This story is not about golf, so it’s a bit out of place on this blog. But it is about walking—lots and lots of walking the streets, alleys, paths and bridges of Italy. So it will have to do until I set up a travel-writing venue. And judging by the fun and adventure my wife Sue and I found on our recent excursion across the Bel Paese (the beautiful country), I’d say that’s just a matter of time.
We walked a fifth of a mile upward from the village of Varenna to Castello di Vezio, an ancient Middle Age fortress with jaw-dropping views in the foreground of Lake Como and in the background of the Italian Alps, and then explored the narrow alleys and steep stone staircases of Varenna, never knowing which gelato stand or trattoria we’d bump into next.
In Venice we walked the bridges built five centuries ago to link the 128 separate islands comprising the city, most constructed of stone or limestone and accented with gargoyles or spires. Underneath you might well spot one of the city’s signature gondoliers paddling his way through the canals and serenading a tour group.
We pounded the cobblestone avenues of Florence, a church it seemed always to one side—including the regal Cathedral of Santa Maria with its renowned red-tiled dome—and a museum to the other, nestled among them the shops where hand-crafted leather bags and jackets are sold or businessmen tuck into a coffee bar for a quick shot of espresso and a cantuccini—a tiny biscotti made with flour, eggs, sugar and almonds.
And then we attacked those epic trails along the Ligurian Sea linking the five villages known as the Cinque Terre, most notably the 2.25 miles from the burg of Vernazza north to Monterosso. The walk was about seventy-five minutes each way with heightened heart rates and quivering thighs at times as the trails wound at sharp angles upward leaving one town and then descended at a similar angle toward the next. There was no telling what language you might hear from fellow hikers as you stood aside in spots to allow single-file passage through some of the narrow crannies of the mountains, where for centuries the locals have scraped out a living growing olives and grapes on the slopes. The disappointment here was that the trail from Vernazza south to Corniglia was closed indefinitely because of rock-slide damage.
Topping it off were the sixty-five steps up a weathered stone stairway to our apartment near the crest of the Vernazza skyline, below us the Crayon box of pastel-colored buildings and the deep green waters of the inlet at the mouth of the town. They don’t do elevators in Vernazza.
I splayed across the bed late that Thursday afternoon and checked the workout app on my watch. Nearly nine hundred calories burned, 6.21 miles covered, 1,677 feet of elevation gained, just over four hours consumed.
“I cannot move,” I moaned.
“Just in awe,” Sue said as she flicked through her library of photos on her phone.
Awe-inspiring was certainly the theme of our 10 days through four destinations in Northern Italy in early May. Visiting Italy had long been a bucket-list item for Sue, whose parents had traveled there several times years ago and would return to the States with stories of the grandeur of the land and culture and with the recipes for risotto and frittatas that became family traditions. She brought with her some of her parents’ ashes and paid tribute by letting the ashes flutter down from one of Florence’s ubiquitous bridges into the Arno River below.
Me? Having ready access to pizza and pastry was motivation enough. Italy isn’t known for its golf so that wasn’t a priority, though I did scope out one course in a town across Lake Como from Varenna supposedly with breathtaking views of the Alps, but weather and timing didn’t align for me to play.
And nearing our tenth wedding anniversary, we deemed the stars perfectly aligned for a European foray. We broke our nine nights in Italy into two nights each at four cities with a final night in Milan before our early morning flight back to the States—first to Varenna on the eastern coast of Lake Como, just a dozen miles from the Swiss border, then to Venice off the northeastern coast, then to Florence in the hills of Tuscany and finally to Vernazza on the Mediterranean coast.
We had two primary modes of transportation once we flew into Milan—trains and walking (and a boat for a guided tour in Venice). Other than riding rapid transit like New York’s Subway and Washington’s Metro, I hadn’t ridden a train since a Boy Scout outing in the 1960s. So negotiating Italy’s rail system was an adventure and, early on, a challenge. But once you figured out the nuances, they were certainly the way to go—conveniently located in each city and town, reasonable rates, clean and running on time. We had only one harrowing moment, that in the rail station in the town of Sarzana when we were vexed over our connecting train to Vernazza.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” ventured the Brit facing the same vexing question as us.
Indeed, there will always be someone speaking enough English to help you figure it out. Fortunately, we made the right call and soon were on our way to the coast of the Ligurian Sea.
Varenna and Vernazza were defined by their remoteness, their scenic views and the rainbow of colors of their historic buildings along the waterfronts. Each featured a central piazza where locals and visitors congregated, but the real intrigue was the dark alleys and steps emanating from the centers. The history and uniqueness of Venice were captivating—after all, this lagoon dotted with small land masses off the northeast coast of Italy has been occupied since around 400 A.D.—but the influx of passengers from the half dozen cruise ships negated some of the appeal. And then Florence (or Firenze as the locals call it) with its urban bustle and energy offered yet another element to the trip.
Our intense walking was mandated in part by the need to burn off some of the massive influx of calories a proper tour of Italy generates. In Venice our hotel offered a breakfast spread that was essentially “dessert at 8 a.m.” We ate thick-crust pizza and thin-crust pizza (and I mistakenly ordered a slice of tuna pizza; first and last time in this life). The olive oil and parmesan cheese are different—and better, Sue noting the intense tones of the oil and me enjoying the pungent cheese. A basket of bread is universal upon being seated in a restaurant, and I became addicted to the long, thin, salty and snappy breadsticks that were common as well. Italians don’t eat “pepperoni” on their pizza; to the locals, it’s salami. The T-bone steak is a big-seller in Northern Italy; at one canal-side restaurant in Venice called Al Timon, you can gorge on a huge steak on a wooden platter surrounded by sliced fried potatoes, beans, roasted peppers and sliced grilled pineapple. And I have a new appreciation for salad. It’s served in Italy with a small carriage delivered to your table with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, perhaps salt and pepper shakers. Mix them to your taste and away you go.
Despite all the gluttonous overdrive of our trip, upon our return the scales were level for me and actually down a bit for Sue. I would have never have dreamed it.
We returned home with a handful of souvenirs (some leather, watercolors, coffee, olive oil and—to snorts from The Missus—some wild boar salami). We had megabytes of great photos and a lifetime of memories … plus a few tweaks on how we’ll do this trip again.
65 stairs, one step at a time.