Thursday, December 08, 2005

Living la vita dolce in the Cinque Terre

Last but not least on the tale of our Italian tour (in fact, it was actually the first place we went to with Earl and Elaine.....) is the national park of the Cinque Terre, or 5 lands. This park, in the Liguria region of Italy, encompasses five villages perched on or between cliffs along the sea: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These towns are connected only by train and by boat (there is a highway up above from which you can with difficulty reach the towns, but it doesn't go through (or very near) them. Thus the towns have a peaceful, car-free, "old-time Italy" feel. Vernazza was our favorite town, as it had the best combination of small town feel and amenities.

This was probably our favorite place in Italy (though we liked Tuscany a lot) and we highly recommend it for any one to visit with a couple of important caveats.

- We were there at the end of shoulder season: end of Oct/beginning of November and it was crowded enough for me. I can't imagine it during the height of the tourist season and I believe it would likely be difficult to see the cities' charms through all the people. October is much calmer, and the weather (if you have good luck) is still beautiful and warm during the day (though quite cold at night).

- If you have physical issues with hills and stairs (LOTS of them and STEEP), then unfortunately this is not the vacation locale for you. There was simply no escaping the climbing up and down and up and down. On the flip side, it made us feel a whole lot more virtuous with all the pasta and gelatto we were eating.

Highlights from our stay in the Cinque Terre include:

-- Relaxing out in the hanging garden of the Trattoria Gianni Franzi hotel gazing out to sea...It's an incredible spot, just carved out of the cliff

-- Hiking between the towns of the Cinque Terre, between olive groves (with the cool way that they harvest olives) and vineyards, and at each corner oohing and aahing at the view. It's actually kind of brutal for picture-taking, because you keep thinking it can't get better and then 5 minutes later realizing it IS better and you have to take another picture.

--Watching the Halloween festivities in Vernazza. (Yes, I am writing about Halloween in December. So I'm a little behind....). We had seen a riot of scary commercial Halloween decorations in every store in Lyon, France earlier, reminiscent of the commercialization of the holiday that we see at home. (Which was a surprise to me (and further proof of the Hallmark-ization of the world) because when we lived in Belgium in the late '70's, no one had heard of Halloween) Upon arrival in Vernazza we had noticed several carved pumpkins around the town (often with the ubiquitous cats curled around them), but hadn't thought that much about it. But at dusk on the 31st we walked down the street to see what Halloween must have been like in the States 30 years ago. All the children (and it was only young children) were either dressed up as witches (complete with pointy black hat and long wig) or as ghosts (complete with white sheet). No cartoon or movie characters, no pop culture references, no toy tie-ins. And they seemed genuinely pleased to receive something. Earl ended up raiding his snack sack when he saw them coming which is how I ended up distributing granola bars to a number of bemused young Italians.

-- Discovering that anchovies can actually be good! Yeah, we didn't believe it either...but they catch them and serve them fresh that day, with a little bit of lemon, and they're YUMMY. Who knew?

-- Sitting out by the harbor in the morning with a pastry and the Gazetta della Sport (Italy's soccer newspaper which actually outsells all other newspapers of any kind in Italy) and watching the locals stroll by, or sitting watching the sunset enjoying a gelatto

All in all...a destination that has made its way onto our greatest hits lists.


No comments: