Marble, Bread and Gelato

IMG_5161Tuscany. It has been depicted in so many paintings and stories. What is it about this place that feels so good? Is it the exclamation marks of cypresses all over the landscape? Or the musky smell of freshly crushed grapes as we walk by a vineyard? Surely it is not the monotonous smoked ham and cheese bread… Oh the bread. It is just like Italian marble, solid as a rock. In the bakery, chunks of off-white bread are all thrown together in a bin. The Italian ladies point and the clerk picks and holds up a chunk. “No, not that one. Thát one!” They sort and pick. It resembles a bin full of bricks. I don’t understand it because the croissants here are divine – flaky and just perfect. But the bread, you could kill someone with it if you threw a piece.

IMG_5156But somehow these ancient hill towns invite you to settle down and live here. I would drive a tiny Fiat, like a maniac, to the patisserie each morning (for the pastries, not the bread). I love seeing the old women hang out their windows to see what’s happening on the street below, peeking through geraniums and lines full of laundry.

On the Via Francigena, the historic trail we hike, we made it to San Gimignano – nicknamed the Manhattan of Tuscany. Only 14 of the original 72 towers remain but those make for a pretty impressive skyline in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I huff and puff up hill toward the medieval centre, I wonder how they got all of those stones up there to build the towers in the 1200’s. No dump trucks back then.IMG_5147

Of course, no Tuscan town is complete without pizzerias and ristorantes offering wild boar and truffles. But also not without tourist traps selling fake leather purses, Pinocchio keychains and fifty flavours of gelato. After a decent meal, we walk back through the narrow medieval streets and long staircases, under a full moon. The room we booked showed “traditional Tuscan” ceilings in the photos but has a normal white ceiling in reality. But we sleep with our eyes closed anyway.

Early the next morning, we leave town and drink in the sight. The valley below shrugs off its foggy night clothes. We walk along rows of dewy grape vines. I keep wondering if I’m traipsing through  Andrea Bocelli’s vineyard yet….IMG_5167

We’ve been walking for hours and still have not spotted any place that might offer coffee to a wary pilgrim. I am tempted to knock on doors. Twice I ask but no, there’s no coffee in these hamlets. Until finally we come to a medieval huddle of homes on a hill top with a sign ‘ristorante’ pointing vaguely between the houses. The place is deserted. I’m not sure whose underwear adorns all the clothes lines hanging along the streets because no one seems to be home. Finally we find what might be a hotel and we sit down in the deserted court yard where a startled cleaning lady finds us and sends over someone who actually produces coffee. Life is good again.

Along the way we marvel at the fact that Tuscany is full of tourists but we don’t see any signs of modern, urban development. No high rises. No ugly factories. The landscape seems to be untouched for centuries. How did they do that? Some city planners must have had incredible foresight about a hundred years ago. And that is extra impressive considering how laid back and, well, unorganized things can be in Italy. I think that Salt Spring Island can learn a lot from Tuscany when it comes to preserving the landscape.

We reach Colle di Valle d’Elsa where we have a great room, a view on the medieval city wall and a good meal outside on the square, where a posse of old men congregate on a bench at night. The local CNN.

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The next medieval place is Monteriggioni. Before we went, I researched these places and studied maps. I always pictured this place as a small village, surrounded by green fields. You know, some houses here and there. In my mind, the town was always in a flat field. But no. Monteriggioni was built for mountain goats. A walled castle on yet another hill top. Of course, up we go. The coarse gravel makes you slip backward but we make it. Once we get inside the ancient walls, we’re in for a surprise. Whole tour groups of British and Chinese visitors follow their leaders holding a little flag. You can buy souvenirs and expensive wines. Everyone’s taking selfies with the pub or the church in the background. It’s Disneyland surrounded by ancient walls. Deflated, we buy a gelato before heading back down. We sit down at the tables of the gelato shop but get chased away. “Only sit if you get served!” the stern owner tells us. “Well, then serve me this ice cream I just bought,” Kees says but to no avail. We leave this tourist trap. Walking the quiet Via Francigena is much better.IMG_5178

Soaking It All Up in Tuscany

IMG_5104After three days and about 50 KM, I have 1 blister. Not bad but not pleasant either. My pack is heavier than I had planned. I do enjoy hiking but decide to take a break. While Kees happily continues along the Via Francigena, I take a bus to the next town. Gambassi Terme just happens to have a spa. Not sure if they are natural hot springs, but who cares – hot water and a sauna sound good right now. They even have a pellegrino rate.

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Early in the morning I find the bus I was told to take but it is crammed with 500 highschool students, none of whom speak any English. The bus driver speaks even less. But I explain my destination. He nods, a student interprets, I climb aboard and wedge onto the by-rider seat because the entire bus is full.

Then the roller coaster ride starts. Like a true Italian, he rushes down the mountainside, screeches around curves, scattering dogs and cats and old men on scooters. IMG_5103We cross a valley if vinyards in less time than it takes to say ‘Via Francigena’. When we reach the next city, all students stream out of the bus but the driver gestures me to sit and stay. Then he drives the otherwise empty bus across the city to find the stop for my next bus. I don’t think I was on a city bus, I suspect it was a school bus. He hails down the next driver, hands me over like a baton in a relay race and looks relieved when I climb onto the next bus. I get off where my notes tell me, with all my luggage, but then discover, all alone along an empty country road, that I have to climb uphill for at least 2 more kilometers until I reach the house where we’ll be staying. It’s an old fashioned Tuscan house – dark, with a fence and a big dog, chickens in the yard and shutters on the windows.  IMG_1295

While Kees walks, meets a snake and copes with gravel paths, I drop off my luggage and lug another 1.5 kilometers uphill to my spa. I am the only customer. I figure out where to change, slide into the lovely hot water and soak all day. Ah… being a pilgrim isn’t bad.

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Reaching New Heights on the Via Francigena

IMG_5093As we hike through the green hills of Tuscany, this time from Ponte di Capiano to San Miniato, I hear hordes of dogs barking in the woods. Since the Facebook page of Via Francigena mentioned dog attacks, we actually bought a can of pepper spray. But I know this tiny canister in Kees’ pocket is way too small for the multitude of canines I can hear in the distance so I hope our route will differ from theirs.

It does. And eventually I wonder if I heard a hunting party sniffing out Tuscany’s famous truffles. I’ve read that they use dogs here to find these fungus delicacies.

Blue skies, steep hills with a patchwork of muted green olive orchards and bright green grape vines are stitched together with gravelly paths, farm roads, a dirt path through a forest. We conquer them step by step. All uphill it seems. Coffee places are far between but mostly non existing. 

IMG_5100The towns are all medieval. If we reach a village before noon, a shop might be open but mostly they are closed. Shutters are shut tight and whole towns seem deserted. So we sit under an olive tree and eat what we brought: an apple, mandarin orange, some almond biscotti and water. After each rest, I need to realign my toes and tell my knees to keep bending. 

Italians built their towns right on the very top of the hills. I always thought towns were safely protected nestled in valleys, by the natural walls of hills surrounding them. But here they picked the highest points to build villages. And a village here is a peanut cluster of homes, all huddled and melted together as if they started with one house, then built an addition, glued a second home to it, build one on top of those two. Not spread out with their own gardens but all melted together. 

IMG_5111As I trudge to the top of the hill on which the town of San Miniato is perched, I think that these Italians were smart. No invading army is going to run up a hill like this wearing a suit of armour and surprise the villagers. They’d hear the huffing and puffing and panting a mile away. Just like they will all hear me coming now… 

IMG_5095Outside the old center, cars are speeding up the hill and down. Supermarkets all seem to be outside the center and housed in old buildings. Nothing new, it would stand out like a sore thumb. 

IMG_5115In the old center, you go to the vegetable shop if you want some apples. Then you try to find the pasticceria for homemade biscotti or warm croissants. The butcher shop will have salami and the cheese shop will offer many different kinds of cheese, and perhaps a bottle of wine. I love how they have preserved these small, individually owned, local specialty stores. The Tabacchi is a small corner shop that sells cigarets, magazines, lottery tickets and snacks but also stamps and bus tickets.

In San Miniato, when we finally reach the summit, we sleep in a deserted hostel, all by ourselves. The walls are thick stones, the windows have wooden shutters and when the church bells chime, our bed shakes. We walk past frescoed walls, hundreds of years old, to a pizzeria where we have a view over entire Tuscany it seems. At the table next to us are 8 boisterous Canadians celebrating that they made it this far, too.IMG_5107

The Via Francigena: Traipsing Through Tuscany

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The view from our room in Lucca, one of my favourite places so far.

When Kees first decided that he wanted to hike the Via Francigena, I think he toyed with the idea of doing the entire thing, just like he did with the Camino de Santiago. Twice. 

However, nearly 2,000 KM was a bit daunting, even for him. But Italy in October did seem like a good idea. I agreed to one week and he will continue walking almost to Rome (not all the way because then the final legs are just through suburbs and industrial areas).

IMG_5075So we studied the most scenic portions of the Via through Tuscany and Umbria.

Traipsing through Tuscany in October sounded quite attractive. We soon realized that we would need to book accommodations along the way well ahead of time. Even when I checked a few places in March, they already were full or almost full for October. But it did seem that tourism would get less in the Fall and that the weather could be good. That has turned out to be true. There are definitely others hiking the trail right now, but not in droves. And (so far, knock on wood!) the weather has been perfect: blue skies, sunny and not too hot.

Bookings rooms meant that we had to figure out how far we would walk each day. We spent many hours planning the logistics. We also decided on quick dry clothing, hiking shoes and packs.

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A barn in Tuscany

After getting acclimatized in Florence and Cinque Terre, we spent the night in Lucca and, after our visit to the Museo delle Via Francigena, we set out on our hike. If you ever plan on doing the same, I’d advise you to take train or bus to Altopascio, the next town. Because the first leg of the trail here is through the suburbs of Lucca, past industrial buildings and not very scenic. We were so focused on reaching Altopascio that we didn’t check the address of our first accomodation and overshot it. By the time we discovered this, we would have had to back track 3 KM. So I hugged the housekeeper who kindly came to pick us up.

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Our B&B in Altopascio

We stayed in one of those big, stucco Tuscan homes. Our bedroom was large with a balcony. The bathroom boasted a huge jaccuzi. Things were looking up. The owner even phoned in a pizza order for us so that we didn’t have to walk to town again. The problem was that I did not enjoy carrying my pack. Before we left I decided to only take my daypack for this one week. But that got bulky and heavy. So last minute I switched to my large pack with not much in it. But it was too heavy for me to easily walk 15 KM a day with… I struggled up the steep hills and got blisters. This was no fun.  Kees had a brilliant suggestion. We contacted an organization of smart local entrepreneurs who will transport your bags for you to your next accommodations. At first I balked at spending money on this but after a few more steep hills I thought it was a bargain.

The next day my bag vanished and magically reappeared in the next hotel. I floated up hill and downhill. OK… I still stumbled along, but enjoyed it so much better! My struggle changed into enjoying the scenery. So now I place my daily call to Bags Free, which does not mean that they transport bags for free. It refers to the fact that you walk ‘bag free’.

IMG_5086After Altopascio we walked to a tiny town called Ponte di Capiano where we had booked 2 beds in the hostel. It turned out to be a building over a medieval bridge that housed pilgrims. We shared a room with an Italian couple. We walked 2 minutes, over the bridge, to the tiny square in town where we found one cafeteria/bar. But the Italian couple told us, “No, you can book a meal for pellegrinos in the delicatessen store next door”.

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The hostel of Ponte di Cappiano

So we did. It turned out to be a lovely lady who made everything fresh that was for sale in her store. Ancient stone walls were lined with boxes of fresh fruit, mozzarella, prosciutto, bottles of local wine. In the display cases were trays of lasagne, salads and all sorts of other delicacies. For 9 euros we had our pick of main courses, including wine and dessert. They eat 3 courses here: primo, secondi platti, after you first have an appetizer and it is all followed by dessert or at least coffee and vinsanto – a dessert wine. It is beyond me how Italians can stay skinny!

We returned the next morning. The gigantic arched doors to the deli were already open. Stores here are mostly open from 6 AM til about noon, then close until 3 or 4 PM and remain open til 10 or 11 at night. We ate warm croissants and coffee on a marble slab counter in the store before setting off on our next day’s hike.

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Our hotel in Lucca: http://www.athomelucca.com/it/

Via Francigena website: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en

Ostello Ponte Di Capiano: https://www.viefrancigene.org/it/resource/accomodation/3967/

Via Francigena: Serious Hiking

UnknownIn Lucca, we walked around the ancient city walls that used to protect the city. Now, of course, it only surrounds the old city centre while the newer parts of Lucca have sprung up outside it. Many locals strolled on top off the wide, green walls on a Sunday morning.

IMG_5057We stopped into the Museo Via Francigena. We had spotted a sign serendipitous. And because we came to Italy to walk the Via Francigena, we were keen to see this museum. IMG_5072

It turned out not to be so much of a museum as it was a fantastic multimedia presentation. There are no artifacts on display between the 16th century walls but the video presentation brought the history of the trail to life.

Since the 7th century, a passable route across Europe was important to allow for trade, invasions and more. The Italian route crossed the Apennines, followed the Magra Valley and then turned away from the coast towards Lucca. From there the path continued through the Elsa Valley to Sienna, and then through valleys the way followed the ancient Via Cassia to Rome. 

The original Roman paving stones were gradually replaced by a network of paths and tracks. Lodgings sprang up to accommodate  travellers along the way. The name of the path was Via Francigena, or “road from France”, since it crossed modern France, the Rhine Valley and the Netherlands. It became the main connecting route between northern and southern Europe, carrying merchants, armies and pilgrims. Pilgrimages to Rome, to Santiago de Compostela and to  Jerusalem became more and more important. Along with it, the path became a communication channel fundamental to the cultural unity of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Mappa_Via_FrancigenaThe main source of information we have today about this ancient trail, is  a two page travel diary of a pilgrim named Sigeric the Serious. In the year 990, he traveled to Rome to be ordained Archbishop of Canterbury. His handwritten notes describe the places where he rested. The Via Francigena flourished as a trade route: silk and spices went to northern Europe and were traded for cloth from Flanders and Brabant.

Today, the Camino de Santiago is so very popular that almost 400,000 people walk at least part of that trail in a year. Serious hikers, perhaps like that original Sigeric the Serious, are looking for an alternative where they can still walk in peace and find accommodations without having to arm wrestle for a bed. Italy is turning its Via Francigena (and the entire trail known as the Canterbury Trail) into just that. The Canterbury Trail to Rome is 2,000 KM. The Italian portion is about 1,000 KM!

IMG_5074We decided to walk the Italian portion from Lucca south. Not all the way to Rome since that would mean many kilometers in suburbs and industrial areas. We selected the most scenic parts through Tuscany (together) and Umbria (for Kees alone). Stay tuned for our experiences in the next blogs.

The trail’s official site: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en/

Museum in Lucca: http://www.viafrancigenaentrypoint.eu/en

The Leaning Tower

IMG_5025Many iconic sites in the world can be a let-down when you first see them in person. But the leaning tower of Pisa, to me, was amazing to see in reality. Photos just cannot convey the awe that I felt when I saw the tower. It’s not just leaning… It’s ornate, delicately carved from marble. It’s gleaming white. It’s gorgeous. And it is definitely leaning! So much so that I am amazed it hasn’t toppled over yet.
I learned many things while visiting the site:
– they starting building the tower in the year 1173 and it took 99 years to complete!
I could just picture the architects, the artists, the workers hauling marble… How would they have felt when their masterpiece started leaning?
– the tower is 186 feet tall. You are allowed to climb to the top (8 floors up on 294 steps). But I’d be afraid it might topple over…
– the tower actually leans out almost 15 feet! That would be like standing on the railing of a pitching ship on sea…
– I didn’t know that this is where Galileo conducted his famous gravity test! He did that while standing on the tower of Pisa! Galileo was a math teacher in Pisa.
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When Galileo was young, one of his contemporaries used these words to describe Aristotle’s idea of how objects fall:

There is a natural place for everything to seek, as:
Heavy things go downward, Fire upward,
And rivers to the sea.

There was no tradition of describing experimental research in Galileo’s day. Controlled experiments were almost unknown. So Galileo’s report was pretty skimpy. He seems to have dropped different balls from a tower. But what weights? What tower? We can be pretty sure it was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But we end up doubting whether or not he really did the experiment. Maybe he just reported what he thought should have happened.

One result of the experiment surprised Galileo, and one surprises us. Galileo found that the heavy ball hit the ground first, but only by a little bit. Except for a small difference caused by air resistance, both balls reached nearly the same speed. And that surprised him. It forced him to abandon Aristotelian ideas about motion. If he really did the experiment, it was surely a turning point in the history of science.  ( John H. H. Lienhard)IMG_5045

– the tower of Pisa is, sometimes, listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
And yes, it is PISA, not pizza! But if I had an Italian restaurant somewhere, I’d call it the Tower of Pizza!
We simply took the train to Pisa, left our luggage at the train luggage depot and walked to the tower, about 2 KM.
Oh and by the way, I do not have a photo of one of us pretending to hold up or push the tower… because about a million people were all standing there, looking like idiots, pushing up the air while their friends where being contortionists snapping silly photos…
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Cinque Terre: Italian for ‘how to lose 5 pounds in 5 days’

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Vernazza

Cinque Terre, five lands, five towns, strung together like pearls on a necklace along Italy’s rocky north-west coast. For years we had seen photos of these little, colourful towns clinging to rocks in the sea. I think we’ve even made jigsaw puzzles of these towns where houses look more like beehives, stuck together one on top of the other. The string of the necklace is the railroad. There are some roads in the upper hills but mostly you can only reach these villages by boat, train or on foot. They are only a few kilometers apart but long tunnels have been blasted through granite to reach these towns.

We planned to spend 5 days here and spent many hours on the internet finding the right spot to stay. We didn’t want to sleep in a different place each night but decided to book one place and explore from there. But where? We looked at staying in the most southern town: Riomaggiore. But it seemed the most touristy, busy one. We read all about the most northern town: Levanto. But it seemed the most expensive, least attractive place to stay.

IMG_5002So we settled in the middle, near Vernazza. But these towns have few hotels or B&B’s and most are impossible small and very pricey. Finally we found an entire house on AirBnB in a settlement near Vernazza: San Bernardino. A whole house to ourselves. Fabulous photos of a small patio overlooking the sea. A kitchen so we could make our own meals… 40 euros a night. There must be a catch. We would find out once we found the place…

From Florence we took the train to La Spezia. Easy enough. We stopped by the station the day before and bought 2 tickets. In La Spezia we transferred to the Cinque Terre train headed to Levanto which, we assumed, would stop in Vernazza. It did.

There we immediately went inside the tourist information office at the train station where a lovely young man went out of his way to answer all of the questions we had. He told us how to take the bus to San Bernardino. We wanted to buy a hiking pole. No problem! He had one right there in the lost and found – why not take it? A supermarket? No.. you have to take the train to Monterosso for that.

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Monterosso

He also sold us two very expensive tickets to Cinque Terre National Park for the next three days. But the steep price does include all transportation within the park on trains and busses, the use of internet (if you can find it), the use of toilets (priceless) and admission to all hiking trails. It turned out that having these passes made travel between the towns of Cinque Terre incredibly easy.

We found the bus, up some very steep cobblestone roads through town. Everything is steep here. During the ride, which resembled a rollercoaster ride, we started to get suspicious about the AirBnB location. The bus went straight up the mountain sides, and up and up. Hairpins wide enough for one vehicle. When we encountered a vehicle coming the other way, the driver threw the bus into reverse and backed down the mountain until the two vehicles could scrape by each other. Up we went. Around more hairpins. At one point we disappeared into the clouds. The sea and villages below were tiny, way down the steep green slopes.

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San Bernardino

Finally, after 40 minutes, we reached a ridge to which a hamlet clung, like a cowboy on the back of a bronco. One old church and about eight vacant houses. Well, perhaps someone lives here but we seem to be the only living souls as we climb more stone stairs. There are no street names or house numbers here. The owner had emailed us 5 photos with arrows on them: climb these stairs. Turn right at the yellow wall. Look for the stone house with shutters and turn right. Climb more stairs. Pass an olive grove and keep climbing (with luggage!). 

As we climbed, surrounded by ancient stone walls, all hopes of wifi faded.

So did hopes of a shop or a pub. There is nothing up here. However, the owner had warned us: bring food, there is no supermarket. He had also told us that San Bernardino was five minutes from Vernazza. Maybe, if you had a car. Or a hang glider. But you’d be nuts to drive here.

We finally found “our” house. Nothing between us and heaven…. There is deafening silence on our mountain top. No partying tourists, no honking of cars. It is actually quite wonderful to go unplugged.

In Monterosso, we find a shop and buy ingredients to make our own breakfasts and dinner. Instant coffee and wine: a bottle of Lambrusco is 3.50 euros here! In our backpacks we haul it all back up the mountain in the bus. It was market day in Vernazza and the bus was full of older, local women chattering loudly in Italian. Obviously they only saw each other on market day and had to catch up on lots of stories, including the driver who talked with wild hand gestures the entire time.

The next day we hiked the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare. Glorious views but a very narrow, treacherous trail. I don’t know that I’ve ever hiked a steeper trail. We only met people walking the trail in the opposite direction. 

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Riomaggiore

Then we tried walking from Vernazza to Corniglia but it had poured during the night and the trail is closed because if it too muddy, too slippery. So we took the train to Lavanto, a big and unattractive town. We like Vernazza best with it crooked main street, little patios and a nice square by the water.

Over the years, when I heard stories about taking the train from village to village in Cinque Terre, I always pictured some tiny wooden touristy train which you could hop on and hop off. However, the trains connecting these villages are normally, big trains. We spent a lot of time waiting on platforms. Busses to the upper regions go less frequently. If we miss the 9:20 AM bus – which so far has departed at 9:15 each morning – we’d have to wait until 3:30 to catch the next one…

IMG_5017Don’t come to Cinque Terre if you have bad knees. And, let’s face it since we’re grandparents, if you have good knees when you start here, you might have bad ones when you finish your visit. We’ve seen several people with scraped legs and bandaged knees here.

On our last full day, we wanted to hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola but the trail was closed. Then we decided to take the shuttle boat from Riomaggiore to Vernazza because it would give us a lovely view of the villages from the water on this blue sky, sunny day. However, the boat was not going due to… bad weather. The Italians here are not overly friendly. I can sympathize with them since this is the end of tourist season and each town is over run. But still. The boat clerk shrugged and looked at me like I was nuts when I wanted to know why the boat wasn’t going on such a sunny day. One clerk in the grocery store today was swearing at those inconvenient tourists. Over-tourism is an obvious problem here. I saw a paper sign in a small plant pot by a house that said ‘please don’t take clippings’. The place is choked with visitors from France, Germany, Australia, USA and many from Asia, traipsing in hordes after a guide with a number sign. If I lived here, I’d be annoyed, too. Except that tourists now are the main source of employment and income for most people here. Even the lovely girls in our favourite Vernazza coffee shop are from the Dominican Republic because they can readily find work here. They served me lovely dolce di frutta and moccacino. 

And that’s the problem, see. You can lose 5 pounds in 5 days by walking. But the minute you stop, you gain those same 5 pounds right back.

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Vernazza

Resources:

https://www.trenitalia.com

http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/Eindex.php