Cinque Terre (Italy)

By the time we finished at Lucca, we were heatstroke’d and passed out all the way to Santa Margherita Ligure. I woke up to find this beautiful view:

We were staying at a Best Western in SML, but it was unlike what I imagined a BW to look like! I mean sure, the internet wasn’t great and neither was the AC, and the overall decor and atmosphere was at least a full star below what we stayed at in Florence, but the seaview really made up for it!!

The next day, we set off for Cinque Terre with the intention of starting our hike at Corniglia (pictured above) and hiking through Vernazza to Monterosso. It was a good, optimistic, intention. The weather was not kind, and I believe it was at least 85 when we started our hike in the am and slowly increased to about 95+ when we were hiking. Furthermore, I hadn’t anticipated such a hike with dirt, rocks, uneven terrain, relentless sun, and so did not pack adequately. Oh, and we only had one 20oz bottle of water each…

Luckily, there was a little rest stop halfway from Corniglia to Vernazza that offered free water, and we took a rest there, fully appreciating and accepting the kindness and generosity of the host and his sweet kitty. Water has never tasted so good…

We eventually made it to Vernazza (not without a few complaints and curse words from me) and stopped for a quick lunch. Unfort, all the restaurants there that we could find were pretty touristy, but it was still a tasty meal, what with mussels and caprese and such.

We decided to take the easy way out to get to Monterosso: by ferry. I think we spent probably a total of one hour in Monterosso, forty of them waiting for a delayed train back to the hotel, which explains the lack of pix/interesting things to say about it. Honestly, I don’t know much about Cinque Terre and whether it has anything to offer aside from the hiking trails and the views… Does it have any historical significance or sights? Specialty foods??

In short, the three terre that we saw were indeed charming, and the views from the hike were breathtaking, but I think that sort of activity and those views would be better enjoyed in the spring or autumn, before/after the heatwave. Cinque Terre was a part of the trip that I was expecting to be the highlight, but little did I know, the best part of the trip (so far) was yet to come…

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Tuscany and Lucca (Italy)

We probably spent less than eight hours in Tuscany and Lucca combined…

After leaving Firenze, we stopped by a winery in Tuscany, called Varramista. It’s a gorgeous estate that was built in the 1400s as an outpost against the Pisans. The estate was gifted to the Capponi family to thank Gino de Neri for leading the Florentine troops to victory against the Pisans. Then, in the 1950s, the Piaggio family, the manufacturers of the Vespa scooter, made Varramista their permanent residence.

It wasn’t until the 90s that the Agnelli family, with the help of enologist, Federico Staderini, convert the land to vineyards. In its present form, the winery is fairly high-tech; the barrels are individually temperature-controlled and managed from a switchboard. The inside of the buildings where the barrels are kept are covered in mold. When we asked why they don’t clean it, our guide replied that they’re not allowed to because the vineyard is considered a historical landmark, and so cleaning off the mold would be illegal!

Then we drove over to Lucca, where we spent a couple hours walking around town to see the cathedrals, the garden atop the tower (no pix bc it cost money to go up/in), and the ex-amphitheater. The San Martino is the duomo of Lucca, built in the mid-/late- 1000s and renovated over many centuries. It is revered as gorgeous architecture, and it has many fine details in its structure that is almost impossible to capture in photos. For more info, go here.

We also visited the city walls of Lucca, which were built in the Renaissance era. I am unsure of their designer and purpose (some sources say flood prevention, others claim military purposes), but regardless, the top of the wall has become a park of sorts, where people lounge around and bike and walk and enjoy the sun. The wall is very wide, and they used to host car races on it!

We finished our time in Lucca with lunch in the square (Piazza Anfiteatro), which isn’t square-ish in the slightest. The elliptical-shaped piazza was initially built as an amphitheater by the Romans as a place for socialization and fights and other entertainments, but eventually became many things, including a fort during wars, a prison, and now, a piazza with restaurants, shops, and residences. Overall, I didn’t find Lucca to be too interesting, but perhaps that’s because we didn’t spend enough time there.

This post is as short as our stay in both places! We stayed in our next city, St. Margherita Ligure for a few days and visited a few terre of the Cinque Terre, so a longer post is forthcoming!

Competitive Dynamics In Foreign Markets

I like to think that wait staffing is a pretty standard economic activity in any country but watching carefully in Florence, Verzanna (Cinque Terre) and Santa Margherita (Portofino) is giving me second thoughts. All the waiters and waitresses we’ve encountered seem harried and overwhelmed. Its especially puzzling because they appear to handle volume which is half or two thirds of what someone might be responsible for in a larger establishment in the United States.

Its got me wondering…

–what are the average ratios of tables/patrons to waitstaff in the US vs Italy?
–average sales per wait staff?
–average profit?
–average kitchen size to waitstaff?
–average profit per restaurant sqft?
–average patrons per sqft per day?
Etc.

Another thought I had as we were waiting for the ferry in Vernazza was that I might see the prospect of a tourist business in Italy as appealing if I were a local but I’m not sure I could summon the same enthusiasm for potential market entry as someone looking from the outside in. I wonder how many others like me had that thought?

Ignoring possible legal restrictions, it seems most of the businesses are local owned whereas in the United States people come from all over the world to compete. It seems like that’d be a recipe for great, protected profits and market position. But its such a grind! I can’t stand tourists. And El Dorado rarely exists. So there must be some catch here I’m not getting.

Maybe its just the high taxes.

Diversity And Sameness

Walking into a small Florentine osteria like Cinghiale Bianco — there don’t appear to be any large eateries, and even after spending a whole semester in Florence and now revisiting, I still can’t figure out what the difference is between osterie, ristoranti, tratorrie and the like — I am immediately struck by the diversity and efficiency of these spaces.

In the United States at least there is a seeming obsession with uniform geometry. Every place, fancy or hole in the wall alike, is cubic and utilized in cubic form. All I have to do to clarify what I mean by this is to paint a picture for you of Cinghiale.

This little restaurant has three galleries for diners. The first is rectangular in the front and seats two rows of 4 seat tables and two rows of six seat tables. The second gallery is another rectangle behind it but attached at one of the corners and perpendicular to it. It has three tables of four and a table of two as well as a “nook” buried in the street side wall (bordering the first gallery) which seats 4 or 5. This nook has an arch and the whole thing is constructed of gloss painted brick. Above it is the third gallery, seating 2 or 3, which is accessed by a small ladder step way as if it belongs in a library bookshelf. The ladder is in the second gallery but the third gallery looks out on the first. Its claustrophobic, romantic and dangerous– a sign warns you in Italian to watch your head as you climb up because a support arch of the wall leaps out and cuts across about three feet from the top of the ladder.

I can’t even imagine how many OSHA and fire code regulations such a design would garner in the US. In Italy I’m sure this place is legally protected from ever being renovated!! The law is a singularly irrational and subjective institution wherever in the world it is crafted.

The interior of the restaurant is white washed plaster over occasionally exposed brick and dark painted timber support beams. The walls are lined with shelves covered in wine bottles and carrafe pottery. The tiny hallway segueing the first two galleries has an indent about five feet up that serves as the coat hang.

Cubic architecture should be more economical and efficient both to construct and maintain and utilize for a variety of functions, which is why I assume it is so prevalent in the US. And yet, its hard to not be charmed by the efficiency of this humanistic design in little Italy.

To a traveler, this is diversity. But the shocking truth of Italy is that all these little towns are like this. All the restaurants are ancient and cute and cozy. All the towns you ride the trains through up and down the coast are painted in a variety of dark pastel tones such as red, pink, and yellow with green window shutters. Everywhere they offer the “cucina tipica.”

Every city and village has a copy of the Garibaldi statue.

They serve the same food at every restaurant. The pasta is always good even when the meat dishes are second rate at the tourist traps. Its actually hard to find anything that isn’t Italian. Its a country that has failed by successfully and faithfully embracing mercantilist self-sufficiency, even though the osterie sometimes serve Tunisian olive oil, a blasphemy of ever there was one.

And in these ancient places nothing ever changes. It will all be here, the statues and paintings and museums and history and restaurants and hotels, next time.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose it depends who you are and what you’re after. Its hard to imagine businesses shutting down, even in a recession — more economic thoughts in a coming post — and I’ve yet to see entire city blocks with For Lease or for Sale signs as there would be in the US. But I also don’t see how you could avoid being a 60 year old waiter one day. Or how you’d ever get to live a “modern” life of new things if you were just an average Joe. Or Jiacomo as it were.

Many of the portraits in the Uffizi, it turns out, were the likenesses of various condottieri of Florence under the Medicis. They were celebrating these military contractors who helped them crush their neighbors and enemies.

Today there are no more contractors in Italy. But the US government employs thousands. Do things ever change? Are we all that different? Which is modern, and which is not?

Intro to Italy & Question of the Day

We made it to Pisa, Italy!

Our shuttle to Florence picked us up and took a special detour for us to see the Leaning Tower.

That’s our morning so far, it’s terribly hot here, and we’re all irritably jet-lagged, so maybe more later tonight!

QOTD: Why was the Tower of Pisa constructed?

(Answer tomorrow 🙂 )