The express train to Milan

The fast express train to Milan leaves Santa Margherita at 13.35, first stop Genova half an hour later. The local train, all stops, leaves from the same platform 7 minutes later at 14:02 arriving in no less than 10 minutes at Comogli. We planned to train to Comogli, do a circuit bush walk and bus back to Santa Marherita. It was our first day of inclement weather. Rain had well and truely set in.

To further set the scene for the events that unfolded, I should explain it is a given that the Swiss train system runs with clockwork precision. It is apparent that all station clocks across Switzerland are synchronous. When the station clock at Basle shows the time as 13:45 and 47 seconds, it will be 13:45 and 47 seconds in Geneva. When a Swiss train is scheduled to leave at 13:45 and 47 seconds, that Swiss train will indeed start to move at 13:45 and 47 seconds precisely.

The Italian train system, as I learnt, today, runs like pasta – it bends in hot water. At precisely 14:02 the train pulls into Santa Margherita station. It is surprisingly full, so much so that we are forced to stand in the aisle along with several other elderly Italians. We can cope as the next stop, Comogli is all of 12 minutes away. The train picks up speed and enters a long tunnel, we are in darkness for several minutes, then suddenly travelling at 100km/hr we shoot out the tunnel, to a vast expanse of the Ligurian sea on our left and the small station of Comogli on our right. The rush of the speeding train creates a violent vortex and like a scene from the Wizard of Oz, several seagulls, thousands of cigarette butts, and a baby’s pram on the Comogli platform, are sucked into a spiralling tornado. We had failed to realise that the intercity express to Milan was running exactly 27 minutes late. It sped along, seemingly out of control, to finally run of out puff and stop at Genova,the capital of the Ligurian provence. We alighted, considered our options, that as were here, set off to explore the city. It was worthwhile, despite the inclement weather. More aware of the vagaries of the Italian rail system, we more carefully researched the return journey.

Had a great final dinner at the Ristorante Pizzeria dal Baffo. Their pasta is made on the premises. The spinach ravioli in a walnut cream sauce then steamed fresh fish with mussels, pippins, prawns, octopus and calamari in a tomato sauce. Both sauces so spectacularly tasty that they begged to be mopped up with crusty bread. We shared a warm apple pie with vanilla gelato. Then, as the night was cool and it was still twilight, contentedly satiated, we sauntered down Via Garibaldi. Which reminds me, if you are bored at any time, search for “via Garibaldi” in Google Maps. The result will astound you – hundreds of thousands of such streets in every village, town and city of Italy and then some!

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The view over Santa Margherita Harbour early morning

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A couple of pictures of The San Giacomo di Corte Church part of the Villa Durazzo Centurione on a hill overlooking Santa Margherita

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A few pictures of our unexpected day trip to Genova on a humid wet day! Street scenes and the inevitable cathedral.

The Ligurian Coast of Italy

After the week of cycling, I travelled to the town of Santa Margherita, in the smallest provence of Italy, namely Liguria, capital Genova. It’s a crescent shaped ribbon of land that has the Alps of Piedmontese to the north, falling down to the Ligurian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. The tourist pamphlet for Santa Margherita claims the area was founded in 262 BC. It further states “It has always been a fisher and sailor village, well known for handicrafts: laces made on lace-pillows and ropery”. I did a quick retake! Yes that’s “ropery”. As to sailors and lace pillows, nothing like a bit of petit-pointe to pass the tedious months sailing across the great oceans. Indeed some of the best cross stitching is attributed to Italian sailors in the 18th century

The most famous destination of this so called Italian Riviera is Portofino. It’s the iconic, picture post card Italian fishing village, now an expensive tourist magnet. The other attraction is the Cinque Terre, again five previous fishing villages that face the sea and now sustained by tourism. I undertook the obligatory day to meander around Portofino, mesmerised by the melanin enhanced middle aged women ( alliteration to simply mean that they were sunburnt unnaturally and uniformly all over). Then it was time to escape and walk over the promontory from Santa Margherita to the medieval monastery of San Fruttuoso. A strenuous climb equal to any of the cycle days. This part of the steep cliffs and hidden alcoves is a national park. The Abbey, almost 1200 years old is fascinating, but does not escape the Italian beach culture. A delightful day.

The Ligurian Coastal beaches are to put it bluntly, un-enticing. There is no sand as we in Australia know, but rather coarse stones and pebbles, that make getting to the surf a form of water torture. The sea is a grey green colour and pleasantly warm. There the attraction ends. There is the feeling that the water, at least in the inlets and alcoves which are inhabited, is not exactly pure or crystal clear. A thin oily film of almost certainly disesoleum, is broken by feathers, plastic and the discarded containers of a disposable society. Once clear of the populated bays and inlets, the sea returns to a more enticing and characteristic clean crystal blue.

There is hardly a part of these stone beaches that are not invaded by sun worshipping Italians. Most of them pay upwards of 12 to 15 euro to sit on row upon row of beach chairs and umbrellas, to hobble to the waters edge once or twice a day, then return and light up a cigarette. Even the scavenging sea gulls exhibit signs of nicotine addiction, from pecking at the butts. Cigarettes I mean.

