June 6, 2012: Off to Piedmont

I am writing today’s update while riding the Trenitalia from Montecatini to Genova as we zip along the Mediterranean coast. Hill towns, seaside villages, rolling farms, ancient churches and defensive towers zip by the windows as we fly along. Luciana is sleeping in her Ergo Carrier that Dominica is wearing and Liesl is quietly sitting in her seat directly across from me at our table playing with her seven ponies, six My Little Ponies and “Raspberry Sparkle” that is a different kind of pony that she got in Bern a few weeks ago. The only major My Little Pony that Liesl does not own yet is Rainbow Dash. She has quite a large collection and they all have to play together all of the time.

After having stayed up late writing and uploading pictures last night I slept in until seven thirty this morning. Actually Luciana got me up at seven while Dominica was in the shower and Liesl was still sleeping but she was happy to be picked up out of her pack and play that was at the foot of our bed and lifted into bed with me where she snuggled until Dominica got out of the shower.

It was seven thirty when I got up and got into the shower to get ready for the day and about a quarter after eight when we went down as a family to eat breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Before we even went in to breakfast the hotel owner stopped us and took Luciana with her so that we could enjoy our breakfast without Luciana going crazy like she did yesterday. Luciana thought that this was great – hanging out with someone new in the lobby of the hotel meeting all of the hotel guests as they checked out.

We ate breakfast with the Columbia University basketball team who have been staying at the hotel at the same time as us. They are currently 4 wins, zero losses in an international competition that they have been playing. They’ve already been several places like Barcelona and Rome and are heading off to Venice today by bus.

We enjoyed our peaceful breakfast. Luciana was away for at least half an hour if not more. Occasionally we would see Luciana’s happy face pass by the restaurant door. She is such a silly, social girl.

After breakfast we packed up the last of the hotel room and checked out. We talked to the hotel owner for a bit before leaving. We have only been here for two days but already we feel like family. Kisses as we leave – only in Italy.

The walk to the train station is only about five minutes. It was just nine thirty when we arrived and our train was the ten o’ five local “milk” train to Viareggio on the coast. So we had some time to kill and two trains would run through before ours would come. So I ran out for coffee while Dominica and the girls sat at the little station waiting for the train to come.

Finding coffee to take away in Italy is actually pretty hard. The combination of so many shops being closed at any particular moment and coffee being espresso which is very unusual to get “to go” (rather like getting a shot of tequila in a “to go” cup) means that running into a café, even if you find one, is unlikely to score you coffee. I ran past several closed cafes and made it all of the say to the middle of town before jumping over one street and heading back via a different path and luckily stumbling on an odd coffee shop in the pedestrian district there. I ran in and had a hurried and confusing conversation in a place with no English speakers trying to explain that I wanted the bizarre idea of take away espresso. There was a lot of gesturing and head shaking but we figured it out and off I went with our coffee.

Something that might strike Americans as odd – in fact I’m pretty confident that this is extremely odd to anyone in North America and even much of the world – is that coffee “to go” in Italy, since it is espresso, does not get dispensed in insulated coffee cups but instead in little, tiny plastic “shot glasses” much like Americans would use for wheat grass shots at a juice bar or smoothie shop. Very different from what we are used to . We first encountered this on the train from Venice to Florence but figured that it was the result of it being a train, but now I see that this is the usual method for getting coffee “to go” and they even have snap on lids to make it easy.

To most of the world used to brewed coffee, the idea of take away in a simple plastic cup is unthinkable because you would burn yourself continuously. But this is not a problem in Italy. The secret is that Italian coffee is brewed far, far cooler than American coffee. Even I, who drinks and eats everything much cooler than a normal person including Dominica and my father, can slam down a shot of Italian coffee without any problem at all. This, I found surprising, after reading the “Under the Tuscan Sun” books where the drinking of burning hot coffee was listed over and over again as one of those amazing things that Italians do but now I realize that in actuality the average American, waiting ten minutes before imbibing their coffee, is actually drinking their coffee dramatically hotter than Italians slamming it down moments out of the machine. Many Americans, like Dominica, would consider Italian espresso to be marginally cold.

