Exploring the lands of the Cinque Terre!

We woke up early our first morning, as we had planned to go hiking on the trails of the Cinque Terre that day.  I was so excited to see the other towns in this area, as what I saw in pictures had me very much intrigued. To be prepared for this hike, I brought with me some good runners (but not my best pair because I planned on leaving them behind to make room in my suitcase for my anticipated shoe purchases in Florence), proper clothing, and of course did some research about the trails, and what to expect.  We knew that it was going to take us approx. 5 hours to hike the trail from one town to the last, so I was psyched up for some good exercise.   We stopped at a deli to buy some bread, cheese, meat, and some fruit for breakfast, and lunch on the run.  We bought a Treno card, which is a pass that allowed us to ride the train between all of the towns for 24 hours, and also paid our entrance onto the paths, and trails in the National Park.  Bad news- we were told that due to landslides on the trails, all of the trails were closed, except between Riomagiorre and Manarola, which is called the Via dell “Amore, and that is only a 20 minute walk. We were bummed. So much for our plans.  But, when one door closes, another one opens, and the door that opened was the opportunity to really explore each of the towns, which is what we then set out to do.

It struck me shortly after arriving in Riomaggiore (meaning “river” and “major” in the local dialect, as there used to be a major river running through this community), that this community had a lot of pride in its culture, and history, but they were also embracing the present, while looking into the future also. This was indicative by the beautiful murals depicting the men and women building the over 300 million cubic feet of dry stone walls (without cement) that run throughout the Cinque Terre. This was quite a feat, considering the lack of equipment, etc., and the murals really showed how labourous this work was. It drew my attention to pay attention to all of the stone walls as we hiked, walked, and strolled throughout each town.  In addition to the murals, I noted the  presence of all the recycling bins.  I was so impressed that I even took pictures- not a surprise to my kids, and those who know me well, because I am somewhat of a recycling maniac.

There was a small beach under the train tracks at Riomoggiore.

The area, and sights are Spectacular!

There were steep steps everywhere! I can not imagine carrying groceries down those steps! They were also very narrow- definitely not very much was wheelchair accessible.

And so, the up, around, climbing, ascending, winding, and descending adventure began of constantly trying to figure out where we were, and where we were going, and how we could possibly get there. That was part of the adventure of the day, and really, did it matter where we were? We were in Italy, surrounded by wine, and olive groves, and we could see the ocean from so many of the places we were. We were surrounded by history, and it was simply magical!  By the way, if someone tells you to JUST follow the trail signs, or the red and white signs; it really is not that simple, as they are somewhat sparse, and can be a bit hidden, and also are sometimes just splotches of paint stripes on stones along side the trails.  Also, the map that we had of the area was a bit confusing to us, and as I read in my Rick Steves book right now, I laugh as to where we ended up, compared to where we were intending to go. Once again, another reason to go back… And next time I will use my guide book more.

Manorola (Town #2)

Each town is known for different things, and has its own history, which you would not know unless you took the time to learn about each town.  The reason why I say this is that if you just simply wandered through each town, they look similar- they each have many cafes, gellato shops,and restaurants. They each are strikingly similar, as each has the multi- level pastel colored stucco buildings that house not only the residents, but also the shops, and many other businesses. Each has windy roads, steps of all widths, and slopes. And of course each town has a Piazza, at least 1 church, and a cemetery; kind of like where I live- each small town has it’s own grain elevator, church and cemetery.  As we strolled through the towns, we of course stopped regularly for a cafe, for a crepe, and of course I had to stop for some focaccia with pesto. All these temptations were too tempting, plus we needed more energy to make it to the top of the town to take in all of the views.

Once we reached the top of the town, we could take in the full view of the town, the magnificent ocean view, and we could also see the wooden Lenten scene depicting the stations of the cross, set up on the hillside for Easter. At different times of the year, there are different scenes put up by a local man by the name of Mario Andreoli. He made a promise to his father before he died that he would replace the cross that was on their vineyard, and that he did. He replaced it with religious scenes for different times of the year, that even light up at night.  What a beautiful tribute to his father, and his faith, for the community to enjoy. We were so intrigued, that we wanted to get a closer look, and also see the cemetery, so we walked higher. And higher we walked, the more magnificent the views, and the more I felt like I was in a fairytale.

Which way do we go?

  Fancy that we would be saying that. But once again, we were lost. And once again, the glory of being lost when you are in Italy, is that you are lost in Italy. It was a beautiful walk- a hard walk because of the stone steps, and it did not lead us to the cemetery, or the Lenten scene, but we did see the beautiful countryside filled with olive trees, lemon trees, vine, after vine of grapes. We also came across a very old structure, and then out of nowhere a very small village called Volastra and it’s church called Nostra Signora Della Salute, which was built in the 12th century.   We were no longer lost, because we now knew where we were, but we were nowhere near where we were intending to go, and it took us 90 minutes to get there with all of the stopping, picture taking, and general sight seeing we did along the way.

We may have been a bit lost, but we felt not as lost as 3 Asian girls we came across the same trail we were on to get to where we now were. You see, we were dressed to be out exploring, and hiking, but these girls were dressed like they were out looking for the closest possible shopping mall. They were wearing flip flops, and heels, and were not amused by the stone steps, and walking conditions. However, we were amused.

So, we regrouped our thoughts, and our to do lists of what we still wanted to do, and see in what time was remaining today, since we were leaving the next day for Florence. We decided to make our way back to Manarola through Volastra, to take the boat to Vernazza.  We ended up basically on the same trail down, but we then got to enjoy different views of this very old, and historic town, as we came upon the main street.

Because of the boat schedule, we had a bit more time to explore this historic town, and guess what we found- the cemetery!  Each town has its own cemetery, but Manarola’s is in a prime real estate location, with a first class view. Breathtaking!  It is important for the locals to visit the graves of their family members regularly, and there is even a picnic area just behind the cemetery.

I was a bit bummed that we were skipping visiting Corniglia, the town between Manarola, and Vernazza. It unfortunately does not have a harbour, as the town is up on the hill, and we really wanted to be able to take a boat ride, and this was our last opportunity to do so. I was also missing out on fulfilling a dare to visit Guvano beach, Cinque Terre’s only nude beach. In other words, be careful what you dare me to do, because I will probably do it. Oh well, next time…

The coastline is beautiful, and quite awe inspiring to see how this whole area was carved into the mountainside, and the trains follow the coastline, around and through the hills. It didn’t matter how many times I looked at the different views of this area, I was Amazed at what I was seeing. I can not say it enough times, that one must see these sights at least once in your lifetime.

The final stop of the day- Vernazza (town #4)

We arrived at cocktail hour into Vernazza, and we could feel a buzz of excitement, and joy in the air. We were getting tired from our day of exploring, and once we had walked around the harbour, we plunked ourselves down at one of the patios overlooking Vernazza’s small beach area. It was time for a Spritz, and some appies. It was a wonderful feeling being in the center of the action, alongside some other tourists, but also with the locals. This was a meeting place for the residents, and it was fun to watch the reunions of friends and families, the laughter, and story telling, or just being together, as a community.  We never did end up exploring more of Vernazza, as we were enjoying the experience of just being there, rather than the sights. It is something I will never forget, as the end of the day was marked with the ringing our treasured church bells from the church tower right next to where we sat. The perfect end to a magical day, in this fairy tale of a place called Cinque Terre.

Will I return? Oh most definitely. It is only a matter of when…

Ciao Bella!

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Sognando Cinque Terre! First Stop Monterosso al Mare!

I dream about Cinque Terre. It is a magical place that one must go to, to believe that it really exists, and that it is Exactly as you see it is in pictures! It was described to me as looking like a fairy tale, and, I absolutely agree.  And the best part with being there is I got to take advantage of my favourite things- the beach, and Italy!  What a dream come true! Luckily when you travel with someone that also likes to read and do research about where you are going, you end up with a wealth of knowledge, and a TONNE of more decisions to make.  Once Kathy had discovered the existence of Cinque Terre, we decided to go for the day on our way to Pisa.  It was a no brainer decision. Then once we both started reading more, and looking at all of the pictures, soon enough Pisa got scrapped altogether (sorry Pisa), and we decided to spend 3 nights, and every extra minute we could in this Magical place.

The Nitty, Gritty about The Cinque Terre:

Cinque Terre means 5 Lands in english, and there are 5 villages that comprise Cinque Terre. The 5 villages  are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  Each village is unique in it’s own way, yet a bit similar to the others. According to Wikipedia, the area dates back to around the thirteenth century.  To travel there, you can by train, or by car, but there is very limited parking in the villages, so once you find your way there if you are driving, you will either walk, train or boat to the other villages.

The Cinque Terre is a National Park and UNESCO protected area, and there is a foot path that connects all of the 5 villages, that is around a 5 hour hike, with an admission price to enter the park. We had planned on going on the hike, but unfortunately we were unable to when we were there do to mud slides on parts of the trail, it was almost completely closed off. However we did get to do the walk on the Via dell’Amore, or the way of love in english. There are many locks along this trail, and the locks symbolize the love between 2 people. If you leave your lock there, you are locking your love for each other. This is something that you may see throughout Europe, but not everyone understands why the locks are there.  It is a touching symbol that was once against the law, as it was considered littering. Local officials finally gave up on continually cutting them off, and now they leave them as part of the ambiance.

Living, Loving, and experiencing Cinque Terre!

First stop: Monterosso Al Mare!  May I say, we were SO HAPPY to be out of Milan.                                                If you are staying in Cinque Terre, it can be a daunting task when you know nothing about the area to first decide which town to stay in. So, I pulled out my Rick Steves guide book to see where he recommended to stay, and then I went to Trip Advisor to read other recommendations there also.   We ended up deciding to stay In Monterosso because we found a wonderful place to stay, literally just steps from the beach, called Le Sirene, and it was only 80 meters from the train station.  And we were not going to have to walk up 100’s of stairs with our luggage to get to our room, as we had read in many review of other properties. Location, location, location.  We were happily greeted by Ermanna at the office of the property, and she took us to our room. The building appeared to be an apartment building, and it took 3 different keys to 3 different doors to get into our room. It was not very big, but it was bright, clean, and we had our own updated bathroom. If we climbed through the window (which we did), we had our own balcony, on which we could sip on wine, while enjoying the view of  the beach, and ocean when we looked to the left; straight ahead were the hills (the mountains to them).  And the men in the grocery store right across the street could enjoy their own view (us). LOL  Gotta love Italian men, and their appreciation of women! It was important to me to be able to have access to the internet, so that I could communicate with home to let my family know when we had reached our next destination, and that we were OK, and hopefully get an update from their, end. And this was the first time that I had traveled so far from home without my husband, so there were extra worries from the home front that 2 good looking women were traveling “alone” in Italy. Little did they know that all I would have to do is say “Help”, and 100’s of Italian men in all shapes, sizes, and ages, would come running saying, “Mi permetta di aiutare la mia bella” (Let me help you, my beautiful!”  LOL   Unfortunately there are not a lot of places with wifi in this area, and it was kind of a pain to tote my laptop along, so when we asked Ermanna if they had wifi, and she offered up her husband’s computer in his office, which is attached to her office; I was Extremely Grateful. Luigi allowed us to use his computer each day to check our emails, and in the process, we had some great conversations with him, and his son.  They were such wonderful hosts! I have just recently found out that she had only started running Le Sirene and Raggi di Sole only days before we arrived, and her English was limited then. I must say that for where she may have lacked in understanding English, she made up for in trying to help, and understand, and was extremely accommodating to us. She has also told me that her English has greatly improved since April.

Once we got to our room, we quickly changed into our bikinis, and sun dresses, it was time to check out this Beautiful spot on the Italian Mediterranean.  Monterosso has the largest beaches of all 5 towns. There is the main beach, which you can see in the picture above, and then there is another beach towards the old town. EVERYTHING is within walking distance, which is wonderful! To get from the new town, which is also known as Fegina, which has the train station, the main parking lot, a small soccer field, many restaurants, etc., you must go through a tunnel to get to the old town, and a smaller beach. Once you go through the tunnel, you see another beach to the right, and straight ahead is the old town, just under a train overpass.What is amazing about this area, is the history, and how the locals have done such a wonderful job in preserving it.  I instantly felt like I should be lazy, and laid back when we arrived. Even though there was so much to see, we felt like kicking back, and enjoying la dolce vita, along with the locals. We explored a bit to get our bearings, but then it was quickly time to eat, and drink vino! Since we were at the ocean, we needed to eat at a restaurant on the beach to enjoy the views, sun kiss our very white Canadian, winter beaten skin. We then found Bar 5 Terre, Gio! We sat right on the boardwalk, drinking wine, and Perseco, and eating food that is making my mouth water as I think about it. The food was so fresh, and flavorful, and since this is the birthplace of pesto, it was to die for! We enjoyed this spot so much, we ate there 3 times, which when you think of all the other choices of restaurants in Monterosso, and the other towns was crazy! But that is how much we loved their food, and once again, location, location, location.

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I love the time of year that we visited Cinque Terre (April 19-21), because you could feel the excitement in the air. Shops, restaurants, and cafes that had closed their doors for the winter months, had just reopened just 2-3 weeks before we arrived. Residents who go to the city for the winter had, and were just coming home. It felt wonderful to be a apart of this rebirth that happens every year in this Mediterranean community. Everyone was happy, the crowds were light, and the weather was perfect!  We could only imagine what it would be like when business, and the tourist season was in full swing in the summer months, and the crowds were crazy, waiting times to get a seat in a restaurant were long, and walking shoulder to shoulder with the fellow tourists in all of the narrow, windy streets, and stairways. We NEVER had to wait for a seat in one restaurant, bar or cafe- and there are SO MANY to choose from! WE had our choice of places to stay, and the prices were all reasonable.  I was struck by how this area had remained true to itself, and I could not see any signs of being “Americanized”, which has happened in the larger centers of Italy. There were no Starbucks, no McDonalds, and thank God, no Dominos- YEAH! It was ALL pure small town Italy, where you almost felt like time had stood still in it’s architecture, the community, and it’s industries. How Blessed was I to be witness to such an Amazing place!

As we explored in the old town, as with every other town and city in Italy that we had visited so far, it was easy once again to get lost in it’s windy streets, and in addition to the streets, there are so many cement, and stone steps leading to many more streets, apartments, and walkways. Luckily the town is small enough, so it did not take much time to find yourself where you wanted to be, or to some wonderful surprises like the tasty wine, and specialty shops.  I loved these shops because they always had free samples of their yummy fares, such as different pestos (which was invented here), olives, tapenades, limoncello, spices, sardines, and many more tastes of this region.  It was hard to restrain from buying too much, when I was trying to travel as light as I possibly thought I could, but the knowledge that I would be craving these flavours once I got home consumed me, so I did buy some things. However since coming home and immediately using everything I bought, I wish that I had bought more.  I guess this is yet another excuse for me to go back…

One night as we wandered the quiet streets in the old town,when we decided to go into the American Bar, mainly because I really needed to go to the bathroom, and while Kathy was sitting waiting for me, she noticed a picture behind the bar that looked like the same hot chocolate we had in Venice. OMG! The bar tender was surprised at our choice of beverages ( I guess we look more like party girls?), but in April it is quite cool at night, and we needed something warm to pick up our energy from our busy day.  We were so happy that it was the same velvety, luscious, so thick you needed to use a spoon hot chocolate, that we first discovered in Venice!  However, when we returned the next evening for the same warm drink, the nice male bartender was not working, and the young girl behind the bar was not in the mood to make us one, so she told us that they did not have it.  We were crushed. So we went back to the boardwalk, and ordered a hot chocolate at one of the restaurant/bars that was still open, and it was basically instant hot chocolate.  😦    If I knew the proper term or name in Italian for the yummy, thick hot chocolate that would be as important as knowing how to order good wine in my books. So, if you know, PLEASE let me know. Grazie Mille! One must know how to order proper chocolate, no matter where you go…

At night it struck us how quiet it was. We weren’t sure if it was the time of year that we were there, or if all the tourists that were there during the day, returned to the cities from which they came from. Well, both were true. It was early in the season, and the night life was not nearly at full tilt yet, or even 1/2 tilt. I didn’t mind that much, as our days were filled with walking and hiking, so I was exhausted by the evening. The picture to the right, is of the boardwalk at night, and it shows how deserted it became in the evening. It was a shark contrast to the city, where it is common to not go out for dinner until 9pm or later, and stay out even later.  I loved it, as I could feel lazy, and did not feel pressured to go, go, go, 24 hours a day here. It was purely lovely!

Will I be back to Monterosso al Mare? Absolutely! I can not wait to take my husband, Kim there. He will greatly appreciate the slower pace, the amazing food, the beach, the hiking (actually he doesn’t care about that, but I do, and he will just go along with me), and also that I can go and drink cafe at the beach while he sleeps in!  Like I said, the best of both worlds- Italy, and the beach!

Stay tuned in the next blog post about the rest of my travels in The Cinque Terre….

A little more about this Bella!

It is the middle of June, and I am yearning to feel the sun on my face (for more than 1 day consecutive), so that I can go out on my deck, or a friend’s to enjoy a Spritz, or a newly discovered drink by Kathy, Tuscan lemonade, or some vino. As you can or possibly not be able to surmise, my tastes have become a bit Italian. I have just experienced a ghastly winter, one that did not want to end at that, and currently a spring that is just being just as stubborn. So one wonders why I would yearn to be in Italy (again), where I experienced in November, and April, what I am yearning for right now. Or possibly somewhere other than here…

So, here I am in Whitefish, MT, my other’ love place’ besides Italy. This is a place that I would LOVE to live for the laid back life they have here, the many Amazing restaurants, the great shopping, and the Wonderfully clean air. When we arrived last night, and got out of the vehicle I was struck by the smell. It had been raining, and it was so clean and fresh from all the trees, and the mountains I wanted to be able to bottle this smell for my laundry products (then possibly I might want to do it more?) I woke up in the morning and it is STILL raining, and no matter how much I love it here, I find myself looking at the weather app on my phone and checking out my saved locations, of which of course are my favourite places in Italy. I then wonder how in the world did Italy become so much a part of me?

In the year 2000, my husband and I went to Europe for the first time (Paris and London), and we fell in love with Paris. Immediately this was the place I wanted to return to again and again. But we have not made it back there, unfortunately. I have since realized that maybe it was not Paris itself, but the history that I loved. Living in Canada, you are not exposed to the history you see and discover in Europe, and that was a wake up call for me. A lot of people say it is so dirty in Europe, but I just found it old, and appreciated that.

Our next trip to Europe was to Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich in 2003. That was a very different trip from Paris, because when we discovered Salzburg I felt like we really got to see how the locals live at that moment, not just learn about it’s past history.

I went on a trip each year, but on a tropical, and relaxing trip during the winter months to help to cope with our long winters. This was something I always looked forward to, and could say was my favourite kind of trip to go on.

Fast forward to November, 2010 and I land in Rome with my husband, and good friend Kathy to celebrate our 40th birthdays. As soon as I saw the Colosseum, I was immediately hit by how old, and rich in history Rome is. I was once again reminded of my love for Europe! I loved learning everything I learned, and was reminded about what I was taught in school, and church for the 4 days I was there! But then, we arrived in Florence, and like I said in an earlier blog post, all momentum was lost, as we started living in Florence rather than being just tourists.

As I am now reflecting on my desire to go away again, and I wonder if it is not just the going away to Italy , but the escape from my every day life with the oh so many responsibilities, and challenges. And honestly, I do not think so. If that were the case, then I would be in Phoenix for the weekend with Kathy right now; escaping. I LOVE Italy, and yes I want to explore it more, but I also want to take my children there also. That is the difference between how I feel about a tropical vacation (NO KIDS ALLOWED!), and an Italian Holiday. I truly feel like the saying we were told on the first trip: Leave a piece of your heart in Italy so that you have to return to visit it. I feel like a part of me is there, and Italy has become a part of me.

So, as I continue posting on this blog, you now know a little bit more about me. I hope this helps you to enjoy what I write a little bit more, and also I hope you will want share what I write with others.

Any hey, maybe one day I will get paid to travel, wouldn’t that be La Dolce Vita??? Rick Steves, watch out!!! LOL