Bye, Bologna. Salute, Siena

Breakfast at the hotel was mostly carbs. The coffee machine blew the power every time it was used. This happened often during the 45 minutes we sat there. We hung around in the room for a little while until 9:30 when the library at the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio opened. Not that we wanted to see the library specifically but it was at the same place with a very old room where anatomy lessons were given. Since 1600 I think.

It wasn’t far from our hotel so we got there in no time then wandered the halls, looking at the frescoed walls that were painted before European colonisation in Australia (1788). The library didn’t permit tourists so we watched the walls and then went into the anatomy room when it opened at 10.

It’s a beautiful wood panelled room with carved statues on the walls and ceiling, and in the middle, a big white marble table where the bodies were laid. Two of the sculptures are of skinned men so you can see…well…under the skin at the muscles. An awesome room and a real find if you’re in Bologna.

We then went into the Stabat Mater Hall which, apart from being used still as a lecture theatre (albeit with modern chairs and a projector screen), is lined again with old painted walls and locked cabinets of centuries-old books. They cover different sciences including mathematics, biology, zoology, astronomy etc.

We were just about to leave when Glen noticed a gated room with more books. Looking through the bars, we could see a long corridor with aisles and aisles of books stretching all the way down the building. This must have been the library we couldn’t visit as tourists. There were so many aisles we wondered if we were in fact looking in a mirror and at some trick of the eye. Stunning.

Back to the hotel, we collected our luggage, checked out, walked up the station (along a much quieter street – via Galleria – which ran parallel to the noisy one we’d walked down when we arrived) and then bought our tickets to Siena. The first leg of the journey, to Firenze, had sold out except for the business seats, which brought the total to only 8 euros per ticket more. We bought the business and boarded the high speed train – Frecciarossa – to Firenze.

Arriving in Siena

The train from Firenze to Siena took about an hour, which seems long considering it’s only down the road, but it wound through the countryside going from village to village. It picked up a bunch of noisy teenagers too but they only remained on until the next step.

For some reason the hotel I booked was a half hour walk from the train station. I think I chose it because it’s in the main tourist sites, close to the duomo and the Piazza del Campo. I’d been a bit concerned about the walk, worried Glen would grumble, but we trundled along anyway. First stop, however, was lunch.

We had to walk through a shopping centre which contains travelators to get you up the side of the city and into the old part of town. This took us past an all-you-can-eat sushi-pan-asian-and-other-food place that was doing a roaring trade (even with the Italians). It was something like 10 euros each. We filled up. It was fine (though I did feel like I was committing a sin for not eating ‘proper’ Italian).

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We then walked and walked and walked, seeing many of the sights of old Siena, and (at least I did) enjoying the atmosphere. It’s bigger than Lucca and busier as well but still got charm and isn’t nearly as crazy and rough as Bologna.

We eventually made it to the accommodation, where I was happy to find that I’d booked an apartment with a washing machine and access to a private courtyard. The room is also comfortable and the internet is fast (after so many days of crap internet it was a relief). We chilled for a while before going out to see a bit more of the town.

Our courtyard

Il Duomo and Piazza del Campo

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The guy at the desk gave us a map and offered suggestions of things to see and places to eat. We left the apartment thinking we’d get through more than we really could in the last few hours of the day. As the duomo was close, we went there first.

Another giant church, done in the Gothic style, recently (?) refurbished so it shines in the sunlight. We bought our tickets, thinking we’d bought a pass for everything but later found out we didn’t pay enough to get access to climb the dome itself. Never mind.

Instead we saw some sculptures and a stained glass window, climbed the facade to get an excellent view over Siena in the dying sunlight, visited the inside of the cathedral (my favourite being the small library with its bright paintings on the walls and ceiling), then the crypt and baptistry. It was then we discovered our tickets didn’t give us access to climb the dome so we left.

From here we went to the Piazza del Campo where the tournaments took (or take) place and had an aperitif on the terrace. I had a kir royale while Glen had fresh lemonade which he mostly made himself. A few chips and a bit of bread and it was almost heavenly to sit there, finally getting the hang of how the Italians do their evenings. The downside was the smoking. Being Australian and non-smokers we notice it so much wherever it happens, and the two girls sitting near us seemed to just chain-smoke the whole time.

Afterwards we navigated back home (taking a slight detour because I thought the map showed a cut-through path which never eventuated), changed and then went to Nonna Gina’s, a restaurant recommended to us that was at the end of the street.

When we arrived, we were about the third group there. This at 7:30pm. Within about five or ten minutes, the place was full. We ordered a bruschetta, ravioli and gnocchi for primi piatti, battered cod and chicken cacciatore for secondi piatti, and tiramisu and ice-cream for dessert. I also had chianti and we rounded it off with a complimentary amaretto. Good food, pleasant place, totally stuff. The diet is going to be hardcore.

Because We Hadn’t Eaten Nearly Enough

While lounging in the hotel room on Wednesday, Glen looked up things to do in Bologna and found a food experience tour that looked interesting. Because we’ve had enough of walking around and looking at buildings – I had developed a blister – we booked it. At 6:50 Wednesday morning we were picked up from our hotel and so began a day of (more) indulgence.

it was a tour group so we knew there’d have to be interaction with others. It started off well enough. We met Paul and Chris from the UK – retirees – and Jenny and Alan from the US (Atlanta) – honeymooners – and then were taken out of Bologna, past all the cars going the opposite direction into the city to our first stop: a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory.

The guide (and owner), Alessandro – an exuberant (aren’t they all?) and demonstrative Italian – met us there, while another two car loads of people showed up. There were more Brits, four more people from the US (both North and South Carolina) and a gay couple from South Africa. A group small enough to not be unwieldy, but large enough that it didn’t get awkward.

Introductions done, we entered the factory.

Making Parmigiano-Reggiano is Intensive Work

The factory produces 64 wheels of cheese every day (each wheel about 25 kg), 365 days a year. It’s run by about six people who get there at 4:30am and finish about 11am. They get milk from the local farmers twice a day, cook it, let it settle, plunge and break it, cook it again, let it settle, bring it up, separate it, put it in tubs, put it in salt water and put it in storage for at least one year.

The big thing here is getting the D.O.P. certification which means it’s certified Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This means everything throughout the production comes from the region and has restrictions on methods and ingredients in the production. The only outside thing they’re allowed is sea salt from Sicily.

And to make Parmigiano-Reggiano you need to be within a certain distance, a member of the co-op and pay for certification blah blah blah. The protectionism struck me as incongruous with the free-market ethos of the EU, however, it’s doing something to keep production alive within the area. And of course there are plenty of people who want the ‘real deal’ and are willing to pay for it.

Having said that, parmigiano-reggiano is not a money-making exercise and they make most of their money from the ricotta that they produce after making the cheese. Go figure!

We saw all the steps and I never thought I’d be so interested in how cheese was made. The point was also made that there are no young people in the factory, no young people anywhere really, willing to do what is back-breaking work, either in the factory or out in the farms, so it’s going to be interesting (and devastating) when these cheesemakers are no longer able or willing to work. About a quarter, possibly less, of the process is automated, the rest involves some level of handiwork. Either the whole thing will have to be automated – same out in the farms – or we’re going to lose it.

After seeing the production, we then got to sample the cheese, first a table cheese (this is parmigiano-reggiano that doesn’t pass the D.O.P. standard and has a lot of imperfections in it), which was smooth, and then a three-or-six-year aged parmigiano-reggiano, which was hard, crunchy and delicious. We also had lambrusco wine, some pastries, some meat and fruit. After wandering around looking at cheese for an hour and not having had breakfast, this meal was well received.

Balsamic Vinegar di Modena, D.O.P.

Next stop was a balsamic vinegar producer. This was quite different from the cheese factory, in that it was set in a vineyard with a villa and a house that stored all the vinegar barrels. It was idyllic. Being September, the grapes were being picked as balsamic vinegar is only made once a year at this time. The grapes are freed of their stems, crushed and then cooked to produce the grape juice.

The juice is then poured into a large vinegar barrel, or if you’re starting a new ‘battery’ of barrels, you pour it into six different sized barrels, made from different types of wood. (Coopers still have work here though again, how many young people want to become coopers?) The barrels have a hole in the side that allows the gases to escape (and avoid fermentation…or aid fermentation?), however, the evaporation means that you need to take liquid from the next barrel up and replenish what’s been lost over the past year. You then refill from the bigger to the smaller until the smallest barrel has been sitting there for 12 years.

The producer can then take 10% (1 L) of vinegar out of the smallest barrel and go get it D.O.P. certified as balsamic vinegar di Modena. They can then charge 40 euros for it, which is a lot considering all the work that goes into it. A lot of people in the region have their own vinegar battery at home, establishing one when they have a daughter, and the battery is given away as her dowry. Our guide had one for each of his two children.

Large scale production of the good quality, proper stuff probably isn’t huge (which is why it can charge a higher price point) but the longer people are in it, the biggest their stocks and eventually they can make money off it. We saw the batteries in the house, including one barrel from 1512.

After learning about the process, we did a tasting. Starting with the I.G.P. version, which doesn’t require all ingredients to come from the area and can be produced in 6 years, we sampled that and learned that the I.G.P. and other variants will have cooked grape juice plus wine vinegar and other ingredients. D.O.P. only has cooked grape juice.

We tried the I.G.P., a condiment version and then the 12 and 25 years versions. Each different. Each serving its only purpose. The D.O.P. versions were definitely thicker, smoother and more syruppy. We then had them served on fresh ricotta and then ice-cream. We bought a few bottles when we left. Again, who would have thought balsamic vinegar would be so interesting?

Not for Those with a Queasy Stomach

Next stop: prosciutto factory with 22,000 pork legs hanging on the wall. Another D.O.P. production with other certifications (or lack there of thrown in). Prosciutto involves salting and drying over 14 months: 3 months in the cold (the stink in there made my stomach roll), 4 months upstairs to dry, 7 months downstairs to dry.

It all looked a bit weird and off-putting – though strangely for me I ate more prosciutto than Glen (when in Bologna?). It was good quality, shaved prosciutto but it was definitely a confronting experience. And that’s a lot of pigs who’ve lost their back legs and lives.

The D.O.P. stuff is a smaller market with better cared for livestock, while the rest of their production is for ‘international’, using pigs brought in live from other parts of Europe who live shitty lives and eat crap. Contrasted with all this were the larger legs that are being cured for local farm families who look after their pigs better. All spectrums here.

And Then It Was Time for Lunch

The cars then took us into the countryside to an organic winery called Corto d’Aibo. There we drank a whole lot of wine, both red and white, including a mix called meggiore which was a mix barbere, cabernet and merlot. The lunch was billed as “light”, with the quotation marks. We started with pasta, the another pasta, and then one more pasta.

Despite eating the prosciutto, I opted out of the pork, which was in most of the pasta dishes, and instead had a mushroom lasagna, a vegetarian tagliatelle and the truffle spaghetti (which Glen swapped for lasagna). All delicious pasta, all very filling. Then came the pork cheeks, the veal and the roast vegetables, followed with dessert (and a delicious tiramisu which even I loved because it’s almost lack of coffee flavour).

The food was delicious. We’d unfortunately sat ourselves next to the Honeymooners and the South African company, the other ‘young’ people on the group, but after comments made in the car during the drive, and the complete ignoring of us by the South Africans and subsequent ignorant and racist comments coming out of their mouths, we were not in a good spot. However, we struck up conversation with the North/South Carolinians who were travelling as a family and spent the time talking to them.

Much wine and a few hours later, we finished our lunch, poured ourselves into the cars and were driven back into Bologna. The drive back was pleasant enough until the conversation turns to civil unrest in America, immigration and integration. Briefly there was a sport discussion which would have been acceptable if they’d just stayed on that topic.

It soon became clear that Glen and I were the odd ones out and we held our tongues. Perhaps we shouldn’t have. Perhaps we should have questioned their beliefs, and the longer we were in the car the harder it was becoming to keep my mouth shut, but we said nothing and let it all out once they’d been dropped off.

Anyway, despite this, it had been a great day and we learnt so much, and ate so much. The vinegar I found the most interest (and ripe for a story) but was a bit disappointed to hear there were no arch rivalries between the vinegar producing families and that no one had burnt down another’s battery. The worst it gets is an annual competition (which I guess is a good thing).

Dinner? Really?

Glen had not drunk as much as me so he wasn’t as wiped out as me. We spent a couple of hours lying on the bed in the hotel, waiting for the food to digest. Hours passed with the light dying outside until finally we roused ourselves for another walk through Bologna.

We went west this time but the streets didn’t hold much interest and bordered on the ugly and threatening. We returned to the piazza and the restaurant we’d bypassed the first night. Neither of us was really all that hungry. I think I was dehydrated more than anything.

We sat and ordered a salad (for me) and tortellini in broth (for Glen), while using the restaurant’s wifi, which was much faster than that at the hotel. For dessert, we shared chocolate ice-cream. See? Barely anything?

Bologna, Here We Come

We’re still plagued by jet lag, waking up around 5 and 6. Fighting it though, I managed to stay in bed until 7 or so until Glen demanded we go find breakfast. We packed most of things then went walking the streets of Lucca for something to eat. There were plenty of small places open selling pastries but no English breakfast type meal (not a surprise).

We walked around in a circle to eventually settle at the first place we’d looked at but couldn’t stay at initially because we hadn’t yet had an argument about it. Argument had, we returned there and ordered crepes and hot drinks. The waiter was gorgeous. The crepes were tasty. The smoking drove us away.

The shop that sold the jacket I wanted to look at (and had probably already in the back of my mind decided to buy) didn’t open until 10 and it was still before 9. We went walking again, heading south-east towards the green section of the map. We passed people on their way to work, children waiting to be let into the school gates, and walked up to the botanical gardens. Which were closed and didn’t open until 10.

We walked more of the wall instead, cutting through the city at another basilica, and then heading back to the apartment. We checked out just before ten and then went to a patisserie that sold these long or circular loaves of fruit bread called buccellato. The taste reminds me of something from my childhood but I can’t figure out what it is. It’s almost like a burnt taste but not, and it’s not almond. I’ll have to look up the recipe.

We were trying to catch the 10:31 train to Bologna so were relieved to find that the shop with the jacket had opened ten minutes early. I tried the jacket on, a slightly woollen blue jacket made in Italy. It fit and it looked good. With some encouragement or, really, approval, from Glen, I bought it. Nice purchase made, we could leave with plenty of time to get to the train station.

