Friday, May 6, 2016

Cinque Terra and Family Reunion

Years ago, discussing an upcoming mountain biking trip to Switzerland for pft's 50th birthday, I idly wondered where *I'd* like to go for my 50th birthday treat and came to the conclusion that I'd love to go to Cinque Terra, but figured it would never happen. 

Fast-forward to last year when my Dad and I started discussing a possible family reunion in 2016 to celebrate his 80th and my 50th - and it suddenly became a reality. We don't do this very often. Last "proper trip" was 1996 when we all gathered in Queensland. Since then, the only other time we've all gotten together was 2012 when my younger half-brother got married in England - and that was just a brief visit. 

It was lovely to see the family and spend some "proper" time with them over a longer time period. Many thanks to my Dad for helping with costs so that we could pull this off. I really hope we can somehow do it again.

The Trip:

Day 1 - Porto Venere

Home of good restaurants, fine views over the Gulf of Spezia, Byron's Grotto (allegedly he swam across to Lerici to visit his friends the Shelleys who were living in Lerici - Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein"... more on that later), the amazing church of San Pietro (the "new" church built in the 1200s, unlike the "old" church next door which was roman).

Looking towards Cinque Terra from the church of San Pietro

I loved the little intimate church - thinking, as we climbed up to its lofty location, that it would be grandiose, but it was tiny. The architectural was lovely - with little balconies and doorways to view the surrounding coastline.

Day 2 - Monterosso and Vernazza by Train

pft and I took the train to Monterosso and then to Vernazza to find out if you could visit either by wheelchair (Vernazza - yes, there's a lift; Monterosso - no, there's two flights of stairs to street-level, and the information person I asked about a lift acted as though I was being lazy by suggesting we might need one for a wheelchair person). The trains go every 30 mins and only take 10 minutes to get from La Spezia to the first village of Riomaggiore - and after that the villages are 3-4 minutes apart. The best option was to get a six hour ticket (valid for one direction only), so you could hop on and off the train as you fancied, which freed you up to visit whatever you wanted on your schedule.

Overlooking Vernazza harbour 

We spent most of our time poking around in all the little alleyways in the two villages. There are a maze of these - you basically climb stairs and go through tunnels and see where it takes you. Sometimes you end up at someone's front door. Sometimes the maze links you back to where you started.

One of hundreds of little alleyways in Vernazza

In Vernazza, we climbed up to the stone tower overlooking the whole village - loved this village.

View from the tower high above the village

Refilling our water bottles from the village water supply.
About a week a later, I came across some Americans who asked if one could drink the water
and I was able to tell them that, yes, it was fine, since I hadn't died the previous week from drinking it.

Day  3 - Cinque Terra by Car

They tell you not to visit Cinque Terra by car - and I sort of understand why. The roads aren't wide enough in many places for two (v small) cars to pass; the roads twist back on themselves with many blind corners, so you drive very slowly; and parts were washed away during the 2011 flood, so you squeak past holding your breath. Still, it was fascinating to access the villages from "behind the scenes" so to speak and see the terrain high on the hills inland.

Looking north along the coast to the Portofino Peninsula. I really wanted to drive here
the day after the rains when I figured the view would be really clear. 
 The little Fiat we rented needed an extra gear as 1st was too low and 2nd too high.

We first visited Monterosso - looking along the coast towards Portofino - and then worked our way around on the high road, until we came to a section that was closed due to landslide and had to backtrack. We ended up going down about 1500' on a tiny road almost all the way down to Vernazza, before going up all the way back up to the top again to get around the missing section. This area almost reminded me of Devon - similar geology, even to the point of the gorse bushes - and similar tiny houses jammed up close to the road.

Peeking down on Corniglia and Manarola from the high road

Admiring the views from the high road, we detoured down to Corniglia and Manarola, just to see if we could (you can).

Manarola from the road above

Day 4 - Monterosso to Vernazza Hiking

This was a lovely day - pft and I took the train again to Monterosso and bought a hiking ticket to access the "low" trail along the coast to Vernazza. It was overcast and cooler (mid-60s) this day, which was welcome given that the trail was like a never ending stairmaster with way better views.

