A full moon illuminates the dome of San Carlo al Corso, outlining its circular windows and a tiny cross on the top. On the side, a giant cactus overflows like a green tarantula from the balcony of what appears to be an apartment. From the terrace of the Hotel San Carlo in Rome, Italy, the sky feels so close I can almost touch it. The air is pleasantly warm and humid, and even at 10:30 p.m., a delicious smell of hot pasta wafts from a restaurant below. The hotel is in the historic heart of the city, on a cobbled stone street called Via delle Carrozze close to the Spanish Steps, nestled between streets of designer stores: Armani, Versace, Hermes.
Eat, pray, love. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling book by the same name, knew what she was looking for when she traveled to Italy—food. I had two goals in mind: to visit Assisi, the home of St. Francis, and to see the first Casa de Bambini (Children’s House) of Maria Montessori, the legendary educator, whose 100th anniversary was celebrated all over the world in 2007. My husband, a history buff and faithful fan of Coleen McCullough, author of the seven-part Masters of Rome novel series, had Roman ruins on his mind. But while flipping through a travel book, we came across another kind of tourist attraction near Florence—designer outlets.
As in many other parts of the world, you see shady looking people on the sidewalks of Rome, mostly African and Bangladeshi men in this case, selling fake designer handbags. But if you have long coveted designer goods, this isn’t the route you want to take. The Italian government has figured out that the best way to prevent the racket is to impose a stiff penalty on buyers, not sellers. Even in the United States, it’s a risky move. A man who had purchased a fake Rolex in the Far East and brought it into the country was faced with a heavy bill from Customs: the actual purchase price of a genuine Rolex. Besides, if you are foolish enough to buy that fake Gucci wallet, say, in a mall in Bangalore, India, you will soon discover that it will fall apart in about a month.
So, at the insistence of the fashion police of the family, my first-born, and lured by the promise of 75 percent discounts, my family started on an honest pilgrimage to designerdom. From Rome, we took a train to Assisi, and then embarked on a side trip from Florence.
The train from Florence rolled by stretches of white houses that were curiously all alike, with green shutters and red shingled roofs. The creativity of Italian fashion didn’t seem to apply to the homes, but rolling hills of green made up for the unimaginative architecture. Cerulean sky swooped down on fields of golden sunflowers. Olive groves and vineyards floated by, and cypress trees dotted the glorious landscape.
When we got down at Montevarchi, the station was deserted. Rookies that we were, we had no address, no telephone number, and had left our Italian phrase book at the hotel. But all we had to do was go up to a cab driver and utter the holy word: Prada. The man nodded his head vigorously. Still, I wasn’t sure.
“You know, Prada. Factory. Shopping?” I asked doubtfully, wondering if we were going to be lost in a remote village in Italy forever. I needn’t have worried. The driver knew exactly where we wanted to go. After a few minutes, a large white building with a saw-toothed roof loomed in front of us, strangely deserted, with only a couple black cars parked nearby. A reconnoitering by our scout confirmed it was the store, officially called Lo Spaccio or “Space.” The driver conveyed through sign language that he would pick us up after two hours, which turned out to be a good thing, because the outlet looked isolated, with no buses or cabs in sight.
Before you enter the sanctum sanctorum, you have to take a number. Fortunately, we had arrived so late in the afternoon that the early morning hordes had already left, and there were only a few stragglers like us. Despite rumors that it would be picked clean if you didn’t arrive by opening time at 9 a.m., there was plenty of merchandise—at least for your common, garden variety fashionistas.
My first-born darted about frantically, casing the joint. Only two hours to shop, and the money one had earned making popcorn at Regal Cinemas had to be judiciously spent. Mui-mui shoes and Prada wallets beckoned, and the difficult decision had to be made about whether to spend it all or save some for the “The Mall,” the other designer destination a few miles away. My spartan spouse turned up his nose at the linen suits hanging in the men’s section, and as it wasn’t an electronics store, scorned the crass consumerism around him. But since he had left his hat behind in Assisi, he reluctantly agreed to the purchase of a canvas hat with a red ribbon that proudly announced Prada.
