Updated: Sep 20
The alarm was set for 6:30, and I was out of the hotel in Parma by 7, walking to the station to catch a direct train at 7:45 to La Spezia Centrale. I managed to position myself on the platform so that, when I boarded the carriage, there was a luggage rack (with space available!) and a seat nearby facing in the direction of travel. So for 2 hours, I watched the 12 stations roll by as I headed to the major city/port of Cinque Terre. Opposite me was a fifty-ish dude, bicyclist, with crossed legs bouncing and kicking the seat next to me. He never spoke a word or looked up from his phone.
The journey was beautiful – we passed through a lot of hilly countryside, often following a river, and occasionally passing through tunnels. The stops alternated between city/towns and industrial areas, about every 15 minutes. When we reached the end, the Hotel Venezia was a stone’s throw from the station, very easy to locate and down a slight slope towards a square. Reception took my bags to storage after I retrieved the Nikon, and gave me a tourist map of La Spezia.
Heading off on basically flat city streets, I mostly followed Maps, but avoided the stairs on the shady side which rose to (and descended from) a pathway over a tunnel entrance. When walking next to a drop off into a school yard, the students below were shouting and waving to me, which got them my smile and a wave back.
By 10:30 I’d reached the duomo nuovo, the Cattedrale di Cristo Re, a round modern building overlooking a large piazza across the roadway and several stories lower. The building is three levels, with the uppermost level facing back to a parking lot, a cross mounted on the facing, so I figured the entrance might be there. The concrete stairs led up and down, and with a round building, one never knows.
In any case, I entered into the cathedral and faced a slightly sloping (down) space with circular pews all facing the altar set in half rounded space. A stained-glass skylight lighted this core, a large red marble disk in front of the altar. The walls were pretty much unadorned, the columns were placed so as to offer unobstructed views of the celebrant. The ceiling of poured concrete showed the remnants of the molds used to shape and form its surface. I slowly began a counterclockwise tour of the ring around the seating area (the nave?), passing the very modern tabernacle, what I would call a conversation pit – a small space with circular seating and the leader’s seat – and the organ.
While I was there, a few people came in to offer prayers. I tried walking around outside as much as I could at the nave/altar level as I could, getting pictures. But, hey, the exterior of the church is a ring, uniformly an off-white coating over concrete. I noted that there was a cruise ship in port. Walking down to the plaza below, another cross is mounted on the face. From there, I took off to visit the old former cathedral. On my way, I looked up a street and found a castle sitting up on a hill, with zigzag staircases descending through multiple levels, clearly surpassing the ”crookedest” Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Reaching the ex pro-Cattedrale Santa Maria Assunta, which had been the temporary seat from 1929-1975, I entered to find Mass was underway. Powering down and capping my camera, I quietly found a seat in back and observed the service with perhaps two dozen parishioners. Once the church emptied, rather quickly, I began taking my inside pictures. A few pews and separate chairs were in the side aisles, but the center of the nave offered most of the seating. White circular columns rose to support the soft arches and clerestory windows. At the ends of the east side aisles were altars to the Sacred Heart (right) and Joseph (left).
The main altar was curious. Following the changes of Vatican II, the white marble altar, with bas relief carvings below the table, has been moved forward under the dome. Behind, the apse recedes into an alcove where an elaborately ornate cathedra sits below a large oil painting of the Assumption. A crucifix hangs above in the opening. A separate chapel to the south houses a chapel to Mary, Queen of Heaven, in high ornate Baroque. There is a glazed wall hanging which depicts her crowning.
Outside, I was frustrated while trying to get a photo of the front façade. The facing is gray-and-white stones in horizontal stripes, three doors and a circular window above the center entrance. The square Piazza Beverini is a parking area, with commercial vans pulling up anywhere to make deliveries. (I returned after dinner and got a slightly less obstructed view.) Then, with a bit of windows shopping along the way, I headed to the Tourist Office where I got a ferry schedule and spoke with a UK couple about their plans to see the five towns.
Back to the hotel where I was assigned room 207, with my luggage already delivered. Snug, I figured out how to leave the big roller open, and planned to do laundry soon. An email from Cunard implied I would need more dress shirts, and possibly replace my leather footwear, which was starting to burst at the seams. Then I headed to the train station, where I filled more than a page with my journaling while waiting for the 13:19 train to Sarzana.
A 15-minute ride, and at the second stop I was off and walking in this small town. The center, Garabaldi Square has 3 cafés, two of which were open. The cathedral would be closed for an hour more, so I sat down at Caffé de Teatro for lunch. A simple meal of bresaola with parmesan shavings with bread and water. I sat as far from the two smokers that were also customers.
The Concattedrale Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta opened early, and after getting some outside shots of the square belltower and the entry, I entered. The nave is a dark space, with a particularly stunning carved wooden vault over the side and central aisles. A trio of chapels are off the side aisles, reached through rounded arches. One of these houses a brilliant reredos in white marble, the carvings depicting scenes of the Passion of Christ and the deaths of Sts Peter and Paul.
At the ends of the side aisles, altars under domes honor the Eucharist, and the Croce di Mastro Guglielmo. The vault of the apse contrasted with the wood, being an elaborate mural of pale blue, gold and white. This small co-cathedral amazed me, and in half an hour I’d taken more than 50 pictures.
Outside, I spoke with two women from California who were staying in the area. As we watched, a seagull landed on the statue of St Peter, perched on the roof. Heading back to La Spezia from Sarzana, I caught the 4pm train, hanging out with eight Canadian military heading back north after a day in Pisa. Back at the hotel I took a nap, and then, prompted by an email from NCL, completed my pre-cruise check-in, and chatted regarding using CruiseNext certificates. Ready to enjoy the evening, I left in search of a glass of wine.
Extra is a winebar on the Piazza Bastione, down in the port area. This became a favorite, and I enjoyed a glass of Muretti bianco, a Cinque Terre cooperativa in Riomaggiore, followed by 3 reds: Belmesseri ’21 from Pontremoli, about 15km north (Toscana wine) and Calimaia’s ’20 Montrepulciano Nobile and Lucente ’20 Tenuta Luce. Half an hour after arriving, a taster’s plate of bread, cheese and tomatoes appeared. After taking pictures of 4 women celebrating a birthday (one of whom lit up a cigarette inside,) I headed back to the ex-pro-cathedral for a single picture, and then entered Locanda del Mercato for dinner.
The fusilli gamberetti, zucchini, pistacchio to start, the shrimp tails were tough and they had no pistachios to garnish. The calzone Farcito was better fare, however, I only ate half. The air had cooled off, and the restaurant wasn’t too busy, so I dined outside. Seagulls squawked overhead as the sun set, reminding me of the murder of crows settling down for the night in the liquid amber tree across from my California home. Back to the room and backed up photos and began charging the electronics.
My first morning in La Spezia, and the hotel provided breakfast. In addition to juice and coffee, the offerings were all sweet – slices of cake, sugar-topped croissants. Grabbing the camera and string bag, I caught the 9:15 Pisa train, getting off half an hour later in Massa, about 35 miles south along the Mediterranean Sea. Looking inland, the mountains in Carrara showed the marble it is so famous for. Once off the train in Massa, I had a steady slight climb along a tree-shaded street to reach the city center, and then walk through a pair of piazzas.
The Basilica Cattedrale di San Pietro Apostolo e San Francesco d’Assisi sits up at the top of 20 steps at the end of a short street/plaza. It fully fills the space, such that it is difficult to view the roofline behind the façade, especially from down below.
The facade has three arches defining a porch, which is repeated at a second level. Pediments and capitals, a balustrade, round and square columns, the façade adornment is fairly simple. On either side of the entry door, large panels list war dead, with a coffered ceiling and murals behind the front arches. A wide single aisle fills the nave floor, white ribbed pilasters raising to the vault covered in a light golden geometric design. Three shallow chapels with marble altars and massive oil paintings fill the niches along both side walls. A narrow opening yields to two chapels: the baptistry and an altar to St Michael. With shorten arms, the transepts house the sacramental altar with a crucifix, and an altar depicting St Francis receiving the rosary.
The apse has the main altar at its opening, with a lovely coffered vault leading to the half dome over the high altar. The wooden bishop’s throne sits directly in front of it. Out in the cloister, a small garden is enclosed by double-tiered covered walkways. The walls to the crypt have mounted panels of marble carvings, filled with elaborate depictions from early times.
Out the front door and down the short street, I soon began retracing my path to the station. About half way, I opted to ride the local bus, which got me there in time to catch the Florence-bound train. The train had to wait at the Viareggio station, while the delayed Pisa train passed us, so I had an opportunity to journal the first half of the day. The train was crowded, so I sat with 2 Australian women who were on a two-month holiday and bound for Firenza.
Lucca, my destination, is a large old city sitting to the south of the Serchio River. The train station is to the south of this walled city, and I needed to cross a moat to enter through the Porta San Pietro.
The tall belltower rose high above the tree tops, an easy landmark to guide me. I approached from the rear, walking across a large grassed space just inside the old walls.
The Duomo di Lucca / Cattedrale di San Martino is a large edifice with a nine-story campanile at its southwest corner. The large Piazza San Martino in front is stone, with buildings around its perimeter. The west façade appears unbalanced, with the southern arch narrower than the center and north arches. Above these two-story arches are three levels of colonnade. The 37 columns appear to have different designs and different marbles. From the porch, the intricate carvings above the doors and on the walls displayed scenes from the life of the patron, St Martin. (A small labyrinth is carved into the base of one pier.)
Once inside and paying the 3€ admission, the narrower south side aisle confirmed the façade view. Substantial columns support the elaborately decorated vaults of deep blue, gold, beige and brick. The floors are tiled in intricate designs in black and white. A smaller domed octagonal baptistry sits (locked) midway along the north aisle. In a side chapel, the Scultura Ilaria del Carretto sits behind a low iron fence. The sanctuary has a single altar, a stunningly carved block of Carrara marble and a bronze pulpit, both artfully lighted. The carved wooden bishop’s seat is up 5 steps, in front of what might have been the high altar, now covered in greenery. The organ pipes, and the small balcony for the console, are gilded beautifully, even the balcony’s underside.
Walking the plaza, I was curious about a nearby dome and belltower, that of the Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni e Reparata. This church apparently houses the cathedral museum which includes archeological Roman ruins. There is a 10€ admission fee, which includes access to the (then closed) campanile, but I’d chosen not to go in. [I later found out it had been the first cathedral in Lucca, and I’ll now need to return, which, because I enjoyed my short visit there, will not be a hardship.] Back around to the park behind the duomo, I climbed up to the pedestrian path that tops the old walls, and walked a bit before heading down to cross the moat and head to the station.
Faced with an upcharge for a seat, I took a (later) local to Viareggio, missing my planned connection, but boarded a packed train (with poor AC) to get back to La Spezia just before 5.
After dropping the camera in the room to charge the battery, I headed back to Extra and had a pair of whites, a ’21 Rèmole and a ’20 Corvè, which came with an appetizer plate.
Driven away by a patron who was nearly chain-smoking, I found Memory where I had Estiva, stracchino pesto, cotto, pomodoro all spread on a large focaccia. Sterne, a red wine, and water to drink. After dinner I returned to the room to do the backups, and booked a ticket online for the ferry the following morning.
Thursday morning after a light breakfast, I walked down to the port and queued up at the ferry dock for a ride north which would stop at Porto Venere before continuing on to four of the five towns: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. I was fortunate when I boarded to sit with an Italian man and his mother on a bench in the bow, as we were in the shade for almost the entire ride. The Mediterranean was calm, the view a bit hazy, and I was able to enjoy my trip along the coastline.
My pictures included the queuing point, the harbor as we boarded and then departed, views of a castle isolated on a rock and a view of La Spezia. At our first stop, the striped church and neighboring castle ruins hung onto the rocky point. A good number of passengers debarked, but an even larger number boarded.
Stopping next at Riomaggiore, a few folks got off to head to the beach, a few got on. From the water we could see the coastal highway near the water level, the train tracks much higher, terraced vineyards. The passenger exchange was repeated at Manarola and Vernazza, with beachgoers checking out the sand and water. The ferry would turn around to head back to La Spezia after most of us got off at Monterosso al Mare.
After walking the streets and the shore for about an hour, unsuccessfully looking to taste some local wine, I headed to the train station, boarding for a 3-minute ride to Vernazza.
Colorful streets, lined with shops calling to the visiting tourists, I then headed to the water, finding a cave and viewing the folks standing knee deep in the waters of the marina.
Back at the train station, I entered the tunnel which included the platform, finding it much cooler.
The ferry had not stopped at Corniglia as there is no waterside port there. The train station is well out of town, so that people in the know (not me) scrambled from the train and climbed to the bus stop, queuing for a small 15-passenger bus to take them up the hill to town.
After watching the loaded first bus depart, with more than another load in queue, I checked and the uphill walk was 1.4km, about a half hour. It “looked brutal, with several switchbacks.” As I would classify the first two towns as “tourist traps”, albeit beautiful and friendly, I decided to wait on the next train south. I could look out over the wall at the sea.
Manarola, when I journaled later, caused me to draw a blank. Looking at my photos, I recall a stonework block in the street which, capped with bookstalls, divided the town to shops and nicer eateries above, and beach-focused establishments along the waterfront. A long path overlooked the cliffs to the rocks along the water’s edge. I really didn’t see much in the way of a beach.
Onward to Riomaggiore, where steep cliffs topped by houses with views looked down on the town. Heading uphill from the station, I chanced upon Ghemé, an enoteca where I was finally able to sample Cinque Terre wines. Sassarini, a vermentino, albarola and bosco white blend from Riomaggiore; Litàn, a piccabon and rossese bianco white blend from Riomaggiore; Scià (woman winemaker), a vermentino, albarola and bosco white blend from Monterosso; and Litàn, a vermentino, albarola and bosco white blend from Costa de Sèra. I found my tasting to be delightful, fully enjoying all the wines. A couple from New Zealand, newlyweds, sat down at the next table and we had a fun conversation, comparing travel notes. To return to the station, one walks through a tunnel, which has some brilliant mosaics on the walls, which I noticed were unseen by most.
After spending 2 hours in Riomaggiore, I think in the future I’d just venture that far, particularly as I don’t beach. I still would like to visit the ruins and church at Porto Venere. The train ride back was quick, I dropped the camera off to charge, and headed out to find food, as I’d been soaking up a bit of wine. Into Osteria della Corte just before 7pm, I had another glass of white, a ’21 Cascina Maddalena “Capotesta” Lugana, a wine from Lombardy and made from turbiana grapes. My starter was a Ligurian-style rabbit tortelli. A couple from northern California sat down next to me. Both teachers, he in Portola Valley, she in Monterey, he had joined a 2-month UN legal program, and both were exploring.
My main, roast pork with mustard sauce and roasted potatoes called for a red, so a Tuscan Castel del Piano “Pepe Nero” Vermentino Nero did the trick. As cherries were in season, I opted for a cherry sorbet to end the meal, but was disappointed with its neutral flavor – I should have tried the melon and pepper offering.
Before going to sleep, I’d been concerned about my train ride from La Spezia to Pisa – it was a train originating in Genoa, and I anticipated it being busy. After breakfast and checking out, I headed up the rise to the station and got to the crowded platform. The express came in first, and the platform emptied. The 9:15 then arrived 20 minutes late, and I was able to get my gear stowed away while riding in the last of the 5-carriage train. In Pisa, heading from the station towards the old city, I walked an extra half block before returning and finding the entrance on the opposite side of the building. My room wasn’t ready, but with the tourist map they provided, and my Nikon in hand, I headed to the old cathedral.
Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno is the former Pisan cathedral from 925 until the new cathedral was consecrated in 1118. It is a substantial building, a church with sandstone blocks for the first story, and then the Lombard-style white-and-gray horizontal stripes to where the roof begins (front and north, transept.) The floorprint is a “T”, with a dome at the crossing and a very short apse. The front doors were locked, and I walked around the church looking for an alternate open door, without joy. And I couldn’t find any indication of a phone number to call. On my circumnavigation, I did admire the exterior ornamentation, before moving a block to walk along the Arno River to the bridge I needed to use to cross to the historic center.
As I approached Ponte Solferino, a bit further upriver was the “wedding cake” gem of a small church, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina. High gothic in style, eight spires rose over a double nave, with small lacy statuary along the sides.
Crossing the Arno, I came to the Orto e Museo Botanico. Standing just inside the gate of the Botanical Gardens, I was able to see gravel paths and established vegetation, but I decided not to hand an admission fee over as this was part of the University of Pisa, and I knew I had 27€ of tickets awaiting my pickup.
Further north, I came to the complex run by the OPE and headed to the building where I could get my ticket admitting me to all five buildings.
First stop was the Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta / Duomo di Pisa, where I unknowingly walked in the back door and never had my ticket scanned. The dark gray and white horizontal striping was more evident on the inside gallery walls, with the stripes not all of a consistant width. With five aisles in the nave, the plain Tuscan columns rose three stories, with arches that supported the deep aisled gallery before the view to the elaborate coffered ceiling catching the eye. Looking down the long central aisle, the half dome over the sanctuary in the apse and its mosaic of Christ the King drew me eastward. The modern main altar is carved in white marble and rests up three shallow steps from the nave floor. The walls of the quire are filled with murals, stretching between three block columns. Another three steps to the level of the high altar, which the cathedra sits in front of, three steps higher. On either side, dark carved wooden chairs are reserved for the auxilery bishops.
Out in the nave, the spectacular pulpit drew much attention, as did the altars at the ends of the transepts. To the south, below the marble statues of Mary being crowned by the Trinity is the crystal coffin of San Ranieri. [Despite taking 125 pictures inside, I didn’t seem to include the north transept, which was under canvas and scaffolding on the exterior. My notes confirm both the inside and outside of this transept are subject to conservation.] The walls of the nave outer aisles are all filled with monumental religious oil paintings. I found the cathedral overall to be rather dark inside, there wasn’t much natural light coming from the galleries and above, where the only openings match what is seen outside.
Exiting through the western facade, I walked across a green lawn into the circular baptistry. Recalling a beehive, the light gray exterior rises three levels to a dark gray dome. Inside, thin horizontal stripes of a darker stone line the cream-colored walls, which are behind rose columns supporting a circular gallery. At the center, raised up three steps, is the octagonal full-emersion font, in front of an altar. There is little ornamentation, except the flooring with geometric patterns dividing up the base.Stairs allow you to view from the gallery, albeit the dome is plain.
Again outside, I watched families and younger groups sprawl on the manicured lawn, some wisely in the shade as it was warm and sunny. To the north is the Camposanto Monumentale, a former cemetery in a cloister of a large near-empty building. Sacred ground, lore has it that soil from Golgotha was transfered there after the Third Crusade. At four stories in height and perhaps 100m long, the interior walls are filled with murals, some currently being conserved. The floor is patterned stone, and the inside wall is arches filled with clear glass above sarcophagi. Some gravestones mark burials in the floor. A domed chapel is at one end, with elements from the cathedral’s treasury displayed in cabinets. The central grounds are lawn, and access is restricted to stone walkways. While a monument to the dead, I was impressed with the many frescoes, particularly those which had been restored.
I had a time slot assigned for my climb of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Following instructions, I went to the cloakroom, leaving my string backpack after putting the spare battery and SD chip into my pockets. With my camera in hand, I joined the line and slowly moved to the entrance. The tower is hollow, a double-walled column, with steps wrapping around the space between. Three hundred steps put you at the first level, where a fence that is about 5-foot 8-inches tall allows a view of Pisa and its surrounding countryside. Fortunately, the camera has a flexible screen, so raising it above eyelevel and the top of the fence, I could still focus and frame, rather than what all those with smartphones were attempting. Then up to the second and top level where the bells ring the walls and the inner core is capped. A lower railing, the views were slightly higher and still afforded great views. I met and spoke with a family from Houston, David, Jr and son David III. We started our descent together, and I had a conversation with the youngster, which distracted me from experiencing any notice of the walk down.
I walked the grounds some more, taking pictures of the buildings I’d visited, particularly taking ones from all sides of the cathedral. All that was left of my pass was the Museo della Sinopie, housed in the old seminary building. It features the conservation which continues to be done at the Camposanto, with sections of wall transferred to this building to the south of the cathedral. Particularly interesting to me were the “cartoons” – the drawings on the wall in red stick that guided the fresco painters. Freshly in my short term memory, I was able to recognize some of the ”under wall” of what I’d seen at the cemetery building. From a historic perspective, they had on exhibit pages from a mid-nineteenth century book which had reproduced many of these frescoes. I’d say my favorite was the one depicting the Last Judgement and Inferno.
As I was getting ready to leave, the woman at the entry and I chatted, and she recommended that I include the Museo della Opera del Duomo, which houses the art removed from the cathedral and the baptistry. On my way, I’m very glad I spent the extra hour exploring. Many of these originals have been duplicated and “returned”, but seeing the originals was revelatory. Seeing the weathered conditions of statuary, elements which have been hidden away, as well as carved wooden panels from the quire – all much closer than I’d been – was a real treat. Much more of the Treasury is also on display, including old vestments. As I was approaching the exit through the cloister, I was pleased to have a view of the tower that I classified as artsy, always a goal.
Via Roma had been my route north, so I opted for Via Santa Maria for my return to the hotel. The buildings along the street were warm earth-tones, shades of pumpkin, ochre, sand with black shutters. Eateries lined the pedestrian way with burgundy umbrellas, encouraging strollers to stop and rest with a Apero or caffé. A Friday evening after 5pm, I came to a church and found a large crowd, many elegantly dress twentysomethings. Crossing the Arno, I saw crews out sculling in their shells.
Back at the hotel, I was assigned room 302, a small space with enough floor to open the big bag. Single twin, I asked for another pillow after I’d taken a shower and changed. Out in search of a glass of wine (or two), I settled into Vineria di Piazza across the river. A glass of Malverzana, a Tuscan Vermentino from Vallorsi: it came with peanuts, chips and olives as I sat outside on the piazza writing my journal. Despite some hassle ordering a second glass, they brought me In Nero, a vermentino nero from Pietraserena Arrigoni.
Hungry, I was up and off looking, finding Le Scuderie, back on the south side of the river. The insalata verde was served on a large wide-brimmed bowl: lettuce greens with balsamic, olive oil, lemon and lots of freshly ground pepper – it was great. A birra del Borgo Real accompanied my half-meter pizza Vesuvio (pomodoro, mozzarella, salamino, ricotta) which was fiery spicy and delicious. Service here, as well as at the wine place, was dismally slow. The dessert of lemon sorbet was served in a prosecco flute with a straw – it was liquid, but cold.
Back to the room to do the backups, charge the equipment, get on the Internet for email. I had my second pillow and after repacking the big roller, went horizontal. Unfortunately, it was a rough night for me. My left foot ached, and then I started experiencing muscle cramps in both legs about every 60-75 minutes. I had been drinking glasses of water without peeing – an indication I was dehydrated. After several hours the cramps stopped (and I peed.) I finally figured out why my left foot was an issue – my gout had returned. [Research on Google, since I’d been limiting my shellfish, the usual culprit, caused me to limit my intake of both fruit juices and alcohol. This worked]
You can purchase your own copy (or have me send it as a gift) of Cathedrals to the Glory of God by clicking this link: