PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOMOBILES AND FERRIES: ITALY, MAY 2022
It’s ironic. We’ve tried to take this trip to Italy 3 times. We’d initially scheduled for May, 2020. When the pandemic started, we figured we’d still make the trip, thinking that it was like some of the other scares in past years that would pass without major disruption. We were mistaken, and looked to go in June of 2021 instead. In both cases, we cancelled all of our arrangements and got our money back without penalty or question.
The Colosseum, and the rooftops of Rome.
Finally, in early 2022, the world was opening up again and we felt safe enough to travel. As is my wont, I meticulously researched and booked our trip. The middle part was already set: a week in Tuscany on an Italian cooking course hosted by Tuscookany at their villa Torre del Tartufo, where our group of 11 had the run of the place. The rest was falling into place, and I had an itinerary to look forward to:
- Flying to Rome from Dulles, via Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc (part of the American Airlines alliance, and costing a modest 115,000 miles for both of us, one way, in business class – we hoard our miles to be able to fly long-haul in business class);
- 3 nights in Rome
- A private walking tour of Rome the day after arrival
- Train from Rome to Arezzo, close to our Tuscan base, where we’ll stay for a week
- Rental car, to be returned to Pisa airport before flying home
- After Tuscany, drive to Portovenere, where we’ll stay for 3 nights to explore Cinqueterre
- Return car to Pisa, and fly home to Dulles on British Airways via Heathrow (also 115,000 for both of us)
Of course, me having dicey travel karma meant that nothing is ever easy. Although we were able to mitigate some of our losses, airline shenanigans ended up costing us:
- A full day lost in Rome
- A full day lost in Portovenere (Cinque Terre)
- Over 235,000 additional frequent flier miles
- A full night of hotel in Rome lost
- Private walking tour having to be canceled due to late arrival, after the refund deadline
- A full day of rental car paid for but unused
- Lots of sleep and stress
I know some of my readers like to see all of the gory details, and perhaps take a tip or two from my misfortunes. If you are one of them, read on; if you’re not, skip ahead to the next section.
The troubles started about 6 weeks out, when I got an ominous email from Royal Air Maroc: the flight on our intended departure date had been cancelled. But they kindly rescheduled us, on the same flight, TWO FULL DAYS LATER. That would have had us arriving in Rome and then – assuming our flights were on time – turning around to get to Tuscany less than 24 hours later, which was not acceptable. I armed myself with information, waited on hold for over an hour, started arranging to rebook to a different routing (Dulles to Charlotte to Rome), only to have an American Airlines agent hang up on me. Another endless wait on hold, another long conversation, and we were rebooked. But, despite me pleading our case, AA didn’t honor our original mileage price, and I had to cough up an additional 235,000 frequent flier miles.
Three days before departure, I get another ominous email. They always seem to hit around 4:30 a.m., so I tear out of bed to deal with it. British Airways is no longer running the Pisa – Heathrow – Dulles flight we’d booked, so if we wanted to fly through Pisa, we’d have to leave on an evening flight, stay overnight in London, and get home a full day later. I scrambled to find alternative airports, and found reasonable replacement flights via Bologna.
Just rebooking this leg was an adventure. I waited on hold for over an hour, and finally got an agent and thought it was all worked out. But when I looked at my new flight record, I found that while the Pisa-LHR leg was indeed rebooked for Bologna-LHR, the agent cancelled the LHR-IAD leg altogether. Rather than endure another hour-plus on hold, I made an appointment for a callback 5 hours later, and found an agent who finally put it together for me.
Of course, to accommodate the new routing, we’d need to leave Portovenere a day early to reach Bologna, and find a hotel there. We’d also eat a day of rental car, because I couldn’t change the return destination from Pisa to Bologna without rebooking altogether – and guess what! There are no cars to be had in the size we needed to transport 4 of us and our luggage. We’d return the car to Pisa a day early and take trains to Bologna.
The day before departure, we’re all packed and ready to go. But it’s never that easy for me. Yet another early morning email: the flight from Dulles to Charlotte will be delayed, so there was no way to connect to the Rome flight. But American had kindly rebooked us for a routing via Philadelphia, in economy. Nooooooo! I didn’t hoard my miles for so long to be stuffed like a sardine in coach on an overnight flight. After exhausting all options and considering all DC-area airports, we decided we’d rather fly a day later in business class, even if it meant we were sitting miles apart in the 2 remaining seats.
