A Travellerspoint blog

The Cinque Terre

La Spezia & Cinque Terre, Italy

sunny 30 °C
View 2014 European Busabout Adventure on Hodgeontour's travel map.

Cinque Terre-iffic.

Okay so here's how this works for those of you who are playing along at home. First, I'll begin by telling you about picturesque mountains and greenery stretching for miles with mountainside vineyards, then I'll tell you about gorgeous oceans, sheer cliff faces and bizarre rock formations and last but certainly not least, an entire rainbow colour spectrum depicted by old and slightly decrepit houses. Picture these things separately. Immense beauty, nature and the work of human at its intriguing best. Now combine all these elements into one town. Impressed? Yeah, me too, but I am still not finished. Multiply it by five and now I can present to you the Cinque Terre - Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Grab a pen and paper ladies and gentlemen because this should be near the top of your list of places to see before you die.

It is with great pride that, thus far, Georgia and I can honestly say that we have truly experienced each place. At each stop of our journey we have spoken to locals and eaten the region's traditional cuisines along with seeing the tourist 'to-dos'. The Cinque Terre would be no different. As the Busabout coach rolled into La Spezia (10mins away from the first of the 5 terres), I began to think about our impending encounter with Fausto, an Italian man whose apartment would serve as our home for 4 nights. We knew minimal information about Fausto except that his English was virtually non-existent and that he would be the one at the train station wearing a hat. You can imagine how flustered we were arriving at the train station late after being held up with only that minuscule shred of information, however; somehow we rendezvoused as planned in front of a tourist-flooded McDonalds. He was able to use his limited vocabulary of English numbers to point and give us precise walking times to various places along the 14 minute walk to his house. Upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised with a bottle of Veuve Champagne, a gift from Jo and Crossy for Georgia's birthday the following day. Thanks guys!

After the lofty heights of our Florentine experiences, the Cinque Terre was always going to be met with a small hint of sadness. Our adventures through Tuscany had been paramount to our Italian experience but a split-second glimpse of the ocean and cliffs from the train as it travelled through a tunnel was enough to make us desperate for more. We stopped in the fourth town of Vernazza before completing a seaside mountain hike to Corniglia, the only one of the Cinque Terre to not be situated directly on the sea, but rather a high cliff. This hike was made difficult by a flash storm which meant we climb through torrents of water rather than well-worn paths but the view rendered wet socks and chafing irrelevant.

Earlier on the first day we had arranged to be 'Voluntourists' - an excellent idea pioneered by Busabout in conjunction with Save Vernazza after the landslide disasters a few years ago. Every four days a group of busabout 'voluntourists' make a €25 donation and complete several hours of labour for locals who are still trying to recover from the devastation. To put things in perspective: each Cinque Terre is linked by water and train, there is no direct route for cars, however; it is possible for them to get into the main centres. Furthermore, locals live in the hills and mostly live off what their gardens yield. We were to be helping with tasks such as building fences, digging trenches, fixing homes etc. - whatever was required. Unfortunately when we arose the following morning, a night of steady rain meant that it was cancelled when we arrived. The English speaking guide said regrettably that the rainfall overnight was similar to the weather which caused the devastation years prior. It was a shame that we couldn't contribute to the cause, however; we made several new friends and we now had an entire day to celebrate Georgia's birthday.

The plan was as follows: go home, nap a little (or in my case, a lot), get the train back in, have a wander and have a great feed for Georgia's birthday. Suffice to say, it didn't go to plan. The Cinque Terre region has a series of wineries which make small amounts of commercial wine in addition to what they live off. The two couples which we met earlier in the day suggested that we go to the end town and go on a winery crawl back home. Brilliant. This was the classic example of a "it will be fun they said, you'll be fine on your five hour boat cruise tomorrow they said..." Kind of moment. On a day where nothing went to plan, I can now reveal that we never made it to a winery. First it was some cheap wine at a bar, then it was piña coladas on the beach but it finished with drinking wine out of plastic cups and watching the sun go down in Manarola. It wasn't how we had planned but most importantly the birthday girl had a great time... until the following morning.

Upon waking up and examining the contents of my pockets, I wasn't sure if I was seeing double or whether there really was six wine corks in my pocket. Closer examination revealed the latter and it certainly didn't bode well for our scenic boat tour in a few hours time. Seedy. Very, very seedy. We were glad to board Angelo's Boat Tour and see several others who possessed similar characteristics of being a bit 'under the weather'. We soon worked out that three people on the boat had shared birthdays the previous day and we set off on a leisurely cruise along the magnificent coast line of the Cinque Terre. The picture I painted earlier with the amalgamation of exquisite features was amplified from the water. It defies logic, it blows your mind. If we hadn't have done the cruise, we may never have known but you never truly see a place like this until you see it from the water. Wow. A seafood banquet, some champagne, limoncello and a relaxing swim in the warm deep waters capped off a brilliant day, despite several mouth-vomits and mild seasickness.

Our final day was spent hiking from Monterosso to Vernazza. I chose this hike because we were both feeling the effects of a hectic few weeks, remnants of glandular fever and other self-induced misery. I chose this hike because it was the 'lovers hike' a scenic, relaxing hike with relatively no hills. I assure you now, that was my intention. Five trillion steps, and three mountains later we arrived in Vernazza. Reading topographical hiking maps obviously isn't my strong suit, however; the pictures we took may be the best of the entire trip. It rang true in my ears that nothing worth seeing in life is easy, but no one could ever argue that it wasn't worth it.

Posted by Hodgeontour 13:14 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Firenze

Florence, Italy

rain 26 °C

In my humble and extremely bias opinion, if Rome is the Sydney of Italy, then Florence is its Melbourne. Meaning that it appeals much more to my heartstrings. Florence holds immense cultural and historical clout, and is thus still subjected to the inevitable throngs of gawping tourists, but holds its accolades and all it's relative pressure with a kind of understated grace. While its landmark gems are home to queues and postcards by day, you only have to wander a few streets away to find streets that remain relatively unviolated, and by evening the lights on the Arno river reveal hidden culinary treats and the Ponte Vecchio bridge turns into a yellow-tinted playground for buskers, cyclists, fisherman and fellow nocturnal wanderers. My favourite night spent in Firenze was whittled away sitting on the Ponte Vecchio, listening to a man who considered himself an Italian Bruce Springsteen play for his supper. Many of the locals there obviously watch him each week and knew his songs by word. Most Tuscans are not wealthy people but happily handed over their coins.

We did a walking tour on our first night in town where we were given a whirlwind lesson in all things Medici and Duomo (breathtaking) and also watched a leather workshop that demonstrated how to distinguish between authentic Florentine leather and fakes. All producers of Florentine leather must follow the customs and techniques of the Renaissance era and cannot use any stitching on their products. We ended up at the infamous Red Garter Bar, which is part of a 'backpacker bar trilogy'. After gallons of cocktails and terrible karaoke, my headache the next day told me to steer clear of the other two.

We also visited the Uffizi Museum, which is considered Europe's most important gallery after the Louvre. While I remain completely uneducated as to art, the concentration of historical works and Renaissance artistry is really impressive. I was more entertained by watching security guards chase after the overenthusiastic tourist who jumped the barriers in order to get the perfect selfie with the Birth of Venus. The Florentines take their art pretty seriously and were not impressed. I really hope he got plenty of Instagram likes to compensate for his trouble.

A highlight of Florence was the night we decided to have an authentic Tuscan dinner. We feasted on ribbolata, panzanella, and a gigantic Florentine steak. The French couple next to us smirked and whispered to each other that we were wasting food- they were no longer smiling when our plates were clean and I asked Hodge if we could stop for gelato on the way home (which was Mulaga, Muscat flavoured; you'd eat a tub-full, Mum).

On our last day it was very warm so we decided to buy a picnic and find the Bobboli Gardens. Of course we didn't check a map, and assumed that the big green patch on the mountain-side had to be the Gardens. We'd just walk towards the green. Easy done, right? The path soon led to this looming set of stone stairs. Yep, something important must be up there, keep walking. Stairs keep going up, up, up. Ask for directions, no idea what the response is, smile politely, Grazie, continue up, up, up. We finally emerged in our sought-after green patch- but it turned out to be the Piazzale Michelangelo, this phenomenal tribute to Michangelo that perches over the city skyline. We had never heard of it and ironically would have completely missed it if we had actually prepared our day properly. The point's panoramic view over the city is a flurry of terracotta roofs, jaundiced slate towers and the glorious Tuscan hills enveloping this wonderful city.

I hope to stand on that hill again, to feel the sun scorch a town so full of life and context, and to hear the bells that have chimed over generations of those who have enjoyed it.

Posted by gpontour 12:10 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Buon giornos

Siena, Italy

semi-overcast 29 °C

On July 20, we bid farewell to Roma and took off to Siena for four nights after deciding to fuse our time originally planned in Orvieto. The landscape you pass through on the bus is quaint in the way of sun-bleached tin roofs and corn crops. At first it looks like the fields are yellow from the heat but when you drive closer you recognise that it is actually entire communities of sunflowers, all with their faces turned hopefully to the sky.

We stopped in Orvieto for an extended lunch break and took the fernicular to the top of the ancient Etruscan town. Orvieto is how you'd expect to see regional Italy in the 1940s. The locals were wandering off to church in their Sunday best (literally), with Italian ladies patting their coifed hair and their husbands tugging at their ties, and little markets selling oils and tapenades were setting up their stalls beneath the tolling bells. Good thing it's early in the trip and they'd surely smash in my bag, otherwise I would have blown our daily budget on olive jars and chilli paste. After exploring the silent streets we tried the local delicacy 'porchetta'- wild boar, stuffed with herbs and garlic, sliced and served on a thick panini roll. Let's just say I am shattered we don't eat wild boar in Melbourne. Yum.

We're camping just outside of Siena in the Chianti hills. The Europeans do not camp like we do- the sites have extensive bars, pools and pizzerias. Getting back to basics amongst the trees is perfect because we both have colds and really want a few days of rest after trampling through Rome all week. I also bumped my head on the window of our cabin and now have the eighth wonder of the world growing on my forehead. But otherwise, this place is idyllic.

Siena, Siena, Siena. I love thee.
Something about Siena feels like slipping on a favourite old pair of shoes. It's a place I could quite happily spend weeks idling around the streets, window shopping, wine tasting and working my way through gelato flavours (Tuscany is the home of gelato, and you can tell). The cuisine is here is like Italian soul food. It was a very poor area once and so Tuscan food is often referred to as 'peasant food'- very simple and filling. My favourite so far has been pomodoro soup, which is fresh tomato and basil soup piled on soaked bread. I will soon be so round from all this eating that Daniel will have to roll me down the winding streets.

The streets are absurdly steep! The Piazza del Campo is so slanted that people lay back and sunbathe on it during summer. Their red-brown skin blends with the scorched yellows and auburns of the buildings. I wonder if that's where the town got its name. On our last night there, a parade of doctors and physicians swept through the streets dressed in their surgery gowns, playing instruments and singing. We were attempting to get to our bus stop when we got caught up in the congregation, and before we knew it were grinning like idiots as people waved going past.

Anyway, I could probably talk about Siena for another three pages but the message is go there, eat, drink, be merry. We have done nothing but feast, snooze and read, and that has been perfect.

Until we meet again, Siena. And I will endeavour to make that soon.

Posted by gpontour 05:49 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Chilling with Caesar

Rome, Italy

sunny 33 °C

Ah, Rome. Probably the only place in the world where the three people sharing your seat on the metro train are a sunburnt tourist, waving about their new camera; a beggar, eyeing off said camera; and a nun, wearing her summer perspiration with an air of dignity and frowning at all of you.

I don't really know how I felt about Rome. The magnificence of the architecture and historical context are undeniable. You cannot turn a corner without being greeted by a ornate facade or marble statue. There is something about Rome that has to be 'done' because it is home to these icons. However, everyone else shares the same opinion and you spend most days feeling like herded cattle. There is a term called the 'Italian gap', which describes the custom that if there's more than an inch between your nose and the person in front of you, you are wasting valuable queuing space. Add in 35 degree heat blazing off cobblestone streets, millions of self-entitled tourists and a city that takes full advantage of their purses and you are completely bewildered by the end of the day.

That being said, Rome is like bucket list gold. On the first day, we walked the entire Via Del Corso and incidentally ticked off most landmarks. We visited the Roman Forum and the Colloseum, after a handy hint from our Busabout guide which saved us three hours' queuing time. All your time in the Colloseum is precious, the site is epic. Not epic in a flagrant, slang way. Actually epic. Grandiose in size, comprehensive in history, so mind-blowing as a construction. I can't even fathom how it's still standing (building started in 58BC) when most people replaster their houses after twenty years. The Romans knew what visual strength meant. Definitely a highlight, especially since the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain are under construction (don't worry Mum, the Vegas one was close enough).

The second day we wanted some time away from the swarms of people so we took a day-trip out to Ostia Antica. Ostia was a major administrative hub of the Roman Empire, and was abandoned just before its fall. It's now a large runes site which is blessedly untouched. It was nice visiting something without feeling like you're 'sightseeing'. The idea of Ostia is that there's no barriers or signposts; you climb over and into the runes and form your own judgements.

Being the heart of Catholicism, I thought seeing the religious layer of Rome was important to unravelling it as a city. We visited the Vatican Museum (yes, heathen me) and the Sistine Chapel on the third night. Even if art isn't your thing, the Sistine Chapel is incredible just as a feat of human effort. It's inspiring that these artists showed such dedication to task purely for the glory and passion of their work.
Side note: we had read up on entering the Vatican and were told there was a strict dress code concerning shoulders and knees being covered. Otherwise, Customs won't let you through (you go through Customs to enter the Vatican. It's hard to keep a straight face). So, we set out on another boiling night in long skirts and pants, cursing the person who made knees disrespectful. We were snickering at the girl in front of us wearing a sundress until the guard waved her through. We soon realised they'll let pretty much every man and his dog through, you'd have to be swigging from a VB stubby or wearing a 'Jesus is my Homeboy' t-shirt to cause a stir. They even sell lighters with the Pope's face on them.

For our final day, we met a Busabout mate and took the regional train out to Santa Marinella, a semi-private beach. The town reminded me of European Torquay. The water was so refreshing after days of heat and we had our millionth gelato for the week (not that much of an exaggeration). Italian beaches are a bizarre sight, the locals essentially cook themselves like roasted chickens beneath flamboyant beach umbrellas, playing cards and sipping prosecco. The air smells of burnt skin, salt and sweat. I'm still peeling the scent of the shore off my skin days later.

Rome has definitely been a big experience. It has been a bizarre blend of exhaustion, exhilaration and frustration. But that is the beauty of travel, you get to scratch the exterior of a place and see what's underneath. We are really keen to get away from the hot stampede of the city and enjoy lazing about in Tuscany.

Ciao Rome, you crazy metropolis.

Posted by gpontour 05:41 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Streets flooded, be advised

Venice, Italy

sunny 29 °C

Venice is one of those destinations that people either swoon over or wrinkle their nose. For those of us who live far away from it, the idea of Venice holds promises of pastel waterfronts and turquoise tides. Europeans are more likely to fall into the latter group, Hodge once being told that Venice was equivalent to visiting your own toilet- full of water and smelly. While it was definitely a 'should do' for me, I was fairly skeptical about Venice. The postcards were always a little too bright and the tourists a little too cheesy. I have to admit, Venice is absolutely picturesque.

We stayed at a local campsite with most of our Busabout group and caught the ferry-train-fernicular thing into Venice the following day (after deciding to avoid the STD-filled campsite swimming pool). It's sad to see the huge cruise boats anchored outside Venice as you go in, many of the locals are protesting about these ships coming in because of the dredging and marine damage it is causing. But once you're past the port, it's like a completely isolated little world. There are literally no cars, all transportation is via the water. We even saw a water ambulance shriek past. People stand out in their little boats to hang laundry from their windows and clothes lines. You have to watch your feet constantly, take a wrong turn down an alley (a common occurrence) and the path will suddenly stop and lead squarely into a canal. We ate like kings on the first day we went in, ordering fresh calamari and tiramisu.

We quickly turned our noses at a gondola ride after being told they were 80 euros a pop and set off instead on foot. I actually believe you see more of Venice hoofing it around, you just have to be prepared to get undeniably lost. But that's the fun of it.

That night, we watched the World Cup at the campsite after several supermarket-bought Birra Morettis (1.10 euro each) and enjoyed them as a group with a loaf of bread and some cheese. Backpacker life. It seems as though most Europeans will always back their own team when playing other continents so we thought it smart to barrack for Germany. Alas, they did not disappoint and no wine glasses were broken from rage.

Images from Venice:

- The laundry! It fascinated me. Clean crisp sheets, rags, socks, all hanging along the lane ways and windows. The white offsets the pinks and greens of the buildings. A strong gust of wind and your favourite singlet would end up three canals over.

- How did they build that place?! It just defies logic.

- The Venice police station. So comical seeing the 'cop-yard', literally just police boats anchored to some pylons.

There is a quote that says that Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. I agree.

Posted by gpontour 09:48 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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