Scenery, Sun, and Seafood: Our trip to Cinque Terre, Italy (Part III)

This is the final part of our recent trip to Cinque Terre. Enjoy!

May 27, 2011: Riomaggiore & Manarola

Our day started the same as the day before. We got ready and then walked to Il Pirata for our breakfast of Sicilian pastries. Today it was much easier to find a table and place our order, but the pastries were just as delicious!!

We took a break from hiking today, and took the train to the first of the five towns, Riomaggiore. As normal, we started with the self-guided walk in Rick Steves’ to get a nice overview of the town. Unfortunately, a key part of the walk, the elevator to the top of town, was closed for renovation! So, we ended up walking through town to get to the top and then walking back down along Via Colombo.

Colorful mural outside the train station in Riomaggiore glorifying the nameless workers who constructed the nearly 300 million cubic feet of dry stone walls throughout the Cinque Terre.

Riomaggiore.

Via Colombo, Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore Harbor.

After exploring Riomaggiore, we walked the Via dell’Amore to Manarola. This is definitely the easiest Cinque Terre “hike” as the promenade is paved and wide enough for baby strollers. This was the first trail made between the Cinque Terre towns in the 1920s. Landslides kept the trail closed more than it was open, but it was reopened after WWII and became known as a lovers’ meeting point for boys and girls from the two towns. A journalist, who noticed all the amorous graffiti along the path, coined the trail’s now-established name, Via dell’Amore: “Pathway of Love.” All along the trail you can see clusters of padlocks. Closing a padlock with your lover onto a cable or railing at a lovey-dovey spot—often a bridge—is the current craze in Italy, having been re-popularized by a teen novel. Needless to say, Brandon and I didn’t find it necessary to participate in this craze! Unfortunately, this was our only cloudy day, but it was still an enjoyable walk.

Via dell'Amore from Riomaggiore to Manarola.

Via dell'Amore from Riomaggiore to Manarola.

View of Manarola from the Via dell'Amore.

Locks along the Via dell'Amore.

Manarola’s self-guided walk started at the harbor. Manarola has no sand but offers the best deep-water swimming in the area. There were several high-school boys daring each other to jump in that day and it looked quite chilly!! From the harbor, we hiked up the main street to the top of the town.

Manarola.

Manarola Vineyards.

The skies were starting to look more ominous, so we decided to stop for lunch. Trattoria Dal Billy is listed in Rick Steves’ and had been highly recommended by some fellow travelers we had met at breakfast. We were not disappointed! We ordered the antipasti frutti di mare and they brought us about a dozen different seafood appetizers. Some were delicious, some not so much. One of the local specialties in the Cinque Terre is anchovies. We had been told that we should try them fresh here, and there were several anchovy dishes in the starter. I dutifully tried them, but I’m still not an anchovy fan! For my pasta course, I tried another local specialty, pesto. The Cinque Terre is the birthplace of pesto and it was the best I’ve ever had!

The remains of our Antipasti at Trattoria Dal Billy.

While we ate lunch, it really rained. By the time we finished, it had lightened up, but it was still sprinkling. We’ve learned that you can’t let a little rain stop you, so we kept going with the walk around Manarola. The last part was a walk through the vineyards up to the town cemetery. Ever since Napoleon—who was king of Italy in the early 1800s—decreed that cemeteries were health risks, Cinque Terre’s burial spots have been located outside of town. The result: The dearly departed generally get first-class sea views. There is a hierarchy of four places to be buried in each cemetery: a graveyard, a spacious death condo (loculo), a mini bone-niche (ossario), or the communal ossuary. Because of the tight space, a time limit is assigned to the first three options. Bones go into the ossuary in the middle of the chapel floor after about a generation.

Manarola Vineyard Walk.

View of Manarola from the Vineyard Walk.

Manarola Cemetery.

Erika & Brandon with Manarola.

We took the train back to Vernazza and did some souvenir shopping before dinner. My primary souvenir was wine. The vino delle Cinque Terre, while not one of Italy’s top wines, was still quite tasty. It’s a white wine that goes great with the local seafood. The wine is produced in small quantities and is not distributed much outside of the region. Since I’m trying to build our wine collection, I bought 12 bottles. This is when having the car nearby came in handy! We were able to take the shuttle bus up to the car, drop off the wine in the trunk, and ride back down. The shop owner was quite confused because we were obviously Americans, but he couldn’t figure out how we were going to get all of that wine home. After asking us lots of questions, he finally figured out that we were military stationed in Germany, so we weren’t trying to get it all the way back to the U.S.!

After relaxing in the room for the rest of the afternoon, we headed to dinner at Ristorante Belforte. This restaurant is right on the cliff by the breakwater in Vernazza. We had made reservations to sit at one of the four tables on the terrace with view, but, unfortunately, the sea didn’t cooperate. Due to the rough weather, the seas were pretty rough, too. The waves were actually as high as the terrace! We sat inside by the door to the terrace, but by the end of the night, the restaurant even had to shut that door to keep us dry. Despite the lack of a view, dinner was still delicious. We tried their mixed seafood appetizer also and I still didn’t like the anchovies! For my main course, I had the baked fish of the day with potatoes and vegetables. I was lucky that our waiter skinned and boned the fish for me at the table. The waiter was super friendly and even sat down to chat with us at one point since it was a rather slow night. We were treated to a complimentary dessert and sciacchetrà, the local sweet dessert wine. After all of that delicious food, we had to waddle back to the room for the night!

Waves crashing over the Breakwater in Vernazza.

Our complimentary dessert at Ristorante Belforte.

May 28, 2011: Corniglia

This morning we didn’t even discuss where we should go to breakfast, we just went back to Il Pirata. After our Sicilian pastries, we were ready to tackle the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia (pronounced Cornelia), which was closed when we first arrived. Again, the trail was extremely hilly, and unfortunately, Vernazza to Corniglia was the steeper direction. Thankfully, we had a beautiful, sunny day that wasn’t quite as warm as when we had hiked to Monterosso.

View of Vernazza from the trail to Corniglia.

Just some of the stairs along the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia.

Erika & Brandon with Corniglia in the background.

Corniglia is the “quiet town.” It’s the only one of the five villages not directly on the water. The self-guided walk basically followed the main street to the viewpoint at the end-of-town. After exploring the small town, we stopped at a café in the main square for a light lunch of focaccia, another Cinque Terre specialty.

Corniglia.

Erika & Brandon at the Corniglia Viewpoint.

Unfortunately, we underestimated the time it would take to get from Corniglia to its train station. We arrived just as the train was leaving and there wasn’t another one for about an hour. We bought Brandon a beer and waited. At least we had beautiful scenery to sit and enjoy! Finally, the next train arrived and we headed to Manarola. (We would have hiked there, but that was the only section of the trail that was still closed.) Our purpose for going back to Manarola was simply to walk the Via dell’Amore again with clear blue skies and sun.

View of Manarola from the Corniglia train station.

Via dell'Amore.

Via dell'Amore.

Once in Riomaggiore, the plan was to ride the boat back to Vernazza. Sadly, the seas were still too rough from the day before and the boats weren’t running, so we ended up taking the train again. Back in Vernazza, we spent our last afternoon swimming and sunning on the rocks in the harbor. I did actually try to go swimming with Brandon this time, but I ended up hurting myself, of course. I cut my foot on some of the submerged rocks. This is why I knew it was best for me to just stay put sitting on the rocks!

Our final dinner in the Cinque Terre was at our favorite breakfast place, Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre. Dinner was just as delicious. We had learned to just let Massimo tell us what to order, so we did the same for dinner with the stipulation of no fish. (While the seafood was delicious, we are good Midwesterners who aren’t used to so much fish!) I had the best gnocchi I have ever eaten and Brandon enjoyed the pesto pasta! But the cannoli desserts were definitely the best part of the meal! During dinner, we enjoyed chatting with Massimo and he confirmed that two of the restaurants we had eaten at (Miky’s and Billy’s) were two of the best in the Cinque Terre. He was adamant that the restaurants without great views had to have the best food to draw in the customers. We certainly didn’t argue with his theory! Again, we waddled back to our room and packed to go home.

May 29, 2011: Cinque Terre to Home

Our last morning in the Cinque Terre started again with breakfast at Il Pirata. Massimo asked if this was our last day, and we sadly said it was time for us to drive home. When we went to pay, he surprised us with a bottle of wine and told us we had been his “worst” customers that week! I’d be willing to go back to the Cinque Terre just to eat at Il Pirata again!!

Some of the homemade Sicilian pastries at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre.

Massimo & Brandon.

But before we could drive home, we had to try one more time to ride the boat. We rode the train back to Riomaggiore just to get on the boat to go back to Vernazza. It may have seemed a bit redundant, but I really wanted to ride the boat! Plus, it was a fun way to end the trip with beautiful views of the Cinque Terre towns from the water.

The tourist boat docking at Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore from the tourist boat.

Manarola from the tourist boat.

Corniglia from the tourist boat.

Vernazza from the tourist boat.

On our way back to our room to pick up our luggage, we bought some focaccia for the road and then hiked up the hill one last time to the shuttle and our car. Driving out of the Cinque Terre was just as exciting as driving in, except this time we were going uphill at about a 20% grade. I had to keep reminding Brandon to focus on the winding road instead of the breathtaking views of the sea! Thankfully, once we got on the Autostrade, the rest of the 8.5-hour trip was uneventful.

This trip to the Cinque Terre was so beautiful and relaxing. I can easily say that it has been one of our best while we’ve been in Europe!

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Scenery, Sun, and Seafood: Our trip to Cinque Terre, Italy (Part II)

This is the second part of our recent trip to Italy. It turns out we took too many photos and it’s taking me a long time to decide what to share with you! I hope to have the third (and final!) part published tomorrow.

May 25, 2011: Camp Darby to Vernazza

Since we had learned that the only way to get to the Cinque Terre from Camp Darby was by car, we set off after a quick stop at the Commissary for some sandwiches to eat on the road. (Note: Even though Camp Darby was small, it somehow still had a nicer Commissary than Hohenfels! Seriously.) It was a relatively short drive (only about 2 hours), but it was an adventure! Brandon loved driving on the steep, sharp switchbacks that led down to the ocean and the town.

At the entrance to Vernazza, we paid for four nights of parking in the nonresident parking lot outside of town and were then allowed to drive right to the edge of town to drop off our luggage. The road was barely two cars wide, but there was only one lane for driving as cars were also parked all along it. Luckily, we made it to the bottom without meeting anyone, but we didn’t see the one way sign pointing into the parking lot that was used as a turn around. We ended up going the wrong way in the parking lot. We tried to unload the luggage quickly so Brandon could get back up the hill, but a truck came along going the correct way in the lot. This forced Brandon to expertly back up the car in the narrow lot so he could get turned around. There were a few tense moments, but Brandon ended up getting back up the hill, parked the car, and took the shuttle back down to me and the luggage.

The next test was to find the room we had booked. We followed the directions Annamaria had sent us to find Camere La Torre. We went down the hill past the train station to the pharmacy and then proceeded to climb up many, many steps!! Even with just our small suitcases, computer backpacks, and one bag of food, this was still not the easiest ascent. In other words, pack light if you are traveling to the Cinque Terre! After some initial confusion about which doorbell to ring, we finally found Annamaria who pointed us back down the steps we had just climbed! Our room was about halfway back to the main street and as advertised, did not have a view. In fact, it was little more than a hole in the wall. Luckily, we had great weather while we were there so did not need to spend much time in the room, which was a bit dark and damp.

Our room without a view in Vernazza.

We decided to explore Vernazza right away on that first day. We followed Rick Steves’ Self-Guided Walk with a slight detour up to the cemetery for better view. Basically, Vernazza has one main street lined with businesses and restaurants that ends at the Harbor Square and Breakwater, which was just built in 1972. It only takes about 5-minutes to stroll from the train station to the breakwater. From the harbor, we climbed up to the castle, which is now a park with great views. It was the town’s lookout back in pirate days.

View of Vernazza from the cemetery.

Walking down the path from the cemetery to Vernazza.

View of Vernazza from the breakwater.

Vernazza's castle.

After hiking up and down in the hot sun, it was time to enjoy being on the ocean! We put on our swimsuits and joined the others who were sunning on the rocks and swimming in the harbor. We claimed a rock where I could sit with my feet in the water and Brandon bravely swam away with his waterproof camera. It was so relaxing and enjoyable that we went out there every day, except the one day it rained.

Erika sitting on the rocks in the Vernazza harbor.

Brandon's view of Vernazza while swimming in the harbor.

We ate our first dinner in Vernazza at Gambero Rosso along the harbor. Of course, we ordered seafood, and it was delicious (although I prefer fish heads to stay in the kitchen rather than be presented on my plate)!

Dinner!

We ended the night sitting along the breakwater with a bottle of a local white wine. It was beautiful and romantic to watch the sun set on our first day in the Cinque Terre.

Brandon sitting on the breakwater at sunset.

May 26, 2011: Monterosso al Mare

Our first morning in Vernazza also brought a new breakfast ritual. Since we were simply renting a room and not staying at a hotel, breakfast was on our own. Based on Rick’s recommendation, we decided to try eating at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre at the top of town. Of course, that first morning was the busiest, but we somehow found a table and figured out how to order two authentic Sicilian pastries, fresh-squeezed juice and coffee/tea. It was all delicious!!

One of the main activities in the Cinque Terre is hiking. All five towns are connected by good trails. Trail #2 is the low route between the villages and definitely the most popular. When we first arrived, the trail was closed between Vernazza-Corniglia and Corniglia-Manarola due to landslides, so we started with Vernazza-Monterosso al Mare. The most challenging section of the trail, Vernazza to Monterosso was a scenic, but extremely hilly trek. In several places, the path was just wide enough for one person. Still, the views were amazing and made the effort well-worth it!

View of Vernazza from the trail to Monterosso.

View of Vernazza from the trail to Monterosso.

Brandon and I along the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso.

At least we were going down by this point!! Along the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso.

View of Monterosso from the trail.

Once in Monterosso, we stopped for a quick beer/wine before following Rick’s Self-Guided Walk of the town. Monterosso is definitely the most resort-like of the Cinque Terre. I guess there is a thriving late-night scene, but we didn’t stick around to find out.

Monterosso.

Monterosso.

Monterosso cemetery.

A Nazi pillbox in Monterosso.

After our walk, it was time for lunch. Despite being filthy and sweaty from the hike, we still decided to eat a nice, sit-down restaurant, Miky. We had a delicious local wine and the food was wonderful! After stopping at a gelato stand for some dessert, we rode the train back to Vernazza and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sunning on the rocks in the harbor.

We ate dinner at Ristorante al Castello. It was a hike up many stairs to get there, but the views were excellent. We both ordered seafood that was again served whole! (It’s a good thing that Brandon is an Eagle Scout and learned how to skin and debone fish!) We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and another sunset along the breakwater.

The stairs up to Ristorante al Castello in Vernazza.

Brandon's main course.

Sunset along the breakwater in Vernazza.

 


Scenery, Sun, and Seafood: Our trip to Cinque Terre, Italy (Part I)

Now that Brandon is home from Afghanistan, we can start travelling again! Our first trip together in 2011 was to Italy. For some reason, the Cinque Terre has been on my “to see” list for a while. Brandon did most of the planning for this trip before he came home since he was extremely bored most of the time and I was crazy busy with tax season. (Of course, I think he spent more time researching the new home theater PC, but that is another blog post!) We decided to drive since we weren’t sure enough of when he’d be home to book plane tickets.

We left on Sunday, May 22nd after I finished playing for Mass. Our first destination was Marostica, a quaint Italian town famous for the human chess game played there every other year. There were two purposes for this stop: 1) it is near the Army post in Vicenza and 2) it is near the pottery warehouse in Nove. We arrived in Marostica early enough that we could eat dinner and explore the town a little. We ate at a lovely local restaurant called Osteria Madonnetta. Afterwards, we walked up the hill to the castle ruins. It was quite a hike, but the views were beautiful.

Osteria Madonnetta, the restaurant where we ate dinner in Marostica.

Marostica castle and wall.

View of Marostica from the path up to the castle.

May 23, 2011: Marostica-Nove-Vicenza-Camp Darby

Our first challenge of the day was getting out of the hotel’s parking lot. It had a very narrow exit onto a very narrow street. Brandon got out without any problems and we were on our way to Nove! Several Italian pottery shops are located in Nove, but we only stopped at La Ceramica VBC. In addition to their own pottery, they also sell some of the ceramics they make for Tiffany, Lenox, and other American brands. I have several friends that have been there before, so I knew a few of the pieces that I wanted, but I ended up buying a bit more than I had planned! Brandon was a good sport about it all, and I know I will use and enjoy these pieces for many years to come.

La Ceramica VBC in Nove

My Italian pottery purchases.

Our next stop for the day was the Army post in Vicenza. Our only purpose for going there was to buy gas coupons. Like in Germany, Active Duty military and DOD civilians can purchase gas at a discounted price. This benefit is extended to those on leave or TDY also. The system in Italy is a little different than here in Germany. We have an Esso card that keeps track of our rationed amount of gas and can be preloaded with funds to purchase gas at Esso stations on the economy. We can also buy gas on post. In Italy, they have an older system that uses paper coupons. They do not have gas stations on post, so you have to use your coupons on the economy at Esso or Agip stations. We were authorized 200 liters, but determined we would only need about 100 liters for our trip. This cost us $117, or about $4.429/gallon. While this may still sound pricey, it is a significant discount compared to regular prices! (As I write this, gas is about $8.57/gallon in Italy.)

The hardest part about getting gas in Italy was figuring out how much we needed in liters! We estimated too high on our first try. The tank was at less than a quarter of a tank and I found in the manual that the capacity is 61 liters. We asked the attendant for 50 liters, but it was full at only 48L. Unfortunately, the coupons are in increments of five and since we were on the Autostrade (Interstate), the station wouldn’t give us a refund for the two liters. (Stations near military bases will “buy” your extra gas coupons and give you a refund if you don’t have the exact amount.) Our next two gas fill-ups went much smoother at 25L each, and that easily got us back into Germany where we could use our Esso card again.

While we were on post in Vicenza, we did buy a few things at the PX and ate some lunch. Then we were back in the car to drive to Camp Darby. Although the receptionist at the hotel that morning thought Pisa/Camp Darby was really far to drive in a day, it was actually only about 3.5 hours. The concept of distance is vastly different here in Europe than back in the U.S.!

At Camp Darby, we stayed in a deluxe room at the Sea Pines Recreational Facilities. I’m not sure that deluxe was quite the right description, but it was a room! There was a nice little private patio outside and a kitchenette that would have been handy if we were staying more than two nights. Camp Darby is pretty small and unexciting, but our purpose for staying there was to see Pisa and have a safe place to leave our car while we took the train to Cinque Terre. We quickly discovered that the second purpose for being there was not going to work! There was no shuttle service to the train station in Pisa, and we were informed by the lady working at Information, Ticketing and Reservation (ITR) that the only way to get to Cinque Terre was to drive ourselves. The lack of helpfulness as Camp Darby was a bit disappointing at the time, but driving to Cinque Terre ultimately ended up working better for us.

With few appealing dinner options at Camp Darby, we decided to drive to Lucca, Italy’s most impressive fortress city, encircled by a perfectly intact wall. Lucca has had a protective wall for 2,000 years. You can read three walls into today’s map: the first rectangular Roman wall, the later medieval wall (nearly the size of today’s), and the 16th-century Renaissance wall, which survives today. We rented two bikes and leisurely circled the 2.5-mile wall.

Brandon riding the ramparts in Lucca.

Erika a bike on the Lucca walls.

We really had an appetite after our bike ride, so we went to eat at Locanda di Bacco and were not disappointed. The meal was excellent, but for some strange reason we weren’t able to finish the bottle of wine we ordered. (I think this was because the owner brought us shots of limencello and grappa!) I asked the waitress to cork our bottle of wine so we could take it back to Camp Darby and drink it on our patio and she kindly obliged. As we left the restaurant, we were quite surprised when the owner took the open bottle from us and gave us a full, unopened bottle! Very gracious indeed and a great start to our trip!!

May 24, 2011: Pisa

Today we drove to Pisa, which is a quick 20 minutes from Camp Darby. As usual, we followed Rick Steves’ advice and parked in the big Pietrasantina parking lot that is designed for tour buses, but tourists with cars can park for free. It was an easy 500 yard walk from there to the Field of Miracles (Campo dei Miracoli). (We just followed all of the tour groups going that way!)

We immediately bought our tickets and booked our entry into the Tower before exploring some of the other sights on the Field of Miracles. Scattered across the golf-course-green lawn are five grand buildings: the cathedral (Duomo), its bell tower (the Leaning Tower), the Baptistry, the hospital (today’s Museum of the Sinopias), and the Camposanto Cemetery. The buildings are constructed from similar materials—bright white marble—and have comparable decoration. The style is called Pisan Romanesque. Architecturally, the Campo is unique and exotic. Theologically, the Campo’s buildings mark the main events of every Pisan’s life: christened in the Baptistery, married in the Duomo, honored in ceremonies at the Tower, healed in the hospital, and buried in the cemetery.

Duomo and Tower in Pisa.

First, we went in the Duomo (Cathedral), the centerpiece of the Field of Miracles’ complex of religious buildings. The octagonal pulpit by Giovanni Pisano was pretty impressive and the bronze incense burner supposedly caught teenage Galileo’s attention when a gust of wind set the lamp swinging.

Baptistry, Duomo and Tower in Pisa.

Then we visited the Baptistery, which is the biggest in Italy. In the center of the building is an octagonal font topped with a statue of John the Baptist. While we were inside, we were treated to a demonstration of the remarkable acoustics when a security guard sang several tones. The 250-foot-wide dome causes sound to echo for a good 10 seconds. The security guard sang three tones within the 10 seconds and made a chord, singing harmonies with himself.

View of the Duomo and Baptistry from the Tower.

By this time, it was almost our turn to climb the Tower, so we dropped off our backpacks at the lockers and got in line. There are 294 tilting stairs to the top, and you can tell that the Tower is leaning as you climb! Things get easier as you go downhill and the steps are even more challenging when you go back uphill. It is also a strange sensation at the top as you constantly feel slightly off-balance.

Erika & Brandon in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

After visiting the sights at the Field of Miracles, it was time for lunch. We found a pizzeria/trattoria just a block from the Tower called La Buca. We sat outside and had a lovely view of the Tower while we ate.

Although the Field of Miracles is the primary sight in Pisa, we also wanted a feel for the town so we decided to take the self-guided walk in Rick Steves’ guidebook from the train station to the Tower. We’ve learned that taking these walks backwards is rather difficult so we decided to just walk to the train station and follow the walk back to the Tower. Unfortunately, getting to the train station was not as easy as it seemed. Somehow we ended up taking a large detour and saw even more of the city than we intended! Despite the heat, we stayed in good spirits and eventually found our way to the start of the walk. It also helped that we stopped for a beer/wine just off of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II before walking back to the Field of Miracles and the car!

View of Pisa from the Ponte di Mezzo

We drove back to Camp Darby to regroup and then tried to eat at the recommended restaurants in the hotel’s book. The first place we tried was on the beach and appeared to be not much more than a cafeteria. We ended up eating at the second place, but it was definitely not our best meal on the trip. There was a foul smell around our table and the restaurant atmosphere was rather creepy. This was our first experience ordering seafood on this trip and it was an experience! My food still had eyes!! I’m sure the locals in the restaurant found it quite amusing watching me try to eat my meal.

After dinner we enjoyed some time on the patio outside our room and prepared for the main attraction of our trip: The Cinque Terre.

As usual, we took a lot more photos than I can share on the blog. Brandon has most of them uploaded here to his Picasa web album.