Welcome to Italy Adventure Part 2! Same disclaimer as Part 1 regarding the images posted in the blog. See part 1 for full details.
Part 2 - Cinque Terre, Pisa, and Florence
Cinque Terre! I'll just take a brief minute here to talk about how I made a mistake booking our Brescia to Milan to Cinque Terre train tickets. We were having dinner in Brescia the previous evening and I was going through the process of booking our tickets on the TrenItalia website. It turns out that if you have to reload the page for whatever reason then the date will default to a different date while all other parameters such as point of departure/destination, and time of trip would remain as you had input them. As you are probably guessing this happened to me and I ended up booking the tickets for the wrong date without realizing it. This led to a couple unfortunate instances the next day as we were travelling. Firstly, on the Brescia to Milan train, I was very adamant with a gentleman that he was sitting in my seat, completely dismissing the fact that he had a ticket for it as well. Considering I was 100% in the wrong he took it all very well and agreed to move so that we could have the seats marked on our ticket. Next, we were having issues finding our seats on the train leaving Milan, so we asked for help on the platform and the TrenItalia girl told us to simply get on the train that was about to depart and that she would sort it out for us on board. So we did just that, and she led us to the seats that we had showed her on the ticket and again they were occupied. This time the conductor looked at our tickets more closely and told us we had tickets for the wrong day. Unfortunately for us, the only solution to this issue was to buy another set of tickets, with a last minute mark-up of 50 euro per seat. I learned this lesson the hard way and for the remainder of our trip I paid extremely close attention to the dates when booking our train tickets.
Anyways as I was saying, we left Brescia by train, travelled through Milan, and arrived in Monterosso just after lunch time. Monterosso is the northern most of the five cities that make up Cinque Terre and we got off the train here because it was unclear to us whether or not we had to get on a different train to be able to ride the so called “Cinque Terre Express” that offered quick service between each of the cities. We walked around Monterosso for a bit before deciding we would just get back on the original train and continue on to Vernazza where we were staying.
Vernazza is the second of the five cities if you are moving from the north to the south along the coast. You are able to hike between each city (more on this later), or take the train which takes approximately five minutes between stops. Like all of the five cities, Vernazza is very small with only a little over 800 full time residents, and space for about 1500 additional tourists, it was busy for a small space but also felt very calm; I absolutely loved the atmosphere in Vernazza. The first thing you’ll notice if you ever visit is how vertical these cities are. They are built into the steep cliffs overlooking the Italian Riviera, and Vernazza is home to the only natural port in the five cities. What all this means to the common traveller is there is lots of walking up stairs. Luckily in Vernazza the train station is located at the highest point in the town, so you get to walk down into the city centre with your luggage, before finding your narrow, winding, and steep path up to the houses.
We stayed in a beautiful apartment owned by a lovely woman named Ruth (if anyone is ever planning on visiting here, hit me up and I’ll give you details - I can’t recommend her rental enough!), which had all the amenities we needed, plus a gorgeous view.
Our host generously left us a bottle of Prosecco which we gratefully drank outside before walking back into town for dinner.
We found out that all the restaurants in Vernazza close between 3-7pm to prepare for dinner, so we explored a bit to kill time until we could eat. The first meal we had in Vernazza was one of the best we had on the trip; the restaurant we ate at did a special pan fried spaghetti that was absolutely delicious. The wine and dessert were spectacular as well!
After dinner it was an early bed time as we had planned a long hike for the next morning, but not before watching the BBC world news which was pretty much the only English TV we were able to watch for the 2+ weeks we were away.
The next morning we got up fairly early, grabbed some super tasty croissants in town, and then began our hike from Vernazza to the third of the five cities; Corniglia. We did a little research on the hike which pegged it as "average” difficulty and should take a person of average fitness about an hour to do. We aren’t in the greatest shape of our lives but we didn't think anything of it and set off on our journey. About 20 minutes in, all we had done is walked up very steep stairs, and that was the theme for the rest of the hike. It was pretty difficult as the steps were on average about 1.5 feet tall, so you had to put effort into each step up. I was carrying too much camera gear and accidentally bought sparkling water for the trek which, not surprisingly, is the least refreshing drink on the planet. I think we made it to Corniglia in about an hour 45, and we were wiped. At one point in the hike you come across this bar up on the mountain and there’s a big sign that says congratulations so I was excited that we were done.. unfortunately that bar only marked the half-way point in the hike. I think if there is a bar congratulating people on making it half-way, then the difficulty might be a little higher than average!
We stopped for a bite to eat in Corniglia to rest and recharge after what was supposed to be leg one of our hike. The plan was to continue hiking to the third town, Manarola, where we had scheduled a wine tasting later in the day, but we found out that the walking trail between Corniglia and Manarola had been damaged by a landslide and was closed.
The photographer side of me was disappointed with the weather, it was quite hazy/foggy both of the days we were in Cinque Terre so getting the shots I wanted was difficult as even my circular polarizer didn't prove very helpful. I was able to cut most of the haze in post but it left me with unrealistic looking skies. I might try a sky replacement sometime on a couple of these, but I haven’t found the time yet.
The traveller side of me was overwhelmed by the beauty, and the history of it all. Earlier I had mentioned how Saint Mark’s in Venice was just something you had to see in person to truly appreciate the full magic of the location, and that holds true for most places we visited in Italy.
The plan was to hike to Manarola from Corniglia and arrive with enough time to look around a bit before our wine tasting but with the new information that we wouldn’t be able to continue on our trek by foot, we had to swap to plan B. After lunch we took the Cinque Terre Express train to Riomaggiore which is the fifth and final destination if you are working your way through the cities from the north to the south. While all the cities in Cinque Terre are fairly similar they each have their own unique atmosphere about them. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Riomaggiore, the train station here is at the at the lowest point in the town and we weren't overly interested in another long vertical climb.
Next up was another short train ride back to Manarola for more sightseeing and our wine tasting experience we had booked with a local woman named Yvonne. I loved Vernazza, but Manarola was my definitely my favourite of the five.
We walked over to the view point and took a couple photos, the above shot included, and then to the Manarola church square where we waited a bit for Yvonne to come collect us for our tour.
The wine tour and tasting was a lovely experience. We took a stroll through the cliffside vineyards of Manarola while Yvonne explained the different types of grapes, growing techniques, and other information about the wine making process.
Pictured above are some of the views we were able to soak in while walking through the hills of Manarola. After the conclusion of the walking tour we went back to Yvonne's winery called A Pie de Campu, and I would highly recommend this experience for anyone visiting the Cinque Terre area! We enjoyed a tasting of four different Cinque Terre white wines paired with delicious bread and olives. The value for the money was fantastic, Yvonne was very knowledgeable and personable, and the outing as a whole was one of the highlights of our journey.
We rode the Cinque Terre Express train back to Vernazza to relax a little bit, and have dinner. We had our sights set on one of the restaurants in town recommended by our host, though we didn't pay enough attention to the note that making reservations was also recommended and ended up not being able to eat at our first choice location. Luckily enough there was another restaurant close by with a beautiful view that we had no trouble finding a table at.
We were both fairly tired from our hike and overall long day, so shortly after dinner we retired to our apartment to pack our bags for the following morning, and then headed to bed. Looking back at all the places we went on this trip, I can happily say that Vernazza was my favourite, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere in all of the cities in Cinque Terre.
Pisa! The next morning we were on the move again for what would end up being the longest and easily the most bizarre day of the trip, but more on that later. It started out normal enough, we grabbed another round of delightful croissants in Vernazza before boarding our train heading to La Spezia, and then on to Pisa which would be our first stop. Two simple train rides later we were at the train station in Pisa, we stowed our luggage (seriously underrated feature of Italian train stations) and then rode the public transit bus to the leaning tower.
As you can tell by the pictures, I was super impressed by the whole experience but at least that’s one more famous landmark I can check off the list. We spent less than five minutes total at the tower before grabbing a post card, a quick sandwich nearby, and then taking the bus back to the train station. Next up was Florence, and unlike the leaning tower, I was very excited for this stop. I'm not even sure why but Florence was always near the top of places I would like to see in Italy.
Florence! The train from Pisa to Florence was about 1.5 hours through gorgeous Tuscan countryside with plenty of beautiful views. The plan for Florence was a walking tour which included entrance to the Galleria dell'Accademia which houses the statue of David. From the train station it was about a 15 minute walk to Piazza San Marco which was the meeting point to start our tour. Florence is a gorgeous city with supremely interesting renaissance architecture everywhere you look, and like Vernazza before it was a place I wish we could have spent more time. We arrived slightly early so I decided it would be a good chance to use the washroom before embarking on the tour. I selected a nearby restaurant and tried my best to sneak into the back without being noticed; to no avail. Laura ended up having to buy a cupcake so that I could use the washroom as it was technically for customers only. If there is one overarching complaint I have about the whole trip was the struggle to pee. It would often be hard to find a public bathroom, and when you did locate one it would cost anywhere between fifty cents and two euro to use. You also aren’t paying so that you can use a clean, safe facility, and most of the bathrooms we came upon were completely filthy, often devoid of toilet paper, soap, and occasionally working faucets.
The Galleria dell’Accademia was the first stop on our tour, and we had the privilege to see a lot of work by Michelangelo including of course the magnificent statue of David.
