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Part Two: Northern Italy (Venice – Bologna – Chianti Tuscany – Pisa – Cinque Terre – Venice)

“Buongiorno”

I’m just going to tell you right now, Italian is my favourite cuisine. For months I had been getting my mouth in the right shape for Italy. This trip for me, was going to be just as much of a culinary experience as it was a cultural one. I had imposed a self-ban on anything Italian in the lead up to our vacation, just so I would enjoy it even more.

JP and I had travelled to Rome on our European adventure as teenagers and I have the fondest memories of that time. Throwing a coin into Trevi Fountain and making a wish, wandering around the Colosseum and imagining the gladiators there before, gelato at the Pantheon and basking in the sun on the Spanish Steps… it all feels like it was just yesterday. The one country I have always said that I would LVOE LOVE LOVE to return to was Italy, and finally here we are on the plane from Istanbul to Venice and I can hardly wait.

The short flight made this leg even more appealing as we collected our bags and headed towards the car hire counter. JP was particularly excited about getting back in the driver’s seat (as we don’t have the need for a car in HK). After some familiarization with the reverse side driving we were off.

Like a fish to water JP had the driving nailed; “just like riding a bike”. There wasn’t a minute that I didn’t pinch myself, driving through the most picturesque countryside. After about 2 hours we arrived in Bologna for lunch. Picking out a well-known local trattoria we scrambled inside and tried to work out what the system was. There were people EVERYWHERE, hungry Italians waiting to be seated, whilst watching the orders delivered right under their ravenous noses.

I decided on a pasta dish for my first Italian meal, choosing a butter and sage ravioli filled with parmesan and ricotta and I wasn’t disappointed. JP had an Italian sausage rigatoni that was equally as tasty. Bellies full we decided that gelato was a must and off we went in search of a recommendation I had a found prior to leaving Hong Kong. Again…not disappointed. Being Easter Monday there was not much open, however, driving through the small and historical laneways of the birthplace of Spag Bol we found ‘La Sorbetteria Castiglione’ was opened! This place is an ice cream lovers paradise. Imagine my excitement when I find they have a flavor named after me; ‘Dolce Emma’ – fig and ricotta flavor!  

Next stop was our villa in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany. We had a little difficulty locating the vineyard where the villa was and after giving my year 9 Italian skills a workout on the locals and a few 2 km driveways being jogged up and down, we found it! Breathtaking. Movies like ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ just don’t do this place justice. It truly is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen. Rolling green paddocks, perfectly lined vineyards for rows and rows with fresh vine leaves sprouting, dirt roads and crisp blue skies without a cloud for miles. I was in heaven.

We found a little wood fired pizzeria called La Cantina in Greve in Chianti, where we indulged…again. Naturally, Chianti is the home of Chianti wine so were best than to have a few glasses?

The next day, I could feel myself coming down with a cold and it made me very nervous. This was the part of the trip that I had planned meticulously, looked forward to for an age and the thought of a cold ruining my time was petrifying. Dramatic? Not at all – I knew I was on the road for total annihilation and I wasn’t far off.

We made our way to pretty Pisa that day, sniffles and body aches in tow. I was determined not to let this bug break my stride and with an orange and carrot juice in hand, I grabbed the Canon and attempted as many ‘illusion’ photos with JP, one of his favourite travelling past-times. The Leaning Tower of Pisa it remarkable, something i never thought I would see, which made it all the more remarkable. The thing really tilts…like tilts A LOT! Nevertheless we got the snaps; leaning on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, carrying the Leaning Tower of Pisa on our backs, pushing it up right, holding it in one hand, holding it in two…the list goes on and it never gets old.

Pisa is a pretty little place. Most people we had spoken to had said that it wasn’t worth visiting, but on leaving we disagree. Pisa is well worth the trip particularly when you find out that its not just the Tower that is leaning. Apparently many of the structures in town are leaning due to the unstable foundations that they have been built on. Playing ‘Spotto’ with them was good fun too.

From Pisa we made our way further up the coast to what would be our destination for the next few nights; Monterosso Al Mare in the Cinque Terre (Five Lands). I have to say that the views driving up the mountains rivaled that of Tuscany. They also made a great distraction from the fact that we were driving on some of the narrowest roads with no barricades I had ever encountered.

We arrived for lunch in Vernazza, the town before Monterosso. On the way down, we notice that the road continuing on to Monterosso seems blocked off, but we don’t give it much attention. We parked the car in what looked like a demolition site and walked the rest of the way down. Looking around, it appears nothing like the charming and romantic little village that I have read so much about. It look more like a war torn village left abandoned by its people.

Don’t get me wrong, there was definitely evidence of the seaside daydream, with its colourful buildings, cobble stone walkways and spectacular ocean views, but something was definitely ‘off’. We strike up conversation with the waiter at the one café that appears open in the whole town and find out that Vernazza and Monterosso were the most affected by the October 2011 floods in the Cinque Terre. The road that we were intending to travel to the next town had been blocked for months and no one knew when it would be cleared and opened up. The town had been rebuilding itself for 6 months already and was still a long way off. Our option? An added 2 hours on an alternative route, or leave the car and take a 3 minutes train ride to our village.

The train wasn’t too bad but the walk to our hotel from the station was a little too much for my sickly body. We arrived at Le Casa Dei Limoni (The House of Lemons – naturally, on a lemon grove) and immediately the woman saw how fluey I was and made me a special lemon drink, which she continued to make every time I arrived back at the hotel…so sweet. However difficult this place was to get to, I highly recommend it for the hospitality alone.

We spent our time in the Cinque Terre exploring the other villages and lunching in Corniglia – which was a real treat (Cecio Ristorante – highly recommended)  sharing gelato and pizzas (and sometimes in that order) and taking a dip in the frosty Ligurian Sea.

It was enchanting, however as you walk around the towns affected by the devastating floods in October last year, you can feel a sense of sadness shared by the locals. There are photos up on the walls of buildings of cars being swept past the restaurant that you ate dinner at last night, tales of bravery and triumph, of loss and sadness. They are slowly rebuilding everything again, most starting from scratch and they are all hopeful to be ready for the next summer season.

Our last stop in Italy was Venice and as we drove back along the coast through La Spezia and back across Northern Italy I was excited to see the canals I read so much about.

Wandering the streets of this sinking city, it is easy to forget what year it is and get caught up in the theatrics of it all. The carnivale masks and costumes stores line the streets, drawing tourists in to play dress ups. Pizza stands tempt you with the smell of their fiery ovens. People sipping their espresso, and those waiting in line for their gondola to take them across the Grand Canal for 1 Euro. Exploring the bridges connecting the 118 little islands all unique, beautiful and intricate in their own right was fantastic. However, Venice’s economy is largely based on tourism and generally, we found that hospitality wasn’t a priority for most restaurants, bars and cafes…even our hotel manager was a touch grouchy. If you can put that side, it’s a beautiful place rich in history and amazing architecture and somewhere that ill never forget.

My Italian experience the second time round was different but equally as exciting and equally as wonderful and beautiful as my first trip. There is just something about the diversity of the country that keeps drawing you back as well as the food, the people, the atmosphere… everything wrapped up together makes it somewhere that you just keep wanting to go back to. I look forward to visiting the South one day, perhaps at the next stage in my life… an old woman.

Next stop, Moscow.

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