Monday, September 15 – Into Italy

Sunny and warm

It took 5 minutes to drive through the St. Bernards Tunnel and there was hardly any traffic. (To compare, it is 20 minutes driving through Gottard Tunnel.) We drove a good mountain road down from the tunnel to the Autostrada near Aosta. We stopped in a very Ticino-looking village on this road for lunch. The village was a group of slate roofed houses – very Italian looking all of a sudden with the houses all clumped together and narrow lanes and roads between them. We parked in a lot beside the highway and walked into the village. The restaurant we had seen advertised on the road was closed, but there was another one just past it.

We climbed up the stairs to the porch where a couple of people sat at a table, then went inside to a small room with a bar area and a couple of tables. There was another small room with tables, but it was one of those closed in rooms (low ceiling, small room, one window closed) that makes me start to hyperventilate, so we sat at a table in the first room, near the door. No menu and several interesting hand written signs on the wall in several languages including English: “eat well here”, “you will eat healthy here”. We explained to the woman serving that we were vegetarians.

It turns out that everyone was getting the same lunch dish – one plate with a cooked greens dish, pieces of a very strong alpine cheese made from cows (but it tasted like goat cheese), slices of tomato, and slices of meat. She left the meat off ours. This has got to be the fastest and smallest lunch we have ever had in Italy. Being in the mountains, it hardly felt like Italy and everyone was speaking French. The meal was delicious and after a quick espresso, we were on our way. 24 Euro for the two of us.

A turkish toilet for my first toilet in Italy! The restroom was down a narrow corridor and was not only a turkish toilet (a porcelain square with footpads for your feet and a hole in the center that you squat over), but the obvious flusher did not work, the knob on the wall was not a flusher, and I finally figured out that you turned on a tap under the sink and aimed a hose at it to flush it.

On the way out, I stopped to look at a framed poster with rows of head shots of men, probably soldiers from the area, and a photo of Mussolini on the top (with a note saying “Capo Benito Mussolini”). I hear Mussolini was very popular in the north.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. As we approached Aosta, we looked across to beautiful mountains. Robert R., a member of our SlowTalk message board, will be hiking there in a couple of weeks. I took a few photos while we were driving by. I also took a few road sign photos while we were driving. When we were near Turin, we could see the smog filled skies in the distance – that brown haze that you see in the very populated areas in Italy.

Of course, we stopped at the first Autogrill that we saw and had coffee. We always love stopping at the Autogrill. I saw a model car of the new Mini Cooper and did not buy it (such self control, I did buy one today though). We got a model of the Smart Car a couple of years ago. Just one of the many quality items you can get at the Autogrill.

There was not much traffic until we got to Genoa. Genoa is not a picturesque place – rows of dreary looking apartment buildings (maybe 7 floors high) along the autostrada and up the hill. A big industrial looking port. An oil refinery (or something that looked and smelled like that). We spent 3 nights in Genoa in 1988 and enjoyed the town, but have not been back since.

We were doing so well and I knew what exit to take, but we saw an exit sign for Levanto one exit before the one I was aiming for and we took it. I realized immediately it was the wrong exit, but then thought we were early, we might as well explore the area. Good thing we did the drive then, because if we hadn’t I would have wanted to do it while we were here. This way we got the horror of the Liguria coastal roads over with immediately. It was one of those roads that winds along the side of the mountains with solid rock on one side and a 10,000 foot drop off to the sea on the other (maybe less). Beautiful views, but a stomach clenching drive. There was no traffic and what there was went very slowly. There were a few guardrails, but they looked flimsy to me.

As we drove by Villa Margherita, we saw Federico outside and waved and he told us where to park. They were supposed to have a new car park ready for this summer, but their construction was stopped for six months for some reason. It is being built now.

I run three web sites for Federico (villamargherita.net for his small hotel, levanto.net about Levanto, and cinqueterreonline.com about the Cinque Terre). We spent one night at Villa Margherita last year and this year we have booked the apartment in the hotel for 1.5 weeks. I will be working with him on his website for a couple of afternoons.

We dragged all our bags up to the apartment (Federico helped), then got settled. Federico’s father, Mario, works at the hotel in the evenings. Steve got him to reserve us a table at Taverna Garibaldi, a great pizza place owned by Federico’s friend Tommasso who we met briefly last year. Then we went out for a stroll to the center of town and along the beach. Such a change from Switzerland. All hustle and bustle and slight chaos, milder weather and the Mediterranean to look at.

We had an excellent pizza dinner and walked back to the apartment.

Notes About Italy Driving: Big speed limits signs were posted at the border area – 130 km/h on the Autostrada, 110 km/h on the blue signed roads. It really seems like traffic is moving at a slower pace. We were not passed by cars in the passing lane going really fast, as on all our other trips. Our Mercedes drives well, but we kept to the speed limits. It was much more like driving in the US.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.