Friday, May 23, 2014

The Cinque Terre - Italy

View from our room
at Hotel Pasquale
Nestled along the steep and rugged Ligurian coastline of the Italian Riviera lies some of the most scenic terrain in this country of unending beauty.  As Ben and I have continued to explore as much of Italy as possible over the years, the Cinque Terre (literally, “five lands”) and Portofino had remained high on our list, but had always been simply too far out of the way of our travels.  So, that’s where we set our sights to go prior to our 2014 Aviano military reunion in April.

Although an autostrada (Italy’s super highway system) runs fairly close to the western shoreline, the remaining 20-25 miles of winding roads include sharp turns and treacherous hillsides, and no further "super-highway" extension has been built to ease the journey.  A deterrent to traffic?  Perhaps.  A desire to keep these lands as true to their original beauty as possible?  Likely.  Regardless, both the designation of Portovenere, Cinque Terre, and two nearby islands as a UNESCO World Heritage site and frequent, convenient trains have made sure these hidden gems of towns and villages are not so secret anymore. Both tourists and summer hikers through the Cinque Terre National Park continue to bring increasing tourist activity each year. 

We actually debated taking the train from the Milan airport to Monterosso in the Cinque Terre where we planned to stay, but when another couple joined us for this adventure we decided that a car made more sense.  Train travel in Europe is wonderful when either (1) somebody else is handling your luggage, or (2) you’re basically backpacking or at least packing light.  Facing a week in Modena for the reunion followed by a cruise from Venice, we had no problem taking one checked bag and one carry-on each; but even that much luggage is hard for us to haul onto trains these days.  Been there, done that.  Auto Europe, here we come.  Our route would take us south from Milan to Genoa and then southeast toward La Spezia on the autostrada.  After exiting the highway toward Monterosso, it was time for Ben to muster up his experiences from living in Italy in the 70s to negotiate the twists and turns on the narrow roads, as well as avoid approaching traffic while driving to our hotel--and doing so right after landing in Milan from our overnight flight from Texas.  Topper, Carole, and I appreciate you, Ben.
Thanks to Rick Steves and Trip Advisor, I located a lovely little hotel in Monterosso called Hotel Pasquale (Italian for Easter) with easy access to the train and to boat tours.  We made sure we had sea views from our rooms.  The hotel staff were warm and accommodating and served up a warm and hearty breakfast each morning with eggs however you like them, fresh breads and sweet rolls, and some of the most delicious orange marmalade we've ever tasted.  We had arrived early in the tourist season, so some restaurants were just beginning to open though we had no problem locating some excellent dining options.  Prior to our departure we saw predictions of rain and cool weather in the forecast, but the rain never materialized.  Frankly, we were mostly glad that we beat much of the tourist traffic by arriving prior to Easter.

I must say the Rick Steves Italy guidebook offers excellent descriptions of each of the villages of
the Cinque Terre, which helps travelers decide where to book a hotel.  With closer proximity to Portofino north of the Cinque Terre and to Milan where we’d need to return in order to meet up with the rest of our incoming reunion group, Monterosso seemed the best fit for us, but Vernazza was a close second.  Corniglia sits high on a bluff with no boat docking access; Manarola and Riomaggiore are the last two in the chain further south.  Portovenere is located just below the Cinque Terre, although boat tours of the five villages can also include a stop there and rightly so—it’s well worth a visit.   Portovenere and the even larger La Spezia are where some cruise ships stop for access to the Cinque Terre—but we can attest that you really cannot do these lands justice from a ship.

On our first full day, we boarded a boat (hop on/hop off style) that docks at four of the five villages (not Corniglia, of course), where we wandered the villages and marveled at the homes and businesses perched seemingly precariously on those steep bluffs and hillsides.  Although there were similarities, each hamlet possessed a character of its own.  Soon after stopping at Manarola, we all decided it was a bit too slow for us, and since we didn’t want to wait for the next boat we bought cheap train tickets through the mountain to Riomaggiore that proved more interesting.  But when trying to board the next boat on to Portovenere, we learned that we hadn't purchased the correct tickets to get there! Thanks to an understanding captain and some profuse apologies on our part, we were allowed to board anyway and simply pay the ticket price difference in Portovenere.  Whew.  I’m so glad we did since it was a favorite for all of us, located on the tip of a peninsula and with larger resort town atmosphere.

The next day we took the train to Portofino for the day—that village of legendary beauty  that is also not part of the Cinque Terre and also not that easy to get to.  From the train station, it suited our schedule best to take a bus the rest of the distance to this picturesque little cove and then board the ferry for the trip back.  We were blessed with beautiful blue skies that day and could wander the streets and shoreline without tons of tourists.  Oh, that’s right: we were tourists, too.

As I mentioned previously, the Cinque Terre is a very popular hiking destination, and the national park service clearly marks trails and gives information about the difficulty of each one.  I had actually considered  attempting the easiest of the trails, but recent landslides had blocked the pathway.  It also didn't help that on our very first night there, I missed a step walking up to a restaurant near our hotel and suffered a pretty nasty sprained ankle.  I never knew how long one of those can take to heal!

I confess I should have done more research or at least bought a more recent Rick Steves book, however, for then I would have learned about the horrible mudslides that occurred in October 2011 which were caused by torrential rains, killing several people and inflicting terrible damage to both Vernazza and Monterosso particularly.  Photos of the destruction and resulting massive clean-up still cover the hillsides and buildings in the five villages, giving testimony to their devastating impact.   

Our little side trip turned out to be one of the best parts of our Italy travels this time.  Our pace was slow, the scenery amazing, and the food and wine delicious.  Rejuvenated and rested, we headed back to Milan, where we held a quick meet and greet with our arriving reunion friends before spending the night at the airport hotel.  The next morning, our wonderful tour guide Roberto Bechi would pick us up and whisk us away to Modena to begin our official tour.

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