Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day Seven -- Cinque Terre

Friday, March 27

For the last six months or so, I've been making a deal with the Travel Gods.  I've been bartering with them, agreeing to take whatever weather they throw at us on this trip, if only they would give us the stereotypical blue skies and bright sun on our one full day in the Cinque Terre.  And all my bartering paid off.

But a word first about breakfast.  Last night, we met another Carlo, who was not nearly as attractive as the Lucchese Carlo, but this Carlo could cook.  He made a feast for us last night that was more like a wedding reception on steroids, the really good, make you happy, make you bloated type of steroids.  We both dreamt of and articulated our hopes for breakfast.  Could he be as good for breakfast?  Oh, indeed he was.

The breakfast buffet, served with Carlo at the helm, was everything from scrambled eggs (HALLELUJAH!!) and fried prosciutto (oh bacon, you are SO yesterday) to a gorgeous tropical fruit salad, poached pears, croissants with three kinds of jelly and Nutella, toast, a full antipasto table, buffalo mozzarella and hard boiled eggs.  With fresh juice and cappuccino, it was a dream.

So then, sitting at the train station waiting for the train to our first stop of the day, Abby and I discussed the worth of Lucca's Carlo vs. Levanto's Carlo, and we decided we'd both take Levanto's Carlo home in a heartbeat.  Yes, what we're saying is the food was THAT good.  Better than....well, you know.

We decided last night that we'd head to Monterosso, the next town over and first town south of us in the five connected villages known as the Cinque Terre.  Monterosso is the largest of the five towns and has the most to see.  Also, at this time of year, pre-Easter and pre-tourist season, it has the most open.  We followed the walking tour in our guidebook which took us to a church that was completely ravaged by the floods in 2011.  There were photos hanging nearby which showed the utter devastation and explained how quickly the town mobilized to save the church and the store owners most important to the town's livelihood.  Tourism is really it here, and without it, they'd have not much.  The fact that they got things cleaned up so fast and back to normal is not only a testament to their hard work but also an indicator to how they rely on the tourism dollar.

From the outset I realized how incredibly vivid the colors are here.  Of course it helps to have a beautifully dry, crisp blue morning sky and bright early spring sun (that fortunately lasted all day) but even the colors of the buildings along the water felt like they were popping against the coastline.  It really is picture postcard beautiful.  No wonder why it is so touristed.

We followed not only the sea level tour but also the walk that wound its way up and around the cliff overlooking Monterosso to a former convent that is kept by a capuchin monk.  I walked into it by myself and was relieved to escape the warmth and brightness of the day and just relax in the quiet stillness of the church.  I was met with the sound of a handful of monks chanting behind the choir.  It was just beautiful.  I sat there for a bit before DS joined me, and we admired the handsome Van Dyck of The Crucifixion that was hanging in there too (apparently Van Dyck spent some time in Levanto) before we headed back out to start our hike.

There are four "official" hikes that connect the five Cinque Terre towns right along the coast.  But due to mudslides, rockslides and a lot of winter rain, only one was open and that was the one that connected Monterosso with Vernazza.  I'd done a bit of research last night on the routes and learned that this was the most challenging of the four coastal hikes and would take about two hours.  And it did.  But it was worth it.

After one last cappuccino in the town square in Monterosso, we started off with a flat steep section, which then led to about 20 minutes of nothing but stairs going up and up and up.  It became rolling hills for a bit, with varying terrain of uneven rock, uneven cement, mud and a bit of solid dirt.  It was narrow at times, felt unsafe at times, was hard to pass others or required that we stopped to let them pass. It was trying as it got hotter higher, harder, and seemingly endless.   Finally though, I caught a peek of Vernazza through the trees and it was all worth it.  I'm not sure if I liked Vernazza so much because of how hard we worked to get there, but it was just as I imagined, both from on high and once we hit the town at sea level.  In the end it took us about 2 hours and 20 minutes but we made it.  And immediately hit a restaurant for food and a bathroom!

Lunch was at Trattoria da Sandro, on the main street running through Vernazza.  I had triofe pasta in a pesto sauce and a lemon soda.  DS had vegetarian ravioli in a walnut sauce and it was just as good.  Refueled we struck back out.  But not without a gelato first.  We found an artisanal gelateria on the main drag and I had cherry, chocolate and a combination of white chocolate chip that was quite good.  With that we did a quick pass around Vernazza (these towns are all of a few hundred people and filled with nothing but shops and restaurants, so there isn't too much to "see"; I found that once we got the postcard shots, it was ok to move on) and then bought train tickets ($1.80 each hop) to Corniglia.

Corniglia is the only town not on the harbor.  The train arrives at sea level and you have the option of either climbing the 385 steps to the town or take a shuttle bus up to this tiny clifftop town.  We opted for the bus.  We were there not more than 20 minutes and we'd covered the handful of lanes that make up the town. One odd thing is that you can't see Corniglia from the towns on either side of it, so I have no real photographic evidence I was even there.

We walked down the 385 steps (no easy feat on tired legs) and caught the very next train to Manarola.  This is a cute little town that sticks its foot out into the sea.  By this point we were sufficiently tired that we sort of gave up on doing the walking tours of the villages no matter how short they were.  We stopped, got the photos we wanted, saw the sights described in the books that we wanted to see, and moved on to the next city.  It is somewhat unfortunate that the same reliance on tourism that I mention above lends itself to what I didn't really care for in the towns.  They were really commercial.  They were lots of shops and restaurants that cater to tourists, I just can't really imagine any locals hanging out near them, which is unfortunate.

Our last stop was Riomaggiore, which has a very narrow little inlet to the sea, and not much else to mention it.  Just about everything there was still closed up pre-Easter so we couldn't even find a place to eat dinner.  So we headed back to Levanto.

I'm so glad we had a most excellent day for the hike.  We had light sweatshirts on for part of the morning but the rest of the day was in short sleeves and capri running pants and sneakers.  It was casual, comfortable and we got a hell of a workout in (almost 23,000 steps, 153 flights of steps and over 10 miles).  But I don't know that I'd return here unless I knew other trails were open.  I felt like I saw what I needed to and don't need to revisit it, but I also enjoyed the day immensely.

After cleaning the grime and sweat off ourselves, we had dinner at Risorante Moresco, near our hotel in Levanto.  We started with Insalata Caprese (mozzarella and tomato) which was melt in our mouths wonderful.  I had the gnocchi with crabmeat in a red sauce, which was really good.  And we split a frito misto, which we ate the calamari and shrimp on, and not much else.  I tried a couple sardines, but that was it.  We split a bottle of Cinque Terre (bottled in Monterosso) white wine.  With a limoncino dessert, it was a nice way to end an epic day.  In bed early, off to Florence at 8:15 tomorrow!  So excited, but it is our last stop...

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