Slumming it in the Italian Riviera: Portofino

Road trips can be fun but sometimes the way home can be a downer, knowing you are returning from doing something really fun.    So, one of our new pastimes when taking a road trip is to find unexpected gems.    So, on our way home from a weekend, if we have time, we pull out the maps and books and see what might be on the way.

Returning from the Cinque Terre, we saw that Portofino was nearby on the map.   I’ll be honest – the most I knew about Portofino prior to this trip was that there was an Italian restaurant named after it in Charlotte, NC, where we lived prior.

Portofino’s Charlotte.   Image courtesy of hellocharlotte.com.

On the way, I read aloud to Gabe some details about the Italian city of Portofino, not be confused with the aforementioned suburban restaurant.   Italian history dates the settlement of Portofino back to the 10th century, where it was coveted for its protected harbor.   It changed hands many times but the harbor was a major asset for the likes of military giants such as Napolean and Hitler.

Post WW2, expatriates began to flock to the town and it soon built a glamorous name due to its holiday clientele.    By the 1950’s era, it was a major vacation spot of the rich and famous.  Things got so rowdy that Rex Harrison dropped his Oscar in the harbor.   Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Ava Gardner also frequented the Italian port town.  Elizabeth Taylor took all of her husbands there.

As we started the drive in, we got the feeling we were in for something special.   Rounding the cliffs overrun with pristine mansions and elegant hotels, we felt like we were in Monaco, yet with a rustic Italian feel.

Driving through the Portofino Peninsula, the town of Santa Margherita Ligure

When we arrived in the pedestrian-only Portofino, we parked our car and traveled on the cobblestone path towards the port.   We passed storefronts such as Dior and Louis Vitton, mixed in with small family-owned Italian groceries and pizza shops.

And when we reached the harbor, I was instantly enamored.  Beautiful colored buildings hugged a pristine turqouise-blue bay.

The harbor of Portofino

Cafés were starting to set up outdoor dining, even with the threat of a rain storm.  We grabbed a prime spot at la Stella under a canopy and happily enjoyed a glass of the house white wine while deciding what pasta we’d order.

This sure beats having lunch at a rest stop

I ordered the pasta del giorgno: a shrimp & zucchini spaghetti.    Although we’d each had two servings of pesto pasta while in the Cinque Terre, Gabe had wanted to try the pesto lasagna.

Pesto lasagna – homemade Ligurian pesto smothering thin lasagne noodles

After lunch, we took a stroll on the Promenade di Portofino letting our legs stretch before the remaining four hour journey home.

Colors of Portofino

Panorama of Portofino

Elizabeth Taylor, I’ll never be, but I sure did like playing the part one afternoon in the Italian Riviera.

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The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, Italy is one of my favorite places in the world.  I first discovered it with friend R in the summer of 2007 during our girls trip to Italy.   Cinque Terre means 5 Lands in Italian and the area is comprised by five small towns perched on cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

The area is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the early civilizations’ ability to build, live, and thrive on landscape that has the odds of being inhabitable.

I wanted to share it with Gabe, so we had selected it for one of our Honeyfund trips for our wedding.  We planned to go after my feet had fully recovered, which ended up being this Fall.    While we had some stormy skies our entire trip, I found the lack of tourists and cooler weather to be an refreshing change.

MONTEROSSO AL MARE, #5 was the town we stayed in.  It is the biggest, and I picked it due to our late arrival as it had more hotels that accomodated late check-in as well as actual parking lots for our car.   We arrived around 9pm and found that we couldn’t drive through town to the side we were staying in.   Note to future travelers: the Old Town and New Town are not connected for the average driver, only with special permit can you open the chain / gates.   It is a 20 – 30 minute deviation to drive back up the mountain to come back the other side.  So make sure to note that in your driving plans!

We checked into Hotel Baia.  It was a basic Italian room, but in a suberb location on the water and near the Monterosso train station.

