Footloose in ITALY - Cinque Terre & Venice

Trip Start Sep 01, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
La Spezia
What I did
5 charming coastal villages, clinging to the rocky cliffs

Flag of Italy  , Liguria,
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Our two choices of holiday destination in Italy couldn't be easier to get to. The dramatic Cinque Terre (meaning the five lands) is only a train ride away from Pisa or Genoa Airport, so access to this beautiful National Park region in north-west Italy is quite simple for the independent traveller... But don't take a car, the roads are tortuous, slow and there are few places to park.  Venice is so accessible and served by many low cost airlines that it's no wonder the dream city is beseiged by visitors by day... but much quieter and romantic at night. Watch our video trailer ~ Footloose in Italy.

Filming in the CINQUE TERRE
Reaching the Cinque Terre was not difficult - we based ourselves in La Spezia, so took the airport shuttle from the airport at Genoa into the city, to the train station.  I didn't find the Genoese very smiley; an old woman took violent exception to our suitcases on the airport bus and I never found out why.  I couldn't get a word in edgewise in the torrent of abuse in Italian, and obviously never got my point across that you would expect suitcases on an airport shuttle as that would appear to be its function.  So I retreated behind my sunglasses and aloof Britishness whilst she muttered aggressively at my profile the entire journey.  The train station was a lofty busy place, and we found our train for La Spezia - one which had a double decker observation carriage and did not object to suitcases.  There are glimpses of the coastline along the way, although the journey seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, stopping at every available halt along the line.  Our hotel was the other end of the town from the train station at La Spezia, near the waterfront and we took a taxi.  The following day we took a boat to Portovenere to check the times of the boats to the first of the villages, Riomaggiore and have a look round.  It's a lovely town, and with brilliant blue sky, sunshine and crystal clear sea, it isn't hard to do research.  The tall narrow houses were all painted with different faded colour washes and huddled together along the waterfront.  It was very busy, boats coming and going the whole time, even in late September, but there was room for everyone.  We explored La Spezia in the evening; although not a tourist resort per se, it had a lively pedestrianised street that led up towards the train station from the waterfront with street cafes and restaurants, but they did close early - end of the season perhaps? We started filming the next day, under glorious skies.  As the boat approaches Riomaggiore, you get a wonderful overview of the village, clinging precariously to the land, built around an inventively covered ravine.  It was busy and colourful and lots of different accents on street level; up above you heard the native Italian amidst the washing lines and open casement windows.  The first part of the walk is the Via del Amore, which is easy and paved and takes about 40 minutes to walk around the edge of the land to the next village.  It was busy, but there was plenty of room and wheelchairs and baby buggies shared the path with the walking boots and flip-flops.  I wasn't fooled though; I knew this was the easy bit and that it would get progessively harder as we walked through the vineyards and along dry stone walls.  We chose the lower coastal route because it offered (we thought) the better views and more linear route - but there are plenty of other walking paths of varying degrees of difficulty higher up the cliffs, and through the higher terraces.  All along the top of the cliffs there are sanctuaries and villages that you can visit, and the National Park green buses also run between them.All of the five villages are picturesque and lovely and walking between them was a treat.  The sun was hot but the breeze from the sea kept me comfortable, and on this trip I had opted for sandals rather than boots to keep my feet cool.  It was busy everywhere, and the coastal trains were frequent, passing for the most part within the mountains as they plied between the villages and La Spezia and other large towns.  I can't imagine what it must be like in high season - that's when the locals apparently leave for their holidays, many renting out their properties for tourists.  The history of the Cinque Terre is interesting and unique, and the National Park is doing a terrific job of maintaining it's heritage and promoting it at the same time. I think I liked Vernazza the most because it was the only village with a piazza, which was wonderful at sunset; but Monterosso had the beaches, and is bigger altogether with a virtual aquarium and shops.  We interviewed a local family that owned a waterfront restaurant, and I was particularly charmed by Santina, the tiny matriarch.  The food was truly excellent and the wine very drinkable, which is why we caught the train back to La Spezia.  We took longer to walk the paths because we film at snail's pace, but it is possible to do all of the villages in one day, but why would you want to?  One young lady passed us running - think of what she missed in her quest to spend the least amount of time on those paths overlooking the unbelievably blue sea?  True hikers from any country uphold the international etiquette of walking, but there were coachloads of in this case American college kids, who had the impatience of youth and barged along single tracks over dry stone walls with a substantial drop without a by-your-leave or an excuse me, or waiting for the walker actually on the path to reach them before starting out.  The beauty of our pace is that everyone just passes us by and leaves us behind so there were times on such a highly popular route that we were on our own.  We spent a week in the region, which is probably enough for a normal tourist who actually gets to shop and go into museums!

Everyone knows Venice.  You've seen it so many times in pictures and tv programmes you feel that you know it, but I think nothing prepares you for your first sight of the city.  Our train was slowly rattling its way along the causeway from Mestre to Ferrovia, Venice's train station, and I strained to get a glimpse across the water out of the window.  I couldn't wait to get there, and as we stepped out of the station onto the busy forecourt, I just stood still and stared, bathed in a warm glow of late afternoon sunshine.  Venice is truly breathtaking, the most photogenic city in the world, and its hard to feel as though you have really taken in the fact of the city: that it is built on wooden piles in a lagoon.

We found our hotel, which was on foot down a street leading off from the station square, and I was delighted to find it was an old palazzo - the ceilings and the chandeliers on the first floor were unbelievable and to eat your breakfast beneath them was very different to our normal morning ritual. I knew there were quite a lot of streets in Venice because we'd researched our visit beforehand, but I think the fact still surprises you; that you can get around quite a bit of Venice without riding the canals.  But who would want to miss them? The vaporetti are fun and fascinating, if a bit crowded and smelly, and to get the feel of the city we took one that travelled a circular route.

The main street is busy, but a few steps down a side street or alley (calli) and it's a completely different world.  The tourists and day-trippers rarely seem to venture away from the acknowledged sights, but getting lost in these side streets is a real pleasure if you're not in a hurry. The ghetto was very sobering, and a little unnerving with the watchful police and security men in abundance; they definitely did not like our camera, and cared little for the reason for it.  We did not linger, which is a pity because it is an amazing place with a fascinating history.  

The churches are abundant and amazing in Venice; you fear for all that marble dragging the city down into the lagoon.  The Jesuiti church has some stunning marble but the weight of it over the centuries has been a real concern.  The little Miracoli church is like a jewel casket and houses a picture that is said to perform miracles, tucked away among the alleys and canals.  We took an extended gondola ride, guided by Lino, and I quickly lost track of where we were on the map, unlike Dave, who has an uncanny ability to do this in his head.  There are times I think he is actually plugged into the planet; he is incapable of getting lost. I was very nervous of this part of the trip - I knew I had to do it (no visit to Venice is complete without it) but as a non-swimmer and in such a narrow vessel, I really was having to 'show no fear' for the camera! I told Lino to save me first if we capsized; Dave can doggy paddle and as for the camera, it would have to take its chances. And as luck would have it, our gondola crashed into a motor boat around a blind corner - my personal nightmare coming true.  Luckily, it was a glancing blow that the beak of the gondola took from the motorboat and after much gesticulating and shouting, each of us went our separate ways unscathed.  It's moments like these when you understand the purpose of a hip flask.  Shame they went out of fashion.

The Rialto bridge was beautiful; even more so at dawn when the fishermen are selling their wares in the Pescheria.  The market made up for the early start, the scale of the variety on sale was staggering.  Well, it was to me, anyway, not being a fisherperson of any kind.  I soon gave up trying to identify them and just frankly goggled at the stalls.  The fruit and veg market was astonishing in its colours; it's clear I've led a very sheltered life because I simply didn't realise there were so many versions wearing such stunning colours.  Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is one of my favourite plays, and to see the ancient admonition to traders on the walls of the church at the Rialto really brought home to me that this was the kind of market square old Shylock would have traversed and why the exactness of the trial was so important.  A merchant's honesty was prized above all else in this place.

We had a bit of fun with the gondoliers; no, they were not all as gorgeous as the calendar in our film suggested.  The food also was not as good as we had hoped.  Neither was the service.  The Venetians don't have to work hard to get tourists, and I'm afraid it shows. Unfortunately, we felt the hostility towards tourists quite strongly, observing and absorbing as we were.  We were told quite categorically by one source that Venetians hated the tourists and wished they would all go away.  Which is a strange reaction to the very thing that keeps their city alive.  Only 70,000 residents remain in Venice nowadays.  We tended to find places to eat away from the main tourist restaurants which were expensive, but I have to admit I didn't have a particularly good meal at all in Venice.

Bad feeling aside, we had a very entertaining and really interesting interview with a mask maker in Dorsoduro, which we reached via the Accademia bridge.  This sestieri - the Hog's Back - was less busy and was very pleasant to wander.  I also enjoyed the walk away from San Marco's Piazza down to the Arsenale.  You get a really wonderful view of St. George's church across the water and it's not very crowded, although the bistros and cafes still managed to charge the tourist rates.

San Marco Piazza was terrific, but the queue to go up the Campanile was very long. No concessions to Press, unfortunately. I enjoyed the mummers with their constant tremours to make the bells on their headdress jingle, and there are plenty of market stalls selling the usual souvenirs along the quayside.  I did enjoy dusk in Venice - suddenly all the day trippers have disappeared and the staying guests have returned to their hotels and accomodations.  The squares belong to the Venetians again, and come alive with captive little dogs from gardenless apartments; children's toys and their owners, watched over by black garbed grandmothers who gather and chat as the residents return from their work across the water in Mestre.  It's a gentle time to be observing, and the light is particularly soft.  As night falls, the shop windows light up, and I think it's one of life's little pleasures to be window shopping in a foreign city.

We took a trip across the lagoon to Murano, and spent a very interesting afternoon watching glass blowing and chatting with a glass salesman who seemed to think I could not possibly leave Venice without half his shop in my luggage.  It was a pleasant place to wander through in the warm sunshine, although it does have the rather left-over look of a suburb of the great city. The next day we took the afternoon off from filming and took a boat to the Lido.  It was closed and it pelted with rain.

Venice is so gorgeous you forgive graffiti on a wall that says (in English) 'kill the tourist', and instead focus on the history.  It's such a sumptuous city; I think of velvets, and rich brocades; masked balls and palazzos when I think of Venice and the sign simply fades away.
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