Spring Break: Montreux to Cinque Terre

17 May

Part 2 of my two-week adventure!

We left off in Gimmelwald, that supremely beautiful and tranquil little Swiss village. Madeline and I got up early in the morning, were served a little breakfast by Walter, and then took the tram back down the valley. We returned to Interlaken and then got on the Golden Pass train towards Montreux.

This was the only leg of the trip that I had already done before (back in April 2007), but it was nice to see the beautiful countryside along the route again. I can’t stress how awesome the train rides in Switzerland are; practically every route offers breathtaking views around every corner. Although we failed to obtain window seats on the train into French Switzerland, the view of Lake Geneva and the Dents du Midi on the approach towards Montreux was even more incredible than I’d remembered.

Unfortunately, our descent into Montreux was interrupted when the train stopped abruptly near a road crossing. We were never really sure exactly what happened, but we gathered that maybe a truck had gotten stuck on the tracks and they had to move it. At any rate, we had to wait almost 30 minutes before we got moving again.

Once in Montreux, we walked along the Quai des Fleurs towards our hostel near the Chateau de Chillon. It was warm and sunny, and plenty of people were enjoying the nice day on the promenade. This is still one of my favourite places in Europe.

It was nice to be able to speak French again, even if just for a day! The Swiss have kind of weird accents, though, that sometimes sound a bit Germanicized. One advantage of their accent is that they usually speak more slowly than the French (especially Parisians). We bought some gruyere cheese, Swiss bread and chocolates for supper and ate on the edge of the lake as the sun set.

The next morning, we got on a train headed back into Italy. We passed through more of French Switzerland, entered back into the German part, went through a mountain tunnel and emerged in a verdant Italian Alpine valley, all in a couple of hours. We retraced our path a little bit when we returned to the Milan train station, where I was asked another question by a Spanish tourist:

“Esto es Milano Centrale?”

Fortunately I understood the question, but why does everyone assume I speak Spanish?!

From Milan we continued on towards Florence, passing from the flat, industrialized plain of northern Italy to the gentle, forested hills of Tuscany. I liked the “green” feeling of Florence (emphasized by the architecture), although, like Venice, the atmosphere was distinctly touristy. Not as crowded as Venice, but there was a ridiculous amount of Americans — Madeline even met some friends from her program at our hostel.

We arrived in the late afternoon so we only had a few hours to really see the city, unfortunately. We traced a route between the major sights, including the beautiful Duomo:

We saw the exterior of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, and tried to see the Giardini di Boboli, but got there too late. Instead, we opted for some delicious gelato. Based on word of mouth, it seems like the gelaterias in Florence are uniformly good, whereas other food is very hit-or-miss. We scored a “miss” at a buffet place near our hostel. It was cheap, but the food was re-heated in a microwave and pretty gross. The service wasn’t particularly friendly, either.

We did get the obligatory view of the city from the Piazza Michelangelo, which was nice. We spent the evening just walking around, passing by a group of kids playing soccer with a dog. The dog honestly thought he was on the same level as the human players and even managed to get the ball a couple of times. It was adorable.

I felt bad that we didn’t really have a chance to soak in all the cultural and historical offerings of Florence. We didn’t have time for museums or anything. I suppose I’d like to go back someday, although I was still a little turned off by the touristiness that seems to pervade all the major Italian cities.

The following morning, our string of good weather finally ran out. We headed towards the coast under grey skies and rain. Despite a misunderstanding of our train-changing schedule (and the discovery that Italian train station clocks are not uniformly accurate), we arrived in Riomaggiore that afternoon. We took an unnecessarily roundabout route to get to our hostel, which turned out to be more of a room-letting agency.

We were given a room up one of the little side streets in the village. It was supposed to have been a shared 4-person room, but we ended up getting a 2-person room, with a TV, kitchenette, and en-suite bathroom — for 18 Euros a night per person! Pretty sweet. I think the woman who gave us the room was Italian-American — maybe she just liked us.

In spite of the rain, I spent a little time exploring the village, with its narrow, steep staircases and numerous lemon groves. I was tempted to just reach out and pick a few lemons for myself. I really liked the vibe of Riomaggiore — touristy, certainly, but not too crowded, and still very “authentic” in a lot of ways. Not to mention how awesome the “organic” layout of the town is.

We found a nice little pizzeria for dinner, and ordered our pizza to go. We brought it to the rocks on the edge of the sea and ate while the sun set over the stormy Mediterranean.

That night, we were awoken by the sounds of drunken tourists at a bar on the street beneath our room. They sounded like young people, and presumably Canadian — they were singing “O Canada” at the top of their lungs. They were even singing it in French, although I could tell they weren’t French-Canadian. Oh, drunk Canucks.

Hoping that the weather would improve for our coastal hike, we were a bit disappointed the following morning when the grey skies were still overhead. Well, at least there was blue sky over the sea. We set off anyway, following the via dell’Amore towards Manarola, the second of the five Cinque Terre villages. We got some tasty pastries for breakfast at “un bar.” Although the Italians do make some nice pastries, they really can’t compete with the variety and deliciousness of French pastries.

Despite warnings that the path between Manarola and the next village, Corniglia, was closed due to dangerous weather conditions, we found the gate open so continued anyway. We arrived in Corniglia without incident, although we did have to climb up 382 stairs to get there. Corniglia is the middle of the 5 villages and consequently the most isolated. It has a decidedly less touristy atmosphere, probably because it doesn’t sit directly on the water, either. We found the village and the adjacent trails full of cats. I’m not sure why.

After Corniglia, the coastal trail became much “rougher” and more difficult, resembling a true hike more than an even, groomed path. The trail passed lemon groves, vineyards, and olive groves, giving us a nice look at the local agriculture. It was also good exercise. When we reached the viewpoint overlooking the fourth village, Vernazza, the sun finally peeked its head out momentarily. The view of Vernazza was just splendid.

Descending into the village, we found some tasty pesto foccaccias for lunch and briefly toured the castle area. The weather was rapidly deterioriating, however, and we decided not to continue on to the fifth and final town, Monterosso. We knew that the last section of the trail was the longest and the most difficult, and we were already pretty tired. Besides, I had heard that Monterosso lacked much of the charm of the other villages. As we got to the Vernazza train station to head back to Riomaggiore, we knew we had made the right decision — it started pouring.

Oddly enough, the rain gave way to blue skies when we got back to Riomaggiore. We went to the rocky beach near the village and watched the huge waves crash along the shore. The tranquility was interrupted when a huge group of American college students came to sunbathe and swim in the freezing water. We made fun of them for a while before returning to our room. Feeling rather exhausted, we decided to take a lengthy nap for the remainder of the afternoon. All of our fast-paced travelling had really caught up with us.

We decided to make use of our kitchenette for dinner, cooking some kind of frozen spaghetti and shrimp dish, which didn’t turn out that great. Oh well. We spent the evening just watching TV and reflecting on how much stuff we’d already done in one week. I wasn’t sure that I could keep going for another week.

Photos:

Montreux

Florence

Cinque Terre – Part I

Cinque Terre – Part II

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