Beach town of Monterosso

Early the next morning, we  put on our rain gear and set out to hike the seven mile Trail 2 from our hotel to Riomaggiore.  We were greeted with a locked gate.  The trails were closed due to the mudslides last October and continuing bad weather.   Oops.  While I researched the affects of the mudslides on the towns, I had not specifically looked into the trails.

Luckily there is a fantastic transportation solution – a regional train connects the five towns with an hourly train.   While they aren’t quite always on time, it was a very nice back-up to get to see the area with the trail closings.

The next stop, VERNAZZA, #4,  was my favorite of the five towns during the 2007 trip.  It has a natural harbor and I adore the bell tower from the church and how it looks over the coast.   We saw a large poster detailing the devastation the mudslides caused in this particular town.   It showcased homeowners and shopkeepers standing in the mud which once was their home/shop.   The beach was still a little damaged, but otherwise, there were scarce signs of the horrors they experienced last October.  They’ve done a remarkable job cleaning up.

In the harbor of Vernazza

Still too early for lunch, we climbed to the highest point of the town – the castle.  We loved seeing the ominous skies surround the colorful buildings.

Above Vernazza at the castle

Birds-eye view of Vernazza’s port

We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Gambero Rosso, the same restaurant where R and I had enjoyed a meal five years prior.  We both ordered the fresh pasta with pesto, a Ligurian specialty with a glass of local white wine.   Deliciouso!

After lunch, we scurried to catch our train.   Due to some technical difficulties which I’ll chalk up to not reading the board properly Italian chaos and mis-direction, we missed the hourly train to the next town of Corniglia.   We opted to catch the next train which bypassed the other two towns in order not to lose another full hour.

RIOMAGGIORE, #1, is the first town on the trail and supposedly the least touristic.   We watch a fisherman for awhile and reflected on the colorful boats and buildings which trailed upwards.

A lone fisherman

The vertical town of Riomaggiore

We explored the height of the town, certainly the “most vertical” of the five, and sat for a quick glass of vino, another Cinque Terre white varietal.  After, we caught the train backwards to town #4.

MANAROLA, #4, was Gabe’s favorite of the Cinque Terre.    Back when we were single girls on our Italian vacation, R and I had headed straight for Manarola’s beach to catch all the summer action.  Now, it was a ghost-town, but it left us more time for exploration.  We wound around the vineyards surrounding the village, getting every vantage point.  I’d have to say that this trip, Manarola was  my favorite.

Foamy waters surrounding Manarola

Gabe, checking out the village

Ominous clouds covering Manarola

Because we liked it so much, we opted for a longer stay in Manarola versus hitting the fifth town of Corniglia.   My husband prefers to enjoy fewer activities for longer…..quality not quantity.  And for me, it’s a good lesson for me to remember as I never want to miss anything.    Gabe joked it would have to be Quattro Terre for him.

We were able to see Corniglia from a distance.

View of Corniglia #3, from Monterrosso #5.

View of Corniglia #3, from #4 Manarola. We saw the evidence of mudslides taking out the trails between these two on the hills to the right of the photo.

Good thing we opted to leave.  The skies let loose after we got to Manarola’s station.   In order to reach Corniglia, there are 400 steps.  So, I am thankful we weren’t caught in that exploring the last remaining town.

We returned to Monterosso for a wonderful dinner at Ciak and drinks at Enoteca da Eliseo.  We ended up seeing the couple who’d taken our photo in Vernazza.  They were photographers from Indianapolis who were celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary.  We had a few drinks with them comparing travel notes.

It was an awesome weekend.  A big thanks to our Honeyfund contributors from our wedding.  You really made our 18 month anniversary (Nov 7) very special.   We appreciate it!

Thursday market day in Isle sur la Sorgue

While in Provence we visited the sweet town of Isle sur la Sorgue. The town literally translates to island on the Sorgue (river), and this riverside ambience plus cute French architecture is what makes the appeal.  It happened to be market day, full of fresh produce & foods as well as Provençal artisans.

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I got a few gifts in the form of soaps, tapenades, and herbes de Provence. Later, I walked the banks of the Sorgue river, enjoying the loveliness of this precious village.

