Sunday. September 11.
The train station in Rome was buzzing. I wasn’t worried about making the connection. If I did screw up, I’d just take the next train. It would only cost me twenty five Euro. It wasn’t like missing a plane flight, but it would be a waste of time.
Rome was grand, but I was glad to get away from the tourist hustle. I had tried to ignore the street vendors, but at big sites their pitches were constant. They weren’t the only ones wanting a piece of the action. If you glanced at a menu outside a restaurant a waiter would try to drag you in.
In the station there was a large electronic board with the train schedules posted. I couldn’t find the train headed to Florence. A thin, middle aged guy came up to me. “I work here,” he told me, and he did have an official looking shirt on, even it if was a bit ragged. Marco asked to look at my ticket. I was a bit leary, but I let him look at it. I hadn’t realized the train to Florence went on to Venezia. That’s why I couldn’t find it on the board.
Marco took me to the platform for the train to Venice. I gave him a couple of Euro. He kept his hand out, “I’ve got two kids.” I gave him two more Euro. I was really tired of getting worked, but this one might have been worth it.
This would be my first train trip in Europe. Had “Marco” steered me to the right platform?There was no one else waiting, but it was early. A large group of people watched some TV monitors near the platform. I guess there was some kind of confirmation. They started streaming towards the platform.
On the train I sat across from two cute Japanese girls. They looked and acted like models. One of them started taking selfies. Every minute of their trip would be documented! An electronic message board on the train kept track of our progress and speed. We were traveling at 250 kilometers an hour. About 150 miles per hour!
It was a bit overcast. The Italian countryside whizzed by my window. It rained right before we reached Florence, but it was clearing up when I got off the train.
The Santa Maria Novella train station is new and modern, but once I got past the taxi and bus stands everything looks like its from another time. The Santa Maria Novella Church dominates the area. My hotel was very close to the train station. I stopped in a tourist information office anyway and got directions and another map. Across a busy, cobble stoned street is a small plaza, the Piazza dell’Unita Italiana. The San Giorgio e Olimpic Hotel is next to it.
The room was small, but the hotel was much better than the one in Rome. After checking in I got some directions. The concierge gave me another map. He drew a circle on it. “Everything is inside this circle.” This was a relief after Rome. I gave him the address for the tour I would be taking that night. The meeting point was somewhere on Via Romana. He frowned. “That’s very far.” He pointed to a spot outside of the circle and across the Arno River.
I took a quick look at the courtyard of Santa Maria Novella Church. Florence had a more medieval atmosphere. Rome is a busier city. There is still some steel and glass in Florence. There are boutiques and modern buildings, but most of it looks like it’s been transported through time. More of Florence is preserved.
It was time for another Hop On Hop Off bus. I was learning. Just take the bus tour and get an idea of the layout of the city. I got on the Red Line bus near my hotel. I would try to do a lap and ride all the way around the city.
We went through winding streets to the walls of the city and the Fortezza Da Basso. A city as successful as Florence had to be defended. The imposing brick walls were built by the Medici family in the 1500s. They were so imposing that they never got attacked. Eventually cannons made the fortifications obsolete. Many of the walls were torn down in the nineteenth century.
We crossed the Arno River on the Amerigo Vespucci bridge, the Ponte A. Vespucci. The taped commentary on the bus told us about the flood of 1966. Flooding was a part of life near the river. The flood of 1966 was the largest recorded on the Arno since the 1500s. It caused great damage to Florence. Historic pieces of art were destroyed or damaged. Volunteers came from around the world to help in the restoration of the art and books. They were called the Mud Angels.
The flood killed 101 people. The high water mark was 6.7 meters, or 22 feet. There are plaques throughout the city that show the high water mark at that spot. Most of the damage was in the Santa Croce area. The National Library, the Biblioteca Nazionale, suffered much damage.
We go by the Piazza Tasso. The taped bus guide narrative says that it’s more like a neighborhood than the parts of Florence tourists usually see. There’s a nice little park with a spirited football match being played on a small field. It’s in the city, but it has a small town feel to it.
There’s a roundabout with a large white, modern sculpture that looks out of place. A woman is looking forward and backward at the same time. The Gates of Rome are nearby. The Porta Romana was built in 1326. Pilgrimages to Rome began here. Its tall stone arch is still an important entrance to the city for traffic. We get a glimpse of “The English Cemetery.” Elizabeth Barret Browning is buried there with other foreign authors and celebrities.
We start to go up into the hills on a beautiful shaded street, the Viale Machiavelli. “It’s used as a park by locals.” Some are taking a Sunday stroll now. We pass the Piazzale Galileo and the home of Galileo. It didn’t look like a bad place to serve out a house arrest.
The bus pulls into the parking lot of the Piazza Michelangelo. The Plaza has “the best view of Florence,” and it’s an amazing, sweeping view. The Duomo stands out, but all the major sights of the city can be seen from up here. There is a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David. It was a short stop, and I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I’d get back to this spot again on this visit.
We start a long ride uphill. The hills get steeper. There are views of villas, vineyards and gardens. The terraces have great landscaping with tall trees. It’s quite a contrast from the gas fumes and traffic of Rome. It’s hot and sunny. This is my first real look at rural Italy. We’re headed up to Fiesole.
Fiesole was originally an Etruscan city. There were bitter wars with the Romans and later the Florentines. It was destroyed several times. During the Victorian era Fiesole was practically a British colony. Rich English bought land and improved irrigation to enable terrace farming.
We stopped and parked near the plaza in town. There would be a thirty minute stop here. I was surprised, but I didn’t mind getting a better look at this town in the hills. It was about three o’clock and a farmer’s market was winding down. People had spread their wares on tables in the sun. Pottery and souvenirs were among items offered for sale. A few tables sold books.
Fiesole is known for its great views, but to really see them you have to patronize one of the restaurants. That would have been OK with me, but there was the thirty minute time limit. I stopped in a small grocery for a juice. I wondered about the people living up here. It seemed perfect. It had a small town atmosphere, but a world class city was only a short bus ride away. Fiesole looked like the setting of a fairy tale. It’s an idyllic small Italian town in the hills. Sometimes this whole trip was like a fairy tale.
On the way back we passed through the academic part of Florence. Many universities have foreign schools here. We got a quick look at Italian college life.
We passed the Stadio. Florence’s football team, Firenza plays here. It looks small for a stadium, but it can hold over forty-thousand fans.
The Firenze archives are kept in a new, modern building. It’s among the largest archives in the world.
I did a reset at the hotel. The tour scheduled for tonight sounds intriguing: “Special Dinner in a Florentine Private House.” I still have a good bus ticket so I take the Hop On Hop Off bus again. I plan on riding the Red Line again. It looks like that line goes closest to Ave Romana. I can walk on Ave Romana to the meeting point at “Jessie’s Bar.”
Sounds great, except for one thing. I realize I’m on the Blue Line! I take a look at the bus tour map and see that the Blue Line will work fine, and I’ll see some different territory. I get a better look at the area near the Arno, especially the Bibliotech Nationale.
The bus wound through the streets of Florence. The narrow streets were laid out long ago. Most of Florence looks like it hasn’t changed in centuries. Traffic in the city is very restricted.
I had spotted Jessie’s Bar while on the bus. I got off at the Pitti Palace stop and wandered around. It was a little too late to get into the Pitti Palace museums. It was a long building that still held government offices inside. It was a short walk to the legendary Ponte Vecchio.
Unfortunately, Jessie’s Bar was not only closed, but it looked like it had been out of business for some time. I still had some time to kill. The nearby Boboli Gardens had just closed. I really didn’t mind. It was great to just wander around Florence.
There are not many cars, but pedestrians still have to keep an eye out for traffic coming from either direction, especially scooters. It wasn’t as intense as Rome. Most of the time scooter drivers were sure to let you know they were coming.
I went back to Jessie’s bar. I had started to relax a bit after doing some tours, but there was always some doubt. Was this tour for real? Was anyone going to show up? A younger couple loitered on the corner. They had the voucher! If I was getting stiffed I wouldn’t be alone. They were from the U.K. An American couple joined us.
An Italian man in his thirties arrived. Edoardo held up a sheet of paper with our names on it. He was friendly and put us at ease. Another American couple showed up. We followed Edoardo up the street and into one of the old apartment buildings. We were going into a Florentine residence!
We went up a slightly winding staircase. The hallway interior reminded me of Spanish style homes in San Francisco. The apartment was smartly furnished. They had a good eye. We were led into a dining room in the back of the apartment.
We met the chef, Viriana. She was lively and she sure looked like a chef. She wore an apron and had a scarf in her hair. She spoke English with a heavy Italian accent. They explained that they were trying to run a business that would offer these Italian dinners at different locations around the world. Although they had done it before, the impression I got was that this was a sort of test run. They plan to do events like this in other cities, including San Francisco!
There were seven of us. The couple from the U.K. were experienced travelers. They talked about how much easier it was to travel around Europe from the U.K. Scott and Stacy were from Melbourne, Florida. Scott was a classic salesman, very friendly and extroverted. Mark and Susan now live in Sacramento, but had Bay Area roots. Everyone got along very well. Even before the vino.
The voucher had said that wine was not included and that we would be charged five dollars a glass. This was OK with me, but they never charged us for the wine!
An appetizer appeared quickly. Porcini Mushrooms over Guinea Fowl. It was a tasty start. We were served Prosecco with it. It’s a light, dry, white wine with some bubbles.
We got to know each other. Tracy, the young woman from the U.K. was a friendly, attractive blonde. She told us that her favorite movie was “Hannibal,” the sequel to “Silence of the Lambs.” I’ve never heard anyone say that this was their favorite movie. The film is pretty grisly, but most of it is set in Florence.
Edoardo told us that the next course would be a risotto dish. He quickly explained that it was a myth that you had to constantly stir risotto for hours. “You don’t have to be chained to a stove to make risotto.” He mimicked stirring motions. He says they make it in twenty-five minutes. The risotto was creamy, with bits of rabbit in it.
The conversation wandered. We talked about how the world has changed, especially the Bay Area and San Francisco. Mark and Susan had left the Bay Area years ago, but they had fond memories. Our host, Edoardo, had lived in San Francisco for a short time, and he hoped to live there again. It was a bit funny. I was thousands of miles away, but much of the dinner conversation was about the Bay Area.
The main course was quail. It seemed perfect. There was a delay that no one really minded while our hosts made zabiglione. It was a gelato like dessert with fruit and nuts.
Edoardo and Viriana really did make us feel at home. It was a break from restaurants. This great evening was one of the reasons Florence became my favorite stop on this trip. It was more relaxed and I had gotten inside a Florentine home. I cabbed it back. It had been a long day, and I didn’t want to get lost again.
I was starting to have “Data Shortage” problems with the phone. I thought I had taken care of this before I left. I deleted apps I knew I wouldn’t use on the trip. I only used the phone as a camera anyway.
Monday. September 12.
Today’s tour is: “Visit to the Restoration of the Duomo Exclusive Opening.” The meeting point was the doors of the Baptistery.
On the way to the Duomo I go into the Chiesa dei Santi Michele e Gaetano. It just happens to be on the route. It’s on the Piazza Antinori. It’s another real gem. There are four tall columns on the facade. The interior is very Baroque and most of it is black marble. The Medicis helped build it for the Theatine order. It was the church of a “Counterreformation sect.” There has been a church here since the Eleventh century. This version was finished in 1631.
This was my first look at the Duomo and the piazza around the Duomo. The Duomo is known as the cradle and symbol of the Renaissance. It was surprisingly white and bright. There are colored stones in its walls and facade. It was early, but people were gathering around this tourist Mecca.
I went to the Baptistery and got a quick look at the Ghiberti Doors. It was a “must” for me. There is a reproduction of the doors near the entrance to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It’s one of those secret San Francisco things. I really wanted to see the original doors.
A contact from the tour guide company met me near the Baptistery. There was some confusion over the time the tour would start. I went into a courtyard across the plaza from the Duomo. I was assured there would be a tour. I should wait by the ticket office. From there I was directed to a room where I was shown a short film. It was kind of weird, because I was the only one in the room watching the film. It showed how the Duomo was made. A platform was constructed high above the Duomo floor. Scaffolding was set up and then the dome was built from the inside. It was simple, yet ingenious.
The tour group I join has about twenty people. Hillary is our guide. She’s an art teacher and a certified “Opera del Duomo Guide.” They are the only guides allowed inside the Duomo.
We start at the Baptistery. It’s a smaller building outside the main cathedral. It’s much smaller than the Duomo, but it’s still a “minor basilica.” Its octagonal walls are made of white Carrara marble and green Prato marble. There’s a line waiting to enter, but we walk right through. Once inside Hillary guides us past some stanchions with velvet ropes. We’re in an area that is cut off from the general public. It’s less crowded and easier to walk around in.
Legend says the Baptistery was built on the site of a Roman temple. The present building dates back to the Fourth century. It was renovated and decorated in the early 12th century. We’re surrounded by statues and paintings. Most of the interior is covered in mosaics of Venetian glass. The ceiling mosaics tell the history of the world. The Last Judgement is in the center.
The tomb of the “Antipope” John XXIII is in the Baptistery. He was deposed during the Great Schism, a puzzling part of Catholic Church history. So, there were two Popes named John XXIII, and I got to see both of their tombs.
The original baptismal font is gone. It’s been replaced by a larger one. Many famous Florentines have been baptized in the Baptistery, including Dante. For centuries it was used twice a year for baptisms. Now it is used once a month. Residents of the city are still baptized here. Hillary tells us that many Japanese pay large sums to get baptized here.
Nearby are the inside of the Ghiberti doors. The Baptistery has three sets of doors here that are famous works of art. Two of them were done by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The Northern doors show scenes from the life of Christ. The South doors are the famed “Gates of Paradise” that are reproduced in San Francisco. They show scenes from the Book of Genesis. The Pisano doors have scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.
We leave the Baptistery. Before going into the Duomo we stop for a look at the Ghiberti doors on the south of the Baptistery, the “Gates of Paradise.” These doors are reproductions. The originals have been stored indoors at the Museum Opera del Duomo, but I could see where they had been for centuries.
Hillary told us about the making of the South doors. It took twenty-seven years to complete them. Art historians date the beginning of the Renaissance from their creation. Michelangelo gave high praise to Ghiberti’s doors: “They would be perfect for the gates of paradise.”
The Duomo has a lot of color for a church. Most of it is white Tuscan marble. Pink and green stones make it brighter and lighter. There’s been a church here since 500 A.D. The “new” church, the Duomo, was started in 1292. It was completed 1436.
We walk across the marble floors and Hillary points out some highlights. Above the main entrance is a huge clock. It was built by Paolo Uccello in 1433. After a recent restoration it is working again! The face is very unusual. There are twenty-four hours across the face. It keeps time from sunset to sunset.
There are several paintings on the far wall of the Duomo. There is an equestrian figure of Sir John Hawkwood. He was a mercenary who helped save Florence from invasion. The portrait is a frieze that has a bit of a three dimensional effect.
Hillary talked about Dan Brown’s visit to Florence to do research for his book, Inferno. She not only got to meet him, but she helped him with his research. She was excited to meet Tom Hanks and said he was a real nice guy.
There is an ironic portrait of Dante. He points at Hell. Heaven is in the background. Heaven is Florence. Dante had some political problems and he was exiled from Florence. It was a bitter fate for him. Dante loved and missed Florence.
On the dome above the altar is The Last Judgement by Vasari and Zuccari. There are rings of saints. The Biblical characters are famous Florentines of the time. It’s one of the biggest pieces of art ever attempted.
We crossed the Piazza Duomo and went a short distance up a side street to the Restoration Workshop. There are always sculptures from the Duomo complex that need repair. Renovation is constant here. The workshop goes back to medieval times. Michelangelo made his famous David sculpture here!
There are some workmen in the workshop. It looks like they’re finishing their lunch break. They still wear aprons covered with white dust. They don’t look too happy to see us. Maybe it’s an Italian sculptor thing. They talked loudly among themselves. They must be sick of seeing tour groups. I think they were giving Hilary the needle a bit. Hilary showed us the tools and explained some of the techniques sculptors used. It was amazing to think we were in the place where such great things had been created.
The tour included a free lunch. I was surprised no one else in my tour was signed up for it. The restaurant was Giannini’s. I had an address. It was on “San Lorenzo 35/37.” The street was very close to the Duomo, but I had a hard time finding it. Later, I learned that Florence had a unique address system. Street numbers in Florence sometimes did not run in sequence. Different businesses had different street codes. Red was for one type of business, black was for another. The numbers weren’t necessarily next to each other. This sure didn’t make any sense to me, but I did find the place.
The waiter set two places and got ready to serve two. Maybe the voucher was for two lunches. Should I eat them both? No, I’ll just have one, thanks. It was a simple lunch. Excellent pesto pasta and a salad.
The ticket to the Duomo included entrance to the Museum Opera del Duomo. I wasn’t sure when it closed and it was getting late in the afternoon. I badgered the waiter for the check. I was relaxing a bit after Rome, but I did want to get into this museum while I was in the area.
The Museum Opera del Duomo is a modern building. It stores works of art that have been taken out of the Duomo or had to be moved indoors for preservation. Air pollution is rough on sculptures left outdoors. There is a Gallery of Sculpture on the main floor. It leads into a small courtyard. Most of one wall is taken up by a life size model of the original cathedral facade, the church that was there before the Duomo.
The Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti are displayed behind glass in this courtyard. I thought again about the replica in San Francisco. I finally see the original doors!
There is a Pieta by Michelangelo. It was one of the last sculptures he made. The left arm and leg are damaged. There is a story that an aging Michelangelo realized he was losing his talent. He struck out at the statue in frustration.
Upstairs there is a room that shows another film on the making of the Duomo. There is a scale model of the Duomo with a cutaway view that shows the scaffolding. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and found myself in some kind of employee’s area. I accidentally walked out onto a terrace with a unique and great view of the cupola of the Duomo.
The Museum Opera del Duomo is a smaller museum that shows the history of the Duomo. It was great to finally see the original Gates of Paradise.
Another reset at the hotel. I had heard a lot about the smaller food stands and stalls. Tonight I would try one out.
Bread in Florence doesn’t have any salt. During one of their wars with Venice the salt supply was stopped. They baked their bread without it, and it must have caught on. Pizza in Florence tastes different. Something else caught my eye.
Near the hotel there were a couple of trucks offering drinks and snacks. One of them had a big grill inside it. There was a pile of sliced pork on the grill. I ordered the porchetta sandwich and watched while it was grilled with sweet peppers. It reminded me of fast food stands in Chicago. The grilled pancetta sandwich was a great cheap treat.
I hadn’t had much time for TV. I wanted to kick back a bit, so I did some Italian channel surfing. Most channels showed news programs. An episode of Pawn Stars dubbed in Italian was amusing. There was one channel that had nothing but shows on Padre Pio, the priest with the stigmata. I found a bizarre science fiction movie from the Sixties. This could be a whole new genre for me. So many movies ...
It was a great night to wander the streets of Florence. A middle aged guy played accordion. He was pretty good, and the accordion gave the old streets some ambience. The Plaza of Santa Maria Novella was a short stroll away. Locals and tourists hung out by a fountain. It was just a great, low key spot. A busker played Italian songs on guitar.
Tuesday. September 13.
About a month before the trip I had watched Rick Steves’ visit to Cinque Terre on PBS. The five remote towns on the coast are in a fantasy landscape along coastal mountains. They are medieval storybook towns. It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that I would soon see it in person. Today would be the “Cinque Terre Trek.”
The meeting place is a bus stop that is close to the hotel. I grab one of the last window seats. There are about sixty on the tour. Our guides are Jadda, “You can call me Jade,” and Freddie: “My favorite color is blue.” Jadda mentioned that she has a blue belt in martial arts. Freddie went to LaSalle in Philadelphia. The driver was Moro. “He’s a very important person.” We would find out why later.
Freddie goes around the bus meeting everyone in his group. He gets names. Where have you been? Where are you going? It’s a great tour guide technique. Get people talking. If people are having a good time, the tour will go better.
Our guides explain the itinerary and what to expect. We would start with an hour long bus ride. The first stop would be in the town of Manarola. The group was split in two. I was in Freddie’s group. After a couple of stops we would have lunch. Then we would hike to Corniglia. There were arrangements to take a bus if anyone preferred.
If we missed any connection we could meet the group later in Spezia. An easy landmark “for Americans” to remember was the default meeting place. The McDonald’s. If we did get separated from the group we could rejoin them there on the way back. Missing the last stop in Spezia could be a problem. Last minute hotel accommodations could be expensive.
Freddie strongly suggests the Vaporetto for travel in Venice. Some people avoid public transportation, but in Venice the Vaporetto will get you around cheaply.
We would be taking trains around Cinque Terra. We were warned to watch out for pickpockets. “Sometimes we know who they are.” The guides would point them out to try to discourage them, but we still had to be aware and alert. Many of the thieves are young, cute girls. They try to stand by the doors and bump into people on their way out. Others on the train may try to create a distraction.
Our guides provided a great travelogue as we sped by the farm land outside of Florence. The main industry in the city of Florence is tourism, but outside the city it is agriculture. The nurseries and orchards here supply much of the world with fruits and vegetables. Olives and other products from here are exported around the world. We go through acres of orchards and farmland. There had been some train manufacture here, but this land was meant for agriculture.
This was the land of the Etruscans. They had their own civilization here in Tuscany before the Romans came. The Etruscans fought off Rome for years, but eventually they were defeated. The Romans made them an offer, “Join us or die.” Most Etruscans joined.
The area had been swampy marsh. The Romans improved irrigation and created great farm land. We can still see traces of the Etruscan civilization today. We will be going through Liguria. It was sometimes French territory and there has always been a strong French influence here. Pesto was invented in Liguria.
There are descriptions of the local Ligurians of ancient times. The Romans said they were short people with small arms and legs. They were known for being grumpy. So not only is there a place called Spezia, but the people who live there are crabby, grumpy people.
Freddie talked about the history of the area. Most Americans think of Italy as an old country with a long history, but the idea of Italy as a nation state is a new concept. Unification didn’t happen until 1865. Even the United States is older!
Some of the towns became city states. Rivalries probably began with fighting for trade, but the cities became competitive in most of the other parts of life. The Pisa versus Florence rivalry continues today. Now the cities compete in sports and the culinary arts. Another big rivalry is Pisa against Lucca.
We’re following some of the route of the Apennine Road. All roads led to Rome. We’re passing over the route of pilgrims and crusaders. After the collapse of the Empire Roman roads became dangerous. They attracted robbers and thugs. People took to mountain trails to avoid getting attacked and robbed.
We pass the mountains where Carrara marble is quarried. Freddie says that it’s a myth that Michelangelo worked in the mines to get marble for his creations. Working in a marble quarry was demanding and dangerous work. Michelangleo did visit quarries to choose pieces of marble. Even that had some risk.
They developed an ingenious way of separating slabs of marble. Wood was pounded into large cracks in the marble. Then the wood was soaked. When the wood expanded large slabs of marble would split and fall. This was a dangerous part of the job.
Freedie informed us that the local drink in Cinque Terre is not Lemoncello. It’s Limonceno. Vernaccia is the local “indigenous” wine.
We get out at a parking lot in Manarola and take a short walk. We’re up in the hills and get our first look at the coast. The water of the Ligurian Sea is the clearest blue. We get a view of the town as we walk along a trail. Freddie points out rocks on the red tile roofs. There are high winds here near the coast. The locals put rocks on the tiles to keep them from blowing away.
The houses are all in bright colors: white, pink and red. Freddie tells us that there are strict rules about the color scheme in Manarola. Painting of the houses is controlled by the local government. Other repairs are monitored closely to preserve the look of the town.
We stop in St. Lorenzo Church. It’s smaller than the urban churches I’ve been seeing. This local church goes back to 1338. It has a Gothic facade and a Baroque interior. It’s still a rural parish.
There is a steep side path. An old wooden sign points up to Corniglia. “We will go there later.” We take a short hike. It’s uphill. This is a tune up for the longer hike to Corniglia. I started up some stairs. Apparently, I was pacing myself too fast. “Take your time,” Freddie told me. I could tell he was watching me. He had lived in Philadelphia and had that East Coast humor. Minutes later it was, “Come on! Hurry up!” I guess I passed the first test.
Wandering Florence I had seen ads for apartments. The rents seemed very low. Freddie explained that, “It’s all relative.” Rents I had seen advertised were low, and the prices were real, but wages were low too. Most people didn’t make much money in Florence.
We came to a restaurant with a large terrace: Cecio Ristorante Camere. It has a great view of the coast and the hills below us. We have lunch here. It starts with a seafood antipasto dish, Frutti de Mare. It’s fresh from the sea. Among the treats are octopus and large prawns.
Our guides explained the bathroom situation in Italy. We were reminded that public restrooms are rare. Most stores, restaurants and cafes have bathrooms. If you buy anything, even just a bottle of water, you can use them. I think this rule goes double outside of the big cities. There is usually a small charge for using the public bathrooms. So, just go to a store and buy something!
After lunch we would hike to Corniglia. We were warned that it’s a rough trail. There is an option to take the bus. My legs were a bit worn out already, but I didn’t want to miss anything. We waited for a few stragglers from lunch. Most of us wanted to get going. I wanted to get a little head start so I could take longer breaks on the way. We were given the go ahead to start. It would be 2.6 miles in the heat. Someone mentioned that the temperature was 25 degrees Celsius.
The trail was the roughest I’ve ever hiked on. Large, square stones stuck up at right angles. They looked like real ankle breakers. It was really hot on the trail. The trail switched back and forth with steep angles. I turned a corner. There was an eagle hanging in the air. Gliding. It was the most impressive bird of the trip. That and the views made the hike worth it.
As the trail got closer to Cornigila it got much steeper. Seeing hikers coming down from the town was a relief. The trail was coming to its end. I turned a corner and there were a few shops along the trail. They were jammed with people getting something to drink.
We had some free time in Corniglia. I got a couple of juice drinks and headed to the beach. Most it was rocky. About a hundred people were sunning and wading in the water. The water was a bright blue and very clear.
We would meet “At 3:40. Under the train station. Near the public rest rooms.” We were headed to Vernazza. On the walk to the train Freddie got into some spirited repartee with some teenage boys. It seemed friendly, but I had to wonder. I should have asked him what they had been talking about.
The buildings in Vernazza seemed even more colorful. Laundry hung from buildings. Boats bobbed in the water. There was a picturesque historic tower. “You can climb the tower if you want to.” The main square is the Piazza Marconi. It opens up to the water. It’s next to a church and a bell tower.
The bell tower rises from Santa Margherita di Antiocha. This church is so old they’re not even sure when it was finished. It might be 1318, but some believe it is older.
It was built on this spot because the bones of St. Margaret washed up on the beach in a wooden box. The people of Vernazza had built another church on higher ground in the Isolotto quarter. A strong sea storm destroyed the new church and valuable relics were lost. The wooden box with the bones of St. Margaret reappeared on the beach. The church was built there. To the right of the church is a small beach. It’s made of pebbles that are surprisingly soft on the feet.
Vernazza had been plagued by pirates. They raided the towns on the coast, raping and pillaging. They took the townspeople prisoner and sold them as slaves. It struck me what a brutal life change that would be. Someone captured by the pirates would go from living in an idyllic Italian coastal town to being sold into slavery, and probably shipped somewhere on the Barbary coast.
So Vernazza built a “fortifying wall.” It wasn’t a decoration. Fortifications and castles were built for a military reason. They just weren’t looking forward to an age of tourism. The Doria Castle is “a short walk” uphill. It was built as a lookout to watch for pirates.
Vernazza was devastated by mud slides in 2011. Much of the town had to be renovated. It’s a minor miracle that it regained its unique look. The town doesn’t look like it was nearly destroyed not so long ago.
Freddie and Jadda have been meticulous at keeping the group together, but they discover that a young couple is missing. It’s a couple who are on their honeymoon. We’re reminded that if we get separated we should meet the group in La Spezia for the bus ride back.
The towns of Cinque Terre went through a long economic decline. Many residents left. A naval base at La Spezia did provide some employment. The economic problems kept Cinque Terre isolated and preserved.
We meet on train platform one at 4:50 for our train to Monterosso. We were moving with military precision. Well, precision. Maybe it was the hike, but I was more relaxed. What if I missed the train? What was the worst that could happen? I’d be stranded in this fantasyland? I did have the walking tour of Florence tomorrow.
The Aurora Tower divides the town in two. Monterosso has the biggest beach in Cinque Terre and it has soft sand! Monterosso had been the most isolated of the towns in Cinque Terre. For a long time there were only two ways to get here, by the sea or by mule path. A train connection was built in 1870. Like the other coastal towns it was plagued by pirate attacks.
The town is divided by a tunnel. One side is the “newer” resort side of the town with the beach. The other is the older, medieval part of town. A red and orange butterfly circled me.
Monterosso was damaged by bombing in World War II. The madness even reached here. It seemed ridiculous to destroy such a place, but the Nazis suspected there was smuggling going on in the port town. I tried to imagine Luftwaffe bombers swooping in on this peaceful coast village.
There is a small black pillbox out in the water. It looks antiquated. Its one cannon didn’t look like much defense from an aerial attack. It looked like it had been part of a desperate defense.
I had seen anchovies served at a couple of the towns we had stopped. I’m a big anchovy fan, but I hadn't been ready for them. Now it was time. I set out to find anchovies. I must find anchovies! There was a small shop displaying them in waxed paper cones. They were cooked in a thin batter. You can eat them heads and all if you want. They were the best anchovies I ever had. Right out of the sea. They don’t taste salty, although that’s why I like anchovies. “It’s a crime what they do to anchovies in America!”
A member of our group had been stung by a jellyfish while swimming. It looked bad, but he made light of it.
We will take a large ferry boat back to Riomaggiore. There’s no pier here, so we have to board the boat by walking across a long wooden plank. I joke about “a three hour tour,” but no one seems amused. The open ferry boat will pass by the towns we’ve gone through. It’s great to see the towns we’ve visited from the water. The water here looks even clearer and bluer.
Riomaggiore is the most southern of the Cinque Terre towns and it may be the oldest. Many tours start from the South, so Riomaggiore is the first town many tourists see. Above the town are the San Giovanni Battista church and the ruins of a castle.
We take the train back to La Spezia. Then it’s about an hour bus ride back to Florence.
The lost newlyweds have been found! They get a round of applause for rejoining the group. They have missed some of the tour, but they’re on their honeymoon. “You don’t know what we’ve been doing!”
It’s dark during the bus ride back. Most on the bus take a nap. We pass through a more residential area of Florence. Right before we get to the train station “Don’t Go Changing” by Barry White is played over the speakers. It’s the perfect song to wake us up and end the tour.
The tour was an amazing look at a very different part of the world. It was expertly run by Freddie and Jadda. It was definitely one of the highlights of my whole trip!