Monday, 18 April 2016

The A–Z of Italy: C and D

C is for... coffee

If you ask for a latte in Italy, you'll get milk. If you ask for a cappuccino after lunch, you'll be thought a freak. If you request an "espresso", you'll look like a mug.

There are many ways to drink coffee, but if you're not necking a scalding caffé normale standing up at the counter having previously bought a ticket, you probably won't look like one of us. For a country that prides itself on being laidback, Italy is actually chock full of rules – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the coffee bar.

The coffee experience can be navigated in two ways depending on where you are. In a bar aimed at tourists (which you can tell because you'll get service sitting down without having to ask for it and the coffee costs €5), take a seat, take in the sights and take it easy until the waiter arrives.

In a regular coffee bar designed for Italians, hang back on arrival and observe the locals at work. You can forget about any of your caramelised frappucino, venti nonsense here. If you know what's good for you, do as the natives do, precisely and without deviation. On the plus side, the coffee will almost certainly be excellent and your drink will cost about €1.

Not for nothing does the saying "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" exist.

D is for... driving

My Italian friend was driving us to Colonne di San Lorenzo . After a couple of minutes of sitting in a two-lane traffic jam, he got bored and tried to edge past the bus in front. Except there wasn't enough space. He got past half of it and then had to sit there.

"You're making three lanes where before there were two" said my English friend, from the back seat.

"Yes, of course. I am Italian," he said.

And he said it with a knowing smile, tongue in cheek, but he'd still done it. And this true story is a true allegory for life in Italy.

About the A–Z of Italy: These short articles are part of a new series. To see all articles in the series that have been published so far, click the blue 'A–Z' label below.

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.

photo credit: <a href="">Latte art</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The A–Z of Italy: B

B is for... blasphemy

More or less the most offensive thing you can say in Italy is that God or the Virgin Mary is a pig.

On the other hand, it's no big deal to call anyone or anything else a pig.

And as a result, I hear busy coworkers exclaim "porco diavolo" (literally, the devil is a pig), "porca miseria" (misery/poverty is a pig) or "porca vacca" (the cow is a pig – a personal favourite) at the drop of a hat.

But if in a moment of stress, I should accidentally happen to mutter "dio" or "Madonna" after porco/porca, I have apparently said something that is somewhere between the c-word and the n-word on the offensiveness scale.

In this most Catholic of countries, there is a significant distinction between parolace (general swearing) and bestemmiare (blasphemy).

Blasphemy is hugely offensive – even to many non-believers. You have been warned!

About the A–Z of Italy: These short articles are part of a new series. To see all articles in the series that have been published so far, click the blue 'A–Z' label below.

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The A–Z of Italy: A

A is for... affection

"Ciao bello" ("Hi handsome") says the man asking me for change. "Ciao caro" ("Hi dear") says the gravel-voiced guy who works in the kebab shop. They're both straight and they aren't flirting. Nor is the girl from the office who keeps touching my arm as she speaks or the friend's friend who kisses me on both cheeks and adds me on Facebook before I've even been told her name.

The default mode of communication in Italy is maximum affection and expression. Italians can love you or hate you and sometimes they appear to do both within a five minute conversation.

What are you waiting for? Join in. Add "Allora, allora" ("Well, well") and "Mamma mia" to your sentences, gesticulate and call people pet names. It's much more fun than being uptight.

About the A–Z of Italy: These short articles are part of a new series. To see all articles in the series that have been published so far, click the blue 'A–Z' label below.

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Southern comfort (a weekend in Naples)

“Just one thing – be careful of your stuff” said a guy I work with. “The area round the train station is better than it was, but still…” said another, rolling his eyes to complete the sentence. “You do not look like a local, so make sure you take extra care at night” cautioned a third.

I was going to Naples for the weekend and it seemed that even my Neapolitan colleagues’ tips about what to see there came littered with caveats.

The warnings were hardly surprising. Much of Italy’s south suffers badly from chronic underinvestment, corruption and crime. Naples is a working class port city that, among other things, is home to the Camorra Mafia. It’s not the kind of place for flashing valuables around or carrying your wallet in your back pocket. Then again, where is?

Evening light by the Bay of Naples

That's amore

More positively, Naples is almost universally acknowledged as the city with the best pizza in the country. This is where tomatoes were first put on a pizza base (some time in the 1500s) and today a strict series of rules defines what constitutes ‘proper’ Neapolitan pizza.

I’m not exaggerating. The Italian government produced a 2200-word document setting them out point by point… which may seem like rather a lot of fuss, until you taste it.

For context, I grew up in the UK, where Margheritas are typically the pizzas of last resort. You buy them if you’re low on cash and you haven’t got your bank cards on you. The cheese is heavy, the tomato base is sugary and the crust is as bland as a Coldplay b-side.

In Naples, a Margherita is a dish fit for royalty (literally – it was invented in 1889 for Queen Margherita of Savoy) and it tastes divine. It is light, juicy and flavourful. In fact, the memories of it are making my mouth water as I type.

It’s also a symbol of Italy since the colours of the Margherita were chosen to represent the national flag. The cheese and tomatoes are the white and red of course, while the green comes from the traditional basil garnish that is so often missing on British Margheritas.

Mount Vesuvius, an acceptable backdrop for stuffing your gob

Going underground

Food aside, Naples has a lot going for it. The city is a great base for exploring the wonderfully preserved ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii if that’s your thing. And it’s a good place to start your trip if you’re island hopping in Capri and Ischia.

As Ms Ciao and I had only a day and a half there, we confined ourselves to wandering the centre, exploring the tunnels under its streets and strolling along the seafront in the sunshine.

The historic centre is a charming muddle of snaking alleys, timeworn buildings and diverse graffiti. It’s easy to pass an enjoyable few hours there window-shopping and strolling around – and you'll find plenty of cafes and bars to choose from when you want to take a break for coffee or something stronger.

Painter finalising a mural near the Sotteranea

The Sotteranea underground tunnels were recommended to me by several Italians, and didn’t disappoint. For €10, you get a guided tour of a subterranean warren which was built by the Greeks as temples 2,400 years ago.

After being abandoned for centuries, the tunnels were used again in the Second World War by locals hiding from bombing. One of the eeriest parts of the tour involves looking at dust-coated children’s toys that have been down there ever since.

The tunnels also house grottoes shimmering with fresh water (they were used as underground canals for a while), and your ticket even gets you entry to a hidden theatre where pyromaniac loon/psychopath/emperor Nero showed his lighter side by appearing in a number of plays around AD65-70. Seriously.

If you go, be sure to bring an extra layer of clothing. It’s cold underground, even in summer. For those who are more interested in recent history than the Greco-Roman era, the separate Bourbon Tunnel has plenty more Second World War memorabilia, along with specialised tours like underground rafting.

Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Once we’d headed back above ground, we made our way to the seafront to sip drinks looking across the water to Mount Vesuvius and take in the sunset. If feelings could be bottled, I would sell the relaxation of that hour. Via Partenope is a great place to watch the passeggiata and switch off from stress. As we walked back to our hotel, fireworks lit up the sky above the Bay of Naples.

The next day passed too quickly. We blitzed a few more sites and ate more great food. The Palazzo Reale is a bargain at €4 if you like neo-classical architecture and stately rooms, while the Castel dell’Ovo is free and has excellent views.

Basilica in Piazza del Plebiscito, opposite the Palazzo Reale

We had lunch at La Cantina dei Lazzari, which deserves a special mention. Although the pizza we ate on the seafront the night before was outstanding, the service left something to be desired.

In contrast, the Cantina's service, food and prices were all exceptional. It’s a couple of streets back from the touristy area, so it may not get the footfall of visitors it deserves, but if you’re in town I recommend you seek it out. The epitome of simple elegance.

Don't stop believin'

Once we’d finished off our lunch, it was time to get back on the train and head back up north. On the journey, I mentioned to Ms Ciao that visiting southern Italy is always bittersweet for me.

I enjoy it so much that I begin missing it before I've even left. This is the part of the country I fell in love with, and where I originally intended to live. Although we're very happy in Milan, visiting the south reminds me that I've never fulfilled my dream of moving there.

As the train chuntered back to our home, the sun began to set. It was the last weekend of summer 2015 – the summer Ms Ciao and I got engaged, perhaps our last summer in Europe. I found nostalgia creeping over me. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my seat and went with it for a while.

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Sunday, 14 June 2015

How to visit Milan like a local

Mark Twain said "The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo". Giuseppe Verdi said "You may have the universe if I may have Italy." And when I Googled "Italy is beautiful", 280 million results appeared.

This is a remarkably picturesque country. But then there is Milan. And Milan is an anomaly.

People tell me the city I live in was charming before it was carpet bombed in World War II. Now, 70 years on, it's the most successful, efficient and modern city in the country. But it's also unmistakably plain.

So that you don't leave feeling underwhelmed, I've put together some of my favourite things to see and do here.