The Highest Point in the Valley of Hell

Les-Baux-de-Provence, France, is known for its bloody and ruthless past.  Known for pushing individuals off the rocky cliffs, decapitation, and other cruel methods of death, the lords of Les Baux are not characters you’d want to cross.   Thus, the area was feared.

It is said Dante modeled one of his layers of hell in the Inferno off of the rocky landscape of Les Baux.

I am not sure which contributed to it, but area became known as “The Valley of Hell.”

An omnious sky over Les-Baux-de-Provence

Gabe and I visited Les-Baux-de-Provence on our whirlwind trip to see the lavender this summer. However, short on time, we didn’t climb the entire way to see the castle & fortifications.  Instead, we wandered around the village checking out churches and views from the mid-heights.

However, this time, Mom & I were up for the adventure.

The wind was whipping at the top of Les Baux

Le Mistral, the fierce Provençal wind, also accompanied us.  However, pressing against the bursts had its rewards.  The top was very impressive with bell towers and rooms carved into the face of the stone cliffs.

Rocky facade of the castle

The sky definitely accentuated the scariness

If you go to Les Baux, don’t miss going to the top!

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Les Baux de Provence

Schwingen in Switzerland :  We Didn’t Know the Valley of Hell was So Beautiful – Les Baux

Pumpkins Galore at the Fête de la Courge

The Sunday after our guests left we went into withdrawal.  We’ve been traveling non-stop for what seems like 4 months.   So what should we do?

Luckily, the small commune of Corsier was holding the annual Fête de la Courge.   Courge means pumpkin in French.  We didn’t quite know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised by the sweet little festival.

The pumpkin was certainly in the spotlight.  Farmers were selling every variety of gourd….from pumpkin, to squash, to small decorative ones.  They had pumpkins from Switzerland and pumpkins from Provence.

Lots of little pumpkins

A very attractive line-up

They had pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin quiche with bacon.  Pumpkin soup.    We even found the “great pumpkin”.

Delicious pumpkin treats

Gabe with the Great Pumpkin

However, sorry to report that there were no pumpkin spice lattes.

They also had a ton of local merchandise: sausages, macarons, wine, and Gabe’s favorite: Brasserie des Murailles beer.

A nice spread

Homemade macarons

Sausage

Brasserie des Murailles beer

We enjoyed the revelry and even bought our own pumpkins to decorate our flat.  They are not the traditional Halloween kind….more natural and lopsided, but they will do!

For more on the festival and dates for 2013, check out the Corsier website.

Postcards from the Swiss Riviera

Switzerland, being landlocked, actually has no ocean.   However, the shores of Lake Geneva near Montreux and Vevey are named “The Swiss Riviera” because of it’s picturesque and prestigious location on the lake, in view of both the Swiss & French Alps.  When Heidi & Olga were visiting Geneva, we took a day trip to this special region of Switzerland.

This area is located about an hour train or car ride from Geneva.  The ride provides amazing views of the coastline of Lake Geneva.

Typical view in the Swiss Riviera

Upon arriving in Montreux, we walked through the Montreux Marché, or Friday market.  I had actually never been to Montreux for a Friday market, and found it delightful.  It included vendors selling everything from handmade sweaters, to Provençal soaps, to secondhand goods.  They also had quite a variety of delicious street food.

We strolled along the Quai des Fleurs (walkway of flowers) towards Villeneuve.   One of the most special things about Montreux is that it has somewhat of a tropical ambience to it, provided by its plants and landscaping.

They have a few nice hotels in Montreux

Beautiful flowers against the French Alps. Seems like Summer, not Autumn!

A sweet hibiscus overlooks Lake Geneva

After a half hour’s stroll, we reached Chateau Chillon.   The castle dominates the coastline and was a major defensive structure up until modern times.  We didn’t go inside, but instead enjoyed the different perspectives we could see on the nature trails surrounding the chateau.

Chateau Chillon in autumn.

