On the Ligurian Coast between Genoa and Pisa there are many scenic towns and villages. But the most popular destination seems to be the Cinque Terre—five picturesque hill towns that are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. These colorful villages surrounded by terraced vineyards and olive orchards are all connected by a series of walking trails that meander up and down the verdant hills and finish in one of the charming towns.
Crowds on the Vernazza Trail
Due to the devastating floods of 2011, three of the five trails along the coastline are still closed. This has made the two coastal trails quite quite crowded and popular—the one between Monterosso and Vernazza and the trail that continues from Vernazza to Corniglia. Even in late September, 2015, we found this area just a bit too crowded for our comfort.
The solution for us was the very scenic hike from the town of Levanto heading south to Monterosso, trail #1 & #10 of the Parco Regionale Bracco-Mesco.
Piazza Chanoux in Aosta
For this trip to Italy, we decided to visit Aosta Valley—the smallest of Italy’s twenty regions. This beautiful valley, in the northwest corner of Italy is bordered by the French & Swiss Alps in the north and the scenic Gran Paradiso Park in the south. We based ourselves in the town of Aosta so we could do some day hikes and learn about the area.
There are several advantages to visiting Aosta Valley in the fall. First, there are very few tourists and the trails and towns are uncrowded. Second, the weather can be perfect for hiking, with highs in the low 70’s (Fahrenheit) in the valleys and low 60’s in the higher areas. But because this is between seasons, most of the lifts and funiculars are closed, along with the rifugios that serve food and other refreshments. This limits where you can go and what you can see.
If you don’t speak Italian, you can also try French. Both of these are the official languages of the region. But since the valley is a popular tourist destination, you’ll find many people who speak English.
I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing while enjoying a lovely summer in the Pacific Northwest of America. But finally, we are traveling again and exploring new regions of Italy. Our first stop is the Valle d’Aosta, a region in the Western Alps just below France and Switzerland, and just north of Turin.
View from Aosta City Gate
We chose the pleasant town of Aosta as our base for hiking the many trails available in this area. From this historic town, we have a choice of several valleys with excellent hiking trails. Many offer views of some of the highest peaks in Europe, including Mont Blanc and Monte Cervino (also known as the Matterhorn). It’s also not far to drive a bit south to explore Gran Paradiso, Italy’s first National Park.
The mountains are so close, we just had to take a short day hike.
Montini Ranch Trail
Sonoma, California—one of my favorite small towns—is just one hour northeast of San Francisco. Located in the wine country, near its famous neighbor, Napa, low-key Sonoma is a popular destination for wine aficionados and city folks looking for a weekend get away.
Sonoma Plaza & Park
Unlike many cities in the U.S., Sonoma has a piazza, or what we call “The Plaza”, due to our Spanish roots. It’s fun to explore the small shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that surround the square. But when the sun’s out, head for the park with your picnic lunch and a bottle of wine (which is legal to consume openly here in the wine country). If you happen to visit on a Tuesday, there’s a great Farmers’ Market in the early evening. Many weekends, the Plaza hosts a variety of special events, such as the Plein Air Festival and wine tastings. This is also where you’ll find the Visitor’s Center with much more information about the area.
Golden Gate & Presidio
Each time we return to the Bay Area, we always spend some time in one of my favorite cities—San Francisco. When I first catch sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, it still takes my breath away. Whether a ghostly blur in the morning fog, or a bright orange beacon in the sun, San Francisco’s iconic bridge will always make me smile in wonder.
If you want to experience the Golden Gate bridge and some of the best views of the bridge, itself, skip walking across the span and go to the Presidio of San Francisco instead. You’ll avoid the logjam at the impossibly crowded viewpoint parking areas on both sides of the bridge. The windy walk is not so pleasant due to the noise of so many cars whizzing by that drown out any conversation. If walking the Golden Gate Bridge is on your bucket list—go ahead. But my preference is the nearby Presidio, a former Army Base that has been thoughtfully restored to benefit the people of San Francisco and beyond.
Near Letterman Digital Center
Located in the northern part of the city, near the Golden Gate Bridge, look for the signs on Lombard Street to enter the Lombard Gate of the Presidio. There is still construction going on, so check the park’s website for more updated information. I recommend stopping at the Letterman Digital Arts complex for a quick visit. These Leed Certified buildings beautifully replicate the original Letterman Hospital that served thousands of soldiers and veterans while the fort was still active. They are now home to to Lucas Arts studios and other high tech companies. Take a selfie with Yodo in the garden and then stop by Starbuck’s for a quick espresso. Even at this lower level of the park you can enjoy expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz and the bridge.
Sidewalk art in Vicenza
Continuing with my winter theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ …
You don’t have to be an art historian or even an authority to appreciate the abundance of art treasures found everywhere in Italy. Whether you prefer Greek and Roman sculpture, modern art or the masterpieces of the Renaissance, you’ll find more than you can imagine in Italy. Don’t try to see everything in one visit. This is one reason I keep coming back. There’s so much to enjoy and explore.
Four Rivers Fountain
Art is everywhere in Italy. Visit any major city and you’ll have a long list of museums, monuments, archeological sites and churches on your itinerary. Walk around the city and enjoy the street art, garden sculpture, fountains and monuments for free. Even the architecture is adorned with art. Almost every piazza is a showcase for public art—whether it’s a major piazza in Rome, such as Piazza Navona with Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers or the smaller piazza della Minerva with Bernini’s elephant at the base of an Egyptian obelisk, you are bound to find something wondrous to see.
The popular guidebooks are a good resource for visiting the major museums. Follow their advice about making reservations in advance and consider using the museums cards that most major cities offer. However, if you plan to visit just a few museums, it’s not always worth the price of a card. Use the museum websites to make the best use of your time and reserve your tickets in advance. You don’t want to waste your precious travel time standing in a long line.
John Singer Sargent in Venice
Besides the major museums, keep your eyes open for special exhibits in the Palazzos and Villas. The local Tourist Information centers will also have information about these temporary shows. One of my favorite venues is the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Opened in 2004, this Renaissance Palace hosts three high quality exhibits each year. I stumbled upon American Impressionists one year. Another time I found an exhibit of John Singer Sargent in a palazzo in Venice. Since these exhibits are not permanent, they won’t be listed in the guidebooks. At these venues you won’t be in a crowded room with tourists—just a few Italians and you.
Stairs in Spoleto
Continuing with my winter theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ …
Part of the magic of visiting Italy is discovering a small hill town that takes you back in time to another world. You can visit any region in Italy and find an historic walled hill town overlooking a wide variety of idyllic pastoral scenes. In most regions you’ll find lush vineyards intertwined with orchards of ancient olive trees and winding rustic lanes lined with tall cypress trees. In other areas the hill towns look down onto colorful patchworks of farms, pastures dotted with happy cows or terraced lemon orchards that stretch to the sea.
To reach these scenic towns, it’s often best to rent a car. However, on the Amalfi Coast it’s easier (and safer) to use the public bus system. If you do decide to drive, you must park your car before you pass through the old city gates. Almost every town in Italy has a Centro Storico—Historic Center—limited to pedestrians and cyclists.
Look for the large blue P or the blue arrow sign for parking areas which often require a fee. If the curb and lines are blue, there is definitely a fee. Find the small machine where you can make your payments with cash or a credit card. If you are in a particularly small town, you might have to seek out the closest Tabacheria store where they sell parking passes. If you find an area where the lines are white, you get to park for free.
If you’re using public transportation, consider taking the bus rather than a train. Often, these hill towns are not so close to the train station. For instance, Assisi, Siena and Perugia are quite a distance from the main train stations and a bus takes you closer to the town center.