Vernazza is the town Rick Steves prefers, and as a result, it was very crowded.  It was funny to see almost every tourist holding various translations of his distinctive blue and yellow guide – including us. We had a lovely lunch on the harbor square since the day was so nice and warm.  We chose the restaurant based on my online research, not the tour book, and therefore had a much better meal without all the crowds.   Score one for me!

The owner of the restaurant waited on us himself, and was very chatty, telling us he liked practicing his English. Two of his sons, he told us, were the waiters, and the third son ran the kitchen with all of his own recipes.  He took great pleasure to explain to us that in HIS restaurant, when you order it takes 15 – 20 minutes for your food to arrive. That’s because everything is always cooked fresh to order. He gave a rather disparaging sniff at the other two restaurants and said that if we were in a hurry, to go to one of the others who cook in the morning and reheat. He seemed quite pleased when we said that we were happy to wait.

Papa must have liked us, for he stood by us while we ate, chatting away.  I couldn’t figure out why we were being favored until he asked me why my parents never taught me Italian.   OK, I thought. That’s it.  I had to find out why he thought I was Italian.   He laughed when I said I was of Irish ancestry and said that I really look Ligurian.  He pointed out a couple of the locals walking by – one of them could have been my cousin.  The mystery of Genetics was solved. 

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being from here one bit. Not that I mind being of Irish descent, but Liguria’s a lovely place, with nice people and really great food. What more can you ask for?   Something to think about, anyway.

Lunch done, we set out to explore. We walked to the top of the town and enjoyed the view of the colorful buildings all crowded together. It’s not as steep as Riomaggiore, but it’s definitely longer.  Back down to the waterfront, we visited the local church. Built from stone, the spire and rear portions were obviously added at a much later date, with the main part of the nave still 14th century gothic.  A very simple church inside, but most dignified.  I liked it.

Back outside, the surf was too high for boats to be launched from the harbor, so we missed out on all of that action. What we did get to see were lots of spray from the waves dashing the breakwater and providing amazing photos.  Worth the tradeoff, I’d say.

I highly recommend hiking up the steep stairs off the harbor to the ruined lookout Tower. The views from this place were incredible. We could see Monterosso to the right and Corniglia to the left. The haze made pictures that far away a bit difficult, but for the nearer sights, it was well worth the climb. There were cats and tourists all basking in the warm sun, and taking pictures – the tourists were, at any rate. The cats were being typically arrogant, posing for all the pictures with superior and smug expressions on their faces.

With all the sightseeing done, we headed back to Riomaggiore for our last dinner in Cinque Terre.  The next day, Vlad was heading off to Monza and work, and I was buzzing down to Rome for two days of museum bliss.

Arrivederci, Cinque Terre.  I hope to return again.

It was our last day in Cinque Terre. The rain from the day before had cleared, and it was a lovely day for a nice, long exploration of the two towns left on our list.  Most of the trails were still closed from the previous day’s deluge, so we took the train to the farthest town, Monterosso and check it out.

Monterosso is the largest and flattest of the 5 towns, and it’s the most commercial. It’s broken into two sections – the new and old towns.  We just explored the old section, since that’s where the few sights it has are. This is the only place with a real beach, which is why there are so many iffy-looking hotels crammed onto a small beachfront. Was I glad we didn’t stay there!

The only really cool things to see in Monterroso were the Church of San Giovanni, which was built in 1307, and the Oratory of the Dead. The second is a rather macabre place, filled with carved skulls and other image of death. It belonged to a group that arranged funerals and took care of the bereaved, according to a sign outside.  Both buildings have the black and white striped architecture that’s so popular in Northern Italy, but with stone and tufa, not marble.

After that, there really wasn’t much to see except a monastery high up on a hill that was a major climb.  I wasn’t really feeling up to it, so we gave it a miss.  Glad we did – we heard from another tourist later that it was a major disappointment.

Since all there was left to do was wander through the streets looking at the buildings and shops (eek!), we took a very nice stroll, and then headed down to the waterfront. The views of the Med were lovely from the boardwalk. The surf was really churning and unfortunately canceled the boat service between towns.   We were a bit bummed about it since that eliminated our offshore picture taking possibilities, but it sure made our onshore pictures more dramatic.

Next we left to join the throngs of people on the train to Vernazza.

The Travel Gods decided to bring in the Weather Gods to try their best at messing up our idyllic holiday.  It was pouring – really pouring rain.   Scratch sightseeing in this downpour, so we decided it was a good day to find me a doctor.  I was at the point of not hearing much of anything, and I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

Rain, rain and more rain

We took the train to La Spezia and took a taxi to the hospital, according to the directions supplied by our lovely innkeeper Carla. Once in the urgent care center, I gave the nurse my information and we sat to wait in the crowded room.  I was surprised at the efficiency and speed with which everyone was attended.  Our hospitals could learn a lot from these guys.

