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russ_in_LA Sep 21st, 2020 02:51 PM

A one month trip through Italy
I don’t know how often I’ll post. In the next four weeks, but the plan is to visit the following places, all of which we’ve been to, but not since the late 90’s: The Cinque Terre, Tuscany centered on Siena, Rome, Amalfi Coast, Matera, Puglia area centered on Ostuni, And Venice. All of this is subject to change. Here is my first installment:

It’s been over 20 years since we last were in the Cinque Terre, and we were anxious to see what changes had taken place. Since our last visit there was a devastating flood in 2011 when 13 people were killed and which left Vernazza, arguably the most charming of the five villages, under more than 10 feet of mud and debris, and which took 2 years to rebuild.

Mass tourism has also had an impact. Since our first trip here in 1995, the Cinque Terre has landed solidly on the tourist map. Rick Steve’s 2020 guide to all of Italy uses a photo of Vernazza for the front cover! That’s a lot of pressure on a small fishing village that was virtually unheard of outside of Italy 30 years ago. Add to that the addition of the Cinque Terre to the itineraries of cruise ships docking in La Spezia, which would (pre-COVID) routinely disgorge hundreds of passengers into the tiny medieval streets and stairways. We had seen videos and it wasn’t a pretty sight. So it was with some trepidation that we were returning to a place where we have made many happy memories.

Originally, our stay in France was going to be coming to an end at this point, as we were scheduled to return to the US, but with the COVID situation in the US at a peak, and Riverside County in CA particularly hard hit, we decided to extend our time into a tour of our favorite places that we had visited in Italy during the 2-1/2 years of living and working here in the late 90’s. Fortunately, Italy currently has one of the lowest rates of new COVID cases in Europe, and a fraction of what they are experiencing back home. Masks are required virtually everywhere, including outside in high traffic locations. Italy had the longest lockdown in Europe, shutting down first and opening up the latest. People are still very careful, and rightfully so. No one wants a repeat of their tragic number of fatalities. But enough of that, on to happier thoughts.

Most people come here to experience the unique environment that isn’t really found outside this area of Italy. These five villages are practically vertical. The “streets”, if you can call them that, are really just a series of stairways, and they all seem to go only up! When we came here the first time, one of the locals told us, “In the Cinque Terre, you die standing.” This phrase has stayed with me. Does it mean that people are healthier and live longer because they have to walk everywhere? Or does it mean that the only way to get around is on your feet. When you no choice in the matter, you walk until you take your final step.

Because there is virtually no flat terrain on which to farm, the Ligurian hills above the villages were terraced, in order to provide land in which grapes, olive trees and of course, basil, for their world famous pesto, could be planted. A complex series of trails was created to allow the farmers to get around, and which allowed mules to do the heavy lifting. Eventually, they turned to a mechanical solution, in the form of a small funicular-like system of single rail tracks which allowed them to move product around, suspended from baskets driven by little cog wheel motors.

The Cinque Terre is now a national park, and most people come to hike these trails between the towns, which can also be accessed by train and by boat. Today we did the 90-minute hike from Vernazza to Monterosso. It was hard work but the views leaving Vernazza as well as approaching Monterosso made it worth it. After lunch we toured around town before heading back to Vernazza by boat.

This is our fifth visit here, as it was one of our favorite place to take visitors when we were living in Bologna, but I didn’t realize how emotional it was going to be for me. It wasn’t until we were on the boat coming back that I remembered that our last time here was with my mother, from whom I get my love for travel. I remembered us laughing while the boat was leaving the dock, as she tied a scarf around her head because she was afraid her wig was going to blow off. Such a bittersweet memory to think about now, yet one I wouldn’t change for anything.
Vernazza from the trail leading out of town.
Vernazza fading into the distance
From the trail
One of many small bridges
Approaching Monterosso al Mare from the trail
The original elevated train
An example of the terraces for farming
Monterosso al Mare looking very inviting
Coming back to Vernazza by boat (and more terraces above it)
Vernazza at night

bon_voyage Sep 21st, 2020 07:40 PM

Manna from heaven.
Can you draw it out until the election?

cafegoddess Sep 21st, 2020 11:11 PM

Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures.

