What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

Tips for Enjoying London in the Wintertime

November through February can be pretty bleak in London, but also an invitation to enjoy London at its coziest.  There’s no shortage of inviting pubs, tea-houses and coffee shops to keep you dry and happy. Try the Builders Arms in Chelsea for a glam version of the enduring squishy sofas/giant fireplace combo. Or if you fancy lingering over your hot beverage, LJ’s on Soho’s Winnet street has classic board games like Scrabble and Wit’s End to while away some time over. Just around the corner, Dean Street Townhouse instead offers the slightly more grownup enticement of international newspapers.

Either way, one can’t have Ying without Yang- so after some happy and aimless coffee housing, it’s all but compulsory to search out a bit of higher Culture. Look no further than the river’s South Bank, London’s hub for all things “The Arts”, with its cluster of behemoths housing national venues for Theatre, Music and Cinema (National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, British Film Institute).  Make the BFI your first stop, with its free and fascinating Mediateque Film Jukebox – you can drop in and explore the national archive of vintage film on literally any subject under the sun. Be warned, it’s compulsive.

England’s notorious weather (rain much?) is very possibly what prompted ministers to maintain entrance to our biggest national museum collections free. Head directly to South Kensington tube station and dive right in to the biggest three – Science, Natural History and of course the V&A. But for something less obvious, Somerset House in Mayfair – only free on Mondays – will allow you to enjoy your Manet without the throngs. And the Hunterian museum, a small enclave within the Royal College of Surgeons, allows silent and riveting access to the dissected animals, insects and yes – babies. Not for the faint hearted.

Short days require neon refuges after five, and they don’t come much brighter than the Westfield shopping centre near Shepherd’s Bush. From high end designer (Versace, Louis Vuitton) to ordinary high street chains, there isn’t a purchase that can’t be made in this mecca to consumerism. Go with an appetite, the restaurant selection is pretty broad too. If that seems far too modern an escape, travel through time and play spot-the-academic at the British Library, home to almost three hundred years and eight million volumes of books. When you’re done with the dusty tomes, enjoy some underground Bands, Bowling and Karaoke just five minutes walk away at the old-school Bloomsbury Lanes. Adored by the university students, guilty pleasure to large swathes of thirty-somethings too.

Green spaces lose their focus in these darker months, but do remember how romantic the cafe on Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake can be when the rain is lashing down outside. Definite contender for a Valentine’s moment, and with February also being LGBT history month, it’s the perfect time to search out some cut-price accommodation. Check our London apartments and B&B’s for last minute deals and rates.

Things I love about summer in Lisbon

by Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho

1.  The light

Anyone arriving in Lisbon for the first time is always surprised by the singular crystalline quality of the city’s light.  Similar to Paris, the capital of Portugal has many white buildings, but it also benefits from a silvery light reflecting off the Tagus River just like Venice and its lagoon. Particularly in the summer, and from dawn to dusk, Lisbon has a very special aura.

2.  Sunsets on the riverside

So with all the shimmers reflecting off the river, it is hardly surprising that I love sunsets by the riverside. There are many places to choose from, starting east of the city at Parque das Nações, to Cais do Sodré in the centre, or anywhere else along the riverside road that links Lisbon to the resort village of Cascais on the west, where the Tagus meets the ocean. The Marginal, as this road is called, passes some quaint and charming beaches along the way, that can also be reached by train from Cais do Sodré.

3.  Wearing flip-flops from May to October

Yes, the weather is that good! I have never quite mastered the art of wearing high heels and walking on the Portuguese “calçada” (cobblestone pavements) as glamorous Portuguese girls do; so a great Brazilian import comes to the rescue – it’s a huge hit in Portugal – “havaianas” (flip flops) come in an array of colours as well as in flat or platform styles, they can be found in shops all over the city and prices start at around €20 a pair, depending of course on the style one chooses.  Then I paint my toenails and I’m good to go!

