Rounding out Cinque Terre…Riomaggiore and Corniglia

Our coffee shop by the passenger tunnel to the train station was closed this morning, so we had to try another place down Main Street closer to the harbor. They made crepes.  Heidi ordered a Nutella crepe and I tried a mozzarella asparagus one.  For me, it was nothing to write home about, but it was breakfast (the most important meal of the day :-)). Heidi’s looked rather tasty!

We finally confirmed that the entire coastal path was closed except the section that we hiked yesterday and that section was the hardest part!  If we chose to take any other paths, we’d have to climb to the top of the mountain. The 1km hike to Riomaggiore from Manarola was estimated to take 1.5 hours!?!  I’m still trying to wrap my head around that calculation, though last night when we started walking up the 200 plus stairs, it was slow going.  Therefore, train rides were in our future.

Of course, without knowing the schedule we arrived at the station with 30 minutes to spare, so we asked the station attendant the best way to purchase tickets. A pass to get on and off the train anywhere in Cinque Terre lasted 6 hours, otherwise individual ticket purchases were required.  Each ticket had to be validated at the entry station, otherwise a 50 euro fine was possible.

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Our original plan was to visit Riomaggiore and then turn the other direction, passing Manarola to Corniglia before finally ending the day on a sunset boat ride in Levanto.  This was going to take more than six hours, so we purchased individual tickets. While we were waiting for the train, we strolled along the only street in Manarola.  The main street of Manarola, lined with boats instead of cars as they are not allowed, came to life at 10am…all six to eight shops opened! Heidi found a lovely painting for her apartment in Chicago.

This time, with the train schedule in hand and the ability to read it, we embarked on our three minute train ride which was uneventful except for the fact the regional trains aren’t terribly timely.

Starting out with the most negative thought first, Riomaggiore was my least favorite town in Cinque Terre. The colors of the buildings weren’t quite as bright…most were in need of a paint job.  It was smaller than Monterosso, but larger than Vernazza.  Of course, it offered the token church and castle/fortress/palace/tower to visit.  I may have simply just had my fill of these types of buildings, though we made the trek up the hill to see each.  The information signs were in Italian so it made the clock tower and crosses less interesting since we didn’t understand any of it.

The marina was nice and full of people. After we watched the waves crash over the rock barrier, we browsed the shops.  Most the shops carry the same items, risotto, olive oil, limoncello, wine, ceramic tiles, beach bags and jewelry.  A few had cute clothes, and I found a lovely dress for 35 euros!

After searching in vain for A Pie di Ma, a must see restaurant according to a blog post I read, we ended up at La Lanterna.  Heidi had spaghetti with clams, and I had fried shellfish which included anchovies.  I can’t say this satisfied my taste buds too much.  Perhaps my tongue was having an off day, though I think the way to go is pasta…each of those dishes has been fantastic.

After lunch, we ventured back through the tunnel to the train station, where we found the next train wasn’t departing for 45 minutes. We forgot to consult our schedule and just missed the previous train.  If our final destination weren’t Corniglia, we could have left a little sooner, but regardless we had time to visit the vendors by the station. It was Heidi’s turn to buy a dress.

As we waited on the train and watched the birds line the roof tops, we spotted a restaurant perched on the cliff jutting into the sea.  That had to be A Pie di Ma on the other side of the train station from town. Next time!

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We eventually made it to Corniglia where we prepared to tackle the 365 steps up to the village from the station.  It is the only village that is not seaside, and climbing the stairs is the only way to get there from the train!  Heidi had a grand idea to count the days of each month and take a picture of our “birthday step”.  My April 14th birthday earned a bench on a landing.  Heidi’s August 17th birthday step earned a nice view of Manarola as we were 2/3rds of the way up.  We were pleased to find that the San Diego couple we met a few hours ago were correct regarding the difficulty level.  The steps were low and the grade was flat as the staircase switched back and forth up the mountain.  The couple had planned to hike to all five towns today, 11km.  While it doesn’t sound like much, given all the coastal paths were closed and mountain climbing was necessary, we wished them luck, especially when the gentleman claimed he’d do it four hours.  Wishful…there are way too many people to succeed at that!

I just absolutely loved Corniglia and its historic charm.  I don’t suppose I need to mention the church and the tower by now.  We did, however, enjoy walking down the narrow, stone sidewalk lined with shops, bars and restaurants that led to a beautiful panoramic view of the sea coast with Manarola to the East and Monterosso to the West.  We also found a soccer “field” which was cement with painted lines and nets hanging to keep the ball from going over the cliff or down the stairs.

