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Read Italy Stop 1: Rome here!
Read Italy Stop 2: Florence here!

As I collect pictures for each post on the stops in Italy my husband and I made at the end of October I’ve had about 150 pictures or less each time and I’ve been giving the blog 25 picture highlights. For this stop, I had almost 350 that I trimmed down to 32. If pictures tell you how much we liked something, then let it be known that we really loved our time in Manarola. But before we got to Cinque Terre, we took a train from Florence and stopped in Pisa for a picnic and this quintessential Pisa pose:

IMG_4785Everyone told us you need about an hour and a half tops to walk from the train to the tower, take a shot like the one above and walk back. They were right. We had about three hours and were quickly bored even after our picnic. The tower is actually the bell tower of the church (which you can see to the left above) in a little grassy area but there wasn’t much to do or see besides the tower.

Let me also give you the quick Pisa tower story because it’s silly: They started building it in 1173 and five years later, on only the second floor, the structure began to sink and lean so they only finished it through the third floor. About 100 years later they restarted in 1272 and built three more floors that are actually curved to compensate for the lean. They stopped again 12 years later. And the seventh and final floor was built in 1319 and a bell chamber in 1372. I’m guessing this thing was a tourist destination almost immediately and that’s why they even finished it!

Once we finished scratching our heads about the Pisa Campanile (bell tower) we hopped back on the train and met the man who was renting us an apartment at the train station in Manarola. Da Micetto in Manarola was a two bedroom apartment with a living room, bathroom and kitchen plus a balcony and patio. It was very spacious accommodations and looked right out over the Ligurian Sea.

We thought we were just paying and getting the key from our host, but the next thing we knew, we were getting a full tour of Manarola, the surrounding vistas, and more! Below, we are actually in front of the Manarola train station enjoying the view.

IMG_4803Manarola is a very cool little town, one of the Cinque Terre (translates to “five lands”) that all are perched on the sea. This is the least touristy town according to guidebooks. The hills surrounding Manarola and the other towns are all terraced using no mortar and are actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is a view looking up the hill at the upper part of Manarola.

IMG_4818And looking the other direction, out to sea, the rest of the valley that Manarola sits in.

IMG_4819Our host whisked us off on a short drive to see some vistas, speaking only Italian, while my husband spoke Spanish and I translated some of the words into English that I had studied for our trip. He explained to us about the families that still have plots on the terraced hills and the life in these small towns. The contraption below, and others like it, have a steep track that goes down the hill when it’s grape harvest to make it easier to carry grapes up the very steep hills. You can bet, though, that before these carts existed there were Italians carrying baskets of fresh picked grapes on their backs up and down the hill.

IMG_4829Every bit of this beautiful land is put to use. Grapes and olive trees are grown on the hills and when the elevation gets too high, chestnut, pine and walnut trees are grown for their nuts. Where there’s a bit of flat land or a valley, buildings spring up.

IMG_4831My husband and I assumed that we were done at this point but we had hardly started. Next we pulled up to his family’s home! His mother and grandmother were home and upon being told it was our wedding anniversary, his mother went to her rose garden and picked me a bouquet of flowers! We also had the grand tour of the gardens and cellar going along as I translated vegetable names for my husband (I learned many of the Italian food words unsurprisingly).

IMG_4865We were each given a grappa soaked grape (AMAZING) and then stopped by the local store for the cooperative that his family sells their grapes to in order to make wine. We bought some wines and treats being very thankful that we could buy locally produced products. Then we were taken to another location…. his own personal wine making cellar! A place where generations had been making wine in these barrels, using those jugs in baskets and surely enjoying the goods. We were given the wine his family makes here (not something the sell), the family limoncello (with cream in it!!!), local bread and meat and even got to dip into some salt cured anchovies which were quite good.

IMG_4887It was a whirlwind tour and after several hours learning about the area, seeing the area, and tasting what the land had to offer we celebrated our anniversary on the balcony of our apartment listening to the Ligurian Sea crash below us over a bottle of locally produced prosecco. Just how close were we to the water? In the picture below, see the lowest pink building on the left? The peachy building to the right of that was us on the top floor.

IMG_4917The water was crystal clear and blue. The weather was warm, so we took advantage and I put my legs in the water while my husband took a swim in the colder-than-expected but refreshing sea.

IMG_4918When we visited the walking path that connects all five towns was closed probably due to severe floods in Fall 2011 so we took the regional train between towns. We started at the northernmost town, Monterosso.

IMG_4937Monterosso was still being repaired after the previous year’s flood so there was some construction going on and the cloudy water in the image below is due to a tractor moving around the beach. This town was very cute and definitely had more restaurants, tourist shops and hotels.

IMG_4942Monterosso was more flat than the other little towns so we explored some paths though the town.

IMG_4945 The town just south of Monterosso is Vernazza so we stopped there next.

IMG_4975Vernazza looked similar to the other little towns in Cinque Terre but had what seemed like the most restaurants.

IMG_4954We returned to Manarola in time for a beautiful sunset on our balcony and to prepare for dinner.

IMG_4981Manarola is so beautiful it’s hard to limit oneself in taking pictures. I was able to get some beautiful night shots of the town using my Gorillapod.

We had dinner at a place you will see recommended by sites like Tripadvisor, Billy’s. Do not be fooled, the food is decent but it’s a tourist trap. My husband and I raised our eyebrows when there was a bottle of balsamic vinegar on the table (something you almost never see in Italy because they aren’t dipping their bread in oil and vinegar) that contained “caramel coloring” and thickening agents. The limoncello also tasted like chemicals. But to top that off, the waiter argued with me when he misheard me and brought a dish I hadn’t ordered. One of the waiters (not ours) was super friendly to the tables he was serving while ours was sulky and seemed to be irritated that he had to serve people that evening. I would NOT recommend Billy’s unless you like touristy places that will pander to you as a foreigner.

IMG_4986Despite our questionable dinner experience, the food was good and there is another restaurant that is a million times better (at the same kind of expensive price) that actually overlooks the water. It’s Marina Piccola, the first floor of the building on the right in the picture below. This is also a hotel and while it’s on the pricier side, based on their excellent restaurant I would recommend the hotel. I have pictures of our meal (the only food pictures I took for almost the whole trip) below.

IMG_1679Before we gorged on one of, if not the, best meal of our trip, my husband and I hiked the hills of Cinque Terre. Here is my handsome husband in front of the church in Manarola that sits near the top of the valley.

IMG_4991Our backpack was packed with bread, fresh ricotta and sliced salami that we picked up at the market on our way out of town. We set off on the rather difficult hike without knowing quite how hard the walk was going to be, though. But as hard as it was on a warm day, the views were worth it.

IMG_4998Lots of olive trees with ripe fruit waiting to be picked and grape vines that had already had their grapes harvested.

IMG_5001The steep hill led us to a mountainside town of Volastra were we rested and enjoyed our picnic before setting off again and coming across this fierce guard dog:

IMG_5004As we got higher and continued we turned around and looked back down on Manarola from up high as we took in the sea.

IMG_5027It was a hike unlike any we’ve ever done, winding through terraced vineyards, forest and olive trees.

IMG_5034Eventually we ended up in another of the Cinque Terre we hadn’t visited the day before, Corniglia. Unlike the other five towns, Corniglia sits up on a cliff well above the sea. If we hadn’t dropped in from above– we were glad we didn’t hike UP from Cornigilia because it was steep!– we would have taken the train and then had to march up over 350 steps to the town!

IMG_5055The hike we just had taken tired us out so we briefly walked around before heading back to Manarola to prepare for our fancy dinner.

IMG_5059

IMG_1687On our last evening in Manarola we took in the city at night by walking around a little path and gazing back on the town. I may not want to live there, but my husband and I would happily vacation there again.

For dinner we made a reservation at Marina Piccola, as I mentioned above. The restaurant features seafood and local dishes of the area. My husband and I each had a starter which were underwhelming but our main dishes were killer. I ordered the gnocchi with langostinos (they’re more like very small lobsters than shrimp) in a sort of butter-rich sauce.

IMG_1691My husband ordered the squid ink house-made pasta with peppers and pine nuts (I might be wrong about the pine nuts?). Let me say, if you’ve never had a black squid ink pasta and you enjoy seafood, you are missing out big time. While the color is bold the flavor of squid ink is very mild and tastes like a kiss from the sea.

IMG_1692While I was a little surprised that our pasta course appeared and then our main course immediately showed up, my husband and I think it actually worked out as we were able to enjoy everything together. This main dish (which obviously is big enough for two but it doesn’t state that on the menu) is a seafood stew. Fun fact: One of San Francisco’s Italian dishes is called “cioppino” which is also basically a seafood stew. The cioppino we love in SF was brought over by Italian immigrants from this same area (around Genova) of Italy so without realizing it until it arrived, I had basically ordered the authentic Italian version of cioppino!

IMG_1693Being complete gluttons, and since we were so happy with our meal at that point, we decided we were on vacation, screw our full bellies, let’s get dessert! My husband got pannacotta with chocolate sauce.

IMG_1694And I went for tiramisu. Neither was as mind blowing as our dinner, but it’s hard to beat the pasta and seafood we stuffed our faces with.

IMG_1695The adorable coasted town of Manarola was one of our favorite parts of Italy and I would heartily recommend it to anyone traveling in Italy. It was perfect to spend a few days in with hiking and exploring the other little towns. My husband and I would happily return and eat at Marina Piccola again, too!

Read Italy Stop 4: Milan & Lake Maggiore here!