Europe 2016 diary: day 7

Friday, 4 November, 2016

We woke early yet again, around 05:00, and dozed a bit before getting up so M. could shower before breakfast. We went to the breakfast buffet in the Albergo Firenze, which was similar to most of the others so far. This time thought there was bran cereal, which we both mixed with some muesli. M. had two cornetti, one with jam and one a sort of wholemeal one. I tried a bit of some paper thin looking bacon with scrambled egg, on a slice of fresh bread, and then a small slice of a tart which was covered with apricot jam and various nuts. We took our time, then returned briefly to our room before heading out to explore Como a bit.

Monkey in Como
Como waterfront on Lake Como

We walked to the waterfront of the lake, which provided beautiful scenic views across to the mountains around the harbour, with boats moored nearby. The colours of the trees added to the prettiness of the scene. Nearby was a small market, just set up for the morning. Most of the stalls were selling cheese, or various preserved meats and sausages. But there was one selling chocolates, and we got tempted into trying some samples, which were so good that we bought a few pieces of chocolate for later snacks. The stall holders, a man and a woman wearing similarly patterned clothing, were very friendly, though they spoke very little English. They seemed pleased to meet some travellers from Australia. (After returning home, I saw their email address on their stall sign in one of the photos I took of them, and sent them a copy of the photo, and they replied with thanks.)

Monkey buying chocolates at the market
Friendly chocolate sellers

Further on another stall had chocolates too, but not small wrapped ones, rather large moulded shapes including an impressive range of full sized chocolate tools such as spanners and pliers, dusted with cocoa. The detail in the moulded shapes was amazing. Another few stalls sold bread. At one of these we bought two slices of focaccia bread covered in pesto and with blobs of mozzarella cheese, to have later for lunch. The man asked if we wanted them heated up and I said “no, per pranzo”, indicating we planned to eat them later for lunch.

From the market we walked over to the Duomo to have a look inside. Along the way, M. stopped in at the eyeglass shop from last night, and decided to buy a pair of frames that she liked, after we asked the staff if we would be able to have another optician insert lenses to fit her prescription. The Duomo was open, but had signs and barriers inside to prevent tourists from walking too far towards the front, restricting us to the rear quarter or so of the interior. But this wasn’t a huge problem, as the inside was rather dark and dusty, rather than beautiful.

Como Cathedral interior
Inside the Duomo di Como

From here we want past the pasticceria, buying a couple of pieces of coffee biscotti and a slice with two biscuit layers around a chocolate filling. We now had a good suite of snacks for the day’s drive. Thus provisioned, we returned to pack and check out of the room, then walked the couple of blocks back to the car park to pick up the car.

Navigating out of Como was tricky. We plotted a route on Google Maps all the way from Como to La Spezia, but it didn’t pick up exactly our starting position, being a few blocks off. We intended to head straight towards Google’s blue line, but were foiled as soon as we exited the car park, intending to turn left, by a sign indicating that only right turns were allowed. So we were off to a good start, in exactly the opposite direction to what we intended! I used my sense of direction superpower to make a few turns to head us in roughly the right direction, though this wasn’t easy given the maze of one way streets. Eventually we hit a larger road and from there navigation back to the Google route was relatively straightforward with reference to the map.

Wall tiles
Decorated wall in Como

We headed east out of Como, towards Bergamo, taking a provincial sort of road that wound its way up into some hills and then meandered across the countryside, passing through a string of small towns such as Cisano Bergamasco, which were generally close together so that any countryside between them only lasted a short time. The weather was grey but fairly bright with high cloud. On our left we could see the foothills of the Alps, rising into the distance, covered with forest in a range of green to yellow shades. Poplar trees in particular were currently a bright shade of yellow.

In a few places we got caught behind slow moving trucks. One particularly annoying one was a cement truck which belched awful black fumes every time it accelerated in first gear, venting them sideways at ground level, such that with the prevailing wind we always ended up driving right through the noxious cloud. We were stuck right behind this truck for several kilometres, before it finally turned off the road.