It is also worth noting that amazing Italian coffee, consistently considered to be the finest in the world even by countries well known for their excellent coffee like Austria, is very cheap in Italy. On the first train we took it was free. In Montecatini it was just one Euro per cup. On the SBB, for example, it was four Euros! In most of the German world it was between three and five Euros for coffee.

While at the hotel this morning I took the time to ask the owner about the Caffee New York that we saw at every single coffee shop in town. We were very confused by this. She explains that the Bar New York was a local bar in Montecatini that roasted their own coffee that because locally famous and then, a few years ago, won a competition for the best coffee in the world. So it is a point of local pride that no one serves any coffee but Caffee New York. That it is called New York is just an odd coincidence that the coffee is named after the bar – which we saw as it was around the corner from the hotel. It really is excellent coffee.

So we drank our coffee quickly – you only get a few sips before it is gone anyway – and soon we were on the first train for the day, the local running from Firenze to Viareggio. In Montecatini we were actually quite a bit closer to the coast than it felt like we were and the trip was under an hour on the slow, frequently stopping local train.

The first train ride went pretty easily. We were stuck sitting one of us in front of the other again just because of which seats were available when we got on board. Liesl sat with me, Luciana was sleeping away in the Ergo carrier with Dominica already having fallen asleep at the first train station.

The ride through Tuscany was really cool. So many mountains and so many beautiful hill towns along the way. The Apennines are far taller mountains than I had ever imagined. I always pictured Tuscany as being so much more “rolling” than it is. It is actually real mountains.

It was less than an hour to Viareggio, the small coastal city on the Mediterranean used as the crossing point for the north-south trains and the east-west trains. Here we got off and had to wait about fifteen or twenty minutes before the northbound train picked us up and we were whisked along the coast towards Genova.

From Viareggion Tuscany falls away almost immediately with Liguria starting along the coast quite quickly.  Just after La Spezzia suddenly, and only for a brief moment, the tunnel opens up and you are given a glimpse of the most beautiful Mediterranean scene from the train’s position on a rocky ledge.  Unbelievable.  I hope that I can always remember that moment.  There is no way to really describe just how beautiful the Italian Riveria is along the southern Ligurian coast.

Within minutes we were in the Cinque Terre which we have been studying, thanks to Rick Steves, for about a year.  We had really thought that we would be going there on this trip and would have been stopping there today but we changed our itinerary after getting an idea of just how incredibly busy we are and how painful every extra stop really is.  The Cinque Terre was simply one of those locations that had to be cut.  It would have been a really bad location for the children as well.  But going past and managing to get a look at most of the Cinque Terre towns from the train and knowing them so well that we could identify most of them by sight definitely makes us sad that we are not stopping.

We were glued to the windows all of the way along the Ligurian coast (the Italian Riviera.)  The train ride passed by in what seemed an instant.  Liesl was playing this funny game where she would watch out the window when the view was there and anytime that we were in a tunnel she would eat cookies.  So she would ask for one but then the tunnel would stop and she would say “No, I can only eat it in the tunnel.” and wait for the next tunnel to start.  Adorable.

We got to Genova and found a train heading to Asti.  That went decently smoothly.  The train to Asti was mostly unremarkable.  We did note that the trip was extremely rural, much more so than we would have guessed, and that the ride was almost entirely through very flat, boring farmland.  We had no idea that there was area like this in Italy and if you had shown it to me and asked me to guess where it was I would have thought several regions of Italy before guessing southern Piedmont.  From Genova the train goes almost straight north to Alessandria and then turns due west to go to Asti.  The ride was so boring that Dominica was getting pretty nervous about the area in which we were going to be staying.

We got off in Asti and are done with trains for a while.  We are heading out into the world of very small towns now.  Asti is not a big city at all and it felt nice there but we saw almost nothing of town.  We saw enough of the approach to Asti that we know that we are not interested in actually living in Asti.  Just not what we are looking for.  So we were ready to head right out without delay.  Originally Asti had been on our list of interesting potential areas.

In Asti we had quite an adventure trying to get a bus to take us to Neive where we have a hotel.  Luckily Dominica knew that we had to buy our bus tickets from a news stand.  How anyone is supposed to figure this out is beyond me and why a government bus sells tickets only via private businesses, especially ones that you would never otherwise use, seems very odd indeed to my American sensibilities.

We got our tickets but finding out bus proved to be rather an issue.  We got to the bus station easy enough but once there the buses were not labeled and no one anywhere spoke any English.  There was a sign that told which bus to get on but the labels on the buses did not match the ones on the sign and the bus numbering said that we needed to get on the bus that would be sitting in the parking space number thirty… expect the system only went as high as twenty-four!

We ran from bus to bus and were beginning to panic when the girl from the newspaper stand, who had followed us knowing that there was going to be a problem, came and helped us to find the right bus and to get directions as to what to do on the following bus.  Thank goodness she was looking out for us, had she not been there I have no idea where we would have ended up going.  The bus that we were put on had no label for where it was going, no label that it was a regional bus (it looked like a private bus) and was in parking spot one!  We were never going to figure that out on our own and even the people who were local had to ask tons of questions to figure out what the buses were doing.

This first bus got us, without further incident, to the really small town of Castagnole della Lanze where we found the bus to Alba waiting for us.  We just jumped from one to the other and the next bus’ first stop was in Neive.  So after three train and two buses and a bit of a panic we are now in our destination town and ready for five days without needing to pack up our luggage or move again.

Now all we had to do was to walk to our hotel.  It would just be ten minutes… or so we thought.

We ran into a couple of issues.  The first was that we were getting no Internet access in the middle of town.  So no way to look up where we needed to go.  The second was that the map posted in the middle of town did not show where we needed to go.  Hmmm… this could be bad.

So we just decided to start walking and figure out where we were as a starting point.  We didn’t have to go too far before we were able to establish some reference points and at least place ourselves on the map (a “you are here” marker on the big map in the middle of town would be great.)  Eventually we got Google Maps working on the flaky Android phone and started making some headway.  The Android has been terrible all day and loses all connectivity every fifteen or twenty minutes and has to be rebooted to be able to do anything.  Such a poorly made device.

So I plotted a course using Google Maps and it didn’t seem that far away so we started walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Pretty soon our hike turned us onto some hills with some pretty steep inclines.  With the suitcases, the stroller, carrying Luciana, the backpacks… this was getting really, really hard and it was hot and sunny so we were sweating pretty badly.  We kept going as the map seemed to think that all was well.  This seems insane, though.  This isn’t ten minutes from anywhere.  This is some serious walking that we are doing.

We finally got up to the Via Roma and discovered that Google Maps was not accurate and that roads were missing that they were expecting to be there and the Android was not working (or Google Maps was wrong) and thought that we were far enough away from where we really were that we were not sure which road we were standing on.  So I walked up and down several roads trying to determine exactly what was going on.

Three Italian girls, high school girls we were guessing, out for a jog happened upon us and we attempted to talk to them.  None of them knew the road that we needed nor did any of them have any knowledge of our hotel.  They were very friendly and giggly and tried their best to help.

I finally figured out that the one “road” that Google was showing that we could take, the Via dei Tigli, was not a road but a stairway leading up the hillside!  I walked partway up it to make sure that Google Maps would show me standing in the right place.  This is kind of insane.  I had walked the long way up the road quite a bit and decided that the stairway looked less exhausting that the road so we hauled the girls and all of the luggage up this really long stairway.  That was painful!  By this point we were pretty unhappy.

At the top of the stairway we found a playground and a couple of Swiss tourists who talked to us and pointed out that we had just arrived in the town’s historic center.  Uh oh.  This was the center… not the place that we had started from with the bus station, the train station, the main street, etc.  So the last thirty or forty minutes of walking only now got us to the center of town from which the “ten minutes to the hotel” had been gauged.  Oh boy.

We were in terrible shape, completely worn out and really doubting Google Maps.  But I had figured out most of what had happened and had a pretty good confidence that I would still be able to get us to the hotel.  At least at this point we were able to go down the hill rather than continuing to climb up it and, from what little bit we got to glimpse, the old town center looks to be really amazing.

