Italy

Alpine Views from the Bernina Express

On a scale of 1 to 10 my excitement level for the Bernina Express was a definite 10. We love train travel and the thought of a spectacular four-hour scenic ride from Chur, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy on the highest railway through the Alps negotiating 55 tunnels and 196 bridges thrilled me beyond description. The 122 km route’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site added another dimension to its already abundant appeal.

We decided to purchase round-trip tickets allowing us to enjoy the scenery twice and return to Chur for the night. Not one to leave the pinnacle event of our Swiss adventure to chance, we reserved our seats prior to leaving home, then bought our tickets at the train station the morning of our tour. With our Swiss Half Fare card, 2nd class roundtrip tickets for the two of us totaled $184.

From the moment we departed Chur at 8:32 am, I think it’s safe to say I was the most excited passenger in our railcar if not on the entire train. Fortunately, our railcar wasn’t overly crowded so I was able to flit from side to side in the car without disturbing other passengers.  I’d read the views were best from the right side where we reserved our seats, but I saw so many astounding views on the left, I couldn’t sit still for even a minute. With Jim’s back fracture, he was relieved to just sit in his seat and enjoy the views without exertion for the day. To me, every view was photo-worthy resulting in over 1100 photos, although the vast majority contain major flaws, usually window glare. Warning: I whittled down the photos in this post to 42 so my apologies if you grow weary and give up before the end.

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The Bernina Express at Chur Train Station

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Jim searching for our reserved seats on the Bernina Express

As we left the station, we noticed low hanging clouds in the valleys but plenty of sunshine and blue skies promised excellent views when the sun burned the vapor away. In the meantime, the fog added a mystical quality to our views.

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Alpine view from the Bernina Express

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View from the Bernina Express

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Crossing one of 196 bridges

I’m quite sure I took photos of every hamlet we passed. Each was as charming as this with a church steeple often serving as my focal point.

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One of many Alpine hamlets

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Misty clouds in the valley

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Try as I might, my photos of the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct below and the entrance to the Landwasser Tunnel didn’t do it justice but take my word for it, it was spectacular.

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Landwasser Viaduct and Tunnel

I especially loved the sun illuminating the autumn foliage on the mountainsides.

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UNESCO World Heritage recognition

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I don’t know the people in the photo below, but I wanted to show how the windows provided both panoramic views and challenges to work around when taking photographs from the train.

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View of Morteratsch Glacier from the Bernina Express

As we approached The Bernina Pass, the highest elevation of our ride at 2253 m (7392 ft) Lake Bianco came into view. Many hikers enjoy the easy scenic trails in this area, especially the trail from Ospizio Bernina to Alp Grum along the lake. I would love to go back and take this hike sometime.

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Hikers on the trail to Alp Grum

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Lago Bianco

We stopped at Alp Grum and took the requisite selfie to prove we were here.

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The Bernina Express route ends at Tirano, Italy. The brochure claims there are “swaying palms” at the terminus which we did not see but we nevertheless enjoyed the temperate climate and the views from this village of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. After a short stroll, we settled in at a cafe with outdoor seating and a view for some real Italian pizza and a glass of vino.

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We departed from Tirano for the return trip to Chur at 2:25 pm and arrived at 6:20 pm. Although we’d been this way before, it was nearly as spectacular on the return trip and I attempted to capture the shots which escaped me earlier in the day.

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Morteratsch Glacier

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I truly thought this train journey would be the highlight of our Swiss adventure but it turned out to be just one of many highlights. Please check back for more as we travel next to Lucerne.

 

Based on events from October 2017.

Categories: Europe, Italy, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

The Cinque Terre—Hiking Shoes Required

 

CHEEN-kweh TEH-ray

Learn to say Cinque Terre the Italian way by clicking on the YouTube link below.

Five captivating, remote fishing villages along the rugged Italian Riviera make up the Cinque Terre, Italian for the 5 Lands.  If you want to see soaring Mediterranean views with quaint and colorful villages built on steep mountain slopes, and you’re willing to travel light to climb LOTS of stairs, Cinque Terre is for you.   The villages are best accessible by train although I understand the truly dauntless may attempt to drive the steep and narrow winding roads only to find they have to park their cars outside of town at exorbitant rates once they arrive.

We stayed at Elisabetta Carro’s Rooms (a click will take you to her website) in Vernazza, seeking the best views at the best price and we were not disappointed.  The strenuous climb up endless stairs along narrow, uneven walkways carrying our “rolling” backpacks from the train station was absolutely worth the effort.  The views were exactly what we had hoped to find. Our room was tiny but very clean and Elisabetta was delightful.  When we returned muddy from hiking, she even helped Jim clean his shoes over my protests.  One evening when we returned, a man stood looking wistfully at the stairs to our place behind the gate and asked if we were staying there.  He told us he tried to book a room but the last one was rented just before his call.  When he asked if the views were as good as he envisioned, we invited him and his companion up to the terrace to share the wine we brought back with us.  It turned out he was a priest, Father Frank, from the U.S., traveling with his sister.  We had a great visit, enjoying the view while he bemoaned his missed opportunity.

Views from Elisabetta Carro Rooms

(Hover over the photo to see captions or click on the photo for a slide show.)

Getting Around

The train from the southeast at La Spezia takes you first to Riomaggiore in about 10 minutes, then 2 minutes more to Manarola, 3 additional minutes to Corniglia, 4 more minutes to Vernazza, and finally 3 minutes more to Monterosso.   There are few views from the train, however, because most of the trip is through tunnels.  Tickets are inexpensive; from town to town costs less than 2 euro and the ticket is good for several hours from the time you validate it, or you can purchase a Cinque Terre Pass that covers unlimited train travel and use of the trails for varied periods of time.  You can also travel by ferry with stops in Monterosso, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore.  Make a plan for each day then calculate whether a pass or individual ticket is more cost-effective.  We actually found that individual tickets were right for us.

Each village has its own charms.

Food and Restaurants

Food is such an important part of travel and the Cinque Terre is known for its seafood, olive oil, and mushrooms, among other culinary delights. In high tourist areas like this, it’s often difficult to find good food at reasonable prices. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to find good food at any price. The number 1 rated restaurant in Vernazza on TripAdvisor is Il Pirata–The Pirate.  I was VERY skeptical about a place with such a kitschy name but the food was excellent and the owner took special care to recommend gluten-free dishes for me. The reviews were varied on some of the places where we ate, but fortunately, we enjoyed good food and good service everywhere.

Hiking the Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre was designated a national park in 1999, with a fee to hike the trails between villages.  The ravaging floods and mudslides of 2011, however, destroyed many of the paths.  In October, 2013, when we visited, the easy trails connecting Riomaggiore and Manarola, and Manarola to Corniglia were still closed.  We hiked the more difficult trails from Vernazza to Monterosso and from Corniglia to Vernazza.  Had the easier trails been open, we may have missed the more arduous but rewarding hikes that we experienced.  Things usually work out for the best, don’t you think?

We hiked Trail #2 from Vernazza to Monterosso, then from Corniglia to Vernazza.  The first segment at 1.8 miles, is reputed to be the most difficult section, and takes around 2 hours to complete.  There are many uneven stairs, up and down; steep grades; narrow passageways; and the path surface varies from stone to gravel to dirt to mud.  On this section we encountered a young couple geocaching, which is “the real world treasure hunt, that’s happening right now, all around you.  There are 2,412,846 geocaches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide”(geocaching.com).   I’d actually never heard of it before.  Jim told them he thought the cache would be at the rest stop with the bench and all the cats.  When we saw them again later, they confirmed his guess had been correct.

