Day 40. Our room has a lovely outdoor patio with metal chairs and table to enjoy our coffee and bread in the morning. Two women from Australia are in the room beside us and very friendly. I don't think that there is anyone left in Australia, they are all travelling.
I asked if they had been to Cinque Terre, ( pronounced Chinka Tah Rah ) and they told us about the boat that goes once a day. She saved us a lot of time as we were going to take the train to the first stop and I really wanted to see the towns from the water.
The boat leaves Levanto at 10AM and the dock is only a ten minute walk from here. We arrived early and by the time the boat arrived there looked like hundreds of people were there waiting. I could not believe everyone would fit on the boat, but in the end there were still lots of empty seats downstairs. Most people wanted to be on the top deck outside.
Levanto is not one of the Cinque Terre towns, just north of them and I had read that it was better to stay here as it was quieter and less expensive. The boat stopped at four of the five towns, as one is closed due to a major landslide two years ago. The ride past the villages was fantastic. Small hamlets located on the west coast of the Riviera cling to the cliff face or are concealed in miniature inlets perfectly blending in to this unique and unspoilt landscape. There are few roads to these towns and most people come by boat or train. The area has been turned into a UNESCO site. Many artists have come here to paint these colorful little towns, and a lot end up staying.
We went to a town further on, outside of the five, and started there, Porto Venere.
The boat stopped here for two hours and we walked along the town that is hemmed in by a number of tower like colorful houses, which effectively turn the harbour into a fortified citadel.
A restaurant at the end of the path looked inviting so we stopped for lunch and had the water on one side of us and the 4th century church perched above us. The sun was shining and it was a perfect 23 degrees.
We walked up the hill to look at the church and the castle above and then wandered back through the town taking our time until our 2PM departure.
Our next stop and first of the five was Vernazza of which we had an hour to explore. This was a very small town with narrow alleyways leading down to the fairy tale bay. After walking for a while we sat at a seaside cafe and enjoyed a sinful hot chocolate until the boat came.
The last stop for today was Monterosso which has many medieval churches and buildings. We have two hours here so after walking around we stopped for a light dinner. Doug had brushetta with tomatoes and pesto and I had a foccacia sandwich with brie, tomatoes and pesto. The pesto was amazing, the best we have ever had.
There is only one boat back to Levanto, at 6PM so it made for a very long day. It also meant that there were many people waiting for the last ferry. When it pulled up it was already packed to the rafters. Oh oh. But almost everyone got off at Monterosso, it was like the clown car at the circus, the people kept coming and coming. You wonder how on earth they all fit on this ferry? And where are all these people staying in this small town? I figure some of them must be catching the train somewhere else. A lot of people come here for the day.
There was room to spare on the boat for all of us going to Levanto and we arrived back at our hotel at 7PM after a great day.
Day 41. We had planned on hiking some of the trails today between a few of the towns of Cinque Terre. Yesterday we saw many hikers, all serious hikers with expensive gear, good hiking boots and poles with the points on the ends like ski poles. Hmmmm.
After doing some research on line I found that there is only one hike that is not too challenging and that one is closed because of the landslide. It says that you need proper gear and preparation for the other trails as they are straight up a very narrow path and can get treacherous with sheer drops to the ocean below. My balance is off right now and we don't need any broken bones so decided against it. I don't have proper hiking boots with me any how. We were both happy with what we did and saw yesterday so okay with doing something else.
The Australian women told us about a bike ride they did yesterday so we grabbed two bikes, (our hotel provides them) and went off to explore. We ended up on an old railway line that is now used as a bike and walking trail. It went north on the coast and parts of the trail went through tunnels that went for half hour or more, by bike. It took over an hour each way but we did stop a few times to admire the view. We both love bike riding so this was a great way to spend the day, relaxing, quiet and scenic. We came to the end of the trail which was a railroad station, and there was an elevator to the beach below. We watch from above for a while as people were learning to scuba dive in the very calm clear blue waters of the Italian Riviera. It made me want to learn to scuba dive.
Half way back we stopped at another town and had a nice lunch and explored the area for a while.
This evening we walked around our town and then had dinner in a lovely restaurant in an alley. We had a little table outside and the food, service and atmosphere were perfect. The costs here are much less than Venice. Levanto was a great stop for a few days, quiet, not touristy and gave us a feeling of being in a regular Italian town.
Day 42. The owner drove us to the train station at 8AM and while waiting for our train we talked to a Dutch couple who are now living in Osoyoos. In their 70s they are very fit and energetic. The four of us are in car number 8 and there are usually 9 cars on a train but it depends on where the engine is as to whether it is at the back or the front. The train came screaming in, and in the small towns they only stop for 5 minutes. Number 1 stopped in front of us and number 8 was at the front so we had to run with our bags to get on. The older couple got on in no time and I heard the guy blow his whistle. I looked at him and said, ' wait'
He gestured, ' get a move on'. As Doug climbed on the car the doors slammed behind him. That was close.
Pisa Central was a one hour train ride and then we transferred to the airport train which only took five minutes. We decided to rent our car at the airport so as not to have to drive through the city.
A brand new standard Fiat 500 in a beautiful blue color waits for us. Very cute (translation : small) and sporty we take off south towards our new home in Tuscany.
Doug was a little nervous about driving in Italy, he said " Remember, this is where they invented the Lamborghini Maserati and Ferrari"
The driving is not too bad however, only a few cars travelling at light speed.
Tuscany. I am in love with Tuscany. It is so beautiful, with the rolling hills, cypress trees, brilliant green crops and orchards of grapes. It is more beautiful than I had imagined. The leaves are just starting to turn and a lot of the fields are plowed. This is my new favourite place in the world. I can see coming back to stay for a longer period and taking an art class or something.
San Gimignano was on our way, sort of, so we went off the main highway to have lunch there. An old walled city from the third century it is one of the more popular tourist sites in the area, and we can see why. You can not drive in the walled area so we found a parking area on the outside and then walked up. The towns are always on a hill.
A very beautiful little village and not too crowded with tourists. Doug and I split up for lunch and I had the best salad I have had since I left home. Lettuce, raisons, walnuts apples and this fantastic cheese. Washed down with a fabulous capuchino. Heaven. Doug enjoyed his grilled chicken lunch too.
We explored for an hour and then tried to find our way back to the car. Hmm, this does not look familiar. We were walking around in circles for a while until we asked a few people and finally found it.
We had arranged to meet someone to let us in our apartment in San Quirico D'Orcia at 5 PM, but called to say we would be an hour late. The scenery on the way just gets better and better. Six nights are booked to stay here and I wish now that it was longer.
As San Quirico is another walled city we need to park our car outside the wall and walk to the centre. There are 2500 residents in this small town and it is lovely. Christine is from Austria and takes care of the apartment for the owners who are from Germany. We are located right off the main square and on the third floor. It looks better than the pictures I saw when I booked it. We are in a very old building that has been re done. Our one bedroom apartment has every modern convenience that you would want and beautifully furnished with antiques and tasteful furnishings. We love it. Windows open to the towns famous gardens and it is so quiet and peaceful. I could live here.
Dinner tonight was in our new home and consisted of bread, tomatoes, with fresh pesto and I bought some delicious sheep cheese from the local area called Pecorino. Doug had a mystery meat. A bottle of local red wine was left on the table for us and I thought it would be rude not to try it.
I am in Tuscany drinking red wine and having bread with cheese and pesto and local olives.
What could be better than that?
Day 43. I woke at 5:30AM to booming thunder. Making my way into the living room I opened the windows and wooden shutters and watched an electric storm for about an hour. It was a great light show with sheet lightening followed by the occasional forks. I could smell the bread baking at a nearby bakery.
Surprisingly the weather was dry and calm this morning. I went off for a walk on my own at around 8AM just as the town was waking up. It was very quiet and peaceful. I found a bakery and bought some fresh bread, (you buy it every day here), and butter and honey for our breakfast.
Today is going to be a lazy day just hanging around the apartment and getting to know this small town.
It took around ten minutes to explore. The business all close down between 1 and 4PM except for a couple of restaurants. We found one that made fresh pasta so I ordered the hand made ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served with truffles. I had to try them. I don't like mushrooms but thought that truffles would somehow taste different. They didn't. The pasta was great however.
Doug ordered handmade spaghetti with wild boar which he enjoyed.
We don't have any internet in our apartment so I asked the waiter if he had wifi, to which he responded 'of course'.
The only choice I saw for internet was 'Alice-346790'
I asked, it is under Alice?
" Alice?" he asked and looked at me as if I had three heads. " No, it is Aleechiea "
Huh, don't see that one.
Oh, you mean Alice is pronounced Aleechia? This is happening to me a lot. I am not sure who is pronouncing things wrong, them or me????
During lunch we saw that the rain had started and was pelting down, so much so that the bottom part of the restaurant was flooding and the staff were running around like crazy trying to clean things up.
We ran home, thankfully just around the corner, and sat in the living-room to listen to the thunder and watch the electric storm again. You are supposed to count between the sound of the thunder and the sight of the lightening to see how close it is. We didn't get to number one. The storm was right over head. It did not last too long and as we had decided on an inside day anyhow it was quite exciting to watch.
The sun came back at 5PM and we walked again and then came home for dinner and spent time researching the area with the many travel books provided in the apartment.
Day 44. Woke to a cloudless blue sky. We drove east and got lost around noon so decided to stop for coffee in the town of Chiusi. We discovered a church from the 6th century with beautiful frescoes made from tiles, as well as a bronze statue of Romulus and Remus with the wolf mom.
We passed by an open market and bought some fruit and vegetables. You can not choose your own in markets and small shops. You must point and let them pick them out for you, which does not always work out that well.
We re checked the map and went on to Cortona where the book 'Under the Tuscan Sun' was based and some of the filming done. The scenery is breathtaking but it is almost impossible to stop on these narrow winding roads with very few pull offs. We see some serious cyclists and wonder how they can manage on these narrow roads with trucks and cars passing on corners. Nerves of steel.
Cortona is another walled city, we park the car at the bottom of the steep hill but this one has a bonus. An escalator to the top! What a treat for this tired soul. We found a lovely outdoor cafe and had some lunch. There are quite a few english (American) tourists here. There are a number of cute little shops on the narrow roads but our suitcases are already too heavy so we venture off to a museum that houses some amazing Italian paintings from as early as the 4th century. The bottom floor has an Oratory with the original frescoes on the walls and ceilings and a beautiful sight to see.
An Etruscan museum was also in this small town which we explored for an hour. Cortona is an area that has had many archaeological digs and a number of unique and interesting finds are in this building which used to be a palace.
Our drive home took us through more fabulous landscapes, every turn a photo op but so frustrating for me as we could not pull over.
Day 45. I went out for a walk by myself this morning and came across a woman with a great haircut. I tried to ask her where she got her hair cut, as I am badly in need of a trim. She did not speak a word of English, and I mentioned before my Italian is limited to a few words. She was trying to explain where the shop was, we were just not communicating well, and finally she grabbed my arm and walked me a few blocks to the shop. We went in, they were just opening, and she talked to the woman in Italian, I heard the word 'Canadian' and a few other Italian words, they both laughed and then the other woman left. I thanked her very much and the next thing I knew I was getting a wash and cut. It is quite short but I like my new Italian haircut.
Doug and I set off in the car for about 10 minutes and drove down a small gravel country road a few meters and then pulled off to the side to walk the rest of the way. This was a hike suggested by our host and we climbed the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside for three hours hearing only the sound of our footsteps. It was quite warm, 23 degrees or so and a wonderful peaceful morning. We came upon a small stone church and sat on a bench to enjoy an apple and to drink in this pastoral view.
The fields are plowed for the winter and the colors are intense greens browns and oranges. Cypress trees are planted in rows to act as wind breaks.
Back in the car we decided to drive to the next town, Pienza, for lunch and explore this walled city for a short while before heading home .
A lovely relaxing day.
Day 46 Thunder, lightening and rain greeted us this morning. We got an early start and drove north to the town of Siena travelling through flooded roads and witnessing collapsed banks into the rivers. We thought about turning back but saw a window of blue sky ahead which was encouraging us to go on.
In an hour we reached the city of Siena and found a place to park at the top of the hill, near the centre of the old town. Once again you can not drive in the centre. The rain stopped and the sun came out.
The main square, Il Campo, is unlike any of the other main squares in that it is a lot larger and slants down. We had lunch at the edge of the square and felt like we were leaning into the square sitting on an angle. There is a nice ornamental fountain here as well, unlike the other squares.
The Duomo, or cathedral, was just up the hill and we purchased our tickets and audio guide for this breathtaking building. There are a number of tour groups but it did not seem too oppressive as we were arrived fairly early. The marble mosaics on the floor and tile work and paintings on the walls and ceiling made this a unique and very remarkable site. There are sculptures of the heads of 172 popes who reigned from Peter's times to the 12th century, peering down from the ceiling above. The interior is very busy with an art gallery's worth of early Renaissance art.
We then went into the museum beside to see more art and carvings from artists such as Donatello and Duccio as well as other well known masters.
A very long narrow winding stone staircase takes us to the top to offer a panoramic view of this city.
The last visit today was to the Crypt below the cathedral. A century after it was built it was filled with dirt to act as a foundation for the Duomo and rediscovered recently when excavated. The original frescoes on the walls are in amazing condition and tell stories from the bible.
After our lunch we slowly made our way back to the car and drove home in much better weather conditions. Siena had so many wonderful gift shops and fantastic ceramics with brightly colored plates and dishes tempting us. Next time I will come with an empty suitcase. A big one.
Day 47. Doug went out for his Italian haircut last night, again the barber did not speak a word of English and Doug stopped him just in time before he shaved off his beard. Looking good.
A slow morning today, our last full one here so we spent time enjoying the apartment.
We drove for around 20 minutes to the town next to us, Montalcino, which is at the top of a huge hill. I think this was one of my favorite towns, except for the steep climbs. There are a number of popular wineries here and therefore lots of vinyards turning color for the fall.
Walking around the edge of the town we met a woman from England who had arrived for the 'Thrush Festival' which was happenig this weekend. She had read a book about the area a few years ago and it was her dream to come here one day. I don't think she had too much money but her family got together and paid for this trip for her and she was so excited to be here.
We stopped for coffee and croissants and then slowly made our way back to the car. I say slowly because it was at the top of a very steep hill.
Tomorrow we drop the car back in Pisa and then take the train to Florence for a few nights. Our Italian vacation is coming to and end and I am wishing it were longer.