Travels in Italy: Cinque Terre

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Out of all the places we visited in Italy, Cinque Terre was my favorite. Located on the west coast along the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (meaning “Five Lands”) is actually a national park consisting of five small seaside villages. The whole area is breathtakingly picturesque. This rugged coastline is sparsely populated with brightly colored clusters of rustic buildings that appear to hang precariously right along the sea cliffs. Tiny fishing boats dot the harbors and vineyards and olive groves grow in steep terraces along the lush green mountainsides. It’s an enchanting place not to be missed.

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Once a very remote and difficult location to access, getting here is quite easy nowadays. We took the train from Pisa (after checking out the famous leaning tower) to the nearest municipality, La Spezia. From here, it’s only a 20-minute train ride further up the coast to the park. There are several ways you can explore the Cinque Terre. The easiest and fastest way would be by train, each town having its own tiny platform. It’s also possible to get between the towns by boat. Although a slower and more expensive option, taking a boat can be more rewarding as you can view the park and villages by sea. And then you have your own two feet to get you around. In my opinion walking is the best way to see the Cinque Terre.

The five villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all interconnected with another by a network of trails. While there is an entrance fee to walk the main coastal trail (Sentiero Azzuro or “Blue Trail”) between the towns, it’s fairly inexpensive. A day pass I think only cost us €7.50. All the other trails in the park are free. You can start from anywhere, but if you want to do the whole 7.5 mile (12 km) walk in a day the most logical places would be at the trail’s termini in Monterosso or Riomaggiore. We began our walk at the northern end of the park in Monterosso al Mare. This was the biggest of the towns and appears to be where most visitors use as their base to explore the region. There is a big beach here as well, making this town more like a beach resort than the rest of the villages. We didn’t stick around in Monterosso for very long, we basically just walked through it to get to the start of the trail.

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Going in the southern direction starts out much more difficult than going north. The trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is considered the most difficult section of the walk as it’s the longest (2 mi/4 km) and the path is steeper at this end. The trail is more uneven and rocky here with lots of stone stairways going up and down along the way. The upside to this is once you’ve covered this portion of the trek it just gets easier from there!

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Upon arrival in Vernazza, we were greeted with a view of the village from above. The scene is exactly what you would expect of a little town depicted in a fairy tale–a small little harbor busy with fishermen making their daily catch, the local market buzzing with activity, the people lazily walking through the narrow streets going about their daily business, and of course the most cliché thing of all–the castle on top of a hill. This is perhaps what makes Vernazza the most popular and most touristy of the five villages. With a little harbor as well as a small pebbly beach, it’s also an ideal place for swimming. After the tough and sweaty hike from Monterosso, jumping into the Mediterranean was irresistible.

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After a swim and a quick bite to eat, we were on our way again to the next town, Corniglia. What started out as a sunny day quickly turned into dark clouds creeping in, and before we knew it we were caught in a heavy downpour. Amazing how quickly the weather can change here! For about 20 minutes we took shelter under a tree with a bunch of other people hiking the trail. Once the rain subsided we continued on into town. Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre town not built at sea level. Instead, it’s perched high above the sea on top of a cliff. I’m not sure if it was because of recent rain, but the town had a rather sleepy mood to it. Compared to Vernazza, it was much quieter and there were fewer people on the streets. We didn’t stick around for very long, only long enough to enjoy the views and grab some gelato from a local gelateria.

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As we made our way back down to sea level toward the next section of the walk, we discovered that the rest of the trail was inaccessible due to landslides and are closed until further notice. So unfortunately, we couldn’t hike the entire length of the famous walk and instead hopped on the next train to the neighboring town of Manarola where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between Vernazza and Manarola, I would say both are the most picturesque of the villages. While Vernazza has its snazzy little harbor and castle, Manarola perched right at the edge of a cliff. The pastel colored buildings all appear stacked on each other, clinging on the side of the mountain. The small cove at the base of the town next to the sea is also great for swimming and oftentimes you’ll see locals and tourists alike jumping off the rocks. We stayed here for the sunset and it did not disappoint!

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Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the last town Riomaggiore, but this region of Italy was so incredible that I’m sure I’ll find myself here again one day. One of the things you notice about the villages in the Cinque Terre is how it has escaped the grasps of the modern world. Before the railway was built through here, the villages were really only accessible by foot or by boat. It’s remoteness allowed for the local culture and lifestyle to remain mostly unchanged for centuries. No where in the towns do you find any chain stores or supermarkets. Even the streets are absent of cars. The only traffic jams you’ll find here are two old locals chatting with another or a distracted tourists stopping in the middle of the street to marvel at the scene around them. Aside from the trains rumbling through and the WiFi hotspots in the towns to cater to tourists, life in the Cinque Terre still goes on as it did hundreds of years ago–at a slow leisurely pace.

Travels in Italy: Florence

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From the sunny shores of the Bay of Naples, we headed back north and inland to the capital of Tuscany–Florence. Florence is a beautiful city and as the birth place of the Renaissance, it’s an art-lovers dream. All around the city are many art museums, galleries, and wonderfully decorated churches.

One of the things I loved about Florence was how easy it was to get around by foot. Compared to other Italian cities, it’s a smallish city with all the sights and attractions being fairly close together. There is a bus system that could make getting around a lot quicker, but the buildings and streets of Florence are beautiful–they’re meant to be walked!

Despite Florence being a treasure trove of museums and art, we actually skipped out on some of the major sights like the Uffizi, where works from famous artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinchi, and Raphael are on display. Or Accademia, where the famous David statue resides. At this point during our trip around Europe, we were getting a little tired of seeing so many art galleries, museums, and churches. We did make an effort to visit the Duomo however, the main attraction of Florence right in the heart of the city. The massive cathedral, which began construction in 1296, was (and still is) the largest masonry dome on Earth when it was completed in 1436. It’s huge and it towers over the city. At 114 meters (374 feet), the Statue of Liberty could easily fit inside it. making it easily recognizable from afar. On the inside it’s quite ornate and looks different than other churches I’ve seen in Europe. And entrance is free!

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We also did check out a few other churches such as Santa Croce, where Galileo, Michaelangelo, and Machiavelli are buried and another (Basilica de Medici) where Donatello rests. Other than that we just enjoyed walking around and getting lost in the streets.

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Of course we also paid a visit to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the last remaining medieval bridge. During WWII all the bridges in Florence were destroyed with the exception of this one. Rumor has it that Hitler sent a last minute decree to spare the bridge as he had a liking for it. Whether that’s true or not, it’s still standing after all this time and is among the oldest bridges in Europe. What also makes this bridge unique is that there are still shops lining its sides, just as they were centuries ago.

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On the other side of the river is my favorite place in the city, Piazzale di Michaelangelo, where you can get an incredible panoramic view of all of Florence (as seen in the header photo)!

Another great view of the city can be seen from the nearby town of Fiesole, out in the countryside and up in the hills outside of the city. From Florence we took a bus to the tiny commune and spent an afternoon there walking about and watching the sunset over the city.

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That’s all I have for Florence unfortunately. It really is a beautiful city with lots to see and do, but unfortunately we just weren’t keen on seeing most of them. I would probably come back if I ever found myself in Italy though, as a jumping off point to visit other parts of Tuscany. After Florence we headed west to our last (and my favorite) place in Italy–Cinque Terre!

Travels in Italy: Sorrento & Capri

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Sorrento is located in a beautiful and serene part of Italy, just south of Pompeii where we based ourselves to explore the area around the Bay of Naples. It’s a small city nestled at the foot of a beautiful mountain range that graces the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the coastline is textured with steep cliffs, deep gorges, narrow winding roads, and tiny fishing villages clinging to its shores. Mount Vesuvius can be seen on a clear day across the bay. It’s an attractive scene and it’s very easy to get to from nearby Naples or Pompeii by train via the Circumvensuviana line.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, Sorrento is also a popular jumping off point to other famous sights nearby, including the islands of Capri (which we would visit another day) and Ischia and the glitzy Almafi Coast. This draws in thousands upon thousands of tourists each year and in mid-summer we were at the peak of the season. The city caters to tourists and getting caught up in the tourist trap was something we weren’t keen on doing. So since it was a hot day, we decided to go swimming. There are a few beaches near the city center that you have to pay to use, but they’re small, pebbly, and quite crowded. I had heard from someone about a swimming hole that the locals like to hang out at about 3 km outside of town, so finding it was our mission for the day.

The walk was very nice. Most of it was just following one of the narrow winding roads that leads out of town, heavily congested with tourist buses and Vespas. There are nice views of the city and the bay along the way. Eventually we left the crowded road for a long, quite cobblestone street that descended toward a hidden natural pool surrounded by a wall of rock. It was amazing! There was a cave at the other end that you could swim through and out into the open sea. We swam and did some cliff jumping for the afternoon and had a nice picnic lunch admiring the views across the bay. A magical little place.

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The following day we came back to Sorrento and just nearly missed the last morning ferry to Capri. The island, only 5 kilometers from the mainland is a giant craggy monolith of limestone rising out of a shimmering cerulean blue sea. In the Greek epic, The Oddysey, the island was known as the isle of the Sirens–seductive woman-like creatures whose songs lured sailors toward the island causing them to crash into the rocks. While the Sirens may exist only in the storybooks, the island is still undoubtedly alluring. It’s been a popular destination even since the era of the Roman empire and in the summer time it attracts thousands of visitors a day. The tiny little towns are packed full of day trippers. Glamorous villas and vacation homes hang high on the cliffs above the water. All around the island’s many coves and hidden beaches, multi-million dollar yachts are anchored just off shore. Yet despite the tacky souvenir shops, the crowded beaches, and inflated prices that come with all the tourism, it doesn’t take away the enchanting atmosphere of the island.

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While most people come here to see the famous blue grotto, we decided to spend our limited time on the island ascending to the top of Mount Solaro–the highest point. Upon stepping off the ferry, we were greeted by a rather long line of people waiting for the bus going up the road to the Anacapri, the lofty little town on the western slopes of the mountain. Since the roads in Capri are so narrow and windy, the buses are very small and can only hold a limited number of people at a time. So rather than waiting in line for an hour we decided to hike up. The 1.6 mile (2.7 km) path between Marina Grande and Anacapri seems to be only a tame little walk…on a map. In reality, it was a very hot, sweaty, and exhausting climb. Albeit it only took us about 40 minutes, trudging up the seemingly endless stairways under the hot Italian sun left us beat. And I’m used to lots of hiking! Still, I felt better doing that than waiting in the bus line in town. And the views along the way were rewarding.

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Upon arrival in Anacapri we made our way over to the chairlift that would take us up to the summit. From what I remember, it cost about €10 round-trip and took about 20 minutes. At the top we marveled at the amazing 360 degree views of the island and the Gulf of Naples.

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We stayed up there for about an hour before coming back down into town. This time we managed to hop right on a bus and made it down to the marina in no time. Since we only had about an hour left before our ferry departed for the mainland, we decided to go for a swim at one of the nearby beaches. So refreshing after a long day of walking up and around the upper reaches of the island.

Capri has been a place I’ve always wanted to go to and despite our short day trip, it will always be a memorable one! We left the island late in the afternoon and upon arrival in Sorrento, took the crowded train back to Pompeii. We indulged in our nightly ritual of getting a pizza for dinner before passing out for the night, having to get a good night’s sleep for the long train ride to our next destination–Florence!

Travels In Italy: Pompeii

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Journeying further south, we departed Rome on the train bound for Pompeii where we would be based for the next few days to explore the area around the Bay of Naples. This is a beautiful part of the country not to be missed. The sun-drenched coastline is dotted with cities and little rural villages, surrounded by steep mountains and limestone cliffs that plunge right into the deep blue Mediterranean. It’s a wonderful little region with lots of things to see and explore, great food (pizza was by far the best here), and a much more relaxed and slower pace of life than other parts of Italy. I think one week would be ideal enough for a visit, but we had to cram in as much as we could in four days.

We arrived at the station around noon and made our way into town to check into our hostel. Pompeii is recognized as the ancient Roman city, now in ruins following the dramatic and violent 79 AD eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. However, the nearby town of Pompei is still alive and well with a population of about 25,000 people. It’s a nice little town. It mostly caters to tourists who come and visit the ruins, but it had a nice charm to it. The center of town boasts a grand Catholic cathedral with fountains and a large grassy piazza before its doors.

Our hostel was very nice as well–friendly staff, nice courtyard area to relax in, the rooms were quite nice, close to the center of town. Even during the busy summer season it was a fairly inexpensive place to stay. If you ever find yourself in Pompei I’d recommend staying at Agora Hostel Deluxe! The only downfall was there wasn’t a kitchen there to cook our own food, which really wasn’t that big of a deal anyway because we were in Italy–the land of good food! So basically every day for dinner we would go out into town for a meal. Which for the most part was pizza every night. With Naples, the birthplace of pizza, just 20 minutes away by train, the pizza in Pompei was incredible. Definitely some of the best I’ve had and for only 5 euros you get a whole pie that’s big enough for two people, which I guiltlessly devoured all to myself. It was so good!

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After check-in we wandered over to the ruins of Pompeii just on the outskirts of town. We paid the entry fee and entered, free to explore the ancient city for the rest of the day.

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Pompeii was fascinating. It’s actually quite big, stretching out for about 170 acres, making it one of the largest excavation sites in the world. Once a prosperous city that was a popular summer vacationing spot for wealthy Romans, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and the nearby city of Herculaneum under nearly 17 feet of ash and volcanic debris. Several thousand people perished and the city was forgotten about for nearly 1700 hundred years. What’s even more incredible is how well preserved the city actually is. Even 2000 years later, you can still see the mosaics, paintings, and even grafitti that decorate the walls inside the houses. And, displayed throughout various parts of the ruins, you can see the casts of the Roman victims frozen in time in their final moments.

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We spent hours here wandering the ancient streets. It reminded me of walking through the ruins of Machu Picchu, another ancient city forgotten for centuries. All you can do as you walk through the old stone buildings is letting your mind to wander and imagine what life was like back in the day.

Travels In Italy: Rome

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After a wonderful time in beautiful Venice, we hopped on a high speed train bound for Rome. As a present-day and ancient capital, Rome is rich with history, old ruins, museums, churches, and of course great food. We spent a good four days there and I can say I really liked Rome. One of the first things that came to mind as we first started wandering around the city was how ancient it really is. Sure, European cities in general are all old and have unique histories in one way or another, but in Rome it has never appeared so prevalent. It’s amazing how you’ll be walking down the street past modern 21st century retail shops and corporate businesses then right around the block you’ll find something the Colosseum, which has been sitting there there for almost two thousand years. Rome is ancient. It’s also modern. It’s beautiful. And it’s the home to some of the most amazing gelato, which is just icing on the cake for me.

Here are some of the highlights during our stay:

The Colosseum
colosseumnight One of the most famous landmarks in the world and among the seven new wonders of the world, everyone goes to the Colosseum when they come to Rome. Just like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, seeing the Colosseum for the first time was surreal. You grow up seeing so many pictures of it you can hardly believe you’re there when you see it sitting there in front of you.

The Roman Forum
IMG_0640 Right next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, once the buzzing social and political center of the former Roman Empire. It’s hard not to imagine what it was like here thousands of years ago back in its heyday as famous ancient rulers and figures like Caesar and Augustus walked its streets.

The Vatican
vaticanspiralbw Another major landmark that everyone flocks to when in Rome. We easily spent a few hours there wandering through the museums, admiring Michaelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, checking out all the priceless pieces of art, and basking under the heavenly light beaming through the windows of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Gelato
It may have been because it was so refreshing after walking around all day under the hot sun, but I remember having some of the best gelato in Rome. There are a lot of gelaterias throughout the city, some selling the real stuff and others not so much. We learned that color and texture play a big role in determining what’s authentic. Anything that’s piled into a giant fluffy mountain and glowing vividly in color is most likely made from artificial ingredients. To find the real deal, the colors should be more muted and match their flavor. So the melone gelato shouldn’t be a vibrant orange like a traffic cone–it should look the same shade of orange as a real cantaloupe. Giolitti’s near the Piazza di Monte Citorio is a great place for some authentic gelato and was one of my favorites.

Hanging Out in the Piazzas
IMG_0677 All over Rome you can find public squares that are perfect places to eat lunch, feed the pigeons, and people watch. Piazza Navona was my favorite as it was surrounded by beautiful buildings and decorated with fountains.

The Fountains
IMG_0706 Speaking of fountains, Italians really know how to do them well. Although the famous fountains like the Trevi and Barcaccia (next to the Spanish Steps) were bone dry and under renovation during the time of our visit, there were lots of other intricately designed fountains throughout Rome.

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IMG_0715 Across the Tiber River is an especially beautiful part of the city with a vibrant atmosphere, narrow cobblestone streets, aged, ivy-covered buildings, and tiny restaurants. Exactly how I imagined a street in Italy would look like. The neighborhood is also set at the base of the Gionicolo one of the tallest hills around Rome which offers a great view of the city. There’s a big fountain at the top–a perfect place to soak your feet after walking around all day in the sun!

Travels in Italy: Venice

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Known for its rich history, fantastic food, warm Mediterranean climate, and generally just being packed with loads of things to see made us realize that we didn’t want to just breeze through Italy. Some of the past few countries we had been through had only been brief visits of just 2-3 days, so we wanted to make sure we did Italy properly. Even then, two weeks wasn’t nearly enough time but I feel we made it to most to a lot of the highlights that make this country one of the most culturally rich and beautiful in Europe.

Our tour of Italy began in Venice after a long day of bus and train travel from Munich. Rather than staying in the city, we got off at Mestre Station on the mainland and stayed at the camping ground where it was cheaper (and by camping I mean glamping–even staying in one of the little bungalows was a great deal!) We only had a day and a half to see Venice so we didn’t want to waste any time. After grabbing a quick bite to eat we headed back to the station. A couple euros and a 10-minute train ride later we arrived in the city just as the sun was going down.

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Before coming to Italy I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot from Venice. Sure it’s known to be a beautiful city famous for its canals, but others I know said it was over-hyped. It’s hot and humid in the middle of summer, smelly, damp, and was overly crowded with tourists. But once we found ourselves standing on the banks of the Grand Canal, it was love at first sight. The city lights shimmering on the canals, busy with boats and gondolas gently gliding by. The colorful and rustic buildings rising out of the sea. The endless maze of narrow streets lined with little shops and restaurants. Venice truly is stunning and I think coming at night first played a big part in creating a good first impression. After all, the city empties out in the evening as all the day trippers head back to the mainland.

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We had no planned itinerary so we just aimlessly wandered the streets, which are more like alleyways really. Honestly, I think this is the best way to see Venice. There are literally no cars in the city–the only mode of transport are boats and your own two feet. Good thing we like to walk because we did a lot of it. We didn’t even really go into any museums or churches as we were happily content with just getting lost in the maze. There is a main route that connects the train station to Piazza San Marco that nearly all the tourists follow, but all it takes to leave the crowds is simply wandering astray down a side street. Once we did this we nearly had the place to ourselves at times. Even in the day time, when the island was packed full of day trippers, it was easy to find quite streets away from the crowds.

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One thing I found interesting about Venice (other than that fact that it’s built on water) was its unique architecture. It’s very different from any other city in Italy. Looking closely, there are signs of Islamic influences throughout the city, from curved windows to intricate designs and Arab façades. Even the canopies atop the domes of St. Mark’s adorned in its beautiful array of mosaics are quite Arab-esque. Something I didn’t expect to see in Venice, but it makes perfect sense as the city was one of the key ports during the spice trade linking commerce and trade between the east and the west.

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I also found it to be an odd coincidence that Venice is shaped like a fish! The design was completely unintentional, it just so happens that the group of 117 islands that Venice sits on was naturally shaped that way. How amazing is that?

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So that’s how we spent our 36 hours at the city in the sea. Venice was much more than I imagined it to be and even though it is extremely touristy, you can’t be unimpressed by it. It’s picturesque, it’s different, it’s timeless–I imagine little has changed from hundreds of years ago. That’s why Venice sits easily toward the top of my list of favorite places in Europe. I would definitely come back if I ever find myself in Italy again.