TRAVEL

Giants, Spirits and the Holy Grail? Unravel the Mysteries and Legends of Venice

Unlock some of Venice's most mysterious legends. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gondoliers who can walk on water. Monster masks that can ward off the devil. Haunted palaces, meandering ghosts and magic stones. Venice is a city built on legends, lore and mysteries.

Every calle leads to a new mystery, and through every sottoportego is a new legend to explore. Below are some of the most intriguing tales.

Witches Wake-Up Call

In the labyrinthine streets near the Accademia Gallery is the quiet Calle della Toletta, where a so-called “witch’s clock” keeps the neighborhood ticking. Hanging off exterior piping (look for a yellow house) is an old-school alarm clock.

Legend says that a witch once lived here and dabbled in the business of black magic. She used the alarm to remind her customers their payments were due. When she died, the local residents hung an alarm clock on the building in jest.

Years later, it was removed, and the neighbors began to talk of strange happenings, odd sounds and random accidents. The clock was returned to its position, and the events stopped. Years later the clock was removed, and the neighbors again claimed unexplained events, so the clock was placed back permanently.

Death in Venice

Walk by the columns of San Marco and San Todaro — but not between them. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Council of Ten — a feared governing body — ruled the city from 1310 to 1797 with eyes everywhere thanks to its hundreds of anonymous informants who shared residents’ secrets and lies, condemning many to prison and death.

According to gossip, the narrow Calle della Morte was the Council of Ten’s “death alley,” an advantageous location where condemned people would be tricked into visiting only to be killed on site. Most likely, the street is named after a dead body found in that location.

What is fact is that the secretive Council of Ten were very forthcoming with public executions and designated the small area between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro at Piazza San Marco as a site for city-sanctioned deaths, and to this day, Venetians do not walk between the columns. Take a stroll here from the nearby Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice.

The Giant of Corte Bressana

Listen for the bells. (Photo: Alamy)

Venice is a chameleon of a city, changing its personality drastically from daytime charm to nighttime fright. According to Castello neighbors, if you find yourself meandering the streets surrounding the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo after midnight, you may meet a giant looking to buy his bones back.

Who’s the giant? According to legend, he’s one of the last bell ringers of St. Mark’s Bell Tower, clocking in at nearly seven feet tall. The Bell Ringer’s height made him such a local celebrity that the director of a scientific institute offered him a small fee to leave his skeleton to science upon death. The giant bell ringer agreed to the offer, rationalizing that he would outlive the institute director and the deal would be forgotten.

To the contrary, the bell ringer died shortly thereafter, and his skeleton went on display at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia. Castello residents say that every night, just before midnight, the skeleton walks out of the museum to Piazza San Marco, where he climbs to the top of the bell tower, rings the bells and then walks the streets toward his home on Corte Bressana (Castello) begging for money to buy back his skeleton.

The Holy Grail

Pretty much everyone agrees that the most coveted artifact for would-be Indiana Joneses is the Holy Grail, aka the chalice that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

According to legend, after Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood in the cup, the Grail was removed from sight for centuries and eventually secreted away to Glastonbury by the Knights Templar.

Here’s where the Venetians have a bit of a deviation. At some point before the Grail’s journey to the British Isles, it was hidden in none other than the throne of the Apostle Peter (a marble seat), forcibly removed from Constantinople during the Crusades and brought to Venice with the rest of the plunder. Where’s the chair today? Inside the Basilica of San Pietro in Castello.

House of the Spirits

Are you a believer in dark magic? (Photo: Alamy)

A quick 6-minute vaporetto ride from The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, at the edge of the Fondamenta Nuova in Cannaregio sits a beautiful 16th-century palace overlooking the water. For centuries, the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, better known as the Casin degli Spiriti (house of the spirits), has been notoriously recognized as a hub of dark magic; a preferred location for cults, orgies, pirates and smugglers; and as a gathering place for the restless spirits of Venice.

One ghost in particular can’t seem to leave — that of Pietro Luzzo, a painter who shot himself in the palace grounds, despairing of unrequited love. The day after he died, his tormented ghost appeared at one of the palace’s windows, prompting the owner to cover it with bricks.

Luzzo appeared at another window and then another, until the owner walled in all of the palace’s windows. Supposedly, Luzzo continues to haunt the palace, returning on dark evenings, screaming throughout the palace.

This article first appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.

{Podcast} Rome's King of Carbonara Luciano Monosilio

Catching up with the King of Carbonara, Luciano Monosilio at his restaurant Luciano Cucina. Photo: Darius Arya

LOOK, MA, I’VE LAUNCHED A PODCAST!

My mom has always told me I’m a fabulous talker, but really I am an incredibly curious listener who loves a good story. And I’m lucky- part of my job is meeting people and listening to what they have to say. Over the past 15 years, I’ve met incredible people doing incredible things that are changing Italy’s cultural landscape and updating the trite travel stereotypes of quaint trattorias and lots of mamma mias into something more realistic, cool and contemporary. Sometimes these conversations become great articles, other times they are edited to a sound bite and more often, they don’t make their way anywhere except to my dinner table. I’ve decided to remedy that by launching Ciao Bella, my intrepid travel and cultural podcast.

Me and Chef Luciano Monosilio, aka the only man who has ever made me cry…. for carbonara. Photo: Darius Arya

EPISODE ONE: THE KING OF CARBONARA

Luciano Monosilio is Italy’s reigning King of Carbonara and currently chef/owner of Luciano Cucina. From Albano Laziale to Michelin starred chef, in just a few years, Luciano put my favorite dish, carbonara, in the center of the table and in conversation all over Italy. And then he decided to step out of the box and literally turn the tables by going solo with his eponymous Luciano Cucina, a new gen trattoria subtly spreading the culinary renaissance all over Italy. I’m proud to have him as my first guest on Ciao Bella, and I’m even happier to know that his restaurant Luciano Cucina is just around the corner ffrom my home in Campo de’ Fiori. Join me as we talk carbonara, guanciale, Roma and Italy.

Chef Luciano Monosilio. Photo: Erica Firpo

Carbonara’s key ingredients. Photo: Erica Firpo

TUNE IN

…and keep listening as I sit down at the table with innovators, creators, artists, and more who are revolutionizing travel and culture in Italy and around the Mediterranean. New episodes drop every Monday with a light blog post and link to my Patreon page. What’s that? Patreon is a way for you to be a part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast and be surprised with behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Like I said, I love listening so if there is someone you think I should interview, let me know. No matter what, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate, review and share Ciao Bella.

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Trattoria V.2: 4 New Rome Restaurants Turning the Tables

Tortellini. Credit: Retrobottega

While Rome will never relinquish the triple threat of carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe, it’s ready to cast off the stereotype that the classic trattoria has to be no frills, no elbow room and absolutely no service. These four new spots are turning the tables on the way you think about the Eternal City’s restaurant scene.

Retrobottega

This budding restaurant has actually been on the block for a few years, but in 2018, a refresh revealed a larger dining space and a moody, minimalist design with a trademark open kitchen and two communal tables.  

Chefs Giuseppe Lo Iudice and Alessandro Miocchi can be found center stage assembling and plating their creations: evolved recipes featuring locally sourced and foraged produce. 

The dishes change so frequently, it’s best to check Retrobottega’s Instagram to see what’s on the menu — typically a five-course, prix fixe format with an à la carte option available, too. If it’s in season, be sure to order the tortelli pasta with Roman broccoli and anchovies, or the blueberry and veal shank risotto. 

Be on the lookout for Retrobottega’s newest addition: Retro Vino wine bar serving bottles as carefully curated as the dishes. 

If you don’t have time for a full meal, stop by Retropasta, the next-door boutique where you can pick up eight types of housemade pasta. Try the stuffed options with untraditional fillings.

Luciano Cucina  

If carbonara had a king, it would be Luciano Monosilio, the home-grown chef who exalted the beloved pasta dish from local recipe to coveted art form. After more than a decade commandeering the city’s fine-dining scene, Monosilio opened this Centro Storico spot to honor his roots in the local trattoria. 

His pioneering take evolves the casual concept from rustic bolthole to a modern, stylish dining room with an exposed pasta lab and open kitchen. Monosilio is emphatically Roman, and he shows it off throughout the entire menu. His antipasti include incredible fritti (fried dishes) like suppli al telefono(fried rice balls stuffed with meat, tomato sauce and basil) and unexpected not-so-Roman dishes such as vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce and capers).   

But carbs are the highlight. The pasta offerings are divided into themes: Contemporanee (contemporary), Romane (traditional Roman favorites) and Ripiene (stuffed), so you’ll be able to cash in on Monosilio’s epic carbonara, while trying some of his more unusual dishes, like fettuccella ajo, ojo e bottarga di muggine — a spin on the classic garlic, pepper and olive pasta topped with cured fish roe.  

Marigold

This trendy newcomer ups the ante on the typical trattoria, casting off yesteryear stereotypes in favor of clean lines and Scandinavian design — a little oasis of hygge (coziness) straight from the oven of pastry chef Sofie Wochner.  

Simplicity is the overall objective at this self-proclaimed “micro bakery.” Focusing on seasonal products and smaller, local producers, Wochner’s pastries and partner Domenico Calabrese’s plates are deliciously sustainable creations, with an ethos inspired by Calabrese’s time in the kitchen of the American Academy of Rome’s Sustainable Food Project. Here, leftovers become delectable, unique dishes.

Wochner’s cinnamon twists, housemade butter (from kefir) and rye bread alone are worth the trip, but you’ll want to stay for Calabrese’s savory lunches and dinners. Each day features a different sandwich dependent on his mood, with made-from-scratch mustard aioli and Wochner’s sourdough, while evening menus (only available on weekends) often feature dishes like stracciatella (a heavenly soft cheese) with grilled, marinated artichokes and marjoram, and slow-cooked Korean pork belly. 

After you dine, peruse the bakery and pick up at least one loaf of fresh-baked sourdough to bring home. 

Spazio  

This Rome eatery from acclaimed toque Niko Romito isn’t exactly your typical trattoria. Rather, the experimental space serves as a test kitchen where chefs from his renowned cooking school can experience the bustle of a real working restaurant.  

Bar, caffè, bistro and dining room, Spazio is many things, in a few different spaces that effortlessly flow into each other. The restaurant, with its contemporary industrial-meets-greenhouse feel, focuses on affordable gourmet with dishes like Rome-inspired cacio e pepe with mezze maniche pasta, and creamy pork belly with savoy cabbage and potatoes. 

Spazio Pane e Caffè is the casual café side, an open, all-day kitchen serving pastries, breads, sandwiches, soups, salads and pasta dishes.

The 6 Sestieri: An Insider’s Guide to Venice’s Distinct Neighborhoods

Explore Dorsoduro's church of Santa Maria Della Salute. (Photo: Getty Images)

Thanks to its labyrinthine streets and impossible canals, Venice is one of the world’s easiest cities in which to get lost. But with a bit of research, it is also the easiest town to understand. From a bird’s-eye view, Venice is made up of two central islands that look like intertwined hands.

Neighborhoods, called sestieri, subdivide the islands into six characteristic areas, which range from busy marketplaces to quiet communities. Here’s a look at each of these distinct sestieri.

Dorsoduro

Traverse the wooden Accademia Bridge to arrive in Dorsoduro, known for its charming artsy vibe thanks to a mix of families and university students. Its beautiful palazzi and campi (squares) are picture-perfect, and the area is peppered with bars, galleries and restaurants.

The southern neighborhood spans from Punta della Dogana, the old customs building at the very eastern tip of the island, to the Port Authority in the most southwestern edge and includes Giudecca, the long residential island immediately to its south.

Sites not to miss: Gallerie dell’AccademiaPeggy Guggenheim CollectionIl Redentore, Campo Santa Margherita, Chiesa Le ZitellePunta della DoganaSanta Maria della Salute.

Castello

Campo Santa Maria Formosa. (Photo: Getty Images)


Named for a former fortified palazzo, Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Its western border lines up with the edges of San Marco and Cannaregio, so expect a bustle of tourists and souvenir shops.

Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, you’ll find Castello becomes a charming microcosm where the tourist flow trickles down to a near standstill.

Eventually, the eastern half of Castello becomes a large public garden and shipyard — the Biennale Giardini and Arsenale — home of the annual La Biennale festival. The cemetery island San Michele is also part of Castello.

Sites not to miss: Basilica of Santi Giovanni e PaoloChurch of San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Complesso dell’Ospedaletto

San Marco

St. Mark’s Square. (Photo: Getty Images)

Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco is the most visited of all Venetian sestieri. The sestiere’s heart is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the number-one destination for all visitors to Venice. Here you’ll find tourists taking photos of the inimitable Basilica San Marco or enjoying a spritz at the square’s historic cafés.

The San Marco neighborhood spans from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, so once you’ve visited the piazza, head deeper into the neighborhood. Wander past small-scale piazzas and peek into lavish museums, and keep an eye out for waterfront photo ops across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island, also part of sestiere San Marco.

Sites not to miss: Basilica di San MarcoDoge’s PalaceTeatro La Fenice, Campo Santo Stefano, Palazzo GrassiScala Contarini del BovoloMuseo CorrerCaffe Florian

San Polo

To many, this tiny sestiere is the heart of Venetian life. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Venice, San Polo is a dynamic neighborhood filled with families, shops and students who all seem to converge on Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice.

San Polo is also a thoroughfare for tourists walking toward San Marco after visiting the Rialto market, the historic and picturesque fish market.

Sites not to miss: San Giacomo di RialtoSanta Maria Gloriosa dei FrariGrande Scuola San Rocco, Campo San Polo.

Cannaregio

The Rialto Bridge. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. Starting from the steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and extending eastward on the famed Strada Nuova to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.

The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, while its side alleys lead to niche communities like the Jewish Ghetto, which dates back to the city’s original 4th-century Jewish settlements. Fondamenta Nuova, the northern edge of Cannaregio, connects to the island of Burano via vaporetto (boat).

Sites not to miss: Ca’ d’OroMuseo EbraicoChurch of Santa Maria dei MiracoliChurch of Madonna dell’Orto and the Oratorio dei Crociferi

Santa Croce

This sestiere is said to have a dual personality. The southwestern area of Santa Croce is a transport center, with Piazzale Roma as a hub for buses and taxis. Its northeastern area is more typical of Venice, filled with canals and alleys lined with historic palaces. Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary.

Sites not to miss: Fontego dei TurchiSan Giacomo dall’OrioSan Zan DegolaPonte della Costituzione (Constitution bridge) and Palazzo Mocenigo


This article is part of a series which appears
Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.

Andiamo! A Local’s Guide to Island Hopping in Venice

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, March 2019.

The Island of San Giorgio. Photo: Getty Images

With 118 islands making up the Venetian archipelago, there is far more to see in Venice than St. Mark’s Square. Whether an afternoon or a weekend affair, island hopping is the best way to get to know Venice and its 1,500-year-old culture. Here’s a guide to some of Venice’s most must-see islands.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The emblematic San Giorgio Maggiore is one of those islands that is always photographed but rarely visited. Dominated by the San Giorgio Maggiore church, a multilevel marble landmark designed by Renaissance phenom Andrea Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore seems to float impossibly in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.

Today, exhibition spaces Le Stanze del Vetro, a former boarding school, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini showcase contemporary arts projects, while the rest of the island remains green — impeccably pedicured gardens hiding mazes and more.

Discover the art of glass blowing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Murano

For centuries the tiny island of Murano produced the world’s most beautiful glass pieces behind closed doors. Its reputation seeped out of the lagoon, and now Murano is the most popular of the Venetian islands.

Master glass artisans open studio doors to give tourists a select glimpse into their secretive workshops with organized, behind-the-scenes experiences at historic fornace (furnaces) like Seguso. The key to best experiencing Murano is to get past the souvenir shops and explore deeper into the island. Visit the Museo del Vetro to learn Murano’s glassmaking history.

Catch the colors of Burano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Burano

Of all the Venetian islands, Burano is the one most remembered. Here visitors find a mini version of Venice, with a rainbow of brightly colored houses lining picture-perfect canals.

Burano, like most of the outlying islands, is a microcosm of locals who have grown up with one another for generations and for generations have been making its famous lace products by hand. The Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) chronicles Burano’s more than eight centuries honing lace craftsmanship.

Mazzorbo

Linked to Burano by the Ponte Longo, a wooden bridge, Mazzorbo is a quiet island of less than 400 inhabitants and was once an important political and commercial scene in medieval Venice.

