So our spring break was two weeks ago (ours is always later than everyone else’s in the states), and we took full advantage by traveling to Italy! I look back now and can’t believe we saw all we did in just 7 days. I will be honest and say there were times I truly wanted to pull my hair out, but that was trumped by the beauty, incredible history, and wonderful people that make up the country. It was definitely an unforgettable experience.
And because it was so unforgettable, I want to share with you a lot of details and pictures. Click under the cut to see it all.
We began our trip at an early/late (depending on who you are) 3:00 a.m. on Saturday. Our plan was to drive while it was still dark so the kiddos could get some sleep for part of the trip. 10 hours strapped in a car does not always equal a pleasant toddler. Well, it partly worked. The kids did sleep, thankfully, but Thing 2 did not take much of a nap after that, so by the time we arrived in Monterosso at about 3:00 in the afternoon, he was done. For a 22 month old, though, he did exceptionally well. You gotta take what you get in times like this, people.
We drove through Switzerland, but the Alps were covered in a nice layer of clouds, so we weren’t able to see their peaks. Beautiful drive, though. And their rest-stops? Top notch. Fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly squeezed juice in glasses on ice WITH straws. They even had shopping carts that had high-chairs on the front if you wanted to stroll through the isles with a baby. Their kid area was wonderful with a train table, wooden structures for the kids to play on, and even a Playstation for the bigger ones. I was impressed.
A little about the Cinque Terre…Cinque Terre is a region in the coastal northwestern part of Italy. It is a region of 5 towns: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The region is widely known for its hiking trails that lead to and from each town. In 2011 they had a huge storm pass through which caused great damage to some the towns and trails. Today all of the towns are back in good conditions but there are signs up for many of the trails that say they are off limits. We (along with everyone else) just see these as suggestions. As long as you watch where you walk, it’s really no big deal. It’s about 3 kilometers or so between each town. If hiking isn’t for you, there is a train that stops through each town.
Since we drove finding an apartment to rent with parking in one of the five Cinque Terre cities was a big deal. But it was very hard to come by as cars inside the towns are for residents only, and even at that there are few. However, my husband did find a very small apartment in Monterosso, the northern-most coastal town through Air BnB. We were met by big smiles by Antonella and her husband who both own the apartment. They had a little complex that included their own house, the apartment, and living quarters for their daughter (and I think their daughter’s husband). They had a nice garden and courtyard in the middle as well. Parking was there, but tricky, as it was inside a gate and tightly squeezed into a small spot beside the owners’ car. It was kind of comical watching the hubs maneuvering it into that spot. Italians sure know how to park in tight spaces. Wow.
The apartment was perfect for us: 1 larger bedroom that had stairs leading to an outside private garden, 1 twin bed in the downstairs area that also held a small kitchen and bathroom. It was very simple, but exactly what we were looking for. Unfortunately, Thing 2 got 3 goose eggs on his forehead while staying there due to the hard floor and steep stairs, but when you have a toddler, it’s just the beginning of many more to come. Poor kid.
That roof on the left was the apartment, the stairs on the left are the side of the main house, and the garden in front is also all part of the house/complex.
We all slept like babies then got up around 8:00 to start our hike. In the past the trails between each town were marked as blue and red, the blue trail being easier and more along the lower part of the coast, while the red was more uphill and rigorous. Well, since the storms a few years ago the trails kind of combined, so we ended up doing the red trail most of the way between Monterosso and Vernazza. That trail is said to be the most difficult out of all of them, and not too far in I understood why. There were LOTS of stairs. Rock stairs. Uneven rock stairs. I’ve definitely done worse, but it was tiring. As we got closer to Vernazza, though, I saw why it was worth the walk. The views we had while hiking were incredible! Pictures never do it justice, but we just kept stopping and staring in awe. To be back by the ocean again was, in itself, wonderful enough, but with the vineyards and the dramatic hills, the colorfully stacked boxy homes, the people talking to each other from their balconies and patios adorned with drying clothes strung across and patches of flowers hanging from the windowsills…we could not have had a more “Italian” experience. It was perfect.
Thing 1 and his limon gelato.
Looking at the new town part of Monterosso
Cool carvings on the aloe plants and cacti
Just a suggestion, of course.
Looking back on Monterosso from the trail.
Vernazza is another town on the coast with a marina and a small castle with a single turret you can climb up. There are a few turrets around the town, one now part of a home and the other in ruins. We grabbed some pizza and hung out in the piazza to let little bit run free for a while. The hubs and I tag-teamed again, but while I was in charge of the little guy I ended up slamming my butt into the pavement hitting my tailbone. OUCH is an understatement! I was mortified, my butt was wet, and the kid was screaming because he also slipped. It was not fun. But we still decided to trudge on to the next town. (I would be paying for this later.)
Snack break! (I’m sorry, but these boys are the cutest ever.)
Yup, that’s a boat sticking out of the window.
Remnants from a house lost during the storm. There are still clothes hanging in the closet. This was very strange to see.
Although the trail from Moterosso to Vernazza is said to be the toughest out of all of them, Vernazza to Corniglia is not easy, by any means. There were quite a few more stairs than I was expecting, and already being sore did not help things. But we did find a nice little resting stop on the way to let the kids get a snack and rest for a bit.
Corniglia is different than the other towns in that it sits up on top of a hill instead of reaching down to the water. In fact, even if you travel to Corniglia by train you are looking at about 300 stairs up to the town from the station. It is high, and probably the least touristy out of all 5 towns. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except eat and relax, but it does have some spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Love locks on the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia
I had no idea a pallet could induce so much fun!
All in all we hiked about 5km that first day, which took about 5 hours with the sightseeing. It was a beautiful way to kick off our four days in Cinque Terre. We trained it back from Corniglia to Monterosso, then decided to grab some dried Trofie pasta (which we had never seen before) and mix it with some fresh basil pesto we bought at a local store. We paired that with some pizza and local wine and it made for a lovely evening. (I am purposefully leaving out the part here where Thing 2 bounced down the stone stairs causing a goose egg about 1cm tall on his forehead.)
Our second full day we decided to take it slow in the morning and then take the train to the last two cities, Manarola and Riamaggiore. They are closer together and smaller in size than some of the others. The hike from Corniglia to Manarola is really not that difficult or long, and the last path between Manarola and Riamaggiore is called The Love Road (Via dell’Amore). If I hadn’t hurt my butt so bad the first day we would’ve hiked both, but this girl just couldn’t do it. The path coming into the city winds around to give you some immaculate views of the town with the marina at the bottom. And right above that lookout is a little gem we found that is perfect for parents traveling with kids. There is a fantastic playground and open area right next to very nice bathrooms (which is huge because apparently Italians never need to use the bathroom and their babies always have clean diapers). Next to it are picnic tables if you want to grab lunch in the town and bring it up. It all looks out over the Mediterranean and the dramatic landscape of the Cinque Terre. This was perfect for us, and we stayed for around an hour or so. We grabbed some pizza for lunch and gelato for dessert. The boys had to have limone gelato from each town to figure out which town’s had the best taste. (Riomaggiore won.) As a snack I tried a cone filled with ‘fried’ calamari. Oh dear Lord in Heaven, it was the best calamari I have ever had in my life. Not deep fried or covered in marinara sauce…this was fresh from the ocean, very lightly battered calamari saturated with squeezed lemon juice. My mouth is salivating right now just thinking about it.
After spending a couple of hours eating our way through beautiful Manarola we trained it to Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore is small and steep. I swear, the old ladies there must have killer calves because the terrain is no joke! We stayed just long enough to try some more gelato and explore some alleyways before training it back to Monterosso in time for the little one to take a nap.
After his nap and some much needed rest we walked down to the beach and enjoyed the rocky sand and cool Mediterranean.
That evening we grabbed some local pizza and more pesto and ate the rest of our Trofie pasta (by far my favorite pasta for pesto now). For dessert my wonderful husband bought us the most AMAZING dessert wine I’ve ever had in my life. Now, I am not a huge fan of dessert wines. They are usually too sweet for me, but THIS STUFF is so good I want to drink it every day for the rest of my life. It’s Passito Rosso from Cantina Sassarini, whose winery is just up the hill from Monterosso. It is not your normal dessert wine. You can taste the grapes so well. And it’s 14.5% alcohol. Just an added bonus.
On our last day we decided to take a side trip to Pisa since it is only about an hour drive. I’m not really sure what I expected Pisa to be like, but really dirty was not it. It is dirty. There are panhandlers everywhere, and although I know this is normal for touristy places, it was excessive and intrusive here. The part of town that has the Leaning Tower and Baptistry are really the only nice parts, in my opinion. We got our leaning pictures…checked the box.
Montepulciano – Tuscany
The next day we packed up and headed to beautiful Tuscany to the romantic town of Montepulciano. Oh, how I wish we would’ve spent more time in that beautiful place. There are no words to describe the beauty of Tuscany. My idea of a perfect day would be sitting at an outdoor café looking out over the rolling green of Tuscano with a glass of wine in one hand and a good book in the other. And what better town to do it in than Montepulciano?! Now, I must confess that I had an ulterior motive in visiting this town in particular. Here it is:
For those of you who are not cool, that would be Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in New Moon.
And so what is the first thing I did after getting there? This.
I can die now.
Just kidding. I’m not that crazy. Well, maybe. I was giddy as a school girl, but kept the high-pitched squealing inside because, let’s face it, I am a 31 year old woman. But as we were walking back to our hotel a tour group of teenagers was coming through and a young girl saw that door and ran over to it giggling and squealing. She was my inner teenager being released. I just smiled and went on my way.
Seriously, though, if you want to visit Tuscany with your love you must come to Montepulciano. You just do. With kids it was not as romantic as it could’ve been, but we still enjoyed the views and the atmosphere. There is wine tasting all over. Beautiful restaurants that look out over the green rolling hills of bella Tescano. Our hotel, The Palazzo Bellarmino, was incredible. We had a 2 bedroom apartment all to ourselves complete with a dining room and kitchen. It was a wonderful place to stay, but we had to leave the next morning. Sad face.
It really does not get more beautiful.
Our journey to Rome from Tuscany was about two hours. We found an apartment to rent right on the edge of the city because we knew better than to even attempt driving inside it. It was interesting to find, as it lies facing a one way road that looks more like an alley. But, for the area, it was perfect for us. It included a gated parking spot, which is imperative if you are driving to Rome. The metro was just down the road and there was a small grocery across the street that we bought milk at for little bit and cappuccinos in the mornings.
We arrived in the early afternoon and met up with my best friend and her husband who were at the tail end of their own European getaway vacation. I can’t tell you how good it felt to see them again. A year apart is too long to be away from those you love. It’s funny, though, how seeing each other again makes it seem like no time has passed at all. My oldest attached himself to my best friend right off the bat, holding her hand and talking her ear off. We walked around Rome for a little bit then went our separate ways so we could get to the Vatican before evening.
Now, it had been a long day. I had this small glimmer of hope that MAYBE the kids would be good enough or that the 1 year old MIGHT’VE fallen asleep long enough for us to get into one of the Vatican museums. Psh. Why I do this to myself, I have no idea. As soon as we entered St. Peter’s Square my 7 year old’s tooth came out while he was eating. Blood all over his lips. Meanwhile the toddler is running around like crazy playing ‘catch me if you can’ and screaming bloody murder when we tried to pick him up. So we get a few pics of the kids finally smiling and then the oldest begins wailing. Like, screaming his head off while shouting, “STOP!!! STOP!!!” Voices are echoing throughout the square, heads are turning. The toddler had accidentally pinched my son’s hand in his sunglasses and was holding on for dear life. Honestly, it was a circus. So, we left. Maybe someday I will get to go back and do the adult stuff. Maybe.
Wait for it…
Real life, people.
The next day we were picked up by our car tour guide, Ivano, from DGS. He then picked up our friends and took us around to the various sites of the city. He was WONDERFUL! I love how passionate Italians are in the way they talk. His passion and knowledge of history gave us a meaningful experience that we just wouldn’t have had if we had tried touring these places on our own. He’d talk awhile and drop us off to go take pictures and whatnot. It was the perfect combination of touring and exploring on our own. I will especially cherish the time he was talking to us about one of the ruins and this guy just decided to walk out in front of our van. Ivano rolled down the window (mid-sentence) and yells, “NEXT TIME I KILL YOU!!” in Italian. We were cracking up! Oh, the passion!
The MASSIVE Victor Emmanuel Memorial that commemorated the reunification of Italy. To give you an idea of just how huge this is, that horse up there can fit 24 people sitting down inside. We saw a picture.
The Spanish Steps
The Roman Forum
Making his wish in the Trevi Fountain
Bernini Fountain in Piazza Navona
Don’t get pics with these guys. They tried to charge us 20 Euro. PSH. Nope.
Ivano took us to a beautiful place for lunch located by the catacombs that we would’ve never found on our own. For once we were able to have a nice sit-down dinner that did not involve pizza. The kids behaved (thanks, iPad) and we enjoyed the beautiful gardens over pasta and a bottle of Chardonnay (which, according to Ivano, is the preferred wine of Italians).
At the end of our tour we gave big goodbye hugs to our friends and headed back to the apartment to pack up for an early wakeup the next day. We began our 12 hour drive back to Germany around 3am the next morning, but it was perfect because the boys were able to sleep and we were able to get back in the late afternoon. We missed Italy, but it was sure nice to sleep in our own beds again.
One thing is for certain: there is no way this is the last I will see of Italy. I can’t let that happen.