Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cinque Terre Hike 1: Riomaggiore to Porto Venere

We choose for our first hike one of our favorites, the 3-3/4 to 4 hour trek from the last town in Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, to Porto Venere.  Although outside of Cinque Terre, the three villages and three islands that make up the comune of Porto Venere are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the hike over to Porto Venere is beautiful, with great views of the sea all along the way.

We start by taking the train from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, a 17 minute ride for 1.8 euros ($2.03), with stops along the way in Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola. 

Riomaggiore to Porto Venere is a challenging walk down the coast and it starts, as do most of these hikes, with up.  About 350 meters (1150 feet) up, sometimes on steep paths, sometimes with stone stairs.

Starting the walk up to the top

The trail is no longer paved

As we approach the top, we reach the church overlooking Riomaggiore, Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero, a 14th century sanctuary and a great place to rest and admire the view below us.

 Looking down on Riomaggiore with Monterosso in the distance

There used to be a park office with bikes and a museum, but now the area only has the views and one of the tractors that carry grapes over tracks that wind through the vineyards on the steep hills.  Here’s Laura sitting in the tractor last year.  This year, vandals had tipped it over and it was crashed on its side.

Laura in the tractor

From the Sanctuary, we continue up and the views get even more spectacular.

Along the trail, looking back toward Monterosso

As we hike along the trail, we see great views of the sea, both back toward Riomaggiore and Monterosso in the far distance and forward toward Porto Venere. 

Along the trail, looking toward Porto Venere

Around the midpoint, we pass through the small town of Campiglia and note that the bar where we have had great sandwiches in the past is still closed. We were the only people in there when we stopped by a few years ago and our business was apparently not enough to keep it open.

Passing through Campiglia

We find our way by following the trail markers, red and white stripes on trees, rocks, and sign posts, just often enough to let us know we’re still on the right path.

Trail markers

After passing through Campiglia, we meet an Australian student who is studying in Vienna and is staying in one of the small towns just off the trail.  We pass each other periodically as we each stop for photographs and talk about the trips he is planning to fill his spare time, hiking in Cinque Terre, hiking in the Alps, touring Europe, …

Finally, we reach the last section of loose rock leading down to Porto Venere, being very careful about where we put our feet, slipping every now and then.

Descending into Porto Venere over the loose rock

Looking towards Port Venere

As we get down into the city, we look back at the map of where we came from and where can go from here.

Trails from Porto Venere

But, seeking our reward, we walk along the waterfront until something looks interesting for lunch.  We sit outside and share a frito misto, octopus salad and pizza with anchovies and tuna, along with a carafe of local white wine.

 The Porto Venere waterfront

After lunch, we hop on the ferry back to Monterosso, with stops in the other Cinque Terre towns along the way.  As the ferry cruises up the coast from town to town, we get great views of the trail along which we hiked.

View of Campiglia (on top) from the sea

As the ferry approaches Riomaggiore, we see Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero that we hiked up to at the start, up on top.

 View of Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero (on top) from the sea

View of Riomaggiore from the sea

 Train along the coast passing through the Manarola station, just above Riomaggiore

Back in Monterosso, we borrow a beach towel from Hotel Villa Steno and go down to the beach for a swim in the Mediterranean, where I get stung by a jellyfish.  Laura thinks it was just getting me back for consuming so many of its octopus cousins!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Hiking in Cinque Terre

While there are a lot of attractions in Cinque Terre (food, wine, mountains, sea), we are there to hike.  Cinque Terre is in a National Park in Italy, ParcoNazionale delle Cinque Terre, containing a Marine Protected Area established in 1997.

Cinque Terre consists of five villages, each with its own unique personality:  Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  To the south of Cinque Terre is the town of La Spezia, the second largest (after Genoa) in Liguria, the Italian Riveria.  To the west of La Spezia is Portovenere, just below the southernmost Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore.  La Spezia has a large train station (La Spezia Centrale), with connections to Pisa, Rome and beyond and a cruise boat terminal where passengers can disembark for excursions to Florence, Pisa, Lucca, or Cinque Terre.

