Italy to the UK

On Thursday we packed up and hopped the local 5Terre Trenitalia up to Sestri Levante (about 40 minutes).  There we switched to the intercity train which would take us to Milano Centrale (Milan’s main downtown rail station). We had e-tickets for a 2nd class cabin and reserved seats on this train.  BTW, the Trenitalia website is easy to use for planning routes and purchasing tickets online.  The views along the coast especially near Genoa are spectacular along this section of rail, though it’s hard to get a good pic since there are so many tunnels.  Just as you line up a shot you’re into a tunnel!   As the train turned north away from the sea we passed through even more tunnels, seemed at times there were more tunnels than open rail.  Once at Milan Centrale (about 2 hrs from Sestri Levante) we purchased tickets for the Malpensa Express out to the airport.  We had reserved a room at the airport Sheraton (on points) for the night.  All in all, smooth trip, no issues, even managed to avoid the pickpockets this time!

5Terre Train

5Terre Train

The train comes into Terminal 1.  From there we had a very short indoor walk to the airport hotel.

Sheraton Hotel, spiffy!

The alps from the Milan Malpensa Airport

The alps from the Milan Malpensa Airport

Next morning we caught our flight on Flybe Airlines to Birmingham, UK. This is one of those small airlines where you board a bus and traipse out to the plane, then walk up a stairway (or ramp) to get on.  Turns out my carry on bag was at the limits size-wise for this plane, had some trouble getting it in the overhead. After clearing the alps, two hours later we were landing in Birmingham.  Sandy had been through this airport once before, but it was a bit of a challenge figuring out which train we needed to take to get to Rugby.  We actually ended up on the wrong train but a very nice Brit helped us out and also showed me the phone app for the train schedules and e-tickets.  That helped a lot as we were better able to determine which trains went where.  Just a side note, I’m very glad I took Nomadic Matt’s suggestion about T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan when I switched phone carriers.  I have free 3G data and texting in 140 countries outside the US.  Sweet!  So doing things like searching google maps or loading a helpful app is no cost, though sometimes a little slow.

Once we had the right train it was a short ride to the Rugby train station, then a taxi to our hotel.  We were staying at a Holiday Inn for two nights (one on my points) since our “flat” wasn’t available until Nov 1. We had a nice British breakfast next morning (sigh, no espresso, going to miss that), roamed around Crick (15 minute walk), walked along the Union Canal (This area has more miles of canals than Venice, dating back to the Roman times.  You can rent these narrow canal boats to cruise them. Just upstream of here are 21 locks in series all manually operated.), had a beer at the local pub, and relaxed again.  Brits are very friendly!

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Along the Union Canal coming to a tunnel. The sign says it’s 1500+ yards or nearly a mile!

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At one of the three local pubs in Crick, The Wheatsheaf Inn

First British Real Ale, well some of it anyway..

In the UK! Canal boat in the background.

So on Sunday our host, Mark, picked us up and delivered us to our next home-for-awhile place, The Low Thatched Cottage,  located a few miles away in the village of Crick.  More on that later….  Ta!

Vernazza

Vernazza

After leaving Manarola, we took the train to Vernazza, a town to which we hadn’t been yet. We were to meet our apartment’s host around 1:00, but we’d had to leave Manarola at 10:00, so even after coffees and pastries at Aristide, the 8-minute train ride left us with some time to kill. So we walked down Vernazza’s main street (much less steep than Manarola’s or Riomaggiore’s) to the harbor, and watched people in the piazza…

The piazza in Vernazza :-)

The piazza in Vernazza 🙂

 

We also explored a bit to try to locate the door of our apartment, which was not so easy, given the usual Cinque Terre network of stairs and alleys that are named streets. We did find our house, though, and met with the genial Luca (from Genoa), who showed us around the flat (after climbing the 30-some steps to the top floor). It seemed more spacious than the previous apartment, I think mainly because there was a sofa, so we had somewhere to relax. There was also a nice rooftop terrace, though not as private as the balcony in Manarola – here in the middle of town the houses are really all on top of each other.

Beer in the sunshine!

Beer in the sunshine!

After doing paperwork with Luca, we grabbed some focacce and beer and went down to sit in the sun by the harbor… just lovely! Then we took a short hike out toward Corniglia (see our hike post), came back and bought some groceries for the next few days, figured out the washing machine, and hung clothes all over the apartment, since by then it was too dark to hang them out on the clothesline we finally located below the windows. Then later we had a great dinner at Il Baretto, where we had a nice conversation with a self-described “itinerant dentist” and his wife, from Colorado.