Road from Como
Driving from Como towards Bergamo

We took an exit off the road just before Bergamo to stop and have our focaccie for lunch. We ended up in a small town called Terno d’Isola, where we located a mostly empty car park next to a cafe called Esmeralda Café. The surrounding area looked a bit industrial and quiet at the moment, but the cafe was open. We ate our pre-bought lunch outside, taking a little bit of a walk, and then went into the cafe to get a coffee for M. and a freshly squeezed orange juice for me, and to use the toilet. The woman inside seemed surprised to have customers, but served us cheerfully, squeezing the juice in a machine on the bar. The cafe was decorated with lots of pictures and artwork of Audrey Hepburn. We drank our drinks standing up at the counter, rather than take a seat, knowing that would immediately double the price. After finishing, we used the toilet, then left to continue our drive.

We rejoined the Google route easily enough, then navigated our way onto the A4 autostrada, taking a toll ticket at the entrance ramp gate. This navigation was a little tricky, as the roads looped around all over the place and the entrance sign was posted with various destinations whose directions I didn’t know. It was only when I spotted a sign indicating the autostrada direction towards Venezia that I was confident we wouldn’t end up going the wrong way and took the entrance.

The Italian autostrada is something else. The A4 route was very straight and had three wide lanes each way separated by a solid barrier. I didn’t see any signs indicating a maximum speed limit, indeed there were minimum speed limit signs indicating that to be in the middle lane you had to be going at least 60 km/hr, and to be in the left lane you had to be doing at least 90 km/hr. These minimum speeds changed occasionally and I think at one point I saw a minimum of 110 in the left lane. The right lane was for the slowest traffic and was full of an endless line of semi-trailers which effectively prevented its use for a car travelling at any speed. Mostly I sat in the middle lane, with the speedo hovering around 120. Even at this speed, every so often a car would zoom by in the fast lane, passing rapidly as though we were stationary. Some must have been doing at least 150 or 160.

The worst thing was that many of the trucks weren’t content to sit in the slow lane behind other trucks, and quite often they pulled out into the middle lane to overtake another truck. This was rather intimidating as a few times a huge semi-trailer right next to me put its blinkers on to indicate it was moving over, and I quickly accelerated to get in front of it before it came across into my lane. And then once trucks were in the middle lane, they overtook other trucks really slowly, so they sat there for a long time, blocking the lane. At these times, I moved into the fast lane to overtake as quickly as possible before moving back out of the way of the various Ferraris and Porsches tearing along the fast lane at 150+.

We took this autostrada as far as Brescia, where we took an exit onto a southbound route. This was much better, as the traffic was a lot lighter, with few trucks. It went down to two lanes after a while, but this was okay with the lighter traffic, except once or twice when there happened to be two trucks near each other and one decided to overtake, clogging up both lanes with impatient Italian drivers wanting to zoom past.

We made a few turns on to other routes to negotiate our way past Cremona and then Parma, ending up on the route heading to La Spezia. We stopped about halfway along this road at a fuel and rest stop, to fill up the car and have an afternoon snack. Unfortunately as we exited the autostrada there was a fork in the exit road marked with various signs. Our car needed diesel fuel, so I followed a sign indicating diesel, only to realise too late that this fork was intended only for trucks, and that cars should go the other way. Once committed there was no way to go back or switch over, and we ended up in a parking area full of huge trucks, and then by petrol pumps designed for filling up trucks.

With nothing to lose, I tried a diesel pump, but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, and a man came out to tell me not to use that one, but rather drive up to the next pump. I did so, and here was a sign in Italian and English saying to go inside and ask for the attendant to enable the diesel pump. So I did that, pointing out the window to our car, and the man (a different one) nodded. I went back out and managed to fill the car, from about a third full to completely full, for €58. The main remaining problem was that the diesel pump was greasy with diesel fuel, and it was now all over my hands. I wiped them on a wet wipe which M. gave me, then went in to pay.

