Had viruses not intervened we had hoped to spend a few days walking part of the Way of St. Francis (Via Francigena di San Francesco), a pilgrimage route that follows an old Roman road between Florence and Rome. Instead, we boarded a train for Urbino, home of Raphael and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The railway followed the coast of Le Marche, lined with holiday resorts and long sandy beaches, deserted now in late October despite the sunshine. Thirty kms inland, Urbino is, by contrast, bustling with university students. According to the UNESCO site, the small hill town experienced «a great cultural flowering in the 15th century, attracting artists and scholars from all over Italy and beyond, and influencing cultural developments elsewhere in Europe ». The Renaissance appearance of the town was preserved primarily due to its economic and cultural stagnation from the 16th century onwards! Fortunately, the University gained a different status in the 1920s, enrollment increased and it was able to upgrade a number of buildings for its use.
Urbino is also defined by Raphael, his father Giovanni Santi, who was a painter in the court of the Duke of Urbino, and the Duke himself. Disappointingly, the town has very little evidence of Raphael’s work. The only two original Raphael works in Urbino are La Muta, which has characteristics shared with the contemporary Mona Lisa, and a fresco painted by the young Raphaello on the wall of his birthplace. While we avoided including Rome in this itinerary, we now regret not having seen the Raphael rooms at the Vatican. It will have to be the object of a future visit!
The Palazzo Ducale is a triptych of museums.The rooms of the Palace are preserved and retain some of the original doors as well as amazingly intricate wood-inlay technique known as intarsia. On the exterior, the three storeyed loggia and towers are worth seeing.
Dinner at the Ristorante Antica Osteria De La Stella was Michelin worthy!
Coffee notes: River coffee 8.75+/ 10 (Urbino). Rio Rica coffee 8.75/ 10 (Urbino)
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
– Saint Francis of Assisi, from The Canticle of the Sun.
From the train station on the Tiber River valley floor we got a good view of the historic hill town of Assisi with the Rocco Maggiore and Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi dominating the landscape. Indeed, Assisi’s Saint Francis, appears to be the biggest draw to this exquisitely beautiful medieval city, itself a UNESCO heritage site. Even in late October there were a large number of tours, seemingly of pilgrims, visiting the town. Some were led by priests and monks and individual devotions were very evident at the tomb of St Francis.
One of Italy’s patron saints and the founder of the Order of Mendicant Friars or Franciscans, Saint Francis continues to inspire with his message of compassion and peace. Born into a family of privilege in late 12th C Assisi, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, informally named Francesco, rejected that life as a young man, choosing instead to follow the example of Christ by preaching the gospel and living a life of extreme poverty, chastity, love and obedience. Francis’ efforts to end the Crusader wars and achieve a rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Our stay in Assisi was longer than anticipated, as Lois came down with a fever and a cough, keeping her confined to the hotel room for a few days. By the time we got to visit the Basilica, we had had time to learn a bit more about its construction and the life of Assisi’s most beloved son. (We watched the somewhat simplistic but engaging depiction of the life of Saint Francis in Zeffirelli’s 1972 film, Brother Son, Sister Moon.)
The Basilica di San Francesco is built on two levels, with the lower one originally constructed for the sarcophagus of Saint Francis. This is now in a crypt below along with the tombs of some of his original followers. The wonderful elaborate frescoes covering the walls and ceilings of both churches, many by the innovative Giotto, and the light-coloured stone, give the church a friendly, welcoming feel, appropriate for the resting place of Saint Francis.
The town is steeped in history but within the many hostaria, housed in ancient buildings, local cuisine is alive and well. Wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cheese, truffles and meat are all sourced from the region. Paul especially enjoyed the pecorino cheese. We both savored the local red wine of Sagrantino and Sangiovese grapes.
Naples to Praiano 70 km (train & bus) & 7748 Fit Bit Steps
2 days – 29513 Fit Bit steps
Our first espresso of the day was taken standing at the bar of Leopardo’s, Italian style. A regional train took us past Herculaneum and Pompeii to the city of Sorrento, perched on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. From here we boarded a crowded bus that runs along the 80km coastal highway between Sorrento and the port of Salerno. Originally a Roman road, the Amalfi Way, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, is carved out of the side of the cliffs, giving spectacular views of the sea on one side and the towering cliffs on the other.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, as “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape”, this stretch of rugged coastline on the southern coast of the Salerno Gulf on the Tyrrhenian Sea, is breathtaking, with its sheer cliffs falling straight to the sea, whitewashed vertical villages and terraces of lemon trees and olive groves.
Our hotel was half way along the coast in Praiano, a pretty cliffside village that has retained its atmosphere as a quiet fishing town, despite the draw of tourists. From the terrace of our hotel room, we had panoramic views of the coast and the sea. With temperatures still in the mid-20’s it was a relaxing few days, reading, exploring hiking trails, small pebbled coves and cliff-edged restaurants.
To reach the “Walk of the Gods” we had to climb up 1500 stairs to the Chiesa Convento S. Maria and then ascend a rough track for another 30 minutes. One writer says that the name of the trail is not Italian hyperbole. Indeed, the views were stunning, although the path was precipitous and vertiginous. The Li Galli Islands off the coast of Positano are said to have been the home of the Sirens who seduced sailors with their voices. According to Homer, Odysseus protected himself and his crew by filling their ears with beeswax.
Pisa to Naples – 550 km (train) & 12,391 Fit Bit steps
3 days – 46,717 Fit Bit steps
Even, or perhaps especially, after the restorative peace of the Cinque Terre, we were not prepared for the assault of Naples, which was to serve as a base for visiting Pompeii and other sights south of the city. We had booked an Airbnb in the middle of the vibrant chaotic old town. As one travel writer noted,
“No one would accuse the centro storico, the old historical centre, of being pretty, but she is darkly and ravishingly beautiful. She is also raw, passionate, secretive, generous, dilapidated, glorious, vibrant, and unabashedly corrupt and corrupting.”
The entry to our apartment was through a courtyard behind a huge wrought iron gate off a narrow dark cobblestone alleyway. Inside, we found a bright and modern flat with stone door frames and vaulted ceilings, located on the first floor of a 15th C building. Likewise, behind small doorways on the littered narrow streets with their graffitied walls, were smart coffee shops, pasticcerias, restaurants and clothes shops. Our morning espresso stops favoured Leonardo’s, whose traditional pastry, sfogliatelle, was exceptional.
A highlight of the city was a visit to the Cappella Sansevero, with its breathtaking marble sculpture of a veiled body of Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the most stunning works we have seen.
Gino Sorbillo’s pizza, recommended by Lonely Planet was an experience, not only for the perfect Neapolitan pizza, for which we lined up outside with dozens of others, and the story behind his elevating the reputation of the dish, but also his refusal to bow to the demands of “organized crime”. In 2015, Naples was reported as being a city people do not want to visit, partly because of a history of poor infrastructure and services. In addition, there are stories of the local mafia dumping tons of toxic waste, for profit, in surrounding communities for years. The adverse consequences are more than anecdotal.
Coffee notes: all the espresso that we drank in Naples (Caffé Kenon, Caffé Partenope and Caffé del Rei) was good but had a slightly powdery (?Turkish) taste. Apparently it is usually taken with sugar, which perhaps makes a middle eastern connection more likely. Given that it was less bitter than we prefer, the overall score was 8.25/ 10.
The main purpose for our stay in Naples was to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to see the crater of Vesuvius, the eruption from which in 79 AD completely buried these two Roman cities under 10 metres of volcanic ash and mud. Not discovered until the 18th C and only properly partially excavated in the 20th C (most of Herculaneum remains buried under the present city of Ercolano and excavations in Pompeii were discontinued in the 1980’s for cost reasons), the cities were nearly perfectly preserved under calcified layers of ash, providing a fascinating glimpse into life in the early Roman period. Assisted by very able guides we explored both sites, walking down stone streets where the ruts made from chariots were evident, peering into shops still containing terracotta urns from which were sold items such as wine, olives and grains, and wandering through houses and public baths with plaster and frescoes still apparent on the walls, mosaic floors, remains of marble furniture, lead piped water and sewage systems, fountains, and even political campaign graffiti painted on an outside wall. The excavations of Pompeii have uncovered two theatres and an amphitheatre.
The presence of plaster casts of victims in Pompeii and plastic replicas of skeletons in Herculaneum was chilling. (As excavators in the mid 1800’s continued to uncover human remains, they noticed that the skeletons were surrounded by voids in the compacted ash. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into the spaces, the final poses, clothing, and faces of the last residents of Pompeii came to life.) For those who were unable to escape, death from the hot gases was very rapid.
