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Back in England – via Mont Blanc

Good flight from Pisa to London Gatwick, where we’re overnighting before Westjetting back to Canada Tuesday. Some great views en route from the plane window – including the highest peak in the Alps (Mont Blanc), the UK south coast town of Hastings (of 1066 battle fame), and the characteristic green field pattern of much of southern England (despite the huge population of this part of the country). 


A happy but divided family

It’s Monday lunchtime and for once we are actually enjoying waiting at an airport for a flight, as our freebie ticket gave us access to the posh lounge here at Pisa. It’s very comfortable (if it loads, see picture of me nearly falling asleep) and there are hardly any other passengers here. We have three hours to kill until our flight to London Gatwick on the first leg of our trip home. So far there is no sign of the disruption and cancellations caused by air traffic controllers here last Friday, thank goodness, but we better not count our chickens to soon.
Last night we had arranged to take Simon, Valentina and the girls out for a special ‘thank you’ meal at the Castle Trebbio, a medieval castle barely ten minutes from their house. We had learned that they had never eaten there but had visited the site several times and had been tempted more than once. We had a great time, with superb food, but the tables were turned by Simon and Valentina who had quietly arranged to pay the bill. It was very generous of them, so we return to Canada with a few Euros in hand for our next visit.
And talking of Euros, or rather the wider 28-nation European Union, there was much lively discussion over the weekend around Thursday’s referendum on whether Britain should remain a member or leave the Union, and whether the monstrous murder of a British MP might sway options. 
Simon is on the opposite side to us, and as we both have votes there will be a bit of cancelling each other out (he wants out, we want to stay in) but the discussions we had were very constructive and we all agreed this is such a momentous decision for the nation that it could have enormous implications not just for the UK but could also create a domino effect outside Britain with unknown consequences. 
If the final picture loads, it is of Simon with Lea (left) and Lisi (right) preparing to return his mail-in ballot in favour of “Brexit”. Our counter-votes are being cast by a proxy nominee living in Britain who we trust and who we have authorized to vote on our behalf. (For those of you mystified about how it is that any of us have a vote on this issue, as none of us is resident in the UK, the law states that Britons living abroad, and who choose to register, can vote solely in national and European elections for 15 years after they leave the UK, as decisions of the U.K. Government in London and the European Parliament in Brussels – especially on economics, pensions and defence – could directly affect them). 
With the opinion polls suggesting a very tight result, it will be a late night for both Simon and us as the results are declared from each of the 630 UK ridings / constituencies on Thursday before the final national totals are known. For the record, all our family – Italian  and Canadian alike – vote in what is called the Meon Valley constituency of Hampshire. That’s the last place we lived before heading off to other lands.

Family fun and games – and a ‘pilgrimage’

It’s now Sunday afternoon and we’re having fun with the Italian branch of the family in the Tuscan countryside about half an hour’s drive from Florence, although we won’t be visiting the city on this visit – but that is by choice rather than circumstance.

However, we did set off in two cars yesterday to a hilltop monastery in a beautiful setting – although it was a bit of a disappointment to find on arrival the internal public areas were about to close for three hours at 12 Noon. But we did have an enjoyable time with the three grandchildren [Lisi (7), Lea (5) and Emily(1)] on a nearby playground, checking out the surprisingly large fish and numerous tadpoles in the monastery lake, and trying to understand how toy parachutes operated by catapults work in a nearby sloping field. A visit to a supermarket followed on the way home, so we could prepare a meal for the family on Saturday night, the requested highlight of which was to be cauliflower cheese (we are going out tonight, fingers crossed). Later, Philip played pictorial card games with the kids in the garden and – as in Croydon at that start of this holiday – he expressed some concern that he didn’t have to pretend how to lose to the grandchildren, since it appeared to come naturally.
Sunday morning saw Simon (with Emily on his shoulders), Lea, Philip and me taking our traditional trek up the steep hillside from their home village of Santa Brigida to an ancient Catholic sanctuary. Our knees were still hurting a bit from the Cinque Terre walk, but we made it OK, if more slowly than in the past, and – being a Sunday – we found the sanctuary open for the first time in our experience. 
It was quite fascinating – in simple terms, many centuries ago some local girls believed they had seen the Virgin Mary appear before them, and in the centuries that followed it has become a place of both pilgrimage and sanctuary. The rock on which the Madonna is said to have appeared is the key relic in the church – Simon told us some non-believers suggest it is a meteorite, so explaining its dramatic arrival startling the girls; but to believers its is a holy relic to be venerated. The steep trek up from the village, which we had followed, was marked by the Stations of the Cross in old but still finely-detailed terra-cotta tiles, all carefully protected now by tough perspex. 
While we were on our trek, Valentina and Lisi were preparing lunch; if the picture loads, you may notice the salad dish Lisi decorated. Also in the pictures are some of the garden games – we had borough all three of the kids animal face masks, and while these were not expensive they turned out to be the hit of the gifts.  

Not all freebies are free after all (surprise, surprise!)

We did our heavy duty journey today; rolling and carrying suitcases, backpacks and bags through town to the station in La Spezia, catching the train to Pisa (nice journey on a beautiful morning), Philip carting both our big suitcases up a flight of stairs as the elevator at Pisa station was out of action (we had checked it last Sunday and it was out of action then too…), running to catch the bus to Pisa Airport, and a spot of lunch in the terminal before collecting our rental car. We had arranged to collect it from the airport as that’s where we will have to drop it off on the way home. 
But lo, what did we see on casual observation of the departures/arrivals screens? Lots of cancellations (including the BA flight we are due to get on Monday). We found out later that Italian air traffic controllers are staging lightning strikes at present – a few hours here, a few hours there, without warning. So we may not get back to Gatwick on Monday on our almost-free flights after all…

Then we had to get our Avis car rental sorted out – which had indeed been free with our BA points. Philip waited 40 minutes before spending another 20 minutes filling in all the forms and collecting the keys. The car we had originally been allocated turned out not to be suitable for all our luggage so he upgraded to a slightly larger automatic. This, plus the various extra insurances, cost him 120 euros for three days! So not so free after all….

And when we got in it and started to drive away, he noticed almost immediately that there was an alarm light on. We turned back – still within the car park – and found out a tire was almost flat, so we were moved to another car, luggage and all. We finally left the car rental place at the airport 90 minutes after entering it, but in a comfortable and adequately-sized VW Polo, with fully-inflated tires.

Our journey went well and we are now at Santa Brigida, above Florence, awaiting the arrival from an end-of-term school party of son Simon and their three little girls, Lisi, Lea and Emily. Simon’s wife Valentina will be back later – she took a professional examination today, but has apparently already heard she has passed, so that will be another reason to celebrate together tonight.

Simon had left us a key to get in and a bottle of wine, so having unpacked we are now sitting in their small but sunny back garden enjoying its contents. 

Underpants on the Trail!

We finally made it to the Cinque Terre today, taking a train from La Spezia to Monterosso, the furthest of the five villages. If the concept of the Cinque Terre is new to you, it is also to most Italians. Our daughter-in-law, Valentina, whose family originally came from La Spezia, had never heard of the Cinque Terre until Simon’s American students kept telling him it was top of their list of places to visit while in Italy, and he asked her about it.  

Five colourful cliff-hugging villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Cornigilia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all within a national park that is also classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are marketed as the Cinque Terre, the most beautiful part of the “Italian Riviera.” There is a regular ferry and a train service linking them all, and there are lots of trails of various degrees of difficulty which go along the cliff edges and through terraced vineyards. The villages are indeed extremely pretty – as you can see from the photos – but they still seem to be in shock about what happened to them in a very short space of time. 

A few years ago, the Cinque Terre was made known to North Americans through a very flattering Rick Steves’ TV travel program, which has been repeated many times since it was first broadcast. As a result, combined with some canny marketing by the Italians in the States, the Cinque Terre has become almost a pilgrimage for Americans in particular – although there were almost as many Japanese in view today. So, during the summer, large numbers of non-Italians arrive by train and by ferry boat (it’s very hard to get to the villages by car) to spend a few hours in one or more of the villages. This has had the effect of making them into tourist traps of dubious, pricey food and cheap souvenirs, where tourists mill around trying to decide what to do/buy/eat. At least they face such dilemmas in unquestionably beautiful locations.

More agile visitors are encouraged to walk one or more of the trails that link the villages, and we decided to do the one from Monterosso to Vernazza – a mere 3.2 kilometres, according to the guide, so roughly equivalent to our daily walks with Daisy in Seal Bay Park back home. Except that our routes through Seal Bay are on the level, and this route involved a total of around 1,000 rough rock steps upwards (thankfully not it all in one continuous section) as we left Monterosso … and a similar number down again as we approached Vernazza. The end result was a two-and-a-quarter hour hike (we felt quite good at that timing as the guide-time is 2 hours and we had to stop quite often for other walkers). It proved to be a killer on ancient knees, but spectacular in terms of the views, and we’re glad we completed it. But boy, was it hot! The best weather of the holiday so far – but the most energetic: not the best combination. 

Three things other than the fantastic scenery and high temperatures were memorable. First, about a quarter of the way along the route we came across an old guy playing his accordion. As we exchanged smiles, tossing a coin or two in his hat, we noticed his little dog lying in a basket completely upside down with his legs in the air basking in the sun. Next we discovered an enterprising woman at the edge of a vineyard selling lemonade – freshly made from fruit growing on the spot, as somehow she had found a source of power on the hillside for her electric juicer…the cable disappearing into the distance through the vines. We gladly bought a glass. And finally, among the many other walkers we encountered along the way was a large man with a prominent beer belly wearing nothing but his trainers and underpants (which looked suspiciously like those Philip buys from Mark’s WorkWear, so I fear he might have been a Canadian). He was carrying another very wet garment in his hand – not sure if it was his shorts or a top – but as we followed, he proceeded to scrunch this up and put it on his head. We did not make contact, and let him get well ahead of us to avoid any incrimination by association. We saw him later just leap into the harbour at Vernazza, possibly prior to his arrest….

After a large beer and light lunch, we caught then train to one of the other villages, Riomaggiore, where we wandered in the heat for 15 minutes before succumbing to a gelato and deciding that we ought to call it a day and return to base at La Spezia for a nap (today re-titled as a ‘knee-resuscitation’ session). Later we did a bit of packing it readiness for our morning departure for Pisa and then on to Florence tomorrow to meet up with Simon and family for the final weekend of the holiday. 

A tale of two ships

The weather today (Wednesday) was good enough for our planned boat trip to the coastal village of Porto Venere, which had been strongly recommended to us by the apartment’s owners even though it is not one of the “Cinque Terre” communities that are the real target of our stay here. 
It was obvious before we got to the dockside that there were hoards of people of many nationalities around, and we soon saw why: if we thought yesterday’s German cruise ship had a big impact, today La Spezia is playing host to the world’s biggest cruise ship – Royal Caribbean’s new Harmony of the Seas, with 16 floors of cabins capable of accommodating 6,000 passengers (as well as 2,500 crew in the bowels). Certainly not our taste in cruising.

We managed to squeeze on our little trip boat and half an hour later – having passed several Italian and visiting navy ships, and various yachts clearly owned by mega-millionaires – we arrived at picture-postcard-perfect Porto Venere, which we explored on foot for the next couple of hours. It occupies a strategic place at the entrance to the bay, and it’s history can be traced back to 161 AD when the Romans established a station here to support their sailing routes to Gaul (now France) and Iberia (Spain). The waterfront was teeming with visitors, as was the most accessible church on the cliff edge, dating from 1277 but built on the site of a much earlier Roman temple. But the crowds soon thinned out as we clambered further up the hillside to explore another church (built 1116) and the castle fortifications (1160-61). In fact, for several minutes we saw not a soul in any direction, which was quite odd as there must have been several thousand people within a half-mile radius.

The local bird life here is clearly well used to visitors – we were amused to see how gulls would pose for minutes on end for the benefit of close-up shots, and the only sign of avian alarm was when Philip peered over a wall to find a gull tending to her two youngsters.

We had been recommended by our hosts to seek out a particular restaurant for lunch located some way from the main tourist area, but when we eventually found it, it was shut for the day. So we lunched at a fish restaurant two doors away, which was very smart (and with prices to match) where Philip was pretty horrified to be served a version of scampi the likes of which neither he nor I had ever seen before. He ate it, but without much enthusiasm, but I did get to sample a variety of fried seafoods which was a good experience for me.

As it would be another two hours before our return boat was due to sail and it had begun to rain, we decided to abandon ship and caught a local service bus back to La Spezia, being taken on a twisty mountain road at considerable speed by an Italian driver who clearly – and thankfully – knew what he was doing on some of the hairy bends.

Tonight the centrepiece of our dining at home will be the contents of a doggie-bag we were presented with last evening (without even asking for it) – various hams and cheeses from a rustic backstreet trattoria which was also a recommendation of the apartment’s owners. We dropped by a local shop this evening for fresh bread rolls, and the supermarket for some more wine, and we’re all set.

Tomorrow – hopefully – we will finally go to see the Cinque Terre villages, after having called up Rick Steve’s travel TV show about them on our iPad to recall what we shouldn’t miss. The joys of free WiFi!

Discovering a new dish in La Spezia

Not sure if it was all the traveling and carting stuff around yesterday, but by this morning (Tuesday) we both felt we wanted to do nothing more than idle around La Spezia, so put off a planned boat trip until tomorrow. Having done that, we’re now hoping the weather will hold, as during the night we had a tremendous storm, with the thunder, lightning and the sound of pouring rain waking me at 5am – although Philip didn’t stir. 
The long-awaited revenge of Thor didn’t last long though, and since we got up it’s been an overcast but warm day, with a few short bursts of sunshine intermingled with occasional spots of rain – but nothing to dissuade us from walking the streets to explore the town and its port. The place is surrounded by a semi-circle of steep hills, with the main road into the centre emerging from a tunnel, above which steps lined with palm trees lead to what seem like endless terraces of properties until a defensive castle at the top is reached. We resisted the temptation to climb them, so missed out on hearing about the castle’s no-doubt fascinating past.

We had lunch at a place heaving with locals – always an encouraging sign in my book – that had been recommended to us by the apartment’s owners. There we enjoyed a local savory speciality called a farinata. This is like a large, thin pancake, but actually made with chick pea flour, which comes either with added ingredients (mine had fried onion) or an accompanying side (Philip had runny cheese). They were delicious – I shall have to conduct trials to create the correct batter mix when I get home. While dining, we noticed from our placemats that the restaurant, which is called ‘La Pia’ and which has been in business here since 1887(!), recently opened its first overseas outlet – in Ladbroke Grove, London – offering the same menu, but at prices double that on offer here. Still, the property rent and staff wages in the UK capital must be double those here, too….

Our exploration of the town took us to a huge semi-outdoor market, with the most amazing number of competing fresh grocery, fish, cheese and meat stalls – if the photo loads, what you see is just the fruit and veg section of the market; the total area is about four times as big, and the market is apparently open six morning a week. What a resource to have on your doorstep!

We also witnessed cruise ship vacations from a different angle to that of being recent passengers.  La Spezia is a decent-sized commercial and navy port, but tourism seems to be relatively new here. But some cruise companies have noticed the potential, and today a big German ship – the AIDA Stella – was berthed, and many of its 2,200 passengers not booked on excursions were wandering aimlessly around town, frequently checking their watches to make sure they got back to the Mother Ship in time. We recognized ourselves in them, but from the vantage point of being (temporary) residents of the town with no particular schedule to keep.

We did, however, do the tourist ‘thing’ of each having an ice-cream cone mid-afternoon, but didn’t need much persuading as what claims to be the best gelato in La Spezia is at ground level in our apartment block, so has been a constant temptation since we arrived.