Steps, steps and more steps

Looking back towards Monterosso over vineyards and lemon groves

The trail wends its way through lemon groves (with intoxicating smells of citrus blossom), vineyards and olives (most with orange or green nets strung underneath for later harvesting). While we were hiking, there must have been a fire inland (although we never saw any smoke) because a helicopter + bucket started dipping in the sea, shortly followed by a scooping plane who'd skim along the sea surface for about 500 yrds before making a labored take-off again.

Watching the scoop-plane and bucket helicopter

Strangest thing on the hike? A cat grotto with signs asking passerbys to drop off any excess food for the cats. 

Practising our selfies above Vernazza

Looking to see if we can see my brother Dominic and Lisa at the assigned quay-meeting spot

Finished the hike with a well-earned gelato and met my brother, Dominic, and his girlfriend Lisa for cappucino at the sea-front.

"I'll hold your gelato, pft, while you take the picture..."

Day 5 - Pisa - A day-trip on the train with the family.

Patrick, Lisa, and Dominic waiting for our allotted time to ascend the tower.
They let groups of 45 people up at a time to ensure you're not jammed up there with 30,000 of your best friends. 

Once you're up there, you can stay as long as you like and we spent a happy 45 minutes looking at the views.

Overlooking the Cathedral - that's my Dad asleep in the bottom right hand corner.
Sadly no way to get Sally in her wheelchair to the top.

The tower is actually shaped like a banana. The initial building started in the mid-1100s, they got about three storeys up before realising things were not going well. Construction was abandoned for 100 years until a new architect came along and thought he could fix the problem by building the rest of the structure at an opposing angle.

Banana bell tower for the Cathedral

Most fascinating were the marble steps inside, worn down from 800 years of feet:

Marble steps worn down by 800 years of feet

It's an odd feeling walking up and down the stairs, as you rush on the downhill ones, and feel more effort on the uphill ones - even though you're going downhill all the time. The base of the tower tilts by about 4-5 feet.

Hard to show, but the left side of the picture is the "high" side of the base,
with the right side showing how much it tilts on the "low" side.

I also particularly liked all the little vignettes on the cathedral doors - most especially the rhinoceros (no clue why it was on the door).

Best thing on the whole trip - the rhinoceros on the Cathedral door

And that's what happens if you have wings and a tail

Just like the Emirates Airways flight attendants - bringing steamed towels

"She did it..."

Angel bringing alcohol to someone who probably doesn't need it.
His drunk friends below definitely don't need it.

Day 6 - rainy and wet, so spent the day reading. We did go out for a wonderful lunch of locally-cooked ravioli in exotic flavours like smoked salmon and curry, and ricotta and walnut sauce. Got to try a local delicacy - sgabei - which are little pillows of fried loveliness that you eat with prociutto and stracchino (soft cheese).

Day 7 - Lerici

Still rainy, but I drove Patrick, Dominic and Lisa to Lerici to walk along the sea-front. Unfortunately, being a Sunday, the rest of Italy was also there, but it was a fun exercise in people watching.

Looking across to Porto Venere - remember Byron who was supposed to have swum across this bay?

The hulking castle on the point was said to be the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On the way home, the skies opened and we drove slowly in torrential rain.

Day 8 - Vernazza to Corniglia
(with a quick trip to Manarola)

Most beautiful clear day - Patrick and I took the train to Vernazza and hiked along the "low" path to Corniglia. Being about 800 foot up the hillside meant that we could see clear across to Corsica, over 100 miles to the south.

Looking down on Corniglia, with Manarola further along the coast
The trail was very well maintained and so fun to hike along - interesting terrain and absolutely gorgeous views 

Boy from Missouri done good

Nets under the olive trees for later harvesting

Corniglia is the only village not directly down at sea level and has no harbour:


We finished up by hot-footing the ~400 steps down to the railway station at sea-level and taking the train one three minute ride over to Manarola.

Corniglia is also one of the quietest towns owing to the 400 steps you have
to climb to get there from the railway station at sea level.

Main street in Manarola

Manarola - deserved more time than we spent here that day, so I came back a few days later

Day 9 - Monterosso by Car

The day wasn't the loveliest, but showcased exciting seas,
... and meant we had to duck into a gelateria at one point for "shelter"

We were really happy to be able to explore some of the little side alleys with Sally, as so many of the ones in Vernazza involve steps and were therefore off-limits to wheelchairs. Thankfully Monterosso is the flattest of the villages - the new town has a beach-front promenade, while the old town doesn't start to head upwards for a while.

I also got to sample foccacia with potato and rosemary - just the thing on a cold day, even if I was still full of lunch and gelato.

Both Vernazza and Monterosso were badly damaged during the October 2011 flood. Most buildings' ground floors were completely filled with mud - including the one where we had lunch.

Day 10 - Portofino

My Dad drove us along the "coast road" (as opposed to the autoroute, which is mostly in tunnels) to Portofino for lunch. It was all a bit of a rush as we needed to be back in La Spezia to meet Dominic and Lisa off the train - they'd been to Venice for a couple of days.

View from the Passo del Bracco. The road runs inland for a while before dropping down to the coast at Sestri Levante

Portofino is a quaint village with a tiny marina (in which was moored an enormous, out of place, motoryacht).

Not a great panorama, owing to the fact that this quayside is actually straight, but gives you an idea of the town.

We left Dad and Sally to eat lunch in the main square while we did a quick reccy along the quayside

The boat ramp forms one side of the square

This part of the coast is much more populated than Cinque Terra, with tons of yacht marinas. 

Looking across the bay to Rapallo. Apparently my grandparents (Grandpa and Grandma Chaplin)
used to visit Santa Margarita which is between Rapallo and Portofino back in the 1950s.
I bet it was a lovely part of the world back then. Nowadays it's a little too crowded for my taste.

I don't know if the sea was high from an incoming storm, but the level was just a few inches below the quay/sidewalk and regularly washed up onto the walkway (resulting in wet socks for the unsuspecting).

Yes, pft did end up with wet socks, and yes, I was glad to be wearing my waterproof hiking shoes

Maybe there's a reason for the rhinoceroses in this part of the world, but the pink meerkats make no sense at all. This was a sculpture garden that was sadly closed, but we could admire the parts we could see from the quayside:

Pink meerkats topping the posts

Day 11 - Cinque Terra
(Riomaggiore, Manarola > hike > Volastra > hike > Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso)

Patrick, Dominic and Lisa went to the two Ferrari museums inland in Modena, while I took the day to "do" Cinque Terra properly.

Dad kindly dropped me at La Spezia train station and I hopped on the train to Riomaggiore where it was cold and windy and I had to bundle up in every item of clothing I had with me.

Selfie - bundled up

Riomaggiore from the harbour.

I don't know if it was it was because it was so cold and overcast, or because they were doing lots of construction in the town, but I found this village to be the least appealing of all of them, although it had some really fun mazes of alleyways. Many were hard to distinguish from steps leading down to people's front gardens, so it was an adventure to take every little entrance and see where it led.

Being in the drainage points of steep-sided valleys, all of the villages are criss-crossed by an amazing (and often hidden) network of drainage channels. I looked at this structure in the photo below for a quite while before realizing it was a drain of some kind, linking into a network above it.

This tower at the top of the town has been here since the year 500

After poking around in Riomaggiore, I took the train 3 minutes up the coast to Manarola, ate a breakfast of foccacia overlooking the harbor, and started hiking.

The "low" path between Manarola and Corniglia had been landslided out, so I had to take the "high, panorama" trail - about 1,500' up the hillside, via the village of Volastra. Before you even start to hike, you slog your way up to the very top of the town and start to wonder "Do I really want to do this?". Peering up the hillside, you can see hikers high above you, and several times I questioned myself as to if I really really wanted to do this hike??, but I'd come a long way and was determined to follow through.

And I'm so glad I did.

The first part of the hike is actually very easy - a gentle gangway above the village, lulling you into a false sense of security.

There were wildflowers everywhere - so pretty!
After hiking the gradual part for a while, the trail started to get serious. I worked my way around a ridge... and then when straight up that ridge. The cold from earlier was definitely starting to dissipate.

Unlike the "low" pay-trails from earlier in our trip, this more inland, less-frequented, free trail was much more rugged, with more exposure and no handrails.

Loved this part, and stood a long time gazing out at the view

Every time you came around a corner, you'd think the view down to the village would be the last time you'd see it... and then you'd climb higher, and there it would be again, even more breathtaking than before. 

Corniglia, perched on its rocky promontory.

It's hard to put into words how wonderful this trail was - despite the uphill slog, it was one of the highlights of my trip.

...but what a lot of steps!

At this point, the trail started to climb again, up endless sets of shallow steps.

I finally remembered to turn on my GPS, after stopping to remove my jacket (stuffed into my pack), my fleece sweater (around my waist), and my scarf (tucked into the shoulder strap).

And finally the trail topped out in the tiny village of Volastra. From here, it levelled off and followed the vineyard terraces for a few miles. The smells were lovely - a mix of freshly turned soil, citrus, and other vegetation.

along terraces

If you look carefully at the big version of this photo, you can see the steps leading from the railway station at sea level, up to Corniglia on it's rocky perch

The metal thing in the foreground is a monorail system they have set up on some of the steeper hillsides, with a mini-train to pile the harvest onto and move it (presumably) to a location from where it could be transported.

I counted 32 terrace-levels on this hillside

This section of trail was strangely reminiscent of the upper part of the CA Street Loop on the Western States Trail

Blissed out hiking (and hot)

Finally Corniglia came into view and the trail dropped sharply downhill. I was glad I'd hiked it in this direction, since the trail went straight down the ridge, with no switchbacks to alleviate the climb if you'd been coming in the opposite direction. It was also very rough along here and my feet were starting to get a little achy from constantly rolling over rocks, despite wearing good hiking shoes.

Looking down on Corniglia

Dropping from one terrace to the next. You have to imagine these trails have been here for hundreds of years

The trail was as rough as it had been on the descent to Corniglia
 And then you pop out into the town square:

This is the "main street" in Corniglia

In Corniglia I sat for a while and rested my sore feet (I hiked about 8 miles that day) while eating a gelato. Sitting there, contemplating the 400 steps down to the trail station, I looked up and there was the shuttle minibus to the railway station. For €2.5* (~$3), I hopped on that bus and took the two and half minute journey down, feeling a little foolish and in retrospect wishing I'd hiked the stairs.

(* apparently it's only €1.5 if you buy a ticket from someone other than the bus driver. And better still, if you buy a hiking card, you can use all the buses and trains free - excellent value if you are a total overachiever).

From Corniglia, I took the train three minutes to Vernazza. I wanted to have one last visit to this village (my favorite), as well as better inspect the areas that had been affected by the October 2011 flood. 

25th October 2011 Flooding

There are many horrifying accounts of the events of that day, some of which can be found here: *

(* unfortunately the "show more" links in the above are not working, so the only way I was able to read the entire accounts was by doing ctl+a to select all, then pasting the result into a notepad page).

Vernazza and Monterosso were the mostly badly affected by the landslides, although amazingly, five years on, you can barely detect the level of devastation.

The basic story is that 20" of rain fell during a 4 hour period, there were many landslides which caused unbelievable amounts of water and debris to wash down into the towns, carrying with it cars and anything else in its path. The main street in Vernazza was buried under at least 15' of mud, with the water flow reaching well above that - waist-deep at the second storey. At one point the village's main 500-gallon propane tank was ripped from its moorings and was swept through, spewing gas as it went. About half-way through the worst of it, just as the flood was reaching a critical point, something higher up in the town blocked the flow - possibly an empty school bus - causing the water to recede for a few minutes and allowing the 100s of people trapped in the lower floors of restaurants, etc. on the main street to escape to higher ground. Without that incident, many more people would likely have died.

Main street video:

I first hiked to the back of the village to see the canal that I'd seen in several videos. Just above this area is the main parking lot for the village (only essential vehicles are allowed to drive into the village itself). In the video, you see cars and trucks being swept from the parking area into this canal and presumably completely blocking it downstream before it disappears under the road closer to the sea. Note the pink and yellow buildings (and the footbridges) that can be seen in the video.

Canal flood video:

There's a story at the SaveVernazza Testimonial page about a couple who were staying in accommodation on the lowest floor of one of these apartment buildings (the account starts with: "We left feeling deep respect for the people of Vernazza").

Canal at the top end of the village

The "bridge" shown on the left in the photo below is actually the Vernazza train station. There are accounts from several of people who were trapped at the train station, the most detailed of which starts "The main street was roaring and churning". The water was running over the top of the platform:

Video showing before and after:

At 1:50 in the video you see just the top of a bright blue awning at 'ground level'. The story of the people who were in the restaurant - the Blue Marlin - is told by Jeffrey Hewitt in the account that starts: "The conviction that I had not 5 minutes before left me as quickly as the blue water in front of the bar turned to brown."  (you also just glimpse some orange fencing in the background before the camera turns away - that's the train station platform from the opposite side to the photo above).

At about 2:00 into the film, you see a lady poking in the dirt at a buried v-shaped thing. That is the very top of this chapel shown below. For the photo, I'm sitting about where the ladder is (on a raised part of the street):

(more footage showing the flood down main street and the chapel:

About 3:25 into the film, they show some ornamental balcony railings now at 'ground level' - they are the balcony railings on the right of this photo above the striped awnings:

For the final part of my visit, I climbed to the castle on the sea-side of the town and up into the tower for an amazing panorama of the village and spent about 30 minutes just gazing down:

And then it was time to go home (and I admit, I cried). Having managed to find a cafe with wifi and paid for a coffee and sent a message to Dad asking him to pick me up at La Spezia train station at 6:30, in a comedy of errors, I inadvertently took the train west to Monterosso instead of east, so had to get off and wait 25 minutes for a return train.

I got to the train station where Dad had kindly waited for me - and we promptly had a flat on his rental car 100 yrds from the station. Many kind people stopped to ask if we needed help, and I was proud to be able to answer in my bestest Italian "Grazie, ma non e necessare" - while changing the tyre (have had lots of practice with the trailer - and by comparison, rental car wheels are a doddle).

Other things:

The house my dad rented for us was in a tiny, quiet village of Beverino about 6 miles inland from the coast. The house was an old farmhouse and built a bit like a nuclear bunker inside - stone walls so thick the wifi couldn't get through in one room. The grounds outside were immaculate, with draping wisteria, fruit trees, and a lovely patio where we would eat breakfast. Unfortunately it was way too cold to swim in the spotless pool.

Emirates Airways (8 hr 40 between NY and Milan) - five thumbs up. Great service, great food, great in-flight back of seats entertainment, steamed face towels, free wifi, USB charging ports, etc. Super helpful when my bag didn't turn up at Milan.

JetBlue (~6 hr between NY and SFO) - freezing plane, $5 per movie, free wifi, a packet of five chips and a tiny bottle of water... didn't manage to get my bag onto the connecting flight at JFK-NY to Milan, so I was without half my clothes for four days.

Milan Malpensa airport - seamless check-in, explanatory signage about what's expected of you, great food for reasonable price, classical pianist playing a grand piano in the departure lounge.

JFK-NY - nastiest airport ever - no signs to give you any idea how to get to your connecting flight, rude officials who shout at you when you don't follow their (unsigned) procedures, endless unnecessary zigzag lines carrying heavy bags, $6 to "rent" a baggage cart, nonsensical procedures, and no moving walkways.

Hertz - wouldn't accept my "Debit-Visa" card as a Visa card, despite the fact that it functions as such for every other establishment it has ever been used at. Thought we were going to be stranded in Milan. Eventually rented from AVIS who used the same card without blinking. You have been warned.

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