Italia Part 4: Pisa, Lucca and Cinque Terre
Having spent the last week in Italy’s powerhouse cities of Milan, Florence and Rome I decided to go for a change of pace in the towns and villages of Tuscany. Rome to Pisa on the slow train turned out to be a great idea. On the faster high-speed rail trains the journey went quickly but so did the view from the window. The train journey was a wonderful insight into the Italian countryside and gave me ample opportunity to read a bit more of the Murakami book that I was involved in.
We rolled into Pisa and I checked into my hostel, the aptly named Hostel Pisa. The hostel I stayed at in Rome was a bit of a let down socially. Fortunately, Hostel Pisa turned out to be an inspired choice and I would be fortunate to meet some interesting people over the four nights I stayed there. I arrived in the heat of the afternoon and I was feeling a little tired from the train journey so I took a nap. The evening was drawing on and I was getting hungry. Having spent quite a bit of money already I took advantage of the kitchen facilities during my stay in Pisa and bought some fresh pasta, sauce and salad from a local market. I ate my dinner in the back garden and chatted to an American called Brian for most of the evening. I took an early night and managed to get some sleep before I was woken up at around midnight by the arrival of a Russian guy. My afternoon nap, on reflection, proved to be a much needed one as the Russian guy turned out to be one of, if not the worst, snorers I have ever encountered. Nourdinne, a Moroccan university worker staying at the hostel during the week for work, who also shared our room, was not pleased at all. Despite Nourdinne’s protestations and threats to strangle the drunk Russian and my attempt to use headphones as earplugs we had to endure a restless night. Thankfully, when I returned from Cinque Terre the next day, the Russian was gone!
In the morning I woke up early and not just because of our snoring friend. I planned to get a train to Cinque Terre an hour or so further north on the Tuscan coast. Cinque Terre is a string of five precariously placed cliff top villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) that are strung out across a rugged and incredibly beautiful coastline. Between each village the soaring cliffs are stacked with olive groves and stone-walled vineyards. The villages are linked by a train line that tunnels in and out of the cliffs and bays as well as mountain paths and a frequent tourist boat service. I arrived in La Spezia and changed to the local coast train which I took to the village furthest away, Monterosso. As I walked out of the quaint train station I was greeted by a picture perfect seaside town. People were bronzing themselves on the sandy beach and tourists walked amongst the pastel houses. I walked up the town and took a side street where I found an old church. Outside the church I peered up the twisty pathway and considered if I should venture further. I wasn’t really sure if it led anywhere other than maybe someones home. A passing local saw me looking puzzled and suggested I follow the path. He warned me it was steep, and at points it would be a little overgrown and the footing unstable, but said the view was worth it. As I took his advice I came across cobbled pathways, steep stone steps,a stream, a well, crumbling stone walls, lots of lizards and a skinny and lightning fast green snake that shot across my path. The view was as good as they man had described it and I took the path down to the town.
My initial plan had been to hike from Monterosso, via all the small villages, until I arrived at Riomaggiore. Unfortunately my hiking adventure would not fully materialise. As I climbed the pathway from Monterosso I was turned away at a pathway check point, informed that the path to the next village was closed due to repairs. The pathways that cling to the cliffs of Cinque Terre are subject to coastal erosion, heavy tourism footfall and damaged by flooding and farming. Instead I took the boat service to Vernazza. Arriving in Vernazza from the sea is quite a special moment. The five villages have distinct features. Although architecturally similar the geographical aspects of each village give them each a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ (I don’t know the Italian saying for it). Vernazza has a sleepy little harbour, barely filled with small, local fishing boats. In fact you were more likely to see people swimming in the harbour than you were to see a vessel leave or arrive in it. I walked in the backstreets and around a small church and then had a little pricey, but none-the-less delicious, custom made sandwich. This provided me with fuel for the gruelling walk to Corniglia.
There are two paths between the villages. The challenging red path that rises high up the cliffs and the blue path that picks a slightly lesser demanding route. Due to the lack of open paths (The paths between all the other villages turned out to be closed). I chose to take the more demanding and higher route. The early afternoon heat was peaking and I certainly developed a sweat climbing the steep cliff face before being able to enjoy the 4 km of undulating traverse to Corniglia. The views were exceptional, only rivalled by the ones from Taroko Gorge in Taiwan that I have previously experienced. I did have a very lucky moment high on the cliffs, I walking along the stone wall tiered olive groves when a snake struck out at me. Luckily for me it hit my left trainer and didn’t bite my leg! It was still a surprise and had you seen my reaction you would have been less than impressed with my calmness! From this point on every lizard, bird or rodent rustling in the bushes or tumbling stone or pebble was a snake in my mind… Corniglia rises high on the clifftops and is not linked to the sea like the other villages but this feature affords you fantastic sheer drop cliff views into the emerald blue waters below.
From Corniglia to Manarola I took the train that runs between the five villages and I eventually decided to take the boat from Manarola to Riomaggiore. At Riomaggiore local Italians had flocked to sun themselves on the rocks of the harbour and beach. It seemed like quite a cool place to be seen. You knew it was a local spot because of their heavily bronzed skins whilst the pasty tourist only looked on in wonderment with a small hint of confusion. In the end it was probably a good thing the paths had been closed in some places as it was equally enjoyable to view the landscape from sea level as it was from a few hundred metres above. Back at La Spezia my first train to Pisa was cancelled but I got a later one and then relaxed in the evening with a plate full of pasta and some good company with Nourdinne and Jose, a Spanish man who had moved to Paris for work due to the struggling Spanish job market. He was taking a cheap holiday as he had broken his back falling out of a tree, I’m not sure it was doing him many favours with his ability to find gainful employment.
After a night of blissful uninterrupted sleep I went on another train adventure to Lucca. Lucca is a peaceful town with cobbled streets and full of Gothic architecture. The old centre is encapsulated by a circling defensive wall that was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. On my arrival I did a circuit of the said wall. Deep and thick it is now used as a recreation area. A road has been built along the top and people use it to cycle or run on. The intermittent armaments are covered in lush grass, daisies and vibrant yellow dandelions. It’s a really fantastic place to relax, exercise and look into the Lucca’s central streets and buildings.
Walking around Lucca was nice. I wouldn’t use anything more descriptive to describe it. Despite the emboldened Gothic towers, the terracotta roofs and the charismatic courtyards it lacks a certain overriding atmosphere. Lucca felt very laid back, most of the central area has become touristy, but I wouldn’t say touristy in a bad way. Everything was done tastefully and there weren’t any hawkers or traders harassing you, but it didn’t have an apparent personality. Nothing that identified it as being something that you would specifically remember it for. It didn’t feel like people really lived in it. Still, I took some pretty pictures there and I did eat the best Italian food of my Italian travels, a delicious lasagne.
Back in Pisa I took advantage of the continuing good weather (I only experienced one rain storm in 5 weeks in Europe!) to do some washing in the hostel and to go for a run. Being on my travels did not mean I was going to neglect my fitness levels and I had virtually been on a 10k run in every city so far. In many ways it was the best way to experience some of the more scenic spots and discover lush green parks. (There are no parks in Busan!) In Pisa I went along the river out of the city, pounding pavement along tree lined pathways and meadows. Suitably worn out and washing successfully dried I relaxed at the hostel and had a few well-earned beers with an Australian lad called Adam and chatted to some lads who were cycling the length of Italy, it seemed like an epic trip and a mode of transport that I am now considering for my next adventure.
My final full day in Tuscany would be spent in Pisa. Until this point I had successfully managed to avoid the city’s key attraction, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of it! I began my journey to the far side of the city. I meandered along the main shopping street, purchasing a new book (The-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson- A very comical and light-heartd adventure that I would recommend!) and walking around the markets. I crossed the river that divides the town and it was not long before I arrived at the Campo dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). Set just within the city walls the Leaning Tower is accompanied by two buildings that predate it. The cathedral and baptistery hold noteworthy place in the attraction of Pisa and these white marbled behemoths stand proudly above the green grass and haggle of tourists below.
At the Leaning Tower people jostle for position to have their picture taken either trying to hold the building up or pushing it down. I guiltily joined them, but only on the prompting of a Chinese family, who I had just helped to also take the (almost) mandatory Leaning Tower of Pisa tourist photo. The tower is open to the public but I had no desire to spend the massive fee to climb the tower and it would have undoubtedly involved a long wait. Pisa, incidentally, is not overly desirable, it doesn’t have quite the same amount of charm as many other towns in Tuscany and an aerial view of not very much didn’t seem worth it. I did however get a free ticket for the cathedral which was quite spectacular. Fire had destroyed much of the artwork apparently but frescoes in the dome remained intact and a magnificent mosaic had also survived. The intricate details on the bronze doors at the entrance were also admirable. Like the tower, it has a list, although it is less noticeable. In fact many buildings in Pisa suffer from the same subsidence issues that affect the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I had seen an equally dramatic, if not so beautiful, church by the river on the way out of the city on my previous days run that was sinking dramatically into the ground.
I continued walking around Pisa for most of the afternoon. I spent a lot of time walking along the walled banks of the River Arno, I bumped into a bizarrely small Gothic church, Santa Maria della Spina, that sits barely above the water and is considered to be one of the most outstanding examples of a Gothic edifice in Europe. It is also allegedly home to a thorn from the crown of Jesus which he wore on the cross, but I’ll leave that to science to decide if it is true or not! (not).
Pisa I discovered was quite scenic, too. There was a nice park and some old crumbling city walls to explore as well as enjoying the banks of the River Arno both in and out of the city. You don’t need to spend long in Pisa but it was certainly a convenient location to locate yourself while you travel around Tuscany. What is even better is that you can actually walk to the airport. Which is exactly what I did the very next morning, it was time to travel in Spain.