Italy


I have rarely wanted Ruby Slippers more than on this day. Three clicks and home sounds just perfect. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the day unfolded.

Vlad and I got up bright and early (6am) and took the shuttle to Malpensa Airport for our 10:30 flights. That’s when the Travel Gods decided to throw their best curveball.   Just as my flight to NY was about to board, they announced the pilot had not been able to get a flight plan approved due to the new ash cloud hovering over Spain, and we would be delayed 15 minutes or so while that is completed. Vlad’s flight to Heathrow took off on time, and there I was – standing at the gate with a feeling that it wasn’t going to be that easy.  How right I was!

15 minutes ended up stretching into 4 hours. No approved flight plan. I had a feeling we weren’t going to be leaving that day.  When we received definite word of cancellation, I immediately started working to rebook on another flight the next day. Unfortunately, I’ve been through this before, and know the drill.

The American Airlines staff (all two of them!) were incredibly helpful and so very nice under the enormous pressure they were under. They re-booked me and two gentlemen also flying business class  on the Lufthansa flight to San Francisco leaving the next morning from Frankfurt, and a flight from Milan to Frankfurt tonight.

The two gentlemen had no problem – they were first in line and got their vouchers right away.  When I got to Lufthansa’s ticket counter I found my ticket was all messed up.  I’d been  inadvertently booked on a flight through Heathrow. Cursing the Travel Gods, I pulled out the card the service manager gave me  and called her from my mobile. She came running over and started speaking with the Lufthansa person in rapid-fire Italian that I couldn’t follow.  It took quite some time to fix the issue, and while that went on, all the available seats were booked on the Lufthansa flight. I was about to break down and cry right there. Hey it was excusable.  I had had only a few hours of sleep the night before,  my husband was on his way home, and I was stuck in Milan all by myself with a suitcase full of dirty clothes.  And tomorrow was Mother’s Day.  Who wouldn’t tear up just a bit?

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my day was about to get a whole lot better.

The American Airlines service manager felt so bad about the mess up (she had accidentally canceled me from the Lufthansa flight when doing the bookings) that she put me on a United flight leaving Frankfurt the next day –  in first class.

As I was walking through the airport to the lounge and a desperately needed glass of good German beer, I saw bunches of people from the canceled flight standing around cell phones trying to rebook and find places to stay tonight. I felt a bit guilty that I had a potential way home and they didn’t, but in cases like this, it’s every woman for herself.

After an uneventful flight from Milan (where my eardrums held up quite nicely, thank you) I was soon sitting in the hotel in Frankfurt, my newly washed shirt drip drying in the shower, and catching up on my blogs and email.

It’s been a crazy trip.  Where are those Ruby Slippers?  There’s no place like home…

If you’ve ever tried to get tickets to see DaVinci’s The Last Supper painting, you’ll understand. They’re almost as hard to get as tickets to see an opera at La Scala. Tour groups snap up blocks of tickets and use that to bludgeon the unsuspecting public into taking their half day tours.

Vlad really wanted to see the painting, so we decided to bite the bullet and sign up for a tour.  After a lot of research, I found a tour that had the least amount of negative comments and booked.  There were 4 sites that this tour was to take us to see. The Sforza Castle, The Last Supper, La Scala and the Duomo. OK, sounded pretty harmless to us when we booked it.  On the positive side, we got to see the painting. On the other hand…

We show up on time to the meeting spot, and stood in line to get to the bus. They hand us stickers to put on our jackets (yeah, right – that’s like wearing a bulls-eye on your chest), and one of those ubiquitous receivers that you hang around your next with an earpiece. This is ostensibly so the guide can speak quietly andnot to disturb the other tourists at the venues, but really it is to humiliate the tourists.

Our guide gets in the bus and announces that since there is one couple on the tour from Spain, she will be doing a bilingual tour. OK – that’s fair. We can go with that.  Then she launches into her spiel.  Good God – she said a few words in pidgin English, the same in Spanish and then back to English to finish the sentence. That made it almost impossible to follow what she was talking about.   O what a tangled web she weaves…

Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle was in disrepair, and with nothing much to see – not sure why it was on the tour, except there really wasn’t much else to add.  That didn’t prevent the Tour Guide from telling everyone about the traffic in Milan after explaining that the castle is just an eyesore and a drain on tax revenue.   We had a feeling we were in for a long morning – especially when we realized we had joined a group that could only be called an Adult Tour.  Ack!

We’d found the 4th Circle of Hell.  Didn’t Dante once live in Milan?  Something to think about…

The Last Supper is really cool,though, and was fortunately next on the agenda.  It’s amazing it survived the bombing in WWII, and stayed in such good condition – one of the tourists on the bus whispered to her husband next to me that it was obviously divinely spared.  I can go with that.  You’re only allowed to gaze for 15 minutes and then they shoo you out so you need to make every minute count.   Vlad and I decided we’re with Dan Brown – the figure they say is the apostle John looks more like Mary Magdalene to us.

The most amazing thing we found was when you stepped back toward the opposite wall, the painting took on this 3 dimensional look that reproductions don’t do justice. You have to see it to truly understand.  It’s worth even a lousy tour to see, and that’s saying something.

When we got back to the bus, it was evident that a number of the other sufferers decided to bail after the Last Supper. After hearing many ‘useful’ facts about the La Scala Opera House on the way, such as “it was built because the people of Milan love music very much”, Vlad decided we would join the defectors and bail on the tour as soon as we got there. We’d go to the last sight, the Duomo on our own. Easy-going as he was, he’d had enough.

La Scala

We handed in our receivers when we go into La Scala, with our thanks, and gratefully explored the gallery and museum on our own. They allow you to peer into the interior of the theater from one of the boxes, but quietly and only a few at a time. It’s much smaller than it looks like on TV, but very impressive and opulent. For Vlad and his love of classical music and opera, it was like visiting Mecca. He drifted around with a blissful expression on his face the whole time. We were lucky enough to watch a few minutes of the dress rehearsal of that night’s performance, and got to hear Placido Domingo sing for a bit.

We saw the tour had dwindled down to only 6 people following the guide out of La Scala.  I’m surprised there were any!

Grand Hall in La Scala

The La Scala museum is also really cool. They have beautifully preserved musical instruments from long ago on display, as well as paintings of famous stars and conductors. They have a cast of Chopin’s hand, which Vlad really thought neat. The death masks of Verdi and Toscanini were a bit ghoulish, but the collection of miniatures and other memorabilia made up for it.

Bust of Toscanini in Grand Hall

Once we left the theater, we walked over to the Duomo. This is one of my favorite churches in Italy. Of gothic construction, it was started in the late 14th century, and subsequently extensively renovated in the late 16th century by San Carlos Borromeo.  It is every bit as lovely as Notre Dame in Paris. The stone carvings, stained glass windows and vaulted design is incredible. Outside, the cathedral is sheathed in pink and white marble – not in the striped fashion of the other main Duomos, but more of a soft pink wash on white marble.  Lovely.

Milan's Duomo

2010 was the 400th anniversary of the canonization of San Carlos, and they had a very interesting exhibit in the church on the contribution he made to the renovation of the cathedral, as well as paintings about stories from his life and miracles.  Even Vlad, not a real lover of museums, was fascinated and spent more time in this cathedral than all the others we had been in before.

The rain that had been plaguing us all week was at it again when we left, but we still walked through the old city admiring the buildings and ambiance.

Milan's lovely neighborhoods

If we had to do it again, I’d still take the tour to see the Last Supper, but I’d spend the extra money for a private tour.

One of my favorite places in Rome is the old Foro Romana, or the Roman Imperial Forum. I first visited this as a teenager with my late Aunt Rosemary, and of all the places we went, the Forum stuck most in my mind. It spurred a lifelong interest in Roman history, and whenever I get a chance to visit Rome, the Forum beckons.

The weather stayed lovely the evening after I left the Villa Borghese Museum, and I decided to use the last few hours of daylight prowling around my favorite ruins. The taxi ride from the Via Veneto to the Forum was made more harrowing than usual due to the large amount of people on the street. The driver told me this was the best day he’d had in a while, and he hopes the subway goes out again on strike later in the week.   Every trial has a silver lining, I guess.

Once at the Forum, I happily prowled around the walkways. It’s a work in progress with excavations still continuing. They’d recently unearthed some excellent frescoes from the ruins of the Basilica Aemelia and put them on display in the Curia Iulia – the only building still in a good state of preservation. This was because it was turned into a church and thus was saved during the destructive centuries of early Christianity.  Inside the curia, you can see the unearthed  stone dais (or what remains of it) where the chair of the Roman Emperor was placed.  As you look at it you can imagine Augustus, Tiberius or Claudius sitting there and giving the Senators a very hard time.  If they were anything like our Senate, they probably deserved it.

Outside the Curia lie the ruins of the Temple of Saturn, the former treasury and armory of Ancient Rome. All that is left of the upper building are the amazing columns and upper frieze with the inscription still intact. They were working on the excavations of the basements at the time of my visit and a sign posted said there would be new exhibits coming later in the year. Rats – that would have been most interesting!

Around the next path the Basilica Iulia now has it’s foundation excavated, and the ruins of it’s pillars are easily seen.   It was a large building for Rome, and pretty fitting for Caesar’s Folly.  Just past the basilica is a tumble-down ruin with a big line of people. This is the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered by the disaffected Senators.

Old Julius is kind of a minor Deity around here. When you walk past the protective wall, you see a mound of stone with offerings of flowers, notes of petitions and candles placed on it. Delightfully pagan, and kind of sweet, actually.

Walking farther down the path you see the Temple of Vesta. Three pillars of this charmingly round temple remain, and they’re actually in pretty good shape. Makes for a nice picture. There are wandering groups of school children here, all in matching caps, and they all were listening attentively to their teachers explaining the history.  Well, all except for the two ruffians trying to put dirt down the shirt of  this cute little red-headed girl.  Kids are the same the world over, but these were luckier than most – Rome is the city of endless field trips.

The Palatine was open, so I made the climb to the top of the hill to see the ruins of Augustus and Livia’s mansions, as well as the splendid view. They’re also still excavating here, and have recently uncovered a portion of Augustus’s garden, with a stone mural intact. Livia’s portion of the house was closed for excavations, and the archaeologists were just leaving for the day when I walked over. What a cool job they have.

Walking back down the stairs, you can exit out the back of the forum and end up right at the Colosseum. I had visited there several times, and it was getting late, so I decided to give it a miss. I decided to find a cab and go back to the hotel.

The cab drive back was an experience. First, the driver (who thought he was with NASCAR) sideswiped a bus. Didn’t even stop. Just cursed and continued. Add Rome to the list of cities where I’ve been in taxi accidents. At least it wasn’t a person this time, so I counted myself lucky and hung on a bit tighter to the chicken strap.

The subways were working again, so I couldn’t figure out why the traffic was so bad, so I figured I’d ask the budding Mario Andretti at the wheel. He explained that the Rome-InterMilan football game for the Italy Cup was going to  start in an hour, and it was in the Rome Stadium.   He was angry his company was making him work until he  reached his quota of fares, so he couldn’t see the game – hence the sunny disposition and dangerous driving.

The rest of the drive, with me hanging on desperately in the back, was a tirade on the virtues of the Rome football team and the fact that InterMilan has no real Italians on the team.  His diatribe was interspersed with Italian curses and shouts to the other drivers he encountered.  I’m sure most of what he said is not found in any dictionary, but was fascinated at the flow of curses.   He couldn’t find the hotel fast enough for his imaginary timetable, so he wanted to leave me on some other street. Using my  Taxi Driver Arguing skills that were honed to a fine edge in New York City, I got him to leave me on the corner of the street where the hotel was and paid the rate we previously negotiated.  Once back at the hotel, I had a glass of wine and watched the soccer match.

PS.  for anyone who cares:  The football game ended with InterMilan beating Rome 1-0.

I just wish it hadn’t been the Metro system on the day when I was on a tight timetable with my two favorite museums already booked.  The Travel Gods really came up with a good one this time.

Taxis were scarce as a result, but the wonderful staff at my little hotel (Hotel Diocleziano – I highly recommend it!) were able to call me one so I could get to the Vatican museum at least somewhat close to my starting time of 9am. My driver was a kindly retired gentleman teacher who drove a taxi part time so his wife won’t kill him. Or so he said. He pointed out many of the interesting sights along the way, with stories attached. As we passed the Vittorio Emmanuel monument he said that I should visit Mussolini’s tomb because he was such a great man. Oooh. yeah, right… So not going there…

Traffic was jammed, since all other public transit was at a halt, and it seemed everyone in Rome was driving either some species of car or motorbike. Ever see a large lady in a mini skirt on a motorbike? I wish I hadn’t.

We finally pulled up at the Vatican Museum, and the line was around the block. Having done my homework, I had booked ahead and marched up to the entrance and straight to the ticket booth. I was in the first room within a few minutes, ready to soak it all in.

The Vatican Museum is a world-class museum that goes on for miles. They have the most incredible statuary exhibits I’ve ever seen. Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Assyrian – the collection is amazing. From there, the swarm of tourists pushes you through some amazing galleries with tapestries, maps and more statues. Part of the wonder of this museum is the building itself. Every gallery had the walls and ceilings painted by the best masters of the day, and the floors were usually inlaid marble, or mosaic. You get a crick in your neck because you don’t want to miss the ceiling fresco done by Raphael.

The culmination of the tour is the Sistine Chapel. This is a large room that’s packed as full as it can hold with teeming masses of tourists, all looking around and talking at the top of their voices. There are a few guards that stand by the altar area yelling for people to be quiet. The funny thing is they have their walkie-talkies on much louder than the tourists – and much more jarring. I was able to score one of the few spaces on the bench by the altar and sat for about 30 minutes and gazed at Michaelangelo’s masterpiece to my heart’s content. No matter how many pictures you see, it pales in comparison to the awe that the original inspires.

After the Sistine Chapel, there are only the corridors of the Vatican Museum Library left. This is an area I enjoy. Most of the tours and large groups of people just blow through here on their way out, and it leaves more quiet and space to admire for us serious museum buffs.

After 4 hours, it was finally time to leave. I had just 20 minutes to get to the Villa Borghese for my starting time at that museum. I found a taxi by the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica and make it with only 5 minutes to spare.

The Borghese museum is a very hard-to-get ticket. They only let people in every 2 hours, and it’s a limited number. You miss your time, you’re out of luck. They book up several days out, so the best way is online. I took my voucher to the ticket window and got in line, after checking my purse with the attendants. You’re not allowed to bring anything in with you. My tired shoulders were most grateful.

No photos are allowed in this museum, so I’ll just have to describe it. There are two floors, and you start at the top. Each room in this mansion is covered with incredible art. Trompe d’oeil paintings on the walls and ceilings, frescoes, gilding, marble inlay on the floors and walls, and I haven’t even gotten started on the exhibits! Cardinal Scipione Borghese really knew how to live.

The top floor is devoted to paintings, but in each of the main rooms there is also the finest collection of Bernini statuary anywhere. Paintings by Titian, Rafael, Caravaggio and Rubens are scattered throughout.

Downstairs is devoted to statuary, with many incredible pieces to see. My favorite is the Bernini sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. The detail of Daphne turning into a tree is amazing, and she even has tears sculpted on her face. There are several tours here, and I’ve found that breezing through the galleries and doubling back when they leave is a great way to enjoy the experience without going crazy.

The two hours allotted for this museum go by way too fast. Fortunately, this time I was able to see everything I wanted before they started ringing the bell. Off to collect my purse and stroll through the gardens.

The Borghese Gardens are well worth a trip by themselves. Now a spacious park, the area around the house is set in formal style, with sculpted hedges and fountains. The rest of the park is tree and grass-filled, with lots of locals and tourists enjoying the fine weather. As you walk around, fountains in the baroque or neo-classical style dot the landscape and make for nice picture opportunities.

Once done, it’s a simple stroll to the Via Veneto, and all the over-priced shopping and restaurants anyone could wish. I took a stroll down this famous street in honor of all my friends who love to shop. No, I didn’t buy anything. My friends say I’m missing a gene because I hate shopping.

It was such a nice day, I decided I can fit in the Forum before it gets dark. I was in luck and found a taxi that didn’t cost a fortune. Since they were the only game in town, they all turned off their meters and you had to negotiate prices. Legalized highway robbery, and they knew it. Ah, Italy!

I wrote this blog entry on the long train ride from Riomaggiore to Rome. It was pouring rain again, and there was really nothing to see. I found myself pondering all the tourists I’ve seen over the past week and how they could be classified.

Cruisers are the most fun. They tend to be happy-go-lucky social animals who will strike up a conversation with anyone they see. On land for only 1 day, they are focused on seeing as much as they can before they have to head back to the boat. We met two that were a real hoot. Waiting for the bus to Corniglia, a couple with very identifiable Brooklyn accents asked us a question – I don’t remember what, but we started talking. The gentleman, a retiree of New York’s Finest, told us they came on this cruise because he wanted to see Naples, where his grandfather was from. They spent one day in Naples and were so disgusted he told us he’s going to figure out someplace better to be from. You have to love that kind of attitude, and I’m not sure he didn’t have the right idea.