Bologna

After the quiet and beautiful Lucca, rolling into Bologna was quite a shock. It’s a bit city, home to the oldest university in Europe and housing 80,000 students (one-fifth of its population). There’s graffiti everywhere, cars everywhere. It’s noisy and jolting. It’d be an awesome place to study.

We got off the train after two and a half hours of travel and trundled down via dell’Independenza, dodging traffic and slow-moving individuals until we reached Piazza Maggiore, hung a right, and found our accommodation, Albergo Centrale. And it really is central.

Piazza Maggiore is one of the main spots to visit, with a basilica, a fountain, some towers, a piazza or two – basically a lot of obviously old stuff. After dumping our luggage (thankfully we could check in early) and having a bit of rest (it was siesta time, after all), we went exploring, checking out the piazza and then the two towers, both of which are leaning. And one of them leans a lot! You can’t really notice it looking up because of all the buildings around it but it’s definitely not level at the ground.

We stumbled across a fast-food pasta-type place called Sfoglia, packed with young cool people sitting at the window eating plates of freshly made pasta. We couldn’t go past. We took a table and ordered quadrati and torteloni. Mine was made with zucchini, mint and ricotta. Delicious and just what we were looking for for lunch.

After that we wandered more of the city, heading north again through the university area – the stench of urine and pot was strong – to il Parco della Montagnola. The park was dodgy looking and we stopped long enough so I could use the bathroom but soon left because of this feeling of threat running through the place.

Back south to the hotel, we bought an ice-cream, then tried to find the Fontana del Netuno but couldn’t. It wasn’t until I asked at the tourist office that they said it’s just outside but it’s covered up for restoration. Sure enough. There it was. A big block of scaffolding.

More Food

Later in the evening we went in search of dinner, finding a place on TripAdvisor that was highly recommended and nearby but when we got there, it was empty. The emptiness was made only more stark by how parked the next door bar was. We left, wandering further south, noticing that the bars were full and the restaurants were empty, or if they had people in them, they were eating crisps and finger foods while drinking negroni. It seems that at 6:30/7pm we were hellishly early for dinner in Bologna.

We wandered, going from restaurant to restaurant, with Glen, I’m sure, getting more and more frustrated with each of my refusals to eat at a certain place for one reason or another. We stumbled upon (though perhaps stumble isn’t the right word as it was quite large) a piazza in front of basilica – Piazza San Domenico and Basilica di San Domenico – which suited us for a place to have dinner.

We sat at the edge of a restaurant’s al fresco area, on cobbled streets, listening to a guitarist/pan-pipest playing and watching cars, pedestrians and cyclists all talking on their mobile phones while they went about their business. I’m impressed by the cyclist’s skill – as well as their insanity – that they can navigate a bicycle over bumpy roads with such ease with a phone stuck to their ear. I couldn’t do it.

We ate a big meal – again – with two courses each. My main was sesame-crusted salmon, a massive serve that fortunately didn’t come with vegetables. I had a Bologna beer, though couldn’t get through the whole 750ml bottle I’d ordered, not unexpectedly but still unwisely. We ate. We enjoyed the night and the increasing quiet as the Bolognese (the people, not the sauce) disappeared. We wandered home and went to bed.

A Sneaky Side Trip to Pisa and Lucca

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Having decided that we’d leave Cinque Terre a day early, we packed, finished off some of the food we’d bought, and then trundled down the road to the station to catch a train. Initially we were going to go straight to Lucca but the train we had to catch was going to Pisa so we thought, let’s go there instead.

The train was about half an hour late. Though annoying, there’s not much anyone can do but wait for the ‘obstacle on the tracks’ (usually a body) to be cleared. It didn’t half seem to upset people though. When the train came, even though these people had plenty of time to figure out which train was coming, there were still people asking if they were getting on the right one to La Spezia. And then when we got on the train, a couple loudly and repeatedly complained about how late they were thanks to the train driver ‘who needed to go back to train school’. Turns out they were only 20 minutes late in the end but fuck, they annoyed me. So now I’m complaining about them.

Pisa

There's more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower

We arrived into Pisa around 10:30 and trundled to the Leaning Tower with our luggage, much as we’ve done when visiting zoos in the US and Canada. Not that we were going to see a zoo, though there are plenty of connotations that can be made considering how large the horde was at the tower.

What struck me most about the tower is that it’s a) quite small and b) surrounded by other beautiful and much larger buildings. And it’s all so shiny! Looks like restoration work had been completed recently because the buildings were so white.

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We trundled around, taking photos and watching out for pickpockets. We didn’t take a perspective photo of us holding up the tower or holding it on our hand. We were one of the few. We could have climbed up the tower but we didn’t (and now I have a mild sense of FOMO about it but it’s no big deal). We didn’t go into anything but it was really enough to be there, to have seen it, to have taken some photos and then get the hell away from the crowds.

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We wandered through the streets of Pisa to find a place for lunch. It’s a beautiful town and the streets aren’t as crowded once you’re away from the tower. We settled at a cafe for spaghetti (for Glen) and a salad (for me) before walking through more of the town, down to the river, across the bridge and to the train station to catch a train to Lucca.