We waited less than an hour when my name was called and the nurse behind the glass gave me some papers and said to go to “door 5”, pointing around the corner.  That meant building 5, quite a ways away in the pouring rain, but hey – Vlad found it, so I was grateful.   Once in that building, I handed the papers to another person in scrubs who kept muttering “otorino” as he was looking through a book.   Vlad said that must be the name of the doctor – he never took Latin and didn’t know that meant ear-nose.  I appreciated the chuckle.

Shortly after, a doctor-looking person came walking down the hallway and the first thing he said was “do you speak English?”. I could have kissed his feet at that point. He was an ENT that trained in the US, of all things.  We chatted about California while he looked in my ears and tutted about what he saw in there.  Some rapid Italian to the hovering nurse had her fishing for a prescription pad.   BTW – they didn’t charge me a single euro for the excellent care I received.  Clutching the prescription listing all kinds of nasty meds, we left to find one of the only two farmacias that were open on Sunday.

Now the Travel Gods really decided to have fun with us.  La Spezia on a Sunday was deserted.  And I mean NO cars on the street, much less taxis.  Here we were in the center of the town with everything shuttered, in driving rain and wind, and no transportation in sight. I wasn’t terribly coherent at that time, and was happy to just follow Vlad in abject misery.  By this time we were thoroughly soaked and extremely miserable.

The Travel Gods decided they’d given us enough for one day – across a large street with only private cars buzzing along, there was a building called PUBBLICA ASSISTENZA, with some sort of a guard sitting on a chair in front of the door. Not knowing this was their ambulance service and not an assistance center, I grabbed Vlad’s arm and jaywalked across the street.  Once there, I asked the man in the chair in my best Spanish if he could call me a taxi, please. Vlad was embarrassed at my temerity, but I was past caring what the guy thought of me.  Well, why not? It’s pouring rain, I was  completely wet and soon to get much sicker if I didn’t get dry soon.  I  was NOT going to let the Travel Gods get the best of me on this.  The gentleman at the door looked a bit surprised at my request, but took pity on us and called a taxi.

Once in the taxi, I handed the driver the paper with the addresses the hospital wrote down for me.  Vlad stayed in the taxi while I went in to get the script filled so it wouldn’t get away and strand us once again.  The pharmacist didn’t speak English, but he had most of what I needed to get and seemed to understand my French (my Spanish wasn’t up to medical talk). He was a bit short on the antibiotics  I needed, so he handed me the prescription back with the several boxes of pills, and I think he told me to take it to another farmacia the next day to get the rest.

Back via the train to Riomaggiore and the long, uphill walk to the top of the town and our hotel. The rain made the street a river, and we were literally swimming upstream. I had new respect for salmon, and just hoped I would have to die when I reached the top.  I had to stop and rest a few times, but hey – I was sick and deserved some slack. There were a few brave, sodden tourists sprinkled here and there on the climb, but other than that the town was deserted.

We finally made it back to our room, and I looked in the mirror.  Good heavens – no wonder I got startled looks from the PA guy and the pharmacist.   What had started the day as sleek, straight-ironed hair was now a mess of frizzy curls standing out and framing an extremely pale face.  I looked like Medusa on a bad snake day.   Vlad wanted to take a picture, but  I’d had enough misery for one day.  He only redeemed himself by trekking down the stream to find some species of takeout dinner and a bottle of wine.

This is Italy – no doctor will dare prescribe an antibiotic that doesn’t mix with wine.  It’s a very nice place.

May Day. Europe’s version of Labor Day, and it seemed most of Italy descended on Cinque Terre.  Feeling a bit sore, and with me falling further under the weather, we decided to stay put that day and explore Riomaggiore.

A view of Riomaggiore from the Via Della Amore

To reach the town, we had to go through the lower gate of the Cinque Terre Residence down some old stone stairs that are so steep they should really be called a permanent ladder.  A few switchbacks between the old buildings later, and we come to some shallow stairs that are obviously ancient. They reminded me of the type of stairs you see in Venice that lead to the water, and a boat mooring. I had asked Innkeeper Carla about that earlier and found that’s because that’s what they were. Riomaggiore means “big river” and in yesteryear the main street was actually a substantial river. Currently, the river is rigged so runs under the main street.  You can hear it rushing under the pavement as you walk down.   So cool, but then I really like that kind of stuff.

Riomaggiore from above the town

The steps ended at a charming small church that was still in use by the locals. Votive candles burn in a long holder just inside the doors, and the whole place is fragrant with old incense. The church is obviously very old (no placque with a date) and to me was more picturesque than the main church that’s on all the postcards and which dates only from the mid 1800’s. Unfortunately, this lovely church is always in the shade, and we couldn’t get a good picture of it.  Trust me – it’s worth the walk up to see.

Riomaggore - a beautiful little town

Walking down the main street, the Via Colombo, there were tall attached houses crowded on either side, and other tall houses behind in several layers going up both sides of the old ravine. The result was both pretty and colorful. The bottom story of the front-row houses were all businesses of varying sort – a wine shop that sold local wines (and from which we had sent home a large box of excellent Riomaggiore white wine), a couple of co-op collectives, various shops selling pizza, foccacia squares topped with some really yummy things, gelato, trinkets, as well as a small general store and a farmacia.

There are more locals out and about here than in the other towns, I noticed. They walked up and down the street calling to each other with lots of hugging and cheek kissing when they met. When the tours leave in the evening was prime dog-walking time, and kick-the-soccer ball time for the local kids.  A great experience to see local lifestyle.

Below the main part of the town, accessed from a staircase is the marina area, a stone breakwater provides shelter for the fishing boats which are removed from storage up in the mountain by a crane, and launched by hand. A stroll around the corner (yes, with stairs, of course!) takes you to where the water ferry lands when weather permits. The sea was pretty choppy that day, and the ferry was having some difficulty getting people on and off with the bouncing around it was doing.  We stood and watched the follies for a while before strolling back up to the main part of town.

Ferry Follies

After having seen a couple of the other towns and the crowds in each, we were surprised not to see the same in Riomaggiore. We have the theory that the more sedentary tourists and tour groups take one look at the main street, head down to the marina for a quick glance, and then head to the next town.   Their loss.

This place is perfect.

View of Corniglia from the Trail

The trail from Manarola to Corniglia is unpaved, rocky, and pretty rigorous. It’s also practically vertical in spots, making us very grateful for our good shoes and middle-aged stamina. There were some pretty miserable tourists spotted along the way in a variety of unsuitable footwear, undoubtably encouraged after the tame Via della Amore.  The Travel Gods saw these folks coming.  I’m not sure which was worse, the gold ballet slippers that were already in tatters half way there with a tearful teenager looking at the ripped soles, or the 5-inch cork platform sandals that were attached to legs clad in the shortest mini I’ve seen in a while.  All this was under a pouty-face that obviously didn’t expect to be dragged here.  The middle-aged guy this bit of arm-candy was with deserved every snide comment she gave him.

This is the EASY part of the trail

I wasn’t in much better shape.   I was trying to catch my breath at that point after a particularly grueling climb, and was getting the idea that the antibiotics I brought weren’t doing much for this ear infection.   Oooh – look at that wildflower plant. Good thing I’m easily distracted.

Oooh - wildflowers

The area between Corniglia and Manarola is apparently known for its wildflowers and flower cultivation higher in the mountain. The locals make perfume from the oils they press. They also make a pretty good honey, from what I’ve heard, from the bees that are lucky enough to live there. I decided I had to try it – once I got to the town!  IF I got to the town…

Vlad carefully negotiating one of the hanging bridges

The trail takes about 2 hours to complete, and your reward is arriving at the Corniglia train station with your quads, hamstrings and glutes screaming for mercy.  That’s when Vlad decided to spring on me that I would now have to climb up almost 400 stairs to reach the town itself.  He’s lucky he wasn’t pushed over the side.  Being an intelligent man who can read eye-signals, he immediately saved himself by suggesting the bus.   Inspired.

At the top, the bus decants you out at what looks like a part car-park and part square. The main part of the town is below this area, which seemed perfect to me.  That is until I realized it was straight down – about 78 degrees worth. We trudged down the steps and are rewarded with some pretty cool sights. You can really see how well the locals use the arable land on the mountainsides. Everything is terraced and used for growing yummy things. The amateur gardener in me was impressed!

Terraced hills in Corniglia

The steep climb back up the steps was relieved only by a few seconds to duck into a small shop and pick up a jar of that honey I’ve heard about.  That was all the rest I was allowed.   I followed Vlad up the rest of the steps, cursing quietly.  Once we reached the top, it was decided by mutual consent that we both needed some lunch and a beer.   I really needed that beer – purely for analgesic purposes, you understand…

Corniglia street

Suitably fortified by a lunch of deep-fried anchovies and an Italian lager, I was now ready to tackle the 400 steps down. It wasn’t bad at all, and the views were fabulous.  I was SO glad we didn’t climb up, though.   I saw several brave tourists going up that were hanging onto the rails and gasping at various stages, and they did not look very happy.   That did it for me. Once down to the bottom of the steps, it was Train Time back to Riomaggiore.  After all, we had the steep climb to get to the hotel ahead of us once we got there, or so I argued.  I’m good at rationalization when I have to be.

After a few days of this, I certainly hope to have the best looking buns in the neighborhood.  Hey – – I gotta come out of this with SOMETHING tangible.

It’s our first full day in Cinque Terre, and we were all set to hit the trail. We laced up our walking shoes, bought a 3 day trail pass, and set out on the aptly named Via della Amore on our way to the next town in the chain, Manarola.

The Via della Amore is paved and an easy stroll. It’s also a place of breathtaking views of sheer cliffs, a calm turquoise and deep blue sea, and beautiful wildflowers. It was also terribly crowded with tourists visiting for the May Day holiday.   We edged our way through the masses of people either snapping pictures or making out on the benches.   Ah, Italy.

There is a charming custom here of lovers writing their names and dates on a small lock, such as would be used for a suitcase, and then locking it to various places – the chain-link fencing used to keep down rock slides, the benches, the gates, whatever looks handy. We watched a few of these being done by teenagers when they came up for air, and thought it a charming custom. Those who weren’t making out were making fun of the other tourists. You don’t need to speak Italian to read the facial and hand expressions.

OK, kids – now that you’ve proven your undying (at least until next week) love, now it’s time to spend some time working on your manners.  They’re almost as important as a healthy libido, and those middle-aged tourists with their alpenstocks and sensible hiking shoes are not as funny-looking as you think they are.   Someday you may be working for them.  Just sayin’.

Emerging from the celebrated walk, we traversed the Manarola train station, go through the obligatory tunnel, and we were in the town center.  It’s not as steep as Riomaggiore, but it is every bit as picturesque.  At the top of the town, there is a piazza with a lovely old church that dates from 1338. Wow.

We decided to take the Vineyard Walk since we’ll be returning to Manarola for dinner that night, when hopefully it would be less crowded.  We were glad we did.  It was a beautiful hike through one level of the terraced vineyards where the vines were spreading on their lines, lemon trees in bloom scented the air, and the occasional local working in his or her patch made the walk interesting.   More incredible views.

At the end of the walk, we decided to continue on to Corniglia, and climbed the rough stone steps to the next trail.

To be continued…

After an uneventful train trip from Siena, we finally made it, dragging and bleary-eyed, to Riomaggiore, the first of the 5 towns that comprise Cinque Terre. It’s a glorious day, warm and with a light breeze. We emerge from the tunnel from the train station to the town and are immediately charmed by this place. We drag our bags up a steep hill to the bus stop and wait for our ride up to the Cinque Terre Residence, the boutique hotel we booked. After the dreadful experience in Siena, we were really looking forward to some rest and quiet.

Riomaggiore from the waterfront

Things looked promising already. The locals here are friendly, nodding and smiling at us as they passed by. Little did I know they were probably just laughing at us with our roly-suitcases knowing just what lies ahead.  Fortunately, I had been in contact with our genial innkeeper, and knew that there was a bus that would take us up the hill if we didn’t want to hike up it with our stuff.  We didn’t, so we found a bench that looked like it might be a bus stop and waited.  And waited.  And waited.   Hey – these things are supposed to run every 20 minutes!  I guess that, like everything else in Italy is just a suggestion.  After the better part of an hour, we get on the little bus, and up the hill we went.

Riomaggiore is a delightful, sleepy town that is built straight up. The flat parts of the street are at a 45 degree angle, and it goes from there. Gotta love the bus. We see the hotel to the right. It goes straight up the mountain with small buildings painted various colors at different levels. Looks pretty, but I’m very glad not to be lugging my suitcase and briefcase up this steep street.

Cinque Terre Residence - a wonderful hotel!

The driver lets us off at the upper entrance to the hotel, and we looked at the steep switchback stairs that we would have to navigate to get to the lobby.   Fortunately, the Son of the House (never learned his name) immediately came out as we rang the gate-bell and operated an ingenious funicular basket that safely hauled our luggage down.  Then we got to trek down the stone stairs and path to the building Son called the Reception house.  We were greeted at the door by the propriatress,  a charming and delightful woman named Carla who made us feel she truly cares about the welfare of each one of her guests. After the experience we just had in Siena, this showed us we were once again in favor with the Travel Gods.  I’ll take it – for as long as it lasts.

We were soon shown to our room, which was large, comfortable, and with an awesome view from each of its two private terraces as well as the window.  Breathe…. Breathe…   With a glass of very nice local wine in our hands, we were soon sitting on the sunnier terrace looking at the town and a nice slice of the Mediterranean. Vlad generously informed me I redeemed my reputation as a trip planner.   Even my ears feel better.   Life is good again.

Heaven On Earth.