The five towns of Cinque Terre

To the north of Cinque Terre is Levanto, a gateway city to the region and about a 4 minute train ride from Monterosso.  A little further north and a short day-trip on the train from Cinque Terre are the towns of Portofino and Santa Margherita, which we came through on our train from Milan to Monterosso.

The five villages of Cinque Terre are connected by trails along the sea and trails higher up in the mountains.  Path Number 2 along the sea connects all the villages (although two sections from Manarola to Riomaggiore are still closed from the mudslides of 2011) and is the most popular hiking route.  The Park charges to hike on Path Number 2, with small shacks at each end to make sure that hikers have paid, 7.5€ ($8.40) for a day, 14.5€ ($16.23) for two days.  The hiking card can also be purchased with local train travel included for 12€ ($13.45) for one day or 23€ ($25.77) for two, but since the train fare between Cinque Terre stations is 1.4€ ($1.57, up to 5km) or 1.8€ ($2.02, up to 10km), depending on the distance, the hike out and train back is more cost-effective if we just buy our train ticket when we want to travel.

Map of the Cinque Terre region

Map showing elevations

Path Number 2 tends to be crowded, particularly in the afternoon and we have come to prefer Path Number 1, which runs across the top of the mountains from Levanto to Portovenere, at elevations ranging from 500 meters (1640 feet) to 800 meters (2624 feet, ½ mile).  The hike from one of the villages, at sea level, up to Path Number 1 is generally straight up, but once we are up, we can go a long ways with relatively small variations in altitude (at least compared with hiking straight up 500 meters to start!).

Path Number 1 is reported to take about 12 hours from Levanto to Portovenere.  We haven’t done the full path in one day and won’t this trip either.  But, we can break it up and do a section or two every day, returning to Monterosso, Hotel Villa Steno, and an incredible dinner and bottle of local wine every evening as we come down from the mountain.  That seems a lot more sensible to us and we do it over the next few days!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Arriving in Cinque Terre

The train trip from Bolzano to Cinque Terre does take a while, reminding us that we are traveling from the Alps to the Mediterranean, from a chilly, foggy, rainy, with-some-slight-snow climate to pleasant late-summer weather (we can still swim in the sea!).

The Trenitalia website doesn’t want to give me the best connections, I suspect the wait time in Verona is too long for the system to consider it a valid connection.  So, I link together three separate trips, Bolzano to Verona Puerta Nuova (1:29 for 9 euros), Verona Porta Nuova to Milano Centrale (1:23 for 9 euros), and Milano Centrale to Monterosso al Mare (2:53 for 9 euros), a trip stretching from a 7:11am departure from Bolzano to our 3:03pm arrival in Monterosso, for a total of 27 euros ($30.15).  I’ve printed the tickets from the Trenitalia website and we’re good to go.

We get to experience the long connection time in Verona and sit and wait as other trains come and go, back and forth between Venice and Milan.  One train for Milan pulls in and leaves – we’re booked on the next one that connects with our train to Monterosso.

 Waiting in Verona between trains, 1.5 hours

Another train comes and goes

Finally, we get to Milan around noon and head off the platform to the great food court in the station.  We get two baguette sandwiches to go, tomato/mozzarella and prosciutto, along with two diet cokes. 

Trains lined up at Milano Centrale station

If it were later, we would purchase a bottle of wine to share on the train, but we want to stay awake and enjoy the scenery as the train winds through the hills to Genoa and then down the Mediterranean , stopping at the coastal cities of Santa Margherita/Portofino, Rapallo, Chiavari, Sestri Levante, Levanto, and, finally, Monterosso al Mare.

The train platform at Monterosso al Mare is packed with day hikers and people on tours who are finishing up their day and heading back to La Spezia, Pisa, or their cruise ships.  The train station and the street outside are full of people who have hiked, shopped, or just sat with a glass of wine and watched the incredible views of the hills, the beach, and the Mediterranean.

Monterosso train platform, early, before the crowds

As we get off the train, we meet a couple from New Jersey, in Monterosso for the first time.  They have directions to their hotel from the station and we reassure them that it will not be hard to find.  They ask if there will be live bands in the restaurants at night and we think, “Uh oh, they’re in the wrong town!”  At least the street musicians will be playing at the tunnel entrance between the old town and the new town.   

