I’ve wanted to go to Italy for as long as I can remember, and I think it mostly traces back to books. I read a book called The Thief Lord when I was a teenager and have wanted to go to Venice ever since. And a book called Beautiful Ruins introduced me to Cinque Terre, though I certainly didn’t think it was somewhere I’d ever get to go. And then there’s Italian food. So you could say I’ve been looking forward to this part of my trip from the beginning.
There was no lack of opinions from friends and family about where to go in Italy. But there are way too many places to go in one trip, and I now have a European deadline (flight to Thailand is booked – December 19th!) so I landed on Milan, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Venice. In my last post I mentioned Trieste as well, but hostel research led me to wanting more time in Slovenia than Trieste.
Because my last post was way too long, I’m going to break Italy into two posts. First up, Milan and Cinque Terre.
I hadn’t planned to come to Milan. I figured I’d continue south from Zermatt on to either Turin or some coastal town on my way to Cinque Terre, maybe even Nice, France. But Marco, back in Rapperswil, Switzerland, informed me that you can’t go south from Zermatt, unless I planned to climb up and over the Matterhorn 😐 .
But first let me back up to Zermatt, my last Swiss stop before Italy. It seems the day I booked my train from Zermatt to Milan they decided to dig up half the train tracks from the mountain valley that leads out of Zermatt to Visp, leading to tons of train delays and cancellations. In trying to figure out what was happening, I met Janet, and later her husband Mike and son Steven, a family from Chicago also headed from Zermatt to Milan. We got to chatting on the train and the Perry’s were so kind to invite me to dinner with them that night at Dal Bolognese Milano. The mushroom pasta was fantastic and it honestly felt like having dinner with family (I don’t get to talk to adults very often these days…) Unfortunately we failed at taking a picture, so with permission I’ve stolen one from Steven’s instagram. Thank you again so so much!
Based on the opinions of others, I wasn’t really expecting much from Milan but I actually found its history to be really interesting, and the city to be really beautiful.
A couple of quick facts I found interesting:
- For over 400 years Milan was ruled by countries other than Italy. Spain, France, Austria, and Germany all occupied Milan at some point, and the city of Milan was largely destroyed during WWII.
- La Scala Opera House is really the opera house and was the place that many famous operas debuted, including Verdi’s “La Traviata” which you’ll recognize from this scene in Pretty Woman.
- There are over 3,400 statues on the Duomo, construction of which was originally started in 1386 and was only “completed” in 1965, although the work is constant. I didn’t manage to get up to the dome this time around…guess I’ll have to go back.
- In my 3.5 hour walking tour we didn’t really cover WWII (to be fair, Italy has quite a long history), but on recommendation from my mom I started to read Beneath a Scarlet Sky which is based in Milan and follows the heroic life of Pino Lella from 1943 to 1945. I hadn’t realized the impact of Nazi occupation in Milan specifically, and wish I had known to look for certain things, like the Holocaust memorial at Milano Centrale’s track 21, where Italian Jews were shipped to Auschwitz. Ironically, I read about this as I was on a train out of Milan, which left from track 22.
After my tour I asked the tour guide what I shouldn’t miss in my one day, and here’s where he led me:
The Porta Nuova or “business” district was nice to walk through and had really interesting architecture:
I was sent on a tour through the famous fashion district ending with some pink flamingos:
My favorite shop window of course was this one:
My hostel, Madama Hostel & Bistrot, was interesting as it was way out of the city center and seemed to be a popular place for locals to enjoy the famous Milanese aperitivo, which is sort of like happy hour but way better. Generally it involves some sort of deal where you buy a drink and also get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of a variety of “snacks”. At Madama’s the snacks were a bit heavier than typical, which is probably why it was so popular for the locals. It was free for hostel guests so I managed to make dinner out of it my second night (below is one of many plates):
Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is a string of old seaside villages on the coast of Northern Italy known for bright colors, wine, pesto, and seafood. The five villages are called, from south to north, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
Quick map so you can orient yourself:
You can research for hours over which of the five terres to stay in, but as soon as I saw 5 Terre Backpackers on Hostelworld I knew I had to stay there, and luckily I got to them just before they closed for the season until March. 5 Terre Backpackers is actually inland about 30 minutes in a tiny town called Corvara (top center on the map) and is run by two Italian guys, Simone and Francesco, who make you an Italian dinner every night. Because it’s impossible to get to by public transport, the hostel has a shuttle system, they drop you off in La Spezia (south of Riomaggiore) each morning and pick you up in Monterosso each night, and you figure out what happens in between. I knew I chose my hostel right when after I was picked up the first night in Monterosso the owners said, “let’s do a quick detour so you can see the sunset, but then we have to get back because there is lasagna in the oven”.
Here are the dinners (and desserts) I got to enjoy at 5 Terre:
The days I spent hiking.
Day 1 I was set on hiking through all five villages. Typically, it is recommended to start this hike in Riomaggiore and work your way north, as the first path, called Via dell’Amore, or “Lover’s Lane”, is a nice easy stroll on a flat paved walkway along the water. However, Lover’s Lane has more or less been closed since flooding and landslides destroyed the path just over six years ago. So depending on who you talk to at the info point, you can walk along the short road to get from Riomaggiore to Manarola, or (as I was told) you have to take a 3 hour detour inland up and over the mountains that separate the first two villages. Well, challenge accepted. All in all it took me about 6 hours, including a wrong turn to start causing me an extra up/down in Riomaggiore. It felt like I had completed a pilgrimage when I reached Monterosso.
But it sure was beautiful!
Day 2 I was totally wiped, so just one quick hike up to some ruins above Monterosso and a few pit stops to get a better look at Vernazza and Manarola.
Day 3 I was re-energized (sort of), and did a ~4 hour hike recommended by Francesco and Simone from Portovenere (see map bottom right) to Riomaggiore, which was also really beautiful:
I won’t say too much about Cinque Terre, it’s really just a place you have to see for yourself, but a couple of quick notes:
- After not meeting a single French person for two months, every single person on the trails of Cinque Terre is French.
- There is a palette of colors you can choose from to paint your house. If you paint it something other than these options, you will be fined and then the city will paint over it anyway.
I should probably mention that, since entering Italy, I’m averaging a gelato a day, in case you were concerned. Favorite flavor is consistently pistachio.