Kiddie Tours are great fun to watch. There are usually 30 or 40 youngsters in something matching with lots of giggles and enthusiasm.  Here they use matching baseball caps – very useful when it comes time to count heads. They’re herded around by usually 2 or 3 very harassed-looking teachers who are obviously NOT paid enough for what they do. These kids tend to be pretty well-mannered, and they’re just so cute you can’t help but smile when you see them.

Scouting groups are a great example of organized chaos. We had a whole pack on the train back from our hospital experience in La Spezia, and every one of them was soaked to the skin and had a big grin as a result. Yeah – I forget that at that age nothing’s better than to be wet and squelching when you walk.    It’s also fun to see what they’re carrying on their backpacks.  One young man had a collander strapped to his pack. I guess in Italy, it’s all a part of  the “Be Prepared” motto. You never know when you’re going to need to cook some pasta.

Pack Animals are tourists who spread out to take up whatever space there happens to be so no one can dare to pass them or break up the Perfection of The Pack. Teenagers traveling together tend to Pack, and they’re the rudest tourists in the world – bar none. Blocking entrances, tunnels and train carriages are part of their stock-in-trade. The ones  here have been more out of control than we’ve seen in other countries, with loud voices, inappropriate PDA, making fun of other tourists, and generally behaving like cigarette-throwing thugs.  They’re lucky they weren’t my kids – they’d have grounded for the next 7 or 8 years.

Teen Tours are a variant of the Pack Animals, but with chaperones. As a result, they have to at least give the appearance of being decent. They don’t spread out in Pack Formation, but they really do have the bored-to-death body expressions perfected. Slouching, eye rolling, and whining are brought to a fine art form.  In Florence at the Pitti Palace we saw the best example of the Teen Tour. It was spring break and it was obvious that these teens were all put on this tour because their parents didn’t want them at home getting into trouble.  So they dejectedly followed the guide and tried to ditch her at every corner. It didn’t work, I’m happy to say.  That woman was amazing. She knew where these kids were at all times and called them to order on a regular basis.  It was a relief to all when she realized that she either had to get them out of the museum fast, or something was going to break.

Unruly Tour Group is an older variant of the Teen Tour, including a tour guide who can be depended on to speak in the loudest voice possible and go into a lengthy explanation of every exhibit she sees. The Tour Groupies tend to spread out and jostle anyone out of the way in Pack Formation, and then take one glance at the exhibit and walk away. Seeing the angry and disgusted looks sent their way by the other tourists unfortunate enough to get in their way is most amusing.

Blending Tourists are the reason I like to travel. They’re the ones who quietly go about their business, politely waiting to see something popular, and talking in hushed voices amongst themselves. Oh, and the obligatory wink or smile at others in the know when a Pack or a Tour approach and act like total idiots makes putting up with it all such fun.

God bless them all!

Vernazza is the town Rick Steves prefers, and as a result, it was very crowded.  It was funny to see almost every tourist holding various translations of his distinctive blue and yellow guide – including us. We had a lovely lunch on the harbor square since the day was so nice and warm.  We chose the restaurant based on my online research, not the tour book, and therefore had a much better meal without all the crowds.   Score one for me!

The owner of the restaurant waited on us himself, and was very chatty, telling us he liked practicing his English. Two of his sons, he told us, were the waiters, and the third son ran the kitchen with all of his own recipes.  He took great pleasure to explain to us that in HIS restaurant, when you order it takes 15 – 20 minutes for your food to arrive. That’s because everything is always cooked fresh to order. He gave a rather disparaging sniff at the other two restaurants and said that if we were in a hurry, to go to one of the others who cook in the morning and reheat. He seemed quite pleased when we said that we were happy to wait.

Papa must have liked us, for he stood by us while we ate, chatting away.  I couldn’t figure out why we were being favored until he asked me why my parents never taught me Italian.   OK, I thought. That’s it.  I had to find out why he thought I was Italian.   He laughed when I said I was of Irish ancestry and said that I really look Ligurian.  He pointed out a couple of the locals walking by – one of them could have been my cousin.  The mystery of Genetics was solved. 

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being from here one bit. Not that I mind being of Irish descent, but Liguria’s a lovely place, with nice people and really great food. What more can you ask for?   Something to think about, anyway.

Lunch done, we set out to explore. We walked to the top of the town and enjoyed the view of the colorful buildings all crowded together. It’s not as steep as Riomaggiore, but it’s definitely longer.  Back down to the waterfront, we visited the local church. Built from stone, the spire and rear portions were obviously added at a much later date, with the main part of the nave still 14th century gothic.  A very simple church inside, but most dignified.  I liked it.

Back outside, the surf was too high for boats to be launched from the harbor, so we missed out on all of that action. What we did get to see were lots of spray from the waves dashing the breakwater and providing amazing photos.  Worth the tradeoff, I’d say.

I highly recommend hiking up the steep stairs off the harbor to the ruined lookout Tower. The views from this place were incredible. We could see Monterosso to the right and Corniglia to the left. The haze made pictures that far away a bit difficult, but for the nearer sights, it was well worth the climb. There were cats and tourists all basking in the warm sun, and taking pictures – the tourists were, at any rate. The cats were being typically arrogant, posing for all the pictures with superior and smug expressions on their faces.

With all the sightseeing done, we headed back to Riomaggiore for our last dinner in Cinque Terre.  The next day, Vlad was heading off to Monza and work, and I was buzzing down to Rome for two days of museum bliss.

Arrivederci, Cinque Terre.  I hope to return again.

It was our last day in Cinque Terre. The rain from the day before had cleared, and it was a lovely day for a nice, long exploration of the two towns left on our list.  Most of the trails were still closed from the previous day’s deluge, so we took the train to the farthest town, Monterosso and check it out.

Monterosso is the largest and flattest of the 5 towns, and it’s the most commercial. It’s broken into two sections – the new and old towns.  We just explored the old section, since that’s where the few sights it has are. This is the only place with a real beach, which is why there are so many iffy-looking hotels crammed onto a small beachfront. Was I glad we didn’t stay there!

The only really cool things to see in Monterroso were the Church of San Giovanni, which was built in 1307, and the Oratory of the Dead. The second is a rather macabre place, filled with carved skulls and other image of death. It belonged to a group that arranged funerals and took care of the bereaved, according to a sign outside.  Both buildings have the black and white striped architecture that’s so popular in Northern Italy, but with stone and tufa, not marble.

After that, there really wasn’t much to see except a monastery high up on a hill that was a major climb.  I wasn’t really feeling up to it, so we gave it a miss.  Glad we did – we heard from another tourist later that it was a major disappointment.

Since all there was left to do was wander through the streets looking at the buildings and shops (eek!), we took a very nice stroll, and then headed down to the waterfront. The views of the Med were lovely from the boardwalk. The surf was really churning and unfortunately canceled the boat service between towns.   We were a bit bummed about it since that eliminated our offshore picture taking possibilities, but it sure made our onshore pictures more dramatic.

Next we left to join the throngs of people on the train to Vernazza.

The Travel Gods decided to bring in the Weather Gods to try their best at messing up our idyllic holiday.  It was pouring – really pouring rain.   Scratch sightseeing in this downpour, so we decided it was a good day to find me a doctor.  I was at the point of not hearing much of anything, and I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

Rain, rain and more rain

We took the train to La Spezia and took a taxi to the hospital, according to the directions supplied by our lovely innkeeper Carla. Once in the urgent care center, I gave the nurse my information and we sat to wait in the crowded room.  I was surprised at the efficiency and speed with which everyone was attended.  Our hospitals could learn a lot from these guys.

We waited less than an hour when my name was called and the nurse behind the glass gave me some papers and said to go to “door 5″, pointing around the corner.  That meant building 5, quite a ways away in the pouring rain, but hey – Vlad found it, so I was grateful.   Once in that building, I handed the papers to another person in scrubs who kept muttering “otorino” as he was looking through a book.   Vlad said that must be the name of the doctor – he never took Latin and didn’t know that meant ear-nose.  I appreciated the chuckle.

Shortly after, a doctor-looking person came walking down the hallway and the first thing he said was “do you speak English?”. I could have kissed his feet at that point. He was an ENT that trained in the US, of all things.  We chatted about California while he looked in my ears and tutted about what he saw in there.  Some rapid Italian to the hovering nurse had her fishing for a prescription pad.   BTW – they didn’t charge me a single euro for the excellent care I received.  Clutching the prescription listing all kinds of nasty meds, we left to find one of the only two farmacias that were open on Sunday.

