In 2017 I was looking for some vacation inspiration. My list of places to visit is endless, but where to go this year? We had already settled on Banff and the Beartooths but were looking for another trip. While buying plane tickets for the Banff trip, an image of a quaint seaside village popped up. I’d seen this before and hadn’t been able to figure out where it was.
“I want to go there!” I exuberantly exclaimed to Erik while pointing to the village on the computer screen.
Erik used his tech savvy to figure out that village was in Cinque Terre, Italy. This was perfect. I’d wanted to go to Venice forever but Venice alone wasn’t enough of a pull. And so we decided to go to Italy for two weeks- spending a few days each in the foothills of the Dolomites based out of Riva del Garda, Cinque Terre, and Venice.
We flew Delta airlines from MSP to Amsterdam and then Venice. Flying over Venice was absolutely amazing. I’d spent so much time memorizing the islands I could recite them all by name. And seeing all the matching terra cotta roofs was great.
Security in the United States is much different than Europe. We went through “passport check” in the Amsterdam airport but when we got to Italy there was no customs or security. We just walked out of the airport and found our bus that would take us to our first Airbnb in Mestre. We were en route to the Dolomites for the first part of our trip but seeing as we didn’t get into Venice until around 3 PM, we decided to stay near Venice the first night. It was also Saturday when the trains don’t run as frequently.
Mestre is on the main part of Italy, near the causeway to Venice. The crazy thing about Italy, and really all of Europe, is that it is densely populated. There are “little” villages everywhere in contrast to the big open spaces in the Great Plains here in the United States.
Of note, I also had to learn that there were several “Venice” train stations. Mestre was on the mainland but Santa Lucia was on Venice.
We stayed at a “super Airbnb” run like a Bed and Breakfast. We had our own room but shared a bathroom. Given it was Saturday, we had some issues finding an ATM to get Euros but were eventually successful by following a woman into a locked bank atrium. After settling into our Airbnb, we explored the local neighborhood, including a park. Then we tried to sleep but we were a bit jet lagged.
While walking around we noted all the hatch-back diesel stick-shift cars, similar to ours back at home:)
To the Dolomites
In the morning (10/22/17) we walked to the local train station and bought our tickets to Rovereto with a layover/train exchange in Verona. We didn’t plan our time in Verona very well and only had half an hour anyway so we briefly explored the Porta Nuova area before getting back on the train.
By early afternoon we arrived in Rovereto. There was bus service to Riva del Garda, but seeing as it was Sunday, it didn’t run very frequently. Erik recommended we spend the money for a taxi. Later I’d be glad we did this. The taxi brought us to our Airbnb which was located in a small, modern apartment building with a balcony. An added bonus was the nearby Coop grocery store!
My plan for the day was to run to, and then do a short ferrata called Rio Sallagoni. It was getting late, threatening rain, but we quickly threw together a backpack with gear, water, and some food and took off running. We were glad that the clouds cleared. As we ran we passed many stucco houses and buildings and some vineyards.
Via ferrata is Italian for “iron path.” Many of the ferrata date back to World War I when the Italians were fighting the Austrians in the Dolomites. Today, these routes are kept up by the Italian Alpine Club and consist of iron rungs, pegs, and ladders in addition to a cable to clip into with a climbing harness and ferrata kit. This is my favorite ferrata website.
I guess you could say the Rio Sallagoni (use this website for more details for this and the other ferratas) was up a slot canyon. This was my first ever ferrata and it took me a bit by surprise. It was just like “here we go.” The first part of the ferrata was quite short and then we came to a small cairn field. From here the ferrata was more scattered. There were a couple swinging bridges and some narrow places. Once we got out of the canyon, we hiked up the hill to the Drena Castle.
The castle was closed as it was after 5 pm so we headed back to town. It started raining and it got dark as we made our way to the small enclave of Dro where we planned to hop a bus back to Riva del Garda.
We thought the bus stop would be easy to find at the main intersection of town, but we were wrong. Despite going into a couple shops to inquire as to the location of the bus stop, we were still scrambling as the bus time came closer. Finally we got a good tip off that the bus stop was located on a single lane two way street in the old part of town. As we headed there, the bus came by and we had to sprint to catch it!
Once back in Riva del Garda, we walked through town, stopped at the Coop, and then went back to our nice Airbnb to finally replenish on some food.
Overnight it snowed up on the high peaks which created a nice juxtaposition with the palm trees outside our Airbnb. Today’s goal was another ferrata route- the Centenario SAT. We started out by walking along Lake Garda and then into the main old town of Riva del Garda to begin our hike. Oh, this was a cute old town and I was stoked to get back down from the ferrata to spend more time there.
The route started with a big hike uphill. It passes three buildings before the start of the ferrata. In order they are the Bastione, the Capanna Santa Barbara (a mountain hut), and the Chiesetta Santa Barbara.
Finally we arrived at the ferrata which ended up being lots and lots of ladders. I’ll admit that ladders aren’t my favorite form of ferrata. I find them kind of vertigo-inducing. There were 5 big ladders total. On the map below, the ferrata started above the Chiesetta Santa Barbara.
Overall we didn’t spend a long time on the ferrata. Most of the route is hiking. We hiked down the back side and then back to town.
I greatly enjoyed walking around the old town and eating at a restaurant with the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. We also saw a number of classic baby buggies in use. And everyone was smoking everywhere. After dinner we explored the town more. There was a castle with a moat and drawbridge! And there was a beautiful water works building.
Our last day in Riva del Garda, we took the bus to Pietramurata to do the Che Guevara ferrata. This route started behind a quarry and after a short hike, we began our first pitch. This short pitch threw me for a loop. The bouldering was difficult and made moreso by trying to not get the ferrata cable in my way. I really struggled up that first pitch. I almost gave up. I finally just grabbed onto the cable and pulled myself up.
From there I didn’t have to make any more crux moves. This was a long ferrata though with some very exposed sections. We got hungry before making it to the top and so stopped to eat a snack- albeit we stayed clipped-in for the snack!
The elevation profile is fairly similar to that of a number of hiking trails in the northeast United States where there is typically a lot of scrambling. At times on the Che Guevara there was the protected cable but I didn’t use it. Overall the exposure was much more than the trails in the northeast United States.
Once done with the big wall on the Che Guevara, we climbed to the very top of Monte Casale which was a broad field. The backside of the mountain has a road to the top! We eventually descended on the north side of Monte Casale to the town of Sarche were we caught the bus back to Riva del Garda. On that bus ride we learned what happens when the bus encounters a semi on a one-way road. Leave it to the crazy Italians!
I would highly recommend the Riva del Garda area. It would be awesome to swim in Lake Garda in the summer (or if we’d been by the water mid-day); however, this area gets really hot in the summer and so we found the late October weather perfect for doing ferrata. There are several other ferratas nearby, such as the Taccole up Monte Baldo just to the east of Lake Garda. If doing several ferratas based out of the Riva del Garda area it would be worth considering a rental car.
To Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is Italian for “5 villages.” From north to south, these villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These villages are located on the Ligurian sea on the northwest coast of Italy. While there are roads to each of these towns, driving in the actual towns is only allowed for delivery trucks. There are many trails that connect these towns on both high and low routes as well as a train and a seasonal ferry.
To get from Riva del Garda to Cinque Terre, we first took a bus to Rovereto where we hopped on the train. Again we had a layover in Verona, but this time we were ready and made it to the old city and a bridge across the Adige River.
After our hour layover we got back on a fast train to Milano. Both Erik and I found ourselves really hungry all day. We bought some sandwiches in the Milano airport, then wandered outside where the polizia were rounding up a bunch of homeless people. We got back on the train going to Levanto. Once in Levanto we transitioned to the local Cinque Terre train.
We decided to stay at an Airbnb in Riomaggiore as this was the largest of the five seaside villages and hence thought it offered the greatest opportunity for exploration. Indeed, this is the only one of the villages with an elementary school! Once we arrived in Riomaggiore, we made our way up the main street of town. As we passed the Coop we stopped to get some food before proceeding to our Airbnb.
This Airbnb was probably our favorite of the four we stayed while in Italy. We accessed it through a small courtyard. The kitchen had good counter space. The living room and dining room were open and connected to the kitchen, had ample space, and outside the second story windows was a clothesline that we could use and feel just like the locals! There was a small balcony where we ate most of our meals. There was a small bedroom and a big bathroom that included a bidet. The only downside was that the water didn’t stay hot for very long in the shower:( I definitely had thoughts about moving here:)
After dinner we headed down to the ocean. We sat there for awhile listening to the waves and smelling the salt water.
Before breakfast we ran uphill intervals in Riomaggiore! We also took this opportunity to explore around town.
After breakfast at our Airbnb, we took the train to Monterroso to hike to Corniglia. The first stretch of this hike, from Monterosso to Vernazza, was the longest. We enjoyed hiking through terraced vineyards and the views heading into Vernazza. Multiple re-entrants added to the elevation and distance. This trail was quite popular and we were constantly seeing people. It also seems that the “leave no trace” ethic doesn’t apply here as we frequently saw scraps of toilet paper:(
By the time we got to Vernazza, we were hot and decided to go swimming! This was a bit crazy seeing as it was the latter half of October but we are from Minnesota!
We ordered tuna pizza at a small cafe. After waiting for a very long time, the tuna on the pizza appeared to be from a can. Yuck! I had made tuna pizza once a few years before and can only say that tuna pizza was not appetizing either time.
After lunch we went to the Castello Doria where we paid a small price to go to the top and enjoy the views.
Next we continued on the path nearest the sea to Corniglia which sits high above the water. Hence, Corniglia has a slightly different vibe than the other four villages and seems to be a bit more sleepy.
We poked around Corniglia for awhile and then took the train back to Riomaggiore. One of the interesting differences between the United States and Europe is that in Europe there are moveable shutters on buildings that actually get used! Cinque Terre had almost exclusively green aluminum shutters.
There were gated courtyards everywhere and pipes on the outside of buildings. These would likely freeze in Minnesota which is why we don’t do that here. Also, it’s quite likely plumbing was added well after these buildings were built.
We walked up and down and up and down so many stairs, not knowing whether they were dead-ends or not, and the same for passageways. Unlike when climbing mountains and we don’t know if the route will be passable, such as we had done a few months earlier on Granite Peak in Montana, in Cinque Terre there was much less consequence if our route dead-ended.
We hiked from Riomaggiore to Manarola. These towns are very very close together and there used to be a path along the ocean, called the “lovers path,” but unfortunately there was a landslide a few years back and hence this path has been closed.
Instead we hiked the very long way up to the ridge and then back down. The vegetation was somewhat desert-like, especially near the coast. The trees got larger as we neared the ridge and we were disappointed that there weren’t any good views through the trees on the ridge. The trees on the inland side of the coast were all bigger than those in Cinque Terre. These included pine trees and some weird trees that had fruits that kinda looked like strawberries.
The hike had an elevation gain of 2,700 feet and Erik and I were both dragging this day.
When we made it back down to Manarola, we were ready to be tourists. We found a cafe and I had the seafood salad aka “des fruits de mer” en francais. I felt a bit brave ordering this but will say this was another highlight of the trip as it was amazing! After our lunch we finally made it to the harbor and the north hillside where all the best photos of Manarola are taken. It was quite amazing being there after staring at photos for several months.
Back in Riomaggiore we bought some fried sardines! We couldn’t resist trying them since they seemed like the “local” thing to eat. They were much tastier than the tuna pizza!
Hoping to get in some distance and see some new terrain, we took the train to Levanto and then hiked to Monterosso. This trail was less popular than the hike we did our first day from Monterosso to Vernazza.
Once we got to Monterosso we went swimming! This ultimately made us quite cold seeing as the air temperature was barely 60 degrees but it was well worth it to swim in the ocean which remains a total novelty for me.
That evening we took the train to Manarola to enjoy sunset on the village.
We decided to do what we initially thought might be somewhat of an epic run so we prepared with a hearty breakfast of swedish pancakes and then took the bus over the ridge to Telegrafo near Biassa. It should be noted here that we got the Cinque Terre Card (train time table) which allowed for unlimited rides on the regional train and bus as well as access to the hiking trails. Just beware of the frequent railroad strikes. There was one while we were there, but it was planned and only lasted a couple hours.
We didn’t know exactly how long this run would be but overestimated the distance. The route took us along a gravel road about 1200 feet above sea level. Here the vegetation was still fairly sparse and as we made our way in and out of re-entrants we had great views looking out to the sea and ahead to Volastra.
In Volastra we poked around town, I was immensely enamored by a real olive tree (these just don’t grow in Minnesota’s cold climate), sat on a wine train, saw another wine train in action, and eventually hiked a mile and 725 vertical feet down to Manarola where we found a good focacceria and then caught the train back to Riomaggiore.
That evening we took the train to Vernazza to enjoy the sunset.
At this point we decided we had likely overstayed our time in Cinque Terre by one day. In hindsight, we should have spent an extra day in Riva del Garda instead. Oh well. I wanted to get my fill of Cinque Terre.
After spending the morning in Manarola, we spent the afternoon hiking up to the Santuario di Nostra. On the way up this 1,000 foot climb we had taken the more exposed route but on the way down we followed the valley on a route that included the Stations of the Cross. This was interesting for us because back at home in Saint Paul, we follow an old Stations of the Cross path to portage our canoe down to the Mississippi River. This path in Italy was much more popular with offerings at all of the well-kept Stations compared to the crumpling statues back at home.
After our hike we went back to our Airbnb and had sciacchetrà, the local wine, on our balcony. We much preferred Limoncello, another Italian favorite! Then we went out for dinner.
We took the local train from Riomaggiore to La Spezia where we again made use of a short layover to explore the town. From there we boarded another train to Parma where we took a quick walk around town before heading on another train to Bologna (didn’t have time to leave the train station) and then finally to Venice.
The train travel allowed us to see the countryside. Almost constantly we traveled through small towns. Many buildings were charming well cared for bright stucco colors with shutters- but we also passed through some industrial areas as well as by some modern ugly apartment buildings.
As we neared Venice, I felt a bit sad that we weren’t heading towards the mountains. As much as I wanted to go to Venice, I have always and still do love the mountains.
That changed as we walked out of the Santa Lucia Venice train station around 5 pm and there before us was the bustling Grand Canal. Suddenly all the sights were before us- the salty smell of the water, the azure color of the canal, the sounds of people talking and yelling as they went about their business. It was perhaps the most transformative experience of my life.
If there is any place to get lost, it’s Venice. There’s a beaten path through Venice (really just a non-linear wider sidewalk/street) where you can follow all the foot traffic. If there’s no foot traffic or you step off this path, you will likely be walking in circles for a very long time.
It just so happened to be Halloween when we got to Venice! Known for intricate and deceiving masks, Venice seemed the perfect place to visit for Halloween. As we walked to our Airbnb, we passed some kids trick-or-treating at local businesses and a few adults wearing scary masks.
Eventually we made it to our Airbnb located in a courtyard.
After settling into our Airbnb, we found the nearest Coop to get ourselves some food. Note, don’t pick out the vegetables without wearing the supplied gloves! Once we had ate dinner, we set off to explore the city and got sufficiently lost. It was a good thing Erik had gaiagps downloaded on his phone so we could make our way back.
I went to Venice to get lost and succeeded marvelously. It’s the only place I’ve ever been that is so confusing in four days I still couldn’t find my way around. Frequently we got “canaled out” when the alley/street we were on dead-ended at a canal without a bridge.
Being in Venice, and having the time to roam about and get lost, was a gift. I felt so lucky to have numerous passageways, to explore and to have no idea where I would come out or what I might see. It made me feel like a kid again, constantly exploring.
We started the day with a short 3.63 mile run. Then we set off for San Marco square and to climb the San Marco tower. Upon researching the trip, we learned the lines for the tower were often quite long and it was recommended to get there at opening time. We did just that and had a brief line. The line into San Marco Cathedral seemed much, much longer.
We spent the afternoon on a lazy hike around Venice where people own boats as opposed to cars. The teenagers sure drive their boats crazy!
Again, we started the day off with a run. This time it was much longer and included intervals.
After breakfast, we boarded the water bus, also called the vaporetto, (note, because people get around via water the “buses” in Venice are really boats) to the colorful island of Burano. Click here for a vaporetto map.
That evening we road the water bus around to take in the lights as the sun set.
Our big entertainment this day was kayaking through Venice with Venice Kayak. Before that, we walked around.
I really wanted to get on the water in Venice. We toyed around with a number of ideas on how to do this, including buying a cheap Wal-mart raft and having it shipped to our Airbnb. There was also the idea of buying a fancy packraft and doing a European packraft trip, but this was before we bought our packraft for our Alaska trip and so after lots of research, I caved for a guided kayak tour! I usually don’t do guided tours but this seemed the best way. Now that we have our packraft, I’d love to take it to Venice sometime. Note- if you do this yourself there are restrictions on a number of bigger canals.
Our scheduled tour with Venice Kayak was mid-day and we took the water bus to the island of Certosa to get to Venice Kayak.
After the kayak tour we slowly made our way back to our Airbnb via a water bus tour of the city during which we saw lots of different kinds of boats!
Like many of our other mornings in Venice, we again began this one with a run- a fairly long run!
After breakfast, we walked around town and wandered into a free museum where we were able to get up to a deck on the third floor.
All day we kept wandering around.
I found Venice hard. Hard to fully appreciate, that is. Usually when we are on an adventure we spend so much time getting from one place to another that we don’t have time to take in all the scenery- and that scenery is often fairly monotone in terms of blades of grass or trees. In Venice it felt like my job to see everything- to see every brick, every window, every shutter. To appreciate every color of every building. It was impossible to absorb it all. Around every bend I wanted to take a photo. I wanted to stay in Venice forever. Near the end I tried to just relax and realize this time would be fleeting and there was no way I could see it all.
11/5/17: Back to Minnesota
Under gray skies we took the water bus to the Venice Airport and then flew home via Amsterdam. We were very sad to leave Italy:(
If we had to do this trip again: We would have spent one more day in Riva del Garda and one less day in Cinque Terre.
Best decisions: Staying in a few places and getting to know the area. We both find travel days to be fairly stressful. Four days in Venice was perfect.
Next time: Cinque Terre was amazing but hard to get to. It seemed to work well that we were there in late October in regard to tourists. The streets were packed with tourists during the day but we had the high trails to ourselves. I don’t think we’ll go back. Venice was amazing. I’d love to go back and paddle the canals in our packraft! I’d also go back to Riva del Garda and the area north towards Bolzano for more ferrata and quaint old towns!