topics: risotto (food), Cinque Terre, topography, Napolean, bicycle safety, being tourists; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: May 26-27, 1998

Food of the Day: risotto

Risotto is a typical Italian dish, simple in its complexity. Simply put, it is a stewed rice dish with cream or milk used as the thickening liquid. It is complex in that there are a vast number of different ingredients with which it can be prepared. Some of the different variations that we have seen contain mushrooms, ham, fish, shellfish, or chicken. There is even something called black risotto, which is made with squid ink.

Person of the Day: Joy Marino

Joy Marino is our primary contact at, one of our Internet service provider during our travels in Italy. It was Joy who many months ago responded to an email inquiry about Internet access for the BikeAbout team in Italy; it was Joy whom we have been looking forward to meeting ever since. As with his counterparts at, Joy was gracious enough to let us use the offices for our weekly chat 'n' debate. Joy and his two sons, Daniele and Nicolo, helped us answer questions about Genova, the Cinque Terre (see the Place of the Day), and also about Italy in general. We also recorded a few excellent Italian words (see today's Word of the Day to hear Nicolo's voice).

Joy, whom we regret not having been able to get to know better or enjoy a bike ride with (time just did not permit it), had even take steps to make our time in Genova very rewarding. Through a teacher friend, Giovanna Sissa, with whom he has worked on Internet projects, he arranged a school visit and he made it clear that if we experienced any problems he would be glad to help.

Thanks Joy for allowing us to keep you and your sons at work for far too long, and for making all the arrangements that you did that made our stay in Genova such a pleasant one.

Place of the Day: Cinque Terre

Technically, the Cinque Terre click to view a photograph is the difficult-to-access stretch of coast along the Ligurian Sea just west of La Spezia. "Cinque Terre" literally means "Five Earths" but the "earths" in this sense refers to the five villages that are perched on the steep slopes of the mountainous coast. These five villages - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - lie in some of the most dramatic scenery that we have seen anywhere in Italy. In tiny coves and ravines, they cling precariously to the sides of mountains that sink straight into the sea. Apparently the folks at the UNESCO World Heritage Center think that it is pretty spectacular as well since they have made it a World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page. click to view a photograph

The main source of income for the area - once accessible only on foot or by boat - is fishing and wine production. This is abundantly apparent in the large numbers of fishing boats we saw and the vineyards that we biked through. The area is so steep though that the vine growers have developed a unique small-scale monorail system for transporting grapes (and themselves) up and down the sides of the mountain.

For more on Cinque Terre, and lots of photos, see the Rider Notes.

Tech Fact of the Day: the Gulf of Poets is the unofficial name of the Gulf of La Spezia

The Gulf of Poets is the unofficial name of the Gulf of La Spezia. It is known by this second name out of respect for the many poets (Byron, D. H. Lawrence, Shelley, and George Sand, for example) who were drawn to the area for its beauty. Today the Gulf of La Spezia is also known as the home of Italy's largest naval base.

Group Dispatch, May 26-27
picture of Anthony

Yet again, our dispatch starts off on a sad note. On this particular morning, we were forced to bid farewell to two new friends. As is now custom, Anthony and Ethan crawled out of bed, packed their bags, loaded their bikes, and pedaled off into the sunrise, but not before saying goodbye to Nicolo and Francesco one last heartfelt time. (Last night, Corinne and Padraic had sought housing elsewhere because Francesco and Nicolo's roommates were returning from their weekends away - see yesterday's dispatch for more info.) These two amazing guys had done all they possibly could to see to our every need even though they were smack dab in the middle of a grueling exam session.

As we pedaled off to meet Corinne and Padraic, Anthony could not help but think (as had others on the team) that BikeAbout's presence in these fine young men's lives had had a detrimental effect on their education. This is too bad; however, perhaps it will work out for the best. College is, after all, much more fun than the "real world" and we are sure that later (perhaps in 10 years) they will thank us for disrupting their lives during a crucial exam period. :)

Meeting up with Corinne and Padraic, we headed out of town (stopping to admire Pisa's beautiful city walls click to view a photograph click to view a photograph which somehow we had missed up until now) towards the neighboring town of Lucca, whose description had caught our eye in our Lonely Planet guidebook.

At Lucca, the first thing that we noticed - the thing for which the city is today fabled - were its amazingly well preserved city walls. click to view a photograph Forming a protective oval around the city and complete with ten defensive "towers" (they were not really towers but rather large extrusions breaking the shape of the oval and forming protruding triangular and square extensions), the thick walls were built during the Renaissance. They were, however, surprisingly little used in the city's defense (hence their remarkable state of preservation). click to view a photograph

Lucca began its existence as an Etruscan city (see our dispatch from Roma for more information about the Etruscans), but by 180 BC had become a Roman colony. However, by the 12th century it was a free commune, and by 1314 it was experiencing great growth due mainly to silk trade. Despite briefly falling under Pisa's control, Lucca remained a free state until it was conquered by Napoleon. (Napoleon created the municipality of Lucca and gave the city to Elisa, his sister.) For a brief period during the early 19th century, the city became a Bourbon duchy (for more information about the Bourbons, check out our dispatch from Napoli) before finally becoming part of the kingdom of Italy. Today, Lucca remains a large agricultural center and attracts tourists by the busload to its quaint car-free streets.

