Thursday, May 28, 2009

Excuse Moi

I have new pix, I have new stories-- we've been to Film Festival in Cannes and to French village of Uzes for a day trip and we have the report from Leroy Merlin but at 11 euros an hour at this internet cafe, well, you can understand my position. Must settle down to the free wifi with wine system and tell all.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Hey Joe, Cannes The Snow

It was about 6AM when I took The Boys out for their early walk. Cannes was most definately in the throes of the morning after. The sky was low and pale blue, the air fresh and delivery trucks jammed the roads. La Croisette had shed last night's glamour to pack it in for another year.

One block away is The Carlton Hotel, one of the grande dames of the Riviera and a big participant in the Film Festival. The front door has been made into a GI Joe movie parade while outside, it is Christmas. Actually, when we arrived yesterday it was Christmas-- complete with snow, Christmas trees and a billboard about A Christmas Story with Jim Carrey. This morning, they were blowing the 'snow' away and washing down the sidewalks.

We spent a somewhat frustrating evening last night-- unable to get any live coverage on TV or perhaps unable to properly manipulate the fancy TV. We fell asleep watching Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson speaking French after a room service dinner.

It was close to 100 degrees late afternoon yesterday, so we did not envy those in penguin suits or fancy dress. This was my first time as a spectator, whic I found hot, cruel and silly. But looking at the other guests in the streets was far more fun that watching out for film stars and jury members I would not recognize anyway.

For the most part, Sarah and I could shout to each other-- 'Silver gown!' Followed by "look at that red one!" and a little bit of "Oh my heavens!". There was a 50-50 blend of long to short dresses and then a 50-50 blend of black to non-black. The most prevelant color was raspberry with a few hussies dressed in red.

There was one slim column of red silk, ala Valentino, on a woman I think was a Jury Member but the other ladies in red were just revealing their need to have people stare at them.

Most women wore very high heels; the strapy ankle boot sandals seem to be the rage. My feet get hot just thinking about it. I have also walked up the Red Carpet and know that inside the theatre, there is a six-story high movie screen projecting each and every person as he or she ascends. This means if you even wobble in those high heels, the audience will be snickering.

The scene in the streets was hilarious. Most of the action took place behind barricades at Chanel and Hagen-Dazs. Ice cream cones were being munched; some lay splattered on the pavement. Several singles-- men and women-- were dressed in their Sunday Go to Meeting finest and carried signs in different languages, asking for a spare ticket or 'invitation'. I didn't see anyone I'd share my tickets with...if I had any.

Sarah and I did make it to the Offical 62nd FIF Boutique where very expensive merchandise was being grabbed up as if it was the last night of the Festival (which it was). I considered the official cap for a friend of mine, but it was 20 euros and I think he's happy with his official cap from Fiesta 09 San Antonio. The key chains were 15 euros (12 across the street at the non-official store) and the beach towels were a staggering 45 euros each.

I tried not to be rude and refrained from taking many of the shots I wanted-- the very louche Russian TV sound man with boom in one hand and cigarette in the other, the woman in the crimson lace-up corset with the Carmen of the Bizet opera hairstyle (finished off with giant red flowers, of course)who raced across the street in a wake of waving taffeta while the city-employed garbage man, in neon green, swept up behind her. The fat lady, who would probably sing later, in spandex and leopard print.

There were mothers with strollers and little girls in pink tutus. There also seemed to be a line of 9 year old ballerinas on each of the steps going up into the Palais des Festivals. I'm not certain if they represented some marketing aspect of a film or were put there by the local mayor to remind people that all politcs are local.

When I turned on the news in my vain attempt to get information or the actual awards ceremony, I thought they said (my French is weak, especially when others are speaking) the awards would be televised Monday evening. Later in the evening, as I browsed my magazines on fashion at the Festival, I found a TV schedule for the week and noted that on Monday night (tonight) there's a Johnny Hallyday special. I'd rather watch that any day.

And yes, PS- critics said there were scads of excellent movies this year and it would be impossible to guess the winner. The Austrian film , The White Ribbon, did win--it is at least not a Holocaust film but takes place immediately after World War I and is said to be quite moving. As it should be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Autobiography from the Autoroute

I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of heights. And I am really terrified of Italian highways that go over viaducts and leave you hanging out there in the breeze while Enzo in his Fiat is soaring past you at 150kph. So Sarah drove today.

We curled around the gorgeous houses and flowers and trees with a constant view of the sea and then hit the highway right outside of Genoa. Christopher Columbus clearly left because there was too much beach traffic on a Sunday.

Since breakfast was not included in our rate at our Italian palace hotel, we headed to France, hungry. We stopped at the first AutoGrill we found past Genoa. The Italian highway routes have many service areas, only some of them have AutoGrills. Since I especially like shopping at these, we held out. Imagine our surprise to find that everyone in Italy was having Sunday brunch at the AutoGrill.

The line at the caisse for the ticket was huge and then the line to order was huge. Couples had split up so that one person guarded a table while the other waited for food and then juggled coffee, fresh orange juice and croissants (called brioche in Italian, go figure) through the mob scene.

Our little rental Benz takes diesel fuel so when we stopped for gas, I just said diesel. Then I learned that there are two kinds of diesel, the one that costs 1.09 a liter and the one that costs 1.13 a liter. Highway prices are always higher and usually gas is less expensive in Italy than France, so we filled the tank. As it turns out, when we got off the highway in Antibes, diesel was 99 cents a liter.

We made a ritual of stopping at several AutoGrill shops before we left Italy. It was hard to give up the idea of shopping for Italian goods. At one store I found two containers of Caldo Caldo, a product I discovered years ago that then went the way of the dinosaur. Now it's back.

Caldo Caldo is what I call 'magic coffee'. It's a plastic container about the size of a cup that has a small nuclear bomb inside it. You depress the bomb, shake for 40 seconds and voila, steaming hot coffee. I paid an outrageous 2,50 euros (almost $4) per cup in order to bring home two for my kids.

Each AutoGrill has a small supermarket where you can buy all sorts of things. They even sell alcoholic drinks, which I find amazing-- although, consdiering how the Italians drive, I'm not sure if this is for the drivers or the passengers. As we approached Imperia, the olive oil cpaital of Liguria, there were many containers of olive oil for sale. But none of it the 'fruity' style that I like. I am holding out for a day trip to Spain to buy olive oil.

While at the AutoGrill, I considered taking half a Xanax because I was so frightened by the viaducts; Sarah bravely drove onward. When we crossed into France, I sang Le Marseillesaise which I learned in the 5th grade. That sure came in handy in my lifetime.

Since it is the last day of the Cannes Film Festival and traffic can be fierce, and since I do know the 'back way' into town, I decided we should scoot about on the beach road and avoid La Croisette, which was certain to be blocked off anyway. I thought I was a genius until we hit a barricade of police and a 'deviation' because of a bicycle rally.

We pulled up in front of the hotel-- the hotel formerly known as the Cannes Hilton-- to see for ourselves the complete (and stunning) renovation that has turned the just re-opened hotel into the Palais Stephanie. And yes, of course, I know 'someone', otherwise how in the world would we get a room!

Scenic Italy (with dog pictures)

Driving Me Crazy

For my 50th birthday, I set myself what I considered an impossible but important coming-of-age challenge: to drive in France.

I have been now doing that comfortably for over ten years. Alas, I wish I could say the same about Italy. Every time I go there, and drive, I wonder if Ihave lost my sanity entirely.

And yet, when we left Florence for a slow Saturday drive to Rapallo, it was almost perfect. We were out of the door of our hotel at 8AM. Thankfully we were not weak from hunger, as the price for theone night's parking probably would have crushed me otherwise-- some 50 euros (about $75!). The reason for the early departure was to get to Lucca as early a spossible to try to snag a decent parking place as this walled medieval city is totally closed to cars. Yes, you can rent a bike or a Segway at the city gates, but Segway and Dachshund do not go in the same sentence.

The drive was relatively easy and Lucca is right off the A11 highway-- no twisty, turny, nasty little roads. Since our directions were inprecise (welcome to Italy) we decided to follow two tour buses and tooth the southern most exit for the city. Who knew there were two Lucca exits? This worked so well that we followed one of the buses straight into the bus parking lot-- and got the last automobile space left. Notonly that, but it was free. Or you could say that parking the night before cost 25 euros and parking in Lucca cost 25 euros if you wanted to make yourself feel a little better about it.

Every time I plan to go to Lucca, I think I will take pictures and write about it. Every time I go, I find there is nothing much to photograph and not a lot to write about. It's a very cute medieval town. It is not nearly as crowded as Florence. The shopping is not as good but the ice cream is.

There is a three story UPIM department store (sort of Target for Italians) and lots of tiny food stores that sell olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemoncello. We sat at the table at a cafe, mostly so I oculd use their toilet, and paid $10 for two coffees. There were a few hidden squares of such perfection that you swore you wanted to live there forever. (Then I remembered I'd sworn the same thing about Provence and gone so far as to buy the house.)

Back in the car after our stroll, we connected easily from the A11 to the A12, direction Genova. Even before we got to Carrara we were discussing Michaelangelo in our amazement that giant blocks of marble are lined up like soldiers in yards of their shippers, waiting to be made into bathroom floors.

Shortly thereafter, we were off the highway and into the sienna and umber colored houses of The Italian Riviera. We were shocked at how many house-ends (is that a word?) were painted in tromp l'oeille, with fake windows and shutters and even flowers. We picked our way carefully through town, doing our best to not crash the car, kill any motorcyclists or cripple the pedestrians. It was a relief to finally pull into the driveway of the Excelsior Palace Hotel.

This is one of the most grand hotels on the Italian Riviera; one we booked online at a summer specialof about 220 euros which was a fine bargain for our twin-bedded room with balcony overlooking the harbor and sea. Breakfast not included. We did spring for lunch on the terrace and ate Ligurian pesto.

The carte at the Lord Byron restaurant was one of the most interesting I have seen in Italy as it was the first to put a calorie count next to each entry. Or should I get cute and say 'entree'? You might expect that lasange had over 500 calories per serving, but who knew that the linguine with pesto and clams had 150 calories more than the plain old pasta twists with pesto? I got the dietic pasta and was amused to see haricot verts mixed into the pasta-- now why didn't I ever think of that?

