Saturday, May 19, 2012


Santa Margherita and Portofino  -  Day 47 – Tuesday

I had another of Gian Luigi’s wonderful omelets for breakfast and spent as much time as I could connected to the Wi-Fi, which was in good form for a change.  Getting my bags to the station was a challenge because the road through town is closed to traffic during business hours.  Gian Luigi was going to give me a ride to the bottom of the hill, at least, but he ended up sending a taxi for me because taxis are allowed to drive through town.  Sounds to me like the taxi lobby had something to do with the traffic regulations.  It was painless for me, however.

I wanted to avoid changing trains with my luggage and the ticket agent told me that the 10:55 train would get me to Santa Margherita without having to change.  This was a foreshadowing of things to come as far as ticket agents went.  We did go to Santa Margherita, but the train did not stop there.  I had to get off at the next station and take a regional train back, dragging my bag down the stairs and back up to the opposite platform as I had been so eager to avoid doing.  I didn’t have to wait long, however, and at least the 10:55 train had a first class carriage.  There wasn’t much to see along the way, since the tracks once again ran through tunnels, almost as if it were a subway.

Santa Margherita
Santa Margherita is bigger and grander (and more expensive) than the Cinque Terre, but the terrain is equally spectacular.  I paused at the train station to make reservations for the rest of my trip.  I had the original civil servant with a bad attitude for a ticket agent.  He acted irritated with me for existing and even more irritated that I had a first class rail pass, since that created extra work for him to reserve seats for me.  It never occurred to him to be helpful.  He acted like I was lucky to get whatever he gave me, no matter how inconvenient it was.  Despite my trip to Venice being the longest one of my entire journey, he insisted that the earliest train was at 1:39, even though I know that there were several before that.  I suspect it was the easiest one for him to book.  When I had the audacity to ask for a second reservation from Venice to Bolzano, he insisted that I had to go the Milan to change trains (doubling the distance), when I should have been able to change in Verona.  He gave me no information whatsoever about the regional trains I would need to take to complete my journey.  I left with tickets to someplace other than Bolzano, but I figured I would have to change to a regional train to get there and didn’t stop to get out my map until I got to my hotel.  (More on this subject later.)

Cristoforo Colombo
Hotel Jolanda

It was an easy walk downhill to the hotel and the hotel proved to be very nice.  If I had been interested, they had an arrangement for their guests to use the private beach of one of the waterfront hotels.  Best of all, there was good Wi-Fi, although I had to get two passwords in order to be able to send photos from my phone to my computer.  My purpose in coming to Santa Margherita had been to see Portofino, so I settled my things in my room, changed my shoes and headed out.  Santa Margherita proved more intriguing than I expected, so I vowed to get back early enough to explore a bit before dark.  The bus to Portofino left from the harbor and I had a few minutes to enjoy the view before the bus arrived.  Santa Margherita is a cruise ship destination and there were a cruise ship and a couple of megayachts anchored in the bay.  There were also a lot of sailboats in the marina.  Portofino is probably beyond the budgets of most cruisers so, like me, they probably come to Santa Margherita instead.

The bus ride to Portofino was incredibly scenic.  The water varied from cobalt blue to emerald green and the flora is lush.  The Mediterranean always looks like Lake Tahoe to me.  We passed beaches of pebbles and sand, many of them with fancy resorts spreading fresh sand for the coming season.  Last winter was tough on the Riviera’s beaches, stripping away the sand and depositing flood debris in its place.  All over the area, resort operators are working frantically to clean up and prepare the beaches for the summer crowds.  The coast between Santa Margherita is also dotted with immense villas, most of which have been there for some time.  I’d hate to think what they cost.  Twenty years ago, one of my former employers was considering buying a modest one for $5 million.  Condos in bargain Santa Margherita cost as much or more than they do in San Francisco.

Portofino couldn’t be more beautiful if it had been designed by Disney.  It fills a picturesque little ravine forested with oaks and pines.  The harbor really is fine.  It’s a natural deep water harbor with cobalt blue water.  The entire surrounding area is a nature preserve.  There are nicely maintained paved trails through the hills above the road and a boardwalk cantilevered out over the water on the outside of the guard rail along the road.  There isn’t much to the town.  There are a few expensive stores, but not nearly as many as I expected.  Most of the town seems to be given over to ridiculously expensive harbor side cafés and bars.  

Yacht Club Gangway
Portofiino Yacht Club

I made an attempt to visit the yacht club, thinking I might find a reasonable beer there, but it was closed on a Tuesday afternoon and the gangway was drawn up.  The club itself is tiny, but there is a pleasant covered patio overlooking the harbor located at the top of the sea wall.  There weren’t a lot of boats in the harbor, but the ones that were there were impressive.  Several huge sailboats were moored at the mouth of the harbor and there were a few mammoth power boats.  It is either too early in the season or just too expensive to attract a lot of business.  I walked around, took pictures and admired the scenery.  Then I set out to walk back to Santa Margherita because the scenery is the biggest attraction as far as I am concerned.

This Water is Too Blue
I took the attractive brick pathway around the point from Portofino to Paraggi Beach.  The path leads through the trees, high above the road, and offers a beautiful view of the water and the fantastic homes.  The water in California is just never that blue.  I spent the whole hike pondering this phenomenon, as I once spent a week in Turkey.  Paraggi Beach is a posh beach club in a narrow cove with a sandy beach, docks for swimming and decks with lounge chairs and umbrellas for sunning.  It was even more deserted than Portofino.  The jet set seems to be staying away in droves, although the hotel in Santa Margherita was booked solid and turning away several people per hour who were looking for a room.

From Paraggi back to Santa Margherita, I walked along the coast.  It’s not a good path for anyone who fears heights.  You can see the water through the grating below your feet.  The view, however, is awesome.  I stopped at a rocky beach to drink a beer in a beach bar and read for an hour.  I was the only customer and the proprietor seemed more interested in sunbathing than in minding the bar.  He was a tanned old guy who looked like Jacques Cousteau and had probably spent his entire life on that beach.

After my beer, I ambled the rest of the way along the shore to Santa Margherita, past the new hotels being constructed north of town.  All of the construction that has been prohibited in the Cinque Terre since the 80s seems to be happening in Santa Margherita.  Santa Margherita has a nice downtown area with lots of shops and restaurants.  Most of the shops were clothing shops and I was amused to see that the nautical theme was big here, as well.  One clothing vendor is sponsoring a coming regatta.  I finally found a gift store to buy something for my friend, Pat.  I was tempted to buy a Portofino shirt for Scott, but figured he’d rather have an Americas Cup one from Venice.

I went back to my room to work on sending my photos to my computer for a bit before dinner.  I decided to look at a map and figure out just what, exactly, had happened with my train reservation.  It turned out that, not only did I not have a ticket to anywhere near Bolzano (which is near Austria), I had a ticket to Switzerland (which shouldn’t even have been possible with an Italy only rail pass.)  I wonder what would have happened if I had tried to use it.  This was clearly not going to work, so I decided I’d better head back to the station and straighten things out before dinner.

Fortunately, there was a different clerk on duty by this time.  She was somewhat less resentful of my expecting her to perform her job.  Explaining what had happened taxed my Italian, but I managed.  She tried to help, but the tickets were non-refundable and the computer wouldn’t let her change or refund them, even though it had been her colleague’s fault.  I had paid 30 Euros for tickets I couldn’t use, but at least the trains I did need were regional ones that didn’t require paid reservations and I came away with the correct information.  Later, I would realize that the ticket the first guy had sold me from Switzerland back to Milano wasn’t even for the right day.  What a mess.

