TRAVEL

Meet me in Mexico City

Mexico. 27 Cultural sites, six natural sites, 1 cultural/natural site, eight intangible Cultural Heritage sites.  23 sites to be considered to the list.

These are the basic UNESCO numbers, and believe me, there is so much more, that I immediately learned when I landed in Mexico City for a three-day project I cavalierly entitled: #MeetMeInMexicoCity.  Yep, I was walking around the world's 19th largest city thanks to a last minute invitation from Alitalia  to board its inaugural FCO-MEX non-stop flight with a bag and the answer to its single question:  What would you do in 72 hours in Mexico City?

The question blew my mind.  My only knowledge of Mexico, much less Mexico City, is relegated to  a beautiful long weekend in Holbox, the brief Diego/Frida coverage in my modern art history recitation, a love of Spanish-language movies, and the sounds and images of my friend Milena.  In other words, I know postcards and film clips.  So to answer Alitalia’s question: Eat, Kahlo, Pyramids.

Given an entire alpha global city (which counts nearly nine million inhabitants across its 573 square miles, not to mention a total of20 million in the greater metropolitan area), I realized some kind of guidelines would be needed and thought about UNESCO's ongoing list of cultural and natural heritage sites.  As above, Mexico has 34 sites, with five of those cultural sites in and within one hour from Mexico City.  All I needed was a plan and transport while intangible heritage, which includes indigenous art, music, markets, festivals, ceremonies and food, needed just a little foot work.

Mexico City. Is. Amazing.  From Tenochtitlan to today, Mexico City is a beautiful adventure in color, sound, taste and history.  It was like standing in a wrinkle in time where history, art, culture and architecture overlapped and folded into each other.  In three days, I had delicious different regional cuisine and ate every kind of Vitamina T - tacos, tamales, tlacoyas, and tortas - I stood in front of a huge Diego Rivera mural at the national university on the same day that I climbed 2000 year old temples in an archaeological site, I danced to mariachi on a floating garden, walked around an international shrine, watched Aztec dancing, stood in the center the one of the biggest squares in the world,  and caught up with Frida and Luis.  My three day wrinkle in time wasa crazy and colorful rhythm of movement, imagery, scents and sounds.  I want more.

The 34 properties in Mexico on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

More #meetmeinMexicoCity at my StellerStories

Special Thank You to Alitalia and VisitMexico.

From the aisle seat: Upgrading with Alitalia

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*Full disclosure: I am a long-standing, card-carrying SkyTeam member [ATL, hollah] which means I happily fly Alitalia all over so when Alitalia invited me on the inaugural Rome-Mexico City flight, of course I said Yes.

Picture this:  I am about to spend 12 hours on a plane with a bunch of well-dressed Italians that I don't know.  Then within 72 hours, I am going to do it again in reverse.   And I'm going to do it in style. . . . .  To be honest, I know it's going to go well because 1) I have a brand new jump suit 2) I'm flying Alitalia Business and 3) I'm a self-proclaimed expert passenger, albeit Economy, having miled up on every kind of Alitalia experience over the past few years:  domestic (Torino, Palermo, Catania, Bari), continental (Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Barcelona), international (London, Tunis, Istanbul) and transatlantic (LA, Tokyo, Miami). I know, or at least, I think I know all of Alitalia's ins and outs so I continue to fly with them for three simple reasons:  necessity [Skyteam, yo!], logic [I live in Rome], and quality of service.  The Alitalia team has always been incredibly kind and helpful, considering that my usual travel companions have been excellent trials for even the most experienced in flight person: Screaming Baby [who is now Curious 7 Year Old] and Small Child with Reliable Motion Sickness [now Too-cool-for-school Teenager with Reliable Motion Sickness].  Yes, I'm ready for my upgrade.

First things first, I head to the new Casa Alitalia, a series of sleekly designed rooms of marbles, light woods and dark glass, with red accents and museum-piece furniture.  I laugh because I know that style and I feel right at, well, home.  Casa Alitalia was designed by star architect Marco Piva, who I once chance-encountered in a hotel lobby.  It's cool, easy flowing and completely Italian-- from the top notch cappuccino (always my first test) to lounges (Poltrona Frau) and food selection at the buffet, bar and live cooking area.  Ssadly,  I am too too early for the pizzas.  As I grab my cappuccino, a red-and-green outfit catches my eye.  Today is the debut of designer Ettore Bilotta's new Alitalia uniform. And I love them.  Tailored, subtle, smart. I immediately think of my favorite Sophia Loren photo thanks to those beautiful pencil skirts, darted jackets, tilted caps, and clever accents- scarves and gloves.

Oh, those gloves! Complimenti, Bilotta, you just brought back style to traveling by the grace of a tone-tone glove and I hope everyone follows in suit from inflight crew to passengers.  It's a Mad Men reverie, or perhaps the full circle from an era of Juicy Couture sweats. I'm contemplating how I am going to integrate gloves into my everyday when the Alitalia staff tells me that her I fabulous gloves are made in Naples, and every piece of the uniform (mens and women) is 100% made in Italy.   Even better are the nail polish and lipstick colors- a striking red Rosso Alitalia created by Diego della Palma.  But I don't have any more to size up the tailleur. I have a flight to catch.

I side step the mariachi band celebrating the inaugural flight, show my passport and head to the cabin.  Seatbelt clicked, chair in the upright position, and I am ready to spend the next 12 hours entertaining myself.  Time to make friends, I think, as I share aperitivi with the gentleman to my left who happens to be Italy's Minister of Culture.  He is concerned about the wifi as am I, only to find out that our plane (Boeing 777) is not yet outfitted for it [coming soon].  It's okay because I end up talking with Alitalia's executive inflight chef about lunch.  He tells me that his goal for the 12 hour flight, and all flights, is to give an authentic Italian meal- in particular Business Class whose menu includes antipasto, primo, secondo, frutta and dolci- all excellent, as I expected.  In fact, Alitalia has always had great inflight food, no matter what class you are in.  Now it's just a little more refined and regional.

I give myself a mini-spa treatment with the Bulgari kit from Alitalia, close my eyes but can't sleep, no surprise.  I watch Point Break, the reboot, and am inspired to do the exercises in the back pages Ulisse, Alitalia's inflight mag which has also undergone a make-over [I love the new paper and can't wait to read more interviews]. The work out is eerily similar to the stretches and leg extensions my mother always tells me to do whenever I fly- short or long haul, and I tell that to the air hostess who is watching me in the small space by the bathroom.  We talk make up, contact lenses, children, and long haul flights. I fangirl her uniform and she tells me how incredible it feels that the uniform alone makes everyone happy.  As I head back to my seat, I realize we've bounced back and forth in Italian and British English. I have no clue why I have an accent. My neighbor wakes up and tells me to get ready for Mexico City.

Join me on the flight in my Steller Story...

Ready for take off!

Italy's Presidential Palace and Instagram

Perhaps the one good thing Silvio Berlusconi did was put the Italy's Prime Minister role on the map as the Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri della Repubblica Italiana, but how many of you know about the Presidente della Repubblica, aka the Prez of Italy? More likely, you 've heard of the Quirinale, that gorgeous residence and office of President Mattarella, a place that has more history, art and style than Buckingham Palace, and better dressed security. Over my life in Rome, I've only been able to snag a visit to the Quirinale once with a decisive search for a fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, and virtually meandered its gardens and halls via its virtual tours [English is narrated by a winsome Stanley Tucci and Greta Scacchi!], but it wasn't until last week that I had it all to myself IRL.  Instagram invited me and 14 Instagrammers for a walk through an #EmptyQuirinale, for a private after hours visit where we sized ourselves up with the 6 ft 2 in corrazieri (carabinieri honor guards), walked through the President's kitchen, garden and hallways, and selfied our way into history. Italian newspaper La Repubblica joined us and caught all the action in celluloid- check me at 1 minute 25 seconds.

To join in on the fun, click #EmptyQuirinale-  and for my personal perspective, here's a Steller Story.

Two Days in Venice with San Clemente Palace

There is another like an island getaway, and some say there is nothing like a Venice escape.   But the beautiful Serenissima is not quite a respite, especially once the weather warms up.  But what if it was? A few weeks ago, I was invited by Kempinski hotels to come to visit the newly opened and renovated San Clemente Palace, a luxury hotel in a small island across from San Marco and the Giudecca that entices you to best of both worlds-  the meandering charm of Venice and the quietude of an island .  (You may remember that I wrote about the San Clemente Palace last year in Forbes Travel round-up of the new/updated St. Regis-Starwood line up-   Yes, same space, same place but new owner with some great surprises).

