Lake Como: My favorite lake in the world is Italy’s watery exotic dancer

Lake Como, from a villa in Varenna, is dotted with 18 villages and connected by a convenient ferry system.

Lake Como, from a villa in Varenna, is dotted with 18 villages and connected by a convenient ferry system.

MENAGGIO, Italy — The Italian Alps come down around Lake Como like giant, jagged claws clutching a basin of cool, clean water. In September, the mountains don’t have snow but they’re still majestic in their height, their steepness, their proximity to my favorite lake in the world. Also, I can’t help staring at their color. They’re covered in green forest. Above the tree line, the brown rock sticks out high above the lake as if to protect it from unwanted foreign objects — like jet skis, yachts and drunk Texans.

This is my view as I’m sitting at my hotel pool along the lake. I went to India in March to learn the meaning of perfect bliss. I may have found it on Lake Como: reading the Italian sports paper next to a beautiful pool in front of me and a gorgeous lake behind me after spending the day walking through a villa garden. I just had ravioli a few feet from the water. The summer’s suffocating heat has left, replaced by high 70s with the sun peeking through the high clouds.

The view from my balcony at the Hotel Bellavista.

The view from my balcony at the Hotel Bellavista.

Traveling overland a lot I’ve seen some remarkable lakes. Lake Zurich and the Swiss Alps. Khovsgol Nuur (Lake) and northern Mongolia’s unspoiled beauty. Popradske pleso (Lake) and Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range. Never have I seen a lake as beautiful as Lake Como. It is Italy with a Swiss twist. Take the convenient and romantically slow ferry back and forth across the lake and the architecture of the villages reminds you of Switzerland which lies just over the first line of mountains. But disembark and spend time with the people. The laid-back lifestyle, values and food make Lake Como very Italian.

As a sportswriter in Denver, I used to come here and vegetate after covering the grueling three-week Tour de France. Even in late July and early August, Lake Como is not too crowded to enjoy. The lake is 56 square miles and 28 miles long. With 18 towns spread along the shoreline, it isn’t hard to find privacy. I’ve stayed in Lenno, which still feels like an old Italian village but has a terrific sandy beach, and Tremezzo, where lakeside cafes and clifftop restaurants give it an air of sophistication, of style, of Campari on ice and designer sunglasses.

Menaggio in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

Menaggio in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

They are all on the same western shore as Laglio where George Clooney has his 18th century Villa Oleandra. I pass the gorgeous, garden-laden, castle-like mansion, complete with two turrets and stone walkways to the lake, when I take the ferry to villages. If I had a euro for every time a woman asked me, “Tell George hi for me,” I could be Clooney’s neighbor. He’s also considered one of the nicest guys in town. On one trip to Lenno, a woman I met on the beach told me Clooney often throws a big party for the town of Laglio. It’s not for his Hollywood friends and agents. It’s for the cobblers and the bakers and the butchers and the waiters. He’s not the town’s prized possession. He’s one of the locals.

So go ahead and look. Just don’t touch. In April, Laglio mayor Roberto Pozzi established a 600-euro fine for anyone setting foot uninvited on Clooney’s property or disturbing him in any way. Still, Clooney is so fed up with paparazzi, he’s considering an offer to sell for $100 million. He bought it in 2001 for $10 million. Talk about “A Perfect Storm.”

Porta Torre, part of the old Roman wall surrounding the city of Como.

Porta Torre, part of the old Roman wall surrounding the city of Como.

I started my weekend journey in the town of Como, one of the most underrated cities in Italy. It’s oft used as a diving board to the lake villages but it’s well worth a night or two. Inside the 12th century city walls, vast piazzas are scattered near one of the cleanest and most majestic ports I’ve ever seen. The world’s ports often resemble garbage dumps and oil spills. Como’s is as clean as Monaco’s without the yachts.

Hosting me was one John Genzale, an old American newspaper war horse who has had his hand in Italian baseball and taught journalism classes at the American University of Rome. He moved to Como in 2010 and scored a great apartment in the heart of the cobblestone historic center. I spoke to his students a couple of times and told them that one of the joys of travel writing is trips like this: Sitting in old town Como, drinking white wine from Como’s Lombardy region and telling hilarious old stories from our newspaper days.

As the newspaper industry goes the way of the pay phone (my departure had ZIP to do with it), I happily headed to Menaggio. Lake Como is shaped like a long-legged, armless exotic dancer in the throes of a head-rocking orgasm. (Look, I spent a weekend on Lake Como. I’m in the mood, OK?) Menaggio is 22 miles north of Como along the western shore, right above where the pelvic region would be. (SHUT UP! I’LL GET THROUGH THIS!) I learned it’s only an hour as opposed to 2 1/2 by boat. Besides, I’d had enough of tourists nearly capsizing the boat as they rush to the port side to photograph Clooney’s house.

Me on the banks of Lake Como from Menaggio. Even in summer it's not hard to find a room on the lake. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Me on the banks of Lake Como from Menaggio. Even in summer it’s not hard to find a room on the lake. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

The bus dropped me off next to my Hotel Bellavista. It’s not nearly as boring as the mundane title suggests. For 160 euros a night, I had a fourth-floor flat with a balcony complete with a table overlooking the big swimming pool lined with lanais chairs and the lake just over the railing. It was the perfect spot for a late afternoon aperitivo of local cheese and a sweet white — and cold — Gewurztraminer from just farther north in Alto Adige.

Menaggio comes together at Piazza Garibaldi which seems too large for this town of 3,300 people. It still keeps its quaintness. It’s a cobblestone piazza lined with tasteful cafes, boutiques and public services like a bank and post office. Filling the outdoor seats, all facing the cobalt-blue lake were mostly English and Americans, all of whom seemed incapable of learning the word “Grazie.” A note to all travelers to Italy: Don’t say “Thank you.” Say “Grazie.” Italians are very forgiving of foreigners unwilling to learn a single Italian word in their country — or with my sister from Southern California who kept saying, “Gracias.” But saying “Grazie” will score modest points with the locals and keep people like me from thinking you’re an unwashed, functionally illiterate hillbilly.

Ravioli noci gorgonzola, ravioli filled with a nut-cream sauce and covered in gorgonzola cheese.

