Along The Italian Riviera with the Penn State Alumni Association

A group of 22 Penn State travelers explored the Italian Riviera from Oct. 27-Nov. 4, 2007, in a Penn State Alumni Association tour. You can experience the region’s beauty and history vicariously by reading dispatches from such places as Sestri Levante, Portofino, Genoa, and the Cinque Terre.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

One Last Glorious Day on the Riviera

Saturday was our last day of the trip, and it was a free day -- people could do whatever they wanted. Some opted to stay in Sestri Levante and explore the town some more, while about a dozen of us headed back to the Cinque Terre, one of the most celebrated and picturesque spots in this region. Our trip director, Umberto, walked us over to the train station in Sestri and helped us buy the train tickets we'd need. I think the round-trip ticket cost 4.80 in Euros -- about $7.50 U.S.

We took the train from Sestri southward to Monterosso, the northernmost of the five villages of the Cinque Terre. From there we split up -- the hikers among us started hiking to Vernazza, the next village, while the rest of us bought tickets for the boat ride that would take us all the way to the southernmost village, Riomaggiore. You would not believe how many people they crammed onto those boats. Check it out:

In many ways this is the last weekend of the summer for the Italians. Last Thursday was Tutti i Santi -- All Saint's Day, a national holiday -- and many people took Friday off as well to create a four-day weekend. Plus the weather was gorgeous -- sunny with temperatures in the 60s. So it seemed as though most of Italy had taken advantage of the chance to head to the Cinque Terre to join us.

The boat ride, which took maybe an hour, was unbelievably scenic. Here's a view of the village of Corniglia (pronounced "Cornelia"), which as you can see is perched at the top of a hill:

Just when we thought the views couldn't get any better, we approached the southernmost of the five villages, Riomaggiore. All those multicolored houses crammed up against the hillside, right against the water, were just amazing.

We got off the boat in Riomaggiore and continued oohing, ahhing, and snapping photos. Here's a shot of four of the Penn State travelers, Dean and Barb Fernsler and Sandy and Ron Bixler, shortly after we disembarked in Riomaggiore.

From there, people wandered off to explore Riomaggiore and the other villages, eat lunch, buy souvenirs, and soak up the sun. Before we knew it, it was time to hustle back to Sestri Levante for the closing reception of the trip.

Since it was an educational trip -- officially called an "Alumni Campus Abroad" trip -- Umberto conducted a fun oral quiz during the reception, to see how much we had learned during the week. Questions ranged from the geographic ("Which of the following towns is not part of the Tigullian Gulf?") to the gastronomic ("Which of the following is made from chick-pea flour?"). Umberto also gave us a few final lessons on Italian body language -- he had entertained us on the bus all week long with comical demonstrations of Italian hand gestures, used for communicating such concepts as "How much does it cost?"; "Are you crazy?"; and "Go away." I wish I were a good enough writer to be able to describe each physical gesture, but suffice it to say he had us in stitches all week.

On Sunday morning we got up at an ungodly hour, had breakfast at 5:30, and piled on the bus at 6:30 a.m. for the trip to the Florence airport. Most of the passengers were headed home, while others had opted to extend their trip with stays in Florence, Rome, and Venice. All of us will take with us a great collection of memories of our week together in the Italian Riviera.

Don't forget that you can see a large collection of trip photos here. When you're on that page, click on "detail" to see the photos with captions. And if you're interested in seeing some photos from Florence, where I'm spending two days before heading home, they are here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Another Day, Another Thousand Photo Ops

On Friday we headed from our home base in Sestri Levante, in Italy's Liguria region, to the neighboring region of Tuscany. Our first stop was Villa Torrigiani, a huge mansion and gardens just outside of Lucca. The house was built as a summer home by silk merchants several centuries ago.

We weren't allowed to take photos inside, but trust me when I tell you it was opulent: period furniture, fine porcelain dinnerware, gigantic paintings on every wall, detailed frescoes on every ceiling, door frames made of Carrara marble, and the most ostentatious bed I've ever seen. The bed had a huge, and I mean huge, canopy -- we think it probably was 18 or 20 feet above the bed. The guide told me that the Italian name for this kind of canopy is a baldocchino. He said that the bed linens, which featured hand-sewn ribbons all over them, would be even more valuable if they weren't so worn-looking. Turns out the owners had actually continued sleeping on the bed into the 1960s -- and allowed their cat and dog to sleep on the bed too. My kind of people! Today the bed, like many of the furnishings, is roped off.

After the interior tour, we strolled the grounds a bit. Here's Deb Preston petting a statue of some dude with his three-headed dog Ceberus, which apparently was the dog that guarded the gates of Hell:

And here are Richard and Lorre Bass in front of the pond and sculpture garden:

Next we got back on the bus and drove into Lucca, which Umberto, our trip director, said is similar to Siena but not visited by tourists as much. We had another incredible lunch (I even ate the eggplant appetizer, a first for me), then took a walking tour of the city, then had some free time to stroll, shop, and eat gelato. I climbed the Guinigi Tower, one of the city's many towers, and took some photos of the panoramic views. This is a view from partway up the tower:

We then drove back to the hotel in Sestri and had another amazing fancy dinner while plotting our plans for our free day on Saturday. Many of the travelers are opting to stay near the hotel and chill out -- an excellent choice after a week of non-stop sightseeing. But a large clump of us are planning to take the train back to the Cinque Terre and see some of the villages we missed on Wednesday; we also want to take the boat ride from one end of the Cinque Terre to the other, as it was too windy for boats when we were there the other day. A few hardy souls are planning to hike the length of the Cinque Terre trails -- a five-hour project, I'm told. I haven't yet decided whether I'll join them for that part!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tina Gets a Bonus Excursion

In addition to seeing the city of Carrara and its marble with the other Penn State travelers, I got to see something the others didn't: an Italian emergency room.

It's a long story, but here's the semi-short version: When we visited the marble workshop in Carrara, as we watched an artisan at work and listened to Umberto explaining things, there was a dog in a large caged enclosure barking his head off the whole time. At one point, one of the workers went over to pay some attention to the dog -- which was sort of police-dog in size -- and petted him through the metal fence. I wandered over that way, and using hand gestures (I speak pretty much zero Italian) I asked her if it would be OK to pet him. She nodded yes. Turns out she misunderstood what I was asking, or else she would not have nodded yes. I stuck my hand in there and that dog went after it instantly. I don't know if I'll ever forget the sight of those teeth! I yanked my hand back quickly -- quickly enough to spatter blood down the front of my off-white pants.

One of the workshop employees came over to get me immediately and walked me to a back room where they have first-aid stuff for cuts. Turns out that people who work with marble get a lot of cuts, because the unprocessed marble has a lot of sharp jagged edges. So he poured some sort of peroxide-esque liquid over the two fingers that were cut, then bandaged them with some special tape and sent me on my way.

Oh yeah. I said I was going to make this short, didn't I? So I went on with the tour, applied a lot of pressure to get the bleeding to stop, kicked myself continually for being so stupid as to stick my hand into a dog cage, and thought the incident was over. But Umberto meanwhile checked with an AHI rep, in part to make sure there was no risk for rabies -- or "the rage," as they call it over here -- and it was decided that maybe I should have a doctor look at my fingers. (There was brief talk of maybe a rabies shot, but after some checking, the word came back that rabies has been all but eliminated in Italy.) So when the other passengers headed off to lunch, Umberto and I went to the ospedale.

By the way, like every other building in the city, the hospital has large amounts of gorgeous Carrara marble in its construction. Anyway, we went to their ER, where Umberto talked to the staff in Italian -- I could make out a few words, like signora Americana (American woman), cane (dog), and domestico (domesticated), but not much else. With Umberto serving as my translator, the triage staff person got me typed into their computer, and the medical staff took a careful look at my cuts. They poured more peroxide-like stuff over them, then another liquid that looked like Betadine, only darker. (One of the other travelers in the group suggested later that it might have been balsamic vinegar.) They put a butterfly bandage of some sort on the one finger, gave me a prescription for an oral antibiotic, and sent me on my way. I never signed a single form and I didn't pay a penny -- that's the nature of the Italian health-care system. And the quality of care was most excellent.

Afterward, I asked the docs and Umberto to pose for a photo.

Umberto and I walked back to the restaurant just as the rest of the group was finishing their second course, so I didn't miss much. I spent the rest of the day fielding offers of Advil, Neosporin, and lava soap (for my pants) from the other passengers, as well as enduring a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Oh yeah, one of the passengers said something later that should have occurred to me at the time: That dog was probably a guard dog for the plant. It probably spends its day caged up, and then is turned loose at night to patrol the grounds. Duh. So when he tried to take a bite out of my hand, hey, he was only doing his job.

The Word for Today is "Marble"

Thursday's theme was marble: We made a day trip to Carrara, which is pretty much the white marble capital of the world.

The day started with a PowerPoint presentation at the hotel by Umberto, our AHI trip director, who happens to be a native of Carrara and who spoke informatively and passionately about the history of Carrara marble. It was Carrara marble that Michelangelo used to sculpt his famous David (in Florence) and Pieta (in Rome), among many others. But Carrara marble can also be found in architecture worldwide -- Umberto showed us buildings in Chicago, London, and Paris that feature Carrara marble in their construction. He told a funny story of being in the States on his honeymoon a few years ago and noticing a building on New York City's Park Avenue that used Carrara marble; he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the security guards to let him take a picture. "I'm from Carrara!" he told them. "This is my marble!" The guards didn't budge.

On the hour-long drive, we learned that the economy of Carrara (a city of 70,000, I think Umberto said) is almost exclusively tied up in the marble industry. About 1,000 companies locally are involved in marble processing, with 5,000 workers employed in processing. The city has a busy port, where white Carrara marble is shipped to other countries, and multi-colored marble from other areas is brought in for processing.

Here are a couple of shots from our visit to a marble workshop (sort of like a marble factory). The first is of Lorenzo, one of the employees, letting one of the AHI travelers try her hand at working with the marble.

Here's another employee of the marble workshop using a very fine-grained sandpaper to polish a piece of marble.

And here's a shot just to give you a feel for how much marble there was lying around at the workshop.

We also drove up into the mountain to see the extraction process -- a laborious and still-dangerous line of work. There are 100 active marble quarries in the area, employing about 1,000 workers, and there are about three fatalities a year. Marble weighs a lot, and as they cut it out of the mountain, there's lots of risk for getting crushed. Here you can see the mountain that's made of marble; if you look closely you can see some of the orange-colored equipment in the middle of the photo.

And here's a closer look at some more of the equipment that is used for slicing the marble right out of the mountain.

After lunch in Carrara, we strolled around the town a bit, and had an unexpected bit of entertainment as Umberto tried to shoo cars away from the pedestrian zone. Eash time a car would pull into the alley where we were gathered, Umberto would interrupt what he was telling us about in order to take them on, waving his arm at the driver in a scolding way and saying to them in rapid-fire Italian that cars could not come in. He won a few and lost a few, and we couldn't stop laughing.

On Friday we visit Lucca. Saturday is a free day -- some of the travelers are planning to visit Florence, and many are plotting a return to the Cinque Terre.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A GREAT Day in the Cinque Terre

We spent Wednesday visiting the Cinque Terre, and everyone agreed it was a spectacular day. The Cinque Terre are five villages along the shoreline here in the Liguria region of Italy; they are an Italian national park and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. And they provide just one postcard view after another.

We started in Portovenere, which is just south of the Cinque Terre. That town isn't too shabby either, as you can see:

We got a walking tour of the town, visited a cool church, took a few thousand photos, and spent a few Euros on postcards, gifts, and cappuccino. I haven't mentioned the coffee over here yet, have I? If you order a coffee, what you get is a cappuccino -- which, I'm told, is wicked strong. (I wouldn't know, as I get my caffeine from Diet Coke, or Coke Light as it's called over here.) If what you want is an American-style coffee, you have to ask for "American coffee." But usually all that means is that they take a cappuccino and add hot water to it. Whenever I've seen the Penn State travelers drinking coffee, it always seems to be the Italian version. A hardy bunch, these Penn Staters.

Anyway, I could show you lots of photos from Portovenere (and in fact you can see a bunch of photos from the trip here -- I'm updating it daily), but for now let's move on to the rest of the day: the Cinque Terre! From Portovenere we drove to La Spezia, got on a train, and got off at the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza. We had lunch there -- yet another wonderful lunch, this one featuring ravioli with some sort of creamy walnut sauce, penne pasta with a tomato-seafood sauce, some sort of white fish (I'm sure they told us what kind, but I didn't retain it), and a dessert that was somewhere between ice cream and gelato, not that I really could tell you the difference between ice cream and gelato anyway. It's all good to me.

Also at that restaurant I got to have a glass of the famous local dessert wine, called sciacchetrĂ . It's a very sweet white wine found only in the Cinque Terre. It takes way more grapes to make than most wines, and it has to age something like four years, so it's very expensive: a bottle can cost as much as 80 or 100 Euros. But I adore sweet white dessert wines (the sweeter, the better) so I had to try a glass. It was delicious. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that it cost just 6 Euros, or about $9 U.S., including gratuity.

After lunch we had about 45 minutes to poke around the harbor in Vernazza, which is another drop-dead gorgeous spot.

Then we got back on the train, this time headed for Riomaggiore, another of the Cinque Terre villages. About a third of the group took the train the whole way to Riomaggiore and wandered around the town a bit, while the rest of us got off a stop early, at Manarola, and walked the rest of the way. The walk between Manarola and Riomaggiore is called the Via Dell'Amore, or the walk of love; it's a very scenic stroll along the cliffs next to the sea. About halfway to Riomaggiore we stopped for a group photo.

After we got to Riomaggiore and explored that village (it's important to sample the focaccia in each place we visit, I feel), we hopped back on the train and headed home to Sestri Levante.

Before dinner, our group had a chance to meet with two local residents -- a common feature on AHI trips. Their names were Francoise and Renata, and they both live in the Sestri Levante area. They talked about life in this part of Italy, about the local economy, and about the regional Genovese dialect that is dying out. The group had lots of questions for them: What is your tax structure like? What do you think of the new pope? What does Italy think of the Euro? What do Italians think of Americans? Francoise answered the latter by saying that many Italians have relatives in the States and generally enjoy the American people; she also got a big burst of applause when she said, in her charming accented English, "But we think your young people have too easily pistols."

Today we're off to Carrara to learn about marble. Those who have been there before say it should be another great experience.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Genoa

Our excursion for Tuesday took us to Genoa, which has had several "golden ages" in its long history. It was a shipping town, a banking town, and of course the home of Christopher Columbus. Today it has more than 600,000 residents -- and more than 100,000 motor scooters! We saw large parking lots filled with nothing but scooters. Our bus driver told us that he, like many local residents, doesn't own a car -- just a scooter.

One of the highlights of Genoa was a walk down the Via Garibaldi, a street of palazzi, or mansions, dating to the 1500s. Genoa is a very cramped city, being squeezed in between the mountains and the sea, so these are not mansions that sit on huge expanses of land. Instead the streets are narrow and you have to poke your head inside one of the entryways to see how ostentatious the buildings are. Here's a little section of one of the frescoes from the ceiling inside one of the homes on Via Garibaldi.

Another good photo op was the Church of San Lorenzo, which features a variety of architectural styles -- Romanesque, French Gothic, even Moorish. The main entrance features bas-relief sculptures and two big lion sculptures. Here's a shot of one of the portals.

We also went to the Diocesan Museum, where Cristina, one of our guides for the day, gave us a short slide show/lecture on Genoa. After lunch at a local restaurant, we made a short stop at the Palazzo Ducale, which was built in the Middle Ages. I didn't catch much of the detail about this one -- actually, I always find that it's hard to take pictures and pay attention to the guide at the same time. Given a choice, I tend to take pictures! I figure I'll catch about 20 percent of what's being said and get the rest from the other passengers or the guidebooks afterward. You might refer to this as the "Shoot first, ask questions later" approach to touring.

Anyway, we didn't spend long at the Palazzo Ducale, just long enough to wander by a big art installation having something to do with the famed Chinese terra-cotta army. When we were there, workers were unpacking dozens of huge crates, each crate containing a terra-cotta soldier. It made for an irresistible photo op.

After we headed back to our hotel in Sestri Levante, we had a reception sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association -- a tradition on Alumni Association tours. A highlight was when two of the men in the group, who had never met each other before the trip, showed up in matching Penn State shirts:

Also at the reception, the 23 Penn State travelers were joined by five Penn State students who happen to be in Italy this semester on a Study Abroad program. The students took the train over from Florence, where they're based, and hung out with us for the evening. The travelers seemed to love meeting them -- in fact, within an hour, two Penn State couples told me that when they visit Florence on Saturday (our free day), some of the students have volunteered to show them around the city.

Originally the students were planning to just stay for the reception and then head back on the 8:45 p.m. train, but everyone was having such a great time that we invited them to stay for dinner, compliments of the Alumni Association (note to the folks back in the travel office: I made an executive decision on that -- hope you don't mind! :-)) and the students decided to go back on the midnight train. Umberto, our trip director, gave them directions to a local bar they could hang out in before heading to the train station. They weren't scheduled to get back to Florence until 5:00 a.m., but they didn't seem to mind at all -- just another of their adventures in Italy this semester.

The students seemed to enjoy the travelers just as much as the travelers enjoyed the students. One of the students told me afterward that it was the highlight of their semester to be able to talk to other Penn Staters -- "a taste of home," as they put it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

First Full Day on the Riviera

Monday was our first full day on the Italian Riviera, in the region known as Liguria -- or, as our Alumni Holidays trip director, Umberto, calls it, "lee-GOO-ree-ah." Umberto is a native of Carrara (a famed marble-quarrying town we'll visit in a few days) and speaks terrific English with a very charismatic Italian accent. On Monday, for example, he was giving us instructions on how to shoo away "gypsies and beek-bockets." But I digress....

We started the day with a short briefing from Umberto, who talked about why we're staying in the town of Sestri Levante and not, for example, in the more famous town of Portofino a few miles up the coast. That's because AHI wanted to plan a trip for "travelers" and not "tourists." Here in Sestri, he said, we'll be able to see everyday life. "Portofino is a postcard," Umberto said. "This is a real town." Portofino is certainly on the itinerary -- in fact, we would see it later in the day -- but the AHI folks want us to really experience the region.

After the briefing, Antonella, who would be our guide for the day, gave us a little slide presentation. From Antonella we learned a little about the history of the region (as recently as the mid-1800s, Italy wasn't a country but rather a collection of quarrelling republics -- the Republic of Genoa, the Republic of Pisa, and so on) as well as about its industries and its food. She got my mouth watering with her descriptions of the many kinds of focaccia made here: cheese focaccia,onion focaccia, sage focaccia, and so on. It's a ubiquitous snack, she said. "When do we have focaccia? Well, normally between 5:00 in the morning and midnight."

Antonella took us on a stroll through Sestri Levante, where she showed us the many building exteriors that were cleverly painted to look as though they had window shutters, stonework, and so on. It's a technique called trompe l'oeil, a French phrase meaning, roughly, "to trick the eye." Here's an example:

Speaking of new vocabulary words, we also saw our first edicola -- a little altar or shrine on the wall of a building. Apparently we will see many more of these before the trip is over. There are 400 of these "hanging altars" in Genoa alone.

After lunch we took a short bus ride to the town of Santa Margherita de Ligure, then hopped on a boat to Portofino. It is indeed a gorgeous harbor, with colorful buildings tight up against the hillside. But Antonella was right that it's pretty much a postcard: You can see it all in about an hour. We hiked up the hill to the Church of San Giorgio, wandered around at harbor level, ate gelato, took skillions of pictures, petted a few stray cats, and got back on the boat.

Speaking of gelato, all of us are looking forward to sampling it many times in many different locations. I had a cannella (cinnamon) flavored gelato in Portofino. Camille Smith, a Penn Stater from Florida, has already found her favorite: a mix of lemon, coconut, and cherry with some chocolate sprinkled on top and a cookie plunged into it. It cost a very reasonable 1.5 Euros and made her very happy.

Tuesday we're off to Genoa. More later.