As per our last blog, France to Italy, our adventures in Italy began with a trip from Charmonix, through the tunnel under Mont Blanc, and our arrival in Italy was somewhat anti-climatic, as the actual border is somewhere under the mountain in the middle of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, there did not appear to be a difference between Italy and France at first glance! The next few kilometres introduced us to the Italian method of roads, road signs, and driving style – all of which varied somewhat from France.
Also, as described, our first plan for Italy was to head right to the home of Mamboland (as per Marianne!)… Milan! I knew of Milan as the fashion capital of Italy (maybe the world? I’m a little rusty on my fashion news) and assumed that we would be sticking out like homeless people on the red carpet. To our surprise, we were not completely out of place in everyday style – our jeans and such were most certainly not the nicest garments on the street, but didn’t place us in the category of out of touch with fashion foreigners that I expected. However, as the evening descended, and people headed out for their ‘Apperitivo’, it became obvious that the casual attire of the average person from Milan (Milanoan?Milano? Milaninite? Milaninaire?) was a bit above the average back home. We briefly (very briefly) considered donning the shiny shoes and flashy suits of the locals to blend in, but quickly squashed those ideas when presented with the elevated prices – the price to look flashy in Milan is not just your dignity when wearing a shiny zebra striped, two sizes too small, three piece suit with matching shoes, but a large number on your credit card account! Luckily for you readers, the only image of me in that suit is now in your head…
Arrival in Milan went as planned. We found our Airbnb easily after driving for about 3 hours or so on the racetrack, I mean Italian autoroute, where drafting 2 mm off the bumper in front of you is not only acceptable but expected. I am guessing with the way Italians ride your rear bumper they have somewhere to be that is more important than you do or have the reaction time of a fly on speed, but I would probably be just giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t deserve. I’ll reserve my actual impression of Italian driving for another time.
We checked into our Airbnb in the Navigli district/area of Milan. It was a sleek ground floor flat on one of Milan’s streets clearly designated for automobile and motorcycle acceleration testing. Day and night cars would come around the corner, pound the throttle to the floor boards and roar past (well, ‘buzz past’ in the case of the millions of scooters) our window, which was apparently made of sound amplifying glass. Also, the entrance door for the complex was right beside our unit, a door that weighed somewhere around 5000 kg and would close with enough force and sound to wake the dead in Japan. A plethora of visitors or residents returning to the building at 4 am certainly made for a restful night sleep! The rest of the flat was equally as functional and awesome. The upstairs bedroom was an open concept flat with a ceiling height around 1.5 m (5 feet-ish), perfect for the girls, while the downstairs kitchen, kitchen sitting area, kitchen couch area, and kitchen door entrance, as well as the bedroom, had a ceiling height of around 8,000 m (26,000 ft). Floor to ceiling cabinets in the kitchen made for a lot of storage! Storing something in the upper cabinets required not only a ladder but fall arrest gear and a parachute. Yet, it gets better. To make things even more convenient, the utensils were stored in a drawer located completely under the in-kitchen table, requiring an arm at least 2-3 times normal human length to reach anything, along with a flexibility level somewhere along the lines of a gumby doll. Glasses were also conveniently located in this section of the kitchen above this table, making everything very user friendly. Yet, everything looked stylish! A trend we would find throughout Italy. While this place lacked a few of the common appliances we take for granted – including a toaster, it did have at least 3 or 4 ways to make coffee, but in no way stopped us from making whatever we wanted to eat. After 4 nights of the Indy 500 outside of our ground floor bedroom (with the windows about 50 m up), we were off again to another location. As said in our last blog, we did do more in Milan that just wander around the apartment.
Ok, here is where the rest of our Italian adventure continues… With Milan in our rear view mirror, we set our sites and our little 5-speed, for the south, to a homestay near Grosseto, a place near the west coast of Italy a few hours above Rome. But, before we arrived we needed to feed the beasts, and no, there were no other animals than our small humans with us.We discovered a place near Bologna called Eataly World.
A place dedicated to Italian foods and food production, and well, to be honest, shopping. There were lots of restaurants and merchants selling pastas and pizzas, wines and beers, olives, and oils and vinegars and almost everything else Italian. A Disneyland-like place for Italian food lovers. You can even get these cool three-wheeled bikes with a front basket, to cruise around with and load up on your Italian must-haves.
A couple of hours later, full of a very tasty thin crust pizza, and with more things to try at our next place, we loaded up and jumped back into the Italian Grand Prix headed south. Past Florence, past Sienna and into the Tuscan hills along the west coast, we found our Agritourismo stay. This is essentially a stay on a working farm. It is similar to an Airbnb, but is a bit more rural. It worked out great. It was a small section off the main house that had all we needed. The farm was run by an older Italian couple who raised horses and ponies. The girls even got a ride on one of the ponies, Tombolino, and you could tell they loved it!
From this area we visited closed wineries, closed farms, closed organic markets, empty beaches (full of garbage), and empty twisty roads. It was like we had Italy all to ourselves. We took one drive around Orbetello, SW of Grosseto that wound its way around a small peninsula. It started off as a twisty, narrow road with 180 degree hairpins, that climbed up and around the hilly peninsula. Soon it turned into a road that would be best described as a mountain bike single track. We triple checked the map, and it was the main route, to my dismay. We continued along at a snails pace, only stopping briefly in a few spots to take in the breathtaking view, before finally reaching the other side and the sweet sound of pavement under our tires again. A restful few days here were appreciated and we left the friendly hosts as we decided to go a bit north again into the Chianti region of Tuscany.
Chianti was much like the rest of Italy. Quiet.
We picked a full house as our next Airbnb, and soon felt the chill of autumn setting in, as the house came without heat. We could of course pay to heat the house, but the host indicated that she didn’t think we would need it, as the days were still approaching 16-18 C. The first night in the house clearly rebutted her idea that it would be fine. We were like meat-popsicles in a fridge. Even I found it chilly – I put on a sweater indoors. So I imagine the girls and Marianne were probably close to hypothermia. We relented and the next day put on the heat –sparingly – yet it still cost us around $45 Euros for 3 days of heat. Crazy, but as gas was expensive there, not too surprising! So from Elsa’s ice palace we set out on our daily excursions to the Tuscan countryside. We went to Chianti en Grieve one day, only to find almost everything closed, although the signs said they were open.
Another day we went o the Cascade del Mulino a Saturnia, a geothermal hot spring that flows into these very cool pools. The water was warm, not hot, it was outdoors, and it was totally free!
So we soaked up the sulfur smell and basked in the human soup for a bit, before returning to the house in the hills of Chianti. Also, at this place was something I had never seen of, or heard of before, a pizza vending machine! Like what? It made you hot pizzas and spit them out in like 3 minutes. We didn’t dare try, as why would we? With so much good food all around in Italy, a vending machine pizza must be pretty low on the list of must haves!
Anyway, over the few days there the only things open were a farmers style market and the impressive Antinori Winery. The biggest in the region. We only ended up buying one bottle of wine there, as everything seemed very expensive compared to the 3 or 4 Euro wine from the grocery store we had been getting on just fine with for the past month or so. A bottle that would not be opened until Dubai and unfortunately did not impress beyond the cheap grocery store wine. On our last day in the region we took a day trip to Pisa to see the famous church. It was quite impressive, with murals and frescoes and paintings, each the size of a wall and of course each being hundreds of years old, along with and lots of decorations made of gold and such – you know, the normal decorations of a humble and benevolent building. Oh yeah, we also saw a tower than had a structural issue – some engineer hundreds of years ago forgot to carry the one, and next thing you know it was leaning. Didn’t want to get anywhere near that in case it fell over – so we stood out on the grass in front, along with hundreds of other terrified tourists, much to the joy of the local screamy guy. He dressed in some official uniform – but I think he was just hired to yell at people, he seemed to enjoy it. He essentially said that we were making his day by standing on the grass – as he got to yell at us, but I am sure he added in something about the signs and getting away from the tower that was about to fall. Anyway, we moved to the side and took a photo of us trying to help keep this old tower from falling over – to show we tried, before moving on.
Our last night in Chianti we stopped on the way home to take in the spectacular sunset, a truly amazing sight!
Also, that night we had a meal prepared by the hosts, a traditional meal of the region – cured meats, olives, their own wine, lasagna, and a chicken in tomatoes dish – all pretty delicious.
Now, after almost 2 weeks in Italy, we headed for the true coastal Italian experience, the Cinque Terre area. Those five villages have become world famous for their cliff side views and colourful buildings set along the Mediterranean Sea. The incredible hiking and perilous driving attracts visitors from worldwide to experience this isolated and unique piece of Italy.
After a brief visit to the walled city of Lucca, on our way to Cinque Terre, where we biked around the city in about 45 minutes, we arrived to find the rugged Italian coast, only to be greeted with more twisty and terrifying roads, each with a speed limit way beyond what would be considered sane. Our Airbnb was located somewhere between two of the coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Corniglia. The directions to the place were not exactly clear. I mean, trying to see through a fogged up windshield in the fog at night with sunglasses on whilst squinting without lights kind of clear. We eventually found the turn off to the place just as the sun had set and darkness began to take a hold of the area. The road to the guest house was one that I would have assumed lead to immanent death if you did not know there actually was a house there. Also, to make the matters worse was the road was about 1.5 car widths wide, and the turn off was a full 180 degrees hairpin from our current direction. I couldn’t make that turn, just wouldn’t work. So, my options were limited. Luckily we figured it out and got turned around in a widened area down the road so we could drive down the driveway without issue. Of course, halfway down the driveway was another 180 degree turn to stay on the driveway, this time with a steep drop off about 2 m off the edge. A bit of maneuvering and we made it, safely! Yet, the house was still not to be found. The parking was about 200 m away from the house down the rocky, steep hiking trail. A real treat for hauling rolling suitcases along. The house turned out to have spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and the cliffs. We could even see the towns to Corniglia and Vernazza from the balcony.The wind was pretty much constant up there and made for a noisy night of sleep– but was a great base for taking in the scenery and starting a hike along the famed Cinque Terre pathway. Day two and we were up and ready to roll with some hiking! We headed along the path from our Airbnb, almost exactly halfway between two towns, towards Vernazza. It was about an hour of constant descending through some pretty rocky and rugged terrain that was called a path! The recent storms in Italy (about 2-3 weeks prior) had done a number on the roads and pathways, minimal efforts had been made to repair this section of path, so some areas were trickier than others to pass. After about an hour all of us made it in good spirits to Vernazza, a well earned lunch in our sights. The village was busier than expected, as tourists and locals mingled about along the waterfront for the mid-day lunching hour. We grabbed some local food, fresh seafood for one of us, and toured around a bit more. Some souvenir shopping and a few minutes later we boarded a train for the most northerly village Monterosso al Mare. Trains run all along the coast here, through tunnels built in the cliffs. It only takes somewhere around 3-5 minutes to go between villages in Cinque Terre, with a voyage from top to bottom taking around 20-25 minutes or so.
We only ended up exploring for a short time in 4 of the 5 villages as we used the train to hop around and were at the mercy of the sun, as our return trip to our guest house was the hike up from Corniglia. Actually, as it turned out, we caught the last possible train to Corniglia, for us to be able to hike in the quickly fading daylight, and had to hike up from the train station at least 100 m straight up a back-and-forth set of stairs before we even reached the village and the start of the path that would lead us to our beds for the night. Our desire for gelato (unfortunately, an unrequited one) after a long day of exploring made our final push to get back a bit later than expected. We hit the final stretch of pathway as the sun started its final decent to the horizon, Helios himself ready to head for his night palace in the east. Les filles, as we call them, were amazing all day long, rarely complaining about the constant up and down hiking over uneven terrain and even making comments on the incredible scenery. They made it all the way along the arguably hardest section of the Cinque Terre hike and loved it! With pathways almost completely empty, temperatures in the high teens, and a brilliant, yet non-punishing solar companion all day long, makes me wonder why so many people flock to this area during the height of summer – only to fight just to get a few seconds of each view, instead of being able to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Now with this natural wonder on our ‘been there done that’ list we pointed our blue metal stallion in the direction of Genoa (just for lunch) and then France, for our second foray into La République Francaise.