Our orignal intention was to have a room service dinner on our terrace, but after spending $100 on lunch, and seeing nothing else to intrique us on the room service menu, we walked into town. Although touristy, Rapallo has many nice food shops so we were able to buy a few bottles of rose lambrusco-- this hard to find-- as well as dinner. We got a picnic to go for 13 euros and then paid 12 euros for a taxi back to the hotel. Who ever said life was fair?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Firenze Due

That's due, as in do-way, the Italian number two as this is our second assault on Florence. We have changed hotels to the Grand Hotel Villa de Medici that is on the other side of Florence from where we were previously based. I have been staying at this hotel for many years and love to return here, as they act like they remember me and I love the luxurious renovation of this grand palazzo.

We drove around town on a ring road making this the easiest town in Italy to navigate so far. We even took off for the Esselunga, the supermarket that I remember and would swear is located just over yonder. Despite being able to get there, there was no there. I dont know if I got mixed up in one way streets and missed it or if the grocery store is totally gone. Either way, I cannot leave Italy without one more supermarket run, preferabbly with the car.

Tomorrow is market day in Lucca, so we will hit the road by 8AM. It takes a little more than an hour to get there and we are forced to use the same road that leads to the beach. The weather has been extraordinary, so we want to beat the traffic as best we can.

Lucca is another walled, medieval town that does not let you park within the city center, so we want to arrive early and get out as soon as we've absorbed all the charm. Leaving a car with luggage in the trunk in Italy doesn't seem a particularly sharp idea. After Lucca we continue north in the beach direction to spend the night in Rapallo. Then it's on to Cannes!

Today we worked on final address checks for Born to Shop and went different directions. Sarah ended up back at San Lorenzo market so she bought me a raspberry silk tie (under 3 euros) for my hair as well as another felt necklace by Tosca-- this one in two different shades of green. I tried to repay her but she just sighed and said I could pay for dinner. Dinner will be at a restaurant we discovered on our last visit here, a local 'joint' down the street from our hotel where we had memorable pasta. Now to see if memory remains intact when fork meets lips.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All About Florence

I am a wimp. I cry when my heart is broken, I cry when I break a nail and I try not to cry while driving on Italy's A1 highway. The distance from Bologna to Firenze is only about 100 km and should be an easy one hour drive.

If it wasn't for the mountains and the curving roads. And the trucks. And the construction. And the crazy Italian drivers. To my way of thinking, it is a miracle we are alive. But then, Firenze is a city of miracles.

Once we arrived in front of the hotel, however, it was all worth it. Usually when driving to Florence, I exit at the north, but the Baglioni Hotel instructions-- kindly provided by the sister hotel in Bologna-- said to take Firenze Sud and gave us such precise directions that we didn't get lost once! (What fun is that?)

We dumped the car and then explored the newly restored Bernini Palace which is as gorgeous as a Moorish palace gone Marco Polo in the lobby, complete with Fortuny style lamps and gold leaf front desk. Our suite was in the old style of turn of the 19th century grandeur with furniture to match and patina galore. Out the window, a view of the next door church, the blue blue sky and the angels.

Even though the season has not yet even begun,the hordes are everywhere. It's hard to even get around town in the thick of things. We managed (we're good). The best parts of the visit, however, were the hidden finds-- the new Lisa Corti at Piazza Gilberti (across the street from Cibreo, one of the msot famous restaurants in Italy) and the back-street walk toward the Bernini from there, passing the tiny flea market at Ciompi, The Leather School and Santa Croce.

Speaking of Santa Croce, there was nothing more perfect than our inspection of the Relais Santa Croce, a private palazzo turned monastery and now hotel, with only 24 rooms. It is one of the most perfectly restored palaces I have ever seen and has the decor of a design magazine, with snazzy sleek leather furniture mixed with antiques.

The rest of our shopping was to check Born to Shop addresses, to eat gelato and for me to give in to a handful of ginaduja chocolates. Thankfully, Sarah doesn't like them very much. I am wild for hazelnut and gobble up nocciola (hazelnut) ice cream as if I could pronounce it.

The San Lorenzo Market was more of the same junk-- all of it from Asia, including ties that say MADE IN ITALY. I will say one thing for these ties, they are usually arrayed in a glorious rainbow that makes you melt with desire.

Then, around one bend, we found a vendor with extraordinary accessories made of felt. She explained that the items were made in America by her daughter Tosca. The necklaces cost 10 euros and the handbags were 20-25 euros, a steal.

This just proves that not everything in Italy is made in China after all.

No Regrets

When we left Bologna for Venice I had a sense of incomplete-ness, that horrible feeling all shoppers understand when you realize you did not buy enough pairs of shoes. Throughout our beautiful weekend in Venice, I obsessed about a pair of grey suede shoes I'd seen in the window across the street from the Baglioni Grand Hotel, right there on the via Independenzia.

Returning from Venice to Bologna to grab the rest of our luggage and the car, we decided on a pizza break for lunch...and a trip to the shoe store. Alas, the shoes I had been drooling of and dreaming of were 239 euros...about $300.

