TRAVEL

A Secret New Hotel in the Center of Everything Great in Rome

The Adelaide Salotto at Hotel Vilòn. All photos courtesy of Hotel Vilòn.

A charming new hotel in the center of Rome embodies everything that contributing editor Erica Firpo loves about her home town — beauty, discretion, charm, and aesthetics. This article originally appeared in Fathom, October 2018.

ROME – One of my favorite things to do is muse about where I would have an affair in Rome. After a few years of testing out the possibilities — from an off-the-beaten-path bedroom nook to a corner suite in a posh hotel — I've realized I have some basic requirements. 

Whereas some people just need a room key, I need just a little bit more. First, location: The address must be in the absolute hub of the city center, but at the same time extremely unassuming, with no doorman, flags, or fanfare, so I can slip in and out of the crowd unnoticed. Second, luxurious: I need to feel the affair is worth it, not from its price tag but by its top quality, from sheets and showers to artwork and design. Third, view: I want a terrace where I can take in the city, but absolutely no way can it face anything public.

Easy, right?

Not at all, which is why I love Rome.

The Eternal City is the chaotic culmination of history, culture, and personalities that become an infernal nightmare when trying to hide an affair. True Romans have lived and breathed for at least sette generazioni(seven generations), so six degrees of separation takes on a logarithmic new dimension where everyone knows everyone else and nothing goes unnoticed.

Or so I thought until I stepped off via del Corso, aka the main thoroughfare for the all-ages scene, and onto via dell'Arancio, a nondescript side street with a row of doors. The doors were a side entrances to private apartments within Palazzo Borghese, a vast urban villa estate whose famous residents include papal families and Paulina Borghese, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister.

What makes the Borghese stand out among Rome's incredible palazzi are the gardens — an arcadia in the city with a courtyard with statues of ancient gods, 96 granite columns, a nympheum, and a beautiful garden with three allegorical fountains. Getting access to the gardens is all but impossible. You are lucky if you can take a peek during the few days the gardens are open to the public. 

Or you can book yourself into a garden-facing room at Hotel Vilòn, a rip-the-plastic-off new hotel in the very center of the Eternal City, part of the latest lineup of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. One of the discreet doors on via dell'Arancio, the former Borghese family property became a School for Maidens in 1841 and was until recently home to  Daughters of the Cross, an order of French nuns, who I presume weren't using the rooms for the affairs I was fantasizing about.

Just when I wasn't looking for a the perfect secret, I found it.

Rates

Rates start from €462.

Checking In

Location
In the very center of Rome's historic center, just off of via del Corso, conveniently on a side street away from the crowds and the noise, but close enough to walk straight into the thick of it.

Hotel Style
Sultry, from the minute you walk across the harlequin-tiled marble entrance floor. Rich hues, lavish marbles and woods, and lots of well-chosen contemporary and photography. The rooms chill down with neutral hues, mahogany floorboards, and accents of dark blues and violets. The vibe is intimate and private, and overall style is that very chic Italian best friend you've always dreamed of.

Just when I wasn't looking for a the perfect secret, I found it.

This Place Is Perfect For
Me. And anyone who likes a little sexy oasis in the city center.

But Not So Perfect For
Anyone who is looking for a full-service hotel, as there is no spa or gym. But honestly, you're in Rome. Just walk out the front door.

What's on Site
The gorgeous lounge bar and restaurant Adelaide, and the hidden open-air atrium lounge.

Food + Drink
If I could, I would park myself in Vilòn's Adelaide salotto every single afternoon. The lounge feels like a fabulous film still, and no wonder: Set designer Paolo Bonfini created the ambience with rich colors, patterns, and prints, playing off that gorgeous octane blue. Photographer Massimo Listri hand-selected all the artwork and included his monumental photos from the Uffizi museum, and architect Giampiero Panepinto added the whimsical design pieces. Oh, wait, did I mention the cocktails are incredible? Vilòn's barman/mixologist curates the menu with classics, forgotten classics, and Adelaide's own drinks. The Adelaide salotto flows into the Adelaide restaurant, a stately salon that serves a tasty buffet of treats all day long, as well as lunch and dinner with Roman cuisine inspired dishes. Everything is served on beautifully mismatched Richard Ginori porcelain.

Number of Rooms
18 guest rooms and suites. Room categories range, from smallest to largest, are: Double, Charming, Charming with Terrace, and Charming Deluxe. The three suites are Vilòn, Melangolo (named for via dell' Arancio's medieval nickname), and Borghese.

In-Room Amenities
My favorite amenity by far are the plush bath robes — by far, the most comfortable of any Rome hotel — and the octane blue slippers which general manager Giorgia Tozzi spent months sourcing. And I should mention that the all-white marble bathrooms are divine. Ladies, keep an eye out for the Saugella Detergente Intima next to the bidet, it is preferred intimate cleanser of signore italiane. Keeping up with 21st-century tech, rooms have large Sony televisions teched-out with Apple TV, WiFi with great connectivity, and the lighting system is the ultra-innovative Domot by MicroDevice. My pet peeve in any hotel is the outlet situation, and at Vilòn, they were on point, no need to move any furniture. The mini bar stocked with free drinks like Italian specialties Gazosa, Chinotto, and Aranciata, as well as international favorites and snacks, including my very favorite dark-chocolate covered toasted hazelnuts.

Drawbacks
Parking. Then again, if you're in Rome, you don't need a car.

Standout Detail
The garden-facing terraces. Yes, the signature suites are fabulous, but book me a Vilòn Charming room looking onto the Borghese Palace's private garden, and I'm happy.

Checking Out

What to Do Nearby
This neighborhood, Campo Marzio, is by far my favorite in Rome. Absolutely everything that encapsulates the Eternal City is here. Ancient monuments like Mausoleum of Augustus and Ara Pacis, a 1st-century temple in an ultra-mod Richard Meier-designed glass box. Also: fabulous piazzas for great coffee, ice cream, and people-watching at Caffe CiampiniLa Matricianella is my pick for a picture-perfect lunch. As for shopping, via del Corso is the teen beat gauntlet, and nearby Piazza di Spagna and Via del Babuino are for big spenders, but I prefer the side streets around Largo Goldoni including via della Frezza and via del Fontanella Borghese.

Or Go Explore the Rest of the Country
Rome is the perfect city to kick off or end any Italian vacation. She's got personality for days, so if you're in need of a respite, consider Rome the pre-party, and hop the train to any coastal town for a bit of R&R or to Milan for a fashion binge. For day trips and overnighters, Italy is at your disposal from Rome’s Termini train station. Naples for a pizza? Why not? Florence for a quick stop at Palazzo Strozzi? Sure! Add to the list a myriad small towns, and Italy is yours. If you are more interested in off-the-beaten paths like Sperlonga, Bomarzo and Cività di Bagnoregio and train connections are tight, your best bet is hiring a car. Or if you've spent all of your time traveling the peninsula, afterparty in the Eternal City. Nothing like a plate of carbonara to calm you down.

Good to Know
Rome is a contradiction. It's a crazy and chaotic city that needs at least a few hours of relax — like a long lunch in a pretty piazza — every day. High tourist season kicks off a few weeks before Easter and lasts through July. Romans vacate the city once the heats sets in (and after the July sales kick off around July 5), but the city is stifling hot. By August, the temperatures cool down and the city is empty of all residents. My favorite time for a visit is late October-November and early February.

Getting Around
Rome is a city for walking, but, for the more intrepid urban explorer, the ATAC public transport system of buses, trams, and metro is well connected. Rule of thumb: Buy your tickets in advance at the tabacchaio (small tobacco item stores) and date-stamp them as soon as you enter the metro or board the bus.

Up, up and AWAY: upgrading my carry on

Carried away in Ischia.

A few months ago, I realized that I didn’t have a carry-on. Well, I did. It just wasn’t mine, a fact pointed out to me by my husband when we were both packing for three-day trips in opposite directions. His faithful roller was like a best friend- kind of scruffy, always there, and able to keep lots of secrets. I had nada. So I shoved everything I needed into my polka dot shoulder bag, and what was left went into my daughter’s elementary school backpack. It was about time I invested in a proper carry-on of my own.

Luggage, in my opinion, should be functional, durable and hopefully economical. A great suitcase should take you from destination to destination with ease, organization and maybe even a little security. For most of my life of long trips, I’ve used a banal black suitcase personalized with colorful, handmade luggage tags (i.e left-over ribbons). Yes, my bag always gets confused for someone else’s, and no, I don’t care that the suitcase itself is unattractive. In fact, aesthetics are last on my mind for two specific reasons: suitcases are always knocked around and scuffed up, and Roma-FCO, aka my main hub, is a black hole for luggage. But a carry-on? That’s an opportunity to style at airport lounges, flirt at the Duty Free shops and rock the runway, while having one’s entire life (or weekend life) neatly packed in a properly dimensioned bag at your side.

Enter: AWAY Travel. Or better yet, enter my mom, an avid reader of tech and entrepreneur mags, who was fascinated with the direct-to-commerce start-up’s story, and insisted I needed to meet co-founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio. A meeting with them didn’t make it on the travel itinerary, but I did I visit AWAY’s Bond Street boutique in Manhattan - a tranquil showroom of light woods and whites which gets the point across: travel is meditation, and so should shopping. Only one wall is lined with the rainbow of polycarbonate suitcases in AWAY’s dark and pastel colors, while the floor features a bag or two to show off AWAY’s clever details like 360 wheels, compression pads, external pockets for laptops, ejectable battery chargers, and limited editions. Utilitarian with some perks like quarterly travel magazines, travel bags, packing cubes, tile luggage tags and personalization. I loved everything but it was the Bigger Carry-On, Aluminum Edition that came home with me.

 Ever Flying.

Ever Flying.

How’d it fare?

The Bigger Carry-On can hold quite a lot. It easily fit five days worth of clothing plus sneakers, sandals, summer homework books, computer, iPad, camera gear, make up bags and a few stuff animals for me and my 9-year-old on a mid-summer trip to Sicily. As an origami-style packing geek, I loved the compression pad, and was happy to shove shoes, toys, gear and the nylon laundry bag (stuffed with wet bikinis) on the zip half, aka b-side. The EF stickers, which I told my daughter were for Ever Flying, charmed everyone in the airport. We both loved the combination locks that give the carry-on a smart spy vibe. In the past two months, my carry-on has knocked around seven airports, several trunks and two train rides, so yep, it has some scratches and scuffs, but that adds personality. My only gripe is the weight (and I did choose to remove the charger) especially when packed for two. At 11.2 lbs, the Bigger Carry-On in unbreakable aluminum is heavier than its polycarbonate companion who weighs in at 7.8 lbs (or the smaller Carry-On 7.6 lbs). Maybe not the most logical choice for a peripatetic travel writer but the Aluminum edition is by far the prettiest. .

The Bigger Carry-On, Aluminum edition and me on the Cayucos pier.

AWAY The Bigger Carry-on, Aluminum Edition

Exterior measurements 22.7" x 14.5" x 9.6"
Interior measurements 20" x 13"
Weight 11.2 lbs
Capacity 40.9L

*At the time of writing this, the Carry-On dimensions were perfect (and still are) for Alitalia and Delta, my main carriers. It seems like every day, airlines surprise us with updated baggage policies. Check Luggagepro and SeatGuru, and then double check on your carrier’s site.