Ravioli noci gorgonzola, ravioli filled with a nut-cream sauce and covered in gorgonzola cheese.

I ignored all the assorted-accented English around me at La Tana del Luccio, a charming little outdoor cafe where I had luscious hand-made ravioli noci gorgonzola: hand-made ravioli filled with a cream nut sauce and covered in thick, melted gorgonzola cheese. As I said, Lake Como is very much Italian.

The beauty of staying on the lake is each town is easily accessible and has its own character. My best definition of freedom is deciding what Italian lakeside village you want to visit on your way to a boat dock. That’s what I did the next day when I took the ferry across the lake to Varenna. It is known to battle Bellagio as the prettiest town on Lake Como. All Americans know Bellagio. It was famous before the gargantuan Bellagio hotel popped up on the Las Vegas Strip in 1998. Today the town’s windy, hilly alleys and pastel-colored buildings are crawling with Americans in ball caps and T-shirts scanning the breadth of the Big Ten Conference. Bellagio, glittery, rich and a bit pretentious, is at the end of a peninsula and sticks into the lake like, appropriately, a middle finger.

Varenna battles Bellagio for the title as the prettiest town on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Varenna battles Bellagio for the title as the prettiest town on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Varenna, meanwhile, spreads lazily along the eastern shore. Getting off the boat, I paid a nominal fee to enter one of Varenna’s many impossibly beautiful villas and walked along a windy, narrow stone path lined with flowers of pink bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus. Palm trees of a dozen varieties shaded the walkway and I ducked under centuries old archways. To my left were cliffs going straight up to the sky. To my right was a lake so clear I could see fish scurrying along under the surface. I could see why Williams Turner came here to paint.
One of the many garden-covered walkways on Varenna.

One of the many garden-covered walkways on Varenna.

Soon I came across this sprawling mansion. Its facade seemed modest but I walked in and couldn’t believe that Villa Monastero was once a convent. Yes, nuns used this as their home from the 12th century until about 1500 when the nuns, a clerk inside told me, “were being naughty.”
One of the many great views from outside Villa Monastero on Varenna.

One of the many great views from outside Villa Monastero on Varenna.

“How naughty?” I asked.

“Everything,” she said.

It was sold to a rich Italian family who had it for 300 years then sold to a German during World War I. It was open to the public in 1940 and today is used for conferences, particularly annual courses run by the Italian Society of Physics. How they get work done with all the distractions is a testament to Italians’ occasional concentration. The rooms have elaborate patterns hand chiseled all over walls. Red velvet covers the floors. Tapestries of prehistoric scenes serve as backdrops. The bathroom with the extra large tub looks like something out of a swinger’s club.

The bathtub in Villa Monastero, a converted convent turned into private villas and now a government meeting place.

The bathtub in Villa Monastero, a converted convent turned into private villas and now a government meeting place.

Later I contemplated life on Lake Como in past centuries as I read my paper by the pool. A lone sailboat bobbed in the lake. The only sounds I heard were the water lapping against the shore below me and the seagulls above me. The sun set behind clouds hovering over the Alps beyond.

Fellow expats and I join Italians in a regular chorus about the chaos and dysfunction of Italy. It makes life so hard in areas where in other Western countries it’s so easy. Yet those of us living here have learned to bear with the bad. Lake Como is one of those ways. Beauty. Style. Comfort. Warmth. Flavor. At the end of a long, hot summer, they all win out in the end. Clooney’s price tag is $100 million.

Nope, Lake Como isn't a bad place to reflect on life, which isn't bad on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Nope, Lake Como isn’t a bad place to reflect on life, which isn’t bad on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

I can see why he may not sell.

Travel guide to Castelli Romani: Hidden gems in the hills southeast of Rome

Lago di Nemi is one of the many picturesque lakes that dot the Castelli Romani region southeast of Rome.

Lago di Nemi is one of the many picturesque lakes that dot the Castelli Romani region southeast of Rome.

ARICCIA, Italy — I don’t want to turn this blog into a travel guide. This blog is about experiences, not information. But I have to switch gears this once. I have recently been touring an area outside Rome that I just can’t keep to myself any longer. It has been around for 2,000 years, inhabited by emperors and popes, ogled at by Romans and savvy Europeans. But very few Americans ever get out of Rome to marvel at this extraordinary area.

It’s called Castelli Romani. It’s a series of 14 small towns, most sporting castles (thus, the “castelli” in the title) and perched on hillsides or cliffs among the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. They were once used as defenses against a Pac-12 lineup of foreign invaders but now offer some of the best views in Italy.

I toured them in friends’ cars but they’re accessible by public transport from Rome. If you get tired of the heat and crowds of Rome and want to taste true rural Italy less than an hour away, not to mention fantastic local cuisine, grab some adventure and a bus. Castelli Romani is worth the planning. Here’s a list of six towns I fell for with public transportation available:

Ariccia is home to the best porchetta in Italy.

Ariccia is home to the best porchetta in Italy.

Ariccia. It’s home to the best porchetta in Italy. Porchetta is the sizzling, suckling pig that is slow roasted for four hours and then served in homemade bread or wrapped in paper to pick at with your hands. As I strolled down a street toward its spectacular cliff-side vista, nearly every store had an entire pig, roasted brown-maroon, lying prone on a slab. They were carved from the rear forward. The pigs’ eyes are thankfully shut as if they can feel the knife cutting off their flesh.

I walked up one street on a hill lined with porchetta-themed restaurants with outdoor seating and barkers outside luring in patrons with menus and descriptions of sizzling pork. I thought I smelled a hint of porchetta perfume on one of them.

Cooks  in Ariccia making pasta by hand.

Cooks in Ariccia making pasta by hand.

In two recent visits I ate enough to last me through lunch the next day. The servings are massive. I felt like I was in the American Deep South except nothing was fried and the people weren’t obese. I went to a highly recommended restaurant called Gasperone. It’s on a narrow curved street that’s lined chock-a-block with porchetta restaurants. I ordered the mixed antipasti which usually is just a mix of finger food. At Gasperone, they nearly needed a gurney to bring it all out. The lineup: porchetta, buffala mozzarella, ricotta buffala, three different kinds of sausage (including horse), pancetta (bacon), cheese-stuffed sausage, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta with sausage and bruschetta with spinach. A big basket of fresh homemade Italian bread, the kind with the hard crust and spongy insides, made mini nice sandwiches.
The mixed antipasti at Gasperone.

The mixed antipasti at Gasperone.

It’s considered uncool not to order a first dish, called a “primo piatto,” at these places. It’s also uncool to eat pasta when you feel ready to explode. But I ordered the pappardelle (wide, flat noodles) with cinghiale (wild boar). It was so delicious, I somehow found room, like a man digging underground to find a place to hide more stolen treasure.
A porchetta restaurant reading "Serving Dog" which isn't quite true. It means service without rules.

A porchetta restaurant reading “Serving Dog” (check out its flyer below) isn’t quite true. It means service without rules.

Ariccia cane sign
The food almost took a back seat to the waiters’ sideshow. As I digested, they plied me with free shots of Amaro, Italy’s herbal liqueur that’s up to 40 percent alcohol. To give you the idea of the taste, “amaro” is Italian for “bitter.” Meanwhile, I kept a running dialogue with the waiters, none of whom spoke English. They said no European tourists come here, let alone Americans. It’s all Romans trying to get into the cool hills to stuff themselves.
As we talked about life in Rome, they gave me a quick lesson in Romanesco, Rome’s impossible dialect which is the language of choice in my Testaccio neighborhood. I learned a new word, which I can’t use in public but I can here: “smorzacandela.” It’s the sexual position when the woman is on top. Why “smorzacandela”? That’s the name of the round devise Italians use to put atop candles in order douse the fire. Get it? When I walked inside toward the bathroom, I told the cooks working behind the counter that I learned a new word. I yelled: “SMORZACANDELA!” Suddenly two of them, utensils in hand, leaned backward, laughed and pumped their fists up and down by their waists as if pushing a woman up and down.

Yes, Romans are nothing if not romantic.

The steel netting put around Ariccia's "Suicide Bridge" didn't prevent one mother and son from killing themselves in May.

The steel netting put around Ariccia’s “Suicide Bridge” didn’t prevent one mother and son from killing themselves in May.

One of Ariccia’s most interesting traits is its famous bridge. It’s not famous for its views. It’s famous for suicides. So many people threw themselves off the bridge to the forest 60 meters below, the town erected steel netting on both sides to stop the trend. Nevertheless, some people will just kill themselves in attempt to kill themselves. On May 29 a 57-year-old woman and her 31-year-old son drove up from Rome. They climbed over the railing and hopped onto the netting. As police ran toward them yelling to stop, they threw themselves into the void. Not to say the landing was rough, but their bodies, when found, were unrecognizable.

How to get there: Take the Rome Metro subway’s A Line east all the way to the end at the Anignina stop. Exit the station and take the COTRAL bus which leaves for Ariccia every 30-40 minutes. The 2.50-euro ride takes about 40 minutes. Get off at Largo Savelli. Buy a round-trip ticket as tickets may not be available in Ariccia.

Emperor Caligula used to have yachts on Lago di Nemi.

Emperor Caligula used to have yachts on Lago di Nemi.

Nemi. On the east side of Ariccia is Lago di Nemi, a volcanic lake 30 kilometers from Rome. On the east side of the lake is the lovely, charming town of Nemi. Its cliff-side perch offers unbelievable views of the crystal-clear lake below. The Italian national mountain bike championships were being held the day after I arrived so a buzz drifted through town. Fit men and women in Lycra whizzed around on fat-tired bikes while a talented teenage couple sang on a makeshift stage.

I walked halfway down the tree-lined sidewalk toward the lake. It has enchanted Romans since the Roman Empire. In fact, Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) built a large, expensive barge with elaborate yachts. When his enemies offed him on Rome’s Palatine Hill, the boats were sunk. Benito Mussolini salvaged them but a fire destroyed them 1944. The hulls, however, survived and can be seen in the Museo delle Nevi Romane.

Strawberry tortine.

Strawberry tortine.

Strawberry products from the strawberry capital of Europe.

Strawberry products from the strawberry capital of Europe.

The town wraps around the cliff and looks like a gingerbread village. Maybe it’s the proliferation of strawberries that gives it such a sweet feel. Nemi is famous for having arguably the sweetest strawberries in Europe. The sides of the lake’s volcanic crater, as it turns out, are perfect for growing strawberries. They protect them from the elements. Nearly every store had strawberries in some form: strawberry liqueur, strawberrycello, strawberry tarts, strawberry jams, strawberry creams, strawberry grappa, strawberry bread. I had a strawberry “tortine,” or tart, a tiny droplet of cream topped with little pieces of strawberry in a little bitty pie crust. Cold right out of a bar’s chilled display case, it was the perfect opener to the pappardelle and wild hare I had for dinner.

How to get there: Again, go to the Anignina stop. Take the COTRAL bus to Genzano di Roma then change buses to Nemi. They leave about every 30 minutes but watch out. The last return bus from Nemi to Genzano leaves in early evening.

Genzano was once home to the wealthy of Ancient Rome and is best known for its bread.

Genzano was once home to the wealthy of Ancient Rome and is best known for its bread.

Genzano di Roma: If you go to Nemi, be sure to hang around Genzano first. It is famous for its bread which, legend has it, the clean air drifting in from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea makes especially flavorful. Many stores have big wood-fire ovens that produce big, black, hard-crusted loaves of warm bread.

During the Roman Empire, wealthy Roman citizens lived here for the cooler altitude and healthier air. Emperor Antonius Pius (138-161 AD) was born here. The castle was built in 1235. Today, it is a bustling, commercial town
where cafes are packed with local gossip and locals walk around with loaves of bread in their arms.

I walked up one street featuring a big fountain. Every June, this Via Italo Belardi is covered with flowers in an annual festival called Infiorata. Women wear traditional clothing and locals spend days ahead of time building elaborate flower formations. Hans Christian Andersen once wrote of Infiorata, “The whole street is a carpet of flowers … Not even a breath of air moves and the flowers lie on the ground as if they were heavy precious stones…”

How to get there: COTRAL buses go direct from the Anignina stop.

Lago di Albano, from Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the pope.

Lago di Albano from Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the pope.

