Today is my last day in Italy. I am in a small water side town called Monterosso. Monterosso is part of a string of five towns called Cinque Terre. Tomorrow we will get on to a train and leave Italy for France. I am a little sad because Italy was really fun and gelato was amazing but France will be very fun too. The wifi is very bad so when this finally posts I will be in France.
We are more than halfway through our trip so far — four-sevenths to be precise. Much of our focus, of course, has been exploring the cities and towns, streets and trails of Italy… and now France.
But the promise of leaping into the water in September and October — something we can’t do outside of a rec centre in Victoria — held great appeal too. At first I’d worried about my trip planning: the first three weeks of our itinerary were mostly land-bound, in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice (briefly — and you do NOT want to swim anywhere other than the Lido) and then Chianti. We would only begin the the truly Mediterranean part of our journey in October. Would the sea be too cold by then?
I didn’t need to worry. We’ve managed to find water and immerse ourselves on a regular basis. And the weather has been so gorgeous that we’ve swum in the sea several times. Here are 7 highlights from our aqueous adventures.
Ostia Beach: Day 2 of our trip, we escaped the heat and crowds of Rome to visit the Roman runs at Ostia Antica and still had time to take the train another 2 stops to the beach town of Ostia. The beach wasn’t the prettiest or the water the cleanest, but the locals knew this was the quickest escape from the city and the warm waters of the Mediterranean felt so good after several days of travel and two days of walking around Roman stones.
Outdoor pool in Florence: The kids had only so much patience for the museums and galleries of Italy’s hottest city, so Jenny found an outdoor pool in an expansive public park 30 minutes walk along the river from our apartment in Florence. It will be the priciest swim of our trip (I hope!) after admission and buying the mandatory bathing caps. But the 33m pool was clean and refreshing and we all felt renewed and ready to hit the road to Bologna the next morning.
Outdoor pool in Montegonzi. When we booked the farm “barn” AirBnB (recommended by friends who had stayed there 2 summers ago), I inquired if the outdoor pool would still be in open in late September. The owner said “probably” but warned that in the hills of Tuscany it would be getting colder and possibly rainy. The unheated pool definitely got our blood flowing, as we slowly immersed ourselves inch by inch, but the views across the valley were spectacular and we had the pool and the farm to ourselves. Paradise.
Pool near Montegonzi
Spiaggia Barbarossa, Elba: If we have any regret, it’s probably not booking more than four nights on the Island of Elba. What a gem! Especially this time of the year, when the summer crowds have thinned to sprinklings of German families and Italian weekenders. Our “local” swimming spot, 10 minutes walk from our AirBnB in Porto Azzurro, was a picturesque smile of rocky beach with clear water and several types of fish to amuse the kids as they dove in the shallows.
Spiaggia Livorno. We reluctantly said goodbye to Elba, traded in the rental car and took the train to Monterosso al Mare — the biggest (at less than 1,500 inhabitants) of the 5 cliffside towns that make up the Cinque Terre. Tourists must double or triple or quadruple that population. Even in October, the afternoon trains felt like rush hour in Tokyo and the narrow streets were thick with American accents. We hiked one day in the opposite direction, over the point to the larger town of Livorno. There we found a large rocky beach with crashing surf (and a small surfing scene) that offered a reward to the kids (and myself) for 2.5 hours of up and down hiking. Body-surfing in the waves helped clean out the sinuses and send us back to Monterosso (by train this time) happy and tired.
Spiaggia Monterosso: The next day, we used the Cinque Terre pass to train-hop between the other four towns. We skipped opportunities to swim in the slightly sketchy waters of two other harbours to save time for a dip off the wide beach in front of the new town of Monterosso. We missed the afternoon sun, but we still enjoyed a dip in the Mediterranean in front of one of the most memorable backdrops of coloured house fronts and rocky cliffs.
Nice waterfront: We arrived in France yesterday afternoon, but by the time we got settled into our AirBnb (still being cleaned when we arrived), it was too late for a swim…despite Briar’s protestations. We made sure we got one the next morning, though, and lucked into another perfect 22*C day. The whole Nice beachfront stretches for 2 or 3 miles, bisected into private and public swatches, and is made up of large stones and a steep drop into the surf. We saw a bull dozer drive the length of the beach this morning to reshape the angle of this drop into the water. The sea, however, was amazing to float and swim in, with one of the most visually splendid urban backdrops of any beach. I think only Tel Aviv’s seaside can compare… and that’s only due to its wide sandy beach. I could have floated in the Mediterranean for hours, where the colours turn from deep blue to bright azure before crashing against the white stones, but we had the rest of Nice (or at least its winding Old Town streets) to see. Still, the promise of more time in the Mediterranean awaits in 3 out of our 4 last stops….
Cinque Terre also known as 5 Terre, are 5 little towns on the cliff side along the water. Today we hiked up and up and up. When we finally thought that there was no ending to the stairswe saw the most spectacular view ever.Which made us forget how tired and hungry and thirsty we were. It was overlooking the town of Monterosso, with its brightly coloured houses and shimmering oceans. The lush green mountains standing tall behind it. It’s like in a fairytale! The people on the beach looked like tiny tiny specks, that’s how high we were.We walked for another hour before stopping to satisfy our hunger. Which probably took a lot of weight off of mummy’s back. Then we had to hit the road again. We walked and walked and walked until we reached Levonto!!! A slightly bigger town than Monterosso. When we got there AJ and I ran down the hill, we could not wait another minute before jumping in the refreshing water. Once we cooled off in the Ocean, we walked to the train station to catch a train back to our welcoming Airbnb. Our Airbnb has an oceany theme which I really like. Though it is a lot smaller than our previous one. We are making the most of our last days in Italy. Then we will be heading off to France!
The island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea is where we have been spending our nights and days. Our days have been packed with walking, swimming, eating and exploring. You can barely swim in the ocean in the summer in Victoria and definitely not October. But here you can swim to the end of October. The water is bright blue and clear, with lots of fish too.And we saw flamingos on the way to Elba. They were very pretty. And we have seen so many breathtaking views. We’ve seen the mountains from the towns and we’ve seen the towns from the mountains. We’ve seen the sunset every night and morning from our balcony. Arranging its self in different calming colours.We’ve soaked in the sun well playing paddle ball or just watching the waves roll in.We tried new foods such as mandorla gelato, aperol spritz (daddy not me), tuna pizza and much much more. Some we loved some not so much, but it’s a good experience. Live life on the edge! And to top it all of we had a wonderful place to come back to. To watch Italian movies, work or rest for the next busy day. If you ever need a get a way vacation come to Elba!!!(more…)
I had never imagined that Briar would be obsessed with wild boars. But she was. We stayed six nights on an olive farm near Montegonzi, Tuscany, home to black scorpions and wild boars. There was olive oil to sample, a pool surrounded by olive trees and three dogs on site—including a sleepy-eyed lumbering Newfoundland named Nelson. We were a 25-minute drive from any store, but close to winding roads, rolling hills, medieval castles and many vineyards and olive farms.
The famous Siena square.
The highlight of the kids’ stay in Tuscany will surely be the Tuscany cooking class they attended in a rural farm or podere, along with their dad and a couple from New York. I chose to roam the hillsides, visiting a convent, walking past tiny chapels and shrines and watching grapes being harvested for the famous Chianti wine.
We returned to busy streets for a day trip to Siena, with its most beautiful medieval square, the Piazza del Campo. We toured their ancient hospital that cared for the poor and abandoned—Santa Maria Della Scala, which was a captivating combination of high art in frescos and bizarre underground tunnels with bones and artefacts.
Briar never did see a wild boar while we were in Tuscany, though she heard their howling guttural sounds at night—which incensed the dogs. She will have to return some day.
A shrine by the roadside in Tuscany.
From Montegonzi we drove to Piombino and took an hour-long ferry ride to Rio Marina and then Porto Azzurro on Elba Island on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is apparently chock-a-block with tourists in July and August, but the ferry ride over had the air of an empty Carnival cruise ship. Porto Azzurro was not empty—there were quite a few German families, particularly in the campgrounds—but overall the village of 3,700 or so residents was peaceful and welcoming in its shoulder season.
I had two particularly wonderful runs, one along a coastline trail that took me past three beaches: Barbarossa, Reale, and Terranera. Elba is known for its beautiful beaches, but there was more here, for example a Spanish fortress, now a prison, that looms over the cliffs, and minerals—evident in the sparkling black sand of Terranera. Elba’s mining history apparently dates back to the Etruscans, one of many peoples who took turns ruling and living on Elba.
Standing at the sanctuary.
Another run took me to Spiaggia di Barbarossa then up a long, winding road to a pine tree called the pino monumentale, or nonno (grandfather) pino, said to be 400 years old. From there I ran to a hidden cliff top sanctuary, the Sanctuario della Madonna di Monserrato. The stone church in the cliffs was commissioned in 1606 by the Spanish governor Pons y Léon to worship the cult of the Black Madonna (in Spain worshipped at the Montserrat Sanctuary). I found myself completely alone on the path and at the top. The chapel door was locked, but the view of the ocean, the town below, and the strange, otherworldly stone chapel was eerie and exhilarating.
The painting of the Black Madonna seen in the sanctuary.
David and I later hiked to the sanctuary another afternoon. The chapel was again closed, but we peeped through the keyhole to glimpse the altar with the painting of the Madonna. Taking the path down to real life, we agreed we had seen something unusual and special.
We journeyed through lots of little towns to arrive at our destination. The cooking class is in a beautiful house surround by lots of picturesque things such as nature and other old houses. It overlooks a vineyard, making the experience even more impressive. The women running it both had awesome personalities. The environment felt joyful and caring. We attend the cooking class with another couple from New York. This is a one in a lifetime opportunity so it’s best to share it with people that are funny and that keep it lively. We started by making the pasta dough and kneading it, we then leave it out for 30 minutes. Well we wait we make the Tiramisu. First we dip the lady fingers in coffee and layer them on the dish. We then put the nest layer on. The next layer consists of eggs,mascarpone cheese, a little bit of rum and sugar!!! Then we put more lady fingers soaked in espresso and then more of the other layer. And then we put it in the fridge. Now it’s time to make the pesto!!! If you didn’t already know pesto pasta is one of my favourite foods. So this is very exciting for me. We must put exactly 36 basil leaves in. Because too much basil can be over powering. We make the pesto using a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. We are very lucky because in our cooking we get to use herbs and vegetables and olive oil all from their garden. This pesto is different from other pesto that I have had because it has green beans in it. Which personnel I think makes it even more tasty. Then we made the zucchini cake. We used a mezzalunaknife to cut the herbs. The main ingredients for the zucchini savoury cake are herbs, eggs, zucchini, cheese, oil,breadcrumbs and other spices and ingredients. After that we make the turkey breast. The turkey breast sits in herbs such as rosemary. And AJ tied the turkey. Congrats to him. Then we fry it in a pan. Now we roll our pasta out with wooden roller. Then we run it two times through the pasta machine. This step was a bit difficult at first because it was hard to get the pasta in. But after a few try’s we got the hang of it. Once all the pastas ready we must cut it. Before you cut it you loosely roll it. Don’t roll it to tight or it will stick together. And add LOTS of flour.Or your pasta will be a sticky ball. Once it’s rolled you cut in to what ever size you want. Your size will depend on what sauce your serving it with. Then we bring all the delicious food upstairs. Finally we feast on a wonderful lunch. That taste will forever be in my memory, and that unique learning experience. Our four hours were filled with laughter, sharing, sapori deliziosi, lots of learning and most importantly fun. I couldn’t keep the smile of my face even if I tried with all my strength. I walked in there an ok cook and I left an awesome cook all because of the fabulous people that take their knowledge and share it with the world. 😃
Okay, even as I’ve nagged the rest of the family to post to our blog, I’ve been laggardly… Over a week since my last note and we’ve seen so much since Venice!
I could blame it on slow wifi. (I won’t even try to post a photo, given the snail-like upload speed here.) But mostly it’s because we’ve been on “Tuscan time” — first in our “barn” stay in the hills outside of Montegonzi, on the edge of the Chianti region, and now, for the past four nights, on the lush and spectacular Island of Elba.
Sure, we’ve done things, I suppose. We did a cooking class, a small hike, and a day trip to Siena while in Montegonzi. We’ve chased fish in the Mediterranean, explored Marciana Marina and the ridge top town of Marciana, and checked out the seaport shops (and one very good restaurant) in Porto Azzurro.
Mostly, though, we’ve let simply basked in the warm, unhurried, autumnal vibe of Tuscany. The weather has been perfect. A threatened thunderstorm yesterday never appeared. Dark clouds have shuttled past occasionally and always revealed glorious sunsets over the western ridges and hills of both Montegonzi and Porto Azzurro. We have slept in, eaten well, walked and walked, watched an excellent documentary on Netflix about the centuries-old Palio horse race to help us better understand Siena, learned how to make and to savour Italian cuisine (pasta, pesto, zucchini squares, turkey breast and the best tiramisu of my life) in a olive farm in Chianti, and simply enjoyed the leisurely pace of life in this corner of the world .
We have felt the sun on our backs as we floated in the sea. We have sat outside on the stone patio in Montegonzi (with the AirBnB host’s three dogs and one outdoor cat) and balcony in Porto Azzurro and read or just closed our eyes and listened to the breeze. (Actually, right now we are listening to one of our neighbours tune his Vespa — that’s definitely part of the soundscape of Elba!)
Alas, we leave tomorrow… for three nights (our last in Italy) in Cinque Terre. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to return to see more of Tuscany, to enjoy more time in a place that truly knows how best to spend —and bend and extend —time. Another time, I guess.
Today we arrived in Elba. An island just off the mainland. Elba is a very popular summer destination for Italians and others because of the warm ocean and sandy beaches. In May of 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba after his army was defeated. Nine months after he was brought to Elba he escaped to France. Once in France he raised and army which at first had some success before being destroyed in the battle of Waterloo.
We set out to Venice by train from Bologna early in the morning, only to be delayed by 25 minutes at the station. After a café macchiato while we waited, we eventually boarded and by the time we arrived in Venice, the rain was sluicing down the train windows. On the steps of the station, vendors were doing a swift business in selling brightly coloured ponchos. For once, I felt my chronic underdressing in Italy had paid off—I was wearing hiking pants, a Mountain Hardwear jacket and a Blue Jays cap. I was ready for this pioggia.
We had seven hours to spend in a very rainy Venice and chose to start out in the less populated Canareggio area, which includes the old Jewish ghetto. There was almost no one there, and it was possible to walk the streets and imagine what was like centuries ago, before cruise ships and jet planes. The Venetian Jewish ghetto was formed in 1516, the first in the world. Jews were confined to the area by night and forced to wear red caps during the day to identify them. A.J.’s class in school is studying Shakespeare, so we have been applying what we saw in Venice to the story of Merchant of Venice.
The Canareggio neighbourhood in Venice.
My favourite part of Venice is the calles, the narrow streets. It seems there is a story behind every one. The Venetian republic forced landowners to leave a small distance between buildings— apparently how Venice ended up with this maze of fascinating calles.
One of the many calles.
There are surely a million stories in Venice. I was overwhelmed the number of ancient, evocative buildings and bridges. There are also a million tourists in Venice, which we felt when we made our way to Piazza San Marco. There were throngs of tourists and massive groups of cruise ship passengers being herded and counted.
Briar must be growing, because she could have eaten the entire Veneto region. We threw her apple slices, mini paninis, peanuts and granola bars, and readers, she remained in the Republic of Hangry. But, we still managed to get in a tour of the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace. A special exhibition on Rubens was on, which we toured along with vast, lavishly decorated rooms dedicated to justice and political affairs of the Doge, the leader. The sights included armour and, my favourite, the ancient prisons. I loved the room showing slabs of graffito from the prison walls.
The Doge’s Palace courtyard.
Along with the Doge, we also visited a modern and interesting exhibit called Personal Structures: Open Borders at the European Cultural Centre in the Palazzo Mora as part of la Biennale di Venezia. Some of the art was perhaps not so appropriate for kids, but they did have a toilet, so it evened out.
A last view before the train ride to Bologna.
Briar refused to continue without more food, so we found a café and ordered her a huge cheese pizza so she didn’t eat us on the train ride back to Bologna. A.J. chose a pizza covered with French fries on top, something only a 13-year-old boy could consume. Thanks to the free art exhibit, the restaurant, and the Doge visit, we spent seven hours in Venice (with Briar!) without spending any Euros on public toilets. Sorprendente!
We arrived in Tuscany yesterday afternoon. This is our first Airbnb in the country. It’s a nice change to get out of the city. This is my favourite Airbnb so far not just because there is three dogs and two cats but because I like to be out in the nature. It also has a very pretty pool surround by olive trees. We have to bundle up because it is colder in the mountains. The Airbnb is cozy and AJ and I finally have our own beds!!! Montegonzi is a 30 walk from where we are staying, and Montevarchi is a 25 minute drive. So this is the first time we have to drive to get groceries. But that’s ok because we can do a couple big shops. We all really like it here and I think we are really going to enjoy our stay.
When we arrived in Venice it was raining quite hard. So we went into the first ghetto in the world. Then we walk along some quiet non touristy streets. After we went in a art gallery with a bunch of different types of art. And we used the bathroom there because they were free. When we got out the rain had cleared so we went on a gondola ride through the quiet streets of Venice. We went under a bridge that was 1000 years old. You are not aloud to eat the fish in the ocean in Venice because it is polluted, but you can window fish for fun. We also went to the Doge where the people that ran Venice lived and had meetings. There was also a art gallery and a armour gallery. And don’t forget the creepy dungeons that we walked through. In the dungeons there was a collection of things that the prisoners wrote and drew on the walls. Then we went on the Rialto bridge and the bridge of size,both with spectacular views. Finally we went to have a very late lunch at a quiet restaurant down an alleyway. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.
In Bologna David attend the Africa Europe baseball qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. One day when David was at a baseball game Jenny, AJ and I walked 30 minutes to get some of the best reviewed gelato in Bologna. It was heaven to my taste buds. We also got a lot of schoolwork done. We went to the anatomical theatre. We saw parts of the old university. Like where they taught anatomy. It was a wooden room with portraits of famous doctors and Apollo surround by constellations. We also saw an old lecture hall with old books on lots of different subjects. It took us a while to get there because we got lost but once we got there it was really cool. One night we went out to a restaurant called Pinterre. All in all it was very fun and we got a chance to relax and catch up on work.
Today as I am writing this post I am in an Airbnb in the Italian countryside. It is very cosy. The Airbnb is on an olive farm and there are also three dogs and two cats (a very nice bonus). My mom found a dead scorpion under her bed, which freaked her out. There is also an outdoor pool which is refreshing but very cold.
I watched the last two days of the European/Africa qualifiers… which ended in disappointment for the Italian hosts, when their team dropped a one-run game to Spain (followed by a bench-clearing brawl) and then lost a final must-win game against the Netherlands (giving up 4 runs in the top of the 9th to put any hope out of reach), who placed second and kept their Olympic dreams alive.
Team Israel walked away with first place and the berth in Tokyo, losing only a single match (to the Czech Republic) along the way. Alas, I didn’t see them clinch, as they did it on the last day in Parma.
On Monday, after the tournament, we took a high-speed morning train to Venice — where the clouds emptied in a downpour onto the thousands of tourists in cheap ponchos. We still enjoyed 8 hours of wandering through the lagoon-bound city. Briar insisted that we take a gondola ride, which did not disappoint, as we drifted through a labyrinth of narrow canal-ways. Jenny got us to take a tour (out of the rain) of the Doge’s Palace in St Mark’s Square, which was fascinating in its ornate design and complex political history. (It also hosted a gallery show about Rubens and his contemporaries.) The armoury of weapons was especially impressive.
Looking for a free washroom (hard to find in Venice!), we stumbled across an exposition as part of the Venice Biennele, hosted by three African nations, which included several floors of contemporary art works.
Our favourite part of the day may have been wandering the old Jewish ghetto and surrounding neighbourhood, away from the crowds that were lured toward St. Mark’s Square. Here, we could imagine life in the this moody, water-bound ancient city.
The next afternoon, we picked up a rental car in Bologna and drove the toll highway past Florence, through multiple tunnels, to Montevarchi, where we headed up winding hillside switchbacks to our country “barn” AirBnB near Montegonzi… a town that none of the Italians we mentioned it to had every heard of!
After the heat of Rome and Florence, the weather is now autumnal and cool — we had a brief dip in the outdoor pool when we arrived — but not rainy. The surrounding hills are green and lush. Francesco, our host, is a fireman with a one-year-old baby who also runs the olive orchard (and gave us a bottle of his olive oil). He says that the harvest usually takes place at the end of October, but he might begin earlier, as the forecast is for a colder, wetter winter in these hills, on the edge of Chianti and Tuscany. His menagerie includes three dogs and two cats, which has delighted the kids.
We plan to just chill out and catch up on rest and “homework” and perhaps do a hike or two during our five-day stay here.
We are winding up our second week of travel and staying in our third AirBnB or la nostra casa per le vacanze (our vacation house). All have had their pluses and minuses, but we’ve enjoyed all three.
In Rome, our apartment on the ground floor of an apartment on Via Panisperna was very old and interesting. The building dated back to 1741 (!) and had stone steps leading up to a loft bedroom (we were worried about these steps since the rail began at the perfect height to trip someone in the night). Rome was hot—to us at least, reaching more than 30 degrees Celsius each day, though far cooler than it had been. The apartment was dark and relatively cool. It had high ceiling made of vaulted wood, with the only windows at the top of the kitchen, which was a tiny galley room with a hot place. Every place we have stayed has had a tiny Italian coffee maker for espresso, and A.J. became expert at making them for me. It had some strange features, including a bizarre hair dryer attached to the wall and a tiny combination washer-dryer (all in one) that sat in the bathroom area. It came with five pages of instructions, but reader, I figured it out and did not flood the apartment. The street was steps from wonderful restaurants (Le Tavernelle, which we loved) and within walkable distance of the coliseum.
Jet lagged in Rome
Our Florence place was on a lovely cobblestone street in an tiny apartment that apparently once housed a famous artist (this story was unclear). We could see paint through the walls, that someone had once painted them, which just added to the cheerful mystery of the place. It was on Via D’Ardigilone, over the bridge from the main tourist area in Oltrarna (over the Arno River). It was amazing narrow, cheerful green shutters, décor all in bright, primary colours, mostly IKEA. We slept on bunk beds at the back of the apartment and the shower was in the middle of the bathroom with two curtains to separate it from toilet and bathroom sink. It was smartly designed to make the most use of the space. The kitchen sink and stove (no oven again) was in a tiny alcove. Not the greatest for a tall guy like David. It had a lot of personality and it was not a lot of space for all of us, but we enjoyed it there.
Our apartment in Florence
Cheery in Firenze
In Bologna, we are staying in a residential area about 40 minutes’ walk from downtown Bologna and 25 minutes from the baseball stadium where David is a attending the Europe/Africa world qualifier. The apartment has a pull-out bed in a small kitchen, a balcony where we can hang laundry (and Briar can watch neighbourhood dogs coming and going from their own balconies). It is newer and stylish, all in neutral colours of white and beige. It is nice to have a proper standing shower with a glass door, and it is bright. It even has an oven, though very few dishes and kitchen tools. We were only given one key, which has presented some challenges. It is also near a big, local park that is very busy with residents playing soccer, volleyball, tennis, basketball jogging and even learning tango dancing. The kids and I have gone running there and enjoyed the neighbourhood vibe.