I had dinner in a little trattoria in the center of town.  I elected to try something novel and ordered the trofie with pesto and a glass of sangria.  I had never had sangria with apples and strawberries before, but it tasted fine and had clearly been fortified with brandy, as true sangria should be and usually isn’t in the United States.  Trofie are little slug like fresh pasta.  The pesto was tasty and the bread was moist and heavy and by far the best I’ve had in Italy, so far.

Santa Margherita to Venice – Day 48 – Wednesday

There are not many things I miss about the United States, but most of them have to do with bathrooms.  I miss towels dried in the drier that don’t scrape my skin off after a shower.  I miss showers big enough to pick up a dropped bar of soap without having to open the door.  I would say that I miss having enough space to put my toiletries, but I don’t have that at home, either.  Most of the bathrooms here are bigger than the one I have at home.  Why do the showers have to be so small?  It’s impossible to shave my legs in one of them.  The one room I had with a bathtub didn’t have a shower or a plug (or any water pressure.)  What was I supposed to do with that?  Twenty years ago, I would have put it all down to the fact that Europeans didn’t bathe as often as we do, but that no longer seems to be the case.  I haven’t had to suffer through a subway car full of smelly armpits once since I’ve been here.

I certainly haven’t suffered for lack of food I like and there is enough variety in Italian food and enough other ethnic food available that food hasn’t been as issue.  The only things I miss are Mexican food and soda that doesn’t cost as arm and a leg.  Even water with a meal costs as much as soda does in the U.S.  This is probably a good thing, however.  I drink too much soda, anyway.  The only soda I’ve had here was when I’ve had a refrigerator and could buy it in the supermarket.  I do, however miss good beer.  Dark beer doesn’t exist in Italy, with the exception of Guinness which, while I am partial to it, is not exactly what I want to go with my pizza.  I’m sorry I missed my iris blooming, but I have seen a lot of them here and so many other flowers.  The only real difference between the flowers here and the ones in my garden is that the poppies are red instead of orange.

My train didn’t leave until 13:39 and checkout time was 11:00.  I checked out and then sat in the lobby using the internet for an hour and a half before dragging my bag up the hill to the station.  I waited for an hour at the station.  The wind was howling through the station so loudly that I thought there must surely be a train coming.  Every passenger seemed determined to pass through the waiting room and blast me with cold air.  Finally a group of noisy young men arrived and lit up cigarettes, driving me out onto the windy platform.  First class carriages are usually at the head of the train, which minimizes the distance baggage has to be carried when the trains head into major stations, but sometimes results in a very long walk when they pass through stations along the way.  This was one of those times and there was a large group of senior citizens with heavy luggage ahead of me.  I was afraid the train would leave without me before I could get aboard.

When I got to my assigned seat, there was a family with two young children in my compartment and the father was sitting in my seat.  They were about as annoying companions as they could be, despite being affable and helping me to stow my heavy bag.  The children were noisy and ran in and out of the compartment the entire way to Milan.  The little boy had smelly diapers.  They were constantly getting up and rummaging in their suitcases for some needed item.  This is the sort of thing I tried to avoid by buying a first class ticket.  Fortunately, I changed trains in Milan and only had to tolerate them for two hours.

There are two types of first class carriages in Italy and each has its pluses and minuses.  One type has six passenger compartments with a corridor on one side.  These are generally more spacious and nice in that it is easy to get up and down without disturbing anyone, but they have no place to put heavy bags other than over your head.  The other type is seated four across with an aisle in the middle.  Sets of seats face each other with tables in the middle.  There are electrical outlets, which makes them nice for computer users, but they are packed in like airline seats and there is no way to get out of a window seat without a major upheaval, as the table must first be folded back and the person in the aisle seat has to get up.  These have some baggage storage at ground level on the ends of the cars, but the overheads are not large enough to accommodate them.  If you are seated in the middle, you just have to trust that no one will steal your bag.  I admit that mine is now so battered that no one would want to steal it and so unwieldy that a thief could never get away once he took it.

