The Famous Five: Cinque Terre and Pisa

In the famous and picturesque Italian coast, there is a hiking trail that connects the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. Our mission was to see as much of it as we could while embracing the views and enjoying the food along the way. But with only so many hours in the day to experience our Italian getaway, we decided to visit Riomaggiore the night before our hiking excursion. Click here to read more about our experiences over-looking the golden sunset and traveling along the coast line.

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The first village we headed to the next morning was Monterosso al Mare. It is the furthest north of the famous five. The trains from La Spezia run about every half hour, and since we depend so greatly on public transport, I will advise anyone following in our footsteps to make a plan the night before. Most timetables for buses and trains are available online, and a train picked for departure ahead of time will save you minutes, money and frustration.

We got a little bit of a late start that morning because we bought tickets to the next train with only two minutes to spare. Needless to say, the two minutes was not enough time to print and run to the platform. Don’t try it at home, folks.

When we arrived to Monterosso, many tourists were abound taking pictures and space on the beach. We hadn’t planned on spending time in the water that day, thankfully, but I don’t think we could have had the option. Bodies flooded the sandy beaches and sunbeds were all but occupied by mid-day.

On the far edge of the “high street,” sculpted into the rock, there was the figure of a man holding up the cliff. This turned out to be Neptune. Originally built in 1910, Il Gigante was built to be a symbol for the town. During WWII, massive bombing destroyed his arms, his trident, and a giant seashell. But he still stands (or slouches) proudly, slightly weakened from the rough seas he represents creating a romantic image of the town.

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We turned around and started south toward Vernazza, the next village. It cost €7.50 per person to hike between two towns. You don’t need to purchase them ahead of time or from a special shop. There are little cabins at the start of each trail where you can get your pass.

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The trail between Monterosso and Vernazza was about 1.5 hours through thick jungles of tall trees, vineyards, and cliff edges. The sights were extraordinary. I felt like I was on the set of Jurassic Park as we hiked higher and higher. Drinking water was imperative as we pushed on. Between the heat and the sticky air, we were feeling quite parched, but I will note, there are no public toilets along the path. So either bring some toilet paper with you or feel lucky to be a guy.

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We made it to Vernazza about 2pm, and we were ready to eat! Being gluten-free, there wasn’t much choice for me at most of the road-side restaurants along the high street. It was a lot of pizza and pasta which is to be expected in Italy. But Jeff and I ventured a little deeper into the town to find Al Castello, a restaurant up high on the cliff edge with beautiful views and decent food. We ordered the seafood risotto, which was the only option for me. I was a little disappointed that it was a dish to share forcing my dear husband to have it with me. He wanted a pizza, but my prince was a trooper.

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We enjoyed the fresh prawns, mussels, clams, and rice overlooking tourists getting sprayed with ocean waves. It was getting quite rough on the open seas and all the water taxis were canceled due to the high winds. We just found ourselves laughing at the shocked tourists as they continued to get wet thinking somehow if they stood on the rock’s edge, they would be safe.

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After some rest, we continued on our way to the next town: Corniglia. The hike was another hour and a half of steep inclines, stairs and sharp rocks, but the hike was just as beautiful as it was to Vernazza. We were getting tired in the heat of the day, but we made it just before 5p. Corniglia was not quite as picturesque as Vernazza or Riomaggiore with some more signs of wear and tear. The colored houses were still striking, but peeling paint and stark grey facades were more apparent than in the other picturesque villages.

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We didn’t stay long in the city because there wasn’t much to do within the walls. But we did grab some incredible basil gelato that was out of this world before we made our way to the next city. Due to rain and mudslides, the path between Corniglia and Manarola was closed, so we took the five minute train. There is quite a staircase that leads you in and out of the city: 365 stairs of double step trouble. After hiking up and down Italian mountains, the steep decent was causing our legs to shake and our heads to spin.

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Manarola was the final city on our Cinque Terre tour. It was perfect timing for the dinner hour when we arrived. It wasn’t the best meal we’d ever had, but there was something we had read about that was famous in the gluten-free world: farinata. I had waited patiently all day passing sign after sign for this illusive flatbread, and it was delicious with a spot of pesto. In the coming weeks, I will try to replicate this wonderful pastry on the blog.

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We enjoyed our last meal in Cinque Terre and shared a grappa and espresso experience with our friends which you can read about here. A child at the next table had a fun time playing with our friends offering bread and screams. We appreciated the willingness to share the food, but the kid could have held on to the screaming.

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* * * * *

Bright and early the next morning, Jeff and I said our goodbyes to our friends and bee-lined it to the early train to Pisa. We had pre-booked our tickets to see the Cathedral, Piazza dei Miracoli and the centuries old cemetery. We only had about three hours in the gorgeous city, so we did not book a ticket to climb the legendary leaning tower. But the sights were stunning. The Piazza dei Miracoli, the Piazza del Duomo and the Leaning Tower are all within spitting distance, and the architecture was out of this world.

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The white stone cut stark contrasts against the grey, rainy skies causing streaks of brightly colored umbrellas to interrupt the scene.

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But there were also many famous “kung fu fighters” pretending to hold up the infamous tower, which, unfortunately, does turn the landmark into a joke.

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We first walked into the Pisa Cathedral. Originally built in 1064, the structure is not without flaws. Fires have destroyed the famous doors, but never the golden mosaics that decorate the ceilings. But in comparison to other cathedrals in Italy, there hasn’t been much drama with the building leaving it just a marvel of beauty.

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The Baptistry or Duomo sits just across the plaza from the Cathedral. Dedicated to John the Baptist during the 12th century, the Duomo was built after the Cathedral was finished. It is the largest baptistery in Italy, and also thanks to a statue of John the Baptist on the very top, it is taller than the famous Leaning Tower.

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The Leaning Tower, itself, is actually a bell tower. It was the last to be built in the Piazza in 1173, but took 177 years to complete. It was after just five years of construction, the soil under the tower started to buckle. It was left incomplete for nearly a century, which allowed the soil to stabilize and support the building from collapsing completely. In 1272, construction resumed and catered to the opposite side of the sink-age to compensate for the off-kilter construction. The Leaning Tower continues to slowly sink into the ground advancing five degrees since it’s completion in the 1300s.

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Since we didn’t have time to climb, we ventured into the Camposanto Monumentale, a centuries old cemetery which some have deemed the most beautiful in the world.

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There are some gorgeous frescoes that were commissioned for the structure and now hang in a sort of gallery. Fading with age and damage from the elements, what remains is still quite beautiful. They depict Stories of the Old Testament and the most remarkable, The Triumph of Death by Buonamico Buffalmacco. Artillery in 1944 nearly destroyed all of the precious artworks, but they were still preserved thanks to modern technology and intense conservation efforts after the war.

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When our time ran out in Pisa, we rushed back to our train. The clouds had parted and the flood of tourists were coming out. We felt we just missed the crowd as we embraced the two hour train trek to Florence.

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Tune in next week for our Florentine tales! But in the meantime, click here for more pictures!!

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