4.  Free culture on Sundays

The Berardo Collection of Modern Art does not charge for entry and features a world-class collection of modern art. Many other museums in Lisbon are free on Sunday mornings including:

Chiado Museum - Portuguese contemporary art

City Museum - the history of the city

Ancient Art Museum - fascinating Oriental and European art and charming gardens over the river

Coach Museum - the world’s largest collection of royal coaches

The Tile Museum - an ancient art form in a lavish old convent

5.  June is a month-long party

As well as there being a wide choice of free and inexpensive live music concerts through the summer months, June in Lisbon is a month-long party! Throughout the month you’ll be able to participate in the annual “Festas de Lisboa” (Lisbon’s festivities) which involves much eating, drinking and dancing in just about every corner of the city’s historic neighbourhoods. It’s as if Lisbon becomes one big village with the main event being on the eve of the 13th June, Santo Antonio’s day (patron saint of Lisbon).  There is a yearly competition for the best sardine design (the symbol for these celebrations) with the winning entry becoming the official logo and Lisbon is then decorated accordingly.

6.  July Tall Ships 

The Tall Ship Races (promoting sailing for youngsters around the world) gather about 100 Tall Ships and a crew of more than 3,000 youngsters from every corner of the globe. In 1956, Lisbon welcomed the first edition these races and the Tall Ships will be back again in 2012, due to be docked between Santa Apolonia and Terreiro do Paço (Lisbon’s riverside) between 19-22 July for all to view, including the beautiful “Sagres”, a Portuguese tall ship built in 1937.

7.  August is OH so quiet!

Most locals go on vacation in August (many heading south to Algarve), so I do the opposite and stay in the city. And what do I do when I get hot under the collar? I spend a day at the beach or escape from the heat to the refreshing hills of Sintra to explore some its fairytale palaces – beaches and hills are both located within a short drive or train ride (20-30 minutes) from the city centre. Park life being another essential part of summer in the city, I also very much enjoy sitting under a shady tree, reading a book or listening to some music. Even better is an evening picnic with friends (tablecloth, glasses and tea lights included), as parks are open till late.

8.  Great value for money

Where else in Europe can you spend the summer with plenty of sun and nearby beaches, music and culture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Sintra) at your doorstep, plus all the urban attractions of a capital city without spending a fortune and without travelling huge distances?

Eating out in Lisbon is pretty reasonable too: my local “tasca” (cheap eating place) in the neighbourhood of Estrela serves lunch for just €6.50 (main course, drink and coffee) and it’s not the only one! A local delicacy in the summertime, and one of my favourite cheap and cheerful snacks as I come off the beach, is a nice cold “imperial” (draft beer) or two, with some “caracois” (snails) for approximately €15 shared between two.

But there are also world-class restaurants and Michelin-starred eateries to choose from, yet still at a fraction of the prices you pay in London, Paris or New York! You do the maths and work it out for yourself…


The Story of Paper by artisan papermaker Lamberto Bernardini

by Steven Brenner

This video was initially intended to be a simple demonstration of how to make artistically marbled paper using traditional techniques, for an article by my friend Toni DeBella, who writes a blog about Orvieto.

However, after meeting Lamberto the papermaker, I realized the story was about so much more. With books from the 1600s that he pulls out and flips through to illustrate his points, Lamberto tells us the story of paper – its history and passage through ‘The Silk Road’, and how it changed society by permitting the spread of ideas in a cheap and accessible way.

As Toni says in the video, this is one of the things we love about Italy – how these history lessons spontaneously pop up in simple conversations and include things that are hundreds of years old, that “back home” would be held in a museum by glass.

You can read Toni’s full article on Italian Notebook here.

Little known truths about Venice

by Laura Bauerlein

1. Venice deserves a real stay, not just a hit and run.

Of course, two days in Venice is better than zero days in Venice. Many people have limited time and a long list of places they want to see, and the common misconception is that Venice is so small, one or two nights will do.

Beyond a lot of churches, monuments, museums, galleries, art, food… in other words, the old spiel that’s  true for pretty much every Italian city, there is a unique silent beauty all around. The light reflecting in the water basically everywhere, the silence (no-cars-no-cars-no-cars!! NO CARS!!) and the calm that comes with that. The fact that it’s an island — in so many ways.  Every day in Venice, I felt like I was quietly rehearsing my role in an important play on a beautiful stage, and everyone was doing the same.

We all know there’s something special about Venice, but it’s hard to grasp how very special that something is.  Give yourself enough time to settle into the spectacle, and enjoy it fully.

2. Venice isn’t touristy.

What? Yes, you read right. It’s super-über-nauseatingly touristy during high season — but only in the touristy areas. As soon as you step out of them (which is easy as they are so concentrated), you’re just that little actor in the big play again.

Many neighborhoods in Venice are very genuine, with extremely nice people (Venetians have a great sense of humor) and ‘Venetian integrity’. Think Sestiere Giudecca, Castello Basso, Cannaregio, S. Croce and S.Polo. They all have their touristy spots, but the rest remains pretty much untouched!

by Michelle L.

3. It’s a party on the beach.

Venice Lido is just a 15-minute ride on the vaporetto (water bus).  Once there you’re on an island with the true feel of summer: sand, beach, and relaxation.  And if you happen to go during the Biennale, there’s cinema too.  There are many famous movies and books set on Venice Lido, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann being the most famous.

4. The lagoon around Venice is extremely ‘rich’ with protected wildlife.

Most people only experience the city center, and perhaps the beach.  In the surrounding lagoon you can birdwatch, hike, take a trip to Burano (with its colorful little houses) and Torcello (a special flair, only 15 residents, most of them over 90 years old!).

5.  Venice is GREAT with babies and toddlers.

Babies —  you can just carry them around all day.  They’ll love the soft splash-splash of the water and being lulled to sleep.  They’ll love to be walked around in that perpetual state of nodding off.

Toddlers will love the variety of boats.  They’ll enjoy the Venetians musically raving about them and the treats they’ll be handed while having their cheeks pinched.  They’ll love the pigeons (it’s not as bad anymore! just a handful of pretty healthy birdies).  They’ll love the bridges with steps (endless ups and downs!) and they’ll love the fact that they can pretty much run freely everywhere without having to worry about traffic.

If you need or want to take a stroller along, these days many bridges are wheelchair accessible and there is a special wheelchair ‘parcours’ (LINK) which will make pushing a stroller around much easier.

Also, the owners of Casa delle Rose offer a service for baby equipment called Venice Baby Rental.

6. Venice is a perfect example to demonstrate that we really do have a problem with our waste on this planet.

You knew we have a trash problem already, I hope! Venice is small. It’s an island. Most of its streets are narrow. No cars or trucks can drive by and get that waste out of your field of vision (and with that, out of your mind, right?). Venetians know what a true WASTE PROBLEM is. They have to be super-organized with their garbage, otherwise in the blink of an eye things can turn from a problem into a full blown catastrophe, like finding their city literally buried under waste.

Avoiding making trash should always be the key. And then recycling, of course. In Venice you need to be very punctual in timing your trash-disposal.  This is particularly important if you are renting a vacation home and need to be responsible for your own garbage.  Waste is to be deposited in the streets, within a certain time frame, typically between 6 am and 10 am ONLY. Not before (say, during the night. Rats, anyone?). It’s not a joke – listen carefully to what your host has to say about disposing your trash.

(Sidenote: I was in Venice recently during a three-day strike of the garbage-management workers. It was pretty bad.)

7. The postman is your best friend!

If you are as naive as me (probably impossible) you’ll arrive in Venice, look at an address  (which is typically just an indication of the neighborhood plus a number, so ‘Castello 2915′ or ‘Cannaregio 5960′) and without hesitation hit the street for that number, thinking you’ll find the place in no time. Ha!  Don’t be fooled.

Unless for some reason you are incredibly lucky and just stumble upon it, you could be doomed forever. Numbers in Venice are no joke — or, are they? There is basically no logic to it.  You could be looking at a ’6789′ and the next house down will be a ’3546′.

There’s only one solution – find a postman! They are the ONLY ONES who know the numbers.

That being said, if you want to find a place, don’t write it down with the address being ‘Sestiere XY, number xyxy’ but rather find the nearest PIAZZA, or ‘Campo’, as they are called locally.  In Venice only Saint Mark’s is allowed the name ‘piazza’ (square); all the other minor squares are called ‘campo’. This will also distinguish you from the category ‘tourist’ and bring you closer to being a true Venetian.

8. Venice might change your life.

If you only go for 2 days, you will probably confirm that it’s as gorgeous and romantic as you thought it would be. Or, you might think you’ll NEVER want to go back – if all you see is the heavily touristed side.

With no cars and all that beauty, Venice seems otherworldly. The different rhythm of life makes you question a lot of things, pulls you inward.Venice is not just about seeing Venice but feeling it.  ”Life without cars” –  my favorite phrase.  Can you even even IMAGINE that?

Laura Bauerlein is half Italian, half German and grew up mostly in Rome.  She’s affectionately known as the Cross-Pollinate gypsy and Venice expert.  She recently spent a good deal of time there with her partner and 2-year-old daughter, meeting owners and inspecting properties.