Enjoying the Cinque Terra and surrounds

Trip Start Apr 04, 2008
Trip End Jul 01, 2008

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thursday 1 May
Headed off from our village following path number 4 to get to Colle del Telegrafo.  We didn't end up at Telegrapho, we ended up at Valico di Sant' Antonio.  How that happened we are not quite sure.  You follow the numbers and end up somewhere you weren't planning to be.  Despite all that it was a nice walk through conifer forests and it only added another couple of kilometres to the total days walking. 
Our destination was Rio Maggiorie.  We followed the turn off and took number 3 track.  We passed through a gate which is part of the fence to keep the wild boar out and walked up and up and up. We crossed a rock slide and then saw some steps that seemed to be leading straight up to the sky.  Hmmm.  Perhaps another false destination?  Yes, we had taken the wrong turn somewhere and ended up in wild boar territory yet again.  However, the sun was shining and we did get a stunning view down to the village.  Danny was all for continuing our walk up the stairs as he was convinced that the path swung around and came back down the other side of the village.  I was not quite sure and opted for the cautious approach which meant back tracking about 3 kilometres. 
We came across a church on the top of one of the headlands.  It used to be a site of religious pilgrimage with people walking up from the village.  Now it is a place of pilgrimage for the hundreds of tourists that crawl all over it.   We followed the rocky path down a deep descent into the village to find that it had gone mad.  The outside information booth was staffed, there were officials directing people onto buses and people were everywhere.  It seems that 1 May is official tourist madness day.
There were 45 people waiting to get on our last bus service for the day to Biasa.   Trouble was the bus only takes 25.   However, that did not stop anyone.  They just all piled on, including us and like a tin of sardines we chugged, slowly back up the hill.  About 20 of us got off at Biasa.  We had been two of four the previous day.  We later found out that this is a long weekend with a Labour Day holiday as was last weekend which explains the number of cars on the road.  . 
We went to the local Tratorria for dinner.  The best thing about the night was watching the cook make little bread type wafers.  He heated a number of concave pottery dishes above a roaring fire.  He then took them to the bench were he filled one with a batter then placed another dish on top. He then filled this one with batter and so on until he had about 10 plates piled on top of each other.  He then pressed down hard on them, flipped them over, pressed again and then flipped the first dish off to reveal a cooked thin, round, wafer type bread which he placed in a woven basket.  When he had half a dozen or so he took them to a table where the people ate them with a selection of cold meats.   
Friday 2 May
There were 40 people waiting for our 20 seat bus to Riomaggiorie this morning.  We are an old hand at this now and know that you scramble through the back door for a seat.  Danny was not sure the brakes would hold as we descended into the village, but they did.  I am not too sure about my ear drums.  The bus had a number of squealing young Italian girls on it who seemed to scream every time the bus went over a bump.  The rest of the time they just yelled to each other in normal conversation.  I swear I will never get used to that. 
We caught the train to Levanto which isn't officially part of the Cinque Terra but is a lovely town in its own right.  The beach is black sand but the water is clear and clean and there are huge villas up the headland. 
Full of lunch we set off on our walk to Monterosso.  We didn't get lost today or end up at a surprising location.  We did climb a long way up from sea level right across the mountain range and were able to look at the layered mountain range to the north with Levanto in the foreground. 
On the other side of the range lies Monterosso.  It was a long way down on a path that needed some serious attention as the rain had washed all the stones away and we were just walking down a gulley.  You have to pay to walk the paths and some funds need to be diverted to path reconstruction before the tourists end up destroying what they have come to see. 
We saw a number of lovely flowers on the walk; roses, jasmine, honeysuckle, dandelions, iris, sweet pea, bottlebrush and according to Danny 'white things that look like sun jewel flowers but they are on a bush'.
Monterosso looks lovely from afar with its harbour and coloured houses.  Down in the midst of it, it is another matter.  We are now convinced more than ever that May is madness.  Walking the main street of Monterosso was like walking Cavell Avenue on a Saturday night in the height of the tourist season.  I know it is hypocritical to complain about tourists when we are obviously contributing to the problem by two, but we didn't come here to see tourists, we came to see the countryside and experience Italy.  Which brings me to an interesting observation; the majority of the tourists are Italians.  There are some Americans, some Australians, Germans and a few others that you greet on the paths but most are 'locals'.  They are loving the place to death.
We caught the train back to Riomaggiorie.  What a trip!  We were pushed onto the train, caught up in the stream of tourism with every part of my body being touched by another foreign body.  We found ourselves in a first class carriage when we are only supposed to be in a second class carriage according to our Cinque Terra pass, but who is going to care, and what conductor would have a hope in hell of checking tickets.  We got pushed further and further into the train. 
At the next station there were so many people they couldn't get on until everyone pushed in tighter and tighter down the central aisle of the carriage.  There were arguments with men screaming at Cinque Terra Park Officials and the officials screaming back and there was a woman with a baby who was yelling at just about everyone.  What fun!  We pushed our way off at our station and had to walk quickly up the steep hill to get to our last bus which was filling with people as we arrived at the stop.  Luckily we got some seats and we arrived back in the village safe and sound to have a cold beer on the patio and review the day's madness. 
Saturday 3 May  
What a walk.  An altitude of 700 metres in 2 kms!  Doesn't sound much when you put it like that, but it is.  Particularly when you are walking in the hot sun.   I chose the walk because it was a circuit from Manarola and more importantly, it would avoid us having to catch the train in the afternoon.  It was just up and up along the mountain ridge to the summit, then along, walking in an out of the valleys and then down.  It wasn't just me complaining which you would expect; even Danny said it was tough.  We left at noon and got in at 4.50pm and most of that was just  walking.  There are no cafes to stop at in the mountains.   We stumbled into Manarola and had cold, sweet, creamy gelatos.  Figured I had walked off the calories earlier in the day.  The legs were very sore.  My calf muscles wanted to cramp and I was covered in scratches from the thorny bushes on the path.  Yes, we do this for fun!?!
When we were at the highest point of the walk I could have sworn I heard a wild boar grunting.  That scared the %&^* out of me.  I really, really, don't want to see one of them.  We were going to continue on our way away from the noise but then the path markers disappeared yet again so we had to retrace our steps.  Yikes - but no boar.  In the end we had to trust instinct and we did eventually find the path, no thanks to the Park management.  I would complain, but to whom and how?
We had lost the path earlier in the day because the paint is so worn away we missed the mark on a rock.  It was only after we had walked and climbed our way through undergrowth and up steep terraces that we decided we must have lost our way and retraced our way.  Then we finally saw the faint marker. 
There wasn't a lot of scenery to view from the path because it was all dense forest, some pine some just bush.  We knew we were going higher and higher and we could catch glimpses of the villages below but it wasn't like the other walks where we had been able to get fantastic views.  I am now officially banned from choosing the walks.
Sunday 4 May
Today we went to Levanto on the train where we sat on the black, gravely beach and soaked up some sun.  We then strolled around the streets looking in the windows of boutiques that had some lovely items but Italian style does not come cheap. 
Monday 5 May
We were up early for our trip to PortoFino.  The first leg was to Santa Margheurita which is a busy, big town with a huge harbour full of expensive looking yachts.  The shops all stock high quality merchandise and you can smell the money in the air.  There are some massive homes on the hillsides with ornate decoration.
We walked along the boardwalk for a little way taking in the shops and the colour of the ocean and we saw some really big fish feeding off the rocks very close to shore. We walked past a few ritzy hotels and were amazed at the jade green colour of the water. 
Porto Fino is the place for the rich and famous with Gucci, next to Pucci and shoe stores that sell men's shoes for €1100.  It used to be a favourite haunt of Clarke Gable, Orson Wells and Kim Novak.  There were a couple of grand yachts in the harbour.  The restaurants border the harbour and there is a church tower as a focal point.  It may be over-rated and over priced but it is still pretty as all the tourists will attest.  There was a cruise ship further out in the bay and there were tenders ferrying the passengers to and from the village.
We walked up the headland for a good view of the village and walked around to the other side where the water was a stronger blue colour and you could still see massive fish swimming around.
We drove to Porto Venere for dinner.  It has a lovely view of the lights of La Spezia.  We ordered pasta in a crab sauce for prima course and then I ordered mixed grilled fish and Danny ordered grilled scampi.  The first course was huge and was very rich as the twirly pasta was covered in a rich, buttery crab sauce.  It was very nice but a little went a long way.   We washed it down with a bottle of locally produced Cinque Terra DOC white wine which was a rich yellow colour and quite fruity; almost like a moselle.   
Tuesday 6 May
We spent a quiet morning on our patio looking out over the village and at the green trees, so green, so lime in colour that if you tried to recreate the colour in a painting it would look fake.   We also spent some time watching the antics of the tortoise in the neighbour's garden as he walked around the handkerchief sized lawn and long the concrete ledges. One of the other neighbours came in and gave him some lettuce and some fresh water. 
We went to Vernazza which is a village right on the waters edge and then caught the train for a last look at Monterosso with its green shutters, cafes and souvenir shops before heading home.
Wednesday 7 May 
Drove to a number of southern towns and spent some time in Lerici, once again a harbour town with colourful buildings but not as busy as the Cinque Terra villages.  The drive was nerve wracking.  We went around narrow bends and I cannot help but get a fright every time a car seems to magically and suddenly appear before your eyes.
We drove on to Monte Marcello risking life and limb along the narrow roads with maniac drivers.  It continually amazes me that there are not more accidents.  The roads are narrow, there is no verge and there are guard rails that are just waiting to eat the paint off your car.  If there isn't a guard rail there is a rock face or a sheer drop.  You have to be careful if you do see a verge because the drop from the bitumen to the gravel can be high so you can't take it at any speed.
I have noticed that every town has an ambulance station which has at least 1 to 6 ambulances sitting in their bays.  I do not find that reassuring. 
We stopped at a lookout to take in the mountains which we can see behind La Spezia.  They are majestic with snow still in the valleys. 
Thursday 8 May
We had a brilliant blue sky to start the day so we decided on a walk to Schiara village.  The walk to the village was easy enough; getting back was the hard part.  It was a very steep descent and climb up. 
The village was deserted.  We may have seen 50 houses but only 2 people and 6 stray cats. 
Someone must live there sometimes because we walked past a pink rose bush in full bloom with the strongest perfume.  We also found a tiny white stone church that must only be able to hold 10 people. 
The walk back was just a matter of up,up,up in the hot sun.  Once again when we reached a kiosk it was time for ice cream and we then headed down a path into our village.   
Friday 9 May

We spent our final day in Levanto walking around the town and enjoying the beach. 
We went to dinner at Del Golfo, a restaurant in a lovely setting overlooking La Spezia.  Danny ordered something with potato thinking it was be safe but it ended up being octopus!  Not one of his favourites.  The translator we have with us has limited capacity.  When we were in France I was trying to work out what one of the main courses could be.  I typed the dish name into the translator and it came back with chattering speedboat!!
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