View of the beach in the new town as we emerge from the train station
(pay to rent lounge chair/umbrella)

The tunnel was closed for a long time by the mudslides that devastated Monterosso in 2011.  Then, for a while the tunnel was open only to pedestrian traffic, but now it has been repaired and pedestrians and the few authorized cars compete for space.

Coming out of the tunnel into the old town

 View of the Beach in the old town (free)

We wheel our suitcases out of the train station, head down the street past the beach and the people relaxing at the restaurant tables on the sidewalk, through the tunnel, emerging in the old town (and another beach), and stroll over to Hotel Villa Steno, about 15-20 minutes.  

Coming up the path to Hotel Villa Steno

Walking from the train station is a great way to reacquaint ourselves with the town and to see people we recognize, although we do have to wade through a few cruise boat tour groups on their way back to the train station.  It is uphill at the end to get to Villa Steno, but the up part is worth it for the views from the room and from the public areas of the hotel.

 View across Monterosso from our room at Villa Steno

View from the terrace at Villa Steno

 Night view of Monterosso from Villa Steno

We can’t say enough great things about Hotel Villa Steno.  We’ve been coming to Cinque Terre for seven years and keep returning to Villa Steno – the combination of the beauty of Cinque Terre; the high quality standards maintained at Villa Steno; the friendly, attentive, attention-to-every-detail focus of Matteo and Carla, the owners and hosts; the great breakfast buffet - everything comes together for a truly wonderful experience!  It’s a lot of hard work to keep this up and they do it year after year. 

 This time we’re staying for 6 nights, long enough to settle in and enjoy a lot of what Cinque Terre has to offer.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Bolzano Festival of the City - Altstadtfest 2015

 Our first day in Bolzano, we are sitting outside in the main square, Piazza Walther Platz, having a a glass of  prosecco and we see a group of people setting up a tent in the square in front of us.  We ask our server what is going on and she tells us that the “Fair of the City”, which happens every two years (Altstadtfest 2015) is starting Friday and lasting over the weekend.  Over the next two days, we see workers setting up tents, booths, bandstands, and tables in every square of the city.  We’re truly lucky in our timing to arrive this weekend and are looking forward to seeing the fair (other than our hotel notes that the bands play until midnight and it might be a little difficult to sleep before then).

We head off on our explorations, then return in the evening for the fair.

Piazza Walther Platz has 2 to 3 bands playing in it at any one time, and several food tents, beer/wine stands, and food stands. 

 Food tent in the main square

 Food tent in a smaller side square

Beer stand in the main square

Servers in lederhosen take orders at the picnic tables in the tents and bring out food and drink.

Taking orders in the food tent

It seems all the squares in the old city also have bands and food tents.  The fair is spread out though the city, so that no area is truly packed and people can get around and enjoy the festival.  There is no charge to sit and listen to the music and the food and beer/wine is very reasonably priced (13 euros or $14.78 for a bottle of local wine).

We walk around, listen to a few bands with many different kinds of music.  One band starts “I Shot the Sheriff” four times, each time stopping after a while and restarting the song.  After the final stop, they put down their instruments and leave.  Fifteen minutes later they’re back and they nail it.  We suspect they went out and Googled it!

 Band playing in the main square

 On a side street

 In another square

 On another side street

 And yet another side street

We dance a little to some of the music, in our elegant hiking/dancing shoes, surprising the crowd around us.  One of the servers yells, "Bravo" and we give him a big thumbs up.

A small dance

We eventually settle in to listen to a German brass band, something we can’t get at home.

 German Brass Band on Friday night

 German Brass Band on Saturday night

Band hijinks

Hopping on the table and singing next to me

Most of the other people in the tent know the songs and are singing along.  We just smile and enjoy it.

Everyone in town is in the festival spirit.  We spot one young woman with her festival T shirt (if you can read the message).

 T-shirt message

We wander back to our hotel before midnight, and listen in our room to the music coming in from Piazza Walther Platz for a while before drifting off.

In the morning, we catch an early (7.:11am) train and see the German Brass Band members, still in lederhosen, waiting with their instruments for a train to their next gig.