The Italian Job – Day 4

To Levanto, and back to my happy place

With no train strikes to worry about, and no schedule to follow, the alarm was set for a little later this morning, and en-route to the train station we breakfasted in a cafe near our apartment – it is in beautiful square, with beautiful buildings, trees and gardens, but I don’t think it is the most “up-market” of neighbourhoods. This is no problem – it meant we had a breakfast of coffee, pastries and focaccia, listening to the lingo of the locals as they chatted, all for only a handful of euros.

We had decided to go beyond the Cinque Terre today to the next town along the coast – Levanto. Travel to this town was included on our Cinque Terre passes, so it made sense to explore what some call the “sixth” village of the Cinque Terre. Arriving under a beautiful “big” blue sky (the weather today has been perfect – wall to wall sunshine, not too hot if you were in the sun, but still pleasantly warm in the shade) we headed out from the train station and ambled through a very pretty town to the sea front.

I liked Levanto – its streets were wide and clean, punctuated with pretty buildings- another stripy church:

…and a quirky castle (although this is in private ownership, and you couldn’t enter it, only admire its strength and stature from outside)

We bought some focaccia sandwiches and a bottle of beer to share, sat on a sunny bench looking out to sea and ate a leisurely lunch before just continuing to sit and chill, enjoying the view, the calm and each other company.

Then we jumped back on the train for a 5 minute hop back to Monterosso were we spent most of the rest of the afternoon, including some more time for me back in the sea.

So far on our trip, we had seen four of the five of the Cinque Terre, so we thought we should complete the set, and took another 5 minute train ride to Corniglia. Here, when you get of the train you need to ascend a fairly hefty hill to the village – some hardy souls set off walking upwards. We, sensibly, waited at the station for ten minutes for the shuttle bus (free – as part of our Cinque Terre ticket) to whisk us up the steep, steep hill, passing all those walkers that had set off long before we had. We disembarked to find another pretty village, often with commanding views over the seascape, but with no access to the sea. It did seem like the sole purpose of the village was to satisfy the tourists (of which we were two of many) and so, whilst pretty and authentic, does begin to feel a little manufactured and contrived. Without the tourists, I don’t think it would survive as a community, but because of the tourists, it is losing some of its authenticity. I am a little conflicted, and I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that of the five towns, for both of us it was our least favourite. However, I do feel a little churlish writing that when I am reminded that it afforded wonderful views like this:

Then back on the train again (the trains are magnificent – quick, clean, spacious and regular) to Riomaggiore where we bought some fried vegetables to have for tea, along with even more focaccia, eaten on another street bench.

As we waited for our train back to La Spezia, I asked Becky to rank the towns. She placed Cornigia in fifth place and Monterosso first, but could make up her mind on the others. For me, my running order is:

  1. Monterosso – biggest, and able to handle the hordes of visitors
  2. Vernazza – although this may be skewed as we arrived in the calm of (relatively) early morning, before the masses
  3. Riomaggiore – good street food, and pretty buildings
  4. Manarola – I had hoped for better swimming spots from here, plus was getting overcrowded when we arrived mid to late afternoon
  5. Corniglia – great views, but in danger of becoming a bit of a (beautiful) parody

Not part of the five, but Levanto would have been number one or two for me had it been in the list, and had I included all seven towns – the 5 Cinque Terre plus Levanto and Le Spazia, for me La Spazia would have placed third, (after Monterosso and Levanto battling for first and second) but Becky vehemently disagrees with me on this. And that’s fine, we should all have our own opinion and happily agree to disagree. The “Cinque Terre” is a beautiful collection of five towns, I loved visiting them all, hiking between two, and swimming from one, but I do like a bit of space, and some of them are too small to absorb the multitude of daily visitors (and I fully acknowledge that we were part of that problem to.)

Tomorrow we say “Arrivederci” to the Italian Riviera. and head in land to Florence and wider Tuscany.

The Italian Job – Day 3

Cinque Terre

With a train strike to beat, the alarm was set for early o’clock and we were out the door of our apartment and on our way to La Spetzia train station before 8 o’clock. The train strike was scheduled from 9am to 1pm so we figured that we could get a train before then, and be where we wanted to be before the trains ground to a halt. We hoped on a train at 8.12 am from La Spetzia, and twenty minutes later we disembarked in the pretty coastal town of Vernazza.

Lets talk trains for a minute

Now I was expecting a little diesel train that would chug its way noisily, slowly and smellingly along the line, but how wrong was I. The train was a modern, clean, fast inter-city train – a double-decker, no less – that whizzed us comfortably and quickly across the track. The only disappointment was that most of the journey was in a tunnel; this was a train to get you from A to B quickly and effectively, it wasn’t a leisurely clickety-clack journey during which you took in the majestic vista as it unfolded in front of you.

… and we’re back

Vernazza is a charming little seaside town, nestled in the hills and stumbling down to the sea. In the calm of the early morning sun it was beautiful and serene and we started our day with coffee and cakes, and then more coffee, in a traditional Italian bar. We spent a pleasant twenty minutes or so exploring and enjoying the harbour, soaking up the the sun and smelling the fresh sea air before beginning our next step to beat the now striking trains, and headed off on the hiking trail to Monterosso. We had always planned to hike some of the trails between the 5 towns of the Cinque Terre, and we headed uphill in anticipation and excitement.

This trail is 3.6 Km long, estimated to take about an hour and a half and the graded difficulty is average. You need to pay to take this trail, but payment is included in the Cinque Terre pass that we had purchased for the two days, giving us unlimited train use between La Spetzia and Levanto (all the 5 towns are between those two bigger towns) and unlimited access to the hiking trails. We had received a top tip to hike from Vernazza to Monterosso as – whilst the total ascent and descent is the same, as you start and finish at sea level – the initial incline from Vernazza is much less steep than from Monterosso. As we descended a very, very step stone stair pathway at the other end, we were grateful to have received this bit of advice. If you do this hike, and only take one thing away from this blog, make it this tip: walk from Vernazza to Monterosso, not the other way round. You’ll be glad you did.

Although graded “average”, the hike was not simple – it was well marked and on a path all the way, you could not get lost, but it had some tough climbs and knee jarring descents. The path was stoney, and slippery in places (although never dangerous), you definitely need trainers or better walking footwear. It took us about two hours (including plenty of stops for Becky to take photos, and also, more frustratingly, to wait on narrow sections of the pass as walkers – sometimes in their hordes – came past.) The views were magnificent, and the sense of achievement when we arrived in Monterosso tangible.

My Happy Place

A year ago, I went for my old man MOT at the doctors surgery and, as part of the battery of tests, I had my blood pressure taken. Whilst the cuff inflated around my arm, the nurse practitioner told me to relax, to imagine myself in my happy place. For me, that was bobbing in the crystal clear blue sea of Croatia’s coast. I love being in the sea in beautiful places. So, somewhat warm and weary after our hike, I had to take the plunge into the sea once we hit the beach at Monterosso.

The air was warm, the sun beating down, but the sea was a bit chilly ( to be expected, it is only mid April) But I enjoyed a ten minute swim in the clear blue water, I know I would have regretted it had I missed the opportunity.

Like an iguana, I baked on a rock to dry off, before we headed into the old town to grab some lunch (pizza and salad) and amble through the streets. A feature of the region seems to be black and white striped churches and I don’t know why, but I find them very aesthetically appealing.

We spent quite a bit of time exploring Monterosso – its bigger than the other four villages, and has the feel of a holiday resort, and before we had finished with the town, 1pm had been and gone – the train strike was over and we got on a (busy!) train heading back to La Spezia, but jumped off after two stops and ten minutes at Manrola, which we explored, (and sat and chilled in the sun for some time) before getting another train to Riomaggiore, which we wandered around in for an hour or so, before heading back to La Spezia, and home, with slightly aching limbs, only to remember we then had to climb 96 steps to our apartment on the top floor!

The Cinque Terre villages are lovely, and I really enjoyed the day. My only “but” would be that as the day wore on, they did get very busy. For this reason, I think Monterosso was my favourite – it had the size to accommodate all the tourists (us included) who were disgorged into the towns by train, boat and trail. And this was April; I wonder what they would be like in July or August – quite possibly too hot and too crowded? I’m glad the train strike forced us to make an early start: Vernazza in the peace and calm of (relatively) early morning was beautiful, and I’m glad I hiked a trail. The weather was perfect, warm and sunny throughout, we both enjoyed a lovely day.