How to Spend A Weekend in Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo. Credit: Monaco Government Communication Department

Monte Carlo.  Who would have thought a girl from Philadelphia would end up on a long weekend roaming it's winding, F1 roads?  My latest weekend getaway for Forbes Travel is the hairpin turns in art and culture in the tiny Principality of Monaco.

There’s something about Monte Carlo that calls for a long weekend at least once in your lifetime. The lure of high speed and high stakes as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and the James Bond film Goldeneyedraws visitors to its craggy coast for a glimpse at lifestyles of the rich and discreetly famous.

But as you’ll see, the tiny principality is the perfect setting for another kind of getaway: the weekend retreat.

Getting There
Traveling to Monte Carlo is as easy as it is beautiful. Driving along the coastline from Italy or France (or arriving by boat) makes for a scenic trip, but the most spectacular introduction to the city is by helicopter. 

Arrive like a VIP by booking a heli-flight from Nice with Monacair, a private transportation company founded by Stefano Casiraghi, the late husband of Monaco’s Princess Caroline. Enjoy the seven-minute ride along the sparkling coastline before arriving at this world-class destination in style. 

Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo. Credit: Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo

Rest and Relaxation
Monaco is home to some of the world’s finest hotels for a pampering, and there is perhaps no better address than Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo in the heart of the city. Surrounded by lush greenery, the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star palace is elegant and subtle.

Entered from a long cobblestone driveway, the ground floor hints at the hotel’s 131-year history with period furniture and paintings of Grimaldi princes. Its 126 rooms reflect understated luxury, except for the Carré d’Or Suite, a lavish 1,600-square-foot penthouse with a panoramic terrace.

Odyssey, the Karl Lagerfeld-designed poolside restaurant, is a coveted spot for some sun time, while the true indulging takes place at Spa Metropole by Givenchy, a gorgeous contemporary retreat.

Palais Princier de Monaco. Credit: Monaco Government Communication Department

Catch up on Culture
Hotel Metropole is just steps away from the legendary Monte Carlo Casino, the 155-year-old bastion of gaming that transformed the tiny sovereign state into one of the richest countries in the world. If a night at the tables is not on your bucket list (if it is, go late), at least take an hour out in the morning for a walk through the historic building.

Monte Carlo is not all hairpin turns and croupiers — one of Monaco’s most popular structures is also an enclave of art. The Nouveau Musèe National Monaco is a bundle of two Belle-Époque buildings, Villa Sauber and Villa Paloma, that each feature semiannual exhibitions by contemporary artists, such as Tom Wesselmann, Oliver Laric and Latifa Echakhch.   

For a deeper dive into the work of one of Monaco’s most intriguing artistic residents, head to the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation. The site showcases more than 2,500 paintings, photographs and artifacts detailing the British painter’s life in Monte Carlo in the late 1940s and ’50s. Just keep in mind that the foundation offers tours by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead.

History buffs will also want to visit Palais Princier de Monaco, the prince’s palace where the House of Grimaldi has lived and reigned for nearly eight centuries. While you’re here, don’t miss the chance to see Prince Rainier’s famous car collection, which includes vintage models and retired Formula 1 racers.

 Joël Robuchon. Credit: Hotel Metropole Monte Carlo

Joël Robuchon. Credit: Hotel Metropole Monte Carlo

Where to Wine and Dine
The nearly 500-acre country is a culinary melting pot. Start your journey at Joël Robuchon, the eponymous restaurant of the late, great masterchef. Housed within Hotel Metropole, the venue’s open kitchen brings the talented toque’s stellar cuisine to Earth’s stratosphere in a casual-chic environment.

Chef Christophe Cussac dreams up Mediterranean versions of Robuchon’s classic dishes, such as the inimitable cherry gazpacho and delicately simple sea bass in a red wine sauce with wasabi and spinach.

A few other items that cannot be missed: Robuchon’s bread presentation (a celebration of housemade baguettes, biscuits and buns); the decadent dessert cart; and the terrace, which juts out over a stretch of Monte Carlo’s famed Formula 1 course, redefining dine and dash. 

For something more down-to-earth, opt for a sampling of customary Monégasque cuisine — a uniquely local flavor that combines the creative spices of southern French fare and the ease of Italian recipes into dishes that are effortless and comforting.

Monte Carlo Casino. Credit: Monaco Government Communication Department

To get an authentic taste, book a table at Le Castelroc, a charming eatery in front of the prince’s palace run by the Bonafède family since 1953. Sample traditional treats like barbajuans (fried puff pastry stuffed with Swiss chard) and stockfish de rosette, the family’s four-generation-old secret take on the national dried cod stew dish.

After dinner, skip the casino and grab a table at Four-Star Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo’s Crystal Bar. This is the go-to spot for the pre-nightclub crowd thanks its fabulous view and luxurious menu — choose from a selection of Premier Cru champagne to pair with oysters and caviar, or savor one of the venue’s distinguished craft cocktails. (In the summer, snag a table on the Crystal Terrasse and relish in the Mediterranean salt air with Incredible Mia, a beautiful, drinkable bouquet of pisco, lime juice and passion fruit purée.)

The city’s nightlife scene, where bumping into celebrities on the dance floor is practically passé, is a different animal. For four decades, Jimmy’z Monte Carlo — an enormous indoor/outdoor discotheque — has been the wildly popular center of the after-hours universe, but newcomer Twiga — this spot comes from Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore, who’s known for curating clubs to celebrities around the globe — is also making waves.

How to Train Your Wine Palate

Training your wine palate isn't difficult. Earlier this year, I ventured to Florence to meet with expert Filippo Bartolotta to discuss simple ways to gain a better understanding of what's in your glass. This article fist appeared in Wine Enthusiast, August 2018.

Filippo Bartolotta has walked miles of countryside in the pursuit of understanding terroir, and he’s spent years tasting flavors to find the building blocks of vintages. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET)-certified sommelier is based in Florence, Italy, where he curates wine experiences around the world, as co-founder of the luxury wine tour group, Le Baccanti, and in collaboration with chefs like Alice Waters and Massimo Bottura.

In his latest venture, he tackles the topic of how to train your palate in a newly published book, Di Che Vino Sei (What Kind of Wine Are You). By breaking down eight personality archetypes, Bartolotta believes wine lovers of all levels of expertise can get in groove with their palates. This practice of “wine training” has worked for the likes of actor Dustin Hoffman and former President Barack Obama.

Wine training is exactly what you’re likely thinking: Hours and lots of bottles dedicated to tasting wines. Part emotional and part physical, wine training is about pace, consistency, dedication and exposure. And it’s not just for the academics, collectors or would-be sommeliers, it’s for anyone who enjoys a great pour.

“The truth of a bottle of wine is when you are sitting down and sipping glass after glass, just seeing what happens,” says Bartolotta. Instead of having an experience bound by rigid rules, the only requirement he has for participants is a healthy desire to drink wine. Here are three of his surefire tips.

Don’t worry about memorization

The palate is a complex experiential combination of the four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste and feel. To those, Bartolotta adds another a fifth dimension, experience. It starts out simply, as participants open a bottle of wine to see how and why they like it.

Memorization is the least important aspect. More important is tasting and more tasting to train the palate to recognize flavors, which breeds confidence and natural instincts.

“I don’t like [to guess wines], you miss the whole the concept,” he says. “Instead, it’s all about developing the gut feeling, because your first impression is the most accurate one.”

Establish a daily practice

To understand and identify the nuances of wines, vintages and producers requires daily dedication. Bartolotta has spent thousands of hours in morning-long tasting sessions to solidify his gut feelings. But anyone can train these skills, whether with sommeliers or on their own.

Not many people have the time to taste every single day, of course. Bartolotta suggests that wine lovers dedicate a few hours weekly or monthly to hang out with good friends and great bottles.

Pick a few bottles from the same region, producer or grape variety, sample them and talk about it. Bartolotta suggests doing it again and again until it becomes part of your life. He says that after consistent wine enjoyment with no pressure, the palate becomes more sophisticated. Flavors become familiar, and instinct develops into intuition.

Eventually, tasting becomes a mindfulness practice, says Bartolotta. By the third or fourth glass, it becomes, as Bartolotta says, “a Matrix moment and you’re Neo, synergistically knowing what you are tasting.” The key is to continue to taste and drink, and to hang out with friends is a great reason to expand the selection of wines and experiences.

Compare and contrast

Pop open two semi-related bottles at the same time, say a bottle of Champagne and a bottle of Prosecco. Compare and contrast simultaneously to help you discover subtleties to what you like and don’t like. Otherwise, if you have a good bottle tonight and another next week, it’s difficult it to say which style you really prefer.

Also, get vertical. Much like tasting different styles from the same producer, vertical tastings are when you taste the same style from different years. Tasting the same label, but from three or more different vintages can help understand how the weather and other variables can affect the wine. And given the region, you can also ascertain whether you like hotter vintages versus cooler ones.

Experienced or entry-level, wine training is less about becoming an expert at blindly identifying wines, and more about self-understanding and preferences. As Bartolotta believes, wine was not invented simply to be tasted, it was meant to be enjoyed.

in Florence and want to taste wine with Filippo? Easy.  His company Le Baccanti organizes customized luxury cultural food & wine vacations and day tours in Tuscany and Italy- so yes, you can sit down at a table with him for a few hours eating, drinking and talking wine.  I did and totally developed a wine crush.

An Art Lover's Guide to 36 Hours in Milan

Photo Credit: Erica Firpo

Fashion, food, finance and all-round fabulousness. Here’s how to spend an inspired 36 hours in Milan, Italy’s “It” city.

10am: Check in at Hotel Indigo Milan – Corso Monforte and you’ll find yourself in the centre of an art-focused crossroads, from Milan’s illustrious Baroque to its contemporary cultural kingpin vibe. Step into modern Milan of the 1930s at the Villa Necchi Campiglio, in park Villa Campiglio directly across the from the hotel.

Named for socialite sisters Gigina and Nedda Necchi and Gigina’s husband, Angelo Campiglio, the Villa Necchi Campiglio was the centre and centrepiece of Milan’s mid-twentieth century social scene. Architect Piero Portaluppi combined his unique rationalist flair of sleek lines and materials with Frank Lloyd Wright’s functional sensibilities (including custom pieces and built-ins). His 1930s design was innovative in details both inside and out. In 2000, Gigina bequeathed the property to FAI, Italy’s national trust, which opened the villa as a museum in 2008.

Photo credit: Villa Necchi Campiglio.

12pm: For lunch, the villa’s solarium doubles as a charming cafeteria and features favourite Milanese dishes including a green risotto and traditional veal cutlets. Wondering why the Villa Necchi Campiglio looks familiar? The iconic home was setting for the 2009 Italian movie I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton.

3pm: Make your way to Fondazione Prada. This 205,000-square-foot complex is home to an intense collection of contemporary art works by 20th and 21st-century Italian and international artists—from Giacomo Balla to Francesco Vezzuoli and Damien Hirst. Its 2015 Rem Koolhaas/OMA design includes a cinema.

 Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

6pm: Stop for aperitivi at Fondazione Prada’s cocktail hub Bar Luce, the Art Deco–inspired bar designed by director Wes Anderson. And then make your way up the newly opened Torre, a nine-story modernist tower, with art galleries that eventually lead to the rooftop terrace bar.

8:30pm: After drinks, stay for dinner at Ristorante Torre, the Fondazione’s tower restaurant. The illuminated cityscape of Milan sprawls away beyond its floor to ceiling windows, and the views inside are equally good with art work including custom wall-hung plates and midcentury design pieces like Tulip tables, and executive chairs by Eero Saarinen. The menu features regular new tasting dishes created by a rotation of Michelin rising star chefs from the CARE’s Chef Under 30 project.

 Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Day 2

8.30 am: Build up an appetite with a stroll through the historic Giardini Pubblici, established 1784 and considered the oldest city park in Milan. Then find a counter spot at Pasticceria Marchesi, the posh cafe on via Montenapoleone in Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral. A city landmark, Marchesi is the perfect scene for morning coffee, and has a mouthwatering line up of pastries, traditional pralines and savoury treats. Take a look around the Fashion Quadrilateral, an oasis of haute couture. Via Montenapoleone and its side streets are lined with beautiful boutiques representing some of the world’s most admired fashion houses.

11.30 am: Milan’s designers all know that contemporary style comes from centuries of culture. Catch up on Milan’s history at the Galleria Arte Moderna, a late 18th century villa whose Baroque trappings are the backdrop to an enviable collection of Italian and European artwork from the 18th to the 20th century. The rise of modern Milan is shown through key work by Balla, Boccioni, Canova and Segantini, which sit side by side with Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne and Gaugin.

1pm: For lunch, head to LuBar, the galleria’s on site cafe for creative Sicilian street food in a whimsical fin-de-siècle setting.

 

3pm It’s time to go back to the future by visiting the Pirelli Hangar Biccocaa free-entry contemporary complex on the grounds of a former Pirelli tire factory. This is now one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces, with three buildings covering 100,000 square feet. It’s dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions featuring works by Italian and international artists. Guides are on hand to help you navigate around the vast complex.

8pm By early evening, you’ll want to grab an outside table at Iuta BistrotHangar Bicohcca’s onsite gourmet restaurant where the city’s cognoscenti congregate for stylish conversation and aptly-mixed cocktail.

10pm Ready to head home to the hotel? Before you do, make a pit stop at Bar Basso, a cult classic popular with the fashion and design crowd, known for introducing the world to “aperitivi” hour and its own take on the negroni.

This article first appeared in Belong Magazine, June 2018.

The Florence Experiment: Contemporary Art Slides Through The Renaissance Town

Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn! - Better Off Dead, 1985

Merry-go-round, monkey bars, teeter-totter, geodome, tether balls, swings. Of all the places I could play at the pulbic playground, my favorite was always the slide.  Ours was metal, super slick from decades of descent and most likely not up to any 21st century building code.   We fought to stand at the top and lord over all the playground serfs, and we never waited for the kid in front to get safely out of the way.    Our slide iced over in the winter so we banked snow at the base to test out the human snow plow technique.   In the summer,  the metal shoot was scalding hot from hours baking in the sun, and every method to avoid skin contact was attempted, only to find that lifting up your hands and legs caused three glorious seconds of maximum velocity.  Scary?  Stupid? Dangerous? Yeah, plus panic and pure adrenaline rush.

Playgrounds don't have seem that enticing thrill of danger any more.  Structures are well made, perfectly portioned and the ground covering is reinforced plastic flooring so that no one falls and breaks an arm.  Maybe that's a good thing, but when I stand atop today's slides, I miss the fear that something bad could, but probably wouldn't, happen.  And I think Carsten Höller does too. 

Höller makes thrills.   His beautifully designed slides, carousels and more are all about perception and experience, and are exaggeratedly reminiscent of playgrounds past.  And this time he's experimenting with more than just nostalgia, he's playing on emotions in a Renaissance palazzo in Florence.   The Florence Experiment, a double cork screw careening down the internal courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, is wit plus a bit of biology.   Teaming up with Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, Höller sends sliders on an emotional rush strapped with a seedling.  A ten-second rush of maximum velocity in a metal shoot, you feel like a kid again.  

Here's where it gets brainy. Once you've finished, you're invited to bring your bean seedling to Palazzo Strozzi's underground laboratory where Mancuso's team analyzes the effects of your emotional experience on the growth of the plant.  And if you want, you can stick around and watch film clips based on your slide reaction- terror (clips like The Shining) or joy (Some Like It Hot)  - in a glass-enclosed viewing room where the effects of your emotions are funneled out to plants fastened to Palazzo Strozzi's external facade.  Sounds hokey? It could be, but it's fun and if you take a step back, it's pretty damn clever.  Every knows that emotions have the ability to bring down the house.

And guess what?  It's about time art made us laugh, and better yet, scream.  For Höller,  "the madness of a slide, that “voluptuous panic,” is a kind of joy. It is an experience with value far beyond the confines of a museum, or a playground. It might be time, for all our sakes, to begin to explore exactly how far that might be." I agree. Let's do it.

Photo credit: Palazzo Strozzi.

The Florence Experiment

Palazzo Strozzi, through August 26

For those looking to discover more of Tuscany, Palazzo Strozzi is more than just a museum.  It is keystone to Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi APPS a coalition of personalities, institutions and firms that  support the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi , Florence and its "made-in-Florence" treasures through multi-cultural projects.

 

View from room 516, Hotel Savoy.

R & R:   Rooms and Restaurants

Room 516 at the Hotel Savoy.  516 is a deluxe room with the coveted view of Brunelleschi's dome, and you can bet we were hanging out the windows every hour on the hour just to listen to the bells.  We chose Hotel Savoy for its unbeatable Piazza della Repubblica location, one minute walk to Palazzo Strozzi, and an easy walk to everything else - Piazza della Signoria and Stazione Santa Maria Novella, the Giardini Boboli and San Frediano.  Earlier in 2018, the Savoy went through an aggressive renovations which refreshed the rooms to a more airy, organic vibe and increased space.  Best hotel perk? Velorbis bicycles with Brooks saddles.  I am hoping that the next I stay,  Savoy and Velorbis will have added a back seat.

Antica Ristoro Cambi, a yesteryear osteria in Florence's San Frediano niche neighborhood in the Oltrarno.  Cozy, casual, and absolutely no pretensions with an open kitchen counter,  every time I enter Cambi, I feel like I've walked into someone's home.  For my group, the  focus is always singular:  a proper bistecca alla fiorentina, 800 grams of Chianina beef grilled on extremely high temperatures and garnished with salt.  Along with the perfect bistecca, Cambi serves traditional Tuscan dishes- homemade tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce, tripe and even local favorite lampredotto.  Personally, I don't go there.

The laboratory.

Perfect Fit: Cool Blue Jeans Found in Amsterdam {Shopping}

Amsterdam's denim appreciation fair, Denim Days. Photo courtesy of Denim Days.

Who knew that Amsterdam was a hub for denim aficionados? Erica Firpo, Fathom's Rome-based contributing editor, shopped hard (and happily) for the blues.  Fathom May 2018.

AMSTERDAM — I am going to be honest. In all these years in Europe, including the requisite study abroad months of debauchery, I never experienced Amsterdam. Nope, I never met up with all my college friends for a long and deliberately forgotten weekend, and sorry, Professor Minott, I never bought a ticket just to see my coveted Dutch Masters. For some reason, I am missing the genes that drive one to The Netherland’s naughtiest city which almost everyone whose adolescence pre-dates Weeds and legal dispensaries has.

Maybe I don’t have the genes. But I did get the jeans.

Design vibes at Hotel Pulitzer. Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Hotel.

Backstory: It’s late November and my friend Sarah decides it’s about time I see the Night’s Watch in person. She also needs to top up her CBD oil supply. We decide to go Dutch, splitting the trip down the middle, including our king-sized bed at Hotel Pulitzer, the most stylish labyrinth I’ve ever seen.

The canal-side Pulitzer is like a very cool Escher painting, a composite of 25 townhouses restored to show off their glorious 17th and 18th century architecture. (And yes, the original family was related to the prize-giving family). You get the vibe as soon as you walk in: the Pulitzer is saucy. Dark indigos and an open lobby area stretch to a garden and more canal houses, with gorgeous design furniture and clever contemporary art inspired by Dutch masterpieces. Ground level, there’s the gorgeous, Scandi-chic restaurant Janz and very sexy Pulitzer bar. The Extraordinary suites are hot, in particular, the music collector’s suite which has a wall of wacky 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s record covers, but we climb our way through a wooden stairwell to a canal-facing suite on the top level of one of the original townhouses. Cyclists pass below, it’s raining, and I could leave it at that — but we have plans.

Da Straatjes shopfronts. Photo by Erica Firpo

It’s good to have plans in Amsterdam, and even better to forget about them, which we learn as soon as we start walking around the city. Amsterdam is like an organized Venice, neighborhoods around canals and canals around neighborhoods. The Da Straatjes (the 9 streets) easily becomes our neighborhood, and we only leave it for the Rijksmuseum and Boerejongens. The 9s is a busy area, packed with strident bicyclists, unaware tourists, school children, and residents. Design shops, vintage shops, and food shops are tucked away on cobblestoned streets. Sarah and I decide we’re coming back to upgrade our lives (and I do just a month later). We want cool, Dutch designs in our homes from the amazing furniture to the Cool Club playing cards. We want to be styled by any of Amsterdam’s designers, from Dutch streetwear to Netherlands minimalism. We want cat socks and personalized perfume. But more than anything, I want to be decked out in denim.

Amsterdam is one-third of the denim city triumvirate, along with Tokyo and Los Angeles. Beautifully curated denim boutiques are everywhere. So many labels are born and headquartered here; the city hosts Amsterdam Denim Days, a jeans-centric fair, and Amsterdam is home to the world’s first Jean School. Jean-lovers, bookmark this Denim map by Amsterdam Denim for where to find the best of the best in Amsterdam.

Scandi-style means denim-on-denim. Photo courtesy of Denim Days.

Aside from the jeans, my other favorite finds in Amsterdam:

Athenaeum Boekhanel, not in the 9s, but that doesn’t matter. This is could be the best magazine shop in Europe. Hundreds of publications from standard newsstand fare to those gorgeously-produced and hard-to-find ‘zines.

Mendo, the ultimate art/coffee table book shop with every single beautiful art book you have ever coveted: Taschen SUMOs, Phaidon food books, limited editions, everything. Apparently, you can order the entire library of books in one click on their website, no questions asked. I can’t even fathom that possibility.

Coffee-table books to bring Amsterdam vibes home. Photo courtesy of Mendo.

Cowboys2catwalk for Acne Studios, Comme des Garçons, Lemaire. Yes, it’s high-end fashion but it’s all about the selection.

Frozen Fountain, an Amsterdam-townhouse stripped down and filled with design furniture, knickknacks, games. All are incredibly stylish.

Lekker, eye candy for cyclists. Retro-inspired luxury two wheelers and plenty of accessories.

Rain Couture, because it rains a lot in Amsterdam. No surprise that the inventive Dutch have made good-looking, well-priced rain coats for all seasons, of course.

Bar Centraal (not even remotely near the 9s). My friend Sarah is a natural wine fanatic, and she should be because she’s a sommelier who organizes wine adventures (among other things) in Georgia and Rome. Bar Centraal was the only place we could not miss — a tiny local bistro bar, the menu is modern Dutch tapas with lots of great natural wines.

For a better versed Amsterdam, the peripatetic Frankie Thompson narrows down her home base in a series of city-centric articles on her site As the Bird Flies.

How to Do the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2018

Another Generosity at the Nordic Pavilion. Photo by Erica Firpo

My article on the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture appeared in Condè Nast Traveler, May 2018.

Our guide to the very best of the seven-month architecture festival taking over Venice this year.

The Biennale Architettura 2018, or Venice Architecture Biennale, is an architect’s dream—but it’s also a design adventure for visitors, a temporary theme park for interactive and experimental works. Running through November 25, the event turns the entire Venetian archipelago into a playground of events, plus permanent and semi-permanent pavilions and projects that transform historic palazziand parks into design destinations. Here’s our guide to making sense of it all.

The Basics

The event centers around the Giardini, or the Biennale Gardens, a park where you’ll find the original national pavilions, a potluck of architecture from the early 1910s to today that includes projects from Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The Central Pavilion, also at the Gardens, is the main stage for this edition of the Biennale, which is based around the theme of Free Space. Biennale curators Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin’s Grafton Architects chose the theme, but what exactly does it mean? “It’s the paradigm of architecture,” says McNamara of the concept. "It's a question about the absence and presence of architecture."

The Biennale Gardens. Photo by Erica Firpo.

In all, there are 63 national pavilions—and more than 70 architects—at the Biennale that explore the concept, but these six are among the most interesting:

  • Another Generosity, at the Nordic Pavilion (which reps Finland, Norway, and Sweden), you’ll find large membrane-like balloons, filled with water and air, that deflate and inflate as viewers walk through the space, a meditation on the relationship between nature and the built environment.
  • Dimension of Citizenship, at the U.S. Pavilion, consists of installations, films, and talks that explore "spatial understandings of citizenship," organizers say, at a time when "questions of belonging, of who should be included and how, are posed with every athlete taking a knee, every #metoo, every presidential tweet, and every protest sign or fist raised."
  • Robabecciah: The Informal City, at the Egypt Pavilion, is a almost sculptural installation of “old junk,” or robabecciah, showcasing Egypt’s historic “spontaneous” markets.
  • UNES-CO, at the Czech/Slovak Pavilion, a futuristic welcome center where the backdrop is a screen showing a live feed of the Czech city of Český Krumlov, which has seen the population in its historic center drop dramatically in part because of an influx of tourists in recent years. The feed shows 15 couples and families who are being paid to live in the city full time.
  • Isola/Island, at the U.K. Pavilion, focuses on themes of isolation—both environmental and deliberately man-made—as well as questions of identity, both top of mind in post-Brexit Europe.
  • Svizzera240 House Tour, at the Swiss Pavilion, is a bit of a voyeuristic spin on architecture shows: As exhibitors put it: “What is built within the Swiss Pavilion is not a 'house' but a house tour: interior scenes are constructed at a range of different scales and spliced together, creating a labyrinthine sequence of interior perspectives.”

Meanwhile, the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard, hosts the Corderie, a nearly 400-meter corridor that expands the Free Space exhibition; the neighboring warehouses host newer pavilions, including those of China, Italy, and Kosovo.

One of the 10 chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, part of the Vatican's entry for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018.Photo by Lena Klimkeit/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

More Must Sees

  • Woodland Chapels, the Vatican’s first ever entry in the Architecture Biennale, is both pilgrimage and installation. To visit, take a Line 2 vaporetto to the beautiful island of San Giorgio, where you’ll find 10 chapels designed by a dozen architects including Andrew Berman, Sir Norman Foster, Carla Juaçaba, and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
  • Environmental Justice as a Civil Right, at the Antigua & Barbuda Pavilion, the nation’s first entry to the Biennale, is set in the 15th-century Don Orione Artigianelli monastery on Dorsoduro. The pavilion explores sustainability, including the use of local materials and the importance of public parks—and the redevelopment of Barbuda, after the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
  • 1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, recalls the the 1948 Biennale. Greece pulled out, and Peggy stepped in with a Carlo Scarpa–designed exhibit of 136 works; this year, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection celebrates its 70th anniversary by partially recreating the exhibition and bringing together works—from the likes of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Jackson Pollock—which have not been seen in Venice in decades.
  • John Ruskin: The Stones of Venice, at the Doge’s Apartment in the Doge’s Palace, brings to life Ruskin’s three-volume tome on Venetian art and architecture through paintings, including Ruskin’s own watercolors.
  • Machines à Penser, at Fondazione Prada, in the ornate Ca’ Corner alla Regina, explores the ideas of exile and escape, with contemporary pieces inspired by (or reacting to) the work of the philosophers Adorno, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.

Where to Refuel

In the morning, hit Gran Caffe Quadri, the centuries-old coffee shop in St. Mark’s Square, that’s a favorite of local resident (and architecture superstar) Philippe Starck: “It’s a powerful concentration of mystery, beauty, oddity, and poetry,” he says of the famed coffeehouse. (In the evening, you can do dinner upstairs at Ristorante Quadri, the lavish and whimsical Michelin-star restaurant that he designed.)

Book ahead for lunch, since the Biennale crowds often fill Corte Sconta, a tiny Venetian trattoria with private garden, and Local, a former electrical shop gutted and transformed into a minimalist locavore restaurant. AMO, the atrium restaurant at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, is another Starck-designed choice near the Rialto Bridge.

Navigating the show

The best plan is to split your visit over two days. Start at the Giardini, visiting the central pavilion before branching off to the other country-specific entries; focus your second day on the remaining pavilions and the Arsenale. If you’ve got more time, spend it on off-site pavilions like the Vatican’s or seeing the contemporaneous shows around town.

The Biennale runs through November 25, and locations are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are €25 ($29) and grant a single admission to each of exhibition venues. You can buy tickets ahead of time online.

Photo credit Erica Firpo.

Where to stay

The Aman Venice, set in two restored centuries-old palazzi, feels like its own architectural show. The Palazzo Venart Luxury Hotel is a sleeper favorite of Condé Nast Traveler editors that was on the Hot List in 2017. On the island of Giudecca, and a short (free) ferry ride from St. Mark’s Square, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is perfect if you prefer quiet—and it has what’s got to be the biggest swimming pool in Venice.

For a virtual tour of the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture, please take a look at my Instagram story that follows my adventures at the Biennale.

See Naples and Die: How To Have The Perfect Naples Day Trip

This article originally appeared in Forbes Travel, May 2018.

Charming, beautiful, heartbreaking and gritty, Naples, Italy, is a torrid love affair you’re meant to explore for a day or a lifetime. For centuries, locals and visitors alike have constantly proved the proverb “See Naples and Die” true. It is a city that never leaves you and, for some, a destination that proves impossible to leave. But for those with less than 24 hours to see Napoli, here our tips for a day trip to this seaside siren.

HOW TO GET THERE
A day trip to Naples from Rome is as easy as a train ride, especially on Italy’s high-velocity rail service. Just 70 minutes from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale with departures every hour, Italo Treno’s round-trip option is your best bet. The unmistakable red needle-nose trains are stylish as well as comfortable and equipped with free Wi-Fi.

WHEN TO GO
Any time, any day and any month, Naples is amazing. From June through September, the temperatures are high and the sun is hot, so if you prefer milder climates, plan for the cooler months. Great times to visit include religious holidays, such as the September 19 Feast of San Gennaro (the patron saint of Naples), when the city crowds into the Naples Cathedral. From Advent (December 2) to Ash Wednesday (February 14), the city is a carnival of celebrations.

WHAT TO DO
Walk the City
There is so much to see in Napoli, and the best way to take it all in is by foot. A massive UNESCO World Heritage Site, Naples’ historic center has the unique characteristic of being split in half by a road. The Spaccanapoli (Via San Biagio dei Librai) is a long and narrow street lined with buildings representing all eras of Naples’ architecture, from its Greek foundations to 18th-century palaces.

Head to the historic center’s Piazza San Domenico Maggiore and spot the larger-than-life mural of San Gennaro by street artist Jorit Agoch, which appears as a backdrop in the Italian TV series Gomorrah.

Art lovers should check out the Madre, Naples’ contemporary museum. On display until September 24 is an exhibit titled “Pompei @ Madre,” a clever show mixing finds from the ill-fated ancient city with modern Pompeii-inspired art.

Part of the national Galleria d’Italia, the galleries of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliana are housed on the ground floor of a 19th-century bank, making for a cultured stop for both history buffs and art lovers.

Kids and romantics will want to visit one of the city’s numerous medieval castles, such as Castel Sant’Elmo and Castel dell’Ovo.

Plan Your Pizza
Probably the best reason for a day trip to Naples is pizza, in particular the freshly made local variety topped with marinara sauce and seasoned with oregano and garlic but no cheese at all.

For day-trippers, it’s important to plan your itinerary around where and when you will be eating your pie, allowing yourself at least 30 minutes of waiting in line — yes, you’re going to have to wait. Local favorites, such as Da MicheleGino SorbilloPizzeria La Notizia 94 and 50 Kalò, all have queues, especially around lunchtime. And just to be on the safe side, bring euros — not all pizza joints accept credit cards.  

For a truly Neapolitan way to finish off your meal, stop by the historic Gran Caffe Gambrinus for an espresso and a fresh pastry (like a fragrant rum babà — a rum-soaked cake — or flaky cannoli) and then enjoy the beautiful Piazza del Plebiscito.

Go Underground
Naples can be chaotic and, sometimes, the best solution is to head underground to explore the city’s ancient origins. Miles of subterranean tunnels, carved by early Greek settlers, lie beneath the city’s surface. Expanded by the Romans, the underground metropolis was used up until the 20th century, when it served as an air raid shelter during both World Wars. All of this history is hidden from the modern surface, but can be explored with Napoli Sotterranea.

For a deeper dive into the city’s past, plan a pit stop at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli to dig into its impressive collection of Greco-Roman art and artifacts. Among the exhibits, you’ll find pieces from Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the racy Gabinetto Segreto (secret cabinet).

Or, opt a different kind of underground with the Naples Metro, where the stations themselves are works of art.

Shore Thing: Hamburg's latest luxury The Fontenany

The Fontenay, Hamburg, Germany

This article first appeared in Hemispheres Magazine, April 2018.

Hamburg’s first new luxury hotel in nearly two decades takes full advantage of its lakeside setting

The View: The Fontenay takes its name from 19th-century shipbroker John Fontenay, who once owned this plot of land on the shores of manmade Lake Alster. Depending on the season and the corresponding level of greenery on the surrounding trees, the lake can be seen from more than half of the 131 rooms and suites, which are done in aqua, beige, and cream and bathed in natural light.

The Building: Architect Jan Stormer’s undulating, white-tiled facade is made up of three intertwining circles, inspired by the curves of the lake. The building is set in a lush, pastoral stand of beech, oak, and sycamore trees. Inside the rooms and suites, parquet floors are made from oaks harvested, appropriately, in the forest of the Fontenay Abbey in Burgundy, France.

The Spa: Sitting pretty on the hotel’s roof terrace is the signature Fontenay spa, where many of the full-service treatments incorporate sea-inspired Creme de la Mer lotion made with nutrient-rich fermented sea kelp. The best seat in the house is on the edge of the 66-foot indoor-outdoor infinity pool, which offers panoramic views of the city skyline.

The Restaurants: Michelin-starred chef Cornelius Speinle—who has cooked at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and his own Dreizehn Sinne in Switzerland— helms the rooftop restaurant, Lakeside. On the ground floor, the casual eatery John’s edges right up on the lakefront.

The Surroundings: Originally a medieval reservoir, Lake Alster is now a picture- perfect picnic destination and Hamburg’s premier outdoor recreation spot. Keep it simple with a pick-up Frisbee game or break a sweat canoeing, kayaking, kiteboarding, or even ice-kiting on one of the rare occasions when the lake freezes over. In August, it’s all about Alstervergnügen, a four-day festival that floods the park with some 500 artists, acrobats, and athletes.