We decided after all of our stair climbing, that we deserved gelato.  Two gelaterias stood right next to each other.  This has been a game for me…to see how many gelaterias I could find in each town.  Vernazza won with three in about 600 yards of each other.  The other places were home to two though I didn’t look that hard in Monterosso (there were probably more) given the size of the town.  Riomaggiore challenged me the most in my “I spy” game…I almost had to leave having only found one, but I spotted a second shop near the train station.  While we didn’t eat gelato in every town, I liked the caffe gelato at the gelateria closest to the train station in Manarola the best.

At 4:19, we hopped the sardine packed train back to Manarola, as our sunset cruise was canceled.  It was just as well, as we have had very busy days.  With one stop on the train and the hike up to our “penthouse”, I was relaxing in the cool breeze on our balcony, a necessity without air conditioning, by 5 pm.  Heidi decided to browse a bit more at the stores.  As I was staring down at the street at least eight stories below, all I could think was I didn’t want to walk down for dinner in three hours, so I texted Heidi (they seem to work within the Italian network, but not so great from America), “How about pasta and fruit salad?”  She bought the goods, and I cooked.  I suppose, never say never, as we were eager to use the kitchen we never intended to use!  We ate on the patio while we watched the World Cup on her phone as the sun set over the mountain.  It was a perfect final evening in Cinque Terre!!  Even the seagull tried to get in on the action.

My favorite places in Cinque Terre were Corniglia and Manorola, though they may be a bit quaint for some especially if staying more than three nights.  I found them far less crowded than Monterosso, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza, though Vernazza had a charm to it despite all the floods the last few years.  I’m not sure how I’ll handle bustling Rome tomorrow, but I am looking forward to seeing all the historic sites!  ETB

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The Coastal Trail from Monterosso to Vernazza

Oh what day again! It took me nearly 30 minutes to walk down all the stairs, around the footpath, order warm chocolate croissants and coffee, and make the trek all the way back up to our “penthouse suite.” I worked off my croissant calories before I even sat down!

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After enjoying our breakfast on the balcony overlooking the town and harbor below, we took the train to Monterosso. This may have been the busiest place we’ve been since we’ve arrived in Italy. There were tourists everywhere, pouring down every street. Monterosso wraps around both sides of the train station with the busier side being to the east, so we followed the mobs from the harbor, along the stone path, and through the tunnel to check out the town.

Monterosso has a few main streets lined with cafés, souvenir shops, and of course churches while a few palaces perch on the hillside for protection. It is also offers a coast of beaches for sunbathing. We were happy to find three ATMs too, as Manarola’s only cash machine didn’t work. Though so far, it seems restaurants have taken credit cards (we had heard otherwise).

The first church we visited, San Giovanni Battista, with its black and white stripe facade is a lovely example of Ligurian Gothic architecture. It was constructed between 1244 and 1307 under the Genoese maritime republic rule. Next door to the church stood the Mortis et Orationis Confraternitas. Dating back to the 17th century, the con fraternity which dressed in black robes aided widows, orphans and even the shipwrecked. Skeletons were carved into the eves and the trim and were even painted over the entrance.

As we wandered away from the harbor and up the wide streets, we veered onto a narrow stone street where we found the Santa Croce Oratory. Here the con fraternity wore white robes, cared for the sick, and ran the hospital until the mid-seventeenth century.

We attempted to venture up to the palace, but it did not appear open, so after meandering around the town and harbor we thought we’d take the Coastal Path to Vernazza for lunch. The lady we met from California last night said it required admission, and it was easy.

We climbed the stairs to the ticket booth where a sign warned no high heels allowed and paid 7.50 euros each for our chance to pass through the national park. The path led us along the coast providing magnificent views of Monterosso before it turned into the shade of trees. The trail climbed and climbed as we took step after step up the stone stairs dotted with wildflowers and flanked by old wooden gates, stone walls, and of course vineyards.

We continued following the red and white trail markers for SVA 2, though it was impossible to get lost as the path was well cut and heavily traveled. Narrow at times, we stepped aside for those traveling from Vernazza to Monterroso, though it seemed like the masses were going in our direction. Snapping a picture without a stranger in it was a feat and keeping the pace was important, otherwise a whole tour may have overtaken us.

I skipped taking a picture of a lovely, stone bridge that arched over a trickling waterfall, as I’m not sure it ever would have been clear of people and a secluded gate with “WC? Please not here” painted in blue. That was pretty funny. Wish I would have gotten that one.

Eventually, Vernazza finally came into view, much to the elation of Heidi. Here we also found locks of love dangling from a wire, and upon descending into town we found the trolley car that follows a raised cable bar along the path. I couldn’t for the life of me figure how they harvested their lemons and grapes climbing up and down all these stairs. What a great invention…the cable car! At the end of the path, we were greeted by musicians who played Italian tunes.

