The “new” Milan is a sophisticated, truly European city.

Milan, Central Station

Milan, Central Station

Milan over these last two decades has done a lot to improve its image. Gone are the gray and sooty facades of the past, the vast majority of the old buildings in the downtown and surrounding areas have been cleaned and repainted, showing all their beauty. Milan is trendy and chic.

The Duomo (the cathedral of Milan) and the Central Station have been “polished” and now show all their glittering marble glory.

You can walk on via Solferino, via Fiori Chiari, Corso Como and to the newly “gentrified” Isola neighborhood and feel like you are in Paris or in another sophisticated European City.

On a sunny Spring day, people sit outdoors at local restaurants and trendy cafes and you can order an aperitivo or cappuccino while watching pedestrians walk by.

Milan, Porta Nuova

Milan, Porta Nuova

In preparation for the 2015 Expo Milan has upped the ante. Its pedestrian area has been extended, from the Castello Sforzesco, to the Duomo, to Brera, and now to Porta Nuova, Stazione Garibaldi and the brand new, futuristic Piazza Gae Aulenti.

Piazza Gae Aulenti, Milan

Piazza Gae Aulenti, Milan

Near Porta Nuova and the Garibaldi Station, the old, traditional skyline of Milan now incorporates ultra-modern 21st century buildings and skyscrapers, creating an interesting contrast.

Porta Nuova, Isola, Milan

Porta Nuova, Isola, Milan

Brand new, innovative living solutions like the Bosco Verticale building blend nature (the condo owners plant trees on their balconies) with sleek construction and posh apartments. The Isola neighborhood has become a trendy destination with its restaurants, art galleries and craft shops.

New, ritzy hotels have been opened in the Milan downtown area for the well heeled travelers: the Park Hyatt Hotel of Milan. Even fashion designers have opened their own hotels: Armani Hotel, Trussardi Hotel. If you think it’s too expensive to spend the night there you can at least try their restaurants: I recently had a delicious buffet lunch at the restaurant of the Starhotels Rosa Grand Hotel: all you can eat appetizers, an entrée, all you can eat choice of desserts and drinks for 25 Euro.

I fell in love with Eataly, which recently opened in Corso Como in Milan. You can find the freshest and most iconic Italian produce, food and drinks you can dream of. You can buy authentic Italian chocolate, honey, fruit and vegetables, sweets, dairy, wines, olive oil, wines etc etc. while brushing elbows with Italian celebrities. When I was there, the well known fashion designer Donatella Versace was enthusiastically filling a shopping basket carried by one of her body guards/attendant/driver/secretary.

Love Milan!

Where to go in Europe if you speak Italian: Corsica.

Beach near Calvi, Corsica

Beach near Calvi, Corsica

If you speak Italian you will find it easier to travel to one of the major islands of the Mediterranean, which is actually not Italian but French:  Corsica an island located at about 100 miles south of the coast of France and of Italy. From the islands of Tuscany, you can see Corsica.

Actually, Corsica used to belong to one of the Italian Kingdoms up to about 200 years ago (Napoleon was born in Corsica, the world considers him French, but his parents were from Tuscany and he was technically Italian too !). Because of having belonged to the King of Piedmont, who a few years later unified Italy, and having shared a lot of common heritage, the local population speaks a dialect that is very similar to Italian.

Furthermore the fierce sense of independence of the islanders prompted them to engage in an active anti-French a few decades ago, which in the past made the island an unwelcoming destination for the French but a vacation spot for Italians. Of course things have changed now, however the proximity to Italy, the shared past history and the constant flow of Italian tourists make the island a place where you can speak Italian (English is not widely spoken), besides, of course, French with the locals.

Beautiful coast of Corsica

Beautiful coast of Corsica

How to get there. While there are a few airports on the island, there are no direct flights to Corsica from Italy. There are however several Ferry lines that regularly connect Corsica to various regions of Italy. One of the most frequently used ferry lines is Corsica Ferries connecting Savona, in Liguria, and Genoa with Bastia and Calvi, villages in Corsica.

In the summertime service is more frequent and you have a wider choice of departure and arrival schedule and ports; in other seasons, from Milan and Northern Italian cities the most practical departure city is Savona and the arrival port is Bastia.

You can buy your ferry ticket online  and load your car on the ferry at the embarkation port. The ferry crossing between Savona and Bastia – and vice versa – lasts about 10 hours, in the spring the departure time at 9:00 pm and arrival time at 7:00 am; in the summertime you can choose also daytime crossings which last just a few hours.

 

Corsica Ferry

Corsica Ferry

Onboard, before going to sleep, you can order a meal at the restaurant or buy one at the self-service. The Corsica ferry features a self service, a full restaurant and a lounge.

You should not expect haute cuisine, but the food is decent. You can also bring you own lunchbox or pic-nic on board.

When the ocean is calm, the night crossing is smooth and pleasant; you can sleep in nice and clean cabins which can accommodate up to 4 people and feature an “en suite” bathroom with shower.

 

In the morning, approaching the Cosica coast, you can watch the sun rise.

Sunrise near Calvi, Corsica

Sunrise near Calvi, Corsica

 

Corsica is a wild and rugged island, featuring high mountains, beautiful blooming vegetation in the Spring (Summers are dry), an indented coastline featuring breathtaking cliffs, rocky beaches where wind and water have created interesting erosions and long, sandy beaches bordering the blue Mediterranean Ocean. If you love nature, Corsica with its stark beauty, will fascinate you.

The island of Corsica

Corsica, near Calvi

You can visit the cities of Calvi, Bastia, Ajaccio with their ancient citadels and fortified walls but if you prefer to be in nature, you can just enjoy the long coast line or hike the trails of Corsica.

The islands is crisscrossed by long trails that you can walk for miles, Spring is the best season for hiking: you will encounter wild flowers, blooming rosemary shrubs and scented herbs. Summers are best for enjoying the beautiful beaches of Corsica or swimming in its clear waters.

While you can find fresh wildly caught fish and seafood at the market and in restaurants, in the interior the Corsican specialties features boar and pork hams (at the market vendors cut thick slices with a knife), smelly but delicious goat and sheep cheeses, and lamb.

The local people are descendants of shepherds and can have a stern demeanor and stark features. But if address them in Italian they become friendlier. You can shop for cheese, wines or bier  (try Pietra, infused with chestnuts) and boar ham at the market, order your food at a restaurant, buy delicious croissants at local bakeries, order cappuccino, all in Italian.

After a nice visit on the island,  which has so much in common with Italy, you can return to the mainland, either to Liguria or to Tuscany.

 

 

Discovering the less known regions of Italy: Puglia

One of the less known regions of Italy, Puglia (Apulia) is located at the heel to Italy’s boot; with more than 500 miles of coast on two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, Puglia has all sorts of beautiful beaches. But Puglia not only has some of the brightest seas, it also boast the most diverse art and architecture and the most delicious local cuisine. Puglia, like most of southern Italy, has been conquered over and over by northern and Mediterranean armies since Greek colonizers established flourishing city-states on its coasts. More than 2,500 years later, their heirs still speak Griko, a dialect of archaic Greek, in the inland Grecia Salentina.

Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia (Apulia)

Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia (Apulia)

Art gems Roman, medieval and baroque masterpieces are everywhere. There is so much to see, but be sure not to miss, on the eastern coast, the inscrutable Castel del Monte, an octagonal castle built by the German Emperor Frederick II, one of the most powerful men in the Middle Ages, in the early 13th century. But nobody quite knows why. Isolated on a small hill, it lacks both the architecture and the location for a military fort, and it’s too imposing to be a pleasure palace. The most evocative hypothesis is that it was an intricate symbol, built around the magic intersection of astronomy, mathematics and the Christian faith.

Places to see in Puglia (Apulia):

Gargano is an area in the province of Foggia, consisting of a wide isolated mountain massif made of highland and several peaks and forming the backbone of the Gargano Promontory, projecting into the Adriatic Sea. The high point is Monte Calvo at 3,494 ft. Most of the area, about 460 sq mi, is part of the Gargano National park, founded in 1991. The Gargano peninsula is partly covered by the remains of an ancient forest, Foresta Umbra, the only remaining part in Italy of the ancient oak and beech forest that once covered much of Central Europe. The Latin poet Horace spoke of the oaks of Garganus. In the Foresta Umbra, there are many hiking trails and a small visitor center. In summer it’s a great place to escape the heat.

Gargano Promontory

In Spring, Gargano explodes in all its colorful beauty, enriched by festivals and popular local traditions. The town of Vieste, celebrates its Saint Patron, San Giorgio with a procession in the lanes of the old town center and a horse race on its beautiful beach. In the town of Mattinata, rare wild orchid flowers are collected while in Monte Sant’Angelo, in the Santa Maria di Pulsano Abbey, icons from Oriental Christian tradition are painted. The Castellana Caves (Italian: Grotte di Castellana) are a remarkable  cave system located in the municipality of Castellana Grotte, in the province of Bari, Apulia.  They are one of the most famous caves of Italy. They were discovered in 1938 by speleologists, are situated about 1 mile south of the city of Castellana and are reachable by public transportation. The entrance is represented by an enormous vertical tunnel 200 ft long. The main cave is named “La Grave” (as abyss), and others are named Black Cavern (Caverna Nera), White Cave (Grotta Bianca) and Precipice Cavern (Caverna del Precipizio). New routes found in 1982 are today used for scientific research.Gragano peninsula (2)

Adria and Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte, favorite residence of Emperor Frederick II, who built nearby the imposing 13th century castle, one of the most famous Italian castles that was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

The Castle has bastions of different ages. The most ancient part, called Torre dei Giganti (“Giants’ Tower”) is a pentagonal tower with thick walls. The first news on this castle dates back to 979; the castle was largely rebuilt in the late 15th century. According to a legend, the castle is currently home to the ghost of a long dead woman, Bianca Lancia (popularly known as “Biancalancia”), whose sighs can be heard especially in the winter time.

The Sanctuary of Monte St. Angelo is a Catholic sanctuary on Mount Gargano, Italy, the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to the archangel Michael, an important pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages. The historic site and its surroundings are protected by the Parco Nazionale del Gargano and is a Unesco Site. The Sanctuary of the Archangel Michael, or San Michele, in the grotto dates from the 5th – 6th centuries and is the site where devotion to the Archangel Michael began. The original grotto of San Michele is said to have been consecrated by the archangel and is the only church not consecrated by human hands. The Shrine is on the ancient route, connecting important Longobard (tribes who settled in Italy in the Middle Ages) sites. It’s also a major stop on the Pilgrimage route for devotees of the Archangel Michael that connects Mont St Michel in France, the Michele Monastery in Piemonte and San Michele Sanctuary in Monte Sant’ Angelo. In the middle ages pilgrims often continued on to Jerusalem by boat.

Castel del Monte (2)

Lecce is a historic city of Puglia. It is the main city of Puglia, and is over 2,000 years old. Because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments found in the city, Lecce is commonly nicknamed “The Florence of the South”. The city also has a long traditional affinity with Greek culture going back to its foundation; the ancient populaiton of the Messapii, who founded the city are said to have been orginally from Crete, in Greece. To this day, a group of towns not far from Lecce, the griko language is still spoken, which is an ancient Greek dialect. Lecce’s monuments have been carved in the so called “Lecce stone” a very soft and malleable stone suitable for sculptures, it’s similar to limestone. Lecce is also an important agricultural center, chiefly for its olive oil and wine production.

The Lecce’s cathedral is one of the most significant cathedrals in Italy. It was originally built in 1144, and rebuilt in 1230.

Lecce’s Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century, was able to seat more than 25,000 people. It is now half-buried because other monuments were built above it over the centuries but the exposed portion is currently used for different religious and arts events.

Lecce (Puglia, Italy) The main square at evening (Baroque style)

Ostuni (Greek: Astynéon) is a city in the province of Brindisi (Puglia, Italy). Its main economic activities include tourism, attracted by its nearby sandy beaches, historical architecture, as well as an active olive and grape agribusiness. The so-called “Old Town” is Ostuni’s citadel built on top of a hill and still fortified by the ancient walls. The region around Ostuni has been inhabited since the Stone age. The town is said to have been originally established by the Messapii, a pre-classic tribe, and destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars. It was then re-built by the Greeks, the name Ostuni deriving from the Greek Astu néon (“new town”). The medieval town developed around the summit of a hill, where a castle and city walls with gates were built. Ostuni is definitely worth a visit: because of its white washed walls and houses the city has been nicknamed: “The White City”.

Ostuni, the White City

Matera has gained international fame for its “Sassi” (Italian for stones).  Technically this is not in the region of Puglia, but in the nearby Region of Basilicata.The Sassi originated from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock (locally called “tufo”) which is characteristic of Basilicata and Puglia. Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Infested with malaria, the unsanitary conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor’s guide:  “Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.”

When you are in Puglia, indulge in the delicious local food: the freshest seafood, the most mouth-watering cheeses, robust pasta, olive oil and wine (most famous: Primitivo).

Casa Italia will host a tour of Puglia (Apulia) in the Fall, where most of these locations can be visited.

 

 

Easy Italian for Travelers Class in Edina Minnesota – Winter 2014

February 24 –  March 24, 2014
6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Edina Community Center (Edina, Minnesota)

Looking for an easy way to learn Italian in the Minneapolis area?

In this lively participatory class, Cinzia will teach you practical expressions to use in common travel situations. Right in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, you will learn the Italian words and phrases you’ll need to navigate Italy more easily, read signs and directions, read and order from a menu, make hotel and restaurant reservations, shop, and engage the local people in conversation.

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