Sinking in…the Cinque Terre

Cruise liner The tourist season is over now, and locals are breathing a sigh of relief in many ways as Cinque Terre was overrun this year. With cruise ships offloading their hordes, some days the main street in the villages was awash with people, pushing and shoving in their determination to check out  the souvenir shops, grab lunch and still be back on time to the ferry or train for the return to their cruise  liner.

The narrow alleyways were a slither of bobbing heads as they climbed the never ending steps, gasping, with hardly time to appreciate the beauty of the village or surroundings that they had been thrown into. Most groups, cruise liners and non, Manarolawalk the Via dell’Amore then use the train system to move quickly between the remaining villages, as I had done on many of my tours. This year however there was the added difficulty of the Via dell’Amore being closed and no additional trains to cope with the increased mass.

The result – many hassled tourists who left the territory thinking it was overrated, not particularly beautiful and who would have preferred to be elsewhere! A recent article in the New York Times which described the area as a real gem, elicited many negative comments.

For example “The Cinque Terre are overcrowded, overpriced and overrated. They are a travel industry creation full of foreigners not Italians. There are plenty of reasons to go to Italy, this is not one of them.”

“There was surely a time years ago when these villages were indeed quaint, pristine, romantic and like a step back in time. No more – they are dirty, the train tunnels covered with graffiti, packed with tourists with no place to go, bad food and a portion of the much vaunted hiking trails between towns is closed. The attitude of the locals reflect this”

I cringed when I read them, yet can easily identify with their angst. Independent travellers are bundled in with the hordes as well, spending more time waiting on train platforms or suffering in stuffy carriages than delighting in their visit.

Ferry queue

Ferry queue

It’s a major issue, now that Cinque Terre is on every itinerary, and travel companies from all over offer what appears to be a beautiful day tour to the area but what effectively becomes something of a nightmare, and tourists are going away disgruntled and disappointed. Trying to see the villages effectively in a 3 or 4 hour visit is more than likely to disappoint rather than leave tourists with a magic experience of such a delicate territory.

I even saw the Mayor of Vernazza taking photos of the people squeezed into the alleyways, rubbish overflowing from inadequate bins, and ferries blurting out their human cargo onto the port leaving many others stranded for lack of space. His intention being to discuss it with the National Park President.

The Park President commented in a recent interview that the ‘hit-and-run’ style of tourism brought by the cruise liners was inappropriate in a territory so fragile and still licking her wounds from the flood of 2011. He was appealing to the three Port Authorities involved – La Spezia, Livorno and Genoa to orchestrate arrivals, to avoid excessive compression of tourists on the trails and encourage a more responsible tourism.

As for locals, their regular habits change as there is no space for them to gather in the square, let alone sit for a natter. And they are often left on the train platform with their shopping bags in hand if they have dallied too long and found themselves in the peak hour cruise crush.

My group with our guide Federica - Vernazza

My group with our guide Federica – Vernazza

So we would like it to be better, not necessarily to hanker for the old days, but to look for solutions to the problem and encourage slow travel, slow food, and slow appreciation of the area so that the Cinque Terre can be special to us all.

I hate to admit, but having worked in the travel industry for so long, it will be a battle, as ‘business is business’ and it will be hard work convincing any travel agency to plan their itineraries differently whilst clients continue to request it. I hope to be proved wrong.

But please don’t let this post put you off from visiting, stay a few days, take it slowly, and try some of the alternative trails, I assure you that you will enjoy the experience!









Oh my Buddha!

Buddha over Florence Six enormous bronze arms reach out from the three headed Buddha to capture the Dome of Florence in the recent exhibition by Chinese artist Zhang Huan “Soul and Matter” Taiwan Buddha At last Forte Belvedere has reopened with this unusual exhibition of complex sculptures and artworks after a 5 year closure due to two tragic incidents where young people fell off the walls. The fortress is beautifully located on the hill above Florence, and as its name denotes, has a magnificent view. Fort view   It has always been one of my favourite places, and years ago when I lived in town I often walked up the tree lined avenue, stopped for a while at Piazzale Michelangelo, savoured the view and continued on to the Fort to sit and do my Italian homework. It was always quieter there, restful and very conducive to conjugating Italian verbs!

It is right next to the Boboli gardens of the Pitti Place which meant a quick escape to safety for the Medici family and court, especially in case of any internal uprising, although there is no access through for the public nowadays.

It has housed in its elegant building and on its majestic lawns many exhibitions, from the erotic – photos of female orgasms (I will leave you to work out how that was done?!), to satirical characters by a crime journalist who was jailed for side-tracking   investigations into the Monster of Florence -“DiMostro in Mostra” the title being a play on words “The Monster on show/Showing in the Exhibition”. Or my favourite being the fanciful sculptures of the Belgian artist Folon. (I promise a blog on that one). And when the Fort was not showing off contemporary art we enjoyed many Summer evenings at the outdoor cinema catching up on movies we had missed during the season or some cult reruns.

The ‘Soul and Matter’ exhibition of Zhang Huan, is perhaps not my style but it’s certainly dramatic and very unusual. As the blurb says “it is a fruitful dialogue between tradition and experimentation, earthly reality and spirituality, an encounter between the two great cultural capitals –the Renaissance Prince meets the Shanghai new Factory creator”. After the mammoth Buddhas in various metals, many of his other panels are made of incense ash to reflect ‘the collective soul of our memories and hopes’ as incense is burned in moments of prayer. It is incredibly suggestive seeing the images produced –from Confucius to tigers and high seas.

The Fort is a fantastic backdrop for such creativity and technical versatility as well as a relaxing place to visit, have a wine, or just sit on the grass and take in the view. So we look forward to the next show!View of Duomo


Get a look at those thighs!

It’s been World Cycling championship in Florence and it’s been a pretty amazing experience for everyone. Florence has been a spectacular setting for the races, although at the speed they travel I am sure most cyclists hardly had time to appreciate the Duomo (Cathedral) as they raced past.Duomo 2

There was such a hubbub about the event that by the time it started some locals had done enough shopping to last 10 days under siege, thinking they would be stuck at home and unable to use the car or even get to work! Streets were repaved and lots of deviation signs went up, as well as one way streets changed direction to cater for maximum mobility and minimum interference with the racing.

BaptisteryOn the super days like Friday, some companies closed putting people on forced leave for the day as did some schools, although I didn’t hear any of the kids complaining!

In fact since I don’t follow cycling I didn’t think I would even go near town to avoid what I had thought would be chaos. Then a friend sent me a photo of the Australian support car…..she had meant to take a photo of the Aussie cyclist but he had gone past so fast she had missed him! I know the feeling as my brother had aussie support carpushed us to go and see the Tour de France when we were on holidays in Provence last year, and my photos were much the same. I missed the lead boys in the

Tour de France

Tour de France

excitement and got the stragglers or the technical support cars!

That night I heard the Australian – Damian Howson had won so my curiosity was aroused. The following day I went down town and captured some of the cyclists along the Arno River and around the Duomo. It was a treat to see, a surprise for many tourists, and the city centre felt like a giant pedestrian mall; just delightful.

Leonardo + Pietro volunteeers

Leonardo + Pietro volunteeers

The city teemed with volunteers helping with crowd control, creating thoroughfares when there was a lull, or redirecting lost cyclists!

Lost cyclist?

Lost cyclist?

In the afternoon I was back  home and off to the paint shop when I saw people lined up along my country  road and within seconds a group of cyclists whizzed past. Oh
my, here we go again, no photo but wait… there were more coming and this group zoomed by. Wow!Cyclist Rignano 3

Unfortunately the last day was spoiled with stormy weather and there were multiple crashes after they left Lucca and it was quite a challenge for cyclists to stay on the road. The Italian favourite Nibali fell, nevertheless he was back on his bike in a flash and just pipped at the end to come in 4th after the 2 Spaniards and Portuguese Rui Costa the leader.

Yes, as you can see I may turn into a fan yet!

Florence was definitely showing off with the event and the smooth organisation was a credit to the city. In the same week, Gino Bartali, a famous Florentine cyclist from the 1930’s, was honoured with Israel’s ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award for wartime activities, having hidden a Jewish family in his cellar and smuggled many false Basilica St Francisdocuments in the tube of his bike on his long cycles. He is known to have narrowly escaped being shot by Nazis at a road block when a Fascist yelled out that he was ‘Bartali’ the famous cyclist and they let him pass unharmed. A few hours later he was in Assisi with the hidden documents for many of the Italian Jews hidden between the two floors of the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis.

So it’s been quite a proud time here, and we are almost disappointed to return to the normal traffic jams and chaos of everyday life.

Image Courtesy of "La Repubblica"

Image Courtesy of “La Repubblica”