On Sunday, we hiked to Monterosso, which is the most beach-resort-y of the 5terre towns. It was fun to see the different vibe there: rollerbladers, parasailers, beachfront pizza and beachwear shops, etc. Still on a small scale, though, nothing like a beach resort town in the US. I finally broke down and bought a pair of shorts, which was something I’d wished I had packed for this leg of the trip. I had figured jeans would be fine because the temps were supposed to be in the 60s, but in the sun, it’s felt really quite hot – the weather reminds us of Santa Cruz CA: mid to upper 60’s, so cool in the shade but hot in the sun. Then we took the train back to Vernazza, and cooked dinner ourselves that night, using the rest of the uncooked linguine nero and some melanzane (eggplant) caponata we bought at the store… yum! Of course with vino, and we had ventaglini from the store for dessert.

Beginning Monday, I was back to work – thankfully this apartment had its own wifi, so it was MUCH better than the apartment in Manarola. So Al did some exploring during the days, and we popped out for lunches and dinners (and breakfast one day). We really loved how we could just go out the door and walk a bit through the old narrow alleys to come out onto the main street with all the shops and restaurants. I made a video one day…

We had a couple more very good meals, surprise surprise, which we’ll mention in a ‘Food & Drink’ post. The weather turned rainy Tuesday night during dinner at Gianni Franzi (so we had to move our meal inside), when it really stormed all night long. We especially enjoyed talking to Massimo at Il Pirata, which we would not have found (it being way above the train station, so not in the main part of town), were it not for Rick Steves’ recommendation – we had lunch there one day, and breakfast another, and took home pastries for two more breakfasts.

On Thursday around 11 we left by train for the next phase of our journey, on our way to England! Ciao, Cinque Terre!

Vernazza

I Sentieri

I Sentieri

Ever since our daughter told us about the Cinque Terre trails (sentieri) after her visit here about 10 years ago, we’ve been wanting to hike them ourselves, so this was a big reason for our choosing to come here. In this post, we’ll write about each of the hikes we’ve taken, to give you a flavor for what they’re like…

Trails highlighted which we hiked

Trails highlighted which we hiked

We picked up a trail map at the Park Office in Manarola, which we used as our reference all week. I’ve highlighted the trails we hiked, so as you can see, we barely scratched the surface, but we still very much enjoyed it! The entire 5 villages of Cinque Terre are contained within a national park, so all the trails are maintained (quite well, considering the conditions) by the park service and volunteers. They’re very well marked, and it’s fairly easy to find the trailhead in each town. As the website says, they really are all mountain-type trails, not to be ventured in flip-flops – though we did see that, and little pet dogs, too. But I would have to say they shouldn’t be 🙂

 

 

Manarola to Corniglia (Trail #s 506, 586, 587 – approx. 4 mi – hiked Oct 19): The coastal trail between Manarola and Corniglia (the blue line) is currently closed due to landslides, so this is the next nearest route. It’s actually quite a nice hike, which took us about 3 hours including a lunch stop. It starts near the switchback in Manarola (about 100 ft from our apartment), and quickly climbs stone stairs through terraced vineyards. These aren’t vineyards like we’ve seen in the US and other countries, but rather are very small, individually tended grape arbors, whose grapes (as I understand it) are generally sold to a local co-operative at a very subsidized rate. The idea of the subsidy is that tending and harvesting grapes grown this way can only be done with an enormous amount of manual labor, but the government wants to keep these vineyards maintained as the miles upon miles of dry-laid stone terraces are one of the main draws for tourism to Cinque Terre. Unfortunately, I can’t find now where I was reading about that… At a higher altitude than the vineyards are the groves of olive trees, particularly around Volastra, whose name is derived from “Village of olives”. We stopped at Gli Ulivi for cold beer and focaccia, yum! From there we got on trail 586, which ran along the hillside with beautiful sea views, sometimes pretty close to the edge. There was a very cool (literally) part which went up a river valley into a wooded area which was quite different than the exposed vineyards. Then we switched to trail 587 at a T, and headed down the hill to Corniglia.

Riomaggiore to Manarola (Trail #531 – approx. 1 mi in about 1 hour – hiked Oct 20): The coastal trail here (the famed Via dell’Amore) between Riomaggiore and Manarola (the blue line) is also currently closed due to landslides, so this is the next nearest route. Apparently there have been proposals and funding to reconstruct the via dell’Amore over the past few years, but they’ve only gotten as far as what appears to be preventive maintenance on the first 200 yards from the Manarola end, so who knows if it’ll ever re-open. Meanwhile, you can hike, if you dare, the half mile straight up and half mile straight down. Seriously… this is not a trail for the faint of heart, either figuratively or physically. But there were a lot of people hiking it the day we were there, which meant a good bit of allowing people to go by, as the trail is pretty narrow in a lot of places. Up up up through vineyards, then down down down into Manarola. There are a few nods to safety in the form of handrails now and then, but also often not. But still, it was a great hike, worth the effort for the breathtaking views and the ability to say “I did that”…

Manarola loop (Trail #s 506, 502, 585, 506 again – approx. 5 mi in about 3 hours – hiked Oct 22): This hike took us up into the mountain above Manarola, which gave us some really different terrain and views. We started by picking up trail 506 eastward about where the pedestrian-only part of the main street ends at the top of Manarola. The trail ran along the road a while, through people’s gardens almost, but then took off up the hill on trail 502. And up the hill, and up some more. Not as steep as some of the other trails, but really quite steadily up, until we were at a higher elevation than we’d been so far. After crossing a road, the path entered a forest of pine and chestnut trees. Ripe chestnuts littered the path, and Al gathered a pocketful for roasting later. We saw a number of game trails, which we guessed to be maybe wild boars, so we kept a wary eye open. We also heard a good bit of shooting around the intersection with trail 585, so we tried hard not to come upon a hunter by surprise. We didn’t see any other hikers on this whole trail, until we got near Volastra. We turned left at the T with trail 506, and started down the hill toward Volastra, where we again stopped at Gli Ulivi for beers (and a caprese platter this time). If I owned a restaurant called Gli Ulivi in the middle of a bunch of olive groves, I think I would have a few olive-based dishes on the menu – just saying 😉  Then we took what seemed by then to be an easy descent down into Manarola, the same trail we’d come up a few days before.

Vernazza to Corniglia (Trail #592 – approx. 1.75 mi round trip – hiked Oct 24): We only did a portion of this trail before turning around, as it was already afternoon when we started (after settling into new digs in Vernazza), and also we got a little impatient with the crowds. Not sure if it’s just such a more popular trail, or if it was because it’s the weekend. This trail begins just up the hill from the train station, to the right. We got some decent views of Vernazza, but otherwise not terribly exciting. But it’s likely that there are some great views and interesting stretches of trail that we missed out on 🙂 This was the first trail we were on which required all hikers to have a Cinque Terre card (pass), and there was a little pass control hut at the beginning where they were checking. We knew of this, though, so we had purchased a 2-day pass (€14.50 each) at the Vernazza train station’s park office.

Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare (Trail #592 – approx. 2.5 mi in about 2 hours – hiked Oct 25): Here’s where you get the best view of Vernazza, from the hillside just outside of town. This trail begins by entering one of the back stair/alley streets in the northwestern corner of the main piazza, and takes you up the hillside pretty quickly, but without the steep stairs of some of the other trails. There’s a pass control hut on either end of this trail. There are lots of pretty stretches and great views back toward the Cinque Terre towns. This trail was also quite crowded, full of people speaking Italian, English, French, German, and Chinese – so there were a lot of pauses to let others pass, as there are a lot of narrow spots. After the high point of the trail, it went up a couple of cool stream valleys before truly turning downhill. Coming down into Monterosso, the stairs became quite substantial, but then turned back into a narrow stony path, sort of odd.

 

Vacanza

Vacanza

I think what I’ll do is give here a general outline of our week’s vacation in Manarola, and then fill in with other posts about different aspects of our time here in the Cinque Terre…

Upon arriving in a grey drizzly Manarola around 4pm on Sunday via the regional train, which was full of tourists and trekkers, we made our way up the steep main street to our apartment, Casa Capellini. We knew from a map our hosts had emailed to us, that the apartment was somewhere above the switchback, near the church. But we hadn’t yet realized that a via (street) in Cinque Terre villages can be anything from a roadway navigable by small Italian delivery vans, to a narrow set of stairs between 4-story houses, so it took a bit of searching to find that we needed to turn down an alley from the church piazza to find the correct door.