The legendary castle

The modern speedboats were a funny juxtaposition against the medieval castle

After walking back to Montreux and partaking of some of the market food, we then decided to visit to the Lavaux region.    I have heard numerous rave reviews about Le Deck, a beautiful bar/restaurant that overlooks the UNESCO designated Lavaux vineyards.   Heidi & Olga were game for checking it out, so we took a small regional train to Chexbres, the small town where Le Deck is located.    Note that it is possible to get there on the train, if you pay a 1.80 CHF  supplement on your Geneva-Montreux train ticket.  And you can return straight to Geneva via Lausanne.

The town of Chexbres is a quintessential Swiss wine town.  Gabe & I have driven guests through it, descending off the A1 at the Chexbres exit and weaving down the wine roads to Rivaz.  There are almost as many wine cellars as citizens, with dozens of these little operations dotting the small village.   We have always enjoyed the drive; however, there is a certain magic about walking around in the town that Heidi, Olga & I discovered.    This was especially true during the timing of our visit, as it was the height of the grape harvest.      The locals were busy, soaking in the sunshine, and tasting the year’s dividends.

The village of Chexbres

It was very tempting to stay and drink our way through the town, but we continued on walking towards the outside of town and our destination: Le Deck.  Our friends were right – this is certainly a special place.   Cushy chairs and linen canopies provide an oasis above the Lavaux vineyards.   You can purchase wine by the glass and enjoy the view, savoring the fruits of the labor of the vineyard workers, who just happened to be harvesting underneath our feet.

The Lavaux vineyards

Olga, enjoying a glass of Lavaux rosé

Au Revoir, Swiss Riviera.  Thanks for a remarkable day!

Pirenópolous

One of D’s familly’s favorite spots to get away is the little town of Perinópolous.  This town dates back to the 18th century, when it was popular due to gold conquests in the surrounding area.  This trade then made Perinópolous the richest city in the land.

The church

The riches didn’t stay for long.   In the following century, there was a downturn.  The work and prosperity swapped to nearby Anápolis and the population moved to be closer to work.   However, Perinópolous still existed, just without the growth.  It reminds me of our trip to Brugge with the goods & diamond trade moving to Antwerp, but Brugge still staying adorably cute.

You may or may not know that the city of Brasilia was actually built to be the capital of Brazil.   The city was planned and once completed, the capital was moved from from Rio de Janeiro in 1956.  Since the little town of Perinópolous was only two hours away, it started to rise again as a tourist destination.

Today, Perinópolous is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a wonderful weekend getaway to experience traditional Brazilian architecture, lively squares brimming with cafes and restaurants, and a gateway to the nearby waterfalls.

The streets were filled with arts & crafts shops

Lovely night scene in Pirenópolous

Lively cafes in the main drag

Just outside of the little town, D’s family rented us an adorable B & B.  There were 10-12 rooms which was great as we all could gather in the common areas and easily visit between rooms.

Cute little B & B

View from our door to the common area, complete with breakfast porch, hammocks and a pool

While the Americans were in the B & B, the rest of D’s family rented a huge party house where it seemed like dozens of aunts, cousins, and friends stayed.   The house had an indoor/outdoor kitchen area, a pool, and numerous bedrooms.  They barbecued and cooked all day and partied at night.

Someone pointed out that they were not sure that our group would be up for the all nighters and noise, so that is why they found a close B & B for us to settle.     And we heard the prediction was true – – they stayed up to the wee hours of the morning.

You see, many of D’s family and family friends have moved to nearby cities.  So these special occasions like the wedding were a fantastic opportunity for them to come together.  The weekend was a celebration of the marriage, as well as a special time to visit their closest friends, many of whom were considered (and titled) family.

And such, because our group was going to be going to nearby Perinópolous, at least half of the wedding-revelers also traveled to the city as well.   I think we were over 35 in number between the multiple homes / B & B’s rented.    What a neat tradition!

They also rented a 15 passenger van for getting our large groups around, to town, and to the waterfalls.  It made it easy to keep us in the same place.

Party bus!

We had a lovely time in Perinópolous.   Thanks to Mama I and Dashing Dad for providing us such a great experience.