We saw examples of carbonized grains, lentils, olives and fruit and, in Herculaneum, wooden beams, doors, shutters and furniture carbonized so quickly they remained in place. Many artifacts and frescoes had been removed from both sites to museums, or looted, in earlier times.
Riomaggiore to Pisa – 100 km & 19445 Fit Bit steps
We were delighted to find that Pisa is not just a tower that is leaning from centuries of engineering, architectural and hydrological mishaps. The Piazza Dei Miracoli which comprises the tower, the Duomo, Baptistry and Camposanto are a beautifully impressive whole, and despite the crowds, our visit to the Piazza was a very cool experience. The walk from our hotel also took us along the River Arno, with the wonderful Santa Maria della Spina church perched on its banks.
We recalled having learned in our youth that Galileo (then professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa) was said to have dropped two spheres of different masses from the Tower to demonstrate that their time of descent was independent of their mass. It is also reported that Galileo’s late drawings of pendulums in clocks to achieve more accurate time keeping came from early observations of the swing of lamps in the Duomo. It is interesting that there was no mention of Galileo in any of the information that we read while visiting the Piazza.
We visited two simple eating places recommended by Lonely Planet, both wonderful: L’Ostellino, for inventive paninis and Pizzeria il Montino, for great pizza and chickpea torte.
Coffee Note: La Citadella (Pisa) 9/10
Parkinson’s note: Researchers from RMIT University, Australia, have developed a test that may be able to detect early Parkinson’s – before physical symptoms appear.
Manarola to Riomaggiore – 1 km/ 17822 Fit Bit steps
Before the 2011 floods, it would have been an easy 1km walk to Riomaggiore along the Via dell’Amore (named after the increase in marriages between the two villages when the coastal path was first opened). Instead, we had to navigate very steep trails above the villages, some of which were also closed, taking us even higher up on ancient trails which were clearly not maintained. We both made use of the new poles!
Another long steep descent on a rocky uneven path through active vineyards brought us down into the railway station side of Riomaggiore. The old town and harbour are through a long pedestrian tunnel parallel to the rail tracks.
We decided to treat ourselves to a nice lunch on the terrace at Ristorante Dau Cila, looking out on the Ligurian Sea – marinated swordfish with orange, smoked tuna and lemon, salad with fresh aragula, local sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, a glass of Cinque Terre white, pannacota and espressos.
Restored, we spent the afternoon sitting looking at the sea and exploring the town. Even dinner, which we planned to be “just pizza” was another culinary experience of fresh, local ingredients.
Tomorrow, we travel by train to Pisa and from there we will head to Naples and the Amalfi Coast. We are already getting into a new rhythm of travelling. We miss our bikes, but are enjoying the new opportunities being without them allows. For Paul, the last four days have shown him that he can now hike as well as before (while carrying his full pack), although the following morning it takes a time for the joint stiffness to ease up! It has also been the kind of experience that we had hoped for; a combination of natural beauty and cultural learning. The lovely weather is an added bonus!
As the main trail between from Corniglia and Manarola is still closed, we took Sentiero #586, a path of the Paessagio Del Vino, up among the vineyards. It began with a long climb up steep steps among partly abandoned vineyards and olive groves and through a lush wood of pine, oak and Mediterranean scrub. The trail then flattened out through a long stretch of active vineyards, with the vines on one side of the narrow, uneven path and a drop to the sea on the other! The grape leaves were turning, but the olives were still being harvested. Wild boars do severe damage to the stock and walls and are kept at bay by electric fences.
While winemaking has been a significant aspect of the region’s economy for centuries, by the 1960’s wine production was decreasing and the vineyards were being deserted. As a consequence, the dry stone walls were also in disrepair. Efforts are underway to reverse that trend. For example, A new generation of younger vintners in a cooperative, the Cantina Sociale Cooperativa Agricultura Cinque Terre, supported by government, have since rejuvenated the culture of the Cinque Terre. White wines are the mainstay of the region, made primarily from Bosco, Albarola, Vermentino and Piccabon/Pizzamosca grapes. Red varietals include Gamba Rossa, Bonamico and Canaiolo. Cinque Terre is also known for its sweet, Sciacchetrà dessert wine, made from grapes dried for up to 40 days. We didn’t sample the wine, although we tasted delicious Schiacchetrà-flavored gelato.
At a coffee stop in Volastra, a village on the trail high above Manarola, we met a couple from Vancouver who told us that one of their reasons for their current trip to Europe was to visit a friend in Berlin who has Parkinson’s. We also chatted to a German couple from Munich who have a summer cottage in Laurentians!
Descending into Manarola provided great views but some difficult terrain. As a result Lois decided to buy a walking pole. They only come as a pair so Paul will carry the other. They are collapsible and very lightweight. Supper was take-out gnocchi with walnut sauce which we ate in the comfort of our apartment.
Vernazza to Corniglia – 2.1 km (elevation 269 m). 14465 Fit Bit steps
We had vouchers for breakfast at a restaurant in the harbour and watched the town come to life. On the path again, from the steep steps up from Vernazza we had a great view of the village and Monterosso in the distance. Passing through tiered vineyards and olive groves, some abandoned, and Mediterranean “scrub”, the trail was less demanding (and less busy) than yesterday, although it did involve some steep climbs. A bar and coffee shop half way to Corniglia served 8.5/10 Segafredo espresso and provided great views down to the village.
Corniglia is the only village of the five not directly beside the sea, sitting on a promontory 100 mètres above, surrounded by vineyards, and from which all of the villages of the Cinque Terre can be seen. It is the smallest and least touristy village. But, like all of the others, Corniglia contains an impressive 13th Church, the Chiesa Di San Pietro. Also, it offered the same quality gelato, this time local honey and walnut.
Monterosso to Vernazza – 1.8km (elevation 217m)/ 14190 Fit Bit steps
Although the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza appears short on the map, it is described as the most rugged and physically demanding section of the coastal trail, with lots of steep steps and rough sections, but worth it for the stunning views! Today was sunny and warm and the trail was busy. We crossed paths with a couple from Kansas City we had met the night before and also people from Peachland who had been on our train. We also chatted with hikers from Saanich, Port Moody and Michigan as we edged past each other on the narrow path, which generally had no protection on the side of the sea!
With the only natural harbour of the five villages, Vernazza is picturesque, and was particularly so in the evening light. As the sun went down, we sat in the main piazza and chatted by FaceTime with our grandchildren in Victoria. Later, Paul sampled the traditional fare of fresh anchovies, quite different from the pizza variety. Lois did a wine tasting of Cinque Terres wines. On the wall of the restaurant at dinner there were photos of the wreckage from severe floods of 2011 which caused significant damage to the villages of Vernazza and Monterosso as well to the main (coastal) trail. Parts of that trail between Corniglia and Manarola and between Manarola and Riomaggiore remain closed.
Genoa to Monterosso – 74 km ( train 72 km, walking 2 km)
Monterosso to Madonna di Soviori return – 2.5km (elevation 465m)
The next four days we will be hiking the Cinque Terre, a rugged stretch of the Italian riviera. The coastline, the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Isolated for centuries, the villages only became accessible with the arrival of a rail line in the late 19th C. Even now, while a highway now runs high above, the villages themselves are connected only by ancient trails, a train line or by sea.
The main feature of the steep and uneven landscape is the extension of terraces, called “cian” or “piani”, that are often so narrow that they can contain only one grapevine row. Constructed over the past 1000 years are thousands of kilometers of dry-stone wall supporting these terraces.
October is still high season and the train to Monterosso was packed with tourists. We were able to leave the crowds behind to climb up to the Santuario della Madonna di Soviore, where the view was worth the trek. Our visit to the church at the Sanctuary happened to coincide with the arrival of members of a small mixed choir in preparation for the 5:00 pm sung Mass. We sat for a while and listened to beautiful 4-part harmony (small recorded excerpt below).
Back down in Monterosso we sat by the beach in the late afternoon and then climbed up to the Convento dei Capppuccini, the chapel of which houses a Van Dyck depicting the Crucifixion.
Finale Ligure to Genoa (3km walking, 70km by train*) (Fit Bit – 13851 steps)
Genoa – Day Off (Fit Bit – 12984 steps)
Genoa is a big bustling port city with abundant evidence of its long history. Some interesting points: It is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, who is described by Wikipedia as “an Italian explorer, navigator, and colonizer”. Marco Polo was imprisoned here after returning home to Venice to discover that it had been taken over by the Genoese. Polo used his time in prison to write about his travels. Genoa’s emblem is St. George’s Cross, which is also the English flag, having been adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoese.
Highlights of the city for us were the Via Garibaldi (a UNESCO heritage site), the Porta Soprana, the 12th Century Cattedrale di San Lorenzo (an unexploded English WWII bomb lies by the nave), and the lavish 16th Century Chiesa del Gesú, with its two paintings by Rueben. We also visited the grand old stock exchange building which houses the post office. The visit to the post office followed a decision to reduce the weight of both our backpacks by sending home items that no longer seem as indispensable as we had thought!
And, of course, there is the food and wines!Foccacia and pesto are from Genoa. Paul had chestnut pesto last night and we were told that locals eat foccacia morning, noon and night.
The espresso in Italy is of consistently high quality, 7.5 + (but nothing yet to eclipse Discovery of Victoria or Moja of North Vancouver!)
*distances by road or walking on Google Maps used as a proxy)
Pietre Ligure to Finale Ligure (2 km walking, 6 km by train) (Fit Bit steps – 11537)
It was strange to be back in Nice without our bikes. The Promenade d’Anglais was as busy as before, but, as a reminder of the 2016 attack, there were new steel bollards along the sidewalk. We explored previously unvisited sights,including the Palais Lascaris, which is remarkable for its baroque style and fine collection of musical instruments.
Our platform at Nice Gare was chaotic this morning as we waited for our 8:30 departure to Ventimiglia. Throngs of commuters heading to work in Monaco dealt with apparently not atypical delays and platform changes. One commuter told us that only “Monegasque” can live in Monaco and even if one had the help of someone with a “bras longue”, rents are prohibitively high.
Much of the route from Ventimiglia to Pietre Ligure was through long tunnels, with stops at new stations. This explained the long stretch of bike path on the old coastal rail line we had cycled in May. At Pietre Ligure we headed first to the Restaurant Beluga for lunch, then to the Ospedale Santa Corona for a reunion with Dr Lorenzo Viassolo, the head of trauma who had treated Paul. We had a warm chat about Paul’s recovery, family and our plans. That visit marked the restart of our adventure.
A short train ride to Finale Ligure later and we were checked into the Hotel Florenz, an old monastery where we had been booked in May. The remarkably preserved medieval gates, wall and churches of this town warrant more attention than they are given in the Lonely Planet Guide. The town is now the centre for many outdoor pursuits in the hills, especially mountain biking.
Nearly five months after the collision* in Italy, we are returning to Europe to resume our trip, but without our bikes for now. While Paul continues to improve with the able support of his GP, neurosurgeon and physiotherapist, he has been advised that a full recovery may take up to 12 months. Neuropathic and musculo-skeletal symptoms continue to be managed with gradually reduced levels of pain medication. We are hoping this can soon be eliminated. It will likely also take some time for both of us to no longer relive the experience daily. However, we are anxious to get back to some sort of “normal”, which for us at the moment is being in travel mode.
We very much appreciated the opportunity this enforced break gave us to reconnect with friends and family and to spend precious time with our children and grandchildren in Vancouver (now Victoria) and Paris. We were pleased to be around to see our daughter and family get settled in their new home and neighbourhood in Victoria, which also prompted us to sell our Vancouver condo, with the expectation that we will follow them to Victoria on our return to Canada. So, if we weren’t feeling sufficiently dislocated with the interruption of our world trip, we have added a self-imposed sense of rootlessness!
After a day of recovering from jet jag in Nice, we will travel by train to Pietra Ligure, Italy, where we will meet up with the emergency medicine specialist who took care of Paul and who has texted us twice to follow up on his recovery! We will then carry on to Finale Ligure, our planned destination of last May 10. While we are still working out a revised itinerary, we plan to spend a month in Italy before heading further east in Europe. The increased flexibility of travelling without our bikes and the approaching fall in Europe are new factors to consider in planning, along with the need to ensure a level of fitness and well-being that we normally enjoy from being on our bikes all day.
Meanwhile, Parkinson’s Disease will be uppermost in our minds as we think of our friends in Vancouver and continue to raise awareness of the disease wherever possible and encourage donations for PD programs and research (Please see “Donate” button below). We are thrilled that the film “Never Steady, Never Still” written and directed by our talented young friend Kathleen Hepburn has had such positive reviews following its premiere at TIFF and now, at VIFF. Marg de Grace, the dear friend behind our PD fundraising efforts, is Kathleen’s mother.
*This was no “accident” and we have learned that the driver lost his license.