With no parking area for cars accessible from where we were, we had to get back on the autostrada and continue driving. We passed through a valley that led up to a pass over a low series of mountains. Here the road started twisting and turning and there were cautionary speed limit signs, some as low as 60. The scenery here was good, with forest covering the hills in autumn colours and a small river below.

Chocolate slice
The chocolate slice from Como, eaten at the Autostrada rest stop

At another rest stop we exited the autostrada to have the snack we’d missed at the last stop. This time I made sure to take the car exit rather than the truck one, and we parked next to a couple of picnic tables where other cars were parked. First we looked into the shop attached to the petrol station. They had a lot of chocolates and sweets, as well as a wall of bags of pasta of different shapes and colours. M. found packets of Pocket Coffee, which she’d enjoyed on our previous trips to Italy, so she bought one of those. Apparently now it also came in “decaffeinato”, which M. said was kind of defeating the purpose. We also found enormous Baci chocolates.

Outside we stood up near the picnic tables to stretch our legs while we ate our afternoon tea snacks. M. had her coffee biscotti while I ate the chocolate slice, which was delicious. Despite being a petrol station stop, this was a beautiful location, surrounded by forest and with a view across the small valley to hills on the other side. We were far away enough from the autostrada that traffic noise was minimal and we could hear the sounds of many birds chirping in the trees. I saw some tiny birds flitting about, but didn’t know what they were.

We rejoined the autostrada for the final run into La Spezia. Before long we exited the autostrada, having travelled all the way from Bergamo on these fast roads. The toll at the exit gate turned out to be a whopping €28.80. From here it was a drive along a busy road into the heart of the city. We navigated our way to the central train station, where I’d found there was a parking station convenient for the city. This wasn’t too hard to find and we parked and got out to go look for a hotel.

Walking through the area near the train station, we saw that it was rather dull and run down, mostly residential streets. There were a few affitacamere here, but we continued walking towards the old city and waterfront area, and the ambience improved until we were passing fashion shops and restaurants and so on. Here we found a decent looking hotel, the Hotel Genova. Inquiring, they had a room for €100, which we took for two nights. I asked about car parking, and the lady at reception said the hotel had reserved spaces in front of the hotel. I didn’t quite understand what she meant until I looked outside and saw an area of three car spots on the street, roped off with a sign saying they were reserved for hotel guests. She gave us a map showing how to drive from the station car park to the spots, and said she’d prepare our paperwork while we retrieved the car.

Hotel Genova view
View from our room in Hotel Genova, La Spezia

Back at the car park, we went to the payment machine with our ticket. A man was there and tried to tell me something, pointing at the machine, but I didn’t catch enough of his words to understand. When I entered our ticket and it said the fee was €1, I put a €2 coin into the machine’s coin slot… only to have the coin disappear into the slot but without the sound of it dropping into a coin box or registering the payment. The man gestured at the machine, “Questa è il problema.” (“This is the problem.”) Now I understood what he’d been trying to say, but it was too late, the coin was gone. I saw the machine accepted Visa cards, so put mine into the slot to pay the fee, which worked, and I got my parking ticket back. The man didn’t seem to have this option, as he muttered, “assistanza” and walked off towards the exit gate, presumably to use the intercom to ask for help.

We walked to our car and got in, then drove our to the exit gate. The man was there, just in the process of throwing his hands up in the air by the intercom and wandering off angrily. I don’t know how he’ll manage to get his car out, but we used our ticket and the boom gate let us out into the street. It was a short and easy drive to the hotel, where M. moved the posts and ropes so I could pull the car into one of the reserved parking spots. Then we got our luggage out and went up to our room, from where we had a view out the window overlooking the car below.

Vicolo Intherno, La Spezia
Vicolo Intherno

We rested in the room for a while, searching for places to eat dinner and relaxing. We found a place called Vicolo Intherno, which was very highly rated with online reviews, and literally just around the corner from our hotel (Google Maps gave the walking time as 1 minute). It opened at 19:00 for dinner, so we had a bit of time to kill. I wrote up some diary while M. read a book on her iPad.

Just before 19:00, we donned our coats to walk around the corner to Vicolo Intherno. As we arrived, the door was open, and a man and woman were sitting outside smoking at a table. We started towards the door, and the man got up quickly and said “buonasera” and asked us if we wanted a table. He quickly realised we spoke English and switched to a very friendly banter, letting us pick any table we wanted, either on the front room or back room of the restaurant. We chose one in the front, which we thought might have a better ambience once other people started arriving to dine. It was a bit cold with the door open, but the man quickly closed it. He reminded me of a sort of smooth, older Dean Martin, and appeared to be the owner of the restaurant.

He brought us menus, which had a two page spread of dishes in Italian, followed by the same translated into French, English, and Spanish, and then the wine list. The wines by the glass options consisted of a house red and white for €5 each, or there was a full page each of white bottles and red bottles, for prices ranging from €12 to €25 or so. This was so inexpensive compared to buying bottles of wine in restaurants at home that I chose a €16 bottle of Pinot nero. A second man who seemed to be the waiter squinted at the owner and asked something, possibly if they had any bottles of the Pinot nero I’d chosen. The owner nodded affirmatively and said something positive, so the waiter continued taking our order for food.

Maltagliati in pumpkin sauce
Maltagliati with pumpkin sauce and pine nuts

We chose a “vegetable cake” to share for an appetiser, then M. picked a dish of maltagliati (which I confirmed was a type of pasta with the waiter) with a sauce made from pumpkins, tomotaoes, pine nuts, and maybe some other things. I chose what the English menu called “fillet of Iberian swine”, both because it sounded good and because of the cool translation. The Italian described it as “maiale”, which just means pork. I also got a serve of borlotti beans as a vegetable contorni side dish. A couple of minutes after ordering, I saw the owner coming in the front door with a case of wine! Presumably it was more of the Pinot nero we’d ordered, because he soon came back with a bottle and opened it to pour some out for us.

The vegetable cake came out, a single serve split onto two plates for us so we could share. It was layers of thin pastry with a filling mostly of spinach, but with other vegetables in it. It was well seasoned with herbs and had a really nice flavour, truly delicious. We took our time enjoying the food and wine. The Pinot nero was rather fresh tasting, with a slightly sour fresh berry taste, and almost a tingle of carbonation, a little unsophisticated but quite nice and went well with the food.

We began the meal the only customers, but more people trickled in and the place was mostly full by the time we left nearly two hours later. One table had two ladies eating dinner, and one of them had brought a large brown dog into the restaurant. The restaurant owner brought a metal dog bowl out with water for the dog, and it lapped it up noisily.

Pannacotta with chocolate
Vanilla panna cotta with chocolate sauce

M.’s pasta was amazingly good (I tried some), cooked al dente and with a flavoursome sauce with a rich orange brown colour, sprinkled liberally with pine nuts. My meal was simply a chunk of the Iberian pork grilled and served on a plate, with nothing more than a sprig of rosemary as a garnish. So I was glad I’d remembered to order the beans as well, which arrived in a separate bowl, sitting in a thick brown sauce. The meat was seasoned beautifully and grilled perfectly, really delicious. The beans were rustic and comforting, going well with the pork and the wine. Following this, I asked about desserts and the owner rattled off descriptions of a few choices. I chose the panna cotta with chocolate, which was a vanilla panna cotta drizzled with a thick melted chocolate sauce, which must have had some cream in it as it stayed liquid despite being cool. Overall the meal was delicious, possibly the best of the trip so far.

After finishing at the restaurant, we walked the short distance back to our hotel where we were so tired we quickly put down our reading and writing and fell asleep.

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