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

Portovenere

Portovenere is on a promontory that juts into the western edge of the Gulf of La Spezia. A 30-minute bus ride from the city of La Spezia, the roads snake along the coast to take you from the work-a-day world of La Spezia to a resort and fishing town of startling beauty.

Portovenere

A piazza runs the length of the town, with restaurants spilling out into the sunshine. Fishing boats bob on the docks and ferry people over to the island of Palmaria, directly across from the town. It is a picture perfect Riviera town.

The Romans built an outpost here as a base en route from Gaul to Spain. The Byzantines, Lombards, the Genovese and Napoleon all passed through, leaving their marks. We walked around the piazza with our jaws dropped. It was our first experience of this kind of Mediterranean beauty.

Tim & Maddy walking by the docks

The path led upwards on cobbled steps to the Chiesa di San Pietro.

Chiesa di San Pietro

Traces of a Roman temple have been found here. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Venus from which came the name “Portus Veneris” —  Porto Venere. Like most sacred places, successive generations have added and adapted according to needs, and so the Chiesa di San Pietro is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Built of white and black marble in the Gothic-Genoese style, it sits right on the edge of the water. A “back door” leads out to a small stone platform overlooking the bay. A perfect sun trap.

Mother Laurie Lewis behind Chiesa di San Pietro

The church sits on the edge of a large square with access to the Grotta Arpaia. The Grotta Arpaia opens out to the other side of the promontory and has steps walking down to the rocks below.

Grotta Arpaia

The Grotto is dedicated to the poet Byron. Byron and Shelly both spent a lot of time in Portovenere and in Lerici.  Byron made this grotto famous by swimming from here around the promontory and on across the bay to Lerici. Shelly was not so lucky, nor so adept at swimming. He drowned in the bay when his boat capsized, sailing from Lerici.

We explored the winding cobbled streets, with homes, shops and restaurants tucked into narrow alleyways and along steep stairs.

Narrow streets winding up the cliff

A labyrinth of walkways led us to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, built in 1130. Tim & I were passing by on an upper level right beside the bells as they started to chime. We were almost deafened by the sound. But we were close enough to hear, well, really to feel, the harmonics of the two toned bells. An extraordinary experience.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo,

We walked higher, to the outer ramparts of the Castle, built in 1161. But rather than go in, Tim & I became distracted by a cemetery on the edge of the cliff below the castle. The cemetery has a few mausoleums, but the final resting places are mostly in marble walls facing the ocean. Apparently there is a rotational system – for the first generation after your death you get a fairly prominent position. Gradually, your remains are moved to one of the less accessible places. All in all, we think it is a lovely place to honour the memory of a loved one.

A beautiful final resting place

We ended the day thoughtfully, and happily bundled our family back to the villa for dinner.

Tim on the dock of Portovenere, Lerici in the distance across the bay

A sunny Christmas morning

Before coming to Italy, we warned ourselves that the end of December would be wintery and cold. We were prepared for grey rain, but decided that the weather didn’t really matter. We thought it would be fun just to be together, eating wonderful Italian food and drinking local wines.

What we had not expected were hot sunny days, breakfasts and lunches on the terrace and long walks on the hillsides. Christmas Day broke with a thunderously beautiful sunrise. Unbelievably, it was warm enough for us to have our Prosecco, bread, cheese and smoked salmon sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea. Church bells chimed as we launched into our Panatone.

Breakfast on Christmas morning
Celebrating with Prosecco

The villa is right beside the AVG, “Antica Via del Golfo”, a centuries old trail that connects surrounding towns and villages. Walking down it, we can get to La Spezia in about 15 minutes. Walking up takes a lot longer, and is brutal on the thigh muscles. It is really steep. But when we are on the path we invariably meet someone much older than us walking comfortably, not breathlessly panting as we are. We’re always greeted by a cheery buon giorno, or buona sera. So walk up we do, as often as possible, if only to save face and justify the huge quantities of food we can not resist eating.

The AVG also gives a unique opportunity to hike up the mountain and explore remote villages with breathtaking views. The path crosses a zig zag road with hairpin turns, clearly beloved of Italian drivers. It is the kind of road that Italian movies make famous. But walking the path gives you time to explore and see the pace of other people’s lives.

A view from the AVG, with a view of the La Spezia Gulf

On Christmas morning we headed up, unsure of where it would take us but mostly just wanting an excuse to walk and talk in the sunshine. We walked higher and higher up the mountain, surrounded by a feeling of celebration and the joy of being alive. We may see each other all together only once a year, but we know how to reconnect quickly, on a mountain top.

Maddy, Xan, Lewis and Amanda. Christmas morning in Italy

A Christmas Eve feast in Italy

Our Christmases have always looked a bit like an archetypal Christmas card. We decorate a tree with ancient ornaments, curl up by a roaring fire, and watch puffy snowflakes weigh down the enormous pine trees outside our windows.

But we knew that this year we would break with tradition. Since we are on the road, we decided that we would all gather as a family in Italy. Through the magic of the internet we found Villa Maggiano, a luxurious villa outside of La Spezia on the Italian Riviera. We headed there from our various parts of the world to rendezvous for Christmas.

La Spezia is a busy little city of 95,600 about an hour’s drive from Genoa, on the Ligurian coast. Tim and I flew from London into Genoa, and rented a car to drive to the villa. It had been 5 months since I had driven a car and the twists, turns and roundabouts were sobering, to say the least. On the edge of the city, we headed up a mountain and, fourteen hair-pin turns later, found ourselves at The Villa Maggiano.

Villa Maggiano

Set in an olive grove, the villa comfortably sleeps 8 and has a large brick terrace that looks out over La Spezia and the Golfo dei Poeti. Naval and container ships crisscross the bay. The Appennino mountain range in the distance changes colour throughout the day as the sun moves across the horizon and reflects off of the snow capped peaks.

Sunrise over the Golfo dei Poeti

Each bedroom of the villa has a view of the sea and the mountains, and every morning the sun shocks us awake by its beauty. Every night, lights twinkle on the hills and the shoreline, and the mountains fade into silhouette. Could we ask for a better place to spend Christmas with the family?

Our host, Sarah Ferrari, had decorated the villa with poinsettias, wreaths and Christmas ornaments. She greeted us with a large  basket of Italian goodies, and wine from the family vineyard, making us feel at home and ready to kick off the festive season.

Tim and I had a couple of days in which to prepare for Christmas Eve, when the family would all be together at last. We headed down to negotiate the vast market in the centre of La Spezia. This is not a tourist area, and few people speak English. Neither of us speak Italian but we figured out how to ask for ingredients, how to ask for more, how to ask for less. As La Spezia is on the coast, there were about a dozen fish stalls filled with mounds of Branzino (like sea bass), Baccalà (dried salt cod), scampi, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, swordfish, tuna and eels, still moving on their icy bed. There were aisles of cheese and meat stalls with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano (Parma is just down the road), various ages of Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto, Carpaccio, and many things we couldn’t identify. There were rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, nut vendors and olive merchants.

The sun starts to set as we look out from the terrace

We tried (unsuccessfully) to stop ourselves from buying too much. But Christmas is a time for eating and drinking. And a gathering of the Lewis/Wynne-Jones clan happens only once a year, which justifies all kinds of excess. With an over-full larder, we created our Christmas Eve feast.

Opening the first of a number of bottles of Prosecco (a case of 12 for 15 euros) we began with an antipasto of olives, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers and fabulous focaccia bread. La Spezia is known for its focaccia and it is deliciously oily and salty, with chunks of olives imbedded into the dough. We followed this with a simple Pesto alla Genoese. This is the region that invented pesto and we bought a big tub of it at the market. It was like no pesto I have ever made or tasted before. Unlike other basils, Ligurian basil is grown organically and out of the direct sunlight to keep it fresh and sweet. The result is a smooth and lemony pesto.

Looking through the window at Tim cooking, the sunset reflected above

We followed the pasta course with Tim’s fabulous “Melanzane (eggplant) alla Parmigiano”, which he has perfected over the last month, and slices from a buttery and soft pork roast that we had bought from the neighbourhood Macelleria (butcher), rolled with garlic and rosemary.

A light salad of mixed greens from the market cleansed our pallets. Amongst other greens, I had bought a lettuce head that was yellow, flecked with magenta. I don’t know what it is called, but it was slightly bitter and so beautiful.

Christmas Eve feast at Villa Maggiano

We finished the meal with some fruit, biscotti and dessert wine. Fireworks were exploding over the bay, and the bells chimed from numerous churches. In several of the coast towns below us, they were welcoming the arrival of the baby Jesus from the sea. “La Madonna, San Giuseppe e Gesu Bambino arrivano dal mare”.

Not a snowflake in sight. Our family Christmas spirit burned bright.