Adelaidean Sep 22nd, 2020 12:52 AM

How lovely to see a trip report! Thank you...

Treesa Sep 22nd, 2020 10:36 AM

Thanks for the memories. We, too, visited CT back in 1995, the one and only time. Perhaps will return one day but not in the high season.

zebec Sep 22nd, 2020 11:39 AM

Russ, what an itinerary you have to look forward to! Hope it all goes well.
In Matera, maybe check out funky cafe 'Area8' and APE tour with Vito (ph. 39 393.1772506). If the new luxe suite has finally been completed at 'La Corte dei Pastori', you may wanna check it out. Fantastic location right beside church San Pietro Caveoso, many excellent views in different directions. The market scene in Morgan Freeman's 'Ben Hur' movie was shot in the B&B's courtyard.

I'd also set you guys up with Daniel Craig, but he's not returning my calls anymore. Something about 'security for MI5 agents.'
I am done. The end.

russ_in_LA Sep 22nd, 2020 12:35 PM

Originally Posted by zebec (Post 17159059)
Russ, what an itinerary you have to look forward to! Hope it all goes well.
In Matera, maybe check out funky cafe 'Area8' and APE tour with Vito (ph. 39 393.1772506). If the new luxe suite has finally been completed at 'La Corte dei Pastori', you may wanna check it out. Fantastic location right beside church San Pietro Caveoso, many excellent views in different directions. The market scene in Morgan Freeman's 'Ben Hur' movie was shot in the B&B's courtyard.

I'd also set you guys up with Daniel Craig, but he's not returning my calls anymore. Something about 'security for MI5 agents.'
I am done. The end.

Thanks for the tips! We haven’t been to Matera since the 90’s so I’m sure it has vastly changed.

russ_in_LA Sep 22nd, 2020 12:58 PM

Our goal today was to visit the remaining three of the Cinque Terre villages. Our original intent was to take the hiking trail from Vernazza to Corniglia, but the weather forecast was a 90% chance of rain, so we decided to train it instead.

We started with Riomaggiore, the eastern-most of the villages and the first one we visited on our maiden trip to Italy in 1995. It was still there, as pretty as ever, but no matter how much I try to live in the moment, there is always something from the present which evokes something from the past. Today it was seeing the restaurant where we had our first meal in the Cinque Terre, 25 years ago. Before that trip, I had been listening to Italian language CD’s, so I was excited to try out my barely registering skills, when I ordered our first course, “L’antipasto Del Mare Grande”. The waiter laughed and explained that instead of ordering the large antipasto of the sea, I had ordered the antipasto of the large sea.

I like to think we were both right, because they started bringing out plate after plate of the freshest, most delicious seafood we had ever tasted. A highlight was something I had never liked before, because I had only ever had it from a can: anchovies. But these were nothing like the smelly, hairy abominations I had tried previously. Dressed only in oil and lemon, these delicious little creatures tasted like a summer day distilled into each tangy bite. For my main course, I ordered the seppie, which the waiter translated into cuttlefish. I’d never heard of it, but hey, I like fish, so how bad could it be? What arrived was a giant white beast which resembled a squid, adorned with nothing but the parallel lines of the charcoal grill. It was bigger than the plate on which it rested. I wasn’t sure if I would have the stomach for it, but I at least I had to try it.

I ate every last bite.

It was one of the best things I had ever tasted. The texture was just the right firmness without being the least bit rubbery. I now order it almost every time I see it on a menu somewhere, but nothing will ever taste as good as that first time In Riomaggiore.

Next on the agenda was Manarola, the village just to the west. Before the 2011 flood, it was possible to take a pleasant 20-30 minute walk between the two towns on a paved path, evocatively called the Via dell’Amore, but believe it or not, it still has not been repaired. As a result, we took the train again, for a fast three minute ride.

Smaller than Riomaggiore, it doesn’t take much time to see Manarola, but we spent almost as much time there. We were transfixed by the process of bringing a small fishing boat up to the quayside, high above the water. Unlike Riomaggiore, Vernazza or Monterosso, this little fishing village has no real marina, just some giant boulders which form a beautiful, if impractical, little pool of calm water, barely big enough to maneuver two boats. As a result, they use a large winch to lift the boats up to dry ground high above.

Our last village of the day was Corniglia, which has the distinction of not only being the only one of the five villages without sea access, but also of being the highest one. This is immediately felt after exiting the train station and being greeted with stairs as high as the eye can see. Yes, there was a shuttle bus waiting there, ready to take the less intrepid traveler quickly and easily to the village high above, but neither of us was willing to hop on that rolling pétri dish, so we huffed it up to the top. By now it was lunch time, so our reward was some of those delicious fresh anchovies and octopus to start, and pasta with pesto or sea bass to finish.

Up to this point the alleged 90% chance of rain had yet to materialize, so we decided to hike the trail back to Vernazza. Although it was shorter in duration than the hike from yesterday, it had a much greater vertical ascent and descent. In fact, the highest point in the seaside trails that link all the five villages occurs in this section. Fortunately, there is a bar serving refreshments and a killer view right at this very spot, 30 minutes by foot from civilization. But we pushed on, ready to be back on horizontal ground again, and it was all down hill from there.
Bringing up the boat in Manarola
Fresh anchovies...yum!
Manarola from Corniglia
Corniglia from the trail
So lush it’s almost tropical
The long way home

john183 Sep 22nd, 2020 03:10 PM

Really enjoying your report and your gorgeous pictures. Brings back great memories of our visit to the CT in 2012. What a nice trip you have planned. Looking forward to more of your report.

tomarkot Sep 22nd, 2020 04:46 PM

Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing these experiences as they bring back wonderful memories. Right now, since our travel plans to Italy have had to be cancelled due to US flights not permitted to Europe, we enjoy reading of the travels of others.

annhig Sep 23rd, 2020 01:13 PM

I fought my jealousy of you enough to plunge into reading your TR and I'm so glad I did. It'a really great that some of us are able to enjoy Italy at the moment even if the rest of us can't and your photos are outstanding.

One question that I don't think you answer in your otherwise comprehensive account - how are you choosing your accommodation. All booked in advance? Hotels, apartments or Air BnB?

russ_in_LA Sep 24th, 2020 12:01 AM

Originally Posted by annhig (Post 17159439)
I fought my jealousy of you enough to plunge into reading your TR and I'm so glad I did. It'a really great that some of us are able to enjoy Italy at the moment even if the rest of us can't and your photos are outstanding.

One question that I don't think you answer in your otherwise comprehensive account - how are you choosing your accommodation. All booked in advance? Hotels, apartments or Air BnB?

Hi Annhig!

We booked through AirBnB and All are apartments or guest houses with kitchens so that we can have two meals a day at home, and so that we can avoid contact with other people as much as possible. With one exception, we chose places with liberal cancellation policies with full refunds for cancellations 1-7 days before arrival, depending on the location. This way if there is a change in the COVID situation in Italy we have some flexibility. We’ve been following the N.Y. Times published new cases/100,000 for preceding 7 days, which breaks it down by Italian province, and I’m happy to say that most are well below our county in CA. From our experience so far, more Italians seem to be taking distancing and masks seriously than the French, where we were the past several months.

russ_in_LA Sep 24th, 2020 12:01 PM

Our fantastic dry weather finally gave out yesterday. Just as I was out getting our morning “cornetti” for breakfast, someone turned on a giant tap in the sky, and it was torrential, transforming the 55 steps from the street up to our apartment into Niagara Falls. Shoes soaked to the insoles, we squished our way to the car with our luggage and took off for the three hour drive to Siena.

