Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cinque Terre, Here We Come

Cinque Terre , Here We Come

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Happy Birthday, Karen!!

Well, it has been four days since I have typed a single word in this diary. And it is the entire four days that we have been in Cinque Terre. I wonder if meeting up with our 14 Australian friends has changed the balance in our time??

We travelled from Parma to Levanto by car on Wednesday morning. I was still a tad under the weather so Jim drove most of the way and I slept some more. I have to say I am looking forward to the return trip so that I can enjoy some of the mountain scenery that Jim described to me later.

Once we arrived at the Hotel Carla we began to encounter friends. We had brought some Parmesan cheese, some prosciutto and some bread from Parma so we were able to put out a spread of local delicacies which were consumed with wine and much conversation. The hotel has a fine covered deck with comfortable chairs which made a great gathering place for catching up on news.

The last of our party of 16 arrived just before dinner and once their bags were inside, we headed out onto the streets of Levanto to find a place to enjoy a meal together. Levanto and the other Cinque Terre towns are all coastal towns so there is abundant seafood on all menus. We ended up in a restaurant on the main town square that featured seafood as a mainstay of its menu. Jim and I both had spaghetti with a seafood sauce which was absolutely delicious.

Then it was home to bed in order to be well rested for the lengthy and arduous walk that was scheduled for the next day.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Right after breakfast we headed to the train station for the 4 minute ride to the next town, Montessero. From there the 15 hikers prepared themselves for a several hour walk that would take them up 300 metres in altitude and along a 10 km track which would descend back into Levanto.

The plan that Jim and I had made was that he would join the walking group when he felt inclined and I would occupy myself by exploring the various towns in which the walks began or ended. 

Today my focus was Montessero. This town had two distinctive areas. The first was most obvious from the train station. The beach and the sparkling beauty of the Mediterranean Sea spread before one’s eyes. Along with the beach came all the anticipated beach activities, shops and cafes. Of course, cappuccino was readily available to the early morning crowd. Other shops featuring beachwear, beach toys, paddle board rentals, beach chair rentals, towel shops and all manner of other shops lined the long, narrow strip of land that ran between the beach and the mountain.

But there was another total section of Montessero to be explored and, frankly, it was of far more interest. It was actually hidden from the sea by a rather steep and high hill. A tunnel had been bored through the hill to enable pedestrians and vehicles alike to be able to access the main village from the seaside.

Upon emerging from the tunnel, it became apparent that this was market day. Fruit, meat, cheese and merchandise stalls were set up in the underpasses created by the railway line that travelled through the town. It was fun to explore the products at each stall. Leather and wooden goods were especially popular with tourists (or should I say visitors to the town?).

Beyond the market, the town extended up a slope. Narrow roads and alleys were lined with colourful buildings that generally had a business at street level and housing on the second floor and higher. Pink, green, blue painted buildings created a wonderful sense of life and energy in this town. Merchandise in the stores was beautifully displayed.

I visited a rather unique church in Monteserro. It was painted with wide black and white stripes on the outside and displayed the label, ‘Mortis e Orationis’, meaning Death and Prayers. Unusual to say the least. But there was more to come. Inside the church, the sanctuary featured various carvings around the walls just where they joined the ceilings. In this case, the carvings were of cherubs and skeletons. Yikes. I do not think it was by design, but there was even a dead plant on one of the side tables in the church. I did not stay in that church very long.

As I walked further up the hill, there were fewer and fewer shops and more and more residential properties. Laundry billowed from lines on many balconies, flowers adorned the balcony railings, occasionally chairs and a table were set up on the balconies. It was here that I felt that I had left the tourist area far behind and I was meandering among the real residents of Monteserro.

A coffee and a bottle of water quenched my thirst and just after noon, I began to make the trek back through the tunnel and down the hill to the train station. It was time to head back to Levanto.

I attempted unsuccessfully to purchase a ticket for the short trip at one of the automatic machines. No ticket emerged so I made my way to the  ticket booth where there was a person who would be able to help. The line was long and the conversations interesting, in many different languages. I listened in to the ones I could understand and was fascinated by the long list of destinations for which ticket would be required.

Finally, it was my turn at the counter and when I began to request my ticket, I realized that the name of the town which was my destination had totally flown out of my head. I truly did not know where I was going.

“I need a train ticket, please.”
“Where are you going?”
“I think I am going to Livorno.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. Can you please tell me the name of the town that is the next station?”
“Where are you staying?”
“I cannot remember.”
Woman now shaking her head in disbelief …..
“Can you please name the five villages that are a part of Cinque Terre?”
“Yes, that’s it! Levanto!”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”

And thus I purchased my train ticket back to Levanto which is, in fact, the town we are staying in. The woman in the booth was flabbergasted and I was too embarrassed to look at the people around me. I just took the ticket and hurried out onto the platform, willing the train to come soon.

Once back in Levanto, I walked to the hotel (only making one wrong turn), got my book and continued on to the main square in town to have some lunch and quietly read for a while. It was lovely to be in a shaded area with a wonderful focaccia in front of me and a great book in my hand.

Later in the afternoon, the walkers arrived back at our hotel. We gathered to tell the stories of the day. It turned out that the walk had been much ore arduous than many had anticipated. But there was a sense of satisfaction for having completed it.

After before dinner drinks on the hotel deck, we once again headed to the centre of town for our evening meal. Two restaurants were chosen and a group went to each one. We always order a salad mista (mixed salad) which is invariably fresh and delicious. I also had a wonderful swordfish steak and Jim had an amazing seafood chowder which had an enormous amount of seafood and only a little broth. It looked fabulous and Jim raved about it..

Friday, September 20, 2013

Following another delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries at the Carla Hotel, we set out for the train station where we met Francesca, a guide from ICNOS, the company with whom we have booked this adventure. Francesca was young, knowledgeable, energetic and optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that she totally missed the fact that she would be spending the day with 16 people, all of whom were at least 35 years older than she and certainly had a full range of fitness levels.  Oh… to be so young and fit!! Was I ever??

And so we set off at a fast pace and boarded the first train to another Cinque Terre village, Manarola, this time. From the station, the village stretched high up on the mountainside. Colourful homes and dazzling views made this village very special. So did the steep incline that took us higher and higher … all at a pace that was beyond what I could maintain. Before long, I began to follow my own path as the rest of the group reached for the sky. I climbed the slope that was the main street in town, stopping to admire homes, shops, views and gardens.  The gardens were particularly fascinating. Properties were terraced and every square inch of space was used to grow edible plants. Tomatoes were abundant, salad greens prominent, even a little corn poked its head toward the sun. But it was the basil that caught my attention. Row after row after row of bright green basil, quivering in the breeze under the bright light of the day. Rustic garden tools sat along fence lines along with woven baskets ready to harvest the ripened vegetables and the fresh herbs that were a part of every garden.  One garden, in particular, was nestled in a hard to reach location – up a steep drive, along a stone wall, up an old metal ladder and finally into a tiny patch of land that was filled with delicious crops. The entire garden patch was likely less than 2 square metres. Every morsel of available land was in use!!

Every once in a while, I was able to catch sight of the other walkers who were high up on a ridge at this point, looking down over the town and the sea. Later we discussed the very different perspectives we each had of this town. And yet we all reached the same conclusions – a bustling community, a service town filled with tourists; a challenging place to live because of the steep slopes on all the surfaces.

The street I spend most of my time on was the main thoroughfare from the top of the mountain down to the sea. It was clearly a popular tourist track, a steep, yet walkable, slope, filled to the brim at times with bus loads of visitors making their way from top to bottom, following the bobbing umbrella, or the ribbons on sticks held high in the breeze. Literally several hundreds of people travelled down the slope in this manner.

Sadly, for the community, all the people who arrived by bus at the top of the hill were hurried to the pier at the bottom in such fashion that there was no time to visit the shops and cafes along the way. Consequently, the local town folk gained little benefit from the parade of visitors who passed through Manarola each day.

At the bottom of the hill was the pier where a ferry took passengers along the coast to view all 5 Cinque Terre villages from the water (more about that tomorrow).

I reconnected with our larger group in a café near the pier. We paused for a coffee and then headed to the train station to visit another village, Corniglia.

Corniglia is only accessible on foot (or so we were told) and it involved climbing 400 hundred steps. Francesca, the guide, spoke very clearly about the level of difficulty of these steps and ultimately intimidated me into believing I could not possibly make it to the top. Unfortunately, not once did she mention that there was a bus available for those who preferred not to climb the steps.

I decided not to stop in Corniglia and continued on the train to Monterosso, a village I had enjoyed earlier in this experience.  Within moments of the train leaving the station, my fellow travellers discovered the bus but it was too late to alert me and so I was not able to come back and visit Corniglia with them. (I must say I was pretty annoyed at the guide who could have at least mentioned the bus once in all her descriptions of this community. Alas, I remind myself … she was young and fit and oblivious to how age and fitness level might affect one’s ability to get around.)

I enjoyed a lunch of focaccia in Monterosso, delicious fresh tomatoes and basil on toasted bread, while sitting on a bench overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea. I was sitting in the direct sunlight which felt wonderful for a while but eventually it got to hot so I moved into the shade. Unfortunately, I was no longer able to see the sea but engaged in people watching as an alternative. There were people from all over the world, strolling the paths and going in and out of the train station. Many languages can be heard in Cinque Terre and all ages, shapes, sizes and colours of people converge in the area. What a universal destination this is.

Meanwhile the walkers in the group had divided into two groups. They all met for lunch in Corniglia. Following lunch several in our group continued to walk along the coast and enjoy the views from on high as well as the challenge of the walk itself. Others had decided that it was too hot to continue walking and it was time to return to Levanto by train.

It does get remarkably hot here in the afternoon, despite the fact that it is almost the end of September. Almost daily, the temperature hits 30C as the sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like at the height of tourist season in July and August. The heat and the crowds would make it unbearable. At this time of year, thankfully, the evenings are cool and clear and provide wonderful relief from the heat of the day.

We had a lovely evening with our friends, Deb and Bill, at a very popular restaurant off the beaten track in Levanto. The food was delicious!! Jim’s seabass was very delicate and my ravioli was filled with fish and coated in a splendid seafood sauce. We indulged in dessert as well, a rare event. I had profiteroles covered in chocolate sauce and Jim enjoyed tiramisu. A delightful meal overall.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

This would be our last full day in Cinque Terre and for Jim and I, it seemed we had saved the best for last. This morning, we would board a ferry in Levanto and sail south to Portovenero. En route, we would pass by all five Cinque Terre villages and fully embrace the landscape from the sea.

The sea was calm, the sun was bright and spirits aboard the boat were high. A spectacular landscape passed before our eyes as we sailed. High rugged mountains that plunged into the water permeated the entire view. Villages nestled into coves, protecting themselves from the water by extending far up onto the mountain slopes. Home and buildings of many hues peppered the green and grey landscape with splashes of colour – pink, yellow, green, blue.  Outside the seasides towns, there were homes that clung precipitously to rockfaces halfway up or halfway down the mountain. One of the homes had 1500 steps rise above it, the only way in or out of this place.

The first village we passed was Monterosso, a village I had visited several times. Its beach area extended along the shoreline to the north, a thin slip of land bounded by sea and mountain. The larger town rose behind a rock face on the right and the train station stood proudly in the middle.

Next came Vernazza, peppered with coloured houses hugging closely to one another at the entrance to the town. Other homes spread out along cliffs and hilltops in both directions.

Corniglia was next, perched high up on the mountainside. Four hundred steps were its connection to the sea and to the train line. Only the brave and the hardy would venture to make the trip to the centre of this town.

The town of Manarola rose gently from the sea. The harbor was created from mountain rock and protected the lower part of the town from the power of the sea. Yet, the people of this town still chose to live high on the hillside. The roofs of tall narrow buildings created a path for the eye to follow all the way to the bell tower (previously a lighthouse) and to the terraced farmland which produced tomatoes, basil, beans and more. A shining statue of Jesus drew one’s eye to the trails at the very top.

Rio Maggiore is the fifth of the Cinque Terre villages. It is one of only 2 towns in this group to have a small beach on the water. Yet it also has a precipitous harbor in which the ferry had to approach the land bow first and passengers scrambled over ladders from the bow to the land to embark and disembark.  Steep stairs led up to a narrow rock wall and then plunged down onto a flatter area at the entrance to the town. Small shops and cafes lined the steep slope of the main street, yet the town is quite inhospitable in its terrain. The train station sits well above the sea far to the north of the main town, accessed only through a tunnel, many hundreds of meters in length.

Soon after we passed by Rio Maggiore, we began to see some of the battlement ruins of Portovenero.  It is clear that over time historically, this site was considered a significant defense point on the west coast of Italy. Ruins of various fortifications are  visible from the sea. As well, other islands nearby were also a part of the defense system and stone forts, walls and other signs of military installations remain as a testament to a rugged history in the area.

Portovenero has a beautiful harbor, naturally protected from the open sea water. Ferries ply its waters, travelling in every direction to the small islands that lie offshore.  Pleasure craft abound, both large and small. Private fishing vessels were coming and going, or simply anchored slightly offshore while patient fishermen put their lines in the water.  It was a busy port.

We opted for a second ‘Mediterranean cruise’, this one taking us around three nearby islands. Each island told a story of a part of Italy’s military, religious or economic history. Fortifications, stone walls, religious grottos and a marble quarry were all highlights of the commentary. The dazzling sun, sparkling water, the clear blue sky and the bustle of the harbor also enhanced the overall experience. If only the man in the orange pants had occasionally remained in his seat, we would have had many more beautiful photos to share!
Once back to Portovenere, we disembarked and strolled slowly toward the town. Slowly, I say, in part due to the weekend crowds and in part to an obstacle that was in our path. Yes, the man with the orange pants was directly ahead of us, veritably blocking our way from making forward progress. We could neither pass him on the left or on the right, once again limited by his speed and choice of direction. I am feeling a certain dislike of men in orange trousers.

We finally reached our destination and the man in the orange pants disappeared into the crowd. We were planning to enjoy a simple lunch on an upstairs deck looking out over the harbor. It must have seemed odd to anyone watching us to see us line our chairs up all along one side of our table so that no one had their back to the sea. The food was delicious (focaccia and caprese salad), the company was wonderful and the view of the busy harbor an absolute delight.

After lunch, we strolled along a quaint street replete with little shops selling all manner og things nautical and/or Italian. Jim and I would soon have cooking facilities at our disposal so we purchased some specialty food items to enjoy over the next several days.

After a couple of hours in Portovenere, we reboarded the ferry and travelled by water back to Rio Maggiore.  It was an interesting landing and we joined the throngs of tourists disembarking across the bow of the boat. Up the stairs we went … and down again …. And up …. And up …. And up again. Then the steep street lie ahead. A cappuccino called our names and soon after a glass of fresh orange juice. The shops did not seem to hold much interest for us (Portovenere had more variety) so soon we headed to the train station and took our final Cinque Terre train back to Levanto.

Over the next couple of hours our group of 16 gathered together on the deck of Hotel Clara, sharing stories, laughter and beverages. When the last walkers arrived back from their trek, it was time to head out for dinner as a group one final time.  Happily we found a restaurant that could accommodate all 16 of us, and, as a bonus, it served wonderful seafood. My sea bass and fresh figs were absolutely delicious.

A late night limoncello back on the deck of our hotel completed our Cinque Terre experience. What a delight it has been.

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