Cherie and myself on the roof terrace of the Albergo Amici
From the winding roads of Tuscany we reached the Ligurian coast, the Italian Riviera, our seaside getaway. The bus dropped us off at the Levanto train station. We all grabbed our bags and waited for the little local train for the Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre literally means five lands or five villages. This is exactly what they are, five little villages that hug the cliffs along the coast of Italy, hoping pirates don’t stop to pillage. Only a few decades ago they were a little gem of a secret. Well, here we are in the 21st century and the secret is out and it has become a popular destination for travelers around the globe. Within fifteen minutes our little train had chugged its way to the seaside village of Monterosso al Mare. Once we exited the train our group made its way to our hotel, Albergo Amici.
I don’t think I will ever forget the utter joy I had when I emerged from a tunnel to see the sandy beach and blue ocean of Monterosso. I literally started jumping up and down. It was so beautifaul and such a change of pace. Elena had arranged with the hotel to have a little golf cart like transport with a wagon on the back to carry all of our bags so we didn’t have to lug them all of the way to the hotel. I would have been fine and the Rick Steves company clearly states that you would need to be prepared to do just that. But it was awfully nice to be several pounds lighter
At the hotel we picked up our bags and made our way to our rooms. My room had an adjoining outside balcony with a couple of chairs. At night I actually let the doors open to my balcony. I could have hosted a little party in my room if I wanted to. The shower was wonderful. Oh it is so nice to be able to relax in a good shower. I had a nice, big queen sized bed. The breakfast area was quite large with oodles of choices including getting hot beverages from a barista or a machine.
Monterosso is a seaside village which means it has a beach! I wanted to immerse myself into the water of the Mediterranean. I changed clothes and ran down for a little rest and relaxation. When I got to the beach I discovered I was not the only tour member to have this idea. I ran into Carla and Mark down at the beach. It was so easy to float in the sea. The salinity of the water was rather high so it just buoyed my body and I took the time to relax. The bells of the local church rang out. All I could think of was “This is not a dream. I’m really here.” I had been dreaming of being in Italy for so long. Soon it was time to change and enjoy a dinner with the whole tour group.
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure — self-determined, self-motivated, often risky — forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins
Dining by the Sea
My dinner at Piccolo Diavolo was a bit different than others due to my shellfish allergy. Dinner started with fried seafood, mozzarella and tomato followed by pasta with homemade pesto sauce. The Cinque Terre is known for its pesto and this did not disappoint. That is one thing about a Rick Steves tour. They ensure that tour members experience food that is particular to the region that they are visiting. I had an incredible sea bass. Mark commented that he wished he could get the sea bass once he saw what I was enjoying. Everyone else was having shellfish of some sort. All through my Italian adventure I was treated like royalty despite my food allergies and every restaurant was excellent in accommodating my dietary restrictions. There were others in my tour who had different food issues and we all experienced grace in handling them. Dessert was cake. Delicioso! After dinner, I went exploring on my own taking pictures of Monterosso at night. I could take my time. Anyone with me probably would have been bored. When I made my way back to the hotel I stumbled across a local tournament similar to bocce. I stopped and watched for a while. At home we have a couple of bocce leagues mostly filled with little old men. These players were teens into middle age of both genders.
It was now time to call it a night and sleep soundly I did.
Photo Gallery of Piccolo Diavolo
Friday, 7 September 2018
Rise and Shine!
I had set my alarm for an early start to my day. Off I went to photograph Monterosso in the dawn. The sky threatened a rain storm so the light wasn’t the prettiest, but I like exploring on my own. There is a large rock that juts out into the sea. I had seen a sign on it the previous day. I assumed it said, “No Trespassing”. I thought that at dawn there wouldn’t be anyone to stop me from climbing. Once there I discovered the sign said something like “Don’t feed the birds or Watch your step”. I forget. So, climb the big rock I did and got some neat shots. I returned to the hotel to enjoy a wonderful breakfast. I recall that while there I ran into Elena. Today was a day that we were free to do whatever we wanted. I informed her of my plans.
Photo Gallery: Morning in Monterosso al Mare
These Boots Were Made For Walkin’
I love hiking. Today was my Italian hiking adventure on my own. Most visitors walk along the main coastal trail that links the five villages. Of particular interest is the Via dell’Amore, an easy twenty-minute path. But back in 2012, the majority of these coastal trails were washed out by landslides including Via dell’Amore. As most things with the Italian government, they are taking their time with restoring them since it is going to involve quite a bit of money. Did I let that stop me? Heck, no! I decided to hike the alternative trails that are further inland. The alternative trails are free. The easy coastal trails require the purchase of a Cinque Terre trail card for admission. Monterosso is the furthest northwest of the five villages. From there I took the train to Riomaggiore which is the furthest southeast of the villages at 8:30 am. I thought the train would stop at each of the villages. This particular train did not. Luckily I was paying attention because the next stop was Riomaggiore! The restroom at the train station was my first stop. I felt an urgent need to use one back at Monterosso al Mare, but I learned the hard way that they do not open until 9:00 am. Mamma mia! First thing in Riomaggiore was to check out the local rest room scene. Next, I visited the local tourist information office. I got a little advice and a map of the trails.
Time to start the adventure! Up, up, up I climbed through the streets of Riomaggiore. Halfway up I encountered the only other people as adventurous as me it seemed. Thankfully they were Australian so communication was not an obstacle, Tom and Shannon. We hiked up to the top of Riomaggiore following a winding path. It definitely was a zig zag. It is a village on a cliff, so we are basically climbing a cliff via paved paths. It was NOT clear which direction to go. These trails have numbers like highways do, the 501, the 531, etc. But why bother? There are no signs! At least I didn’t see any. Who cares! I was fine with getting lost in Italy. Between the three of us we figured out how to proceed at different junctures using logic and bouncing ideas off each other. Once we finally reached the summit, a torrential downpour fell upon us. I had my Eddie Bauer rain jacket with a hood, but no umbrella. The three of us found a bit of shelter hiding under some foliage of trees. We got soaked! I had the hope that the rain would pass. We could see clearer parts of sky elsewhere, so we were counting on the skies clearing up. Finally, the downpour downgraded to a rain shower and then to a drizzle. We waited out the rain for about twenty minutes which seemed to go on forever, especially when I had dreamed of hiking these trails for years. We consulted our maps and started off marching our way to the next village, Manarola.
Photo Gallery: Riomaggiore
Photo Gallery: Trekking fom Riomaggiore to Manarola
After five more minutes the skies cleared up and I didn’t have to deal with any more rain for the rest of the day. Since nothing is clearly marked on the alternative trails of the Cinque Terre, I’m not entirely sure what path I took. Also, the paved roads had ended midway up our hike through Riomaggiore. I felt fortunate having my new friends, Tom and Shannon from Adelaide, corroborate my thoughts on how to get from A to B. Down, down, down we go. We made it to Manarola. I hadn’t really explored Riomaggiore, but here we wandered around the nooks and crannies of Manarola. We encountered tour groups, large ones. So annoying! Stop the cruise ships from stopping at the Cinque Terre! I wanted to get pictures from down on the rocks that jutted out from the village into the sea. Off I scampered along the rain slicked rocks while the Australians took in the village. Sadly, we never did find each other again. I wandered the town to see if I could find them. No luck! I was disappointed in not finding them, but I thought I was going to be hiking solo anyway. I stopped into a café for an espresso to fortify myself. Basically, I had it like a shot of tequila. Considering I add a tremendous amount of sugar, it was fairly easy to do. Once finished, I took a last look for my Australians only to come up empty.
Manarola Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Trail from Manarola to Corniglia
Off I went to hike over to the next village, Corniglia. Since there was no clear signage (are you seeing a pattern here?) These inclines are tough. I am huffing and puffing. The height of the steps, made from earth and some stone, are super high, not normal height. Often you are faced with a fork in the trail. On a couple of occasions, I discovered that the trail was a dead end. Once, I ended up getting lost in some farmer’s vineyard. But I managed to get onto the right path, so to speak, because there are no longer paved paths. It is a strenuous hike. Ledges occasionally required me to lift my body up with my arms as opposed to climbing up steps. Midway through Manarola to Corniglia I ran across two Americans. We started walking together and really hit it off. Our conversation revealed we had similar traveling styles and enjoy doing similar activities on a trip. They were carrying all of their belongings on this trek, so they were getting quite the workout. On our way we saw the village of Volastra and then winded on through Corniglia where we filled up our water bottles from fountains. At Corniglia we stopped to have lunch. I just followed my new friends lead. Big mistake! Our lunch was lackluster. We ate outside, so nearby folks were smoking. I just hate having cigarette smoke blowing my way, but while I’m eating it is even worse. Service was good, but food was just serviceable. This is why you use a Rick Steves guidebook. He does the heavy lifting for you. I’m sure if we went to one of his recommended restaurants, I would have had a much better food experience.
Corniglia Photo Gallery
From Corniglia we used the much easier coastal trail which required a little bit of moolah by purchasing a CT park card. This part of our trek had lots of stone steps which made hiking so much easier! Overall I had amazing views of the Cinque Terre villages and the sea. Probably because I used steeper inland trails. It was cool to check out the vineyard terraces. Surprisingly, I did not grab a grape. It took most of the day to hike through the villages. My fellow Americans had a reservation at a Vernazza hotel. So we said our goodbyes in Vernazza so they could check in and freshen up.
Photo Gallery: Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza
Advice for travelers wanting to hike the Cinque Terre:
You must have hiking shoes or boots. Sneakers/trainers will not work. Your shoes need a gripping tread and decent ankle support.
If you are half human, half goat, you will be just fine. If you are in any doubt whether you have a decent amount of mountain goat DNA (take a DNA test like 23 and me) do NOT do alternative trails.
You must be fit.
Bring snacks if you are hiking multiple villages. I did not and wished I had. Thankfully, I had traveling companions who shared a bit.
Bring a bottle of water. I had a refillable litre bottle that I would refill at each village.
Guess what I haven’t had today? That’s right – gelato! Now that I am in Vernazza it is time to rectify that situation. I found Gelateria Il Porticciolo on the harbor and had a combination of flavor including the canella (cinnamon). I wandered around the harbor and found what I’m going to call an art exhibit. Someone had stacked stones into numerous towers along the ledges of a portion of the harbor. Another unexpected discovery!
It was getting late in the day, so my best course of action was to take the daily boat service that connects most of the villages back to Monterosso. Be careful boarding with the boat rocking. It can be a bit tricky. The ride was quick and easy with a fresh breeze. I recommend it.
Monterosso from the sea
This is like a cheat sheet or cliff notes for photographers. Professional photographers have gone to destinations, posted photos, and then provide where they took the shot from and all the settings they used to get the shot. I made a small purchase to get a photographer’s help with the Cinque Terre and Florence. But in all fairness, I was so caught up in the moment as I traveled in Italy that I forgot to consult the app much of the time.
App of the Day
Time To Make the Donuts...or Pesto
Elena had arranged for a pesto making demonstration on the roof terrace of our hotel. I was so late, that I missed out on the demonstrations. They were having a little party up on the terrace afterwards. As soon as I got to the hotel I climbed the stairs to the roof terrace. I greeted my tour mates with a loud, boisterous “Ciao amici!” Beverages and snacks were flowing and we had a lot of great laughs. Cherie and a few others told me Elena was a bit concerned about my absence. It’s nice to be missed.
When we were in Cinque Terra, Elena invited anyone available to the hotel rooftop for a pesto making endeavor. Elena, our wonderful guide, gave us a lesson on making pesto the way her grandmother did. She started us off with fresh basil, and as we plucked the stems of these delicious looking basil leaves, she shared stories of her childhood with us. She had wonderful stories of Venice and her life. As we took turns smashing these leaves in the mortar we laughed and drank wine while being entrenched in her stories, including her advice on finding amazing olive oil and Pecorino cheese. By the time we completed making our Pesto we all felt like pro’s and we were totally convinced this was going to be the best Pesto in the world. Guess what? It was amazing pesto and we nibbled on bread and pesto the rest of the night sharing our days journeys with each other.
-Contributed by fellow tour member, Cathy
.Hover your cursor over the box to reveal the favorite memory
Cherie and John invited me to join them for dinner. We retired to our rooms to refresh and before you knew it night had descended. We tried to find a place to eat. Cherie and John had spied a couple of places earlier in the day. But it is Friday night and both places were fully booked. We wandered around searching for a dinner spot. We finally found one. I had a lovely cheese plate followed by mussels and pasta. I also nibbled off Cherie and John’s leftovers because I am just a hoover vacuum in human form. We had lots of laughs. I love John’s dry sense of humor and with Cherie the conversation flows and is continuous.
The hiking through Cinque Terre was a highlight of my trip. It definitely was a workout. But I felt I got to see things I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. My words do not do it justice.
Above: restaurant front
Right: Chef greets his patrons
Cinque Terre was our vacation away from our vacation. The first full day there, we got up and took the ferry down to Manarola where we did the Rick Steve's walking tour through town and along the hills ringing the town. We then took the ferry back to Vernazza where we had lunch and ran into Elena. From there, we took the ferry back to Montorosso, got changed, went to the beach and floated in the Ligurian Sea for an hour. Not big things, but a lot of little things that lead us to decide at dinner that night that we'd probably just had a best day ever in 30 years of marriage.
-Contributed by fellow tour members, Carla and Mark
Saturday, 8 September, 2018
Saturday morning the little golf cart carried our bags from Old Town to New Town and we pick them up to get our train to Levanto. At Levanto we are met with a new bus and a new driver. Time to continue on to Florence (Firenze).
Our merry troupe just before walking to the train station in Monterosso
Waiting for the train on the Levanto platform
A Quiet Time
The bus never travels longer than two hours at a stretch. We make a stop not part of the scheduled itinerary. We visited the Florence American Cemetery. Established in July 1960, service members are interred and memorialized who died during the last phase of the Italian campaign of World War II. The average age of those buried was 21. We had a local guide provide insight and background on the Italian campaign. The grave area is very similar to Arlington cemetery outside of Washington, DC. 4, 398 headstones radiate in gentle arcs. The tablets of the missing remind me of the names listed at the Vietnam War Memorial and the 9/11 memorial in the states. On this visit I thought to myself that “sometimes it is not about me”. We stop for maybe 40 minutes and then we are whisked off to Florence.
Our visit to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial provided so many conflicting emotions. Such sadness in remembering the reality of war and that so many lives were just gone-and for what, really? As a species we seem to not be able to get past killing each other as a solution. There was one tablet engraving that seemed just as significant now as then. It reads: ‘FREEDOM from fear and injustice and oppression is ours only in the measure that men who value such freedom are ready to sustain its possession and defend it against every thrust from within or without.’
Perhaps one day the defense will be done without loss of life. Also, there was a profound sense of gratitude to the Italian people for establishing and maintaining such a beautiful, contemplative space. It gives me a sliver of hope for us as a species.
Contributed by tour companions, Cindy and Mario