Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Charming Cinque Terre

After only a two day work week I bid adieu once again and we set of for our whirlwind cinque notte Italian adventure.  Whew, May flew by with all that travel.  Here's the outline of our itinerary that I ever-so-carefully crafted months ago.

Nice views looking from Monterosso south - the other tiny quattro terre (Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarolo, and Riomaggiore) are like clusters of color on the edge of the rocks in the distance

Thursday 23-May
Drive to Stansted (2.5 hours) to catch a 10 am flight to Genoa.  Bus from airport to train station.  Train to Monterosso del Mare (una delle Cinque Terre), arriving around 18:00.
Friday 24-May
Late train to Florence (Firenze!) changing at Pisa (15 minute visit). Arriving around 22:00.
Saturday 25-May
Hop on a relaxing evening train to Rome, reaching speeds of 155 mph, arriving around 22:00 again.
Sunday 26-May
Rome all day
Monday 27-May (UK bank holiday)
Rome until evening - a short train ride down to Ciampino that night
Tuesday 28-May (UK bank holiday)
Set the alarm for 5 am for a 7 am flight out of Ciampino to Manchester.  Home by noon!

Driving the rental car all the time is quite an advantage as it lets me pick the best price airport independent of where I leave my car, so pretty good deal!  I'm pretty lucky with all that.  Also, all reservations were made on  Converting into USD - Monterosso was $170/night, Florence was $85/night, $110/night for Rome, and $90/night for Ciampino.  I  know that sounds expensive but we were in the bottom quartile with those choices.  We found that when you drop below $100/night, you either have to share a bathroom or stay in an outskirt town like Ciampino (but that was convenient for the airport).

At least breakfast is included, but Italians just have a different definition.  I love hearing stories from my UK friends about the first time they stayed at the Embassy Suites in the US and go for their epic breakfast buffet.
I was highly pleased with all our hotel picks.  My goal this time was to pick places which were walking distance from the central train stations in order to maximize our time in the cities.  My experience so far has been that all those little commutes via bus, taxi, or metro really add up and eat into valuable tourism experiences, and we didn't have time to spare!  Also, since all of our arrivals into these different destinations were later in the day, we didn't have to figure out a luggage drop-off plan.  All the hoteliers were happy to hold our luggage after we checked out, and we didn't have to go out of our way to pick the luggage up since we were close to the station.

Kerry might think I'm trying to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of everything, but I think it worked out pretty well.  Also, I think you'll all be impressed by the amount we were able to experience in a relatively short time.

Short wait at Genova Piazza Principe for our train, notice how light Kerry packs for 6 days!  We're like backpackers without backpacks.
Don't get me wrong - my goal is not to "win" by doing as much as possible into a day, but we agreed that this year would be devoted to traveling as much as possible.  While it is fun, it's definitely not a "vacation" every weekend we fly out.  I think of our traveling this year more like a weekend hobby.  It's something enjoyable that one spends money on in their free time, like gardening; sometimes it's hard work!  And looking back, we're getting better at it.  Every trip has its stressful parts or unplanned obstacles, but looking back now at our early trips I have to laugh at all the rookie mistakes we made.  This time around, planning and execution both went quite well to the extent we can control them, which is all you can ask for really.

We really lucked out with the weather in Monterosso.  The first evening we explored the town after checking but before finding a place for dinner.  Thanks to the Doug and Tara for letting us borrow their Rick Steves book which offered a short tour of the town and up into the cemetary.

Our first views of Monterosso del Mare upon arriving from the train station

The old fortress was now a private residence

When in Italy, get a Spritz as an apertif!

Or a prosecco.
A very European family with tre children - younger boys and an early teen daughter were enjoying the beach below the balcony we were sitting at in the above pictures.  When it was time to go as the sun set behind the hills, the whole family just stripped down bare naked in front of each other (and us) to change into their street clothes, like it's no big deal.  What is so normal for some is so unnatural for others - fascinating really.

Wandering down the main drag

I think this might be a scarab beetle!  Well, dung beetle actually, but scarab sounds cooler.  It was as large as a 20 pence coin!

As we climbed up the hill to the cemetary there were views of a very expensive highway above that was built to get better access to the towns.

Real poppies - I don't think I've ever seen them growing in the wild like this before. These flowers carry a lot of significance to WWI - see "In Flanders Fields"

The serene, beautiful cemetary

You can see the whole old town hidden behind the hills out of view from the marauding pirates.  The new town section with the beaches was built after the piracy problem was solved.

Nice digs for a final resting place
A tropical view out at the Ligurian sea
We felt very relaxed here.  It was easy to find a decent Italian seafood restaurant for some frutti di mare and a carafe of the local white wine without overspending.  And while there were plenty of tourists - many Americans - there was none of those annoying guys selling light up helicopters, goo balls, knock off purses, or keychains of some random monument.  It was very peaceful.

The walk home after dinner, the moon was shining through the clouds and reflecting on the water (a bit of over exposure to help with the contrast).  You can barely make out lights from neighboring Vernazza.

Kerry wanted to feel the water without getting her feet wet. It didn't go well but was hilarious.
The next day after our sugary croissant and banana breakfast we went on a walk.  I discovered how to use Google Maps to make and save personalized maps ("My Places" thanks to Doug and Tara, per usual, for pointing me to this cool feature).  It lets you put down place markers for different points of interest, make notes and comments, and change the icons and colors.  Here's the map I made for our Cinque Terre hike; you can also see where we stayed.  I didn't put down a lot of place marker details on this one, but you can click on them for more info.  Maybe I'll be more informative next time.  Don't take my blue path literally, it's just a guess.  If you are going to go on a hike stick to the marked trails.  

View Jeff's Monterosso hike in a larger map

The walk started in Monterosso on path number 2 eastbound - there's a 5 euro/person fee.  It's a beautiful coastal path which connects all terres.  We stopped at Vernazza to explore the town and eat lunch, and then we ascended into the mountains on path number 8 which leads back west, with a long descent on path number 9 to get back to Monterosso.

This area experienced a very terrible, leatthal mudslide in 2011 that resulted in extensive damage.  We saw some pictures and stories about it in our hotel, and a photo memorial in Vernazza.  Only recently were sections of the trail opened, we were lucky we could access the section from Monterosso to Vernazza.

The walk started with very choppy surf and grey skies

We then saw our waiter from the bar the previous evening jogging by.  He remembered us - probably because I made a fool of myself trying to order straight Campari.  Luckily he set me straight with Italian cocktails - that will prove beneficial later on.

Beautiful views along the coastal path, and we we got an early start to avoid the crowds

Stone bridges are my favorite

Streams flowing to the sea

Looking back at the new section of Monterosso

And ahead as we get closer to Vernazza

Still overcast but improving, bits of the other towns in the distance

Ahh Jasmine, the smell permeated every city we visited in Italy, and was very pleasant indeed.  

This rail runner with a tow package I assume is used to bring building materials to hard to access sections of the trail.  Pretty neat-o.

Someone is lucky to live here

Vernazza had a Venetian feel, but lots of steps instead of canals. It was fun to get lost amongst the staircases.  
My guess is that MC Escher was inspired by Vernazza for this drawing

The surf was strong, pounding into the breakers, spraying water all the way over . I couldn't capture it very well.

Now that's a patio!

Aloe by the cliff edge - not sure why I took this, I guess to be natureish

You can see all of Monterosso, new on the left old on the right, and the mountains behind 

I had polpo y patate - cold octopus with potatoes.  The octopus was marinated in an acidic dressing that made it very tender and tasty. Kerry likes her shellfish.

Sun's out, gunz out.

We start hiking up above Vernazza

I'm trying to sort out what tiny island I'm looking at in the haze - my guess is Gorgona based on the map, that means I'm looking south-south west.

Beautiful view of the Ligurian sea

Vernazza is looking tiny now as we climb

We stop for a rest on a bench with this view - an old German woman goes tromping by solo.  We were impressed - these Germans are serious hikers

Just a few more crests to go... it looks pretty far from here

After a long descent that was hard on the knees and toes, the cold water felt good and the sand was exfoliating

Kerry's OK to get her feet wet today!A

This statue looks like it was carved out of stone, but is actually shaped from concrete, his trident was lost in the mudslides.
All told we logged about 7 miles.  It was a beautiful hike that's right up there with our descent down the Masca gorge in Tenerife.  The weather could not have been more perfect, so we were blessed.   This region is known for its foccaccia and pesto, so we enjoyed a few pieces each as the sun cast long shadows and we waited for our train to Florence, 24 hours after arriving.  A truly wonderful part of the world.  As Rick Steves said, it's Italy unadulterated - nothing you have to see, no art, no queues, just relax and enjoy it for what it is.

That's all for now!


  1. You guys got amazing weather. Looks great. I'm glad the hiking trails were open for you guys. Me and Tara really are going to have to go back at some point in our lives. That patio you photographed was part of the hotel we stayed at during the monsoon. It was pretty cool.

    1. Oh man you all know how to pick the hotel! Too bad the weather wasn't cooperating for you guys

  2. I'm so jealous that y'all got awesome weather! Your pictures look so amazing!