So far I have loved every place we have visited, they are all special and magical in their own unique ways but the three Vs: Venice, Varenna and Vernazza really made an impression on me and on Marty as well. Venice for the decaying beauty, brilliant colour and absence of motor vehicles, Varenna for the serenity, cheese and lake views and Vernazza for the spectacular location, village atmosphere (after day trippers have left) and tasty trofie al pesto.
We stayed in Venice for 4 nights, too many for some people however this enabled us to spend some time in Trieste, a port city on the Adriatic Sea and about 2 hours from Venice by train. Our hotel room was a cosy little room separate to the actual hotel and with views of a construction site that never seemed to be active, a little hard to find at first but not far from the vaporetto stops that lined the esplanade leading to St Mark’s Square. Breakfast was forgettable yet we won’t forget the prepackaged croissant filled with gooey fake chocolate, melba toast and bread roll, not to mention the awful coffee. A short walk away was a snack bar, we had our best Venetian coffee there when we needed a fix, pizzerias, trattorias and enotecas were also in abundance in our area, Castello or sestieri as they are called in Venice. One of the little places we ate at was run by a Bangladeshi family, the men were very chatty and one in particular was a huge cricket fan so he and Marty had plenty to talk about, the evening we ate there they presented us with a Spritz on the house. A Spritz is a bright orange drink, we had seen many people drinking it but hadn’t known what it was and as we tasted the Prosecco-Aperol cocktail, one of the Bangladeshi (sorry if that is incorrect term) explained to us that it is a drink of the Gondoliers after they have finished a long day on the canals, the drink smells strongly of sweet oranges but has a kick that was a tad too strong for me.
Moving around Venice is easy, except for the constant dodging of other tourists and their elbows, there is no chance of maintaining a comfortable personal space here at least not in the day time. The canals are jam-packed with tourists in gondolas and water taxis, early in the day there are also small barges that navigate the canals and carry out the daily garbage collection. At night time the day trippers, tour groups and cruise liner passengers have gone and although the square is busy it is a more enjoyable time of day to listen to the classical music played at Florians and take photos of the monuments and buildings as the light changes. Walking through the campos (small squares usually dominated by a church) and taking time to eat gelato or watch people from a shady spot while eating salami and mozarella paninis is one of the best ways to ‘see’ Venice. There are plenty of museums and galleries to explore, but Venice is such a different city to any other I have been to that I find walking the streets just as exciting as seeing the artwork, mosaics and decoration within churches and galleries. The men selling fake designer goods, toys and roses are annoying and worth avoiding if you can, it is illegal to sell and purchase fake designer goods in Italy, when the sellers get a hint of the police coming their way they pack up their goods and head into the side streets. “Hello missus, I give you special price” is their opening line, they’re nearly all dressed very well so we figure that the fake designer goods industry is bringing in good money.
Varenna and Vernazza don’t have the fake designer goods, there are only a few hundred residents in each town and no supermarkets, only small market shops providing a minimal range of goods and the best range of delicatessen goods you will find. Both towns are on the water, Varenna is located on Lake Como and Vernazza is one of the five towns of Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean. either of these places would be a good place to semi-retire, renovate a couple of rooms and make them available for rent during holiday seasons. Such beautiful and peaceful places even with an influx of tourists during Spring and Summer, come nightfall, most have left the towns to the locals who fill up the bars and osterias until late in the evening.
Rick Steves is a fan of Varenna and Vernazza, watching his dvds and reading his guidebooks inspired us to stay in the two towns, that and the beautiful imagery I saw on websites devoted to the two locations. At our hotel in Varenna a photo of Rick Steves with the owners of Eremo Gaudio was stuck on the wall at reception and christmas cards sent from Rick Steves and family were pasted all over the door of Il Pirata, our breakfast place in Vernazza. It is common to see travellers carrying Rick Steves guidebooks, we have spoken to a few American devotees who created their entire itinerary around his advice. Varenna is across the lake from Bellagio, home to George Clooney and popular with all visitors to the region. We spent a few hours walking around the streets of Bellagio, lunch was in the company of other tourists watching their budget, all of us eating a picnic of some sort only we had forgotten to bring a bottle of wine. Along the water front is a pretty garden and a variety of expensive shops, the restaurants are full of well dressed patrons and day trippers like us pile on and off the ferries. In the narrow backstreets you can do a bit of wine tasting, buy shoes and homewares or sit in a cafe near the church – we chose the latter. In addition to Bellagio we spent time in Milan and Menaggio, neither place thrilled us much but we were glad to have made the effort.
Vernazza is one of the best placed towns on the Cinque Terre, transport is close and the town is small enough that you don’t have to carry or wheel your bags far to get to any accommodation. There is a lovely little bay encircled by cafes, the church and tower, when we arrived in the afternoon there were children swimming and sunbathers lying all over the rocks soaking up the sun. Marty was keen for a swim, the colour of the water looked very inviting, a clear deep blue green, I was happy to sit in the shade and dangle my feet over the edge of the breakwall. This area is known for its pesto, foccacia and a sweet wine called sciacchetra, we tried all three and loved each one, we also dined on fried calamari, fresh cheese, salami, mortadella and gelati. The Sicilian brothers Massimo and Lucca that own Il Pirata offer up sicilian treats such as cannoli and frozen fruit slushies, the two of them are real characters and treat all the girls like princesses, they also claim that they can pick the nationality of customers by what they eat. Eating there is a fun experience.
To get around the Cinque Terre you can either hike between each of the towns, catch trains or do a combination of the two, you have to pay to walk the path between towns and for a little extra train and bus travel is included. We didn’t want to spend all of our time hiking so we used the train to get to Riomaggiore, from there we walked with another Aussie couple along the Dell Amore walk to Manarola and then we used trains to get from Manarola to Corniglia, Corniglia to Vernazza. Trains aren’t terribly frequent or they weren’t during our stay, so each train was packed with tired and sweaty tourists. We didn’t make it to Monterossa, a larger seaside resort town didn’t hold much appeal for us and sitting at a cafe eating nice food and drinking local wine was a much more attractive option.
The three Vs were for us, a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy and the Italian way of life, the next destination in Italy is Florence and I knew that it would be a completely different place to visit.