Heroes of the Cinque Terre!!

This morning we slept in. And it was awesome. AWESOME! Then we took our little breakfast ticket down to a cafe where we get a free Italian breakfast – it consists of a espresso, a cappucino, or a tea, and a brioche or a focaccia, and my goodness, it was yum. Very basic, but delicious all the same, and free! Then we went to the train station to see Alfie off to Milan and then Cara and Sean and I took a train to Riomaggiore, the first village in the Cinque Terre (for those who don’t know, there are five villages, connected by a coastal path. It’s been there for centuries, and people who lived and worked along the coastline have cut it into place.) It takes approx. 6 hours to walk the whole path across the five villages and we weren’t sure if we’d have the stamina to do the whole lot so we thought we’d play it by year.

The first walk, between Riomaggiore and Manarola, is called the Via dell’Amore (‘Love Walk’). Today, it was free, because it was Valentine’s Day! Oh yeah, that’s right! Valentine’s Day! It certainly was a lovely way to spend Valentine’s Day. INCREDIBLE views. Brilliant sunshine (it really was too hot for jackets so I carried mine most of the way). Stunning cliffs with love seats cut into them, and plaques and padlocks and graffiti of lover’s names all along the walk. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. We took huge amounts of pictures. And I may have written some graffiti of my own…

We reached the town of Manarola, an incredibly picturesque little slice of heaven. We walked through it to reach the next part of the coastal walk and were about a third of the way through when we reached a gate that locked the way – part of the walk was dangerous and we couldn’t go any further. That problem is easily solved – there are train services through the five villages, so we just walked back to Manarola and hopped on a train that took us straight to the next town, Corniglia. This is the only town out of the five that doesn’t have the train station in the middle of the town, so you have to walk up a steep hill, or 382 steep steps. We took the hill, though it took a while and was very difficult. Corniglia was very beautiful also. We noticed throughout the day that there weren’t many people around. This could have been due to it being the off-season, or, as we found out later, due to the damage to the coastal walk that occurred in October last year.

We decided to walk the one and a half hour trail from Corniglia to Vernazza. The trail from Vernazza to Monterosso, the final town, is about two hours, so we made no promises and decided to just see how we felt. The path between Corniglia and Vernazza turned out to be one of the most crazy difficult experiences of my life (a crazy difficult experience that included insane views and stunning coastal scenery of wild orchards and vineyards and the extremely weird combination of snow and sea and sunshine). As we got further and further along the path, we encountered bigger and bigger sections that had been collapsed, or destroyed by mini landslides. Clearly, the storms in October had made it extremely perilous. We kept climbing really carefully over piles of rocks that just ended in a cliff drop. I had to jump at one point and tore a hole in my jeans when I snagged them on some wire. Part of the fence had collapsed and there was a huuuuuge rip. My only jeans. Right across the upper thigh region. Yep. Time for new jeans. If any of us had slid down, we wouldn’t have been able to climb up and we would have had to call some kind of emergency service. Picture the 1000 steps, on a cliff, three times as long, with no one else around. It was extremely scary at points, and I don’t know why there wasn’t a sign somewhere blocking the path off. If any elderly people had decided to take the walk, they wouldn’t have been able to leap over things or tiptoe over rockslides, so there really should have been a warning. That being said, the sense of victory I felt when we reached Vernazza was tanglible. We WIN AT CINQUE TERRE!! And though the path had been tough, my goodness it was a good-looking piece of nature.

As we walked through Vernazza, the damage was obvious. The roads were extremely muddy and it was full of construction people cleaning and draining ground floor buildings. We took a train to Monterosso, determined to see the final village, but by the time we got there, our energy had completely expired and we stumbled into a coffee shop at the station for a hot chocolate and an espresso, and then stumbled back to the platform to train back to La Spezia. So we didn’t see much of Monterosso at all, but I felt we saw plenty of beauty of the Cinque Terre regardless. The weather remained beautiful for our entire adventure and we felt like total winners because we had survived the death trap of the Corniglia-Vernazza trail. Once we arrived back in La Spezia we collapsed for a bit, then dragged ourselves back to the restaurant from last night. We had the same waiter and the same wonderful experience, so I would definitely recommend Pizzeria Il Pomodoro for anyone visiting La Spezia! (Note: bring a phrasebook, you will need it). We are all exhausted, so we will not do much else tonight. Sean has gone for a short walk with a cigar, and I’m going to have a much-needed shower. Tomorrow: Milan! Until 7.40pm, then we get onto a night train to Barcelona. Yay!

xx

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La Spezia!

Hi kids! I’m writing from lovely La Spezia, which we reached today at about 4pm. After a pretty leisurely morning (getting up, eating free and delivered breakfast, checking out and hanging round the train station), we got on a direct train to La Spezia. So far, I am not hugely enamoured with Italian trains. They are definitely fast, and very new, but they are not as comfortable as some of the less fancy trains we used in other countries. Regardless, we reached La Spezia and our hotel is just 80m from the main train station. We met the hotel manager just outside the doors and she showed us to our room which is on the very top floor. This means a lot of stairs, but a beautiful view. It was also really sunny, and I think it might only be 3 or 4 degrees, but it actually feels warm compared to the temperatures we’ve been enduring.

Once we’d settled in, we went searching for a restaurant to eat a nice dinner in as it’s Cara’s birthday! While we were waiting for all the places to actually open for dinner, we went for a walk around the town. The language barrier is far more apparent here, as La Spezia isn’t a huge tourist city like Venice or Rome. When we sat down for dinner, we discovered there was no English menu and our waiter had  pretty much no English. This was good! We’ve been far too spoiled and I wanted to experience what it was really like to struggle with a tough language barrier. Our waiter was utterly delightful, and so friendly. We ended up looking at the menu, identifying words that looked familiar and then just picking stuff almost at random. It was sort of pot luck, but my goodness the food was good. We had excellent pizzas and desserts and the restaurant was so affordable, much cheaper than anywhere in Rome or Venice. We spent quite a while just sitting and chatting there and decided it was definitely one of our top dining experiences thus far. Afterwards, we headed back to our room and have just been chilling out. There hasn’t been much opportunity to go out in Italy because we have only been in places for two nights, which means lots of early mornings. Hopefully, once we get to the UK, we will have longer times in less places, which means more time to explore!

Ciao!

Us and the Pope. And lots of snow.

This morning the hostel delivered breakfast to our room. That was pretty cool, considering it was free! Once we’d organised ourselves and caught up on the days events (RIP Whitney! I love you!) and chatted on Facebook (Hi Josie! I love you!), we headed to Termini and took the underground to the Vatican City! Alfie and I were in Rome 4 years ago and remember lining up for forever to get into the Sistine Chapel. So we were really pleased to discover we could walk straight into St Peter’s Square. There were quite a few thousand people in there milling around with us and we were content to just walk around and snap some pics rather than lining up for ages to get into St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. So we did just that, chilling out and wandering about when suddenly….a voice…a voice amplified across the whole city! Was it God?? No…but it was in fact, His Holiness the Pope! Of course! It was Sunday! There was massive applause and I looked around frantically until I saw him, wayyyyyy up in a little window, addressing the whole square. It was wonderful! And totally unexpected!! (For us, probably not for everyone else there). He delivered a sermon in Italian (I think) and there was a lot of chanting in Latin (I think), and then he went through a bajillion different languages, including English, Spanish, German and Russian, to welcome everyone and thank them for coming. And he blessed us all. It was such a great way to spend our morning in Rome. On a high from that, we made our way back through the metro to the Colosseum.

We were starving by now, so we found a little restaurant close by to eat lunch. We are generally quite wary of these places because they’re extremely pricey, but the guy told us that we could get a ten euro menu of a pizza, bruschetta and a soft drink. That sounded fair enough, so we ended up in there. We were total besties with the waiter by the end of it, and the food was not too bad. The bruschetta was divine, second only to my dad’s (and Riley’s). They forgot Cara’s salad so he gave her a free dessert and they were just a really friendly place. We then left to actually visit the Colosseum, only to discover it was closed because of snow!! (We found out later this is extremely rare. It has snowed four times in Rome in the last sixty years, and when it does snow, they can’t put salt down on the ancient monuments because it damages them. So they have to close places to prevent tourists slipping etc). I also saw Will Poulter there. He’s the kid from Son of Rambow which is one of my favourite films ever. Yep. It excited me. So sue me!

Quite a bit of the Forum was closed as well, but we were still able to see heaps, and we did a long walk around it. We found a tiny little market hidden behind one of the topmost walls and I bought two kiwi fruits. I am craving serious fruit and veg. Scurvylicious. Then we made our way leisurely back to Colosseum. I should point out here that the whole day was filled with brilliant sunshine. And it was warm! Compared with what we have been living with for the last couple of weeks, we were really warm, despite the melting snow on the ground. We trained back to Piazza de Spagna to have another stab at finding that free walking tour and success! We got it! Our tour guide was a Roman, a lovely guy called Andrea (he was quick to inform us it was a man’s name in Italy) with a stunning accent and great English.

We learned that the ‘Spanish Steps’ are actually the Scalinata della Trinata dei Monti – the Stairway to the Holy Trinity Church, as at the top of the steps, is a church. We saw the Fontana della Barcaccia, the fountain by Bernini’s father, and many of the obelisks around Rome. We saw the Valentino headquarters, and the very high statue of the Virgin Mary with the wreath of flowers placed on her arm by our mate, the Pope. We saw some blocks owned by Bernini and the church where two of his statues reside – the Pope at the time commissioned them for the top of a bridge, but was so impressed with them, that he paid Bernini, but made him keep them, as they were ‘too beautiful’ to be on top of a bridge. After Bernini died, they were donated to the church. And they are extremely beautiful. A lady on the tour took us in a separate entrance to see them better. When we came out of the church, the tour group had gone. The lady was sure she knew where they had headed – she was from Rome and had been on the tour before. By this point, we thought she was dodgy as all get out, but we decided to follow her, hoping against hope she wasn’t going to lead us down any dark alleys with the Mafia waiting to rob us, but she found the tour. Yayyy! We were extremely on our guard after that. We saw an ancient Roman column outside a shopping centre that has been there since it’s construction. We saw St Ignatius Church with the mind-blowing Baroque ceiling. It’s just amazing. I can’t even express how impressed I was with that ceiling.

We went to the Pantheon, but it was closed because of the snow, but we still found out plenty about its history and construction. We saw the last remaining wall of Hadrian’s temple and we finished the tour at the Trevi fountain. It was an extremely enjoyable tour, and by the end of today we were exhausted! So we headed back to the hostel, grabbing kebabs on the way. We leave for La Spezia in the morning. Phew!

Ciao!

Roma!

Buongiorno! We are now in Rome, a dirty, touristy, fun city. We left Venice this morning and after some minor ticket hiccups, arrived in Rome at about 4pm. Our hostel is uber close to the central station, which left us plenty of time to settle in before we set off in search of a free tour. We found no such tour. Apparently they run every day, but they weren’t at the meeting spot at the start time, so we just shrugged our shoulders and went for a walk. We went for a long roundabout trek (without a map) in search of the Trevi Fountain and we actually found it!! After ages. But it was lovely to go for such a long walk. It began snowing, but it was not very cold; in fact, compared to Germany/Czech Republic, it was postively balmy. We were getting very hot in all our gear. So we stopped for gelati in the snow and eventually trundled back to the hostel. The metro here is quite small compared to other cities and we were squished on with about a million other people, but we only ever had to travel one or two stops. Sean is itching to go out, and Cara, Alfie and I just want to stay in the warm, so there will probably be some compromises tomorrow. I’m not sure if I want to make tomorrow a full day or a rest day. Maybe a mix. We’ll see!

Scams!

This morning we had a sleep-in! YEAH SLEEP-IN! Then we got up and organised pretty leisurely. We ended up spending the day just walking around and ‘getting lost’ in Venice. It’s an easy (and free!) way to see the city, and there are signs everywhere pointing you back to certain points so you will never find yourself stranded. We walked back to San Marco and along the Grand Canal to the Bridge of Sighs. Then we headed back through towards the Rialto Bridge and went a little further beyond that. Venice is full of restaurants and souvenir shops (and I bought a lot of souvenirs and little pressies for people today. A lot.) and the little winding streets and canals make it beautifully picturesque. I also took a stack of photos, so look out for them on facebook.

I was coming out of a souvenir shop when a guy came up to me and flashed a badge at me, telling me he was the ‘tax police’. Straight away, you could tell something was up. First of all, he came out of nowhere, and when I looked behind me his mate was there as well. Alfie and Sean were standing near me and joined me and Cara was a bit further off and she looked over at us. This dude didn’t have any kind of uniform and when I asked to see his badge again he took it out reluctantly and kind of flashed it at me before shoving it in his pocket. Yeah, tax police. My foot. He started asking me stupid irrelevant questions about the bag I had bought. Then he asked me my name and I told him it was Emily Principe. (There you go, Dad! At least one Italian, even he is a dodgy piece of scum, thinks our last name is Principe!) The whole time Sean and I stared at him and Alfie and Cara stared at his mate, who was still floating around behind me. Then he kind of gave up on us and waved us away. Take that, inept con man. Next time, don’t pick a group of four people to try and rob. The ‘tax police scam’ apparently happens a bit in Venice and just involves one guy asking you dumb questions, while his accomplice goes through your bag. Ugh. I felt cross for ages afterwards. I was happy they hadn’t got anything, but I was still mad that they had the audacity to try. I guess we should be grateful we haven’t encountered any scams before this. It’s really unpleasant.

Afterwards, we went back to hotel to dump the stuff we had bought, and then set out for dinner. It was a long walk to our intended restaurant, but it was picturesque and took us far away from the tourist district. We didn’t like the look of it when we got there, but we went to another place near it and had good meals for much, much less than we had paid last night. I got pistachio and licorice gelati on the way back to the hotel, and I don’t think I’m up for going out again tonight. Too tired! It is nice, however, to be slightly less cold than Germany and Prague.

Ciao!

VENEZIA!

Well, well, well, what a day, what a day. It started with breakfast at the hostel, then we headed to the train station to catch a train. We had a direct route, straight to Venice, which was very cool, and we found another private Harry Potter cabin and settled ourselves in. About halfway through our trip (3 hours or so into a 6.5 hour trip), the train stopped while we were eating goulash and curry in the dining car. An announcement came over about 20 minutes later in Italian, German and English, and we were informed: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train ride will end here because the locomotive is, uh, not working.’ We were told to head to Platform 6 and catch a train to Verona. From there, we’d have to get another train to Venice. So we did just that. After some confusion as to whether we had actually found the correct train, we piled on and went, much slower, to Verona. The problem was that the new train was a regional train and stopped far more regularly. But we couldn’t do anything about that, so we sat back and watched the scenery. The mountains in Italy are, to put it mildly, completely stunning. Snow-covered or not, they are some of the most beautiful and majestic pieces of rock I have ever seen, and the villages built into the sides of them are just gorgeous.

At Verona, we raced across the station in a dramatic dash for the Venice train, which we got onto with plenty of time, so a bit of an anti-climax, really. We then proceeded to spend the next half hour listening to an incredibly heated and scary argument between the ticket inspector and an Italian woman who looked like Lillian from Shameless. She was yelling at the top of her lungs, and I don’t know a lot of Italian, but there were a few choice words she was using that were not very nice. Every now and then she’d walk away, only to think of some more abuse and turn back around. This took place, literally, behind Alfie’s left shoulder, but Scary Italian Lady obviously didn’t care who heard. Crazy times. Eventually, we reached Venice. YAYYY VENICE!! We caught a waterbus to San Marco, which was a lovely, scenic, night time ride along the Grand Canal, and then we walked through some gorgeous tiny streets until we found our hotel. Our room is pretty lovely for a dorm. We have our own bathroom and a TV, free soap/shampoo and lots of washstands/cupboards and a BIDET. That’s right. We have a bidet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before now. But I’m scared of it, it looks freaky.

The only problem is that we have to pay for wifi. That’s a little annoying, but we’ll deal. We went food-hunting as soon as we got checked in and found a restaurant that did yummy pizzas, but not as good pasta and chicken. I had limoncello, because Dad introduced me to it ages ago and I was finally in Italy again. In honour of you, Dad! Then we walked back to the hotel, stopping to look at all the touristy shops. Prague and Venice definitely have much better-looking souvenirs than a lot of the other cities we have been in. Sure, a lot of it is a bit kitsch and tacky, but they are still a lot prettier than anything else. I found some really cute Venetian mask earrings for only 6 euro.

I have now washed my hair for the first time in three days and it feels amazing. We bought some internet (extremely grudgingly, but it works, yay) and are investigating what to do tomorrow!

Ciao!