Make sure to catch up on our trip to the Vatican before checking out the latest installment in my European road trip series, where I delve into Florence and Cinque Terre!
Finding Religion in Florence
After a fun-filled opera night in Rome, we headed for Florence, our last Italian city. We dropped our bags at the hostel and excitedly ran out to meet Nikos for our city tour. This kicked off at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Florence Cathedral.
We craned our necks to capture the whole building, which sat in the middle of the enormous Piazza del Duomo. The exterior was undeniably impressive with exquisite detailing, gorgeous architectural design, and a series of statues that looked down upon the piazza passers-by. The cathedral’s dome is the largest made of bricks in all of Europe. Despite its impressive exterior, I remember feeling underwhelmed once we stepped inside. It just didn’t have the same rich atmosphere as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and felt almost empty.
Content to just take in the exterior, we headed back outside. Our guide told us about the Medici family, who declared themselves rulers of Florence way back in the day. The family’s colorful history is certainly worth looking up. It astounded me to learn how much influence they’d had upon Florence. As our guide continued on about the Medici family history, we wound up in front of the Uffizi, where we saw one of two copies of the Statue of David, the original being housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia Di Firenze.
Going Hell for Leather in Florence
Although I had no idea before arriving, Florence is famous for its leather industry. As we navigated away from the main square, Florence’s thriving leather industry replaced the Medicis as the focus of our tour. We sat in on a leather demonstration, where they taught us how to spot the difference between fake leather and genuine. After four years, I, unfortunately, have no idea how to tell the difference anymore. Nonetheless, it’s an important aspect to keep in mind if you’re browsing the Florence leather markets to avoid being scammed.
After the demonstration, we headed back to the hostel (which — blessedly — had a laundromat). After a quick rest, we visited the Mercato Centrale for dinner, which I “can only describe as a very fancy food court, sans mall” (Cassidy Kearney’s Travel Journal, 2016). Despite not recognizing how cool eating here actually was, I had a blast sampling as many small appetizers as I could while staying under budget.
After dinner, we followed Nikos up to Piazzale Michelangelo. This sits on hills across the river from downtown Florence and is 3,000 steps high. The sunset view was so, so worth every bead of sweat and searing gasp on the hike up.
Journey to Cinque Terre
The next morning, we took a two-hour bus ride to a train station at the beginning of Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, or Five Towns, are literally five adorable towns off the coast of Italy. Despite the cold, drizzly day (and a train ticket snafu), this became an absolute highlight of my entire trip. At the first stop, Monterosso, we hopped off to explore for an hour. By then, the drizzle had turned into a full-blown downpour. Unfortunately, the “rain jacket” I had packed for this trip was only water-resistant and not waterproof. I got soaked pretty much immediately. Despite wanting to explore some of the mountain trails, an unrelenting shiver and water all over my glasses convinced me to turn back around into town for some pizzetta.
After wading through throngs of retirees to the train station, we arrived at Vernazza, the next town, which had a small beach alcove and several shops. Now downright freezing, Dounia and I immediately went to work to find me something cheap and dry to change into. Nothing was really standing out for me, since most of the places were boutiques catering to the white-linen-on-a-beach-front crowd. I wound up just grabbing the only regular T-shirt I found, which had a fish skeleton on it.
A Medieval Lighthouse
By then, the rain had subsided just a bit so that we could actually get a good look around the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza. Tucked away in a little alcove, a rock jetty protected the small beach. The storm had made the sea incredibly rough. The waves were undeniably stunning to watch as they crashed and spray flew into the air. After spying some of our other group members, we learned about a castle balancing at the top of the cliff. We followed them through a series of enclosed, dark, tiny alleyways and staircases until we reached a ticket booth charging 3€ for entry into the Tower of Doria Castle (a no-brainer).
After getting in, we were met with MORE stairs and alleys until we made it to the top, which was blanketed with uneven cobblestones and a chain-link fence. A tower sat perched on the very edge of the cliff, which reminded me of a medieval lighthouse. After (another) set of stairs, we reached one of the best views of Cinque Terre, which can only be appreciated in person (photos are a pale reminder). Once we’d made it back down, we dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea before heading to the train again.
A Cinque Terre Café
By the time we’d made it to the next town, Manarola, I was exhausted from the cold. Dounia and I followed Nikos into the town from the train station, which was the biggest one so far. After some more alley-navigating, I found a bathroom to change in. After getting dry, I settled down in a cozy café to watch the rain with Nikos and Dounia. One dessert turned into a coffee, and then two more as members of our group slowly trickled in with the same idea. Locals chatted with one another and the owner smiled as she talked with friends and welcomed us one by one. I could easily see myself passing the time people-watching all day as I soaked in the warm coffee aroma and gathered feeling back into my fingertips.
Once we were sufficiently warm, Dounia, Yennifer, and I wandered around town pretending to be our own tour guides, making a big deal about every mundane object we found. By the time we had to turn around to head home, I was in hysterics. Despite such miserable weather (and a lot of old people for some reason), Cinque Terre was an absolute dream. I’d go back in a heartbeat to spend a few days exploring the trails and the two towns we missed. Join me next time to hear about our washout at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Antibes.