Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venice

Another school vacation and another whirlwind tour of… somewhere, with the added bonus of a third generation of the family (Ann's mama, Brook, had joined us as part of a larger European experience). We were targeting the trifecta: culture, good weather, and most importantly, food. In May, all three of these can be easily satisfied in Italy. So, off we went. 

Driven by flight and hotel availability, preferably inexpensive, but not necessarily so, Ann put together an interesting itinerary which started in Nice, and finished in Venice. I was called upon to act as chauffeur, poo-pooer of spontaneous travel plan changes, and general stick-in-the-mud. I like to think I excel at all three. 

Nice is aptly named.

The weather in Arcachon had been unseasonably cool and wet, so landing in Nice to sunshine and 25c was a good start. We spent the first day driving to Genoa, with a quick look at Nice and a tasty lunch in Monte Carlo. Food may become the dominant theme in this blog as I'm pretty sure we all returned somewhat more … complete, than we did when we started (to slightly mis-quote the film Jerry Maguire: "food completes me"). 

Focaccia bread hot out of the oven.
Breakfast hot chocolate should always support the spoon.
We stayed a single night in Genoa (dinner was great) on our way to Cinque Terre, a hiker's paradise of five separate towns along the rugged Mediterranean coast, linked by walking trails and rail. The towns are quaint and quiet since most are inaccessible by road. Unfortunately, many of the trails were closed due to some nasty mudslides a few years ago. 

Ann's mama was still game to get some trail miles in, so we decided to walk to the next town, Levanto, from where we were staying in Monterosso. We were assured the hike would be about an hour and a half, in the same way the SS Minnow was going on a three-hour tour. Who needs water or food for a lousy hour and a half stroll through the trees? No one does, of course. But for a four-hour grind up and down some serious inclines, I retrospectively recommend all sorts of provisions. That being said, the only person who didn't complain about the lack of sustenance and the surprisingly long and difficult trek was the most experienced member of the group, who consistently remarked about how nice it was to be out and about.

Three hours in. Are we there yet? I'm pooped.

Obviously, we took the train back (after a nice lunch and a glass or two of wine at an outdoor cafe).

The next day provided ideal conditions for another hike. Based on the previous day's experience, we took the boat tour down the coast to enjoy some of the other towns. From the water, each of the little towns we passed looked like someone had randomly glued some houses along the steep hillsides rising up from the water's edge. Porto Venere offered a nice castle, so we stopped and enjoyed pasta and wine for lunch. On the way home, Brook (Ann's mom) elected to continue back to Monterosso by boat while Ann, Perri and I hiked back from Vernazza. This time, it was about and hour and a half, and quite pleasant, relatively speaking. Dinners in Cinque Terre were fabulous. No exceptions.

Contemplating the Mediterranean.

Just another seaside town.
The next day was a travel day to Florence, or Firenze, as the locals call it. We were lucky to have spent the previous two days outside as it poured rain most of the way. On our way we stopped in Pisa, for the required look at 'the tower'. 

Leaning? Perhaps.
Big church in Pisa. Every town has one.
Look everyone is holding up the tower!
It seemed everyone wanted a shot of themselves pretending to prop up the tower. I refused to participate (see previous reference to stick-in-the-mud). Lunch was less interesting in Lucca, but we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Florence, so no surprizes there.

Florence was a place the chauffeur had to earn his stripes as Italian drivers work hard to prove two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Fortunately I was able to get us to our destination with a minimum of swearing, rude gesturing, or uttered threats from the other drivers, pedestrians, or occupants of my vehicle (anything I said doesn't count). Florence was a distinct change in pace from the previous three days. It was a big city with huge gobs of tourists. If May is the shoulder season, I don't recommend visiting in summer. As an added bonus, Perri had been nurturing a nasty cold virus which chose me as it's new host just about the time we arrived in Florence, so perhaps my perception of the place was distorted. I was most surprised by the number of Russian tourists we encountered. They were everywhere. Perhaps it's easier to spend the money than launder it in Cypriot banks. Who knows? Even so, Florence does have some nice features: serious renaissance architecture and art, street musicians, and food. Just around the corner from our apartment, a talented clarinetist spent each evening serenading passers-by (although it might have just been the Dristan). Also, those renaissance guys didn't shy away from full frontal nudity. Where were the censors?

Perri with a naked Greek guy (Poseidon?)
One night Ann and Perri took a pizza and gelato course, where the last half hour is spent consuming their efforts. I laid in bed moaning and blowing my nose. 

It is as easy as it looks, apparently.

A recipe for disaster.

Each day, there were plenty of museums chock-full of arty stuff and a big central market, which offered plenty of tasters for prospective customers. We took a day trip to Sienna, which gave us some nice views of the Tuscan countryside. Lunch was ok, but not great.

Plenty of fresh veggies.

Try some of this...

We got cheese.

As we approached Venice, we had become a bit twitchy about eating our body weight in in food each night for dinner. The Italians give generous portions and multiple courses and tasty desserts. Also, the wine is pretty good. Even though we spent the better part of each day walking around, we were pretty sure nothing short of a daily ultra-marathon was going to off-set our caloric intake. This was never resolved. I wait patiently for the comments related to the next two images:

A typical lunchtime pose (for me).

Hard to believe I didn't get it all.

Venice was everything I had imagined with perhaps 100 times more tourists than I thought possible. Again, it is shoulder season, so I can't begin to imagine July at twenty degrees hotter with even more tourists and more persistent street vendors. Still, a gondola ride, some more nice meals, and wandering through the narrow streets with a few thousand of your closest brand-new friends makes for a pretty interesting time. 

Lots of gondoliers. No waiting.

Hello? Tourists? Anyone?
When in Rome...

How many people can fit on one bridge?

The Rialto Bridge as seen from the Grand Canal.
We stayed at a great hotel on Murano Island that had opened only days before, which offered a free shuttle to Venice (perhaps a 15 minute ride). Murano island is famous for world-class blown glass products and giant glass sculptures, and pretty much nothing else. We didn't spend much time there.

Words don't do it justice.
Ann was able to catch the same cold I had (of course, mine, as a man-cold, was much worse), so 3/4 of us spent at least part of the time with a nasty head cold. Even so, the trip was still a great success in spite of Ann's failure to purloin a brand new fake Prada handbag although they were available just about every place we stopped.

On the boat to the airport, no one wanted to leave...

Extra note about travel in Italy. Try not to rely too heavily on a GPS tool.
1. The highways have lots of tunnels. Lots. I think between Nice and Genoa we were inside more than out.
2. Medieval towns and cities are well fortified against invaders and GPS tools.

1 comment:

  1. While you have been traipsing all over the most beautiful destinations on the planet, we have JUST NOW come out of a long, cold Calgary winter... I still hate you...