AS MUCH AS I DISLIKE long-distance flights … as much as I wish I could afford to travel business-class, eat like a king, and sleep like a baby (instead of being stuck in economy, going cross-eyed watching miniature movies, and nodding off fitfully with my mouth hanging open) … as much as I fantasise about an easier, faster, painless way to get from one side of this planet to the other … I’ve gotta admit: air-travel is still pretty amazing!
I mean, one day you’re in Auckland, dodging traffic and wondering if it’s ever gonna stop raining – and the next day you’re on Italy’s sun-drenched RIVIERA, wondering if it’s all a dream, and pinching yourself just in case.
This sun-drenched stretch of Mediterranean coast is one of Italy’s hottest holiday hot-spots – nestled between the Ligurian Sea and the Maritime Alps, and famed for its glamour, gorgeous beachscapes and effortless charm. We arrived one sunny September Monday, rumpled and dishevelled after a long-haul flight, but in remarkably high spirits, stopping en route at a farm – Fattoria del Boschetto, near the town of Parma – for a delissimo country-style lunch: cheese, ham, salami, focaccia bread and wine.
Ooh-la-la and mamma-mia!
Santa Margherita, a charming, palm-lined harbour town, has long been a fashionable resort for the rich and famous. And, given that our group of mad midlife Kiwis were rich and famous, it was inevitable that we should start our adventure here! And not just in any old B&B, but in one of the most luxurious beachfront establishments you can imagine: the Grand Hotel Miramare!
Following a slap-up breakfast next morning, out on the hotel terrace, we drove around the shoreline to an Italian treasure: a World Heritage site known as the Cinque Terre. Strung along 18km of corrugated cliffs are five higgledy-piggledy villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – dating from the Middle Ages and set amongst picture-perfect backdrops. Cars and motorbikes are banned from these rumpty lanes – instead, the villages are connected by train (which we rode, through untold tunnels) and winding footpaths (which we walked, through terraced vineyards and stone-walled olive-groves.
All the Cinque Terre’s towns slope down to sea-level – except for Corniglia, which is perched on a cliff edge. And they all conspire to stop you in your tracks – their multi-hued houses stacked one on top of the other, and their footpaths alive with lingering locals.
But wait! There’s more …
Further around a coastal corner in the opposite direction is the picture-perfect town of Portofino … crammed with colourful villas, cafés, shops, and million-dollar yachts, and nestled snugly in a crescent-shaped bay where the cliffs of the Appenines plunge to the sea. Some of our group covered the distance by boat, the rest of us walked (with me, being the youngest and fittest, leading the way at a fast jog). And all of us were very glad we did, because Portofino (trust me) is a sight-for-sore-eyes!
That evening, over dinner, several gob-smacked friends dropped broad hints about scrapping the rest of our itinerary. They wanted to stay here for the entire three weeks! And, if you could just see this region with your own two eyes, you’d understand why. But, no, we had more lands to conquer and more adventures to be had – in Pisa, with its leaning tower … in Lucca, with its renaissance walls … in Florence, with its statue of David … in Tuscany, with its sunburnt hilltops and towers … in Venice, with its canals and bridges and gondolas … in Slovenia, with its hard-to-pronounce Ljubljana … and in Croatia, with its unspoiled islands and medieval walled towns.
But if the Italian Riviera is on your ‘bucket-list’, let me encourage you: when you finally get here, don’t rush around like a mad thing. Just take it quietly. Allow yourself time to listen for the ringing of bell-towers … time to watch the old men untangling nets on their chunky little fishing boats … time to check out a ruined castle or an ornate cathedral … time to sample the local cheeses and olives, cherries and vino … time to sit yourself down on an ancient seawall and lick a tasty gelato (icecream).
I guess what I’m saying is: “When in Italy, do what the Italians do!”