There is no better place to shop than in Italy – whether you are looking for a designer outfit on Milan’s chic Via Montenapoleone or the best ricotta cheese in a market in Sicily, Italy is a shopper’s paradise.
It’s strange, but I tend to do most of my shopping when I am in Italy whether I’m there for business or on holiday. When I’m there for work purposes, it’s usually to do with food, so it’s always a culinary treat seeking out the best of local produce. But I also like to take a little time out to check out the fashion shops and treat myself as well as Liz and the girls. And I find you don’t have to necessarily go to the top designer shops and spend a fortune - unknown Italian brands are really good quality, stylish and good value.
Shops in Italy, especially in major towns, tend to be located in the beautiful historic centres, so whether I buy anything or not, it’s always a pleasure to stroll around making the whole shopping experience stress-free and enjoyable. Even in busy Rome, the area around the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti is relatively relaxed compared to Oxford Street or a mall! I always buy suits and shirts in Italy and Liz loves the shoe shops. I also like to visit book shops so I can stock up on the latest Italian novels and cookbooks. I’ve had lovely shopping experiences in smaller towns like Lucca and Perugia and more recently in Modena where I managed to do all my Christmas shopping in no time! When I’m on the Amalfi Coast, I visit Salerno’s small but lovely centre where, on a recent visit, I bought a hat from a traditional local artisan shop which has been there for generations.
When I return from Italy, especially after a visit to my home village of Minori, I end up overloading my suitcase with local lemons, sausages, cheese, herbs and whatever seasonal produce is around. I know it sounds crazy, but I love buying in local shops and markets to enjoy the products back at home in England – or perhaps I’m just a big nostalgic!
I always check out the local markets – you get a feel of what is produced locally both foodwise and artisanal handicrafts. Usually all towns and villages have street markets once a week. Check with your hotel or local tourist office and make sure you get there in the morning as by lunchtime trading is usually over. Larger towns have central food markets which are often indoors and open daily. The ones which have impressed me are in Bologna and Modena – the gastronomic region of Italy - but also the Mercato Centrale in Florence is not to be missed. If you’re in Venice head to the daily Rialto market for fresh fish from the lagoon, fruit & vegetables. In Palermo I love to visit Vucceria and Ballaro’ markets – rowdy, crowded but such an unforgettable experience.
Be sure to visit the local Salumerie (delis selling cured meats & cheeses) as well as the local Panetteria (bakery) for wonderful breads and other baked goods such as mini pizze, focaccia, biscuits and rustic cakes. Produce is so mouth-wateringly tempting that in warmer months, I often buy some slices of cured meats, some cheese and bread to enjoy a simple but delicious picnic. Look out for Rosticcerie and Gastronomie – these are amazing takeaways which sell top-quality food for people to eat at home - ideal if you’re on a self-catering basis.
Although not as numerous and on such a grand scale as in Germany, Christmas markets are popular in Italy. In Rome’s Piazza Navona, a huge display of cribs and nativity scenes dominate the stalls as well as food & drink – well worth a visit if you are in the city during December and Christmas. The majority of mercatini di Natale (Christmas markets) are found in the north – Turin, Verona and the famous Oh bej! Oh bej! in Milan with over 400 stalls. However, many are tucked away in the Alpine region of the Dolomites in Merano, Bolzano, Trentino, Belluno to name a few, selling an array of local handicrafts, wooden objects and gastronomy.
On a recent trip to Naples, I visited the area around Via San Gregorio Armeno in the historic centre, where the whole street is dedicated to nativity workshops. Tiny handmade figures are made and sold for the presepe (crib) which Naples is famous for. I stocked up with numerous small figures of people and animals for my own crib which I make each year at home. Even if you do not traditionally make a crib, the curious little alleyways and shops are interesting to visit and are open all year round where it’s always Christmas!
I have a passion for rustic crockery so I love to check out antique shops and flea markets. I remember buying quite a few bits on the Sicilian islands as well as in Puglia. For simple, quality hand painted crockery Fasano in Puglia is lovely, contrasting with the vibrant coloured plates and bowls of Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi Coast. I also love to collect artisan knives and Tuscany is the place where I recently purchased some Scarperia knives in Florence.