Around Northern Italy in a Fiat Panda

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The Contessa and the Commendatore Visit the Home Country

Thursday Oct. 11: La Spezia ⇒ Cinque Terre ⇒ Lucca

food & lodging

Food & lodging notes

We found a most pleasant place for breakfast in La Spezia then wandered the large local market. There are a number of long, shed-like roofs without walls. Vendors set up here every morning to sell inexpensive clothing and household goods as well as food. We had wondered how ordinary Italians of modest means could get by, as the prices we saw in most shops were quite high. Buying necessities at the local markets is surely part of the answer. After returning we read in The Economist that fully 40% of Italy’s economy is underground: grey-market (the daily markets we saw), black-market (street vendors), unrecorded and untaxed.

We climbed the steep hill that backs the town, looking for the castello indicated on our maps; never did find it, but we weren’t trying all that hard. The steep streets with pleasant houses and the indigenous plants were reminiscent of San Francisco.

A On to Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre towns from La Spezia. Keith made the acquaintance of several cats. Walked winding staircases for spectacular views of the Mediterranean. Two churches — we visited one and lit candles for our dead. Houses painted ochre, rose, ivory. Saw signs inviting people to come and pick their own grapes (on a 45° slope) and pay L. 3,000 for each kilo.

Riomaggiore hugs the rocky hillside down a broad ravine riomaggiore to the sea. The five Cinque Terre towns — from south to north Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso — have been uniquely isolated until recent times. The railroad now stops in all of them; until it was completed the only access to the towns was by foot over mountains, or from the sea. State roads reach the outer towns, but not Corniglia or Vernazza; construction a in riomaggiore plans have been stalled for years by local opposition and fears that over-tourism would ruin these hardy, romantic, breathtaking places.

The main occupations are related to wine and grape-growing (plus fishing — though I would not want to launch or beach a boat in those tides with those rocks). Alice made a nice small drawing of a vineyard that climbs up the mountain right to the top, and probably over the crest as well. We started out on the walk to Manarola — the path is named Via dell’Amore, the path of love — a well-maintained trail with a guard-rail that hugs the cliffs perhaps eighty feet up, winding in and out of sight along the coast. At several points on the path stairs descend to the rocks below.

The territory is rugged in the extreme; riomaggiore rocks the rock strata have been warped nearly vertical at the waterline. Some brave souls were swimming off these rocks. We were not tempted. The waves came crashing in. I don’t see how people expected to regain a footing on the slippery, sharp rocks once in the water. There were life preservers on coiled ropes available for us to throw to those below.

From some points on the path you can see Manarola or even Corniglia. We didn’t make it that far, as the way was washed out by caduta massi and barricaded after a mile or so. This had not been apparent when we set out, as the obstruction was out of sight along the winding coast. We could see the path’s guard rail among the fallen rock, twisted at the water’s edge far below. A collection of miscellaneous tourists, German, English, Italian, American, milled around as if washed up against the barricade. We helped one brave lady to scurry underneath the fence to make her way on alone. Don’t know what she did when she came to the second barricade farther ahead.

We retraced our steps. It was after noon and hot, the hottest day of our travels, in the mid-to-high 80’s. We had packed for cool weather and rain, and for most of the trip were overdressed for the heat (better that than the opposite). We had the simplest of lunches in a small outdoor cafe: a perfect moment. Drove back through La Spezia and on to Lucca. The autostrada passes through Carerra a few kilometers in from the coast. We remarked on the mountains to the left (inland, east) that seemed to have snow still clinging to their heights. In October? The snow hypothesis became increasingly unlikely, as on some hills the light patches appeared to reach nearly to ground level. The truth when we figured it out was more startling: the white was exposed veins and swaths of marble. They’ve been taking marble out of those hills for probably twenty centuries. How do they quarry on an 80° slope at the top of a mountain? How did they in Caesar’s time?

We arrived in Lucca in good form. An anticipated afternoon’s browsing around this quaint and inviting walled city evaporated when we realized we’d left two sports jackets in the hotel room at La Spezia. A telephone call confirmed this. We got back in the Panda, back to La Spezia (the concierge greeted Alice with: “Due jacqui!”), back out of town, back to the autostrada, back past the marble mountains, back to Lucca. It was just after dark when we arrived the second time, and got thoroughly lost trying to find the hotel we had effortlessly found the first time through. Just one of those days.

Our hotel, Celide, was one of the more pleasant, comfortable, and welcoming places of the entire trip. The concierge kindly consented to fight with the Italian phone system for us so we could place credit-card calls back to the USA. For him actually it was no fight; we had tried a number of times and despaired of ever figuring out the magic formula (see footnote 5). We had drinks in Celide’s very comfortable lounge, furnished like a living room, and chatted with the bartender. Alice picked up some colloquial Italian from him, for instance the use of the exclamation “Salve!” (Hail!) to greet a co-worker or buddy. For dinner we went next door and had a pleasant meal; but we had neglected to confirm whether the restaurant took credit cards. And they didn’t. Again Celide pulled us through: the concierge changed $20 at not too usurious a rate.

After dinner we walked into the walled city through the Porta Elisa (a gate in the outer 15th-century walls), and further through the Porta San Gervasio (in 13th-century walls). The city was lively at 10:30 in the evening. We walked as far as the piazza Santa Maria Forisportam (“outside the gates,” which the church was until A.D. 1260).