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One Week in Liguria, One week in Tuscany, Fall 2001

Jean

10+ Posts
By Jean from Michigan, Fall 2001
Jean and her husband Greg spent two weeks in Italy in October 2001.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

A Few Comments

We were one of those who agonized over the decision "to go or not to go" after the events of 9/11. I just want to thank all of you who gave me support during a difficult time. For us, the decision to go was the right one, and I’m glad we went. For those of you who decided to postpone your trip, I hope it’s perfect when the time is right for you.

The information found on this site (www.slowtrav.com) was invaluable to us. I printed out several pages including the driving and food shopping information and brought it with us. I also printed out some of the language lessons (thanks, Steve).

Our plan was to stay in only two places in two weeks. We also made the decision to stay in more rural areas as opposed to hitting the big cities. Rome and Venice will have to be there for our next trip.

We had perfect weather. October is a wonderful time to go.

Everything in Italy is so clean! In all the towns and little villages we were in, people were constantly sweeping and washing windows. We rarely saw any litter, which made us wonder why here in the States we have to see so much of it!
 

Jean

10+ Posts
October 6 & 7 - Arrival on to Cinque Terre

We flew into Milan and had no problems catching the bus to Milan Centrale station. I think we were both a bit surprised to be sitting on the bus listening to American rock music blaring from the radio, but this was something we got used to while we were there. At the train station, there is a travel agency just outside where we bought our train tickets. I had heard this was a good place to get them, and the people were very helpful there.

On the train, we shared a compartment with two lovely elderly Italian women, one of whom spoke a little bit of English. We tried to communicate a little in our meager Italian, and she kindly corrected us when we messed up. As the two of them prepared to get off the train, I could tell that the one woman wanted to say something to us but wasn’t sure of the correct words. Finally, she touched my arm and put her hands to her chest and said, "My heart is with your people." It was such a kind and genuine gesture, and it made me feel good about our decision to be traveling in Italy at this time.

We had to train several times on our way to Vernazza, and, of course, as we were catching our last train, we forgot to stamp our ticket. I had read hundreds of times the importance of doing this, but our connection was so close that we would have missed our train if we had stopped to stamp it. Just as we were pulling into Vernazza the conductor examined our ticket, shook his head, and handed me a card that said we must pay the 10,000 lire fine. As I was grumping about it later, Greg had to remind me that it was only $5.00, but it did make us more careful from then on.

We called the owner of our apartment who came to the train station in Vernazza to get us. She then guided us up almost 200 steps through the winding alleyways of the village to our apartment which on the 4th floor of the building (more steps). The people of Vernazza must be in wonderful physical condition!

We dumped our bags and headed to Gambero Rossa for lunch. After sitting on planes, busses, and trains for so long, it felt good to walk, so we spent the afternoon exploring Vernazza. There are several food shops, enotectas, gelato places, internet spots, and a Laundromat. We were really tired all afternoon, so we just wanted to keep moving. We had tried "No Jet Lag" and decided that they really did make a difference. We felt pretty good right from the start! We had dinner at Gianni Franzi’s where we met a young American couple who had become engaged that day. He proposed to her while they were walking on the Via dell'amore (the path from Riomaggiore to Manarola – how romantic!

October 7

Greg, who always gets up before 7:00am, was still sound asleep at 9:00. I was just wondering if I was going to have to spend my vacation carrying his body around like "Weekend at Bernies" when he woke up. Our first task was to buy some shorts. We had arrived with turtlenecks and fleece vests, and the temperatures were going to be in the high 70’s. At the train station, we bought two 7-day Cinque Terre train passes. These were really convenient and I would recommend buying them. They are available in 1, 3, or 7 day cards (10.000, 20.000 or 30.000 lire), and they allow you to travel from La Spezia to Levanto. Plus, they serve as your ticket for the trails, and we did see several people checking for tickets. You can also use CT passes to ride the shuttle van in Corneglia if you don’t want to go up the many steps to the town from the station. I believe a portion of the money from the tickets is supposed to go towards trail maintenance too.

Anyway, we rode the train to Monterosso, and found it to be a fun town with more restaurants and hotels than Vernazza plus it had a nice beach area. We each bought a pair of 20,000 lire shorts and immediately put them on. We found the trail leading back to Vernazza and headed out. It was a tougher hike than I expected. After I felt like we had climbed as high we could go, the trail took us down and then (ugh) back up again several times. My legs were really tired when we dragged ourselves back up all the steps to our apartment again. We took the train back to Monterosso to Ciak Restaurante for dinner. After dinner, we wandered into an enoteca and decided to try grappa and lemoncello. Greg decided his grappa tasted like gasoline, but we loved the lemoncello so ordered another.
 

Jean

10+ Posts
October 8 - 12 - Hiking Cinque Terre, Lucca, Levanto Market, Portovenere

October 8

We decided to walk the rest of the Cinque Terre trail today, so we took the train to Riomaggiore and started from there. It was warm and humid, so we were thankful to have our new shorts. The first part of the hike (the Via dell’amore) is an easy hike but incredibly beautiful. This section was repaired recently, and it is now in great condition. The trail brought us through Manarola, and we enjoyed seeing that village. The hike to Corneglia was relatively easy, but the stairs that you climb to reach the village are incredible. I would guess it would be equal to climbing about 20 floors in a building. It appears that no matter where you go in Cinque Terre, you must climb stairs to get there. We had a wonderful foccocia sandwich in the village and headed out on the trail to Vernazza. Unfortunately, this section of the trail was very crowded, and we were stuck behind a large group that sort of took over the trail. We eventually passed them, but by then we were practically home.

We took the train back to Manarola for dinner with no reservation. I had read about a couple of places on-line and we wanted to try to find them. After asking around, we finally found Trattoria del Billy, and had a perfect dinner (see restaurant review). After returning to Vernazza, we went to Gianni’s for a lemoncello since we seem to be pretty hooked on the stuff.

October 9

We took the early train to Lucca today and fell in love with it. Of course, I couldn’t find the my map, so we just wandered around the streets admiring each piazza and church. And the storefronts were simply works of art. We took several pictures of them, which can’t really capture how beautiful they are. Flowers were everywhere, and the people were very friendly. After asking a few people, we finally found the chocolate shop (Cioccolaterria caniparoli- Via San Paolino 96) and bought a few things to bring home. They had a huge display of the most wonderful looking chocolate cakes, but I didn’t think one would travel well in my suitcase. We spent some time on the walkway/wall that surrounds the city and decided that Lucca would be a wonderful place to live. We wished we had planned to spend more than just one day there. Maybe next time….

We met Lin and Michael from Toronto (and fellow Slow Travelers) for dinner at Gianni’s. It was great to have a chance to compare hikes and restaurant tips. They had been to some of the places we have planned to go, so we had a chance to hear more about them. And, of course, we talked about how helpful all the other Slow Travelers had been in our trip planning. (Were your ears burning, Pauline?)

October 10

The weekly market in Levanto is held on Wednesdays, so we took the train there to see if we could find some melons. Greg was determined to buy some and was even willing to hike with them in his backpack. We then took the train to Santa Margherita which is a very pretty town but surprisingly quiet and almost empty. I’m guessing that it really comes to life in the summer months. We had a quick lunch, and then hopped on the boat for the short trip to Portofino. The entry into Portofino is lovely with all the multi-colored villas surrounding the harbor. We were not really interested in shopping there but had a chance to see that shops were very up-scale and fancy. Our mission was to find the trail and start the hike back to Santa Margherita. We found the trail, then lost it and ended up on a road for awhile, but then found it again and started the incredible climb up the hill. This is one of those hikes that probably would have been better had we gone from Santa Margherita down to Portofino instead of the other way. The climb was mostly stairs and it was rough (especially carrying melons). However, there are some break taking views once we reached the top to make it all worthwhile.

We were ready for a quiet night so did some laundry, fixed a salad, bought a pizza, and stayed home.

October 11

This was another warm, sunny day so we hopped on the boat to Portovenere. Several other Slow Travelers have written about the beauty of this town, and we loved it there. Several cruise ships were docked in the harbor so the town was quite busy, and we wished we could have been there in the evening to see the quieter side of the town. There is supposed to be a wonderful hike from Riomaggiore to Portovenere that we wanted to take, but our legs still tired from the day before. We were told that the hike takes 5-6 hours.

We had a wonderful dinner in Corneglia at Osteria a Cantina de Mananan. Lin and Michael had mentioned that they had had lunch here and loved it. We called only an hour or so before and made reservation, and it’s a good thing we did. The restaurant is very small and many people were disappointed when they were turned away. We were assigned to a table with a charming man from Switzerland who spoke fluent English. It amazes me that he was also able to speak German and Italian. He was able to help us translate the menu plus he was very knowledgeable about the Cinque Terre area. It was a marvelous evening for us. (see restaurant review)

October 12

For our last full day in Cinque Terre we decided to hike from Levanto to Monterosso. We had heard this was a scenic hike that was not as well-known and crowded as some of the other one, and we found this to be true. Before we started the hike, we found a place in Levanto that sold roasted chickens. After eating nothing but seafood for a week, we were starving for meat and devoured the poor chicken while we sat in pretty park and people-watched. The hike turned out to be my favorite one of the trip. Although it has it’s challenging moments, it didn’t have as many stairs as some of the others; it was more of a steady uphill climb. This is definitely a hike that you want to take from Levanto to Monterosso! The stairs climbing out of Monterosso would make the hike in that direction extremely difficult. The views were fantastic, and there is a point where you can see all of the villages of Cinque Terre.

Before returning to Vernazza, we joined the people on the beach at Monterosso and waded into the water up to our shorts. What a surprise that in October there would be so many people swimming and laying on the beach.

Our last dinner was at Gambero Rosso and was the perfect way to end our stay in this beautiful area of Italy.
 

Jean

10+ Posts
October 13 - 16 - On To Tuscany, Panzano, Greve, Siena, Montalcino

October 13

This was the day that challenged our flexibility. Our plan was to pick up our rental car, drive to Volterra to spend several hours, and then drive to our apartment in Castellina. However, we were not planning on car rental problems to slow us down and change our plans. We had to wait a long time for the sales person to return to the car rental office, and once we got our car, there were several problems with it that needed to be resolved. Then the oil light came on just as we were heading into Volterra and, of course, all the gas stations were now closed. So we only saw Volterra from a distance as we were waiting in the gas station.

This was our first driving experience and, although Greg did a great job, those winding roads around Volterra were challenging. Several tour busses coming towards us thought that the line in the middle of the road was only a suggestion and not necessary something to pay attention to. And the motorcycle drivers were on a suicide mission.

We arrived at Colle Lungo to check into our apartment mid-afternoon. This is a beautiful place, and we loved our stay there. Details are in my apartment review. We went to the Coop with the Slow Travelers pages in our hand. Thanks to all of you for your advice on how to handle the plastic gloves and the stickers!

Dinner was at Gallopappa – a charming restaurant that most consider one of the best around this area. (see review) The town of Castillina is smaller and quieter than I imagined. There aren’t too many retail shops there, but it’s a charming town to just stroll in.

October 14

We started off by driving to Panzano for their weekly market. Right next to the market area we wandered into Enoteca Baldi which has a wonderful selection. We saw people eating in there too and the food looked wonderful. We bought some picnic supplies at the market and headed off to Greve. I had been corresponding with the webmaster of the greve-in-chiani.com site about the yearly October antique market because the date this year was set for October 7 according to the site. Traditionally, this market is held the second Sunday. When we arrived in Greve, I was thrilled to see that the webmaster was wrong and the market was in full swing. (I later wrote to him to let him know, and he has corrected the information on the site.) Anyway, the market was very busy and we loved looking at all the booths as well as the regular shops that surround the market area.

We spent an hour or so in La Cantina de Greve which is located a block or two from the center of town. It’s down in the basement of a building, but there are several signs to guide you. This is a fun place to try a variety of wines. You can buy a card for 20.000 lire which allows you to sample the wines, olive oils or even snacks. The wines are grouped sort of by type and price, and you simply put your card in the slot and push the button on the type you wish to sample. A generous sample is then poured into your glass. We were able to try several brunellos here that we had been wanting to taste. I wanted to go to Badia a Passignano because I had read that they only open up the monastery for visitors on Sunday afternoons. This was our first experience with a "white road", and although we survived, we were not anxious to repeat the experience. Unfortunately, the monastery was closed for restoration, but the setting is simply beautiful. If anyone goes there, please let me know what we missed on the inside. There is also a small restaurant (La Scuderia) across the street from the monastery, and we could see several Italian families enjoying their Sunday meal.

October 15

This was our day in Siena. We followed the direction given to us at Colle Lungo (which are the same as the one on the Slow Travelers page about parking in Siena) and parked on the south side of Siena close to Il Compo. This was an easy way to get into the city and there were plenty of available parking spaces. (Note: We did have a problem when we left, but it was our own stupidity. The parking ramp does not give a ticket or anything when you drive in as we are used to getting. So when we went back to our car at the end of the day, we just expected to leave the ramp or pay someone as we drove out. However, at the exit there was a gate that required a card, and, of course, we didn’t have one. While Greg waited in the car, I ran to the cashier’s office, paid, and ran back to the car to get us out. I believe you need to pick up a card at the office when you arrive and then pay before you get back into your car. Next time we’ll know!)

We had made arrangements to meet with a guide for the morning in Siena. I am so glad that we did this because we learned much more about Siena and the life of the people there than we would have learned by reading a tour book. I made the arrangements directly with the guide. Her name is Nicoletta Landi and her phone number is 0577-284529. She speaks English very well and was very knowledgeable about Siena and its history. It was also fascinating to hear more about the contradas and their competition. After our tour and lunch, we wandered the streets of Siena looking at the shops. We bought some ceramic pieces which was on my list of things to find. We also found the movie of the Palio which we highly recommend for those of you who are not there in person.

We ate dinner at Osteria le Fonterutoli which is a wonderful small restaurant just south of Castillina. (see review) The food and service were outstanding.

Each night after dinner, a group would gather at the TV room in Colle Lungo to check on CNN for news. Since most of the guests were American, this was an immediate interest we all shared. We also used this time to exchange information about places we had seen or restaurants.

October 16

This was another day to be flexible. Our plan was to drive to Montalcino first, but when the navigator (that would be me) missed the turn, we made the quick decision to start our day at the Monte Oliveto Abbey. Actually, this worked out great because we were able to beat a couple of tour busses that arrived shortly after we did. The grounds are lovely, and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the frescos and the sanctuary. Things started to get a big busy there, so we grabbed some olive oil at the gift shop and headed off to Montalcino.

Just before Montalcino we found Enoteca Fonte Petri. I had read online about this place and how they have a good selection of brunellos AND they ship back to the US. The people who had posted the information said that they received the wine, so we were ready to give it a try. The man who works there was lots of fun and as people enter the shop he tries to determine in which language to greet them. Of course, we were greeted with "Hello". We were able to try several brunellos and rossas, and Greg had a list of things he knew he wanted too. We ordered a case to be sent home plus we bought several more bottles to carry with us.

We didn’t spend much time exploring Montalcino. We were hungry and wanted to find a place to eat, and we wanted to make sure we could find Sant ‘Antimo by 2:45. We had bruschetta and soup at Taverna del Grappolo Blu, walked around a bit more, and then hopped in the car. We arrived at Sant’Antimo in plenty of time and strolled around the grounds a bit. Greg even managed to sit by a tree and take a quick nap. The chanting was interesting. Several of the monks might have been monks-in-training because they walked into the church wearing street clothes. But is was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad we made the trip.

Once again, we missed a turn driving back to Siena, and once again we tried to take advantage of our detour. This time we headed up to Gaiole and decided we would stop at the wonderful deli I have heard several of you mention. Unfortunately, it was closed that day, so we made a mental note to get back there if we could.

We returned to Al Gallopappa again for dinner. Once again, it was marvelous.
 

Jean

10+ Posts
October 17 - 19 - Radda, Volpaia Winery

October 17

After two busy days, we really slowed down on this day. We drove to Greve and found an internet spot. It is located in the square and is actually a bar with two computers in the back room. You pay upfront at the bar and are given a card that you slide into the computer. This gives you a certain number of minutes. We sent a few messages and looked again at the shops. The town was much quieter today than it was on Sunday. Greg fell is love with a Harris Tweed jacket he saw in a store. He didn’t buy, it but we had fun trying to communicate with the saleslady in Italian. Now that we’re home, he’s on a mission to find a Harris Tweed jacket here.

We drove to Radda where we had seen a pizza place and had lunch. I don’t know if this place has a name, but there is a big sign over it that simply says "Pizza Pie". The crust was so thin, and it was heavenly.

We’d been sitting in the car too much so decided we needed to exercise a bit. We took the trail from Colle Lungo to Castillina. Evidently there are two trails into town; the one we took was an old jeep trail. It took us past several villas and a large inn that is under construction. The walk was about 30-35 minutes and is a relatively easy hike (after the Cinque Terre hikes anything would appear easy). We found another enoteca that would ship and ordered another case. The name is LaVolte Enoteca, and it’s located right in the middle of Castillina. The woman who was working was very helpful, but they do not allow you to taste the wine.

We had dinner at LeVigne in Radda which was a delightful place. We drove right past it the first time because the dirt road is very dark at night and we didn’t see the sign. The food and service were excellent. It’s wonderful when you can order a bottle of house wine for $9 and it’s great! The only problem we had was that midway through our meal a table of chain smokers were seated right behind me. The only time any of them stopped smoking was when they were eating. It would have helped if they would have taken turns, but they all smoked at the same time. It didn’t ruin our meal, but we left immediately after our last course instead of lingering.

October 18

Our last full day in Italy was very relaxing. We had made arrangements the day before to go on the wine tour at Volpaia. I know that several other Slow Travelers recommend going here, and we totally agree. The little town is fun to just walk through; flowers were everywhere. The tour took about an hour and by the end of the tour we were enjoying the company of the others on the tour. When we gathered in the room to sample the wines and munch on some snacks, there was a real party going on. Of course, we bought more wine and olive oil, and started trying to decide what was going to be left out of the suitcase to make room for all of this. (Greg actually did leave a pair of old shoes in Italy which allowed him to bring home at least two more bottles!)

We had lunch at the small restaurant in Volpaia with a couple from our tour. They were in Italy for 5 weeks and were only about midway into their vacation. We were incredibly jealous.

Greg discovered that our rental car now had a slow leak in the tire. We tried to get the man at gas station in Castillina to help us but he either didn’t understand Greg or didn’t want to be bothered. So Greg decided to just change the tire rather than get stuck on the AutoStrada the next day. After that, Greg took on the challenge of getting as many bottles of wine into our suitcases as humanly possible. I wondered if we should have contacted the Guinness people.

We ate at Osteria la Piazza. The food was very good, but I think we ate too much. Since it was our last night, we wanted to try everything thinking it would be so long until we could have food like this again.

October 19

We had a long trip home. We left Colle Lungo early to allow for plenty of time to return the rental car at Malpensa. All of this went quite well. The car rental return is located right under Terminal 1 (follow the signs for "Car Hire"). Security was extremely tight, and we watched as many were pulled aside and their luggage hand-searched. We were a little late in getting on the plane, and then because of a security problem, our plane ended up sitting on the runway for four hours. Evidently someone had checked in and then not boarded the plane. Of course the delay meant that we missed our connecting flight in Boston, but Alitalia put us in a hotel. We were up early to take a 6 AM flight home. By the way, customs didn’t bat an eye when they saw that we were carrying many bottles of wine over the limit. Perhaps they saw that after 11 hours on the plane we needed a break.

The end was a little rough, but the rest of the vacation was absolutely perfect. We’re already planning our next trip.
 

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