In general there is much less obesity visible in the general population and the Italians do dress with flair and good taste. This is despite the wine, pasta and bread, my theory is that they do walk around a lot more and of course, smoking is a great way to keep weight down.

After the day walk to San Fruttuoso, the next day I took a ferry trip to the Cinque Terre, a rather choppy swell prevented landing at the smaller towns, so that we were only able to disembark at the largest village of Montarossa. My rather jaundiced and queezy opinion on the region and villages is that they are all becoming like Portofino. One arrives, admires the brightly painted buildings in ochre, yellows and tan brown, then joins a slow moving mass of visitors through narrow streets that were once charming, but now comprise outdoor eating, gelato parlours that all boast “artisan” or “home-made”, expensive clothing outlets and souvenir shops.

Our first night here I dined at one of the most renowned restaurants. This was not intentional, it was just around the corner from the hotel. The next night a great seafood establishment: seafood risotto and then last night a “local” cafe recommended by the girl at the tourist office. A large pork chop and creamy mash potatoes.

Finally as this is the last week, I travel to Milan tomorrow, I am in the process of discarding unwanted clothes and washing a couple of T shirts. I have clean socks and one pair of underpants!

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Portofino – a postcard scene recognised the world over

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Sunday service finishes the Cathedral of Santa Margherita.

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The cliff top walk from Santa Magherita in the National Park

Final thoughts – cycling in Italy

In terms of my European cycle adventures to date, Italy does not have the cycling infrastructure of the more developed members of the European Community, for example Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and even the Czech Republic. My only Spanish adventure was the Camino and that was mostly a dedicated trail at times challenging even on a mountain bike. So it’s rather unique as a cycle route and I can’t compare it.

In Piedmontese the route was on minor roads, occasional busy roads and at times gravel roads or tracks. The smooth well maintained sealed dedicated cycle roads of the countries mentioned above, do not exist in this part of Italy. What this meant was that no matter how narrow, bumpy or seemingly impassable the track presented, there would appear at the most inconvenient times some form of motor vehicle. It could be a Fiat or a spluttering farmer’s truck, or tractor. Such confrontations were often potentially more hazardous than on those roads where cars were supposed to be!

These minor roads in Italy were for the most part poorly maintained with potholes and uneven surfaces especially on the shoulders. Be that as it may, Italian drivers for the most part are cycle aware and hence considerate. The poor quality road surface combined with the more common smaller cars, dictated that the average speed was no more than 60 to 80 km/hour. Drivers faced with a cyclist travelling in the same direction would obviously slow down, give you a wide berth, indeed, if possible moving across into the opposite lane! If by chance the situation arose when added to the mix was an oncoming vehicle, rather than in typical Australian reaction, accelerating to try and overtake, the car would actually slow down considerably to allow the oncoming car to pass safely, then pull out. Most reassuring.

In retrospect, choosing the month of August to travel in Europe has the benefit of summer and more enjoyable weather. The down side is that it is the peak holiday season, the equivalent of our end of year December/January holidays. Consequently many restaurants especially are closed as well as other stores. Add this to the mix of the regular siesta from noon to 4 pm and Italy grinds to a stuporous state. These comments I suspect apply mainly to the smaller regional towns and villages rather than the state capitals.

Should one pass through a village before noon, chances are there will be a local market in the piazza. These do not differ in anyway from the local markets in Australia in that there is an abundance of extremely cheap, poorly made and what can only be characterised as tacky, merchandise. Over represented is clothing, underwear, especially bras, and lingerie as well as shoes. However the food market is certainly not matched in Australia – due in part I suspect to our strict occupational health and hygiene regulations. There is a wonderful choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, stone fruit at this time, and exotic vegetables. All of this is crowned by the ubiquitous tomato. Tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, all beautifully naturally ripened on the vine and tasting superb. To even market an anaemic tasteless tomato is anathema to every Italian.

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Asti to Casale Monferrato to Alessandra

The cycle notes state that the distance will be 55km with total ascent of 700m. The climbs thankfully were indeed more gentle and therefore enjoyable. We struck the usual irritation at cycling through ghost towns just when we all needed a coffee. We pushed on to be rewarded by a road side cafe that created reasonable coffee and some adventurous tarts! We had lunch in a village square with bread, fruit cheese and cold meats. A fountain provided potable drinking water.

The hotel Candiani at Casale Monferrato was a great place for our penultimate night. Again we discovered a good restaurant, after much searching. Many of the recommended establishments on Trip Advisor or Google Maps being either shut for summer holidays or seemingly permanently closed down. The cafe opened at 18:30 and we were on the door step at 18:31. Again we asked for typical local food and wine. I noticed that as well, there was kangaroo on the menu!

The last day was, I am sure, designed to send us away happy as it was basically a flat ride on relatively quiet back roads returning to Alessandra. Once we had left the rolling hills and followed the River Po, the main crops changed to vast fields of maize and poplar plantations! The poplar wood I am told is to make match sticks. Given my perception that the only Italians who don’t smoke, were born with phocomelia, I can understand that the demand for Redheads, must be astronomical. Indeed forget about investing in Australian macadamia nuts, shift your hard earned investments into Italian hazelnut forests or poplar plantations, where indeed one may literally and figuratively see your cash go up in smoke.

We again had a picnic lunch in a delightful piazza in the village of Castelletto Monferrato. Then a slightly more hazardous cycle back into our start point a week ago at Alessandra. I shall practice the Recorder again. I have attempted to be religious in my adherence to setting aside practice time. I have to confess that on a few days I have lapsed.

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The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption – exterior at Asti

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The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption – interior at Asti

A day of rest – Asti

.After 2 days of fairly tough riding, a lay day in Asti. My opinion is that the medieval town of Alba the day before was more attractive. The more fascinating aspects of Asti, however were the black truffles and the regional wine. White truffles are mentioned but I did not see any – they are I believe, much more expensive than the black variety. For 2 days we had cycled up and down across rolling hills and valleys, along the saddles with vineyards, orchards of ripening autumnal fruit and in season stone fruit, and vast forests of hazel nut trees. The peaches and nectarines were so good.

This all sounds positively Elysian, and it was. Provided you arrived at a village either before noon or after about 4 pm, one could buy fresh fruit, breads, cheeses and cold meat cuts. Between these times absolutely every town and village had the appearance of a ghost town, a deserted movie set! As I rode along in the summer heat I had visions of being found dead around 3:55 on the side of a country road, just on the outskirts of a village, the autopsy revealing that I had died of dehydration and starvation.

In Asti we had a stunning meal, the antithesis of the dining experience the night before. We had a very friendly, not to mention, sexy Italian young waiter who was attentive and helpful. He was delighted to offer suggestions for our food and wine. An “anti pasta misto” for 5 people, then various local dishes. One of these was pasta – a very thin spaghetti, simply tossed in a hot butter and truffle infused olive oil dressed with truffle slivers. Another was the local variation of Spaghetti Bolognese. To my surprise none of the diners who chose outside tables, smoked and I specifically noted that ashtrays were not provided! I used Goggle translate to compliment the handsome Italian waiter on this.

Once I had explored the town, I set off on a day trip to the natural reserves – a round trip , on the flat of about 34 km. it was through at times dense forest and on gravel paths, more suited to mountain bikes, but great fun and took me less than 3 hours.

The village of Cinaglio after 18 km had a tranquil square with its municipal building and ornate church. I sat in the square and had iced tea and a fresh peach. I an refreshed for the ride to Casale Monferrato tomorrow.

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The tranquil green valley of the round trip from Asti

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The village square and church of Cinaglio where I stopped for a drink and fresh peach.

Alba to Asti

A day of relative ease compared to the first two days. Whilst the route guide suggested 35 km and about 300m ascent, it was still in parts, hard slog. But whilst it may take the best part of an hour to cycle slowly up at inclines of 6 to 10%, the 10 to 15 minutes of a delicious wind swept descent is worth the effort – once you get there!

On this day we also cycled mostly on small local roads or gravel roads which felt extremely safe. The shorter distance meant we could slow down and spend time visiting the villages and their castles and churches.

Asti is not attractive as Alba, but we stay here for 2 nights. We decided to have an evening meal at an upmarket restaurant recommended by the staff at our hotel. It was not a success. A less than memorable meal

Perhaps it was simply that we struck a bad evening? We arrived at 7:30 pm the precise time that the restaurant opens. The Maître de seemed flustered by this and the fact that we had not made a reservation and possibly our casual attire? The restaurant gives the appearance of silver service, the menu read well, so we persisted despite our misgivings.

I would never be presumptive or critical of the lack of English in a foreign establishment, our waiter had a degree of English – I suspect more than he presented! Our attempts to ask for some advice on the menu, induced a sweaty irritation and after a minute or tie he abruptly left explaining that he had other diners to attend to! The restaurant had about 2 other couples! We seriously considerd walking out! But the promise of outstanding local food was enough to make us stay seated. Bad decision!

The food was not up to expectations for the establishment as it presented itself. We asked advice to try some local and regional cooking. This seemed to further exasperate the waiter! Basically the beef and veal ragu style was nothing out of the ordinary but the accompanying vegetables: green beans and potato “chips” were sad and sorry, luke warm on cold plates, the chips appearing to have been deep fried, then I suspect reheated. Others on our group had the prawns- declared a success.

We could have understood if the poor waiter was run off his feet, by it was not the case. When we sat down there were only one other couple. The overall sense was that it was all too hard for the staff. If the food had been outstanding, we could have forgiven the waiter his demeanor, sadly not the case.

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The delightful gravel road through a poplar plantation.

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The Castle at Govone

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Looking down on the village of Govone from the castle

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Pictures from Acqui Terme and Alba

A few pics without words- or only a few !

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The piazza of Acqui Terme with the spring water “monument” it’s not leaning like the Pisa version ! I am I think

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A delightful brick church at Acqui Terme with the dusk sun catching the facade – the church of San Francesca

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A panorama between Acqui Terme and Alba

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Street leading off the main Piazza at Alba

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Street leading off the main Piazza at Alba again!

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The Duomo – Alba