Five villages in Liguria

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Which is a less evocative name than Cinqueterre, but it’s essentially the same. Back in March this year I went down there with an old friend to walk between the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

Access to these villages is best done by train. Parking availability is limited in the villages, even if you’re driving a Fiat 500, and the train brings you right there. We fussed around initially with trying to find a good parking spot in La Spezia and ended up finally parking in the underground parking at the station. The cost wasn’t too bad and it was nicely undercover and in a convenient location. We had booked our accommodation in Monterosso al Mare, which we made our base for two nights. Hotel Margherita was a nice mid-range choice with plenty of good restaurant options around it.

Pre-trip research had already revealed that a number of paths were closed off due to landslides and repairs, but we did not expect to hear that all the paths between the villages to be officially closed. So the next morning we bought our one-day Cinqueterre pass (highly recommended) and decided to train it to Corniglia and see if we could walk back via the higher paths to our home base in Monterosso al Mare.

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After arriving in Corniglia, we decided to walk up to the village, rather than waiting for the bus to arrive and piling in with too many other people. The first set of steps were easy enough and afforded a nice view towards Manarola and Riomaggiore. From there we tried to find the high path to Vernazza, but what we thought was the high path (no signs of course) later turned out to be the normal path which was “officially” closed. That of course didn’t stop anyone merrily walking the path and pretending it was open (nor us for that matter). Only when we came across an Australian couple did we find out the truth, that it was closed further on and required some creative clambering over earth moving equipment. So we did and made our way down to Vernazza, while an extremely unfit individual was panting his way up from there. He wasn’t even 300 meters into the walk and looked like he was going to expire that very moment. We both looked at his progress with concern; a look we would have on our faces a few more times that afternoon, as we watched the parade of walkers in flip-flops, walkers in heels with pretty handbags, walkers perched on precarious outcrops aiming for that perfect instagram shot, even if it was their last. We really are an odd species.

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The walk so far had been delightful with beautiful views and meandering paths along the sides of the cliffs that occasionally became steep staircases that for the most part we could descend. After we arrived in Vernazza, we first treated ourselves to a gelato and then proceeded to have a look around the village and the harbour area. It is a very photogenic place and it was full of tourists (like ourselves). If it is this busy in March, it’s unimaginable what it looks like in July and August…

And don’t believe the heavily photoshopped images you see of Vernazza. It is really a beautiful and colourful place, but they’re pastels, not the heavy-handed hues that are being painted on to images of the place.

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After our break we headed up the hill again to follow the path out of Vernazza. We asked a local policeman for directions and to make sure the path was really open. He responded that it was and indicated which way to follow. Five minutes out of the village the path was cordoned off, but emboldened by the policeman’s statement that the path was open (and in the context of everyone else’s blatant ignoring of signs), we climbed over it and continued on our way.

In this section the path was quite narrow in places and difficult to pass for walkers crossing from the opposite direction. Most of the time both sides carefully negotiated passing each other, finding the best spot or stopping to wait until the other party had passed. But at times people just bulldozered through with no regard for anyone in their path.

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We soldiered on calmly, stopping for photos on the way or to let people pass. The final descent was an endless series of steps that hammered our knees. Eventually we ended up in Monterosso again, delighted to have been able to actually do a substantial part of the path between the villages. As we still had time and an unlimited train pass, we walked back to the station and jumped on the next train to go to Manarola, to visit the fourth village, where we settled in with an afternoon drink and a snack and sat people watching as the sun set lower.

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Duly fed and watered, it was time to make our way to the final village, Riomaggiore, by train. By then it was getting close to sunset and we enjoyed walking around in the the late afternoon light, colours melting away in the sea, before returning to the train station to travel back to Monterosso al Mare for dinner and some well-earned rest.

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Up on the roof

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The Duomo of Milan allows for visits to what are loftily called Terrazze, the roof. It’s a great opportunity for an unusual view over the city centre.

As a sunny Friday was nearing its finale, I decided to quickly head over to the ticket offices and buy a ticket to get up to the Terrazze. You can line up to buy your ticket at one of the counters, or you can buy them from an automatic vending machine, which was much quicker and very easy. Five minutes after securing my ticket I was in an elevator heading upstairs. You can walk the stairs as well, which is about 3 euro cheaper.