The train to Milan was ten minutes late.  I had to wait for all the seniors to get their heavy bags off the train, which gave me about two minutes to run through crowds of people, across the monumental Milano Centrale Station to my train for Venice.  I barely made it.  The carriage was of the second type and the train was packed.  There was no way that I could maneuver my bag past the vestibule.  I just had to leave it there and hope.  Someone was sitting in my seat, of course, so I had to make do with a window seat.  I couldn’t even get up to check on the bag from time to time.

The train from Milan heads east across the fertile plain at the foot of the Alps.  Fields of corn stretch off on both sides and there are lots of trees.  No cypresses or oaks here.  This is a land of poplars, cottonwoods and nut trees.  The air smells faintly of manure.  We passed through Brescia, skirted Lake Garda and stopped in Verona.  People have told me that Verona was their favorite city in Italy, but I couldn’t see anything from the train, so I will have to wait to explore it.  Maybe I can stop on my way to or from Bolzano.  I will have to pass through twice more before I am done.  The northern part of Italy is more modern than the south.  Construction materials and architecture are different (no tract houses here), but one could almost think you were in a springtime Sacramento Valley if you didn’t look too hard.  It is very flat until the land starts to rise towards the Alps.

The woman sitting in my seat left after Verona and the crowd had thinned enough that I could move my bag to the luggage rack in the center of the car.  I was relieved to see that it hadn’t left without me.  The next stop was Padua.  It was six o’ clock and I was getting hungry.  The French family across from me tortured me my eating brie on a baguette.  The Alps in the distance got taller and snowier.  I may be glad of my warm clothes again in a few days. 
First Impression of Venice

Venice Causeway
The train tracks to Venice run across a causeway that looks rather like the approach to the San Mateo Bridge.  Once I descended to the piazza in front of the railway station, however, I was sure that I wasn’t in Hayward.  The station fronts on the Grand Canal.  There are no cars or buses in Venice.  There aren’t even any motorscooters.  Everything moves by boat.  The equivalent of a bus in Venice is a vaporetto, which is a bus sized motor boat that stops at barges moored to the walls of the canal.  It took me a few minutes to work out which of the several barges moored in front of the station was going in my direction, but I eventually acquired a ticket and got on the correct boat.

Is That Seaweed on the Steps?
My stop was Ca’ d’ Oro or Golden House in the Venetian dialect.  Only the Doge’s palace could be called a palazzo.  All the other palaces in Venice (and there are many) are called “ca’”, which is short for “casa”, meaning house.  Ca’ d’ Oro is a fancy white place with a lacy stone façade.  Once, it was decorated with gold, but those days are long gone.  No one is allowed to alter the outside of buildings in Venice, so they are elegantly crumbling from lack of maintenance.  I trundled my bag up a narrow alley between two buildings to what passes for a main street in that part of town (the are no through streets in Venice except canals) and the first thing I saw was … a MacDonald’s.  WRONG!  You can’t paint your house, but you can open a MacDonald’s?  Admittedly, there is only one in Venice and I didn’t see a Starbucks anywhere in Italy.

Navigating in Venice is a challenge.  There is no real organization.  Streets go over bridges, under buildings and dead end at walls or canals.  There are no direct routes.  If someone tells you to go, “straight ahead,” that means walk in the same general direction.  You can never go more than two blocks without having to turn a corner.  Somehow, I managed to walk straight to my B&B without any false steps.  There was only one flight of stairs.  All was well.  The B&B San Paolo is a basic place, but the young man running it was pleasant and the price was right at 52 Euros a night.  It was 7:30 before I arrived and I hadn’t eaten all day, so I put my things in order and went out to find some dinner.  I ate a tasty pizza at a restaurant around the corner.  It was chilly and I chose the restaurant more by the fact that they had inside seating than for any other reason, but the food was fine.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats for this wonderful vacation! For sure, it was a good choice.