Washingtonville Goes to Italy (Part 2, Continued from last week)
By David Busch
Day 6 was one of split personalities – literally. Planned as a day for free exploration, an option was offered to visit neighboring Pisa and see the fabled Leaning Tower. Those staying behind explored Florence at their whim. It would be a relaxing day of strolling, visiting out of the way neighborhoods, and exploring the famed Duomo in greater detail.
Pisa is a magical city and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a must see on a bucket list. The tower sits within the medieval walled city in an area known as “the field of miracles” (The Piazza Dei Miracoli). It dominates this open area and if you look from a distance, you will notice that the tower is bent, more than it leans. Construction began in 1173 and almost immediately ran into trouble – beginning to lean when it had reached just the third floor. In an attempt to save it, the architecture was altered to straighten it. If you look from a distance, or a photo, you can see the tower isn’t just leaning, you can see it is bent as well. Construction was halted for 100 years. It took almost 200 years to actually complete – but it was worth the wait. It is incredibly beautiful. Some of our travelers chose to wait and ascend the bell tower, while others explored the larger surrounding area. Both are good choices.
As the guide explained – There is much more to Pisa than the leaning tower. Pisa is a medieval city which began in 1155 as a trading center. The famous Piazza is at the furthest end. The weather was perfect and the tour of Pisa extended into the greater part of the old city. Pictures were snapped, a sumptuous traditional lunch was consumed, and we had another wonderful day.
Next up was Cinque Terre, which literally translated means “Five Lands.” We think of it as five villages – Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore, Vernazza and Montessoro. The villages are not accessible by car. They can be approached by rail or foot. Visiting Cinque Terre is a step back in time. Yes it is filled with tourists and old architecture as so many Italian cities are. It is somehow different though. Located on the northern coast of the Italian Riviera, each village is as distinct as they are similar. Looking out over the bay of Genoa one gets a sense of history and old time adventure. Each village is terraced, meaning that the homes and buildings are cut into the mountainside. Everything is very colorful and the photos of this area are world known. Now it was our turn to explore it up close.
Most tourists begin at the southernmost village of Riomaggiore and work their way to Monterosso at the northern end. Arriving by train from the south, we did it exactly backwards. When we arrived in Monterosso the village was sparse with tourists. Most had gotten off the train at the southern end. It was an ideal way to begin. After receiving a briefing from Claudio and a lesson in how the trains worked we were off. There were trails to explore, hills to climb, and ancient neighborhoods to experience. A photographer’s dream, the blue water beckoned below and the smell of baked goods was in the air. It was heartening to see our teens and their families share this place. One of our father-daughter combinations often travels together and has come with us several times. I watched the proud dad snap pictures while his daughter dove into the crystal water. As for me – I talk to people. Whenever I can I talk to locals, and other tourists. I encourage travelers to do the same. We can learn so much.
Travelers in Cinque Terre have two choices when traveling between villages. One is a walkway along the waterfront, the other is the train. The walkway is called The Blue Path, aka the “lover’s walk.” It connects the villages and is roughly 7.5 miles from end to end. It is not for the skittish, but well worth the effort as the path meanders along the cliff edges over the blue water below. Don’t think we were facing precipitous drop offs, it is fenced and well-marked. It is time consuming though, so visiting many choose the train for the short stops between the villages.
Monterosso is the only village that has an actual beach. And as it turned out, some elected to spend the entire day enjoying the beach. All is good though – it is a great beach and they got to tell their friends they spent the day at the beach on the Italian Riviera. For the rest of us – after exploring the beachfront in Monterosso we were off to Vernazza. Vernazza has a beautiful, picturesque harbor and a kaleidoscope of color. The craggy streets and houses reach toward the sky above you.
The next stop was Corniglia. It is the only village without direct water access. It makes up for it with soaring vistas and wonderful hiking trails that take you to hidden gems for photography. The last village we explored was Manarola. It is famous for Cinque Terre wine and its nightlife. Cafes dot every street and again, exploring and wandering is the best way to experience it.
The two days in Cinque Terre were great, and now we were off to tour and visit Lake Como. We heard constantly about rich Americans who use it as a playground. That wasn’t why we went. We went to explore more of Italy and Como is mentioned as the best lake community in all of Italy. For those who are familiar with Lake George, the layout is similar, although on a much grander scale. The city of Como is at the southern end of the lake. The western shore has small villages and a roadway that extends north and the eastern shore is largely woody and dotted with small communities. It is also very close to Switzerland and you can see the Alps in the distance.
We began our visit with a cruise on the lake. It is 1,350 deep, making it the deepest lake in Europe. We passed small islands and shore front communities. At one point we stopped at the village of Bellagio for some self-exploration. Centrally located on the eastern shore of the lake, it is another wonderful Italian town built for walking and exploring. We spent about three hours on Bellagio wandering and wondering. Italy is like a never ending painting. Each community has its own personality, and at the same time each is colorful and welcoming. I had the best meal of the tour on Bellgaio. By the way – don’t expect to rush a meal in Italy. No one brings the check unless you ask for it. They like their meals to be social events, and no one rushes good conversation with friends.
Boarding the boat after Bellagio, we finished our navigation of the lake. Along the way we saw wealthy estates and quiet communities, but the best was yet to come.
Our hotels range from average to excellent with an occasional clunker thrown in. We make the best of it. This time was very different. The Le Due Corti (the two courts) was neither the best hotel, not the worst we’ve ever had. Tt was however, the most interesting. In spite of the name it was actually made up of three buildings – all ancient. The original hotel had acquired the buildings on both sides –a post office, and a library. All three of these buildings had twenty foot ceilings with large windows. Rooms had archways for entrances Complicated, twisty staircases with vaulted ceilings and connecting catwalks were used to navigate the different levels. Room numbers were meant to be consistent from building to building, not floor to floor, and Harry Potter must have been hiding somewhere.
One night Mike Frisbie and I were going room to room to say goodnight and give out kisses and hugs (Hershey’s, of course). We entered an elevator to go to room 412, but the elevator only went to the second floor. Wrong elevator, we thought. We tried another elevator and the same thing occurred. Now we decided to take the stairs, still not good as they came to a dead end. Back to the elevator – because why not try it twice?? Still wrong – we just looked at each other and laughed as the elevator door closed and we found ourselves in a dim, closet sized enclosure.
Eventually something had to give so I pressed #2 for the second floor – it was the only choice. The elevator rose. The door on the opposite end opened and we were looking at room 412 – on the second floor? We wandered a bit and came across a darkened passage leading toan antique crib with a baby doll in it. Continuing through a doorway we found ourselves outside on a catwalk. Eventually we came across another staircase and went down one flight, only to find room 423 – on the first floor. And yes, we did eventually locate a group of Washingtonville teens. Kisses, Hugs, and goodnight.
Le Due Corti was located directly outside the walls of the old city of Como. Like many cities in Italy, Como’s wall that was built for protection.. The wall also separates old from new. Within the walls of the old city the alleyways led to a beautiful waterfront. To the right was the Funicolare Como-Brunate. A funicolare is actually a cable car, but in this case it was a small train that climbed from the lakefront to the small village of Brunate, with about 1,800 inhabitants. Upon exiting the funicolare, one is greeted with a commanding view of the valley below with the Swiss Alps in the distance. There is a lighthouse to visit, an old cemetery, and some restaurants. It is an isolated community with lots of hiking paths. Most of our merry group did the ascent and enjoyed the views.
This was our last day and it was time to squeeze in every last ounce of Italy we could. One group of young adults (names withheld to protect the innocent) decided they wanted to head back to Bellagio, not realizing the time involved for the long ferry ride – 2 1/2 hours. We had a 6PM meeting for our going away dinner. At about 5:30 I received a call. “Mr. Busch, we’re on the ferry to Bellagio and I think we’re going to be late.” “What” I replied. “We wanted to come back to Bellagio and didn’t realize how long it would take to get here. We’re still a few minutes away. What do you want us to do.” I laughed – “Enjoy yourself,” I replied. Probably not the expected answer, but it was funny and they did the right thing – they called. Even so, they got on a hydrofoil (a very fast boat) and returned within the hour to join us. It was all good fun.
Our last supper was within the old city walls. Down a narrow alleyway and into a very old building was a dining room all set for us. The formality of the room was offset by the casual pizza dinner. It was simply a nice last night with friends. We had one more moment to bond and share. What a wonderful group.
These tours have become a staple in Washingtonville. Starting out as exclusively student tours, we have now included friends and families. It’s wonderful to see the wide age ranges and families share these explorations and create lifelong memories. We always have a couple of speed bumps, but with a smile and some creativity, we work things out. I’d like to thank the Washingtonville community for their continued support and trust. It never gets old. Our 2020 tour is beginning to sign up. We’re heading to China – Beijing, Xi’an, and Hong Kong this time. For more information I can be reached at: email@example.com. Trip meeting will be announced. Come join the fun.