Brera's charming cobbled streets are home to many of the city's most rich and powerful people. How the high-heel wearers navigate the district's uneven surfaces without knackering their ankles will forever be a mystery. They like to say it's an Italian superpower.

The best thing to do in Brera is just potter about. It's a great place for people watching and window shopping. The creations in the fashion boutiques will either make you gasp with wonder or, more probably, shake your head with bemusement. I genuinely saw a dress made from carpet for sale last time I visited.

Beautiful Brera

Local tip: Caffè del Carmine is situated in one of Brera's most picturesque piazzas. I recommend stopping in to rest your legs and grab a well-deserved cocktail. However, avoid visiting the loo if you can. If you can't, you'll see why.


Milan's signature sight. Do you want to explore a building with 3,000 statues on it? Of course you do. Skip the inside of the cathedral and buy a €7 ticket to the roof instead. After you've climbed the stairs and wheezed your way onto the balcony, you'll be greeted by a mass of sculpted spires.

The sheer quantity of them is breathtaking, but as you make your way around the roof, you'll also notice the intricate details that have gone into each sculpture. These artisan touches are just as impressive as the vastness of the overall spectacle.

On a clear day, as you look out beyond the spires, you can see the Alps on the horizon. And as you look up to the golden angel on the roof's highest spire, you will see... scaffolding. Never mind. It's worth it anyway.

The Duomo

Local tip: Skip the long lines on the left of the cathedral by buying your ticket at the booth on the right-hand side.

Museo Novecento

Whether you want to or not, you'll see plenty of religious art while you're in Italy. And there's only so many frescoes it's possible to look at before you start thinking satanic thoughts. The Museo Novecento offers something different.

Ostensibly dedicated to the Novecento (900) art movement, which developed in Milan in the 1920s, the collection's scope is actually much broader. Other highlights include Picasso paintings, a strobe-based interactive exhibit that you have to sign a waiver to enter and an excellent view of the Duomo square.

As the museum costs just €5, and is located just two minutes from Duomo, there's little reason not to pop in while you're here.

Local tip: This neighbourhood is clotted with tourist traps, so you'll struggle to get reasonably priced food and drink. If you want a cheap lunch, local department store Trony (on Via Torino) offers coffees and piadinas on its third floor. It also has a free loo.


Castello means castle in Italian, and this one was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan. Take a free stroll through the grounds, enjoying the elegance of the well-preserved building while turning down the numerous offers you'll receive to buy selfie-sticks.

The route through the castle grounds will lead you naturally onto Parco Sempione, Milan's most charming park. This is a great place to have a picnic, throw a frisbee or just watch the world go by.

Arco della Pace, Parco Sempione

Local fact: The gaps in the castle walls that look like arrow slits are actually holes to cope with the expansions and contractions of the brickwork as the weather changes.

Eat on a tram

If you're feeling decadent, you can wander back to the entrance to Castello and have dinner on a "1928-style" tram. It leaves from a stop near the fountain at Via Beltrami and winds its way around some of the main sights in the city centre over the course of a couple of hours. You need to pre-book and it's not cheap, but the food is excellent, the setting is elegant and the overall experience is unique.

Also, unlike all the other trams in Milan, they've spent money on the suspension so it doesn't vibrate like a washing machine as it moves.

The main course. Photo courtesy of @3taler.

Local tip: Get someone else to pay. It makes the food taste even better (Cheers Gareth).

Navigli canal

Navigli is Milan's best place for nightlife with a bohemian, studenty atmosphere. I've reviewed it before but parts of it have recently been revamped.

Have you ever wanted to be served a cocktail by a barman with blue dungarees and an unkempt beard? Me neither. But the new Mercato Metropolitano has brought hipster culture to the city anyway. To be fair, the atmosphere there is less up itself than you might expect.

UPDATE: As of 2016, Mercato Metropolitano has been closed. There are local rumours of financial mismanagement and other issues too libellous to blog about!

A couple of hundred meters away, the changes to the area by Darsena del Naviglio are unequivocally an improvement. A building site by the canal has finally been transformed into a peaceful grassy area. Bring a lover, a friend or a good book and take an hour to sit back and absorb the relaxed atmosphere.

Navigli canal

Local tip: Once you're by the Darsena, you're only a few minutes' walk from the Colonne di San Lorenzo, impressive Roman columns that look like this...

Colonne di San Lorenzo. Photo courtesy of Miss Ciao.

