This is my fifth trip to Italy.
The first was literally on $10 a day back in 1970 with my brother, from Venice to Florence to Rome to Brindisi, mostly by trains, as part of a nine-week Eurail Pass trip from England to Greece.
The second was to Rome and London with my wife and daughter when Sara was 13. The third time was when Sara was studying abroad in Prague. We took her to Rome for the weekend, then went on to Venice. The fourth was four years ago on a luxury cruise that began in Rome. Unfortunately, we had to cut the trip short due Ellen’s knee injury.
But this trip will be a S-L-O-W travel excursion outside of major cities. The plan is to spend a full week in each of three regions:
- Liguria (Moneglia, Cinque Terre, Santa Margherita Ligure)
- Emilia-Romagna (Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Parma, Modena)
- Apulia (Polignano a Mare, Ostuni, Bari, Monopoli, Lecce and Alberobello/Trulli)
We hoped that traveling this late in the year would help us avoid the summer crowds when virtually all of Europe is overwhelmed with tourists from all over the world. Stay tuned to find out if that’s true…
Monday, September 18 – Tuesday, September 19: D.C. to Milan –– The Longest Night
Last year on the final day of a month vacationing in England and Portugal, my wife said, “Just for giggles, let’s see what flights we can book for next year on points.” So, she poked around the one of the airline sites, found Business Class tickets for about 50% of the normal points levels, and booked our flight from DC to Milan, through Brussels.
Next, we planned our trip around this, including a long weekend to visit Sara and Joshua in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area, then the flight to Milan, and finally 21 days in Italy.
But you always get what you pay for. Though the flight from Dulles (DC to Europe is much shorter than from the West Coast), it was more like a red-eye. We both don’t sleep well on night flights anyway, and only got about three hours each of shut eye on a six-hour flight to Brussels.Luckily, we had lounge access which helped while waiting for the connection to Milan.
After arriving, we took a short taxi ride to the Moxy by Marriott Milan Levante Hotel, we checked in about noon and just relaxed all afternoon. Because it was Fashion Week, we’re not exactly fashionistas, and we were exhausted, we chose not to go into town. This artwork next to the bar accompanied a fire extinguisher in creative fashion.
Wednesday, September 20: Milan to Moneglia –– Getting Settled
According to our taxi driver, the Milano Centrale Railway Station was a project initiated by Mussolini’s Fascist Regime. It’s a stately building, many square blocks in size, and is said to be the largest transportation terminal in all of Europe. While not a fan of Mussolini or fascism, the station is absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous.
We boarded our train for Genoa with roomy seats and room for luggage down the aisle.
But when we changed trains to Moneglia, a small sea village in the Liguria region and part of the Italian Riviera, just northwest of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) area, the seating area and legroom both got far less generous.
After arriving around 3pm, we walked on cobblestone streets about three blocks to our hotel, the Abbadia San Giorgio, a converted double cloister abbey that was built in 1484 byFranciscan friars –– eight years prior to Columbus sailing to America.
This historic boutique hotel with only eight rooms and suites on the second floor offers old world service, a huge breakfast each morning with seating surrounding the interior courtyard and with a view of the neighboring bell tower which chimes –– loudly –– daily from 8am to 9pm.
The Abbey here in Moneglia (shown below) was highly recommended by dear friends who stayed here six years ago. Since they have exquisite taste, we followed in their footsteps and have not been disappointed. Greta, one of the Abbey owners, takes our orders for the incredible breakfast each morning, spoils us each afternoon with two slices of homemade cakes in our rooms, and always offers a smile with her “Buongiorno!” We can’t speak more highly about the Abbey, a quiet getaway in a tourist-packed area of Italy.
We ate locally for a quick lunch at a café across from the beach and waited a few hours while a horrendous rainstorm passed through. After a nap in our huge suite that we booked for the first two nights, we chose a local restaurant that Roberto of the Abbey suggested.
About 7pm, we had a substantial dinner at Tender, just steps away from where we lunched. We started with a velvety smooth green vegetable minestrone soup that was delicious. Ellen chose a trofia (Liguria pasta) pesto while I enjoyed gnocchi de patate con gamberoni (gnocchi with shrimp) and washed it all down with local vino rossi (red wine). I topped off the meal with sweet, yet slightly tart limone sorbetto. The cost was about 70 Euros for a great meal with terrific service.
At this time of year, we’ve noticed many German tourists, very few Americans, and mostly Italians in this area of Italy. But we’ve noticed that everywhere we’ve gone, especially Milan and the five Cinque Terre towns, it’s is absolutely packed with tourists.
By the way, since I’m rehabbing my ankles from a Pickleball injury in April and Ellen is 100% recovered from her full knee replacement surgery in March 2022, so we’re tracking our steps.
Totals: 7,015 steps, 2.9 miles walked, 5 flights climbed.
Because of post-COVID, pent-up travel demand worldwide and a relatively low exchange rate ($1.07 USD = 1 Euro), the joint is jumping with tourists, especially the five towns of Cinque Terre vs. Moneglia where we’re staying, a bit off the extremely heavily beaten path.
We chose Moneglia because it’s a quiet coastal town, but provides easy access to the Trenitalia railway with frequent transport to our day tripping. Ellen said it’s equivalent to an On-Off Bus that we use to explore cities throughout America and Europe.
Today, after our huge Abbey breakfast, we journeyed to Riomaggiore, one of the five towns. Though it rained on and off, it wasn’t windy so it was bearable to travel. Riomaggiore is the first of the Cinque Terre towns you’ll stop at traveling north from La Spezia, dating back to the early 13th century, and is known for its locally produced wine.
We walked around up and around town for about an hour, dodging tourists all gawking upwards and taking photos, then stopped at an outdoor restaurant above the harbor for a green salad and a prosciutto and cheese sandwich. Pretty, pretty good. The restaurant can be seen above on the left side of the orange tower, behind the super-crowded train tracks.
Feeling hopeful to see another Cinque Terre town today, we then took a train to Vernazza, the most popular of the five. Big mistake. It was pouring and it was so mobbed, we turned around and headed back to our hotel.
Dinner tonight was at a Moneglia eatery called Ristorante Nenne. We eat on the early side compared to Europeans, so we arrivedabout 7:15, but by the time we left at 8:30, it was packed. Ellen had Insalata Mista; I had Branzino with potatoes and a cherry tomato sauce. Both were fresh, filling, and very well prepared. The molten chocolate cake was very rich and had too much caffeine, which prevented me from a sound night’s sleep… but worth it. With wine, the bill was only about 50 Euros.
Totals: 12,815 steps, 4.9 miles walked, 18 flights climbed.
Friday, September 21: Moneglia – Monterosso al Mare
After another hearty breakfast at the Abbey, we took a local train to Monterosso al Mare, about 20 minutes away and the closest (westernmost) to Moneglia.
The weather basically sucked with strong winds and heavy rains, but we were geared up for it. As we walked from the train station through Old Town which borders the beach and small artificial reef, we started to see this village’s charm. After passing through a long tunnel and up the hill, one enters New Town. We took a break from the rain to eat a bite of lunch with tuna fish sandwiches on focaccia bread at A Pié De Ma. Quite tasty, actually!
All of the Cinque Terre villages were and have been fishing villages for centuries, so I loved this artwork of an octopus near the beach in Old Town. It’s as entwined in the rocks as these towns are with the sea. Another artistic statement was this designer T-shirt of Albert Einstein; just thought it was fun!!!
A few hours later, we walked to a local favorite for dinner called Pizzeria al Ciccolo, which has been run by the same family for about 50 years. Locals line up at 7pm nightly. We got there by 7:15 and were lucky to get a seat outside in the courtyard. Fortunately, the rain had stopped; the night was clear and warmish.
We shared “The Big Salad”, a testament to Seinfeld?, and a terrific prosciutto, artichoke and tomato pizza. All for about $22 Euros. We walked around the corner for gelato, feeling stuffed and satisfied. Haven’t had a bad meal yet in Italy and for the next 2 1/2 weeks, we likely won’t.
Saturday, September 23: Moneglia – Corniglia
The weather finally turned in our favor. After three straight days of rain but mild temps, we enjoyed a clear, sunny day to explore the smallest of the Cinque Terre towns, Corniglia, a 30-minute train ride away.
Rick Steves says that “If Cinque Terre were The Beatles, Cornniglia would be Ringo.” We beg to differ. To us, it was more like John or Paul, everybody’s favorites.
Though this is the tiniest of the five cities and is above the water, not literally on it, it’s charming. But be forewarned, it’s a schlep to get to the top of the town and back down with 385 steps each way and countless switchbacks, which you can see in this photo.
It leads to narrow pathways through the town (about six feet wide in most places), but with tons of little shops and eateries for light lunches, focaccia to go, and of course, a wide selection of gelaterias, and tourists packed as tightly as the tins of Italian sardines.
Luckily, my tendinitis-afflicted ankles (a friend has been affectionately calling me “Mr. Bojankles”) and Ellen’s knee did just fine. But we took it easy, passing groups of folks hauling their luggage up, up, up to the top.
We lunched at a lovely little garden restaurant called KMO where we shared a Chicken Caesar Salad and Bruschetta with hummus, tomatoes and caramelized onions. Unfortunately, we were so famished after the hike, we forgot to take photos. We were seated next to a nice couple from Santa Fe and chatted about traveling throughout Europe as well as their passion for scuba diving. The cost was only 22 Euros.
We topped off the meal with very tasty gelato from Gelateria Artigianale further down the street, then walked back down the 385 stairs to the train station, sprinting to board. Then relaxed on the way back to Moneglia in air-conditioned comfort.
For dinner, we had our concierge Greta make a reservation at Ristorante Monile, a short walk down to the beach. We arrived just after sunset and were seated at a table next to the beach and its sheltered swimming lagoon. Wind-whipped waves crashed over the rocks.
This venue was recommended by our hotel and it lived up to the hype. We started with a fried cod appetizer and it was so good, it reminded us of our time in Portugal last year.
Ellen ordered the swordfish and lime ravioli, but without the cream sauce. The waitress didn’t understand until I said, “Lactosa Intolerente”, then she nodded and said she’d ask the chef. He complied.
Meanwhile, I tried the Iberian Short Ribs with French Fries. Finger-lickin’ good! We shared some red wine and topped it all off with a creamy Chocolate Mousse. Great meal… best we’ve had. Only about 80 Euros; this meal would have been about 50% more in the Bay Area.
Totals: 10,116 steps, 4.1 miles, 28 floors climbed.
Sunday, September 24: Moneglia –– A Day At The Beach
After yet another hearty and delicious breakfast at the Abbey of fresh fruit, orange juice, coffee for Ellen, hot cocoa for Gil, eggs, bacon (fried prosciutto), focaccia, and toast, we walked over to the train station to catch a ride to Santa Margherita Ligure for a day trip to Portofino.
But it was not to be. First, the ticket kiosks were broken, and other travelers told us we could buy the tickets from a conductor. Second, the trains were uncharacteristically late
(instead of 5-15 minutes, they were lagging 30–60 minutes or more behind). Furthermore, we’ve discovered that the so-called train schedules are more of a suggestion than clockwork… unless you’re late for a train. Then, according to reverse Murphy’s Law, they’ll be on time.
So, we punted and spent the day right here in Moneglia, which is getting more charming as the week goes on. The town is only 6 square miles along this section of the Italian Riviera. It’s very walkable and the shoreline has cute shops with dozens of casual eateries, a vibrant Sunday Open Market, and a few upscale venues for dining overlooking the beach, bay, and the sunsets.
We had a quick lunch for 11 Euros of iced tea and a vegetarian panini, then crossed the street to rent an umbrella and two beach lounges for 20 Euros. The temperature was perfect – about 75o with a light breeze and a few clouds. Ellen napped. I took a swim in the sheltered lagoon which was ringed by a sandy beach but pebbly entry. The water felt like high 70s, so it was just right for me. I noticed this is definitely the saltiest water I’ve ever been in –– far more saline than Cozumel, Mexico in January or Maui in March earlier this year.
A few hours later, we had some gelato, walked back to the Abbey, and chillaxed until dinner. We walked a few blocks back to Ristorante Nenne, locally owned by Samantha, her husband, and brother (they live in Genoa). It’s named after her niece.
Small restaurant with great food, attentive service, and reasonable prices. I started with Tuna Carpaccio, followed by entrees of Fettuccini Fungi for Ellen, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe for Gil, and red wine. Total was only 64 Euros. We love this little place and hope others will discover it and enjoy it as we have.
Totals: 9,015 steps, 3.7 miles, 6 floors climbed.
Monday, September 25: Moneglia – Santa Margarita Ligure – Portofino –– A Worthy Walk
Another beautiful day dawned on the Italian Riviera with another fulfilling breakfast. We ate early to catch a 9:02 am train to the town of Santa Margarita Ligure. While SML is not as famous, glitzy, nor as crowded as Portofino, it had a moment in the spotlight at the beginning of the 20th century. It still retains its old-world charm with a palm-lined harbor and stunning beach views.
After walking the promenade in perfect 80o weather, we hiked 4.9 kilometers (about 3 miles) up and over the hills to the stunning town of Portofino.
This walk was quite an accomplishment for “Mr. Bojankles”, as my bilateral ankle tendinitis was not a factor during the strenuous, hilly trek. Call it a small step for a man and a giant leap for this mankind; I’m just so damned happy that my ankles seem finally back to normal, five months after my initial injury.
As for Portofino, it has been a jet setter’s paradise dating back to the 1920s when ultra-rich Europeans discovered it as a charming little fishing village with a gorgeous little harbor, clean water, and upscale hotels. A century later, cruise ships have made this a must-see destination, dropping off hundreds of tourists daily while private yachts rent for about $400,000 USD per week. This “charming little fishing village” is now filled with small luxury cruise ships while the cobble-stoned streets are lined with designer shops.
We grabbed a table at Bar Paninoteca, a small outdoor restaurant, shared an Insalata Mista, a Hot Tomato, Cheese and Pesto Panini, and a few sodas. It cost 31.50 Euros –– about double what it would have been in Moneglia where we’re staying.
We luckily finished lunch and gelato in time to catch the 2pm ferry back to Santa Margarita Ligure, then a couple of trains, and back by 4pm. Plenty of time to rest before it’s time to eat again.
We walked back to Tender for dinner, about 5 minutes from the Abbey. The minestrone soup was so good, we just had to enjoy it again. Gil had the fresh fish of the day, a sea bass, a full fried fish that was quite “tender” and flavorful. No room for gelato tonight, but there’s always tomorrow. Dinner cost 54 Euros.
Totals: 18,394 steps, 7.0 miles, 14 floors climbed.
Tuesday, September 26: Moneglia –– Taking It Painfully Easy
We had a déjà vu moment today. Four years ago, I wheeled Ellen off a cruise ship in Venice with a swollen knee, effectively cutting our proposed trip in half and dashing our plans to hike Cinque Terre at that time.
This time she woke up feeling a bit wonky and went back to sleep. After a nap, she was in agony with a very painful back. Tylenol didn’t help. She couldn’t stretch.
She could walk but it was labored, so we just hung around Moneglia, had a quick bite of focaccia near the beach, and waited for the pharmacy to open at 4pm to find some relief.
The remedy was a 2% Voltaren gel compared to the 1% version that you can buy in the U.S over the counter. Fortunately our vacation continues, albeit at a slower pace.
This trip, we were able to visit three of the five Cinque Terra villages. We were looking forward to a late afternoon walkabout and dinner in Vernazza, another village. However, you can’t always get what you want, even though if you try some time, you get what you need.
We ate dinner a few steps from The Abbey at Ristorante Antica Osteria Da U Limottu in an alley that looked like a Hollywood set. As we’ve done every night here, we sat outdoors at sunset – it was lovely.
We shared a huge Insalata Mista, Ellen loved the Grilled Sea Bass, and I devoured Meat Ravioli in Ragu.
This photo is proof that I didn’t send it back to the chef with a complaint.
Dinner was 51 Euros with no room left for dessert.
Totals: 4,913 steps, 1.9 miles, 4 floors climbed.
Wednesday, September 27: Moneglia – Reggio Emilia – Travel Day
We had our last breakfast at The Abbey and bade goodbye to Greta and her staff. Great hotel, terrific breakfasts, outstanding service, and surprisingly upscale amenities in a place built in the late 15th Century, especially air conditioning and hair dryers.
We schlepped our luggage to the train station and took three local coaches over four hours. The first was to La Spezia at the southern side of Cinque Terre; the second was to Parma; the third was to Reggio Emilia just outside of Bologna. This city dates back to 175 B.C., so it’s got some amazing architecture as part of the road network from ancient Roma.
A short taxi ride got us to Albergo Della Notarie in the heart of the Central Piazza district. Our concierge recommended Tabarin Osteria Populare for dinner and it was a wonderful suggestion. The weather today was about 80 so at sunset, it was still warm with no breeze, perfect for dining al fresco.
This area is famous for its meats, so we shared three kinds of salumi, with a side order of pickled vegetables. Ellen sipped a sparkling red wine endemic to the area while I had an Aperol Spritz. We then split a Tagliatelle al Ragu which was very filling. Dinner was only 45.50 Euros. Gelato around the corner from our hotel further cooled us down after a long, hot day of train travel.
Totals: 4,716 steps, 1.8 miles, 14 floors climbed.
Thursday, September 28: Reggio Emilia – Getting To Know You
After a restful night for me and semi-restful for Ellen’s back, we relished the huge buffet breakfast offered by our hotel. There were huge bowls of fresh fruit, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, locally famous Parma Cheese, Burrata Cheese and Ham, bread to make paninis, dry cereals, nuts, grains, pastries, and cakes, as well as orange, carrot, and grapefruit juices.
We just strolled around the Piazza Prampolini (The Big Square) to get our bearings, including the Central Piazza with some spectacular churches, the Opera House and photography museum. We even trekked all the way to the train station about 1.25 miles away, and back again.
For lunch, we stopped by a huge indoor food court near our hotel that is popular with college and high school students called Il Mercato Eat and Meet, in a building dating back to 1927 and featuring a combination of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture.
Tired of eating fresh fish, pizza, pasta, and paninis, we triedPoke House. It was quite a refreshing difference. I sampled the Sunny Salmon bowl while Ellen ordered the Very Vegan Grain Bowl.
All of this only set us back about 30 Euros.
On our way back, we passed a few houses with these gold plaques on the sidewalk. We first saw these eight years ago on a visit to Berlin and it seems like all European countries are now recognizing their role in the Holocaust. Never forget!
Since we enjoyed Poke for lunch, why not Japanese for dinner?
We found a place called Taberu Fusion Experience about three blocks away. It was a little distressing sitting on the side of a fairly busy street at a line of tables outside with cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles rushing by, but the weather was so warm, we felt it was safe, as did other diners.
This was another all-you-can-eat place similar to a sign we saw near the Centrale Train Station today. But that kind of gluttony seemed like an invitation to overeat, so we ordered a la carte: warm sake, Miso Soup, Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, California Roll, Shrimp Roll, Tuna Nigiri, and Salmon Nigiri. All of this was only 43 Euros. “Fusion” meant a combination of Chinese, Japanese and traditional pasta dishes.
Of course, I had to have another gelato fix. Tonight, it was pistachio with nuts. Mmmmm.
We also saw this Reggio store for Artisan Ham a few blocks from there. Some of the best ham and proscuitto is made right here.
Totals: 15,475 steps, 6.1 miles, 2 floors climbed.
Friday, September 29: Reggio Emilia – Parma: Italian History Lesson
It’s not every day that you see a Di Vinci masterpiece. Today was one of them. More about that later in today’s post…
With Ellen’s back and my ankles cooperating, we’ve vowed to walk as much as possible to counter-balance the rich foods we’re enjoying. So, we took a leisurely stroll to the train station and rode one stop to Parma, then walked through that town.
Though it has a slightly larger population and land area than Reggio, it seems vastly different. To our eyes, Reggio Emilia is safe, very clean, vibrant, with a sense of style. We think it might become the next major tourist destination in this area.
Parma, meanwhile, is the second most populous city in the area after Bologna, but it seemed a little grittier, and a lot more crowded because of its overall popularity.
Howecver, Parma is one of the food capitals of Italy, which is no easy distinction. Famous for its ham (sliced prosciutto), Parmesan cheese, pasta, Lambrusco wine, and as the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi, its people eat well and live even better.
Its massive Duomo –– with its stately flying buttresses, intricate stained glass, and jaw-dropping beauty –– plus numerous other churches and museums attract thousands per day.
We walked around the corner to a small museum that was hosting an exhibit by a Frenchman, the great Edward Degas. Many of these were sketches that he would impulsively draw to entertain his friends at dinner.
We lunched at an outside restaurant named the Magnolia Café: Insalata Mista with Pollo (Chicken) and Tortelli with Parmesan Cheese and Erbetta (Herbs) for a reasonable 24 Euros. The food was just OK. Every meal can’t be over the top. Great gelato was around the corner –– Chocolate Chip for Ellen and I had Nutella.
We then went to a major Renaissance era museum in Parma, the Palazzo della Pilotta which houses both the National Gallery and Farnese Theater. The latter, built in 1618, was the first modern theatre in the Western world that employed wood and plaster. This arena was so massive they could never fill it, and only nine productions were ever staged there.
Now, about the Da Vinci painting. It holds court at the National Gallery in the same complex, which is of equally grand scale. Hall after hall contains sculptures, paintings, and other pieces of art going back five centuries. La Scapiliata (The Lady with Disheveled Hair) is considered an unfinished piece that Leonardo created by around 1492–1501.
We walked back to the Parma Stazione Central, grabbed a train to Reggio Emilia, and were back at the hotel by late afternoon. For dinner, we asked our concierge for a suggestion and fish sounded like a great change of pace, so we walked five minutes to Ristorante I Malavoglia, a locally owned restaurant named after a family.
We shared Warm Bread, Insalata Mista, Fresh Vegetables, Fish & Chips, and Red Wine for only 37 Euros. Excellent quality and friendly service. No room for gelato tonight though, saving room for tomorrow’s food tour.
Totals: 16,226 steps, 6.3 miles, 8 floors climbed.
Saturday, September 30: Reggio Emilia – Bologna: Lots of Meat, Lots of Sweet
If Italy’s a bad place for a diet, Bologna’s probably the worst place to try to limit your intake. However, when in Rome… er Bologna… then a three-hour, six-stop Secret Food Tour is what you do. When you travel, it’s all about the experiences and memories they create.
To make us ravenous, we each ate a very small breakfast in our hotel, walked about a mile to our train station, took a 45-minute train to Bologna, and met the group in front of the “Twin Towers” in the center of this exciting and historic million-person city. These stone towers, one almost 100 meters and the other about half as high, are landmarks of the city. Both lean, though not as much as Pisa’s.
Our hostess, Sofia, was energetic, knowledgeable, and amusing. She spoke excellent English to our group of 12 Americans, hailing from Idaho, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, and California and said she’d be taking us to locally owned establishments featuring regional delicacies.
We started with a small, not too sweet cookie filled with jam and shaped like a ravioli, because that’s how Italians start their days. And we passed by many stores stacked to the rafters with huge wheels of aged Parmesan Cheese.
Next, we walked a few blocks to a small ristorante called Bottega Ranocchi where we sat down for about 30 minutes to sample focaccia, small chunks of Parmesan cheese, six kinds of local salumi and ham, and two kinds of wine (white and red).
