Thursday, November 14, 2013

Portofino, Italy

One of the reasons we love traveling with Go Ahead Tours is that we have a lot of free time to go do whatever we want to do. This is wonderful for us since I do a lot of research and always find places that we want to visit that are not on the tour! The only bad thing is that we always sort of freak out our guide when we go off like this. The trip to Portofino was no different in this regard! The tour guide was heading down on a walking tour of Santa Margherita, I shared those photos in the last blog entry, and we had decided that when we all reached the harbor the two of us were going to catch the ferry and head over to Portofino for the rest of the afternoon. When we got to the harbor we pulled out our map and asked our guide to help us locate the ferry stop and the others on the tour wanted to know where we were going...and wanted to know why they were not going there too! We took the ferry and when we arrived we discovered that the rest of the group had arrived by bus! Guess they talked the guide into going to Portofino instead of continuing their tour of Santa Margherita! 
 One of the great benefits of taking the ferry is the incredible views of Santa Margherita from the water. Beautiful!
 Left over battlements dot the shoreline here and this family decided to incorporate it into their home!
 And homes like this one made it a gorgeous ride to Portofino. The ferry only cost a few Euro's and our only complaint is that it doesn't run as late as we had hoped. Other than that it was a wonderful ride!
 Cervara Abbey is right on the coastline up from Santa Margherita ligure and it is the one place I will be visiting the next time we go anywhere near this area! You can actually stay in the Abby and the gardens are simply gorgeous! Seriously, click on the link. You will want to go too!
 Many of the stately villas that dot the coastline are now hotels or Inns of some sort but our imaginations were running wild as we passed these gorgeous homes.
 It is hard to imagine actually living in one of these magnificent homes. Perched on the hills around Portofino and fortified by the battlements they are the personification of romance!
 Pulling into Portofino was an out of body experience to me. I'm a Disney girl. At Epcot in Walt Disney World in Florida they have a Portofino area. Well, Disney did a great job. It was surreal to be gazing at the real thing and thinking "Oh my! It looks like DisneyWorld!" and then mentally chastising myself when I realized it's exactly backwards...DisneyWorld got the details of the real Portofino down perfectly.
 This grand Villa stands on one side of the small harbor and marina of Portofino. Stunning!
 I see photographs of Portofino all of the time. I would say 90% of them have punched the color up so that the buildings are almost florescent! As if the actual Portofino isn't beautiful enough just the way it is. My goal as a photographer is to take photos that look like the view you would see if you had been standing right next to me not produce some stylized version of what the real thing looks like. Reality is beautiful enough.
 My big surprise in Portofino was Castello Brown. It sits on the other side of the entrance of the harbor from that gorgeous Villa I pictured earlier in this post. One of my favorite "Indy" movies is called Enchanted April. Four ladies go for a holiday in Italy and they stay in this beautiful "Villa". I knew immediately that the "villa" was actually Castello Brown the moment I saw it from the ferry! For a movie buff this is a big moment!
 All along the marina edges are wonderful little outdoor cafes so you can have a bit of lunch or an afternoon snack. Or visit the many shops along your way. There are plenty to visit!
 The marina was the site of an Art Show while we were there! This hanging rhino made us laugh each time we saw him!
 But the boats are what stole my heart. Wooden boats are not common here in the US. And it's a beautiful art that is slowly being lost. This is one of my favorite photos from this trip simply because I find the boats to be so gorgeous.
 Portofino is a tourist town so, even during the break hours of 1-4pm, many of the shops and art galleries stay open. We walked up this path to Castello Brown.
 Yes, it's really this beautiful. For me this is one of those "a picture speaks a thousand words" shot. (click on the photo to see the full sized shot!)
 As we made our way up the hill we got an even better view of Castello Brown. You have to love a country where gorgeous castles dot the coastlines!
 The Church of San Giorgio is at the top of the hill above Portofino. With limited time we had to decide just how high we were going to climb and when we found out that the inside of the church was under renovation and we couldn't actually go in, we decided not to take the time to climb all the way up.
 The view of Portofino from above. Gorgeous! Story you see the yacht on the left hand side of this photo? We were walking back down the hill and suddenly saw all of this crew appear on the back of the boat. They were all in finery, full uniforms, and lined up. A well dressed man carrying a briefcase came down the walk from the shops of Portofino and the Captain of the boat welcomed him on board. Each of the crew did the same. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, indeed. 
 We loved everything about this gate that was on our walk down the hill. The details are amazing in Italy.
 What a life it must be to actually own one of these boats, like the man in the red shirt, and spend your day getting it ready to take out for an afternoon cruise!
 Ok...funny if not slightly embarrassing story here. We decided to walk up to Castello Brown and found these shops on our way deciding to stop in on our way back. Well, the shops are very small and claustrophobic so while my mom ventured all the way into the shop I only went to just right inside the doorway. What enticed me in was seeing a bottle of my favorite wine on the shelf. Now I've been a huge fan of Santa Margherita Pino Grigio for years. It's a costly bottle, about $30 here at home, so it's reserved for special occasions in our house. Knowing it is an Italian wine I figured I might get it a little more affordably there and I was amazed to find it there in this tiny shop in Portofino! And then it hit me. Santa Margherita Pino Grigio...what are the first two words? And where were we staying? wasn't till that very second that I realized that my favorite wine was produced exactly where we were staying! I was excited and feeling very stupid all at the same time. Then I noticed the price was only 9 Euros! That's about $14 US. I promptly bought two and prayed they would get home in one piece in my luggage! (I'm happy to report that they both made it and my luggage doesn't smell like my favorite wine!)
After walking and shopping and walking some more we decided to stop off at a little bakery and buy some pastries and then sit in this lovely outdoor cafe overlooking the marina and sip our afternoon cappuccinos. How I would love to be back there right this minute doing exactly the same thing!

After our leisurely coffee break, which the Italians highly encourage, we found out that we had missed the last ferry going back. So we had to figure out how to take the bus. This very fierce lion was at our bus stop and I adored him immediately. We later joked that he was there to give us courage to sustain us through the harrowing bus ride back to Santa Margherita! The streets are more narrow than a country lane and there are parts where you swear the bus won't fit much less any other cars and then a motorcycle would come barreling past us and we'd cringe waiting for the impact and splatted rider...but that never came. The amazing bus driver navigated the insanely small roads and in no time we were back in town. Admittedly, we both wanted to kiss the ground, but we were safe and sound! 

I'm off on another trip this next week taking new photos to share with you all so the week after I'll take you with me to see Pisa! In the meantime, and to get a sneak peak at what upcoming blogs will be about, you can follow me on Instagram. Just follow shutterbugtraveler !


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Cinque Terra

The Cinque Terra was one of those places on our Go Ahead Tours itinerary that I had never heard about before the trip. I did a little research and what I came up with just looked like these quaint little villages on the coast of Italy. What a surprise I got when we arrived! (remember to click on the small photos to see the full sized version)
 We took the very short walk to the train station in Santa Margherita and headed for Riomaggiore which is the bottom of the Cinque Terra. The train was very nice. A bit old but still very comfortable. And for all that we had been warned about "Italian Train Time" being a moving object, our trains were fairly on time.
 On tours there are always time constraints so we really only got a chance to see two of the villages on the Cinque Terra, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. But they didn't want us to miss out on the amazing cliff walk between the train station at Riomaggiore and Monorola. It was amazing. Yes that is the walk at the upper right hand corner! 
 I was amazed to see these flowers growing on the inner edge of the walk way. They are all of the succulent family but it was a beautiful burst of color too!
 Here is a better view of the walk. It looks really narrow but it was actually about 9-12 feet across and very solid concrete. The railing is only made of wood though so I wouldn't lean on it too much! 
 But the views were amazing. The rock face looks more like petrified wood than the cliffs I am use to here in California. I am an ocean baby and to find myself out on this walk with the sea breeze and the crashing waves was simply heaven!
 There were lots of sea caves as well. I can imagine that they would be fun to explore once you got your timing down on when they were exposed and when you would be trapped! You may get the idea from that last sentence that I'm not a fan of caves.
 Something more my speed were the battlements that were still all along the walk. Some of them left over from the early 20th century with WWII and some from much much earlier.
 Now, I'm mildly claustrophobic so while caving doesn't sound like a great idea, the battlements were okay to walk through because there were archways every few feet.
 Sadly, like the rest of the world it seems, there was a lot of graffiti inside of them. We still thought they were very, very cool.

