After starting our trip in Venice, we headed off to the Cinque Terre. For those of you that don't know, the Cinque Terre is a series of five villages along the western cost of Italy just above Pisa. These villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore (from north to south), and are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and are connected by ferry, train, or trail. The whole trail is about 10km long and takes about 5 hours to walk from one end to the other. The most difficult parts are the section from Monterosso al Mar to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia. The section of the trail connecting Manarola and Riomaggiore is called the Via Dell'Amore (Trail of Love). But more on this later.
We left Venice around noon on Wednesday and took the train to into Vernazza, arriving around 5:30pm. We chose to stay in Vernazza because it is the most beautiful of all the villages, though they each have their own charm. Plus it is centrally located and has lots of options when it comes to finding a place to say.
Before we left, we did some research and chose to stay at Camere Rosa. Rosa owns two apartments right on the main street in the village. One on the third floor and a beautiful one on the fourth floor with a balcony. That's where we stayed, on the fourth floor. Since the weather was amazing while we were there, we really enjoyed the balcony, and the apartment was very spacious... just as long as you didn't mind the 46 very steep and narrow steps leading up to the fourth floor. But hey, if you are visiting the Cinque Terre and planning to hike the trail, then the steps into the apartment really isn't a big deal.
It is really hard to understand the Cinque Terre without looking at some pictures, but understand that each village isn't very big (usually only one main street and a few side streets leading up the hillsides with many steps) and at this point it caters a lot to tourists, though it is not overly "touristy," like Rome or Venice. The first night we ate in Vernazza at a waterfront restaurant called Il Gambero Rosso. The food was delicious especially the troffie al pesto and the mixed seafood appetizer, which consisted of squid, scallops, tuna, and accuighe (anchovies). We finished the dinner off with torta della nonna (a dry cake) and some Sciacchetrà, the sweet wine of the area. The idea is that you dip the dried cake into the wine and then eat it. It wasn't bad, but I didn't care for the Sciacchetrà that much.
Now, I know what you're thinking... and yes, I really did eat anchovies. But they are nothing like they are here in the states. Here in the states anchovies are these gross salt covered smelly little fish. But over in the Cinque Terre, they are basically just fresh little fish served the day they are caught and covered with a little lemon. I'm starting to surprise myself at what I'll eat these days.
That night Jeremy bought some wine and candles and we had a nice evening on the balcony overlooking the lights from the town below and the stars above.
The next morning we walked up to Il Pirata, a wonderful bakery (and evening restaurant) just north of the train station. Two brothers own the restaurant and are both super friendly and very proud of their long writeup in the Rick Steves guidebook. We wound up having breakfast here each morning. Their Sicilian style pastries are so delicious, I really want to learn how to make them.
After stuffing our face with one of everything, we headed to the trail. Of the two trails that connect the villages of the Cinque Terre, the most popular is the lower trail along the water. The upper trail is much more difficult and is much longer. Also know that the trails are protected by the National Park and require a daily pass to use them. It cost us about 5 Euro for a two day pass, and they can be purchased at the first booth that you come to along the trail.
The first village we explored was Corniglia. Corniglia is the only village not "on the water." That is to say that they have no marine access and no beach... and about 400 steps leading up from the train station to the high village. It's also probably the smallest of the five villages. We only spent a limited time here, but we did check out a small enoteca called Il Pirun. I had read about this place online and was excited to have fun drinking from the pirun. At this point I should mention that the Cinque Terre is known for its white wine and the hillsides are littered with vineyards. We had several glasses during our time there and in my opinion the wine is okay, and though I'm not a huge white wine fan, it was nice to have a wine that was locally produced.
You're probably wondering what a pirun is. Well it's basically a small decanter that you fill with a glass of wine (I'd recommend white), hold above your head, tilt, and pour. Notice I recommended white wine, cause if you aren't careful it will go everywhere and you'll be left with red wine stains on your clothing. As the wine comes out of the pirun it aerates and releases the flavors. Basically you'll have so much fun with it that you'll wind up "bonging" your glass of wine. Before you know it, it's 5 minutes later and you've already finished two glasses of wine. Yea, dangerously fun. After this we grabbed a focaccia sandwich with mozzarella, prosciutto, and tomato to share and help balance out all that wine.
After Corniglia we hiked over to Manarola. This hike is pretty easy and the view of the water is incredible. The water is so blue and so clear! Manarola has a lot of deep water access for swimming, although we never did find time to get in the water. We did, however, take time to walk around the village and to do the Manarola Vineyard Walk which runs just above the town. Really beautiful views up here. It also drops you off into the local cemetery. It was really interesting to see the different burial methods based on family wealth. For lunch we grabbed some farinata from Il Discovolo Pizzeria and Focacceria. Farinata is a fried bread snack, made from chickpea meal, water, oil, and pepper, and baked on a copper tray in a wood-burning stove. Ours came with mozzarella and S&P. Not bad.
We then walked to Riomaggiore along the Via Dell'Amore (about 20 minute walk on a paved and lite section of trail). To me this was the most disappointing part of the Cinque Terre trail. Yea, I know it's the "trail of love," and if it weren't for all the graffiti all over the rocks, benches, sidewalk, it would be quite lovely. But somehow that just killed it for me. It is also the easiest part of the trail, so don't be fooled into thinking the whole Cinque Terre trail is just like this tiny little section.
Riomaggiore is a nice village, but very steeply built into the hillside. The only way to move around is by means of steep roads or stairs. We spent some time here this day and the next walking around and seeing the village from the highest points and sicking our feet in the water down by the rocky beach... oh and sampling some of the regions Limoncelo, mmmmm tasty. We also started to hike this trail that runs high along the cliff by the water with a not so reliable hand railing. It runs quite far and we wanted to spend some more time in the other villages so we didn't finish it, but we will next time we come back. We also took a few moments and had a nice break at Encoteca & Ristorante Dau Cila; a small hideaway down by the water with some mellow jazz. It was quite lovely.
To get back to Vernazza we took the ferry. I would recommend doing this at least once. It was really cool to see the towns from the sea.
At this point it was about 7pm and we knew we wanted to go over to Monterosso al Mare for dinner. This is where story 1 of 2 from that night begins...
I convinced Jeremy that we should hike to Monterosso from Vernazza so we could say that we did the whole Cinque Terre trail in one day. Of course he was a bit nervous because this was the hardest section of trail, 1.5 hours long, and it was already getting dusk. Somehow I managed to convince him to do this and we took off, starting around 7:15. Well about 10 minutes up the north side towards Monterosso you get the most wonderful view of Vernazza. It's just beautiful at dusk and easy to see why it is considered the most picturesque village. So of course I wanted to spend about 10 minutes there taking pictures, to which Jeremy, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to. So really by the time we started our journey it was 7:30.
It probably doesn't take much for you to realize that a 1.5 hour hike would put you at your destination at 9pm, and that 9pm is pretty late in the beginning of September, and that it probably isn't very light at 9pm in the beginning of September. Well you'd be right. Around 8:30 it got pretty darn dark on that hillside. And this trail is deceiving, because after about 30 minutes you can see Monterosso pretty clearly, but yet it is still really far away due to the curvature of the mountain. It is also the most challenging (and awesome) section of trail. The last 30 minutes we did in darkness guided only occasionally by the little key chain light Jeremy was carrying. It was an awesome adventure and we decided right then that we had to go back and do the hike again the next day... in the light.
That night we had a wonderful dinner in Monterosso at Ristorante Moretto (lemon anchovies, seafood ravioli, tiramisu), walked around the old part of the town a bit, then decided to head back. The next day we would explore the rest of the village, which is divided into two sections, the new and the old. Monterosso al Mare is the most touristy of all the villages and it has really become a resort town. There are high end boutique shops and expensive hotels (not rooms like the other towns, but hotels). They also have a large beach which the white sand is trekked in for each season. But the old town is pretty cute and the hike makes it worth coming here. Interestingly enough, the next day we hiked the opposite direction (from Monterosso back to Vernazza) and we saw a man who had fallen on one of the 1200 steps and cracked his head open. When we got there the medics were already there and the man was in a c-collar but apparently had refused to get on the backboard. So he was just up, walking around, talking on his cell phone, wearing the neck brace. Also flying around was life flight. Since the trail is difficult to get to (and in and out of) the only way to get him out was life flight, which it appeared he wanted no part of. We were stuck there for about 30 minutes, but it was cool to watch life flight drop the rescuers and equipment down. We never found out what happened with that, because they finally let us pass by.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself. Back to that night. After dinner it was about midnight and we decided the only way we were getting back was by train. So we walked up to the train station and went to purchase some train tickets. Obviously the window was closed at this point but we'd been told there was an automatic machine that we could use to get our tickets. This was only a partial lie. There was a machine, but it was broken and the insides were missing. Why on earth would you steal the inside of a ticket machine? Seems so silly. Maybe they needed tickets really badly. Anyway, there we were, wondering what the heck we were gonna do. Really the only choice was to get on the train. There was only one more coming that night and I was determined to get on it. So Jeremy and I came up with a plan to ride the train "outlaw" style and to outrun the conductor should we see him. It was only a 3 minute ride between the stations, but I think it was the longest 3 minutes of Jeremy's life. I was amused to see him so stressed out. In the end we did not meet a conductor that night, but we did the next day... when we fortunately had our tickets. We learned that it is always good to have a ticket handy, especially when they only cost 1,40 Euro each.
That was our exciting trip to the Cinque Terre. I highly recommend that everyone go here at some point in their life. It is beautiful, and one of my favorite "cities" in Italy!
Next, off to Pisa and Tuscany.