Let me also stress that the reason I can buy shoes in Italy is that they make very snazzy shoes for men in this country. I have enormous American feet that do not usually fit into European women's shoes and often take a size 43, best bought in the men's department.

Turns out the first pair of fabulous feet I bought, the purple jobs pictured days ago, are not even available for women. But I need not worry with these grey shoes, they too were from the men's department.

Unable to afford $300 for a pair of shoes, I still ate my pizza with delight. We returned to the hotel on the other side of the street and passed Cinti, an Italian chain of inexpensive shoes. There, in the window, was a pair of grey suede penny loafers. Now they are mine. $120, grazie tutto.

Trying Times

So here we are in Roma where I have been trying and trying to get online to blog. Same problem in Firenze, technically, and worse problem here in Rome with attitude at front desk. Is that nasty little girl at the front desk related to someone important? Sleeping with the boss? Oh my, what a bad piece of hospitality.

Finally! Here we are... and for those of you who think our lives are all glamour, do check out the foto: Sarah brought in lunch from McDonald's. Granted it was the McDonald's at the Spanish Steps, and they cheated us out of a package of fries, but being cheated in Rome is getting to be a habit.

It started yesterday when we arrived. Rather than drive to Rome (I am not insane), we took the fast train, one hour and 39 minutes from Florence. We knew to take our taxi from the official taxi line at the train station when we arrived, but we were too busy with what-not to check to see if the meter was running. These days, it's hard to even find the meter (check previous listing about new trend to use LCD inside the rear view mirror). Soooo we arrived at our Baglioni of the Day-- The Regina on the Via Veneto--to have our burly and not at all pleasant driver insist we owed 20 euros (almost $30). And it was my turn to pay (Sarah and I rotate).

Having none of this BS, I marched to the front desk and asked a native speaker to come outside and help. Suddenly the fare was 10 euros plus the 2 euros extra charged by the train station and it was all chalked up to my bad Italian. The driver skunked off, the first of many cheats we have met in our two days here.

Rome seems very much to be about attitude; bad attitude. Few people are friendly or nice. Southern hospitality barely exists. Up until now, everyone we've met in Italy, from taxi drivers to hotel concierges to the strangers we ask for directions, has been beyond friendly and helpful. Not here. Maybe it's the heat (it's been almost 100 degrees F).

We today's morning exploratory session in the old section of town, tracking down another branch of Oviese that we thought would be interesting to Born to Shop readers. It wasn't, but that's why they pay us the big bucks. The upper middle class atmosphere was fun, as was the elation at being away from tourists. The best part of the adventure, however, was the $20 taxi ride there (he went by the meter!)-- a swirling car gliding through crowds and traffic that took us by most of Rome's monuments and gave us a few Audrey Hepburn moments.

As write, Sarah is out there sweating or her country and our readers, finding new finds. I am glowing in the pleasures of last night's trip to the supermarket-- an entire wall of pasta and half a wall of olive oil. I sprang for a few containers of Gran Soleil, a dessert product I discovered last visit when it was just introduced.

Gran Soleil, despite the French name, is an Italian concoction that is sold for less than $2 per container, with two adjoining servings. It is, in fact, a creation of Ferrara, which amkes Nutella. You stick it in the freezer and consume as a frozen dessert. They now seem to have six or so flavors. The original was lemon, but on this trip, so far, I have found coffee, tangerine, passion fruit, vanilla and capachino. Can raspberry be far? And get this, only 110 calories per serving.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Irony in Venice

Two pictures are worth 2000 words. Maybe more is merrier.
And then we eat.
If you can't read the small print, on the policeman it says BAD BAG. I guess this is like BAD DOG but it doesn't pee on the carpet.

Sunday on the Grand Canal w/o George

Maybe inside each 60 year old woman there remains the heart of a 16 year old girl. Certainly I grow misty romantic and so very tralala as I sit in our water taxi or snake through the back alleys of Venice.

When I am away from the hordes, I know in my heart that this is the most beautiful city in the world. Or simply the most magical.

It's mid-May (as you might have noted), but the heat is hot and the crowds are thick, especially during day. Early morning hours and early evening hours are the best when the cruise ships and the tourists with their I [heart] Venezia t-shirts have moved off my sidewalks. Who are these people, anyway? We try to stick to the back parts of town which are more authentic to begin with, as well as more shady and less populated. If Monte Carlo is a sunny town for shaddy people, then past Rialto is a shady spot for sunny people.

Most of the retail seems the same; favorite shops are still there; are still open. Prices are up-- of course. A silk flower from Venezia Stadium is 25 euros, about $40. You can buy your-name-stitched-here aprons or toques for 15-20 euros and a variety of 3-5 euro pieces of junk glass souvenirs.

We actually had a lot of fun in the branch store of the British firm Accessorize, which was stylish, chic and crammed with stuff to want and prices that seemed almost giveaway. Should I buy that razzle-dazzle tote bag for my daughter-in-law? Maybe for will I pack it? Schlep it? Use it? What is the meaning of life?

The TT's (Tourist Traps) are as opressive as ever; many now have enormous PROMOZIONE signs in the windows. Suckers beware-- Sarah and I have seen all this merchandise in Bangkok...and the prices were better there. Yes, even the Murano glass is now made in China...except the art pieces from the famous houses. Every now and then you'll find an artisan at the sewing machine doing up hats or beads or accessories, but for the most part, buyer beware.

