Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Breath of Fresh Air

After a few gloriously full days in Rome, with lots of walking, sightseeing and (at times) struggling through mobs of our fellow wide-eyed tourists, Todd and I both agreed: we needed to breathe. While we loved Rome, we were both exhausted, and, without speaking, simultaneously felt the urge to spend some time somewhere quiet, a bit more out of the way. Todd had mentioned in passing the five villages of the Cinque Terre, clustered along the coast of the Italian Riviera and noted for their rugged seaside beauty. Todd was interested because he had never been there before, but we had no plans to go there initially. After Rome and Florence, however, we both agreed that a day in the relative isolation of the Cinque Terre sounded like a good idea.

So we ended our time in Rome half a day early, canceling our hotel room for the night and booking another one in the city of La Spezia, the “gateway” city to the Cinque Terre. We bought a ticket on a regional train, and a couple hours later found us slipping through the Italian countryside, traveling north along the coast, past resort towns and small farms, and eventually reaching the more rugged hill country of Liguria (Cinque Terre and the surrounding hills and coastal areas are a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park).

Hungry after the four-hour train ride, Todd and I dropped our bags at the hotel and headed for a trattoria the proprietor had recommended. Since we were just steps from the Mediterranean, I knew I had to get seafood, so I ordered this:

 This is cacciucco, a fish stew with mussels, clams, giant head-on prawns, and langoustine tails, split open to provide easy access to the sweet meat inside (I don’t know that I’ve ever had these mini lobsters before, but I will certainly try them again as soon as possible). Plus toasts to mop up the slightly spicy, tomato-based broth. Delicious.

The next morning brought pouring rain, putting a slight damper on our plans to walk from village to village in the Cinque Terre. Not to be daunted, we boarded a train instead (there is no road between the five villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso - you can only get from one to the other by train, boat or on foot).

The villages are quaint and tiny, and mostly given over to B&Bs, hotels, and shops selling local products and kitschy souvenirs. Not exactly the authentic Italian town I had expected, but still quite pretty, with gorgeously blue water and terraced farms on the hills, and, at Vernazza, a 13th century castle you can climb up into for splendid views all round.

Luckily for us, the rain slowed and eventually stopped, and we were able to enjoy the towns despite the lingering dampness. By the time we were ready to head to Pisa later that afternoon, the sun was struggling to break free from the heavy clouds. Another, much shorter train ride from La Spezia, and we found ourselves at our last stop in time for dinner, Pisa:

After diving headlong into this trip, we left it quietly, peacefully, as we wandered about the expansive lawn surrounding the famous Leaning Tower (we didn’t go up; the 15 euro price tag wasn’t worth, we felt, especially after climbing the Duomo in Florence and St. Peter’s in Rome - you can’t get better views than that). We stopped for fresh coconut from a little stand in front of the Tower:

I've never had it before; coconut is one of the foods I previously hated that I have trained myself to [sort of] like - I think if my first experience of coconut had been the fresh kind, rather than the sticky sweet gunk inside candy bars, it wouldn't have taken so long to grow on me (and the giant grapes looked pretty tempting, too).

We visited the Campo Santa on the edge of Cathedral Square, whose central meadow is said to contain soil from Jerusalem and whose 14th century frescoes and Roman sarcophagi were nearly completely destroyed in World War II: 

Now mostly restored, the building as we saw it in the early evening was an oasis of calm, filled with golden light and the scent of roses. we lay back on the lush grass of the central lawn, staring up at the white pillars and the fluffy clouds being chased by the stiff breeze, watched over by columns of centuries-old stone.

 Simply magic. Ciao. 

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