Mazzorbo’s draw today is that in the midst of Venice’s tourist-laden streets, it remains untouched and out of the way of clutter and kitsch. Charming residential areas line up with stretches of cultivated land, including vineyards such as Venissa, a walled-in vineyard reviving heritage dorona di Venezia grapes. The 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the island’s last remaining church, has a bell tower with one of Europe’s oldest bells and is also worth a visit.

San Michele

Within a gondola ride from the fondamenta nuova, Venice’s northern waterfront, you’ll find the mysterious San Michele. Beautifully landscaped with tall cypress trees and surrounded by a pedicured redbrick wall, San Michele has served as the city’s official cemetery ever since a Napoleonic decree banished burials from Venice churchyards.

Serene and tranquil, San Michele is the final resting place for Venetians and famed outsiders, including American poet Ezra Pound, Italian painter Emilio Vedova and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Lido di Venezia

Everybody loves Lido, the large Venetian island best known as the home of the Venice Film Festival, the august cinema fest where the world’s best directors and actors celebrate their films.

What most people don’t know is that all year round, Lido remains a charming community of families. The seven-mile-long Lido is also a jewel box of art nouveau and art deco architecture — including villas, hotels and ornamental gardens.

In the warm months, Venetians from all over the islands head to Lido’s stabilimenti balneari, beautifully coiffed and colorful waterside establishments on the island’s six miles of uninterrupted beach.

Torcello

Located on the northern edge of the lagoon, Torcello is one of the most remote islands in the Venetian archipelago and the oldest that has been continually populated — in fact, its origin story predates Venice.

Once a busy settlement, today Torcello is sparsely populated. What remains from its resplendent past are a few structures, including the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta with its beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics and a head-spinning bell tower that overlooks Burano. It’s definitely the place to clear one’s head.

Find your way to remote Torcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

How to visit the islands

The only way to travel the islands is by water. A network of vaporetti (waterbuses) zigzag the Venetian Lagoon, connecting the islandsThe best option is the ACTV tickets offering unlimited travel within a 24-hour period at 20 euro. Less economical and far more efficient is a motoscafo, a sleek, wood-paneled water taxi, which can privately arranged through Consorzio Motoscafi.

Rome's Regola: The Foodie Neighborhood You Need to Visit

This Under-the-Radar Neighborhood in Rome Is the Foodie Destination You Need to Visit

Home to not one, but three Michelin-starred restaurants. 

This article was first published in Travel + Leisure, February 2019.

Rome’s centro storico is the city’s beating heart, home to historic monuments, trendy boutiques, and stately palaces. But the bustling neighborhood is more than just a tourist hotspot — it’s where Romans live, work, and most importantly, eat.

In the very center of the dynamic district is Regola, a micro-neighborhood whose culinary delights have managed to stay miraculously under-the-radar — until now. Here, gourmet restaurants take up residence inside grand townhouses, centuries-old churches, and Renaissance palaces. Stand at the crossroads of Vicolo della Moretta, Via dei Banchi Vecchi, and Via del Pellegrino, and you are walking distance from not one, but three Michelin-starred restaurants.

Regola has always been a go-to neighborhood for Roman cuisine, but its emergence as a gourmet epicenter is somewhat of a recent phenomenon. Il Pagliaccio, Antony Genovese’s two-Michelin-star restaurant, arguably started it all. In 2003, the French-born Italian chef was walking along one of Regola's most scenic streets and fell in love with the area’s tucked-away appeal.

“The neighborhood chose me,” says Genovese. “It's in the very center of the city, but removed from the chaos.”

Once Il Pagliaccio opened its doors, Regola saw a deluge of other hot ticket tables, starting with Supplizio, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in elevated Roman street food. Sink into one of the deep leather armchairs and order a few of the restaurant’s best-known bites: supplì (fried rice balls filled with mozzarella and chicken giblets), crema fritta (fried cream custard) and crocchette di patate (potato croquettes).

In 2015, chef Giulio Terrinoni debuted Per Me Giulio Terrinoni on Regola’s ivy-covered Vicolo della Moretta. The Michelin-starred restaurant’s innovative “tappi” (tapas-style snacks) quickly won over the hearts (and stomachs) of epicureans around the city. The seasonal menu changes daily, but sample dishes include cappellacci pasta stuffed with guinea fowl and smoked pecorino and prawn carpaccio with foie gras and red onion jelly.

Pipero Roma has been one of the city’s top fine dining addresses for nearly a decade. In 2017, the restaurant's acclaimed chef, Alessandro Pipero, found another home for the Michelin-star restaurant, on the northeastern edge of Regola.

His main reason: “Gluttony — Regola is the most calorific neighborhood in all of Rome and Lazio.”

The restaurant’s new incarnation occupies a sleek open space, with high ceilings, contemporary art, and elegant arched doorways. The food is as tempting as ever: tamarind-glazed cod with white chocolate and artichokes, oyster linguini dusted with paprika, and passion fruit-topped ricotta risolatte.

Wine lovers will want to make a stop at Enoteca Il Goccetto, a rustic wine bar with over 850 different labels on its wooden shelves, while cocktail enthusiasts should grab a tipple at The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, a retro-styled bar that serves a mean Blue Blazer (essentially a Hot Toddy made with high-proof scotch).

If your visit falls on the last Sunday of the month, you won't want to missBiomercato, an outdoor market that sells fresh fruit, local produce, and cured meats. Take home a souvenir from your foodie detour by stocking up on organic honey and olive oil from Lazio producers. 

Weekender: Ski escape to Courmayeur, Valle d'Aosta

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Italians are lucky. Aside from amazing food, architecture, design, fashion and art, Italy has incredible geography within a drive from the cities: beaches, countryside, hilltops and mountains. And oh those mountains… approximately 40% of the country is mountainous whether its the peaks of the Alps, the smooth crests of the Appennines or the crazy slopes of an active volcano Mount Etna. Skiing is more than just a pastime, it’s a integral part of Italian culture. Each year, school kids get off for a settimana bianca (white week), and almost annually Italians queue the cinemas to catch the latest Vacanze di Natale film, a groan-inducing comedy series that usually takes place at an Italian ski resort.

Even though I hate the cold, I love ski culture. There is nothing quite like the vibe of a settimana bianca or white weekend, and Italians know it. It’s all about good skiing, fun friends and great, territorial food in the mountain chalets. Year after year, my friends head back to the same white peaks that they’ve always gone to, but each year, we try to test out a new location. Last year, I fell in love with Courmayeur, and I think it’s time for a weekender.

Courmayeur

COURMAYEUR

Courmayeur. It sounds French, right? Nope, Courmayeur is 100% Italian. The quaint Alpine hamlet is located in Italy’s most northwestern region, the tiny bilingual Italian/French Valle d’Aosta, most famously known for Hannibal’s incredible overland march, bringing elephants through Valle d’Aosta’s Little San Bernard pass in the 3rd century BC. Meanwhile Courmayeur is considered to be Italy’s best kept winter secret, Picturesque to perfection, Courmayeur has been a travel destination for over a century. The town is a labyrinth of cobblestone-laden streets, vintage architecture, historic coffee shops, busy ski shops, centuries-old churches and gorgeous contemporary boutiques and chalets. It is where Italy’s very mountain guide society (and the second in Europe) was founded but most importantly, Courmayeur has the honor of being overshadowed, literally, by Europe’s highest peak Monte Bianco.

SkyWay: aka that famous scene in Kingsman 2

Punta Helbronner is hella high.

My Way or The SkyWay

At 15,777 feet above sea level, Monte Bianco is incredible. And incredibly cold. Sharp white, snow-capped peaks cut the cerulean blue sky like an early 20th century Russian avant-garde painting, which quickly turns into a futuristic installation thanks to the SkyWay, that futuristic globular funivie that links the Italian lowland to Punta Helbronner, an overlord look out at 11,371 feet. The courageous will hike up Monte Bianc, ski across the glacier to Chamonix, France or heliski, whereas the rest of us are happy just to enjoy the view. I’d save the skiing for Courmayeur’s slopes, a network of what seems like a million pistes but what is in actuality 31 with lifts. Beginners please note that I am the definition of basic and spent a few days dedicated to Courmayeur’s smooth beginner trails. I organized private lessons, graduated from the bunny slopes, scared myself to death on the chair lifts, and got a great work out.

Ski pass: 49 euro/day, 240 euro/five non-consecutive da

View from Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Chalet Bites

I’ve learned that the best reason to ski in Italy are for the rifugi, the cosy mountain-ski chalets where eating is an art form. In the case of Courmayeur, the rifiugi are incredible and the food scene is even better. According to Courmayeur Mont Blanc’s official tourism site, there are twenty chalet-restaurants on piste- each with a different, very personal vibe, whether its gourmet cuisine or specialized, local Valdostan delicacies. Ski in to Chateau Branlat, a wooden chalet with beamed ceilings and funky decor, or snow mobile to La Chaumiere, a traditional Valdostan home built into the mountain. i discovered Maison Veille when I was lost skiing and need a restroom. The tiny igloo-like hut was cozy caffe that become a party spot in the evenings.

Back in the town, tiny osterie and Michelin spots creep up in quiet corners, like Al Camin, a traditional osteria/trattoria and Petit Royal, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel Royal and its captivating La Tour, a private medieval tower with show cooking for couples. Superstar chef Heston Blumenthal fell in love with Courmayeur and combined his passion for food and skiing to create The Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience. Think of it as a three-day food fest with incredible Michelin-starred chefs, skiing and local cuisine.

Pro tip: Everywhere I went accepted credit cards, but it can’t hurt to have a little cash for some of the mountain top rifiugi.

Traditional Valdostan vibes at Chaumiere

Superstarred chefs Marcus Wareing, Sat Bains, Claude Bosi and Jason Atherton in 2018’s Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience

Let’s Go Downtown

Courmayeur is the kind of place where everyone skis hard, eats late, goes out late and then gets up incredibly early for another of skiing. The two best take home tips I discovered were that in order to love (and acclimate to) Courmayeur, you must drink a lot of water and get a non-consecutive days ski pass. Of all the amazing things you can do in Courmayeur, most of them revolve around snow- skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, snow biking, snow kiting, et cetera, but Courmayeur also has a social life a few hundred meters below.

For a bit of daytime culture, head to the Museo Alpino Duca deli Abruzzi, a two-level chalet home that houses the Alpine Museum that tells the history of mountaineering, its heroes, and the region, along with a small exhibition space showcasing photos of Valle d’Aosta’s traditional communities and events. Après Ski the Via Roma, Courmayeur’s thoroughfare and a windy street where all of the posh and quirky shops are located, as well as several caffe and cocktail spots.

Courmayeur is small, so get out and explore Valle d’Aosta. The region is network of castles, and almost every weekend there is a traditional festival in the small towns. And then there are wonderful museums from archaeological and ancient remedies to planetariums and prisons.

Museo Alpino Duca degli Abruzzi.

Alpine Wine, showcased at Pavillon du Mont Fréty (the midway station to Punta Helbronner).

Ski In, Ski Out

So far, my experience has been at the Grand Hotel Royal e Golf, a beautiful yesteryear ski lodge looking out on the mountains, with a lovely outdoor pool. The vibe is a bit Grand Budapest Hotel with its fabulous decor, doormen and bellhops. Location is in smack in the middle of town which means it is not at all ski in/ski out but once I realized I didn’t need to a ride pistes, it was a short and charming walk through town to the pistes. Eventually I felt like everyone knew me. A second option is the tiny Bouton d’Or, a family-run property a few minutes walk from Courmayeur’s main square. for a ski in/ski out vacation, I have my eye on the very new Le Massif, member of Leading Hotels of the World. Last year, I had the opportunity for a hard-hat site visit, and it had me at hello due to its chic contemporary design, its location on top of the mountain and that damn terrace view (scroll back to the top).

Evidence of me as a ski bunny.

Andiamo!

Getting to Courmayeur is quite easy. Airplane, rail, car, I’ve done it all and my experience, the easiest arrival is by car, once you’ve decided where you are coming from. Milanese will tell you to fly to Milan Malpensa MXP, and I agree, especially if you want to add on a few extra days for shopping. If you are a foodie, consider flying into Torino-Casselle TRN (or even Geneva GVA, if you have some banking to do). MXP and TRN offer bus shuttle service to Courmayeur but the least hassle is driving. Car rental services are always available or you can hire a driver service if you aren’t interested in exploring Italy’s smallest region.

Getting to Courmayeur by rail is a bit of a pain, especially with gear. From MXP and TRN, you’ll shuttle to railway stations Milano Centrale or Torino Porta Nuova, then catch a regional train to Pré-Saint-Didier , and finally take a bus to Courmayeur ( SAVDA buses run from airport and train stations to Aosta and Courmayeur). Do the math: you’ll save more time and energy renting a car/hiring driver - approximately 1.5 hours from Torino and just under 2.5 hours from Milan.

Window Seat: Quadri in Venice

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Venice in its inkiest hours is my favorite time to walk through La Serenissima, and perhaps the only time to peruse St. Mark’s Square. The arcades are lit with a warm glow, reflecting in the basalt pavement and setting the square on fire. Foot traffic is different. It’s not rushed, it’s not crowded. People quietly cross the piazzas to get from here to there. Stragglers are trying to snap a Basilica night shot, while others are hiding behind columns to catch some bars of Brahms or Mozart from the small ensemble orchestras at Quadri and Florians. A St. Mark’s evening is decadent, romantic and slightly heartbreaking, like a fading memory that won’t disappear.

Me? Time and time over, I chose to stay. St. Mark’s is an old friend, and so are its cafes. The square comes at a premium, even with knowing a few secrets on how to enjoy an aperitif at the most expensive bars in Italy. And I am willing to pay for the experience if it is unforgettable. Quadri is more than just one of the epic cafes in the square with a live orchestra and front row seats to Basilica San Marco. It is a gastro-cultural experience. In 2011, the Alajmo brothers took over the more than 200-year-old property, with the intent of creating the very best pastry and coffee bar, along with opening up the first floor to an experiment restaurant. If you know the Alajmo brothers you know that they are full immersion- they idealize, create and personally execute every detail from concept, mentality, and dishes to vibe and design down to the glasses in your hand. At the beginning of 2018, the Alajmos brought in expert conservation artists to restore the Grand Caffe Quadri, original hub to writers and artists of the Grand Tour, and asked their friend and constant collaborator Philippe Starck to come back to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Quadri for a design upgrade.

Flavour Hunter in Condè Traveller, September 2018

This grand cafè opened in 1775 on St. Mark’s Square and over the years gained a list of regulars than included Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas and Marcel Proust. But the romantic veneer of the square diminished amid the relentless commercialism that swept over venice at the end of the 20th century (along with pigeon photographers and gondolier hats), and Quadri was no longer the place to be seen.  Then, in 2011, chef Massimiliano Alajmo and his brother Raffaele arrived, a duo with three Michelin starts at Le Calandre in Padua, and it wasn’t long before Quadri earnt one of its own.  The Max and Raf menus highlight each of the brothers’ personalties; Max is the innovative one, Raf the more traditional. But the tasting menu- 16 courses for two- is a combination of oth, with dishes such as cappuccino di laguna, a mix of lagoon seafood and moeche, a soft-shell crab only found in the Venetian islands served with green fronds of samphire-like agretti. 

Yet it is only this year that the restaurant’s 250-year-old interior caught up with the kitchen’s contemporary attitude.  Philippe Starck, the man responsible for projects as diverse as the Mama Shelter hotels, Steve Job’s yacht and the interiors for a new space station, set to launch in 2020, has uncovered the palace’s original stuccowork from beneath layer upon layer of paint. Old-fashioned wall coverings have been replaces with earthy tones modelled on a 16th-century silk brocade - but look closely as there are rockets and satellites as well as portraits of Massimiliano and Raffaele within the fabric.  And on shelves above the doors, whimsical taxidermy rabbits and foxes are ready to take flight, a nod to the winged lion that guards the city.  Reserve a table by the window on the first floor for a front-row view over the square, high above the crowds - because this is once again the most-coveted spot in Venice.a

Peep the Alajmo brothers’ portraits in the brocade. Photo credit: Quadri.

Quattro Atti. Photo credit: Quadri.

Have I eaten at Quadri? Twice over the past two years at Ristorante Quadri and both times (a lunch and a dinner), I have not only relished the view, but loved the dishes. Massimiliano is a genius, fact. He is clever, he is instinctive, he is innovative. His dishes are heart-warming, reminiscent of past lives and history. And most of all they are unexpected. But let’s be serious- I love Quadri for its location, especially the window seat in the evening where I have the glowing piazza below me.

Mornings, I am at Grand Caffe Quadrino as much as I can. I frame myself below the beautifully restored walls and mirror next to the elderly German man who sits in the corner every morning. On a brisk and clear morning, I will sit outside, but usually before the orchestra starts so that I can read. Tip: For the experience with less of a price tag, you can also get stand up service at the bar.

Me enjoying Quadrino, the ground floor Grande Caffe Quadri.

J.K. Place Hotel Will Make Everyone Fall More in Love with Florence

Florence is a dream destination for so many, but the question is where to rest your head. Here is my latest hotel review for Fathom: JK Place Florence.

Warm up by the fireplace. All photos courtesy of J.K. Place.

FLORENCE — Florence enchants, mesmerizes, and beguiles. It is a city for those who love the fairytale Italian dream of warm sunsets, flowing hair, and great dinners. For centuries, it has been the requisite Grand Tour stop for literature lovers, art travelers, and cruisers. For me, Florence was always an easy day trip from my home in Rome when I needed a quick culture hit in the form of a Renaissance painting or an occasional contemporary show at Palazzo Strozzi. I staunchly refused to allow myself to fall in like with the city. And then a recent overnight stay lured me into loving Florence.

Florentine pillow talk takes all kinds of shapes, and one of the most charming is boutique hotel J.K. Place. In 2003, hotelier Ori Kafir opened the doors of what would become the first in a mini empire (other the JKs are in Rome and Capri) with the idea of giving guests a pied-a-terre in the middle of one of Italy's most visited cities. He wanted something different from the grand dame styles of European hotels — something cozier and chicer, though just as elegant and impeccable. He wanted a home that was quintessentially Florentine in both style and hospitality.

J.K. Place still holds up to its original tenets. The townhouse is an easy respite, perfectly located for both historic city center strolls and out-of-town trips, while its beautiful design by internationally acclaimed local designer Michele Conan upholds its contemporary vibe. More importantly, it is so Florentine, down to every detail — from the bottled water they serve to the thousands of books about art, culture, and style scattered around, many focused on the city and its artisans.

A Florentine-worthy entrance.

Bathe with a view in the Penthouse bathroom. 

Book It

Rates start from €440. Click here to book.

Checking In

Location
A five-minute walk from Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Florence's main train station, J.K. Place has a front row view of Piazza Santa Maria Novella, an open square with the beautiful Santa Maria Novella church and its very cool Renaissance facade designed by Leon Battista Alberti in the 1470s. The piazza is a busy hub for foot traffic and buskers.

Hotel Style
Florentine elegance, which translates to effortless style in all things aesthetic. J.K. mixes contemporary with classic — anachronistic yet very 21st century — to make you feel like you are in the home of Florence's most peripatetic art collector and fanciful flaneur.

This Place Is Perfect For
Everyone. No, really, everyone will find themselves at home here, especially those with refined sensibilities.

But Not So Perfect For
Those who insist on having a room with a view of the Arno.

Enjoy a private fireplace in master room 12.

Live your Florentine dreams in room 12.

What's on Site
J.K. Place is a home, an impeccably stylish one, that invites you to hang out. Just before the entrance is the outdoor J.K. Lounge, a teak terrace facing the piazza, a great people-watching lunch spot or cocktail-hour hangout. The ground level is a labyrinth of gorgeously styled lounges, salons, and libraries, with beautiful artwork and to-die-for art books and magazines, comfortable sofas, and cashmere throws. Late night, I discovered the terrace lounge, J.K.'s sexy rooftop bar that puts you eye-to-eye with Santa Maria Novella's flourishes.

Food + Drink
The J.K. Lounge hosts an enviable buffet breakfast, an overflowing cornucopia of healthy fruit and home-baked treats, as well a la carte selections. From lunchtime through evening, the lounge becomes J.K. Cafe, a tasteful, health-focused eatery that wows you with traditional Tuscan dishes like pasta al sugo finto and contemporary favorites, including an excellent club sandwich. Cocktails, you ask? J.K. seems like it was designed specifically for enjoying a well-crafted martini, a vintage wine, or a Negroni sbagliato, whether in the Lounge, the Champagne Bar (the cozy living room adjacent to the lounge), or the rooftop terrace. Food and beverage director Andrea Pieri is a walking gastronomic and enological archive. Ask him about the food, the wines, the water, the cocktails, and chances are he'll have a good story to tell.

Number of Rooms: 20 guest rooms and suites.

In-Room Amenities: Sublime linens, towels, and robes. Excellent and fast WiFi and LED televisions. A mini bar abundantly stocked with free snacks and drinks. Cashmere blankets from a local merchant. Rooms scented by local perfumer Dr. Vranjes.

Drawbacks: The branded power strip outlet is a bit outdated and wouldn't send any power to my iPad and iPhone. I'd love to see a tech update.

Standout Detail: It would be easy to say the Terrace, but the standout for me is J.K.'s Library, which has every Taschen, Phaidon, and art book I covet. Even more standout was the staff's knowledge of their books and their willingness to provide more.

Dinner on the terrace overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Dinner on the terrace overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Even Florentine stairs are aesthetic.

Checking Out

Florence has been Tuscany's self-proclaimed It town since it birthed the Renaissance. Italy's top artists and architects of the 15th and 16th centuries remain well represented in its architecture, museums, churches, and palazzi, thanks to the shrewd support of the city's favorite families, starting with the Medici. And Florence keeps up that vibe today, nourishing 21st century artisans — fabulous leather workers, printmakers, jewelers, bookmakers, and more.

