Heading from Lake Como, destination Zurich involved a journey across the Italo-Swiss Alps.
Rather than walking, we elected to do the journey on the Bernina Express. Putting aside all thoughts of sewing machines from the 70s and 80s, imagine a red train with "vista dome" windows that snakes through alpine towns... hmm... time for a picture.
and I do mean through the towns. Literally. When not travelling through the main st of numerous alpine villages, the journey snaked around hill and valley reaching a height of 2,250m asl which took us to near glacial environments.
It was all going well until the breakdown occurred. A faulty pantograph sent sparks shooting into the air... twice. The second time whilst stopped at a station after a new pantograph had been installed. I know this as I was standing five metres from it when it went bang kershang and sparked up... nearly "peed mah pants." Swiss efficiency kicked in and after a 10 minute interval a replacement train arrives from St Moritz that takes us to... Zurich.
Hill folk... the same the world over... just a little crazier than your average bear. Perhaps its the altitude or the fact than doing a run down to the shops is a little more involved than for most of us... whatever it is, hillside living provides a view ... on life.
Doh!.... forgot the yoghurt... sigh! Back I go.
The village of Pigra is a little ye olde worlde in an Italian way. Its Sergio Leone western inspired for sure. But, really if you are gonna be a hill top village.... build to the top...
Its not like one might lose their (shrunken) head over it... oh, wait...
Hurrah for Varenna on Lake Como... real toast served at breakfast.. Oh, sorry, I am supposed to wax lyrical about the lake and the entrancing enchanting views... but what the heck. Let the photos tell the story for a little bit...
Plenty of tourists here, all doing what we are doing... walking, riding the ferries, shopping in expensive retail outlets... eating wonderful food. (The lake trout is very good. )
In Rome we ventured into the world of the hop on-hop off bus. Bellagio doesn't run to a double deck outfit, it has the far superior Trombella Express! At 5 Euro a head it was a bargain.
It provided easy access to views like this...
Backside of Bellagio
In the heart of the old town of Parma lies the Battistero di Parma. 200 years in the making, the resulting product is rather fantastic. The external of the Baptistry presents as an octagonal building, internally there are 16 sides. Increasingly slender marble columns arch ever upward to the keystone that locks the engineering marvel into place. 13th C frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings in such details that you end up spinning around and around and around...
I guess it was early in the piece for the artist where the sizing of subjects were not right.. or was it a mini royal?
Travelling from La Spezia to Parma (where the pub parma we Melburnians seem to so love cannot be found) we passed through extensive agricultural areas, the hinterland where the support structure for an extensive food empire is fueled. Parma loves its food and has a certain penchant for horse.. yes... horse... almost as much as it loves its cured meats and the "more than famous" parma reggiano cheese which is simply superb.
The cheese is dug out of huge cheese wheels with a small trowel like knife that results in rough nuggets of beautiful reggiano placed amidst thinly sliced flavoursome cured meats. There is little doubt that Italy is home to the meat slicer. (Sorry my vego and vegan friends...) Anyone who is anyone, has one or more in their hotel, restaurant, cafe so the meat is sliced on the spot.
Parma is also dedicated to Verdi. His image is almost omnipresent and is seen in the background of this snap. He wasn't born in Parma but on the Province of Parma... close enough, so he has been claimed by the town as one of their own. Bit like a Kwozzie. (b. New Zealand but claimed by Aust.) Is the pinnacle of fame or infamy having a stout in your name...? Damn fine brew.
Italy appears to me to be organised and things pretty well runs to time... the service in restaurants has been almost faultless, the accommodation peeps have been welcoming and happy to help, people in shops and the street add to a positive vibe, and even the train system here is much more reliable than suggested. Re-opening the Cinque Terre appears to be more of a challenge. The full Le Cinque Terre walking track has been closed since the 2011 landslides. Today I walked the part of the track that is open between Monterosso and Vernazza.
The last of the line of 5 Terre villaggios is Monterosso. It is the beach village where the focus appears to be on sun, sand and... clear water. Its the closest we have seen to sand, most beaches are rocks. At Monterosso its the full commercial deal of paying for a patch of "sand" and a lounge with sun brolly... that, I just couldn't do. Seemed wrong. I know, build a bridge and get over it... sigh.
Anyway, I was there to walk the track, not work on my tan. The track is a challenging one and the steep steep climb goes on for a good 30 minutes or according to the oracle of stairs and distance... the fitbit... about 90 flights of stairs... Could have blown down quite of few porcine houses with the amount of huffing and puffing I was doing. Failed to take a snap of the massive incline. Did stop for the view occasionally...
However, I did take a snap of the easiest part of the track... for some reason.
The standard statement is that it is a two hour "walk" from Monterosso to Vernazza. It must have been my gazelle like fleet of foot both up and down the mountain side that even with compulsory panoramic photo snaps (just breathe Don... just breathe...) it didn't take more than an hour. Perhaps it was the power of the aqua minerale con gas or aka "frizzante" with which I have developed an obsession... okay we are in love... that bootled me along. The weather was still hot though slightly cooler than yesterday but the sweat factor was indeed high. So, it was with pleasure that this view came into...er... view.
As it turns out whilst I was taking this snap, Anne was below waiting patiently yet again for me, sitting next to two nonnas in an artisane gelateria enjoying a mint and cinammon gelato and the air conditioned comfort.
Yep, it all makes sense... Cinque Terre is rather nice. Each of the 5 towns is a little different and it sure is some clever marketting. There are towns beyond the famous five which are also delightful and have the same magic of Ligurian sea at their doorstep, some with soaring cliffs but each with cute buildings.
Most of the Cinque Terre track is closed. (It might still be due the landslide over a year ago.) Only the track between Monterosso and Vernazza is open. We took the train options to visit the Famous Five. Perhaps tomorrow we might get some track action. So to paint a picture...
From small town in the mountains to bigger town by the sea, and the chance to blow a few bubbles.
Snuck into an 50m long grotto with a few fish about, along the walls of both Tino and Tinito islands there were gorgonian fans to admire and whilst not the size or variety we are used to seeing over our side of the world, still worth a captains.
Speaking of captains... Capitano Simone runs a tight ship where everything is organised and nothing is a problem. Anne and two other non divers were entertained by Simone and swimming in the azure blue water is no real hardship ~ even if it was a little brisk.
Turns out Simone is a dab hand in the kitchen so when it came to providing lunch there was a veritable feast including hot pasta for lunch... the remains of which Simone is finishing off before dishes time.
Plenty of space on board for gear... and where is everyone you ask...?
A day out diving runs a little differently over here. No minimal surface interval approach to be found. Instead sunbathing is the way to de-gas. Everyone bar Anne and myself and one or two crew are on the top deck catching some rays... before and after each dive.
Today we lapped Lucca several times. The city walls form a beautiful promenade where peeps walk, run and ride along the raised level which has overhanging tree branches for most of the circuit. Unlike the officials in Firenze who 150 or so years ago decided that the city walls that had previously provided some protection against the marauding makes were an eyesore and knocked it al down to build a road in its place...
We hired bikes and spent an hour lapping the old city. Spesh.
In a notable episode, Marge Simpson decides that the Simpson family need to be become more arts aware and insists that family goes to the opera. I have been known to quote the Homer Simpson line at Anne on the odd occasion we have been to the opera...
" Oh Marge (whining voice) Wha'...No opera dogs at halftime?"
This phrase not only tickles my fancy, but it sums up our first operatic experience in Rome a few weeks ago, In truth I have been too traumatized to even reference the experience in this blog until now... as having now been to an extraordinary operatic experience in Lucca, this tale does have a Disney ending where the balance is restored. Let me take you back...
On the streets of Rome, Anne picked up an impressive looking flier. Classy photos, and a bill that included excerpts from La Traviata and other operas. "Singing at its finest" it screamed. Held in the Centro di Ingresso on a major street, it sounded reasonable. Tixs were purchased via the hotel reception. All seemed legit.
The first tell-tale sign of an impending disaster was being made to wait outside the non Church venue in a line right up to "show time" Thus forming a visual representation to the passing punters this must be a show in demand.
Once inside the wait continued on uncomfortable seats in a nice enough hall with a simple stage with some props. Cue next obvious tell-tale sign cheap and I mean cheap, plastic flowers formed part of the properties on stage.
Cue warning sign number 3... no empty chairs for a small orchestra, no piano, no theatrical lighting...
Cue warning sign number 4... from behind a theatrical flat came the "tinkling" sound of an electric keyboard playing what my knowledgeable companion later described as tantamount to the rehearsal score.
Oh, the performance began dramatically enough with the soprano wandering about the stage sighing and lighting candles, picking up a hair brush at a simple bedroom dresser, sighing and staring out a pretend window... okay its theatre of the mind stuff, not too unusual. However, this dramaturgical scene setting did turn out to be the stellar performance element of the evening. Yes, it was breathtaking...
Once this soprano sucked in a lungful of air and belted out her first note, the extent of the calamity which we were in became known.
Joined soon after by the tenor who paced the stage in supposed character which may have been a true representation if the Director was going for the "ants in your pants" look, and then a baritone. The saying that three is a crowd was never more apt.
We left after the first act. (I wanted to go after the first song)
Wounded but not in a death spiral we backed up for another performance this time in a church the very next day... because perseverance is important. Anne ended up chatting with the door staff who were on the street outside the local church close by our hotel. The young woman had the skill set to smell the whiff of an appreciative operatic fan from a few paces away and quickly pounced on Anne sensing her operatic needs had not been met. "Come on in, meet the cast... the performances is on in two hours..." the director/tenor even offered to give us our 50 Euro back if the performance was not good enough once he heard our tale of operatic woe.
It was polished, had a string quartet and there were significntly higher performance values... but there again were those crappy plastic flowers hanging about as props... so maybe its how they do it here... We didn't seek out a refund and left after 90 mins feeling somewhat better. Of course, these guys were on a comparative gravy train, as the last experience was so bad.
How nice it was to sit so close to the string quartet and having the experience of the beautiful playing flow over one... sure beats a hidden electric piano.
As Lucca is the birth once of Puccini, the folk here take their PAs (Puccini Arias) seriously. Puccini didn't stay long as he was snubbed and riciculed by the establishment who couldn't cope with the talent and aspiration of the middle class chappie who should stick to his ordained destiny as church organist rather than have dreams of being a composer. Allegedly, once he left town in his late teens he never spent another night here. He would do a day visit quite frequently but would not spend the night in the town. Seems the folk are keen to make amends as every night at 7pm, you can attend a concert.
This was a superb experience restoring the balance. The control of the tenor was super and the pianist was something to behold. Very talented. pleased to report... there were no plastic flowers.
For those fans of Freddie Mercuy... check out the photo of a young Puccini on the right hand side... Was Freddie Puccini's love child once or twice removed? Could this explain Bohemian Rhapsody...?