Europe 2016 diary: day 8

Saturday, 5 November, 2016. 21:01

We rose just before 07:00 this morning, to the sound of heavy rain outside. It had moved in during the night and looked set in for the day, as the forecast had predicted. We showered and went down to the breakfast room to see what was on offer. There was no hot meal option, unless you counted various cornetti in a warmer so that they were warm as though freshly baked, or the sandwich toaster press with which you could assemble your own toasted sandwiches if you had such a desire. But certainly no eggs or bacon or sausages. There was however a bran flake cereal with fruit pieces in it, which both M. and I had. The yoghurt I added to mine was very runny, and I almost spilled the first tub all over the place as I tipped it over the cereal, expecting to have to use a spoon to coax it out of the tub, whereas it actually came pouring out rapidly. M. told me the cornetti she had were nicely warm, so I grabbed a chocolate one. These Italian cornetti are sort of like croissants, but straight rather than curved, and quite a bit smaller. At this hotel, like the last one, there was also a large tart with apricot jam on it. The Italians sure love their apricot jam, it being the typical filling for cornetti con marmellata as well.

The rain in La Spezia, from our hotel window

After breakfast, we packed a paper bag with dirty laundry and went for a walk in search of a laundry that would do a bag wash for us. Google indicated two dry cleaners nearby, the nearest just a block away, named Casa della Penna, and a second one three blocks in the opposite direction from the hotel, named Lavanderia Everest. With umbrellas raised against the heavy rain, we tried the nearest one first, but couldn’t see a laundry anywhere near Google’s indicated location. I went into an open pharmacy and asked a lady in there, “Sto cercando una lavanderia, il nome è Casa della Penna.” This seemed to confuse the woman for a second, before she began saying in Italian that there was no laundry nearby, and that Casa della Penna was a “negozio”, a shop. I didn’t fully understand her Italian but got enough of a gist, and asked where was Casa della Penna? She pointed at a shop just across the street and down a couple of doors. We looked and sure enough, it had “Casa della Penna” above the door. But far from being a dry cleaner, it was a fancy pen shop, selling Mont Blanc pens and other similar items of luxury! No wonder the lady had looked confused when I asked about a laundry by that name! I’d thought “Casa della Penna”, or “House of the Feather”, was an odd name for a laundry, but now it made sense as a fancy pen shop, as “penna” is also the Italian word for pen.

After this setback, we walked back past the hotel in the other direction to find Lavanderia Everest. Not only was this actually a laundry, but it was open even though it was before 09:00. I asked the old lady inside if she could wash and dry the bag of clothes for us. She said, in Italian, that we’d have to pick it up next week, although at the time I only really understood the “next week” part. She went on to explain that she was closed tomorrow, being Sunday, and that today she closed at midday, so there was no time to do the wash and have the clothes ready for pick up before Monday. It took a little bit of questioning from me in broken Italian to fully work this out, but we got there after a while.

View from window at Hotel Genova, La Spezia
Rain soaked building across from our hotel room window

We returned to the hotel, moderately wet despite our umbrellas because of the heaviness of the rain. Given the laundry idea had failed, we asked the hotel receptionist about doing laundry. She said that it would be tricky because all the laundries were closed on Sunday, but there was an option if we wanted to do a self service wash at a laundrette near the station. I asked if the hotel had a laundry service, and she said no.

We decided to walk past the laundrette on our way to the station to catch a train to visit the Cinque Terre, and see what its opening hours were. We could then either wash our clothes tonight while eating some take away pizza in the laundrette waiting area, or perhaps wash the clothes first thing tomorrow morning before driving off for the day. So we prepared for a day of sightseeing, as best as we could in the rain anyway. I packed my camera bag and we set off to the station. We passed the laundrette Mezzora, noting it was open from 08:00 to 20:00.

At the train station, we looked around a bit to get our bearings, then checked a timetable and determined that the next departure for Le Cinque Terre was in about 20 minutes. This gave us plenty of time to buy a ticket. It wasn’t obvious where to do this, until we spotted a tourist office. We went inside, and there was a large sign indicating prices for Cinque Terre day pass tickets. I asked the lady behind the counter for two of them, and she explained in English that the tourist tickets were not available today, because of the danger and risk of flooding in the Cinque Terre villages because of the heavy rain.

I said we didn’t plan to walk any of the hiking trails and just wanted to see the villages. She said we could get a standard train ticket, from a sales point somewhere else in the station, but it would be at our own risk. This was all rather confusing and scary, so I asked her if she would travel on the train today, and she basically indicated “no way”, that it was too dangerous. So after consulting with M. we decided to heed her advice and cancel our plans to visit the villages. This was somewhat disappointing, as it was our only chance on this trip, and I’d been wanting to see Le Cinque Terre for years.

Our only day here
The pouring rain

We walked back to the hotel through the pouring rain, discussing what to do instead. We decided to just spend a day relaxing in cafes, drinking hot chocolate, and taking it easy. And maybe if the rain eased up, do some exploring of the old city streets and maybe visit a museum or two. At the hotel, I asked the receptionist about shop opening hours, since we’d already been burned by the laundry not being open on Saturday afternoon. She said that most shops closed at 12:30, but reopened at 15:00. With this in mind, we planned to do our laundry during the siesta time, so we had the rest of the day to look around while shops were actually open.

I dumped my camera bag in our room, figuring that my phone would be adequate for any photography today and it would avoid the camera bag getting soaked by the rain. Then we went out again in search of a cafe for a morning tea, and to sit for a while and type up some diary. The rain just got heavier as we walked, and we ducked under various awnings and at one point took shelter in a shop doorway as it become truly torrential. Two men inside the shop, which sold clothes of some sort, gestured at us to come inside, saying in English that it was much warmer and drier in there. But we declined politely and toughed it out for a minute before launching back into the rain.

A few blocks from the hotel, we found a cafe that looked decent and went inside to get a table. M. ordered a cappuccino, while I asked for a cioccolata calda. The waiter nodded and left, but returned a minute later and said they couldn’t do cioccolata. I tried asking for a peppermint tea instead, but the waiter’s English and my Italian weren’t good enough for comprehension. He got the idea that I wanted tea, but I really wanted to make sure he didn’t bring black tea. So I used my phone to look up a translation of peppermint and showed him, but he still seemed slightly confused. Eventually an older woman came over with a small basket of tea bags and asked if I meant this one, holding a bag of green tea. I found a peppermint tea bag in the collection and said “questa”, which solved the problem finally. The waiter brought M.’s cappuccino and a pot of hot water for me to to make my peppermint tea.

We sat for some time, and M. browsed through an Italian magazine that someone had left on an adjacent table. As we drank our beverages the rain poured down outside, and another table had a rotating group of old men, with another one entering the cafe and joining the table as others left one by one, so that over time the entire complement at the table had changed, but only one person at a time, like some cafe table of Theseus.

When we left it was still raining quite heavily. We braved it with out umbrellas, heading towards the waterfront area to see if there was any chance of some sort of view. We reached a colonnaded area surrounding a park, and here we could walk under shelter along a path lined with shops and cafes, so we took the opportunity to be out of the rain for a bit. We went as far as the street running along the waterfront, but it didn’t look promising enough to bother crossing over in the heavy rain. Any view would have been very grey and wet anyway.

So we returned down the colonnade, continuing past where we joined it. Here we found a pasticceria which we looked into. There was a selection of large, flattish pies filled with various vegetable mixtures, which the lady explained to us in Italian. One had eggplant, zucchini, spinach, carrot, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts, and M. got a slice to take away to have later for lunch. There were also small individual pizzas with various toppings, and I got one with just cheese and tomato.

