Monterosso Dreaming

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Oct 08, 2009

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Flag of Italy  , Liguria,
Monday, September 7, 2009

Kilometers-wise the drive from Manarola to Monterosso isn’t much, but in the category of twists and turns on tiny roads with fast cars and bikes around corners it excels. To top it all off it rises towards the highest ridges of the Cinque mountain tops and looks down at an extremely vertical landscape while lacking in the way of roadside barriers. It's an E-ticket ride for sure and while it offered mouth dropping vistas, by the time we arrived at the Monterosso beach parking lot Marisa was ready for a stiff drink. We parked in the new town and trekked the 500 meters past the best beach area to the old town. We splurged a bit and booked a really nice hotel room. Cappellini was super cheap in Manarola, so we figured it would balance out.  Loconda Il Maestrale ( has only six rooms and combined with the helpful and likeable couple who run it makes for a very personable and relaxing setting. We had the "Monterosso" room and it was the best in the house with a second floor bed loft and a hidden view of the main street.

We believe there are two main ways of traveling: one is searching out specific places and things to visit or see; two is to simply try to live like a local and soak in the local environment. We spent most of our trip until Cinque Terre traveling in type one mode. But the towns of the 5Terre were like a siren's song to slow down and suck up the local life. It helped that they have some sand beaches to lay out on -even if the sand is trucked in these days because the ocean's errosion is so strong here. The first day we spent the afternoon on the small public beach in the old town. My attempts at swimming were comical thanks the absolutely brutal waves and rocky pebbles under foot that didn't allow for trying to stand up against the waves. The storm from the night before was still agitating the water and the waves were fun to bob in, but trying to get back to the beach was a lot of work. Laying on beach and letting the tide wash over me was much easier. We grabbed some raw coconut for eating from a strolling beach vendor and just watched the growing crowd of locals arriving after getting off work. Eventually we shuffled off to the hotel, cleaned up and went back out to find food. There is a little bar/restaurant on the main street called David that gives free tapas plates when you order a drink and they were inventive and tasty (great local olives and a creamy type of potato salad stood out). We planned to go out to dinner, but waited too long and the good restaurants were full. The beach sun had bleached out any ambition we may have had that day and after wandering among the tiny alleys a bit we sought out the town's best pizza by watching where the locals were ordering take out and the clear winner was a small place called La Smorfia. The wood oven was super hot and churning pizzas out fast and there was absolutely no seating to be had. We each grabbed one and took it back to our spacious sitting area in our room, devoured their crusty goodness and crashed.

The Il Maestrale has a top notch breakfast buffet that includes fresh bread, pain au chocolate, parma crudo, brie, yogurt, a ridiculous array of jams and fruits, cereals, etc. and soft boiled eggs and cappuccino on demand to be eaten on the lush terrace that straddled over the street. Needless to say, we didn't miss any breakfasts. The rest of the day, all day, was spent at the beach in front of the new town. We rented out two beach chairs and an umbrella in the front row of the beach. So close to it that at times waves would rush under your chair, requiring all items be tethered up inside the umbrella. The beach was sandier at this location and the waves had settled down, so we were both able to spend time swimming and bobbing around in the warm waves. We even bought a cheap inflatable mattress to float around on and we did so for hours. Cold beers were bought at the nearby snack shack that we drank on our rented loungers waiting for the coconut man to come by. There he is - right on. Beach life just can't be beat.

Dinner started on the main drag again (which is hyperbole considering the smallness of the town and street) at a wine bar specializing in local vines. We shared generous meat and cheese plates while Marisa got the local red wine flight and I got the white (five good sized samples each.) We sampled them all and really got a good feel for the grapes in the region. The area is best known for its white wines and they decidely stood out over the reds. Afterwards we wandered down towards the beach to catch up on the still going battle of the local marching bands. They paraded above us one by one above the beach earlier in the day and the last were still playing away under the moon and their tent. We stopped to have a drink at a bar in the dark square commemorating Italy's first King who united the modern country. We had our drinks and headed out. It was the first and only time I didn't count the returned cash and I got shorted 10 euro by the ass**** at the bar. It wasn't a mistake. He was a jerk, but I didn't realize it until pajama time, so he got away with it. Just a reminder to beware - Italy has a bit of a rep for this sort of thing among travelers. We were still hungry and couldn't shake the need for more Smorfia pizza.  This time it was late enough that we found seats outside, drank beer and enjoyed the warm night with another pizza (Margharita for Marisa, a fatty calzone for me) while listening to the locals talk/argue over that nights Italia World Cup qualifier. We had only planned to be in Montorosso for two days, but added a third because we just didn't want to leave. This town is the most lively of the five and has a reputation as being more touristy than the others, but we loved it and found that most of the tourists left by 5 pm and, as usual, the locals came out at night and created a much warmer atmosphere.

One of the unfortunate realities of Venice (besides the fact that it's sinking) is that despite the tourist boom and dense population, the locals have declined from well over 200,000 in the mid seventies to around 60,000 today. That's why its hard to hang with the locals in Venice-- there just aren't that many of them anymore. They have fled the city to the suburbs as outsiders have bought up property for vacation homes and tourism investments. Cinque Terre doesn't have that problem. Talking to the locals is much easier and they don't mind chatting you up. This place feels like a home town and not a tourist mecca. At least not yet.

One aside: there is a creepy little church in town that's sort of tucked in the shadow of the main, marble adorned town church, like a let's-not-mention-her-name cousin.  It seems to be strangely adorned with human frailty and traditional images of death, namely skeletons.  It's was so strikingly different that we placed a euro in the collection cup asking for donations to help refurbish the old girl.

Also, this town was well liked as a vacation spot by German forces in WWII (it was close to the major strategic port of La Spezia), so there is still a WWII era pillbox bunker sitting on a cliff that is eaily accessible - so much so that it appears inside to be a burnt out party cabin well used over the years.

The last day (after some shop perusing - there are some great shops in town, especially for ceramics) we decided to forgo the beach and the languid life to take the train and check out the next town over, Vernazza. It has the reputation of being probably the prettiest of the the towns, which we think is true. It also has some excellent ducks, great shopping and restaurants with great views. We were attempting to make a reservation for the night at one when the tourist herd arrived by boat. It was like four tour busses depositing their ill will on us and we ducked up a narrow alley up into steep stairs to find some calm on a hidden quiet neighborhood bench.  After the swarm headed for the shops we grabbed some wine and beer at a small, deserted wine bar. One other couple sat down outside with us and we struck up a great conversation. Gallen and Teresa are another pair of cool progressives we met based in Dallas (Teresa explicitly states, though, she is from New Mexico) and at their suggestion we followed up our drinks at the bar with a climb up to a different bar on the very edge of Vernazza on the trail to the next town, Corniglia. They saw it on there way into town earlier. The view was unbelievable and any thought of moving on to Corniglia was removed because a fairly decent sized fire was raging that cut off the trail between the towns.  We watched the constant stream of helicopters and planes skipping along the sea to pick up water and make ridiculous turns up and over the fire to dump their loads. It was quite a spectical to see up close and eventually the ash stopped falling on us. We had beers, a little food, a lot of great conversation and didn't want to move. The sunset was forest fire enhanced and we couldn't stop staring at it.  We also noticed that all the big boats had left, taking the two hour visitors with them and the town was really rather quiet below us. Once more grappa made itself available and made the rounds. Once again it's effect was powerful and made the dark, steep climb down a little rough, but not injury inducing. We had completely forgotten our dinner reservations and the effect of a lack of food and lots of hiking made a major impact on les femmes. I'm glad to report we all somehow made it back to our destinations fully intact even if the girls engaged in some impromptu dancing at the train station as I played DJ on my Blackberry. (After putting Marisa to bed I was still hungry and had fifteen minutes to catch a pizza at Smorfia before closing.  Just made it and wolfed it down at the hotel while watching Scrubs dubbed in Italian. Weird.) Thank you Galen and Teresa - it was memorable fun, keep in touch.

Cinque Terre was a delight and we could have stayed another week if the French Riviera wasn't calling us. It was one of our favorite places on the trip and helped set the tone for the rest of the vacation. Yes, we came to see places and do things, but its still a vacation and we need to slow down, relax and treat wherever we are like home. It certainly had the feel of it here.
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