Veneto: Great Food and New Friends

I’m from where food is grown. Maybe not all the food I want to eat (I love a good orange), but still. Meat, grains, vegetables. We feed people here.

So there’s a special place in my heart to visit places where the food is grown. And in Italy, it’s grown everywhere. But nowhere more than in the Veneto. Our friend and baker Giacomo was from the Veneto and told us so many stories of his homeland that we just had to go check it out.

Our first stop was Bologna, which is actually a little south of the Veneto, in Emilia-Romangna. It’s known as the food capital of Italy, genesis of the entire “Slow Food” movement. It’s the home of tortellini, mortadella (aka “baloney” at home), tagliatelle and, of course, bolognese sauce.

That’s all true, but I’ll remember Bologna as the City of the Portico. Most all the buildings in the old city centre have porticos on all sides; arched coverings that extend over the terrazzo sidewalks. If it’s raining, and country this green must get a lot of it, you can walk all through the centre without getting wet. One portico is over 3km long. Legend has it that it was built to transport a statue of the Virgin Mary between the church and the square; after years of it always raining on festival day, the town fathers built the world’s longest portico for a permanent fix.

Our apartment in Bologna was one of the best of the trip. A cozy rooftop flat tucked into the top corner of a large block, requiring us to pass through three iron gates and cross two passages with open views of the centre courtyard to get to our door. But inside we had a modern kitchen, a low ceiling sitting room, the most comfortable bed of the trip, and window that opened to the sky above. Even with all the sights in Bologna, I needed two afternoon naps in that cool, breezy bedroom.


Temporary bakery set up in the square beside our flat. Baking traditional cookies and bread as a fundraiser. I found it by smell!

Our flat was right beside the main food district, the Quadrilatero, so we walked down there straight away. The narrow four block area has been the food hub of Bologna since Roman times and it’s still going strong. It’s filled with fancy shops selling perfect fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta, cheese, oil, meat and fish. We saw our first butcher specializing in horse meat (a delicacy in northern Italy) although we didn’t have the guts to try any.


Read the label!

The food here is the most expensive we had seen in Italy, but it was so fresh, and presented so well, that we didn’t have any objections to loading up our shopping bags and cooking this great food in our apartment for two meals. There are also many excellent restaurants in the area, but when the food in the shops is that good, I just have to cook. Bags of fresh tomatoes, garlic and zucchini, plus lovingly wrapped parcels of fresh pasta and wedges of the best parmigiano made their way up to our room. We feasted that week.

It’s awesome just how many of what you think of as ‘Italian Food’ came from around Bologna. Aside from pizza, almost all of it. The city of Parma, home of parmigiano reggiano cheese and Parma ham, is just down the road. Modena, where all the best balsamic vinegar comes from is right there too. What a delight.

The city is beautiful too. We explored it in depth thanks to Robyn’s “Walking in Italy” book. Setting aside the miles of porticos for a moment, Bologna also has a huge, interesting main square, anchored with a massive statue of Neptune in the middle (even though the city is far inland.) It also has two huge towers in the city centre, so tall, so narrow and with such drastic leans to them that I was too scared to climb them. Although Cindy braved the climb and took some great pictures to prove it.

The main square also has the best public library of the trip so far. It sits inside the Sala Borsa, the former seat of the civic government, and you can see even older ruins through glass floors on the main level. It’s popular with readers and a major tourist attraction as well. Come on, Regina, get going with the public buildings already!


The public library!!

On our last day, we left the centre of town for a walk in two local parks. Two, because we started off in the wrong direction and found an open ‘wilderness’ park high on a hill outside the old town. It was nice, but a little too remote for our lazy day plans. So we headed back into town and found the ‘city’ park very close to our apartment, but in the opposite direction from where we started the trip. That was OK though, because the detour took us past our new favourite lunch Cafe. We dined on sandwiches, wine, with fresh strawberries and ice cream for dessert, all from a high patio beside the street. It was a perfect venue to hang out and watch the world drift by.


I made two new friends with my paints

We left Bologna after stopping at our new favourite gelato shop for breakfast. Hey, when you make unique flavours, in house, from organic ingredients, and get recognition from the ‘slow food’ folks, and when you’re right across the street from our apartment, you are a perfect gelato shop for breakfast! Gelato then a walk to the train station – talk about leaving you wanting more…


Our favourite gelateria in the world! #1 of a series

We stayed in Verona on a whim. Our friend Giacomo, who is from the Veneto, sent us a message that said “Verona is nice.” That was enough for us! And you know what? It is nice. Very, very nice.


Verona

The train ride was very short but intriguing, because the landscape looked a lot like home. We sped through flat, green farmland, just like at home if we still had trains. Sure, many of the farms had grape vines and orchards, but there was wheat too and attractive vegetable gardens. And mountains! The start of the Alps, with Gran Paradiso and the Italian Lakes off in hazy blue distance. They’d have to wait, but on a clear day they set off Verona’s buildings beautifully.

You may know Verona as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There’s a bit of recognition here; a balcony with a sign “just like Juliet’s” etc. but not too much. What Verona had for us is the Holy Trinity of Awesome European Cities: rivers with lots of bridges; a castle; and a Roman Arena. We spent two wonderful days strolling along the river and trying to figure out the best view of the castle, and touring the local cathedrals. When that got tiring, we’d sit in the town square, sip Spritz (the local specialty) and gaze at the Arena that was smack dab in the middle of the square. It’s in good enough shape that the Arena is still used for operas in the summer.

I don’t want to gloss over the beauty of Verona. It’s awesome. But by this point we were settled into a gentle Italian groove that was so relaxing and so satisfying that I could keep it going forever. Our toughest decisions were selecting the right gelato shop from fifty options, or whether to dine at a small family run pizza shop or the neighbourhood Osteria (we did both!) We found a lovely square near our apartment, and away from the tourist loop, which had enough bars and restaurants to keep us occupied for a week. So long as you knew the Italian words for ‘horse’ and ‘donkey’ in order to navigate the menu, it was smooth sailing.

It was bliss. I was in a beautiful country, with amazing scenery and delicious food that was reasonably priced, with friendly people and just enough chaos to keep things interesting. I was with the woman I love. The sun was shining and the river was blue.

At this point we didn’t think things could get any better. But it did. It got better because we got to meet Giacomo’s mom.

Giacomo grew up in Padua, east of Verona, but his mom Alessandra recently moved to Malcesine, west of Verona, along Lake Garda in the famous Italian Lake District. So on Saturday we packed up and took a train, then a bus to Malcesine to meet her and her partner Angelo.

Malcesine is beautiful. The whole lake is, really. It’s a resort lake, for sure. A deep blue lake, surrounded by tall mountains and full of sailboats, windsurfers and very few powerboats. The single highway along the lake was crowded with cars and hundreds of cyclists. Everyone was out in the sun and having fun. The lake is very popular with Germans; most of the signs were in Italian and German and the owner of our hotel spoke better German than English. We even saw some German bakeries in the town. But there was enough pasta and gelato available to confirm we were still in Italy.

Alessandra is a delightful lady, who misses her son very much. Cindy and I were her connection to her boy so we have many hugs to give him when we get home. And she fed us enough that I’m sure some of the food was for Giacomo too!

We had a lovely day together, wandering through the old town, strolling along the lake, eating gelato and comparing Italy to Canada. Alessandra’s English was better than our Italian and we had Google Translate to bridge any gaps. Angelo didn’t speak any English at all, but he spoke sports, so he and I talked football and cycling. We even watched the end of the day’s Giro d’Italia stage on TV together and cheered whenever anyone named Giacomo was mentioned. And I learned that I must cheer for Juventus and never Milan.

We could only spend one day together, sadly, because Alessandra had to work and we had to get back to Verona for my special splurge of the trip. I saw a poster that the Hellas Verona football club was playing their final home game of the season on Sunday night, against Serie A champions Juventus no less! Since Juventus had already clinched the title, and Verona was guaranteed to be relegated at season’s end, there were still tickets available, and we got two very nice seats in the neutral side of the stadium.

The game was awesome. I’ve never heard so much noise and singing at a sporting event before. The away fans from Torino were extremely loud, singing praise on their Juventus or abuse at the Verona fans. And then the Verona Ultras would reply and the stadium would shake with their booming songs. Thankfully I don’t know enough Italian to understand the words. I assume it was mild, like “Our Team Is A-OK” or “Bad Luck, Visitors” and stuff like that.

Things started off rocky for us until we realized that, even though Verona was the home team, there were many, many people in our section who were there to see the champions Juventus. Lots of families with young boys wearing the black and white stripes of their heroes on the visiting team. So we made sure to cheer everyone and not look too happy when the home team spanked the champs 2-1 to end their season on a high. Verona striker Luca Toni, playing his last game as a pro, took a lap of honour after the game and I cheered along; his was the only name I recognized from the home team, after all.

Leaving Verona for the second, and final, time on Monday morning, we headed east to Padua. We’d been in the Veneto for a long time now but we still wanted to see some of Giacomo and Martina’s home town. Plus, Padua is just outside Venice, so was a nice stepping stone to the famous lagoon.


Padua!

Padua is a beautiful city and well worth a visit on its own. It’s got some amazing architecture, not least is the huge market building that is surrounded by three distinct squares. The building itself is full of market stalls; butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheesemongers and wine shops and the surrounding squares are full of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

One of the coolest things about these market squares is the variety of what’s on offer. It goes well beyond food. So many of the market stalls, up to half in some cases, are for non-food items. Soap, dishes, small appliances. Clothes too. Racks of shirts. Stacks of denim, or socks, or underwear. Mannequins displaying lingerie even. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. I’d try horse meat before I’d buy underwear from a market stall. Or even a new outfit. I’m not ready for that yet. But lots of people are, that’s for sure.

We were also blessed with one of the very best gelaterias in Italy (better than Bologna? OK, a tie) right beside our Padua apartment. We couldn’t go there for breakfast, because “La Romana” didn’t open till noon. But we went for several nightcaps, along with 50 or 60 other Padovans, just before the midnight closing time. Even after we met Francesco and Nicolo for a late goodbye beer, we still had time for one last gelato at La Romana.


Our favourite gelateria in the world!

The Tour d’Giacomo included a bus ride out to the suburbs to visit Pasticceria Paride, the bakery Giacomo worked at before he left Italy. It’s a lovely little place, right in among the residential neighbourhood, with coffee and gelato and croissants and delicious little sweets. After a few attempts with our bad Italian, they figured out why we were so interested in the place, and Paride invited us into the back to watch them work for twenty minutes or so. One of the bakers spoke English so we had a great time comparing equipment, techniques and bakers hours. Paride wanted to know what type of things we made at Orange Boot. He doesn’t make bread, and I think he likes the fancy pastries better, but we got along. Especially after I grinned and complemented him on his chocolate tempering machines. I can’t see how Orange Boot version 3 can exist without them. And gelato.

We also connected up with Francesco and Nicolo, two friends of Giacomo’s who all lived together in London before Giacomo came to Canada and they returned to Padua. They took us all around the city, taught us the right way to order Spritz and tramezzini (tiny sandwiches) at the bar, and then took us out into the country for an amazing authentic Veneto meal. We talked for hours about life in Italy and they asked a ton of questions about life in Canada. They want to come visit soon. I sure hope they do, so we can show them around Regina like they treated us in Padua.

On our last day in Padua, we went to the Scrovegni Chapel to view the famous frescos by the master Giotti. The entire chapel is covered in a cycle of paintings telling the same bible stories about Jesus and Mary that I learned in Sunday School. Except in this case, the paintings were done in 1305! It was stunning. The paintings were in remarkably good condition; I was surprised to learn that any deteriorating has happened in just the last 100 years, as structures surrounding the chapel were torn down. Now water can damage the paintings from the outside in. But I think some of the exorbitant viewing fee is used to pay for restoration work. I hope so; it’s an amazing space of art and history, and well worth preserving.

And then we went to Venice. One of three tear-inducing, I-can’t-believe we’re-actually-here places on our trip, along with Paris and Odeceixe, Portugal. After all the beautiful places we’ve seen in Italy, I really wasn’t expecting much of a thrill from Venice, but oh boy was I thrilled.


Our first view of Venice

I think it starts before you even get there. The city really is an island, just like they tell you. OK, a series of islands, but they are way out there. The train line crosses more water than you expect before you get to the station. And you can’t really see the city from the train. You cross along the causeway, leave the train, wade through the station along with a thousand other people, then pop out onto the plaza with the Grand Canal, water taxis, those lovely stacked buildings and a Cathedral just right there, staring at you. It’s breathtaking.

Venice is so tight, so narrow and twisty, and full of canals and bridges and interesting little shops, that it’s almost a requirement to get lost. We spent four hours wandering around the city, based loosely on the route in Robyn’s book. We tried to follow the map but got lost repeatedly, weaving off and on the route the entire way. It was a cool and rainy day, but we went with the flow and always seemed to duck into a bar or restaurant just as the sky opened up. Let it rain – we have Spritz and pizza!


Unique Venetian fashion

Oh, and here’s a tip. Even if you’re travelling light, like us, consider checking your bags at the train station, rather than lugging them through town. We only stayed one night in the city, so we put a change of clothes in our backpacks and left the rest at the station overnight. It was much easier finding our hotel without lugging bags up and down the bridge steps and dodging fellow tourists. Watch even one newlywed couple try to get back to the trains, with a chivalrous husband lugging two huge suitcases through the alleys of Venice and you’ll forego luggage all together.

Even though Venice is packed with tourists (and it is packed, let me tell you) the vast, vast majority of people head straight to Plaza San Marco and stay there. We went, we walked, and we admired it, but then we left the square and wandered to the edges. It was pretty much empty out there but no less interesting. There are just as many shops, and amazing contemporary art, and excellent coffee, and food too. And you can walk a bit in peace.


Dead end!

Then in the evening, after the busses have gone back to Mestre for the night, we went back to the square and really took it all in. It’s wild. Really, the best formal square of the trip, and we’ve seen a few. It’s just really weighty, heavy and perfectly proportioned, from the clock tower that is huge and solid, to the St. Mark’s Basilica, that is big and gorgeous and shiny and gold in the evening light, to the three rows of buildings and continuous porticos that make up the square, but run at odd angles, so the square really isn’t. It’s awesome. It’s heavy enough to be very, very impressive. It’s so heavy, in fact, and so close to the Grand Canal, that you really do get the impression that Venice is sinking. I mean, you pile that much stone on a spot and it’s bound to sink a little, right?

For our last night in Venice, our last night in Italy in fact, we took it slow. A nice meal of chicken and vegetables and pasta, sharing a table with two delightful Dutch ladies. A gondola ride that went right past our hotel. A stroll along the Grand Canal and past the opera house. Then off to sleep in our romantic old 6 room hotel deep in the Venetian maze. Tomorrow will be a new country and a new adventure.

Our trip is nearly over and the thought of coming home, of no longer travelling, of not having markets and terraces and good coffee and gelato and local fruit has me in a melancholy funk. My mood is the same grey-blue that is all over Venice at dusk. Dusk is the time that you feel the age of the place.

Venice feels old. Really old, and tired. More tired than anywhere we’ve been. It’s carried the weight of its citizens for hundreds of years, and now carries the weight of the hoards of tourists. One news agent had a sign saying “Venice Is Not A Theme Park” but honestly, with so many tourists coming through every day, even in this ‘shoulder season’, it kind of is. There isn’t a single business on street level that isn’t focused on the tourist trade, and I was looking.

And that’s the thing about Italy. The place really pulls at you. We came here as tourists and we’re leaving as tourists too, I guess. But it’s just so damn comfortable. Sure there’ street history and architecture, I wasn’t here long before I started acting like I lived here. Where’s the hardware store? Where can I buy a toaster? Where’s the bike repair shop?

I’d live and work here in a minute, if I could. Give me a coffee bar, a fruit stand, a gelateria and an Internet connection and I wouldn’t leave my block. “Buongiorno. Il mio nome è Marco. Sì, l’Italia è bella . Vieni a sederti. Hanno po ‘di vino!”

La Spezia: Gateway to Cinque Terre and So Much More

I’m sitting outside, in glorious sunshine, on a 50 metre long iron bench at the La Spezia Centrale station on the Ligurian coast. La Spezia is known as the Gulf of Poets, because back in the gloomy 18th century English poets like Byron, Shelley and Dickenson traveled south to get away from rainy England and swim a bit. I can see why they came. It wasn’t raining much in Paris, and it’s not like I’ll ever feel the need to “get away” from Paris, but still. It sure wasn’t warm and sunny and blue like this.

We didn’t come straight here. Instead, from Paris we went south to Nice on the French Riviera. Beautiful city and you really should go if you have the chance. But since Nice is the big city near Cannes, St. Tropez, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, it’s a little glitzy and glamourous. Which is all good, but a little awkward when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for six weeks in a row.

What Nice has going for it is fabulous architecture, a narrow and twisty old town, a cool tram system that cuts silently through town, two amazing outdoor markets and outstanding gelato (go to Fennochio’s in the old town.)

We spent a few days chilling out in Nice, walking to a market to get strawberries, oranges, fresh peas, a baguette and some cheese for lunch before wandering around the city for the day.

Before long we’d be down at the beach, wandering along the miles long promenade, checking out the people roasting themselves on the beach and trying to stay calm among men in tiny speedos and women sunbathing topless. Sure, the tiniest speedos were worn by old hairy grandpas, and the topless sunbathers were grannies for the most part, but we were in France, on the Riviera! Just go with it, man. Time to get over the years of body image conditioning we grow up with in North America and live like a local! Well I would’ve stripped right down to my gitch for the cultural exchange, you know, if it weren’t that I sunburn easily. So I took off my socks and rolled up my pant legs to just below the knee, and strolled along the water for a bit, averting my eyes all the while.

Now here’s a marketing lesson for you all. For all the glamour you’ve seen, read, or heard about the marvellous French Riviera, has it ever come up that the long, glorious beaches are all rocks? Well they are. Miles and miles of what we’d call river rock back at home. I couldn’t believe what I was uncomfortably sitting on.

The lesson here, of course, is to Accentuate The Positive. Decades of starlets and royalty sunning themselves along the Promenade des Anglais has glossed over the complete lack of sand. And hey, even now, a few days later, I’ve forgotten it too.

On our last evening in Nice we decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the bay for a better view of things. But I misread the map and instead of a 2km loop I went to a further hill, 3.5km away and much taller. We walked forever, up and up. At one point we counted a run of 285 steps when the road got too steep for cars. But the views from the top, both of the teenagers making out and the surrounding hills, coast, villas and yachts, were worth it. And we already had a wood fired pizza restaurant at the bottom of the hill picked out for dinner. Pizza, salad and a half litre of the local grape and we’d forgotten all about the climb up. All that was left was the amazing view.

And so, on to Italy. Our train to La Spezia required two changes, and we were late for both of them. But Italian trains are more relaxed on Sunday, it seems, so the trains were both waiting for us. One of my minor stresses with AirBnb apartments is keeping our host waiting for the check-in, so I was glad to get there close to our planned time.

(And a big highlight was sitting amongst some very, very posh folks on the train between Nice and Monte Carlo. The fellow across from me was either a Swiss banker or Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Our first impression of Italy is one of relaxed joy. First off, it’s beautiful here. La Spezia is nestled in the centre of a U shaped bay, with small mountains all around. The dark green of the trees behind, the bright, azure blue of the water in front, with colourful pink, yellow and cream buildings in the middle. Wow.

And the food is everything we’d imagined. Simple, fresh and cheap. In France, the food is excellent, but you pay a big premium for those perfect French peas or local strawberries that are placed oh so perfectly in the baskets. Here, the markets are still full to overflowing with tomatoes, peas, strawberries and the cutest baby zucchini, but you just grab a bag and dig in. And the price is at least 30% cheaper than just around the bay in France.

We stayed in a modern apartment on the other side of the train station from downtown. It was lovely, because we got a tiny chance to live like a local. The block around our apartment had everything we needed, really. A two person, hole in the wall, wood fired pizza place that sold so much of the local specialty, farinata (a thin omelette made of chickpea flour,) that they could hardly fit pizzas in the oven. A gelato shop that sold trays of ice cream to take home. A butcher/deli, a bakery/coffee shop, a specialty food shop, a fruit stand, a florist, a pharmacy and a Coop. We could pull together a picnic lunch, go adventuring, and come back for pizza for supper. It took us two days before we thought to look for a central market; they have one, and it’s glorious too.

La Spezia is the gateway to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, made famous in North America by Rick Steves and his travel shows. There’s stress on these former fishing villages due the crush of tourism, but that’s how we heard of the Cinque Terre so I’m not going to over think this. It’s beautiful, we’re in the area, and we’ll try to tread lightly. So we hopped a train to the third village of Corniglia.

Back before modern tourism hit the Cinque Terre, the villages were quite isolated. They were only accessible from the sea or via a narrow and winding trail that connected all five villages. And the villages are close enough to each other that a hiker can walk to all five villages in one day.

That’s what we wanted to do, but the first two trails between Riamaggiore — Manarola and Manarola — Corniglia were closed due to mudslides. But that still left us half the trails to walk. Once we got up to Corniglia, that is. From the train station at sea level there was a huge set of steps up to the village. Forgoing the shuttle bus, we walked the 310 steps to the village. It’s getting easier and easier to climb like this, I must say.

When we reached the cliff top and strolled into Corniglia I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In a trip where we’ve seen over a dozen of picturesque little towns, this was the new #1. The village square was full of little shops selling fruit, general store type supplies and postal services. Across the square were bars, coffee shops and restaurants tempting me inside. Narrow side streets house artisans selling wine, leather goods and paintings. There was even a gelato shop with a framed picture of Rick Steves himself.

After an hour of wandering around the village, Cindy reminded me we were there to hike, so we set off northeast toward Vernazza. It wasn’t long before we started to climb, and boy did we ever climb! The path turned into steps, then the steps turned into bare rocks. I really had to focus on each step while we scrambled up and up.

That’s another thing the guidebooks don’t really mention. This is a proper hike, not a gentle stroll through the countryside. While the trail is well marked with red and white blazes, it’s not a groomed trail as such. The path is strewn with rocks and loose gravel and can get really narrow at points, so hikers travelling in opposite directions need to take turns on the trail. But every time I’d feel like the hike was getting too hard, we’d come up to a viewpoint that took my breath away. We were perched on the ridge like eagles, high above the villages, so we could see Corniglia and Manarola behind us, and Monterosso far off in the distance ahead. And if we looked down, we’d see fishing boats and ferries out on the water. It was magnificent and completely worth the hard work of hiking up to these viewpoints.

After an hour of hard hiking, we came across a cluster of buildings, including a small bar. Heaven! I thought we had made it to Vernazza early but a sign tempered my spirits. This was the half way point! Ah well. We savoured two amply priced glasses of cold, fresh fruit juice at a tiny black bistro table at the edge of a cliff, enjoyed the huge views and warm sunshine, then continued on our way.

Vernazza is right down on the water, so we descended down, down, down to the village. While we were still well above the castle at the end of town, we encountered more and more hikers, but they seemed to go just high enough to get a selfie above the castle, before joining us on the trail into town.

We didn’t linger too long in Vernazza. It was now 1:00, and the village square was filling up with tourists who came on the train or via bus tours. I can’t imagine what it’s like here in July and August; it was crowded enough for me in mid-April. Quite the change from morning in Corniglia. We ate our picnic lunch beside the marina, climbed to the top of the castle overlooking the harbour, and found the trail to Monterosso.

Now, Vernazza is on the water. Monterosso is also on the water. So you’d think a trail between the two villages would also be along the water, right? But oh no. The trail is high, high, up on a ridgeline along the mountain that sits between the two villages. So up we climbed. Up, up, up until my heart was pounding and the afternoon sun was baking my eyebrows. It was a real lung buster, but worth it. The views were amazing once again.

This leg of the trail is much narrower than Cornigla — Vernazza leg, and the trail was more crowded too, so it was a stop/start hike as we paused to let southbound traffic pass. It took us two full hours to get to Monterosso, but we were lucky in a way. The descent into Monterosso is via the longest staircase I’ve ever seen. It was like the steps in the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. They just went on and on. But at least they were steps! The southbound hikers had to deal with the rock ledges we climbed to get out of Vernazza. I don’t think I could descend on them with the rubber legs I had now.

We congratulated ourselves on our hiking prowess by soaking our feet at the beach (what a treat!) and some extra fine gelato. Then we toodled through the village for a while before catching the train back to La Spezia, tired, sore and very, very happy.

The next day we decided to check out La Spezia a little closer. We found a nice little coffee shop where I could get a real Italian cappuccino and, further up the block, a real Italian macchiato. We found a phone store to get an Italian SIM card for the phone, then headed to the central market.

The La Spezia market is a big one. Two blocks square, with a large undulating roof over the entire complex. Everything you need is inside. Fruit stands, vegetable stands, cheese and dairy carts, butchers, florists, bakers and fishmongers. And as we’ve seen everywhere else, shops and bars and restaurants surrounding the market on all four sides. It was beautiful and once we found the market we went every day, even though it was a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

I love our Farmer’s Market at home (heck, I took bread to the market for two years at the same time I was trying to build Orange Boot), but compared to what we see in Europe, from the largest city to the smallest town, our market in Regina sucks. I already know I’m going to cry when I get home and try to shop again.

I know, I know, we live in the middle of nowhere, 1000km from BC fruit or 2000km from California veggies. But surely to God we can put a roof over our market so the food doesn’t get soaked in the rain. And put up a wind screen while we’re at it. And if I’m going to dream, run enough power that the butchers can bring raw meat and keep it cool, and the cheesemongers can do the same with their dairy products. I’ll set up my oven in the market too, I promise.

The La Spezia market is busy. Really busy. Busier than the number of people who live and work around it. I saw bus after bus drop off people with empty shopping bags and pick them up again, loaded up with produce for the next day (or maybe two, tops.) Nobody here asks “will it freeze”. They shop every day and eat fresh food and I love that.

Anyway, once we had our packs full of picnic fare, we got on the bus too and headed to the town of Lereci. If the Gulf of Poets is a U, and La Spezia is at the base of the U, then Lereci is at the end of the left arm. Our host Alice recommended the beach there, and after our massive hike yesterday I was in the mood for a mellow afternoon.

The bus ride out was a blast. We got the last two seats at the back of the bus, just before the bus was jam packed with university students. And I mean packed. They just kept getting on, handing their packs to four young ladies in the seat in front of us, then started hugging each other to save space. I’ve never seen such a crush. For the longest time, nobody got off the bus, but four more people got on at each stop. More students. An old lady with bags of shopping. Some construction workers. I have no idea how they fit or where they went. But one by one, over the next 20 minutes, the bus would stop, someone would hand over a backpack from the pile, and the bus slowly thinned out. Then it was our turn.

Lereci is beautiful. A lovely horseshoe cove with a castle at one end, a marina, and a long, curving, sandy beach that went all the way to San Terenzo, the next village on the way back to La Spezia.

We walked to the top of the castle (gotta climb a little!) and gazed out across the Gulf to La Spezia in the distance, and Porto Venere at the other end of the U. It was beautiful but also very windy. I wanted to sketch and paint up there but I couldn’t control my sketchbook in the wind, so we retreated down to the marina and checked out the shops lining the quay. Then we went for a sit at the beach and I tried not to compare the bronze sunbathers to the rotisserie chicken I saw at the market in La Spezia.

Oh, and Lereci has the best gelato I’ve had so far. The local flavour, called Lereci, of course, ticks all the boxes. Coffee, nuts, caramel, chocolate all swirled around in some basic crema gelato. Amazing. Until this point my favourite was pistachio (made with real pistachios of course) but now I’m ruined. Hopefully some other local flavour will win my heart down the road, but I’m not holding out much hope.

On our last day in La Spezia, we took the bus to the other end of the U, to Porto Venere. Another spectacular fishing village with a lovely marina, two churches and even a castle on the hill. Porto Venere is really tucked in there tight between the water and the cliffs, so that getting past the first row of houses required some serious climbing. But there were spectacular views around every corner, so we kept on climbing and being wowed.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but we weren’t ready to leave the Cinque Terre yet. Cindy had read about a big hike from Porto Venere to the first Cinque Terre village, Riamaggiore. 12km, 4 hours and listed as “moderate” difficulty. The same book said the hikes we did two days ago were “easy-moderate.” Hmmm. Well it was a nice day, we felt good and it was at least 5 hours till sunset, so we decided to go for it. We’d abandon our return bus tickets, do the hike and catch the train back to town from Riomaggiore.

Well it was the best hike I’ve ever done. Way harder than I imagined; we climbed 500m pretty much straight up, then followed the ridge line around two separate mountains, before descending through vineyards and farms to the village at Riomaggiore. As we twisted up the mountains, through forests, then out on bare rock ledges, then back into forests, we had these wild views of Porto Venere, then La Spezia and Lereci across the Gulf to our right, then the wider Mediterranean off our left shoulder, then finally Riamaggiore below us.

By the time we entered Riamaggiore we were sore, tired and grimy. But the tour buses were long gone, the village was beautiful and we saw the most amazing sunset from a brick lane above Riamaggiore’s tiny harbour. It was perfect.

I can’t imagine ever finding a place more beautiful than this. But I’ve said that every day so far on this trip and I’ve been wrong each time. I can’t wait to see what we find next.