Ciao Paisanos (Hello Friends),
I last left you on my train ride from Zurich, Switzerland to Lake Como where George Clooney has his Italian villa. We dreamed of basking in the Italian sun with George and friends while working on a golden tan. The Alps have strings of emerald lakes that work their way up the valleys and give a nice backdrop to the rising mountains. Geneva has Lake Geneva, Zurich has Lake Zurich and Como has Lake Como. We hoped Como would give us a chance to eat Italian food and enjoy the warm rich pleasures of the Italian lakes.
We'd gotten tired of the rain and clouds of Zurich and were looking for some sun. When the train burst into the southern side of the Alps after a long tunnel, the sun broke out and our spirits lifted. The warmth of the sun can lift a weary heart and I was looking forward to catching some rays on the shore of Lake Como and looking at the mountains rising to glaciers.
It wasn't to be. As the train pulled along the lake, the lake wasn't the placid mirror that we had hoped for.
White caps were being blown across the lake and culminating in large waves that were crashing down on rocks that were right below the tracks. Grace and I weren't going to be able to enjoy the lake with 30 mph winds into our faces. In late May, the lake is still too cold to swim in as well. It could still be nice on the shores, but not until the winds had passed.
We thought Como might be a small town as well, but the small Lonely Planet map was deceiving. Como was a large town and didn't seem very inviting. When the train pulled into Como, we decided to not get off and just continued playing Spades all the way into Milan. When we got into Milan, we caught the next train into Genoa - the home of Genoan Salami and Christopher Columbus. We had an hour layover in Genoa before making our way down to our ultimate 12th Anniversary destination of Cinque Terre (chinkwa Terray) - Five Lands in English. Cinque Terre consists of five villages nestled on the cliffs above the Italian Riviera in northwestern Italy.
Our Italian Villa
Rick Steve's says that Vernazza
is the jewel of Cinque Terre and that is where we decided to stay. We got off the train in Vernazza and were immediately met by Edgi like Rick has said. Edgi (pronounced Edgy) looked like Fabio with long hair and he spoke good English. Edgi had rooms for lease and was glad to show us his abodes. Grace stayed with our bulky luggage in the main square while I went looking at rooms with Edgi. The first room he showed us had a queen size bed in a rather small room, shared bath and no kitchen or sink in the room. The next room had three beds, a small kitchen and one window looking out into other people's windows over a dark, grungy little courtyard. He wanted 95 Euro ($120 and the current favorable exchange rates) per night for the larger room and 65 Euro for the small one. Rick had promised harbor views for 60 Euro at this time of year, so I used the most powerful negotiating technique I know. I said no.
I went back to Grace and she pointed me to some signs that said rooms for rent. The sign was outsides of a
gelateria (Italian ice cream shop) so I waited to talk to the ice cream man about a room for rent. He served the customers and then called his friend Sergio. Sergio was an older Italian man in his 70s who had spent his whole life in Vernazza. Old Sergio was renting other people's rooms out now and was the quintessential Italian man who talked with his hands, had an earnest look in his eye and smiled patiently while he interpreted my English. He took me to a room and we went up the arched stairway to the a nice entry room with tall windows, a large bedroom and a nice bathroom. The apartment was built right into the rock cliff that the town was built on and large exposed pieces of rock remained along the stairway. Sergio said there was no need for air conditioners in the apartment because the rock sucked up the heat in summer.
It was a pretty nice place and then I saw the door labeled PRIVATE next to the bathroom. I asked if we had to share the bathroom with others and he assured me by waving his hand and saying "Noa, Noa". He
unlocked the door and took me up another arched staircase to the fully furnished kitchen with a nice dinner table that seats 6. He showed me how it had everything for Grace to cook with including a coffee maker. I was sold right then, but then I noticed another door. Sergio gestured - come come - and opened the door to the patio. I seperated the bead curtain that covered the door and walked out onto a beautiful patio with loads of plants and a nice yellow table to sit at. From the balcony, I had a great view of the main street of the town (that doesn't allow any cars), the main bar - the Blue Marlin, a few restaurants and the train station. It would prove to be an excellent vantage point to while the hours away.
This was the kind of apartment where I wanted to spend our 12th anniversary. If Edgi's rooms were any reference, this room would go for 120 Euro and price it out of our range. So I had to think small and work with Old Sergio. I told him the place was very nice, but I could only afford a pittance
of 60 Euro a night. I could stay for 4 nights though and possibly longer. This relatively long term stay caught his eye and he pretty quickly agreed to 75 Euro a night, but he had bigger plans. He pushed for me to stay 5 nights and we negotiated a while and I said I could only commit to 4 right now, but if I stayed for 5 we'd stay each night for 70 Euro. We shook hands and I ran down to fetch Grace who had been guarding our luggage in the main square like a guard dog. She was very pleased when she saw the size of the place and the full kitchen to cook a few meals. It was our dreamy Italian villa that we enjoyed very much for the next few days.
Trains, Boats and Walking
After we took quick showers, we went out into the village to find something to eat. We ended up eating in the restaurant right below our villa. We met a couple of American couples in the restaurant and they had followed Rick's advice to stay in Vernazza as well. Vernazza and Cinque Terre have become prime destinations now
for foodies and Grace fit right in expounding the virtues of fresh, local foods. Andy and Nick, a couple from Bellingham Washington were a fun couple that were following a similar path as we were in Cinque Terre. Our paths crossed several times over the next days and we saw them eating eggs in the Blue Marlin the next morning. We invited them up to the patio for a chat and ended up inviting them to dinner the next night.
On our first day in Cinque Terre, we decided to hike to the next village. The low, easy coastal trail was closed due to rock slides, so we had to take the high, dificult mountain trail to the next village of Corniglia. Andy and Nick were on the same trail and we consulted them several times about what Rick said since our Lonely Planet guidebook wasn't nearly as detailed. Rick takes guiding to the extreme though and tells you the names of the people that you will see in each village and really knows his Europe.
It's pretty funny how the tourists (including me) fall into patterns that were easily observable from our patio. Literally trainloads of tourists
get off in each of the five villages and wind their way down to the sea. Then they get a gelato or meal, meander around the shops and back alleys, and go back to the train. I took one picture from my balcony of the crowds filing down the main street. It is disconcerting to walk upstream against all the tourists pouring downstream from the trains to the Mediterranean. I was running an errand with Sergio one day and working against the crowd and saw the bewildered look on his face. Sergio said that when he was a child, there were only a few families in the whole village. Now, thousands of tourists come every day - at least not by car or bus - but by train and boat loads. Italy is a rather crowded tourist destination and Cinque Terre is on the circuit now.
We did make it to all 5 villages and each is different and spectacular. It's not to hard to get away from the crowds and it is extremely charming. The day after walking to Corniglia, we took the train to Manarola that had some beautiful seascapes and tough swimming in the turbulent harbor.
We walked from Manarola to Riomaggiore along the coastal trail that was open there. It was a leisurely, lovers stroll where couples put padlocks on the fence in a show of everlasting love. They are repeating the act of love that a romance novel set in Riomaggiore popularized.
That night, Grace cooked up a veal stew that she placed over long rigatoni noodles. Andy and Nick brought a couple bottles of wine and a classic Italian appetizer of Mozzarella, tomato and basil. We had a great time and another American couple came over so we filled our table for 6. We had quite a few meals in the villa to make our stay more affordable. The next day, we took a boat to Monterosso to complete our journey to the five villages. Monterosso is the only large village with car access and large beaches. The hills above the five towns have terraced farms and lots of vineyards and herbs. I highly recommend a visit there and the region is less populated after the throngs of tourists leave after mid-day.
