In this week’s “Where Is…?” I got to speak to Gabi Ancarola, the author behind “The Tiny Book”, a family travel blog. An eclectic reader, travel seeker, and self-confessed elephant pant junkie, Gabi is passionate about writing and mad about seeing the world. Gabi moved to Italy about 12 years ago and today she chats to me about family life near Milan before she is about to leave and embark on a new adventure with her partner and their two boys.
Hello Gabi…welcome to “Where Is?” What’s it like living in Italy?
I am in the north of Italy, quite close to Milan and five minutes away from the International Airport of Malpensa (which, by the way, is not actually in Milan but in Varese). Ours is a mountain-like landscape, with lakes and snow and people going skiing during several months of the year. It’s quite rainy and pretty cold. The summers tend to be quick, short and not as hot as I might want – this is the main reason why we are about to leave.
Can you tell us a little more about what brought you to Italy?
I was born in Argentina and arrived here almost 12 years ago, after meeting my Italian partner. I decided this was not the place for us to be, but he was the man I wanted to be with, so I made up my mind, moved here, got a second degree, had two kids and now that they are old enough, we are ready to move on.
We are a sea couple, or better a sea loving family. We enjoy islands, snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing, seafood, tropical fruit, and coconut scented bronzers. We are just waiting for our eldest son to finish his primary school, then we’ll just hit the road for good.
Sounds like an exciting plan! What was it like for you when you first arrived in Italy?
Upon arrival I was very tight on my budget, so I didn’t do much. One of the things I really enjoyed was visiting the street market on Saturdays; I was able to get good deals for fresh fruit and vegetables and I always managed to buy a little something for the house too. The best and most important thing I got there? My cat!!! Living here was too lonely at the beginning, so I bought myself a black kitty that lived with me for over 10 years. I guess it was then I realised I was not in Italy just to finish my studies, it was not a touch-and-go destination. I knew it was not forever, but I also knew I was going to stay for a good while.
You’ve lived in Italy quite a while now…can you recommend any great places to go or things to avoid?
All travel guides in Milan are going to tell you one thing: this is the capital of fashion, go shopping (or at least, window shopping) in via della Spiga and via Montenapoleone, where you will find the most amazing and exclusive designer stores.
Piece of advice? Avoid that! Unless you’re really have that amount of money, chances are you’ll see very little of the shops since the new tendency in store image is to make them as disguised to the public as possible. Go and see the real Milan: its museums and churches are fantastic. Any church is a masterpiece, of course I fell for the Duomo, every guide vividly suggests a visit and I couldn’t agree more.
Over twenty years ago I visited Italy for the first time. Only twice tears came to my eyes in front of man-made beauty. The first time was when after hours of being lost, I found myself in Piazza San Marco, in the middle of Venice. The second time was when I entered the Cathedral – il Duomo – of Milan; an iconic symbol of the city, standing right in front of the Piazza del Duomo, meeting point of the city. It is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, with more than 200 bas-reliefs, 90 gargoyles and 130 spires. It took over five centuries to be completed and counts over 3000 statues. Its impressive interior, divided into five naves, impacts with the bluish light that enters through the many stained-glass windows, creating calm but also mysterious atmosphere, an image that made me shiver and feel I was nothing but a tiny spot in this enormous world of us. This was a unique feeling no other cathedral I’ve set foot in was ever able to give me.
I’ll definitely keep that tip in mind when I get round to visiting Milan! Do you have any other suggestions?
Many other places are also worth the visit, see the Classic Milan with a guided visit to its opera theatre, the famous Teatro alla Scala, built between 1776-1778, which soon became one of the most famous stages in the world. This stunning stage suffered great damages during World War II, but was soon rebuilt to regain its present magnificence.
What must-have items do you always carry in your luggage and why?
One thing I will definitely miss about being based in Italy will be low cost carriers coming together in a combo “I’m just an hour away from [fill in the blank with any European capital]”. Yes… years of hard sacrifice and suffered lessons to learn the basics of carry on only, limiting ourselves to the bare minimum, becoming completely dependent on compression cubes, compression straps, rolling techniques, and travel size toiletries. These must haves are a lesson learnt for life and I guess will stick with us for ever.
And finally, what has been your favourite destination so far?
Being in Milan also gave us the chance to have Caribbean-like holidays in what I call the peninsula’s best kept backyard: Greece. Italy gave me Greece, Italy gave me the gift of the Mediterranean, and all that comes with it – its islands, its genuine tasty food, its passionate people, its nostalgic music and its amazing hospitality. Italy gave me Greece and I will always be thankful for that!