These are trying times for Americans' wallets. The euro is reaching new highs every day against the dollar. (Throughout this guide, the euro is pegged at $1.30.) Rising hotel prices continue to outpace inflation. Every restaurateur is out to chase the big spenders. Where does it all end?
Well, I can tell you where the good news begins, and that is in the West: northwestern Italy, to be precise. While Venice figures out how to keep its tourist crowds under control, Piedmont and Liguria are doing their best to lure a few of them.
Turin and Genoa have rarely been able to compete with the draw of the Lagoon City (with the notable exception of Turin's Olympic stint in 2006), even though each of those places has its own spectacular history, culture, and natural wonders. One neighborhood in Genoa, for example, the Via Garibaldi, was recently added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For its part, Turin is an entirely renovated city after hosting the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. And if these accolades and structural improvements don't immediately win over tourists' hearts, pure economics will eventually win over their minds.
Another welcome change in northern Italy is that some museums have simplified their hours. While many still have a midday break, most of the principal ones are now open through the lunch hour. Add to that a slew of new cumulative tickets for multiple attractions, as well as the completion of many major restoration projects across northern Italy -- the Duomo in Milan, the Arena in Verona, and the clock tower in Saint Mark's Square in Venice.
Over the past decade in Venice there have been two major problems facing the city, each yielding controversial solutions.
The first and most immediate concern, of course, is that the place is sinking. After much back-and-forth about its environmental impact, construction of MOSE (the retractable dam appropriately called "MOSES") is well underway.
The other dilemma that Venetians had faced was how to deal with all the people. There were initial suggestions that tourists pay a fee to get into the city. Instead, it was decided they could buy a card to allow them access to bathrooms as well as afford them discounts to the sites they really came to see. In the meantime, prices for restaurants, hotels and especially for the city's water transportation system skyrocketed (to the tune of 6€/$7.80 for a vaporetto ticket, not to mention the extortionate cost of water taxis and gondolas). And yet the people still arrive in droves. Of course they do. Venice remains arguably the most romantic city in the world.
So that has lead to the latest problem: What to do with all the money? This is doubtlessly a good problem to have, but unsurprisingly the proposed solutions are hotly contested. On August 6, 2007, the city's newest bridge -- a 12-million€ ($15.6-million) wonder of glass designed by Santiago Calatrava -- was paraded down the Grand Canal to a mixed chorus of passionate applause and derisive whistles. For those rushing to catch a train, it is indeed a nice addition and a gorgeous piece of art to boot, even though there is a perfectly good bridge just a few meters downstream. For most locals, well, it's another pretty monument with no apparent function and, as of the printing of this edition, no apparent name. "The Bridge With No Use Whatsoever," offered one critic at the inauguration.
Yes, these are the salad days for the city on the lagoon, the likes of which the Serenissima hasn't seen since it opened its cash registers to the passing Crusaders in the Middle Ages. The price of some of the grand suites listed in this guide have crested the 7,700€ ($10,000) mark, and even the smaller restaurateurs, the hold-outs in the name of tradition, have largely sold out to entrepreneurs, who in turn have doubled the prices and halved their costs by hiring a waitstaff from developing countries. What used to be wine bars are now midscale restaurants, what used to be midscale restaurants are now serving haute cuisine. There are a few good values left -- and this guide will help you find them.
Treviso -- The most interesting museum in this city, formerly known as the Civic Museum and under restoration for a number of years, has now reopened under a new guise. The Museo Bailo, as it is called now, holds the city's collection of bronze relics and paintings by Tintoretto and Titian. On a down note, Treviso no longer offers free tours of the city.
Vicenza -- Vicenza has been working hard to promote itself as the "Heart of the Veneto," and it is in fact a beautiful, underrated city that revolves around its homegrown Renaissance genius, Andrea Palladio. Indeed, 2008 marks the 500th anniversary of the architect's birth, and the city is throwing a party (visit www.palladio2008.info). Meanwhile, though, the big white elephant in the corner is the temporary closing of Palladio's greatest local hit, the Basilica Palladiana, in 2006: The restoration will last at least 4 years.
