Italy Country Profile

Lucca to Sestri Levante with a Few Other Stops

We are home from our travels that began on the 15th of October with a night train to Milano. The best part of travelling is to come home. We took a ferry home with about 16 other passengers and hundreds of trucks from Genova port to Barcelona on the Grand Navi Veloci ship "Victory" - comfortable space, quiet, even peaceful at this time of year. It took about 18 hours (9:30 pm tuesday until 3:30 wednesday) to make the crossing. When we arrived the first breath of air here was home scent. We walked the few hundred meters out of the shipyard to the old customs area, hopped onto a bus that dropped us about 4 meters from our front door, stripped, chilled a bottle of cava and were home as soon as we began to sip.

Now, back to our travel, starting with the sleeper train Salvador Dalí...aside from an excellent gourmet dinner (brocoli with gorgonzola soup, duck paté with toasts, a baby green salad and wild berry confiture served with cava, then entrecote gloved in a delicate roquefort sauce and vegetables on the side served with a bottle of Marques de Altillo 2003 a lush ruby wine, fruit for dessert, followed by liqueurs. Having been completely geared up by watching "Murder on the Orient Express" which defined the whole concept of overnight train travel in our fantasies, the space we were in was more like a tokyo two person overnight sleep slot, entirely plastic, uncomfortable and about 4 inches too short. Add to that the fact of the rolling stock was so old that the right front car wheel had a damaged flat spot that caused repetitive upheavels from our beds in addition to its constant thunking sound, we did not sleep for the 18 hour trip except for extremely brief nodding offs before plunging to the floor or onto the bunk ladder. It was an experience to be remembered - perhaps with a fondness 20 years from now, but definitely not soon.

Our arrival in Milano Centrale was as easy as expected and we caught a train to Firenze (Florence) within 20 minutes. Almost 4 hours later (around 1pm) when we arrived, we checked the bags and headed directly towards a favorite cocina fresca with an owner who loves playing with food as much as we do. He was closed, but another favorite provided us with a robust tuscan red wine, perfectly prepared scampi in a light tomato cream sauce (with lots of garlic) and a superb plate of milk veal scallopine smothered in fresh porcini mushrooms. After a leisurely and tasty lunch, we wandered over to a favorite market square where i was lucky enough to find a purse made in the style i have been searching for the past 12 years. We easily returned to the train station (after a nice cup of gelato) and headed off to Lucca (only citta in italy which is licensed for porcinis).

To be honest, the main reason we decided to make the trip was for the porcini which is at its prime for fresh in mid-october, pecorino di pienza (found tender and aged both - extremely rare up by the santa maria portal), farro di gargazana, and dried porcinis (Prospero is a superb place for these and other tuscan specialties). After training for about 26 of the past 48 hours, we were ready to settle in for the night and our hosts pointed out a nearby store with wine, cheeses, foccacia and olives which satisfied us very nicely.

The next morning we rose early. I watched from our window that overhung Via Fillungo (the main street that ran down below the santa maria portal towards the town center) and noticed a lot of people walking briskly down and returning within minutes with small paper bags. It could mean nothing less than that there was a wonderful place for fresh hot pastries within a block or two, and that would no doubt provide us with a morning espresso. It was Caffé Puccini (he was born and wrote best operas in Lucca) and the espresso was forte and the pastries were hot and crispy - just perfect. In the cool of the morning we wandered the old city (built in 180 BC) and surrounded by the walls built around 1500 (only about 4 kilometers around). There is some wonderful architecture from the time that modernista was popular called "Liberté" which has the lyrical and ornamental nature of the art nouveau and deco styles, we visited several churches on our way towards the duomo (main cathedral) and the botanical gardens that have an extensive collection of exotics and medicinals. The stop for fresh from the oven green olive foccacia became absolutely necessary about 100 meters before we got to the shop that sold it. Fabulous! And a nice thing to munch on while strolling around.

The duomo area was very nice with an interesting facade, a variety of paintings and frescoes, a great organ, not too many scary graves in the floor and a pretty altar. Other highlights was the entry of San Frediano's mosaic, the remarkable variety of columns on San Michele, San Salvatore, San Martino and Palazzo Ducale. Having spent a more than four hours just ambling around the town (and seeing almost all of it) we felt it was about time to eat. The sniff and search process we use to find aromas and menus we might enjoy brought us to Baralla (on a street behind the old amphitheater built in 180 BC).

The staff was just finishing their meal, so we wandered around the amphitheater which is now full of touristic shops and ristorantes, and returned about 15 minutes later. The sign in front said "Porcini Fresco"! This we ordered along with undoubtedly the best gnochetti with gorgonzola and walnuts that we have ever tasted. We asked our waiter to select 2 different Lucchese wines (known as lusty, rustic sangiovese - they met our expectations). The pastas were so abundant, we required 2 more glasses of wine of the Toscano Rosso variety (much more elegant and rich). Around this time, a young couple sat down at the table next to us. To our great delight they were Elizabeth and Joan from Vic, the town best known for the prime sausages here in catalunya! We began to talk, first in catalá and castillian and then Elizabeth said she was trying to practice english, so some of that too, and we had a wonderful time together. How nice to meet such close neighbors! As for our meal, the great Tuscan bread (flour, yeast and olive oil - no salt) and the foccacia (flour, less yeast, flattened, olive oiled and salted) were great accompaniments, but by the time we finished the two huge bowls, we were too full to order a main course and decided to head back to our apartment and take a nap instead.

Two hours later, as the sun began to sink in the Tuscan sky, we walked out for our evening passegiata (much as we do here in spain on pleasant nights). We browsed a huge book and poster sale (new and antique), picked up a slice of thin crust peperoni pizza, listened to a young girl with a sweet clear voice sing Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" in front of the San Michele while sitting on the steps of the Puccini loggia and watching the colors turn on the marble facade, such a treat! As the evening grew darker, we wandered back to Simo Caffé with its fabulous art deco polished mahogany and glass confectionary of an interior to enjoy a cup of espresso (double normal price, but worth it for the atmosphere). We returned to Baralla for our main course, coniglio i olio (rabbit braised with the local olives) and enjoyed a liter of the house red (Luchesse, robust, but soft finish), then chatted with the owner while we had a drink at the bar before heading back to shower, pack and sleep. Lucca is a fine town in which we would stay again at any time.

The raucus mating of pigeons on our window sill roused us early enough to head down to Caffé Puccini for morning espressos and light pastry before the owner drove us to the train station. We arrived in Sestri Levante about 4 hours later, met with the landlord (who was kind enough to loan us his personal stereo so we could have music), did our paperwork and made it to the train station in time to greet our buddies from Louisiana (the McQs) and escort them to our apartment. After a bottle of wine, some foccacia and aged pecorino, we all headed off to the nearby grocery store to pick up the essentials. Unpacking and all the usual settling in was done and it was time to hunt for a place to eat.

Sestri Levante is a popular beach resort on the Ligurian coast midway between Genova and Cinque Terre. As such, when the beach season is over, many places close, especially ristorantes. So we spent quite a bit of time wandering around, checking out menus (many at high touristic prices) before we found a small osteria (Emilio's) down a dark side street that emitted such heavenly aromas that we all agreed to just go for it. And we were glad we did - trenette di pesto (local specialty pasta dish), linguine with clams and mussels, spaghetti with meat ragu, grilled fresh sea bass, mixed salad with wonderful tomatoes, and a carafe of wine later, we were satiated and well pleased with our choice of eateries. Back home, we enjoyed brandies, music (we both brought CDs to share), and talk occupied the rest of our evening before heading to bed.

The next morning, the McQs were still asleep at 10:30 so Mike and I caught the train (85 cents round trip) to Chiavari for the morning fruit and vegetable market in their main square. It was heaven! All fresh local produce with the exception of porcinis from Lucca. 30 euros later (of which half was for the mushrooms) we carried our two bags full of goodies towards the train station, stopping only to add some onion focaccia and a large fresh baguette to our supplies. I would be ready to cook. Our buddies were up and ready to go out for a tour of the town. Our leisurely stroll took us through the old town center and over to the la Baia della Favole (Bay of Fairies), past the ferry that sails the coast to Portofino and beach cities beyond all the way down to Vernazza, past the yacht basin and its elegant turn of the century hotel and ristorante with tremendous views up the coastline, past many mansions, ristorantes, bars and shops. We stopped to snack on crostines smothered in olives, artichoke hearts and onions while we shared a bottle of proseco and watched the surge of the mediterranean, very relaxing. It started to drizzle, so we waited a while, then headed back home for some reading (us) and naps (the McQs).

This brought us to our first home dinner together. Mike made a nice risotto, Ms McQ fixed sautéed zuchini, and I prepared some scallopine topped with (what else) some of the fresh porcini. We naturally had a spumante during the prep stages, then went on to Greo, a more refined version of the Luchesse sangiovese. Our salad was composed of 5 local lettuces, brocoli leaf, sweet onion, heirloom and cherry tomatoes and shaved pecorino with a balsamic vinaigrette. Dessert (quite a bit later) was simply fresh strawberries and marscapone with a little lemon zest. It was an excellent feast followed with brandies, more music and chat before retiring early.

The train to Pisa takes about 2 hours and passes much of the coastline before turning inland. The McQs wanted to see the leaning tower on this (possibly last) trip to italia. The weather was fairly good with threatening clouds here and there. We caught the bus to the tower-baptisty-duomo-cemetary complex and had quite a walk from there to the site. Being a bit weary from travel and in need of cool refreshment, we found a pleasant family run ristorante - so why not eat? An antipasto plate of italian hams was followed by pastas and a nice sampling of half a dozen different seafoods assembled in 3 styles on 3 plates, more good tuscan bread, red and white wine, an espresso and then we were ready to continue our hike to the complex. The path was lined with perhaps a thousand or more vendors selling everything from souvenirs to rolex knock-offs - really sleazy. Unlike years ago, the entire complex is de-consecrated and has become a money making venture with pricey admissions charged for everything. Once inside, one can spend a euro to listen over a phone to descriptions of what is in each building. We were totally unimpressed. When it started to rain, we caught a taxi back to the train station and headed home in late afternoon. We all sacked out for an hour or so, watched a little italian TV, planned for the next day, shared some more wine, then proceeded to prepare evening snacks. We enjoyed a canteloupe sliced and wrapped in paper thin parma ham, 3 varietal cheeses, local olives, onion foccacia and tuscan bread with fresh home made pesto, drank a Valdo spumante and a Barolo d'Asti, then finished with brandies before bed.

The McQ's took off around 11 in the morning for the hour train ride to Cinque Terre. It is composed of 5 lovely old beach towns, 3 accessible by rail (which the McQs visited), 1 by boat only since it is a beach under steep cliffs and 1 by road only since it is on top of the cliffs. The closest is Monterosso, high on a cliff with a great view at the start of the national park reserve that many visitors plan to spend days hiking through. Quite spectacular scenery, flora and fauna - a true delight for naturalists. The "jewel" of the 5 towns is Vernazza which we visited later and will comment on. Mike and i just hung out, saw some more town, picked up a pizza that was fabulously laden with a bit of everything (it would be easier to say what was not on it), bought some meringues for dessert later, and prepped for our next home dinner. When the McQ's returned around 4, they had a glass of wine and slept for a couple of hours. They were hungry when they woke, so we started dinner - a whole roasted chicken stuffed with herbs, onion and lemon, some potato wedges rolled in herbs, garlic and olive oil, and the remainder of our porcinis served along with the usual bread and a toasty dry proseco, followed by an old favorite from Sicilia, Corvo rosso. It's hard not to eat well in italia. The delicate little flavored meringues were a big hit later in the evening with our brandies and we all went to bed early so we could get up to Genova in the morning.

Ah, Genova, that ratty old port town that is so interesting when you know where to look. We have slept here, sailed from here, trained through here many times and always find something new to do. It was a sunday, so it had to be a museum day. From the train station, we taxied up to Piazza Ferrari with its exhuberant fountains and surrounding impressive buildings. We headed down the street to see the wonderful San Lorenzo cathedral with its beautiful organ, collection of old paintings, vaulted nave and mass in progess (which meant we were able to enjoy the organ as well as the choir). It was beautiful. From there, a stop for espresso, then we wended our way between narrow streets until we arrived at Via Garibaldi. This is in a pedestrian only area and runs all the way down to the port. Lined with majestic mansions from the 15-1800's, one could spend a day and still not see it all. Being the sort of excursionistas that we are, we noticed a door slightly ajar and entered a covered courtyard with fabulous 15th century frescoes - wonderful! But our goal was the museums in the Palazzo Rosso and the Palazzo Bianco, so on we walked, peeking through open doors or key holes to see waterfalls and hanging gardens in some palazzos, enormous courtyards in others.

The Palazzo Rosso was left to the city by the duchessa di Genova in 1888 with the understanding that none of the art or furniture would be removed so the upper levels of the 5 story structure consists of the main living areas of the last owner. The lower levels contain an outstanding art collection from italian, dutch, french, spanish and others bound by treaties with Genova. At the top of the structure is a belvedere (or tower patio) that offers a view of the entire city from the sea to the mountains. The Palazzo Bianco was built in 1565 but restored in 1711 with a more modern facade and entrance, and had a lovely rear garden added in 1805. What is important, is that it houses the main collection for the city. With three floors of art arranged by period in a series of rooms on each floor, it makes for pleasant viewing in a well lit space. There are the usual genovese artists as well as Caravaggio, Toscani, Strozzi, Castiglione, Rubens, Van Dyck and even a Memling!