Rather than cancel our hotel in Rome, we chose to keep the reservation, but called to make sure they would hold the room for late arrival so that we’d be guaranteed check in on arrival in the morning. And I tried to rebook or cancel our walking tour with Context Travel, but the only way to communicate with them was via a general email box (there is no phone number on their website, and a Google search yields only a phone number which directs you to email them). We had no response from Context, and would have to wait until 24 hours before our scheduled (but unable to be taken) tour, when they’d give us the name and phone number of our guide. Ugh.
Finally On Our Way to Rome!!!
So, after all these years, and all of these machinations, we are finally on our way to Rome!
We have a long-ish layover in Charlotte. Though I’d wanted to hang out in the Admiral’s Club, one of the CLT locations is closed, and the other one actually had a line to get in. So we chose an empty gate to hang out. During this time, I finally got the contact information for our guide in Rome, Doni. (HINT: If you don’t already have it, get WhatsApp on your phone. Many people outside the US prefer it to phone calls or texting.) Context also belatedly responded to my messages and refunded the amount paid. We made tentative arrangements directly with Doni for an alternative tour.
As relatively comfortable as business class is, we still arrived in Rome groggy and rumpled. At least I had a chance to brush my teeth and freshen up before landing, as well as getting my first look of the Roman countryside in the misty rain. My first observation is that all of these little towns have the same HOA: stucco exteriors with red barrel tile roofs, with those cool umbrella-shaped pine trees everywhere. Passport control and customs were easy and quick for those carrying EU and USA passports. But we made one stupid mistake: we allowed ourselves to be lured from the official taxi line to an enterprising gypsy cab. To his credit, he had a nice car (Audi), and gave interesting commentary, but his unofficial meter ran at double speed and we blew €120 on the ride to our hotel (granted, it’s a long trip). (HINT: Take the Leonardo Express train from the airport to Termini Station, the main train station in Rome. It’s cheap and fast, and you’ll then have only a quick taxi ride to your hotel.)
We stayed at the Baglioni Hotel Regina on Via Veneto, wanting a non-chain experience close to the attractions we wanted to visit. But first, we wanted a nap! A couple of hours tucked between the cool, silky sheets, and showers in the luxurious marble-clad bath, and we were ready to face the world.
Our only real plan is to walk around and get the lay of the land and a taste of this overwhelmingly beautiful and historic city. The edges were softened by the misty rain (and later, a full on rain). My first day’s impression, and one that was reinforced throughout the stay: OMG IT’S SO CROWDED!!! Every major and minor attraction is crawling with people, many of them blocking the sidewalks and passages taking duck-faced selfies. As it’s early May, it’s not even the peak season for visitors, and Asian tourists are largely absent thus far, so I can’t imagine how much crazier it gets.
The Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Colosseum are heaving with tourists. We are warned to take care not to be a target for pickpockets.
Rome is a very walkable city, and we walk our feet off. (HINT: Ignore anyone who says that wearing sneakers will mark you as a tourist; everyone wears them these days. And if you don’t wear sneakers, make sure to test your shoes on some long walks — including cobblestones — before bringing them here.)
But we also take breaks along the way. Crowded as the city is, there is always a cafe, trattoria, or bar to stop in along the way for a welcome drink. And most places you stop for a drink have the very civilized custom of providing snacks to go along with your drink. The €10 glass of wine doesn’t seem that expensive when accompanied by a bowl of chips or nuts, finger sandwiches, and/or olives (always with the olives…. ick!)
Given our already-short, and now further shortened time in Rome, we could only hit a few highlights – the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, and many churches (most seemingly named after St. Mary). In addition to our personal walks, and some kitschy-though-informative time aboard a double-decker tour bus, or private tour with Doni was most informative. His knowledge of Roman history was thorough, but it was the little asides that were often most interesting to me — like how giant pilfered Egyptian obelisks were transported to Roman piazzas, or how the city of Rome is paying for restoration of Vatican-owned buildings outside of the Vatican, or how the family whose building adjoins the Trevi Fountain objected to having it built there but were happy to reap the rewards. Our tour had started in the early evening, and the evening brought a warm, festive energy to the city, with views of the Pantheon and Piazza Navona being especially magical.
We only had a cursory taste of Roman food as well. The restaurant in our hotel offered a tasting menu that gave us an overview of typical cuisine, and chose random restaurants in our travels for sustenance. Of one thing I am certain: Roman pizza rocks. The whisper-thin crust is a winner for me.
Of course, Rome was merely an appetizer. This entire trip was built around a week’s stay at Tuscookany’s Torre del Tartufo, a spectacular villa far away from civilization in the Tuscan hills outside Arezzo, where we and our group would take a week’s course in Italian cookery. We met up with Skip and Harriet at the train station in Rome (they’d been in the south) and took the train to Arezzo. The week was organized by Chris and Heather, friends of Skip and Harriet, whom we’d met for a second on the docks at Emerald Bay in the Exumas many years ago. There was a total of 11 of us, all with a connection to sailing and/or Alaska, and our group was large enough to have the exclusive run of the place.
And what a place! Simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed. Up a precipitous narrow road, Torre is built on a terraced site overlooking the Tuscan hills and is a feast for the senses. It has all the rustic elements one might expect of an old Tuscan villa — vine-draped walls, terra cotta tile floors, rough wood doors with black iron hardware, beamed ceilings, wood fireplaces. And yet it also included lots of luxurious touches, like heated floors, marble bathrooms, good WiFi, a king bed with two duvets (so we weren’t fighting for one!), and 24/7 access to the kitchen, espresso machine, and bar.
Torre del Tartufo, in its springtime lushness.
It would have been easy to take a few day trips here and there and do nothing but lounge at the villa. At the lower level, there are two large grottoes with comfy mattresses and pillows, curtained off but looking over the pool and the hills. We could hang out and read, sketch, chat, and write in comfort. With the low hum of bees in the wisteria and the cuckoo birds cuckoo-ing, and perfect weather, staying awake was not easy.
But, for starters, no one would want to miss lunch. Served on an awninged terrace, lunch featured free-flowing wine and the fruits of our labors in the kitchen (or, in the case of our first day, the efforts of the class before us).
The dining gallery, and a typical lunch (including pasta fagiole and braised beef, the fruits of our labors.
And then, on 4 days, the main reason we were here: cooking class.
We were led by inspiring and and brave Chef Franco Palandra, and his brilliant and tireless partner Paola. I call Franco brave because it takes a certain fortitude to tackle teaching a group whose skills range from accomplished (a cookbook author, a CIA certificate-holder) to enthusiastic beginners. Then there are challenges like me — with enough skill in the kitchen to know some stuff but with a lot of ingrained habits (not all of which are good); in my case — even 30+ years since I finished formal education — you can throw in a somewhat competitive need to excel and gain the teacher’s approval (I lived to hear “Brava, Eve,” even if it was only for my mirepoix or psychotically-shaped chocolate tuilles).
Every day, we’d be divided into 4 different teams; each team (which was different every time, and separated spouses) would tackle either appetizers, primi, mains or dessert. We’d make multiple recipes, for the upcoming evening’s dinner, the coming days’ lunches, and to have in inventory (the cookie jar with the first day’s cantucci — almond biscotti — was quite popular). Some of the recipes were traditional and rustic, and some were elevated or modernized takes on classics. Not a single one of us left without learning new skills. Among other things, I learned how to clean an artichoke and Rick learned how to filet fish. My goals were to tackle making pasta from scratch (we learned pappardelle, ravioli, and tortelloni) and making something with cinghiale — wild boar — a Tuscan specialty.
Hard at work.
Nothing ever goes to waste in Franco’s kitchen — a view of keeping a kitchen which I have always admired and which has been heightened during the pandemic, since I tried to take fewer trips to the supermarket. Carrot peels, onion scraps, and other vegetable leavings were kept for the ever-simmering stock pot. What others might call trash — like parmigiano rinds — were transformed and put to delicious use in stocks, soups and as snacks.
Some of our creations:
One day, we had a truffle hunting demonstration by a local truffle hunter and his very valuable dog. Another day, an olive oil tasting, together with opportunity to sample local vinegars and other products. The ingredients available to us were unbelievably good, making me sad to hit my local shops in search of produce or meat (especially now that my favorite seafood market has closed).
The highlight of each day was dinner. With a chance to decompress after cooking and clean up, we’d head to the dining room fresh and excited to taste the fruits of our labors. Wine poured, and after dinner, so did the limoncello and other liqueurs, of which there seemed to be an endless variety.
Our first dinner: eggplant pudding (wrapped in eggplant skin) with burrata and tomato sauce; gnocchi with St. George mushrooms; chicken roulades with pecorino cheese and truffles; and nectarine semifreddo in a tuille cup.
Midweek, we took a field trip to visit some local sites. First was a visit to Villa la Ripa, a Renaissance villa overlooking vineyards. Though slow and reluctant to take it up, the owners — a pair of physicians — started a small-production winery. We tasted their offerings, and Rick and I ended up with 2 cases of their super-Tuscan (sangiovese and cabernet blend) named Psyco, in recognition of the owner being a neurologist.
Villa la Ripa was a beautiful setting for wine, and wine-tasting.
Next, a visit to Montemercole agricultural cooperative. We had lunch hosted by the family which products regional cheeses from their cattle and sheep.
Finally, time to explore the medieval walled hill town of Anghiari, home to the Busatti textile mill which we toured (OSHA would have a fit if they ever saw how close they allowed us to get to the looms!) I could have gone really crazy shopping here, but limited my purchases to a gorgeous grapevine-patterned table running in just the right shade of green.
Although I’m certain that each hill town in Tuscany (and Umbria) is unique, there is a comforting similarity to many of them, Anghiari included. They are on hilltops, with a campanile — the better to spot an approaching enemy — and walled, though often only parts of the walls remain. The houses, shops and other buildings are made of light-colored stone or stucco, with red barrel-tiled roofs, all piled up around steep cobble streets. There is always at least one, if not more, Catholic church. And everywhere, flowers and those iconic cypresses.
After that day’s travels, some of us braved the wood-fire-heated hot tub (Franco called it the stockpot, and he wasn’t wrong — it was hot!), and then, even more crazily, the unheated swimming pool.
Good thing neither was especially comfortable, or it might have been the end of any wish to leave the villa! At least that evening’s promise of our individually-made Roman style pizzas kept us from getting too lazy.
Beautiful and delicious!
Our free day, Friday, took us to another hill town: Assisi (which is technically in Umbria, and not Tuscany), the birthplace of one of the most revered of Catholic saints, St. Francis of Assisi. The town itself dates back to Roman times, and among the many churches, including the basilica of St. Francis (San Francesco) and the church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare, Francis’ most famous acolyte), also features former Roman sites as well as the standard trattorias and shops.
Because Assisi is a pilgrimage destination, it’s also full of tacky shops highlighting holy refrigerator magnets, among other dreck. Nevertheless, the message of St. Francis, of love for all of creation, carries on from the 14th century.
Soon, our stay in Tuscany draws to its end. We’re now a lean, mean, fighting kitchen brigade, and the ambitious menu for our last day of cooking gets knocked out in record time. Dinner Saturday night was especially festive, as we dined outdoors (with heat lamps, since evenings are chilly), and our wonderful crew of hosts (Franco, Paola, Lena, Alex) joined for post-dinner drinks.
it’s also, by far, my favorite meal out of all of the superlative meals we made: tomato soup with parmesan gelato; tortelloni with beef filling in a truffle butter sauce; pistachio-crusted pork loin with a marsala chocolate sauce, with an artichoke pudding; and “Tiramisu 2.0” (a deconstructed treat with espresso gelato, nut crumble, and mascarpone cream).
The next day, we will leave behind the beautiful Tuscan hills and our new friends and compatriots as we head our separate ways.
Cinqueterre and Beyond
The Jeep we rented nominally had room for 5 suitcases, but getting my, Rick’s, Skip’s and Harriet’s 4 bags took some masterful Jenga arranging by Rick.
We fire up Waze to take us away from the (relatively) gentle slopes of Tuscany to head for the more rugged Alpine peaks — which butt nearly against the sea — to Liguria. We passed the town of Carrera, which marble is quarried to this day. Our destination is Portovenere, a spectacular coastal village, from which we will explore the 5 villages of Cinque Terre. We’ve booked the Portovenere Grand Hotel, one of the attractions of which is included parking, which is such a tight squeeze that we needed to tuck our side mirrors in to get in the garage.
I suppose I should have done better research, but I learned the hard way that cruise ships and their throngs of people call on the region regularly — both a national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. I’m not sure I’d have chosen a different place to spend a few days, because despite the crowds, Portovenere, is spectacular and empties out in the evening.
And Portovenere is also a jumping off point to reach Cinque Terre, with the ferries picking up just steps from our hotel. For our venture into the villages, we’d arranged for a private guide from Bellaitalia tours, Elisabetta. Elisabetta was not only a font of knowledge, but she also had a most valuable skill: being able to shepherd us through the unruly packs of visitors who wouldn’t know a queue if it bit them. (They act as is if muttering “Scusi” entitles them to shove you out of their way over a cliffside.)
The villages of Cinque Terre are incredibly remote, and except for robust-seeming cell and WiFi signals, have a very tenuous physical connection to the rest of the Italy. They are perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the deep blue-green Ligurian Sea, with pastel-colored buildings stacked uphill in the clefts of the mountains. Grapevines, olive trees, and other food crops are planted in terraces held up by drystone walls.
The main way to reach the villages is by ferry service (which is weather-dependent), train, and on foot. A few cars get in, but most are required to park in lots up the hills, a good walk’s away.
Starting from the southeast, Riomaggiore is the first of the Cinque Terre villages. There is virtually no harbor (the ferry pulls right up to the rocks), and fishing boats are stored in the streets. Yet, life goes on as normally as possible, with stores stocked with products, and enviable hydrangeas.
We went from southeast to northwest, with the villages being successively easier to walk around (i.e. from steepest to less so). Of the five villages, we climbed and strolled and climbed some more in Riomaggiore, Manarola and Vernazza. It was one of the warmer days of our travels, and the crowds were wearing on us, so we elected to skip Monterosso (Corniglia not being accessible by ferry) to head back to home base in Portovenere.
Manarola is less precipitous than Riomaggiore.
Vernazza feels expansive by comparison, and even has a bit of a harbor.
Our overnight rest is but preparation for a few long days of travel. Skip and Harriet plan to fly home to Florida via Pisa, but because we need to return our rental car, elect to spent their last night in Pisa (at what turned out to be a grungy airport-area hotel that they chose because of misleading reviews). Since we are going to the airport to drop the car anyway, we decide to get our US-required Covid tests here. (HINT: Be sure to check the hours tests are available, as they are not a 24-7 service. Note also that as of this writing, tests can be taken any time on the DAY before you depart, and need not be exactly 24 hours before.)
After saying our goodbyes to Skip and Harriet, Rick and I catch a quick train shuttle to Pisa’s main train station. (HINT: The ticket machines here didn’t take credit cards, so we needed cash.) Onward to Florence by 2nd class train. We’d been spoiling ourselves by traveling only by First Class or Business Class trains in Europe, which for only a few euros more guarantee a reserved seat and comfort. On a 2nd class train, there is no such luck, and the tiny overhead racks meant each of our suitcases ended up with their own seats. The station in Florence felt every bit as busy as the one in Rome, but we spent significantly more time here, since our train to Bologna was delayed. And delayed. And ultimately more than 90 minutes late.
We still had plenty of daylight left when we arrived in Bologna, and our chosen hotel, the chic boutique Hotel Metropolitan (any hotel that includes macarons in its breakfast buffet is OK with me!) was minutes from the train station and in the center of the action. The rooftop of the hotel features a stylish bar, and after the day’s travels and delays, I succumbed to the siren song of a very large, icy Hendrick’s and tonic. (As delicious and refreshing as the Aperol spritzes others were enjoying looked, I can never get past the herby bitterness of Aperol.)
Bologna was a revelation, and in hindsight, I wish we’d been able to devote a little more time to it. It’s far less crowded than Rome, is a university town, and a culinary capital — it’s the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, which brings the world proscuitto, Parmigiano-Romano cheese, and Modena balsamic vinegar. And, of course, don’t forget pasta with Bolognese ragu. We strolled the Piazza Maggiore and the colonnades and alleyways that radiated from it, finding a trattoria for dinner, and later, the obligatory post-dinner gelato.
Our last day was devoted to travel, and we arrived to the airport early to straighten out some technical problems with our ability to check in with British Airways. (Hint: If your airline supports it, use the VeriFly app. Even with technical problems, you’ll speed the check in process.) With extra time on our hands, we used the VIP lounge (which is airline-agnostic, and accessible to anyone flying on a premium ticket). Masking restrictions had been eased, so masking was considered optional, but “highly recommended” in both the airport terminals at Bologna and Heathrow, and on the flights.
On arrival home, we are reminded of the pleasures of this trip regularly, from the arrival of packages of goodies we’d ordered, to taking into account the lessons we learned at cooking school. I would do it again, but would like to find a way — either by timing or destinations — that avoids the crowds (of which I am admittedly a part).
We tried our hand at papardelle at home (with chicken sausage and wild mushroom sauce of my invention).