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Italy & Tuscany – Fall 2013
Posted by PeterD on October 26th, 2013 in '13 - Cinque Terre, Italy, Hiking/Trekking

With Marissa studying abroad, we’d planned a trip to coincide with her time there, planning time to visit her, and take a bit of time for ourselves – to see the countryside and get in some more trekking. But before we get underway with this blog, it’s important to get oriented – with a map, of course. Our trip was centered in Tuscany, starting in Arezzo, where Marissa was located, then off to the Ligurian Peninsula during the week and finally, back to Florence to meet up with Marissa again.

Italy Trip Locations
Italy Trip Locations open larger view

Our trip began with an overnight flight from Boston and a planned several hour layover in Paris – sadly, the airport terminal was all we got to see of the city of lights. But a huge bonus for us during the layover was the coincidental ‘piano recital/concert’ by a passing traveler, a virtuoso master German teenage pianist who sat down at the red lacquer piano in the terminal for nearly an hour. It was a real treat and while we would have liked to stay, we needed to grab our connecting flight to Bologna. Arriving and collecting our gear around 4:00pm, we got our rental car and headed south on the A-1 to Arezzo. Slowed by traffic and some poor directions we eventually got to Casa Volpi,

Casa Volpi, Arezzo
Casa Volpi, Arezzo

our accommodations in Arezzo, 3 hrs later (thanks to Jeanne’s iPhone 5 and google maps!). To Jeanne’s delight, Marissa was there to greet us with a big hug. Dinner together at the hotel, a quick trip to drop Marisa back at her school, and we called it a very long first day!

We slept in a bit, adjusting for timezones and all, and after a nice breakfast at the hotel, we headed into Arezzo to take in the town that is Marissa’s home for 3 months. We did some shopping and Jeanne got an Italian leather handbag, red (of course!), at a shop Marissa recommended. A quick stop back at the hotel and we were off to pick up Marissa, at the end of her school day, for an evening trip south to Montepulciano, a hilltop town known for its wine (and now the fact that Twilight was filmed there).

Dinner in Montepulciano
Dinner in Montepulciano

We tasted some wine, but didn’t make any purchases and also picked up a few gift items for our children back home.   Despite the fast approaching twilight, we enjoyed dinner with a view and an operatic serenade by the restaurant owner. From there back to Arezzo to rest up for a full day ahead.

Early Saturday, we picked Marissa and headed west through Tuscany toward Volterra, another hilltop town. It was a long, windy 2 hour drive and once there we found parking was at a premium.   We managed to park on a side street and headed into town for a morning snack.  The town is famous for some amazing Estruscan ruins, reminding us of the Roman Forum.  We also strolled through many shops that sold the local specialty, Alabaster.

Etruscan ruins, Volterra
Etruscan ruins, Volterra

From there, down more zig-zag switchbacks that took us to Pomerance and Marisa’s request….. Horseback riding. (Clearly she caught her mom at a weak moment when she made this request!).   Lost again and this time google maps was no help,  we finally found the ranch, a beautiful property overlooking the Tuscan hills.

Our host, Enrico, began to saddle up our horses. Joining us on the ride was Evelyn, a college student who is studying in Florence for the semester and ironically is from Wellesley and a student at Boston college (small world!).  The horses all had Native American names (that they found on the internet). Jeanne rode Shahoba, Peter rode Rangoon, Marissa rode Nihiba. Enrico led us on a 3 hour ride, first down into the valley, where Marissa and Evelyn had a chance to gallop (“like being in a roller coaster without a seatbelt”) and then crossing a stream, where Marissa and Evelyn took the opportunity to go bareback and swim with their horses.

Horseback stables outside Pomerance
Horseback stables outside Pomerance

It was a long slow ride back up to the ranch.  Jeanne opted only walk, not trot.   After the ride, we were treated to a traditional Tuscan dinner by Enrico and served by his 11 yr old daughter, Marina. Delicious!    It was a very long drive back to Arezzo, retracing our steps through the many switchbacks and hill towns: Marissa slept, Jeanne navigated, Peter drove. He’s a natural Italian driver and while tiring, seemed to enjoy the challenge.

Sunday gave us a bit of extra time to sleep in before our planned day trip to Siena. We’d all been there before, so this was a refresher. The weather was stormy: rain, thunder, lightening and hail! But, this meant lighter crowds. We enjoyed a meal, watching the weather from under the awning at a sidewalk cafe on Piazza il Campo.   Once the weather broke a bit, we walked around some of the shops and found Baraka a favorite, where Jeanne and Marissa remembered shopping 5 years earlier. We liked that the clothes were arranged by color;

Piazza il Campo, Siena
Piazza il Campo, Siena

Jeanne picked up a blouse.  After returning to Arezzo (about an hour), we said bona note to Marissa, as we wouldn’t see her again until the following weekend in Florence.

Monday morning, we were up and out early, checking out of the lovely Casa Volpi. We should add here that this was a beautiful 3-star hotel/property that felt like a Tuscan villa with very good food and a wonderfully sweet and helpful hostess, Alissa.

The drive to Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre took longer than we expected (italian traffic!) and the last few miles ended with some frighteningly narrow mountain roads with numerous hairpin turns and steep drop-offs separated only by a guardrail. We arrived at Hotel Zorza mid-afternoon, a rather basic, seaside hotel, but location was king, it was central to Riomaggiore (in this snug town, what isn’t central!). The bar on the ground floor was generating music into the wee hrs on our first night, but fortunately the other two nights were quieter. We had a nice dinner at a restaurant next door and settled in early for a day of hiking to follow.

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Beginning our descent into Vernazza

Tuesday morning broke, it was a bit cool, low-to-mid 60’s, but sunny – we were eager to get out on our first hike. We heard that the low (sea-level) trails were closed due to some landslides, so after breakfast we began headed toward the high trail which is less traveled by the tourists. Climbing about 2,000 ft elevation, we followed the Red 01 trail to the 1 trail through some working vineyards on the side of the mountain. The high trail, trail 1 was mostly a ridge walk, and very isolated. So much so that the only other people we met were locals out picking mushrooms. The trail was not well marked, but we found our way, with the help of some mushroom pickers (!) through San Bernardino and finally to the 7 trail that took us steeply down to the town of Vernazza. Arriving in town, we were surprised to see it FULL of tourists, more crowded than we would have liked or expected for mid-week this time of year; large groups from the cruise ships that ship in and out of La Spezia. Undaunted, after a late lunch and some exploring, we took the train back to our hotel in Riomaggiore. Peter got domestic and did a load of laundry for us at a nearby laundromat. BTW, we quickly grew accustomed to the socially-acceptable practice of hanging one’s laundry outside of apartment windows. We enjoyed a great dinner at la Lampora directly across from our hotel.

Corniglia_s
Corniglia, nestled on a bluff

Wednesday morning turned out similar to tuesday – so with some of our first hand knowledge of the trails and towns in Cinque Terre, we decided to hike the coastal blue 2 trail. We took the train north to Corniglia (the middle of the 5 towns), bypassing the part of the trail that was closed due to mudslides that occurred in 2011. To our surprise, our hike began with a long series of switchback stairs into the town, some 370 stairs, rising from the train station to the town center, on a bluff. Leaving from Corniglia, we headed to Vernazza, enjoying many spectacular coastal views on another warm and sunny day.

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Monterosso in the distance

We stopped briefly in Vernazza for a light lunch before continuing our trek to Monterosso, the fifth and northern-most of the 5 towns. This section of the trail was longer and more challenging with narrow spots and a number of significant drop offs. We were prepared and equipped for the journey, but the trail was crowded with tourists – many of whom did not seem to know what they had gotten themselves into. Some in flip-flops, others clinging to the rock walls for dear life, many huffing and puffing their way uphill. For us though, it was grand, with views that made it all worthwhile. We found the city of Monterosso to be more like a beach resort, with an actual beach unlike the rock harbors and cliffs that puntuated the other towns and harbor. We were able to grab a table on the beach at a beach bar/bistro, and enjoyed our favorite beverage, Compari and soda – a wonderful way to top off our second day of hiking in Cinque Terre. Another short train ride and we were back in Riomaagiore, for a shower and dinner at another restaurant just steps away from our hotel.

Camogli harbor 2_s
Camogli harbor

After our 3-day respite from driving, it was time to get back in the car, unwind the switchback roads in Riomaggiore and head toward Camogli. The trip was a relatively short, uneventful 2 hours – we didn’t even get lost! Peter really got the knack for the Italian driving; we learned that switchbacks into and out of coastal towns are the norm and by this time, we were used to it. After checking into our hotel, we headed out to explore this quaint coastal town and were pleasantly surprised that, in comparison to Cinque Terre, the crowds have left this resort town for the season, evidenced by the sea-front restaurants with ample seating available. We browsed some shops and ultimately purchased a small painting from a local artist. Dinner was in a shore-front restaurant with an extraordinary view of the sunset, with Genoa visible about 10 minutes up the coast. Our hotel, La Comogliese, was another 3 star hotel nestled between other buildings, but within earshot of the sea – we fell asleep in our loft bedroom to the sounds of the waves hitting the shore.

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Evening dinner in Camogli

Friday began with a bountiful continental breakfast – we were again eager to hit the trails in the Portofino national park. We had several trail options available, and he’d heard stories of the coastal route being more challenging – but we felt confident in our abilities given our prior hiking experiences. So, coastal route it was 🙂

hiking chains_s
Hiking chains, hold on tight!

The hike began literally walking up stairs, winding around some private residences and gardens. There were some 800+ steps before arriving in the town of San Rocco. We continued on the path, which was still paved at this point and shortly reached a part where the paths split, making it final decision time. We stuck with our plan and took the coastal trail. For another 1/2 hour so, it was relatively easy and level here, bringing us to a WWII bunker where we were treated to some great cliff side views.

From there the fun began…. The trail quickly narrowed, and while we were treated to a number of great vistas from the seaside cliffs, the downside (‘cuz there always is!) was the steep cliffs that dropped off quickly to make way for those wonderful vistas! Fortunately (if you can call it that!), heavy chains were anchored into the rock on our left side for us to cling to as we maneuvered this part of the trail. The footing was good, but the chains were a welcome addition to counterbalance some of the vertigo that came with the steep cliffs. Jeanne was grateful to have her hiking gloves in her pack and was quick to put them on, as they saved both her hands and her manicure. :-0

hold on tight_s
More chains!

Periodically, the trail would widen and move away from the cliffs and into the woods, but we’d just as quickly exit the woods for more rocky cliffs and those blessed chains again! After about an hour of this type of hiking, the trail entered the woods for the final section – a steep incline, with many switchbacks, followed by a similar decline and bringing up over a ridge and down to our destination, Abbey de San Fruttuoso. As we approached, we heard many voices, the volume increasing with each turn as we descended. We soon broke out of the woods for the last time, reaching a beautiful inlet with a Caribbean-blue sea and rocky beach, where dozens of high school students were enjoying the water following what appeared to be a class trip/hike. Hardly a town, and only accessible by boat or hiking path, the little inlet was home to the Abbey and a museum, both tucked behind the beach, along with a few restaurant options. We chose to eat at a little place built into the cliff where we had our own private terrace table. We shared spaghetti with pesto and a salad. The trip back to Camogli was much easier than our hike in – we enjoyed the ferry boat!!

San Fruttuoso_s
Abbey San Fruttuoso

After docking, we stopped for a gelato on our walk back to the hotel for some well deserved showers. We had hoped to enjoy a glass of wine on the patio overlooking the sea, but a couple of men were noisily destroying a concrete retaining wall behind our room and it was impossible to sit outside. Instead, we walked back along the seaside town and had a great dinner and some (ubiqutous) wine at Spaghetteria, a wonderful little pasta bistro, all for just 30 Euros. Never ones to stop exploring, we took the long way back and encountered a fair/open house event in celebration of local artists. We stopped to admire some unique works and Jeanne picked up a beautiful hand painted silk scarf with poppy design.

Saturday and we were up, out and on the road again this morning, headed to Florence to meet up with Marissa again and to spend our final two nights in Italy. Despite the bit of rain, the drive was uneventful, right up until we had to drive in the city and the dreaded ZTL (restricted travel zones). Peter had made reservations at a parking garage, which guaranteed safe passage through the zones – we did manage to find it, once again aided by Google. Fortunately, the rain let up just long enough for us to park the car and walk to our rented apartment and meet up with owner – the skies completely opened up just as we settled in.

strike a pose_s
Strike a Pose!

Undaunted, we got out or rain jackets and umbrellas and headed to the Pontevecchio, only a few blocks away, for our arranged meeting with Marissa and her friend, Kevin. Dropping their gear back at the apartment (they were staying the night), we ventured out again in the pouring rain. We stopped by Vivoli, a favorite gelateria that we had been to in prior years, and from there headed to the leather school store, where bookmarks where the gift item of the day. Afterwards, it was in and out of one leather goods shoppe after another until Marissa finally found the leather backpack bag she was looking for, in red, and within in her budget (along with a contribution from mom). Back to the room to dry off and have a glass of wine before heading out it dinner at Il Latini – another favorite from prior year visits. The meal did not disappoint with each bountiful course brought out over a few hours time, even managing to satisfy Kevin, the vegetarian. The meal ended with la Cuadrina, a sweet white wine that Marissa loves.

For Sunday, we had originally planned a 4 hour bike ride with “I Bike Italy”, but had cancelled on Saturday due to the weather forecast. As it turned out, we awoke to a lovely day. Marissa had her heart set on taking the bus to the Italian SGI headquarters, so she and Kevin headed there for a couple of hours. We took our coffee and breakfast at leisure in the apartment before heading out to explore again. Peter stopped to admire a leather coat at an outdoor market and before we knew it, we were off to the vendor’s store nearby to look at others. Peter, and then Jeanne, quickly became enamored with the heavy, weather resistant buffalo leather coats, perfect to fend off the cold winter winds. The vendor offered a tempting deal on the 2 coats, but not wanting to be impulsive, we left and headed for our rendevous with Marissa at the Duomo. We had lunch a nice little pizza place and toasted Kevin on his 20th birthday. We did decide to head back to the leather shop, Misster, and after further consideration, purchased the two coats. Marissa and Kevin had fun trying on a couple of leather jackets, striking a pose for the camera! But those coats were not in their budgets and mom said ‘no.’

Florence_s
Florence and the Ponte Vecchio

So it was after a quick stop at the apartment to drop off our purchases, we headed off to the Museo Galileo (formerly the museum of the history of science). Peter enjoyed the special exhibit on bicycles and we all were impressed by the collection of 16th-18th century scientific instruments and globes. Back at the apartment, the college kids napped, while we caught up on our trip logs, over wine, of course! Later, we grabbed a good bite to eat at Trattoria d’Oste, near the train station, before Marissa and Kevin departed by train for Arezzo. We headed back to the apartment to pack for our trip home on Monday.

Up early, showers, coffee, breakfast, final packing, it was all business as we headed the door by 7AM to get back to Bologna in time for our noon flight. Travel time was roughly 2 hours, and because of hte hour, we were able to quickly get through Florence on the A-1, heading north to the Bologna airport. So far, so good until traffic suddenly came to a halt. Police and emergency vehicles passed and we waited and waited and waited, stopped on the highway for one long hour! Once we began moving, we realized we were only a short distance from the accident scene, just a short distance ahead. While the wait was a nuisance, we were grateful not to be involved in the accident and fortunate to have given ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport before our flight. Twenty minutes later we where at the airport and returning the rental car.

Cheers for Peter, the driver of the week!! (Jeanne really needs to relearn how to drive a standard). As it happens, we were early for flight checkin, so we again waited, this time at the Iberia airlines check in counter. Finally checked in we were quickly through the security line (easy) and had time for an Illy crema before we queued up for our flight. The Bologna airport is small, just 12 gates and only one section for seating. More waiting. Our flight was delayed, though they never updated the board. We sat on the floor, still in line, and Peter bought us each a Compari and soda (a favorite beverage of ours in this trip). Finally, we boarded, taking a bus out to the plane on the Tarmac, in the rain. We were late into Madrid, and made a made dash to terminal U for our connecting flight to Boston, arriving there as passengers were boarding. No time for Jeanne to practice her Spanish or to pick up a bottle of wine with our last few euros.

All’s well, we arrived home safely, followed by Peter’s luggage 3 days later, but all in all, a wonderful trip, with some great memories of our time tooling around Tuscany.

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