Thursday, May 28, 2015

Last Stop, Venice!

Venice was the last point of our trip in Italy. Known variously as the City of Water, City of Bridges, and City of Masks, it is composed of 118 small islands, connected by bridges. It’s one of the most gorgeous and unique cities I’ve been in. All transportation is done through the canals – there are no streets at all, just pedestrian walks and bridges that link various parts of the island. Ferries and private gondolas transport people throughout the city.

We were here for three days, just enough time to see the major sites as well as some of the outer islands that are less popular with tourists. There are lots and lots of tourists, especially on San Marco island near the Basilica, San Marco Piazza, and the Rialto Bridge. In this area, lots of restaurants and shops cater towards visitors, and it can get overwhelming trying to navigate small alleyways that are crowded with people.

The further out you go, like to the west, near the shipyards, the more you can see more of the local essence of Venice. Get off the main paths that lead between tourist attractions, and find yourself lost in hidden courtyards, narrow alleyways, and quiet canals.

It’s very easy to get lost wandering the maze of alleyways, as GPS signals are very weak, most streets curve and wind and end suddenly at a canal, and there are no real street signs or numbers. Don't rely on Google Maps here. Soon enough, you will stumble upon a larger street with signs that point you to the major attractions, so rest assured you won’t be lost forever. I pride myself on being quite adept with directions, and yet there were a few times where I was confused and had to refer to a map. 

Though the whole area of the city is made of tiny islands connected by bridges, there are also several larger, more distinct islands, separated by the Grand Canal, a larger stretch of water. As I mentioned, San Marco is the main island for tourists. There are ferries that make scheduled runs among many stops, and they can take you in between islands. 

The ferries aren't cheap (about 7 euros for a one-way pass), but they do beat the price of hiring a private gondola. Some say that riding on a gondola is a quintessential experience in Venice, but I think that viewing the gondoliers singing and rowing, from a bridge, is just as fun!

Besides a few major attractions, the best way to experience Venice is just to walk around and explore the little nooks and crannies. Dining and lodging is quite expensive compared to the rest of Italy, as all supplies are shipped to the islands from mainland. I'll talk a bit more about the specific things we saw and did in a later post.

Many businesses start to close in the evening, around 8 or 9PM. This is not the place to come to for nightlife - you might want to head to Bologna for that! However, there are sunset and night views from the waterfront near the San Marco Piazza.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bologna, A College Town

Bologna, the seventh largest city in Italy, is not the most popular on the tourist trail, as it is often overshadowed by its famous neighbors - Venice, Milan, and Florence. However, it was on our train route up north, so we decided to stop by for a night and a day.

Bologna is a university town – it has the oldest university on continental Europe, founded in 1088. The university pervades the entire city, rather inconspicuously – its buildings blend in with the surroundings. It’s a rather small city – a few kilometers across, walk-able if you have a day to explore. 

The architecture is noted for its porticos, the covered arcades that run through the city alongside the streets. In fact, Bologna has 28 miles of porticos in total, and they come in all sorts of architectural styles. 

We saw some plazas, churches, and street markets. The city center was quite lively when we visited, with several performing groups out on the streets. There was a fun band, a quartet of young men that drew an admiring crowd.

Bologna is also known as the gastronomical center of Italy, and according to the locals, it's difficult to get a bad meal. On the recommendation of some residents, we went to a hole-in-the-wall pizza place in the student district called Casa Pizza on Belli Are. This place is quite popular with students on a budget - one large pizza is only 5 euros. 

We were too ambitious and ordered two pizzas, one with a variety of meats, olives, and mushrooms, the other with potato and bell peppers. As you might imagine, we were nowhere near finished with these two pizza pies at the end of the meal.

To walk off our full stomachs, we decided to climb the famous tower in the center of the city. It’s a surprisingly long and steep climb – just when you think you’ve reached the top of the staircase, you reach another level with even more stairs. There are also lots of other people climbing so it’s rather slow at times, as people create blockages on the steps. You are rewarded at the top with a panoramic view of Bologna. Apparently, the local myth is that a student will not graduate if he or she reaches the top, so you probably won’t find students going to the tower.  

We also stumbled across two street markets. One flea market sold interesting antiques (furniture, art, books, jewelry, curios) near the Church of Santo Stefano.

At dinnertime, we tried the apertivo tradition at Caffe Zamboni – you buy a drink at a bar and get free access to a buffet of various platters of food, including pasta, veggie sticks, cheeses, and fruit salad, and various breads. The food wasn’t the best quality, but it was a good deal, considering you get the drink and the food for 8 euros total.

One day is enough to see the main sights in Bologna. . It was a good opportunity to see the life of a mid-sized city, but there was nothing too remarkable about it in my opinion. It has much of the same vibe as other Italian areas – small bottegas dominated by South Asian immigrants, specialty shops, pretty winding alleyways, markets, big piazzas, churches - Perhaps it is more exciting for students who want to experience the nightlife. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Around Cinque Terre

Part of the pleasure of being in Cinque Terre is the easy access one has to the other villages. The local trains run regularly among the five villages, and there are also both coastal and mountain trails that link them. During the course of our three days, we were able to visit all of the villages, each with its own unique characteristics and personality. 

Corniglia, situated on a promontory was the first village we visited after Riomaggiore. To reach the center, you have to climb 365 steps from the train station, one for each day of the year. Therefore, it usually is recommended for tourists not to stay overnight here, as you would need to lug all of your bags up this way. Corniglia has nice winding alleys and a great look out point where you can have a view down the coast. 

Manarola, another village in Cinque Terre, has a main street that leads down the harbor. One of the restaurants near the water has great gelato!

The next day was brighter and sunnier - lucky, because we were planning on making the famous hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. Monterosso is a larger town, the northernmost of Cinque Terre, and has the feel of a seaside resort. There is a wide swath of sandy beach, perfect in a warmer season for swimming and laying out under the sun.

The two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza leads you up into the mountains in between the two villages. The trail is not marked particularly well, and we actually found ourselves up in some farmer's terraces because we lost the main trail. Several times during this hike, we would accidentally wander off the path and into farmland.

Eventually, we found the stone steps of the main trail, as it led away from the terraces and into the heavily wooded side of the mountain.

As you descend over the side of the mountain, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the next village, Vernazza, which lies on a spit of land curling out into the sea.

The harbor area makes for a nice stroll. Though there was some construction happening in the village because it was the off season for tourism, that hardly detracted from our enjoyment. 

We spend some time looking out to the sea from the harbor, before getting more gelato from a little place in the village (No day was complete without a little bit of gelato!). Then, we took the train back to Riomaggiore, packed up, and got ready to leave Cinque Terre for the next morning. I really loved this little gem of a place in Italy, and additionally enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the off-season.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Climb to La Madonna de Montenero

As I mentioned earlier, there are many hiking routes between the Cinque Terre Villages, ranging in difficulty and length. If you go to the visitor's center near the train station, you can get a handy guide that outlines the numerous paths that you can take. One of the most recommended trails starts behind Riomaggiore and snakes its way up the hill to the sanctuary of Madonna de Montenero. The best part of this view is that you can see all the five villages of Cinque Terre.

We decided to do this hike on our first day, immediately after reaching Cinque Terre. The way up is an easy to moderate hike of about an hour. We started at the base of Riomaggiore, after stopping by a local grocer to grab sandwiches made of fresh baguette, prosciutto, and slices of cheese. Then, we walked up the main street until we reached the path from which the hike really begins. If you are at all confused about the way, just ask a local! From my experience, they were all friendly and knowledgeable.

The road turns into a tranquil trail that weaves between gardens and terraces with olive and grape vines.

The higher up we went, the denser the trees and brush, though there were still little farmhouses dotting the trail here and there. As we ascended, the other villages started coming into view in the hazy afternoon sunlight.

Finally we arrived at our destination, a peaceful sanctuary at the top of the mountain.

From this point, we could see all along the coastline, and we spent some time trying to spot and identify the other four villages.

It was such a beautiful place to see the sunset. We spent a while here before heading down, because we did not want to be making our way down the unlit paths after dark. I definitely recommend going on this hike. It's not too difficult, and the views are simply gorgeous.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Riomaggiore, the Queen of Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a chain of five coastal villages along the Italian Riviera. These beautiful gems, dotting terraced hillsides and rugged hills, are popular for hiking and vacationing. The entire area is designated as a UNESCO world heritage.

The villages are well preserved to reflect the traditional way of life. They each have only a few thousand residents, and are connected to each other by a coastal train route. Each village has a distinct character and unique layout.

Cinque Terre has many different hiking trails that link the different towns, both along the coast and in the mountains. They are at all levels of difficulty, and contain short hikes as well as day-long hikes. Sometimes the trails are closed off, so it is good to check with the local tourist information center.

We stayed in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages, next to the larger town of La Spezia. It was built in the thirteenth century.

Riomaggiore has one long main street called Via Colombo, with many alleys branching off to homes and wine terraces in the hillsides. It starts near the harbor and meanders up into the hills beyond. There are a few inns and shops owned by locals, though everything closed early in the evening. Like most traditional towns, internet access is limited and the streets are not conducive to anything but pedestrian traffic, but I think most people come here to retreat from the chaos of modern life.  

Each of the towns is stunning, with vivid and colorful buildings, surrounded by green mountains in the background and brilliant blue seas at the coast. I am especially partial to the village of Riomaggiore, perhaps because we stayed here for three nights. It's a good size - there are a few restaurants and two small grocers. The harbor at the bottom of the village is gorgeous both in the daytime and sunset.

We were lucky to be here in the off season, so there were only a few other tourists in the town, lending a peaceful and tranquil air to village life.

One early evening, after a day of hiking, we decided to go down to the wharf to enjoy the sunset. The sun rays striking the buildings at dusk is a really marvelous sight.

There was another visitor who bravely ventured out onto the rocks with a big camera and tripod to get some good shoots of the setting sun.

Right before the sun sank beneath the horizon, it gave off deep red and golden rays that burned the sky. Though it was rather chilly, we were content to sit on the stone steps of the wharf to watch this stunning display of nature.

Over our three days in Cinque Terre, we visited each of the five towns and tried out a few of the recommended hiking trails, so I'll be writing about those next!