27 June 2012

Team P’s Italian Adventure: Cinque Terre

Are these honeymoon recaps starting to feel long, so different from the normal stuff you expect here? Ready to get back into the old routine? That’s okay. That... was sort of my intention, to fully recap the honeymoon experience here on the blog.

Because after Rome, Florence, and Venice, I was tired. Don’t get me wrong, it was still an incredible experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, even at the time. But eating out all the time, not having a routine, living out of a suitcase, going going going going... it was getting to me.

Thank goodness for the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is comprised of five tiny villages in the Italian Riviera, the northwest corner of Italy on the Ligurian Sea. Despite being a semi-famous tourist destination for Italians, neighboring Europeans, and people like Mr. P and me, it still maintains its charm. It helps, I suppose, that the Cinque Terre is remote. So, so remote. Four-local-trains-from-Venice remote. Factor in the lack of air conditioning on those trains while they stopped at a station every ten minutes and you’ll understand how happy I was when we finally arrived at our hotel.

It was worth the wait.

The population of the Cinque Terre is tiny, with a population of less than five thousand among all five towns. And the towns are correspondingly tiny, of course. Sure, the streets still look like this (please forgive Mr. P’s sweaty shirt and remember the FOUR TRAINS OF NO AIR CONDITIONING MISERY):

It’s a throwback to Venice’s hedge maze of buildings, yes. But the difference is that there are only, like, two or three of those side streets in each village. Plus a single main street that typically looks like this:

No cars here, just boats on the streets of these towns. Want to drive to the Cinque Terre? You have to park in a lot outside the towns, near the highway. Better to take the train like we did – or a boat. For serious.

These photos, by the by, are all from Manarola, the second smallest of the five towns. I adored Manarola. Mr. P chose which town we’d stay in (because, well, Mr. P planned the entire honeymoon) and he chose the most perfect town for us – small enough to be quiet but big enough to have a grocery, restaurants, and a little people-watching. And he also chose the perfect hotel, because this was the view out of our window:

One of the first things we did in Manarola was explore the vineyards terraced on the hills above the town. From there we could look back and see almost all of Manarola:

And look ahead to the promontory in the distance, upon which sits Corniglia, the tiniest of the five towns (and even further in the distance is Monterosso, the northernmost of the five).

We stuck to the main (public) path, but it was mind-boggling to think about how the residents of the Cinque Terre today still climb around on these hills to harvest their grapes. Those terraces are steep.

Speaking of grapes, we made sure to try as many local foods as we could. One specialty is sciacchetra, a super-sweet, super-potent (17% alcohol) white wine made from raisins. Mr. P gamely tried it even though he doesn’t drink.

He... was not a fan. Because yeah, it’s potent. I, on the other hand, thought it was delicious, though perhaps the high alcohol content distorts things a bit?

The pace of the trip definitely slowed down in the Cinque Terre. We spent a good amount of time exploring Manarola, including its historic church, and swimming in the ridiculously clear sea:

... though no cliff-diving in the harbor, like these guys:

I mean... you can see the giant rock on the bottom that you are cliff-diving toward. No thanks.

We also visited the other towns in the Cinque Terre, of course. The five towns are in a line, say five miles from northernmost (Monterosso) to southernmost (Riomaggiore), and they are all connected by a local train and by hiking trails. We chose to hike to the two nearest on either side of Manarola, Corniglia and Riomaggiore.

To hike to Corniglia, we tried to set out early in the morning before the heat could catch up to us. I think my hair was already a victim, though. Ah, well.

(Oh, and the yellow building with the covered balcony overlooking the sea was our hotel. Whee!)

Remember how Corniglia is on a promontory? The last part of the hike is a climb up 382 steps. So yeah, we wanted to arrive before the heat and humidity.

Corniglia is where we tried another Ligurian specialty, focaccia:

I still haven’t perfectly masted their style of focaccia, but I’m getting there!

Riomaggiore is on the other side of Manarola, so after hiking back from Corniglia and taking the obligatory afternoon siesta, we headed down the Via dell’Amore for dinner in Riomaggiore.

Unlike the other trails between the towns, the path between Manarola and Riomaggiore is wide, paved, flat, and fairly short. It’s certainly more suited for a romantic stroll, which is how it got its name (translated, Way of Love). You can see locks that couples have left all along the path, particularly in this romantic spot in a tunnel:

Mr. P and I did not leave a lock, as that is vandalism or somesuch. But it was romantic!

Let’s not forget that it was here, in Riomaggiore, that the joy of speck and mascarpone pizza was discovered:

We explored Riomaggiore that evening, too – its church, its random castles, its secluded benches on a cliff overlooking the sea. But the best photo from that evening was en route back to Manarola:

Oh, Via dell’Amore. You are too pretty.

We decided that the remaining towns in the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Monterosso, were too far for us to hike, as this was supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable and free of reminders of how horribly out of shape I was. So, we took the local train the next day over to Vernazza, which has a charming little beach in its harbor:

And then to Monterosso, which has less charming large beaches everywhere:

In both towns, we hiked all over the place (like onto the super-high point in Monterosso to take the previous shot which, again, demonstrates the FREAKISHLY CLEAR WATER). I think I liked Vernazza’s small-town charm over Monterosso’s beach-restort vibe, but Monterosso did have this to blow my mind:

That’s their church, in its “Romanesque” style. I maintain that nothing in Rome actually looked like that, and furthermore I suspect it was actually designed by Tim Burton, based on what he sees in his dreams.

As I said, we tried so many of the local foods in the Cinque Terre, from the tasty (pesto) to the “I guess we aren’t cultured enough to appreciate this” (anchovies). But my favorite meal? Cheap, take-away pizza, eaten on our balcony, with a tepid diet soda bought at the single grocery in Manarola.

I was in my swimsuit cover-up with crazy freshly-showered hair, but because it was so beautiful and happy and – I’ll say it – perfect, there, I think this may be my favorite photo of myself, ever.

Do you see the absolute peace and joy like, radiating out of every pore? No, those aren’t freckles. Those are blotches of PURE HAPPINESS.

Plus, when I wasn’t busy mooning over Mr. P, this was the view from my Favorite Meal in Italy:

And just because I was tripping on a major high of OMG ROMANCE, I made sure to get the obligatory ring shots here:

I mean yeah, a little cheesy... but a place that’s so gorgeous, so perfect is bound to bring out my shy romantic side out of hiding.

If we ever had the chance to return to Italy, I’d skip seeing Venice again, and I’d even skip Rome (turns out I’m more of a Northern-Italy girl than Southern). Florence is lovely and I’d enjoy seeing it again, I think. But here. Right here. This is where I’d want to return.

Which makes it all the sadder that some of it isn’t there anymore, at least as we’d remember it. A mudslide destroyed part of Vernazza and Monterosso last year, killing several people. It breaks my heart, but also fills me with a sense of good fortune that we got to see the towns before the disaster. In that sense, it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Cinque Terre was the last major stop on our Italian adventure – we’ve just got a little stop in Milan left to go!


Christal said...

So pretty! And you're absolutely right...totally Tim Burton-y!

Tina said...

Well done! I do believe it would take at least two years for all the wonderfulness of your honeymoon to sink in enough to be able to write about it... You know, Cinque Terre's Manarola was the wallpaper on my laptop for over a year - and I have never been there! It was just too charming after y'all made me aware of the place not to keep it close - the place of daydreams... ahhhh...