Crossroads Tour: Portovenere – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Southern Italy and Istanbul, Turkey in May 2011.

It’s a pleasant morning as I try to retrace last night’s route to the train station in Genova. 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 of the abbey. 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… 

I finally arrive at the station and board a train that will travel through Margherite, Chiavari and Sestri. I see orange trees growing in back yards, and a cemetery in Sestri right next to the train track. We proceed through Levanto, then Monterosso, and now, I have a first class cabin all to myself as the train rolls into La Spezia.

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 maps. It’s a clever thing to have, a pad of tearaway maps…

I follow the instruction I was given, and take the stairs down to the Viume, and follow the mapped path through the piazzas. 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 local gypsies. I pass a pair of gypsy women begging for coin, one is particularly aggressive and when I fail to deposit a coin in her hand, shouts curses at me as I pass.

Travel tip: I learned in Venice not to give coins to the gypsies and other street folk, as they will continue to hound you for more, sometimes following you down the street. Better to suffer the curses they fling at you and your offspring, a thing I would later encounter in Cordoba, Spain. 

I walk along the docks until the ferry arrives, and board, and find a seat topside. I keep reaching new pain thresholds. Today my feet hurt so much I am tempted to stay on the ferry.  I’m really glad I didn’t try to do the Cinque Terre tour which is best done on foot. 

The monolithic skyline of Portovenere comes into view and in spite of my feet screaming at me, I’m eager to explore the fortifications. I am immediately irritated by the Stupid Tourists in front of me who stop as soon as they debark, preventing the rest of us from getting off the boat. Finally I get past this thoughtless throng and walk as fast as I am able along the wharf. How green and clear the water is! I can see all the way to the bottom of the gulf, and I stop to watch schools of small black fish streaming around the sterns of the boats moored here.

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

The terrain here is the steepest I have encountered so far. I get a few yards into the market area before turning around and heading back to find the tourist center which has now cleared of Very Stupid Tourists. I really regret not packing a second pair of shoes, and not renting a locker for my bags at the trains station. 

Castello Andrea Doria

“Portus Veneris” was first mentioned in the itinerary of Emperor Antonio 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 standing today date from the 16th century when it was built by its namesake, Andrea Doria, who was a Genoese Admiral. During Napoleon’s rule it was used as a political prison. 

By some miracle I make it to the top of the fortress. From this vantage point I can see the other older castle and San Pietro Church, but decide against trying to walk any more distance today. The views are spectacular and I get some of the best shots of this trip thus far.

It is said that the German composer 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). It was also here that Lord Byron swam across the bay to San Terenzo to visit his muse, Shelley (although this is more legend than fact). Shelley would later drown here when his boat overturned in a storm. These waters became known as “The Bay of Poets.”

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 could catch up on my postcards. Or I can just soak up the sun and the sounds of this place. Guess which thing wins…

I think I may have slept on the ferry’s return to La Spezia. Upon landing, I had planned to hail a cab back to the train station, but there weren’t any cabs at the stop. Had I taken a cab, I would have missed the key patterned mosaic in the archway above the sidewalk, a house with aqua shutters instead of green ones, and a much needed gelato, where the cafe tables were dressed with linens and outfitted with wooden ashtrays, which I thought was an interesting contradiction between form and function.

At the train station, I scan the departures board for my original train to Firenze but don’t see it. I go to the information desk where I buy a new ticket for the next train home, and am told that I have to connect in Pisa, in even less time than my original ticket! Great… I retain both tickets, deciding I can use the original if I miss the connection on the new ticket.

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. A businessman sitting across from me commiserates, and puts his finger to his head in the “just shoot me now’ gesture which was amusing in its universal sentiment. We both laugh. The decibel level finally declines enough to allow me to nod off, but I wake up at every stop, of which there are far too many on this route. Get me home already, please.

Pisa as seen from the train

We arrive in Pisa. The closest exit off the train is blocked, and the college girls are taking sweet-all time to exit in front of me. “Hurry!” escapes my lips, in a none-too-polite outdoor voice. Another collection of Very Stupid Tourists blocks the only set of stairs from the platform down to the station.  I have 12 minutes to make this connection, and I bruskly push my way through, not caring whom I offend. I rush down the stairs and then back up the stairs on the other side, leading to the lobby. I find the schedule readerboard and see that my train is the first one listed and is now boarding. It’s another mad dash back down the stairs, and then back up again to Platform 8. And miracle of miracles, I make the train with mere minutes to spare.

Travel tip: The trains here work really well once you get used to the system. Be sure to validate your ticket in the yellow box on the platform, else wise you might end up paying a fine.  

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. This route is different from the others I’ve taken so far, taking me through more modern areas, industrial districts and green belts. 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.

Here’s another gypsy, this one leaving printed requests for money which she collects on her return run through (bowing mutely to those who donate to her cause). I’m surprised at seeing beggars on the trains, clean and not badly dressed, and wonder how many people ride the rails by either begging for fare or riding until they getting tossed off, only to hop onto the next train heading towards their destination.

I am very tired, but I feel much better now that I am on my way home. I arrive at SMN at the time my original ticket had me departing La Spezia. That’s a win.

Travel tips:

  • There’s a station at Firenze Ridifi. Do Not Stop There. It’s industrial and a little scary looking.
  • Research your routes before you leave home, it would have been really good to have an understanding of the city bus systems.
  • Print out everything you need. Do not depend on being able to access the internet in Genova (although that might not be as much of an issue now).
  • Learn the language well enough to understand it. I’ve been able to ask questions in Italian, but I can rarely understand the answers. I did not buy a cell phone, I’m pretty sure it would have been useless with the language barrier.
  • Travel while you are young and able-bodied. I’m not sure I would have been able to manage this terrain 10 years from now.

Dinner, and a walk over the Carrerra Bridge which now sports several white beanbag chairs among a grove of saplings set in huge white tote bags. It’s installation art for the locals to laze in. The next bridge over, lights up. I walk by the now familiar gelato shop on the corner, and the kitchen shop which today has a full size Majolica BBQ in the window. Hysterical!

Back in my room, I catch up on journaling and photo uploads before tucking myself into bed for the night…

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