A 30-minute drive south of Florence there is a destination that's almost as popular with tourists as Michelangelo's David. It's a shopping mall. As shopping malls go, The Mall at Leccio Reggello is not spectacular, nor is it especially large.
Built in generic mall style, it could be anywhere. It's not worthy of a photo in the way the Duomo or the Ponte Vecchio is.
Nevertheless, there are lots of people taking photos. The enormous car park is full of tour buses, mini vans, private cars and limos and the passengers that step off them click away at the buildings and stop to take selfies against the branded stores. Most popular is Space Prada, a multi-storey building that requires shoppers to take a ticket before entering and often has long lines down the block outside.
Discount malls are big business in Europe and there's a huge trend for style-conscious and economy-minded shoppers to organise international trips around a visit to one or more of them, bringing along half-empty suitcases to stuff with bargains. The malls oblige with regular shuttle-bus services and on-the-spot tax discounts, saving the line at the airport. Italy has some of the best designer discounts, particularly if you're looking for quality goods that bear the "made in Italy" tag.
The gigantic American outlets, such as Woodbury Common in New York, are great for American brands such as Ralph Lauren, but if Prada, Armani or Ferragamo are your thing, you may want to make a detour to the outskirts of Rome or the Tuscan cities.
Last year, I visited the Barberino Designer Outlet, north of Florence, that's part of the fast-growing British McArthur Glen chain. A Disneyland version of a Tuscan village, it was a pleasant shopping experience and I spotted some genuine bargains, including Frette sheets, Bruno Magli shoes and Furla bags. The Mall at Leccio Reggello is famous for its high fashion, with Fendi, Dior, Armani, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Coach, Valentino, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Lanvin, Zegna and Marni among the dozens of brands it boasts. Not surprisingly, the Space Prada is the most popular boutique, although I thought its discounts weren't as deep as some other stores.
I visited The Mall this June, at the height of the tourist season. My advice to anyone intending to do the same is to bring a cut lunch, as the shops take some time to work through and the food outlets are crowded. The tourist buses offload shoppers every few minutes and, although the outdoor spaces of the mall rarely feel crowded, the shoppers rush about from store to store forming great long lines at the checkout and the tax office.
Shoppers are also as busy as bees Instagramming bargains to each other on free Wi-Fi. Fortunately, it's all incredibly well organised in-store. I was really only doing research, you understand, but I found it hard to resist a pair of Tod's loafers for €110 (they're a few hundred dollars in Australia) and a beautiful YSL evening jacket for €150, reduced from €1700.
Purchasing was probably a little too easy on my wallet, with speedy checkouts at each counter, although I noted that the Prada registers had several lines of about a dozen people each. The large Burberry store in particular had some fantastic bargains, especially if you wanted a winter coat.
It wasn't even sale time, when clothes and shoes are discounted further. I have to say, though, that my husband didn't find anything he wanted in his price range, having an aversion to the current trend for skinny, brightly coloured men's jackets.
Throughout our month in Italy, we kept on running into a large group of well-heeled Asian travellers, holidaying with their children, who had stayed at some of the same places as us. We were fascinated by them and inquired at one hotel about who they might be. Apparently, one was a Korean rock star and another was a Chinese shopping mall magnate.
The last I saw of them, they were stumbling out of Space Prada - all of them, even the children - hauling bags full of men's shirts, leather goods and clothes. Even rock stars love a discount.