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The Trip to Italy Episode 3: Cinque Terre (“The Five Terrys”)

Where was I? Oh right, on a tour bus in Tuscany, having escaped the Visigoths and Etruscans in the walled city of Volterra, my lovely wife Jen at my side. We were heading for the Cinque Terre, the beautiful cliff-clinging towns strung along the Italian Riviera. If I’m not mistaken, “Cinque Terre” translates to “Five Terrys,” named after five guys named Terry from Passaic, New Jersey, who first came up with the idea of dragging their wives and kids to the small towns of the Mediterranean; the area has been jammed with baggy-shorts-wearing American tourists with rolling luggage every summer since. Hang on, Jen is telling me that “terre” means “land” in Italian. So, five lands, or villages. That makes WAY more sense than what I came up with.

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The Lucca city wall. Note the grass and trees on the wall itself. It was originally built to keep enemies out. Now it’s used to keep tourists in.

Before we arrived in the Cinque Terre, however, we had a quick 2-hour stop in Lucca, another Tuscan walled city. Their city wall was wide like a boulevard: on top, there was a crushed-gravel path that you could walk or ride bikes on, grassy areas, and trees lining the path. Lucca’s central plaza, the Piazza Anfiteatro, was oval, with curved buildings lining it. There was once a Roman amphitheater on the spot, and as the walls of it crumbled, new buildings went up to replace those sections.

Each neighborhood had a tower that the wealthiest family in that area built, dating to the 1300s. Torre Guinigi is the most notable for the trees that grow at the top of it. You can walk to the top for city views, if you are up for the 230 steps (and the hordes of tourists at the top).

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Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, or Amphitheater Square. Misleading because (a) there is no longer an amphitheater there (note how the buildings are curved because they were built around the original amphitheater walls), and (2) it’s not square. Ah, geometry humor!

We had a local guide who told us colorful stories about the history of Lucca while walking us around town. She peppered her talk with comments about the long-standing rivalries that Lucca has had with other Tuscan cities, such as Pisa (“nasty, stinky, dirty Pisa,” she’d say) and Florence (“those filthy, lying, double-crossing Florentines, worse than the Pisans, ptooey,” she said, while spitting on the ground). I’m going to be generous here and assume she was joking.

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Terre Guinigi. The only tower in Lucca that has trees growing on it. Originally grown for the fruit for the family’s kitchen, the trees are now used to attract tourists. It works.

We were on our own for lunch; our guide recommended that we try a local delicacy, a sort-of pancake made out of chickpea flour and olive oil called either “farinata” or “cecina.” After getting lost trying to locate a restaurant (but we walked with purpose!), we found a place that sold farinata. Reflecting our growing comfort in speaking Italian, we walked up to the counter and said, “Um, due (two) della…” and then pointed at the farinata. Really smooth; we were practically native speakers at this point. The farinata was good, but I kept thinking, shouldn’t we be eating healthier food than just this bread for lunch? Jen agreed, so we found a gelateria. While we were strolling with our gelatos, someone asked us for directions, mistaking us for locals or, more likely, Spaniards. I pointed them in the general direction of where we got lost, and then we found a bench in a piazza.

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How were we not supposed to get lost when Lucca’s streets were this beautiful and confusing?!?

While we were sitting there, the winds picked up and started swirling around the piazza. There was a restaurant next to us, and they had this fancy outdoor seating area with umbrellas that had glass lanterns hanging from them. The wind kept getting stronger, to the point where I said, “We should really move further away from that stuff in case it gets blown toward us.” Jen laughed at me and said, “We’re fine.” First about 2,000 napkins blew off of the tables and went scattering about the piazza. Then a few metal chairs were overturned. “Now?” I asked. “We’re fine,” she said. Then some glass lanterns came crashing down and shattered. “How about now?” Jen dug in her heels: “We’re fine!” Then, alarmingly, the umbrellas were being lifted along with their heavy support bases and slammed down on the ground over and over. I said, “Okay, that’s it, I’m moving, I don’t care what you say!” So we moved to a bench further away from the umbrellas, and miraculously, the winds died down. “See, I told you, we were fine,” Jen said, and nonchalantly finished her gelato. Plus, she didn’t share any of the gelato with me. What a jerk!

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Is that a Spaniard resting from his bike ride across Europe? No, it’s just me at a canal in Lucca. Also, I don’t know whose bike that is; I hope they didn’t mind that I dragged it from their backyard out onto the street for the photo op! Grazie!

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t pay to use a bathroom in Italy, but I couldn’t help myself as we waited for our bus to the Cinque Terre. Our tour guide had mentioned that, although there was a toilet on the bus, it was a hassle because the driver had to turn on a separate power supply to get it functional, so to use it while the bus was moving, you had to tell the driver and the guide (and basically everyone on the bus) that you couldn’t hold it until the next stop. I did not want to be that guy, even though the likelihood was high that if there was a that guy on the bus, it was going to be me. There was a cafe next to our meet-up area, and several of our tour mates were in line for the bathroom. So I bought a bottled water and got in line. Not exactly paying for the bathroom, but that was the quid pro quo. (That’s Latin for “can I pee here?”)

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One of the beautiful Cinque Terre cities. I believe this is Corniglia, but I’m not 100% sure; I was drunk on limoncino when this photo was snapped. (There might be 35 blurry selfies on my camera roll from this day.)

Our bus driver, Giorgio, was a native of Tuscany and handled the twisting mountainside roads down into Levanto with aplomb; for someone like me who gets motion-sick just looking out the side of a moving vehicle, it was much appreciated. Levanto is actually not one of the Cinque Terre villages, but just north of the northernmost of them (north to south, the cities in the Cinque Terre: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore). Levanto was pleasant and tourist-filled, but it was a flat seaside city with its own beach, not one of the picturesque mountainside villages worthy of the “Cinque Terre” label.

The first thing we did when we got to Levanto was to have a feast in the lobby of our hotel. The hotel owner used to run a fancy restaurant in Levanto, so he wanted to host dinner for us with all sorts of Tuscan specialties, including rabbit. (Tuscan cuisine is known for its meats.) Our guide kept talking it up, how much we had to try the rabbit and how the Tuscans love their rabbits. (Not like a pet, presumably: “I love Fluffy! Let’s cook him for dinner!”) Giorgio the bus driver (picture Bruce Springsteen with a thick Italian accent, and you might get a sense of why all the ladies and some of us guys in the group wanted to sit with him) ate near Jen and me, and we noticed he wasn’t eating any of the rabbit. We asked him why. He shook his head: “Nobody from Tuscany eats the rabbit in Levanto. Now, if you want seafood, then yes, come to Levanto. But the rabbit here is…” (he made a sad frown) “…so you eat rabbit from the mountains and forests away from the coast.” Not exactly our Lucca guide’s “nasty, stinky, dirty” comments, but definitely more of that Tuscan provincialism.

At the meal, our host filled shot glasses with a local version of the fluorescent-yellow Italian hard liquor called “limoncello,” or “limoncino” as it is known in northern Italy. I decided to try it even though I’m not a drinker. Have you ever tasted paint thinner? Well, you shouldn’t because it could kill you, but I’m sure it would taste a lot like limoncino. I stuck with the “acqua naturale” the whole rest of the trip.

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This is definitely Corniglia. We could have stayed there forever. (But they have a strict “tourists can’t stay here forever” rule.)

The next day was a free day to explore the beaches and villages, so Jen and I decided to take the train that connects all the coastal towns down to Corniglia and hike back to Vernazza. There’s a nice, challenging hike connecting the Cinque Terre villages (called Cinque Terre National Park); our guidebook said that some of the stretches were closed because of rockslides and that we shouldn’t attempt it on wet or rainy days because most of the trail is rocky and mountainous and gets very slippery, so the risk of injury is high. It was a cloudy day, but there was no rain in the forecast, so we decided to give the 90-minute hike a go. (This is called “foreshadowing,” folks.)

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“I can see a tiny boat from here!”

At the tiny town of Corniglia, we had another one of those “how do we get out of here?!?” moments. The train drops you off…somewhere. There didn’t appear to be a town anywhere. There was a stairwell across the street from the station, so we started walking up the steps, until we realized it was private property. So we walked back down the stairs and noticed a few other people on a different, steeper set of stairs. So we took those up, and up, and up, until we reached the town proper. Corniglia is cute and colorful, with a few standout cliffside ocean views. We didn’t attempt to find beach access (we just looked over a stone wall and said, “Hey look down there, it’s the Mediterranean,” and moved on), so we headed for the trail. When we got to the trail, there was a college-aged guy sitting in a hut. He was there to collect fees and let us know how the trail looked. He said, “Everything’s great out there. Just know that you don’t want to be on the trail if it starts raining. It’s difficult enough already without being wet, but when it is wet, you could basically die with each step.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.)

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The aforementioned tiny boat.

I didn’t even bother trying to talk Jen out of the walk; I’ve been on enough treacherous nature hikes to know what she was going to say: “It’s fine,” “we’re experienced hikers at this point,” “you’re just being a wimp again,” “I haven’t managed to kill you on a vacation yet.” And so forth. The walk was lovely, and the views were apparently stunning. I say “apparently” because it was so cloudy and misty that it was hard to see anything. Most people return from trips to the Cinque Terre with amazing photos of these gorgeous, colorful towns; us, not so much because of the clouds. And then 10 minutes into the walk, it started to rain. We had raincoats, of course, but after a few minutes we were completely soaked. It was the type of rain that causes guidebook writers to suggest that you schlep your raincoats across the continent just in case there’s that one horrible day when you need them. After an hour, we had to laugh. (After an hour and a half of slipping and sliding with every step, we had to cry.) We saw other people on the trail, and they all had that “we paid a lot of money to come to this place, and by golly we are going to get our money’s worth” look in their eyes.

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Looking back at Corniglia from the hiking trail, just before the clouds turned “brutto” (that means bad).

The rains really picked up as we approached Vernazza. Vernazza is (again) usually stunning, but it was raining so hard that we just wanted to get to the train station. You approach it from above; as you come down from a mountain, there is a fork in the trail, and you can see the train station straight down from the fork, but you don’t know which path to take to get to it quickly. So we went left. We chose wrong. It did take us into the heart of Vernazza, but we were trudging and slipping and clinging to doors of private residences trying to make our way to that train station, which turned out to be just a few steps down from the fork if you took the right path. When we got to the train, we looked like two wet puppy dogs who had had enough of living on the streets and were ready to be adopted by any family that would take us in. We left puddles on the train seats and squish-squished our way back to the hotel.

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Jen: “Look at all the treacherous rocks on this trail. This should be fun!”
Me: “Oh brother.”

After hanging up our clothes to dry, we hit the tiny shower in our hotel. Again, our tour guides like to pick unique hotels in the center of town, so you never know what you’re going to get with the bathrooms. What we got was a shower about the size of half a phone booth. (Editor’s note: For millennial readers, insert explanation of what a phone booth is here.) It was made for a person three quarters the size of an average adult, which conveniently I am. Still, I couldn’t lift my arms above my head for fear of knocking a hole in the wall with my elbows. There was a guy on the trip who was about 6-foot-4 and muscular, and we asked him how he showered in that hotel; he said, “First I backed in and did the rear side, then I came out and reentered headfirst and did the front.”

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Arriving in Vernazza, we were completely soaked and exhausted, and we couldn’t find the train station. That’s vacation-blog-post gold!

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Gorgeous Monterroso al Mare. That’s Italian for “red mountain on the sea.” Or “land of overpriced restaurants for American tourists,” one or the other.

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The beach in Monterosso al Mare. Nice! I dipped my hand in the Mediterranean, just to say I did it. It felt like water.

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Levanto, the not-quite Cinque Terre city where we stayed. This was on our hike up the “Certain Doom” trail. I managed to survive only by convincing Jen to turn back when it got dark.

Later that same day, we went to Monterosso al Mare, and it was comically sunny as we walked along the oceanfront street and watched crowds at the beach. We decided to do another hike that would take us back to our hotel in Levanto, but as we approached the trailhead, a sign said, “Warning: Trail closed until further notice. Do not attempt to hike it or you will face certain doom.” (Paraphrasing.) Miraculously, Jen agreed not to try it. After a train ride home for dinner and a gelato, we went for a sunset stroll along the boardwalk in Levanto. We came upon a stairwell and decided to take it on a whim. It went past ritzy mansions and then stopped at a road that led up toward the cliffs. We started walking it and realized it was the opposite entrance to the trail marked “Certain Doom.” Here, there were no signs, no obvious reasons why it would be closed, and beautiful overlooks of Levanto, a city so gorgeous that it rivals any of the official Cinque Terre cities; I’d argue that you’re better off staying there because it is less crowded, less hilly, has tons of restaurants and shopping, has a jewel of a beach, and is still on the train line to reach the other tourist-overrun cities. Because it was getting dark, we couldn’t walk far enough on the trail to find where the Certain Doom parts were. Lucky me.

The next morning, we boarded the bus and headed for Florence, which I’ll cover in my next post. Ah, Florence: birthplace of the Renaissance; a city of romance, political intrigue, and way, way too many statues of naked men in public places. I mean, seriously people.