Monday, June 15, 2015

An Italian Holiday -- Part 3, the Ligurean Coast

A beach on the Ligurean coast
The train from Florence to Nervi takes about four hours.  You change trains in La Spezia.  When we arrived at La Spezia we had less than ten minutes to make our connection.  By luck or design, our connecting train was on the same platform.  It looked easy.  But as my family tried to board the train along with many other passengers, all carrying backpacks and suitcases, the forward momentum of the crowd stopped abruptly right at open door to the carriage.  The entry way was blocked by a crush of bodies and baggage.  I was the last person in our group and was left standing on the platform, unable to board.  I assumed the crowd would disperse quickly into the carriage but after five minutes there was no movement.  I shoved my way into the crowd, squeezing onto the train, afraid it would start moving and I’d be left behind.  Everyone was crammed together in the small entry to the train car.  Suddenly, a man near the interior door lifted a young woman up bodily and brusquely moved her out of the way.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and moved easily into the carriage.  My family quickly found four seats across the aisle from each other.  The young woman and her companion, who we realized had been intentionally blocking the entrance, entered the same carriage after everyone else was seated.  There were only two seats left right by the door.  As the young women sat down, the train jerked and we were off.  The conductor entered the car almost immediately.  I assumed he was there to check our tickets but instead he was there to warn us.  An Italian woman sitting across from me translated his stern message.  “Look out for that girl” he said looking contemptuously at the young woman who had caused the delay.  “She’ll pick your pocket.  We know her.”  The young woman was listening and trying to look completely disinterested.  It turned out that the young women were known pickpockets on the popular tourist train line.  In blocking entry to the interior door they hoped to get lots of people crowded together and a better chance of picking our pockets.  The gentleman who’d forcibly moved her had recognized what was happening.  The conductor told us the twosome ride the train routinely hoping to steal from tourists.  The lesson: if you are travelling in Italy (or perhaps some other places where tourists flock) and a crowd suddenly appears for no obvious reason, guard your belongings!

Every seat in our carriage was taken.  We were on the train that goes along the Ligurean coast, that is, the Italian Riviera.  First stop was the southern most town of the popular Cinque Terra towns, Monterosso.  Almost everyone, including the pickpockets got out.  It was a diverse and international crowd: school kids and chaperones on spring break, back packers and well-dressed tourists, old and young filled the platform.  We were very pleased to stay on the now empty train.  We were going to Nervi, the small Genovese suburb that our daughter Sasha and her boyfriend Dustin had called home since September.  The train ride is just beautiful.  Small rocky coves, beaches and tiny little villages come in and out of view. 

The villages are a kaleidoscope of pink and yellow stucco buildings, decorated with bright green shutters, intricate balconies and balustrades all painted in trompe l’oeil style.  Trompe l’oeil means to deceive the eye by painting objects so that they appear to be real.  At first I was completely tricked.  Gradually I realized that what I thought were real shutters and balconies were simply colorful painted pictures, real only in the eye of the beholder.

We arrived at the Nervi train station about 2 in the afternoon.  We disembarked and walked under the train tracks in a purpose built tunnel.  As we came out of the tunnel, the sparkling Mediterranean was in full view.  We stood gazing out to sea on a 2-km, oceanfront walkway that runs the length of Nervi.  It is called the Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi.  Anita’s famous husband, Giuseppe Garibaldi, is from Genoa.  He is a very important person in the recent history of Italy.  During the late 19th century, Garibaldi had the wisdom to unify Italy’s many city-states into a single nation, thereby strengthening their ability to remain independent from the many nations that coveted their wealth.  But Garibaldi’s wisdom was not only in enabling independence through unification but also in allowing each of the strong city-states to keep their local character and cultural heritage.  Thus, even today, more than 100 years later, each major city in Italy, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples and Genoa retains its unique identity and, of course, its pride.

Cose Buone = Good Things
The Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi is glorious.  The herringbone-patterned red brick is set above the sea, carved sinuously into the rocky cliffs.  There are wrought iron street lamps and comfortable wooden benches facing out to sea every few yards.  The day we arrived, the path was full of people: old folks with walkers and sometimes wheelchairs, young families with strollers, kids learning how to bike, twenty and thirty something joggers, groups of immaculately dressed ladies strolling in the afternoon sun.  We walked the mile to Sasha’s apartment and entered their building directly from the Passeggiata.  Once upstairs in their apartment, we gawked at the 180 o view of the Mediterranean.  That afternoon surrounded by water and sky, I did a yoga video, streamed from my laptop.  How great to properly stretch my body after all the urban walking and train travelling.  Later, we wandered through the little town to buy pasta and cheese, veggies and focaccia for dinner, each purchase at a separate specialty shop.  I marveled at Sasha’s language proficiency – knowing from my own experience in Brazil how much work it takes to speak fluently in another language.

The boat harbor in Camogli
After our busy schedules in Venice and Florence, our program for the next few days was intentionally low key.  We planned to visit several little villages along the coast, traveling by train, boat, bike and foot and spend as much time as possible in Sasha and Dustin’s adopted neighborhood rather than explore the big city of Genoa.  It was a good choice.  The next day we walked the beautiful Passeggiata, completed our food shopping then bicycled to the next town for lunch.  It was a short but picturesque ride along the Mediterranean coast and over part of the route of the Giro d’Italia – an internationally famous bicycle road race that has been held in Italy since 1909!  We certainly aren’t international road racers but we felt pretty pleased to ride on a bit of the famous course.  Once at our destination, Camogli, we sat at an outdoor café, enjoyed the fresh, perfectly cooked seafood and watched the boats come and go from the adjacent small fishing harbor.  The fresh sea air was invigorating and the bicycle ride back to Nervi was mercifully short.

San Fruttuoso, the Abbey and Tower
On our last day in Nervi, Dustin’s mother Karen joined us.  Our day was full!  We started with a 20-minute train ride back to Camogli.  From there, we hopped the coastal ferry and plowed through waves to reach the tiny cove of San Fruttuoso.  San Fruttuoso is set among rugged rocks above a small beach.  It is the home of a 13th century abbey that now includes a small museum.  Above the abbey, a fortified tower, set in the hillside, guards the tiny 
village.  We wandered through the abbey and its excavated dungeons, and marveled at its 900-year old history.  We enjoyed the historical exhibits that highlighted, among other things, the culinary achievements of the Ligurean coasts.  Who knew that pesto and focaccia were both invented in this wild and beautiful region?  Afterwards, we scrambled up steep stone steps to a restaurant.  We ate fresh fish and drank cold white wine sitting on the edge of a cliff that overlooked the beach and the abbey.  

The view from the trail
Properly fortified, we set out on a 6-mile hike to Portofino!  The path was very steep and crumbly but ridiculously picturesque.  We walked through deep oak and pine forests, enjoying endless views across the Mediterranean and wild roses and wildflowers.  On the final part of the hike, we passed through terraced vineyards and olive groves hanging on the hillsides above Portofino. 

Terraced Vineyards along the trail
Portofino is a more “discovered” seaside resort replete with expensive boutiques and open-air cafés set around the central piazza.  While we enjoyed the colorful boats in the harbor, we all agreed that we preferred the rustic charm and relative isolation of San Fruttuoso!  After a rest and a well-earned snack of tasty gelato, we continued walking along the coast towards Santa Margherita, the next town east.  From there we took the train back to Nervi, arriving just in time for the cocktail hour!  We prepared cold drinks, fresh melon and prosciutto.  We were tired and pleased with our day’s adventure – more than 10 miles hiking and visits to three memorable villages.  I love the fact that we traveled by train, boat and foot all on the same day. 

Early the next morning, we walked to the train station and traveled in the opposite direction – west towards the Genoa Airport and our plane to Sicily.  I wonder how different life in Seattle would be if a similarly good network of train tracks and footpaths crisscrossed the region.  Maybe easily accessible trains and walking paths would encourage all of us to get out of our cars, get some exercise and visit new places?

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