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Italy: from Ruins to Rails

ITALY | Saturday, 15 October 2011 | Views [465]

Coming into Italy from Switzerland is a gorgeous route. No time to dally in the Dolomites though, so we brave the busy motorway to Venice. Once one is beyond Piazza San Marco and far from the madding crowd, Venice still offers strollers quiet twisting lanes and sublime bridges over enchanting canals. The irregular surface of the cobblestones is awakening dormant muscles in our legs. It seems that singing gondoliers are few, as we hear only one and see another yapping on a cell phone while his paying guests await his narration.

Onwards to Florence we go! The drive south along the coast to Ravenna may be the most mundane of our journey so far, though getting lost in the hills between Ravenna and Florence makes up for it. One wrong turn, one hour lost… ah well, we discover tiny hidden villages and meet locals willing to help. “Nelly” the navigator manages to take us right past Piazzelle de Michelangelo at sunset - what a sight! We step out to a bronze “David” awash in the sunset glow and gaze upon the old city of Florence spread out beneath us. Okay, now we’re talkin’! A beautiful villa above Florence and the Uffizi Gallery to savour. Oooh, found a few more favourites here. Laura, knowing the way, leads Bruce to the Botticelli room, where with only a handful of other people we admire Venus and Chloe, the three Graces, and more…

Our journey continues south to Siena, a mazelike and marvelous medieval town with most streets going uphill or down, making walking and navigation a serious challenge. There’s a lot to like here, especially the drive along the ridges and hills towards Montepulciano, though we are hit by a pounding rainstorm that eventually floods the streets and subways of Rome.

Rome. Everyone says don’t drive in Rome, but the parts we drive in are actually quite civil and all goes well. Just don’t enter the ZTLs (Zona a Traffico Limitato) or the cameras will catch you. We’ll see how many tickets have been mailed to us at home… Two days of ancient sites and modern smog and it’s time to move on.

On our way to Pisa we’re teased with brief glimpses of the ocean. We’ll see that ocean soon, but first a wander amongst the fabulous Piazza dei Miracoli and the miraculous leaning tower. Everyone is sizing up a photo of their partner holding up the tower, so Bruce obliges also. Tourist!

Next to Lucca, a completely walled fortress town with cobblestone streets within. We rent bikes and ride the crest of the wall in brilliant sunshine and then weave through the old lanes. What a highlight. “Nelly” then takes us to a location where we expect to find our reserved villa in the Toscana hills but it looks like an abandoned brick factory…yikes. Saddened yet still hopeful, we press on and find the glowing prize at the end of the day - our villa perched up in the hills surrounded by twenty acres of olive trees and absolute serenity. The views of Tuscany are breathtaking, and this centuries-old home (previously a monastery) has a wonderful ambience, with its stone and timber structure, period furnishings, sitting areas (including a library) and roaring fire. Breakfast is the best of our entire trip, and so we stay another day to walk the roads through farms and villas until a light rain sends us back to relax under a canopy by the pool, drinking in the scenery and laughing at how lucky we are to find this gem!

We arrive in the Cinque Terre under a sketchy sky. Taking the train to Vernazza, we end up climbing the vineyard pathway amidst sheets of rain and lightning bolts. Endless black clouds and squalls rolling in from the Ligurian sea send us back on the train to Corniglia and then Riomaggiore, where a brief respite from the storm allows us to stroll the beautiful Via Dell'Amore. We board what ends up being the last train back to our car in La Spezia - apparently flooding has ruined the rails where we've just been! (see story: http://www.corriere.it/english/11_ottobre_26/five-die-northern-italy_91d925ce-ffc3-11e0-9c44-5417ae399559.shtml. We miss being trapped or washed away by minutes during the most violent lightning storm in our recent memory. We find the roads to Genova are also closed and end up driving a northern detour through Palma, while watching massive rivers flooding their banks. Make it to Savona after five hours...lucky lucky lucky! Very sorry to hear of lost lives though. We find a hilltop hostel with no heat or hot water and end up sharing body warmth in a single dormitory bed. Memorable day!

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