Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#394 - Cinque Terre - Parte Due

Now that we are actually settled in Corniglia, let me backtrack a bit to explain Cinque Terre.  It is a rugged part of the coast on the Italian Riviera and the name translates to “The Five Lands”, which are five villages:  Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare (going south to north).  I also read that “Terre “comes from the terraces that people have built over the years on the cliffs, while cinque is Italian for “five”.  The coastline, five villages and the hillsides around it, are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. 

We slept well in our little farmhouse by the sea and had a nice breakfast downstairs.  The night before Lorenzo told us that someone would arrive to drive us to town in the morning.  After breakfast we stood around and waited.  And enjoyed the view.  And waited some more.  We asked the woman at breakfast about a ride, but she spoke limited English.  We were getting impatient.  While we appreciated an impending ride, we didn’t want to spend all day up there. 

Julie at the back of the farm house after breakfast, day one.
It was approaching 10 a.m. so we decided to walk on our own.  There are many trails around Cinque Terre of varying difficulty (some people come just to hike), and we planned to do a little hiking anyway, so thought we’d try walking down the hill to Vernazza.  I saw a trail by the driveway and later spotted some hikers.  We followed the trail but took a wrong turn in the vineyards.  Eventually we got on the right trail.  We asked someone how long it would take to walk to Vernazza and they said about half an hour.  We could do that! 

It was a beautiful day - sunny and cool in the morning, warming up to near 80.  We packed some athletic clothes for hiking (and sturdy shoes).  I even wore my stylish sun hat.  The trail was obviously mostly downhill, but was very rocky so we had to watch our steps carefully.  Walking sticks were prevalent along the trails and a popular item at some shops around town.  One nice couple along the trail agreed to take our photo. 

Every so often we’d stop and just look out onto the sea.  And then look back from whence we came.  Our yellow farmhouse got smaller and smaller.  I can’t believe we walked all that way down! 

Our farm house. 

Vernazza from the trail to Monterosso.

After exploring Vernazza, we continued hiking to Monterosso, which took two hours.  Along this part of the trail we encountered a group of high school kids who were very annoying.  They would not shut up!  Counting, singing, OMG WILL YOU BE QUIET!!  I think they were German or Danish.  We’d let them pass, they would stop to rest, we would pass them, and then they were right behind us again. 

Monterosso is the only village with a beach, so we had to check it out.  It felt great to take our shoes off and enjoy some down time enjoying the water and the view.  This particular beach is made up of little rocks – no soft, white sand.  But it was a beach nonetheless!  After our break we had pizza and salad at a small cafe right next to the marina. 

View of Monterosso from our trail.  

Monterrosso is the village furthest north, so we took a ferry all the way to the village furthest south, Riomaggiore.  It was cool to see the villages from the perspective of the sea.  And there was our little yellow farmhouse way up on the hill!  Again, we were amazed we had walked all that way! 

You can just make out the yellow farm house at the very top center.  We walked on a trail that went to the left of that.  

One of my co-workers had been to Cinque Terre two years prior and had dinner at Bar de Pie du Ma, a restaurant on top of a cliff in Riomaggiore.  After finally finding it, we decided to have a drink and enjoy the view.   

We then took a train to Manarola.  We had planned to hike a bit more, but I believe the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola was washed out.  That is our excuse anyway.  We wandered Manarola and found a playground on top of a hill.  We are still kids at heart so had to play. 

Our last train of the day was back to Corniglia.  This time we ate at Food and Sea, which was right next to the restaurant run by the owner of the farm house, Ristorante Dau Tinola.  This place was awesome!  Another great view of the sea/sunset.  We both had salad – the best salad so far (and turned out to be the best salad of the trip).  This region of Italy is known for pesto, so I chose pasta with pesto. 

I have to include a side note on Dau Tinola.  We dined there September 23 and then ate at Food and Sea September 24 and 25. In looking up the restaurant online, I found some reviews on TripAdvisor.  There is one dated September 25 (“Dau Tinola is A-OK”)!  It describes a tall waiter with white hair, who could be a bit gruff.  Our Lorenzo!   I agree with the reviewer – a smile can go a long way. 

After dinner I smiled and got Lorenzo’s attention, and we hitched another ride with him to the farmhouse. 

Besides our friend Lorenzo, we met others along the way and were able to chat with them for varying lengths.  At breakfast this morning we met a couple from Israel.  They live near Ramat Hasharon, which was where I lived for about seven months playing basketball.  They knew my coach (and said she is still coaching the team).  Crazy!  They were very nice and had their own dramatic adventure driving to the farmhouse the night before.  (No GPS, the road ended, they had no idea where they were!) 

Another couple we talked to (in Manarola?) was from Marseille, France.  I lived in Aix-en-Provence, France for a couple months, also playing basketball, so we talked France for bit.  (Oui!) It’s so fun to talk to people from other countries, and then when you have something in common, it’s even better! 

While sitting on the rocks in Monterosso waiting for the ferry we chatted with a Canadian woman.  She was traveling mostly by herself.  I would guess she was in her mid 50s.  Brave woman! 

Our second day in Cinque Terre was much less dramatic than the first, but way more scenic and interesting.  We enjoyed another restful night in our farmhouse and were ready to take on a third day. 

Our new morning routine of walking down to Vernazza continued.  However, to save time and see more of the villages, we took trains the rest of the day.  One new discovery - Monterosso has a new town and old town.  How did we miss that?  You have to walk under a tunnel to get to the new town.  If we ever come back to Cinque Terre we will look at staying in Monterosso.  We like the beach and it seems that there would be more hotel options with better access to the village.  We spent a lot of time there walking around town and checking out the market. 

Back in Corniglia, we walked down some steep steps to the marina (this is the only village where the ferry does not stop – it’s very rocky).  We sat on a huge rock watching the others play in the water.  After an exhausting walk back up we sat in a small piazza and people-watched for an hour or so.

I felt like doing this after climbing back up from the marina!

The Corniglia piazza where we people-watched. 
Two older Italian ladies sat on a bench not far from us, and an American woman took a photo of them as she walked by.  They saw here and became very angry, yelling at her in Italian.  She walked over to apologize and a local, who interpreted, said they were upset that she didn’t ask for permission.  They didn’t understand why they were so different that someone would want to take their photo and invade their privacy.  Don’t mess with the Italian ladies! 

Cinque Terre has amazing sunsets, and we watched part of that day’s sunset from a scenic lookout, then watched the rest at our new favorite restaurant – Food and Sea.  This time I ordered a chicken cutlet and fries, salad, and pesto bruschetta.  I love pasta, but needed a break. 

Time for our last ride to the farmhouse.  As I approached Dau Tinola I heard the owner talking on the phone.  I waited outside patiently for about five minutes.  Then I heard yelling.  It was the owner, saying he couldn’t do two things at one time.  I slowly entered the building and asked a young waiter if the owner was angry with me.  Of course, he didn’t understand me.  I then asked the owner about a ride in the morning and he said someone would be there at 8:30 a.m. 

As Lorenzo drove us to the farmhouse, he went on a little Italian “rant” about having to drive us each night.  “No organization!”  We could understand words here and there.  His job was to be the waiter, not a taxi.  He was from Pisa and had worked there several months, and was about to go back to Pisa/Lucca in October.  “Understand?”  We answered, “Si.”  When we got back to the house Julie gave him five euros for petrol.  I told him he was “fantastico!”  He apologized for being so upset and kissed our hands.  We told him it was ok!  We love you Lorenzo! 

Despite some challenges, Cinque Terre is a must see.  Like Venice, it’s the quintessential Italy that you envision.  Tiny villages with winding, cobblestone streets.  The magnificent view of the sea on one side, and the mountains on the other.  If you decide to go, do some research on the location of your hotel to save yourself some drama.  And if you happen to run into a tall, grey haired waiter named Lorenzo, give him a smile and tell him the crazy American girls from Corniglia say buongiorno!  

Our lovely room with balcony.

Last morning - off to Florence!

Friday, March 13, 2015

#393 Cinque Terre - Parte Uno

Our first two stops were fairly uneventful.  We had a nice time, got a little lost finding hotels, but otherwise, no drama.  Well, Cinque Terre was full of drama.  Hold on travel lovers!

Getting from Venice to Cinque Terre is not easy or quick.  I knew we needed to go to Florence, but did not see a ticket option to Florence at the train station.  I finally spotted someone in a Trenitalia sweater (hee hee) and found out we needed to buy a ticket to Rome, then change trains in Florence.  The train to Rome left at 12:25 p.m.  Once in Florence we caught a train to Pisa Centrale at 3 p.m.  We were tempted to hop off and check out the leaning tower, but decided that would be for another trip.  Instead we stayed on track (pun intended) and looked for a train to La Spezia Centrale, which was scheduled to leave at 5:20 p.m. 

We found the right platform and boarded the train.  One more ride and we would be at Vernazza, where I had made reservations at a farm house.  Almost there!  While sitting on the train waiting for it to leave, I heard someone behind me mention a north and south train.  My ears perked up.  I walked over and asked them if they were going to Cinque Terre.  She replied that the north train went there, but we were on the south train.  Turns out these trains were backed up next to each other on the same platform.  Aghhh!! 

We grabbed our bags and ran to the north train.  After we settled on that train, Julie asked me where my personal bag was.  $#%^!!!!  I immediately jumped up and ran back to the south train, grabbed my bag, which was still sitting in the seat, and made it back to the north train.  While I was gone, Julie was sitting there thinking, “What if she doesn’t make it back?  She has the tickets.  How will we find each other?”  Luckily, both trains were a little late.  Whew!!  That could have been a disaster!  (Note to self: not only do we need to find the correct platform, make sure the train is going in the correct direction.)

Now on to our next drama… 

As I just mentioned, our hotel was listed as being in Vernazza.  Julie had come over one afternoon and we picked out a few hotels online.  We thought this one looked nice and it had a great view.  It did mention that public transportation was not available to get to this hotel, but I had called ahead and talked to the owner.  I told him we didn’t have a car and asked if that would be a problem.  “No problem.”  He told me to call upon arrival and he would pick us up at the train station.  At this point, I will also say for the record, a friend had traveled to Cinque Terre two years prior and mentioned her hotel owner picking her up, so I thought nothing of it. 

Let me take a break from the drama to say coming into to that area by train was breathtaking.  You’re in a tunnel for a while and you come out of it, and it’s just ocean and sunshine.  Amazing!! 

Now back to the drama.  We arrived in Vernazza around 6 p.m.  We dragged our luggage down the stairs to the town and found a pay phone.  (We had both put our cell phones on airplane mode to not be charged any costly roaming fees.)  I couldn’t figure out how to use the pay phone so finally asked a woman sitting on a bench next to the phone how to use it.  She asked where I was trying to call and I told her Locanda Valeria.  The man sitting next to her told me that the owner of Locanda Valeria was his cousin!  Awesome!  He called on his cell phone and relayed to us that the owner couldn’t pick us up right then.  He also said we needed to take the train back to Corniglia and go to a restaurant by the bus stop.  Sigh.  We dragged our luggage back up the stairs and got on the train to Corniglia, which we had already passed through.  Luckily it takes about a minute to get from one town to the next.

At Corniglia we got in line for the local bus just outside the train station.  I thought we needed to buy a bus ticket at the train counter, so ran back and did that.  Then we found out you can buy a ticket from the bus driver.  We crammed on the bus and drove on the winding road up the hill for a few minutes and stopped in a central part of town.  The restaurant was right there.  There is no way we could have walked from the train station to the restaurant. 

It was around 6:30 when we arrived at the restaurant.  I saw some people inside so knocked on the partially open door and said my usual, “scusi?”  They told me they opened at 7 and to come back.  Ok…

We sat on a bench overlooking the sea until 7 p.m.  

Corniglia sunset
I knocked again and talked to the owner.  He said he could take us to the hotel any time.  We decided to eat dinner there – it was the least we could do since they were giving us a ride.  I had another seafood special pasta, this time with crayfish, shrimp (still in the shell), mussels and calamari.  Oh yeah, and one squid.  This one was a little more garlicky.  I also had swordfish.  The last time I had swordfish was in Portugal.  Soooo good!  The special was 19 euros.  

Seafood pasta.
After dinner we walked around town more and got our gelato.  Corniglia is a very medieval looking, quaint town. 

Now it was time to ask for our ride to the hotel.  Lorenzo, one of the waiters, was our “driver”.  We squeezed our luggage into his tiny car (another good reason to pack light!) and then squeezed ourselves into the back seat.  We then had the ride of our lives.  This ranked right up there with a New York cab.  It was pitch black.  Lorenzo took off, cigarette in one hand, steering wheel in the other, driving up another winding, hilly road.   Did I also mention narrow?  When he came to a hairpin turn, he’d tap on the horn, which we realized was his signal that we were coming around the corner and anyone coming the other way should stop or something.  Luckily no one was ever coming the other way.  We sat in the back seat with our hands over our mouths (well, I was, anyway) trying to stifle our giggles.  To top it off, at the near top of the hill I thought he was going to follow the road, but he turned at the last second into the hotel driveway.  My stomach kept going the other way.  More giggling.  I wish I could’ve seen our faces! 

We couldn’t see much of the hotel grounds.  Lorenzo didn’t speak much English so we followed him inside and he gave us a key and showed us our room.  Buonanotte, Lorenzo!  Our room had a small balcony that overlooked the ocean.  It was so dark we couldn’t see anything and we were so high up on the hill we couldn’t hear the ocean.  Nonetheless, we arrived at our hotel in one piece.  The Lord was with us!  I’m pooped!  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

#392 Venice

After a bit of confusion regarding train tickets, we were on our way to Venice.  (Better legroom on the train!) 

The name of their trains.  Hee hee.  Looks like genitalia.  

The lines to buy tickets at the train station ticket windows are very long.  You pull a number like you’re at the deli and wait for them to call it.  (I got some cold cuts!!)  There are also automated ticket kiosks, which are even more confusing.  I tried to buy tickets but it looked like the time I wanted was sold out, but then it turned out that was for first class.  Agh!  I preferred to talk to a human to make sure we were going to the right place. 

We left Milan at 8:35 a.m. and arrived in Venice just after 11 a.m.  I had printed directions to each of our hotels.  This one was way off.  It had us going in the exact opposite direction of our actual hotel.  It was near 80 degrees and we were dragging our luggage over cobblestone streets and up and down stairs. 

I am not afraid to ask for directions.  I went into a bus station and asked at the counter.  The woman probably gets asked for directions a million times a day and was none too happy to see me.  Her response to me was an emphatic, “Go back to the train station!”  Okay…

We finally walked toward a canal and asked a water taxi driver for a ride.  His response?  “Why take a taxi?  You can walk from here!”  He gave us easy directions and saved us some money.  I later learned water taxis cost around $40-$50. 

We made it to the hotel around 12:30 p.m.  This one was really pretty –the Pallazzo Cendon Piano Antico.  Very quaint, small, but cozy, and if you stick your head out the window, you can see a canal!

View from our hotel window

After dropping off our bags we spent the rest of the day wandering around.  A.k.a. - getting lost.  That’s what you do in Venice.  It’s a bunch of small streets all strung together.  Most of them do not have street signs so even though you have a map, you have no idea where you are.  We just enjoyed looking at all of the shops.  We quickly found a cute shop with scarves and each bought one. 

Then we noticed the purses.  Well, I noticed the purses.  Leather everywhere!  I decided to get one for my niece, Megan.  I wanted just the right one.  Medium color, smallish in size with a long strap.  I also wanted it to have a “Made in Italy” and fleur-de-lis stamp.  After stopping at maybe 20 shops, I finally found the perfect one.  Although after I bought it, I couldn’t resist looking now and then at others to check the prices.  Julie just shook her head when I would stop to look at another purse. 

We took a break for lunch and had focaccia pizza and our daily gelato.  They had all types of flavors, but I stuck with my favorite – chocolate.  I think once I might have branched out with chocolate with hazelnut. 

We had a photo op at the famed Rialto Bridge.  We then found a restaurant that had a tourist special of a three-course dinner for 15 euros.  Caffe Centrale.  It was right on the Grand Canal.  I asked the waiter if the price was “for real.”  Haha  He was very cute and resembled Mr. Magoo from the cartoons. 

Linda on the Rialto Bridge

Dinner along the canal

My first course was a salad, followed by spaghetti with seafood (mussels, tiny shrimp, calamari and squid), followed by sea bass.  And bread.  Must have bread!  What a beautiful view! 

I ate every bite.  Even the squid!

My view from our dinner table.  

After dinner the waiter gave us directions to the Aman Canal Grande Hotel, which was right down the canal from our restaurant.  That is where George Clooney was getting married in a few days.  The canal walkway ended soon after our hotel so we had to head back into the streets.  We were still looking for the hotel when we heard thunder and saw lightning light up the sky like the Fourth of July.  The sky was really dark and the clouds were churning, so we decided to head back to the hotel.  Although we had no idea which way to go.

Venice is in the shape of a fish, and you’re either on the inside or the outside, with the Grand Canal running through the middle.  We were inside and needed to get outside.  A kind man told us to look for the street signs for the train station, so we did that and it was very helpful.  We knew how to find out hotel from the train station.  We started running and made it back just before it started to hail.  Whew!  It was early (maybe 8 p.m.) so we tried to watch TV.  The cable wasn’t working well so we showered and went to bed. 

Our train left at noon the next day so we decided to take an early gondola ride.  Before heading out, we had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel.  I had a croissant with ham and cheese, cereal and a kiwi. 

We got to the gondola when it opened around 9 a.m. and took a 30-minute ride with Stefano, a fifth-generation gondolier.  He was really cute and gave us a narrative of the city as it slowly drifted by.  Before each little speech he would say, “Look at me!”, when I think he meant “Listen to me.”  

Each time I would turn my head to look at him anyway.  At one point he pointed out a church where Marco Polo was buried – San Lorenzo.  I tried to explain to him about our swimming pool game in the United States but he just looked confused.  We also saw some really old Venetian blinds. 

We walked around more after the boat ride and found a very pretty little neighborhood and park area.  There are so many streets, canals and other islands around Venice that I would love to explore more someday. 

Venice is how I imagined Italy would look.  Milan was nice, but as I mentioned in my previous post, more European looking.  Venice has the colorful buildings, the small, winding cobblestone streets, and, of course, the canals. 

Our train to Cinque Terre left around Noon so we headed back to the train station.  This time we knew how to find it.