After leaving the gallery we walked through the centre of Florence taking in several more wonderful points of interest such as the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
For whatever reason I missed focus in both the Ponte Vecchio pictures so I apologize for the potato quality!
The walking tour ended on the Ponte Vecchio and we took a break from our exploration to have dinner which consisted of the best lasagna of the trip, and probably also the best lasagna that I have ever had. After eating it was time to head back to the train station and travel deeper into the Tuscan countryside where we had booked a stay at an authentic Tuscan villa for a couple of nights.
Tuscany! ..sort of! For the most part our entire trip was buttery smooth, but this leg went sideways on us in a hurry. We left Florence on the 2230 train to a little town called Arezzo which is to the south east of Florence. The train ride took approximately 45 minutes on a high speed train, and we arrived in Arezzo in the pouring rain.
The next little bit of the story gets awfully strange, and it is partially on Laura and I for not doing enough research on where we were staying. We had booked an AirBnb near a village called Caprese Michelangelo (where Michelangelo was born) and the place that we had booked looked absolutely gorgeous in the photos we had viewed online. A day or two prior to arrival we reached out to our host to figure out the best way to get to the location, and were told to take the train to Arezzo and from there it is about an hours drive. If we had done a little more research we would have discovered just how remote the villa was, and could have rented a car to get ourselves around. Of course we didn’t do this and even went so far as to pay our host 80 euro to drive out to the Arezzo train station to pick us up. The woman that met us wasn’t what I was expecting at all, I had envisioned an elderly Italian lady but we were greeted by a middle aged British woman who owns the property with her husband.
The conversation we had on the trip to the villa was very disappointing as our host filled us in on how far away everything was from the house, and that the "car service” that was advertised on the AirBnb listing to take us to "nearby restaurants and towns” was simply herself and her car, and it was extremely costly. If we had known it was going to be upwards of 20 euro one way for a short drive, or over an hours walk down windy mountain roads to get anywhere remotely close to civilization then we would have rented our own car.
When we finally arrived at the villa things went from disappointing to downright scary. The place was extremely misrepresented in the advertisement, the building we were supposed to stay in looked absolutely nothing like it had in the pictures. The villa was in a state of inexcusable disrepair, the water barely worked and took over 5 minutes to get warm enough to have a shower in the absolute worst shower ever conceived where the shower curtain would somehow keep blowing into the shower on you even without any sort of moving air in the room. The ad had also said there was a TV in the villa which was false, and I don’t believe I have ever slept on a more uncomfortable bed. The swimming pool was a dilapidated mess, and the ad had displayed a picture of a beautiful thermal spa that we were both looking forward to using, but found out that it was 45+ minutes away and cost 150 euro (!!!!) round trip to visit for an evening.
I'm not usually easily spooked but the whole vibe of this place had me feeling uneasy. Even looking back on it now I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was about them but something was just off about our host and her husband. We arrived and there was a lock on our bedroom door on the outside, and didn’t have one on the inside for starters. At least they were thoughtful enough to leave us a key for our room that we could only lock from the outside which would make sense in a hotel type environment but the bedroom is inside of a house. We were the only guests the couple hosting us had planned for several weeks, and to top the whole thing off the weather for all of the days that we had planned to stay there was more rain.
if there had been any possible way for us to turn around and leave that night we would have, it was a truly awful experience. The next morning we spoke with our host and her husband and informed them that we would not be staying. They were disappointed and did their best to convince us otherwise, even bringing in their friendly cat to try to sway us against leaving. In the end we all agreed that we would just cut our losses and go back to Arezzo. The drive back with the host was fairly awkward, but at least we were able to put that mess behind us.
When we got back to Arezzo we really weren’t sure what was next for us. We had planned three nights at the Tuscan villa and had only stayed one. We discussed two options, one being heading to Sorrento, our next destination, two days early, and the other one was to go back to Florence for the night, and then go to Sorrento the following day. We ended up choosing the latter, and booked a nice looking hotel in Florence close to the train station.
Florence Again! We arrived back in Florence and checked into our hotel which was thankfully beautiful. After a quick shower we went out to find some food as all we had eaten that day was a hot dog at the Arezzo train station which was actually very good! I was unaware of this before visiting Florence but it turns out one of the dishes that they are known for is the Florentine Steak, a giant T-bone steak that is shared amongst the table. Being huge steak lovers we looked for a place to get one and found one relatively close by.
After an amazing steak dinner we went back to the hotel and relaxed in the hot tub for awhile and then went to bed. What started out as a nightmare of a day ended on a much more positive note, and while it was disappointing that we didn't get our time in the Tuscan countryside that we had been looking forward to, we did get to enjoy more of Florence than expected.
Up next in Part 3 we'll have Sorrento, Pompeii, Rome and the trip back to Canada! Stay tuned.