We considered it our celebration song, as frankly, I would have to say the “Coastal Walk” was a bit of a misnomer. We gained 600 feet in elevation almost immediately and spent the rest of the time walking well above the coast in a blanket of humidity. The 4km took us at least 1.5 hours! I don’t think the vertical distance of the 750+ stairs we climbed up and down is counted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the variety and beauty the hike had to offer, though if I had to do it over, I may have started earlier for cooler temperatures and less crowds, and I may have headed in the direction of Monterosso so there wasn’t always someone fore and aft, though I may have felt like a salmon swimming upstream, and we would have missed out on an awesome lunch at Belforte Ristorante (more on this later).

Vernazza, though smaller than Monterosso, with only one Main Street was equally as busy. The main street featured cute clothing shops, jewelry, the typical souvenirs, THREE gelaterias, and a handful of trattorias. Down by the harbor, tables shaded with umbrellas covered the stone street where tourists filled every seat.

We walked down to the point to try our luck at Belforte Ristorante, a three level restaurant on the cliff’s edge where the lower balcony gets sprayed by water during high seas. Nothing was available, so we made a reservation for 2pm, an hour away, and browsed in the town.

Once again, we stopped at the local church, Santa Margherita di Antiochia. Its windows offered a lovely view of the harbor (that’s probably where I’d be looking if I were sitting in a pew). I also found the confessionals intriguing, as the confessors kneel in public. I imagine anyone could hear ones wishes for forgiveness.

We also ventured through a tunnel carved out of the rock that led us to a beach. Kids were swimming despite the red flag warning due to an impending storm! Waves crashed over the rocks, and looking up behind us made me wonder if and when a house will just topple off the cliff, especially given the warning signs for falling rock.

Finally, lunchtime! We got the top deck of the restaurant…more stairs. My aunt recently gave me a fit bit, I’m anxious to see how many flights we climbed today. We walked 10,000 steps by noon, and at least 1,000 of them had to be straight up. Upon reviewing my iphone data, we walked 26,058 steps and 11.22 miles for the day (though it wasn’t adjusted for the Italy time zone, so it might be slightly off). It doesn’t tell me how many flights of stairs…oh well…A LOT!

I had the best pesto trofie pasta in the world! Heidi had pasta with shrimp and zucchini that was full of flavor. I’m not the biggest pasta lover at home, but in Italy, it’s a different story. Freshly made pasta is divine! And to top it off, the restaurant serves a free glass of Prosecco. We settled up our tab just as the sprinkles fell onto the bamboo roof of the outdoor patio and trekked to the train station (that sounded far, not really).

We don’t have the trains down yet. We just tell the ticket seller where we want to go, ask what platform to stand on, and know they come every 30 minutes or so. We’d be in a bit of trouble if we had to buy a ticket ourselves or read a schedule without taking 15 minutes to concentrate on it. And thankfully, the attendant reminded us to validate our ticket…no need to risk a hefty fifty euro fine for two euro one-way fare and short ride!

We had considered hiking to Corniglia from Vernazza, though we read the path was closed from the landslides a few years ago. Then we briefly considered stopping off in Corniglia on our way back because it is a one street town too, but the rain was heavy. Sweaty, tired, and knowing we had to climb at least four more flights of stairs to our “penthouse” if we walked the “long way” to avoid twice as many otherwise, we opted for home. We got a good soaking as we exited the train, but the rain lightened by the time we made it to the gelateria…caffe and chocolate for me…lots of pistachio for Heidi.

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After a relaxing late afternoon at our apartment, we attempted to walk to Riomaggiore for dinner. The map Heidi purchased claimed it took 20 minutes. We saw a trail sign near our place and followed at minimum 200 stairs up the mountain, and we weren’t to the top. This was not the 20 minute stroll along the SVA trail. It was another trail, number 531. This area has trails everywhere! After asking in the coffee shop, we found out the SVA trail was closed from Manarola to Riomaggiore as well. It also sounded like it would be hard to return on the train with a limited evening schedule, so we chose to stay in Manarola and eat at Marina Piccola Ristorante on the harbor. Awesome seafood risotto! After dinner we wandered out to the point for a beautiful view of Manarola lit up by lights. What a lovely sight! And what a busy and amazing day…we’ll sleep well tonight! ETB

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Montepulciano, Siena, and Cinque Terre!

Oh what a busy day! We had to wave good-bye to our fantastic host Gianluca and his family as we prepared to go from being 100% spoiled in Tuscany to self-sufficient in Cinque Terre. We left the four house complex that was built in the 1400’s and restored by Gianluca between 1999 and 2007 to take a round-about way to Cinque Terre. First, we stopped in Montepulciano, only 10 miles away and later Siena, a bit further.

As with every Tuscan town it seems, Montepulciano sat up on a hill, was home to many churches, a palazzo, restaurants, and a variety of stores including a famous copper store. Each town, including Montepulciano is laid out with a parking area upon arrival with a posted map and a water closet nearby, all very convenient when we were otherwise feeling constantly lost.

We started our walking tour strolling up a hill, enjoying the view and eventually making it into our first church, Chiesa del Gesu. It began construction in 1691 in the baroque style, was changed shortly after, and finished construction in 1730 under the supervision of three different architects.

From the church, we continued up the hill to the palazzo. Aside from the surrounding park, which didn’t allow futbol, the site wasn’t open so we continued up the hill.

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We passed by the torture museum which was advertised on billboards in all the small towns, as we got enough of a taste in the entry before we visited the cattedrale constructed in the 14th century on the Piazza Grande. It was adorned with flowers as it was being prepared for a wedding. No pictures were allowed inside.

Across from the cattedrale stood the Griffin and Lion well built in 1520. We have seen several throughout the region along with cool old water fountains. As we continued strolling around the streets, we stumbled upon an historic winery, De Ricci. It was free to tour, so we wandered through the dark tunnels storing giant barrels of wine. By now, it was time for lunch, so we ventured back toward the parking and found a trattoria. I tried Pici with pepper and Parmesan, one of Montepulciano’s famous dishes, and it was spectacular. Heidi had the gnocchi.

With a three hour drive to Cinque Terre and a one hour drive to Sienna, we were a feeling a bit pressed for time as we needed to meet Lorella, the lady from whom we rented our apartment. So off we went. As we weaved down the hill through the countryside, we noticed a few bystanders on the roadside. Shortly thereafter, we were waved to the side of the road and a bike race of fifty cyclists came storming through with support vehicles and all! How cool was that!?! Those boys were breathing heavy as they climbed that hill. It turned out it was the Italian National Road Race Championship. Of the 124 riders that started, only 49 finished. Vincenzo Nibali won. The race has been run since 1905 with the exception of the years during WWI. I found it kind of funny that such a big race didn’t even have the roads blocked. Here is the link in cycling news: http://www.cyclingnews.com/races/italian-road-championships-2014/road-race/results

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After a few interesting turns, we finally made it to Siena and parked by the stadio (this is the best place to leave the car and walk). We enjoyed the nearby fountain, passed by tourist stands, popped our heads in a few leather stores, took a look at St. Catherine’s head in St. Domenico Catherine Basilica, and followed the signs to the Duomo, as this cathedral was supposedly the one to see compared to all others. We only went to the cathedral and library as we didn’t have time for the crypts and baptista, but it was beautiful.

The black and white exterior was magnificent, both near and far. The marble murals on the floor, the carvings beneath the windows, and the paintings that covered every ounce of the church were lovely. Even the wooden chairs were ornate. I’m certain every nook, color and image had a meaning, but we were just there to take in the grandeur before we moved on to Cinque Terre. Sienna deserved more than 1.5 hours, but at least we made it.

In Cinque Terre, we parked on the outskirts because cars aren’t allowed on the interior and rolled our bags through the parking lot and down the street until we reached the stairs. We climbed a few until we reached a sidewalk and found the address, 85. More stairs…ok…to a courtyard, where a couple questioned, “Are you looking for Lorella (in Italian)?”

Si, we replied.

They pointed to a narrow, stone staircase that curved up the hillside and said, “La Scala”. Ok, we could barely fit…but up we went. Lorella met us and commented, “Just a few more steps”. Really!?! We climbed four stories of stairs from their basement to our “penthouse suite.”

And we were blessed with a penthouse view. Our patio looks out over the whole town as the sun sets on the harbor! The two bedroom apartment was quaint with a small kitchen and bath. Another building included a separate kitchen that we will never be using!

We opened the windows, enjoyed the sunset, and set out for 9:30 dinner reservations at the most popular restaurant in town, Billy’s. We had a fantastic waitress who would not tell us her name and joked with us despite not knowing much English (though it was more than our Italian). We had the antipasto seafood sampler which included octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp fritters, a crab cake, two types of anchovies, two types of tuna, and some things we didn’t know what they were at all…12 things in total.

We also opted for the fish of the day, sea bass, and to our surprise she brought over a plate of three dead fish for us to choose from. We pointed to the one in the middle. It was the smallest. Thirty minutes later, the whole thing was presented on a platter. After she watched us attempt to filet it, she came over and helped!

Suddenly, we started making friends. A couple from California asked where we were from and gave us tips about hiking from town to town, and a table full of fun Italian ladies called us over once the free Limoncello and bitters were served. What a fun night until we couldn’t get the gate open to our apartment, “Oh, just force it,” Lorella said. We kind of felt bad to call her after midnight…but what a fun day and night! We’re ready to tackle a hike tomorrow…ETB

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