I like to breakup long drives with sightseeing, or lunch, or ideally both. As luck would have it, Lucca, one of our favorite Tuscan cities, is almost exactly halfway between Vernazza and Siena. We entered through the enormous walls which protect the city.

One of our favorite things to do is rent bicycles and ride along the top of these ramparts, which now form a great, green park encircling the historic center, but on this rainy day we made a bee-line for St. Michele in Foro, a basilica whose fantastic 13th century facade is topped with Archangel St. Michael. This was followed by a stroll up the very smart Via Fillungo to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, whose oval shape traces the outline of an ancient amphitheater, which has long since disappeared. Last time we walked these streets, a wonderful antique fair wound it’s way though the city, and we spent hours admiring things with dimensions too big for our car or price tags too big for our wallets.

Along our walk, we spied a nice, moderately priced restaurant with outdoor tables sporting enormous oversized umbrellas which seemed to do a reasonable job of keeping dry the tables underneath. At noon on the dot, we grabbed a table and decided to share a plate of assorted crostini, followed by a pasta course, our first Tuscan meal in a couple decades. Within minutes, the server set down a tray with 5 slices of crusty bread, each adorned with a different savory topping: porcini mushrooms, sugo di cinghiale (wild boar), fegatino (smooth chicken liver pâté), tomatoes and garlic, and lardo (very thinly sliced pork fat; think pork belly without the meat).

One bite and we were instantly transported back to 1997, and our first summer living in Italy. We had booked a couple nights in Montefalco, a charming hill town south of Perugia, in Umbria. It was the weekend of August 15, Ferragosto, which celebrates the Virgin Mary’s rise, body and soul, into heaven. But we had no idea what a major holiday it was.

Each of the four quarters of the town was hosting their own taverna, a local outdoor feast. For 5000 lire each (less than $3.00 American at the time), you could gain entry to the dinner, which included an antipasto, primo, secondo, dessert, wine, water and coffee. Clearly this was not a money making venture, but instead a local tradition, just for the inhabitants of this little town, and we were the only “foreigners” there.

We were seated at picnic tables and waited on by the village’s exuberant children, whose serving skills were in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm; their parents manning the outdoor grills to feed all of their hungry neighbors. We were ecstatic be included in their celebration, and the inhabitants were more than a bit interested in us, these exotic creatures who had turned up on their doorsteps for such a festive occasion.

The first dish to come out was an assortment of crostini, with exactly the same variety of toppings as today. This was followed by more food than a human should consume in one sitting. And it was only the beginning of a memorable night. After dinner there was a procession of the townspeople holding candles and carrying a statue of Mary into the main piazza, where a bit later, a brass orchestra played covers of Beatle tunes (I kid you not), and to top it off, fireworks.

The image of that fantastic night flashed through my mind the second I bit into one of those fragrant crostini. Such is the connection food has to our emotions and our memories. A direct line from our tastebuds to our brains, and to our hearts.

annhig Sep 24th, 2020 02:05 PM

lovely to read your experiences and how they spark your reminiscences.

Your accommodation choices sound very sensible for the time too - good plan to cut down on eating with others, especially indoors. From what I hear from my italian friends, they are indeed dealing with it pretty well. Much better than us anyway.

maitaitom Sep 24th, 2020 10:21 PM

Thanks for this report. Planning a huge trip to Italy in a couple of years ... hopefully, if I'm still around. Opening a bottle of Chianti to follow along.

TDudette Sep 25th, 2020 08:19 AM

Thank you, russ_in_LA, for this wonderful TR and stunning photos. Italy has my have my full attention! 🍷🍕

yestravel Sep 25th, 2020 09:54 AM

So glad I stumbled on your TR. Thank you so much for doing it--fabulous photos! Looking forward to continuing to follow along.
Its been 8 years since we visited Puglia & Matera, but maybe something in our TR will be helpful. Our guide was fabulous and really enhanced our understanding of Matera.

russ_in_LA Sep 25th, 2020 01:39 PM

Although we had been to Siena several times before, it was never with as few crowds as we experienced yesterday. In fact, we saw only one organized tour group over the course of the entire day. As a result, we covered more territory than we ever imagined.

