Thursday, 21 June 2012

Day 7: Friday, 15th June 2012 - Genova

And so I awoke to our last day at 7:30am, in order to have breakfast and spend an hour looking round the shops I hadn't managed to see yesterday. This included the oldest bookshop in Genova, which I had been informed about yesterday, and an academic bookshop I had discovered the near the university as we were on our way back to the hotel yesterday. After a pleasant, quiet and solitary breakfast, I made my way back to the centre on yesterdays day ticket (logically, day tickets are valid for 24 hours here, rather than the more inefficient method of making you buy a new ticket for each period between 0.00 and 23.59 back home).

First of all, I went to the bookshop I had been recommended yesterday, where I again found the pocket book of the Genovese language I had found yesterday, and three smaller booklets that introduced different aspects of the language. Although nicely presented and quite useful, the booklets did not have the depth of the pocket book, which packed a surprising amount of information into a small space, and so I bought that one.

After this, I made my way to the university bookshop to look for books on politics and international relations I had heard about beforehand - despite having seen them on Amazon's Italian website, I thought it much better to buy them in Italian shops, thus contributing to the Italian economy and the local store rather than that of a big international chain. I located the series of books I wanted, but not the title, so I asked the shop assistant and managed to find the book on International Organisations I had been searching for, which should prove an interesting challenge.

Following this, time was marching on and I made my way back to hotel, wishing that I were staying at least a few more days to get to know this intriguing city and its people better. Nonetheless, I feel that this holiday has been perhaps the most enjoyable I have ever taken, as I took my time, saw some smaller, local places where the pace of life is slower, and the time did not seem to go quickly as with past holidays at all. As such, I hope to return to this region soon and to spend more time on getting to know it, as it is easily the nicest of the Italian region I have seen so far. Here's to the next trip!

Day 6: Thursday 14th June 2012 - Genova/Casella

Today was the last full day of our holiday, and we were to return to the large city of 780000 people that is Genova, the place where I considered undertaking my Masters studies in International Relations. Although the city is rather large, it does not feel overwhelming and is easy enough to get around on foot, although making use of the public transport system is a good experience in itself. Located as it is between the mountains and the sea, Genova makes innovative use of public transport, encompassing a mixture of metro, trolleybuses, lifts and funiculars.

The funiculars here are unlike any I have seen elsewhere, where they whisk you from the bottom to the top with no inbetween stops. The funicolars of Genova, in particular the one running from Zecca-Righi, has seven stops, with increasingly steep gradients and suitably rewarding views once you reach the final stop and alight. Furthermore, the ticket is included in the public transport day ticket and so does not cost extra as more tourist-oriented ones do. As such, it is worth making the trip to the top.

We started our exploration of the city by taking the mountainside railway from Piazza Manin in the north-east part of the city. This narrow gauge railway runs from the station here to the small mountain-side town/village of Casella, quickly working its way high above Genova before making a series of winding turns along the hillside, finally coming to a stop in Casella, where there is an outdoor swimming pool to welcome you in the summer months upon arrival. As we were short of time on this trip, we did not stop to look around Casella, and instead made the journey back to the Centre.

Having taken the bus by which we came back to the centre of the city, we began our exploration proper by exploring the old part of the city, which consists of long narrow streets with tall buildings on either side, resulting in it feeling rather like a maze, and quite dark in places. The area itself was interesting enough to explore, although inevitably some modern stores have creeped into the area, which somewhat detracts from the overall atmosphere. However, there are still some interesting places to be found, where it is possible to buy tasty and affordable Italian snacks.

Having worked our way out of the maze that is the old city, we found ourselves in one of the largest open squares of the city, which felt rather like a much less touristy version of Paris or Milan, and in my opinion far more majestic. Just off this large square was the main street of the city, which by definition was full of international chain stores and banks which were of little interest, but the real gem to be found was the large book store over two storeys, where I bought a terrifically colourful book all about the city of Genova - something I had been hoping to find since my arrival in Italy, so as to really get to grips with the history and culture behind the city in addition to my own explorations.

One of my other main aims during this trip was to find a book about the local Ligurian language spoken hereabouts by some residents in addition to Italian. The only book I could find was a small pocket-sized book that was nonetheless comprehensive, featuring a history of the language, a grammar and word lists and is an excellent starting point. As it turned out, courses in the language were difficult to come across and this was perhaps the best I would find, but the shop assistant in any case aided me in my search by telling me where to find the best-reputed book store in the city, which unfortunately was closed upon my arrival. Being as determined as I was, I made a point to get up early and come back the next day before the flight home.

Having failed in my quest to find a suitable book, we made our way towards the university district, where the longest funicular of the city exists. This was of course the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes and initially starts its ascent in a couple of drab tunnels, but as the ascent begins to steepen, the journey gets more exciting and within 10 minutes we are at the top, where a series of hiking trails open out across the country and are accessible from here - yet another reason to return here in the future. After a few photos, we returned to the bottom in search of something to eat for our last night, and found a pleasant place on the seafront, with a main course, dessert and drink all in for €10 - the so-called Menu Turistico, although the place was hardly teeming with tourists, which was very welcome. Having satisfied ourselves with a pleasant meal, we returned to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Day 5: Wednesday, 13th June - Rapallo

After three days in the quiet villages of the Cinque Terre, with our return flight to the UK due in two day’s time, we moved on to the small town of Rapallo, in order to adjust back to civilian life before the impending chaotic nature of big city life in Genova arrives tomorrow! Rapallo is a small sea-front town with around 30000 people, and was once a popular resort on the Italian Riviera. Although it is no longer as popular as it once was, probably due to the advent of low-cost flights elsewhere for Italians, this actually improves the appeal of the place, leaving it feeling more like a usual town, with the added bonus of being by the sea, with a marina and the mountains closeby.

The area around the seafront is pleasant and airy, with numerous restaurants clustered together, whilst a couple of long streets and a number of meandering small alleyways with shops form the heart of the town. Surprisingly for such a compact place, Rapallo manages to back in bookshops, clothes shops, and shops selling traditional Italian food, drink and sweet goods, which for me made it quite an unexplored delight, with everything you could want that is Italian at a considerably lower cost than in the more commercial offerings in the villages in which we stayed – despite their quiet and solitary appeal, the presence of numbers of tourists has resulted in higher prices for everyday goods, something which Rapallo fortunately does not suffer from.

Along the waterfront, there are the remains of a small castle/fort on a small outcrop, which can be visited, although we didn’t go in. This enhances the unique appeal of the area, and is not the only interesting old relic to be found. On the main road leading to our hotel, there can also be seen a very old Roman bridge, to which I could not put a date but I would imagine it is certainly at least 500 years old. Due to its age and prestige, the bridge cannot be removed for legal reasons, and certainly looks unusual as tall vehicles cannot pass under it, and it does not fit with the modern design of the road, which was clearly wider originally under the bridge than the current road. Walking by the side of the bridge also reveals the bridge to be closed off with gates, suggesting either that it is unsafe to walk on (although it looks very sturdy) or it is an attempt to preserve it for a longer time. Nevertheless, it would be easy to climb over the side if one wished, although I did not attempt it.

Another attraction in Rapallo exists in the form of a cable car that whisks you up from one of the city’s suburbs to higher up in the mountains for a panorama over the city, suspended on a line in a small carriage. As my Dad didn’t fancy it however, I decided not to go on alone, especially as it was more expensive than the higher (and longer) mountain railway we were planning to take tomorrow. After finishing our explorations of the city’s back streets and narrow alleys, we returned to hotel where I spent some time on the roof terrace, which despite being four storeys high, had sensational views to the surrounding countryside, and was a very pleasant space to spend some time, despite the fairly strong breeze up there. All in all, a pleasant end to a very pleasant day.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day 4: Tuesday 12th June 2012 - Riomaggiore/Vernazza/Monterosso/Manarola

Today has been perhaps the most eventful, as we focused on the last two villages of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare, and the walk between them. At first glance, Vernazza seems to have less going for it than the villages we've seen so far, as there appears to be a fair amount of building work going on and it is a little more faded round the edges on some of the buildings. However, there was a market selling local products and a few different books and souvenirs to look at in the shops, making for a pleasant change. Also, as you go behind the church to access the trail to Monterosso, the views open up rapidly to reveal another spectacular panorama that is nonetheless different to the villages we saw yesterday.

The trail itself climbs rapidly and is rather more challenging than the route along Via Amore taken yesterday. However, you are rewarded with even more stupendous views and exciting scenery. There are a couple of picnic spots along the way and also an area with some food left for some homeless cats in the area, which is rather nice. Along the way we met a couple from America who happened to live in Dublin, which was rather exciting.

On arrival at Monterosso, we tried in vain to find the entrance to the railway station so we knew where to come on the way back. In the end, I used my passable Italian to ask and found out that you have to go through a tunnel leading to the other half of Monterosso, making it a little bigger than the other villages. Inevitably, this leaves Monterosso as the most commercial of the villages, with more restaurants and bars, though still with its own appeal and charm.

After completing my tradition of buying a postcard in each village instead of all together, my collection complete, we took the train back to Manarola to enjoy another of the tasty Genovese focaccia bread, as well as some nice Italian sweet treats. After this we returned to the scenic photo spot for a joint photo, before returning to Riomaggiore to enjoy our last evening. We had dinner at a nice covered outdoor restaurant, I tried the traditional Ligurian trofie pasta with pesto, followed by a nice Panna Cotta with chocolate. After that we returned to our lodgings to watch the last half of the Poland-Russia Euro 2012 match - hopefully, a promising result will signal good fortune for the rest of our trip!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day 3: Monday June 11th 2012 - Riomaggiore/La Spezia/Manorola/Corniglia

After having breakfast, we started the second day of our Italian adventure in La Spezia. As it's the only town of any size in the area, we headed in to get some supplies and a sim card as the options available in the village where we're staying are limited to (mostly) overpriced tourist essentials and no sim cards. The journey to La Spezia only took 8 minutes, and we spent a little time looking around the shops there, mainly bookshops before returning to Riomaggiore shortly after 12.00.

We bought two Cinque Terre cards, as it is necessary to acquire one before being allowed access to most of the paths. We had reservations initially as at the start of the trail near the railway station it was quite windy and cool. However, these fears turned out to be unfounded, as it was quite calm on the coastal route to the next village, Manorola, and we managed to get a few decent shots on the way there, which took a mere 20 minutes.

Manorala itself is as picturesque and photogenic as Riomaggiore, but instead of just one main street is appears to be divided into both upper and lowers sections, separated by a small piazza (square). The upper section is quieter and less commercial than the bottom half, although the bottom half has a greater selection of shops and places to eat and is a bit more lively. Upon reaching the bottom of the main street in Manorola, the bay opens out more than in Riomaggiore, affording some truly magnificent views of the village itself. Especially pleasing was as we were walking and the sun came out, which resulted in what I expect are some of my best photographs from this trip. After having a bit to eat - a traditional Genovese focaccia bread - we made our way back to the station to catch the train to the next village, Corniglia, as unfortunately the section of the trail between these two villages and the one after (Vernazza) is currently closed.

The train took all of a minute to reach Corniglia, and upon arrival there is the option of taking a bus, or a long but gently inclining set of steps up to the village, as it is located too high on the rock promontory for a train station to be able to feasibly reach it. This naturally leaves Corniglia feeling more secluded than the other two villages thus far, with narrower streets and tightly packed buildings - nevertheless, there is an area for a bus to come up on the only road leading to and from the mountain-top village, which is again quite an chievement. Corniglia itself is not my favourite village, but the different flavour of it was welcome, as the other two are fairly similar to each other, excepting the already-mentioned exceptional views.

Although Corniglia itself is high, walking through the centre of the village shows that there is another village even higher up than this one, although I haven't quite worked out how to get there yet - should I do so, I will definitely try to make it one of my achievements to get there before the end of my time here.

Day 2: Sunday 10th June - Genova/Riomaggiore

After a pleasant nights sleep we woke up to a filling, yet slightly dry, breakfast that would put us on for the flight ahead to Italy. The flight itself did not take much time, and we soon found ourselves on a bus from the airport to the centre of Genova, which also took very little time. The arrivals hall at Genova, it has to be said, leaves little to be desired - no shop as such and no active information point, necessitating a trip to the departure lounge for any essentials. Fortunately, it isn't particularly difficult to purchase a bus ticket to the centre.

The real fun began when we arrived at the main train station. As we were wandering round following all the signs we could see to Platform 13 for our train (it had to be), we kept coming out of the lift each time at somewhere different, and never anywhere near a platform. In the end, we retraced our steps back to the entrance hall and found a subway to our train, and made it just in time. The journey itself was uneventful, and by 16.00 we found ourselves arriving at Riomaggiore.

It was at this point that I began to really feel as if I was on holiday. The sun wasn't shining too much, and the weather not as warm as expected, but the views upon arrival were certainly spectacular, and a mere taster of what was to come. We checked into our B&B, which is in a good central location, with plenty of snacks and, unusually, a real coffee machine for making your own lattes and hot drinks, very satisfying. Noises from the street outside drift in from the window, providing an instant connection to local life, with piano music drifting in through the open window and cheers from those watching the football down below (Italy vs. Spain, so an important match).

After getting settled in, we did a little bit of exploring in the shops and had something to eat, just getting to know the city. As it started to get dark, we settled down for the second match of the day, and during the half-time break, I wandered off to the waterfront to take a magical night time shot of the houses lit up along the cliff. Although not quite as good as some of the commercial photos available, it was nonetheless unedited and very satisfactory from my Canon camera. Here's hoping the results will be as good from tomorrow!

Day 1: 9th June 2012 - London/Essex

As I was flying out tomorrow (the 10th, despite it being the 11th when I'm writing this) it was decided to spend a little time in London, as check-in at the B&B where we were staying wasn't open until 6pm, due to it being a privately owned guesthouse near the airport with very little to do in the area.

Upon leaving the impressive newly renovated Kings Cross station, instead of taking the tube I decided to take my usual route down Judd Street, where one of my favourite bookshops exist, a language bookshop. As there wasn't too much time however, we pressed on and I decided to take a slightly different route to normal down one of the other side streets. This is one of the great benefits in London - you can take a different street you've never taken before, and discover something new and exciting that you've never seen. This was what happened to me on this occasion, as I found a marvellous bookshop called Judd Books which had a great selection of everything from travel and history to politics and languages, and all at very reasonable prices. In particular, there was a great section on the Balkans featuring some quite rare books. Made a mental note to return here on my way back home, as baggage allowances wouldn't allowed to take everything with me!

After leaving Judd Books, found another quirky little bookshop in a basement just off the Brunswick shopping arcade. Not quite as good value as Judd, but a great find nonetheless and it would be easy to spend a few hours there! As time was marching on we moved into the centre of London for a bite to eat before taking the train to Stansted for the bus to the B&B. The B&B was a pleasant surprise. Mercifully quiet, on a peaceful street 3 miles from the airport in the heart of Essex, it is easy to believe you are somewhere else entirely. The hotel owner was actually Polish so had a gold chat with him before settling I'm to put room. I think I made him homesick for his homeland!

After a quick drink in the room, we removed to the bar down the road that had been recommended to us, which was very small but turned out to be a delightful little country establishment where a drink and a home-cooked meal could be enjoyed. Characterised by wooden-beamed ceilings and food available until 11pm, little more could be asked for in such a pleasant location! As it was already 10 however, and we had already eaten, we retired to our room after one drink, to get a good nights sleep for tomorrows flight to Genova.