Travel notes from a fashionista in her style mecca
By Mary Anne Vaccaro
Italy inspires me as a designer and a lover of beautiful things. I've traveled there several times. But what, exactly, makes Italy unique? I found the answers this summer on trip for a nephew's wedding in Tuscany.
Italians are proud of their heritage. They love living in the midst of most of the world's greatest art treasures. They honor creativity in all that they do. Even in today's fast and furious lifestyle, Italians take time out for a cappuccino with friends in the afternoon, and when on a task, it's their ability and craftsmanship that matters, not speed.
In regard to fashion, it's the older Italians who command attention. They are meticulously elegant in quality clothes, jewelry and shoes, and they wear very stylish glasses. Even in the smallest towns, they dress up to shop for groceries or to stroll the piazza.
Past, present and future co-exist. Fresh and flavorful food of the region is prepared creatively at home, in restaurants, even at truck stops, and design studios are busy everywhere creating innovative looks in fashion and home décor.
My adventure started in Pisa. We arrived the morning of June 1, picked up our rental car, put Garmin on the dash and took off for The Leaning Tower, The Cathedral, The Duomo, The Baptistry and The Cemetery. All so magnificent! I'd been there before but once is never enough to see anything in Italy! Off I went, though I hadn't slept for 36 hours, to the Museum delle Sinopie to see a show featuring the original costumes from the 1968 Franco Zefferelli film “Romeo and Juliet.” All so beautiful and authentic.
By late afternoon we were headed for Monti di Villa, a charming, very high hill town where the wedding was to take place. Monti di Villa is impossible to describe. Seventeenth century stone homes sit high above the clouds; it's honestly like being on top of the world. The views are unbelievable from the lofty perch of this auto-free village. After winding our way up a one-lane mountain road, we parked our car in a lot and walked uphill along grassy paths, on cobblestones and gravel until we arrived in a pristine storybook village where darling people and their pets greeted us if we were movie stars. Life in the village is quiet, peaceful and serene.
The next day, we drove to the walled city of Lucca, birthplace of Puccini. I observed a lot of style on my afternoon stroll. I was most impressed by the store Pesi & Vinci... located in an amazing frescoed palazzo with fabulous fashions for women and men, all beautifully displayed. The optical stores were amazing here and throughout Italy. So many unique frames! I'm convinced most people wear glasses more for style than for vision correction. I loved the gorgeous Antica Osteria with its classy and sophisticated entry, bar, lounges and restaurant. Lucca is a small town, but it's sophisticated and big on style.
When in Tuscany, take as many day trips as you can. One of ours was to La Spezia. We continued by train to the Cinque Terre, five small, no-car cliff- towns only accessed by boat or train. We were last there in 2005, and we were looking forward to revisiting our favorite town, Vernazza. When we arrived, it was like being in the Twilight Zone. Businesses were closed, windows were boarded, and walkways were nothing more than planks. We were relieved to find townspeople singing and celebrating outside a restaurant near the pier. They told us the town had been hit by a flood and mudslide last October, and it was reopening night for the restaurant. We joined the locals in song, then sat outdoors for dinner. I was impressed by the quality of the linen tablecloth and napkin, by the flowers on my table and by my delicious seafood pasta entrée. All examples of Italian pride in food and presentation. I photographed villagers as they walked past our table. Once again, the older women left the biggest impression.
We spent June 4 in the town of Bagni di Lucca. It's known for its thermal springs dating to the Etruscan and Roman Ages. Napoleon's court spent summers here. The place is pretty sleepy today but it does not lack style. A poster ad for prosciutto caught my eye. The prosciutto was twisted to look like a flower, and its leaves were basil. They style everything in Italy! We stopped for coffee at a street café where old men sipped espressos from stylish cups at a marble bar, and played cards at a gorgeous marble table in the corner. Very Italian.
June 5 is a holiday for me. It commemorates the birthday of the designer I admire most, Salvatore Ferragamo. So we drove to Florence. I bought a big, beautiful, traditional Italian birthday cake and delivered it to the Palazzo Feroni Spini, headquarters for the Ferragamo empire and its flagship store and museum. I was in heaven. Ferragamo remains true to elegance in a time when many designers focus on outrageousness for attention. The craftsmanship behind the Ferragamo label is impeccable. Ferragamo's designer, Massimiliano Giornetti, understands and interprets Ferragamo style beautifully. His sophisticated, ingeniously crafted, understated designs command attention. Imagine a pair of classic oxfords, entirely embellished with tiny charcoal colored Swarovski crystals. I nearly lost consciousness over the design details and beauty I saw in every shoe, accessory and item of clothing that spoke to me.
From Florence we headed to San Gimignano. I had heard about the town with all of its towers, but it was much more beautiful than travel guides portray it. The town has been refurbished to perfection, and our hotel on the square was lovely.
Back to Monti di Villa, where we celebrated our nephew's wedding in typical Italian style with four days of food, wine, flowers, music and emotion beyond Hollywood's imagination. All of the villagers were invited to join us for the wedding day festivities.
On June 10, after a fabulous rooftop wedding brunch in Bagni di Lucca, we headed to Padua. I am devoted to St. Anthony and had dreamed of visiting the basilica of St. Anthony on his feast day. Words and pictures cannot describe the basilica's beauty and majesty nor the spiritual experience it was for me to be there.
Padua is a wonderful university city with classical architecture, interesting stores and great food. The Chiesa degli Eremitani and Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto are not to be missed. I loved the arcade walkways but the graffiti depressed me. Padua, only 30 miles from Venice, is a little-known bargain. Hotel Art al Fagiano was a fun surprise. Rosella, the innkeeper, heard me exclaim with delight as we entered and gave me a tour. She is an artist and the hotel is her studio-gallery. Her funky, whimsical style carries into the guest rooms. During dinner at Caffe Pedrocchi, I realized how much color in fashion I was seeing. Women and men were wearing bright red, orange and even pink pants.
Verona, an hour from Padua, was home to Romeo and Juliette. I especially loved Verona's Belle Epoque architecture. I noticed a number of designer stores, but one day doesn't tell me much about a city, and that's all I had because my final destination was Venice…the city that possesses my mind, heart, and soul. How does it even exist? How can so much beauty be in one place? Who were the artists and craftsmen of its past, and who are the artists of its future? We stayed in a small hotel at Academia.
In Italy, I can't walk past a church door without trying to open it. My first discovery was the Church of San Pantalon. A guard pointed to signs reminding me "no flash, no photos, no videos, no tripod." I proceeded to tell the guard how much I loved the Tintoretto Murals, the marble columns, the statuary . . . The guard not only gave me permission to photograph inside the church but marked other art treasures on my city map.
The Immense Gothic Church of the Friars is my favorite in Venice. Built entirely of bricks in the 14th and 15th centuries, with the second tallest bell tower in Venice, the church contains works by Titian, Bellini and Canova. An unusual but beautiful feature is the carved wood choir stall in the middle of the church. We were lucky to be there for a glorious classical concert! On the same evening, we had dinner in a contemporary restaurant so cool that I photographed all of its spaces, including the bathroom !
We wore ourselves out the next day, shopping, visiting galleries and churches, dining al fresco near the Rialto. We ended each day in Venice at St. Mark's Square. It was heavenly to be served a drink by a handsome Italian waiter in a white dinner jacket while listening to beautiful music from three separate stages. A glimpse into the magnificent Florian Restaurant transported me to a more romantic time of opulence and elegance.
- A wood sculpture that drew me into an art gallery in Venice for a closer look. I was so enthusiastic about the piece that I apologized in Italian to the man standing next to me. He was the artist, Livio De Marchi. He and his son gave us a personal tour of the studio, then the artist presented me with a catalog of his work. After we left the gallery, we noticed posters all over the city announcing his show.
- Palazzo Fortuny (once the studio and home of the creative genius Mariano Fortuny, 1871-1949), where we took in “After Diana Vreeland,” a retrospective of the magazine editor's career with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue.
- Burano, the Venetian island of lace making, where I met a 94-year-old lace maker.
- Ca Rezzenico, the gallery of 17th century Venice, famous for its Edigio Martini art collection
Palazzo Mocenigo, the museum of Venetian costume, fabric and fashion.
- A tiny Gelateria with outdoor seating, where I ordered two huge scoops of gelato. It was brought to me on a silver tray by a waiter wearing black pants, a starched white shirt and a necktie. Beside my gelato in a frosted glass bowl was a dark chocolate wrapped in gold foil with the gelateria's name imprinted in script. I saved the wrapper as a reminder of the importance of presentation. Details do make a difference, and little things do mean a lot.
- A gondola ride through the canals of Venice with Fabio, who pointed out places of interest as he serenaded his passengers. The experience was so wonderful, it brought me to tears.
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To end a perfect trip, on my flight back to the U.S., I was seated next to the design director for Crocs footwear. We had so much to talk about that we arrived in the United States having lost all concept of place and time.
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Omahan Mary Anne Vaccaro designed and produced couture and ready-to-wear fashions for 30 years. She is now a design and image consultant and speaker on many subjects relating to image and style in our world. www.maryannevaccaro.com
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