Now the Travel Gods really decided to have fun with us.  La Spezia on a Sunday was deserted.  And I mean NO cars on the street, much less taxis.  Here we were in the center of the town with everything shuttered, in driving rain and wind, and no transportation in sight. I wasn’t terribly coherent at that time, and was happy to just follow Vlad in abject misery.  By this time we were thoroughly soaked and extremely miserable.

The Travel Gods decided they’d given us enough for one day – across a large street with only private cars buzzing along, there was a building called PUBBLICA ASSISTENZA, with some sort of a guard sitting on a chair in front of the door. Not knowing this was their ambulance service and not an assistance center, I grabbed Vlad’s arm and jaywalked across the street.  Once there, I asked the man in the chair in my best Spanish if he could call me a taxi, please. Vlad was embarrassed at my temerity, but I was past caring what the guy thought of me.  Well, why not? It’s pouring rain, I was  completely wet and soon to get much sicker if I didn’t get dry soon.  I  was NOT going to let the Travel Gods get the best of me on this.  The gentleman at the door looked a bit surprised at my request, but took pity on us and called a taxi.

Once in the taxi, I handed the driver the paper with the addresses the hospital wrote down for me.  Vlad stayed in the taxi while I went in to get the script filled so it wouldn’t get away and strand us once again.  The pharmacist didn’t speak English, but he had most of what I needed to get and seemed to understand my French (my Spanish wasn’t up to medical talk). He was a bit short on the antibiotics  I needed, so he handed me the prescription back with the several boxes of pills, and I think he told me to take it to another farmacia the next day to get the rest.

Back via the train to Riomaggiore and the long, uphill walk to the top of the town and our hotel. The rain made the street a river, and we were literally swimming upstream. I had new respect for salmon, and just hoped I would have to die when I reached the top.  I had to stop and rest a few times, but hey – I was sick and deserved some slack. There were a few brave, sodden tourists sprinkled here and there on the climb, but other than that the town was deserted.

We finally made it back to our room, and I looked in the mirror.  Good heavens – no wonder I got startled looks from the PA guy and the pharmacist.   What had started the day as sleek, straight-ironed hair was now a mess of frizzy curls standing out and framing an extremely pale face.  I looked like Medusa on a bad snake day.   Vlad wanted to take a picture, but  I’d had enough misery for one day.  He only redeemed himself by trekking down the stream to find some species of takeout dinner and a bottle of wine.

This is Italy – no doctor will dare prescribe an antibiotic that doesn’t mix with wine.  It’s a very nice place.

May Day. Europe’s version of Labor Day, and it seemed most of Italy descended on Cinque Terre.  Feeling a bit sore, and with me falling further under the weather, we decided to stay put that day and explore Riomaggiore.

A view of Riomaggiore from the Via Della Amore

To reach the town, we had to go through the lower gate of the Cinque Terre Residence down some old stone stairs that are so steep they should really be called a permanent ladder.  A few switchbacks between the old buildings later, and we come to some shallow stairs that are obviously ancient. They reminded me of the type of stairs you see in Venice that lead to the water, and a boat mooring. I had asked Innkeeper Carla about that earlier and found that’s because that’s what they were. Riomaggiore means “big river” and in yesteryear the main street was actually a substantial river. Currently, the river is rigged so runs under the main street.  You can hear it rushing under the pavement as you walk down.   So cool, but then I really like that kind of stuff.

Riomaggiore from above the town

The steps ended at a charming small church that was still in use by the locals. Votive candles burn in a long holder just inside the doors, and the whole place is fragrant with old incense. The church is obviously very old (no placque with a date) and to me was more picturesque than the main church that’s on all the postcards and which dates only from the mid 1800’s. Unfortunately, this lovely church is always in the shade, and we couldn’t get a good picture of it.  Trust me – it’s worth the walk up to see.

Riomaggore - a beautiful little town

Walking down the main street, the Via Colombo, there were tall attached houses crowded on either side, and other tall houses behind in several layers going up both sides of the old ravine. The result was both pretty and colorful. The bottom story of the front-row houses were all businesses of varying sort – a wine shop that sold local wines (and from which we had sent home a large box of excellent Riomaggiore white wine), a couple of co-op collectives, various shops selling pizza, foccacia squares topped with some really yummy things, gelato, trinkets, as well as a small general store and a farmacia.

