That's Amore: Falling in Love with Cinque Terre and Florence

What is it about Italy that speaks to so many people?  Talk to almost anyone about Italy, and they get this romantic twinkle in their eyes.  There’s so much of the country to explore, so when flights to Pisa were dirt cheap, we decided to visit nearby Cinque Terre and Florence for the first long weekend in May. Cinque Terre is about an hour away from the Pisa Airport, so we rented a car for $100 for the weekend and made our way to Manarola, in Cinque Terre.  We decided to stay in this town because it was supposedly the most picturesque and not as touristy as the nearby (Rick Steves favorite) Vernazza.  As we got closer, we noticed that the area around Cinque Terre was full of hills, winding roads, and the smell of the sea was all around us.

It was a shame to arrive so late in the evening/morning because we were cheated out of the coastal view on the drive there.  We eventually entered the town of Manarola and walked along a long stream, past a 14th century stone church, on our way to our Airbnb.  Even in the moonlight, we could immediately tell how picturesque the area is.  The studio where we were staying was comfortable despite being bare, and gave us a good view of the colorful buildings around us.

Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre

Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre

The next morning, the nearby church bells roused us out of bed, and the sun was already shining brightly against the amazingly blue and green water.  We could easily see how Manarola is the most picturesque of the five towns.  For those of you (this included me until a few months ago when we planned this trip) who don’t know much about Cinque Terre outside its Instagram fame, it’s not one town but a collection of five towns (hence Cinque=five Terre= Towns) dotted along the Ligurian coast.  Cinque Terre is technically a national park, enclosed within stone walls, with plenty of walking trails and vineyards the early townspeople cleverly engineered up the rolling hills.  They’re known, no surprise, for their wine, anchovies and pesto; two out of those three rank pretty up there on Courtney’s Favorite Things list.  The five towns (from furtherst South) are: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.  Most people visit Vernazza, because it’s the more trendy town that Rick Steves waxes lyrical about, but the remaining four towns have become increasingly popular in the past few years, much to the locals chagrin.  In fact, the government has imposed a tourist cap of 1.8million at any given time, and you have to pay a tourist tax of 1 euro per person per day when you stay there.  It’s all part of an effort to preserve their culture and environment for future generations.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

After lighting a candle in the 14th century church near our studio, we walked through the town center, which is essentially one long street lined with restaurants, gelato shops, and Italian food and cookware stores, that stretch down to the water’s edge.  We attempted to walk along the Via Dell’Amore trail to Riomaggiore, but it was unfortunately closed due to a rock landslide.  Instead, we opted to buy the all-day train pass that takes you to all five of the towns.  We were lucky enough to secure some window seats and were able to enjoy the sight of the water and Manarola buildings as we pulled away to Riomaggiore.  A somewhat smaller town that Manarola, Riomaggiore’s centrepiece is a long rocky harbour, which that day was crowded with sunbathers flayed out on the rocks like a bunch of sea lions, drinking and munching on snacks.  Everyone seemed to be walking around with focaccia bread, which we quickly noticed was the “street food” of the area.  You could get it plain, or with pestos, cheese, or a number of toppings, and all of them looked mouth watering.  The area was becoming increasingly packed with tourists, most of whom were older and following tour guides holding an umbrella aloft in the air.

We split a glass of Possa wine and a focaccia in the Riomaggiore town center before taking the train to Monterosso, the northernmost of the five towns.  This had more of a “beach town” feel to it than the others due to the pebble beach on which people were already crowding.  The sun was definitely warm, but the air temp was still only the mid=-60’s, so the bikinis and, at one point grown naked men, were a bit premature.  I probably could have done without the grown naked men anyway.

We walked along the water of Monterosso, lined with beachside restaurants like any town on the water, and stopped for lunch at a place called Bar Gio.  We split a bruschetta Pomodoro, some white wine, and El had penne arrabiatta while I got to finally taste Liguria’s famous pesto on my trofie pasta.  The food was great, the weather was perfec,t and the whole ambiance was super relaxing.  We weren’t in any rush to get to anywhere in particular, so we were able to just relax and enjoy the Italian food and wine.

After lunch, we took the train to Vernazza, whose streets were pretty packed with tourists popping in and out of their Italian kitchen stores.  We walked down to the harbour (each of the towns has a harbour that seems to be the main area of town), which, no surprise, was super crowded with people dining at the numerous restaurants in its small space.  In fact, we had get our glass of wine “to go” due to there being no seats available at any of the restaurants.  We enjoyed our white wine, straight from a tap which is so Italian I can’t stand it, and the sunshine while people watching everyone milling about.

