Cinque Terre

 

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View from the Church of St. Peter in Portovenere.

We went to Cinque Terre twice this month. The first time was over the Ferragosto holiday in the middle of August, and the second was with our friends, who came to visit from the US at the end of August. It wasn’t our intention to go twice, that is, we might have gone elsewhere the first time, had we realized we’d have a chance to go to Cinque Terre later in the month, but we didn’t regret the trips at all.

Cinque Terre, meaning “Five Lands,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park in Liguria, located on the Italian riviera, near Genova. It contains five coastal fishing villages, built up on the rocky Ligurian shoreline, strung together by a verdant hiking path winding its way through and above the villages. Each town has its own character, but they share certain themes, such as pastel-coloured houses, steep steps climbing through crooked alleyways, hole-in-the-wall fried fish joints, and lovely little beaches or swimming holes in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

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The booming of a thunderstorm could be heard in the villages as it reflected off the cliffs.

From North to South, the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Portovenere lies even further south, and might be considered the “sixth” Cinque Terre, though it is not officially part of the park. The larger towns of Levanto and La Spezia lie to the North and South, respectively, of the park. Both times we visited, we found that it was easiest to find accommodation in La Spezia, which is the largest town in the area. I can heartily recommend both of our La Spezia AirBnBs (Tina’s House, suitable for one couple, and Wiwi, suitable for two couples). The hosts were incredibly welcoming, incredibly accommodating, quick to answer inquiries, and the apartments were both well furnished and conveniently located, including all the necessities (even AC). The first host whisked over to our place in just 10 minutes when we had some trouble with the power, and the second host brought us the freshest figs I’ve ever had straight from their garden for no reason at all! We did also stay one night in Corniglia with my husband, but the AirBnB we stayed at was basically just a normal hotel room with a nice view, and did not compare to the amazingly warm welcome we received at the two La Spezia locations.

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La Spezia, near the docks.

La Spezia was a perfect base of operations. It is very walkable, has plenty of food/stores/gelato open at night, and provides connections via train to each of the Cinque Terre towns plus Levanto, via bus to Portovenere and Lerici, and via ferry to Portovenere, Lerici, Levanto, and each of the Cinque Terre except Corniglia. There are also bus connections to Portovenere and Lerici (the latter of which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit). The ferry (provided by the company Consorzio Marittimo Turistico) costs around 35 euro for a day pass, that you can use any number of times, or around 6 euro for one trip. Since I get seasick on longer trips, I only did a single ride from Vernazza to Monterosso using the ferry, and it was definitely worth it.

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The ferry landing at Vernazza, headed to Monterosso.

The train, on the other hand, is cheaper, and it goes way more often, although it mostly goes through dark boring tunnels. The cost is 4 euro per ride, but it’s way more worthwhile to get the day pass (at the Cinque Terre Point stores) for 16 euro, so you can hop back and forth using the train. The day pass also lets you access the lovely hiking trains that wind through and above the five towns. If the weather isn’t blazingly hot, and if the trails are open, hiking is probably the best way to travel between the towns. Each section of the trail takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours (depending on the section). Unfortunately, the days that we traveled there, two of the trails were closed due to mudslides, the rest of the trails were closed at some times due to thunderstorm warnings, and anyways, it was over 30 degrees C most of the time. Actually, I love weather over 30 degrees C, because it’s the perfect swimming weather, and swimming, particularly in the pleasant Mediterranean waters, is one of my favorite activities. We did wind our way through the staircases of each of the towns, and hiked a bit to see the main sights, but I have to admit, we spent most of our time in the water. I would love to return in the spring or fall, just to do all the hikes. I actually think there would probably be a few weeks in early September that could be perfect for both hiking and swimming, assuming the trails were open. You could hike to each town, and get a fish cone at each stop!

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Deep fried anchovies, mussels, calamari,veggies, and even a chicken wing somewhere in there.

The largest beach that we visited was in Levanto. Much of it was dedicated to rent-a-chair type places, which we have taken to calling “vacation factories,” since you are packed in literally side-by-side to all the other tourist-goers, and you get the same perfect sun/beach/food/lounge experience. If that’s your thing, Levanto has a good amount of it, though it does have a small section of public beach, were you can put down your own towel as well. The beach in Levanto is made up of small rocks, which get larger as you start heading into the water. The day we went, the waves were actually large enough, that there were surfers stationed at the wave line, riding them in as they formed. The waves weren’t as big as what I’m used to in SoCal, but there was definitely a very strong undercurrent, and they started out pretty far, so that I just didn’t feel comfortable swimming out there without a flotation device. I did see some swimmers out there, but for the most part, it was just surfers.

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Surfers and swimmers awaiting a wave on the pebbly beach of Levanto.

South of Levanto is the first of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso. This is the most vacation-factory style town out of all of them. The beach, which is right outside the train station, is smaller than the one in Levanto, but similar to Levanto, it is sandy-ish. There’s a bit of a bay created by a jutting out of the land to the North, which seems to lessen the waves to a gentle roll, and the water is clear and warm, making this a wonderful spot to go swimming… as long as you can stand having your towel propped up right against another person’s on the teeny tiny public portion of the beach. Once again, most of this beach is devoted to the vacation factory, where you can rent a chair-umbrella combo, but when we were there, all the chairs were rented out already anyway. There are some food stands up near the train station, where you can get cones of deep fried seafood (I didn’t know I liked anchovies until I had them fresh here), French fries, and chicken wings. If you walk a bit further from the train station, you reach the older part of Monterosso, where tourist souvenir shops and restaurants line cute little streets. In short, Monterosso is pleasant, and comfortable, and a great place to relax, but in a land of touristy towns, it is touristy to the very max.

The next town over is Vernazza, a small town with one main road. The hiking paths just above Vernazza on both the Monterosso and Corniglia sides provide stunning views of the entire village below. The large pier creates a sandy (but also a silty) little beach, providing a sheltered enclosure, where hesitant swimmers can safely splash around. The outside of the pier has a ladder down into the water, so braver swimmers can dive right in off the edge to swim amongst the waves, and climb back up via the ladder. It’s just like swimming in a swimming pool, except your pool is the entire Mediterranean Sea. Another beach is located at the other end of the town, underneath an archway of the distinctive layered rock found in this region. This beach was apparently created by a recent flood that unfortunately claimed some lives, so it is superficially tethered off, but there are as many swimmers here as anywhere else. More delicious cones of fried fish, focaccia pizza, and farinata (chickpea flour based flat bread from the region) is available at stands along the main road.

The next town to the South is Corniglia. This one is situated on top of a hill. The train station is near the bottom of the hill. Therefore, you either have to hike around 1km up some stairs, or you take a bus that comes approximately every 20 minutes during the day to the top. Since it’s a tad bit harder to reach, less tourists make it up here, giving the town a bit of a cozier vibe. There is a lovely viewpoint inside the town, above a small soccer court, where you can see Manarola down the coast, and a nice view of Corniglia itself just up the road from the main square, next to a vineyard. There are plenty of lovely sit-down restaurants inside this town, with local pastas (e.g. trofie) smothered in local pesto Genovese, and more delicious fresh anchovies, as well as local wines.

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Corniglia viewed from up the street.

Down the coast from Corniglia is Manarola, another pastel-coloured village with just one main street. There is a path here, which slopes upwards to a peak overlooking the entire little town. The wine bar at the top always has an incredibly long line. As lovely as the view is, the swimming is even better. It might be funny to see people setting up their towels on the long boat ramp, but you have to look further to see the real beauty of this swimming hole. The boat ramp leads down into a calm-watered pool, sandwiched between a rocky pier to the left, and a real treasure: a very climbable rock. The rock can be jumped from at various points, from varied heights, providing adventure for the more timid jumpers as well as the braver ones. The tallest point of the rock is around 4.5 or 5 person-heights high (I would guess around 10 meters or so), and juts out perfectly, to allow for a smooth and easy dive into a deep hole. I was too scared to jump off that height though, so the most I did was a jump from around 2.5 person-heights. For those who do not want to jump, there are ladders on both sides of the pier, the sheltered side, and the outside which faces the sea.

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Manarola viewed from the walk above it.

The Southernmost village of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, which, like the others, has its own distinctive character. Here, I enjoyed walking around, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the hilly town, filled with steep and narrow staircases, winding up and down the cliffs. I didn’t get the chance to spend too much time here, though I believe there may be a beach off to one side that I did not visit. I suppose I will just have to come back another time!

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Riomaggiore.

Finally, South of all of the Cinque Terre, sits Portovenere. A bus connection from La Spezia (bus P) takes visitors to this small town, which follows the same architectural themes as the other five towns, though it is officially not part of the national park.  The day we visited, a thunderstorm had come through in the morning, leaving a half-cloudy sky in its wake, and some breathtaking views for us to enjoy. The sea was a deep blue, and the setting sun cast its golden rays over the lush cliff side, whenever it peaked its head through the clouds.

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Portovenere.

We explored the church of St. Peter laid with striped bricks on the very tip of the town, and a pathway up to a fort on top of the cliff. The fort was was closed by the time we got there, but on the way we saw an homage to Portovenere by sculpture Scorzelli, titled Mater Naturae. The statue is of a voluptuous middle-aged woman, wearing a simple undergarment, gazing out at the sea beyond the town. It seems to me, that, tired from a difficult life, she looks out longingly at what might have been, but, also with some pride for the work she has wrought.

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Weeks 39 through 41

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Valetta, seen from the ferry to Sliema.

Malta was lovely. It was three weeks ago now, and I still find myself daydreaming of limestone walls and the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean. It was hot and dry like back home, but the sea was much more pleasant. The water tasted of salt, but without the sharp bitterness that I am used to from the Pacific, the temperature was warm and pleasant, unlike the bone-chilling cold of the ocean, and the water was calm so you could just swim for miles. There were jellyfish in some places, like St. Peter’s Pool, which was a place we went cliff diving, but that was the only bad thing, and it wasn’t everywhere.

My trip there was organized by the Erasmus LCT partner universities, and the point was to meet the other LCT students. Since there are a number of universities in the LCT Consortium, there are LCT students all over Europe who I would never have met, had they not organized this. They do it in a different place each year, and those of us from Saarland were certainly happy that it was in an awesome place like Malta this year!  When we didn’t have meetings, we spent the days swimming, hiking, or cliff diving, and the nights eating seafood and chilling with some beers. As lovely as Malta was, all the wonderful people I met were lovelier still, and it was fantastic to get the chance to meet so many interesting people, and to get to know such a great community.

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A caper flower (like the capers that we eat).

Coming back to real life in Saarbrücken was not easy. In fact, since I came back, I’ve done nothing but work. I had a presentation, I had to finish my HiWi job (no more extra money coming in after this), and my other classes have also really picked up.

In Software Engineering, I am starting to “program” in Xcode using Swift. There are huge air quotes around “program” because apart from the fact that I have no idea what I am doing, I would also say that Xcode is a pain, especially for new people:

  • The whole thing is quite slow, and the simulator that you use to debug with tends to lag, crash, or simply not update. Sometimes you have to restart the whole computer to make it fix itself.
  • Xcode uses some sort of flat file to keep track of project files, so you can have project files strewn across half your file system if you aren’t careful. Adding and removing files from your project is also a hassle.
  • You use a GUI to design a UI and then you literally drag-and-drop using the GUI from the UI elements to lines in the code (wtf?). Presumably you could write actual C code instead of drag-and-dropping (at least I hope that’s true), but finding those C files is also not easy (plus I am not good in C yet).
  • Last, but certainly not least, you have to use a Mac and it has to be a newer Mac if you want to build for the newer iOS. This translates to being rich enough to buy a new Mac every few years.

In my Statistical Natural Language Processing (SNLP) class, we are writing proofs that don’t seem to tie in to much of anything else, based on slides that are confusing or full of mistakes, plus, our tutors either don’t know how any of it works either, or they are inexperienced teachers, but likely both. The class is incredibly frustrating, and not for good reason.

In my Semantic Parsing project seminar, we just started working on our project, which is going to involve using a neural net to parse natural language into Abstract Meaning Representations (AMRs). This is a topic I know very little about in general, but the penalty for failure is low for this class, so hopefully it will be a learning experience. Since we’ll probably be working with TensorFlow in this class, I decided to drop my TensorFlow seminar, because the timeline for the project completion for that seminar would have put me well into the time I should be moving to Italy anyway.

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One of many of the stray cats of Malta, carefully observing me as I try to sneak some pictures.

Speaking of Italy, this weekend, I plan to visit Trento, Italy, where I will be spending my second year, to try to get a lay of the land. My goal is to figure out a good general area to start looking for apartments. I don’t think I will have much luck in the housing search at this time, but at least I’ll know how things look.

I’ve only been to Italy once before, and it was also three weeks ago. During the trip to Malta, we had a layover in Pisa of 4 hours or so, which was just barely enough time for us to run out to the leaning tower, snap a couple pics, and take the bus back to the airport. It was a whirlwind tour of the main parts of  the city, but I remember most vividly the scent of flowers in the air. I think Trento will be a little different though, since it’s in the north, closer to the Alps.

My world is a whirlwind of emotions right now. One day I am hitting my head against a wall of code and math, and the next I am zooming through yet another country, and soon I will be learning another language too. Life never stands still!

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These were the flowers that smelled so nice in Pisa, Italy. Does anyone know what they are?

Costs:

  • €225 – rent
  • €98 – groceries
  • €10 – another replacement student card, because I lost mine again =(
  • €40 – dining/snacks
  • €30 – phone (made some longer phone calls and used lots of data)
  • €175 – Malta (mostly food)
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €588