As mentioned previously, we had a couple of goals when planning this summer’s adventures: explore exciting but less-traveled and slightly risky places, and go to places we know we love. With some fabulous adventures in Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria under our belts, it was time to head back to Italy. We last visited Italy in 2012 to celebrate the birthday of our amazing friend Maya. Then, we did a whirlwind tour of Rome and spent a full week in Tuscany and fell in love with everything about the country. This time, we decided the whirlwind tour would be of Pisa and then we’d spend a serious chunk of time in the Cinque Terre.
Before any of that could happen, we had one quick stop. By a quirk of scheduling and the consequence of a bit of a brain fart, the best flight we could find from Sofia, Bulgaria to Pisa was through Rome . . . with a 13 hour layover. That gave us just enough time to spend the night in Fiumicino, the airport-centric town just outside of Rome. When in Rome, what better thing to do than to find great pizza. So we did. We had convinced ourselves that we had found great pizza in Bangalore. We suppose we did, given the context. Brik Oven Pizza and Bene both serve very good pizza that satisfied our frequent craving for chewy, traditional Neapolitan pizza. But Pizzeria Quarenta reminded us pretty quickly that really good pizza is very different from great pizza. We also were reminded that the Georgian and Bulgarian approach to dining, where all food comes to the table very quickly and at the same time, is not the norm around the world. Italy moves at a slower pace, and it was time to kick back and enjoy it.
We didn’t expect much out of Pisa. Melissa had visited for one day in 2004, and Tom had never been. Thanks to that scheduling quirk, we landed in Pisa early enough to wander and explore the city one day and do the Leaning Tower and surrounding piazza sights the next before getting the train to the Cinque Terre. We found Pisa to be charming. Tourist choked and centered around their main attraction, obviously, but charming. With a couple of self-guided walking tours on line to guide us, we set out to explore. We saw a huge Keith Haring mural, a funky and tiny old church right on the river, and an incredible old square with an impressive statue of Cosimo de Medici. We explored the 1575 botanical garden, a lovely oasis surrounded by the rush of tourists, clearly situated with the lovely view of the tower in mind. We also simply fell in love with the skinny, twisting alley ways that serve as streets in so many European cities like this one. We wrapped up the day with a beautiful meal at Ristorante Galileo, where the waiter said that he had worked in a Willamette Valley winery and that Oregon makes some of his favorite wines!
Leaning Tower of Pisa day was great. Tom felt very similar to how he felt at the Taj Mahal several months before. How can something with so much hype live up to it? Surely there must be an element of herd mentality propping up the excitement, right? In the case of the Taj Mahal, we all agreed that it completely surpassed the hype. So gorgeous, and every little bit of it planned and executed exquisitely. The Leaning Tower was close. It was beautiful and worth every bit of the hype it receives. It is funny, though, that a city whose second biggest claim to fame is the scientists and mathematicians that came from there, Galileo and Fibonacci chief among them, that Pisa is best known for a failure of engineering.
Our plans worked out perfectly. We reserved tickets for the tower for early in the day, so we had plenty of time to explore the cathedral, baptistery, cemetery, and museum there on the square. They are all stunning and beautiful, and it left us plenty of time to grab lunch at Pastamania (amazing and affordable!) before grabbing our train later that afternoon for the Cinque Terre.
Oh, the Cinque Terre. Oh, how we love the Cinque Terre. We decided to stay in Corniglia because we had read that it was the quietest of the five villages. It sits on the top of a cliff and visitors arrival by train at the bottom. The main route to the town from the train is a set of 382 stairs, but there is a small shuttle bus for those who need it – we happily took advantage of the shuttle with our luggage. Our lovely Airbnb host Simona met us and took us to our home for the next five nights. It was so perfect. The town is tiny and full of beautiful views and old buildings and delicious food. Our favorite grocer made tagliatelle for us even though, as a good Northern Italian, he was appalled that we were putting a homemade arrabiata on his fresh pasta instead of his pesto. We had a bit of fine dining at Mananan (reservations verrrrrry required — it’s a tiny place with a ton of demand, though we were able to get our reservation just a day before). We also had (at least three times though should have been more) the best gelato either of us have ever had at Alberto’s.
We were really in the Cinque Terre for the hiking, though, and it was lovely. Corniglia is in the middle of the five towns: Manarola and Riomaggiore to the south and Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare to the north. There are basically two trails — the popular trail that follows the coast line and the national park trail in the hills above — that link the cities. Because the coast line is almost entirely slate cliffs, landslides are common and cut off the lower trail. Throw in a little good old fashioned corruption, and those trails can stay closed for a good long time. While we were there, the trails between Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore were closed and apparently had been for some time. The train connects them all, too, as does a ferry that connects them all except Corniglia. Our plan was to combine all of those modes of transportation to take in all five towns while also doing a good amount of relaxing in our five days.
We started with the hardest of the hikes the first day — up and over the hills above and between Corniglia and Manarola. It was hard, comparable we agreed to our hardest hike in Tusheti, although less than half the length. It was also incredibly beautiful, comparable to anything we have ever seen anywhere. Views of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea at every turn, with the lovely villages perched on the cliffs, and lighter crowds than than the lower paths. It took us through vineyards and gardens, tiny villages and isolated forests. Just simply lovely. And hard work. The next day we decided to relax in town. Melissa did some writing and drawing; Tom swam in the sea. The third day we took the train to and from Monterosso for a beach day. We rented chairs at one of the resorts, basked and swam and generally relaxed. The last full day we took the shore hike to Vernazza, and Tom continued on to Monterosso while Melissa took the train. We met there and boarded the ferry which took us past all five of the towns to Riomaggiore, where we explored and took the train home. In each town, we were guided by the Rick Steves guidebook that Simona shared with us in our Airbnb, helping us to understand the unique flavor of each town and find the best restaurants.
We’ve been trying to note the wines and food we’ve had along the way. Being Italy, we knew we were in for great food with which we are intimately familiar. We had wonderful pastas and pizzas all along the way. We were reminded that we definitely need to up our pesto game. The only foods that were new to us were a delightful and apparently traditional walnut sauce (different from a pesto) that was delicious on ravioli, and a nice and popular vegetable tart with potatoes and vegetables.
The wine of the Cinque Terre is different than the wine in other parts of Italy. It’s mostly white wine, but they make a number of delicious reds as well. We never had what they are most famous for, sciacchetra, a super strong, super sweet wine.
Our last moments of this Italy trip were made a little manic when Simona knocked on the door late in the evening of our last night in Corniglia in order to let us know that there would be a train strike starting before our chosen train to Nice was scheduled to leave the next day, so we needed to be on a 7:20 train instead. She saved us. We got ourselves packed, to bed, and out the door to get to our next destination in plenty of time. It was a little sad to leave such a wonderful country so hurriedly, but this will not be the last we see of Italy.