.

My Italian and I climbed down the rocks to the turquoise water, completely in awe of this cliffside paradise.

On the last day before the two of us continued our adventures solo, we drove up to the medieval hilltop town of Erice. It was the people of this town that also built the town and  temple of Segesta. I first noticed the Venus Castle, and soon learned that the temple of Venus outlasted the many civilizations who took residence in Erice.

The town itself is eerily charming with its tones of grays and cobbled paths leading to restaurants, artisanal shops and pasticcerias offering sweets made of almond paste. Here too we found a sweet gem!

Our final stop before saying farewell to Trapani was a Marsala cellar tour and wine tasting at the famous Cantine Florio. The perfect ending to part one of our adventures in Sicily. Next stop, Cefalù…

Rome in Paris

Last December we spent a few days in Rome. The result? Long walks amidst ancient history… and a new Kasia Dietz handbag collection. As you know, my bags are often inspired by my travels. More reason to travel? And as always they are made in Paris, limited edition and reversible. Finally I’m sharing the Roma Collection with you, photographed by the talented Catherine O’Hara and named for some of Rome’s most famous streets. Beginning with the beautiful cobbled Via Giulia. Now you can take the streets of Rome with you wherever you go…

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Onto the busy and fashionable Via Condotti…

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I had to include the main street in Rome’s historical center, Via del Corso.

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Lastly, Via Margutta, home to art galleries and trendy restaurants.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts about the new Roma Collection! For the love of Rome and Paris, take 20% off any bags online using code: ROMEINPARIS, until the end of September. And don’t forget to follow along on Instagram! More travels and bags coming up…

Insider’s Guide to Monterosso

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I first encountered Monterosso during my around-the-world journey in October of 2007. On a whim, I took the train from Santa Margherita and immediately became enamored with this soulful village set upon the Mediterranean. I spent five blissful days swimming in the sea; exploring the old town and tasting its culinary specialities; hiking from Riomaggiore to Vernazza, awed by the views. As I wrote in my travel blog, “I had discovered paradise.” As chance would have it, the handsome Italian I serendipitously met on the streets of Soho, NY in 2009, comes from this very land. Monterosso has since become a place I know and love well, through its people, culture and traditions. It was the scene of our wedding in 2011 and every summer we live ‘la dolce vita’. I feel grateful to call this part of the Italian Riviera my home, and to share it with those dear to me. As a Monterosso insider, I’m often asked where to dine, sleep, etc. Hence, I’ve decided to put together this Insider’s Guide to Monterosso.

TRAIN TRAVEL. Arriving to Monterosso al Mare from Pisa or Genoa takes about 1.5 hours via Trenitalia. From Milan allow for 3 hours. I would not recommend driving as aside from taxis and delivery vehicles, the village is car-free, and parking is sparse. Stepping out of the train you are in Fegina, the newer part of the village. Exiting the tunnel on the left will bring you to Monterosso, the old town, and what I consider the most charming.

WHEN TO VISIT. The Cinque Terre is composed of five vibrant villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, built upon cliffs and once upon a time accessible only by sea or train. The region didn’t become a major international tourist destination until the 1990’s, thanks in part to Rick Steves who fell in love with the five lands, making his home in Vernazza. Now these villages, some with populations as small as 250, are bustling with tourists during the summer season, mainly due to day tripping visitors and those arriving to La Spezia by cruise ship. My advice is to visit during the quieter yet equally sunny months of April, May, September or October. The season is long and it’s always best to book accommodations in advance, especially for the summer months.

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WHERE TO SLEEP. There are numerous hotels and B&B’s in both Fegina and Monterosso. Here are my recommendations in the old town, all family run and filled with charm, rooms ranging in price from 100€-200€/night.

La Casa di Andrea: Five tastefully decorated double rooms with a garden and views of the village. Well worth the many steps up!

Bellambra: Four comfortable double rooms and one family apartment located in the heart of the old town, overlooking the main street.

Il Timone: Three cozy double rooms classically decorated, with sea views from the breakfast terrace. 100+ steps up from the village.

Il Maestrale: Several double rooms including a superior duplex room, all with views to the street below. Beautifully restored building from the 18th Century.

Hotel La Colonnina: Many double rooms including family rooms, some with terraces and views of the village. (Ask for a renovated room.) Lovely rooftop terrace with sea views.

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WHERE TO DRINK. The aperitivo is an integral part of life in Italy. Just before dinner, it’s a time to meet friends and engage in the life of the village. You’ll always be served a small snack to complement the drink.

Enoteca Eliseo: Follow the classical music to find this upscale wine bar in the heart of the village. With a wide selection of wines to choose from, including a Cinque Terre selection. I suggest the Lemon Spritz, a concoction they created in recent years. (Closed Tuesdays)

Eldorado: Want to mingle with the locals? Head to this pre-dinner or late night hotspot for one of their many cocktails or my latest favorite, the Saint-Germain Spritz.

Bar Alga: Before sunset, make your way to this beachside bar for a fresh Pina Colada served in a pineapple.

La Tortuga: For a seaside aperitivo head to La Tortuga on the cliff between Monterosso and Fegina. Lorenzo will greet you with a smile. Warning: you may cancel your dinner plans.

Bar Eden: Located right on the beach in Fegina, the sea views don’t get much better. If you’re not in the mood for a cocktail, ask for an affogato al caffe, a coffee with ice cream.

Hotel Porto Roca: For the best aperitivo views of Monterosso from above, climb the path leading to Vernazza and you’ll arrive to this 4-star hotel with an outdoor terrace.

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WHERE TO DINE. With so many restaurants serving similar dishes that look equally appetizing, it’s hard to know where to dine. I can’t say that I’ve tried them all, but I do have my favorites that continue to top the list, year after year. During the busy season reservations are a must!

Ristorante Ciak: Opened in 1974, the owner and chef Ciak will usually be found in the open kitchen wearing his signature sailors uniform. Ample space to dine both inside and out. Make sure to try his famous seafood risotto! (Closed Wednesdays +39 018 781 7014)

Il Casello: Situated seaside, this picturesque dining spot for both lunch and dinner serves local specialties including trofie al pesto and fresh anchovies. The owner Bacco will be happy to suggest a dish and might even share the recipe with you. (+39 333 492 7629)

L’Ancora della Tortuga: Located inside a cliff on the path between Monterosso and Fegina, this restaurant is one not to miss. During the summer months you can dine al fresco, away from the crowds of the village. Ask for their divine seafood antipasto misto, you’ll thank me! (Closed Mondays +39 187 800 065)

Ristorante Miky: This elegant family run restaurant opened in 1980, was once a pizzeria, and has since evolved into the destination for ‘haute cuisine’ dining in Fegina. The presentation alone will impress you, not to mention the cooking. I’m a great fan of the constantly changing antipasti and grilled calamari, or try the tuna, or the seafood risotto. Honestly, you can’t go wrong. (+39 0187 817608)

La Cantina di Miky: If you’re looking for something more casual in Fegina, the Miky family more recently opened another restaurant with both seaside seats and a spacious cantina. Their dishes are a creative take on the classics, with a wide selection of local wines to choose from. If you run into the owner’s wife Christine, she’ll be happy to advise you. (+39 018 780 2525)

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LOCAL SPECIALTIES. All twenty regions of Italy boast local products and dishes. Which ones are the Cinque Terre known for? Here are the must try specialties in Monterosso. I tried to keep it short, as you could easily spend all day eating!

Focaccia: The best can be found at Il Massimo de la Focaccia in Fegina.

Anchovies: Fried, stuffed, salted, with lemon, in pasta… try them in all their preparations.

Farinata: Head to Il Frantoio in Monterosso’s old town to try this chick pea delicacy.

Pan Frito con Formaggio: Fried bread with cheese? Yes please! Also found at Il Frantoio.

Pesto: One of Liguria’s  healthiest specialities, a must try is the pasta dish ‘trofie al pesto’.

Rice Cakes: A perfect option for lunch. Go to Midi Bar in Monterosso for a taste.

Sciacchetrà: A delicious local sweet wine. Read all about how it’s made here.

Cannoli: The Northern Italian version of heaven, the best can be found at Pasticceria Laura.

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BEST OF. I couldn’t put together a list of favorites without including my ‘best of’, could I?

Focaccia: Il Massimo de la Focaccia has ‘right out of the oven’ focaccia in many varieties. Perfect for lunch.

Pizza: Il Fornaio is a focacceria in Fegina that recently added pizza to its menu, made with all natural local ingredients.

