Thursday, April 27, 2023

Home

I started my day sitting in an idyllic cafe having the traditional Italian breakfast of a croissant and a cappuccino, unfortunately interrupted by a noxious old man smoking a cigar upwind of me (sir, really, it’s 9am) and watching some sort of excitable soccer thing on his phone. Presumably he came here from (whispers) the south. No true Milano could bear making nuisance noise in public.


With my flight at 4pm there wasn’t a lot I could do with my day. I moved away from the noxious old man and had another coffee, then I went back to the hotel and lazed about until I had to check out just before midday. I rolled my luggage over to Milano Centrale, found a shuttle bus stop for Malpensa Airport, waited half an hour for the shuttle, then got on it and settled in for the 25 minute ride to the airport.


I arrived 75 minutes later, as there was a car accident on the expressway and traffic was gridlocked for more than half an hour. Note to self: next time take the train. The delay wasn’t a problem in itself, because my flight wouldn't even board for another three hours, but I was trapped in an enclosed space with three dozen other people, every single one of whom seemed to be sniffing, coughing, hacking or sneezing. I caught a nasty cold on my last flight home from Italy; I didn't want a repeat of that. So I huddled as far as I could from everyone else and tried not to breathe.


The good news for my flights was that I got the exit row again for the all-important 11 hour flight from Doha to Perth. The bad news was that I actually had to pay for it this time. I’m starting to worry what my credit card bill is going to look like; the Australian dollar has been in freefall against the euro, and I’ve not been holding back on the spendage. Oh well.


The flight from Milan to Doha went smoothly. The flight attendants, bless them, were as free with the booze as they usually are, and I had a little pre-dinner G&T, a nice glass of prosecco with dinner, and a whiskey on the rocks afterwards. The seat next to me was empty again… I haven’t actually had anyone sit next to me on any flight this holiday. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, just feeling existentially rejected.


I had about three hours in Doha, which I spent sitting in the arboretum, eating a midnight snack and listening to fake birdsong pretending to come out of the trees. Then I boarded another A380 for the final leg to Perth. For some reason the selection of movies on the entertainment system was much smaller for the much longer flight, but between watching, dozing, listening to music and podcasts, and doing crosswords on my screen, I made it through. 


All that remained was to touch down in Perth, deal with the impartial horror of Australian customs and airport bureaucracy, buy up big in the duty-free (credit card bills be damned), be collected by a friend, and get home. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Last

I woke early and left the hotel a little after 9am, giving myself plenty of time to lug my bags the few hundred metres up to the train station, buy a ticket, and then catch the 10.10am train to Milan. I arrived at the station around 9.30am, and found a biglietto machine… and the 10.10am was fully booked.


Dammit!


Instead I had to buy a ticket on the 12.38pm, in more than three hours’ time. With heavy, bulky bags to carry I couldn’t just go for a walk or do some shopping, so I worked through the next three hours doing some writing and photo-editing in a cafe, dragging the bags down to Emporium to see if I could still access their wifi (nope – they were closed and their steel security shutters blocked the wifi signal), playing sudokus on my phone and standing on the platform checking my watch every 30 seconds.


The train eventually arrived and nearly four hours later I was in Milan. After checking into my hotel, I decided to do one last whip around of my favourite bits of the city. So I had an aperol spritz at the bistro where I’d had my first aperitivo (I wasn’t hungry enough for the full board of carbs), then an old-fashioned at a bar in the Isola district with a name that called to me.



Then over to the Corso Buenos Aires where I finally found some shoes to replace my Florentine leather skate shoes. Then one last late aperitivo at the Monkey Bar near my hotel – something with mezcal, lime, elderflower and fresh basil.



The sweetest little moment of the day was when I was sitting in the Isola, enjoying the gathering twilight, when some guy whizzed past on one of those monowheel motorised skateboard things, blasting ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ by Hall and Oates. I’m going to miss this place.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Escape

I started my final full day in La Spezia at a little cafe around the corner from my hotel. I sat outside to eat my giant custard-filled brioche, only to find that I was sitting next to a chain-smoker having a lengthy and dramatic FaceTime call with her mother while her poor little chihuahua shivered at her feet. Then, apparently taking this as permission to be socially appalling, the Chinese woman on the other side of me started watching videos in loud, screeching Mandarin on her phone. I gave up on both fresh air and peace and scuttled inside.


It was my final day in La Spezia but also Liberation Day, an Italian public holiday to celebrate the overthrow of the Fascists in 1945. So apart from a few tourist cafes, everything is closed. I took this as a good last opportunity to do some exploring, and walked up into the mountains on the outskirts of the city to get a panoramic view.


Getting up to the first outlook was relatively easy. Skirt around the naval shipyards, follow the main road for a bit, then break off and head up one of those little right-of-ways that have existed for centuries. It was another Kilometre of a Thousand Stairs, but this one was heavily overgrown and generously sprayed with spring wildflowers. Clearly no one used this path apart from a handful of local nonnas who probably powered up and down it like elderly hunched triathletes twice a day.



When the path topped out, there was no clear view, despite the promises of Google Maps. I eventually realised that I had to go up the driveway with multiple No Entry signs, then stop just out of sight of the grand villa/castello above it and get my panorama of La Spezia’s harbor and take some photos.



I then went back down to the main road and continued on to another lookout point for La Spezia itself, with Google Maps promised was just a couple of kilometres up the road. The only problem was… Italian roads. Pedestrians are not much of a consideration on semi-rural Italian roads, especially when the terrain is steep. There tends to be a retaining wall right next to the road on one side, and a crash barrier hard against the road on the other. With Italian drivers of questionable competency and responsibility speeding past on both sides, I was scuttling along the narrowest of safe paths.


But I eventually got to the La Spezia panorama, only to find that it didn’t exist. The view existed, but there was no verge for cars, or indeed me, to pull over and admire it. There was just the road, the crash barrier, and a steep slope down to a valley a hundred metres below.




By straddling the barrier I got my photos… and then realised that the only way back to La Spezia, about a kilometre away as the crow flies, was to backtrack the five kilometres I’d just covered.


Well, bugger.


I once again braved the Highway of Italian Death, and was relieved when I got back to the right-of-way that led down to the city. My Garmin later informed me that it was the fastest I’d ever covered that distance: it’s amazing, the incentive of running away from homicidal Italian drivers.


For my final La Spezia aperitivo, I’d planned to go back to NoMad for more mezcal miracles, but they were closed for the public holiday. So I went next door to Karma, whose cocktails are just as good, and celebrating the joy of La Spezia boozing one last time.



Monday, April 24, 2023

Goals

My day started in a local cafe with a very Italian moment; a couple of middle-aged polizia, in uniform, with guns, standing at the bar, flirting as Italian men do with the attractive waitress, who was pouring them a shot of vodka… at a little before 9am. I got the impression that it would take a literal murder occurring on patio outside to drag them off to do their duty.


But I had places to be. Today would be my best chance to finish my goal of walking between all five of the Cinque Terre villages, with the leg from Manarola to Riomaggiore, even though it’s the day before a public holiday and a lot of people are taking the day off, and thus the train stations and the trails would be packed.



Unlike the trail between Corniglia and Manarola which went up, then flat for most of its length, then down, the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore went up… and up… and up… until there was a flat bit about the size of my living room, if my living room was infested with dirty French hikers, then down it went until it hit Riomaggiore. But it was actually easier going than previous times, because the trail was so crowded that everybody was forced to stop every 10-20 metres to let others pass, so I never had a chance to get over-exerted.



On the way up I discovered a woke totem pole: a pride flag topped by a Star of St Greta.



Because this hike only took about an hour, as one last Cinque Terre act I took the train from Riomaggiore up to Monterosso, because I realised I’d eaten gelato in every town in Cinque Terre except this one. It also gave me a chance to go down to the beach and pick up some interesting pebbles to add to the collection I combed in Amalfi four years ago.



But before gelato, I was peckish for actual food, so I chose the least overrun ristoranti I could find for some lunch. It turned out that the reason it wasn’t overrun was because it was a fine dining establishment, with main courses orbiting $55-60. But I’m on holiday, and after the culinary fail that was Osteria Inferno, I needed a good Italian meal to reaffirm my faith in their race… which this place delivered.


I started with an amuse bouche of a fried cod ball, served on pickled cabbage, served on a rock, with a piece of bread daubed with black garlic truffle sauce and an olive oil burre.



My main course was a medley of heirloom carrots and octopus tentacles, with a sweet carrot puree sauce and little aerated foofs of goat cheese. In addition, there were tiny little specks of courgette, pickled onion and caper. It was served with a glass of the house prosecco, which was served with all of the deliberation of a fine wine, including a taste test.



For dessert, I asked for an espresso and some gelato, as I wanted to see if posh gelato is different to commoner gelato. However, the pained expression that flitted across my waiter’s face when I asked, and the fact that the gelato never appeared, leads me to believe that they just gracefully “forgot”. Gelato may be considered a cheap street food for children here; I decided to respect their expertise.



However, I still needed to have gelato in Monterosso, so I stopped at a street stall and had a scoop of malaga flavour. I have no idea what malaga flavour is – it may have something to do with toffee – but it was delightful, as all gelato is.



For aperitivo I went inland a couple of blocks to a place called Emporium that I’d noticed on my walks. They didn’t have a cocktail menu but they were well-versed in the classics, so I had an Old-Fashioned, and then a Martini. As I’ve been feeling guilty about eating nothing but bar snacks, and I needed dinner, so I also ordered a tapas-sized beef tartare, which was served with honey mustard and toasted foccacia fingers, and was wonderful.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Polished

Today I decided to take one last day trip on this holiday and ride the InterCity train down the coast to Pisa. This took a while – the 10am train was sold out, the 11.23am train was delayed twenty minutes, and La Spezia train station was so crammed with tourists that it was difficult to actually walk down the concourse – but I got there eventually.


For such an iconic city, Pisa seems a little down at heel and struggling. The rail lines in the train station are thick with weeds, and the walls and doors haven’t been cleaned in a while. Crossing out of the station, there are sketchy people hanging about in doorways, and a homeless man passed out face down in the piazza. Many of the buildings in the main thoroughfares are shabby and in need of either a paint or a pressure wash.


Of course, once you step into the Piazza dei Miracoli, everything is clean and polished until gleaming. Pisa has one golden egg-laying goose, and they are sure as hell going to keep it.


I was surprised that it was relatively easy to get a good photo of the tower. There’s one specific point for getting THE iconic shot that everyone wants, but everywhere else is relatively open. Let others try to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa; Explorer Sam is a TINY PLASTIC AGENT OF CHAOS!



It clearly went to his head because he then tried to push over the Baptistry, which didn’t quite hit the same.



After doing the necessary tourist stuff, I just ambled around the rest of the old town, as is my way. Away from the Piazza dei Miracoli and the main thoroughfares leading to it, the city was actually pretty peaceful and charming. It’s an old old town, with crooked little streets and medieval marketplaces, and one can feel like a side character in a Shakespeare play wandering through it.


Well, except for the free wifi at the cafe at which I stopped for a cappuccino. Shakespeare is all well and good but some of us need to check our Instas, babes.



Explorer Sam was just mortified at the filth that passes for crockery here. For shame.



Back in La Spezia, with the arrival of the glorious aperitivo hour, I took myself to the Golden Whim, which sounds like the name of a yacht owned by a couple of wealthy gay men, but is actually a cocktail bar on the same little street at NoMad and Karma. The bourbon-based cocktail was adequate but not great, but as for the snacks, what they lacked in quantity they made up in quality. Along with the normal staples, there was a peeled prawn in chilli mango dressing, anchovies on toast, cheesy potato bread, and fresh housemade crisps, richly flavoured and salty and delectable.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Relaxed

Today was a functional day, spent just relaxing, reading, writing and generally taking a break from death marches and gelato consumption. I got up relatively late, and went out for what the Italians call an “American” breakfast, which is to genuine American breakfasts what Olive Garden is to genuine Italian dinners.



Kind of a travesty, but delicious. At least they used actual bacon rather than just frying up some prosciutto.


Then I meandered around the city, looking for replacements for my beloved Florentine leather skate shoes. Sadly every store was either selling formal brogues, those douchey leather slip-on loafers that Italians seem to love so much, or big over-engineered sneakers in eye-raping colours. The old school Italian shoes I want are not wanted by the men of Liguria. But I found an OVS, so I felt honour-bound to buy a couple of work shirts


On my way home I picked up a panini for lunch, and spent a pleasant afternoon in my hotel room with the french doors to the balcony open, letting in the thrum of the city and the fresh sea air, eating my sandwich and drinking that excellent 2.5 euro Tuscan wine I bought a couple of days ago, writing blog posts, editing photos, listening to music and chilling.


And then it was my favourite time of day; the Aperitivo Hour! I tried to go back to NoMad but it’s Saturday night and the streets were packed, and it was full of customers. So I went to a less popular bar next door, Karma, and discovered that its lesser popularity is completely undeserved. I had a brilliant smoked tequila margarita, with the same basic ingredients as a standard margarita plus freya smoke, which made the flavours incredibly nuanced. And the snacks were next level; just to confirm, all of this was built into the price of the cocktail, which was only 9 euros.



Encouraged by the deliciousness of the first cocktail, I decided to order another. It was a fascinating mix of cherry and basil liqueurs, rosso vermouth, soda, bitters and a dash of cranberry. It was so well-balanced that I needed to concentrate to pick out the individual flavours, but they were all definitely there. It was fruity and floral but not as sweet as I’d feared it might be.


Along with the new cocktail, my waitress asked if I wanted another platter of snacks. “Si, grazie”, I said, in a small shamed voice. But hey, it was dinner.


On my way out I made sure to congratulate and thank the bartender, a hip black guy with mini-dreads, who I’d determined was the creator of these cocktails. He didn’t speak English but he seemed to understand my praise and was happy.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Paths

I would have liked to take today off from hiking, to give my body a little more chance to recover, but with the weekend coming I suspected that the already busy trails would become positively infested with weekenders. It would be better, I thought, to hike today and Monday.


I started where I left off yesterday, in Corniglia. After arriving on the train it took me a while to find the path to the next village – adequate signage isn’t the Italians’ strong suit – but by process of elimination I found it behind the train station. And then, about half a kilometre in, I found the path blocked, with a notice that it was closed for repairs.


Italian signs like this are often best ignored, but this one was ziplocked to a fence panel that had been ziplocked to the walls with no possible way around, so obviously, it meant business. Reading the notice, it turns out that the seaside trail from Corniglia to the next village, Manarola, had been closed for repairs since 2018. Knowing the Italians, in the intervening five years they probably hadn’t even drawn up the plans yet.


Dispirited, I returned to Corniglia train station. I consulted my map, and realised that I could still take the mountain route to Manarola. It would take longer and involve gaining some altitude, but, I figured, if it was too tiring I could just skip my plan to walk on after Manarola to Riomaggiore.


So I did this, but between the little misstep down the sea path, and the fact that the new trail started up in Corniglia rather than at the train station, I’d now walked 3kms without even starting to hike. As compensation, now that I was in Corniglia I could buy some celebratory gelato, and also a cap, since I could feel my scalp burning even in the mild European sun. The only shop I could find in Corniglia that sold caps charged 20 euros for them, which is outrageous for a clothing item that would have cost them, at most, 1 euro. But I figured that if it was a choice between sunburn and sunstroke and losing 20 euros, I’d rather lose the euros.


Once I found the mountain path to Manarola, there began something I like to call the Kilometre of a Thousand Stairs. Stairs after stairs after stairs. I worked out later it was the equivalent of climbing a 200 storey building, while simultaneously walking more than a kilometre. Even with lighter clothing and a little mental preparedness, I still found myself leaning against a post, or a wall, or a tree, struggling for breath, my heart pounding, covered in sweat, and still facing more stairs as far as they eye could see, and cursing my own naivete.



But somehow, the Kilometre of a Thousand Stairs came to an end. I fell to the ground and kissed the sweet, non-vertical dust, then, after a suitable recovery period, got up and continued on my way.


The path now levelled out and passed through densely wooded slopes peppered with spring wildflowers, offering occasionally spectacular views of the Mediterranean far below. It gave me an opportunity to take some more pictures of Explorer Sam, doing the things an explorer does.







Eventually, the woods gave way to terraced vineyards, and it was after a few minutes of walking through these that I discovered the best part of the hike. Apparently, while one is on a gruelling hike through isolated farmland in Cinque Terre, there’s a place where you can stop and have a glass of wine. Not from some itinerant gypsy pouring rotgut into an old jug, but from a charming Italian waiter offering tasting notes while serving a nicely chilled chenin blanc in a proper wine glass.


If I’d turned a corner and discovered woodland animals in waistcoats having a tea party, it would have been less surprising, and also less delightful.


In the unlikely event that they did the same thing on the outskirts of Perth, or, heaven help us all, Amsterdam, they’d cut corners and use disposable plasticware, or only serve warm reds. But this is Italy; of course they take the extra steps necessary to serve wine to hikers in a civilised way. Non siamo animali!


This, right here, is why I love Italy.


After my pleasant glass of dry white, I proceeded on, now, fortunately, almost entirely downhill. There were further spectacular views over Manarola, the sea, and back towards Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso in the distance. By this stage I’d hiked for nearly 10kms, and yet I could see Corniglia train station just a stone’s throw away. It’s never been truer that it’s the journey, not the destination.



I had a pleasant late lunch in Manarola of classic bruschetta and a glass of prosecco, then some more gelato, because naturalamente, then caught the train back to La Spezia, pausing only to assist some elderly Americans trying to operate a ticket machine via instinct and intuition rather than reading the instructions on the screen. Once on the train I encountered a ticket inspector, for the first time since I’ve been shuttling back and forth on the Cinque Terre trains. He was in his 20s, possibly gay, wearing his uniform as if he’d slept in it, and going about his work with a fairly unique mix of tired disinterest and dry vindictiveness. He asked to see the ticket of an obese American man who had parked himself next to me, and the American replied that his wife had the tickets, somewhere further down the crowded carriage, then sat back, as if that were the end of it. I need to see your ticket, said the inspector. My wife has it, repeated the American. I don’t know your wife, said the inspector in a tone of mild but pointed exasperation that was somehow even more biting than an active sneer. The American blinked and looked baffled, as if he’d never had a service worker speak to him that way AND expect him to get off his fat ass and fetch something. The stared at each other for several seconds, and then he hauled himself up and wobbled off in search of his wife. It was glorious.


The hilarious thing about the whole paradigm of checking tickets on the Cinque Terre trains is that they are so large and packed, and the distances travelled are so short, that there’s no possible way an inspector can fully check a single carriage, let alone an entire train. This inspector had clearly embraced this, and was content to be a sort of Italian railway grinch, just ruining the day for a handful of people on each trip. I watched as he also busted a dude with a top knot on the Riomaggiore platform, then ground down a flaky French couple and their five noisy children, all without any shred of empathy. I think I may have found my spirit animal.



In the evening I repaired to another nearby bar, Chinasky, for aperitivo. They made me a proper limoncello spritz (ie, one that renders you head-spinningly drunk before you’ve even finished it) with bar snacks of crostini, shaved prosciutto, little needles of hard cheese, biscotti, potato crisps and some little panini things, all for 6 euros, or less than $10.