Toscana and Cinque Terre

Oh Italy! What a wonderful place. The trip to Florence from Lausanne is extremely easy – it involves a Swiss train to Milan, an espresso-length wait, and then an Italian FrecciaRossa high speed train to Florence. The change from Switzerland to Italy is obvious as soon as you step onto the cracked tiles of the train platform, but while things may be more worn, it’s through these gaps that life appears. In Florence the squares were filled with people drinking wine in the summer evening, and like a mountain peak between valleys the duomo appeared unexpectedly and close, looming over the ends of alleyways.

I had been to Florence once before, but it came as a shock to realise that it was 19 years ago that I was last there. An awful lot has changed in that time, but Florence looked similar to how I remembered. I was pleased to discover this time that it’s a city with a great street art scene.

Seen on a morning run.

In the evening we found our way to the giant Visarno Arena where Radiohead played a stellar concert. The show was incredible, and they played Let Down which I have long wanted to hear live and was just as great as expected. In town after the show the streets were still filled with people wandering, and trinket sellers in each square sent glowing fluoro-coloured spinners high into the sky.

Ponte Vecchio.
Ponte Santa Trinita.
Radiohead’s concert apparently affected the city traffic a bit.

The next day we moved from city to country, to an Agriturismo place a little further south. In Castellina in Chianti, not realising we were well into wine country, we asked for beer in a bar which was somewhat of a faux pas. Our misstep was quickly overshadowed by a pair of travellers who had parked their vespa illegally next to a t-shirt shop. That kind of carry on might be accepted in Rome but it was not going to be allowed in Castellina. The shop owner smoked a cigarette outside while pacing and staring daggers at the misplaced scooter, and made a very suggestive hand gesture when the perpetrators returned.

The agriturismo farm was lost at the end of a dirt road in idyllic Tuscan country side; from the farmhouse you could see across olive groves and fields to an Etruscan tower. Our hosts were wonderful and their dog Arturo (“Oh, Arturo!”, said with fond exasperation) spent his time laying on his side in the sun. At night we ate at one long table with all the guests, and were served simple, delicious, local food, with plenty of wine and a coffee to finish. And the table was visited by a huge stag beetle, which was a rare thrill.

We visited Siena the next day for a quick walk through the gorgeous old city and a peek at the sloped Piazza del Campo. We happened on a church, looked inside and found that they have the preserved thumb of a saint kept in a little glass box. The old city and the piazza were excellent but the thumb was just unsettling. We left Siena and drove to the sea.

Siena’s Piazza del Campo.
Siena rooftops.

Levanto is on the coast, south-east of Genova and just outside the Cinque Terre national park. We arrived and walked straight to the beach to swim in the salty sea. The next morning we took a train through tunnels and underground stations to Riomaggiore, at the far end of the national park, to walk the length of the Cinque Terre.

There were many oleander plants. For something poisonous I must admit they are pretty.

In Riomaggiore it was hot and there were thousands of people crammed into the little walk ways. The picturebook village spilled down to a little harbour in which boats were coming and going and a group of kids were daring each other to jump from a high rock. The normal walking route along the sea cliffs was closed, so instead our walk took us through the village and up a big hill that separates the first two of the five Cinque Terre towns.

Boats in Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore harbour.
Piazza Vignaioli, Riomaggiore.
Castello di Riomaggiore, above the town.
Looking back at Riomaggiore.
The view out to sea, from the top of the hill.
First view down to the next village, Manarola.

The walk over to Manarola was steep and sweaty; once there we had the first of a few swims in the sea that day. Trying to get changed into swimmers amidst a throng of other tourists was awkward and harrassing, because I have not mastered the changing-under-a-towel technique. I felt like I was one mistimed gust of wind away from accidentally ruining some poor traveller’s holiday pictures. The relief of the cold water was worth the effort.

Looking back at Manarola.

After Manarola we continued walking along the hot hilltops, passing by the clifftop village of Corniglia and stopping for another swim in the swell in Vernezza.

Lemons in Corniglia.
Citrus is a big thing in these parts.

From Vernazza there was one last walk to get to Monterosso al Mare, the last of the five villages. In the middle here was a kind of cat refuge — signs noted that passers by should pat and feed the cats, and indeed there were two cats waiting for pats and food. I never quite worked out the full story, but the cats were friendly.

Cat photos.
Real cat.

Cinque Terre was beautiful and it was great to experience through a day’s hike in the summer heat. After our train back to Levanto we ate at a pizza shop that had lots of large trophies lining its benches; it turns out that there are world championships for pizza making. The day after our Italian adventure drew to a close as we headed back to Switzerland via a short stop in Orta San Guilio on Lago d’Orta. I’ll say it again — oh Italy, what a place!

Isola San Guilio.
July 10, 2017


  1. Garth Coghlan on

    That is just ridiculously scenic!

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