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.

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.

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