To Cinque Terre

September 20, 2011

Leaving Milan was a great feeling. Not that there is anything wrong with it in particular, but we desperately wanted a change of pace and scenery. And that we had! The road from Milan to La Spezia is a fairly long one, and since driving in Italy was still a new skill, and driving a standard transmission even more so, we told our GPS to avoid the Autostrade and take the smaller roads. This also allowed us to stop occasionally to enjoy the landscapes and take more photos.

One of the frequent features of the landscape were hills and mountains (we were going across the Apennines after all) and more often than not these hills were covered in vineyards.

Something resembling a small church near the vineyards along the way.

The fabulous vineyards.

The estate near the vineyards.

To say that the views were terrific is an understatement. Everything was alive with flowers, fields covered in greenery, vineyards, occasional houses, villages, churches. While we did not want to make any long rest stops on the way, we did get tempted by a farmer’s market and got some peaches to snack on. They were positively delicious.

View from near the top of a hill.

As we covered large distances, the weather changed several times. It was sunny, it was cloudy, it was almost raining, it was hot (close to 30° C) and it was cold (about 20° C on the higher ground).

Rain over the distant hills.

Neatly arranged fields and villages.

Rows upon rows of grapes.

Tractor working the fields.

Poppies growing on the edge of the road barrier.

The road across the Apennines was tons of fun to go by. Aside from great views it provided some amazing twists and changes in elevation. On a couple of occasions we were overtaken by a frisky driver who would begin to go at those curves at like they were on a roller coaster. And we’d follow! Of course, it’s easier to follow than to lead in this case, as the front driver has a higher risk of miscalculating the absence of oncoming traffic, but it all worked out fine. The roads are pretty narrow, and it does not take much to go over the imaginary lane when making turns at higher speeds. I say “imaginary” because on the SS (Strade Statale) country roads there are usually no actual painted lanes. And at first glance lots of these road segments, especially the twisty ones in the mountains are so narrow, they would pass up for a single lane one-way roads in Canada.

It was exciting, and it was also tiring. When your trip is expected to take about 6 hours it’s a good idea to stop and stretch your legs every once in a while. A good way to do that is climb some of those hills you’re passing.

Lonely Peugeot cannot climb unpaved trails.

View from the footpath on the hill.

June was a perfect time to witness the incredible diversity of flowers in Italy.

Electrical transmission lines give away our elevation relative to the road.

Flowers among the rocks.

A castle across the valley.

A rosy red spot in a predominantly green landscape.

Passing by a farm.

Forest covered slopes. Layers and layers of soft peaks stretch all the way to the horizon.

Rocky cliff near the road.

House among the hills

The Apennines.

After a long trip we were finally in La Spezia. Driving through it is very much like driving through the other small towns – quite slow and painful, but beautiful nonetheless. Our hotel was right in the centre of the town, so the nearby streets were very busy. As it turned out, we came right on time for an annual festival, so the crowds were even larger than usual.

Now let’s take a small recess and contemplate just how much of a stinky stone age kind of country Canada is. Compared to Europe that is. I’m not even taking about things like cheap cell phone access, that’s just trite. I’m taking about some basics of human hygiene. Even the bare bones 1-star hotel we booked in La Spezia had a bidet in the bathroom and a cute little cord in the shower that would alert your companion in the main room should you find yourself stranded in the shower, alone and vulnerable, in dire need of an essential item. These two elements were present in our Venetian rental apartment, in the Sirmione hotel, and in every other place we stopped at. Maybe I’m staying at the wrong places, but I did not see such amenities in Canada, and I’ve ventured as far as Montreal, Quebec City, and Tobermory (maybe I did not venture far enough?).

But enough of that. The plan for the trip was to go to Cinque Terre, not stay in the hotel bathroom. We re-parked the car and took a train to Riomaggiore.

Lemon trees in La Spezia, as seen from a train window.

We anticipated some nice views on the short 7 minute train ride, but after passing La Spezia the train took off into a tunnel in the seaside mountains. We only saw the light when we approached the Riomaggiore station. And what we saw was truly magnificent.

Cliffs over the Mediterranean, looking east from the Riomaggiore train station.

The scale of these rocks is quite dramatic. The place looked very quiet, large and beautiful. I suppose coming so close to the sunset, we got there at a time when a lot of day visitors were already gone.

Looking west, towards the sunset and the tunnel taking the train to the next village.

Exiting the station you get a choice of going right or left. Both lead upwards along the rocky cliffs. We headed east and got some great views of the setting sun.

Train tracks in Riomaggiore.

180 degrees of Riomaggiore and the Mediterranean.

Lemon trees in someone's garden. Odd colours curtesy of the sunset.

I call it the Hairy Mountain.

One of the other villages seen at the foot of the Hairy Mountain.

Cactus flowers.

Humongous aloe plant.

One thing we wanted to do for a while was have dinner. There was a cool looking spot on the other side of the train station, with what should have been some amazing vantage spot.

On the far left right above the cliff – a restaurant we hoped to dine at.

Making our way to the other side of the village, we caught a glimpse of this sail boat.

The bad news was that the restaurant was all booked up and all they could offer us was to wait. That got boring quickly and we proceeded instead to take a walk along the footpath along the mountainside that was leading to the other Cinque Terre villages. We did not go too far, but just sat there enjoying the sunset.

The footpath connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola.

Andrea was here.

Last rays of the setting sun.

After dark we took a train back to La Spezia and had pizza for dinner on one of the main streets. It was underwhelming, but that’s what you get for picking a place randomly. We wrapped it up and planned to take one of the first morning trains to Monterosso al Mare.

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