A soggy Siena

Travelling in the off-season is terrific. Fewer tourists, lower prices, you get an honest feel for a place. For the most part, the weather has been fabulous. There has only been one day when we were badly rained out and that was when we met up with Xan and Meghan to go to see Siena.

Siena is an extraordinarily beautiful medieval city that in its hay-day rivaled Florence. It was an important trade route between Florence and Rome and like Florence was filled with wealthy patrons of the arts. However, Sienna was decimated by the Black Death in 1348 and never really recovered its stature. What is left is like a time capsule, one of the largest and most beautiful medieval cities in Europe.

We arrived on an overcast afternoon to explore the grand piazza in the centre of town, the Piazzo del Campo.

Tim, Xan and Meghan in Piazzo del Campo

Famous for it’s curved scallop shape, it is the meeting place for thousands in the summer. We practically had it to ourselves, which gave us a chance to appreciate the grace and beauty of one of the largest piazzas in Europe.

Piazza del Campo in January. We could only imagine the summer crowds

We had planned on climbing the famous tower, the Torre del Mangia, which overlooks the piazza. A great engineering feat in its day, the tower is 88 metres high. When it was built in 1338 it was was the tallest secular tower in Europe. It was named after the first bell ringer Giovanni di Duccio, who was nicknamed “Mangiaguadagni” which roughly translates as using all of his money to eat well. We felt an immediate affinity for him.

Torre del Mangia

All of the guidebooks write about the gorgeous view from the top of the tower. But as we stood in line to go up and read the cautionary notes about the climb, we started to have second thoughts. Four hundred steps? Climbing up a tower that is, at some points, only 20” wide? With ceilings less than 5’? Not to be done by people who might suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety? To look out over a mist covered city on an overcast day?

We decided to go have lunch instead and found a lovely place where we could sit outside under a plastic tent with heat lamps. We confined ourselves to a 2-course lunch, with fabulous local red wines, and delicious local specialties such as papparadelle di cinghiale (pasta with wild boar sauce). Feeling replete, refreshed and very pleased with ourselves (perhaps not unlike Mangiaguadagni), we headed out for a bit of sightseeing.

Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the teeming rain, but I was fully confident of the location of the one tourist place we wanted to visit, the Palazzo Pubblico, a gothic palace which is a museum of medieval art. We arrived, bought the tickets for a special tour and just as we started to go in realized that it was the wrong palace, the wrong tour.  But there were only 6 people on the tour, 4 of whom were us, so we couldn’t retreat gracefully. Thus, we ended up touring the freezing cold palace of Palazzo Chigi Saracini, a palace built in the 12th century, filled with artwork collected in the 17th and 18th centuries. Reflecting the tastes of the last owner, Count Guido Chigi Saracini, we walked through room after room of quiet hideous Baroque furniture and excessively decorative paintings. The palace is now a music school, the Chigana Musical Academy, that was founded by the Count. The school has spawned many of virtuoso performers and is probably a great place to come for a concert in July. But the Count’s artistic tastes were not our own. Quite a hodge podge, in fact.  The best part was the chance to see Liszt’s piano. It is very small.

By the time we finished the tour it was almost dark. Rain was pouring down. We made a quick trip to the Duomo, which as far as Duomo’s go is of a manageable size.

The Duomo, before the rain

There is a small library attached, with a good display of liturgical manuscripts with gorgeous lettering and illumination.

Liturgical Manuscripts in the Duomo

I particularly liked the Duomo’s marble pulpit, designed by Nicola Pisano in the 13th century, with four carved lions at the bottom.

Marble pulpet designed by Pisano

I felt a fondness for the lion that was eating one of the lambs. You just can’t tell with these lions.

One of the pulpit lions

As we headed to the train station, wet and weary, we realized how little of Siena we had seen. It will have to wait for another trip, and a sunny day. We arrived back to the dry streets of Florence, under holiday lights, ending our glorious family holiday with a final dinner with Xan and Meghan before they made their way back to the ice and snow of Canada.

Evening lights in Florence

San Silvestro in La Spezia

La Spezia is very much a working town, not geared for tourists. It isn’t glamourous, but it is very honest.

A typical street in La Spezia

It gave us a chance to glimpse into a “real” Italian city, filled with hard working families. And when San Silvestro (our New Year’s) rolled around, we got to experience it as La Spezians.

After a large feast at the villa, Xan, Lewis, Meghan and I got dressed up went down into the heart of the city to celebrate.

Lewis gets ready for New Year's

The whole city must have been there. There is a large pedestrian concourse through the centre of town and everyone – babies, children, teens, adults, grandparents –  was strolling up and down the streets to celebrate San Silvestro.

The first thing that hit us, almost literally, was the banging of firecrackers. All around us, constantly, unexpectedly, BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!!! Children and youth were setting off firecrackers everywhere. Under cars, under people’s feet, even on top of the water in a fountain. Parents gave their kids lit firecrackers to throw! And everyone was laughing constantly at everyone jumping.

We learned to look around – if we saw some child rushing away from a corner, we’d rush away too, or risk a deafening explosion. Our collective adrenaline was pumping furiously.

But it wasn’t just firecrackers. People were setting off fireworks everywhere on the street. They were holding lit fireworks as shooting stars poured forth. We were covered in the smell of sulphur.

Pretty soon we got giggly and giddy. Like everyone else on the street, we  jumped whenever something exploded or shot out near us, and laughed.

And then there were the bunny ears. Young men, mostly, were buying and wearing headbands with bunny ears that were lit up in different colours.

Bunny ears on the streets of La Spezia

Bunny ears everywhere. A grand street carnival. There were merry-go-rounds and lights, and everyone eating gelato and crepes with Nutella and cream.

Stages were set up in each of the piazzas and at each there was a different type of band. We walked from piazza to piazza trying to decide where we wanted to be for the big countdown. Did we want to usher in 2012 with the Italian Klezmer band? Or with the outrageously dressed boy band singing a weird kind of gigolo Italian ska? Or with the dueling turntables, mixing oldie goldies, while boys in bunny ears and middle aged parents in ski jackets did a conga-line?

We decided on the flamboyant guys with a hodgepodge of retro costume bits — cape, frilly white shirt, long styled hair, red cummerbund, Paul Revere jacket, zebra pants. They were singing nothing that we recognized, loudly off key. We bought a bottle of Prosecco and four glasses – everyone on the street had bottles – and counted down with everyone else in La Spezia. As the new year broke, everyone around us was singing in Italian (maybe the national anthem?), and we mouthed along, made noise, drank our bubbly and agreed that it was definitely the most unique New Year’s we had ever had.

Lewis, Amanda, Xan & Meghan on the streets of La Spezia. Happy San Silvestro!

The Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre are 5 tiny villages that perch on the edge of the cliffs along the Ligurian coast. The name means five villages, not lands, and stems from medieval times. Cinque Terre comprises the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

Historically subject to raiding by pirates from North Africa, the peaceful little villages are now protected by the Cinque Terre National Park authority. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997, the villages are not accessible by car, but are linked by train and, in the summer, by regular boat service. There are also extensive hiking trails between the villages and through the surrounding hills.

Trains leave from La Spezia for Riomaggiore every half hour. The train ride itself is only 8 minutes long but the journey takes you from a busy, gritty working city to a magical fishing village of tiny shops and restaurants, carved into the cliffs.

Riomaggiore

We arrived in Riomaggiore on a gorgeous sunny day a few days after Christmas and set off to walk up the incredibly steep main road, finding churches and piazzas hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny streets. A recording of Placido Domingo was playing on a speaker in the street and we followed it into a tiny room, carved into the rock, filled with a massive nativity scene.

The Nativity Grotto

A whole village was reproduced, with figures fishing, shopping, washing clothes, all powered by water. It was the first of many nativity scenes that we have seen in Italy.

We decided to have lunch in La Grotto, a restaurant built into the cliff, with raw rock forming some of the walls. The village is known for its fish, so some of us decided to see what the local cuisine had to offer from the sea.

The harbour in Riomaggiore. A fish lover's paradise.

My mother Laurie and I ordered a specialty of the region called Ciupin’. “Cuipin’ di pesce fresco del golfo con pomodoro, pepe nero e romarino servitor con frette di pan tostato”. (Fresh fish from the Gulf with fresh tomatoes, pepper, rosemary sauce, served with toasted bread). We thought that it was a fish soup but when it arrived there was no real broth – just a massive amount of fish. Sea bass, sole, mussels, clams, scampi, 3 different parts of squid. All with heads and tails, each tasting unique, in the delicious sauce. It was a bit of work, but with the fabulous breads and local wine it was one of the most delicious meals I have had.

After lunch, we wended our way along the Via dell’Amore toward the next town, Manarola. In reading about the Cinque Terre, the walk is described as a hike, but I think it is better thought of as an exquisite promenade.

Momma Laurie hikes the Via Dell'Amore

It is a paved walkway along the cliff edge, festooned with tiny locks, left by lovers pledging their love together. It really is just about as romantic as you can get.

Lover's locks

We arrived in Manerola as the sun was beginning to set. We walked to the top of the town and stood in the piazza outside the church (built in 1388), watching the sunset.

Sunset in Manarola

Just above the town, in the terraced vineyards above the houses, was a massive nativity scene. Figures of the nativity and of every day working people were lit up as the darkness set in. Apparently these are the work of a local resident, who sets up many different religious scenes as a tribute to his father.

Nativity scene in the terraced vineyards of Manarola

There are over 200 figures illuminated by 12,000 lamps, making it the largest nativity scene in the world. The picture does not do them justice, unfortunately. It was a very memorable sight.

We were a bit too late in the day to go on the vineyard tour, but made up for that by buying several bottles of local wine. There are miles of grape vines on the hills above the towns and the terraced vineyards are one of the reasons for the World Heritage Site status. The sheer number of stone terraces is equivalent to the building of the Great Wall of China. We are happy to take home a sampling.

Two days later, Xan’s partner Meghan arrived from Canada, and we knew that we wanted to go back and visit the third town, Corniglia, with her. The last two towns, Vernzza and Monterosso al Mare are currently closed to tourists. There were deadly mudslides in October that have closed the towns, as well as the path between Corniglia and Manerola. But we were able to take the train to Corniglia and explore.

The main square in Corniglia

It is the tiniest of the villages (population about 240) and sits highest on the hills. It is not as often visited by tourists, because it is a bit more remote. But it was well worth the climb, or the cost of the shuttle that drives up to the hill top.

Corniglia has been famous for producing good wines since Roman days, and in the regular season there are tours and wine tasting bars. It was exquisitely quiet when we arrived, and much of the town was closed. We spent time in the sunshine in the main square, the Largo Taragio, centre of which spouts the old town well that used to bring in water from the hillside to the locals who lived without plumbing.

The Largo Taragio, with a memorial to the dead from WW1, and the old town well

In the Oratory of Santa Caterina on the Largo Taragio the nativity scene included a tiny pizzeria, with a man putting pizza into the oven. From the square we continued to climb higher to a small clearing and the Santa Maria Belvedere, the most stunning look out point to the sea.

Maddy & Tim looking out from Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia

It is a natural sun trap and a perfect picnic spot.

However, we didn’t bring picnics – we were there to sample local cuisine. We discovered the Enoteca Il Pirun, a wine bar and tiny restaurant that served us an amazing meal of pastas. Tim & I shared a plate of acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil) that was one of the highlights of our visit. Sweet and lemony – we were eating fish caught directly outside the village with lemons grown on the trees in the village and olive oil made from olives grown on the surrounding terraces. How could it be better? We all shared around our different plates of pastas with mussels, clams, pesto and rolled away from the table late in the afternoon to take the 3-minute train ride to Manerola. From Manerola we walked into the sunset of Via Dell’Amore toward Riomaggiore. A couple of new lovers locks were added to the collection.

Xan & Meghan on the Via Dell'Amore

We’ve only scratched the surface of Cinque Terre. There was so much to take in and we were overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. We are already making plans to come back to visit the last two towns, to hike the high paths through the vineyards, and to perhaps pick up a few more bottles of local wine.

Sut set on the Via Dell'Amore