The lost heartbeat of our day was when Junior Mint, aged ten and on his first visit to Venice, escaped a tiny and air-conditioned store where I had let Le Ragazzi wander without their leashes. Once I discovered he was missing (seemingly impossible!) I went out on the street and found him in the next alley, wandering around a little dazed. Toffee, meanwhile, did not miss Junior at all and reminded me that he was the Alpha Doge.

Whie shopping has never been Venice's best thing, the eating is quite fine. We had an exctraordinary spaghetti yesterday with tomato sauce, pesto, bacon and scampi in the garden of the Metropole Hotel. This the Met Restaurant, right across the alley from our hotel.

We are spending the weekend at the Bisanzo, a Best Western 3-star that we have used over the years. The Baglioni Hotel Luna was booked-- it is, afterall, a weekend in May-- so we went there for Sunday lunch and pigged out on Venetian specialities-- spider crab, zuchini soup, fresh fish and almond ice. This is an extravagance that lets you into a totally private world of wealth and splendor. Is that Walter Wells over there at the other table? Did that guy just wink at me?

Last night we went to Al Covo, one of the most famous restaurants in town-- a cozy little rustic eatery with top notch food and a hands-on husband and wife team to greet you, take your order and guide you through the meal. This is no Italian couple from the gangsta movies but the Texas born Diane and her movie-star lookalike husband Cesare who has retired from the kitchen and now creates and supervises. His latest lunch time amuesment is a burger, jokingly called the MacCovo.

For dinner, first I ate the centerpiece (please don't eat the daisies) which was a vase full of fresh radishes in water, then we had seafood (house specialty-- always fresh that day) and then we had breaded and fried lamb chops. So much for my diet. Oh yes, I also ate the fried artichokes and teeny skinny potato sticks.

Diane only makes her famous walnut caked in winter months, so I suffered through the home made hazelnut ice cream. There is a new prix fixe menu of 47 euros making this not only the treat of a Saturday night but a lot of great food for a fair price.

Evening strolling hours brought out the soft, pink light across the water and the buildings as well as the Senegalese traders with their fake handbags, sunglasses, belts and rolling carry-ons. They share space on bridges and grand piazzi with giant signs of cartoonish policemen telling you not to buy fake merchandise. Who would do so? It all smells as bad as the canals?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The News From Italy

Hot and humid today in Milan, but do we care? Hell no!

We're ensconced in a gorgeous room in the Baglioni Carlton Hotel-- this room chosen for us because it overlooks the famed shopping street Via Della Spiga. There's an elevator down the hall that leads to the hotel's private backdoor right onto this street of wonders. Location, location, location.

We have been staying in this hotel for years-- it's among the best in town for shoppers and luxury worshippers and also has an excellent concierge. As we checked in, he was ready with the hotel's shopping map in hand. Why give welcome kisses when you can hand out shopping maps?

There's a transportation strike, but so far taxi drivers have been very friendly about taking dogs not in carry-totes and so the four of us (dogs now referred to as The Ragazzi) have been on the prowl night and day and have this to report:

* new-fangled taxis do not have dashboard meters but instead an LCD screen within the rearview mirror;
* purple is the color of my true love's hair, or everything else this season-- my suede shoes from Bologna are the rage;
* you already know that colored patent leather is the accessory of choice this spring but perhaps you haven't seen trainers (running shoes, sneakers) with colored patent leather toes, ala Chanel;
* metallic threads in everything are strong for spring-- innovative looks include handbags of colored raffia with gold or silver metallic threads. On the street a few moments ago, I saw a young woman with a hobo handbag of silver lace. At one of those to-die-for shoe stores I saw ankle high booties with fold back cuffs lined with metallic (bronze! silver!) leather;
* harem pants go pirate style are the rage in spring-summer trousers for young women. They are deep and baggy in the crotch and tight in the calf;
* Pop-up stores are every where, mostly called Temporary Stores here-- possibly because the economic downturn has made available many storefronts. I was heart-broken a few years ago when the San Bablia Upim closed to give up its precious real estate to something or another-- who can remember? Now that space is sadly empty. There's another Upim on Corso Buenos Aires, but I do wish the San Bablia one had never vacated.
* Despite bad times, the thriving fashion leader seems to be Oviesse, one of my personal faves (they make mamma mia sizes too) that makes inexpensive trendy fashion. They've changed their logo to an OVS that looks like DVF and then they write the word 'industry' beneath that.
The existing stores are renovated and a brand new flagship has opened at San Bablia right smack near H&M and Zara and the rest of the mass market brands in town. There is even a boutique area called Baby Angel representing the Fiorucci designs new to the group. And speaking of Zara, they must be doing a great business. Next to their vavavroom flagship, there's a new mens store.
At the Oviese on Corso Buenos Aires (which I think is better than the one on San Bablia),I bought a purple linen dress (see above) for 49 euros which is not inexpensive, but it's a size, uh, lets just say over a size 50, making it very big and very droopy which is great in this weather. I will have it copied in Hanoi and in this humidity it will go to my business lunch. Who needs the Armani suit I brought with when I can wear Oviesse???
Uh-oh, Sarah is wearing Armani-- merde.
* The name of the Max Mara outlet store in the Galleria San Carlo (metro: San Bablia) has changed to InTrend. The merchandise is petty much the same-- some fair bargains (a great handbag for 168 E) but much seems expensive to me-- such as a plain old navy linen suit for 244E. Granted, regular retail would be much, much more but I didn't come to Italy to spend $350 on something boring. I'm happier at Oviesse.
* I have found the re-located BREK restaurant. For those who know it, Brek is a chain of low-cost cafeterias and there was once one on via Manzoni at the foot of via Della Spiga, peerfect for shoppers. That space has become a designer boutique (of course) and the new Brek is behind the Galleria San Bablia. Enter the gallery between Florsheim and Guess, pass Nespresso (no George Clooney, sorry) and you will dead end into Brek.
* While we flipped for the new Kiko makeup store in Bologna (via Independenzia, right near the Baglioni Grand Hotel) and love the idea of inexpensive makeup, the Madina Milano store has a sophisticated range at mid-range prices-- 14E for a cream eye shadow. This brand has closed all stores in the U.S. but has three stores in Milan, including Corso Venezia 23. The line has gone mineral and continues to be famous for the use of pigment. There are no other stores in Italy, making this a local hero worth seeking out;
* And yes, I have been boasting of my diet, but after last night's shopping stroll (that's called a business trip to us) we passed the Pizza Del Drago (via Agnello 17)on a back street right behind La Rina and couldn't resist. I had one of the best pizzas of my life, just shy of Naples. I think it's the fresh tomato sauce that does it. Since the cheese is the fattening part, I shared some of the goo with The Ragazzi. They love Italy...and I love my big, baggy dress.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Full of Bologna