Heaps of polyester polo shirts, very ’70s and Rajesh Khanna-ish, covered the tables of a room, but my younger child politely declined them. I didn’t blame him. He chose a white cotton shirt instead with an intriguing Picasso-like black pattern (I see an eye, I see a leg—no wait, it’s a balloon). I ventured gingerly into the shoe section and beat a hasty retreat. Usually, I need about four days for shoe shopping. One day to try them all on and buy a pair, two days to keep them in the closet, and the fourth day to make the trip back to the store to return them. At an average price of 300 euros for a pair, I left them for Meryl Streep.Handbags were another story. If you can convince yourself that you are not really spending 150 euros, but actually saving $500, than there is a very real possibility that you could walk away with a sleek brown canvas tote with red leather trimmings and a shiny, bright red strap.
The merchandise is great, but the delicate looking sales women walking around are not there to help you. They are really there to control the hordes. No, they don’t have more stock in the back, no they are not sure if that style suits you, and please let them know if you want an item; they will take it to the cashier for you. That’s the only bit of service they will do for you, because they don’t want things to be transferred between sections. When you go up to pay, all the items you have selected will be waiting neatly for you under your ticket number. If you are smart like my first-born, you will also make sure you get your VAT (Value Added Tax) refund document for your purchases. Items cannot be shipped home, as that would violate trade agreements and undercut the flagship stores. So basically, you can only take what your arms can carry.
Two hours had passed, and no one had had the time for food at the store’s conveniently placed snack shop. Outside, no taxi in sight. A bagful of goodies, and no way to get home. In 10 minutes, sure enough, our driver showed up, apologizing profusely. “Where to next?” he asked in Italian. By now I was comfortable with his knowledge of outlets and our strange bilingual method of conversation. “To the Mall,” I said in English.
Winding roads took us over more rolling hills and sun-drenched plains, chateau like farmhouses, and a historic palace. We passed by the Dolce and Gabbana outlet, but had to skip it because of time constraints. In retrospect, this was probably a bad move, because the Mall proved to be quite disappointing. It is a sprawling campus of designer stores, but, after the heady spree at Prada, the stores were a bit of a let down. They didn’t seem to offer serious discounts to the bargain shopper. However, for the designer addicts, there were many temptations: Fendi scarves, Gucci sunglasses, and Burberry jackets.
The best attraction there was an architecturally elegant restaurant with its curved glass staircase and funky dinnerware. The food was good—Mediterranean penne, sautéed with vegetables in a delicate basil sauce. Somehow, pasta in Italy is a whole different experience than anything in the U.S. Home-made, fresh, and vegetarians also have a lot more options. Downstairs in the café, baristas indulged in cappuccino art and served a melt-in-the-mouth tiramisu.
Getting back home was again dicey, as there was no taxi stand as such. Some of the taxis hanging around appeared reserved, and there was no bus stop in sight. Fortunately, a friendly taxi screeched to a halt and agreed to take us from the credit card-torching mall to the train station at Incisa, and our wallets (including a brand new Prada one) heaved a sigh of relief.
Almost every person you see in Italy is perfectly and uniquely dressed. Even grandmothers on trains wear exquisite sandals. Their secret is a book calledLo Scoprioccassioni, an encyclopedia of shopping outlets in Italy that is also available in an English edition. Another trick Italians supposedly have is to own only a few clothes and accessories, but to get the very best. Quality over quantity appears to be the motto of the Italians.
Of course, question that pops into one’s mind after seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence, in all his sculpted glory, is actually this: Who needs clothes?
Getting to the Prada Outlet
Train: Take the train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station to Monteverchi and continue with a taxi to Levanella.Driving: From the A1 motorway, take the exit marked Baldano. Follow the signs for Arezzo and then for Montevarchi.
Getting to The Mall
Train: Take the train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station to Incisa and continue by taxi to Leccio.
Driving: From Milan, take the A1 motorway towards Florence/Rome, and take the exit marked Incisa. From Rome, take the A1 motorway towards Florence and take the Incisa exit. Stay on the right towards Pontassieve until reaching Leccio. After passing the center of Leccia, the Mall will be on the left.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of the magazine.