Castel Gandolfo. If you want to know what a pope does to relax when he’s not blessing pilgrims and sainting priests, come to Castel Gandolfo. On the shores of Lago di Albano, the pope’s summer residence can be seen anywhere along the lake. It is a 17th century castle complete with a helipad. Pope John Paul II, or, as I call him, The Deuce, came here a lot during his reign from 1978-20??. He held audiences here in July and August.

Unlike St. Peter’s, you can’t enter. Just marvel at it from Piazza della Liberta. Walk around the cute medieval town. Wander down the paved pathway to great vistas of the lake below. Then realize something: It’s good to be pope.

How to get there: Direct trains leave Rome’s Termini station. The trip takes less than an hour and be alert: The Gandolfo station is not clearly marked.

One of the narrow streets in isolated Rocca Di Papa.

One of the narrow streets in isolated Rocca Di Papa.

Rocca di Papa. Named for Pope Eugene III, who lived here, it lost its castle to French troops in 1541 and the city center was bombed to rubble in World War II. It has a roasted chestnut festival in October and is the home of the Parco Regionale dei Catelli Romani, one of the prettiest parks in Lazio, the name of Rome’s region.

I found it interesting for the people. Rocca di Papa is difficult to reach. It is isolated during bad weather and it snows in winter. Word is, because of its isolation, incest is common. I did notice as I walked down the narrow, cobblestone roads that people looked at me funny. They’d tilt their head and stare at me with a lazy eye.

Then my friend who drove me there said, “Some of the people here aren’t quite right.” Just as I heard those words, I heard a woman from an apartment window above me yell at someone inside, “VAFFANCULO!” (GO FUCK YOURSELF!)

How to get there: At Anagnina, take the bus marked “Rocca di Papa via Via dei Laghi.” There are four on weekdays, three on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Get off at Via dei Laghi and walk 20 minutes to Rocca di Papa.

Frascati: This is one of my favorite places in Lazio for a picnic. It is a fast, direct train ride only 12 miles from Rome and, next to Ariccia, has the best porchetta in Italy. Its large piazza is lined with fast-food porchetta stands and they all serve the famous, fresh, crisp Frascati white wine perfect for a lunch in the nearby park.

Frascati is more famous for the villas that popes, cardinals and Roman nobles started building in the 16th century. Hike up the hill to Villa Aldobrandini where one are on the grounds is lined with giant statues of Roman gods.

How to get there: Direct trains leave from Termini every 30 minutes.

Saldi: Italy’s twice-annual sales near another sad end

Italy has sales every summer and winter with prices up to 50 percent off.

Italy has sales every summer and winter with prices up to 50 percent off.

These are sad days in Rome. Like the end of fall colors in New England and ski season in the Rockies, Rome is bracing for its twice annual depression.

The end of saldi.

Saldi is one of the magical Italian words few outside Italy know. But it makes Italians sprint up streets as if racing for a gold medal in the Olympic marathon. In a way, saldi represents a marathon. Saldi is Italian for “sales.” Italy has two every year. The exact dates vary by store but the months do not. The winter saldi begins the first week in January and ends in early February. The summer saldi starts the first week in July and ends …

… about Tuesday.

That’s Sept. 1, meaning if you are looking for clothes bargains in Rome, you’ll have to wait four more months. Considering the insidious prices some stores charge, many Italians shop only two periods a year. Saldis have become as much a part of Italy’s fashion culture as stilettos and designer sunglasses.
I know all about them. I’m one of the few straight men I know who likes to shop. When you’re 59, single and living in Rome, you need all the help you can get. Italian clothes help. When you’re retired, you need all the financial help you can get. Saldis save one’s retirement fund. During this saldi period, I bought white and turquoise polo shirts (My style during Rome’s steaming summers.), a pair of navy shorts (To hell with style during summer days in Rome. I’m staying cool.), a pair of Rome’s requisite red pants (Rome is about the only city in the world a man can get away with wearing red pants as I’d get my ass kicked anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.) and a light cotton turquoise sweater (Perfect for Rome falls.). The regular value of them all was 254 euros ($284.04). I got them for 128.90 ($144.14). That’s nearly 50 percent savings.

This is nothing. A lady friend bought a pair of Prada shoes marked down from 400 to 125. She bought another 500-euro pair of Sergio Rossi for 80. (For those women reading this, these are Prada and Sergio Rossi outlet stores inside the Mall Outlet Village in Reggello, Tuscany, near Florence. Ladies, the line forms to the right.)
To understand the importance clothes has in Italian culture, one must understand the concept of La Bella Figura. It means “The Beautiful Figure” but it is more than body shape. It’s style. It’s attitude. It’s image. It’s how you look at yourself and how you want the world to look at you. Italians are not anything if not proud of their appearance, particularly now when their world is falling apart around them. They have no control over salaries. They have no control over inflation. They have no control over corruption. But they have control over their appearance and they take great lengths to show themselves in the best possible light. Who else but Italian women would wear stilettos along 2,000-year-old cobblestone streets that could trip up a Bulgarian gymnast?

Italians can’t afford many clothes, but the clothes they buy are excellent. They also mix and match better than any people in the world. Parisians are very elegant, but they don’t accessorize like Italians. They don’t have the designer handbags and scarves that set Italians apart. The Italian companies know this. That’s why a Prada handbag some Italian women carry will cost more than the cars they drive. It’s also why selling knockoff Gucci bags on the streets is considered a respected job among African immigrants.
Prices, however, are geared toward the female tourist. Women come to Italy so they can show off their shoes to the woman in the cubicle next to them in Santa Monica. Men do not travel to Italy to buy Italian shoes. They come to Italy to find women who wear them. The men’s prices are geared toward the Italian man with a modest income, not the male tourist. All of my shoes but my Brooks sneakers are Italian. I didn’t pay more than 60 euro for any of them, even when they weren’t on sale. The minute I walked out of the store, every pair felt like my feet were getting massaged. They still do.

The economic crisis that has gripped Italy for so long (unemployment has jumped from 8.4 percent to 12.7 in three years) has cut down on business. According to Valter Giammaria, president of the retail association Confesercenti Roma, families were expected to spend an average of 150-180 euros in this period. Last summer it was 210-240.
Italy has strict laws about saldi periods. Businesses must post an item’s original price, the sale price and the percent of savings. Also, be careful. It doesn’t stop them from jacking up prices right before the saldi begins to make it seem like it’s more of a bargain than it really is. They do the same in the U.S. and it’s nearly impossible to detect.

And when you buy something, be sure you want it. It’s easier to return perishable food than clothes in Italy. I don’t know of any store that will give you money back. Most, but not all, will let you exchange clothes for equal value. Also, check for signs inside the stores reading “Non si prova.” It means, “You can’t try it on.” Seriously, many stores do not allow you to see if something fits. That seems ridiculous for pants and jackets. However, when you see how much people sweat in the summers here, you’ll be happy the policy also applies to shirts.
With this in mind I made one last foray down my favorite shopping street in Rome. The city has three main shopping drags: Via del Corso and Via Nazionale in Centro Storico and Cola di Rienzo in Prati near the Vatican. If you want true sticker shock, go down Via Candotti near the Spanish Steps where you’ll find Armani, Prada, Gucci, etc. This street is so expensive, stores here once charged entry fees. In fact, don’t go anywhere near the Spanish Steps unless you want to take pictures — like the one I once took of some men’s alligator shoes for 6,000 euros.

The other three are affordable for those not sporting roman numerals after their last name. Via del Corso features national brands such as Zara, Gutteridge and Benetton. Via Nazionale has Max Mara and Celio. I prefer Cola di Rienzo which stretches all the way from Piazza Risorgimento at the Vatican wall to the Tiber River. Few tourists coming out of St. Peter’s have the energy to prowl this street and it features some of the top men’s stores in Italy. I buy most of my shoes at Fabio DeMarco, my suits at David Saddler.
On Friday, however, I told myself I would buy nothing. I’d take notes. This was strictly journalistic research. However, I learned that the end of the saldi is when the real bargains happen. Nearly every store had items 50 percent off. Shirts at Fellini went from 78 to 47 euros. Shoes at Angelo di Nepi dropped from 90 to 45 and purses from 195 to 95.

When I saw Eradi Pisano had a blue pin-striped sport coat cut from 425 to 255, I had to explore. A thin woman in a stylish black pants suit and short haircut hovered behind me as I perused the men’s sweaters. They covered the entire rainbow of colors, even in my XL size. This is major news. The problem with saldis is they don’t often replenish their stock. You may find the shoes or coat of your dreams but they are only have mediums or smalls left. Italian women have been known to go Ronda Rousey for the last blouse in their size.

Clothes are so prized in Italy the stores look like art museums such as this piece in Rome's Eredi Pisano.

Clothes are so prized in Italy the stores look like art museums such as this piece in Rome’s Eredi Pisano.

After gazing at spectacular artwork on the wall (this definitely was not a mall in Des Moines), a light, sky-blue sweater also caught my eye. So did the exorbitant price: 95 euros. The clerk kindly picked my jaw off the floor. “Il prezzo e’ la meta’,” (The price is half), she said. It was really 47 euros — for three more days. I tried it on and it fit tight and right, just like Italian style. As I came out she expertly told me half a dozen colors of pants that would go with it, all of which I have. I plunked down my credit card and walked out with an impulse buy I swore I wouldn’t make.
My last summer purchase

My last summer purchase.

My summer haul.

My summer haul.

That’s saldi for you. They lure you in off the streets like the smell of fresh basil-laced tomato sauce. You really have no control. So you may as well give in to La Bella Figura. There are worse gods to follow.

Reeling Rio de Janeiro still dancing to a samba beat

Me at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lake in the middle of Rio featuring some of the most expensive real estate and a 4.5-mile bike path.

Me at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lake in the middle of Rio featuring some of the most expensive real estate and a 4.5-mile bike path.

RIO DE JANEIRO — I’m jogging along Avenida Vieira Souto which stretches along the sand of Ipanema Beach like a mile-and-a-half-long g-string. Believe me, in Rio de Janeiro, that image is a recurring theme. To my left is some of the purest sand of any beach in the Western Hemisphere, every grain leading to a warm Atlantic Ocean. To my right is the prettiest skyline in Latin America. A series of glittery, high-rise condominium buildings, five-star hotels and high-end cocktail lounges stand watch on the vibrant lifestyle all around me.

Joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists, we’re all pounding the pavement on a well-marked path alongside the busy thoroughfare. Dreadlocked salesmen stand next to handmade jewelry and racks of sarongs, sporting everything from the Brazilian flag to Che Guevara’s bereted head. It’s 8 p.m. in August. It’s winter in Rio and it’s getting dark. Lights of a jagged mountain ahead of me flicker like fireflies as the fading sun disappears behind the majestic mountain, which with its pointy peak and steep incline, if bigger and sporting snow, wouldn’t look out of place in the Alps’ foothills.

Ipanema Beach

Ipanema Beach

Locals tell me not to come to the beach at night. Yet many of those locals seem to be on the beach right now. If thieves ever tried robbing anyone, there’d be so many witnesses there would be a line out the courtroom door. Maybe the thieves would steal the coconut that I’m drinking after my two-kilometer run. In what must be one of the greatest refreshment stands on the planet, the Rio government has kiosks spaced along the jogging path filled with chilled coconuts. If you have a more refreshing taste after a jog than cold coconut water, market it and retire young.
Coconut stands serve chilled coconuts with a straw.

Coconut stands serve chilled coconuts with a straw.

I’m in Rio working for the Olympic News Service at the World Rowing Junior Championships. They’re held on Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a huge, beautiful lake just seven blocks north of Ipanema Beach. I covered sports for 39 years all over the world. Nowhere, not the Pyrenees in the Tour de France, Wrigley Field in June or Wimbledon with strawberries and cream in hand, have I covered an event in a more beautiful setting. Surrounding the lake, besides a 4.5-mile-long jogging and bike path, are some of the most exclusive high-rise condominiums in Brazil, priced at $2 million-$3 million ($5,000-a-month rent). Small, pointy mountains that dot Rio’s landscape like sand castles provide an artful backdrop right out of an Oriental tapestry.

I arrive as Rio is bristling from a PR nightmare. An Associated Press report says every body of water in Rio is polluted. Corruption in Brazil’s government has been exposed all the way to president Dilma Rousseff who is clinging to her job. She is the Brazilian Richard Nixon. However, I have news for all the bashers out there.

I love Rio.

I love its pulse. I love its vibrancy. I love its toughness. I love its softness. I love its skyline, its beaches, its weather. I even love its food. This is my third time in Rio and it’s like no other city. Besides having the most beautiful urban beach in the world, Rio de Janeiro seems to be always in rhythm. Music is everywhere. I don’t like music much, yet I can feel the locals, called, not ironically, Cariocas, constantly swaying to a distant beat. Rio is Havana with a democracy. Samba. Bossa Nova. Cariocas seem too mellowed out from constant sun, gentle waves and music to worry about pollution, corruption and crime. Every lyric of “The Girl from Ipanema” still runs through my brain on a 24-hour loop. No song outside The Beach Boys’ in Southern California better represents an area than “The Girl from Ipanema” represents Rio de Janeiro. A beautiful girl in a string bikini walking to the beach without a care in the world. To me, Rio is still that beautiful girl.

Locals tell me life in Rio today is difficult. Middle-class rent is more expensive than in London. Last year’s World Cup didn’t produce the economic windfall everyone hoped. Maybe next summer’s Olympics will make it happen. Nearly all the facilities are finished or on schedule.

Juice bars are on nearly every block in Rio.

Juice bars are on nearly every block in Rio.

Acai and acerola juice.

Acai and acerola juice.

But for visitors, Rio is the perfect injection of pure energy. I didn’t have a spot of jet lag after my redeye from Rome landed at 7 a.m. Instead, I checked into my hotel four blocks from Ipanema Beach and three from Copacabana Beach and did what Cariocas do most every morning. I headed for a juice bar.

If this is Brazil’s lone contribution to world cuisine, Brazilians can rest easy. They contributed well. In Rio, they take smoothies to the level of haute cuisine. Go to a juice bar in Rio and you think you’ve walked into an indoor garden. Behind every counter is a mountain of fresh fruit, ranging from pineapples to bananas to papayas to guavas to indigenous fruits I can barely pronounce such as cupuacu (koo-poo-ah-SUE), from the Amazon Jungle; acai (a-SAY), juice made from an Amazonian berry; and acerola (ah-say-ROLL-ah), a real sweet tropical cherry. Pick out the fruits and the clerk cuts them up and puts them in a blender with ice. Soon, wa-la! You have the best smoothie of your life. No smoothie mix in this town.

I walked down Ipanema’s bustling Rua Visconde de Piraja to Polis Sucos, one of Rio’s more popular juice bars. I ordered an acai and acerola juice which came out in a big 12-ounce plastic cup with the thick, reddish-purple fluids slowly slipping over the edges. Cold. Creamy. Sweet. Smooth. Healthy. It tasted like the sweetest purple grape you’ve ever had stuffed into a sweet cherry then liquified with crushed ice. It was absolute heaven. Coupled with a tchai light, a sliced turkey sandwich covered in white cheese and tomato and served on flatbread, I couldn’t have had a better welcome to a city if my room had a throne.

Brazil isn’t known for its food. No one walks around hankering for “jerked meat,” especially not out loud. Rio isn’t known for its restaurants. You don’t go to Rio to eat. But if you know where to go and get the right advice, eating can match drinking as a Rio highlight.

Me at Carretao, a rodizio where I ate meat off giant skewers for two hours.

Me at Carretao, a rodizio where I ate meat off giant skewers for two hours.

My best friend in Rome, Alessandro Castellani, lived in Rio for four months writing soccer and recommended a rodizio called Carretao. Normally, I treat chain restaurants like chain letters. But also recommending Carretao was a colleague in Rio, Mauricio Savarese, a fine journalist in Sao Paulo who knows soccer, politics and Brazilian food with equal brilliance. A rodizio is a Brazilian all-you-can-eat carnivore fest. Two rules: Don’t eat lunch and don’t bring a woman. They don’t eat enough. They’re a waste of money. Go ahead and bring a vegetarian if you want to watch them get nauseous. We sat down at a huge round table in the Copacabana branch and waiters carried giant skewers covered in sirloin, pork, chicken, ribs, parmesan-covered beef, Brazilian sausage and a few other forgotten meats for which my mind, like my stomach, no longer has room.


A couple nights later, we went to the Academia da Cachaca. On the menu is a dish from northeast Brazil called an escondidinho. Among its ingredients is cassava. Cassava is a starchy root similar to yucca, an aptly named vegetable as that’s exactly what cassava and yucca taste like. Cassava is absolutely indestructible in droughts, floods or locust invasions. Hell, locusts won’t even eat it. Its durability is a reason why it’s huge in the Third World. Estimates indicate that it provides the basic diet for half a billion people. As my University of Oregon professor in Latin American Geography described it, “It’s mushy, it’s fattening and has absolutely no flavor. But it keeps you alive.” I’ve had cassava on trips to the Amazon and in cheap diners around Brazil. It tastes like mushy lard.

I wanted nothing to do with a deep-bowl dish that included cassava. However, Mauricio insisted I at least try a bite. It didn’t look bad. With carne seca (the aformentioned “jerky beef”), onions, cream cheese and pecorino cheese, it looked like like a beef souffle. The one bite was a terrific mix of lumpy, salty beef and onion with the cassava providing a rich, creamy texture and the pecorino a crusty, cheesy topping. I immediately ordered my own bowl and, of course, a caipirinha.



The caipirinha is Brazil’s national drink. It’s as simple as a hammer and just as deadly. It’s made from cachaca (Kah-CHAW-saw), a distilled liquor made from sugar cane juice that’s not nearly as sweet as you might think. But two ounces of it with a teaspoon of sugar in a tumbler or a tall glass filled with crushed limes and ice cubes, and you have the best drink with which to watch a sunset. It is also not bad with which, in Rio, to watch a sunrise.
The bar at Londra.

The bar at Londra.

I saw no sunrises on this Rio trip but I did sample Rio’s famed nightlife after my last day of work. Rio’s club scene is like a long, pulsating snake. It wraps around the city with beats in every corner. On my first trip in 1998, I went to a samba club in a bad part of town and wound up knocking over a table full of drinks that weren’t mine. Dancing Brazilian was not on my Rio to-do list. But there I was in Londra, a club in the high-end Hotel Fasano, an Italian-themed hotel (thus, the name “Londra,” the Italian spelling of London) across the street from Ipanema Beach. In Londra, you go from Italy to Great Britain in Brazil. You leave a lobby of overstuffed white couches and brilliant white lighting to a room with British rock albums and photos of British rock stars lining the walls. On the back wall hung a giant Union Jack.

The music, of course, was dreadful. The problem with nightclubs is the music is the same from Barstow to Bangkok. It’s BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! With the occasional BOOMBOOM! thrown in. Yet Brazilians have so much rhythm, so much freedom of expression, they make it work. I saw one long-haired blond man in his 30s with an untucked white dress shirt dipping and swaying and grooving to every single stilted beat. It was like he choreographed his dance to the music that afternoon. His dancing was so lithe and happy, a pretty young, curly-haired brunette ran up and joined him dancing right in front of the bright, back-lit bar. Her intentions, with her wide smile and wilder hands and eyes, would only be misconstrued by a Tibetan monk. Yet the man smiled, held her face softly and was a perfect gentleman. He finally broke away for some more moves. Apparently, he was more interested in dancing than sex.

Ipanema Beach at night.

Ipanema Beach at night.

I returned to the hotel at the reasonable time of 4 a.m. In Rio, if you’re not out until at least 9 a.m., you’re not trying. However, dropping my head to my pillow, just before going to sleep, I realized I made a mistake. I left my credit card at the club. It was five blocks away. I then went back to the first warning I heard: Don’t walk on the beach at night. I was not walking on the beach at night. I was walking on it at 4 in the morning. Still, I saw people walking along Vieira Souto. None looked capable of helping top Rio’s 2014 number of 1,207 homicides.

In another two hours the sun would come up. In Rio, the sun has been setting for a long time. But this is one city that is always very hot.

Night 2 of Rome beer crawl reveals far reach of vastly upgraded beer scene

L'Oasi della Birra features 400 different beers and its 10-euro aperitivo may be the best in Rome.

L’Oasi della Birra features 400 different beers and its 10-euro aperitivo may be the best in Rome.

Night 2 of my Rome beer bar crawl needed a one-day delay. It turns out, Italy’s stronger artisanal beers carry a bigger wallop than I thought. I nursed a rare Rome hangover from Night 1 until I crawled out of bed at 9 a.m. The Excedrin I popped like Baci chocolates had about that much effect against the suffocating humidity and low-90s temperatures of a Rome heat wave that has gone way too long.

But Sunday night my thirst had returned. Rome’s weather does that to you. My second five birrerias were in my south end of Rome — one stumbling distance from my home — and went through the teeming mass of students, trendy Romans and bohemians in the twisty alleys that is Trastevere.

So before I hop a flight to Rio, here is the look of Night 2 on Rome’s burgeoning artisanal beer scene. (Neighborhoods in parentheses):

Hopificio has no sign outside but the beer inside is worth the trip far from Rome's center.

Hopificio has no sign outside but the beer inside is worth the trip far from Rome’s center.

Piazza Cesare Baronio, 2 (Alberone)

Alberone is a small, upscale neighborhood of quiet boulevards under shady trees. It’s the farthest birreria from Centro Storico (Historical Center) that I visited. It’s a perfect bar for the affluent locals, away from English speakers in white fedoras and immigrants selling cheap roses and crude jewelry.

One problem: I couldn’t find it. My memory from last summer’s story on Rome’s beer boom, like a long isolated blackout, had failed me. It had no sign. None. I finally asked two guys drinking beer on a quiet patio in the large Piazza Cesare Baronio if it was Hopificio and I was right. A waitress tried explaining in Italian the lack of sign, none of which I understood. The manager tried explaining it in English which I didn’t understand, either.

However, the “Hopificio” sign on the wall inside convinced me this was the home of the Punto G, one of my favorite beers in last summer’s beer tour. It’s an Amber Bock, caramel in color and gorgeous on a hot early evening. Many agree. It won first place in the recent Italian Master Brewery contest.

Hopificio  rotates nine beers on tap.

Hopificio rotates nine beers on tap.

Hopificio was built two years ago in a former auto parts store. It rotates nine beers on tap and 25 bottles, most of them from Italy. I picked the right time to come. It was happy hour. One of the best beers I’ve had in Europe was only 3.50 euro. The co-owner, Marco Mascherini, is a 30-year-old hip-looking world traveler who worked as a bartender in Sydney nine years ago for six months. Then he was introduced to artisanal beers.

With a look of passion that no one pulls off like Italians, he said, “I tried it and I fell in love.”

Me with LA 70 from Birrificio Math, a small brewery south of Florence.

Me with LA 70 from Birrificio Math, a small brewery south of Florence.

Piazza Testaccio, 41 (Testaccio)

This is where I go when I’m out of food or dying of thirst. Preferably it’s both. From my home it’s a five-minute walk on recently remodeled Piazza Testaccio. For nearly 100 years, it was the site of Mercato di Testaccio, one of Rome’s oldest public markets, until it moved near Rome’s old slaughterhouse three years ago. Today, Piazza Testaccio is a big block of white cobblestone with a gleaming white fountain in the middle. Couples kiss on iron benches. Old residents gossip. Children play makeshift soccer games around the fountain.

Behind a small shelter on the sidewalk you’ll see a series of long picnic tables. They’re usually packed with people who come from around Rome to eat what I believe is the best aperitivo in the city. The happy hour buffet usually features three or four different pastas ranging from rigatoni to gnocchi, couscous, rice dishes, vegetables from melenzana (eggplant) to mushrooms. An entire aisle is laid out with plates of cheeses and Italian meats. At the end are piles of L’Oasi’s huge array of designer chocolates that fill the front of the store.

What people have really come for since it opened in 1990 is maybe the biggest beer and wine combo store in the city. L’Oasi features 400 different beers from around the world and more than 1,500 wines. For 10 euros, you get an Italian beer and the all-you-can-eat aperitivo. The rest of the two-story establishment is lined floor to ceiling with wine bottles. Exotic beers fill the windows. I can’t walk home past the place late at night without getting a twinge.
L'Oasi cheese, meatsL'Oasi pasta
On this night of, ahem, journalistic research, I piled my plate high with pasta under another mountain of rice topped with layered salami and sliced cheese. Meringue squares and jelly filled chocolates ringed the plate. I washed it down with two LA 70s, a Belgian ale from Birrificio Math just south of Florence.

Sit down as the sun sets behind the Tiber four blocks away and inevitably you’ll start a conversation with the friendly locals blissed out over great food and cold beer after a hot day.

Bir & Food features Gabriele Bonci, one of the top dough chefs in Rome.

Bir & Food features Gabriele Bonci, one of the top dough chefs in Rome.

Via Benedetta, 23 (Trastevere)

Walking across the Tiber River to Trastevere (short for “attraverso il Tevere” or “across the Tiber”) from Testaccio is like going from mass at St. Peter’s to Carnival in Rio. Testaccio’s tranquil, uncrowded scene gives way to a teeming mass of humanity bouncing off bars, restaurants and boutiques in the crowded, narrow alleys. On a narrow street off Piazza Trilussa, where hundreds of youths mingle around a 17th century fountain, is Via Benedetta. The narrow street boasts two brother bars, Bir & Fud and Mac Che Siete Venuti A Fa. Both are owned by Manuele Colonna, a ponytailed native of Trastevere’s bohemian past and considered the godfather of Rome’s craft beer explosion.

Bir & Fud is his more family oriented establishment. Chef Gabriele Bonci serves up one of the best hand-made pizza crusts in Italy. Dishes like octopus salad and bacala’, Rome’s signature historic fried cod, highlight the menu.

Bir & Fud rotates its 36 taps every two days.

Bir & Fud rotates its 36 taps every two days.

Inside is a long line of 36 taps that change every two days. Most of its 200 bottles of beer come from Italy, such as LoverBeer’s Madamin, a Flemish-style beer aged in oak. I had a Montastella, a pilsner way too light at 4.5 percent. How thankful I was the next day that I didn’t try anything stronger.
Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa (What Are You Doing Here) was one of the first on the Italian craft beer scene.

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa (What Are You Doing Here) was one of the first on the Italian craft beer scene.

Via di Benedetta, 25 (Trastevere)

OK, first, the name. The most unusually named pub in Europe, maybe the world, takes its roots from soccer. Ma che siete venuti a fa is local Romanesco dialect for “What are you doing here?” Colonna is a major fan of Lazio, the cross-town rival of my beloved A.S. Roma, and obviously mentally deficient. Besides that fact, Lazio was Rome’s first team, established in 1900 to Roma’s 1927. When Colonna built the bar in 2001 as Rome’s first to sell Italian craft beers, it was meant for winning Lazio fans to celebrate. The name is a direct shot at any visiting fans wanting to enter.

Of course, they’re welcome. Colonna and I had a lovely talk last summer after exchanging insults about soccer tastes, heritage and mental disorders. His bar, known locally as Ma Che, is tiny. A few bar stools are in front of the tiny bar with the beer menu, mostly Italian IPAs, displayed on a chalkboard. Its specialty is silky-smooth Tipopils, which the last few years has been the best-selling artisanal beer in Rome. All year round, Ma Che has customers spilling out onto the narrow street, plastic cups in hand.

Colonna helped lift Italy’s beer tastes off the sticky floor by working first with Northern European breweries. When artisanal beers developed in Northern Italy in the 1990s, he was one of the first to hop on the beer wagon.

"Ma Che" opened way back in 2001.

“Ma Che” opened way back in 2001.

“We are one of the last countries in Europe for beer drinking,” he said. “Now with the craft beer movement, it’s totally a novelty. It seems everybody now drinks beer. We have more breweries now in Italy than Belgium. That’s crazy.”

Brasserie 4:20 is built in one of Rome's first commercial train stations from the 1800s.

Brasserie 4:20 is built in one of Rome’s first commercial train stations from the 1800s.

Via Portuense, 82 (Trastevere)

On the south end of Trastevere, the trendy restaurants and reviling exchange students are left behind. Via Portuense stretches not far from the Tiber through a scruffy section of 1960s apartment houses and onto a stretch of modern restaurants. On Sundays, Via Portuense is the site of the Porto Portese Flea Market, one of Europe’s largest flea markets where you can buy everything from leather jackets to silverware for 1970s prices.

In stark contrast to the crowded, hot, chaotic atmosphere of the flea market, Brasserie 4:20 sits nearby as a slice of elegance. Brass railings highlight stained wood bars and tables where gourmet items like Kobe beef burgers dot the menu. I walked in with a Roman friend and beer novice, Marie Laura, hoping to see the owner Alex Liberati. He’s a long-haired Italian-Irishman whose parents’ many trips to North America, and his travels searching for quality beer, have left him with a Southern California accent.

He calls me “Dude” while spinning tales of how he’d fill his car with beers from around Europe and bring them back to his thirsty friends. He still remembers the curious looks he got from customs agents. In 2007 he found this bar in Rome’s first commercial train station in the 1800s and took the name from April 20, National Weed Day. No, as a youth, beer wasn’t Liberati’s only libation.

“Americans still come around and say, ‘Hey, 4:20. You got weed?’ No, dude,” he said.

From left, Doris, Ilse, me and Maria Laura at Brasserie 4:20.

From left, Doris, Ilse, me and Maria Laura at Brasserie 4:20.

Today it has developed into an off-beat hangout for Rome’s youth. We sat down next to two 20-year-old blondes from Amsterdam, Ilse and Doris. They were leaving Rome the next day and were going to get their night life’s worth out of it. I learned that they love quality beer and Ilse works in an Amsterdam bar called Arendsnest. We talked about how many bad beers there are in the world. Thus, I learned the Dutch word for “sucks”: Zuigt (pronounced, somehow, ZSHOUT).

After about eight beers in five hours, I realized for the first time in a long time in teetotaling Rome, I was tipsy. OK, more than tipsy. I thought about the biggest social faux pas you can commit in Rome: public drunkenness. Can Romans keep supporting all these birrerias drinking beer that’s nearly as alcoholic as the wine they’ve been sipping all their lives? Is all this a fad? To a man, no one in the industry is worried this will go away.

“People in this country love to taste,” said Liberati, also a board member of Italy’s brewers association, Unionbirrai. “They fall in love with tasteful and characterized food, wines and, also, of course, beers. They can recognize the difference.

“That’s why it’s going to stay.”