The 2 mile section from Corniglia to Vernazza is somewhat less difficult.  It begins with views of grape vines growing in verdant fields followed by lush olive trees and stunning views of the Ligurian Sea.  There are still plenty of uneven stairs and narrow passages, however.  Wear comfortable hiking shoes, layer your clothing, and bring water.  Stop and rest when needed along the way and enjoy. the. view.

Views from the Trail

Based on events from October, 2013

Categories: Italy, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pickpockets in Pisa

I have some experience with pickpockets.  I once caught a child thief unzipping my fanny pack on a crowded metro in Paris.  Yes, I know, nothing screams tourist like a fanny pack, so what did I expect?  I think (I hope) I look a little cooler today.  My husband, Jim, had his clip-on sunglasses lifted from the backpack in Barcelona.  I warn my adult children about the latest scams and danger areas whenever we travel together.  They just roll their eyes.  Suffice it to say, wherever there are tourists ripe for the picking, there are pickpockets ready to employ their skills and Pisa, Italy is loaded with opportunity.  Here’s what happened.

Walking from our hotel with our bags in tow, we had some difficulty finding the small, regional train station at San Rossore.  When we finally spotted it, the train station was across the tracks from us and signs announce it’s illegal to cross.  You have to take the passageway under the tracks to the station and then return to the platform where the train will arrive.

Pisa Train Station across the tracks

Pisa San Rossore Train Station across the tracks

As we discussed the situation, a group of tourists approached to validate their tickets at the yellow box nearby.  We thought maybe we could buy tickets there but the tour guide explained that we had to go to the station to purchase tickets, then return to validate them before boarding the train at the platform on this side of the tracks.  We were short of time and the next train would be hours later if we missed this one.  I asked the tour guide, “You don’t happen to have any extra tickets, do you?”  She said, “As a matter of fact, two people didn’t join us this morning so I do have two extra tickets.”  What luck!  Needless to say we bought them on the spot.  A word of caution is in order here.  Had someone appeared trying to sell us tickets, this may not be advisable.  This, however, was undoubtedly a tour group and the guide had an Australian accent so I felt certain we weren’t going to be ripped off.

The train arrived soon thereafter and we waited for passengers to disembark before pressing forward in a group to board.  As we boarded, a woman with a baby strapped to the front of her pushed through the crowd at the last minute to get off the train.  In the crush of people, confusion ensued.  Once the train got underway, one of the tour group realized someone had opened her fanny pack.  Luckily, only her glasses which were on top, had been taken.  Another in the group announced he’d lost his glasses as well.  The pick pocket clearly used the “baby” as a cover to get into the two bags on her way through the throng.  The tour guide used this as a teachable moment with her group as she pointed out that fortunately no one lost money or credit cards.  The victims felt violated by the experience, nevertheless.  We discussed and debriefed this upsetting episode during the 13 mile ride to Lucca.

5 simple travel tips to avoid being victimized:

  1. Keep in mind that popular tourist areas are inherently higher risk.

  2. Be particularly alert whenever you are in a crowd and keep your hand on your purse or backpack zipper as you move through a crowd.

  3. Be wary of people approaching with offers of help.  I hesitate to even mention this one because I have encountered many friendly people who have given us directions or even led us to places but caution is still advisable.

  4.  A commotion is often used to divert your attention so move away and guard your valuables.

  5.  Google the latest travel scams for an area before you visit.  You’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Enjoy your travels and stay safe.

 

Based on events in October, 2013

Categories: Italy, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Exploring Tuscany

After Florence, I wanted to visit Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Lucca on our way to Cinque Terre.  I’d also read about Chianti Road in Tuscany’s wine region so I was keen to visit a local winery.  My first thought was to take the train, which I adore, so of course, I googled it.  To my surprise, I discovered it’s less efficient to take the train to Siena and you can’t get to San Gimignano by train at all.  You must either rent a car or take a bus.  That research led me to bus schedules, which led me to bus tours, which led me to Viator Tours, which led me to reviews of Viator, which led me to Rick Steves Travel Forum where I learned that Viator is a consolidator that buys from local operators with whom I could book directly at a lower cost.  That led me to Walkabout Florence where I booked The Best of Tuscany Tour.

I don’t typically choose a tour for several reasons.  First, I can usually book the components myself at a lower cost.  Second, I like flexibility to adjust my plan based on our enjoyment or additional discoveries along the way.  Finally, I get annoyed when others are inconsiderate and make us wait for them because they don’t follow the tour guide’s instructions to return on time.  This tour appealed to me, however, and for 90 euro ($124), it was a bargain.  Learn more about Walkabout Florence.

Leaving from Santa Maria Novella Station near our hotel at 8:30 am, we had a scenic ride through Tuscany in a comfortable air conditioned bus with a lively tour guide offering interesting commentary until we reached our first stop.

SIENA

Medieval Siena, with less than 60,000 inhabitants, is a walkable city built around Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Since the 1500’s, the famous Il Palio horse race has taken place in this piazza amid great excitement and pageantry.  Ten horses chosen from the 17 districts of the city engage in a wild and dangerous race that lasts no more than 90 seconds to win bragging rights until the next race.

The gothic Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena dates back to the 1200s.  It’s one of the few cathedrals I’ve visited that charges admission and fortunately it was included in the price of our tour because I would have been tempted to skip it, having seen many cathedrals throughout Europe.  This is a sight not to be missed.

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Even more awe-inspiring than the beautiful frescoes by Pinturicchio and the impressive sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello inside the cathedral, are the 56 etched and inlaid marble mosaics found on the floor.  Most of them are ordinarily kept covered to protect them from damage except for a few weeks in September and October, when we just happened to visit.

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

After a walking tour and the cathedral visit, we were allowed some free time in Siena.  Fortunately, everyone met at the appointed time to leave for lunch at the organic farm just outside the town of San Gimignano.  Was it the promise of food or wine?

Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Literally translated Farm Hill Laurel, this organic family farm grows or raises everything they served us for lunch except the cheese which came from a nearby farm.  After touring the farm, we enjoyed Tuscan dishes including homemade breads, pasta, salad, several cheeses, sausages, beef, cookies, and olive oil accompanied by locally produced wines.  They even accommodate dietary restrictions such as gluten-free.  The views of the Tuscan countryside are unbelievably lovely from the terrace where we ate communally at long tables while visiting with others on our tour.

Interestingly, the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, is painstakingly produced here from the crocus sativus flower grown on the farm. For more information about the farm and all their products, look at Fattoria Poggio Alloro.

Olives grown on the farm

Olives grown on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed at lunch

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed abundantly with lunch

Enjoying lunch at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Enjoying wine produced at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

San Gimignano

After a leisurely meal and some time to shop, we commenced the short drive to San Gimignano.  Nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan for its towers, San Gimignano is one of the most charming and best preserved walled medieval towns in Tuscany.  In the Middle Ages, the tower was a symbol of wealth and power and this town originally contained 72 of them but today only 13 towers remain.  We were free to explore on our own for several hours and we enjoyed every minute of our walk through the Middle Ages.

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Several towers in San Gimignano

Towers in San Gimignano

Pisa

Our final stop for the day was in Pisa.  One reason this tour suited us so well is that they offer the option to leave the tour wherever and whenever you want, with proper notification, of course.  We wanted to spend the night in Pisa and take the train to Lucca the following day before going to Cinque Terre so we brought our luggage with us on the bus in the morning and parted company after our tour of Pisa late in the day.  The tour group then returned to Florence and we took a taxi to our hotel.

Pisa is one of those places that gets mixed reviews.  Some love it, some not so much.  We had low expectations of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but we were pleasantly surprised.  The most famous bell tower in the world is located on the Field of Miracles which also contains a cathedral, a baptistry, and a cemetery, all situated close to the medieval city wall.  The tower has leaned since its construction began in 1173 due to its position on soft ground but recent stabilization efforts have ensured that it will stand for at least another 300 years.  You must reserve a time to climb the 294 steps to the top of the tower so we returned the next morning to experience the view and to visit the cathedral.  The walk from our hotel was reasonably short and enjoyable.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Once we’d enjoyed everything the Field of Miracles had to offer and the crowds started to arrive, it was time to take the train to Lucca.

