Okay, so everything I said yesterday about how awesome Tuscany is, double all that for Cinque Terre.
But I’ll get to that in a second. First, I must say…. I remember back in June, as the school year was winding down, I said to a gal I work with (I don’t even remember who it was) that I hoped to come back at the end of the summer and have people gasp and say, “Oh my GOD, what happened to the rest of your body???” I had it all planned out. Drop like twenty pounds. Come back all slim and runner-girl.
Then I decided to come to Italy. Land of whole-medium-pizza as entrée and gelato shop every three shopfronts.
So instead, I’ll be coming back at the end of the summer and people will gasp and say, “Oh my GOD, I thought you were training for a marathon! What happened to you? Did you have to use a seatbelt extension on the flight home?”
Okay. Back to today. I just knew today would be awesome, if only because I believe in karma (kinda) and I firmly believe we paid into a lot of bad karma in our Rome tours. And it worked…today was awesome. In every single way possible.
We found our meet-up spot…picked up a couple Australian gals, a Canadian boy, and a couple from Brooklyn all milling about, looking as lost as we were, and waited for our coach to appear. And it did…only it was a sleek, silver Mercedes 9-seater van, driven by an Italian man named Stefano. At first glance, he looked like your typical driver-pick-up-the-tourists-and-take-them-to-the-real-tour-guide kinda guy. Fifties, balding, slight paunch, looked kind of gruff…but we soon found out that, not only was he our driver and tour guide…and the eight of us were the entire tour…and we were going in the Mercedes the whole way…but that Stefano was the coolest tour guide ever. He’s like your favorite grandpa, or maybe an uncle. Great sense of humor, knows everything…just a great guy.
Stefano loaded us up and we headed out of town the two hours it’d take us to get to the coast. Along the way, he put on a little mic so the folks in the back could hear, and started giving us some local history…which was really cool, but then he paused too long and we got to talking amongst ourselves and though I tried a few times, in conversational lulls, to get Stefano going again, he didn’t till we got closer in to the coast. The countryside we went through looked pretty modern, really, except for the occasional town clustered on a hilltop with an old medieval bell tower or church steeple or something. It was beautiful. Very high mountains…with even higher mountains faint behind them…their tops in the mist. Mom thought she saw snow on one of them, but Stefano told us it was actually exposed white marble. We were driving through the area where Michelangelo used to get his marble for his statues. Cooooool.
The Cinque Terre, or Five Lands, are five little cliffside towns that cluster around the seaside, each about a mile or so apart from the others…so they’re all in a row on this rocky, mountainous region on the northern coast of Italy. Like Amalfi and Positano, the cliffs seem to rise up straight out of the sea, though perhaps not as steep here as they were there. The houses are all on top of one another, in faded pastels that look like they’ve been scrubbed by the sea for hundreds of years (which they have). There aren’t any cars, but in Manarola (the second of the five), the boats were parked all down the main walkway of the town as cars would be in other towns…Stefano told us there was a lift that put the boats in the water and took them out again. Other towns, like Riomaggiore (the first one) had a little area down by the water where there were double-decker boat slips (it looked like). Riomaggiore also had scuba, snorkeling, and kayaking excursions that looked awesome…the water was clear and aqua and pure blue here, just like it was around Capri. We stood above it on railings and could see straight down to the bottom.
A word on swimwear. I’ve been taking pictures of the European Speedo just to prove that it is alive and well…today I got one on a 4-year-old boy, a 12-year old boy, and several grown men. It’s something you wear cradle-to-grave here. Cute on the little ones, often not-remotely on the older guys. Also…little girls here wear bikinis…bottoms only!!! At first I only noticed it when they were swimming…but then I saw a nut-brown little girl in just her little side-tie bottoms and her flip-flops, running through the town with her family. She had to be about eight. (And to think, I have a friend at home who’s afraid to post adorable shots of her little girls, 3 and 1, at the beach, running around topless, because she’s worried she’ll be taken in for criminal behavior. Ridiculous….)
And that’s the way it was today. We came over the last ridge of the mountains between the inland and the coast…got some great views of the port city La Spezia, and when we crested the mountains, we were on these tiny little (and I mean TINY LITTLE) roads that twisted and turned through the mountainsides, often not even wide enough for two cars to pass one another…full of blind turns (you honk, and sometimes they honk back)…sometimes with convex mirrors, sometimes not…often without guard rails…absolutely terrifying! Then you see the first of the towns…and it’s far, far below us. On the sides of the mountains, there are huge patches of land that are striped with vineyards terraced into the drop-offs, with a single house clinging to the hillsides above them. Far up top, one village called San Bernardo (?) lay along the concave curve of a mountain top like a cat stretched out on a hammock.
We headed down into Riomaggiore, the first village. Since we were just a van, not a coach (Stefano says one more person, and we’d be a coach and there’d be all kinds of restrictions on us and places we couldn’t go), we got to go right down to the tops of the villages to be dropped off. And we’d walk down through all the little touristy shops and the painted wooden doors and the orange and yellow and pale pink and sea green facades of the buildings, with everyone’s laundry fluttering from the clotheslines outside their windows, and talking out their shutter windows at people on the streets, and shops filled with wine bottles floor-to-ceiling, and shops with ceramics and Pinocchio stuff (everywhere!), and shops with fine white and blue linen clothes that you just wanted to buy racks of, but couldn’t afford a single piece of, and cats scattered here and there, lying in the sun, and people bounding up and down stone steps through stone archways and narrow little stone streets, and then the boats…the boats! They were beautiful, like only aged little wooden rowboats with peeling paint and smooth, worn railings can be. And everyone was so tan…and either walking around in swimsuits or in these beautiful long, flowy dresses I’m going crazy trying to find anywhere.
It was magical.
We had some time to wander here, before Stefano met us at the bottom of the hill and led us to a little train station beside the bottom of the town. Here was a little shop that sold goods made locally…limoncino (this region’s trademark name for the southern region’s trademark of limoncello – lemon liqueur) and pesto, among others, and I got a small bottle/jar of each. Here also was the entrance to Via de Amore…Lovers’ Lane. This is a footpath along the mountainside, about 100 feet up or so in most places, that connects Riomaggiore to Manarola. Along the way were aloe plants people had carved their names into, thousands of cactuses clinging to the mountainside, and locks. Thousands of locks. Little key-locks. Bike locks. Combination locks. Suitcase locks. Locked into the netting that holds the mountainside in place. Linked through little twists of metal in the rock. Locked through the double hearts at the entrance and the exit of the lane on either end (about 3km). Locked every conceivable place one could lock a lock. And every one of them had initials carved on it, and some of them had dates as well. And each lock represents a “forever love,” as Stefano called it. There were thousands of them. It was amazing.
Manarola was the town where the boats were parked along the main drag like cars. In Manarola, we went down to the rocks at the shoreline and waited for a boat to come along and pick us up. The boat took us past Corniglia to Vernazza, the fourth island, and along the way, we got some great shots of the shoreline and the towns as they drifted by. (The sun was weird, though…mists and heavy fog high up in the mountain tops and sunny down where we were, but kind of hazy and humid all over, so it wasn’t a super-clear day. The plus-side of that was a cooler day, not all of our time in intense hot sun, though.)
At Vernazza, the church bells were tolling noon (for what seemed like two whole minutes) as we disembarked from the ship, and we stopped for lunch under a cluster of brightly-colored umbrellas…yellow, blue, green, striped, some looking like sunbursts, all of them diffusing the sunlight down onto us, so we ate our lunch in a kind of orange glow. Mom and I had the “catch of the day” with roasted potatoes, and OH. MY. GOD. It was the most expensive thing on the menu, strangely, but my only regret is that we didn’t have five more plates of it waiting. It was the best fish and the best potatoes I’ve ever had. This thing had probably been swimming an hour before we sat down. And the whole dish was covered in olive oil. It was AMAZING. We ate, I wrote a couple postcards, and off we went.
I’m going to pause here to explain that my wallet has sprung an arterial bleed. I have to remind myself that I have over half my trip still in front of me. And then I remind myself that I’ve been socking away money for a year for this trip. Ha ha.
So, yes, this means I bought stuff. A gorgeous pearly necklace and bracelet. Another tile for framing, this one of Manarola with the boats on the sidewalk. A touristy t-shirt. =) A couple other little gifty-type items for folks at home (unless I keep ‘em). Mom took a million more pictures of doors and the neighboring villages, our tourmates descended 150 steps to jump in the water and back up the 150 steps again, I lusted over more people’s flowy dresses and even those awful boot-sandal-hybrid things that I hate to admit are starting to grow on me, I discovered that in at least one town on the CT, bathrooms are like Japanese benjos…porcelain holes in the ground…and then Stefano picked us up again.
One last stop, this one in the third town, Corniglia, which we’d skipped because it’s the only one without a port or a dock big enough to handle the boat the size we were on (musta been about a hundred people on it). We also skipped the last one, Montarossa, because it’s the really resort-like one, and that was fine by me. Corniglia was more of the same, except at the end of this one, we went to a little bar at the top of the village called The Pirate of Cinque Terre, and got “Sicilian Slushies” made with real blackberries and whipped cream…even Rick Steves gives it his highest approval in his CT book…and both Rick and the bar owner Gianluca were right, the slushies were amazing. If you find yourself here, find this bar…don’t get one down below, even if they do have a view. Gianluca told us everyone else makes theirs with fruit syrup…he makes his from fresh fruit. And he only offers four flavors a day…switches them up. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for one and it’s not on the day’s list, you’re outta luck. I don’t know why, but I like that.
By that time, the day was pretty much done. Stefano was a prince. He never rushed us, never made us feel like we were holding him up, gave us plenty of time everywhere, left us places where there was lots to do, answered every question we had, laughed and joked with us, let me take a picture with him, didn’t kill us on the mountainside, pointed out acacia trees and chestnut trees and the scars from last autumn’s arson fires on the mountainsides, let us stop three times on the way home at picturesque photo ops of the villages and La Spezia, and got us back safely (though I recognized his fidgeting and shifting as all the things I do when I’m trying not to fall asleep on a long drive…I was in the front seat by this point, and stayed wide awake after I noticed he might be a bit tired…was all I could do not to offer to drive). He was wonderful. The trip was wonderful. The weather was wonderful. Everything about today was perfect.
When we got back to Florence, we dropped our treasures off in our hotel room, hit the bathroom, and headed straight back out for some Florence shopping!! But we were outdone again. The leather market in the square was once again packing up as we arrived (do they see me coming or something?), as were many of the shops. We headed for the Duomo for a good sidewalk café restaurant for dinner, and found one that had AMAZING lasagna and a damn good house white wine they served in little half-liter pitchers. I gotta say again, the weather could not have been more perfect. We sat there eating dinner next to potted geraniums in perfect, probably 73-degree temperature with a light breeze. Absolutely relaxing, absolutely peaceful.
On the walk home, I bought a rather questionable dress, just to buy an Italian dress…it was cheap but not sure I’ll ever have the guts to wear it. =) And tonight we’ve spent the evening on the veranda, just taking in the stars and the perfect weather and trying to research hostels and trains that will cover me for the weekend (no luck on either front, thanks to the Florentine internet that has me wanting to hurl the laptop over the railing to the street below). But even that is kinda nice, since there’s nothing to do but slow down and quit worrying about it. And blog. Oh yeah, blog.
Which it’s time to wrap up. Tomorrow we actually do Florence. Hop-on-hop-off bus tour. Michelangelo’s Plaza. David. Uffizi. Accademia. Purse shopping. Shoe shopping. Spend way more than I should on cool Italian stuff shopping. God knows how it’ll all get home. Mom heads back day after tomorrow, and will take whatever she can put in the suitcase without going over the weight limit. (By the way, we saw the airport today. Tiny, but it’ll do.)
All for now. Plan to come to Cinque Terre for your honeymoon. Or your retirement vacation. Or your renewal of vows. Or your divorce celebration. Or your girls’ week. Or your next Tuesday afternoon. Pick a reason. Better yet, come without one.
Good night, Florence….