From there we caught the train to Vernazza. A quick word about the train stations. Well, more specifically, the restrooms at train stations...and all over Italy in fact. In America we are very spoiled with a nice porcelain bowl with a seat and a lid. If we are "roughing" it the seat is in a tiny building with no plumbing called an "outhouse" or "porta-potty". In the hotels in Italy you will find our American type set up. But when you are out and about you are, more than likely going to find a shock. The restrooms in these stations were rectangular one person rooms with holes in the floor and porcelain "steps" on each side of the hole. There is no bowl. There is no seat and there certainly is no lid. You have to place your feet on the steps and squat and hope you have good aim. Now you know why the women there wear dresses all of the time. Easier to get out of the way. Let me warn seems that most people have really,, really bad aim. We decided we could wait till we got back to the hotel. You've been warned. 
 The village of Vernazza was breathtaking. This was our view from our lunch table. We had amazing pizza in an outdoor cafe and enjoyed this view. 
 We never miss a chance to pop into a local church when we are traveling. You just never know what you are going to find. With this one we figured, due to the rather modern looking exterior, we would find a modern interior. We were totally wrong. This wonderful pebble mosaic at the front door was just amazing!
 The inside made us feel like we had traveled back to the 1200's!  Sure enough, I found out when we got back and I could do some research, the Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia of Vernazza was built in the 1200's. Easy to let your imagination get swept away while spending time here.
 Outside of the church we found this walkway that made it's way up the hillside to the trail through the vineyards. We didn't have time to explore that before catching the train to Monterosso al Mare but I have seen photos taken of Vernazza from the vineyard and they are gorgeous so if you do have the time then take the walk, it's worth it!
 Monterosso al Mare is divided into two parts. Old Town Monterosso al Mare is to the left of the train station and New Monterosso al Mare is to the right of the station. We never went right. You have two choices when it comes to walking into Old Town. One is through a tunnel and one is up over a hill. Guess one I picked? Yup, any way that doesn't include a tunnel is a good way to me! So we headed up the path that went up the hill and we heavily rewarded. Since the tunnel was downhill most of our fellow travelers considered it the easy way so we were pretty much alone on our teeny hike. This lovely stairway just led up to a home. Completely charming.
Somehow we always find a kitty on our travels. This one was very happy to hang out with us and have us pet him while we took at break at the top of the hill.
But this view was the major payoff that the other travelers missed when they took the tunnel. This castle, called the Torre Aurora or "Dawn Tower", sits on the cliffs at the entryway of the small marina of Old Town Monterosso. Notice the domed WWII bunker on the shelf below the castle. New and old signs of war.
 This photo is one of my "Oooooh, Wish you were here!" postcard moments. Just so picturesque you couldn't take a bad photo if you tried.
The church in Old Town Monterosso al Mare has earned the nickname of the Beetlejuice church in our house simply because of it's wonderful black and white striping. The detail on this Rose Window just takes my breath away! SO beautiful!
The inside is even more beautiful. With the same black and white striping inside, the black and white diamond flooring and the crystal chandeliers this church is one you just can't miss if you are in the area. Gorgeous!
The day was warm and after all of our walking around we were very hot and tired. We treated ourselves to a frozen cappuccino and sat on the shady veranda over looking the sea and the promenade that begins New Monterosso al Mare. Another postcard moment. What a nice way to wait for the train.

And speaking of postcards! I'll take you to Portofino at the end of this week! In the meantime you can get beautiful photos several times a day if you follow me, shutterbugtraveler, on Instagram!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

Just like the French Riviera, the Italian Rivera is the playground of the Rich and Famous. In fact, while we were there we saw a motorcade with England's Tony Blair at the wheel of a convertible. The restaurants and shops reflect the wealth of the area and visitors to the area as well. The people, however, do not share this Posh Attitude. They are warm and welcoming and just simply lovely. Everyone we met there, from the small restaurant owners to shop keepers to ferry captains, were wonderful to us.
 We spent some really wonderful hours enjoying the waterfront of Santa Margherita Ligure.  The brightly colored homes, hotels and boats in this little port were beautiful. After dinner our first night we walked down to the sea wall, enjoyed the experience of the restaurants filling up, the lights coming on over the bay and even the statue of Columbus in the square. That combined with the sounds of the gently lapping water and the happy voices of the local patrons made for some wonderful ambiance.

 I loved the combination of the fancy hotel, with it's well appointed beach front area, right next to the ship yard. It leaves the impression that the every day lives quite happily with the opulent. It may only be an impression but our visit there left us with the feeling that it was real.
 If there were one place I'd like to live in Italy it would be this one. The beauty of this town along with the open and friendly attitude of those who live there and the proximity to the sea is the perfect combination for me. There is even an cinema playing a brand new movie in town. All the right pieces for me!
The ferry is right in the middle of the marina and offers a lovely view of the castle ruins which are right downtown. This 16th century castle was built to defend the town from North African pirates. 
 Santa Margherita is known for it's Trompe-loeil on the buildings. It is an art technique that creates an optical illusion by using paint. Almost all of what you see on this building is an illusion. It is just flat paint. So beautiful to look at and just awe inspiring. 
 As if the Trompe-l'oeil wasn't enough decoration, the Italians added in the wonderful ironwork on the balconies to the facade. Gorgeous details are the norm in Italy.
Just walking around town you will see several examples of this amazing technique. 
And we spent a lot of time just wandering around during our free time. Our neighborhood had plenty of wonderful surprises. Like this internet dating mini truck. Living in the world of the Detroit Big Block type of car it is amusing to us to see these teeny vehicles but while driving on ancient streets, even those that have been modernized, it is easy to see how these small vehicles make a lot more sense there.
But the amusement was easily found in teeny vehicles like this one. The shop is one full of wonderfully frilly and feminine clothing and accessories for women. But when I saw this French titled business car in the Merci parking spot I just couldn't resist the photo. Now, merci means "commercial" in Italian but it sure looks French in this context! We had a nice chuckle over it. These "smart" cars are now all the rage over here in the US now but they still remind me of our "pink rollerskate" car in Santa Margherita.
 If you think of a square clock and our hotel being at the 10 o'clock position then this incredible house was at the 4 o'clock position on our block. We didn't have to walk past it each time we walked downtown but we sure made a point of doing just that. The entire building was covered in Trompe-l'oeil and each time we would stop and look and find something new that we had missed before. 
 Everything was shuttered up when I took these photos because it was the mid day break time when everyone closes everything up and relaxes before going back to work the evening shift. But it certainly piqued my imagination wondering what the inside of this house actually looked like!

 This is the front doorway. With this art form they could easily have stopped at one detail but with this house they didn't even try. The bright colors, the iron railings, the pebble mosaic of the entry slab, the heavy wooden double doors were all just more details against the wonderful Trompe-l'oeil.

 This header actually looks like scrimshaw. But it's only paint. The detail is absolutely amazing. (To see the detail click on the photo to see the larger version.) I love the shape of the doorway too. More details.
 Over the doorway was another gorgeous mural. Every piece of the facade of this house was just so beautiful.
The Church of Santa Margherita is the Basilica di Santa Margherita d'Antiochia is also called the Oratoria di Nostra Signora della Rosa or Our Lady of the Rose. Built on the ruins of a 13th century cathedral, this 18th century church is a beautiful addition to the area. Unfortunately, as is the issue with being on a tour, there is never enough time to see everything in an area that you would like to see. This was a brief pause on a quick walk to the train station for us as we made our way to the Cinque Terra. However it does mean we still have plenty to explore when we return to the area on our next trip!

Next week I'll share with you the treat that is known as the Cinque Terra. In the mean time you can get several photos a day on Instagram. Just follow shutterbugtraveler there!