Crossroads Tour – Portovenere –

It’s a pleasant morning and I retrace last night’s route to the train station. I walk past the Benedictine abbey ruins that I saw on the tour bus last night.  Even in ruins it is a very peaceful place, and my heart is touched by a single rose bush, its blooms framed by the marble columns…

It is amazing how easily I am distracted and how quickly I can lose my way, and yet still manage to get to the train station on time… 

The train travels through Margherite, Chiavari and Sestri. I see orange trees growing in back yards, and a cemetery in Sestri right next to the train track. Through Levanto, then Monterosso, and now, a first class cabin all to myself. 

  • Travel tip: The train station in La Spezia is very small with a Tourist Information desk is in an unmarked, nondescript building just outside the station. The attendant is helpful and pens in my route to the ferry terminal on a map which he then tears away from a pad of identical maps. I thought it was pretty clever.

La Spezia must be the home of Benneton. Colors of Benneton. Undercolors of Benneton. Oh, look, another Colors of Benneton! The waterfront in Genova is filled with Jamaican street vendors. Here the same products are being sold by gypsies. I pass a pair of gypsy women begging for coin, one is particularly aggressive and shouts curses at me as I pass. I keep walking and board the ferry.

Castello Andrea Doria

  • “Portus Veneris” was first mentioned in 161 AD, when it was used as a naval station for Romans on their way to Gaul and Spain. The city was fortified in 1160.  Andrea Doria Castle sits on the site of fortification dating back to the 13th century, although the structures you see today date from the 16th century. The castle is named after it’s builder, Andrea Doria, who was a Genoese admiral.

The monolithic skyline of Portovenere comes into view and in spite of my feet screaming at me, I am eager to explore the fortifications. I’m immediately irritated with the people in front of me who stop as soon as they debark, preventing the rest of us from getting off the boat. Stupid Tourists! Finally freed from that throng, I walk along the wharf and note how green and clear the water is. I can see schools of small black fish streaming around the sterns of the boats that are moored here.

My first glimpse of La Spezia and Castello Andrea Doria from the ferry

The terrain is the steepest I’ve encountered thus far, and it’s a miracle that I make it to the top of the fortress. From this vantage point I can see the other older castle and church in the distance,  but decide against trying to go there. The views are spectacular from here, and I get some of my best shots so far this trip.

It is said that Wagner, upon looking out onto the sea off the coast of La Spezia, was inspired to write the first stanza of Das Niebelung (The Ring). I can absolutely believe it.

I edge my way back down the hill. Goodness, the stairs. The STAIRS. Steep, deep, irregular, no handrails in places, and my shoes are wrong and my bags are siding with gravity and nearly pull me over a couple of times. It takes every ounce of energy I have to get back down without falling. 

The beach I had hoped to find here is a 20′ x 20′ patch of sand occupied by kids kicking a volleyball. Dipping my feet into the sea is probably ill advised with my blisters, so I content myself with sitting in the sun and watching other travelers as I wait for the ferry. I have an hour. I can write postcards. Or I can continue to just sit here in the sun. Guess which one wins…

Not finding a cab for the trek back to the train station was a blessing in disguise. I would have missed the key patterned mosaic in the archway above the sidewalk, and gelato at a sidewalk cafe with tables dressed in linen and outfitted with wooden ashtrays, which I thought were an interesting contradiction between form and function.

My train ticket has changed and I have to connect in Pisa after all. It’s spring break and the train is filled with loud, chatty teenage girls on holiday. My fingers go into my ears when the noise level becomes intolerable. The businessman sitting across from me notices, and does the ‘finger to head, just shoot me now’ gesture which is entertaining in its sheer ability to be translated across language barriers.

We arrive in Pisa. The closest exit is barred shut and the college girls are taking sweet-all time to exit in front of me. “Hurry!” escapes my lips in my outdoor voice. Another collection of Stupid Tourists blocks the only set of stairs to the subway down to the station.  I have 12 minutes to make this connection. I run down a flight of stairs and up the next, to the lobby readerboard to find the platform number. It says my train is now boarding… Another dash back down the stairs, and then back up again at Platform 8, where I make the train with minutes to spare.

The regional trains are new, double-decker and fairly luxurious as far as trains go. I grab a window seat for the hour-long trip through Pontedera-casciana, Empoli, Lastra a Signa. In spite of the new architecture, the style remains the same – multi-story stucco buildings with green shuttered windows and ether tile or red composite roofs, the composites having less depth and visual richness than Tuscan tile. The new buildings are void of extraneous detail with the notable exception of the doors, which are still very tall, ornate, some are arched. I’m getting my wish to see the countryside by train.

  • This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. Additional historical notes and an extended list of traveler tips for this portion of my Crossroads Tour 2011 is housed at

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