The museums were thoroughly enjoyable, but we were ready for a snack and the trip home by 4 in the afternoon, but found that all ristorantes were closed. Around the corner, down the very narrow streets, into the meaty part of the old town area, we headed towards the bay - as long as we were headed down, we would get there. Just when we all began to think we would have to get to the bay to eat, i spotted a little turkish take out place on a side street and everyone followed. We had a wonderful snack of chicken shwarma with hot sauce, onions, lettuce, tomatoes and tsaziki for the enormous price of 3 euros which included papas (french fries) and hot mint tea - we were saved from a future of getting bitchy with each other! Not far from there to the bay, a taxi to the station and home. After a shower, rest and a little spumante, we prepared evening snacks of crostini - parma ham with fontina, pesto with tomato and gorgonzola, artichoke hearts with olives and a tender pecorino, a bowl of olives - all tasty with the high alcohol Barbera d'Alba. A good day was had by all.

Our last day together was spent in the town of Sestri Levante. It is truly charming and reminds us of Sitges (first place we lived here in spain) in off season - quiet, pretty, well cared for by the residents. We lazed around in the morning and did some packing, finished most of the fruit, and goofed off until lunch. There were a couple of ristorante options to consider - a little grandmotherly looking place with lace curtains and a dining patio garden (a little pricey but interesting menu) and the truly funky local pizzeria-ristorante called La Lanterna (where mike had found his pizza a few days ago) - we offered the choices to the McQs and (fortunately) the went with the cheap local joint (hehe). We had a fabulous meal - the McQs shared a peperoni pizza (thin crust covered with a variety of local peppers and cheese - they thought it would be sausage for some reason - isn't that pepperoni in the US, it is salsichita in italy) - we had a completely different style, shrimp on an olive oiled base, topped lightly with cheese then smothered in rucula (spicy green leafy shreds) after it was baked - both were superb. They chose a grilled seafood combination as their main course, while we indulged in the frito misto which is a combination of shrimp, squid, langoustinos, clams, and mussels - again exceptional fresh and tasty. The wines were house red with the pizzas and white with the fish. Huge servings, but completely consumed.

We decided to walk it off, but Ms McQ needed to go home for a nap, so the 3 of us headed of to the old town center. As luck (or design) would have it, we passed THE gelateria in town. I ordered a small cup of pistachio and dark chocolate as the boys checked it all out. When i expressed my appreciation of the fine quality of the gelato, the lady behind the counter began scooping up tastes of other flavors and beaming at my enthusiasm as i tasted each one. The boys chose fairly well, but i still think mine was the best (hehe). From there we wandered down to the Baia del Silencio - breathtakingly beautiful! We couldn't bring ourselves to leave until the sun was almost set.

Our last meal together was a "clean out the refrigerator" thing - the last of 3 cheeses, olives, a salad with the remaining chicken, potatoes and mushrooms on it, bread and breadsticks. The landlords mother came down just before we were ready to eat with a bottle of a deep sweet red vivace and let us know we could stay as late as we wanted to the next day, she was very sweet and spoke as much english as i speak italian so we got along well, i let her know that we would be sailing home to barcelona from genova that evening and we wanted to see vernazza before leaving. That added to the last 2 bottles of wine we needed to finish, plus the remaining brandies to help get us to bed early.

Our last morning, we put the McQ's on a direct train to Savona from which they were sailing to Egypt to see the pyramids. We headed down to vernazza and were very glad we did. It is indeed a little jewel. Lush foliage, nestled between high cliffs, beyond quaint to adorable. We had the great entertainment of joining the locals in encouraging one of the shop keepers to catch a large rat that was running along the canopy over his shop - when the fat orange and white tabby showed up, we knew it was a fait accompli - the shop man knocked it off the canopy and it was kitty's lunch! A snack on farinata (a chickpea and farro dough super thin pizza type thing) and my last fresh olive foccacia straight out of the brick pizza oven were a nice finish before we returned to the train. Then we returned to the apartment, met with "mom" and told her antonio could send our deposit back to our bank in spain. Hugged goodbye and were invited back at any time - such nice people.

We trained back up to genova and arrived around 5 pm. Despite the walk to the ferry being "only 5 minutes" it took the expected 20. We spotted a place to pick up water before boarding, and ducked into a local bar for a cold campari and soda and a large beer. The owner was a big friendly fellow who looked at us after delivering our drinks and decided we needed more than that. Next thing we knew we had a bowl of pistachios, a bowl of peanuts and a plate full of little ham and salami sandwiches in front of us. The italians are generous and thoughtful people. As we sat, locals came in, had a short beer, glass of wine or coffee and went on their way, we relaxed.

Finally we boarded the ferry. It holds 270 passengers and about 150 vehicles. It carried 16 passengers and about 100 vehicles. It was a quiet, pleasant 18 cruise back to home and you know what happened then.