Mediterranean Jaunt – Part III: Cinque Terre and Tuscany

Tuesday 28 May 2024: Roger

Last night Barbara, at the La Toretta Hotel in Manarola, explained that the walk to Corniglia should take two-and-a-half hours, starting with 1200 steps taking us up to the first village of Volastra. After breakfast we set off, following the path, or should I say rough steps, up the hill. First we checked out the creek that runs under the road down to the village here as we had heard the water running under the street as we walked back from the waterfront last night. The engineering in these small European towns has always intrigued me. As we started up the steps we had some great views back to Manarola. A short walk around a track gave us a good view down the coast, and of the cemetery on the peninsula just north of the town. Wild poppies grow alongside the path in many places, along with other flowers. Each village has a stone church.

I didn’t count but eventually, after a lot of up, we arrived at Volastra. Blokes were doing a bit of work on one of the buildings using a rubber tracked motorised wheelbarrow. This town has been here since 177BC and even has reticulated gas. There are little monorails running up the many of the vineyards used for transportation of grapes and goods up and down the hills (photo copied off the net).

At 350 meters above the sea below it was good to see that the track mainly sidled around the hill still with a few ups and downs. Next we arrived at the village of Porciana. It’s pretty amazing to see the work that goes into maintaining the many vineyards along the way with lots of men carting spray packs and wearing masks as they spray the grapes. These are very hard working people. Next small village is Case Pince as the track sidles along at the 500m mark. It is amazing to see the infrastructure of pipes and irrigation these people have put in here.

Two hours later we arrived at Corniglia, a beautiful old town dating back to 1351. After wandering the streets we came across Ristorante La Lanterna, where we enjoyed a lunch of Sylvia: Pulpo salad and Caprese, and me: mussels and a beef main, followed by a fair bit of water to rehydrate.

We decided we should try the next leg of the walk and followed the track out of town, soon to be stopped at a toll booth where we showed our tickets for the next leg of the journey. A bloke in front of us got turned away as he was wearing sandals (shoes only on this track!) The track here was better maintained with lots more people on it. There were restaurants and bars along the way, one with a vineyard for a roof, where people dined under the grapes. Rising to about 250 meters it was a bit easier going than the previous leg apart from the holdups of the odd large group of French walkers, who seemed to be oblivious that people were behind them and wanting to pass. After a steep down hill we arrived at the old town of Vernazza. The place was packed with people. We sat on someone’s doorstep and enjoyed some gelato before wandering through the town to look at the waterfront area.

For the next leg we caught the train that went through a continuous tunnel to the beach town of Monterroso. This place was more of a beach resort with hundreds of rentable chairs and beach umbrellas. Many people just lay on the beach lapping up the sun with a few swimming. After a brief look around we headed back to the station and platform 3. Oops- this train was an intercity and not stopping at the Cinque Terrre stops so we headed for platform 2, hurriedly boarding a train only to be told “this train is broken down go back to platform 3”, which we did. A train pulled in, we got on, found a seat and off we went back to Manarola. Getting off the train the platform was packed with hundreds of people; we had to queue to get down to the underpass, eventually making it through the tunnel to the town centre.

After climbing back up through the town to our hotel I sat on the deck enjoying a beer while watching a squirrel helicopter bring in, what I presume are bags of fertiliser and dropping them half way up the 1200 step hill. I presume from there some hard working individual has to spread cart the stuff up and down to fertilise the vines. On the hill people worked away with motorised weed eaters as a number of tourists came down the steps, obviously having started the walk from Corniglia.

We had walked just over 14 kms and gone up and down I don’t know how many steps. No I still wasn’t counting…


Wednesday 29 May: Sylvia

After a leisurely breakfast on the terrace at La Torretta, we headed off to Pisa. Last time I was in Italy I had planned to visit Pisa but had been unable to due to a train strike. Roger passed through a few years ago but was happy to visit again. We parked just outside the main square area and wandered in. I was immediately impressed. In real life the she area is so much more imposing than in the photos. I was rather bemused by all the people taking photos pretending to hold the tower up…

La Spezia

I went and bought tickets; we were able to climb the tower at 1:30, so started by wandering around the area. When Roger was here last someone had been singing inside the baptistry and the sound was amazing (he had sent me a video). Unfortunately the baptistry was closed for renovation today. We started instead in the Camposanto, a huge mausoleum with many marble tombs and the most amazing frescoes on the walls. There were several people doing cleaning and restoring work and Roger stopped to speak with a lovely lady called Anna, who was restoring the marble with a tool like a dentist’s drill.

We next visited inside the cathedral, which was also impressive and decided against visiting more of the museums, opting rather to go an enjoy a delicious pizza while we waited for our time to climb the tower.

At the designated time, I went to the cloakroom and was impressed by their very efficient locker procedures (absolutely no bags allowed up the tower, not even my tiny little one). Right on time we were ushered into the tower, and after waiting a short time inside, were invited to climb the marble stairs. Work started on building the tower in 1173 and was eventually finished in the mid-fourteenth century after work had to stop due to subsidence in the land. I am always impressed with the many years of history when we visit Europe. New Zealand is such a young country. The marble steps were well worn, showing the years of people climbing up. It was actually quite a disorienting experience – for me anyway – climbing up the tower with its five degree lean. And the wearing of the marble shows how people follow the lean of the tower as they walk up the spiral staircase. The views from the top are quite impressive.

Back down again, I collected my bag (just as efficient) and we headed back to the car for the short drive to Lucca. We had a short time to enter the city by car to drop off our bags at the Grand Universe Hotel, then had to drive out to park. We wandered back in through a pedestrian only entrance up onto the walls, that were built during the Renaissance period. We are planning to walk the walls tomorrow – the are quite wide with trees planted along. Once inside the walls we headed strate to the Duomo de San Martino, another rather impressive cathedral (there are many in Italy it seems).

We then spent a lovely time sitting in a small restaurant in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, where Roger enjoyed a cigar and some Chardonnay to celebrate his birthday. This oval shaped plaza is one of the older parts of Lucca, having been built on the site of the Roman amphitheater back in the first century BC.

Wandering back towards the hotel we came across the Church of San Michele. It was less elaborately decorated inside, despite having a beautiful facade. It was first built in the 8th CEntury ADand contains the

Back at the hotel, we sat on the terrace and enjoyed people watching while Roger indulged in another cigar… Got to make the most of these birthdays…


Thursday 30 May: Roger

After a leisurely start we headed down to breakfast at the Grand Universe Hotel, behind the walls that were established by the Romans in 80BC – the walled city of Lucca.

After breakfast we wandered a few blocks south and took a path up onto the wall. After walking a little while we came to a building over the west gate that had a museum about the origin of the city, which included a very informative silent movie.

The city was established by the Romans, with a wall around, it in 80BC. Around -00 AD they built an amphitheater outside the walls and later the wall was extended to encompass that. Around 1450AD towers were added to the walls, and in the then in the 1500s it was turned into a wide embankment with the arrival of gunpowder and canons. There were many structures jutting out from the embankment where cannons and troops could be located to give covering fire from one to another. There are large caverns under these structures to house troops, cannons and provisions. In the 1500’s this area was its own republic, as was Florence and many other areas in Europe at that time.

Next stop was the mint museum, with a large collection of coins and other interesting objects from this area.

Looking back into the town there are lots of walls within the walls, many towers, nice gardens and also, like in any town, buildings undergoing restoration. By the time we had completed the 4 plus ks of the wall complete with road and lots of trees, we cut back through the town to the place where we had enjoyed a drink last night. There, we enjoyed a nice lunch before taking a leisurely stroll past the many well presented shops to the hotel where we spent a relaxing afternoon


Friday 31 May: Sylvia

We left Lucca just after 8:30. We had a lot planned for the day. We wound our way for about 90 minutes through pretty countryside, passing through several picturesque small villages. At one point we came across a funeral procession with a lot of people in black walking behind the hearse. One day I’ll come back and spend a bit more time in Tuscany, getting off the tourist path and exploring some of these little places.

Eventually we arrived at San Gimignano, our first stop for the day. San Gimignano is a medieval walled city and is known for its towers. Back in the day, the wealthy families battled it out, all aiming to have the highest tower. Of the original 72 towers only 14 remain today. It is a typical tourist town, filled with lovely little stores selling all manner of knick knacks, restaurants and gelaterias, and tourists everywhere, but it was still worthy of a stop. It sits on a hill in the midst of a large area of agriculture and vineyards. We wandered to the main square and visited the Duomo, or cathedral, with its amazing frescoed walls, and back and white striped marble columns. Then we headed up the steps of the Grosso Tower, which is attached to the city hall in the main square and is the tallest tower in the city. At the top there is only one ladder-type stairway leading to a few traffic jams. It was pretty windy up there but the views over the city and the surrounding countryside were spectacular.

I had read about the Gelateria Dondoli, which apparently makes the best gelato in Italy – of course we had to try some. There was quite a line outside but it moved quickly enough. I haven’t had enough gelato to know if it was the best but it was certainly good. We wandered back down the Main Street to a Torture museum Roger had spotted on his way in. These museums are dotted all over the medieval cities of Europe and I am not a huge fan but Roger didn’t think he’d been to one before so in we went. The capacity of human beings to think up new and more heinous ways to hurt each other never ceases to dismay me.

We headed back to the car for the short 40 minute drive to Siena. This is another medieval city on a hill, with an extremely long and interesting history. It contains the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi bank that has been operating since 1472. I had researched out the parking and we found a place near the Duomo. With Siena being built on a hill, and all the parking outside the city, we were happy that escalators had been put in to get us from the car park up to the city area. We wandered past the cathedral and the impressive Palazzo Publica (main square) with its tall tower, eventually stopping for a bite to eat at a lovely Osteria in one of the small laneways.

We had purchased tickets giving access to the cathedral and all the related buildings and, once refuelled, we headed off to explore. The cathedral was built sometime in the 1200’s on the site of a previous church. It is certainly impressive with its heavily decorated black and white marble facade. Inside it is even more impressive housing numerous art works, sculptures and impressive marble floors, many by famous artists from the Renaissance era including Michelangelo. It is difficult really to describe.

To one side is a small room, the Piccolomini Library,  covered in large frescoes and containing large music books.

Work was undertaken in the mid 1300’s to extend the cathedral but this work was never finished. What was completed now serves as a museum and probably the best panoramic viewpoint in Siena. After waiting in the queue (they only let about 20 people in at a time) I climbed up and had magnificent views of the cathedral, Siena and the surrounding countryside from the two different levels.

We also wandered into the crypt and the baptistery, both housing more works of art. By this time Mr James was well and truly churched out and over Renaissance art so it was time to get back on the road, heading to Civitavecchia, where my sister had booked an interesting apartment for us for the night. We dropped our bags off and then headed to the airport in Rome to drop off the rental car and meet my sister, Debbie, and her husband, Dave, off their delayed flight from Dublin, before heading back to the apartment for the night.

4 thoughts on “Mediterranean Jaunt – Part III: Cinque Terre and Tuscany

  1. Marie Carmen Remi says:

    Joyeux anniversaire Roger…

    que de belles images encore… une partie de notre famille italienne vivait en Toscane et en Calabre. nous étions de la noblesse mais pauvres…( famille Riccio et De Marchesano ).
    une provence italienne ou il fait bon vivre au gré de l’histoire gravée par les hommes jour après jour.
    profitez bien.
    Marie Carmen et Rémi.

  2. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    Awesome photos, god I love Italy! Even Luke (aged 10 at the time) remembers climbing all those steps at Cinque Terre.
    Happy birthday Roger!

  3. Stuart Hayman says:

    Now you are going to places I have been, in some cases, a number of times (unlike South America and some of the other far flung places you haver reported from) it is great to see familiar sights again (which I may never do). Also just as many tourists so must have recovered from Covid. Italy is wonderful eh. Go to Ostia and stay at Hotel Tiber.

  4. Rosie says:

    Wow! Another impressive blog with fabulous photos.
    Especially impressed with the walking/climbing you’ve done. Europe sure has a lot to offer, and obviously there are hundreds of tourists checking it all out. Thank you again for such comprehensive sharing. Xxx

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