There are more locals out and about here than in the other towns, I noticed. They walked up and down the street calling to each other with lots of hugging and cheek kissing when they met. When the tours leave in the evening was prime dog-walking time, and kick-the-soccer ball time for the local kids.  A great experience to see local lifestyle.

Below the main part of the town, accessed from a staircase is the marina area, a stone breakwater provides shelter for the fishing boats which are removed from storage up in the mountain by a crane, and launched by hand. A stroll around the corner (yes, with stairs, of course!) takes you to where the water ferry lands when weather permits. The sea was pretty choppy that day, and the ferry was having some difficulty getting people on and off with the bouncing around it was doing.  We stood and watched the follies for a while before strolling back up to the main part of town.

Ferry Follies

After having seen a couple of the other towns and the crowds in each, we were surprised not to see the same in Riomaggiore. We have the theory that the more sedentary tourists and tour groups take one look at the main street, head down to the marina for a quick glance, and then head to the next town.   Their loss.

This place is perfect.

View of Corniglia from the Trail

The trail from Manarola to Corniglia is unpaved, rocky, and pretty rigorous. It’s also practically vertical in spots, making us very grateful for our good shoes and middle-aged stamina. There were some pretty miserable tourists spotted along the way in a variety of unsuitable footwear, undoubtably encouraged after the tame Via della Amore.  The Travel Gods saw these folks coming.  I’m not sure which was worse, the gold ballet slippers that were already in tatters half way there with a tearful teenager looking at the ripped soles, or the 5-inch cork platform sandals that were attached to legs clad in the shortest mini I’ve seen in a while.  All this was under a pouty-face that obviously didn’t expect to be dragged here.  The middle-aged guy this bit of arm-candy was with deserved every snide comment she gave him.

This is the EASY part of the trail

I wasn’t in much better shape.   I was trying to catch my breath at that point after a particularly grueling climb, and was getting the idea that the antibiotics I brought weren’t doing much for this ear infection.   Oooh – look at that wildflower plant. Good thing I’m easily distracted.

Oooh - wildflowers

The area between Corniglia and Manarola is apparently known for its wildflowers and flower cultivation higher in the mountain. The locals make perfume from the oils they press. They also make a pretty good honey, from what I’ve heard, from the bees that are lucky enough to live there. I decided I had to try it – once I got to the town!  IF I got to the town…

Vlad carefully negotiating one of the hanging bridges

The trail takes about 2 hours to complete, and your reward is arriving at the Corniglia train station with your quads, hamstrings and glutes screaming for mercy.  That’s when Vlad decided to spring on me that I would now have to climb up almost 400 stairs to reach the town itself.  He’s lucky he wasn’t pushed over the side.  Being an intelligent man who can read eye-signals, he immediately saved himself by suggesting the bus.   Inspired.

At the top, the bus decants you out at what looks like a part car-park and part square. The main part of the town is below this area, which seemed perfect to me.  That is until I realized it was straight down – about 78 degrees worth. We trudged down the steps and are rewarded with some pretty cool sights. You can really see how well the locals use the arable land on the mountainsides. Everything is terraced and used for growing yummy things. The amateur gardener in me was impressed!

Terraced hills in Corniglia

The steep climb back up the steps was relieved only by a few seconds to duck into a small shop and pick up a jar of that honey I’ve heard about.  That was all the rest I was allowed.   I followed Vlad up the rest of the steps, cursing quietly.  Once we reached the top, it was decided by mutual consent that we both needed some lunch and a beer.   I really needed that beer – purely for analgesic purposes, you understand…

Corniglia street

Suitably fortified by a lunch of deep-fried anchovies and an Italian lager, I was now ready to tackle the 400 steps down. It wasn’t bad at all, and the views were fabulous.  I was SO glad we didn’t climb up, though.   I saw several brave tourists going up that were hanging onto the rails and gasping at various stages, and they did not look very happy.   That did it for me. Once down to the bottom of the steps, it was Train Time back to Riomaggiore.  After all, we had the steep climb to get to the hotel ahead of us once we got there, or so I argued.  I’m good at rationalization when I have to be.

After a few days of this, I certainly hope to have the best looking buns in the neighborhood.  Hey – – I gotta come out of this with SOMETHING tangible.

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