Gelato: Midi Bar in the old town makes its own artisanal flavors, while Slurp in Fegina will awaken your taste buds with flavors including lemon and fig. Why not have two?

Pastries: Pasticceria Laura is THE spot for anything sweet. Must tries are the aforementioned cannoli and the torta Monterossina. Freshly baked by Laura herself every morning.

Cappuccino: It’s hard to find a bad cappuccino in Italy. Midi Bar and Bar Eden are two of my favorites.

Souvenirs: You can certainly take home jars of pesto and a lemon or two, but what about ceramic anchovies? These and other pottery, all handmade in Monterosso, can be found at Fabric d’Arte‘s two locations in the old town. I already have quite a collection!

Of course you’ll want to explore the rest of Cinque Terre too. You can take a train, boat or hike to the neighboring villages. Definitely worth a visit! If you’re already familiar with the five lands, I suggest a train to the less touristic and charming villages of Camogli or Sestri Levante. By boat you can visit historic Portovenere or Portofino. More information on day trips and hikes can be found here.

In case you need help planning your trip, my friends at Bella Vita Travels will be happy to assist. Buon viaggio and enjoy my home in Italy!

PARIS PICKS : Italian eats part I

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The French love pizza. All Italian food in fact. And you’ll easily find Italian restaurants and pizzerias all over the city. But how good is la pizza in Paris? Depends on if you’ve been to the BEST pizzeria in the city where pizza originated, Naples, Italy. (Luckily I have, twice even. Here’s my guide for those planning a trip.) L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele certainly takes the cake, or should I say pie, when it comes to simple and absolutely delicious pizza. Started in 1870 and passed on through five generations, their secret is “using natural ingredients and an old, traditional, time-tested method of leavening the pizza dough.” In case you can’t make it to Naples, there are a few places I’d recommend that almost make you feel like you’re in Italy. Keep in mind that I’m a tough critic, married to an Italian after all. And since I’m currently in Italy indulging in my share of pizza, where you can follow me on instagram, twitter and snapchat, I thought the timing was fitting. Here they are in no particular order, all scattered around the right bank. Reason enough to venture to my side of Paris.

Recommended by trusted Italians, we quickly grew to love Ciacco, located on a quiet street in the evolving 10th. With simple decor and staff who remember us upon entering, it almost feels like dining with family. Many great traditional pizza options and they also do take away.

Ciacco // 9 rue Rene Boulanger 75010 // Tues-Sat 12-2:30, 7:30-11 // 01 42 06 38 07

With a spacious outdoor terrace and two floors of seating, la Massara is at once inviting and intimate. Run by a friendly Italian staff, you have plenty of pizza options to choose from, some with buffalo mozzarella and an assortment of white pizzas. They also have another location in Nice.

la Massara // 70 rue de Turbigo 75003 // Daily 12-2:30, 7:15-11 // 01 42 74 13 94

For expertly mixed cocktails and hearty pizza in a variety of tastes (including one with lardo, read all about my discovery of this delicacy here) head to Grazie where you’ll be welcomed with a “buona serra.” This trendy spot near the Marais is perfect for a girls (or boys) night, just be sure to reserve and arrive early to claim the coveted window seats.

Grazie // 91 Boulevard Beaumarchais 75003 // Mon-Fri 12:30–2:307:30–11, Sat/Sun 12:30-11:30 // 01 42 78 11 96

One of the latest Italian restaurants to open it’s doors is Ober Mamma. This trendy hotspot serves a traditional Milanese aperitivo with every cocktail order, perfect for the often lengthy wait. They don’t take reservations so be sure to arrive early and enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Rumor has it that one of the pizza makers comes from da Michele.

Ober Mamma // 107 boulevard Richard Lenoir 75011 // Daily 12:15-2:15/3:30, 6/7-1AM // 01 43 41 32 15

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For pizza that doesn’t try to be Italian but is worthy in its own right, head to Pink Flamingo, now with four locations in Paris, in the 3rd, 10th, 12th and 18th. (Also with outposts in Valencia, Spain and Amsterdam.) You’ll find flavors including fig and chevre and a daily pizza du jour. They also do take away and delivery.

I’ll be sure to include any other worthy pizza that I discover during my eating adventures in Paris. And if you have any favorites, please let me know! Coming soon will be favorite Italian restaurants, we still have a few to try… until then buon appetito!

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