Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Above: Leaning Tower
Above: Halfway up the tower
Above: Rens joins us for the walk up the tower - first time ever!
Above: Handsome young men and beautiful young women ready for their dinner at Moresco
Above: Birthday Boy Mack at Moresco

I’m currently sitting on the bus, looking out at grey skies and rain, heading to Slovenia, and saying arrividerci to Italy. In four years of doing this, I have to say that this was the best stop in Italy I have ever had.

Driving into Italy from Switzerland, we had rain and sleet, but by the time we reached the Leaning Tower of Pisa, all precipitation had subsided. That didn’t stop us from being swarmed by umbrella sellers as soon as we got off the bus though! Getting 42 people up the tower is a complicated business, involving booking groups of 10 in time slots 20 minutes apart exactly 45 days before the trip. We were actually early getting there (with all these people, it’s amazing that we are so efficient at loading up and getting on the road in the morning – they are all doing a great job of sticking to the schedule and remembering their passports – cameras not so good) and the usually complicated redeeming of the vouchers was simple. Rens, our driver, joined us in climbing the tower – he’s taken hundreds of people to it, but never been up it before. The crooked stairs and the seemingly too low railing at the top make for an interesting experience, but once you’ve got your balance back, the view over the cathedral and baptistery and the rest of Pisa is well worth it. While at Pisa, all the groups had time to browse the tacky tourist booths set up on the grounds, and got to practice saying no to the countless street vendors trying to sell fake Rolexes and Gucci bags.

The hour and a quarter drive to Levanto from Pisa is always filled with great anticipation… well, by me anyway. I know exactly what is coming – the greatest meal of my life. We eat at Ristaurante Moresco not one night, but two nights while we stay in Levanto, a small town on the Mediterranean. After arriving at the hostel, we got dressed up (most of us) and walked 5 minutes to Moresco, where Roberto and his friendly staff greeted us kindly with Buena Seras and Ciaos. He had one gigantic table set up for the kids, and another one for the adults. With 42, including Rens (this is also his favourite meal on the trip) we almost fill the restaurant. The couple having the romantic dinner near the front didn’t look too pleased as we walked in, but for such a large group, we really didn’t ruin the atmosphere of the restaurant. The kids chatted and laughed more quietly than the adults I think! Liguria is the region that Levanto is located in, and it is the bithplace of pesto. The pesto here is simply amazing. I’m salivating a bit right now thinking about it, and I bet former Europe trippers who are reading this are too. Roberto starts us off with the first plate, and we get to choose between three or four pasta/sauce combinations. After eating what would almost constitute a whole meal, Roberto gives us three or four choices for the second plate, usually a variety of meat or seafood dishes, cooked in the local style, or tomato-mozzarella, which is essentially that, tomatoes with unripened mozzarella, a much lighter and less dense version of regular mozzarella. While some chose octopus salad, others chose the huge fish fry platter (take anything you can find in the ocean, bread and deep fry it, and you’ve got yourself an interesting looking meal), or the chicken with bacon, or the ham and cheese plate, or the spinach/ricotta pie. The second plate is always accompanied with a shared bowl of salad greens, bread, veggies, and potatoes, and there is plenty of local Levanto olive oil and balsamic vinegar to season the food with. The whole 2 hour experience is topped off with a choice of three equally yummy desserts. Italy is home of the anti-fast food rebellion called, appropriately, the slow-food movement. I like it.

Next day, we were up early, and on the train to Riomaggiore to hike the trails between the five coastal villages that make up the Cinque Terre. Roberto had promised us sun the night before, and sun we got. A deep blue sky with some fluffy white clouds made the perfect background for the thousands of pictures our group took during our walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corniglia to Vernazza to Monterosso. This is the first year that all the paths have been open and for 22 of us, we were able to hike the whole thing! We lunched on pizza and gelato in Vernazza, and the boys played chicken with the crashing waves at the beach (Matt got overtaken and soaked). Eighteen parents and kids opted to take the train back to Levanto from Vernazza as the last hike is the most punishing. Those of us who completed the whole five town hike were rewarded with amazing views from the highest elevation on the Cinque Terre and an extra scoop of gelato for our efforts. This is the first time in four years of doing this that I have been able to hike the entire Cinque Terre – one of the trails is usually closed, but not this year. This was also the best weather I’ve ever had.

After another amazing meal at Moresco, and another sleep at the Ostello, we headed for the birthplace of the modern world, Florence. The Renaissance took root in this wealthy trading city as Lorenzo Medici and other extremely rich guys put some of their money toward the arts, higher education, and science. It was here that Europe finally pulled itself out of the primitive middle ages and entered a new era of prosperity and advancement. We came for two specific reasons – The David and The Leather Market. I don’t know which one was more popular – I think Michelangelo’s 14 ft. masterpiece is much more impressive than a bunch of stalls selling bags, but some of the girls might disagree with me. Rens thinks the shopping thing is very curious - he was teasing some of the moms about shopping at Moresco the night before. While others bartered for bags, I took a side trip to the top of the Duomo – several hundred stairs and some amazing views of Florence made me glad I did it, but I’m happy I didn’t make the kids stand in the aggravatingly slow line to get in. Almost anyplace we go I prebook (like the Accademia, where the David is, and where tourists stand in a line that stretches around the block for hours to get in) to avoid a lot of down time, but not everyplace takes reservations.

Venice was our next stop in Italy, and we arrived quite late to Foresteria Valdese, our hostel 10 minutes off of Saint Marc’s Square. Mr. Johnson and I co-navigated using four different maps of Venice and eventually found the palace I had booked. It is an actual 16th century Palazzo, and the ladies dorm room had original frescoes painted on the walls and ceiling. This place is more hotel like than the hotel I have brought groups to in Venice for the last three years, and it costs less. Arriving late, the doors were locked and I was a little stressed until I found the call button and was told by an unhappy sounding woman that we were “VERY late”. I had tried to call on the road when I realized we would arrive past reception hours, but no one answered. Anyway, I think she was really impressed as the kids came in almost silently and sat down in the lobby area while she explained the rules of the hostel. The kids, once again, made Mr. J and I proud to be Fundy teachers.
Our day in Venice was sunny and filled with pizza, gelato, gondola rides, shopping, pizza, gelato, the Doges Palace, St. Marc’s Basilica, pizza, gelato, shopping, and an interesting alternative route from San Marco to the Rialto that took us by some interesting sites I had never seen before. This is the first year I have had everyone take a gondola ride (and the first time I’ve been able to join one of the groups on a gondola myself), and the first year we haven’t had to rush out of Venice in the late afternoon – we stayed two nights instead of one. At the end of the day, as we all gathered for our last Italian gelato, I offered birthday boy Brad extra gelato and he actually said no – he had had enough during the day.

As I said in the beginning, reflecting on our time in Italy, I would have to say this was my most enjoyable visit – from the amazing weather (not every year) to the delectable food (every year) to the somewhat organized and efficient tourist attractions (not usually) to the great group of people I’m traveling with (every year), it was ottimo!


Kaveboy said...
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Kaveboy said...

Happy Birthday Justice Cook