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The main photograph of this post was taken shortly after starting the itinerary over the roofs. From there you walk towards the front of the Duomo, where you cross to the other side and follow that side back to the descending elevator. Gargoyles and statues are everywhere and the whole Duomo feels like an over the top multi-layered wedding cake with sugary spires and decorations everywhere. It’s a very enjoyable experience and you can take it as fast or slow as you like, which will also depend on how many fellow tourists you are faced with.

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The ticket for the Terrazze also gives access to the cathedral itself, the archaeological area, the Duomo museum and the San Gottardo church. If you consider how much restoration work is going on, 17 euro is a pretty good deal, even if it isn’t cheap. And frankly, it’s a must do when in Milan.

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City hopping

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The network of fast trains in Italy has really opened up easy travel between cities. With Firenze only 1h40 by Frecciarossa from Milan it’s easy to plan a day trip there. There is nothing keeping one from making it a weekend either, but having been away all weekend the previous one, I felt a day trip would be enough and boarded the train on Saturday morning. My anticipated glimpses of Bologna came to nought, when I realised that the fast track is entirely underground and barely getting out of the spectacular tunnel system through the Apennine Mountains just before Firenze. Not a lot to see, but it sure is quick!

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The weather was cold and wet when I arrived in Firenze and I set off walking at a good pace to get warm. Firenze is full of history; every corner, every way you turn you find incredible historical buildings, churches and statues. I wished a few times I had access to Mary McCarthy’s book The Stones of Florence or had brushed up on my history knowledge to get more out of it. And in between the historical buildings there are tourists. Lots of tourists. Including me.

The first church you encounter is Santa Maria Novella, after which the train station is named; from there it doesn’t take long to see the telling shape of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, a giant dome covered in red tiles. Notwithstanding the cold weather, tourists were everywhere, lining up for a chance to see the inside or going up the steps to the Cupola for a view. I had decided to just go with the flow today, rather than try and cram it all in. So I skipped the lines and walked into less crowded streets and in the general direction of the Galleria dell’Accademia de Firenze, the home of the David by Michelangelo. Somewhere on a corner I ducked into a local cafe to grab a hot cappuccino. Suitably warmed up I joined the queue for admission, which looked quite manageable and within 15 minutes I was inside and in possession of a ticket. I think I was just lucky that most people were still in the queues at Santa Maria del Fiore or at the Uffizi.

I had on previous visits seen replicas of the David statue, but never the original. It was incredible, hard to believe that hard marble can be made to looks so soft and sinuous. I was particularly fascinated at how his hands were sculpted, every vein and tendon so visible and realistic that you want to reach out and touch it, to make sure it really is what you are seeing.

This cultural experience was followed by hedonistic one, given I was near the leather shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Ciro and Sofia took good care of me and it didn’t take very long for me to walk out with two fine leather jackets to add to my collection. By now the sun was out and Firenze looked even prettier now, the white, pink and greyish green stones of Santa Maria del Fiore illuminated in their intricate patterns.

It was time to look for some food for lunch and I decided to find the restaurant that had been suggested by a colleague. The directions took me through Via de’ Tornabuoni, the luxury designer strip of Firenze until I arrived at the river Arno, just as the sun radiated on Ponte Vecchio, the perfect location for some photographs of the bridge itself, rather than from the bridge.

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The recommended restaurant was closed, but not too far from Ponte Vecchio I found another restaurant serving Tuscan food and had lunch there, before continuing my meanderings over Ponte Vecchio, briefly to the other side, Oltr’arno, and back towards Piazza della Signoria and from there to the Basilico di Santa Croce. By now the weather had deteriorated again and it started to rain and the light started to fail quickly.

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It was almost time to make my way back to the station through the small streets to board my train back to Milano, but not before looking at a few window and market stall displays: a cornucopia of gloves, chocolates and spreads.

On the train back I pondered that there is so much to see in Firenze and it is all so steeped in history that one day simply doesn’t do it justice. You could spend a lifetime here and still not see it all. And the tourist crowds don’t facilitate good sightseeing either. This is a problem not unique to Firenze; other tourist cities suffer the same and it raises the question how you keep tourism in balance, to provide income for a place, but not disrupt normal life for its residents to such a large extent. I have no idea how the Florentines live in this city, particularly not in the summer months, or at least from Easter onwards until September. Are we killing all the beautiful places in the world with our desire to see it all?