Portovenere – the Gulf of Poets

“Why are there so many English flags here?” I asked. I’m so confused seeing St. George’s flags being worshipped in Portovenere, Italy. They were hanging everywhere.

Lorenzo explained that St. George’s flag is originally the flag of Genoa, a province in the Liguria region of Italy. Portovenere became part of the Republic of Genoa in 1113, and the flag is still used in Genoa today. The St. George’s flag was “borrowed” by England to benefit from the protection of Genoese fleet, and they later adopted it. It was also believed that King Richard (the Lionheart) adopted the flag during his crusades. How could I not know about that? It was satisfying to learn more about the world when we travel, it shows how travel is the best education we can get.

Portovenere is not one of Cinque Terre, but it is located strategically on the Gulf of Poets, formally known as Gulf of La Spezia. This city was built by the Romans, and during that time, Portovenere was a small fishing community. The town was later used by the Byzantine Navy as a base. When we were sourcing for a place to stay in Cinque Terre, Nicky thinks that it is better to explore a place that is off the beaten track. Portovenere is equally beautiful and much less touristy, and it was much convenient to park our vehicle here.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Portovenere was the bright colorful houses perched on a rocky shore, and beautiful boats docked by the beach. Portovenere is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was made famous by poets and authors who have been struck by its beauty and sought inspirations for their many creative works. Grotta Byron bears a plaque honoring the English poet, Lord Byron, who swam across the bay of Portovenere to meet his fellow muse, Shelley, in Lerici. Lord Byron is believed to have written his poem “The Corsair” in the grotto.

“Oh! too convincing–dangerously dear–
In woman’s eye the unanswerable tear!
That weapon of her weakness she can wield,
To save, subdue–at once her spear and shield.”
Lord Byron, The Corsair (1814)

Despite its small size, there is a lot to do in Portovenere. This town is a definite destination and a hidden treasure among other destinations in Italy. We enjoyed the walk through the lovely typical narrow streets, where we explore the steep staircases, houses, churches, castle, and shops. We walked on the waterfront, watching people sunbathing, swimming, and small children playing in the water. The promenade along the harbor is a pedestrian-only zone, and like the rest of the people, we admired the magnificent sea and many caves in front of us. The scenery was mesmerizing.

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On Sunday, Lorenzo accompanied us to explore the beautiful Doria Castle, which remains a landmark in Portovenere. We climbed the steep and narrow stairs to the top and our effort was well paid off by the amazing panoramic views from above. Doria Castle belongs to the extremely wealthy and influential Doria family from the 12th to 16th century. The ruins of the castle structure give us a glimpse of how amazing this castle was centuries ago, with the breathtaking view over the typical Ligurian black and white church of San Pietro, and the sea. The place was well taken care of, the fruit and vegetable trees look lovely. The figs were so sweet with a soft, smooth texture.  Nature perfumes the air with breezes that drift through the plants and added to the delicate charm of Portovenere.

Suggestions and Tips:

How to go?

By Car

We drove from Verona, where we stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

By Boat

There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands.

By Train & Bus

La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it).

In La Spezia, take bus 11/P at The Mercato Nord Bus-stop. You need to buy a ticket prior to your trip; tickets are normally sold in Tabaccheria (tobacco shop). Buses run frequently to Portovenere, about every 20 minutes from 7am to 11pm. After 8pm, it runs once every hour. In Portovenere, you can get your bus tickets at the shop near the bus stop. It is possible to buy tickets from the bus driver, however, the price will be double.

Bus stop at Portovenere

In Portovenere, bus tickets are sold at the shops behind the bus-stop.

Where to stay?

As per our previous Blog on Cinque Terre, we would suggest separating the stay between Cinque Terre (three nights) and Portovenere (two nights). It would be good to explore and enjoy this amazing places without rushing through it all.

I would definitely recommend Lorenzo’s apartment for those who wanted to experience a beautiful home that is close enough to the main bars, restaurants, and the sea. Lorenzo made the booking process very easy and he could arrange everything (directions, information, and place of interests). He even let us borrow his scooter for a ride to Cinque Terre. If the weather is right, you can join him for a fishing trip.

Our stay at Lorenzo’s apartment was amazing. Everything felt so cozy and the house is beautifully decorated. The bedroom was quiet and peaceful with a private balcony. Having breakfast while looking out to the charming sea of Portovenere was an experience I will always remember.

If B&B is not your thing, the four-star Grand Hotel Portovenere located nearby looks promising. It is centrally located near the bay with bars, restaurants, and supermarket and bus stop just around the corner. This hotel has a charming character with a beautiful view.

What to do?

History says a lot about this wild bay being a place of inspiration for Poets and Writers. The key element to visit Portovenere is relaxation, enjoying time with loved ones while being inspired.  Take your own sweet time to explore its beauty and timeless picturesque village. I would suggest spending two nights in Portovenere. It would be nice to enjoy the beach, sunbathing and swimming too. If the weather is good, take a boat trip to the Three Islands. Or even go kayaking or fishing.

  • Doria Castle – It costs 5€ to visit, but with two charming Italians beside me, we paid nothing
  • Town Gate and Tower
  • Grotta Byron
  • Churches of San Pietro and San Lorenzo
  • Sunbathing and Swimming
  • Boat trip to Three Island (Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto)
  • Walk the island of Isola Palmaria
  • Hiking to Cinque Terre – there is a trail from Portovenere to Riomaggiore (5 hours)
  • Explore the tiny lovely streets and offset alleyways of Portovenere
  • Eating and Drinking – Walk around the tiny street, and don’t miss trying delicious Ligurian street food and having romantic dinner on promenade
  • Buy Souvenirs – Pasta, Foccachia & Pesto Sauce, yummy!
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Cinque Terre – Charming Italy

Six years ago, on October 25, 2011, a freak rainstorm hit Cinque Terre and buried Monterosso and Vernazza in the mud. It was the most devastating floods in the area with 13 people dead. The people worked hard in rebuilding their villages and since then, Cinque Terre has undergone a miraculously recovery.

When Nicky first mentioned about Cinque Terre, I was like, “What is that?” I immediately google and fell in love. I can’t help feeling a little ashamed for not knowing one of the most beautiful places in the world. Where have I been hiding?

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Cinque Terre literally means five villages; Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The five fishing villages are a UNESCO world heritage site and easy access by train.

We chose to base ourselves in Portovenere. On the first day, we took a bus to La Spezia, and then a train to the northern-most village, Monterosso. The next day, Lorenzo, our host, is gracious enough to let us borrow his scooter. So, we started off with the first village, Riomaggiore.

Some roads in Cinque Terre are a bit scary with impossibly steep sections and hairpin bends but the road journey was extremely picturesque. On the way back, we stopped in a middle of nowhere and taking in gorgeous sunset views. We loved the experience of riding through the “Terrazza”, steeply terraced cliffs with the unbelievably breathtakingly scenery. Nonetheless, the parking in any of the little villages is limited and we were forced to walk a long distance from the parking place to reach each village.

Monterosso

The beach of Monterosso in the northernmost of Cinque Terre is the biggest and nicest. The sea is blue, and the view is stunning. It is well protected by the giant, “Il Gigante”, a rocky statue. Il Gigante has broken arms and legs, suffered from an allied bombing during the second world war. He looks ill and weak and becomes a symbol of Monterosso beach with a hidden story of luxury and tragedy.

We enjoyed walking along the beach and taking photos of lovely scenery. We visited the beautiful black and white Saint John the Baptist church, and Mortis et Orationis Oratory, the black confraternity which is also known as a religious “club”. The mission of this club was to arrange for funerals and taking care of people in needs: orphans, widows, and shipwrecked people.

After that, we enjoyed our sumptuous seafood lunch in Monterosso before heading to the next town, Vernazza. We thought of hiking to Vernazza but were informed by the hikers we met that it took them about two hours. Timing and stamina was an issue here, so we missed out on the spectacular views of the town from above.

Vernazza

Vernazza is a charming small fishing village. In 2013, this town was listed as the top 20 destinations to visit in the world by the New York Times. Beautiful colourful little houses clustered around a picturesque harbour, topped by a small castle.

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Tourists were crowding near the main square and enjoying the view when the big waves came by, and then crashes down making a huge splash of spray. Everyone was clapping and laughing. Those affected by the splash took it in stride and enjoying the fun. What a beautiful day, smiles and laughter of people surround us make our day sparkle with happiness. We ventured the tiny squares and little alleys and had our aperitif.

Corniglia

Corniglia is our least favourite, just because of the difficulty to reach the village on top of the hill. To reach Corniglia, after exiting the train, we must either walk the street followed by climbing 382 steps or take the shuttle bus up the hill. Not feeling quite that adventurous, we waited for the bus. It was a small bus, and as the queue was long, we had to take the next cycle (that was the only bus). It took us almost one hour to arrive at the destination (including waiting time).  Corniglia itself is a relaxing and authentic town where we enjoyed another aperitif with the view of the statue and church Oratoria di Santa Caterina.

Manarola

When we arrived Manarola, we took a stroll down to the waterfront where the crowds were already forming. This village has the most stunning view of the sunsets.  We took the trail up until we reached the perfect lookout spot. We were graced with an amazing view of colourful houses in the steep hills, and beautiful amidst cloudy sky. The sky was divided into two parts; one part was pouring, and the other half still showing off beautiful sunset over Manarola. The sunset sparkles reflecting off it, and the village became a curtain of gold. The view must be seen to be believed, it was magical!

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is located in the most southern village in Cinque Terre. It is the most rustic village with big rocks and pebbles and stunning views of the Ligurian sea. It is in a beautiful natural environment, and we enjoyed people watching; avid photographers taking amazing shots, families enjoying gelatos, people sun-tanning and swimming, and lovers walking hand in hand.

Cinque Terre is incredibly enchanting. There are plenty things to do here; nature walks, trails, photography, getting inspired, getting lost, exploring the villages, the food, the monuments, enjoying the sun, the beaches, the people, and visiting vineyards and olive groves in the surrounding areas.

Suggestions and Tips:

How to go?

By Car

Portovenere (125)We drove from Verona, where we stopped at Mantova and stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

Depending on your stay, you can park your vehicle near La Spezia Centrale Train Station or Levanto. The parking in any of the little villages in Cinque Terre is very limited and expensive.

By Train

For those flying from Singapore, choose a direct flight to Milan or Rome by Singapore Airlines. And then continue the journey by taking the train to La Spezia Centrale (3 hours from Milan or 4 hours from Rome). If you are travelling to Italy for the first time, I highly recommend flying directly to Milan and back from Rome (vice versa) so that you can plan to visit the most beautiful cities Italy has to offer.

La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it). In La Spezia train station, purchase a Cinque Terre Card (16 EUR for the day) that grants unlimited access to the trains, buses, and the footpath that connects the villages for a day.

By Ferry

There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands. On our first day, we planned on taking the ferry to Cinque Terre but the ferry services were suspended due to bad weather forecast. I can only imagine the beautiful views of the villages and surrounding areas from the water.

Where to stay?

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We based ourselves in Portovenere for three nights. While Portovenere is a wonderful place to stay, it should be visited separately. It took us about one hour and a half to reach Cinque Terre by bus and train. We had to rush after sunset to ensure that we did not miss the last bus from La Spezia, and waited an hour for the bus to arrive.

We would suggest booking in advance and staying three nights in Cinque Terre (our pick would be Monterosso), and another two nights in Portovenere. It would be good to explore and enjoy Cinque Terre without rushing through it all.

If budget is an issue, base yourself at La Spezia, which is less touristy and have more of an authentic feel. It is easily accessed to the train station in Cinque Terre, and to other cities across Italy.

What to do?

Discover the charm of each village in Cinque Terre, and enjoy the stretch of beautiful beaches at Monterosso. The water is so blue, and the sound of the sea is relaxing. Cinque Terre has its own distinct personality that you won’t mind sharing with the crowds.

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The water level during flooding that hits Cinque Terre on Oct 25, 2011.

If you are physically fit and have great stamina, wear comfortable shoes and hike Cinque Terre’s coastal trail. Lorenzo told us that the trails to Cinque Terre provide most amazing walks, you can even hike to or from Portovenere. He showed us the starting trail in Portovenere, and the view is strikingly beautiful.  Whatever you do, do not miss visiting Portovenere, the forgotten ‘sixth village’. You won’t regret it!

What to eat?

Eat, eat, and eat! Italy is a paradise of food, don’t be afraid of growing fat because you will never be. According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is the healthiest country in the world. The food is healthy, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and local herbs, and you will not gain any weight from being physically active, walking up and down steep streets. There is a lot of walking in Cinque Terre.

We love seafood, and Cinque Terre is a paradise for seafood lovers. I ordered “Muscoli” (muscles) for three days straight and never got sick of it. I also savour myself with anchovies (fresh Ikan Bilis), octopus salad, and Spaghetti Allo Scoglio (seafood pasta) with focaccia bread. Focaccia is a local speciality, simply a bread infused with herbs and olive oil. To have it on its own with pesto sauce is also heavenly.

Cinque Terre grows its own olives and DOC designated-origin wines. This country is also famous for its coffee and desserts. When I say desserts, it includes cakes, pastries, tiramisu, pannacotta, and gelato. Yum! So, after every walk, stop for a drink and try their olives and desserts.

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“Aida” at The Arena di Verona, Italy

“Every Story is a Love Story”

DSC07633My first experience of opera singing was at Restaurant Bel Canto in Paris, France. During the wonderful dining experience, we were serenaded by the staff who are trained opera singers. The Bel Canto experience is truly a special one, and since then it was on my bucket list to watch opera performance.

As I traveled to Italy during Verona Opera Festival 2017, I got the opportunity to watch the amazing opera productions at the biggest open-air theatre in the world – Arena di Verona. Attending the performance in the best preserved Roman amphitheater in Italy, which was built in the first century, was a surreal experience. It was an unforgettable evening.

Arena di Verona, Italy

The Arena has hosted many concerts and performances of the most notable opera singers, such as Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Andrea Bocelli, and international rock and pop singers and bands such as  Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Radiohead. The Arena di Verona is also the romantic setting for “Intimissimi on Ice”, an international highly acclaimed spectacular show, which combines great music, fashion, and skating.

During my visit, I chose “Aida”, a timeless love story based on the classical Verdi production, which is known for its extravagant stage productions and amazing musical arrangements. Aida is an opera in four acts with breaks in between and the show lasted more than four hours. There were two large screens that provide subtitles in English. The performance was heartfelt, the musical was in full glory, with romance,  war, intrigue, love, betrayal, guilt, power, and religion.

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Aida is a story about an ancient love triangle. The character focused on the enslaved Nubian princess, Aida, the Egyptian Captain, Radames, and the Egyptian princess, Amneris. I was deeply absorbed in the magnificent play, and at the end of it, there was a big lump in my throat and I felt like crying. Life can be unfair sometimes.

Aida: “If you don’t like your fate, change it. You are your own master. There are no shackles on you.”

As their forbidden love grown deeper, Aida and Radames chose to renounce the world. They believe that only death will unite them forever and make their love immortal.

Aida & Radames: “I’m so tired of all we’re going through. I don’t want to love like that. I just wanna be with you. Now and forever, peaceful, true.”

Love stories are reflections of our own experience and expectations from life. Whilst watching this play, my mind visualized myself as the main characters, how they feel and think. I imagined myself as Aida, put myself in the shoes of Radames, and most importantly, my feelings of Princess Amneris.

I told Nicky that Amneris has the biggest heart. She came off as a shallow ‘bimbo‘ when in fact she is a sweet, smart and compassionate person. She is willing to do anything for Radames, even to share her love with Aida, her favorite slave, whom she considered as her closest friend and sister. In my opinion, Amneris felt dejected and was the most hurt.

Amneris: “Why do I want him still? Why, when there’s nothing there?
How to go on with the rest of my life to pretend I don’t care?”

Sometimes we cannot understand love. Love can drive a person insane. There is always a taunting feeling inside us that things will never be perfect. At some point, we have to realize that some people can stay in our heart, but not in our life. And we get hope from Aida that we will find our perfect match – someone out there who will love us eternally.

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SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

Buying Tickets

Cheapest tickets on the stone steps cost €22 and the most expensive seats are €208. I  bought the cheapest tickets online which was supposedly located facing the stage. But as we arrived late, the gate has closed. We were directed to another location at the side which was not a bad spot.  Anyway, the arena was built in the first century and for almost 400 years gladiators fought here and entertained the people. So no matter where you sit, it feels like stepping back in time.

What to bring and/or prepare?

  • Sitting on the stone steps for more than four hours can be uncomfortable (show starts at 9pm and end almost 1am). Bring or buy cushions at the entrance. I brought along my S$1.90 cushions from Ikea. Half-way through the show, we managed to make ourselves much comfortable by resting our back on the stone when the audiences behind left the venue as it was getting late.
  • The rules and regulations stated that no food and drinks are allowed in the Arena. But the Security did not check our bags. The beverages; mineral water, soft drinks, beers or wines sold at €5 each. So, if I plan to go again, I will bring some snacks and drinks of my own.
  • Bring a fan, it was hot and humid from queueing and climbing the stone steps.
  • Candles are available on the stairs on the way in. The lightings of candles at the start of the show was absolutely magical. Bring a lighter.
  • Try to ease yourself before the show. It would be troublesome to find a toilet and Nicky said it was pretty gross.

How to Dress?

  • The opera is scheduled during summertime, so dress casually and more importantly, comfortably. But then again, it is Arena di Verona, and you are in Italy! Dress well to capture good pictures and memories.
  • Bring a light cardigan, sweater or scarves as the air cools off significantly after sunset.

Dining after the Opera

  • There were some restaurants still opened after the show and we had a lovely supper in the restaurant with breathtaking views of the Arena past midnight. It was a good way to end the evening.

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Love

 

Landscape

Street

Portrait