Wednesday, November 23, 2011

onward to italy

Okay, back for more! The last entry began with the most prolific day for pictures; this one begins with the most pathetic.

Saturday, September 24, we left our pensiĆ³n in San Sebastian before the sun came up. Steve and I rolled our bags over the bridge to the train station in the dark and got on our Renfe train back to Barcelona. Aside from some bereted Basque soldiers walking around on the train, it was a pretty uneventful trip. I only took a couple pictures, leaning over Steve when we were stopped. The shot below was of an old and busted Renfe train. (Thankfully, our train was more modern and not busted.)

When we got back to Barcelona, we took a taxi from Sants Station to our hotel near the airport. There was pretty much nothing else in the area, so the rest of the afternoon was spent either in our smokey smelling room or eating mediocre food at the hotel restaurants. I had written the day off as a traveling day, but it turned out to be exceptionally unpicturesque too.

267/365 renfe

The next morning, we got up early again to catch a shuttle to the airport, where we saw the sunrise from the terminal. We flew Air Berlin to Dusseldorf, got sandwiches in the airport, and then took a tiny plane to Florence. Next, we caught a bus to Santa Maria Novella train station. We had some trouble retrieving our prepurchased train tickets from the ticket machines, but we were more successful at the actual ticket counter. We were also able to buy the rest of the tickets on my list for our time in Italy.

With that done, we still had a while before the first of our trains to Cinque Terre. It was raining, but we went across the street and ate some sandwiches, huddled under the awning of the food stand. When it had stopped raining, it was decided that we should walk around a little, rather than hanging around the sketchy train station. So we walked toward the dome of the Duomo, which we could see over the buildings. If nothing else, I hoped to get a better selection for picture of the day than I had the day before. We soon found ourselves at San Lorenzo, and we walked from there down a little street with touristy restaurants. (See picture below.) We did eventually find the Duomo after reaching the end of that street, and then it was time to drag our bags back to the train station.

It took us three trains to get from Florence to Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre, switching in Pisa and La Spezia. However, we managed to get there at 9:30pm—exactly the time I had promised the hotel. The change of trains in La Spezia was rather hurried, as we hopped on it before the usual double or triple check, but it was the right train.

268/365 florence sneak peek

That brings us to Monday, our first day in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is made up of five towns on the Ligurian coast, and we were staying in the southernmost, Riomaggiore. Since there aren't a lot of tourist attractions there, as opposed to the bigger cities, I had left our itinerary pretty vague for those days. Monday's plan was to look around Riomaggiore and the next town, Manarola. If there was time, we could perhaps go to the third town as well. As it turned out, the two towns were enough for one day. We spent the morning just walking around in Riomaggiore. It was small enough that we could wander somewhat aimlessly, following the pretty. And before long, we were at the tower above town, with a nice view. Then, we found the beginning of the Via dell'Amore trail that leads to Manarola.

The trail was pretty and quite easy—a nice paved cliffside path with lots of locks and other tokens of young love. Many pictures later, we had made it to Manarola. Our choices from there were "up" or "down." We went up, since the one restaurant I knew of in town was supposed to be up on a hill somewhere. The road led us to the little square at the back of town, with the church and the bell tower. From there, we found stairs and a narrow street with a sign that said Trattoria dal Billy this way. That was the restaurant I was looking for. We found it and had lunch there, complete with trofie al pesto and some limoncino at the end. Since it was so good, we figured we might as well eat there again. (Several people on Chowhound and TripAdvisor had eaten there multiple times during their visits too.) So we made a reservation for the next night's dinner.

After lunch, we continued to explore Manarola. We found the vineyard walk from the Rick Steves book and followed it around the hill above town. Steve wasn't a big fan of the height, but he did fine. The walk eventually took us to the town's cemetary, which had a fabulous view of Manarola (see below), so it was all worth it. We walked back down to the harbor from there and looked at that part of town before returning to Riomaggiore along the Via dell'Amore again. Once in Riomaggiore, we walked down to the tiny harbor there, which we hadn't seen yet.

For dinner, we entertained the idea of purchasing a few things from the markets and making our own caprese salad or having pesto on bread. Then we realized that although we had a mini-fridge in our room, we had no plates or silverware. We decided to bail on that idea and just go to La Lampara, a restaurant not far from our hotel. It wasn't the most amazing meal ever, but the penne with shrimp and tomato-cream sauce was quite good. I was quickly becoming enamored with the subtle, perfectly balanced pasta in Italy.

269/365 manarola

The next day was supposed to be market day in Vernazza, so we took a train there that morning. (There were a few extra vendors selling things along the main street, but nothing too exciting.) While in Vernazza, we did more uphill climbing to get pictures. First, we walked part of the way up the hill toward Corniglia, practically to the official start of the trail. Then we went back down, walked to the back of town, and climbed up the hill on the other side to their cemetery. Unfortunately, neither of those was quite the iconic view I was looking for. We probably would have had to go up the trail toward Monterosso, and the German tourists were making things pretty crowded by the time we found the start of it. It was also about lunchtime, so I settled for a shot of Vernazza taken from the harbor as my picture of the day. We returned to the back of town and ate at Il Pirata, a place owned by a pair of Sicilian brothers. Gnocchi, risotto, and a good cannoli for dessert.

After lunch, we did one more climbing expedition in Vernazza—up to the castle tower—before taking the train back to Riomaggiore for our afternoon rest (and gelato). That evening, we went back out to the Via dell'Amore and took it to Manarola again for dinner at Trattoria dal Billy. Another great meal of seafood and pasta, including the crazy antipasto sampler with its parade of plates. The walk back to Riomaggiore in the dark was interesting, but there was just enough light that we weren't too scared of falling off the cliff. Of course, guard rails and the wide path helped.

270/365 vernazza

For our last day in Cinque Terre, we had two cities to cover; we still hadn't made it to Corniglia or Monterosso yet. But first, we needed to do laundry. Luckily, there was a small laundromat in Riomaggiore, because we had neither the time nor the space in our room for sink-washed clothes to dry before we had to repack it all.

Once the clothes were washed, we headed to Corniglia by train and proceeded to walk up the 382 steps to town. They just kept going... Finally, we reached the top and found our way to the restaurant I had my eye on for lunch. It was called Osteria A Cantina de Mananan, and it was a little place with the menu charmingly scrawled on a chalkboard. We got some local white wine, Steve had braised rabbit, and I got pasta with porcini sugo. It was all tasty, but the flavors of the things we got were more Steve's style than mine—slow-cooked and hearty. The pesto probably would have been more my style if they hadn't been worried about cross-contamination with walnuts.

There wasn't a ton to see in Corniglia after lunch, so we poked around a bit and then went back down all those stairs to catch the train to Monterosso. Monterosso is the most touristy of the towns, with real beaches and the resorts/hotels to match. We really didn't spend much time there. We saw the Il Gigante statue at the end of the beach, took a random walk up a hill, and then breezed through the old town area. Their old town was kind of like the other towns, but it did feel a bit more touristy. It seemed like there were more shops selling souvenirs there than in the others. After a quick look around, we decided to head back to the train station so we could return to Riomaggiore for dinner. We didn't have a reservation but we got into Dau Cila, a nice restaurant next to the harbor, by going on the early side.

Picture of the day: the beach at Monterosso. True, it wasn't our favorite stop of the day, but I liked that the other four towns were visible down the coast.

271/365 monterosso al mare

On Thursday, it was back on the train(s) for the trip back to Florence. This time, we left the train station, walked by San Lorenzo again, and found our apartment building across the street from the Accademia. We checked in, discovered that not one but two of the restaurants on my list were on theirs as well, and we were able to get our apartment hosts to make the reservations for us. I also noticed that the nearby focaccia place, Pugi, was on their recommended list. So we went and got a couple slices of pizza and brought them back to our apartment for a (rather) late lunch.

The apartment itself was fabulous. It had an actual dining table, a kitchen, and a sitting room with a couch. This was the point in the trip at which I was starting to get tired of doing the tourist thing all day every day, so it was nice to have a couch to come home to. In fact, we chilled for a little while that afternoon before it was time to leave for dinner.

We had a reservation at Trattoria Quattro Leoni in Oltrarno, which meant a nice little walk to get there. I was able to incorporate some of the Rick Steves' Renaissance Walk on the way, not that we listened to the accompanying podcast or read anything from the book while doing it. We went past the Duomo and the Baptistery, down Via dei Calzaiuoli with its many stores, past Orsanmichele Church, detoured into Piazza della Repubblica, continued through Piazza della Signoria with the Palazzo Vecchio, and finally went past the Uffizi Gallery to the river. The Ponte Vecchio (below) was in sight then, so we took some pictures and walked across it to the neighborhood of Oltrarno to find our restaurant.

At dinner, we had the dish I had read about from other travelers: a pear-stuffed pasta with taleggio cream sauce and asparagus. Everyone insisted it was amazing, and indeed it was. Sweet pear with creamy, cheesy taleggio, and asparagus to round it out. For a second course, we shared a kilo of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. (A kilo was the minimum.) It was large chunk of beef, but we did a pretty good job with it. A nice chianti helped too. :) And for dessert, we got our first tiramisu in Italy.

272/365 ponte vecchio

When planning our time in each of these cities, I tried to figured out which were the necessary sites to see. There were many—mainly museums—that we skipped, but we checked off a few of the big Florence must-sees on Friday. We started with the Duomo, waiting in line so we could go in and look around. Then, we went to the Campanile (bell tower). You can climb to the top of the Duomo dome or to the top of the Campanile, and I had decided that I'd rather climb the Campanile so I could get pictures of the Duomo dome from there. (Steve stayed on the first level while I went up three more levels to the top.) After coming back down, we went inside the Baptistery, where I took pictures of the mosaic ceiling.

Next, we walked through the San Lorenzo Market (flea-ish) to the Mercato Centrale (food-ish). My plan was to get food from a popular vendor there, but it turned out to be a little too popular. The line was so long that we decided to just walk around the market and buy some stuff to take home and eat. We ended up at a meat and cheese counter with samples and bought a couple things that we liked: salami finocchiona (Tuscan fennel salami) and a rather tasty pecorino (sheep) cheese. A piece of focaccia from another counter rounded it out, and we had a nice little "picnic" lunch in our apartment. I probably should have taken pictures of that, but I was too hungry at the time.

Back to the sightseeing that afternoon, we headed toward the Uffizi Gallery with a stop at the Straw Market (Mercato Nuovo) to see Porcellino. At our appointed time, we went into the Uffizi and spent a couple hours looking at the art. Luckily, neither of us is more into art and museums than the other, because we both got rather art museumed-out by the end. It was a lot of standing and walking, and that was without lingering much or reading many plaques.

For dinner, we went to a place called Gustavino, recommended by our apartment people and Dan and Carmen. Tasty, interesting food, but I was a little disappointed when my pesto dish apparently had some cross-contamination issues. I had to stop after a bite or two, pop a Benodryl, and trade dishes with Steve. Probably my own fault for not mentioning my nut allergy, but we had been lucky before in Cinque Terre. Other than that, it was an enjoyable meal.

273/365 duomo day

And so ended the month of September! I'm so behind... I'm hoping to catch up by Christmas or maybe New Years, but we'll see. More Florence, Orvieto (our favorite stop!), and the beginning of Rome next time. For now, here is the (very late) September mosaic.

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