The Ligurian Coast

The Ligurian Coast

Our last stop before heading back to Manarola was Corniglia, a town whose center is at the top of a decently steep hill.  The way it’s set up actually reminded me of Santorini in Greece.  Corniglia is a lot smaller than the other towns we had visited but still worth visiting due to the incredible view thanks to its vantage point on top of a hill.  The town itself is a labyrinth of narrow alleys that open up to overlook platforms where people gather to enjoy the weather and amazing view below.  We grabbed an Italian craft IPA from one of the alleyway bars and sat on the overlook for awhile, taking in the sea air.  After we finished our drink, we walked back downhill to the Corniglia Stazione and waited forever for a crowded train to take us back one stop.  Although right next to each other, Manarola and Corniglia were still a two hour walk from one another, and it was starting to get late in the day.

Dinner with a sunset view

Dinner with a sunset view

Once back in Manarola, we did some window shopping and bought some arrabiatta spices before climbing up to the Nessun Dorma restaurant for dinner.  Elliot found it online, and all the reviews said it was the best place in town for watching the sunset.  We had to wait a bit for a table, but it was so worth the view.  From where we were sitting, we got an eyeful of the whole of Manarola town and harbor: all the colourful buildings, interestingly enough with the same color green shutters, the perfect looking water, and all the people staking claim to watch the coming sunset.  The restaurant itself was more like an outdoor club/lounge, with house music playing and a limited number of platters on their menu.  Once we settled into our couch with a local white wine produced in Manarola, we ordered a mixed meat and cheese platter and an order of basil pesto bruschetta.  In typical Italian food fashion, the platters were so big that they overlapped our table.  We had a mix of delicious hard and soft cheeses, focaccia, the most amazing parma ham we’ve ever tasted, salami and other meats, all served with some crusty wheat bread and olive oil.  Once again, the basil pesto was amazing, and we ate way more than we should have.  The whole atmosphere of the meal was amazing, with front row seats to an incredible sunset over this colorful town, enjoyed with local wine; to say it was one of the most picturesque meals I’ve ever had would be an understatement.

After the sun had set, we grabbed a bottle of wine at a local bottle shop before passing out back at the Airbnb.  Our 5am wake-up call came way sooner than we would have liked, but we wanted to get to Florence before the Accademia Gallery (home of Michelangelo’s David) got too crowded.  Although we had a bit too much wine the night before, I thought ahead and pulled an Aunt Esther.  Aunt Esther was my great-aunt who would always wrap up leftover bread and rolls from restaurant baskets and bring it home, and the bread I brought home from dinner probably saved my life that next morning.  Aunt Esther knew her shit, but I don’t think I’ll be following any of her less appetizing habits, like having three years expire jars of mayonnaise in the fridge.

The drive to Tuscany was absolutely gorgeous, and we got to see the sunrise over the harbor side of La Spezia, surrounded by gorgeous green hills and bright blue water.  The scenery through Tuscany was pretty close to what your imagination conjures when thinking of the area: tall Gladiator trees, sloping hillside vineyards, and fields of green.  The fact that it was the beginning of a beautiful 74 degree day didn’t hurt.

It took us about two hours to get to Florence, a place that still maintains its “Old Tuscany” charm while being a big city.  Like typical Italian towns, the roads were narrow, and people on scooters were weaving through cars in traffic.  Our B&B was located right next to the Duomo Cathedral, which itself was so much more elaborate and beautiful than I had thought.  The Soggiorno La Pergola was recommended by Lonely Planet and had a very old-school Italian feeling room.  After the manager arrived, we dropped off our bags and made our way to the Accademia Gallerie.  The line for the Accademia was already out the door, starting a museum trend that would last throughout the weekend.  When we finally got inside forty minutes later, the line had doubled and we were grateful that we got there relatively early.

Check out that slingshot

Check out that slingshot

The Gallerie doesn’t open up to the David right away, so we saw some impressive Renaissance paintings (including Botticelli’s Madonna and Child) and statues in the room adjacent to the entrance.  David is next to the painting wing at the end of a long corridor, lined with the unfinished dying slave statues of Michelangelo.  The architect knew what he/she was doing because it’s definitely something to have Michelangelo’s masterpiece grow larger in stature and impressiveness as you approached it.  David really is pretty damn incredible, especially when you’re up close and able to notice the detail in his features.  The veins in his hands caught my eye because they were so realistic.  It really did look like a human being (granted a human being with one hell of a physique) had turned into marble.

After taking our requisite selfies, we left the Gallerie for the Piazza Della Signoria.  As we left, we were approached by several shady tour operators whose whole gimmick is to charge a wildly inflated price for the convenience of cutting the long-ass lines.  Most Florence museums even have signs warning against using one of these tour operators.

Piazza Della Signoria was already packed with tourists, snapping selfies with the copy of the David Statue and the imposing Palazzo Vecchio behind him.  The Neptune Fountain was unfortunately closed for restoration, but there was still plenty of art to be seen, particularly on the raised platform known as the Loggia dei Lanzi.  There we saw incredible antique statues, like Perseus holding Medusa’s head, the Rape of Polyxena, Menelaus holding Patroclus, and the Rape of the Sabine women.  We walked to the nearby Ponte Vecchio, the only 12th century Florentine bridge that survived WWII.  It’s still a beautiful structure, but it’s unfortunately now crowded with people selling shitty artwork and selfie sticks.

Mama mia!

Mama mia!

We walked along the river, enjoying the sunshine that reflected the mountains on the water, and uphill to the Piazelle Michelangelo, an overlook with one hell of a view.  We grabbed a Coke, sat on some steps, and took in the wispy clouds, blue sky, Gladiator trees, snowcapped mountains in the background, and the red rooftops of the beautiful city of Florence.  The whole thing was like an olive oil label.  It was hard to tear ourselves away, but our stomachs were rumbling.  We had lunch at the Trattoria Bordino, a Lonely Planet recommendation near Ponte Vecchio.  The service was pretty shitty, and it was a pretty disappointing meal. We later read reviews that recommended people go for dinner and definitely not lunch.  Hindsight and all that.

We crossed the Ponte Vecchio and decided to stop for gelato at its end.  Little did we know that the two scoops of stracchiatella on cones would cost a whopping 12 euros a cone.  Freaking unreal.  We walked towards Santa Croce Church, where many prominent Italians are buried.  There was another massively long line, and there didn’t appear to be an efficient system to deal with it.  It was worth the wait though, as we entered into a huge wooden church with painted beams on its soaring ceiling.  It’s still a working church, so there were pews set up in the nave and elaborate marble tombs lining its walls.  Above the tombs were gorgeous 13th century frescoes surrounding impressive stained glass windows.  Off to the side, in one of the chapels and without any fanfare, is the Crucifixion Statue by Donatello.  It was incredible to see not only the beauty of the church, but to be in front of the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, Michelangelo, and Marconi.  Adjacent to the Cathedral is an airy courtyard, where you can further explore exhibitions of the church.

It was insane to be right next to the body of Michelangelo

It was insane to be right next to the body of Michelangelo

Our next stop was the Uffizi Gallery, where the line was an easy three hours long.  We got in line anyway, and were entertained by our surroundings.  There were all sorts of artists set up in the museum’s courtyard, armed soldiers keeping a vigilant watch over the crowd, and plenty of Italian couples engaging in serious PDA around us.  When the moon hits your eye, and all that jazz.  We waited in line for two hours, but as we neared closing time, it looked less likely that we would get in.  We overheard the guy behind us saying that when the museum’s New Director came on board, he said the first thing he’d do was eliminate the long wait times, but in fact the wait times have only INCREASED since his tenure started.  Although we did want to see the Birth of Venus housed in the Uffizi, we left the line before we wasted any more of our time.  We rested up before dinner at the nearby, red bricked and cozy, restaurant Osteria dell Gatto e Volpe.  There were so many Americans sitting around us while we munched on bruschetta, focaccia bread, chicken marsala, cacao e pepe and tagliatelle bolognese.  For the most part, the food was okay but disappointing by Italian standards.

The area around the Duomo was full of bars, so we stopped at a few random places like Off the Hook bar with its jungle motif, and the super odd Namaste Bar with its trippy Euro trash music playing and femme fatale cartoons etched on its walls.  We tried a few Italian craft beers, which were about what we’d expected:  not great.  We hung out awhile, and I got a much cheaper and better tasting stracciatella gelato before heading up to bed.

How the Tower really got its lean

How the Tower really got its lean

We were awoken a few times by rowdy Italian boys celebrating the night, but overall slept well in the stone room of the B&B.  The next morning, we got some breakfast to go and left Florence to the sound of the Duomo Cathedral’s bells ringing behind us.  The ride to Pisa took about an hour and twenty minutes through incredibly green Tuscan valleys.  We could see the Leaning Tower come into view as we approached the city, which was actually pretty awesome.  After parking and walking to the courtyard area housing the Tower, Baptistry, Cathedral, and Campastrano (cemetery), we saw plenty of tourists taking pictures pretending to either hold up or push down the Tower.  There was wasn’t much to the whole area, but all the buildings had the “frosted cupcake” look that my college art history professor described.  We relaxed a little bit in the courtyard before heading to the airport and catching our flight back to reality.

Italy is beautiful in so many different ways, with its architecture, works of art, food, wine, and way of life.  It’s one of those places that retains its charm, despite the tourists who fill its streets.  We’ll definitely be back; I suppose you could say “that’s amore”…

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