La Spezia colonnade in the rain
Wet colonnade, near La Dolce Vita gelateria (sign visible)

Nearby was a gelateria, named La Dolce Vita. Not having had a gelato yet, I looked in to see a man standing behind a counter with about eight different and interesting looking flavours, none of them labelled. I asked in Italian what the flavours were, and he ran through them. While doing so, a woman came out from the back room with another flavour to put in the display. The man, who had just finished explaining all the other flavours, ended by pointing at the one the lady was placing, “e cioccolato!” But I was intrigued by a brown one with white streaks through it, and crunchy bits on top, that the man had described as chocolate and something and rum. I asked for a small cup with that, and he served it up and asked for €1.80. I didn’t have enough coins, so tried to give him a €20 note. The guy clearly looked like he couldn’t easily make change from that, so I said, “un momento, mia moglie ha moneta,” and went to get some more coins from M. She had enough and the transaction was completed without further problem. The gelato was delicious and the white streaks turned out to be almost marzipan like, which added a nice additional flavour and texture.

Now the rain eased off a bit, almost stopping, so the walk back through the historic city centre was more pleasant. We took our time, checking out side streets and the various shops. We passed a museum, or really two museums in one, an ethnographic museum of the local region, and a diocesan museum of religious artefacts. Checking the opening times, we noted that it observed a siesta from 12:30 to 16:00, but was then open until 19:00. We’d also seen an art museum further along, which was open all day, and probably the more popular option.

Spinach and potato pie
Spinach and potato pie at El pan d’na volta

We passed another bakery, El pan d’na volta, which looked even better than the first one. (Later I discovered this is part of a chain of Italian bakeries.) By now it was after 12:00, and we decided it was time for lunch. So instead of eating our take aways from the first place, we ordered a slice of a good looking spinach and potato pie plus a cioccolata calda each. The lady asked if we wanted the pie warmed up and I said yes, so it took a few minutes to arrive, but even then it was barely lukewarm. Still yummy though. The hot chocolates were thick in the Italian style, and nice and warming on such a dismal day.

Cioccolata calda

On the way back to our hotel we saw many shops closing for the afternoon siesta. This was the time we’d decided to do our laundry, so we returned to the hotel to pick it up. By now the rain had stopped, so it was an easy walk back towards the station where the laundrette was located. On the way out of the hotel, we changed a €5 note into coins for the machines, in case we couldn’t use notes. This turned not to be a problem, as the cash machine at the laundrette accepted notes too.

Waiting for the laundry to finish
Monkey waits for the laundry

We paid €0.70 for some detergent from a vending machine, then €3.50 for the washing machine, plus €4.50 for the dryer. The place was called Mezzora (“half hour”), and each of the wash and dry cycles took 30 minutes. So our overall wait was just over an hour, with the time to work out the machines and move clothes around. We ate the take away pie and pizza from the first bakery as we sat, and they were both good. While we waited, the rain returned, in another really heavy shower. Fortunately it passed by the time we were done, and the walk back was mostly dry again, with a light sprinkle appearing as we got near the hotel.

Peasant dress
Peasant woman’s dress, Ethnographic Museum

We passed a boutique that M. wanted to return to in a while when it opened again. A bit after 15:00 we went out to brave the weather again. At the boutique M. tried on some jackets and things and eventually bought one, a shortish sort of evening jacket with three quarter sleeves. After getting this, we walked back down in the direction towards the waterfront again to visit the G. Podenza Civic Ethnographic and Amedeo Lia Diocesan museums.

Local children's dress
Local children’s clothing, Ethnographic Museum

These were housed in a single building, with a joint entrance fee of €4.50 each. We paid and the lady at the desk said we should catch the lift up to the sixth floor and then work or way down floor by floor. We did this, so starting with the ethnographic exhibits on the top two floors. Each floor was a single long room lined with displays on each side. These included several traditional women’s peasant costumes, with intricate embroidered patterns in various colours, as well as domestic and farming tools, mostly made of wood. There were photos of old rural houses and farmers to put the items into context. Other things included churns, gadgets for spinning wool into yarn, jewellery, lucky charms to ward off the malocchio, baskets, and drawers full of various items of clothing.

Golden angel
Gilded angel artwork, Diocesan Museum

The diocesan material started on the fourth floor, with lots of religious icons and paintings, plus priestly vestments, chalices, processional crosses, reliquaries, and sculptures. There was an amazing altar cloth, with intricate and colourful embroidery in floral and other natural patterns. We worked our way down to the ground floor, going through the whole museum in a bit under an hour.

Embroidered flowers
Embroidery on altar cloth, Diocesan Museum

The street was bustling now with people walking and shopping. We saw a book store and I decided to go in and have a look for some Italian books. I found the whole series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which I’m working my way through as Italian reading practice. We have the first four books at home, but they can only be ordered through a specialty foreign language bookshop and cost a fortune. Here they were €13 each, so I grabbed a copy of the next five books in the series, which will save us a considerable amount.

With these we returned to our hotel, taking a different street that we hadn’t seen before, parallel to the main pedestrian street we’d walked down a few times. This led us to a small square with a covered area, which looked like it was a market area, though empty at the moment. This was actually near our hotel, and we stopped in for a break before dinner.

Vai o Resti
Vai o Resti restaurant

I searched for restaurants we could walk to and found a few that sounded good, particularly one towards the station. There was also the place next door to where we ate last night, which was a highly rated seafood place. As we weighed up the options, the weather decided for us, blowing up a gale that rattled shutters and blew things over outside in the street. There was also some more rain, which grew heavy for a while before easing off again. We figured that walking several blocks in this sort of unpredictable and wild weather was risky, so we decided to stay close to the hotel and go to Vai o Resti (“go or stay”).

We headed out just after 19:00 when they opened. The wind was blowing strongly but there was no rain. The place had an area outside with four tables, enclosed in clear plastic walls and with a canvas roof, but we chose a table inside the building, where there was a single room with just three tables. The owner was friendly and chatty, though not quite as much as the one at last night’s restaurant next door. I said M. was vegetarian and he showed us the menu and ran through the suitable items, which M. thought was fine. She chose a pesto lasagne and some “zucchini meatballs”, which after some questioning I determined actually had no meat in them. I picked an interesting sounding appetiser called scria-something, which was marinated seafood, followed by fried calamari and prawns. These were all chosen off an English menu, which like last night seemed only moderately well translated from Italian. I might have been better off understanding exactly what the food was from the Italian version.

I don't know what this dish was called
Scria-something marinated seafood appetiser

The guy started by bringing us bread in a basket. Then he asked if we wanted olive oil for it, and brought some over in a bottle, plus some salt. The pesto lasagne was a moderate sized serving, which M. said was really good. The scria-whatsy was a large plate, scattered with various pieces of fish with a thin coating like batter or something. There were sardines, as wells as chunks of two other types of fish, one orange one which had the tails attached, and a white fish which was just chunks cut from a larger fish. The bigger chunks had bones and I had to be careful to pull them out. The flavour was somewhat vinegary, and there were small chunks of pickled carrot and some lettuce leaves as well. It was an interesting dish, and nice to try.

Zucchini meatballs
Zucchini “meatballs”

When the mains arrived, M. got a plate with four golfball sized balls with crispy polenta crusts, with some roasted cherry tomatoes and salad leaves. My dish had fried calamari, but no prawns at all, rather there were several baby octopus. Fortunately this was fine with me, and the seafood was delicious, seasoned slightly salty and good with lemon squeezed over it. With the food I had a Pinot bianco, which was like a grigio but noticeably lighter. M. had a glass of chianti classico. At the end of the meal, the owner asked about desserts, but I said I’d like an amaro, and he went over to the bar to pour one. He asked which sort I’d like, and I saw a bottle of Lucano, which is what the man at the table near us had had last night, so I said that one. It came in a small glass and was strong and herbal with a strong liquorice aftertaste. Nice.

Following the meal we walked back to our hotel. It was still windy, but the rain held off, and we were back inside safe and sound quickly. Again we were too exhausted to have showers in the evening, and rested for the rest of the night.

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