After leaving Rome, our first scheduled stop on our return leg back to Spain was along the Italian Riviera. But our route first took us directly by the town of Pisa. Of course, we had to stop for the obvious reason. The thing about the famous Leaning Tower is that it almost looks fake. It looks exactly like every replica or image you have seen of it, except it really stands out because it is in a field by itself, unlike most other Italian buildings which are wedged in next to each other. It is shiny and white from a newer restoration, and looks like it was built by the same people who built the upside down building in Orlando, FL as a tourist attraction. It is a little shocking when you come across it and everyone has the same reaction: "Wow! That's REALLY leaning!" It looks much worse in person than in pictures. All the tourists taking pictures with their subjects doing the exact same pose, propping up the tower, contributes to its "fake tourist attraction" impression. But then you realize it's been leaning like this since Galileo's time, so it is genuine. After our 15 minute Griswold moment, it was back on the road. Why did I put 2 hours in the parking meter? I have no idea.
Our real destination was an area called "La Cinque Terra", or The Five Lands. It is a secluded area of the Italian Riviera made up of 5 small villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These small villages are perched either on cliffs or in ravines created by the mountainous coastline as the high hills plunge into the sea. There is no car traffic within these towns, and in fact, no roads that connect them directly to each other. You can only get between the towns by train, by boat, or by hiking the trails between them - about a 4-5 hour hike to walk the whole chain.
As we left the Autostrada highway, we climbed up and down hills on tiny, twisty roads, sometimes not wide enough for two cars. The roads kept going and going, round and round the twisties, and up and down the mountains. Finally we could see the sea and the first town that would be our home port, Monterosso. You have to park high on the outskirts of town and walk down into the town streets.
I will admit our first impression of the town, and even our hotel, was a bit cautious. Here we had heard these amazing stories of how charming these towns were, and what a must see they are. One well-travelled Australian guy we met (the same guy who said not to miss the Palio in Sienna) even said it was among the top place he had visited in the world. High praise indeed, and it was reiterated by many, many people.
Perhaps it had been so built up in our minds that we were expecting too much. Or maybe we were just approaching through the "back door". It wasn't exactly this picture-perfect little town, but rather a work-a-day town, with residents and tourists mingling in the little tangle of streets and alleys. When we booked our hotel, 2 months prior, most of the hotels were booked, so our pickings were a little slim, but we found our little Albergo Degli Amici down a little alley peaking out from under an arch. It was simple accommodations, but clean and had a small terrace that looked out over... absolutely nothing but the walls and roofs of other buildings crowding in around us. Oh well. We would make due.
We decided to explore our little town and walk down to the waterfront to see what all the fuss was really about. The seafront was much better, with a small beach (the only one of the 5 towns that really has a beach), with small boats pulled up on shore via an interesting set of tracks and pulleys, and a few small cafes.
This town is actually divided into 2: the old town where we were with it's little alleys running higgledy-piggeldy in each direction, and the new town -- just around a rocky point, but only accessible via a pedestrian tunnel -
- with a long waterfront promenade lined with sidewalk cafes. For some reason, before arriving I was under the impression that the old town offered charm, while the new town would be modern and commercial, and so did not even consider a hotel in this area. My mistake. Other than the parking lot directly on the water, filled with cars and RV's (which really did detract markedly from the quaintness of the town), I would say the new town has just as much charm to offer, with the bonus of more cafes and hotels.
We had a lovely sunset dinner and met two friendly Australian women who had just participated in the Tour de France and done lots of cycling throughout Europe.
The next day was our only full day here so it was time to explore the Five Lands. So which would it be? Hike, train or boat? I'll let you take one wild guess. The hiking trail from our town to the next one was described as the steepest and most challenging of all the sections and takes about 1.5 hours. The train seems to spend a lot of time in tunnels as it cuts through the mountains that fall into the sea. So, of course, boat it was! Offering the best views, a sea breeze and a trip over the azure blue waters of the Med. What could be more perfect? Due to boating timetables, we decided to go all the way to the farthest town and then work our way back.
We pulled away from the dock and really got a good look at our town: the only town of the 5 that is on relatively flat land, it sprawls out between the encircling mountains. From here it really is picture-perfect. Until we approached the next town, Vernazza, which was even more picture perfect. Vernazza is much more compact than Monterosso. Caught in a ravine, its candy colored buildings are stacked on top of one another, all tumbling down to the waterfront. The water of the Med is a particularly deep blue and really sets off the colors of the surrounding mountains and the buildings.
We approached the town to "dock", which is really nothing of the sort. Instead, what it really means is we get close to the concrete pier bow first, and then they tie a bowline or two, deploy the front mounted passarelle, and the captain uses the engines to keep the boat relatively in place, while people walk across the passarelle as it swings about 5 ft. in each direction due to the wave action. Amazing and scary. As we get about 100-200 yards from the pier, however, the captain suddenly does a U-turn and heads back out to sea. About a mile offshore, the captain cuts the engines. WTF? There are other ferries about and we saw one just leave our intended destination, so it doesn't appear there's a problem there. We notice another ferry headed directly towards us, and an announcement comes on saying there is, indeed, a problem -- with our boat. But don't worry, we just need to transfer boats! In the middle of the sea! WTF? What, is it the captain's coffee break? Nothing surprises us anymore.
The other boat pulls up alongside us; the crew throws lines and pulls us tight. A crew member climbs onto our boat then lowers himself over the side of the bow stepping onto the bow line connecting our boats. This doesn't look safe. A second bow line is thrown and he looks caught between the two lines as if his legs might be cut-off as the boats heave up and down in the seas. Definitely not safe.
But they throw a small side passarelle between the two boats, and all the passengers clamber onto the new boat. Off we go to our destination port, and after we leave, the captain of the first boat fires up his engines, brings his boat up on plane, and speeds off into the distance. Was it a drill? Was the captain called home urgently? We have no idea.
We continue on our voyage to the last town, Riomaggiore, passing the cliff top town of Corniglia (a long hike uphill from the water), and Manarola, which we'll visit in a moment. Riomaggiore is a bit similar to Vernazza in that it is a "stacked" town, with pastel colored buildings rising quickly from the waterfront up steep cliffsides. People sun themselves on rock outcroppings ringing the little harbor with small fishing boats bobbing up and down in the water.
It is very picturesque. Climbing (for that is the right word -- the alleys are made up more of stairs than straightaways) through the town, until we were breathless, we found our way to a cliff top restaurant at the trail head for some refreshments. Three large bottles of homemade 8.4% alcohol citrus-flavored beer and some antipasti, and we were ready to tackle a short hike.
The trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola is the easiest and shortest (at only 20 minutes) section to hike with wide paved lanes on a fairly level surface. It is called the "Via del'Amore" (the walk of love), and all along the trail couples have placed locks -- padlocks, combination locks, keyed locks, locks in the shape of hearts -- thousands of them, tens of thousands, attached to railings, fences, anything and everything -- to mark the couples' unending love. Al overlooking dramatic scenery of the hillsides plunging into the sea.
At the end of the Via dell' Amore, we reached the town of Manarola. We had heard that the trail which normally continued to the next town, Corniglia, was still washed out and unpassable. In October 2011, terrible mudslides wreaked havoc in this area, filling the towns with 4-6 ft. of mud and debris including wrecked cars. You could easily see the damaged walls and deep scratches lining the narrow streets where cars piled up. Most businesses were open, though, by the time of our visit, having completely cleaned up the towns and rebuilt many businesses' and homes' first floors.
So we had an excuse not to continue on foot, but rather returned to our boating voyage. On to Vernazza, bypassing again the cliff-top town of Corniglia. (Poor Corniglia... nobody seemsto visit her.) Once in Vernazza, we decided to join the rest of the tourists swimming in the Med. It was a hot day, and the water felt wonderful! Unfortunately, we couldn't stay too long, or else we would miss the last boat home and have to make that arduous 1.5 hr. hike.
After having experienced the Five Lands (well, 4 out of 5, anyways), we decided we really liked this little slice of simple Italian family life. There's not much here, except the cute towns, the sun and the sea. It is similar to the much swankier Portofino, but without the yachts and movie stars and high price tags. It is simple and rustic. But it is great for families, and offers a taste of everyday living. The little square right by our hotel was lined with a small market, a butcher shop, baker, wine stores, and they were filled with elderly local women doing their shopping. It was real and genuine, and although lots of tourists were there, it didn't feel touristy.
OK, time for another confession (remember my "donut whore" incident?). I do have to admit to committing possibly my stupidest act of all time. When we got off the boat back in our town of Monterosso, I did something I would soon deeply regret. Before coming here, I watched a video of the area, and in one segment, the people were walking along the trails through the vineyards, when an obviously local guy picks a purple fruit off of one of the many cactus plants that line the cliffs, cuts it open and offers it to the host, who enjoys tasting it. Well, I figured if he did it, I can do it. I want to try a purple cactus fruit! After a day enjoying the sun and several refreshments, my judgment may have been a little impaired as I unabashedly jumped up to the nearest cactus, pulled off a piece of purple fruit and proceeded to eat it. My first clue should have been the two older local guys hanging out right there who stared and laughed at me. I thought they were laughing with me for my exuberant enthusiasm. Clearly they were laughing at me for my extreme stupidity and naïveté. At first the fruit tasted sweet and delicious, with little crunchy seeds inside, kind of like a pomegranate. But then I felt something else. My fingers were starting to feel pain and I realized they were covered with fine hair-like cactus thorns. Then I realized it wasn't just my fingers, but my tongue was now perforated with the same fine, irritating hairs. Jim, who had wisely scolded me when I first jumped up to the cactus, now just shook his head with a combination of embarrassment and an "I told you so" look. I sadly could not really reply with my tongue feeling like a pincushion. When we got back to the hotel, I spent about 30 minutes trying to tweeze the almost invisible hairs out of my fingers and tongue. It took about 2 days before they were completely gone. Go ahead -- laugh. If I can take on a cactus with my tongue, I can take a little ridicule.
Alas, it was time to say "Ciao, Italia", as we made a mad dash across the French Riviera and on to our final destination of our not-so Endless Summer.