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Lucca

We had initially planned to spend a few hours in Lucca on our way to Bologna but now that we’d stolen a day from Cinque Terre we chose to spend the night in this medieval walled city. So pleased we did.

img_2245I’d booked us a room at Antica Residenza dell’Angelo, which was in the centre of the city, a ten minute walk from the station. We headed through the city gates and into this maze-like city. Alleyways and cobbled streets were lined with old beautiful buildings and it seemed around every corner was a church or basilica or tower.

We dumped our luggage at the accommodation (we were about two hours early), bought an ice-cream and went exploring. Not being a very large city, it didn’t take us long to reach the edge and walk along the tree-lined walls. There’s a stark difference between the town, where you’re lucky to see any greenery, and the walls which are covered in grass and ringed with trees. It’s a beautiful contrast.

We walked around the walls for a while before heading back to the accommodation. Turned out I’d booked a suite on the third floor. It was pretty big with a sitting room and a large bedroom and bathroom. It looked out onto the square and the Chiesa di San Michele di Foro. Not a bad find at all.

After a bit of a rest we went walking again, checking out the amphitheatre which isn’t exactly what you’d expect. It’s a circular space lined with buildings, most of which are restaurants designed to entice tourists in. We walked through it then scaled the Guigno Tower, impressive because of the trees growing on its roof.

We paid our money and climbed about a hundred steps, which took us half way. These steps were fine, solid things. There was no view down beneath you. The next set of steps, however, hugged the edges of the building. They were also the kind where you could see through and down the building. I am not good with these kinds of stairs and my mind went into overdrive. I managed to get up the stairs – which got skinnier the higher you went, and forced you to share space with those coming down – as long as I didn’t look down in any way. Deep breathing also helped (though it probably also heightened this overreaction on my part).

I reached the top, walked out and looked over the town of Lucca. Again, the impressive thing is these trees growing on the roof. It’s a nice spot and the view was worth the near-hysteria. It was also getting close to sunset so the city had a nice peaceful calm over it.

Unfortunately, that calm did not extend to me when we had to climb down. When you’re going up, it’s easy not to look down, but when you’re going down, it’s near impossible. I was practically facing the wall on my descent, but could still see people below me out of the corner of my eye. It was not a pleasant experience and it was through only sheer force of will that I was able to get down to safety without falling apart completely. Glen thought it was hilarious, and couldn’t believe that I was perfectly fine with a cantilevered treetop walk in Tasmania but not solid metal steps in a tower in Lucca.

It took a while for my palms to stop sweating. In the meantime, we found the restaurant we wanted for dinner, booked a table, and went home for a bit to change (it was getting cooler). We ate at Osteria San Giorgio, which was tucked down a side street and would have been totally missed on a casual walk. We were some of the first though, taking a table beside a retired American couple from San Francisco.

For starters I had carpaccio di branzino (bream) while Glen had tomato and bread soup. For mains I had crumbed chicken with a truffle sauce (much to Glen’s absolute horror when he tried a bit), and he had steak. We ordered wine. Dinner was delicious and very filling. We eventually struck up a conversation with the American couple and offered tips on what to do and where. They were soon going off on a group cycling tour of Tuscany, concerned that the ten days they’d had of eating in Venice and Florence had made them unfit for such a thing.

We said goodbye and buon viaggio then walked through the quiet streets of Lucca, attempting to find the ice-cream store we’d seen earlier. We hadn’t noted the address and had no luck in stumbling upon it. I did, however, see a jacket in the window of a shop and noted down its location for a return visit the next day. Not really needing ice-cream (we could have found some somewhere if we’d been dying for), we returned to our apartment, climbing the many many stairs to our floor, and went to bed.

The Remaining Two of the Cinque Terre

The jet lag has been a bit of a hassle and not as easy to overcome as I would have hoped. I think I woke up at 3, listening to the bells toll at ten minutes to the hour, and was in a mostly awake but sometimes dozing state for the next few hours. I should have just taken a sleeping pill. Managed to fall asleep eventually and woke up at 9am.

We went for breakfast in the same cafe we’d been to the morning before, though this time service was slow and verging on rude. Nevertheless we stayed and ate, then set off to buy our Cinque Terre cards.

Again, all the trails were closed. This was despite the sun being out and not a cloud in the sky. It was even more beautiful a day than the day before. But still, no trails. We caught the train to Corniglia instead.

Someone's legs are tired. #notawalker #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Corniglia

Corniglia is one of the smaller of the five villages and is built higher up the side of the cliff than the others. The train station is a distance from the town and up a LOT of stairs. We hiked our way up, navigating around German tourists with an ‘entschuldigung, bitte’ and puffing and panting when we reached the top.

#Cinqueterre really putting it on today. #Italy #corniglia #travel #gaytravel

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From there it was a short walk through narrow streets, stopping at a church and then buying freshly squeezed lemonade and a fruit bun called Fisherman’s Bread, which was a bit like a rock cake but much, much harder.

Being smaller, Corniglia’s narrow alleys are more prominent. On a sunny day like this they provided a cool place in the shade. In the middle of winter or at midnight, they probably would have freaked me the hell out. A great place to stage a murder.

You'd easily get your 10,000 steps living here. #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel #corniglia

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At the end of the alley we reached a panorama view out over the ocean. A great view. More sunshine. It was here Glen insisted that it was my turn to carry the backpack. I acquiesced, especially considering he’d been a gentleman and carried it all the day before. It didn’t stop me from grumbling at how sweaty he’d left the straps.

With Corniglia complete, we walked back through the town, down the million steps and towards the train station. We again asked whether the trails were open; they weren’t. So we caught the train to the next town down.

Manarola

#manarola #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Manarola is a bit more what you’d expect when you think of the Cinque Terre: colourful houses perched on the edge of rocks. We walked down the main strip towards the water before retreating to eat at a restaurant that was empty when we arrived. I think we should have taken that as a sign, even though it filled up almost immediately after we sat down.

Glen was attracted to the idea of squid ink pasta as he’d liked the mouthful he’d had the day before in Vernazza. So we stopped in for squid ink, prawn and zucchini spaghetti and a plate of fried calamari. We drank wine too.

When the food arrived, the spaghetti was the normal colour but was placed over a generous supply of squid ink. So the squid ink wasn’t in the pasta but outside it. When we swirled the spaghetti around, everything turned black. It was salty. The prawns swill had their shells and heads. I ate most of mine; Glen did not. Understandably the waiter asked if there was something wrong. We feigned being full, yet still requested our calamari. I had visions of the chef seeing the unfinished food and exclaiming, ‘Don’t they know how hard it is to get ink out of a squid?!’

After lunch we walked up the side of the hill to the cemetery which has the best view of Manarola. We took photos and looked down at the beautiful water below with people jumping in and going for a swim. I wanted to do that too but rather than just decide and do it, I then had to hum and haa about it. Glen gave me the push I needed.

We went down to the rocks below. Glen stayed on one of the steps while I went and sat on the edge with my feet in the water. Not content with this, I then borrowed Glen’s bathers and went for a proper swim. It was glorious. Not cold. Extra salty. Really glad I took the plunge as If I’d left the area without going in the water at least once, I’d have been disappointed in myself. Glen then went for swim too while I attempted to dry off (we didn’t bring towels).

Not a bad spot for a swim. #manarola #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Done with Manarola, we headed back to the train station. La Via dell’Amore started just past the train station and we decided to be rebellious and walk the damn trail back to Riomaggiore. It was meant to be short, and honestly, how could it be closed?

We walked up the ramp and out to the cafe at the start of the track…only to find that via dell’ amore was more or less permanently closed due to a rock fall. So much for walking the tracks. Mind you, both of our legs were suffering so perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing.

La Spezia and Riomaggiore

Is it a clock? Is it a chimney? #laspezia #italy #travel #gaytravel

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We lounged in Riomaggiore for a little while, after buying postcards and crepes, then took a quick trip to La Spezia, a larger town south of the Cinque Terre. There was more walking, and Glen refused to climb some awesome looking steps.

There were some beautiful streets lined with old buildings and being late in the afternoon, there were plenty of people out and about. We checked out the garden, bought some stamps (with the woman behind the counter inexplicably disappearing for about five minutes to bring back four stamps), then wandered back to the train station. Nice town.

In the evening we ate at a restaurant in Riomaggiore, I think called La Grotta. We tried the local specialty, Trofie, a short pasta with a basil pesto, and then shared a grilled bream, which was delicious. Accompanied with a glass of prosecco (for Glen) and a local beer (for me), it was a lovely last dinner in Cinque Terre.

Back at the apartment, I sat on the balcony reading my book and listening to the hustle and bustle of the restaurants below. A nice way to end the evening.

We decided that we’d leave Cinque Terre a day earlier, having visited the five towns and the trails more than likely being closed for another day, and head to Lucca for a night.

Three of the Five

With very little food in the apartment, first order of business after showering and getting dressed was to find breakfast. Being a Sunday morning, and not quite sure when things would open, I was a bit worried we wouldn’t find anything to eat and have to wander for hours while hungry. Fortunately, the cafe practically underneath our apartment was open.

We both had omelettes, mine without ham, and Glen had a coffee. We discussed again our plans for the day, setting high expectations of being able to knock off all Cinque of the Terres and spending time on the trails between the villages. When we went down to the train station to purchase our Cinque Terre Cards, it was to find out that all the trails were closed because of impending bad weather. It was like Antelope Canyon and Grand Canyon all over again. Nevertheless, we bought the pass (mistakenly buying only a one-day pass instead of a three-day one) and then caught the train up to Monterosso.