My weekend was perfect. The sky was constantly painted by Titian, the water never made up its jewel-toned mind, and the temperature was warm to a balmy chill at night.  And the hotel.... it was fabulous. Or maybe I just like history with a luxe decor?   San Clemente was a crusader stop over, a monastery, a hospital and sanitarium (famously, Mussolini's first wife had a Zelda Fitzgerald finish here), and now  190 room hotel, most of which opt for that Baroque-inspired finery we've come to expect of Venice- Venetian plaster, carved wooden headboards, velvet covered furniture, gilded mirrors and opulent drapery with incredibly large tassels.  My Junior Suite was just that, with the most comfortable bed in the world, a beautiful view of the lagoon and San Marco, and a large marble bathroom stocked with Acqua di Parma products and a very, very good hair dryer.  Yep, I was in heaven until I walked through the San Clemente Suite, a stand-alone top floor apartment which is probably the love child of Poltrona Frau and SanLorenzo Super Yachts dancing in my seaside fantasies: exposed wood beam ceilings, gorgeous contemporary Italian furniture in leathers and velvets, floor to ceiling windows with a front row view of the Venetian Lagoon, and did I mention private dock?  Consider it a 10, 000 euro sunrise... San Clemente Suite.

Let's round it up:  San Clemente Palace is a time piece.  Its long hallways and a vintage bar are reminiscent of a favorite Kubrick film.  San Clemente is a compound.  You could quite possibly stay here without visiting Venice because it has *almost* everything- three restaurants, under chef Vincenzo di Tuoro,  three bars under superbarman  Alessio Venturini, (note: try his White Lady, my new cocktail), pool, putting holes, tennis courts, park benches and enough grounds that I lapped the site 3 times for my morning run - admittedly, I stopped a few times just to take in fresh air. But even Kempinski knows you need to get lost, so if offers guests complimentary water taxi service to and from San Marco each half hour.  [For a walk around San Clemente Palace, please flip around my Steller Story].

What didn't I like? More like, what would I like to see next? I'd love to see the herb garden they are talking about cultivating, with chef's tabl dining. In fact, I'd like to see how Chef di Tuoro evolves the restaurants.  The pool is beautiful- but will Kempinski expand to more spa services and perhaps enhance the on site gym?  And that's it.

My two days in Venice were just what I needed to clear my head from Rome.  I made sure to cross over to Venice for some cicchetti and art. I stumbled across the Joseph Klibansky Beautiful Tomorrow exhibition at Palazzo Franchetti- humorous and beautiful, best combination-- and then went to the Pinnault Foundation double header opening of Sigmar Polke (Palazzo Grassi) and Acchrochage (Punta della Dogana). By the time you read, Klibansky will have ended but you should plan to catch Polke, an excellent retrospective of the German artist who had far more fun than Andy Warhol.  But yes, I was lazy and stayed on the island- participating in a master cooking class with di Tuoro, where we talked gnocchi, and then met up with  Alessio at the Clemente Bar for another White Lady. My kind of weekend in Venice.

La Thuile, Italy and Nira Montana

Once upon a time, my friends and I went to Aspen, Colorado for a very fabulous New Year's of chalets, parties and snowboard lessons. I lasted all of one day on the bunny slope as my gang of "I learned how to ski at 4" friends spent hours on the black pistes in what I viewed as cold monotony. I told myself I wasn't interested in snowboarding or skiing, in spite of how cute the instructors were, because it was cold and I had a "less is more" aesthetic, especially when it came to clothing.  So yes, I scoffed at their stylish ski outfits and après ski gear, telling myselfit made more sense to head to the beach with a light bag and possibly no clothing, than to pile up a suitcase with thermals. In reality,  I didn't want to learn anything new or cold at 30 years old but 12 years later, I had a change of heart.

Every year, la settimana bianca, the winter school break usually dedicated to a mountain holiday, falls during Darius' birthday week, and he and the little one head off for ski break with my logic thatit isn't always economically prudent to tag along unless I am actively participating.  Clever, huh?  But this year, I thought I'd give him the gift that keeps on giving.... I'd learn how to ski.

Our destination-  La Thuile, in Valle d'Aosta-- Italy's tiniest region in its northwest, a bilingual Franco-Italian ski and nature hamlet that may just be the best place for an adult beginner.  Niched in the Italian Alps, Europe's highest peak Monte Bianco overlooks the tiny valley and France's La Rosiere shares the mountains, so you can ski two countries in a morning- my goal, believe or not.

With zero ski skills, my overall experience at La Thuile was incredible.  The first few days were sunny, so learning the basics on the bunny slopes was more than pleasant- it was kind of like hanging out at the beach, but with layers.  La Thuile's ski instructors were incredibly patient and believe in morning lessons, not full day, so that I had time to recoup- which meant the Turkish bath to loosen up my muscles.  Day Three was very cold, but not *that* cold, thanks to a little help from The North Face whose wind-resistent gear kept me warm and dry every time that I fell.  Did I mention by this time I was on the top of the mountain on blue pistes with descents and turns?   Day Four was France, yes, I skied to the border and then some.   By this time, Darius, the girls and I did a few runs together (notice the ski jargon?) and I finally got the overall "it" of skiing-  cold air on my face, catching up to an expert, wiping out and then happily getting up again.  Day Five I was sore and tired, and vowed to come back.