 

 

 

 

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Highlights of Florence in 3 Days

Regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is reputed to house more artwork than any other city in the world relative to its size.  You can view works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli, just to name a few.  We initially intended to purchase the Firenza card for 72 euro ($99) that would allow us to see 72 museums over 72 hours but we soon realized that was beyond our abilities and endurance for a three-day stay.  Besides, with so much beautiful architecture and sculpture outside the museums, as we discovered on our walking tour, it seemed a shame to spend all our time indoors.   So, while it’s good advice to make a plan and stick to it, it’s also advisable to be flexible and recognize when a change is in order.

After our walking tour, we headed straight to Il Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) to see the area before the arrival of hordes of tourists from cruise ship excursions.  The dome of the cathedral was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, completed in 1436, and remains the largest brick dome in existence.

Il Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower

Il Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower

Il Duomo interior

Il Duomo interior

The Last Judgement fresco in the dome of the cathedral

The Last Judgement fresco in the dome of the cathedral

Later it became a crush of bodies, but as you can see by these photos, we beat the (c)rush.  After our visit to Il Duomo, we crossed the River Arno via the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) to have a look at the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace), the official residence of the powerful Medici family beginning in 1550, and the attached Boboli Gardens.  The ticket options were several and varied but pricey.  We opted for a combo that included the gardens, which is more like a park with many paths, trees and a few fountains and outbuildings.  It’s not as vast and impressive as the gardens at Versailles, outside of Paris, but we enjoyed a leisurely stroll, nevertheless.

Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti

Boboli Gardens

Boboli Gardens

The Old Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, is a medieval bridge spanning the River Arno.  Originally occupied by butchers, fishmongers, and other merchants, the stench was so rank that in 1593, Duke Ferdinand I ordered that only goldsmiths and jewelers could locate shops on the bridge.  Today, there are still many jewelry shops along with souvenir shops.

Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)

Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)

View of Ponte Vecchio and River Arno

View of Ponte Vecchio and River Arno

We decided to try the Uffizi Gallery next.  It was mid afternoon and the queue wasn’t too bad so we visited with people in line with us for about 45 minutes while we waited.  We’re friendly but we can’t help it.  Photos aren’t allowed in the museum so follow this link to sneak a peek at the highlights of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primaverahttp://www.uffizi.org

Since that strategy worked well for us, the following day we went to the Accademia later in the afternoon to see Michelangelo’s David.  Again, photos are not allowed inside but there is a reproduction in the Piazza della Signoria  where photos are allowed.

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David

Tell me honestly, don’t you think his hands look freakishly large?

There are many other sculptures worth seeing in this piazza located outside the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) so we took our time there.

Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria

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Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa

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Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus in front of Palazzo Vecchio

Allow some time for shopping in the Mercato Nuovo, a covered outdoor market with many vendors selling Italian silk and leather goods.  Outside the market you’ll find the famous Fontana del Porcellino, a fountain with a statue of a wild boar.  Legend has it if you rub his snout, you’ll return to Florence.

Fontana Porcellina

Fontana Porcellino

We also visited the Medici Chapel which contains tombs of Medici aristocrats and seven Michelangelo sculptures along with a lot of other beautiful artwork but again photography is forbidden so here’s a photo of the outside only.

 

Medici Chapel

Medici Chapel

Our tour guide suggested a walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic view of Florence and we’re so glad we did.  It was truly a highlight for us.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

We saw many other beautiful sights in Florence but these make my list of “not to be missed.”

One final recommendation–Take some time just to smell the coffee.

Cafe on our street, Via Faenza

Cafe Sabatino on our street, Via Faenza

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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