Spring Break: Cinque Terre and Pisa, Italy

1 April 2010 | 1 Comment

It has been over two weeks since I have returned from spring break, yet I still have not finished telling you about it. In fact, I barely got started. Since all these blog posts are in retrospect, I guess it does not really matter, but I’d like to tell you as soon as possible, not months after the fact. It has already been one month since Italy, the topic of today’s spring break reflection.

I woke up at 2 AM. I had my back repacked after 3 good days in London. We–that is, Teresa, Mary, Jenica, Sanna, Melissa L., and I–took a National Express bus from near the Finchley Road Tube Station to Stansted Airport. I was amazed at the number of people with early flights at Stansted. The sun had not even risen and it looked like rush hour in the airport. But the lines and security were pretty painless. We saw Geri, Natasha, and Alicia before they headed off to Cork, Ireland. Those were the last Calvin people I saw (besides my own group of course) for a whole week.

We flew Ryanair to Pisa, Italy. The flight was fairly comfortable, but would’ve been better if they weren’t blaring advertising every 5 seconds for the most ridiculous things like lotto tickets that were of course impossible to win anything from and smokeless cigarettes. Customs in Italy was easy, and we boarded a train to Pisa Centrale–probably the shortest train ride I’ve been on in my life. Because of some minor confusion and forgetfulness, we ended up having to split into two groups on our way to La Spezia Centrale. Sanna, Mary, and I went ahead on the first train, leaving Jenica, Melissa, and Teresa behind to hop on the next, despite Jenica’s good efforts to run and get the right tickets and validate them in time. Luckily, we were all able to meet up in La Spezia before boarding our final train to Manarola.

Cinque Terre

Our train chugged straight up into the mountains, but we still could not see the sea. When we first saw glimpses of the Mediterranean through gaps in the train tunnel walls we saw glimpses of absolute gorgeousness. I think Jenica even began crying it was so beautiful, and everyone was really giddy. Shortly thereafter we arrived in Manarola. We had to walk through a tunnel to get to the actual town. We made our way through the quaint, colorful streets with clothes hanging from balconies to dry in the sea breeze, down to a square right above the miniature harbor of the town. We sat around in the sun. To think we had just come from drizzly, grey England.

A wider view of Manarola

The colorful houses of Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Our hostel (‘ostello’) was a pastel green building at top of a winding slope. We were not allowed to check in till after 4 PM, so we soaked up the sun, read, and relaxed in a large sunny square below the bell tower of a church at the base of our hostel. From here you could see the way the terraced vineyards sloped like a V into town, and how each building was situated to fit the landscape. … In our hostel, we had a room on the 2nd floor (that’s 3rd floor to Americans) with our own large private bathroom. (I think the bathroom was designed for handicapped persons, but we had a special key to use it for ourselves, apparently.)

Our first night we treated ourselves to a real Italian dinner. I wanted to try spaghetti, which seems pretty mundane since I have spaghetti quite a bit at home, but I wanted to taste how the Italians made it. It was very good, but I’m going to be honest (and the people who were in Italy with me don’t have to agree with me on this), the pomodoro sauce on it it tasted closer to the sauce Spaghetti-Os than what I had expected. Not that that is a bad flavor, I just didn’t expect it to be that tomato-ketchup-like, if you know what I mean. I still prefer my mom’s spaghetti over this one, even if it’s not authentic. Then again, this was only one plate of spaghetti, and I can hardly make a judgment on all Italian spaghetti from that one plate. … I will tell you what I really did like though: gelato. We had it for dessert after dinner for just 1 euro 50 cents. I had a combination of vanilla and frutti di bosco (mixed berries). Hands down, Italian gelato is the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever tasted.

After being up for who knows how many hours without sleep, we deserved to sleep in–and so we did, sort of. I think we went to bed around 10 PM the night before, we were so exhausted. We had to pay for breakfast at our hostel, which was a tad annoying, considering many hostels offer at least free continental breakfast, yet I had a good bowl of granola and milk. … We decided to make Tuesday a relaxing day, so we made the 20-minute walk to Riomaggiore, the town just south of Manarol on the Cinque Terre coast. Along the way, we passed through the Via dell’Amore (The Way of Love), a tunnel covered in graffiti proclaiming people’s love for each other. Hundreds “locks for love” as I liked to call them were hooked up to nets and rings on the rocks. These were literal locks (combination locks, key locks, baggage security locks) that, presumably, couples had locked into place to symbolize their everlasting love and devotion.

Delightful main street in Riomaggiore

Delightful main street in Riomaggiore

Boat landing in Riomaggiore, near our most-frequented place to read and relax

Boat landing in Riomaggiore, near our most-frequented place to read and relax

Riomaggiore appears to be slightly larger than Manarola, but it’s hard to tell. The town has the same colorful style of buildings that is striking about all the towns of Cinque Terre. We stopped to admire and smell the flowers and plants (especially the lemon trees), take lots of pictures, breathe in the fresh Mediterranean air, watch the waves, look in shops, eat blood oranges, sugar cookies, and chocolate. We spent a considerable amount of time reading down by the boat yard. The day was not quite as sunny as the day before, and as we were walking back to Manarola, a sudden sea squall soaked us. My umbrella turned inside out, rendering it useless. The storm cleared up very quickly, however, and we were able to get pizza and wine (and more gelato–tiramisu and panna flavor this time) for dinner before sunset. At night, we watched the dark waves and water crashing and swirling below the cliffs and the stars twinkling above. We played on the playground, which was situated right on top of promontories of Manarola. I got quite dizzy on the merry-go-round. Not a good idea when you are walking in the dark near a cliff edge!

Wednesday was our big hiking day, and we couldn’t have gotten more beautiful weather for it! We set out early to get through the rest of the five cities of Cinque Terre that we had not seen yet: Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. One of the staffers always seemed quite disgruntled, and he overcharged me for my breakfast by a euro, but I let it pass since I didn’t want to pick a fight with someone who I could hardly converse with. (Even though he spoke some English, I speak no Italian.) On to better things, like hiking!

Abundant yellow flowers in the hills above Corniglia, on our hiking day

Abundant yellow flowers in the hills above Corniglia, on our hiking day

The path from Manarola to Corniglia was, for the most part, not very challenging. We had excellent views of humongous waves crashing on the dark rocks of Cinque Terre and lots of exotic (at least exotic to me) plants to capture our attention along the way. The sun was out in full blast, and besides for a few white puffy clouds, the sky was blue and bright. The challenge of this leg of the hike did not come till we reached the stairs of Corniglia. Phew! We had to climb hundreds of red brick stairs that zig-zagged up the mountainside. Boy am I out of shape. I thought all the walking I do in York was sufficient preparation for all the hiking I’d do on spring break, but boy was I wrong. But I had to get used to it quickly, because stairs quickly became the theme for large portions of the rest of the hike.

My five Italian friends for the week, from L-R: Mary, Teresa, Jenica, Melissa, and Sanna

My five Italian friends for the week, from L-R: Mary, Teresa, Jenica, Melissa, and Sanna

Halfway between Corniglia and Vernazza, we stopped for lunch: blood oranges and cream cheese and plum jam sandwiches. (I became particularly fond of plum jam. I vowed to find plum jam again when I got back to York.) … The views continued to get even more amazing the higher and farther we hiked. Sometimes the path veered inland, meandering through lemon orchards and brambly forests with thousands of yellow flowers, but we could almost always hear the waves. Amonge other things I heard, I didn’t actually hear a lot of Italian being spoken. There seemed to be an abundance of tourists from around the world, including a group of Americans that we met before reaching Monterosso and saw again later after we had taken the train to Riomaggiore (but that’s at the end of my hiking story).

We took our daily gelato break in Vernazza, which I’d say is one of the prettiest and liveliest of all the cities of Cinque Terre. We needed it, because the last leg to Monterosso al Mare was the most strenuous, making us climb the most stairs and wind around on the narrowest of paths. Maybe it was just because I was getting very tired at that point, but I still think the last leg was the toughest. We spent some time in Monterosso celebrating the end to a good hike through all the cities of Cinque Terre, well almost. We took a train to Riomaggiore to do the last leg, the easy Via dell’Amore, after eating a margherita pizza for dinner there. We retired to the hostel for the night. We had a second dinner (a whole capiscciola pizza to myself!) and later enjoyed a bottle of wine and a game of Quiddler–a perfect way to end the perfect day.

Vivacious Vernazza!

Vivacious Vernazza!

The waves crashing on the shore at Monterosso al Mare

The waves crashing on the shore at Monterosso al Mare

Perhaps it goes without saying, but my leg muscles were very sore Thursday morning. The hike definitely had taken a lot out of me, but it was so worth it. The weather was not as nice as Wednesday’s (it had turned cold, wet, and windy), but we made a day trip back to Vernazza since we had liked it so much there. To shelter ourselves from the cold and wet, we ate 2 pizzas in a cafe, salame and capiscciola. We attempted walking around Vernazza for a while, but the cold kept pushing us inside of places, which led me to enter the Il Pirata cafe and have the most amazing cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Italian hot chocolate is so rich and creamy, like liquid, melted chocolate. That added hot chocolate to my list of favorite authentic Italian foods (well, beverages).

Magenta flower and cacti - examples of the typical flora of Cinque Terre

Magenta flower and cacti – examples of the typical flora of Cinque Terre

We decided to give Riomaggiore another go, so we took the train from Vernazza to our other favorite city (besides Manarola). The weather improved a bit, and I read G.B. Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple out on our favorite place down by the boats. I even took a nap on a bench for a while while everyone else read their own books or did their own thing. When we returned to Manarola, we decided to celebrate our last night in Cinque Terre by going to the Aristide for dinner. There I ate a whole bowl of clams and mussels in marinara sauce. It was good, but not filling. I should’ve ordered something with pasta, but the restaurant was not too cheap. Perhaps you can predict this by now, but we we out for our last few scoops of gelato for dessert. I had my favorite flavor, frutti di bosco.

Enjoying my last few scoops of gelato by the Mediterranean at dusk

Enjoying my last few scoops of gelato by the Mediterranean at dusk

Good Friday morning we spent hiking in the vineyards above Manarola, taking in our last views of this colorful little seaside town. Cut-out figures of the Stations of the Cross were placed up and down the terraces, which I found appropriate and helpful for reflecting upon Christ’s sacrifice, seeing that is was Good Friday. Around noon, we boarded the train to get to Pisa.

Picturesque Manrola for the last time

Picturesque Manarola for the last time

Pisa

When we arrived back in Pisa Centrale, we had to orient ourselves a bit. We then discovered we had to walk across the city to get to the famous Piazza del Duomo, home of the Campanile–a.k.a. the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Cathedral, and Baptistry of Pisa. Pisa in reality is a very grungy city, and the Piazza is probably one of the only architecturally beautiful parts of the city. There were hoards of tourists down on the Piazza, but the sun was shining and the famous buildings we had come to see were sparkling white. I have to admit, the Leaning Tower seems much smaller in reality than it does in pictures. Also, taking pictures to show its lean proved to be very difficult because most of my pictures made it look like it was a perfectly architecturally-sound and upright building!

Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral), Pisa, Italy

Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral), Pisa, Italy

Me standing by the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Me standing by the Leaning Tower of Pisa

We had to take a bus to Pisa Cisanello, where our hostel was located. At first we were a bit confused, because the building we found at the address listed on our confirmation page looked like an apartment complex–and it was–a very dirty, sketchy looking one. I think we were all a little scared at that point, but just then the owner of the “hostel” showed up and told us it was an apartment he was lending to us for the night, not an actual hostel like we were used to. In the end, we were actually quite blessed to have this apartment. We had our own kitchen and a nice bathroom. The beds were comfy and clean, and, even though it was in a sketchy part of town, we were safe and we made it to the end of our Italian journey. I even got to learn how to play the game of Hearts (I am not a big card game person, so this is a giant leap for me.) Maybe it seems a bit corny now, but the thought I had on that Good Friday while playing Hearts was Jesus died over 2000 years ago to mend our broken hearts and allow for forgiveness. … I’ll end my tales of Italy there. In my next spring break post I go to another country that begins with the letter “I”: Ireland! (Well, Northern Ireland, first.)


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  1. […] Watch a short clip of the waves of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Cinque Terre, Italy. […]

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