Here's a beginner's look at skiing in La Thuile.

For your next ski trip you should be skiing in Italy's Valle d'Aosta- my article for Forbes Travel.

48 hours in Venice for #myhiltonstory

Ain't nothing like a rooftop, and better yet if it comes with a beautiful pool, a clever cocktail and a full frontal panorama of Venice.  This is just one of the things I do when given 48 hours of free reign on La Serenissima.  From art openings and the Accademia to a glass of Vermentino and the Venice Film Festival, I lived it up so that I could share with you my two days as a HHonors guest at the Molino Stucky Hilton, Venice's historic mill and pasta factory on the Giudecca.

For the curious, #myhiltonstory is a dynamic social media project where I get to tell my tale of two days in Venice using my favorite platforms ~ Instagram,Steller, and Twitter. I like to think of it as free-form Faulknerian storytelling for the digital age- a little bit of wit, well-thought photos and those 24/7 apps, and that was all I needed to say yes to this project. Nope, not a hotel review, simply a story...

For the curiouser, the rumor mill says that the Molino Stucky (stoo-kee), has the very best pool in Venice.  They are right.  It is.

    *Postscript: I am writing this post on my iPad whilst on the train (and lucky me, Trenitalia switched up trains, so my secong class seat was moved tiny Carozza 3 First Class, Frecciargento). There is something about technology and railway transport that turns me on.  And yes, my Moleskin and pencil are right next to me and in good use.

Getaway: Costa Navarino, Greece

Greece.  Hellas.  Graecia.

Visiting the Hellenic Republic has been on my mind long before Grexit fears and decades before life with an obsessed and ancient idiom quoting archaeologist*. Ever since I was a child and my parents handed me D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a consolation prize for their trip to Athens, I've imagined languid days of oracles and island hopping, afternoons of Athens and Acropolis, and meetings with those who do that ouzo oh so well.  And to spite those recent headlines of crisis, reforms, protests and chaos [which made people ask me if visiting Greece was safe- yes it is], it was time to pack the overnight bag for a flight to Kalamata.

The Destination: The Romanos , a Luxury Collection resort, invited me to Costa Navarino, a small Peloppenese beach area and of course, I said yes for several reasons.  First for the relax-and-do-nothing vibe that I desperately needed- The Romanos is a village unto itself of private beaches, boutiques, restaurants, golf courses, swimming pool and spa.  Beautifully hued of soft, muted tones and pedicured with rosemary plants , the visual aspect alone is peaceful, add in olfaction (you got it, the rosemary) and audition (birds, cicadas, crickets) and it is paradise, even without the pampering of itsIonian Exclusive experience.  And as much as I appreciate a digital detox, I also love when a hotel just gets it technically and logistically-- from an excellent, salon-quality blow dryer to easy, fast wifi.  The Romanos charmed me with WhatsApp (did I really just write that?)- you know, the message app that all high schoolers love.   Once I added The Romanos in my contacts, I chatted with Xanthi about Greek salads, opening screen doors, locking myself out of the room and butler service pick up.

The second and equally important reason for a quick weekend getaway was that I wanted a little history with my Ionian sun tan, and there is no doubt that blue waters of theBay of Navarino have seen it all- sea-faring ancient explorers [Odysseus, perhaps], medieval crusaders, armadas and warships.  Greek Independence sprang from the Pelopponese with the 1827 Battle of Navarino as key to ending Ottoman rule and establishing an independent Greek state.  In Pylos and on islets throughout the bay are memorials and commemorations to the battles and the allied forces (French, British, Russian) who fought with the Greeks, while looming above Pylos is the 16th century Neokastro castle, an Ottoman fortress overlooking the bay.  I took a spin around the bay, enjoyed a dip in the cool waters, walked through the castle and then looked for Nestor's cave at Voidokilia (belly of the ox) beach.

All in all, I had a tiny dip in Greece, which reminded me what I had put on the back burner* in these past years.  So I've already called the girls and we're planning the next getaway to Athens for more history and food, and a bit of contemporary art.  Remember, it's just a flight away.

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*Let's just blame the Professor for side-tracking an earlier trip to Greece with his Roman obsessions.