Of course, the center of Sienese life, literally and figuratively is il Campo, the main piazza, where the Palio horse races are held each summer. In fact, the owner of the AirBnB we are staying in is a local man who actually won this race one year. This is a really big deal for the rider and his entire neighborhood “contrada”. As I write this, I’m looking at photos of him riding a victory lap in full medieval regalia, as women are crying out of happiness. It all looks terribly exciting.

The focal point of il Campo is the Palazzo Publico, crowned by the Torre del Mangia, which unfortunately wasn’t open, so we weren’t able ascend what was once one of the tallest secular towers in Italy, built so that Siena could have bragging rights over close rival Florence. We did have a memorable climb with our friend Garrett in the late 90’s, when he and I had decided to climb the ladder to the highest level where the bell is located, while Sam stayed on the level just below the top, in order to take our photo from below. We were hamming it up right under the bell when the clock struck the hour directly over our heads. The sound was so terrifying, my knees gave out and I collapsed to the floor. Of course Sam found this infinitely entertaining, while I was less than enthusiastic about the entire experience.

Of course, it’s impossible to miss the Duomo, with its dramatic Beetlejuice black and white columns, the spectacular scenes illustrated in the pavement, and the vibrant frescoes of the Piccolomini Library. The baptistry was an absolute joy to experience with a total of 5 (!) other people inside. New for us was the crypt, which was discovered in 1999 and opened in 2003, after being buried for over 700 years!

The Duomo museum is particularly popular under the best of circumstances, due to the access to the views from the top of the unfinished portion of a planned Duomo expansion; however, this was the only point in which we felt that social distancing was forgotten, so we made a hasty retreat toward the exit, through the gift shop, of course, which is located in a gorgeous former church adjacent to the museum. You know you have too many churches when you have a spare one lying around to use as a gift shop!

We also really enjoyed Santa Maria Della Scala, a particularly eclectic museum inside a former hospital, with a mix of historic and contemporary exhibits. The deal of the day goes to the Palazzo Piccolomini, a Renaissance style palazzo with gorgeous frescoes with a total admission charge of gratis.

Anyway, we must have walked the full length of the city several times, from San Francesco to San Domenico, and Porta Romana to Porta Camollia. Fortezza Medicea, a large fortress in the northwest of the city, from which we enjoyed spectacular views of the Duomo and the Torre del Mangia rising from the medieval brick palazzi on the slopes below, was particularly appealing in the last golden rays of the late afternoon sun.
Palazzo Publico with Torre del Mangia
Duomo pavement
Piccolomini Library
Fresco from the Duomo crypt
Exit through the gift shop
Palazzo Piccolomini
Duomo rising from the city
Torre del Mangia city view
Palazzo Publico night
That’s the moon perfectly centered in that doorway. Our timing couldn’t have been better.
Duomo night

lrice Sep 25th, 2020 11:21 PM

What a wonderful narrative and great memories of our trip back in 1995 you are conjuring up! Cinque Terre is officially back on my Family Vacation List so I can share it with them.

annhig Sep 26th, 2020 06:30 AM

Thanks for more great photos, Russ. Despite the crowds which got worse every time, we loved Siena the 3 times we visited. The last time we went we discovered not only the worst painting of the christ child ever [we used to amuse the kids on churches and part galleries by asking them to find the ugliest baby, which outraged the late lamented fodorite Zeppole] and the the Basilica of St. Francis which as well as having a wonderful presepe [nativity scene] has a fascinating exhibit about the "miracle of the bread". Despite having been consecrated in 1730 this communion bread remains as fresh today as it was then. Allegedly. Worth finding if like us you enjoy such obscure sights.

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