The Final Week in Italy, May 2008 – Part 1

Saturday, May 17 – We all got up very early this morning (see what we get for the pleasure of sleeping in yesterday?) to pack the cars completely and head back to Florence to return them. This is probably the most challenging part of our driving trip . . . just the part from the edge of Florence into the city to the EuropCar return office, but we made it with mystifying coordination, and we all arrived at the rental car office within five minutes of one another.

After we had unloaded all our luggage and the things we have purchased along the way (including 17 bottles of wine we expected to drink in the next six days!), our private transportation arrived in the form of a 16-passenger mini-bus, complete with Italian-only speaking driver. We settled in for an hour, arrived in Pisa for a three-hour stay, and walked into the walled city to view the famous Leaning Tower, as well as the other magnificent buildings in the complex . . . the Battistero, the Cathedral, and the Cimiterio – a truly beautiful mausoleum, and the accompanying grassy grounds around each building.

Despite the circus of souvenir hawkers on the walkway, these Pisa sights are worth seeing. The Baptistry has perfect acoustics, and contains sculptures from Nicoli Pisaro and his father (son? . . . I can never get that straight), and after all, how could we drive PAST the Leaning Tower of Pisa, no matter how many tourists surround it?

After our Pisa stop, we had a four-hour drive to Cinque Terre, the area of five little towns on the Italian Riviera, where we would spend the next three nights. Our town is Manarola, and we were staying at a new place for my trips, La Torrrette, owned by a young man named Gabriele Baldini. He was the perfect host, getting us settled in our various rooms scattered all over the rocky mountain side before leaving us for a week of business in London.

But what he left behind for us were lovely rooms, all with sea views, and in each room we found white bathrobes, neatly folded on our beds, a flower on each stack of towels, a bottle of Spumante and some lovely pastries, apples, pears. We unpacked and headed down the windy street to the sea, where everyone enjoyed . . . cappuccino, vino, and a bit of tasty food, of course!

Sunday, May 18 – Today it is rainy again, but we are each on our own to explore the Cinque Terre in any way we please. After a quick e-mail check at the train station in Manarola, and the purchase of our three-day passes, Donna and I head out to walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore, the Via dell’Amore . . . the Walk of Love. The walkway is through the mountain, with occasional glimpses of the Mediterranean and many wonderful drawings on the face of the rock wall. We’re protected by the rain on most of the walk but our umbrellas come in handy.

We check train schedules for our trip to Portofino tomorrow, step into a bar for a cappuccino, and wait out the downpour. Our train is late (what else is new) from La Spezia, but it finally arrives, opening its doors to dozens of passengers who want to disembark and dozens more who are waiting to claim a seat so they can explore like we will do.

We spend much of our afternoon in Vernazza, having lunch and wine at the Gambero Rosso (The Red Shrimp or Prawn), shopping in little stores with interesting presents to take home, getting back on the train for Monterosso al Mare, where the sun has come out! Surprise! So we find another bar on the water and have a glass of wine. It’s now 5:30 or so, and we are hungry, so back on the train, back to Vernazza, to be seated at my regular dinner restaurant in this little village . . . Gianni Franzi. The Moroccan waiter is still there, as he has been for the past four years, and I order fresh sea bass, caprese salad, and we split a bottle of wine!

Donna’s trip to the rest room results in her meeting with the owner . . . Gianni of course, and he wants to buy us a drink. It is now 10:00 and we have to get a train back to Manarola, but one short Grand Marnier and we are on our way. Oops, the train left without us, but there is another one in 45 minutes, so we . . . order a cappuccino at a little bar near the train stop, get on our train and off in Manarola, walk back to La Torretta for a long sleep before tomorrow’s train/bus/boat trip to Portofino and back.

It has been a lovely day and everyone else has hiked or napped or read or stayed in our town or explored in a similar fashion, but we’re all tucked in bed.

Monday, May 19 – Today promised to be a bit less wet, and six of us boarded the little train going north/northwest, on our way to the beautiful village of Portofino. We changed trains in Sestre Levante and disembarked in Santa Margherita, another lovely town on the Italian Riviera. From train to bus in 10 minutes, and in another 15 minutes we were dropped off in the middle of Portofino, to spend the day wandering past VERY expensive clothing stores (one lovely scarf caught my eye . . . 450 Euro (that’s about $720 with our ugly exchange rate!) and I settled for a good salad for lunch and a nice glass of Barbera right next to the water, where I could gaze out at all the luxury sailboats, the tourists getting around the large piazza, and talk with my friend Barbara L in the sun.

After a few hours, we took a boat back to Santa Margherita, boarded the train to Manarola and walked back to our hotel in the pouring rain. Somehow we didn’t carry the sunshine back with us on the tracks! We met our whole group at 7:15, in time to walk to “Dal Billy Ristorante” for our last meal together in Cinque Terre.

Since it was raining, we were seated in one of the rooms “inside” his restaurant. Billy’s is built on the cliffside, and is on four levels, all of them appearing to hang off the side of the rocks. Windows on two sides give us a view to the sea, and make us feel like we are suspended in the air. Billy himself greets us, takes our orders, and provides all the entertainment we need for a memorable evening. His sidekick, Eduardo, was quite taken with our Donna, and mournfully told me, “Tell her to come back to Manarola soon . . without all of you . . . “

After a feast of caprese, antipasti al mare, Billy’s pasta, pesto, fresh fish of three types (Orato, Branzini, and some sort of sea bass, I think), we were presented with an after dinner wine and a tray of delicious desserts. Then we wandered back to our rooms to prepare for our departure the next morning to Lago d’Orta.

Buona notte!

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