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The Spice of Italy | An Italian Wednesday

Wednesday in La Spezia and Cinque Terre 

Looking back I really had no time at all in Genoa – pretty much only one full day. The struggle of travelling alone can be deciding how long to spend in one place; too long and you’ll get bored and become existential (unless that’s just me), too short and you’ll feel like it was a wasted trip, not fully taken advantage of. For sure, Genoa is a place I’d go back to, it being a bit rough around the edges yet exceptionally charming – not a shiny tourist-laden place (like Milan or Rome). I think it’s nicer to feel more immersed in the culture and location, in a more real atmosphere and environment rather than like a spectator at an aquarium (ironic, I know).

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I awoke on Wednesday morning to the sound of huge sporadic thumps and two men yelling in the street just below my window. What do I find but gigantic sides of meat being wielded out of a small white van, placed onto a metal table with wheels and being hurtled into the darkness down the narrow cobbled paths and alleyways of Genova.

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The better part of Wednesday was spent jumping on trains and trying to find my hostel located in the middle of no where (an exaggeration, it was pretty close to the city of La Spezia, just up far in the hills). I bid adieu to Genoa on the walk to the train station from my hostel (Hostel Manena, if you need tips on a great place to stay) and watched the beautiful coastal views flashing in and out of view on the train ride to La Spezia.

La Spezia, translating from Italian to “The Spice”, is rather routinely overlooked – and understandably, being the main city next to the beautiful Cinque Terre. But when visiting the National Park, this hard-working port-town, home to Italy’s largest naval base, is not only the place you have to head to anyway to get in and out of the glamorous tourist hotspots, it’s a great place for nightlife, an affordable place to stay (don’t even start thinking about staying in one of the Cinque Terre towns if you’re on a tight budget) and exquisite Ligurian cuisine found in cosy trattorias on almost every street.

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As I arrived in La Spezia, the September sun was back and with vengeance. My poor skin sizzled as I lugged my heavy rucksack through the town to find the next bus to Bassia, far up in the hills behind La Spezia, where my next hostel was not so conveniently located – “Ostello Tramonti” if you need a super cheap roof over your head when in the area. But I was once again famished, having left early in the morning from Genoa with only a sad bowl of hostel cereal sitting in my stomach. Frantically Trip Advisor-ing, I visited a trattoria on one of town’s main roads – Trattoria Nuova Spezia.

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Lunch at this establishment was an experience in itself, the trattoria not seeming to host tourists much as the overwhelmingly Italian owner Francesco was intent on making me feel more than welcome, like a guest in his own home or like a long-lost family member. I was brought a feast, including complimentary starter dishes and a post-meal shot of limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy). For mains: freshly caught grilled sea bass, so tender and meaty with only a pinch of salt to season. On the side: delicately grilled slices of courgette, aubergine and red pepper, smelling just how my grandma used to make them. A basket of fresh bread was on stand-by, ready to mop up puddles of olive oil drizzled on and next to the food.

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Shockingly, I hadn’t sampled fresh mozzarella yet. I double checked the menu but there was none to be found, so I asked Francesco whether there happened to be any lurking in the back. As I would have it, he skipped out and back into the dining area in a flash, a large fleshy white ball atop a white plate in his hands: now this was the freshest buffala mozzarella I’d ever seen and tasted. Tender and slightly chewy on the outside and a bit leaky and soft on the inside. When it comes to mozzarella, especially if you’re in Italy, don’t settle for the rubbery stuff sitting in sad little bags in your local supermarket – hunt out where to find fresh mozzarella during your stay in Italy. If it’s not on the menu, try asking in a dining establishment. This particular mozzarella was made fresh in the morning and was exquisite simply with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of coarse sea salt.

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Being incredibly full once more, I had a nightmare trying to find a bus to Bassia, the availability of public transport being very few and far between – more than a nightmare for a Londoner like myself. In the end a taxi was a necessity, and I finally arrived in my hostel far up in the hills. Dusk lurked as the afternoon hit 4pm, and I quickly made way to Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre towns, by the public bus.

If you’ve seen Cinque Terre in pictures, I can now say from experience that it’s just as incredible, if not even better, in real life. Apart from being far too crowded with tourists at some points the day (early morning and late evening seemed to be more peaceful), these towns were like something straight from a movie set. Riomaggiore is said to have been a village dating from as early as the 13th century, known for its character and wine produced by the surrounding vineyards. The vibrantly contrasting coloured tower houses majestically encircle a small rocky beach, with tiny boats parked around the fringe. On the main road are shops, cafes and restaurants which are well worth a visit, but don’t spend all your pennies here: although incredible, the rest of the towns are fairly similar and have an array of other places to visit.

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The sun began to fall as I reached Riomaggiore, so I hopped on a ferry that sailed toward the top-most town of Monterosso. It was serene; the sound of the sea silenced the ferry-goers, the view of the towns stunned everyone and the sun made the water shimmer and sparkle as we bumbled across the waves.

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Monterosso drew closer and closer, the sun turning from baby blue to a magenta to a deep navy. Before dinner, exploration was in order and I climbed up to a lookout point over the town where a (slightly morbid) cemetery sat that was actually well worth a wander through. The air smelt so fresh, so clean, and I tried to rid the London-smog from my lungs as I dawdled through the rocky paths. As the transport in Cinque Terre is very sporadic, I had to dine within a tight timeframe, rapidly enjoying a plate of aperitivos, featuring local salami, ham, cheese and tomato alongside a classic Italian Campari Spritz – Campari is a bitter, herbal and fruity aperitif, served with Prosecco and club soda for a refreshing drink perfect with salty snacks.

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The night drew to a close, and en-route to the hostel I grabbed some tiramisu gelato from a tiny gelateria in Riomaggiore. Perching on a sidewalk, before I knew it sticky cream coated my fingers as the warm night melted the icy treat with haste and no mercy as I waiting for the hostel’s shuttle bus to take me to my bed.

The shuttle bus rumbled far too furiously round and up the steep and narrow roads etched into the side of the Cinque Terre rock-front and I held my arms across my body as if to be equipped with two extra seatbelts. I glimpsed out the window to see if we were yet to fall off the cliff into the seawater below and saw the moon as I’d never before, intensely bright white, radiant, its glow bouncing and skipping forwards perfectly onto the slightly shimmering pitch black sea water.

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