Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ligurian Coast of Italy: Rapallo, Cinque Terre, Genoa

[Late blog entry goes with #9 slide show]

Sunday, 5 October
We left our apartment at 6:45 am to catch our train for Rapallo – our first travel week, although we had already had a marvelous vacation week in France before arriving here. Most of the students had left for their destinations on Friday: Barcelona, Munich, Dublin, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens were just some of the many places they were going.

We had opted for a slightly shorter stay on our first travel week (Sunday to Friday) and to locate in one spot: Rapallo, in the western coastal region of Liguria. On the Riviera di Levante (the rising sun), Rapallo is positioned nearly equidistant between Genova (Genoa) and the Cinque Terre. Despite being a resort town, it is less pricey than its famous neighbors, Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino, and although Rick Steves downplayed it in his books, we found it charming.

The trip to Liguria went smoothly, and we enjoyed pulling just one small luggage piece/person rather than four each as we did in coming here!! The only frustrating part occurred on the line from Vicenza to Milano when we had to make do with a non-Italian/English/French/German speaking traveler who was in my seat and wouldn’t move, even after we and the Swiss couple next to him pointed out that he was on the right train and in the right seat BUT on the wrong day. Didn’t help that the Trenitalia attendant simply shrugged her shoulders and moved on. Normale. So Emma alternated between Abbey’s and my lap from Vicenza to Milano, a little less than a 2-hour train ride. We enjoyed talking with the Swiss couple who were from the Bernese Oberland and knew where Burgdorf was (the town where I lived in Switzerland). A young German boy and girl (brother and sister?) sat next to Abbey/Emma and me. All of us exchanged looks and laughs at the spiked coiffed, multi-pierced, dyed, tattooed boy (we thought it was a boy anyway) with the pants falling off the butt and who was thankfully getting off the train at Brescia. Shaking his head, the German boy whispered, “Ach, Italiano.” I was thinking more Martian than Italian.

At Milan, we bought some tasty panini and water for lunch. Our train came in early, so we were able to board and eat in the compartment. Just before departure, a young man joined us. We made introductions rather quickly after he opened a soda which promptly exploded over him and most of the compartment! After profuse apologies and thanks for the napkins we handed him, he introduced himself as Emanuel. Between our limited Italian, his limited English, and the Italian-English dictionary that we brought, we learned that he was a music major and was traveling to Genoa for rehearsal in Aida. He noted that in America the singers (pop) were wealthy and famous but often not good (as in musically trained); in Italy, not wealthy or famous but usually good. He invited us to see the show, but it won’t open until November.

Promptly at 2:30, we arrive in Rapallo. The temperature was warm – off came the coats needed that cool morning in Paderno. Sea breezes greeted us as we came out of the station and found the way to Rosabianco, our harbor-front hotel. Ten minutes later, we were there and were greeted warmly by the manager. Looking at Emma, he and the other manager conversed quickly; evidently they thought she was a toddler and had put a crib-bed in the room. With unnecessary apologies, they adjusted our junior suite, as it’s called – a family room: 1 double and 2 twins, plus a rattan couch and chair. The view of the harbor was wonderful – noisy, but alive and vibrant.

After unpacking, we wandered the town, showered, and headed for some dinner at Sapore di Mare, one of the many harbor-front ristoranti. Tim and Emma had seafood pasta, splitting a huge crab (a Mediterranean variant of a Dungeness crab); Abbey took advantage of the famous Ligurian pesto with pasta and green beans; I had pasta with clams. YUM! Wine was a Merlot, courtesy of nearby Santa Margherita. After strolling the harbor under moonlight, we found bed welcoming.

Monday, 6 October – The Cinque Terre
Following a satisfying hotel breakfast of tea/coffee, freshly squeezed juice, croissants (sorry, not quite as good as the French ones), ham, cheese, yogurt, and assorted Italian pastries, we took a look at the slightly overcast sky (forecast had been sunny – normale!), but Emma decided we should do the Cinque Terre this day. So we prepped with backpacks, sneakers, some layers, water bottles, and off we went to the train station to purchase tickets for Monterosso, the northernmost of the 5 towns that are linked only with the mountainous trails. Beginning with the most difficult hike first made sense.

On the train, we met a very nice couple from San Francisco, touring Europe for 3 weeks. She’s a kitchen/bath designer; he’s a police officer. They were headed to Vernazzo for 2-day stay and having come from Burgundy, France, where they spent several days in Beaune, one of the two Burgundy towns I planned to see on our way to the UK in May. They loved Beaune, finding this small town with lots of vineyards friendly and accommodating. So, instead of Dijon, we will stay in Beaune. (Mental note made!)

Fifty minutes later, we alight at Monterosso. After Emma gets her feet wet in the warm sea and Tim gets a tourist map, we begin what we think is the Cinque Terre path – but no, it is a scenic tour of the ups and downs of Monterosso. “It’s a warm-up,” exclaims Mr. Pollyanna Tim. My legs were thinking “worn out” not “warm up”! At long last, we discover the trail’s start. Beginning the climb out of Monterosso, we meet several hikers coming down the twisty stone steps. Smiling sympathetically, they remark that we have only begun the climb and pat us on the back, much like a warden would a condemned person at his last supper. Not a good sign. What have I gotten myself into, I think as Emma and Abbey bounce on ahead of us. The answer came quickly: some out-of-breath climbing and knee-stress that disappeared instantly with the sensory experiences with which this area rewards its visitors.

The Cinque Terre is the name for five coastal villages in the southern end of the Liguria region: Monterosso, Vernazzo, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Linked only by sea, rail, and footpaths, the villages have retained the flavor of life as it has been for years. Only until fairly recently has the area become a draw for tourists. The hiking trail that links the towns crisscrosses up & down the mountain sides. Ancient stone steps, dirt paths, gravel, and even large rocks comprise the path which varies from pleasantly level to breathlessly steep with hundreds of steps; it can accommodate two to three abreast in one section, but the next bend is so narrow that only one person can barely pass through. At times, the ledged paths are devoid of the usual olive or lemon trees, offering dizzying glimpses of the rocks and water below. At those times, I hugged the mountain’s side!

Neither pictures nor words can do justice to this place that time has left unsullied. Between the towns, the mountains meet the sea vertically, no sloping descent. Jagged rocks form the shoreline, sharpened continually by the crashing waves. The Ligurian sea is a myriad of colors, deep blues here, aquas there. In the distance, the clouds darken, and rain sweeps over a fishing boat far off the coast. In a matter of minutes, the clouds move on as sunshine again envelopes the boat. Mixing with the refreshing sea air is the cool, sweet smell of lemon trees, their pervasive fragrance whetting the taste buds. Terraced plots of olive trees with tied orange netting for the harvest later in the fall appear at nearly every turn of the path. It’s tempting to pick a black one – until I remember that unprocessed olives are bitter. Some of the terraced areas are vineyards full of grapes. The Ligurian climate is temperate; unlike the cooler Veneto, leaves have not yet begun to change here, and the growing season is noticeably longer.

We stop frequently, to catch our breath yes, not only from exertion but also from what we see all around us. The hike from Monterosso to Vernazza takes about an hour and 45 minutes of rather intense ascents and descents. We welcome the sight of Vernazza and find the walking down to this harbor town nearly as exhausting as the climbing up and out of Monterosso. Following the trail signs through the narrow stone sidewalk, we smell the noon dinners cooking in the houses whose windows and doors open directly to the alley and the neighbors on the other side. The sidewalk twists down many steps and slopes before ushering us into the piazza filled with shops and people.

We make our way to the harbor which Emma has already explored and has picked our place for lunch – outside by the harbor. It’s perfect. We order pizzas with the incredibly delectable pesto sauce and take in the view. Rick Steves must have liked it here for his picture with several of the waiters (including our own) is on the wall of the indoor part of the restaurant. Re-fortified and armed with some postcards from one of the touristy shops, we leave Vernazza for the slightly less grueling hike to Cornilgia, the only town that has no harbor as it sits high on the edge of the mountain.

Spotty rain cools us off as we find the trail rather challenging, but as always, rewarding. Along the way, we meet many people: British, American, Germans, Austrians, Australians, and Swiss. English is usually the common language. In fact German-speaking people here in Italy use English as they don’t often know Italian and Italians (save for those of the Trentino and Alto-Adigo region) don’t know German. The Swiss, of course, speak 4-5 languages fluently as French, German, Italian, and Romanish are the 4 national languages. We don’t notice any French- or Spanish-speaking people. Evidently there’s a bit of a cultural rivalry between the Italians and the French with regard to wine, food, language, and art. Me? I’ll take them both!

Corniglia is asleep when we arrive – siesta time. As the quietest and most remote of these towns, it has no stores or cafes open in the late afternoon, although we thankfully found a gelateria open and had some wonderful gelato! The clouds get a bit darker and the sprinkling rain harder, so we decide to postpone the last two hikes, the easiest and shortest ones to Manarola and Riomaggiore, for another time. We climb down the 300 brick steps from Corniglia to the train station and buy return tickets to Rapallo.

Now, Abbey and Emma were quite familiar with these steps. They had walked ahead of us on the trail and rather than turn off for the town, they kept following the trail signs which, of course, leads them down the 300 brick steps to continue the trail past the train station and on to Manarola. When Tim and I got to the town, we were surprised to not see the girls. Cell phone rings: it’s Abbey.
“Where are you?’ she says.
“In town,” I reply.
After a lengthy pause, “There’s a town?”
“Yes,” I answer, “where are you?”
“Looking at the train station. We just came down all these steps. A LOT of steps. You can’t miss them.”
I look around and see no steps at all. I quickly consult the guide book; ah ha! I knew where the girls were, and I also knew that if they wanted the gelato, they would have to climb UP all those steps.
I call Abbey back: “Here’s your choice: climb back for some gelato, or wait for us there,” I told her.
In about 10 minutes, Abbey and Emma appeared at the top of the steps, annoyed with the situation but unwilling to sacrifice gelatto. Emma particularly was uncomfortable as she had had to go to the bathroom (no toilets on the trail) and used nature’s accommodations; in the process, she somehow did not quite get her pants out of the way. Ahem. She was happy to change back at the hotel!

After cleaning up and enjoying a hot shower on weary muscles, we had dinner around 8, again at Sapore di Mare, and collapsed in bed directly after!

Tuesday, 7 October – Santa Margherita Ligure
Under deadlines to submit psychology and political science homework, Abbey decided to spend most of the day doing schoolwork. After we all had breakfast, Tim and I searched for an Internet Point as they are called here (no café, darn it!) so that Abbey could post her work. We checked our mail and caught up on the depressing economic news; then we explored a bit of the town. Emma, starving as usual every 2 hours, ate a cheese foccaccia, and the three of us headed off to Santa Margherita Ligure, a 5-minute train ride away.

Much like Rapallo, Santa Margherita thrives on tourism; it is smaller and quieter than Rapallo with an extensive harbor life, not only for the locals but also the rich and famous, at least the rich and famous who can’t afford neighboring Portofino! Statues of Christopher Columbus, Andrea Doria (16th century general), and Mary dominate the center waterfront.

We were reminded that we were in Italy when trying to find the tourist center to get a town map. Following the signs from the harbor, we ended up doubling back around to the very street we had been on, with the tourist center behind us – but no signs so indicating such. Mentally map this: signs direct us east 2 blocks, then north 3 blocks, then west 2 blocks, then south 2 blocks. Yep, you got it: we’re just about back where we started. Normale.

More postcards; some hot tea at a café, nice for this overcast and cool day; then back to Rapallo. I was feeling tired and chilled – some kind of short-lived virus – and crawled into bed for the night. Abbey posted most of her work, and she, Emma, and Tim did Chinese that night. Chinese in Italy?? Not for me! Hard rain during the night but warm temperatures. We weren’t sure how to plan the next day.

Wednesday, 8 October – Genova (Genoa)
Dreary skies decided the day: rather than return to the Cinque Terre, we decided to go to Genoa. Emma was interested in the aquarium there, plus there was an art museum that I was interested in. After buying roundtrip tickets, we waited a bit for the train and people-watched, an interesting pastime no matter where or when.

The ride to Genoa was about 40 minutes and mostly along the coast, the view of the Ligurian Sea interrupted often by the tunnels through the coastal mountains. We got a map from the Information Center; thankfully, unlike Santa Margherita, it is located in the Genoa train station and not on a back street that required us to have a map to find the place that gives us a map! Dark clouds gave way to rain; at least we remembered the umbrellas.

The Genoa Aquarium is located on the harbor, about a 15-minute walk from the train station. The largest in Europe, it has a rainforest area plus a hummingbird room – Mom, you would love this!!! It is also very active in environmental issues that concern sea life. Although we enjoyed everything, the seals and dolphins were the most amusing. Both are incredibly playful and full of personality. The Aquarium has 3 dolphins, one of whom is a ham. She would come right up to the class and look at us, chatting away. They are not performance dolphins, as the Aquarium doesn’t believe in dolphin shows, but the animals loved to play with rings and balls that were in the viewing tank. They have access at any time to two other large tanks that we can’t see but were clearly as amused by us as we were of them and so spent their time in the viewing tank.

After about three hours in the aquarium, we had a quick bite to eat outside as the sun was now out, drying the streets. Genoa is an interesting city: a blend of old history and new business; dark, sinister-looking alleys as well as neatly-paved cobblestoned walks. A port city, it’s seen its share of seediness; even the guidebooks don’t recommend an outing after dark in some areas. However, on a sunny afternoon in the historic area near the Aquarium and harbor, Genoa is energetically alive and bustling.

One ticket for 6€ got us into 3 museums: Palazzo Rosso (Red Palace), Palazzo Bianca (White Palace), and Testi. Interesting very early Renaissance paintings, many of which were dark with little perspective. Emma was particularly curious about the numerous representations of John the Baptist being beheaded at the order of Salome. We did see Paganini’s famous violin, the subject of short opera we saw in Wilmington last year. The palazzi (palaces) were beautiful in and of themselves with courtyards full of statues and gardens. We were able to go to the roof of the Palazzo Rosso for a panorama of Genoa. The guide there was fluent in English, and we enjoyed talking with him for awhile. As the museum, even with the self-guided tour, took longer than we thought, we missed the earlier train we had planned to take back to Rapallo. We just made the 6:00!

Dinner at O Basin, which despite its French-sounding name, is quite Italian. Good food and wine, lots of locals, reasonable prices. We enjoyed an evening stroll along the bay – almost a full moon!

Thursday, 9 October – Rapallo Market; Ferry Ride to Portofino and San Fruttuoso Abbey
Market day in Rapallo. Uh oh, we’re in trouble! People from neighboring towns crowded the vendors’ vans and trucks that encircled the harbor walk and extended south down the road to Santa Margherita.
This market is a bit more upscale than the ones we have been to in Bassano and Crespano, but good buys could be found. For Emma, some needed socks and a fun bag to take things back and forth to campus; for me, some lovely Italian scarves for both warmth and fashion; and for Abbey, an incredibly beautiful dress for CIMBA’s next Gourmet Dinner. Tim didn’t buy anything; he kept his eyes on the multitude of sailboats in the harbor, none of which, unfortunately, was at a bargainable market price!

Lunch at a nearby café, and then on the ferry for a ride to San Fruttuoso Abbey, on the other side of Portofino. Another beautiful day – the colors of sea and sky and mountains were brilliant. This ferry stopped at Santa Margherita, Portofino (where most of the passengers – German tourists – disembarked), and finally to the San Fruttuoso Abbey, a picturesque cove accessible only by foot or ferry. We didn’t have much time before the last ferry returned to Rapallo, but we explored the late medieval site and the pebbly beach. The Abbey’s main building was built by the Doria family in the 13th century, as was the Doria Tower. The area evidently has had a checkered past: it has been a monastery, a shelter for fishermen, and a secret hideout for pirates. Relics discovered during recent renovations revealed early medieval settlers and even Muslim remains.

Emma tried out the water temperature here, finding it warm enough that she wished she had brought a swimsuit. Trying to hurry picture-taking Abbey, we made our way back to the ferry and headed back to Portofino, where we picked up the large group of German tourists who had got off there on our trip down. It was there, in Portofino’s harbor, that we discovered how many of those tourists knew English. Emma, still absorbed with the aquarium from the day before, was enamored with all the jellyfish in the harbor. Excitedly she pointed to one, exclaiming, “Look at that jellyfish with the testicles.” Laughter erupted. Oh dear – wrong “t” word. TENTACLES, Emma, TENTACLES. Bit of a difference.

Back at Rapallo, we had dinner at the best restaurant yet, whose name, naturally, I forget – but I do remember where it is located – on Via Milite Ignoto, one block from Piazza Pastene! It featured some Piedmont wine which was incredibly delicious with my steamed mussels in herbs and the fresh linguine with clam sauce steeped in basilica (basil). Emma was happy with her Ligurian style hearty soup/stew, as was Abbey with her pesto-drenched pasta and green beans. Tim ate Italian, enjoying the traditional number of courses: for antipasti, thinly sliced meat; for primo patti, pasta; for secondi, sardines (no, nothing like those awful salty things in the tins!); for dolci, tirimisu followed with espresso!

Friday, 10 October – Montallegro Abbey, Rapallo and Back to Paderno
In typical Italian fashion, the weather, which was supposed to have been stormy and rainy from a front off the Atlantic, was instead sunny and warm, allowing us the opportunity to take the cable car up to Montallegro Abbey, high above Rapallo on Mount Leto. The ride up afforded some close-up views of the terra cotta–roofed homes surrounded by gardens and small vineyards on the mountainside outskirts of the town; the panoramic view grew more incredible the further up we went. The tree-dotted mountains are steep and jagged, not rounded as they are in Pennsylvania; valleys cut into them unexpectedly, appearing suddenly from a mass of evergreens and disappearing just as suddenly. The vertical slabs of mountain that reach to the sea remind me of why the train goes through so many tunnels along the coast. Turning from the forward view of the approaching Abbey, we see behind us Rapallo and the Ligurian Sea; it’s not long before Santa Margherita and Portofino are clearly visible, as is the point jutting out to hide the San Fruttuoso Abbey. Looking south, we can follow the coast line nearly to Sestri Levante, beyond which the towns of the Cinque Terre lay hidden in the haze and distance.

The Montallegro Abbey is the guardian of Rapallo. According to the legend, a 16th century peasant named Giovanni Chichizzola had fallen asleep on this spot one hot summer day as he was returning from Rapallo’s market to his village on the other side Monte Leto. He had a dream vision that Mary visited him, telling him that the small Byzantine iconic painting of her that she left as a token of her love for Rapallo. When he woke, there was the picture by a flowing spring that had never before been seen. At first, the people put the picture in the town’s church; however, the picture disappeared during the night only to be discovered the next day by the spring on the mountain. Understanding that Mary wanted her gift to be housed on the mountain, the Montallegro Abbey was built and completed in 1559. The spring became famous for its healing waters, and Rapallo enjoyed prosperity. However, in 1574, Greek traders, worshipping at the Abbey, recognized the Byzantine picture, saying that it belonged to his town and that it had disappeared mysteriously about 17 years ago. A court hearing granted the picture to the Greeks, much to Rapallo’s dismay. On the second day at sea, the traders discovered the picture was missing; an “angelic transport” had returned it to the Abbey, where everyone agreed it should remain.

The Abbey itself has an incredibly ornate interior, as some of the pictures reveal, although the outside is simple and classic in form. We listened to a short service, marked by a woman chanting harmonious melodies in between congregation recitations and priest’s readings.

We met a fun couple from Denmark on the lift up; they were travelling with their 4-year old daughter and baby son. He grew up on a dairy farm; she, on a pig farm. He spent some time in the States, and she in the UK, so their English was impeccable. We enjoyed chatting with them and sharing concerns about the economy and political situations all over.

Needing to catch a 12:30 train back home, we left the Abbey around 11, collected our luggage, and walked to the station, deciding to buy some sandwiches and water to have on the train. The panini store’s owner was an entertainment act all by himself! He wanted to sit and eat (not good to eat on the run, he protested!), though we didn’t have time, and he insisted we sample each cheese and/or meat that we had requested on the sandwiches – just to make sure it was “ok.” He is travelling to Philadelphia in December, he said; unfortunately we won’t be there to see him!

Other than a long delay in Milan that made us miss our Vicenza-Castelfranco train, we had an uneventful ride home. It was good to get in on a Friday evening and have the weekend to get ready for the school week and take care of some business at home. Abbey finally caught the cold that Emma and Tim had had a few weeks earlier, so she hibernated Saturday and Sunday.

The weekend was pleasant, but once in awhile, a warm breeze would waft in the open windows and remind us of the wonderful sights of the Ligurian trip that suddenly seemed ages ago.

No comments: