Thursday, June 11, 2015

Welcome Aboard the Cinque Terre!

We left the island of Malta with the Cinque Terre in our sights - a special part of Italy that hugs the coastline between Pisa and Genoa and is known as the Italian Riviera. It is a protected national park, and while heavily trod upon by tourists, the region remains much as it was for over a thousand years.

Travel challenges within Europe often include strict weight policies and flying Air Malta was no exception. Their requirements caused us to re-jig our checked luggage to meet a very restrictive
20 kg limit (that's about 44 lbs). That also involved wearing our coats so we could stuff our pockets, and jamming our carry-on bags to their maximum capacity. That made our day packs so heavy they could  easily flip us on our backs with one false step - and made us comical at security. All this was to avoid the fees for overweight luggage which is about $20. per kilo. For reference we usually travel with 23 kg in our checked bags so we could have been out $120. In reality the same kilos were going to be on the plane anyway, so this was just one of the "almost" fun things we deal with as Nomads.

Still in love after just one of many bag packing episodes
Michael is our Chief Travel Planner. I am the Chief Meal Planner. Of course we both hold middle management positions as well, but these two roles are definitely set. As we approach a travel day I plan ahead for what we might eat during the journey. For this particular trip I topped up the snack bag (cookies, nuts, apples, and oranges) and planned on getting pastries and coffee at the airport. The wish list usually includes a Diet Coke for Michael, Gummie Bears for me, bottled water after security clearance and a current English newspaper.

No matter where we are, a newspaper makes a great travel day read.
And then the miracle happened. For the first time in a long time, an airline offered a nice sandwich, a cookie and a choice of soft drink for free! Thanks Air Malta - I felt like we just got bumped to Business Class! More often we are left perusing the laminated menus in the seat pockets that offer overpriced fare you wouldn't buy at a gas station - so this seemed quite civilized. I saved our snacks for dinner - although I could have done without the extra weight in my carry on if I'd known.

Another thing we've learned as Nomads is to embrace public transportation. With a little extra time and patience you can save a lot of money by taking the local bus, tram or underground. The ticket machines usually have a button for English and the process is intuitive.

We landed in Milan and took a city bus from the airport to the central station to catch our train to Parma. It was a clunky old lady of a train but she got us there! We did need a cab for the next leg to our apartment, and since we didn't have Italian SIM cards yet we asked our driver to call our Airbnb host to let her know we were getting close.

Unfortunately, she was stuck in traffic about an hour away. Our driver wasn't happy to leave us standing on the curb with our luggage in this particular part of town, but there was nothing to be done. I left Michael guarding our bags while I scouted the neighborhood for provisions. I found a great little shop run by a Pakistani family who apparently couldn't get enough of Americans. They are very proud of a brother who owns a Dairy Queen in Denver. They wanted to know ALL about Dairy Queen so I amused them with stories of Little League teams swarming the counters after their games, and admitted my husband bee-lined for a Blizzard whenever we passed a DQ - not that I mind a dip cone.

Nuns make heavenly gelato!
A perfectly formed gelato flower.
The second best find was a hole in the wall shop near the cathedral where the gelato was made and sold by nuns - each serving was carefully sculpted into a flower, and of course it was heavenly.

Our apartment was affordable and very comfortable for a two night pit stop. Laura, the owner is an outgoing and creative young women. She moves out when renters move in, so it was definitely one of those "staying at a friends flat" experiences. She left us with breakfast treats, fluffy towels and lots of tips on enjoying Parma. Here's the link to the apartment:

Cheese or new shoes? Cheese!
When in Parma one should buy cheese, ham and olive oil. After all, this is the food capital of Italy.
So of course I bought all of those things and piled them into my already groaning suitcase. The cheese alone weighed a hefty 2.5 lbs - but for  around $12 who could resist the real thing? And now that I was free from airline weight restrictions for the foreseeable future I could binge - but the price to to be paid was hauling a very heavy shopping bag from then on. We ate the ham but we've only made a dent in the cheese and good olive oil goes a long way (literally). I can feel them both lurking in my suitcase. Here's a link to a hilarious commercial for Parmesan cheese that could only be made in Italy:

After two days in Parma we set off by train to Le Spezia and then onwards to our final destination of Le Grazie for a week aboard the Serena IV. Here's the link: The thought of being aboard a sailboat again was almost too good to be true.We looked forward to just relaxing on board with books and games and naps in the sun. And that is just what we did. Except on the days that it rained, but that didn't alter the plan much - and being from Seattle we were right at home. It really did bring back fond memories of being rocked to sleep on our sailboat Butterscotch in Elliot Bay Marina.
The Serena IV. A Custom 42 foot sailboat build in Italy 33 years ago.
The boat was in moored in Le Grazie, a small harbor-side village tucked around the corner from the tourist mecca of Portovenere. And while it was just a ten minute bus ride away, it seemed like worlds apart.

The view back to Le Grazie after a long walk.
We stepped off the bus and were met by our host's father, Carlo. He was an affable ancient mariner who spoke limited English, but like all sailors, we became instant "buoni amici". Without any explanation of where we were going he grabbed our heavy roller bags and headed off at a good clip. We hurried to keep up as he walked briskly through town, through a parking lot and finally down an obscure path flanked by tall stone walls. It was lovely, but we were a little too anxious to appreciate the scenery. The path narrowed to a single lane with encroaching vines and we had yet to glimpse a marina! Finally, after about 15 minutes we popped into a clearing and below us sat a small, sheltered marina with a view back to the village. Perfect.

The marina where we would spend a blissful week on the Serena IV.
Once we got our cumbersome bags safely across the narrow, swaying gang plank we literally did a happy dance! Carlos gave us a walk-through and since most everything was familiar from our years on Butterscotch, he left us with confidence. This was truly a "pinch me" Senior Nomad moment.

One of our best Airbnb front doors yet!
Captain Campbell making up the forward V-berth.
Now that we had our bearings we reversed course and headed back into town with more appreciation for the beautiful walk. We found the essentials - the grocery store, the church and the pub. Most of the village hugs the harbor and there were only a few more shops, a bank, a post office, a pharmacy, a deli and a couple of restaurants. Most everything other than the restaurants closed from 1:00 until 5:00 so we learned to shop early. The harbor itself was filled with a fascinating mix of sailboats and fishing vessels along with a few large yachts. The bustling boat yard had several really big sailboats up on racks for what appeared to be leisurely repair.

The harbor in Le Grazie - plenty of beautiful boats to admire.
Fresh pesto made as you watched! You could smell it down the block.
It was sunny for the first few days until some spring showers arrived. We didn't mind, since we love being hunkered down listening to the rain pounding on the hatches. We ventured out to spend a day in Portovenere - a beautiful city with breathtaking views from the ancient ramparts.

There were fantastic views from just about everywhere in Portovenere.
Looking back towards Le Grezie from Portovenere.
We also spent a day on a boat that ferried tourists to the main towns of the Cinque Terre. Climbing aboard a sightseeing boat with 100 other tourists went against our instincts but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride and meeting travelers from around the world! There seemed to be no rush as we glided along the coastline spotting clusters of ochre colored houses lodged in the cracks of the hillsides and vineyards crisscrossing the terrain like clotheslines. Every now and again we'd spot intrepid hikers walking the trial that links the main villages. From one end to the other takes about 12 hours.

I wish I'd taken this shot one minute earlier when there was a sea of selfie-sticks!
The tour boat pulling up to port - you had about 5 minutes to get on or off!
The houses along the coastline perched precariously on cliffs surrounded by vineyards.
The landscape looks like every postcard you've ever seen from here. Brightly colored houses spill down the hillside to the harbor like colorful children's blocks and the rugged hillsides are green, and the earth tilled to the last inch.

Our boat left from Portovenere and called at: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. You could get off to explore and then catch the next boat in an hour or two and carry on. We made two stops recommended in Rick Steve's video, Vernazza and Monterosso and were not disappointed.

Pulling in to Vernazza for the farmers market.
The view from the cemetery overlooking Vernazza. As final resting places go, this is tops.
After a week, it was time to say good bye to Le Grazie. We headed to Verona for a one night stay before taking the train to Salzburg, Austria. On the day we left, the skies opened and we had heavy rain squalls all day. The weather was so bad in fact, that our train from Parma to to Brescia where we would change trains to Verona, was constantly delayed. Once we realized there were 17 stops and after an hour we'd only managed three of them we knew we wouldn't be making our original connection by a long shot.

Our sad little  train from Parma to Brescia on a much nicer day.
This is where patience, a good attitude and resilience comes in. There was nothing to be done - and it was likely we wouldn't find another train to Verona where we'd book a night at a B&B so Michael began furiously working on plan B. Some very nice young Italian girls sitting across from us pulled out their cell phones and helped to find a solution. In the end we found one last train to Verona and caught it in the nick of time.

We dragged our bags the half mile to our B&B and arrived wet, tired and hungry. The owner had waited for us and seeing our state, graciously drove us to a nearby restaurant on her way home. The next morning the skies were clear and the sun was out so we sat outside and enjoyed a very nice breakfast in the courtyard. It was like the day before never happened!

Refreshed and ready for the train to Salzburg.

 It's always hard to leave Italy, but we were looking forward to our next destination - Salzburg, Austria. We'll see you there.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. I enjoy your posts so much! You are real pioneers for this way of traveling. I hope to see Italy next year, although my way of traveling is far less vigorous. You have my admiration.

  2. I love reading your posts! I loved the slow train story- they are agonizing in a very adventurous way:-). Never been to Cinque Terra- so love reading this, and I love your photos! Til next time!

  3. "The cheese alone weighed a hefty 2.5 lbs - but for around $12 who could resist the real thing?", was my favorite line. I can see myself doing that! Soldier on Nomads! Thank you for sharing your journey.

  4. Fabulous adventures!!!
    When will your book be published?????