y mother is a garage sale goddess. She can spot a garage sale from across town. Mom never fails to find treasure among the trash. I detest garage sales. I don’t know how to spot treasure. Plus, being germ-phobic, I hate pawing through smelly old junk, stained clothing and fuzzy kitchen appliances.
Street markets are another matter. The stuff in most street markets is all new. I love the bargains. I love the variety. I love the energy of the scene. To me, this the real Italian experience. You can get almost everything you need in a street market: underwear, coffee pots, soap, shoes, kumquats, alarm clocks, bandannas, dish drainers, toothpaste, squid, bicycle bells, towels, bread, Levis, tablecloths, roasted chicken, wigs, belts, glasses (reading and wine), T-shirts, fried shrimp, beads, luggage, toilet paper — just to name a few.
I told one of my English students how much I love street markets and she said, “You must go to the market in Luino.” Luino? I’d never heard of it. “It’s a small town by Lago Maggiore.” She told me that the market draws people from as far away as Germany. I was intrigued, so I cleared my calendar and went to Luino.
Unfortunately, work commitments prevented my husband, Dan, from coming with me. When I got to Luino, I was sure that the market would be on the Lungolago, the street that follows the lakeshore. That was easy enough to find from the train station, even without Dan’s navigational skills. I headed down the gently sloping street from the station. Almost all of the buildings looked freshly painted — a definite sign of prosperity, I thought.
When I got to the lakeshore, I didn’t see any sign of a market. The wide Lungolago was pretty, even in late winter. Unfortunately, the giant sycamores lining the wide sidewalk are all marked for destruction, with a few already cut down. The only rationale I could think of is disease, which is hard to recognize in February. It left me feeling sad.
The street market would cheer me up, but I still hadn’t spotted the familiar striped tent tops. A parking lot full of cars and a steady flow of traffic gave me hope. After walking for about ten minutes, I finally saw tents by the lakeshore. There were also half a dozen charter buses parked nearby. A vendor stopped chatting with his friend to greet me in German.
I smiled, “Sono Americana.”
“America is a beautiful country,” he said, switching to Italian. “I’ve never been there, but it is my dream to go there.”
I told him that my dream was to live in Italy.
“Where do you live?”
“Roma è più bella.” — the stock response. People are always telling me how ugly Milan is. Most have never seen Estelline, Texas after the cotton harvest. I prize my home state, but compared to a lot of places, Milan is beautiful — even if it falls short by Italian standards. Of course, there’s no disputing that Rome is more beautiful.
I wandered for a while. The market was cheaper than its Milan counterparts, but that’s the norm for small town vendors. But why, I wondered, did this market draw people from as far away as Germany? The kiosks continued up the street away from the lakeshore. Everywhere were hand-lettered signs written in Italian and German, some also had English.
“Käse, formaggio, cheese,” one proclaimed.
I saw a stall selling designer handbags — something you see also in Milan — but these were very cheap indeed. Are they the real thing? How would I know? They appeared to be well-made, lined with nice fabric. Probably genuine. Another vendor peddled leather and fur coats. These were also well-made and lined, going for as little as €50.
I was beginning to see the attraction. There were some incredible bargains here.
In addition to designer duds and bags, the market had the full variety of normal stuff from hammers to hair extensions, eggs to Easter lilies, rugs to wrenches, pantyhose to pressure cookers. Every time I thought I had come to the market’s end, it continued around the corner and down another street, filling the next piazza. CD vendors filled the air with Italian folk music, giving the market a festive feel, even on this gray day. In all, there were 356 stalls. Luino boasts that it has the biggest weekly market in Europe.
I bought olives and sun-dried tomatoes from one vendor, cheese from another, who sliced it for me, and a tarocco orange from the fruttivendolo. Then, finding a bench on the Lungolago, I ate my lunch watching the gray waves and the happy shoppers carrying their treasures back to their cars. I thought of Mom. I’ll have to bring her when she comes for a visit. She’ll love it.
THE LUINO MARKET
Luino has had a weekly market since 1541. Before that, it shared a market with nearby Maccagno. Market day is Wednesday, year-round. The market hosts 356 stalls, making it the biggest weekly market in Europe. It draws bargain-hunters from Switzerland, Germany, France and Holland, as well as Italy.
The trip from Milan (not a day trip from Rome) takes about two hours on the regional train, with a change in Gallarate. The good news is that it leaves from all the Passante train stations in Milan. The Passante station are: Porta Vittoria, Dateo, Porta Venezia, Repubblica, Porta Garibaldi, Lancetti and Villapizzone. Porta Venezia, Repubblica and Garibaldi connect with the metro stations of the same name.
Tickets cost only €5.70, each way, with hourly departures between Gallarate and Luino.
MAKING UP A DAY TRIP
Day trips can originate from anywhere, but the best originate two hours of home. Train tickets with reserved seats run about €10-12 per person, each way. On the regional trains the cost is about half, but seating can be difficult at times. A big meal at a nice restaurant will come to anywhere from €25-90 per person. Museum tickets cost €6-9 each. A detailed map is about €5, but many places, you can wing it. Larger towns may require a taxi from the train station, plan on €10 each way.
Events and art exhibits can be found beginning on page 44 of The American each month. You can also check the website: www.theamericanmag.com under Calendar.
Daily newspapers are another good resource — most have event web sites. The website for Corriere della Sera is: www.corriere.it. La Repubblica is: www.repubblica.it. You can also check the weekend weather forecast online. Many towns have a web site with an events page.
For monthly markets and events in Lombardy see “Feste Sagre & Mercatini in Lombardia,” (€9.50, Lozzi & Rossi s.r.l.). Call or check the websites to verify dates and times of specific events. The Lombardy Region has a website with a news and events page at: www.regione.lombardia.it. For interesting and unusual places in Lombardy, check “Lombardia sconosciuta. Itinerari insoliti e curiosi,” (Giuseppe Zanini, €18.08, Rizzoli).
“Ristoranti d’italia del Gambero Rosso,” (€20, Gambero Rosso) is a reliable resource for restaurants throughout Italy. Another valuable resource is “Osterie d’Italia,” (€20.14, Slow Food). There is surprisingly little overlap between Gambero Rosso and Slow Food. Finally, there is Michelin’s “Italia 2006,” also known as the “Red Guide” (€22, Michelin Italiana).
For up-to-date information on restaurants, check Gambero Rosso, www.gamberorosso.it. Slow Food, www.slowfood.it, and Michelin, www.viamichelin.it. There is an abundance of other sources about restaurants online.