Monterosso al Mare

#Cinqueterre #Italy #gaytravel #husbands

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Monterosso al Mare is the northernmost of the five villages. Being up as early as we were, it meant we weren’t yet forced to meander with the horde. Within minutes of getting off the train, Glen had bought a slice of focaccia/pizza from one of the shops underneath the train station. We munched on this as we walked north towards the Giant (Il gigante), a large sculpture of a crouching giant holding up what used to be a bowl but is now mostly empty space.

The beaches were yet to fill. The umbrellas were down but the deckchairs were out. The sea looked rough and not all that warm, though there were a couple of people who braved it at 10 in the morning. We walked past them up to the giant, took our photos, then went for a walk up the side of the hill to find the house of a writer. We passed it, we think, not knowing we had, then after we’d gone up high enough, decided it was time to come back down again. All this walking…

We walked back through Monterosso, along the cliff, past the tower and then around and up to the monastery on top of the hill (the churches take all the best locations). A statue of St Francis of Assisi and a dog (or was it a wolf?) gestured down to the water below. I figured the monastery must be full of Franciscans, considering that Assisi is some way away. We then went up to the top where the ruins had been converted into a cemetery. Lots of dead people, lots of crypts.

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Down at sea level we attempted to walk the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza along the coast but everybody else had this idea and the National Parks people had taken the approach of blocking it off. Considering the sun was out and it was a nice day, we couldn’t quite figure out what the problem was but, not wanting to fight the system, we returned to Monterosso, walked through some more streets, went back through the tunnel and bought an ice-cream before catching the train to Vernazza.

Monterosso #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel

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Vernazza

Vernazza had a lot more people in it, and a lot of tour groups. Glen said he didn’t mind the hordes as he felt safer. I said it was just easier for pickpockets to hide in. How cheery. We found the restaurant that had been recommended to us – Belforte – which was built into the side of the cliff. It wasn’t yet 12, therefore, wasn’t yet open, so we followed all these other people going through narrow alleyways and up steps until we reached the castle at the top.

There was a view and a tower. The tower had a spiral staircase that was only wide enough for one and a half people so that was an unpleasant experience trying to navigate people coming from the other direction. We got to the top and then Glen somehow managed to take charge, gauging when the way would be most clear going down again, and then leading everyone down with relative ease. I was so proud.

By the time we’d wandered down the way we’d come, Belforte had opened and we managed to nab the last table for two on the higher platform. Glen was keen for the single two-seats that were perched on the balcony but when I asked if it was free, the waiter said it was reserved. This turned out to be in our favour.

The waiter turned out to be ‘family’ which was nice. And apparently I look Italian enough (or sound it enough) for it to be remarked upon. We ordered our meals – I had the squid ink taglioni followed by a plate of mixed grilled seafood, and Glen had the salata caprese and veal scallopini – then drank our wine, ate our bread, and watched the massive rain storm roll in towards us across the sea.

The storm is rolling in. #Cinqueterre #Italy #gaytravel

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The food was delicious, the wine was nice and the company pleasant. We got chatting to the Melbourne couple seated next to us. The rain came in, we watched the lightning, and then the wind made it a bit cold. We were in shorts. Luckily we’d brought a jacket with us. Being seated in the middle of the restaurant, we were relatively protected but after a while it just became time to go. We skipped desserts and then went down and paid.

Squid ink taglioni. #food #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel

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What with the rain, I was less than thrilled about doing much else but seeking shelter back at the apartment. We went to the train station, then ended up catching the wrong train and going back to Monterosso. We then waited with an ever-growing horde for the train back the way we’d come. We bought more supplies before heading into the apartment and relaxing for a little while.

Riomaggiore

The Main Street of #Riomaggiore #Cinqueterre #Italy #gaytravel

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Jet lag started to creep up on us, urging us to lie down for a nap at 4 in the afternoon. But we resisted and headed out to explore Riomaggiore now that the rain had stopped. We went up, walking less busy streets above the town, visiting the castle (and seeing one of the views that you see when searching for photos of Cinqueterre), then back to the water and around winding streets and up narrow alleys and uneven stairs. The town isn’t big but the side streets would confuse anyone who’s not a local. I love it. It reminds me of Venice and its maze of streets.

The view we'd come to see. #Riomaggiore #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel #picoftheday

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Satisfied we’d explored enough of the town, we returned to the main square and bought a slice of pizza each (and I bought a local beer) and sat on a bench, eating and drinking and watching the tourists go by. For some reason we made a point of interest for the people who passed us; perhaps it was the slice of pizza as big as my head, or just our ravishing good looks.

Trying an Italian beer. (Was good.) #birramoretti #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel #scruff #beer

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Back in the apartment, we lounged. I read a new book, having finished the other one earlier in the day. Considering I’d only started that one on Friday, I’m pretty chuffed. Let’s see how many more I’ll get through by the end of the two weeks. Glen made some pasta with a dried mix of stuff he’d bought from the shop. It looked like pot pourri. The sun has set and the streets are quietening down. It’s been a pleasant Sunday. Two more villages to go and it’s only Sunday!

