Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ferry from Rapallo

Rapallo waterfront.
There was a slight chill in the air as we left Milan to catch the train to Rapallo, one of the bigger towns on the Ligurian coast. 
This area is better known as the Italian Riviera, famous for its lavish hotels, luxury resorts and celebrity guests.  Our plan was to catch the local ferry, and hop on and off, to visit the picturesque villages along the coast. We discovered that you don't need a fortune to enjoy this exclusive destination as some of the best things are free, well almost free.
But not the beach.  You need to pay to go to the beach.  
From Rapallo, we took the ferry all the way around the peninsular to Abbazia di San Fruttuoso.
This fascinating monastery can only be reached by boat, or by foot.  It was built in the 10th century. For a couple of hundred years, a group of Benedictine monks lived there until the 13th century when the Doria family from Genova acquired the entire area.
The same family maintained the site till 1983, when they donated it to the FAI (the Italian equivalent of the Historic Houses Society).  Now it houses a museum which documents the natural disasters that the buildings have endured and the subsequent efforts, by various groups, to restore and maintain this unique monastery.  
After our visit we enjoyed a relaxing picnic with a beautiful view over the small beach in front of the Abbey.  Then it was back on the ferry for our next stop, Portofino.
As we strolled through this pretty, little town, we kept an eye out for its famously fashionable residents.  While we didn't spot Signori Armani, Dolce or Gabbana, we saw many of their clients lunching in the restaurants along the harbour, and we did catch a glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich, and possibly famous, as we left town.
Walking from Portofino to Santa Margherita, a small truck overflowing with baskets of white flowers passed us. Then just round the next bend was the local church, beautifully decorated, as were the guests who were starting to arrive for a wedding.  Perhaps a famous somebody?
Even on a rather grey, overcast day, the coastline was beautiful.   
After only an hour's walk we arrived in Santa Margherita with plenty of time before we caught the ferry back to Rapallo.  
Perfect timing to enjoy a glass of prosecco and a beer at one of the empty beachside bars. I'm sure it would be a very different view during the holiday month of August.
Our final stop on the ferry saw us sailing past some incredible yachts.
For only the cost of a ferry ticket, we enjoyed a glimpse of the one of the playgrounds of the rich and famous.  A little slice of the Italian coast where the beautiful views are free, in all directions.  

Ci vediamo prossima settimana! 

In Rapallo we'd recommend:
Where we stayed: Home sweet home AirBnB 150E (2nights). A basic, but comfortable apartment very close to the centre of Rapallo.
Where we ate:  We had a great lunch at La Goletta. Sensational pesto spaghetti! 2 courses, wine, water and coffee 12E per person.  
The round trip ferry ticket was 16E. You can get on and off as you wish.  

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Mantova for a weekend?

Traditionally, the last weekend in August is when the Milanese stream back into the city after their summer holidays at the beach.  But as we had returned a couple of weeks previously, we decided to make our own "end of summer tradition" by catching a Friday evening train to Mantova (known as Mantua in English).  
So where is Mantova?
Like Milan, it is in the province of Lombardy, but in the southern corner, so it's closer to Verona and Parma.  Only two hours from Milan by train, we hoped it would be the perfect place to celebrate the last weekend of summer.
Map from
As we dragged our little wheelie bags along the rather ordinary streets from the station, it crossed my mind that we knew very little about this city.  Our decision to spend the weekend there was based on a brief mention in the Lonely Planet guide which recommended Mantova as, "a city in which to experience an unchanging slice of Lombard life".
Our first impressions were not good.  Perhaps we'd made a mistake?
As we got closer to the centre, we came across one of the many piazzas in Mantova.  The place was buzzing with the evening "passeggiata" in full swing. 
Everywhere people were catching up with friends, chatting about their holidays, stopping for a leisurely aperitivo, or slowly cycling through the crowds of window shoppers strolling along the cobblestone streets.  My doubts about our weekend quickly vanished.  

Here's why we loved Mantova. 

Bikes, bikes and more bikes.  
Most of the old city has no traffic, making it perfect for walking and cycling.  Mantova is a city of cyclists of all shapes and ages.  Everyone rides everywhere.  Joining them was easy as we hired bikes from one of the rental shops in the centre.  So we spent Saturday exploring the network of cycle paths extending in all directions from the city, around the lakes and into the countryside.  
Beautiful lakes.
Although this little city is a long way from the sea, Mantova is almost surrounded by water.  It is in the middle of three artifical lakes, Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore, which were created as part of the city's defence system in the 12th century.  These days they provide the Mantovese with endless opportunities for swimming, fishing and boating, as well as making it a picturesque area for cycling.  And as you can see, the riding was easy as the countryside is completely flat!
Fabulous food.
When I mentioned our plans to visit Mantova to my friend Nicoletta, she replied with great excitement:
"Ottima scelta!  Il cibo a Mantova e' buonissimo!"
Nicoletta knows her food and she was right.  

There's nothing like a ride through fields of rice and corn to develop an appetite.  We set out under bright blue skies in the direction of a small town, Soave, about 10 kilometres from Mantova. We hoped to find a restaurant, or bar, where we could enjoy a relaxing lunch stop.  It's been our experience that even in the tiniest of villages, it is possible to find a really good restaurant in Italy and once again, we did.  
At Trattoria La Stelle we were welcomed with a glass of deliciously chilled prosecco whilst being seated in the shady courtyard.  Such a friendly welcome doesn't happen in every Italian restaurant, but when it does, especially on a warm summer's day after clambering off a bike feeling a little sticky and grubby, it's enough for me to immediately declare the meal, sensational.  Even without the welcoming bubbles, I think we would have raved about our meal at Trattoria La Stelle.  A fresh garden salad, followed by generous plates of homemade tagliatelle with duck ragu and pumpkin tortelli left us with no room for dessert.  But we didn't leave without a sweet fix as the young chef gave us a traditional Mantovese cake Sbrisolona to enjoy later with coffee. 
Although we were tempted to find a cool spot for an after lunch nap, we managed to get back on the bikes and meander along the irrigation canals, returning to town eventually.  By the time we arrived in piazza Broletto, I'd convinced Stefano that we needed a cooling gelato.  Can you guess which local speciality caught his eye at Gelateria Loggetta?
A grand palace
The following day we set out to explore more of Mantova by foot.  The city was ruled for many centuries by the Gonzaga family who built the magnificent Ducal Palace over a period of 300 years, from the 13th to the 16th centuries.  Although this extensive complex of buildings is mostly empty, the frescos and stunning rooftop garden have been restored making it worth spending a couple of hours wandering through its cavernous halls.  
The scaffolding framing, or covering, many of the buildings in Mantova puzzled us, but a quick search on google explained their significance.  On the 20th May, 2012 northern Italy was hit by an earthquake with the centre located not far from Mantova.  As a result, the Ducal Palace and many other buildings have developed structural cracks which are gradually being repaired.  Although the scaffolding is slightly distracting, it didn't dampen our enthusiasm for this lovely city.  

And a medieval festival!
Topping off our wonderful weekend in Mantova was a medieval festival. It was held on the grassy common between the lake and the palace, and just in front of the apartment where we stayed.  Hundreds of folk dressed in long flowing robes, shiny chain mail and assorted headdresses engaged in sword fights, archery contests, mock duels and all sorts of medieval pastimes. 
Every summer, Mantova holds several popular medieval festivals with participants coming from all over Europe.  But that's not the only event in this social town.  While we were there, they were setting up for the annual Literature Festival which will be followed by a Bike Festival at the end of September.  There's so much to see and do in Mantova, but there's only so much that you can do in a weekend.  I'm sure we will return.  

Martina e Regina, grazie per dite ciao la sera altra.  Molto piace di conoscerti, finalmente.
Settimana prossima andiamo a Rapallo e speriamo che il soggiorno tempo bella.

Where we stayed:
We stayed in a comfortable one bedroom apartment which is privately managed. It was spotlessly clean and in a great location.  For the price of 75Euros, we thought it was excellent value.  Melina and her husband were very kind and helpful.  You can contact them by email HERE.
Where we ate:
via della Liberta
Soave, di Porto Mantovano
Where we ate gelato:
Gelateria Loggetta
Taste test summary
The  nocciola was really good but the lambrusco, according to Stefano, was just okay.  Wish I'd read the noticeboard more closely as I like the sound of the speciality of the day - gelato alla sbrosolona con crocanti al cioccolato.  This foolish oversight has prompted a new gelato ultimatum.  ALWAYS try the specialita del giorno.  
Gelato ranking *** 
Possibly didn't taste their best flavours.
Try it here
Piazza Broletto 12, Mantova

If you'd like to read more about Mantova click HERE.