The Five Lands

The month of May has been a blur of flights, time zone changes, celebrations, and adventures. It’s hard to put into words the gratitude that we have for our family, friends, and all the coordinators/ vendors who made the week leading up to and the day of our wedding so wonderful. There are so many stories to share from our time back in the US, but seeing as this is my travel blog, I’ll stick to the post-wedding excitement that entailed a honeymoon trip to Italy; specifically, Milan, Cinque Terre, and Lake Como.

Back in Brussels after the wedding, an hour and a half flight to Milan stood between us and the first leg of our honeymoon in Italy. Upon arrival at the hotel Gran Duca di York, we had no problem adjusting to the easy-going mentality that seems to come so naturally to Italians in their after-work hours. For us this meant sipping on champagne and eating our leftover wedding cake from a plastic-wrap bag while relaxing on our balcony before dinner (okay, it was mostly me eating cake from a bag).

We had decided that if there was any time to splurge on a meal well above our budget, it was the first night of our honeymoon.  Boy did we upgrade from our snack of cake in a bag to dinner at a two Michelin-starred restaurant – Vun Andrea Aprea. A few blocks from the Duomo, Vun Andrea Aprea delivers on quality and service, which is to say that we were blown away by our experience! We started with a trio of bite-sized “taste-bud activators” (my term, definitely not theirs) that we affectionately likened to Pop Rocks candy, flaming hot Cheetos, and Milk Duds. This referencing was not at all on account of their taste, (except the pop rocks), but rather because we were amazed by the myriad bursts of flavor saturating our taste-buds with each bite. Near the end of what must have been eight courses, of which we only actually ordered four, they served us what I recollect as a lemon custard. The custard was delicious, but the real showstopper was the manner in which it was served to us.  The tangy dessert arrived with a basket of lemons sitting on top of dry ice. When the waiter poured water over the lemons, what ensued was a fog that spilled over our table and most certainly drew the attention of our neighbors. Fortunately, all diners were treated to this chemistry experiment so we didn’t look like the only high maintenance table. The whole evening was an incredible experience, especially for two people who get excited when they can grab a few extra snacks for the road from the breakfast buffet included with their hotel stay (okay, that’s again usually me).

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Special honeymoon dessert

 Dan woke up very sick the next morning, which, for the first full day of our honeymoon was unfortunate timing, but as he was still able to fully enjoy the previous evening’s sensory over-load dinner, it could have been worse. While he was served tea in bed by the hotel staff, I ventured out for our 8:45 AM reserved entry time to see The Last Supper at Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. We purchased our tickets online a few months ago the moment that they were available, as it is very tricky to buy in person on demand. Time slots fill up quickly and spots are limited owing to the popularity of visits from many tour groups.

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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci’s Last Supper was larger than I expected, and I found it particularly interesting to learn about the continual preservation work in place.  Ongoing efforts have facilitated the survival of the work following damage sustained both before and after the church suffered a direct hit during WWII that demolished all the walls around the fresco and exposed it to the elements for several months. When our 15 minutes of viewing time was up, we were all escorted out of the cathedral to prepare for the next group’s arrival; a very calm and efficient process for managing the chaos that we typically associate with other prominent artistic attractions.

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The Duomo of Milan on Kaitlan’s walk

Not wanting to interrupt Dan’s opportunity to rest before our train ride to Cinque Terre, I spent another hour or two walking around the city with no real destination in mind, but finding my way through Sempione Park and to Sforzesco Castle, enjoying the great weather and beautiful sights along the way.

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Sights and smells from Kaitlan’s walk through Milan

After a quick lunch, we headed to Central station for the three-hour train ride that would deliver us to Monterosso, our home in Cinque Terre for the next four nights. Monterosso is the northernmost town of the Cinque Terre, which makes it the easiest to get to when traveling from Milan. It also is the only town with serviceable beaches, both in the new and old towns of Monterosso. We arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but from checking the weather, we knew the area had been experiencing unseasonably cool and a rainy stretch of weather.

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The view from our balcony at Albergo Pasquale

On our first morning in Cinque Terre, Dan set an alarm for 4 AM for a very important reason – Game 6 of the Bucks vs. Toronto play-off game.  While I snoozed until 4:30 AM, he attempted to stream the game, but with little success. We settled for a radio broadcast that allowed us to follow along live from the comfort of our room. While we weren’t able to celebrate a win, we did admire the sun illuminating the Mediterranean Sea as it rose. By 7 AM, we were dressed in our running gear and heading out to the trail between Monterroso and Vernazza.  In about an hour and a half, we accomplished an early morning jog (more run/walk) along much of the first leg of the Sentiero Azzurro trail that connects the five towns.

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The best way to capture a run – with a (low) jump

The advantages of hitting the trail early are that you definitely won’t encounter the throngs of trekkers that tackle the trails during prime hiking time. While the steep inclines/ declines and slippery steps prevented us from running the entire way, we covered a lot of ground without having to worry about passing the day-hiking hordes and were back in time for an awesome breakfast at Albergo Pasquale.

After a hearty breakfast, we headed back to the same trail head in Monterosso and spent the rest of our day hiking between the four northernmost towns and ending in Manarola. As the trails lead you directly into each town, it only made sense to stop in each to enjoy a drink or snack along the way.

Hiking the trail south from Monterosso will take you up and down lots of steep steps while you enjoy spectacular views of the sea on your way to Vernazza. With its picturesque harbor and ancient Doria Castle, Vernazza is considered by some as the most quintessential of the five ancient towns. Ergo, it makes sense that the narrow streets were bustling with tourists when we arrived around lunchtime. We opted for a light lunch and refreshments – sardines and a local wine sampler for Kaitlan, and beer and pesto lasagna for Dan.

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Gorgeous views of Vernazza from the trail

With Vernazza feeling a bit too crowded for our liking, we headed out right after lunch and started the trek on to Corniglia, the village situated in the middle that is known for being the only one of the five without direct access to the water. You can actually climb down some 300+ steps to the water but don’t expect a sandy beach. This town sits on the edge of the rocky cliff and has a completely different feel than its neighbors to the north.

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Approaching Corniglia

We stopped at Km Zero for schiaccetra (desert wine) and a latte macchiato while plotting our plan of attack for the next leg of the hike. The same Sentiero Azzurro trail facilitated easy access to the next village over, however, following storms and rockslides some years back, sections of the trail between Corniglia and Manarola were washed out.  The paved and flat Via dell’ Amore trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore is similarly still out of commission.  As neither of these two sections have been reopened, the onus of choosing the next move falls on the hiker. While boats, trains, and buses connect the cities and run frequently enough, we opted for an Uncle Rick-recommended hike that would have us ascend higher into the hills and through quaint Volastra before descending steeply through olive trees and vineyards into Riomaggiore. It was our best decision of the day!

I’m not going to lie, the first 45 minutes hiking out of Corniglia were tough.  We rose in elevation very quickly, but upon reaching a level surface of the path, were again rewarded with incredible views of the town, bluffs, and vineyards below us. We didn’t realize it, but the best views were still yet to come!

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Nothing but gorgeous views on the hike out of Corniglia and into Volastra

Then something interesting happened. On a quieter section of the less-travelled trail to Volastra, a woman hiking in our direction approached us and asked, in Italian, if we spoke Italian. We replied no but she proceeded in Italian nonetheless. Within a minute or two, Dan and I were able to decipher that similar to us, she was on her way to Volastra and had been hiking by herself just ahead. Our interpretation was that the trail had led her through the backyard of a house, and wanting to confirm she was still on the right path, she asked a local who told her that the trail ended there and she wouldn’t be able to reach Volastra. Understandably, when she first approached us, she seemed quite concerned about being lost, but we were more than happy to have her join us as we were confident that the trail would lead to our common objective – Volastra. We introduced ourselves and luckily for all of us, my Spanish sufficed to allow for some communication that was assisted by hand gestures and nods. Antonella was exceedingly nice and she shared with us that she lives in Piacenza, which is nearby Milan. We shared with her that live and work in Brussels and our current trip was taking us through northern Italy. When we arrived in Volastra, her daughter and her friend were waiting for her on a bench. They happily greeted her and thanked us for accompanying her mom.  As her daughter spoke English, we were able to chat for a while and even exchanged phone numbers.  Antonella graciously invited us to contact her should our travels take us to Piacenza! Meeting her was a pleasant surprise and a good reminder of the connections you can make with people in the most unusual of circumstances while traveling.

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Team photo with Antonella and her daughter upon arriving in Volastra

After saying our good-byes, Dan and I continued on to Manarola via the “panoramic” loop of the Sciacchetrail, also known for its 47km endurance trail run (maybe next time…). I don’t like picking favorites, but this section of the trail easily took home the grand prize for its offering of the most dramatic views of Manarola as you descend into the town. The pictures hardly do it justice, but simply put, the views were breathtaking.

Our initial plan had been to try to conquer all four of the trails between the five towns in one day, but we reassessed while savoring gelato and massaging our sore quads and calves in Manarola. Proud of the day’s accomplishments and in need of sustenance, we decided to forgo hiking the last section to Riomaggiore (still another 1.5 hours) and head back to Monterosso for dinner. That evening we celebrated our trail day with take-out pizza and champagne on our balcony.

