To kick off April over 80 Bocconi Exchange Students travelled to Cinque Terre and Portofino. Inside the Bocconi bubble us exchange students have the opportunity to sign up for fully organised trips around Italy, chaperoned by Italian students of the Bocconi Student Exchange Network.  What that essentially means is that you cede all planning and itinerary responsibility to a bunch of fun-loving work-hard-play-hard Italian students who book your meals, accommodation, tours and transport for you.  All you do is pay and flash your student card.  This care-free style of adventure is welcome once in a while, especially when the pressure of being a South African starts to mount as it has in the last week.  No responsibility at all, simply show up on-time and pack comfy walking shoes.

Cinque Terre is a series of five small towns on the north western coast of Italy.  It is famous for it’s sheer cliffs hugging the Mediterranean and supporting columns of quintessentially Italian summer homes in an array of ice-cream colours. Unlike most coastal towns the cities of Manarola and Monterosso shunned the expected enterprise of fishing and constructed enormous man-made stone mountains upon which they planted vineyards.  Today these stone hills produce some of the most desirable and expensive Italian wine, all farmed and produced by hand due to the inaccessibility of the region.

We hiked the region – the best way to get to each town – walking along the sheer cliff faces plunging into the calm and clear Mediterranean below us. We ate delicious seafood and drank Italian beer in the sun. We photographed the tall narrow houses crowding for space between the sea and the vineyards, their green shutters closed against the prying eyes of the 2 million tourists that visit every year.

We then made our way to Santa Margherita which is a beautiful town that acts as the normal zone and more affordable nightlife for nearby millionaire-row in Portofino. This is where we spent the night in a clean and well put together hostel.  It was not my first time in a hostel but it’s been a long time.  Six of us in one room, four girls and two boys, one of whom joined us in applying his make-up in our shared bathroom the following morning.  The corridors were loud, mostly thanks to our own posse of 80 students thrilled that pre-drinks were included in the trip’s cost for the weekend.  We slept well thanks to the brilliance of Italian blackout window blinds and our 5am start.

On Sunday we walked the 10kms to Portofino, a long, winding, sunglass-wearing crocodile of exchange students.  We talked about our government policies, our families and our future families (remembering I am the only member of the crew who is married), whether or not we wanted kids, what kinds of jobs we wanted and where we wanted to live.  It was the stuff sabbaticals should be made of.

Portofino is the wealthiest municipality in Italy and looking at the stately homes owned by dynastic families and celebrities it’s easy to see why. It’s tiny and that’s part of the charm, something that is fiercely guarded through a system of high pricing.  There is a beautiful church on a hill that we hiked too and that lead us round to a castle that has been converted into a restaurant and hotel as well as an old lighthouse.  The views are sensational and the well-preserved hiking paths smell fresh and crisp, part-forrest, part-veggie garden. It was in Portofino that I ate the best meal I have had in Italy thus far.

A brief pause here to explore food.  As a resident of Italy for over two moths I don’t particularly rate the eating experience.  There is of course some great pizza but as far as general eating out goes I find the choices are quite limited.  The diet is very carb heavy and meat light and there are only so many nights you can crave all-you-can-eat sushi. There are one or two gems like the spectacular God Save the Food but overall I find the options lacking.  This extends into the grocery-store shopping experience as well.  There are great selections of fresh fruit and vegetables but very few innovations particularly in terms of convenience food.  Woolworths is still winning in terms of its “Eat in for R150” and “Carb Clever” ranges in my view.

However the fresh curried gnocchi with shrimp and zucchini that I ate in Portofino was perfect.  It is a meal I will remember as a ideal example of the much ballyhooed Italian cuisine.

We were hurried back onto the bus around 5pm on Sunday evening with an uncharacteristic sense of urgency…which I later realised was due to a football match between Juventus and Napoli that numerous members of our organisational party were adamant to get back to Milan and watch.  I was surprised at the music selection for our trip on the bus as well.  Bon Jovi, Oasis and Whitney Houston….among kids none of who are older than 25….classics bridge generations I guess!