We’ve eaten live sea urchin and fugu. We’ve towed a loaded Airstream down the windingest parts of Highway 1 on the California coast, and over 11,000ft passes in Colorado. We’ve flown our own airplane into the San Juan Islands, Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone Park. We’ve ridden centuries on a tandem bicycle. But yesterday, we did something we thought we’d never do.
We took a bus tour.
There are few concepts in the world as antithetical to our nature as the idea of being herded into a giant tour bus with a random selection of travelers, dropped off in a beautiful/interesting/historic place, and forced to follow a talking leader holding a tall stick with a small stuffed Mickey Mouse strung to the top.
And yet, we showed up at 7:30am at the Santa Maria Novella station here in Florence, just in time to be directed toward two giant tour busses. Part of the reason for this severe departure from our standards was that this Cinque Terre hiking tour was offered as a day trip from Florence. Consider the facts. From Florence:
1. Cinque Terre is a couple hours by car
2. 4+ hours by bus/train
3. Once there, you need entry into the National Park
4. Hiking the entire 5 villages takes about 7 hours
5. There’s a train that runs between towns, so if you coordinated the trains with selected hiking you could maybe see all 5 villages in one day, sort of
6. Oh, there’s also a boat, but the boat schedule? With the train schedule? You can see it’s getting tricky.
7. If you hiked/trained/boated from one end to the other, how do you get back to your car/train?
By this time, we’re picturing it’s 10pm and we’ve missed everything we could miss and have to find a place to spend the night in one of these villages…and the more we picture that, the more the ease of the tour (with all the logistics magically handled) sounds pretty inviting. So…we caved. We booked it.
A bus tour.
Heavy-set man in white polo shirt and khacki pleated cargo shorts: “Have you’all tried one of them eXpressos yet? That stuff is nasty!”
These were of course the same people who boarded the tour bus holding McDonald’s to-go coffee cups. There is no “to go” coffee in Italy that we’ve seen. If you want fast coffee, you pay 1 Euro and sip/slam your coffee (a delicious shot of espresso, or if you have more time, a cappuccino) at the counter while you make some small talk with the owner of the cafe.
Oh boy. This is bound to be our longest day yet.
Our guide(s) introduced themselves on the bus (Julian, backed up by Mara), and they were friendly and funny, and sharp and interesting. No Mickey Mouse on a stick. No stupid rules. No name tags. It seemed like they were planning to lead a tour of actual independent adults! A glimmer of hope!!
We arrived, disembarked, and headed out on our hike. It was beautiful! The towns are built on the bluffs overlooking the Western Mediterranean coast of Italy, and are mostly terraced for farming (grapes, lemons, kumquats, herbs, olives…):
Today, the train connects all five towns, but for most of history these villages have been isolated from the rest of the world (and even mostly from each other).
Our bus dropped us off in Manarola and we hiked down the hill to the train station, caught the train to Corniglia and then hiked up some big number of stairs (382?) to our lunch destination.
View from lunch:
After lunch we set off on an hour and a half hike to Vernazza.
According to our guides the rocks on the roofs are there to hold down the roof so that evil spirits can’t lift the tiles and get in.
In Vernazza we had some gelato down by the marina, walked around a bit, and then boarded the train to Monterosso.
In Monterosso we met up with a group from Utah and sat together at the oldest wine bar in Monterosso to do some wine tasting. We had samples of wine from each of the five villages…same grapes, different microclimates. Even though Italy is mainly famous for red wines, they are all about the white wines here.
Time to board the ferry to Riomaggiore:
Boarding the ferry was a bit tricky! The boat comes in and ties up at the edge of the rock, the gang plank is deployed, and the boarding/disembarking passengers have a crazy walk down a moving gang plank to get on and off the boat. Fun!
After all our trepidation, we really enjoyed this bus tour. Our guides were personable, down-to-earth, informed, and treated everyone with respect. While we’re certainly not ready to recommend bus tours in general (we watched plenty of other tour groups go by that we were very glad not to be a part of), we would highly recommend this particular tour by Walkabout Florence. No matter how you tour Cinque Terre, you’re going to find it crowded and touristy. It’s like Yosemite. (Just tilt your camera lens 10 degrees up, and you’ll miss all the tourists and your photos will look like you were the only ones there.)
These mountains have been completely reshaped by marble mining that’s been going on since the times of Ancient Rome and have provided marble for buildings, monuments, and statues all over the world. (Michelangelo’s David started off as a chunk of marble from the Carrara mountains).
We arrived back at our apartment 14 hours after we left. Long day. Fun day. Another self-directed Fiat 500 adventure tomorrow…with bikes in the back!