It has been about three months since I took a road trip across Italy to tour Venice and Cinque Terre. Here is what I remember most.
As the water taxi docks in San Marco Square, I can’t help but think that I have arrived to the center of the world. The Basilica di San Marco glitters in the light of the sunset. The Bridge of Sighs sits forlorn behind the Palazzo Ducale. Somewhere nearby a bandstand plays classical music, a fitting backdrop to those magical first moments in Italy.
The absence of cars is made up for the many boats that crowd the interlacing canals throughout the city. A gondola ride through the Grand Canal as thunder rumbles overhead makes for an eerily quiet tour through the waterways. As we row past the house of Marco Polo, all I can imagine is the splendor of the city as a worldwide trading centre during the Italian Middle Ages.
But away from the main sights and squares, Venice becomes still. Serene. The populated bars hawking Aperol Spritzes give way to quiet family owned cafes, the gelato shops become much less frequent and more authentic. While exploring the more residential parts of Venice, I come upon a glass shop where a man makes specialty Murano Glass jewelry. We chat for awhile, and he recommends me a local restaurant for dinner. Their specialty? Squid ink pasta with prawns. I’ll admit, I was initially taken aback when a platefull of black spaghetti arrives at my table. But a forkful proves it to be a salty and creamy treat.
Even now, months later, I still long for those quiet moments away from the pomp of the main squares, where you can freely enjoy the small non-choreographed pleasures of the magical city of Venice. And the gelato, of course.
Cinque Terre, Italy
The early morning train into the five seaside towns of Cinque Terre offers glimpses of the sea. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These towns are separated by steep rocky cliffs. My destination is Monterosso, the final town along the stretch of five. 30 minutes pass on the train, then suddenly the rail tunnel through the cliffs opens to reveals colorful houses nested along the rocks. They gleam with brightly among the blue backdrop of the ocean.
It happens to be the annual Lemon Festival in Monterosso, where local lemon growers, farmers, and artisans gather along the picturesque cobblestone streets to sell loads of lemon-related goods. Lemon cookies, lemon-decorated cookware, lemon scented soaps, perfumes, ceramic tiles, you name it, they have it. And more importantly, each and every stall peddles their very own type of Limoncello. Free samples? Yes please.
For dinner that first evening I go to the Ristorante Belvedere, a famous locals spot nestled under the train tracks, on the recommendation of my Airbnb host. I order a sizzling seafood stew. When my waiter brings out a serving bowl the size of a car tire chock full of seafood- whole lobster, whole fish, prawns, mussels, octopus, and squid- my jaw nearly drops off its hinges. It takes me a full 40 minutes to pick and choose my way through the dish, and I still had so much left over when I was finished. (Tip: share the stew with a friend or two. You’ll thank me later).
On the last day of my weeklong stint in Cinque Terre, I decide to hike from Vernazza to Monterosso. No one tells me that this particular hiking trail from city to city is the most difficult one, but I soon learn that firsthand. The hiking trail snakes along the rocky green cliff sides. There are countless switchbacks, precarious stairs to climb, and so many rocks to scramble over that soon I regret only bringing one water bottle on this adventure. All in all, it takes me two hours, two bottles of water, and several expletives to complete the hike, and I am exhausted for the rest of the day. However, some of the most amazing views of Cinque Terre were witnessed on this hike, so it was worth it.
Just before the descent into Monterosso, I come along a stand where a man sells fresh homemade Limoncello on ice. 2 euro for a double shot of ice cold liqueur after a grueling hike? Count me in.
After a completed week in Cinque Terre I take the train back to my car and set my eyes south towards my next destination: the rolling hills and endless wineries of Tuscany. But I’ll save those snapshots for a future post. For now, I’m dreaming of gelato and limoncello.
Thanks for joining me down the rabbit hole.