Our search for a grocery store worthy enough of our lunch needs was delayed by a side trip to Lucca's magnificent Romanesque Duomo San Martino. Dedicated to Saint Martino and dating to the 11th century, the duomo has a very impressive façade in what is called the Lucca-Pisan style. click to view a photograph The columns that line the front of the church were each carved by a different local artisan, the result being that no two columns are alike click to view a photograph which added to our interest in the very attractive façade. click to view a photograph Inside we were very impressed with an image of Christ on a wooden crucifix (believed to have been carved by someone called Nicodemused who was present at the actual crucifixion).

Our food-based quest was again delayed (we were weak with hunger by this point but our curiosity had been raised) by another detour, this time to the Chiesa di San Michele in Foro, a Romanesque church with yet another stunning façade. click to view a photograph At the very top of the church is a statue of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. click to view a photograph

Momentarily challenged yet again by the hordes of visitors clogging Lucca's narrow pedestrian thoroughfares and staring up at the elegant collection of Renaissance buildings along the Via Fillungo or built over and keeping the form of the foundations of a Roman amphitheater, at last our hunter-gatherer urges were sated when we found and emptied a small grocery store (don't worry, we paid for our supplies).

Our lunch was consumed on the walls of the city while we wondered what it must have been like to see Napoleon's formidable army standing just outside.

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing what we now do best: biking. (Actually we eat really well too.) We detoured a little bit to the lovely town of Pietrasanta, which Ethan, as a teenager, visited more than once with his family. After taking a bunch of photos click to view a photograph to send to Ethan's parents (Hi Blanche and Sam!), we wheeled into a local café (once frequented by Ethan's brother) for a cold lemon drink and directions, both of which were obtained from a friendly bar/restaurant owner. click to view a photograph

Remembering to fill our water bottles as a defense against the heat click to view a photograph, we next spun down to the sadly overdeveloped coast and headed north to La Spezia. Along the way, we drafted off of a bicycle club out for a ride and then stopped in at a local bar and watched the end of the day's stage of the Giro d'Italia, or bicycle Tour of Italy (in which our hero, Mario Pantani, advanced ever higher in the standings).

Memories of professional bike racers' finishing sprints dancing in our heads, we climbed yet another hill and then dropped down to and through the lovely coastal town of Lerici with its captivating 16th century castle. click to view a photograph We paused just long enough to snap a few photos of the castle click to view a photograph and the lovely port click to view a photograph, but then we were off.

Our time in La Spezia was far too brief. Anthony had been through La Spezia once before and had good memories of it. He was intrigued by the idea of seeing more of it and perhaps eating in a fish restaurant he had heard about. BUT... the description of Cinque Terre (see today's Place of the Day) in our Lonely Planet guidebook was so alluring that we pondered pushing on, even though it meant a late afternoon hill.

At first Padraic thought that "Cinque Terre" meant "Five Terrors" and he refused to go a step further (his grasp of Italian is really quite weak). Fortunately, a quick stop at the tourist office assured him that there were no terrors whatsoever associated with the region (other than the hills) and that there were, in fact, hotels and rooms for rent in the towns of Cinque Terre where we might lay our weary heads. Well-supplied with maps (and a less "terre"-fied Padraic), we were off, up and up and up into the hills of the Cinque Terre.

It was a delightful climb, with great views out over La Spezia and its port click to view a photograph which kept getting lower and lower and further click to view a photograph and further click to view a photograph away. Once the road we were on had obtained the proper elevation and even leveled off, the views were even more spectacular click to view a photograph and we knew that we had made the right choice to spend the night in Cinque Terre. The question was where would we actually try to sleep? We knew that there were not a lot of hotels in the five towns that make up the region - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - and this fact, combined with the towns being located at the edge of the sea (a white-knuckle screaming-brake descent from the main road down to sea level), led us to choose carefully which town in which to seek out housing.

Descending (knuckles white and brakes a-screaming) into Manarola, our chosen resting-place for the night, we all said a silent prayer in the hopes that we would not have to climb back up tonight. Our first stop, and the primary reason for selecting Manarola, was the youth hostel about which we had been informed while at the tourist information office in La Spezia. It looked like a lovely place... and... horror of horrors... it was full! A bit anxious (and glancing over our shoulder at the killer hill we would have to climb to head to the next town), we checked the other two places that had rooms for rent. They were full too. Apparently, we were facing the beginning of the wave of summer tourists that sweep through this part of Europe. It was a new problem to us since, in general, we have been traveling outside of the real tourist season.

We started to grow desperate and even considered taking a train back into La Spezia for the night (anything to avoid another hill); while Anthony and Ethan started asking at bars and restaurants for any leads on rooms to rent, Padraic checked on the train schedule. Finally, through a series of people, Ethan found a very kind soul who really liked our thigh muscles (!) and agreed to rent us a room. Shortly thereafter (it was already pretty late), we were settled in, unpacked, scrubbed, dressed and ready for dinner. At the nearest restaurant we ordered and ate with gusto.

We ate quietly, somewhat surprised to find a large number of recently arrived young Americans, and amazed at being able to understand overheard conversations. We suffered from a mix of homesickness (the familiarity of a familiar accent) and illness (listening to the complaints and aggression of young and inexperienced travelers unfamiliar with the nuances of foreign cultures). We were somewhat saddened by how the locals, who had been so friendly and helpful to us, had to resort to firmness and even anger in the face of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Back outside the restaurant and in the cool and refreshing seaside air, we stared out at the water and the sky. Despite the late hour and our advanced state of exhaustion, it was impossible not to appreciate the town's incredibly beautiful location. Perched on the mountainside, and spilling into a narrow ravine all the way down to the edge of the Mediterranean, the views out into the small bay were precious. Later that night, we all fell asleep with the sound of waves crashing against the base of the city.

The next morning we tried to get an early start. It was Wednesday - chat 'n' debate day - and we had an appointment with Joy Marino, our Person of the Day, at the offices in Genova for the computer connection we would need. We knew that the distance was so great we would be lucky if we were able to bike all the way. Luckily, there was a very handy rail line that we could use if time started to work against us.

Fortifying ourselves with a cup of coffee and a croissant and a last glance at the sea (at sea level) click to view a photograph, we headed back up Manarola's impossibly steep road to the main drag.

The rest of the morning was spent climbing higher and higher until we were finally inside the clouds and virtual "riders in the mist." click to view a photograph We drifted in and out of the suspended dew and enjoyed the amazing views back towards Manarola click to view a photograph, then Corniglia click to view a photograph, then Vernazza, and then Monterosso. With a heavy sigh (knowing what would come afterwards), we finally swooped down what Padraic called "the most dangerous descent he had ever seen" (because the highway department had failed to sign any of the dozen or so hairpin turns and neglected to install any guardrails) into Levanto click to view a photograph where we were just in time to capitalize on the town's market day.

Armed with a vast amount of food (Anthony's daily dream-come-true), we headed down to the beach and ate our lunch on the town's promenade, looking out over the sea.

We began the afternoon by regaining pretty much all the altitude that we had lost in our descent into Levanto. Our plan was to bike as far as we could without taking the main road and then to train into Genova in time for the chat 'n' debate. Somehow, somewhere, things became horribly confused. Anthony zigged when he should have zagged or was so grooving on the ascents that he decided to climb up and down the same road and not move ahead, or (this is Anthony's favorite theory which he is using as the basis for a screenplay that he has every intention of sending to Oliver Stone for production) he was the victim of a vicious and malicious plot to separate him from the group. Why commit this heinous crime you might ask? Well, stop to consider how much more dinner food would be available to members of the team who shall remain nameless. But Anthony saw right through this plot (he was hungry after all) and as soon as he figured out what had happened, he biked down to the rail line to Deiva Marina and took the next train to Genova.

The rest of the BikeAbout crew, meanwhile, continued on, gleefully giggling over the good fortune they were enjoying in having "lost" Anthony so easily. They regaled themselves with quiet forest roads and astounding views out over the countryside. They also reveled in a long, windy descent out of the mountains back down to the coast. Hoping to continue the farce, but nevertheless concerned about their time commitments, they even waited briefly for Anthony at all key crossroads. Of course, as they knew would be the case, he never showed.

So, when time was short and the only way to get to Genova was by train, Ethan and Corinne boarded the first one on which they could get their bikes (they had to plead). Ironically, they took the same train as Anthony, but he was at the opposite end of the train. (Padraic stayed behind, agreeing to take a later train and in a coy but vain effort to confuse the trail they might have left, hopefully ensuring that Anthony would be lost forever).

Once Anthony had paid for his ticket, he cornered the friendly conductor and, using his woefully inadequate Italian skills, tried to figure out what train station he should descend at in order to be closest to the offices. Genova is so large and so sprawled out along the coast that it has not one but three train stations. While the conductor was not familiar with the address, he kindly went from train car to train car asking people until he was able to figure out its location.

In Genova, Anthony hopped off the train and, stopping only three times to ask for directions, soon arrived before the gates where he was welcomed by Joy Marino, the Person of the Day. Quickly getting online, Anthony started the chat 'n' debate. Before long, he was joined by Ethan and Corinne. They had gotten off the train one station too early and had been cycling through the city for 45 minutes to get to They were a little peeved to find out that had Anthony arrived before them and was in fact alive and well.

Finally finishing the chat 'n' debate (and releasing the ever patient Joy and his two sons to return to their home and dinner), the BikeAbouters headed back towards town where they ambushed Padraic who was just arriving, having just arrived on a latter train. A short time later, they had found a hotel.

Exhausted, filthy, and, most importantly, starving, we were unable to resist the call of the Golden Arches (they were right across the street) and so made do with American food: hamburgers and fries with shakes for desert. Fortunately there was enough food for all. It was, however, all we could do to stay awake long enough to shower before collapsing in bed.

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