The Monumental Cemetery

If you want a couple of hours of quiet reflection, head to the Monumental Cemetery near Garibaldi Metro. Although this is where Milan's rich bury their dead, the craftsmanship that has gone into the graves ensures the cemetery's atmosphere is respectful without being sombre.

Tours are available if you like that sort of thing, but you don't need one. Just take a walk and see what you come across.

The cemetery entrance

Local tip: For something very different, nearby Corso Como is home to plenty of bars and clubs that tend to be more upmarket than Navigli.

The lake district

Yes Italy's lake district isn't in Milan, but it's about an hour by train so it's near enough. George Clooney has a house here. I'm not sure why.

I mean don't get me wrong, I like the lakes a lot. That's why they're in this list. It's just that if I could afford a house anywhere in the world, I'd buy one in Rio or Prague or Sifnos. I digress.

The beauty of the lakes is... well, their beauty. They mix charming, well-to-do towns with inviting islands and lush landscapes. And then there's the water itself... listening to its ripples lap at the shore on sunny days is like a spring clean for the soul.

Although Lake Como, Clooney's home, is closest to Milan, I prefer Lake Maggiore. It's quieter and taking a boat trip to its three islands is a captivating way to spend an afternoon.

Garda is another of the most famous lakes, but there are also smaller ones like Orta and Varese, so with a bit of research, you're sure to find one that suits you.

Peacock, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

Local tip: If you go to Como, Osteria di Via Monti is a few minutes' walk from the station and slightly off the beaten track, but sells excellent authentic food at good prices.

La Gelateria della Musica

I've reviewed this before. It's still just as good.

And the rest

I haven't even mentioned the Last Supper, the San Siro, the Scala or the Pinacoteca di Brera. There's more to see and do in Milan, and this is only intended to be a list of a few of my personal favourites.

A few more words of advice... if you visit between April and September, bring suncream (but know sun is far from guaranteed), bring antihistamines (for the crazy pollen levels) and bring mosquito spray. You will thank me.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you are not Italian, do not try to drink Negroni. It is not for you.

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Brera photo credit: <a href="">Brera - via Madonnina</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>
Other photos mine or as attributed.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Waiting for Expo

As small children, my sister and I had a dressing-up box full of clothes that we used for acting out plays around the house. Its diverse collection included hand-me-downs and unusual garments from charity shops alongside items my mother had sewn. It wasn't uncommon to find a gold and scarlet sequined cloak sandwiched between a faded tweed waistcoat and an oversized 70s felt hat.

Milan Fashion Week took place a couple of weeks ago and most of its attendees seemed to base their clothing combinations on the contents of that dressing-up box.

Fashion Week is a biannual event here and it's always full of industry hangers-on strutting around in outfits that are more bizarre than beautiful. Oh, and then there's their hair. Don't get me started...

There are usually plenty of models milling about too, but they seem to dress relatively normally when not on the catwalk. Still, their builds and bone structures make them easy to differentiate from us mere mortals.

The latest influx of fashionistas was a taste of what's to come. This summer, Milan will host EXPO, which is expected to draw more than 20 million visitors.

Food, glorious food?

For the uninitiated, EXPO is a world fair which occurs every five years in a different location (the last was in Shanghai). It will take place from 1 May to 31 October and involve exhibitions from 140 participating countries.

The organisers promise "A platform for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on the theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future."

If you think that sounds well meaning but waffly, you're not alone. The people of Milan are ambivalent about Expo. No-one is sure what to expect.

Will 20 million people really turn up for what appears to be a glorified food fest? Will experts be drawn to exchange "solutions" for food when they could discuss them at, say, an academic conference? And most important of all, if everyone does turn up, how will the city cope?

Building Italy's future

Milan is Italy's most successful modern city, which is a bit like saying that Berlusconi has been its most successful modern politician. It may be true, but these things are relative.

Milan: home of scaffolding

Currently, there is scarcely any water in the Navigli canal, one of the city's main tourist hangouts. The water was drained in October, for reasons that are unclear, and has not been replaced since. Without water, the canal is a rat-infested eyesore.

Not only that, but much of the city has been being dug up since I moved here almost a year ago. Architects' pictures alongside the excavated areas promise pleasant paved spaces for pedestrians and picturesque fountains. The problem is that these were all supposed to be finished in time for Expo. Now, with the event a month away, they are still gaping expanses of mud dotted with cement slabs.

There is much to love about my adopted homeland, but Expo will provide a litmus test of how well modern Italy can deliver on its promises of being, well, modern. The signs so far are not promising, and a common worry is that the public transport will be strained past breaking point. But Milan could yet pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat.

