The two Italian ports on our trip are the two little fishing towns of Portoferraio and Porto Venere. The fact that they are both small, Italian and based around the fishing industry is where the similarities end, the two towns are quite different in feel and energy.
Portoferraio is a town in the italian province of Livorno, on the edge of the eponymous harbor of the island of Elba and is the island’s largest city. Because of its terrain, many of its buildings are situated on the slopes of a tiny hill surrounded on three sides by the sea. In June 1814 it was handed over to Napoleon Bonaparte, as the seat of his first exile until his escape in February of 1815. Personally, we are not sure why anyone would want to escape it.
We had signed up for a wine tasting tour on this day, however Brandi was feeling quite ill from the sun and exhaustion the days before so unfortunately we were forced to back out of the excursion. It was sad that we missed it however it gave us the opportunity to wander around Portoferraio, enjoy sights and sounds of the local open air market and buy a hat for Brandi to keep the sun off her head.
Feeling quite burned out, we returned to the ship for lunch and ordered up some a very tasty room service of a properly made caesar salad with anchovies and a Margherita pizza. This gave us the energy to do one last jaunt through the town on the little tourist train with a recorded commentary of the town’s history.
We felt well enough to dine in the restaurant again, and like the night before, made it an early evening — hoping to get our energy back for the next day, at Porto Venere.
Porto Venere is a town located on the Ligurian coast of Italy in the province of La Spezia and is comprised of three villages of Fezzano, La Grazie, and Porto Venere. In 1997 these three villages and the villages of Cinque Terre were designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. A 12th-century Castello is only part of the local military past as the islands of Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto were all fortified during WWII as part of the axis occupation of the region.
The town reminded us so much of the towns in Cinque Terre (very near here) with its very warm and approachable ambiance. The buildings are also very similar — like colourful toy blocks stacked in the hills. Here, the homes along the waters edge were originally built as defense towers — seven stories tall, and only three meters wide, each. The streets are narrow and winding, built to be easily barricaded — throughout the town, many walls and archways still stand today, despite being built in 1161.
Interesting side note on this one: since being in this region in 2008, we’ve considered this area to be probably the most beautiful place we’ve been in the world. When we were speaking to the woman at the “hospitality desk”, she asked where we were from and she said “Oh! I have been there! And Banff! I think you live in the most beautiful part of the world!”.
We walked through an archway in an old brick wall, to find a beautiful little clear-turquoise cove surrounded by huge stone cliffs. There were sunbathers on the rocks, and some swimmers in the crystal clear water. This is known as Byron’s Grotto, after the English Poet who swam across the gulf from there to visit his friend Percy Bysse Shelley at San Terenzo. We could have stayed here all day, but knew we had more of this lovely little town to see. We wandered up to the thirteenth century church of San Pietro, which stands on a rocky tongue of land overlooking the sea — it was built on the site of a Roman temple to Venus. From there we climbed higher still, to Saint Ambrose’s Fortress (built in the sixteenth century) where the views were also breathtaking. At one little vantage point, Brandi turned to Brian and said, “wow, it couldn’t be any more perfect!”, but just then to prove us wrong, a butterfly flitted by.
Once we had taken in all the views we could, we headed back down into town for some focaccia and gelato. After that, we took a stroll along the water’s edge and a rest on a shady bench (within earshot of a very talented piano & flute duo). Our last little jaunt of the day was on a little boat tour of three nearby islands — Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto. They are currently uninhabited, but are impressive sites of rocky cliffs and ruins of military fortifications. Brian very badly wanted to take his camera into said ruins.
By this time, it was late afternoon and so we headed back to Seabourn Legend via tender, as it was a little too big to get right up close to the dock here. Once back on board, we decided to take a dip in the hot tub on the very front tip of the ship. We had yet another perfect meal in the restaurant, and you guessed it — bed time right after. We don’t really understand — we are certainly the youngest passengers on board, but just can’t seem to stay awake for any nightlife!
