This is why I moved to the United Kingdom. So that I could pop over to Europe on a whim and visit places I have always dreamed about. If I was still in NZ, it would take months of saving and planning and hours and hours of flying to get to anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Not this time!
I have actually been to Italy once before. For about an hour. We drove from France through the Mont Blanc tunnel, had one very delicious coffee in a tiny grey mountain village, then drove back to Switzerland.
This time, we arrived in Pisa in the late hours of Friday evening, where we were kindly picked up by Alex’s Dad Willy and driven back to the old Medici villa we were to stay in for the next four days. The Medici family were a powerful family from Florence that first came to power in the 14th century, credited with the invention of banking. And we stayed on some of their old land! By ‘we’ I am referring to me and Alex, Willy and Karen, Alex’s brother JT and his girlfriend KQ.
A lot of central Italy was first settled by the Etruscans (900 – 400 BC), who were a seemingly advanced people who managed to change the unfarmable land with the use of irrigation. They had a tendency to build their settlements in well-defended hill forts, of which we had the pleasure of visiting. Saturday afternoon was spent in Siena, a gorgeous hill-top city famous for their Palio horse racing event in the large piazza. We had lunch and explored the town and its cathedral – a fantastic example of Romanesque-Gothic architecture. I have heard that the one of the oldest banks still in use resides in Siena, but we did not get to see this. Alex and I sampled a traditional Italian cake, panforte, which is thought to originate from 13th century Siena.
The next day was an early start so that we could go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence before all the crowds got there. The Uffizi is one of the most famous museums in the western world. The building was originally built for the Medici family as offices (Uffizi means ‘office) and it housed their extensive art collections. We spent the better part of four hours exploring the museum, before having lunch in a locally owned restaurant. My biggest regret was not getting the huge Florentine steak that is a specialty in the region. Next time…
San Gimignano is another walled medieval hill town in Tuscany. We explored a little, and climbed to the top of the hill for some spectacular views of the town and surrounding landscape. Lunch was a family event, with a delicious bottle of red wine served in giant bowl-sized glasses. I had a truffle and potato soup, drizzled with aromatic olive oil. Alex had a local dish of diced pork and salad. As we left the town, it starting spitting big, fat drops of water. We hurried back to the car just in time to miss getting absolutely drenched in a storm that rattled the car and turned roads into rivers! Needless to say, our afternoon plans of drinking wine in the sun went down the drain. Instead we took a very scenic drive through Tuscany, past many more hill-top towns and stopped in for a brief wine tasting before heading back to the villa.
The following day we didn’t do any site-seeing, unless you count gawking at price tags in the designer outlet stores as site-seeing. There were four big outlet malls within close proximity, so we spent the afternoon exploring them. And not buying much.
The next morning we packed up our gear and JT and KQ split off and headed to Rome, whereas the rest of us headed to Pisa via Lucca. I wish we had more than a couple of hours for Lucca, as the small walled town was incredible! A lot of gorgeous Italian-made clothing shops, bakeries and coffee shops, churches and cathedrals, piazzas, gardens and statues.
After the stunning Lucca, we decided to not explore Pisa much. But of course, before our train trip to the coast, we stopped and got the cliche photos, how could we not?!
Our home in the Cinque Terre was Monterosso, the northern most of the five villages. I finally had a primal meal of mozzarella and tuna salad. Our first full day here we decided to relax and spent most of it on the beach. The small portion of the beach that wasn’t covered with hire-only chairs and umbrellas, which was packed full of cheap tourists like ourselves. We explored the old Monterosso and had a cheap pizza for lunch while listening to the passionate restaurant owner complain about Italian politicians. For dinner that night, I cooked Italian meatballs, using lots of fresh rosemary from the bush outside our room. Simple but delicious.
Alex and I intended on walking the entire track to each village, but unfortunately two of the tracks were closed. The two hardest ones were open, so we set of in the morning to tackle those. The first walk was from Monterosso to Vernazza, challenging during the steep climbs but absolutely stunning along the rugged coast. We had a brief stop in Vernazza for a coffee and a rest, before attempting the next part of the walk.
The way to Corniglia, the next village, was just as steep and challenging as the first. I was astounded by all the different flowers we came across! We had a basic lunch in Corniglia, of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and basil. As with the other towns, it was full of gorgeous alleys and cobblestones. After we finished exploring, we walked down the 365 steps to the train station, where we waited 40 minutes for a train to take us two minutes to the next village, Manarola.
In Manarola we had a quick swim in the refreshing waters below the town, then a cheeky gelato before heading home. We had another home-cooked dinner of roast chicken legs and salad, definitely more primal and cheaper than eating out! On our last day in the Cinque Terre, we got the train all the way to the last village, Riomaggiore. We explored the village, that dates back to the 13th century, including it’s castle which was built in 1260. We had a quick lunch of fish and chips, which was of disappointing quality considering it is fishing village, before getting the boat all the way back to Monterosso.
We had a final swim and sunbathe before heading out for our last dinner in Italy. Alex had a big portion of swordfish, and I had veal with mushroom sauce. Both were delicious, and actually primal! The following day we got the train (that actually turned up on time) to Genova to get our flight home.
Overall, we found it quite difficult to be primal in Italy, with the tempting breads, pastries, gelato and wine. It was certainly interesting to see how we felt after eating all this food we had abstained from for so long, and it wasn’t very pleasant. We felt very bloated and tired. But, Italy was incredible and I have no regrets. Except for not staying longer!