Now that we had figured out what we had done wrong, things went a lot more smoothly.  Now there was a breeze, some amount of shade, some great views, a downhill walk and clear progress.  Things didn’t seem so hopeless.  For almost an hour there we were pretty upset and really concerned that we might be in the wrong town or severely lost or that the hotel was dramatically far away.

It has been quite some time since we were so happy to be arriving at our hotel.  Our proprietor was quite surprised that we had walked, “You don’t have a car?  You must have a car in Neive!”  Yes, we figured that out.  She said that she would have picked us up from the bus station had she known.  There was another couple yesterday with a one year old as well from Norway who were staying in the hotel and who had come by bus and she had picked them up – they had called her and she had gone to get them.  Well, at least we got some exercise out of it.

Our room at the Hotel Villa Lauri is fantastic, though, well worth the hike over the hill.  Originally we were going to be in an attic room but she had decided that that would be too dangerous with the little ones so she bumped us up, no charge, to a nicer room.  Wow, this is probably the best room of our trip and likely the best one that we will have on the entire trip – and thankfully it is the one in which we will be spending the most time of our entire month and a half long vacation.  It is a moderately spacious room with a nice closet and wardrobe area to store the luggage and stuff.  The restroom is quite large and well appointed.  Dominica and I have a double bed, Liesl has her own bed and Luciana has a pack and play.  There is power around the room, in both Italian and European configurations, there is a nice shower, there is a bidet (our second for the trip), there is a gorgeous terrace with great views of hill top vineyards and there is air conditioning – one of the first that we have seen and way more modern than the air conditioning that we had in Tuscany.  Dominica and her Booking.com skills win yet another victory.  Maybe Dominica needs to be a travel agent.

We got settled into the hotel and then decided that we needed to relax for a bit.  We showered because, well, we were pretty disgusting by this point.  Then I went to the front desk to talk about restaurants in town or in the hotel to see what was available and got a bottle of  one of the local Neive wines, a Barbara d’Alba, from just up the street and two glasses and Dominica and I settled into our little table on the terrace and drank some of the best red wine that we had ever tasted with Liesl and Luciana happily ran around the terrace enjoying their new found freedom.  They have had a very long and very stressful travel day as well.

We were not out on the terrace for very long before the Norwegian couple poked their heads around the wall from their own terrace which is above ours and towards the road.  We talked to them that was for a little while but Liesl was very insistent that they come down and visit us, which they did.  The grabbed a few chairs from another terrace and we all sat outside drinking wine and talking.  The kids had great fun together and it turns out that their son isn’t just around Luciana’s age but they were actually born on the same day!

After a while the hotel owner delivered some pizza for us all.  She was already getting it for the Norwegians and so asked if we wanted her to pick some up for us as well.  We were really exhausted and definitely did not want to go out looking for food and the restaurant in the hotel has no vegetarian options and was quite expensive, or we might have asked them to whip something up anyway, so pizza sounded great to us.

We finished off our bottle of wine so they ran up to their room and brought done a bottle of wine from a case that they had purchased while on a winery tour early today.  We drank that gone pretty quickly as well.  It was wan’t long before the pizza arrived, we all moved into the dining room and had dinner.

We hung out for hours.  Around ten the kids and the girls went off to bed and the men stayed up talking for another hour in the dining room.  Isn’t it amazing how traveling internationally really brings people together?  It is neat how much we end up meeting people and getting to know them when we are away from home.

We went to bed on the early side.  I did not even take the time to hook up the laptop before going to bed.  I have the WiFi access code and, in theory, it is going to work in the hotel room.  It was just such a long, hard day that getting online and doing anything at this point is just not going to happen.

Tomorrow we have no particular plans.  Breakfast starts at eight and we hope to make it to that.  We always do so I imagine that that will not be a problem.  Everyone got right to bed without a problem tonight.  We have no car and public transportation is really rough here so likely we will just be hanging around in Neive and checking out the local area.

After a long day we are pretty happy tonight and Piedmont is definitely giving Tuscany a run for its money.  Although Liguria was so beautiful on the train ride coming here that we have to consider that as well.  Choices, choices.

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