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The last stop on our trek- Manarola

Foreseeing rainy weather, the next day we opted for a day trip to Pisa by way of a one-hour train ride. Upon arrival, we made our way towards the Field of Miracles, which houses the historical tower, to join the other sightseers in their quest for that perfectly angled shot.  A picture of me “holding up” the tower wasn’t creative enough for us so we solicited the help of another visitor in capturing a shot that incorporated the both of us. It took a couple tries and plenty of instructions on arm placement from other bystanders, but we had a good laugh at the end result.

We walked around the Field of Miracles to appreciate the tower from other angles, along with the cathedral and baptistery, and then headed to a sandwich shop for lunch. Feeling as though we had accomplished our objective in seeing one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, we headed back to the train station for a ride home.

What should have been a short train ride back to Cinque Terre ended up taking us almost twice as long due to rail delays, which we came to realize over the next few days are not all that unusual. When we finally made it to Vernazza, we headed straight for Vernazza Wine Experience where we snagged a table with beautiful views of the coast south of the town. We sampled three local wines each, including the classic Buranco, while savoring the peaceful evening.  In not the last coincidence of the trip, the family at the table seated next to us was from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They actually recognized us from having crossed paths on the trail while we were running and they were hiking the previous morning. We conversed about trip itineraries and shared well wishes for the rest of their vacation before capping off our evening with dinner above the harbor at Ristorante Belforte.

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Enjoying the evening at Vernazza Wine Experience

For our final full day in Cinque Terre, we made plans for a two-hour boat tour of the coast.  After easing into our day, we met Stefano on the dock in Monterosso for a private tour aboard his “Matilde”. Stefano steered us south, stopping the motor on many occasions so we could take pictures of the cliffs, towns, and vineyards while he provided us with historical context and cultural perspective of the seaside villages that have persevered for centuries. When I asked which of the Five Villages was his personal favorite, he diplomatically replied that each offered something different and beautiful – Monterroso’s lights at night, Vernazza’s charm, Riomaggiore’s sunsets, Corniglia’s quiet, and Manarola’s vineyward covered hillsides. He paused then added that his favorite place is the “Five Lands”.

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Our boat tour along the coast

I mulled over his response but it wasn’t until about half way through our boat tour that it occurred to me what he meant. As visitors, it’s easy for us to succumb to the allures of these five stunning villages within the Cinque Terre, but for those who want to dig a little deeper, the real enchantment is in the Five Lands. Stefano was intentionally differentiating between the Five Lands and the Five Towns because he had grown up here and knew that this UNESCO site and National Park had more to offer to those who were willing to venture off the crowded trails and away from the busy restaurants. Stefano was more than willing to drive us to the best spots to capture gorgeous photos, but he was most passionate when talking about the Five Lands upon which the towns are built and what the agriculture, recreation, and tourism mean to the people who live and work here. Yet another enlightening interaction during our travels!

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Our boat driver, Stefano

Despite the imminent rain and cool winds off the water, I had made up my mind that morning that I was going to swim in the Ligurian Sea while we were in Cinque Terre.  With a little nudge from the wine we had drank on the boat, I worked up the courage to take the plunge when we returned from our tour.  Dan spectated from a safe distance while I waded in slowly before finally submerging myself.  It was cold, but nowhere near Lake Michigan in the middle of July cold, and totally worth it!

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Kaitlan swimming in the Ligurian Sea

On our last evening in Cinque Terre, we partook in a short walk up the bluff to the Monument to San Francesco that overlooks Monterosso and the Mediterranean Sea. From the look-out you can see the four other towns in the distance and appreciate how spectacular this area is. We ended the day with a proper seafood dinner in town, finishing our last bites just as the downpour started and chased the other diners indoors.

What people say about each of the towns and lands having their own identity is true. They are now connected by trails, rails, and roads, but still uphold their own charms and quirks. If you were to ask each visitor to recall their favorite memory, the responses would vary greatly from sunsets to swimming and hiking to eating. What I can say with absolute certainty is that my favorite memory of our visit to the Five Lands was the stretch of hiking between Cornigila and Manarola where we escaped the crowded trails, met Antonella, and gawked at the stunning coastline as we made our descent into the city built into a ravine. Milan and Cinque Terre will be memorable for their good food, gorgeous scenery, and the kind people we met on our visit.

2 comments

  1. It was nice to see some of the same places that we visited but you two defintely had a richer experience going off the “beaten” trail. Just not sure if I could stomach your food choices.
    Mom

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