I was having this discussion with my friend Steve, who pointed out that when driving to Italy from Monte Carlo, it was completely out of the way to begin the trip in Bologna. He said Milan made more sense.
"Oh no," I said with quiet authority, "Milan is north and Bologna is straight across."

As it turns out, we are both right. Had I been bright enough to look at a map when I asked Born to Shop Editorial Director Sarah Lahey to work out the logistics of this trip (meaning, don't put us in the wrong cities on a Sunday or Monday), I would have guided her to Milan, only three hours from Monte Carlo. Instead, no map nearby, I dictated we begin in Bologna.

I am certain now that I made this error out of emotional reasons. Bologna is one of my favorite cities in Italy; I like it far more than Milan and it's a good way to ease into being Italian.

The drive from Monte Carlo was, uh, unpleasant. Every time I drive in Italy I remember the first comment I ever made about driving in this country-- A Frenchman will tell you that you are beautiful before he screws you; an Italian will just drive right up your ass. Not to be crudo, but that's what happens as soon as you cross out of France and into Italy. The fact that you are also forced to cross the Alps, go into a million tunnels and fight with trucks that are swaying alongside you is way too much.

Because of those damn Alps, and with fond thoughts to Hannibal and his need for elephants, we had to pick our route carefully. There are three possible routes from Monte Carlo to Bologna, but no map says which road is less curvy or which one has fewer nasty truck drivers.

So we took the A26 north in Genoa while following signs for the A7. Hey, it's not our fault we never found the A7. Eventually we got to Alessandria, hit the A21 and then got onto the A1. All this to give us a 'high' entry into the region and not miss the factory outlets in Fiadenza or the store I call The Big Cheese.

The Big Cheese was not as good as in past years-- the balsamic vinegar selection was pitifull and the cheeses were wrapped in waxed paper rather than cello. I am terrified the ones I bought will dry out before I even return to France. They are legal to bring into the U.S. but mine may be too pathetic to consider immigration a month from now.

We drove on to Modena, circled the heart of town looking for aceto balsamico, found everything closed until 5pm and headed back toward the highway. Enroute, we passed a few balsamico factories and stopped, but again-- chiuso. We were delighted to arrive at our beloved Baglioni Grand in the heart of Bologna.

The hotel has been renovated recently; we have one of the most beautiful rooms in the world (412) and worthy of the Room With a View photo spread. From our terrace we can see the saints atop the church next door and onto the historical town square.

We were hardly arrived when we discovered we were invited to a party given by several big name boutiques in town and as the Born to Shop Ladies, we were expected to attend. We showered and rushed to the presidential suite where we were rewarded with a show of live models showing La Perla lingerie, a makeup artist and a diamond dealer. I tried on a lovely ring-- only $20,000... but you'd get your tax back!

It was startling to walk into a hotel suite packed with Italian women all dresed to the nines in black, wearing cuffs of jewelry and pirate booties on their feet, carrying giant tote bags and looking ever so bored. The models were thin and gorgeous, tall in high heels and with appropriate bosom. Eye-popping is the best way to explain it. We received coupons for a 20% discount at La Perla when we left.

The La Perla shop is located in a brand new luxury shopping gallery filled with all the big names of Italian fashion-- Prada, Bruno Magli, Gucci and La Perla, claro. There's also Louis Vuitton and at the far end of the mall's corner, Hermes. This is the Galleria Cavour, hidden off a back street and very Italian in that the best things in Italy are always hidden. A camisole at La Perla costs 265 euros (about $350) and knickers range from 60-90 euros. Even my dogs went wild in the shop...probably the reaction of all men who enter there.