Wine Country of Piedmont
We heard many people rave about Tuscany which is a couple hours east of
Cinque Terre, but it was out of the way for our journey towards Geneva. We read about similar wine country in the district of Piedmont that has the capital of Torino (Turin). Lonely Planet described it as Tuscany without the tourists. When we read that the Slow Food movement was founded there with the internationally known University of Gastronomical Science, I knew that I had to take Grace to this Mecca for foodies.
We arrived in the little known town of Alba in the middle of the Alba Music Festival. The festival was a joint venture between St. Mary's College of Maryland and the city of Alba. We saw an amazing performance of the violinist Aiman Mussakhajayeva from Kazakhstan. Her skills transcended any boundaries and we listened intently for 2 hours. She could jam like Charlie Daniels in The Devil Went Down to Georgia or she could play concert sonatas to the crowds amazement. Many of the american musicians from St. Mary's were staying at our hotel and the college students partied to the wee hours of the morning. I slept through it while Grace had drinks with them.
The next day, we took an hour bus ride
through the wine country of Piedmont. The rolling hills were covered with vines and agriturismo where you stay at little farms/vineyards. We made our way to Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche. This university was only founded in 2004 and is based on the Slow Food movement that wants to study the whole process of food from the seed to the plate. They're looking for a better way to make food in contrast to industrialized fast food. They're big in local and organic food and want to go back to the pre-McDonalds local production of food.
The campus of the university is situated in a 15th century palace that had amazing brick work as seen in some of the pictures. We made our way to the library and I had to rip Grace away from this cathedral of culinary knowledge. She could have read there all day (as seen from the piles of books she collected in one of the pictures), but I pleaded with her to move on since she could read anytime, but she would only be in Italy for a few days. After a couple of hours, she gave in and we went to Bra, the
city were Slow Foods started. We walked around town and casually walked into one courtyard that was open. It turned out that the publishing offices of the Slow Foods movement were there. We talked to one of the authors who was writing a new guide to the wine country of Italy. They had a whole selection of Slow Food books and publications.
The Slow Foods movement has over 80,000 members with most of them in the US. Carlo Petrini of Bra, Italy is the founder of the Slow Food movement and he created a manifesto that started the movement. Carlo was a disgruntled journalist that started a protest against a McDonalds in Rome in 1989. He wants food to be good for the people, the farmer and the world. He has written several books on Slow Food and it's an interesting concept of which Grace is a devout believer. If you wonder why obesity is such a problem in America, Slow Foods believes they have an answer of eating more natural and less processed foods. Their anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) and against growth hormones and most things that a local farmer didn't do 50 years ago. If you want
some incredible food or consider yourself a foodie, I recommend joining your local chapter of Slow Foods.
The wine country of Italy is extensive and the amount of vineyards are overwhelming. I never knew how to select an Italian wine from a specific vineyard and how could you when there are thousands just in Piedmont. The price of the incredible wines is amazing as well. 2 Euro bottles and 1 euro boxes of wine are common as seen in one of the photos. We found that we got considerably less hangovers drinking the Italian wines compared to wines in the US. It's too bad that we can't get fine Italian wines in the US for $2-3, but you can find them pretty reasonable ones if you know where to shop. Trader Joes is a good option if it's in your area.
The next morning, we walked outside our hotel to the local outdoor market. I took some nice pictures in the market and uploaded a video of the cheeseman singing and cutting some parmesan for Grace. They use RVs in the market to deliver and cook the food. From rotisserie chickens to mobile butcher shops, they've turned RVs
into an amazing way to serve and deliver food. I saw some great RV parks in Italy, but I didn't capture them with my camera well.
Next stop on the trip is Switzerland. We saw the towering alps and I was a shepherd for a few minutes as well. I'll tell you about that next time.
PS. I fixed the videos on the "Likes Sands Through the Our Glass" Post. Thanks Lisa for pointing that out.
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