Monday, February 21, 2011

AT LAST - THE CINQUE TERRE

While living in Italy we always wanted to visit the Cinque Terre.  Somehow we just never made it, so for our six week adventure in the fall of 2010 this was at the top of our 'must see' list.  We left Umbria early on a Sunday morning and stopped by Carrara on the way.  I wrote about our stop in Carrara in THIS POST, and it really was well worth the time. 

As we headed up the coast, catching glimpses of the ocean along the way, I was fascinated by the mountains.  Not surprisingly the mountains get more and more impressive the further north you drive even though the Alps were still a good distance away.
For our three night visit we'd decided to base ourselves in Levanto, mainly based on what I'd read about it on the SLOW TRAVEL MESSAGE BOARD.  Not including our stop at Carrara, the drive from Umbria to Levanto took about four hours. 

As usual price was a big factor in our decision of where to stay and we decided upon  a very simple bed and breakfast place on the outskirts of town.  L’Erba Persa was about a five minute walk from the train station and it was only another 5 minutes into town. The price, €25 per person per night included breakfast and a shared bathroom.   We were pleased with our accomodations but I do have to note that there are two rather steep flights of stairs at L’Erba Persa. You have to walk up a flight of stairs on the outside of the house to enter it, and to get to the bedrooms there is another flight of stairs. There is an enclosed parking area on the property so we put everything we needed into one suitcase rather than lugging everything up those two flights of stairs.
 
That first evening we walked into town, strolled along the beach, watching surfers and enjoying the sunset.  We found a place to eat, one recommended by our hosts at L’Erba Persa.  Of course I had to try something with pesto - this is Liguria, home of pesto!  I'm sure that had we eaten in a private home the pesto would have been every bit as good as mine, but while the restaurant pesto certainly wasn't bad, I have to say that I still prefer my own!
 
Cinque Terre on a Cloudy DayThe next morning we walked to the train station under VERY threatening skies.  There are regional trains that connect Levanto to the five towns of the Cinque Terre, and we headed to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.  The train was crowded with lots of serious hikers and plenty of more casual tourists like us.  After a stroll through Riomaggiore we took the paved trail that leads north from there to the next town, Manarola.  This is the easiest and shortest walk of all, although when we were there part of the pathway was closed.  I'm not sure if the heavy rains of the past few days had anything to do with the closing - I suspect they did. 


Cinque Terre on a Cloudy DayWe were able to walk up to where lovers are now attaching locks to the fence as a symbol of love - is this something from the "Twilight" series of books?  Wherever it started it seems to be a very popular trend and local hardware stores now make sure to have plenty of locks on hand.

Eventually we walked back into town and took the train to Manarola.  The weather was still threatening but we had umbrellas and warm jackets and weren't too inconvenienced by the occasional sprinkles. 

On another, nicer day we bravely (and naively) set off on the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso, the northernmost town of the Cinque Terre.  We knew it would be up up up, but wow!  We went up rocky steps literally carved into the hillside, then we went up more - and more - and even more!  Every time we thought we must be at the top we'd round a bend and find yet another series of steps!  Of course the trail has to follow the coastline, and in this part of Italy the coastline zigzags in and out and in and out, making our walk far longer than we had anticipated!  There were maybe three spots on the trail where I seriously doubted the wisdom of this walk, but of course by that time we were too far in to give up!  Once we had to jump quite a distance to avoid a rushing stream that was covering the trail.  Later we walked down a very long and rather steep set of stairs that was also serving as a running creek bed - which was made worse because there was nothing on either side of the stairs to hold on to.  Yeah, I know we're old and out of shape, but on this day, due to the recent rains, this trail was very, very slippery, muddy and challenging!  We both breathed a sigh of relief when we spotted Manarola - and then walked some more as it would come in and out of our view, just teasing us.  The good thing about the day we chose to do the walk was that it wasn't too hot - I can't imagine making this walk in the summer heat!

I've posted our photos of the Cinque Terre on our Flickr page in two separate albums - one when it was very dark and cloudy, the other from another day when the sun did manage to peek through on more than one occasion.  Here are the pictures from the cloudy day:

(Don't forget, once you hit the "Play" arrow you'll be able to click on the small box in the lower right hand corner to expand to full screen)





And here are the photos with a little bit of sunshine:



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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

PUGLIA - TRULLI IN ALBEROBELLO

One of the places in Italy we'd always wanted to visit was PUGLIA, down in the heel of the boot.  We were lucky enough to have friends who own a second home in Ostuni and who offered it to us for our stay.  Down in southern Italy you could easily imagine yourself in Greece just as easily as Italy.  The whitewashed town of Ostuni tumbles down the hillside just as villages in Umbria do, but the feel is much more mediterranean.  The town of Ostuni has an ancient feel to it, but it's very much alive, and was a great place to call home for a brief period. 
 
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Not far from Ostuni is the town of Alberobello.  Here is where you'll find the TRULLI, round stone houses made completely out of stone, including the roof.  Rocks are plentiful in this area, so of course it's logical that the house are built of stone, but the unique way in which these houses are built makes them even more interesting.  One theory is that these houses were built so that they could be quickly and easily disassmebled, thereby avoiding being taxed for a 'permanent' structure. 
 
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There are mysterious markings on many of the trulli roofs, and depsite all the theories, no one really knows what they symbolized. 
 




This area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, guaranteeing that the trulli will remain authentic for the world to enjoy.  The trulli of Alberobello are still inhabitated, some as private homes, some as tourist shops.  Wlaking through the streets among the trulli, despite the shops, despite the tourists, feels very much like a step back in time, with just a little fairy dust thrown in for good measure. 

Here are the photos we took of Alberobello and the trulli:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

PIEMONTE - BAROLO

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When planning our trip to Italy we knew we absolutely HAD to visit the Piemonte region. This northwest region of Italy is known for its wines – Barolo, Barbera, Barberesco and Asti Spumante are four that immediately spring to mind. And what do you need for all that wine? Why vineyards of course! And what’s more scenic than acres and acres of vineyards sprawling over rolling hills? And if there are mountains in the background and medieval villages in the foreground, you might say the area is pretty damn scenic, or you just might say it’s PIEMONTE!



Wow! This area is so gorgeous that it’s hard to drive anywhere within the ‘expected’ time since you keep stopping to take photos! We were lucky enough to be in Piemonte in the fall when the crowds were a little lighter and the grapevines were just starting to change colors.

One day we took a trip to Barolo. The castle still sits on the hill, surveying vineyards for as far as you can see. The medieval village is still small and not overly touristy (whatever that means!). My only disappointment of the day was the relatively new wine museum inside the old castle. I found the displays rather boring after a while – I mean who but an wine expert or a farmer wants that much information? Additionally, in making the museum they covered up any trace of the medieval castle! Personally I’d rather see the intact medieval castle and do without the wine museum at all.

One of the BEST things about the town of Barolo is the regional enoteca. There are regional enotecas sprinkled all over Piemonte and this is where you can taste the local wine(s) from a variety of producers and get lots of good information about the wine, from basic stuff like what varieties are used in the making of a wine to more detailed info like what direction a specific vineyard faces.

Here’s a slideshow from our day in Barolo: