The Great Outdoors

This time around in Italy we were determined to spend more time outdoors than in museums. And how could we not? The landscape is just absolutely stunning, and there’s so much variety within two or three hours’ travel of Milan. And really, if you go to Italy and you don’t spend time in the fields and the mountains and the seaside than you really haven’t been to Italy. There’s something about the way the centuries-old villages and farmhouses and villas are such an integral part of the landscape that makes it even more picturesque and beautiful.

In addition, it’s a super economical way to spend the day, especially if you pack a picnic. Most of the places we went were easily accessible by public transportation, but if we had wanted to do any serious hiking in the mountains or stay at an agriturismo we probably would have needed to rent a car. There’s always next time!

Varenna

We didn’t even mean to go on a hike, it just sort of happened. Behind the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Montecadeno), there’s a small road (Via Vezio) that rises steeply up to Castello di Vezio and a tiny village at the top of the hill. The castle was closed by the time we arrived, but the town is worth a short exploration.

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We found a hiking path (Sentiero del Viadante) that passed through some farmland and across the spine of the hill. The signs aren’t exactly straightforward but it’s a relatively easy hike, in fact I was wearing my fancy (flat) sandals and it wasn’t too much of a problem.

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We saw some stunning views of Lake Como from up high, and it was early evening so the sun was just behind the mountains and the light was totally amazing. And best of all in that hour we didn’t encounter a single other person.

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The bottom of the trail ended up on the opposite side of Varenna so it was an easy loop back through the town to our hotel.

 

Trebbia

Francesco, Chiara and Giovanni took us to a gorgeous spot on the Trebbia river and we spent the day sunbathing and swimming.

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The river is at the bottom of a wooded steep valley filled with rocks that makes for some dramatic scenery. The water was such a clear blue turquoise color that you could see all the way to the bottom. The water was freezing when we jumped in but felt so good after being in the sun for so long.
 

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There really wasn’t anyone else around for the whole day, and it was just a magical place – getting there definitely involves driving on some carsick-inducing curves. I wish we had spent more time in that area, we saw some trails that started around Bobbio that seemed worth a look.

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Cinque Terre

We planned on hiking the path between the five towns of Cinque Terre, but it was closed due to the danger of falling rocks! So we revised our plan a bit, started out in Riomaggiore and had a picnic overlooking the village from up high.

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We then walked on the Via dell’Amore to Manorola as it was the only part of the trail that was still open.
 

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We finished the rest of the picnic on a bench overlooking Manorola and eavesdropped on some old ladies talking about food.

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 We took the train to Corniglia in the evening, which proved to be ideal – we caught the best sunset I think I’ve ever seen in my life.

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As Corniglia is up high, you have a very wide view of the ocean and you can see Manarola in the distance. Just be prepared for the 368 steps from the bottom of the hill near the train station to the village at the top of the cliff.

We had dinner the next night in Vernazza, but it was rather disappointing. I think in general it was the most disappointing for me because my most vivid memories of Cinque Terre from the first time I visited more than ten years ago were of Vernazza. I remember it being a bit on the shabby side, kind of deserted (I visited in the fall) and quiet with some older people who were hanging out in the piazza. This time it just seemed overrun with tourists, the piazza was filled with tables with Americans stuffing their faces and everything was loud and brash and maybe a bit overdone.

That being said I think that Cinque Terre still retains some of its charms, we certainly enjoyed our time taking photos and sketching the afternoon away in Manarola. I guess I just shouldn’t have expected a quiet village on the seaside when it’s the height of tourist season.

Camogli

Camogli was definitely more low key than Cinque Terre and much more geared towards Italians. In fact I recommend staying at a town anywhere on the Ligurian coast that isn’t Cinque Terre if you want to get a feel for where Italians like to vacation on their own turf. Each town has its own character – Finale Ligure has a laid-back beach town feel, Santa Margherita delle Ligure is a more happening, social place and Levanto is the young-dudes-in-their-twenties-learning-to-surf kind of spot.

Camogli definitely has a local vibe, lots of 19th century buildings near the train station and older farmhouses up the slope. We didn’t explore the town itself as much since our main goal was to hike from Camogli to Portofino. Both towns sit on a pennisula, so the hike involves following the coastline of the pennisula (or over the top of the mountains) from Camogli, which is in the northeast corner, to Portofino, which is in the southwest.

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We heard conflicting reports about the length and diffculty of the hike, and we thought it would be around four hours and a moderate hike. Picking up the trail at the beginning is a bit of a pain as there’s a bunch of construction and it was totally confusing, but the first bit is pretty easy in that it’s mostly paved. It is sort of straight up the hill, but at the top you’re rewarded with a tiny village that overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea past Genova all the way to the Alps. And yes there is even a restaurant on the trail where you could probably enjoy some prosecco while watching the sun set.

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We continued on the trail and we passed some signs that said “DANGER FOR EXPERT HIKERS ONLY” (or what I gathered from my rather lame knowledge of Italian) with some more details about being prepared with lots of water and not going in the middle of the day. We pshawed the sign thinking, dude, we’ve climbed a volcano and the Great Wall, how hard could this be? The trail we were just on was just a piece of cake! But then quickly realized that they weren’t joking – there were literally parts of the trail that consisted of a vertical rock face, a chain attached to the rock face that you had to cling to and a 300 foot drop straight into the sea.
 

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Needless to say I tried to ignore the fact that I am afraid of heights and just plunged on ahead – we were too far into the trail to go back and that just seemed more painful.

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We didn’t even make it to Portofino, the hike just to San Fruttoso was so difficult that we basically ran out of gas by that point. We got on the boat instead – and then while we were sitting on a bench in Portofino a guy who had passed us on the trail earlier walked down into town past us and we felt totally lame. I’m really glad that we did the hike because the view was unforgettable, but if I did it again I would be much better prepared with a better trail map, a good pair of hiking shoes, two extra liters of water and a ton more food. Note to self: take signs seriously, even if it’s in Italian. I still recommend exploring the pennisula if you have any sense of adventure because the views are amazing and the landscape just feels so unique.

We were really glad that we got off the beaten path (so to speak) this time around in Italy. And remember: always pack a bottle of wine because you never know when you’ll need to break out the picnic!

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Giving Milan a second chance

Why so quiet on the blog, you ask? We're in Italy! I always forget about how different the pace of life is here, and we felt it as soon as we got off of the plane. Italy hadn't even been on our itinerary, but a series of coincidences led us back. Back in March we met Francesco, an Italian who was visiting Pun Pun in Thailand at the same time we were. We chatted over all of our meals and found we had a lot of ideals and interests in common, and eventually he said, “You need to come and visit me, see our family farm and cook with my mom!” We thought about it for a couple of weeks. By the time we needed to plan the next leg of the trip we knew we wanted to mostly skip sights for a bit (I felt like if I saw another temple/wat/church/castle/fort/whatever I was going to curl up into a fetal position) and just focus on visiting people, talking to them about their projects, and eating. Italy actually seemed perfect because we've visited the so-called “major tourist draws” already so we didn't feel like we were going to miss out. So we emailed him and said, ok, when should we come? We didn't want to pass up a chance to visit Francesco and see his farm. We thought we'd also drop in and visit Peter, a baker that Wayne used to work with who had been living in Milan for about a year and a half. So here we were, back in Italy.

We had a few days on our own before meeting up with Francesco and we weren't exactly sure where we needed to be. I hadn't really explored the northern part of Italy much while I lived in Florence ten years ago; I think I was too much in love with Tuscany at the time to even give the north the time of day. The impression of Milan the one time I did visit was that it was a big city, grey and grimy, not someplace I'd want to visit again. But we didn't want to stray far and we were flying into Milan so we decided to give it a second chance, just wander around and get a sense of its character.

And it was a totally different experience. This time Milan seemed like such a vibrant city, people were out on the streets walking and biking and having animated conversations. The center of town is so easily walkable and there's an abundance of public transportation options, from the metro to the tram to the bus. And even for a city that has a reputation for being the most uptight, Milan seemed so laid back to us. Almost every bar worth its salt had aperitivi (snacks laid out buffet style eaten with wine between 6 and 8 pm), so tables full of people spilled out onto the sidewalks everywhere we went. Don't get me wrong, Milan is not some backwater place – I've never seen so many Porsches before and everyone is so dressed up – but it just had a more laid back pace than any city we'd been in the past month or so.

We serendipitously found a local saturday market close to our hotel and admired the mountains of fresh produce from all over Italy. People jostled each other for the vendors' attention and a shot at the best produce. We followed their lead and picked up some salame, prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, cherries and peaches for a picnic. We headed over to a park, grabbed a bottle of wine on the way and commandeered a bench. It couldn't have been more perfect, each thing we ate was like the Platonic ideal of that thing. Mamma mia! Literally I thought I had never really eaten a white peach before until that moment, and the salame was intensely meaty and delicious. The quality of food here always amazes me, and also that it's so affordable compared to what you would pay in the States. The people and dog watching was quite excellent too, we were quite fascinated by the lengthy conversations that Italians would have with the Senegalese street vendors that constantly bother people with random trinkets.

Our schedule ended up working out quite well with Peter's so we had a chance to stay with him for a few days and had a fabulous time eating and talking. He's been in Milan for about a year and a half so we got the scoop on some good places to go. We made a day trip to the beach at Finale Ligure and ate at a local pescheria (fish restaurant) – I had an unusual dish of anchovies in a green parsley sauce with argula and apples topped with some kind of caramel sauce. We waited patiently in line together at Luini for some panzerroti, basically a small calzone that uses a slightly different dough and that's fried. We also checked out Peck, a sort of high end gastronomic grocery store (think Citarella's but a hundred times more formal, fancy and expansive). We definitely got the sense that the Milanese are just as seriously obsessed and particular about their food as anywhere else in Italy. And of course we were thrilled that we got a chance to make dinner at Peter's house, we've been missing the kitchen so much. Well, to be honest it was mostly Wayne because I had an apertivo of Aperol and something else and was sort of out of commission (whatever! It was delicious and why don't Americans drink cocktails like that more often??), but either way we jumped at a chance to cook a meal at home.

I think Milan, for me, was so different for a number of reasons. Perhaps the city itself has changed in the past ten years. I know for sure that the Duomo had been scrubbed clean – it's glowingly pink now, whereas it was grimy gray the last time I saw it. Of course contextually everything just seemed so convenient and easy after Beijing, I can speak the language and know the basics of how things work (or don't work). Knowing someone who lives in Milan who could give us advice made a big difference in how we interacted with the city too. And what about age? What I look for and appreciate in a city is probably a bit different than what I was looking for ten years ago, now having been to so many other places. All in all our time in Milan couldn't have been more enjoyable and we were more than ready to jump into the Italian pace of life.

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