Oh, Italy, how you played with our hearts.
Let’s back up. We just had an amazing time in clean, orderly, expensive, Switzerland. Then we rented a car (because taking public transportation would have been a 24-hour ordeal for what could be driven in 6 hours for far less money) and drove down to Italy. As soon as we crossed the border, it’s like everything went nuts. We drove into Como for lunch (and, let’s be real, in hopes of running into George Clooney), and were immediately met with roads with no visible lanes. You could be driving 3 cars across, and then turn a corner and have to merge into one lane. It was chaos. After driving around for 20 minutes or so, we gave up on finding a parking spot and opted to eat snacks from the car instead.
When we decided to spend a few days in Italy on this trip, we asked for advice, and everyone pretty unanimously said we had to go to Cinque Terre. This is a series of 5 little fishing villages perched on cliffs on the Italian coast. Apparently it was once quite the hot spot for pirates, but is now essentially a colorful place for tourists to come eat, hike, and, in our case, get food poisoning.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We stayed in an Airbnb in Manarola, the second village along the trail if you look at them south to north. We had the address for the place and instructions that it was “on the main street.” This is another carless village (like Mürren), so we parked on the street outside of town and hiked our way in. Our adorable Italian host greeted us (after we wandered the town completely lost for 30 minutes or so) with his wife’s homemade lemoncello and took us on a little tour of the town on the way to our apartment, pointing out all of the important things (grocery, gelato). After we settled in, we headed out for a walk and dinner. And discovered how woefully unprepared we were for Italy.
You see, we’d spent the past week or so in Switzerland, where the currency is Swiss Francs, and where pretty much every place accepted credit cards. Italy uses Euros, and apparently does not believe in the credit card system. So, we didn’t have any cash because we were slightly unprepared (our bad), and supposedly the ATMs in town were on our bank’s network. This turned out to be false. And most of the restaurants in town were cash only. Trouble for the Ringers.
Luckily, the grocery store accepted credit cards. Unfortunately, the grocery store was technically closed (according to the sign), but there were a few people shopping inside, so we were able to buy some things to cook dinner at our apartment (despite the angry Italian clerk who was not thrilled to sell us anything…our bad). So, dinner was gnocchi, fresh pesto (apparently invented in the region), salad, and $5 wine. On our patio. Overlooking the town, the Ligurian Sea, and the sunset. We’ll call that a win.
So, the five towns in Cinque Terre are connected by train and by hiking trails. Our goal was to hike the whole thing during our visit, so our morning plan was to hike to Riomaggiore, get money from the ATM there, and eat breakfast in that town. So we woke early (like the retired folks we are) and hiked an hour or more up and down a cliff to Riomaggiore. And, naturally, the ATM rejected us. Eric had some American currency, so he went to a bank to see if they would exchange it. And they would, with a US passport. Which was in our apartment. So we took the train back to our town (a 2 minute ride), but when we arrived, the train doors wouldn’t open! So we rode to the next town and got out there. But the next train back to our town wouldn’t arrive for at least 30 minutes, so we figured we could just hike back, since we wanted to hike the whole Cinque Terre anyway. Obviously, this was a poor decision, as the hike back ended up taking somewhere around two and half hours. It was beautiful, of course, but our stomachs were practically yelling with anger at their emptiness.
We made it back to our town, got our passports, took the train back to Riomaggiore, exchanged our US dollars for Euros, and sat down to eat at a restaurant recommended in our Rick Steves travel guide. The food wasn’t great (I should say pasta isn’t totally our jam), but we’d hiked for 4 hours and hadn’t eaten in about 18, so we were thankful for anything. We hopped on a train back to Corniglia and planned to continue our hike of the Cinque Terre. We walked for about 5 minutes before Eric got sick. Food poisoning. Back to the train and back to our apartment for several hours until he got it out of his system.
Eric was a total trooper and we continued our hike that evening, traveling to all 5 villages. According to my FitBit, we knocked out 18 miles.
One thing we learned about these European cities and towns was that they don’t have a strong presence on Yelp. I know we live in a bit of a food focused city in Portland, and have probably been a bit spoiled by the number of crowd-sourced reviews available for every single restaurant, but this was pretty crazy. In Portland, if a place doesn’t have at least 100 reviews on Yelp, it’s either brand new or completely unpopular. In Europe, we were lucky if (1) the restaurant was on Yelp, and (2) there were more than 3 reviews. So picking a place to eat was challenging. In fact, we finally created a Yelp profile at the end of this trip so we could help our fellow travelers.
This was certainly the most interesting thing we encountered along the trail: a stray cat hotel with little cat houses built into the wall.
So, something to know about us: we’re not great relaxers. We don’t generally do much sitting around on vacation, and instead opt for cramming in as much as possible. The thought of sitting on a beach all day actually stresses me out. The next day, with Euros in hand, we opted to try to relax. After all, we’d hiked the whole thing, so we’d done pretty much all there was “to do” (other than kayaking, which we really wanted to do, but for some reason didn’t attempt). We woke up so early that nothing in town was even open yet (a persistent vacation problem for us), so we just walked a bit and watched the water. I’m telling you, the color of this water is unreal. I’m not one to swim the sea, but I wanted to jump in this thing. I don’t even have the words to describe it, so hopefully the photos will suffice.
Anywho, after a failed restaurant experience, we wanted to eat cheap (we had a limited amount of cash), and eat deliciously. So we picked the first place to open in town, and it was AMAZING. I’ve never loved a pastry so hard. We shared a treccia con crema di nocciole (a pastry braided with Nutella), and a brioche con marmellata (a croissant filled with marmalade and sprinkled with powdered sugar). Holy mackeral. I would fly back to Italy for another round of those pastries. And they were only 1 Euro each. Which made breakfast about 1/20 the cost of the food poisoning lunch. Huzzah!
After that, we made it our goal to just eat amazing, super cheap things all day. And boy, did we succeed. We would walk up into town, get something to go, take it down to the water, eat, look at the water, and repeat. Next up was focaccia. Rick Steves said that you could walk town to town, buying warm focaccia and cold gelato anywhere you wanted. So we did. We found a little shop that sold amazing focaccia (or, as I like to call it, “butter bread”) for 1.50 Euro. Magic. We may have had 2 separate rounds of focaccia and gelato. You only live once in Italy, right?
Once we finally convinced ourselves to relax and go with the flow, Italian style, it was pretty enjoyable. And incredibly beautiful.
If you’d like to read about our whole trip to Europe, check out these posts: