In September, 2012, we spent three weeks in Italy, visiting Cinque Terre, Tuscany and Venice.
inque Terre Five fishing villages hanging over the blue Mediterranean
We’ve gone to Europe a few times in the last few years but neither of us had been to Italy in quite some time, and neither had seen much of the famously-scenic Cinque Terre region. So, when the idea for an extended trip came up, Cinque Terre was high on the list. We flew into Genoa on Air Dolomiti. The turbo-prop to Genoa may have been a little tired but it handled such Alps as we saw with ease, plus the attendant served not only wines of the region but also gelato and coffee, so we felt well taken care of. The hotel looked new but the description in Tripadvisor as being poorly served by tourist-oriented facilities is quite correct – no views, no quaint places to stroll, no cafes, nothing to see in the immediate area. On the other hand the hotel staff was very helpful and told us how to get to the Mediterranean about a kilometer away. First, you take a pedestrian way downhill between buildings, which gives onto a local street with apartments, then you take a left onto another street which is poorly-served by sidewalks for a while, continuing downhill, finding more businesses along the way, until you get to a small cove and a largish-street: Via V Maggio (May 5th, the day in 1860 Garibaldi set sail from Genoa to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and create the Kingdom of Italy). There were a couple of pizza places and a café nearby and you can walk down the street along the sea to access more eateries, as well as the local suburban train station, Genova Quarto. That was enough for an after-flight excursion. We went back to the hotel and rested. Later, when we were ready for dinner, the hotel staff directed is to 5 Maggio, a restaurant on the water near where we had been that afternoon, and we had a fine meal of mussels (zuppa di moscoli) and pesto spaghetti (pesto was invented in Liguria), a good start for our first night in Italy.
We had a great meal here our first night in Italy at 5 Maggio.
Get away from it all in this excellent location.
The first order of business after breakfast the next day was to see if we could a SIM card for the phone we’d borrowed. We tried the large grocery store next door, but to no avail, so we decided to wait until we got to Levanto, our next destination, and look for a proper cell phone store. We got off the train at Levanto (pronounced LEH von toe - to avoid confusion with another town with a similar name pronounced Lee VAN toe). Thus began another adventure: how to call our B&B for a ride. We were pretty jet-lagged still, I guess, and couldn’t figure out a thing about the pay phones. After trying a credit card with no success, I discovered the coin slot (combined with a big red button on top of the device), then after getting a coffee solely to get change, I finally figured out how to dial the number and reached our landlady, Claudia. “I’ll be there in two minutes.” Great! Fast action. We hurry outside with our bags and hang around. Eventually a taxi comes up to pick up passengers and the driver asked “Barbara?” and said he’d be back in 5 minutes. Ten minutes later another taxi driver came up, a woman, and loaded us up. On the way, we learned she was the first guy’s wife and they drove for Claudia when she couldn’t make it. Our room is as advertised, only farther from town than we'd thought with no viable sidewalk along a road with blind curves, etc. No matter: Claudia will take you to town and pick you up whenever, it’s part of the service, so it worked fine. Whenever you call it's always "two minutes ", no matter when she shows up. Sometimes it’s she who shows up, sometimes it’s the taxi. I don’t remember which took us back to town after we got settled a bit so we could look around Levanto. The center of town is fairly compact and boasts a fine beach overlooked by a high seawall and walk. We quickly found a cell phone store and got a SIM card with no problem; the lady who helped us wanted to see only my passport and we were in business with an Italian number and twenty minutes of talk time. The next morning we sat down to breakfast – a selection of ham, salami, croissants, rolls, fruit and cappuccino. Served outside on the terrace. Yum. After breakfast, we got a ride to the train station and buy the all-in ticket for the Cinque Terre National Park. This gives you unlimited train travel and hiking trail privileges for the validity period of the ticket, in our case one day. Claudia advised us to start at the south end and work our way north and it’s good advice – other than the southernmost one (Via dell’Amore, from Riomaggiore to Manarola), the trails are pretty much up and down and by moving from south to north, you have the sun at your back and not in your face.
Views of Levanto -- the town, the beach, a piazza.
Riogmaggiore & Manarola
Both of these towns are old fishing villages, right on the sea. Picturesque as all get out. We wandered around Riomaggiore, then took the Via dellâ€™Amore to the next town north, Manarola. The views are stupendous shots of green-blue water and rocks and tortured century plants writhing out over the abyss. A woman (a girl?) in a white bikini swims the whole way from Riomaggiore to Manarola. The fishing port area in Riomaggiore. Not much wasted space here.
Via dellâ€™Amore This easy path between Riomaggiore and Manarola supposedly got its name by serving as a meeting place between the two towns for young lovers back in the day. Its romantic overtones live on today in the locks couples put in every available spot, symbolizing their love.
Corniglia The trail between Manarola and the next town north, Corniglia, was still closed because of a washout during the flooding that devastated this area in 2010, which meant a short train ride to Corniglia, followed by a longish walk from train station to the town.
Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre towns thatâ€™s not directly on the water, but itâ€™s no less scenic.
Of all the Cinque Terre towns, Corniglia is distinguished by being high above the sea on a promontory, rather than falling down a hillside to the water like the others. We had lunch there at a little place on the way out of town. It was crowded, but we were able to profit from the tardiness of whoever had reserved the table and was 30 minutes late. As usual we had pasta of some description and bread and wine. The only disappointment was the bread â€“ Italian restaurant bread in general was short on salt and texture, so it was a bland affair. On the other hand in most restaurants the wine is good and pretty reasonable, as is bottled water.
Vernazza After lunch, it was the trail. Much longer, steeper and hotter than we’d thought it would be. Quite a grind and, seeing as it was a weekend, quite busy. An hour’s trek takes us to Vernazza, the town that suffered the most from the flooding and possibly the most charming. It’s all up and down stone walks and walls and old buildings – you start wondering about the effort behind installing modern utilities and maintaining them. After walking around the town in the heat and the crowds, we were ready for home. A big crowd he trail between Corniglia and Vernazza is no picnic, and at the train station, a hot wait, then we’re back in Tnot all the views are like this. Below, the goal is in view! Levanto before you know it.
Left The gelato crowd in Vernazza on a hot September Saturday. Right The port’s a popular swimmng hole when the fishing boat’s are idle.
Monterosso al Mare To visit the last town, Monterosso al Mare, we bought train tickets at about 3€50 a pair. Monterosso has a bigger beach than the other towns and sits in a valley by the sea. We had a good lunch in town then went to the train station. The first train to Levanto looked different than the others and we’d hardly decided what to do when the conductor found us and informed us heatedly that our tickets were no good and we needed to pay 8€ apiece for a 5 minute train ride! Bummer. Moral of the story: if you have a local ticket, don’t get on an intercity train! You can tell which they are – they’re printed in different colored ink on the schedule. We inquired at the ticket counter in Levanto and the agent said we were lucky he didn’t fine us 50€ apiece for not having a ticket!
When we started planning our trip, it soon dawned on me that we were not going to avoid the tourist season when no less than three other couples we knew said they planned to be in Tuscany in September. Only one of those actually went, Robyn and Mike, and we met them in Florence and explored Chianti for a week. As for the tourist hordes in the famous sites.... well, let’s just say we weren’t lacking for company! It’s our fault we let the crowds get to us, I expect. At least we knew we were among our own. But that torture was very local -- even in Florence and Venice, which are in places over run with bus-tour throngs, we found quiet streets and byways catering to the everyday requirements of people trying to live in a monument and succeeding very well.
Lucca We'd heard about Lucca and bikes but didn't realize they'd be everywhere and as recklessly driven as the autos. How they avoided pedestrians and cars and vice versa was an entertainment all of its own. It’s a skill set it probably takes years to acquire. The place is beautiful, of course, and so nice that the tourists weren't too annoying. I got the feeling the Lucchese might get tired of the gawkers, but it’s also their bread and butter, and most of the people we dealt with were pleasant and helpful. There’s kind of main pedestrian way through the center of town and we followed it and ended up at major piazza where the cathedral sits in its white and black banded glory. Also on the piazza was a large portico where they were having a wine tasting, so we bought a glass and started in. Before it was over we were walking away with an 8€ bottle we thought we might have in the room but in the end we saved it until we were in Chianti with Robyn and Mike. Our B&B didn’t serve breakfast per se, but you went to a nearby café also named La Colonna (on a piazza adorned with the eponymous column that had been used in horse races during the Renaissance) and told them you were with the B&B, you got a pastry and a decent cappuccino. We ate lunch there once but it was disappointing – aside from the sandwiches (made before your eyes), their lunch plates were actually mass-produced frozen entrees. Not the best. Adventure of the second day was trying to find some tape to fix Barb's brand new Go Lite suitcase. It took four stops and a good-natured lesson in pronouncing "buona sera" but we accomplished our mission and got a roll of “nastro adesivo” in basic black, which turned out to be quite handy throughout the trip. The dining highlight of Lucca was Cantine Bernadini, which is on the alley side of a large house with the Bernadini name, a quite impressive Renaissance palazzo. I don’t remember what I had but Barb had an eggplant dish she loved.
Piazza delâ€™ Amphiteatro The piazza is at the site of the old Roman amphitheater and memorializes the oval of the arena because the residents of Lucca, after the fall of the Roman Empire, turned the stands into houses, using stone from the structure for their own building blocks, a common post-Empire occurance, and at times even incorporated arches, etc., into their homes. The result is a piazza of impressive shape and size and totally congenial ambience. We ordered some drinks and toasted distant friends, most especially one who had died recently.
Luccaâ€™s Walls The introduction of cannons into the arsenal of siege weapons during the Renaissance prompted the town fathers to build bigger walls with tons of earth to absorb the force of cannon balls. Nowadays, the broad promenades are used by bicyclists and walks; itâ€™s a 2-mile circuit around the walled part of town and offers unusual views into Luccese life.
Florence The crowds here are amazing. Smaller cities -- Lucca, at any rate -- seemed busy, but not overwhelming. Not here. I would hate to see any of the major tourist cities in the summer. Lots of Italians, Americans, Germans and Brits, along with a fair number of Japanese. Hordes throughout the historical center. Just hordes. Plus, cars, bikes, scooters. You should have seen the woman on the bike, right through the Piazza del Duomo with thousands of people crowding it so you couldn't even walk! Mamma mia. A light crowd on one of the main streets leading to Ponte Vecchio.
Street market in the area of Il Mercato Centrale, with a variety of goods, not all of which were aimed at the tourists.
We found a commercial street with a variety of everyday goods and services. This street connects to the Mercato San Lorenzo, a market behind the Medici Chapel and leading to Il Mercato Centrale. We cruised the area more than once, looking at the leather goods and all the other goodies. Inside the Mercato, it was mostly food and we paid too much for some clementines and pears, but at least they were tasty. We ate lunch at one of the booths at the Mercato another day, not Italian, though – a German lady was selling schnitzel and so forth for not too much. I think we ate there another day, too, but the memory’s unclear. I was starting to get tempted by the idea of a small, cheap backpack to take over from the messenger bag I’d brought since it was eating into my shoulder something fierce. Barb was carry a Rick Steves model that worked well except the elastic cords for both bottle holders gave out almost immediately.
A macabre little humor in the Mercato San Lorenzo, a pig’s head stuffed with head cheese.
Since our B&B didn’t really serve breakfast, just a coffee and a roll (and late at that) we found good place we went to nearly everyday we were in Florence – a caffe we found on Via Nazionale. Streets along the way have many hotels and a few restaurants, but they are all low-key and inviting. The routine at the caffe was ordering one of 3 or 4 breakfast prix-fixe deals including a pastry and a cappuccino for about 4€. We ate at a low-key restaurant on Via Nazionale one evening that had a good wine and a good pasta dish for not too much, maybe 10-13€. Via Nazionale was also where we bought a new phone, the old one having given up the ghost. Or maybe it was just the battery. At any rate we were back in business for 25€.
A restaurant on Via Nazionale where we had a quiet dinner. To the right, the obligatory view of Ponte Vechhio and the Arno, seen from the Ufizzi. Below, Il Duomo from the terrace of the Ufizzi cafe.
We had a nice moment one very warm afternoon in Piazza della Signoria, on the back side of the Uffizi where the Logia dei Lanzi has some great sculpture, but not as great as the first time I stumbled onto it early one morning 40 years ago. Thereâ€™s a copy of Michelangeloâ€™s David, too, and there were many, many turisti!
We hunted up the Sinagoga, the largest in Florence. On the way, we fell in behind a couple of young American women pretty dressed up in tight skirts and heels. We idly wondered what they were up to, who they were going to see, etc.; we assumed theyâ€™d gotten involved with some local lotharios.
Poggio alla Croce
Our last day in Florence was Saturday, September 15. Thanks to our new phone we were able to hook up with friends Robyn and Mike at the Florence train station. From there we went to the airport shuttle nearby to go find our rental car. That went smoothly enough (except for the fact our car was waaaaay too small for 4 adults and all their baggage), but the instructions I'd saved from Google failed us miserably. The rental car pickup/dropoff location is not in the terminal area and my mapping only worked from the terminal. Luckily, Mike had his GPS (using it as a compass, since there was no internet connection for maps) and got us to the A1 and we avoided driving into Florence, my biggest fear. BTW there are no gas stations open on Saturday to ask directions. Just sayin’. We tooled down the A1 and got off at what we thought was the right exit and found a likely road but we weren't sure for some kms, my mapping system having failed completely! Plus it was getting past 2 and we were long past hungry. We stopped at the only caffe/restaurant we saw open and got some lunch. I showed him my map and asked him where we were, since we really had no precise idea, and he pointed to a little town about 5 miles from our destination! We were in a good mood for lunch, which ran about 50€ for the 4 of us, including wine. Our lodging for the next 3 days was Apartamenti dei Castagna in Poggio alla Croce, a tiny place with a distinguished history. The “poggio” (hill) adjacent to town had an Etruscan cistern, the ruins of a monastery of lay ladies in black. Back in the Middle Ages the hill boasted a cross marking the boundaries of a couple of bishoprics. There was a caffe and restaurant on the main street and when we stopped to inquire about Lorenzo, our host, the older gentleman behind the counter soon produced him and we got our keys. The apartment was a large two bedroom 1 bath with a big kitchen/living room. Nice place, good view.
Greve in Chianti
Montefioralle is a small town up the hill from Greve. Itâ€™s a nice walk and very scenic.
Siena We had tried to get our place in Poggio for 4 nights but it was available only three, so for the night of the 18th we were going to play it by ear. Barb and I had to be in Florence to catch a train to Venice around 1 and we had to drop Mike and Robyn off somewhere they could get a train to the Cinque Terre, so with these parameters in mind we set out for Siena. I had been there before 40 years ago and I’d gone by bus from Florence, and I had no idea about parking or anything and we had no maps to speak of, so it was an adventure just finding a parking lot. A kind gas station attendant gave us some directions in Italian and with much pointing we determined we weren’t far off. Once we got a parking place, we had to discover the best way to get into the historic center; this involved a pedestrian bridge and lots of stairs, but we eventually got there. At this point it seemed Robyn and Mike were in a bigger hurry than we were, so we split up, only to hook up again at the Duomo. We’d learned in Florence that a US driver’s license showing your age will get you into lots of sights at the senior rate (half price) and we did this here, as well. The cathedral was quite impressive and we were lucky to be there at a time when the floor drawings were uncovered, so it was quite a tour. After the cathedral, it was time for lunch and Robyn had a place recommended by a friend of hers, Morbidi Gourmet. It’s on Via Banchi di Sopra, number 75, one of the main streets leading away from the piazza. This place is a gourmet deli on the main floor, with a tiny buffet dining room in the basement. For a price of 13€ a person we had a fantastic lunch of various Tuscan dishes and a decent wine, with coffee after for another euro. The famous campo in Siena, with its tower. Twice a year they have a no-holds-barred horse race around the campo, just like they did in the Renaissance, when Siena rivaled Florence for dominance in Tuscany.
One of the approaches to La Piazza del Campo. The Siena cathedral is very dramatic inside and out.
Venice Though Barb had been to Venice years ago, I’d never been and was curious about this oddity of urban living. I’d arranged for an apartment for 2 nights not too far from Piazza San Marco and was furnished a map so we could get from the vaporetto stop to the apartment. What a joke. First, I lost the map. Second, I lost the map. I called Elena, our contact, but she was away and the man who answered gave us the number of the young man we were supposed to meet at the apartment. I called him and after some discussion, hampered by my poor Italian and his poor English and the high degree of ambient noise outside the train station, I finally got through to him that I had lost the map and knew only the vaporetto stop. We agreed that I should call him when we got to the vaporetto stop. This would be an hour hence, much to everyone’s chagrin. We descended the vaporetto at the Zaccaria stop and I called man again, the remaining minutes on the phone dwindling perilously close to nothing. We were in for quite a wait and a few more calls as I tried to describe where we were exactly, for in actuality the stop was 2 stops some distance apart. So we stood around watching the tour groups trundle past headed to and from San Marco, watching the endless parade of tourists like ourselves flowing to and fro along the quays. The only real diversion came when I noticed a man having a woman pose near the canal. The next time I looked over, just a few seconds, she was sitting on the side of the canal soaking wet and a boatman was trying to retrieve one of her sandals from the water! She was taking it all in stride, at least, and her companion was smart enough not to laugh too much, though he did take a few more pictures of her in her clinging clothes. Our apartment contact shows up in a few minutes, grabs Barb’s larger roller bag and takes off down this passageway and that, over bridges, along canals, through narrow passages, until at last we arrive at a worn-looking door on a dead-end passage. He showed us around, then fished out some papers for us to sign (a two-day lease). This done, our main question was, “Where’s the wi-fi?” “Just outside. Very near.” Then he drew a route on our map to a little piazza some distance away where, if we went to a certain corner, we could access the internet. Oh, yeah. I mean, I’d heard Italy was behind the curve on internet access but we’d never had a problem before and this arrangement was completely wacko.
