Day Fourteen – Let It Bee, Lens Crafters, All Roads Lead To Levanto (Really, They Do), A Refreshing (Villa) Margherita, Viva Vernazza, Hey Is That A Worm In My Cheese, A Longer Than Anticipated Train Trip And Where’s The Beef?
It was our last morning in Colle di Buggiano. The beautiful weather meant we had breakfast again in the garden of our B&B. Unfortunately, a couple of bees were enjoying our table and more specifically, me.
The last time I was stung by a bee, my arm swelled up bigger than a softball, so I did not like these buzzing kamikazes hanging out with me on this morning. In a futile attempt to shoo them away, I knocked the sunglasses off the top of my head, and they landed on the ground, both lenses popping out simultaneously. Tracy got a kick out of that. Fortunately, on the way out of Montecatini Terme, we stepped in to an eyeglass store, and the gentleman fixed them free of charge.
We were now on the road to Levanto (our next base) and the Cinque Terre. I inadvertently took the route to La Spezia (which would foreshadow an occurrence later in the day). We drove out of La Spezia on a little road, and a short time later there was a “T” in the road. An arrow pointed to the left with the words “Levanto 5 km.” To my dismay, there was also an arrow pointing to the right with the words “Levanto 5 km.” With my 50-50 chance I took the left, and in 5 km I was in Monterosso and was told I had to drive the other way to Levanto.
We found the Villa Margherita (where we had stayed before in 2001), and owner Federico led us to our 85€ per night room. It ain’t the Ritz, but for 85€ it was fine. We walked down into Levanto (since we were here only a couple of years ago, it seemed like home). There was a kid’s soccer game going on. Then we grabbed a piece of pizza and walked to the train station (even remembering the shortcut we had taken two years ago), got our day train pass and headed for Vernazza.
Most of the trains from Levanto stop at all five of the Cinque Terre towns (another foreshadowing alert); Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. For those who don’t know, the Cinque Terre consists of five towns along the Italian Riviera linked by train and hiking paths. Trains only take a few minutes to go from town to town while the hikes, with stunning views of the Liguerian Sea, take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on which towns you’re walking to or from.
It’s almost a storybook setting.
The humidity factor was high, so we headed back to Levanto for one of our last wine and cheese experiences, to be held at the Villa Margherita garden. I walked down to one of the local Levanto shops and bought a bottle of red wine and some Pecorino cheese.
Would this outdoor rendezvous turn to romance? Hardly. While on our second glass of wine and about half way through the wedge of Pecorino, Tracy looked at the cheese and exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” She knew damn well what the hell it was, but I guess she wanted me to have the incredibly joyful experience of noticing a couple of worms frolicking in our cheese wedge. The boys looked very content slithering through the carved formaggio.
It reminded me of the old joke, “What’s worse than finding a worm in an apple?” The answer, of course, is half a worm. Fortunately, both of these guys looked intact, but it kind of diminished that romantic wine/cheese experience. We had eight o’clock reservations at Gambero Rosso, but I wanted to take an earlier train because I thought I would shoot off a quick e-mail. We took what I thought was the 7:04 to Vernazza (direction La Spezia). Well, it turned out I was off by a few minutes.
Our first stop was Monterosso. Perfect. In a few minutes (I believed) we would be back in Vernazza and witnessing a beautiful sunset. I was yapping away (hard to believe) and I didn’t pay attention how much time had gone by as we headed toward Vernazza, but it had seemed like too long. The next thing I saw was the sign for Riomaggiore as we whizzed by without stopping. Unfortunately, Riomaggiore is a few stops past Vernazza, so this was not going well. I asked the guy across from us where we were headed and he replied, “You are on the train to La Spezia train.” The one, as it turned out, that did NOT stop in Vernazza. Soon, we were back in La Spezia for the second time on the day. I didn’t even want to go there the first time earlier in the day.
No harm done. There was an Internet cafe at the station, and we were back in Vernazza by 8:40. The restaurant had held our table. That was the good news…and almost the bad news. We ordered fairly quickly, got our wine and the wait began. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. As I scanned the restaurant, I saw other people looking very similar to my dog as she waits for me to get her food bowl. It seemed, the kitchen was backed up.
The last train out of Vernazza to Levanto was 10:59. I had thought this would not be a problem when we sat down to eat, but as time passed it looked like it could present a dilemma. I said to Tracy that perhaps this waiter was the brother of the slug waitress we had along the Routes des Vins. Actually he was moving quickly. The only problem was he rarely had plates of food in his hands.
I flagged him down, and he said, “Just a few more minutes. It’s very slow tonight.” The growling stomachs of the patrons seconded his opinion. The restaurant was packed, and this guy seemed to be the only waiter. Obviously, they were understaffed. We finally received our meal. It was a fairly average piece of beef (yeah, I should have had fish) with a good dessert (on the plus side, there was not a worm to be found).
We had a really good bottle of wine, so the wait was no big deal. We weren’t going to go back until 10:59 anyway, so the restaurant was a nice place to hang (even though we were starving through most of the experience).
Returning to the train station, there were a lot of unhappy (and very hungry) Gambero Rosso Ristorante patrons waiting for the train. Of the six people we talked with, two had not been served by the time they had to leave and catch the train, two had only received appetizers and two people, who had been at the restaurant since 8 p.m., had to rush their eating because of the bad service.
I love a relaxed meal. It is part of the European experience and ambiance. This clearly was anything but a relaxing experience for the diners that night. I just think the restaurant thought this particular evening was not going to be busy and they terribly miscalculated.
We took the train back to Levanto and walked a bit so as to not go to bed on a full stomach. Right about midnight, we shut the lights off. The next thing we heard were the sound of church bells. No problem for me, and even Tracy slept pretty well, but I made sure that on our “to do” list the next morning would be “buy some earplugs.”
Day Fifteen – Take A Hike Or Two, Thunderbolts And Lightning Very Very Frightening, Martinis With The Aussies, Here Comes The Bride And I Think That Was A Great Pizza
The next day was a little overcast, but still humid. We climbed aboard the (correct) train to Riomaggiore and walked around the town. Then we took the very easy hike between Riomaggiore and Manarola. The trail is named “Via dell Amore” or “The Lovers Pathway” and only takes about half an hour. The views are astounding.
Once you make it to the train station below Corniglia, that’s when strenuous gets a new name. More than 300 stairs later you are in Corniglia. We did that on our last trip, and Tracy said if I wanted her to do it again, she would push me onto the tracks in front of a moving train (here is a view from Corniglia back to Manarola from our 2001 trip).
Instead of being crushed, we hopped on the train for Vernazza and decided to pick up some pizza and a drink. Tracy then took the train back to Levanto for a little nap, while I decided to start off on the hike that takes you from Vernazza to Monterosso. I was feeling lazy (to quote Billy Crystal: “I’m on vacation”) and not in the mood for a strenuous hike, so I decided I would only hike a little way up and take some pictures.
It was a pretty steady climb out of Vernazza, so for those considering it for the future, get in shape.
As I was taking pictures, there was a flash of lightening, followed rather quickly (too quickly in my book) a thunderous boom. I took a few more pictures and then scurried down the trail after a few more lightning strikes.
On our next trip here (someday hopefully), I will finish the Vernazza to Monterosso and the Corniglia to Vernazza hikes, the only two I have left to accomplish (I know there are more hikes, but I’m not a fanatic). The views back to Vernazza from both directions are fantastic.
We showered early and walked into Levanto. Across the street from, coincidentally, the Stella d’Italia Hotel (not affiliated with San Mamete hotel but a hotel I think I would stay on a future trip), there was a very nice bar where we sat outside.
Tracy wrote down the name of the bar, but by the time we left, she had forgotten that she had written it down and tossed the napkin (the perils of an early cocktail hour). I blame losing the napkin on the Aussies.
Early on in our libations, a couple from Melbourne sat next to us, and we proceeded to drink and chat with them. We talked politics and pretty well solved the problems of the world in the next couple of hours. The bar did provide some nice munchies, so that after my, gulp, third martini, I was able to navigate the streets of Levanto to our restaurant (walking, of course).
Taverna Garibaldi serves a mean pizza, and both of our choices were quite delicious (I believe). The place was packed and we ate at one of the outside tables. I’d like to tell you what we had on our pizza, but that third martini blasted out so many brain cells that I was happy to remember that we were in Levanto. Tracy was feeling happy, also. Not so much because of the cocktails, but because I had picked up some earplugs that we had been threatening to purchase for the better part of a week. They worked.
Day Sixteen – The Land Speed Record To Milan, Viewing The Last Supper, Buckle Up And Finally Getting To Drink That Alsatian Wine
Farewell to the Cinque Terre and, for the most part, our vacation. The drive from Cinque Terre to the Malpensa Airport north of Milan is exactly two and one half hours (with very little traffic and some speeding…well a lot of speeding). We drove to our hotel for the last night (Villa Malpensa), which is located just a few minutes from the airport.
The drive was great because we listened to wild Euro Music station on the radio (while I was wildy driving dreaming of the CT). That pulsating music at 160 kph is a great way to spend the morning. Tracy was writing down the names of songs (or what we thought could be the name of the songs) just in case they ever appear on Apple Tunes. The Spy music mix was our favorite.
We had 2 p.m. reservations at The Last Supper, but knowing how well I drive in big cities, I also had reservations about driving into Milano. Was there a train? Please. The man at the desk said there was a train called the Malpensa Express (certainly not to be confused with the Oriental Express) that left the airport at 12:45 and would drop us at the last stop in 40 minutes. The station is located near The Last Supper, which is housed inside The Santa Maria delle Grazie (about a five minute walk…eight when you stop to buy a bunch of cookies).
Tracy and I rented the English audio headphones for 2.5€ and at 2 pm we were lead inside with two other Americans and a Japanese tour group to see The Last Supper. There had been quite a fuss about its restoration, so I wanted to see first hand what the clamor was about.
Visitors stay inside for 15 minutes and the audio guide was informative. It told how the convent had been used as a stable and that some idiot enlarged the door underneath the painting, which wiped out Jesus’ feet. The restoration effort looked fine to me.
After buying a Last Supper Refrigerator Magnet (there’s really nothing like an ugly, cheap souvenir to let you savor the Savior), we walked around Milan for a while, ate some more delicious cookies and took the train to the airport to finally drop off our ugly blue (but dependable) car, which we had parked at the airport in our hurry to catch the Malpensa Express.
It had served us well. It had never been broken into. It committed dozens upon dozens of traffic violations (helped by its willing driver), but had never been caught. It traveled at speeds it probably never knew it could attain. “Good-bye Golf,” I said. “Have many safe journeys.” Tracy usually walks far away from me as I say good-bye to a rental car. We took a taxi back to the hotel (not a very happy driver to have to wait two hours for a fare, only to get a 3 minute shot). It was minimum 10.50€, and the driver was not very happy again when Tracy accidentally shut the back door on a helpless seat belt, crushing it and sending the driver into a tizzy. Mamma mia, it must be time for us to get back to California.
Back at the room, we got out the Apple IPOD WorldWide Adapter, and it worked to perfection. The IPOD was ready for the flight home. Before dinner, we finally drank that bottle of Alsatian wine that we had bought in Ribeauville (really good). We had a nice (but rather expensive) dinner at the hotel restaurant, left a wake up call for 5:30, and with no dueling church bells, received a nice night’s sleep.
Day Seventeen – Take The Long Way Home
I had a dream that we were back at our little hotel on the Mosel on Day One of our adventure and we were going to take a boat trip or a bike ride, but, unfortunately, reality stared us in the face on this morning, and it was time to bid farewell to another European adventure.
Fog enveloped Malpensa Airport (sounds like a mystery novel…a bad mystery novel). Tracy had her Value Added Tax (VAT) forms for the bling bling and my overpriced leather jacket (yes, sadly, buyers’ remorse was sinking in quickly). Because it was early, there was no Customs Agent.
Once we did find one, they said we had to have the form stamped in München, our last European destination before the U.S. The fog was thick, and then I came to the realization that I had booked us on a prop plane to Munich. I fly a lot, but that doesn’t make me crazy about flying on smaller planes. Actually, the plane (operated by the famed airline of Augsburg) was very comfortable, and as soon as we rose above the fog and the haze, the Alps came into sight.
It looked like we were close enough to the Alps to pick up a pint of brandy from a Saint Bernard as we flew over. We arrived in Munich at 10:30 for our 11:20 flight. “Hope we can get that VAT thing done,” Tracy said. Since the last time we were at this airport, there have been some changes. Not all for the good, I might add. After the Lufthansa bus dropped us at the terminal, we saw a line longer than any I have ever experienced at The Rose Bowl bathroom. I wasn’t so concerned about the VAT now, as I was trying to make our flight. The Customs guy in our line gave everybody the third degree (especially if they were young, good looking women). We got through there at a little past 11 and scurried toward our gate.
We took our seats and awaited our long flight home. I had dreams of all four countries we visited, from the shores and sights along the Mosel to the towns of the Routes des Vins and all they had to offer to the incomparable beauty (and cool cows) of Switzerland to the history and relaxing attitude of Italy.
A couple of hours into the flight, I whipped out the IPOD, heard the words “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and knew we’d be home in about eleven hours and seven glasses of wine. Tracy and I had a terrific sojourn once again and realized just how lucky we are to be able to have the opportunity to make these expeditions and share so many incredible memories. I am always charting our course for future travel adventures. And always, we keep the same philosophy:
Enjoy The Journey! Attitude Is Everything!