From the moment we entered the little air conditioned building in the port town of Civitavecchia, it was clear we were about to experience a completely new kind of travel. We were greeted with smiles by people in sharp uniforms and crisp white gloves. They confirmed the pronunciation of our last name, discussed dietary requests, and every spoken syllable was warm and welcoming. We had already dropped off our backpacks, we just had my purse and Brian’s camera bag on us — even then, they offered to carry them for us onto the ship. We were escorted onto the ship, and welcomed by every passing staff member. We ascended a spiral staircase while a man strummed a guitar nearby. We were lead into the King Olaf lounge, where we were invited to eat and drink until we felt like officially signing in.
We were honestly a tad overwhelmed at this point. We were pretty sure we’d just stepped into some parallel universe. So we just checked in. They took photos of us for our ship ID cards, and then a staff member appeared to show us to our suite.
Of course it is beautiful. A balcony and sitting room, a flower in a silver vase, a bottle of champagne chilling — a walk in closet (which we don’t even have at home). Moments later, a knock at the door. Maria, our stewardess, stood there with a tray of champagne and caviar aperitifs for us, and showed us around — how to work everything, etc.
Later, we made our way up to Sky Bar, which is an open-air bar on the top deck, and chit-chatted with some others. At some point we decided to walk around the boat to take some pictures, but weren’t sure if we could take our drinks with us. I turned to a woman who had been on a few of these cruises, and asked her. She laughed and said, “honey, this is your yacht. You can do whatever you want, wherever you want, however you want.”
We were exhausted from the heat and excitement of Rome earlier in the day, the run to the train and now taking in all that is the Seabourn Legend but there was still a dinner service to go. Once we were underway we returned to our room, and changed into some fresh clothes for dinner and proceeded to the restaurant on deck 3. The food was exquisite with wine parings throughout, first course was a wild mushroom soup and a red beet carpaccio; second course seared scallops with crisp smoked bacon, truffle risotto with warm asparagus salad and of course the service was impeccable.
After dinner we returned to our room and quickly fell asleep.
Our flight from Amsterdam to Rome was only delayed a few hours, which made for a rather boring wait in the terminal while we waited for the plane to arrive. Compared to our last one it was a short little hop about 3 hours, but of course we slept through much of it. We got at least a good hour or two of sometimes-interrupted plane sleeping in on this one.
After arriving in Rome we donned our backpacks, instantly remembered that a heavy backpack is even heavier with no sleep, and quickly found the train station at the airport. We got on the “Leonardo Express” airport express, which took us straight to Roma Termini (Romes main train station terminal) in about 30 minutes passing through some Italian country-side and offering us our first glances of the Roman aqueduct and our first exposure to some Roman history. We were able to check some maps at the local Tourist Information booth and about fifteen minutes later we were at our hotel.
We had booked a room at Hotel Oceania before our trip, based on some reviews in the “Rick Steves’ Rome” travel book. We entered through huge wooden doors, into a beautiful tile-and-marble building. White marble stairs curved up to the left, but we saw a sign directing us, via the lift, to the third floor. The lift was a tiny box (only barely big enough for the two of us plus our backpacks at our feet.) inside a cage that extended up about four floors. It was a little nerve wracking, but once we did it with our packs, we felt braver about it later by ourselves. On the third floor, we found ourselves on a little walkway across a courtyard, vines dangling across the walls, and opera music wafting up from somewhere below. We were greeted warmly and shown to our beautiful little room just past the main common area. We took off our packs, washed our faces, and made sure to not lie down for fear of falling into deep deep sleeps.
We had just arrived in this beautiful exciting city, and shortly after having relieved ourselves of the backpacks, our energy levels were up again. We wandered about 15 minutes south of our hotel, and found some incredibly impressive monuments, ruins and history. We didn’t know what we were looking at, but we knew it was breathtaking. But we also knew we were tired. Our brains fought between excitement and exhaustion. The air was so warm, the sights so amazing, it seemed a waste to sleep through any of it! But eventually our more logical minds prevailed, and we turned back towards the hotel.