Our little street. Our apartment door is the second from the end.
Below A small campo with the church, the caffe, and the wi-fi hotspot to the left of the light tan building with the red awning.
The small campo with the church, the caffe, and the wi-fi hotspot to the left of the light tan building with the red awning.
After the apartment guy left, we turned on the Mitsubishi wall unit to cool the place down, then studied our map to make sure we could find the “hot spot”, as it were. Oddly, he’d shown us a route that was ten times more Byzantine than I could the one spied after a minute’s study of the map! So off we went, using my route, which was interesting enough and led us through a small-scale commercial street with the kind of shops that locals need til we arrived at a small piazza with a church on one side and a caffe on the other. The so-called hot spot was by the passage way at the opposite corner of the piazza, which is where we positioned ourselves with our phones to try to raise a signal. Fruitless. We succeeded in getting to the internet and signed up with the Venice free site, but after that we were outta luck. Did I mention it was raining? I’m sure we were quite the sight, huddled under our umbrella, cursing our phones. Clearly, checking email would have to wait. At least we’d discovered a charming place far from the tour groups, which ain’t all bad. We bought wine, bread, cheese, cookies, salame, etc., for breakfast and lunch and snacks, then took a break to recover somewhat before heading back out again. I’d done some map reconnaissance back home about what to eat, where to eat, where the markets were, etc., but that seemed to go out the window immediately since getting anywhere involved extensive navigational challenges and more energy than we could summon for mere sustenance. So we made do with the grocery fare and called it good. At least I think that’s what happened, I’m not too certain; I think we ate al fresco at a sidewalk eatery – I remember the moody, damp, chill evening and seeing a young lady sweeping along the street in a full-length cloak and hood, black, of course, full of the mysterious spirit of the city and the foul night. After dinner we went to Piazza San Marco in the light drizzle. The place was nearly deserted and could have been atmospheric and cool, yet the whole thing was a disappointment -- a 2-story tall plastic-covered construction barrier jutted into the piazza at the base of the tallest tower and this necessary intrusion (they were shoring up the base of the tower so it wouldn’t fall over) ruined the spatial quality of the piazza and destroyed the sightlines, etc.
The skies were clear when we woke up the next and after coffee and pastries from the grocery, we set off for the only real agenda we had – visit Murano, where they make the glass. There was a certain amount of the usual confusion about how and where to buy vaporetto tickets (we’d decided not to get a vaporetto pass since they weren’t all that cheap and we figured we’d walk around more without it), but we solved that somehow and got aboard. The ride to Murano wasn’t particularly quick, involving numerous stops, etc., but it was all new to us and therefore interesting. On the way, we passed Isola San Michele, the municipal cemetery, chock full of historic Venetians, we were sure . Murano was a pleasant place, very low-key, no big tour groups. We went to the Murano Glass Museum in Palazzo Giustinian¸ then got a sandwich and a coke at a small grocery and picnicked in a tiny open space within smelling distance of a fish shop (not open at the time). More walking around in the pleasant sunshine, then back to the main island. Since the ride to Murano took over an hour we decided it would be more interesting to get off at the first opportunity and walk across the island. A nice side trip! This little passage was like a back alley through a residential area, plus a nice-looking restaurant or two, and we cut right across the island to some major streets in the tourist-ridden area in the vicinity of the Rialto Bridge.
Peggyâ€™s daughter Pegeen did some interesting glasswork, displayed here on a screen with the Grand Canal as a backdrop.
The second day we went to the Guggenheim Museum and seeing some great art, but the villa is equally impressive; is located on the Grand Canal and boasts a garden, as well. Peggy and her beloved dogs are all buried in the garden. Someone had left paper and pencil for you to write a wish for the world and leave it on a tree and the tree was filled with paper strips.
We’d had a good time in Italy, but I confess I was looking forward to some time in France, where at least I had the impression I knew the language and could better figure out what was going on. That was true to some extent… but not completely! To quote Mike when we parted in Lucca, “That was a good few days. Getting around wasn’t totally smooth, but at least we had a little adventure!”