What to Do Nearby
Honestly, what's not to do? J.K. Place is within easy walking distance to just about everything you want to see in Florence, a very walkable city. Across Piazza Santa Maria Novella is the underrated Museo Novecento, a museum focusing 20th-century art, while around the corner is Palazzo Strozzi, an arts space that is lately lining up blockbuster shows. Of course, you're going to want to walk around Piazza del Duomo, where you cannot miss the green, pink, and white marble panels of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the gorgeous Brunelleschi dome, and the museum. Definitely make time for Opera Dumo, the Duomo's amazing museum with reconstructions of how Brunelleschi made the dome, as well as Michelangelo's penultimate pietà and incredible restored artwork. Have a Hannibal moment in Piazza della Signoria, then drop by Gucci Garden for a peek into the Guccci mind. Window shop on Via Tornabuoni, or cross the river to Oltrarno, Florence's hippest neighborhood.

Good to Know
General manager Claudio Meli knows everyone and everything there is to know in Florence. Just ask him. In fact, Meli is the author of J.K. Essential Guide to Florence, his love letter to the city in the form of an intrepid, pocket guide book that he's produced for guests. Keep in mind that Florence feels busy with tourists throughout the year, at its most congested at Easter and spring break through June. Although there's more room to breathe in July and August when Florentines flee the city for coastal breezes, the infernally hot temperatures make a visit not fun at all.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Either take a train into Firenze-Santa Maria Novella train station or fly into Florences’s international airport, four kilometers from the city center.

Getting Around
Walk. Yes, Florence has buses and taxis, but if you are really here to enjoy the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes of Florence, all you need are your feet. For day trips around Tuscany, you can reach cities like Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and Arezzo via regional trains. If you're interested in exploring the great hilltops, beach communities, strade del vino (wine routes), and picturesque towns like Orbetello, Volterra, and Montepulciano under the Tuscan sun, your best bet is hiring a car.

Make the most of the lounge and Italian baked-goods.

Dine in true Florentine style in the breakfast room.

Suite Life: Rome's Costaguti Experience

If Rome is living history, there is no better way to understand than to actually live in Rome, whether for a few days, years or lifetime. I've chosen the latter, and every day I still find surprisingly different ways of seeing the Eternal City, whether on the hunt for art- ancient or otherwise, or where I lay my head.  A few months back, I was invited to get out of my comfort zone and experience what it would be like to be a Roman nobile with a weekend stay at Costaguti Experience in the historic Palazzo Costaguti, what Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari considered one of the best palaces in Rome.

Built in the early 16th century and acquired by the aristocratic Costaguti family in 1578, Palazzo Costaguti was a hub for the Baroque era’s most famous artists who were tasked with creating frescoes through the residence.   Nicolas Poussin, Cavalier d'Arpino and the Zuccari Brothers all spent time lavishing decorating the ceilings with scenes of putti, Aneid and the months of the year.  Today, the Marchese occupies the buildings private apartments, but the  piano nobile (main floor) is open to guests as the ultra-luxe Costaguti experience- a five-bedroom apartment with full-time concierge service.

Billiard room.

Cavalier d'Arpino was here - ceiling fresco in the Billiard room.

Let's be clear:  the apartment is  beautiful and tastefully styled to celebrate both its Baroque history and its contemporary incarnation.  The 50-square-meter salon is the jewel of the Costaguti family for its a richly detailed original wood ceiling and design border a fresco panel series of the Allegory of the Months and the Virtues painted by the Zuccari brothers, and it was our main hangout where we hosted two dinner parties, a lovely wine and cheese tasting organized by Costaguti and Beppe e Suoi Formaggi, one of the city's preeminent cheese makers, and just hung out watching Netflix.  When we needed to walk around, we played pool under my favorite painting, Cavalier d'Arpino's Aneid.

Deciding where to sleep would have been a challenge if we weren't the bosses.  On the first level, there are three rooms, two with wooden ceilings (at 30ft, matching the salon), and we chose the main bedroom with personal hammam. Room 2 was its next door with super king bed and smaller day bay.  Room 3 was charming (read: intimately tiny) with its Poussin putti fresco ceiling, and en suite bathroom, perfect for a godmother or best friend.  Bedrooms 4 and 5 were a short staircase to a mezzanine level where were eye-to-eye with gilded arch molding, an experience that prior to this weekend I have only had from far below.  Bedroom 4 was sultry, nestled in those gorgeous golden arches with a open marble bath area and hidden waterfall shower.  Bedroom 5 is the least interesting, a tastefully simple niche with two twin beds and view of inner courtyard.

Cleaning staff arrived promptly to our designated time each morning, and our kitchen was stocked daily with neighborhood and Roman favorites including Sant'Eustachio coffee and freshly made pastries from Caffe Roscioli.  There were so many more goodies that I don't remember, but I do fondly recall Grazia, our concierge, who was available at all times for all of our questions and incredibly polite when we accidentally shorted the electricity. Note: when staying in a Roman apartment, always discuss the limits of electrical usage and fuse box location.

Read my design review of Costaguti Experience on Pages 24-25 of Rhapsody, United's first class inflight magazine.

The golden arches.... original, gilded molding in the upstairs bathroom.

Zuccari fresco detail in the main salon (ceilings are 30 ft)

Location:  Historic Center, well positioned to public transportation and taxis, as well as easy to walk to all major monuments.  Palazzo Costaguti is my "almost home" landmark,  a great shortcut through Piazza Mattei, the borderline between the Campitelli neighborhood and Rome's Ghetto.  While most are taking photos of the Fontana delle Tartarughe, Giacomo della Porta's and Taddeo Landini's unmissable turtle fountain,  I always stop to look at the monument front entrance with Costaguti written on the lintel, and I think of Tom Ripley, envious friend from Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, who lived Palazzo Costaguti when he took on Dickie Greenleaf's identity in Rome.

Fontana delle Tartarughe with Palazzo Costaguti entrance in the background.