After our operatic night in Verona we hired a car and made our way to an apartment in La Spezia for a few nights. Why La Spezia? Because it was the best launching pad from which we could tour the Cinque Terre and Portofino. We were looking forward to these tours because they were private guided tours - something we hadn't yet experienced on this trip. Rather than stressing out about which bus to catch and where to buy tickets, we could just sit back and let the driver/guide run the show.
The first tour covered Porto Venere and three of the famous Cinque Terre. It was also Mum's surprise birthday present - selected by Jess and I with some assistance from my brothers Stewart and Matthew back home. For Mum, it was sure to be a unique birthday celebration. The first stop on the tour was Porto Venere, a coastal fort which had remained true to its medieval roots. Porto Venere differed from most medieval Italian cities in that the city's walls also doubled as accommodation for its inhabitants. I imagine those lodgings were the cheaper ones back in the medieval days due to the increased chance of being exposed to cannon fire. And to think that residents back home complain about the noise from the airport or nearby railway tracks. It could be a lot worse!
Due to its coastal location, Porto Venere played key roles and was a sought after patch of turf in many wars waged by the Kingdom of Genoa. It was also briefly occupied by Napoleon's troops and used as an ammunition storehouse. Nowadays it's better known for making some of the best pesto sauce in the country. Dad bought a jar for us to enjoy and it certainly lived up to its billing.
Next up were the famous Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre are five quaint towns (who would've thought!) that are nestled on the Ligurian part of the Italian Riviera and known for their colourful houses and villas. Of the five towns, we visited Monterosso, Manerola and Corniglia. We only had time to visit three of the five so, sadly, two towns - Riomaggiore and Vernazza - didn't make the cut. Each of the towns we visited were similar but had a point of difference. Corniglia had awesome gelato and cute little bars hidden in holes in the wall. And Monterosso offered up the best seafood lunch we had ever had. Mum and Jess' spaghetti frutta di mare contained a combination of tomato sauce and squid ink with fresh seafood, all served in a giant cast iron pot. Mum, Jess and Dad also enjoyed an entrée plate of oysters that were the size of table tennis bats. I can't say they tickled my fancy. I don't really get the whole "let's eat these slimy things that taste like a cup of salt water and feel like you're chewing on someone's kidney" thing. Call me crazy…
Our second guided tour covered Portofino, one of the most glamourous and high end resort towns in Italy, and the surrounding areas. Portofino held an extra special meaning for Mum because it was the sight where a few Bold & the Beautiful episodes were filmed. Mum was in her element as she set about retracing Brooke Logan's footsteps on her way to her 29th marriage to a Forrester brother. Sadly the Forrester boys were nowhere to be found amongst the rich, cardigan-over-the-shoulder wearing crowd in Portofino.
We really hit it off with our private driver/guide, Mike, who also took us to a cool little winery that wasn't included in the original tour itinerary. We also paid a visit to a little town called for lunch. Recco is famous for its focaccia al formaggio which is super thin and filled with stracchino cheese. Mike knew where to find the best one and made sure we ordered the biggest size available. It was an artery blocking sensation!
The guided tours were a comfortable break from our usual routine of self-planned tours with the plebs. For two days, we felt like the only people in the world as we were escorted from one amazing spot to another. And more importantly, we gave Mum the best birthday she's ever experienced outside of Australia ;-)