Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Cinque Terre: Yes, Please

Don't get me wrong - all of the places we visited in Italy were amazing.  However, there was one magical place that combined all of the food, wine, and charm with two other things:  walking in beautiful, natural scenery, and swimming in the perfectly clear, blue-green sea. 

This pushed the Cinque Terre over the top and made it my absolute favorite part of our trip.

The Cinque Terre was absolutely full of tourists.  You basically have to stay in a city on either side of the row of five cities, and take the train to a starting point.  We booked our room just a week and a half before the trip, so we ended up in a town called La Spezia since it was the most reasonably-priced of what was left in the starting point cities.  It's a port city, and kind of a hole.  However, we ended up renting a room in an apartment, where we met two Aussies and a Canadian who were staying in the other room of the place.  They were all really cool and interesting, and we sat around one night, drinking wine and limoncello, and talking for quite awhile.  Also, La Spezia seemed to be kind of a main hub for trains, making it easy to get around from there.  So, gritty little La Spezia turned out to be alright after all.

Anyway, moving on to the amazingness...

If you haven't heard of the Cinque Terre (which I hadn't until just recently), it's basically five charming little towns tucked into the cliffs along the Italian Riviera.  Trains run between the towns, but the main appeal is the ability to walk between the towns on rugged trails.  Riomaggiore, the city where most tourists begin their journey, has an easy, paved trail, then the trails get progressively more rugged between the other cities.  We decided to avoid the clogged trails, so we took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the city at the other end of the Cinque Terre.  We started with one of the more difficult trails, but avoided having to walk the trail with 1,000 other people.

As we rode the train through tunnels in the side of the hills along the sea, we were able to catch glimpses of the beauty to come through holes in the walls along the way.

When we got off the train, we were treated to the beauty in full view. 

Gorgeous Monterosso al Mare.

Another view after we started walking the trail to Vernazza.

The trail to Vernazza was quite steep...I really think we walked up rock stairs for at least a half hour during one stretch.  But it was well worth the sweat when we reached Vernazza, which quickly became our favorite town...

Vernazza, unfortunately covered by clouds.  However, we didn't mind the shade during the hike.

Not our cleanest/best-smelling moment in life.  But a great one, nonetheless.

Getting closer to the greatness below.

Vineyards on the way down the hill.

And...we made it.  Due to the clouds, this pic does not do the water here justice.  It was SO clear.  We swam here forever, and we could see everything.  We also stopped and picked up some delish pizza and olive foccacia after the hike, and enjoyed it on the beach.  Not too shabby.

After realizing we still had three more towns to see, we dragged ourselves out of the beautiful water and headed to Corniglia on another pretty steep trail.  There wasn't much going on in Corniglia, other than the fact that we ate the best meal we had in all of Italy there.  We stopped in at a simple-looking cafe after the hike, just for a glass of wine.  Then we saw the amazing pizza on the tables of our fellow diners, and knew what we had to do.  So we ordered a pizza.  Then I saw a plate of gnocchi on a table near us that made my stomach flutter.  So I ordered that.  And both dishes were absolutely incredible. 

My.  Goodness.

After stumbling out of the restaurant in a deliciousness-induced daze, we headed to Manarola.  The trail between the towns was closed due to a landslide, so we hopped on the train.  A few minutes later, we arrived in Manarola, where we discovered the greatest swimming hole in the history of swimming holes.

The greatest.  So clear!

Some fellow Americans from Chicago were sharing our very public swimming hole, so Ken and a new friend decided to jump off the rocks.  Yes, it appears that Ken is actually jumping onto a pile of rocks in this pic, but I assure you it's just the angle.

After finally admitting to ourselves that we couldn't, in fact, set up residence on those rocks and live amongst that glorious swimming hole forever, we headed out on a super easy sidewalk trail to the last town, Riomaggiore, where we enjoyed one last glass of wine in the Cinque Terre.  Covered in sand, salt water, and sweat, we took the train back to La Spezia, showered, and passed out for the night.

Our last day in Italy was spent in Turin, in the Alps.  You may remember Turin from such events as the 2006 Winter Olympics.  Although we only visited due to the fact that it was much cheaper to fly from Turin to Brussels then to Oslo than it was to fly from Italy to Oslo, it turned out to be a very nice, pretty city where we had a really good dinner.  We sadly missed our chance to see the view of the Alps from the city since we missed the last tram up, but we could see them for a bit from our bus to the airport the next morning. 

Anyway, I was all photographied-out after the Cinque Terre, so the only pic you get from Turin is this magical little treasure we enjoyed while we were there:

The amazing Italian cherry slush.  We can't believe we didn't discover this little baby before our last day in Italy.  I've had an obsession with slushies my entire life, especially cherry, and this one takes the cake.  Not super syrupy like the American slush, yet fantastic.

Anyway, we walked a lot, we ate a lot, we drank a lot, and we loved this last piece of Italy we got to experience. 

I'd say you can just call this entire portion of the trip a Moment of Zen.