That was followed by another stroll, which included watching a local chef roll out and prepare green (spinach) tortellini. This specific tortellini is very popular during the holidays. Demand is so high they start preparing now for the Christmas season. Each chef at the pasta shops rolls out more than 150 per day. Our next stop was to a very crowded family-style restaurant for two types of pasta: Tortellini with Spinach and Cheese, and Fettuccini with Bolognese Ragú Sauce.
A few blocks away, after seeing more of the local landmarks like these huge stone towers that were between 50 and 100 meters high and Bologna’s only canal, we entered the Quadrilatero, one of Bologna’s oldest markets, now a premier foodie destination, with restaurants, delis, and bars filling both sides of the streets. This area was extremely crowded; that’s how popular it is to Bolognans and tourists.
Gilberto Enotoca was the name of the next stop and featured locally sourced balsamic vinegar and wines from around the world. We sampled mini-spoonfuls of 5-year-old (a bit acidic), 8-year-old (smoother), and 24-year-old (sweet) balsamic that’s used as topping for fruits and ice cream. I can’t imagine what the 100-year-old vintage tastes like.
Then, we walked to a local bakery and were given a small taste of a sweet orange and almond cake made from rice.
Finally, gelato, and the line ran down the block. But it was worth the wait with creamy texture and a small cookie to help scoop it up. We then walked back to the train station in Bologna and got back to Reggio Emilia.
Overall, quite an enjoyable tour and a great way to see the center of this vibrant, world-class city. Though a bit costly, it was a wonderful way to literally get a taste of Bologna from a native’s point of view.
Between the train, getting to and from the center of town, and the food tour, it chewed up 8.5 hours. It was also nice to rub elbows with Americans for a change –– we’ve seen few on this trip overall and virtually none in Reggio Emiliaß.
By 8pm, we still didn’t have much of an appetite, so we wandered over to Tabarin again for a small, late dinner. We split some Italian bread, marinated vegetables, pumpkin ravioli with red sauce, and red wine. Only 35 Euros. We’ll sleep well tonight!
Finally, I saw this street sign. In a city so vibrant, with so much terrific food, such friendly people, and a definite felicitous buzz, I thought “Malcontent Street” was pretty funny.
Totals: 16,664 steps, 6.5 miles, 5 floors climbed.
Sunday, October 1: Reggio Emilia – Modena: “Rush Hour” with Enzo Ferrari
Taking a break from stepping into churches and art museums, we trained over to the nearby town of Modena to visit the Enzo Ferrari Museo, “where the legend was born”.
It’s a beautifully designed museum, but one would expect nothing less from two buildings that embrace the Ferrari legend. Enzo’s energy, creativity, passion, and drive for success single-handedly created the performance luxury vehicle market, tied strongly to his racing heritage.
The main gallery showcased about 20 of his race cars and most popular consumer-driven cars, from 1947 to the present. Across the way, another building displayed his engines, Enzo’s office, and rooms stacked with winning trophies.
Everything we saw was perfectly designed, built, and exhibited for an adoring crowd of enthusiasts and tourists.
We lunched at the Bistrot there. I ordered a Bacon Cheeseburger; it was nothing like what you’d get in the U.S. Instead, it was a huge burger with a slice of fried prosciutto on top and some lettuce underneath, then a huge mound of burrata cheese, made from mozzarella and cream, with fries. The meat was tasty, though. Still full after yesterday’s gastronomy tour, Ellen ordered a substantial Insalata Mista. Lunch totaled 39.50 Euros – expensive, but we got lots of good quality food.
Then I drove a Ferrari GT Simulator, which was quite a demanding experience and one of the highlights of this or any trip I’ve ever taken.
It cost 25 Euros and took about 10 minutes. It began with a very rudimentary 3-minute orientation of the steering wheel (they call it a gearbox), its clutch if you choose to use it, the positions of the reverse and forward levers, plus the gas and brake pedals.
You choose a racetrack (I can’t remember which one I selected, but it had the fewest curves), and then you get a 7-minute simulation drive with the screen in front of you and a mirror to see behind you. No other car is on the track.
Steering a Ferrari takes strength, endurance, and perseverance – I was sweating when it was over. The wheel has little give and your speed creates torque, so driving it is akin to handling a semi, but turbocharged.
When the employee said, “Go”, I floored the gas pedal and took off from 0 to 100 km/h in just 2.55 seconds. The track was narrow but had a green arrow you could follow. I was surprised to later see that my top speed was 340 km/h (211 mph) and I went into the first turn way too fast, lost control, spun around, and crashed into a wall. Embarrassing, to say the least. Fortunately, Ellen was the only one watching me.
I backed up and got back on the track, took off again, and could hear the engine purring, automatically shifting into higher gears. I only completed to two laps of the track in the seven minutes, with another crash along the way.
Overall, what a rush! It was a blast to go that fast, to simulate what a race driver feels, and to experience all of this on a warm fall day in the Italian countryside in a museum that celebrates racing history.
We took the train back to Reggio Emilia, stopped off for gelato on the way to our hotel, rested after all this activity, and had a great dinner nearby at Herbe, a very upscale vegan restaurant.
Ellen had a mushroom salad with teriyaki dressing, followed by a panini with eggplant, mushrooms, and polenta. I started with a tomato-based sauce with three vegetarian meatballs, then had a huge bowl of penne pasta with a ricotta tomato salsa and breadcrumbs. We washed it down with a local red wine. Excellent service and food. Total was 66 Euros.
After dinner, we noticed a huge street fair in the plaza a block away by the Opera House with all kinds of pop-up international food stands. So instead of another gelato, I chose a French Crepe with Nutella for dessert. It brought back fond memories of the same treat one cold December day at the Eiffel Tower in Paris about 20 years ago.
Totals: 16,785 steps, 6.7 miles, 5 floors climbed.
Monday, October 2: Reggio Emilia – Rimini: Following Fellini and Tucci
If you travel long enough, you realize that every day can’t be a peak experience. So today was a bit of a disappointment, despite perfect weather in the mid-80s, bright sun, and a bit of a breeze.
Having watched Stanley Tucci’s CNN series “Searching for Italy,” and knowing Federico Fellini was born there, it piqued our interest in Rimini, which is a beach town, and was featured in several of his films. We decided to venture there and lunch at the Grand Hotel. Fellini used it in several films and took up residency there in his later years.
Since we got a late start and it was a 2-hour train ride, we got hungry on the journey, and ended up eating at a family-style venue near the train station. We split a huge Insalata Greca (Greek) and a Piadino of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil on a flatbread. We weren’t thrilled with this meal, but it filled us up.
Founded by Romans in 258 BC, Rimini has grown to over 150,000 people, about half again as large as Reggio Emilia or Parma, and is one of Europe’s most fabled seaside resorts. It stretches along the Adriatic Sea, with extra wide beach of about 50 yards. The walk along the wide, manicured streets with apartments leading to the beach reminded us Santa Monica.
The disappointment came at the Grand Hotel. Though its exterior is impressive, the lobby is not. So instead of enjoying a drink there, we just walked to the beach.
This town is all about Fellini. There’s a park in his name adjacent to the beach, a museum as testimony to his brilliance, and his name adorns the international airport.
On the way back to the train, we passed a small shop selling soccer star bobbleheads. Europeans love their futbol so kids must collect these like Americans accumulate these Mini-Mes.
But if Europeans love futbol, they lurve their coffee. This vending machine at the train station lists an incredible 26 choices: coffee, ginseng, decaffeinated, chocolate, and other beverages. Ellen’s been enjoying a macchiato or cappuccino each morning while I’m drinking hot chocolate with soya lecce.
We each had a good-sized pie: Ellen chose black olives and sauteed mushrooms, while I inhaled the Pirru Special Pizzaof red sauce, pesto, mozzarella flakes, burrata, and cooked ham.
Both were quite good. The only problem was we were too full for gelato, but there’s always tomorrow!
Totals: 14,442 steps, 5.6 miles, 6 floors climbed.
Tuesday, October 3: Reggio Emilia: Just Walking Around
On our final day in this area, we decided to give Gil’s painful ankles a bit of a rest and just walk around town a bit. After breakfast, we stopped by a huge collection of museums –- the Palazzo dei Musei –– about five minutes away.
It did creep us out, though. There were aisles of taxidermied fish, crustaceans, sea turtles, stingrays, sharks, snakes, even wild animals such as giraffes, lions, and tigers.
I liken him to Noah, but without the Ark, and only one of each species.
Although some of it was hard to stomach, we were hungry. Again, tired of the usual suspects (pasta, pizza, and panini), we tried a different Asian fusion restaurant near our hotel, Keko Oriental Taste. The architecture alone was absolutely stunning and the chopsticks were metallic. Very classsy.
Ironically, though its name was partially English, none of the waitstaff spoke our language to help us negotiate the 20-page QR code-enabled menu. Also, there was a minimum of six dishes per person minimum for the lunch set price of 15 Euros each.
But we figured it out with Google Translation and ordered a huge variety of salmon poke, California Roll, and other sushi. We were stuffed after eight dishes. Very fulfilling and excellent quality, too.
A quick gelato stop and a nap followed.
For dinner, we just bought some apples and a sandwich at the grocery store, then packed for our early departure the next day. Ciao, Reggio Emilia –– we’re so happy that we discovered your charming town and friendly people. Virtually no Americans, too.
Totals: 9,578 steps, 3.8 miles, 4 floors climbed.
Wednesday, October 4: Reggio Emilia – Polignano al Mare: By The Sea
As a travel day, we spent about six hours on the train to the southeast or the “spur” of the Italian boot. The first train was one-stop to Bologna. Next was a long trip to Bari, the largest city in the Puglia region (red arrow). Finally, there was a short hop to Polignano al Mare. Over 475 miles at speeds of about 60-90 mph.
All along the way, the tracks paralleled the beaches along the coast. All had rocky breakfronts to enable folks to swim without waves pushing them into the gravelly shores. Ellen said, “Looks just like the Central California coast.” And it did.
After taking a Tuk Tuk (auto rickshaw) from the train station to our hotel, a modern structure called Suite 10, with only 10 rooms and a spa, we were told about a small restaurant overlooking the dramatic cliffs.
Below is a look at the majestic limestone cliffs and whitewashed buildings at night around the craggy beach. Reminds me of Greece – and there’s a strong historical influence of its culture here.
Totals: 6,596 steps, 2.6 miles, 6 floors climbed.
Thursday, October 5: Polignano al Mare: Rocky Cliffs Meet Deep Blue Sea
Another day of perfect weather warmed our morning in this small town of about 17,000 inhabitants, though the summer crowds can exceed 70,000 per week. It’s known for sea caves, an historic center teeming with restaurants, touristy boutiques, and Greek ruins.
Ellen chose Polignano al Mare because of its proximity to Monopoli (to the southeast, towards Lecce), Alberobello (Trulli), and other locales in the Puglia region. Again, we thought we might be here after the tourists left, but that was just wishful thinking. It’s crowded, but nowhere near what it was like in Cinque Terre towns or Bologna.
At a prominent place at the eastern edge of town, there’s a statue of a famous native son who made “Volare” (“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu”) a song we still hum today. (Sorry for the ear worm!) Domenico Modugno co-wrote and recorded it in Italy in 1958, it was named Billboard’s “Song of The Year”, and sold two million records.
It’s a walled off city, limiting cars to adjacent streets. The main drag is about a mile long with dozens of restaurants and shops.
We stopped at Il Grottino where Ellen had potato dumplings with chunks of monkfish, while I ordered the grilled swordfish with mushrooms. Both were expertly cooked and photo perfect. They tasted as good as they looked and set us back 47 Euros.
For our daily gelato fix, we found Martinucci Laboratory where they make smooth and creamy gelato, chocolates, cakes, as well as Pasticciotto Lecce, their version of Portugal’s fried custard treat, Pasteis de Nata.
We ate an extremely early dinner by European standards, at 6:30pm at Clipper Bar down the street. Since we had a substantial lunch and desserts, we shared some Bruschetta and I had a Panini with Tuna and Mozzarella. Not bad for 12 Euros. The best part was there was no one else eating outdoors, so no smokers! I hate smoking and vaping but I can’t do anything about it.
Totals: 8,926 steps, 3.3 miles, 8 floors climbed.
Friday, October 6: Alberobello: A “Trulli” Amazing UNESCO Site
I’ve often been called a KIA (Know-It-All) by adoring family members (though I think they’re being sarcastic). But I had never heard of Alberobello in the “trulli”area of Puglia. The region is filled with whitewashed limestone houses with iconic, conical roofs. Today, we took a train to Bari, then an hour-long bus ride there to see it for ourselves.
Many say that the Trulli region of prehistoric buildings using mortarless construction with boulders from local fields reminds them of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s novels. Others liken it to Disneyland. Either way, it’s a wonderful, playful venue to visit –– one of the most unique you’ll ever see –– an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the main attraction in this town of about 10,000 people. While most are homes, many are shops, restaurants and hotels catering to tourists.
We ventured there on a Friday because we heard the weekends are absolutely packed. A weekday was busy enough, but we were able to negotiate the crowded, narrow streets, with everyone taking photos, and especially selfies. On Facebook, I wrote, “People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glass.”
For lunch, we looked at various menus and they were all similar –– same old, same old: pizza, pasta, panini, salami, and insalata. Then we knew we could find something we’d like at the Martinucci Laboratory since we’ve been to their Polignano al Mare storefront. We each had a sandwich and a soda, saving room for gelato until after dinner.
We trained back, relaxed, and went to dinner at 7:30 when most visitors sit down to their evening meal while locals are strolling the streets and schmoozing. The concierge of our hotel again recommended another great place just down the street.
Casa Mia was one of the best restaurants we’ve experienced. Ellen ordered Tuna with a Cornflake Crust and Eggplant Tapenade, while I had Monkfish Wrapped in Porchetta with Roasted Potato Foam. We also shared fresh grilled vegetables and French Fries. Both were exquisite, and the cost was a very reasonable 63 Euros.
For dessert, we walked down the pedestrian street where we lunched yesterday, drawn by the overhead lit lyrics of “Volare” above the photo-snapping folks. Finally, we strolled down a nearby alley for our daily gelato: I had Stracciatella, which is basically vanilla with chocolate chunks.
Totals: 12,559 steps, 5.3 miles, 8 floors climbed.
Saturday, October 7: Ostuni: A Hilly, Windy “White Town”
There’s just a bit of history here. Ostuni, whose name is derived from Greek for “New Town”, has been inhabited since the Stone Age and nearly destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars around 181 BC. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 996 A.D., the Normans built this medieval walled town with a castle at the summit of the hill.
The biggest draw is the “Old Town” with the hill-top citadel. Some of the ancient walls and steep stairs remain along the cobblestoned streets, which are lined with white-painted buildings similar to any Greek town.
From the summit, you could see acres and acres of olive trees, and the Mediterranean Sea 8 miles away. We’ve heard there’s one olive tree for each of the approximately 60 million Italians. Wrong. There are actually about 250 million olive trees, which is why each region has its own brand of EVOO.
We took a taxi from the train quite a ways to the top of the hill, then walked around for a few hours, dodging Tuk Tuks filled with picture-taking tourists (yeah, just like us) until we stopped for lunch.
We walked a bit more to make room for gelato. Ellen chose Tiramisu while I tried what they labeled “Sneakers” (Snickers) which was vanilla with lots of caramel and nuts. Mmmmmm.
Back in Polignano al Mare for dinner, we craved more seafood, so our hotel recommended Morus, a French restaurant. We were blessed to again have an incredible meal with superb service and being able to dine al fresco in the comfortable evening weather.
When Ellen asked what the fish of the day was, the waiter smiled and said, “Follow me”. She walked past the lobster aquarium where you can pick your crustacean and stepped over to the fresh fish counter to select one on ice. Sea Bream was suggested by the waiter –– it was caught that morning off the coast.
The chef filleted it, baked it in a large pan with olives, tomatoes, and capers, then it was all brought to the table. She said it was similar to a dish she makes at home in parchment paper, but better.
Mean-while, I ordered the Tuna Fillet with Roasted Aubergine, Confit Tomato and Fish Sauce. The two tuna steaks looked like Filet Mignon and tasted just as meaty. We added Roasted Potatoes and Insalata Mista. The waiter suggested a French Pinot Noir to accompany our dinner and we said “Oui”! (They had Champagne from 3,000 Euros per bottle on the wine list, plus a Cabernet from Napa Valley.)
For dessert, we tried the chef’s specialty, “Almond Log” which tasted like almond ice cream and lots of caramel. Overall, a great dinner for 107 Euros. We would’ve paid quite a bit more in the U.S.
Totals: 10,017 steps, 4.1 miles, 9 floors climbed.Sunday, October 8: Monopoli: Hotels and Railroads, Pizzas and Piazzas
We were game to try another coastal city today so we trained five minutes over to Monopoli. Similar to the other white-washed towns in the Puglia area, it was founded by Greeks.
Settled around 500 BC, it was later ruled by Romans, then Goths, Byzantines, and Normans. During the 15th century, the Republic of Venice appropriated it as a powerful maritime port along the Adriatic Coast.
As a city of nearly 50,000 today with 60 square miles, it still has a vibrant port, which is adjacent to the old medieval city with its cobblestoned streets, narrow alleys, teeming tourist shops, quaint B & Bs, and numerous restaurants. This area is also a thriving agricultural hub.
We walked about 30 minutes from the train station to the port and the old city. We finally settled on Ristorante Pizzeria Monopoli in the central Piazza, and it was quite good. We again ordered a Mixed Salad featuring a huge bowl of tomatoes, radicchio, and lettuce, along with a Vegeteriana Pizza. Quite fulfilling!
We then met up with an advertising friend who I worked with in San Francisco about 30 years ago. I had seen on Facebook that he was in Ostuni this week and he then contacted me through my posts. Great to see #LuisRuvulcaba again and meet his girlfriend Jamie. They were here to celebrate her daughter’s destination wedding –– it’s growing in popularity there.
For dinner in Polignano al Mare, which was packed even on a Sunday night, we went back to Il Grittino on Via Roma. Even though we had a reservation, it we could only be seated inside. No big deal as the last few days has been quite windy.
We met a lovely couple from England and chatted with them for a few hours about their decades of travel and life abroad. We started with fried octopus (bite-size crunchy bits with tentacles), then a couple of fish dishes, followed by a cool, refreshing lemon sorbetto. This restaurant is among the best in the area. The price: 62 Euros.
Totals: 16,200 steps, 6.3 miles, 6 floors climbed.
Monday, October 9: Lecce: The “Roman” in Our Holidays
About an hour southeast by train from Polignano al Mare is Lecce, near the heel of the “boot”. Its architecture and vibe are different from the other towns we’ve visited because it’s on the Salentina Peninsula.
Featuring baroque buildings, Lecce’s nickname is “The Florence of The South”. Its primary influence is Roman, not Greek, is more than 2,000 years old with a population of about 95,000.
Disappointingly, we visited the Jewish Museum for a tour, but had not made a reservation, and would have had to wait over two hours. So, we ate lunch nearby –– a ham and mozzarella calzone for me and a vegetarian sandwich for Ellen. Filling and a bit different than our normal mid-day meal.
Great gelato followed to cool us off from the 90-degree day. We walked in the shade back to the train station and got back to Polignano al Mare late afternoon. Our British friends were keen to meet for dinner, so we dined at another excellent recommendation by our hotel: Al Buco Preferito Tranquillage, just across the bridge.
We dined al fresco for four hours, sharing a huge combination of hot appetizers. Angelo, the owner, even offered us green olives and pizza bread to enjoy them further. We followed all that with a generous-sized pizza of tuna, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. The dinner, with drinks, was just 45 Euros.
Totals: 14,012 steps, 5.5 miles, 8 floors climbed.
Tuesday, October 10: Polignano al Mare: Water, Water, Everywhere
After living along the coast for the past week, I finally got on the water –– and into the Adriatic Sea. The hotel arranged a two-hour boat trip for me to San Vito, a small town about 10 minutes north by Tuk Tuk.
The speed boat driven by Bartolo held six international passengers: a family of three from Brazil, a French woman whom I conversed with in Spanish, an American woman who was visiting Italy for her 35th time, and me. We motored out slowly and cruised along the shore, frequently nosing into small caves caused by wind and wave erosion.
When we passed by Polignano al Mare, he pointed up to the statue of Domenico Modugno and played “Volare” full blast on his boat’s audio system. Naturally, we all sang along. When our entire boat entered a larger cave, the music echoed off the walls. Very entertaining.
We eventually slowly approached the most famous cave, “The Hole of Love”, because there’s a heart-shaped opening in the roof, though the sun wasn’t shining through it at the time of our visit.
We stopped to swim near the debarkation point. As with my experience in Moneglia, the water here is extremely salty, and felt close to 80 degrees. Bartolo capped off our excursion with cups of Limoncello, so it was an enjoyable dip and a great boat trip.
I grabbed a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel. Ellen who had just returned from five-mile walk around town, exploring the alleys one more time before our departure tomorrow.
For today’s meals, we were again seeking a respite from pizza, pasta, and panini. So we walked to L’Osteria di Chichibio for lunch. Named for its chef, it has been awarded a Michelin star. We s
hared a huge Insalata Mista, then a Club Sandwich of lobster, basil mayonnaise, and tomatoes.
We simply had to eat dessert here, which was a Chocolate and Strawberry Mousse. For 55 Euros, it was a bit expensive, but worth it for excellent quality food, great service, and a casual atmosphere.
After a nap, we strolled over to MINT Cucina Fresca, a 10-year-old restaurant run by a charming couple that Ellen found online. With only six tables, it’s reservations only. This venue’s philosophy is to transform simple, local ingredients into creative menu items –– all in a rustic atmosphere with an arched stone ceiling.
We were treated to a small dish of pureed beet salad with sesame seeds. Ellen ordered the Trota Marinata, a green salad in a crunchy crispy bowl with marinated trout, carrots, potatoes, apricots, and toasted cashews. Meanwhile, I dove into the Tonna Scottato, which was seared tuna with citrus soy sauce, black sesame seeds, toasted bread, seasonable vegetables, and baked potatoes. We topped it off with a warm, dense brownie with vanilla ice cream. Overall, it set us back 84 Euros, but it was superb and the perfect complement to a great lunch.
Then we took a final walk around town. To the right of the bridge, swimming area, and main streets where cute boutiques and restaurants line both sides of the street is the fabulous. lavish, and ultra-high lux Grota Palazese Beach Hotel with its high-end restaurant. Suites go for 1,300 Euros and up.
What a day for high-level food in back-to-back meals in a charming beachside town So glad Ellen discovered Polignano al Mare and recommended it as our base for a week.
Totals: 14,592 steps, 6.2 miles, 4 floors climbed.
Wednesday, October 11: Ciao, Polignano al Mare! Arrivederci, Italy! After five planes, 35 trains, 10 taxis and Tuk Tuks, our trip ended when we flew from Bari to London, then to SFO.
Despite all of the carbs and wine, each of us lost a few pounds because we trekked 251,839 steps, logged over 103 miles, and climbed / descended 184 flights of stairs.
We hope you’ve enjoyed living vicariously through our travels.
We’ve shared some of the highlights on social media –– that was the Cliff Notes. This is “War and Peace”.
Stay tuned for our next adventures in 2024.