After we had shopped most of the old town, eaten hazelnut gelato and fingered many dried mushrooms, I bought a pair of purple suede driving shoes for $100.

Bologna has long been famous for mass market and inexpensive clothing shops because of the large student population. It is also famous for food shops and known as Moto City becaue of the car and motorcycle factories nearby. Now Bologna also has as much luxury as any shopper can demand.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Breaking the Bank in Monte Carlo

Whenever I arrive in Monte Carlo, my first impulse at the check-in desk is to ask, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"

This old joke isn't even funny (If so, let him out) and Prince Albert could well be down the road in Cannes for the Film Festival, nonetheless, he is surely revving up his engine. The grandstands, the barricades and the wire mesh are all in place for the next Grand Prix which will run May 24, the last day of the Cannes Film Festival.

Certainly Albert's arrival to the throne has made this city a lot younger and more hip. Casino Square, the heart of downtown Monte Carlo, is pretty much the same-- perfect flower beds, perfect Garnier buildings, perfectly tanned people. Yet to one side of the square, the Metropole Hotel has been totally re-done and now strives to outshine any of themore traditional local hotels. They've brought onboard a lot of big name talent, from the multi-starred chef Joel Robuchon (who recently opened Yoshi, his second restraunt on the property), to the famed ESPA (also have spas in several Peninsula hotels in Asia), to the decor by world reknown Jacques Garcia.

Better still (although few things are better than Jacques Garcia) is the fact that the hotel is on top of a three level mall. One of the newcomers since I was here last is a branch of Laduree, the most famous maker of macaroons in Paris.

If you're thinking that's nice but old hat (and fattening), consdier that one block over, next door to the Hermitage Hotel, Zara has opened a gigantic megaflagship where they sell the Monte Carlo look for reasonable prices.

Across the street from Zara is, as I said, the Hermitage Hotel. BUT, across the street in the other direction is my favorite new attraction in town and one that I admit, I have never seen elsewhere. There's a red-orange, glass fronted, break case in case of emergency defiberlator, right there on the street! Am not certain if this is for those who have a hard time walking up and down all the hills...or for the old fossils who could croak without extra aid. Maybe it's for those poor shoppers like me, who saw the IT bag in the YSL window nearby and the price tag of $20,000 USD.

One Beaune Day

I maybe wouldnt have even mentioned this if it hadn't happened that when I had lunch with my friend Dottie last week, she told me that she and her husband were soon leaving for France and, by coincidence, had the exact same arrival and car rental plan as me. Thinking that great minds might think alike, I am starting off with the way we were.

With two dogs, two valises, two duffles and countless tote bags, Sarah Lahey (Editorial Director of Born to Shop) and I decided that going into Paris and then taking the train south to my house in Provence was simply too much schlepping. Sarah went online and found a wonderful car rental deal with Kemwell; I took lotsa Stilnox on the plane (having just read that Bill Buckley liked several a night, I figured what the hell) and was rested enough to drive.

The rental companies at CDG bring the car right to you, about 30 minutes after you check in at their desk. We went for breakfast and were soon driving toward Paris and the Ring Road and to the A6. Our goal was to get to Beaune for the first night, since it is a 7-8 hour drive to my house in Provence and even with some sleep on the plane, I did not want to go that far.

Having been to Beaune several times before, I knew what hotel to book (I always stay at Hotel de la Poste) and we got a fabulous room on the top floor with exposed beams and two beds and a little terrace. Sarah booked it through 145 euros. Doggy guests cost an additional 10 euros per tail.

There are two 4-star hotels built into the ring road that encircles Beaune and allow you to walk to all the sights in town-- the other is the Hotel de le Cedre. Driving in Beaune is not complicated, it's just frustrating since everything is one way.

While the most well-known landmark is Les Hospice, this building was closed by the time we arrived. We had to search for a viewing point on the street just to peek at the famous multi-colored tile rooftops. It was a brilliant spring afternoon and strolling was a pleasure. There are a number of food, cheese, mustard and wine shops. After all, you are in the heart of Burgundy and only a half hour from Dijon. The boutiques are more fashionable than ever before, there's even a Farrow & Ball paint store! No Chanel, however.

Perhaps the most striking thing about our visit was the extraordinary town plantings. We're not talking about geraniums or petunias here; not even pansies. Entire beds of wild flowers form a type of English garden in all public squares and traffic circles. All the local real estate magazines seem to show affordable housing and Beaune was picture perfect.

