When we began researching options for a guided tour of Italy, I was drawn to the ones whose agenda included Cinque Terre. The on-line photos of the five little villages by the sea were so charming, it seemed a shame not to see them if we could. It was one of the main reasons we chose the Globus tour. So, after two nights in Rome and two nights in Florence, I was excited to be on our way to Cinque Terre.
We left Florence by bus and headed to the coast, then north to the Italian Riviera. At La Spezia, local tour guide Marcella joined us for commentary as a boat took us up the rugged coastline to the northern-most of the 5 towns, Monterosso. Four of the five villages slope down to the sea while the fifth one sits perched on top of a cliff. All have vineyards clinging to terraced hills, layers of pastel-painted houses and picturesque harbors filled with fishing boats and bright blue water. The villages are linked together with hiking trails and a railroad, but not with easily navigable roads. As we passed each village by boat, getting a good picture was nearly impossible because of the distance to shore and the constant movement of the boat.
We disembarked at Monterosso and could finally snap some photos during our free time. Monterosso is the biggest of the five towns and has the most amenities; a few hotels, a public beach, restaurants and steep, crooked streets with hole-in-the-wall shops. Nothing is large in Monterosso except the view!
We walked the narrow paths that snaked through town and found a tiny place that served the BEST gelato. It was a very warm day so when it was time to leave, we all sought what little shade there was while waiting for the group to re-assemble. With Anna’s help we made our way through crowds of tourists from the waterfront to the train station. We rode the rails away from the coast to meet up with Giorgio and the bus.
On August 14, just one month before our trip, Italy suffered a major tragedy when a bridge near Genoa collapsed. The 51-year-old bridge was on a heavily traveled highway. With the bridge out, the traffic had to be re-routed, sometimes adding hours to a normal commute. That’s the situation we found ourselves in on the way north to Lake Maggiore. While stuck in stop and go traffic, I thought sadly about the 43 lives lost and said a little prayer for their families.
We reached Lake Maggiore in time for a late dinner at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Bristol. After dinner we strolled the beautiful grounds of the hotel and walked across the street for a panoramic view of the lake and mountains, much the same lovely view as could be seen from the balcony of our room.
The next morning, we joined the optional excursion to Isola Bella, a privately-owned island on Lake Maggiore. We enjoyed a guided tour of Borromeo Palace, a baroque style mansion with private gardens that encompassed most of the island. The elegant palace is strikingly furnished and includes underground rooms with shell-covered walls and ceilings, and stunning views out of each and every window.
It was the Italian gardens, however, that impressed me the most! Massive overlapping terraces are embellished with statues, fountains, and exotic plants.
The wild, white peacocks roaming free and the breathtaking views of the lake made this excursion a spectacular experience and one of my favorite optional tours of the trip.
We finished the afternoon with a stroll around the town of Stresa and a leisurely walk by the lake on our way back to the hotel. That evening we took another boat cruise, this time to Isola Dei Pescatori where we dined on local favorites. The white wine and pesto pasta were particularly delicious. It was a beautiful night, and the lake looked gorgeous in the moonlight.
On the way back to our room to pack, we stopped in at the Grand Hotel et des Isles Borromees. In 1918, Ernest Hemingway checked into room 106 at this hotel then headed straight for the bar. He spent most of his 10 days here talking to the bartender, playing pool and taking boat trips to the island of Pescatori (where we had dinner). He fictionalized these experiences in his novel A Farewell to Arms. In a letter to his parents, Hemingway wrote “I’m up here in Stresa, a little resort on Lake Maggiore. One of the most beautiful Italian lakes.” I’d have to agree with Hemingway about the beauty. I tried to see the lake through his eyes knowing he had found inspiration to write here.
The next morning, we crossed the border into Switzerland. The town of Lugano sits at the base of the Alps on the shores of a glacial lake. Lake Lugano measures 50 square kilometers in size. Just opposite the lake front is a popular shopping area known as Via Nassa. You can find everything from designer boutiques, department stores, chic restaurants and wine bars to fresh produce, meat and flower markets. It’s the perfect place to shop if you’re into that sort of thing, but other than a few Christmas ornaments, we buy very little when we travel. We find our best souvenirs are memories and photos… and they are so much easier to pack! But who can resist buying chocolate in Switzerland? We certainly couldn’t, so we bought several boxes at the market to take home as gifts.
With Swiss chocolate in our pockets, we boarded the bus to Venice! I couldn’t wait! My impressions of Venice and Burano Island are Part Four in this series. Arrivederci for now!