One of this country's greatest strengths is its charm. If it can combine that with effective last-minute organisation, Expo might still be a great success. Watch this space...

From winter to spring

This is my first blog in months. The days since I last wrote have sped by in a blur of work and travel.

Since I came back from my Christmas break, I've visited Madesimo, Modena, Monaco, Vigevano, Prague and Parma.

In Madesimo, I went snowboarding for the first time. After a relatively promising first day, I spent most of the second day falling on my backside. In the end, I retired to the bar and stayed there.

Heading for a fall

In Monaco, I watched Arsenal crash out of the Champions League with the ragazzi of the Italian Arsenal Supporters' Club. After I turned down several beers on the coach at 9am, they insisted on feeding me homemade grappa at 10. Despite the disappointment of the match, it was a memorable journey!

Of the Italian trips, Parma stands out. It is a large, bustling city with plenty going on. Tomorrow, though, I am taking the train to somewhere truly exceptional. Ms Ciao and I are heading to Rome to spend a few days in Trastevere before Easter.

The weather forecast is 20° and sunny. For those of you back in London, I'm heartbroken to hear that your forecast is 14° and rain. I guess I'll get over it. Have a good Easter!

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A weekend in Verona

A week ago, I visited Verona. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and not just because you can wander round the city humming "M- m- m- my Verona" to the tune of The Knack's My Sharona.

Verona has a big arch. So far, so St Louis, you may say. However, unlike St Louis, Verona was the setting for Romeo and Juliet. 

It's also home to a stone amphitheatre that was built in the first century and is still in use today. In summer, this arena hosts opera concerts. As the audience members arrive, each of them is given a candle. When the sun sets, the performances are lit exclusively by the flickering flames of the spectators. I'm not an opera fan, but friends who've been tell me these are magical events.

Verona's Piazza Bra

The arena is in the heart of the old town, which is architecturally stunning. Statues are dotted around charming cobbled streets and one photogenic piazza runs into another. A few streets away, the river Adige weaves its way through the city, topped with impressive bridges.

The Ponte Scaligero

Star-crossed lovers

In truth, the Shakespearean connection with the city is rather overdone. Visitors can pay a few euros to see the houses of Juliet and Romeo. However, it's hard to find meaning in the home of a fictional character – particularly given that Shakespeare never visited the city and his Capulet and Montague houses weren't based on these buildings.

Instead, I recommend just visiting the garden of Juliet's house, which is free. After you've been, you can put the money you could have spent on going inside toward something more useful. Like alcohol.

Juliet's garden, featuring her famous balcony and (at the back if you enlarge the photo) her statue

In Juliet's garden, you can stick a love note on the wall (alongside hundreds of others), take a photo of her famous balcony and have a picture taken touching her breast.

I should probably explain the breast thing...

In the garden, there's a bronze statue of Juliet. It's said that touching the right breast of the statue brings luck in love. If I was cynical (and I am), I'd guess this might be a marketing gimmick by the people who own the house rather than a legend that's grown up organically. Whatever the source of the rumour, there's a constant queue of people waiting to have a grope – and as a result, her right side gleams brightly from all the greasy hands that have touched it, while the rest of the statue is a standard dirty bronze. 

If you want to cop a feel, you should probably bring some hand sanitiser...

Fair Verona

Aside from bacteria-coated breasts, Verona is a genuine treat. Aesthetically, it's on a par with Florence but has fewer tourists. Also, it's located directly between Milan and Venice. If you're going from one to the other, it makes sense to stop for a day or two.

The city was gearing up for Christmas when we visited, so each piazza had a tree decked with baubles, and there was a festive market flogging mulled wine, reindeer hats and German biscuits.

Energetic visitors can cross the river and climb a hill to watch the sun set over city's spires. Even on the foggy evening that Ms Ciao and I did this, it was worth it. Although Verona isn't huge, there's easily enough to keep you occupied for a weekend. I simply can't recommend it enough.

Verona, on a poor day with a poor camera. Just imagine the summer sunsets...

A Turinese tribute 

The following weekend, we visited Torino (where we hummed "All the Way, Torino" to the tune of REM's All the Way to Reno). It was a much less memorable place, but we chanced across a free gig featuring local tribute bands for the Foo Fighters and the Smashing Pumpkins. (As you may have noticed, Ms Ciao and I like free things).

If you're in town and you like the Foos, keep an eye out for gigs by The Fresh Fighters. You won't be disappointed...

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Attribution: Juliet's garden photo by Dominic Schwöbel (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons