Tuesday, July 25, 2006

In Search of the Perfect Rock (in Portovenere)...

When the alarm went off at 6:30AM my first thought was “You’ve got to be kidding”, as was my 2nd, 3rd and up to about my 10th thought that morning. Saturdays were (usually) non-working days and we were getting up as if it were one for the sole purpose of getting the best “scoglio” (rock) for our day at the sea. Yes, you read right. This day is about a rock, the perfect sunning spot in our favorite place, Portovenere.

We arrived at Portovenere at exactly 8:30AM. We quickly paid the (expensive) parking meter and power walked our way to paradise. Just west of the port where the ridiculously large yachts dock, there is man-made jetty of marble, alabaster and limestone mostly smoothed out to create a “beach” of rock – prime real estate for a day of sun bathing, people & boat watching and beating the July heat wave that has left the air in Italy quite stifling. The location can’t be beat, facing the western mouth of the bay that leads out to the open Mediterranean with a view of the dramatic 13th century church of San Pietro to one side and the island of Palmaria to the other. The strait gets a near constant stream of air coming which keeps you from really baking while bathing on the rocks.

Upon our arrival at 8:40AM, rock “numero uno” was already taken. The nerve of that middle aged blond who even brought her own blown up pillow with her! There are two good second choices. One was also taken by two passed out young men who had clearly been there since the night before, so we were able to score the other one: a peach toned marble lounge chair for two. By 9:00AM there was a regular stream of sun bathers arriving in disappointment (and giving us dirty looks). But we had staked our claim, set up camp and could safely leave to a morning “passagiata” (walk) and a cappuccino.

Our first stop on our walk was the port with several large and opulent yachts. They all paled in comparison to the “mother load” of seafaring excess known as “Mustang Sally”. She was about 120 meters long, 5 stories high, sporting a rooftop Jacuzzi, numerous water toys (aka – sea doos, boats, etc.) and a crew of eight. My initial guess on price was $10,000,000, but was off by a cool $15,000,000 according to the skipper. $25,000,000 with a yearly maintenance and employee bill of about 2.5 million. But for the reasonable price of $175,000 per week, you and 15 of your friends could live in the lap of luxury on the Mediterranean. The yacht next to Sally certainly did not hold a candle to her grandeur, but its company was far more exciting than any boat that day. Getting ready for a day at sea was the most famous and adored man in Italy at the moment, Marcello Lippi, the coach of the newly crowned world champions of soccer (Italia!). Luigi was star struck as if he were facing Arnold Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford – ONLY BIGGER & BETTER as he put it. So we had our “star” sighting of the day (ok, not as common as I made that sound) and were off to explore authentic, everyday Portovenere.

We passed our favorite restaurant, Da Iseo, where Gianni Carassi and the boys were setting up for a big Saturday lunch. Carassi is one of my favorite characters here in Italy. He must be about 60 years old, uber-tan all year round and always clad in a barely buttoned linen white shirt and either bright yellow or orange pants. We excitedly announced our “star sighting” 10 minutes before, but he was able to counter with, “Oh well, yesterday we had David Beckham here and the day before it was Brad Pitt”. Ok, since when is Portovenere the playground for the rich and famous? I thought that was a 2 hour ride up the sea in Portofino?! I guess as long as they don’t put a Gucci or a Prada in the area, a little glitz doesn’t hurt.

We finally ended our walk at Bar Doria sitting on the outdoor patio sipping our cappuccinos and munching on a fresh and delicious cornetto all the while people watching. Bar Doria is a fabulous place for just that. There are regulars who set up camp in the morning starting with breakfast and stay there all day long using their table as a base than the stone wall for tanning. Our waiter, Giovanni, explains that the bar is almost more of a beach club, but instead of paying for a lounge chair and umbrella, you buy “stuff” throughout the day and they are happy to let you stay there. Mornings are breakfast, late morning a cappuccino, then panini for lunch, gelato for an afternoon “merenda” (snack) and then an apertivo to end the day - all this and a big free umbrella - not bad. Still I was ready to return to our rock.

Besides a quick panini for lunch, our rock became our sanctuary for the day. The constant breeze made a scorching day not only bearable but refreshing. The sea water was a crystal clear tepid bath. When 4:30 rolled around and our meter was just about up, I found myself wishing we were staying another 2 hours! There is something magical about Portovenere at any hour, but in particular the early evening is so calm and pretty. Most of the people have returned home or to their hotel rooms. You get the feeling its all yours – rock, sea and more. It may seem like a silly thing to get there so early and sit on a rock, but I think it is a wonderful way to spend a hot summer day. I highly recommend it and hope an of you traveling to the area will give it a try…

For more information on Portovenere, go to:


Monday, July 03, 2006

My New Favorite Past Time...

I am commonly asked the question by people “What Is There to Do in Le Cinque Terre”? There are, of course, the usual answers: hike, bike, swim, rent a boat, eat. But I have a few favorite “thing to do” that I welcome visitors to partake in when visiting the area.

Every Monday – Saturday, La Spezia holds its outdoor market in Piazza Cavour (just off the main pedestrian street of Via Cavour) from about 7:00AM to 1:00PM. There are probably a 150 “stalls” selling fresh produce, cheeses, meats, local fish and even underwear! Everything I have bought from the market has been delicious and the prices are reasonable. Nothing like getting fresh mussels from Portovenere for ½ the price they are asking at the local Coop supermarket. It reminds me a bit of the Central Market in Florence with one very big difference: everyone is speaking Italian!

Most people just pass by the city on their way to Le Cinque Terre or Portovenere, but it does have some wonderful things to offer – especially its lively and colorful outdoor market. In addition, the stores, cafes and pedestrian streets are bustling with people. You can also have the pleasure of tasting some of the best farinata (chick pea pancake that melts in your mouth!) made in the area at La Pia (Via Magenta 5 just off Via Cavour). I love it with onions (cipolle) and stracchino cheese – YUM!

If you want a true opportunity to soak up the local Italian culture and atmosphere, I highly suggest a morning in La Spezia and its outdoor market. You can easily reach “centro” by train from Le Cinque Terre and by bus from Portovenere (11 or P bus) and Lerici (LS bus). Don’t worry, the mountains and Mediterranean will be right where you left them before starting your adventure…