Welcome to Busto Arsizio

I don’t have much family in Italy so it was really nice to meet up with my cousin’s cousin when we landed in Milan. Our arrival was quick, border control barely looking at either of our passports as we entered the country. We were through so fast that we had a bit of time to spare before Luca arrived. This of course meant that Glen could order some food-related thing in Italy for the first time. He went for caffe latte.

The setup at the bar was such that you order and pay first, get your receipt then stand at the bar and request your coffee. I managed to order on Glen’s behalf and then got flustered when the Paypass on the credit card didn’t work. The woman behind the counter was no-nonsense and efficient but friendly. It was all sorted. I then left Glen to it.

Luca arrived at about 8:30. I’m glad I recognised him as he walked past. We then headed out to his car where his wife, Sabrina, and his brother, Daniele, were waiting with the car. Hugs and kisses and introductions all round, then we piled into the car and headed to the train station to buy our tickets to Riomaggiore for later in the morning.

We then drove through the streets of Busto Arsizio to find a parking space. I had a sudden flash of remembrance of a few streets and shops from when I was visiting my uncle here more than ten years ago. I was pleased that now it was summer.

We went for breakfast at a place called Campi, a bar/patisserie with so many enticing pastries on display. We took a table upstairs, ordered drinks and food and then chatted as best we could. Luca’s English is way better than my Italian, but we managed to make ourselves understood enough that it was an enjoyable morning. It also helped me get my tongue and ear a bit more used to Italian again. It’s amazing, however, how little accuracy you need to communicate. There are enough commonalities between Italian and English, as well as the added benefit of body and sign language to get things across.

The four of them had cappuccinos while I had a hot chocolate, the good Italian kind that’s basically melted chocolate in a glass. To add to the sugar load we had profiterole type pastries – begni? – and brioche. The diet is on hold, especially considering Luca and Sabrina were telling us the specialties to have in some of the places we’re going. Focaccia and fish in Cinqueterre, tortellini in Bologna, prosciutto crudo, crostini and chianti in Siena. I feel my waist expand just thinking about it.

After breakfast, we bought water in the supermarket then walked to the train station. We said our goodbyes, took photos and then waited for the train to Milano Centrale. Getting to Riomaggioe in Cinqueterre was a longer journey than expected. About half an hour to Milano Centrale, two hours to Genova Brignole and one and a half hours to Riomaggiore. After 20 hours to get to Italy, another four to five on the train isn’t much but is at the same time.

Milano Centrale to Riomaggiore

#Milan #milanocentrale #train #italy

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At Milano Centrale we bought some food, a slice of pizza for me and a big piece of lasagne for Glen. Getting the knack of ordering food now. The train to Genova Brignole was packed. The guy next to me was a smoker, not unsurprising just unpleasant. Soon after departure I discovered something else unpleasant. I’d left the iPad on the flight to Abu Dhabi.

It wasn’t in any of our bags and the last time I remember touching it was on the flight when I put my boarding pass into it. At least this time it wasn’t my passport, though I don’t hold out much hope of getting the iPad back. (After getting to Riomaggiore, I lodged a claim with the airline and we’ll see if  I hear anything back, otherwise I’ll check with lost and found on the return.) Glen is so enjoying the fact that it was me who lost it (considering he’s the one who forgot the gym gloves on Friday).

The trains don’t run on time (even Mussolini wasn’t capable of doing that) and after two hours on the train, I figured we’d miss our connection to Riomaggiore, especially as we had to find out which platform the train left from when we pulled up. If the trains had been running on time, we had eight minutes. That vanished. However, we found the platform we needed, ran there (well, I hobbled as I still can’t run) and low and behold the train we were catching was delayed and we were able to get on no trouble. Hooray!

Cinqueterre

This journey took us along the coast and we caught glimpses of ocean on one side and forest-covered mountains on the other. As we got closer to Cinqueterre the platforms became busier and the train started to fill up. The quieter villages north might be a better idea next time as Cinqueterre is just heaving with people.

We eventually stopped at Riomaggiore and got off with a horde of other people. This is no quiet seaside destination but a bustling tourist hub. After getting off the train we followed the directions given to us for our accommodation. We waited in the main square, which is more like a main street, until Giovanni came to let us into the apartment which overlooks the main street.

Riomaggiore, #Cinqueterre. We have arrived. #travel #gaytravel #husband #italy

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It’s a nice apartment, clean, doesn’t smell of smoke and is very central. It’s comfortable and a lot nicer than a lot of the places I had been looking at online. After dumping our stuff, we went for a quick look at the sea, bought a cone of fried seafood, some groceries and then committed the cardinal sin of travelling. We went to bed at 5:30pm.

We couldn’t help it. We made some vague and feeble attempt at planning to get up in a few hours, knowing this was unlikely as we fell asleep. The noise from the streets filtered through at some points during the night. There are a bunch of restaurants below us, one of which sounds like it has a live band. It was a Saturday after all.

We slept until 3am, took a sleeping pill and slept some more until 7. Hopefully that will stand us in good stead for all the walking we’ve got to do over the next few days.