We bought a calzone (for Brian) and a slice of pizza (for Brandi) and took them back to the little courtyard of our hotel. The air was warm and cool and perfect, and darkening. As soon as we ate, it was clear that the only next option was to crash. And that we did. I believe it was instantaneous. Our heads hit the pillows and we were out.
Until 1:30am. Brian got up to pee at that time, and I woke up when he did. Then we laid there, wondering why we couldn’t get back to sleep. Then realized our bodies thought it was 5:30pm. Eventually we did drift back to sleep though, and slept solid until later that morning.
On Wednesday we toured The Forum and Paletine Hill. We started with the Forum; it was the political, religious, and commercial center of the ancient city of Rome. Rome’s most important temples and halls of justice were here as it was the place for religious processions, political demonstrations, elections, important speeches, and parades by conquering generals. As Rome’s empire expanded, these few acres of land became the center of the civilized world.
The Forum was amazing, we walked on the same cobblestone street that the emperors of ancient Rome did. Truly mind-boggling, honestly. We saw the Temple of Saturn (where they kept their spoils of war), the house of the Vestal Virgins, and the very spot where Julius Caesar’s body was burned after his assassination. Today it is a mound of clay and dirt, covered in flowers and other offerings. We saw the spot where his house had been, and through scaffolding we saw the remnants of Caligula’s Palace.
Palatine Hill was once a huge palace, the residence of emperors for three centuries. Orgies, royal weddings, assassinations, concerts, intrigues, births, funerals, banquets, and the occasional Tupperware party took place within these walls. The palace was built by Emperor Domitian in about A.D. 81. A poet of the day described it as so grand that it “made Jupiter jealous.”
We walked through the ruins and saw the remains of the Imperial Palace, which housed Emperor Nero, and others. We saw the site of Augustus/Octavian’s home, and that of his wife, Livia, as well as more of the aqueducts bringing water from the mountains.
All our guidebooks said each of these tours would take about an hour and a half, but we took closer to two or three hours each. Partly because of stopping to take lots of photos, but partly also because we kept lingering, trying to wrap our brains around what we were seeing and touching. So old, so full of stories. It was an incredible day of learning. By six or seven pm, the tour sites were closing and our camera batteries were dead, and our feet were aching.
We went back to our hotel to shower and change for dinner. Eating time for Romans is closer to th 7-11pm time frame with relatively few (mostly catering to toursts) open earlier. We wandered out into the streets to find a nice little Italian restaurant with an outdoor patio — of which there are many! We ate our yummy little dinner next to a couple of priests. They spoke fluent Italian to the waiter but had their personal conservation in French — and as they left, they wished us a good evening in English.
After eating, once again, our minds turned straight to sleep. We picked our way back through the vibrant Roman streets, and slept more solidly on this second night.
Thursday morning we got up early enough to get to the Collosseum. You didn’t think we’d leave Rome without doing that, did you? Honestly we expected to tour all three sites the day before, but our time grew too short. So Thursday morning it was for The Collosseum. Again, words cannot describe the feeling of being in this amazing historic place. If you can imagine it full of people as it once was, you can almost feel the energy of the crowds.
By noon, we were back to our hotel to get our packs (we had checked out earlier, but they were happy to store our bags) and then back to the train station to catch a train to Civitavecchia, which is the port our cruise ship departs from.
In five days, we board our plane to Amsterdam, then Rome. One week from right now, we will be asleep on our first night of our cruise, somewhere along the NW coast of Italy.
Recently the cruise-line emailed to notify us that our second port of call had changed. Originally we were going to the small Northern Italy port of Portofino on the second day of our cruise, but apparently the Italian government has changed some cruise ship rules around anchoring in certain areas (Insert Costa Concordia joke here). This made enough changes to how and where the cruise could anchor that they had no choice but to change the port of call to something more accommodating.
This should have been where we were going:
Now, we are going to Portovenere — which looks beautiful and sounds interesting too, so we don’t really mind. There seem to be some castle ruins, and there is an excursion to Cinque Terre! Of course we were in Cinque Terre in 2008, but we loved it and would love to see it again — this time via boat and random stops for the regions famous focaccia bread.
We have also been trying firm up what we would like to do after we disembark from the cruise. The plan is right now to visit Eze, Nice and a few of the other towns in the riviera region of France before we make our way over to Mont St. Michel and then to Paris. Ah Paris in the spring time, what could be finer? Notre Dame, catacombs, la tour Eiffel! il ya tellement de choses à faire!
Obviously we do need to get to Amsterdam and must ensure we leave enough time for that leg of the adventure.
It hardly seems real, it’s really a dream vacation… We are so lucky to be able to have these wonderful adventures!
Okay, you know how I keep saying that we’ve been to the most beautiful little towns I’ve ever seen? Yesterday we found FIVE more to add to the list. Yep, five. But… I should try to stay in order as best I can — So I’ll start where I left off last time, on our way to Milan.
Milan, I’ll admit, was not the favorite stop. After all the beautiful, romantic, amazingly picturesque little places we’ve been, Milan just seemed crowded and noisy and dirty. But there were still all the smushed-together Italian homes we find so fascinating.
A huge number of motorcycles and busy streets accounted for much of the noise. The train station is big and elaborate, but it frightened me a little. It just seemed huge and concrete and oppressive. Which makes sense, as it was built during Mussolini’s reign, and it really looks like the set of some Nazi movie. We went to Italy’s national science/technology museum, which was pretty fascinating, except that we only got about a third of the way through when they closed, and we had to leave.
(the first battery ever)
Again, we had intended to just pass through Milan and not spend the night, but once we got there and wandered around a bit, we were just too tired to move on — so we stayed the night.
After leaving Milan the next morning, we had to transfer trains in Genova. At the train station, Brian found a machine that is like the “claw game” we have at home for stuffed animals, only this one was for watches… Strange.
And then we went south to a region called Cinque Terre. I’m sorry, I have to say it — this has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is a stretch of coastline towards the top of the west side of Italy’s ‘boot’.
The trip from Genova to Monterosso was exciting, because the view got more and more tropical-looking, and we started to get glimpses of the sea.
We stopped in the first town, called Monterosso and found a place to stay. The turquoise ocean and crashing waves were quite a change from the other environments we’ve been in on this trip! Palm trees, castles, statues, and the same little colorful buildings with flowers and laundry on the balconies, this time huddled in a tiny town by the sea. It was windy, but warm-ish when we arrived in the late afternoon on Wednesday. We changed into bathing suits, and ran down to the beach. We didn’t go in very far, as the water is pretty choppy, and I’m not that brave in the ocean. Just about waist-deep, letting the waves crash into us for a while. Then we got out, dried off, and wandered up to a little table by the sea where we drank wine and ate olives and bruschetta. We sat there for a good long time, unable to believe our eyes at the sheer beauty of it all! If we don’t look ecstatic in these photos, it’s because we’re squinting into a very bright sun:
There are a lot of cats here, wandering around the towns. They seem happy and well-fed and loved. I’m sure they get handouts to eat from the kitchens and outdoor patios, and they get lots of attention from the tourists who miss their own cats back home.
On Thursday we hiked from Monterosso, south through all the little towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore) in Cinque Terre. I don’t believe I’ve ever hiked such an amazing hike. It was all along the coast, up and down the mountain, touching down in a town every hour or two, for water and pizza or gelato. The hike was 18 kilometres in length, through steep hillside vineyards and olive groves. And there were lemon trees too. Sometimes we were deep behind trees, and then the path would take us out to the ledge, and we could see turquoise crashing water far below and along the coast as far as we could see. Absolutely breathtaking!
It’s impossible to capture the amazing view with an iPhone, but here are a few attempts:
Today Brian and I can barely walk, our legs are so sore! But in a few hours we will be getting on a train for 8 hours to Zurich (yep, Switzerland).
We can barely believe that today is October 3, and a week from now we’ll be home. Partly we’re so sad that our adventure is coming to an end soon, but at the same time we miss home.
Thanks so much for all the comments, we LOVE getting them!