Verona -- The long restoration of the Arena, the second-largest Roman amphitheater in Italy, is finally complete.
Trieste -- A great time to visit this unique port is in 2008, when its fabled Barcolana regatta celebrates its 40th anniversary. Be aware, though, that the city's signature castle, the Castello di San Giusto, will be entirely closed for restoration.
Milan & Lombardy
Milan -- I can't put my finger on it, but something just isn't the same in the Brera neighborhood these days. Nightlife seems to have slipped a notch after the departure of two of the anchors here: the Louisiana Grill, a mainstay for visiting models, and Le Trattoir, a live-music venue that catered to more arty types. Like most places in northern Italy, the neighborhood seems to have moved on to upscale pursuits, and so to represent that, I gladly included a great, new raw-fish bar, Da Claudio, which is helping to transform the way the city does its aperitivo hour.
While the luxury market continues to thrive in Milan, the budgeteers are mourning the loss of a faithful friend, the Hotel Speronari, one of the few sub-100€ ($130) choices that was left in the city; it closed for good in 2006. Meanwhile, the Grand Hotel Duomo is undergoing a face-lift, and the Hotel Manzoni is still under wraps -- after several years, there is no reliable word on when that upwardly mobile hotel will reopen.
More bad news: The old no. 20 tram, which used to cart tourists around the city in old-school style, has been replaced by a modern, red double-decker bus, which is becoming a ubiquitous sight throughout the country. The good news for tourists is that the Duomo, the fourth-largest church in Christendom, has finally been relieved of its scaffolding and cleaning crew: 5 years, 192 statues, 47 bas-reliefs, and 12 spires later.
Bergamo -- The Duomo here has just undergone restoration, although fortunately it is one of the city's less-impressive churches.
Mantua -- The San Lorenzo hotel has closed, perhaps indicative of a trend toward bed-and-breakfasts in small northern cities where local hotel choices are too few, and the promise of friendly home-spun hospitality too bright.
Lake Como -- The assault against budget travelers in Lombardy continues, as the best youth hostel in northern Italy, La Primula, in Menaggio, is up for sale. The owners of this gem overlooking Lake Como cited imminent and prohibitive investment costs as the reason they likely won't make it through 2008. On the bright side, the town's other pleasant budget hotel/restaurant, the Albergo-Ristorante Il Vapore, has reopened its kitchen after the death of its owner in 2002. Meanwhile, across the lake, in Varenna, the Milano has completed its renovation and now offers decently priced apartments for families in its annex.
Lake Maggiore -- Sadly, the fish restaurant in Stresa favored among locals, Il Pescatore, has closed its doors with no decent substitute in sight.
Piedmont & the Valle d'Aosta
Turin -- One new incentive in Turin that deserves mention is the Torino Weekend discount that the tourist board (www.turismotorino.org) periodically announces. It offers a weekend stay, including 2 nights of accommodations, and two comprehensive museum passes for as low as 59€ ($77). As mentioned above, the revamping of the city for the Olympics has left a sparkling new infrastructure in place for more visitors. The bad news is that a few of the minor museums are now undergoing restoration -- among them, the automobile museum, the Risorgimento museum, and the Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi.
Barolo -- The castle's wine museum is temporarily closed as it undergoes an expansion.
Aosta -- Return visitors looking to relive their gastronomic experience at Osteria Da Nando should know that it has moved from Via de Tillier to Via Sant'Anselmo, where it has a larger locale.
Liguria & the Italian Riviera
Genoa -- Construction on the long-awaited subway system is still clamoring along, with the addition of two new stops since 2006. Perhaps to help pay for this massive undertaking, the price of a bus/subway ticket has risen to 1.20€ ($1.55) from 1€ ($1.30).
The Genovese are particularly proud of the new designation of Via Garibaldi, along with its stunning aristocratic palaces, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To afford a new panoramic view of the neighborhood, the city has opened a terrace, small but with a very nice view, atop the Palazzo Rosso.
Camogli -- The one great shortcoming of the gorgeous coast south of Genoa is the dire shortage of parking. Camogli has therefore just added a new three-story garage on its northern edge, by the highway exit.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.