Outside our apartment

Outside our apartment

We rang the bell, and were greeted by a “Ciao” from our hostess Franca up on a balcony above our heads. After introductions, she came down and let us in, and led us up the 36 narrow marble steps to our fourth floor apartment, where we were able to communicate with each other in Ital-English about keys, WiFi, and whatnot.

Beautiful even when rainy!

Beautiful even when rainy!

We decided this view from our balcony was well worth all the climbing…

After settling in a bit, we trekked back down the hill for a nice dinner at Il Porticciolo (we’ll do another post about eating and drinking here), and then stopped for some breakfast groceries on the way back up the hill. There was a lot of going up and down the hill all week…

Monday promised to be a beautiful day, weather-wise, so we set out on our first hike on one of the many sentieri (paths) in the 5terre (as it’s often referred to on signs etc).

Typical section of a sentiero

Typical section of a sentiero

This had been one of the main reasons we chose to come here: the paths between the villages, through terraced vineyards and olive groves, and along seaside cliffs. We also posted about all the hikes we took.

Today’s hike was from Manarola to Corniglia, which took about 3 hours with stops. The coastal trail has been closed for a few years due to a landslide, so we had to take the hillier route through Volastra, where luckily there was a cold beer with our name on it. We wandered around Corniglia a bit, which is a very small and stony village – again, there’ll be more on the individual villages in a later post – and then took the short train ride back to Manarola. After an afternoon riposo in the sunshine on our balcony (which became a daily habit), we had dinner down by the waterfront at Marina Piccola.

On Tuesday, we went the other direction and took the train to Riomaggiore, which takes all of about  60 seconds after waiting for half an hour 🙂

View at and from A Pie' de Ma'

View at and from A Pie’ de Ma’

We had coffees and pastries on the main street, and then after finally finding a Bancomat (ATM) that would work with our card, we did a bit of exploring, and found a wonderful lunch spot (A Pie’ de Ma’) right near the entrance to the now-closed Via dell’Amore (another landslide victim).

Don't look down!

Don’t look down!

After lunch, we hiked back to Manarola via the fairly heart-stopping trail over the hill, which really did take about an hour as the sign said, though it felt longer. After a post-hike rest, we had a delicious sunset dinner at Trattoria dal Billy, in one of the back alleyways of Manarola.

Wednesday was Al’s birthday, another reason for this particular week and location for our vacation. We spent the day just exploring Manarola more thoroughly, including the harbor and another cliff-side restaurant, before having a home-cooked (by Sandy) birthday pasta dinner on our balcony.

 

On Thursday, we decided to hike up into the mountains on a 6-mile loop, which took us into a completely different microclimate, with pine and chestnut forests.  Apparently it was hunting season for something as we saw and heard some cacciatori (hunters) blasting away around us.

Volastra and Groppo

Volastra and Groppo

Somehow we ended up back in Volastra for beers again before heading back down the hill into Manarola – funny how that happens…  Dinner was fried seafood from a take-away stand in the middle of Manarola, and gelato for dessert.

We watched the ferry coming in, and wondered how the pilot would land it in the crashing waves, and then it pulled back away and went on to the next town instead

We watched the ferry coming in, and wondered how the pilot would land it in the crashing waves, and then it pulled back away and went on to the next town instead

Friday we decided to go back to Riomaggiore (by train both ways this time), and explored a bit more, including the harbor and waterfront area, which we hadn’t even spotted our first time there. The seas were pretty rough, so while it was cool for us to watch the waves crashing against the rocks, it wasn’t so cool for the people who’d bought ferry tickets, since the ferry was unable to stop in Riomaggiore at all that day. We had lunch again at A Pie’ de Ma’, which was much more crowded this time (apparently a lot of tourists coming in for the weekend).

Friday evening was our last night in Manarola before leaving for an apartment in Vernazza on Saturday. From Nessun Dorma we watched a gorgeous sunset over il mare and then a beautiful moonrise over Manarola… Arrivederci!

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Germany to Italy

Germany to Italy

Although it was truly wonderful spending time with my sister C and her family, after 6 days in chilly and rainy Bad Oldesloe, it was time to head to warmer climes for a week’s vacation!

We’d fallen into a daily routine this past week in Bad Oldesloe… Because the hotel’s internet wasn’t working, I needed to work from my sister’s house. So each morning we would get up around 6:45, go downstairs for breakfast at 7 (their earliest time), the Afghan boys would filter in starting around 7:15 and we would all greet each other, we’d go back upstairs and get ready, then walk the mile or so past the school complex (a couple times we saw my nieces arriving on their bicycles among herds of other teenagers), and to C & K’s house in a nice little housing plan outside of town, where we would settle in for the day. After realizing the hotel internet wasn’t likely to be fixed, and that we weren’t too much of a nuisance to C and her family, I just left my laptop there each day rather than lug it back and forth. I’d work at their dining table, have second-coffee (with some sort of German treat), join them for lunch after the girls got home from school (it happened to be their “project week”, so they’d get home around 1 or 1:30), maybe do something with the family for a bit, and then work and have meetings some more before and after dinner (since many of our customers are in the US), while joining in with general family time. It worked out really well, so I’m actually kind of glad the hotel internet didn’t work, as otherwise I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time with family, even if it was often just peripherally.

But on Saturday, it was time to leave, so we moved our breakfast routine about an hour and a half later (as did the Afghan boys it turned out), and C picked up us and our bags a little after 9 to spend a bit more time at their house before she & K drove us to the Hamburg Flughafen for our 1:10pm flight. They walked us as far as the security checkpoint, which wasn’t too crowded, as we chose the body-scan line. We had no problems – including the Leatherman tools K had just given us, which was good as they’re supposed to be TSA-approved (no knife). We just had to show our boarding passes, not our IDs, which we thought odd; otherwise, fairly standard: laptops out, jackets off, but shoes could stay on. We found at the EasyJet gate that we really could only have 1 hand bag each (i.e. our laptop bags), so we had to gate-check our normal carry-ons – luckily they didn’t charge us, though I see the website says it might cost £50 to gate-check a bag. During boarding at the EasyJet gate they said to have IDs out, but they really only looked at our boarding passes. We boarded the plane via stairs, so we had to leave our poor lonely bags on the tarmac where a guy said to put them; we hoped they would get put on the plane 🙂

The flight was delayed just a little, but otherwise fine, and pretty quick, about an hour and a half.

A bit of the Alps, with a glacier to the right.

A bit of the Alps, with a glacier to the right.

When we arrived at Malpensa airport outside of Milan, we had to collect our bags [which did make it into the hold – yay!] from baggage claim, something we rarely need to do! Again, no customs, and no passport check, since we were arriving from another EU country – it just seems odd for us as Americans, who are normally flying from or to the US. We had booked a room at the First Hotel Malpensa  after our Booking.com reservation in the city had not gone through. I tried calling the hotel for shuttle service, but unfortunately I couldn’t make out the Italian phone message, to understand what number to press for what. So after some discussion, we decided to walk there, as it was only 2.5km, but I wouldn’t recommend that – we lost our sidewalk pretty quickly, and had to walk on the berm of a busy airport access road. So we were definitely ready for drinks at the hotel bar after checking in, and then had a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant – our first meal in Italy in nearly 10 years!
This was between Malpensa airport and the train station... Not sure if it's always like that, or something special for the Expo Milano, which is going on now.

This was between Malpensa airport and the train station… Not sure if it’s always like that, or something special for the Expo Milano, which is going on now.

Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hotel, which I had prepaid when I booked. We took the hotel shuttle to the airport and caught a train around 8:30 from Malpensa to Milano Centrale (Milan Central Station), which takes about an hour.

Milano Centrale

Milano Centrale

We had to hang around the train station for a few hours, and found that there really isn’t much to do without going back out through a security gate, and we were too uncertain about getting back in, so we didn’t try that. Nowhere to sit, either :-/ The only thing to do really was watch people and pigeons. We boarded the InterCity train around noon, and had a bit of trouble with a couple of young women who were trying to get into my purse, but luckily it’s a pretty secure travel purse, so they didn’t have any luck. The train to Sestri Levante on the coast took about 2 hours, going through a lot of tunnels, and past Genova. Note that this was NOT a high speed train by German standards, but scenic. We were in a 6 seat compartment. We just made our connection to the regional train to Manarola, which took about another hour. Next stop: Cinque Terre, the five lands!