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Roger McCann

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Take the Train

2018-01-16 11:20:12

Sestri Levante in Liguria in north-west Italy is a coastal town on the lyrically named Riviera di Levante. An especially lovely part of the town overlooks the curve of the Bay of Silence where moored yachts and work boats of a few fishermen add to the picture postcard seascape.

A relaxing way to reach this corner of Italy is to go by train. Two hours after leaving London St. Pancras you can be stepping down from a Eurostar onto a platform at Gare du Nord, Paris. An overnight stay, or even better, a few days exploring Paris might be a delightful option before continuing your journey.

From Gare du Nord it takes only a few minutes by Metro, the city’s extensive underground train system to reach Gare de Lyon and a train bound for Venice. On any train journey there may be a few anxious moments on boarding and getting settled but on this long distance train the seating is comfortable with plenty of leg room, individual reading lights and a table.

From Gare de Lyon, the train crosses an expanse of rural France where fields of flat farmland appear to stretch for miles before meeting distant uplands. Further south in Switzerland the train passes through tunnels and alongside lakes and grey green rivers. On the terraced slopes of nearby hillsides, precisely spaced rows of vines grow in every available space. In the background, jagged mountain peaks pierce the sky.

Our first stopover was in Geneva, Switzerland. When we arrived in the late afternoon it was already growing dark so we didn’t manage to see a whole lot of the city. But while exploring quiet streets near the Hotel Edelweiss where we stayed overnight, we came across a busy restaurant serving typical Swiss dishes including fondue and local wines. It proved to be a good choice.

From Geneva we travelled to Milan where we changed trains again, this time within the same station before heading to Sestri Levante.

In late autumn, at the end of the main tourist season, Sestri Levante is pleasantly quiet with a restrained air of confidence. The town offers a choice of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, upmarket shops and hard - to - resist gelaterias selling variously flavoured ice creams.

With one of those ice creams to hand, it’s a delight to join the passaggiata, the early evening procession, as dog walkers, pram pushers, strollers dressed to be seen and those on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs make their way slowly along Via Roma.

In the restaurants, fish and sea food dishes including lightly battered anchovies, sea bass, hake and octopus are some of the specialities on the menus. If pasta appeals there’s plenty of choice especially as Liguria is known for its varieties of pasta and for being the home of pesto sauce made with locally grown basil, believed to be particularly pungent and flavoursome due to the area’s combination of salty air and sunshine.

While some visitors may not stray far from the beach loungers placed a few metres away from the gently breaking waves of the Bay of Silence, thousands of others head further south to the Cinque Terre, to explore the five colourful villages - Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore that sit dramatically on cliffs above the deep blue sea.

Not so long ago, these villages were emptying. Young people were moving out in search of further education and employment opportunities but now year round tourism keeps each village busy. They can be reached by road though a less stressful option might be to arrive aboard one of the ferry boats which leave from Sestri Levante and from other towns further down the coast.

Walking the coastal path between the villages is popular and though guide books suggest the14km will take between 2.5 and 5 hours, it is a strenuous walk in places and for many people of a certain age would not be a mere stroll in the park.

The Cinque Terre was hit by a flash flood on 25th October 2011which caused a lot of damage. In mid-October 2017, the coastal path was closed between, Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia due to landslides. However, should these parts of the path be closed long term, it is well worth taking the train to Riomaggiore, exploring the village and the coastal path as far as the National Park safety barriers allow, then heading north on a train to Manarola to spend some time there.

For our next day of walking the coastal path, we took a train from Sestri Lavante to Corniglia. From the station, it’s a stroll along the pavement before starting up the zigzag staircase of 382 steps, the ladarina, which leads walkers on to the coastal path to Vernazza. Along the way there are other similarly steep sections though thankfully with fewer steps. Other lengths of the path have been paved with flat rocks while on some corners, larger, rougher rock serves as steps between levels.

On one side the terraces are contained behind dry stone walls that were built and repaired over centuries. On the seaward side there are wooden railings in place where the path runs along particularly precipitous parts of the hillside sloping down to the sea.

Over the years as people moved away from the area, these terraces were farmed less and soil erosion and landslides added to the environmental damage. However, in 1997 this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been given further protection through its National Park status. Behind the miles of dry stone walls there are rows of productive vines and groves of lemon and olive trees. To help the full time workers, a small army of volunteers from many parts of the world are given the opportunity to help in the maintenance of this beautiful land.

From many points on the path the views of the colourful villages, out to sea and along the coast, are stunning and vast. In the villages, the narrow lanes and squares appear timeless though a few premises now house shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. When conditions are fine, sunbathers and swimmers head down to the shore to enjoy the sea and sunshine.

With hindsight, should we visit the Cinque Terre again, we would walk just one section per day, say, between Corniglia and Vernazza and allow ourselves more time to stand, stare, and find the perfect spot where we would sit in the shade with a picnic.

On heading home on the train journey north we stopped off in Turin. As darkness fell, we joined the crowds mingling in the impressive city centre squares lit with coloured light. Large numbers of people, out for the evening, strolled by the attractive shops along the length of the covered passageways. Other groups watched the proficient buskers playing music ranging in style from pop to classical. Having enjoyed our short time in Turin, we would definitely like to visit the city again.

This trip by train was a relaxed affair allowing us to people watch and enjoy the passing scenery and ways of different countries. Definitely recommended.

Further information: Ferries sail between Siestri Levante and the 5 villages between April and mid-October

There is a ticketing system allowing walkers access to the coastal path and other parts of the National Park.

Railbookers.com organised our train travel and hotel bookings.

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Monterey and Robert Louis Stevenson

2017-02-22 11:39:33

Big Sur is a spectacular 90 miles of Californian coast. Henry Miller, the late American author, artist and one time resident, described it as "a region where one is always conscious of eloquent silence...the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look." It”s a protected habitat. Sea otters frolic where once they were trapped for their fur, while whales pass close by the shore on their annual migration.

Pacific Highway 1 snakes across and around Big Sur”s ocean battered headlands. In places, the seaward side of the road is bitten into by deeply gouged boulder strewn inlets. Sheer rock faces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range threaten the landward side.

Negotiating the bends in this road fairly concentrates a driver”s mind. Passengers meanwhile, from car or touring coach, gape open-mouthed at the dramatic scenery or the sight of surfers delighting in the challenge of huge waves, which surge up the few small beaches.

When travelling this route from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a hired car we stopped off in Monterey. This was once a sleepy, Mexican Spanish town which developed important whaling and sardine industries. Now these businesses are defunct but the natural harbour and bay, the original attractions, still draw visitors.

Boat trips to catch fish, to scuba dive for ever closer encounters, to commune with sea birds or whales, sea lions and sea otters are on offer. While hang gliders and balloonists choose to drift in the sky above the blue water, other thrill seekers prefer free-falling with a parachute that allows a slowed down descent. For more mundane pursuits, the traffic free recreational trail bordering Monterey Bay appeals to joggers, cyclists, and those favouring roller blades.

We were content to build sandcastles on the beach and work up appetites before enjoying dinner with locally produced wines. Fisherman”s Wharf offers a choice of restaurants guaranteeing seafood “as fresh as it gets” from the catch of the day.

With the sea in front and mountains behind, Monterey seems to have been agreeable and inspirational for great literary figures. John Steinbeck, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, moved the few miles from nearby Salinas to Monterey in his early twenties. There, he gathered material for his novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row. Where he once observed and wrote about the canning factories, the workers, the winos and other characters, there now stands the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the world”s finest. Cannery Row is now renamed Steinbeck Plaza, complete with a bust of the great man. It houses up- market shops, restaurants and art galleries. Steinbeck would probably not have been impressed.

Robert Louis Stevenson also travelled to Monterey. From Greenock, Scotland, “The Devonia” steamed down the River Clyde on 7th August 1879 to cross the Atlantic. "I am in fair spirits but a little off my nut," he wrote from the ship and was glad to arrive in New York some 10 days later.

He then crossed America by train from Jersey City to San Francisco. Yet another train, on a narrow gauge railway, took him south to Salinas. Finally, in ill health, worsened by the rigours of his journey, he was delivered by stagecoach to Monterey.

He endured all of this for love, or so he thought, thinking he was on his way to be married. But there would be no immediate fairy tale ending for Stevenson. His bride to be, Fanny Osbourne, was having second thoughts.

It was some time before Stevenson was well enough to appreciate his surroundings, saying - “on no other coast that I know shall you enjoy, in calm, sunny weather, such a spectacle of Ocean”s greatness, such beauty of changing colour, or such degrees of colour in the sound”.

Stevenson only stayed in Monterey for a few months, but left his mark. A private school is named after him and at nearby Pebble Beach, golfers playing the Spyglass Hill course tee off towards a hole called Blind Pew, fictional names from perhaps his most famous novel Treasure Island. Today, the town is much changed but some of the historical buildings remain from Stevenson”s time. The two storied adobe house where he lived is fronted by a flower garden. The property has been preserved in his memory and it”s enlightening to join a tour led through the house by a knowledgeable enthusiastic guide.

Seeing the author”s velvet jacket lying on his own bed alongside his other everyday furnishings is quite an eerie experience.

The "French House", as it was called locally was owned by a French-Swiss hotelier. He and his wife had a large family, so adding parts to the building to accommodate them all was an ongoing affair. Stevenson gave English lessons to some of the children in lieu of rent and also produced articles for the local newspaper. When he was not working he would roam the woods around the town or go further into the redwood canyons, still a popular pastime with hikers today.

Our guide through the French House was thrilled to learn we were Scottish and actually knew Stevenson”s Edinburgh haunts. She gave us directions for following another part of the author”s journey, to San Francisco.

From Monterey, Pacific Highway 1 northwards becomes progressively busier. The city”s one-way system is baffling, the lack of parking spaces maddening and the thought of wheel clamping or impounding, even worse. So, it was a great relief to be rid of the rented car and end that part of our journey.

RLS also concluded one journey and began another there. He finally married Fanny Osbourne in May 1880. A few months later, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson began a return trip to Scotland by train and boat.

Hours before our own return to Scotland, we sat beside the galleon-topped memorial to the writer in Portsmouth Plaza on the edge of San Francisco”s China Town. In a chance meeting with a Chinese – American man, we discussed the author”s early life (born in Edinburgh in 1850) his Scottish influences including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and the fact that his books are still being read today.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further information: Robert Louis Stevenson”s tale of his trip to America”s west coast is called The Amateur Immigrant.

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