Having sweated through a second grad degree, I wanted to celebrate with a much needed vacation. Rushing from place to place is fine for some people, but I prefer spending my time getting to know a destination and establishing a sense of belonging. On this occasion, I settled on exploring the Ligurian coast – the northernmost edge of Italy known as the Italian Riviera.
Brushing up on my Italian seemed a good way to begin fitting in with the local scene, so I chose a language school in the resort town of Sanremo, located just 55 kilometers east of Nice, France, which was my closest arrival point by air.
OMNILINGUA language school, in Sanremo, offered a variety of courses and lodging choices. I took the shared apartment option instead of staying with an Italian family or in a hotel. For me the location and price were molto bene.
I was there in May, low season in those parts, when costs were well within my travel budget. I paid 275 (C$382; US$331) for school plus 275 for sharing an apartment with two roommates, Liu and Nikki, the first week. The second week it happened that I had the place to myself.
The two-bedroom apartment was much nicer than I expected. Located in a charming neighborhood just five minutes up the hill from the school, it was spacious, clean, attractive, and well-furnished.
Bedding, dishes, cookware, and appliances, including a washing machine, were included. It had a good bathroom, two terraces with sliding draperies for shade and, on the ground floor of the building, a "quick-stop" and a fresh produce store staffed by friendly, helpful people.
The lesson plan I chose gave me four hours of daily instruction for two weeks. After testing, I was placed in the basic Italian language class. With only three students in the class, each of us got plenty of practice. I thought the staff and teachers were excellent. According to the more advanced students I spoke with, they, too, were greatly satisfied with their OMNILINGUA courses and teachers.
Learning while living in Sanremo, right on the Mediterranean Sea, was just what I wanted and needed.
After class I was free to do as I pleased. I wandered about with other students or by myself. I'm quite happy exploring on my own, so I didn't mind that my roommates stuck to their own agenda. Liu, from China, had married an Italian who sent her to school for two months – she studied hard all the time. Nikki had been studying Italian for some time – she was a young executive always out with friends.
One morning, I stopped at a nearby bakery where the charming pannetier kindly introduced me to Patty and Paul with whom I quickly made friends.
This merry couple, from Yorkshire England, took me along on their sightseeing trips. One day we went by local bus and taxi up to the very top of the hills near Sanremo to Bussana Vecchia. This interesting town was abandoned after an earthquake in 1887 but has been gradually re-inhabited by artists coming from all over Europe.
I could easily have been quite comfortable staying on in Sanremo longer than two weeks. But, I felt like moving on to experience a peaceful contrast to the hubbub of a resort town.
For peace and quiet, I figured I couldn't do better than staying at a Santuario – a retreat center operated by religious houses, often with attached guest quarters. A custom that began centuries ago to provide rest stops for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem continues nowadays, throughout Italy, for the benefit of both "pilgrims" and non-religious tourists alike.
Selecting from The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries by Eileen Barish, (2003, Anacapa Press), I chose Santuario Nostra Signora di Soviore located high above and between the ancient towns of Monterossa al Mare and Vernazza at the eastern end of the Italian Riviera – a region called Cinque Terre.
It's about 240 km (150 miles) from Sanremo to Monterossa, and the 4-hour train trip, with an easy connection in Genoa, is memorable for rugged coastal views.
For a serene place to plan and ponder the next little part of my life, I could not have chosen better than Soviore. The place has an inspiring hillside setting. The administrator, Paolo Merlo, was a welcoming and helpful host. I stayed five nights and paid 50 (C$69; US$60) per night, which included excellent dinners at the onsite dining room.
I had a good room overlooking the wide terrace fronting the church and the glimmering Mediterranean Sea far below.
I met wonderful people during conversations at mealtimes, and once, just after dinner, I wandered near the sanctuary door enticed there by an entrancing melody issuing from within. Inside, a young woman, whom I had earlier seen dining with her family, filled the little chapel with glad song. Wow! Talk about a joyful noise!
From Soviore, days may be spent hiking, touring, or simply luxuriating in peaceful surroundings. I found trails and pathways suitable for every level of fitness going in all directions.
I could hike down into Monterossa or, if I felt lazy, I could catch the hourly bus (one euro). Then I could travel from town to town by hiking trail, by train, or by water-taxi – for about one euro.
One day, I hiked the 7 kilometers down to Monterossa and back up. Poised above the bay about two-thirds of the way up, a restaurant provides a welcome rest and meal stop.
A prettier, far more open trail leads from the sanctuary towards Vernazza. I jogged along this high alpine path until I reached the autostrade (highway). The going was gently downhill all the way, but, as I was growing hot and still had a long way to go, I decided, without hesitation, to flag down a passing car. I felt completely safe doing so in this peaceful, idyllic place.
I never had a worrisome thought about walking alone or the possibility of running into muggers and the like. Likewise, riding with strangers – who turned out to be a friendly couple from Vernazza – seemed nothing out of the ordinary.
After a short walk from the parking lot and a satisfying explore, I hopped on the boat and was back – all too soon – in Monterossa. For the rest of that afternoon I lay around on the rocks of the jetty past the town pier, bathing a little, gazing at schools of fish, the one lone sailboat, and the flocks of tourists along the beach.
In Cinque Terre, all the walking is stupendously rewarding. Beaches, coves, and anchorages are plentiful – next time I might arrive on a sailboat.