On Moonlight Swimming and Meatless Seafood

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
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Trip End Oct 08, 2009


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Flag of Italy  , Italian Riviera,
Monday, September 7, 2009




We took the train from Verona to the Milan Central train station (about 2 hours) and then had to head over to the Milan Malpensa airport on a shuttle bus that took about an hour.  Picking up the car was easy.  It literally took us 10 minutes from start to driving off.  We leased through Peugeot and the cost and coverage is the best deal you'll find for getting a brand new car in Europe.  It's a sweet little diesel 308 manual shift with a back hatch trunk big enough for our bags and more. It gets 52 miles to the gallon and is small enough to fit in tight spaces.  Our car at home is a '93, so all the new bells and whistles are still quite novel to us.  Mostly, though, I was itching to get out on the Italian freeways and run it through the gears.  Italy's highways are beautiful.  Toll or no toll, they are super smooth, well marked/signed and have turn outs and SOS boxes every few kilometers.  It removes a lot of the fear of foreign driving.  It’s a chicken or the egg first subject, but I'm not sure if people drive insanely fast here because of the nice roads or they have nice roads because people drive insanely fast.  Either way, the four hour trip to Cinque Terre wasn't terribly scary to drive (I think Marisa may disagree on that point).  At points there are minimum speed limits, but no maximum.  We had  Porsches and  Ferraris blow by us so fast that they shook the car.  And we were going 85 at that time.

There were scads of beautiful scenery as we drove through the Piedmont region down to Genoa and then to the south of Cinque Terre. And there were endless tunnels after tunnels after tunnels. Along the the Riviera west coast of Italy the mountains run almost straight into the sea, so the Italians cut their driving time by going through them rather than around. After my drive time in Italy I don't want to see another tunnel.  We’re sick of tunnels. 


Cinque Terre is made up of five small towns not far from each other that all hug the rocky Italian Mediterranean coast – (from south to north: Riomaggiori, Manarola, Corgnilia, Vernazzia and Monterosso). We first stayed in Manarola, the second of the towns from the south. It didn’t disappoint. Only locals on business calls can enter the town in a car. Otherwise, you have to park in a lot above the town and walk down a steep hill. We were fortunate because our place was at the top of the town next to the village church. We stayed two nights at Casa Capellini – a home converted into three rental rooms with the family still occupying the bottom two floors of the four floor building. We had a small terrace that looked out unobstructed over the town. We got in around dinner time and Mrs. Capallini suggested trying a local dinner place, Trattoria Da Billy, run by a family they know up on the hill above the town. We hiked up the narrow twisting alleys and found it just in time as there was only one table available inside, next to a larger table of eight other English speakers. It’s always a good sign when an on the house apparatif spritzer of champagne and berry juice shows up in front of you before you have time to settle in. The food was fantastic and the family running the restaurant were exceptionally engaging considering the limited English they spoke. We had an excellent local white wine and Marisa got the seafood pasta with taggliatelli and a cream sauce that was done very well. This was the real starting point of our frustration with Italian seafood.


First off, Mediterranean seafood is small in comparison to its cold water brethren we are used to. You just aren’t going to get much meat off the little suckers. Additionally, as Marisa would soon learn, the shrimp and scampi (miniature lobster) come with all their limbs, including the eyes. Secondly, you have to work hard for your meager seafood because the chefs/cooks don’t remove the shells from anything. I ordered a crab ravioli and while the fresh made pasta and sauce were really good, the crab was all shell and required serious work to dig anything out of it. This situation would repeat itself throughout the trip in various ways. Our disappointment this time around, though, was tempered when we got our shared secondi dish. We ordered the catch of the day grilled. That meant that at the beginning of dinner they brought out a large platter with several fish on it and you could choose which one you wanted- and they were clearly pulled out the sea that day. It was grilled with some local olive oil and that was all. I should point out that much of the hills surrounding Manarola are filled with olive trees as this is one of their main products. So you can imagine how fresh the olive oil tastes. The fish (something local and from the sea, that’s all we know) was absolutely succulent – crispy skin and all – and fell right off the bone. It was cooked perfectly and we way over ate while finishing it off because we just could not stop. We figured that was the night. It had been a long travel day and we were stuffed and tired.


Then came the grappa.


Grappa is a distilled grape alcohol. It normally ranges from 40 to 60 proof and is sipped like a good tequila. At the end of our meal our host sat a bottle of Muscato grappa (40 proof) in front of us, poured three small glasses and let us know that this was her gift to us. Then she gave the traditional Italian toast, "Cin Cin" (pronounced "chin chin"), and drank it with us. She left the bottle and let us know we could continue drinking it if we wished. We wished. The Muscato grappa has the same floral/citrus properties as the Muscato wine and is just as flavorful. One sip led to another, led to another pour and another and the night was getting more interesting


We figured out during the meal that they were a group of Kiwis (New Zealanders) who live in London. They also had two bottles of grappa on their table (50 and 60 proof) and were passing them around. We realized we needed change for the tip and they had a pile of it, so we asked if we could make change. Conversation immediately followed and we swapped grappa types to compare. They had been in town for several days and this was their last night. They also had befriended several locals days earlier who showed up at their table at about the time the grappa appeared. The group was very likeable and friendly and I immediately found a comrade in Mish, a fellow house music DJ. The group was heading down to the only local bar still open at midnight and invited us along. Grappa fueled, who were we to resist their Kiwi charms? The tiny bar was only open for another hour, but we had some beers and talked animatedly while an excellent flamenco guitarist and a couple of other musicians played a set of very soulful music. There was discussion of naked swimming to follow. At closing beers to go were purchased and the party headed to the "beach". Manarola has no sand beaches of any sort. The main port area has a great swimming area, but you climb in straight off the solid rock rim (swimming pool style ladders have been installed in the rock for easier access, but it is still a bit treacherous.) One of the locals with our party, Paolo, was the guide showing us where the hidden locals' beach exists. (Side note: Paolo looked an awful lot like Cristiano Ronaldo, Europe's hunkiest/ reigning best football player, which can't suck.) One of the Kiwis had a guitar and an excellent singing voice and led the group along with Paolo on the small path above the sea and out of the town. It was about a five minute walk and it wound down to another port area that was solid rock and slid slowly into the sea like a suburban drive way to asphalt. You could see the three northern Cinque Terre town lights in the distance.


The moon was full and late summer huge. We drank beer and sang songs and then Mish led the charge to the sea - his clothes left up on the rock wall leading into the ocean. Another couple guys followed. Mish called me out, so I had to represent the US of A and stripped down and headed out. I followed the top of the rock wall because the main entrance was way too slippery. I dived in to the fairly deep water and the temperature was perfect. But the Mediteranean is waaaaaayyyy salty. Wow. I gagged on the water that entered my nose as I was not ready for that much salt. The waves were fairly mild and the moonlight on the water was beautiful and made the sea seem even more vast than normal. None of the others would join (and there were no females out at all) - a case of all talk and not enough grappa. Marisa did not have either problem. She stripped and joined me in the water as we floated together in the warm, inky dark waters rolling in waves lined with moonlight. We were alone, save the sounds of the group singing up on the beach and it was glorious. A perfect moment.


After we got out and clothed and finished our beers, the group started breaking off and heading back to the town. Mish and few diehards decided the naked moonlight swimming wasn't over and headed down to the local swim hole, but it was around three and we were spent, saying goodbye and returning to our room with the fantastic view. We slept well that night.


The next day we had lunch at a local place and strolled the town a bit before taking a hike up above the town on the hillside with the olive trees, gardens and vineyards. The view was fantastic and we were all alone the entire time, save the lizards running around. We ended up at a small park that was great, but mostly ignored.  The hike was great not only because we really got to see some of the hidden parts of the village, but because it helped sweat out the previous nights alcohol intake and we both felt better for it. Afterwards we headed to the train station for the three minute train ride to Riomaggiore nearby. We'd heard the train schedule was rather lax, but we waited for a train for 50 minutes that was supposed to arrive five minutes after we got our ticket. Now that's lax. The train stations in a couple of the Cinque towns are so small they can only accomadate a few train cars, so you mostly likely have to get out in the tunnel the trains traverse between towns. Its disconcerting because no notice was given and if I hadn't stuck my head out the car to check we'd have missed our stop. The walk way in the tunnel is about two feet wide, so you really have to quickly hoof it to the platform before the train brushes by you.


We spent some time walking around Riomaggiore, eating gelato and its a quaint place, but bigger than Manarola with a more working class feel to it. We agreed we were glad we chose Manarola because of the small village feel to it and it's just more attractive. The five towns of the Cinque are all linked by a trail that varies in degree of difficulty. A few require a couple of hours and some real hiking, but the walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola is the easiest and most famous of the group. Its called the Via Dell'Amore ( or Walk of Love) and we caught it just around sunset - taking our time to really enjoy the spectacular views on the way back to Manarola.  A popular activity among the young here is to inscribe the name of a lover on a lock and place it somewhere along the path (we actually saw this in other places,too, during the trip, so it seems to be spreading.) It's cute and with the multitude of lovers' graffiti all along it, constantly reminds the romantic nature of the walk. We stopped towards the end and had a drink at a bar thats right on the path way and has a great view. We had an OK dinner in Manarola - the night before was just too hard to match - that suffered from the same shellfish issues, but we had a great conversation with a couple from Chicago that made it worthwhile. A windy storm (not much rain) blew through our non-air conditioned room that night and provided a relief from the steamy heat. We lingered out on the terrace because the view was too good to ignore and we wanted to soak it up before we left. The next morning we packed up, payed Mama Cappellini and dragged our bags up the steep hill to the car for the white knuckle ride to the other Cinque town we booked and loved for different reasons - Monterosso al Mare. Manarola, though, is a gem. Especially is you like naked moonlight swimming. 
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Where I stayed
Casa Cappellini, Manarola

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