With jet-lag eating us alive, we went for an early dinner (20 euro special, 3 courses-- snails from Burgundy, Beouf Bourgignon, dessert of choice) at a cute bistro down the street in the heart of The Cute then fell into bed. We fell asleep quickly, listening to CNN and waiting for news about the missing child Madeleine...who is still missing.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


this is a short and sweet post from the internet cafe on the main squar ein my village-- i can't write about Beaune or the return to France or anything right now because of internet problems which are nothing compared to the calc build up in the toilet and midning a plumber on a weekend, yes-- a holiday weekend-- in france. Then there's the fact that i blanke dout on my bank code and annilated my card. Other than that, all's ell and I will catch up and tell all.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dog Tales

So here we are in the SanAntonio airport waiting to board for ORD and onward to Paris. And here's the dog report and updates:
1- Spoke to Sarah in Paris. She was never once in any portion of the trip asked for dog paperwork.
2- Junior is panting at my side-- again, no request for any dog papers. BUT the big news is that i was able to buy his round trip tickeet in USD at $175 each way. A coupon is stabled ot his case and I am warned emphaticlaly to save it or I will have no proof that he is paid in full and cleared to re-board for the return to USA.

Sarah was charged $200 for a one way (I paid $175 for each way) and was told no, she could not buy the return-- she must buy it in France and in euros. Soooo i asked Cindy at the SAT United desk if i could buy Sarah's return ticket, not mentioning i also wanted a $50 refund. She said she could have done it only if I had Sarah's ticket number. So note to all who may be in this sitation, have a photocopy of companion's tix!

Toffee's travel will end up costing over $100 more than Juniors because of this oddity. Bt he's worth it.

Now to teach Junior how to drink from a Coca Cola bottle.

Junior and I travelled without one word toward dog papers in San Antonio, Chicago or Paris.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Shaggy Dog Travel Story

OK,OK, so I know most people do not travel internationally with their pets. But I do. In fact, Sarah Lahey (Editorial Director of Born to Shop) and I work in relays to take both of my dogs to Europe, as the rule is one dog per person. So now Sarah and Toffee have gone to Paris and Junior Mint and I leave tomorrow.

The point of all this information is attempt to advise others who may be traveling with dogs this summer-- while it's possible that assorted vets and state laws may provide a better experience.

And let me say that I love my vet; she is wonderful and does a very good exam and follows all details. However, she insisted that my dogs needed a USDA (Dept of Agriculture) form, with the seal of the Great State of Texas-- received only in Austin, the capital-- or the dogs could be 'destroyed' by the French government on arrival.

I laughed nervously and said, hey dudette, no prob-- my dogs are French, they have French paperwork and they also have French passports.

She insisted this did not matter. I could FedEx my papers to Austin with return FedEx supplies ($55 each way) and then pay for the 3 seals required (over $100 total) or I could drive the 90 miles to Austin...if I could get an appointment. I did and I did.

My vet charged me $25 for the multi-page, 6-part piece of federal paper with serial number and then $54 per dog for the exams. Her office did download papers from the French Consulate in Houston (sent online) and filled in some of the required information as part of their service-- no extra charge for the French.

I spent 3 hours at the vet's office and came close to hysterical rage several times. I simply did not believe any of this was needed or even required and I was certain that with French passports, my dogs would be totally safe even if other people's dogs needed this paperwork.

First I called United Airlines. They told me they needed a plain old health certificate, valid within ten days of the flight departure, and did not require the USDA seal. I called several other vets. Most said the paperwork was for the French authorities, one got so fed up with me that she said 'Do whatever you want. It's your fault if they destroy the animal.'

Thank you very much.

Sooooo Sarah and I drive to Austin which thankfully is not far past the Sam Marcos Factory Outlets. We get a parking space across from the Judicial Building. We surrendered cameras, cellphones and submitted to searches and detectors because this building is the home of Homeland Security and because it was built by my personal friend Lyndon Baines Johnson and because these days, you can never be too careful.

We found the proper office (very well hidden) and turned in our papers and set ourselves down, as they say in Texas. We listened with horror and amusement as this amazing woman (Joan) fielded phone calls and inquiries. Our favorite was the call about importing pet crayfish into Germany. I could just picture the flight attendant:" Sir, did you order the special lobster meal?"

Another woman joined us in the waiting room so we compared war stories. This was her second trip in ten days; she was forced to drive 250 miles each way from the Texas-Oklahoma border. The papers had to be just so.

Her puppy had been donated to an organization in Nambia that uses guardian dogs to tend goats and sheep to protect them from cheetahs. It's kind of a Cheetahs R Us thing that is very popular in Africa. A few weeks ago I saw a story on 60 Minutes about paying the Masai to not kill lions, so I understood the principle.

While waiting, the maitresse du papier came out twice to ask me questions. The vet had written Junior Mint's birthday wrong but his passport had a different date-- which was correct. I assured her the passport was correct because the dog was a Saggitarius. No smile. Some other trival point was made and just shy of two hours later, out $102.30, and without the seal of the Great State of Texas but with volumes of paper work, we left Austin and headed back toward San Antonio and the outlets.

Better safe than sorry, we assured ourselves.

Now Sarah and Toffee are in the air. Sarah sailed through the United Airlines international check-in (meaning at the counter, not the curb) and reported to me that no one once asked to see the dog's paperwork. She was asked to pay $200 for the dog ticket to Paris and told that no, she could not buy the round trip return (this unfortunate as it will be charged in euros for the return) and bon voyage, ya'll.

I will report in as to if the French authorities ask for paperwork and what happens when Junior and I leave tomorrow. So far, the way I see it, I've wasted a lot of money and a lot of Xanax on this one. But afterall, a dog is a woman's best friend.