travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

la gourmandise (what to eat in Toulouse)

In French, the word for “greedy” has richer connotations than its English counterpart. Tu es gourmand probably doesn’t mean: listen, you’re a greedy pig, but rather: you know how to enjoy something. You have joie de vivre. I like this, the concept of eating well, with moderation and with gusto. I like that this can be something to notice and compliment.   france-patisserie

La gourmandise is a good theme for a trip to Toulouse. It’s the perfect destination for the lazy, hungry traveller. There’s no need to pore over restaurant reviews or splurge on an out-of-budget dinner. Just take a walk and scan restaurant windows for the brightly-colored travel guide recommendation stickers (they’re everywhere!).

Toulouse is small and central enough that it’s easy to navigate on foot. It’s a good place to wander, where you’re more likely to stumble upon a charming little salon de thé than the outskirts of a creepy neighborhood.

All these chance encounters had me doing the math: how much could I possibly eat in a day? I didn’t spend much on entertainment: visiting museums, galleries, and cathedrals (all free or inexpensive), so I was able to taste quite a bit of what Toulouse had to offer.

Marché Victor Hugo

a covered market near St Sernin. Good place to buy stuff for a picnic and talk to the vendors about their food. Buy some local cheese and fresh bread!

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Santine

near the river, a perfect place to have dinner. It’s cozy and packed. Classic French food with a twist, like lamb and tagliatelle in a sauce with zucchini and honey. They do brunch too.

Cave au Cassoulet

Cozy restaurant near the river serving the specialties of the region (foie gras, cassoulet). You eat downstairs in a former wine cave. Reservations required. Come with a huge appetite.

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La Brasière

Super classe. We had oysters that tasted just like the sea and I had a salad with chèvre toasts cut in little hearts. And cassoulet, because it’s my new favorite comfort food.

Mami-Wata

You can only go to a French bistro so many times in a row. This African-Carribean place offers something different. I had a bissap cocktail and banana beignets to start, then chicken with coconut milk and tomatoes, followed by house-made mango yogurt. The plats come with sweet potatoes, rice, and bananas. The restaurant, on a nondescript little street, is dark, elegant, and cozy. A great date spot!

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Boli Café 

This Korean café is just adorable, and a great location near le Capitole. Get the bibimbap and a pot of tea. It’s served with a bowl of nori soup and a clementine for dessert. A nice break from heavier stuff.

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Cafe des Artistes

Just a good place to grab a coffee and read. Great ambiance and location, just across from the Garonne.

Flower’s Café

A local favorite, this place is always packed for lunch. It’s hard to get a seat even on the terrace. If you want to avoid the line, go around 10am and get some of the best chocolat chaud of your life. It’s the real stuff, so thick you need to eat it with a spoon. You can get it with banana or fleur d’oranger, among other choices.

Pillon

Crazy-good pastries with multiple locations around Toulouse. Try the little tarts topped with fruit or an éclair in an interesting flavor. Some days they have brioche à la violette (specific to Toulouse!).

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Moloko

A local guy brought me to this cute cocktail bar near a busy restaurant area. I tried the fresh tomato martini: foamy with basil syrup, vodka, and a cherry tomato. Weirdly good. Some dancing does happen here when it gets late. Soundtrack: The Cure.