For the photo re-caps check out the albums... Florence, Cinque Terre and around
First up, Florence. I definitely enjoyed this city - small and manageable but lots to see and explore. The weather like Rome was toasty but I won't complain! There's easy wandering around and multiple museums and churches were on the agenda so I was able to keep cool. Florence though, again like Rome, was overrun by tour groups and selfie-sticks. In addition to tour groups there are loads of young students - lots of American students. I could pretty easily pick them out from the crowds and so much English being spoken everywhere.
I'd pre-booked the Accademia (to see my new friend David) and Uffizi Gallery with one Friday and one Saturday. I don't know why you wouldn't book in advance unless you really couldn't stand to have some sort of structure to your day. The queues to get in without a ticket to these were ridiculous and I just walked right up. The David is of course amazing, it really is a massive being but as you enter into the far end of the hallway where it's located it doesn't look all that large. Once you're up close and personal it's a whole other story. The art throughout the Uffizi is fantastic. With an audio guide that I'd downloaded to my phone I was able to make my way to much of Renaissance history and sort of know what I was looking at.
Other highlights included amazing sunsets over the Arno river, live music two nights on Ponte Vecchio (I thoroughly enjoyed their rendition of What's up by Four non Blondes, it took me back to middle school!), climbing the Duomo dome and looking over the city, staring up at the amazing ceilings and walls of the Medici Chapel and Duomo Baptistery, tomb watching of Medicis, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and more, smelling the soaps and scents of the Santa Maria Novella Perfumery and of all the leather everywhere (ahhh!), more meat and cheese plates, and seeing Tom Hanks. Apparently the third installment of the Da Vinci Code is being filmed now and they were in Florence for 10 days shooting and causing more madness than there already is there. I saw loads of people hovering around the Duomo and then overheard something about Tom Hanks. And what do you know I walked back by later and they were filming and I saw the man himself.
From Florence the next destination was Cinque Terre. En route to Cinque Terre there were stops in Lucca and Portovenere. Lucca is a cute little walled city where the old walls have been turned into a pedestrian path so it's treelined and paved. It's quiet, relaxed, and quite nice. There's also an old Roman Amphitheater that at some point buildings were built around and the center was left as a plaza. Portovenere was my first glimpse of the Italian coast with it's colorful buildings and small harbors. Back to the sea!
Cinque Terre is apparently a very popular American destination. I now know why my guidebook has almost as many pages dedicated to it as Florence or Venice. That's got to draw the crowds! It is quite an amazing spot, or rather collection of spots that it's hard to know what's best. The tiny towns of colorful buildings appear to go right into the sea and they're surrounded by hillsides of vineyards and trees. The hills are so steep where the vines are they've built little tram-like tracks to allow them to harvest and tend to the grapes. The green landscape is speckled with pink, green, blue, and yellow and then at night you see just the lights of each in the distance.
The town of Monterosso (the furthest north of the five towns) was base for three nights. There are trains and boats that connect all of the towns (and additional ones as well) but the key attraction is to hike between them as it is a national park. There are multiple trails but the plan was to just take the most basic one which is estimated to take about 4 or 5 hours from start to finish and then you can take a boat or train back. Well as luck would have it, and the guide book warned, two sections of the trail were closed. So, rather than not actually hike all five towns alternative trails were available but they were a bit longer - estimated to add about an hour - and a heck of a lot steeper. I think it was more than an hour more, but I stopped keeping track of time as I climbed more and more steps to go up away from the sea and then shortly thereafter descend. With a few stops along the way for snacks, lunch, wine, etc it was a successful trek. I will admit that the last leg from Manarola to Riomaggiore was done the next day for a variety of reasons - but it was likely better that way. This section of trail if the normal part was open would be a flat, right along the edge of the sea, lovely 15-20 minute walk. Well, this was one of the sections that was closed so the alternative route was to go straight up from Manarola, wander across some vineyards, and then drop down into the final town. The up was a mix of stairs and just climbing on rocks and then down was a bit better but it took about 45 minutes and my legs felt like jell-o after. I was glad to have done it the following day and enjoyed my swim and wine the day before!
While there were no vendors hawking selfie sticks there were certainly loads of tourists and some groups. What never ceases to amaze me is people's seeming lack of preparation for hiking. Even if you're not planning to do the full five town hike you can at least wear some proper footwear (like something other than your flipflops) and when it's 80 degrees jeans and a button-down aren't really going to cut it. I was just in sneakers and running attire so it wasn't like you needed to be like the crazy prepared people with their trekking poles and serious backpacks but a little thought before you head out might have helped a few folks along the way.
On the way out of Cinque Terre the small ports of Santa Margherita and Portofino called. Portofino is a tiny little harbor but apparently super chic with the yachting fans and a place to be seen on your massive boat. There's only 15 yacht berths so you'd better be willing to pay the big bucks (like thousands of euro a day) to dock! The weather had turned a bit grey so it wasn't super photogenic, but cute nonetheless. These were also where I saw my first examples of many buildings having painted on architectural details. From afar the buildings would look like they had lots of stonework but you get closer and notice that it's all just painted on. Very interesting! Also, the churches here are much more ornate and totally over the top with gold, massive murals, and chandeliers than I've seen thus far. Quite a change in style.
These were just quick pit stops en route to Genova for the evening before then catching a train to Venice. Genova isn't even in the guide book I have other than to be listed as a way to get to Cinque Terre or other spots. However, it's a pretty good sized city with a massive port. Definitely not very touristy and pretty dirty but there's lots of architecture to see in old massive homes now turned office buildings and museums, and of course churches! They were having their own version of Off The Grid with lots of vendors selling food in the evening as part of a multi-day slow food festival. Definitely eating with the locals there!
To the other side of the country for Venice now and a look at the Adriatic Sea. I'm also stumped on where to go next so will hopefully figure that out before Tuesday when I'm leaving Venice!