Welcome to chapter two, of a what will eventually be a four chapter travel diary, chronicling our summer trip with Alissa from Graefic Design, and her hubby, John.
Instead of writing a bunch of fluff and burying the lead, I’ll just cut right to the chase and tell you what I feel are some pretty important words of caution if you’re thinking about planning a visit to Florence. I’m sure I’ll get crucified for writing anything unfavorable about this city, as according to the instagram world, it seems to be a favorite of many. Perhaps it’s a favorite of those who haven’t been to many other places (?), but overall I just don’t entirely get the hype. This might also have to do with the fact that Florence was a second pit stop on a two week trip, and we were just coming off an amazing stay in picture perfect, not overly crowded, mild weathered, Krakow. (You can catch up on our Krakow leg here, if you so desire).
1. Avoid Florence
Okay, obviously don’t avoid Florence altogether, but FOR THE LOVE OF PETE do not, I repeat DO NOT travel to Florence in July. TRUST ME!! I hear late June and August can also be a real nightmare with hoards on hoards on hoards of crowds. We went to Rome on a past trip in May, and I loved Rome, but I’m sure if we had visited Rome in July, I would have felt much, much differently about it. Of course Rome was still crowded with tourists in May, but far fewer than there are in peak season, and the weather was extremely pleasant.
Living in the south, we’re used to extreme heat in the summers, but we were all DYINGGGG from the heat while sightseeing in Florence in July. I’ve never drank so much water IN. MY. LIFE. I could chug a two liter bottle of H2O down like nobody’s business before we even got out the door every morning. And by the time we got out the door, we had all sweat right through our clothes. Gross. The heat was so severe that we all had issues with our feet, ankles, and lower legs swelling. Obviously we were also doing a ton of walking, but we were a bit perplexed as to why we were swelling so badly, since this hadn’t happened in Krakow. After doing some google research (because clearly none of us are medical professionals) we learned the extreme heat was the main issue, and this was confirmed when the swelling resolved once we got to our last leg, London, where it was much cooler.
The other reason why Florence should be avoided at all cost in the peak summer tourist season is because the crowds are absolutely no joke. Our airbnb was spitting distance from the Duomo (literally right outside our airbnb window), and we never even made it inside, as the line was wrapped around the cathedral (in the blazing sun) at all hours, and none of us could bear to stand in it. Also keep in mind that women have to dress conservatively (shoulders and thighs need to be covered), which is truly punishing in 100+ degree temps.
2. Forget about a Day Trip to Cinque Terre. Not worth it!
But if you absolutely insist on heading out to Cinque Terre during peak tourist season so you can take cool pics for the gram, or because someone told you it was an amazing ‘must see’ place, then do yourself a ginormous favor and book you a good sailing tour. And I’m not talking one of those tourist trap, 30 minute boat rides along the coast intended to catch all the cruise ship passengers. Find an actual all-day, bonafide sailing tour that provides meals and unlimited booze (you’ll need it after a few days in Florence). Similar to the type of sailing cruises you’d find in the Greek Islands.
We had left our potential Cinque Terre trip for our last day in Florence since we were only going to go if we felt we had spent enough time in the city. In hindsight, we didn’t really have a good plan due to everything being somewhat up in the air, which ultimately came back to bite us.
As it turned out, we were pretty much over Florence after our second full day, so escaping to the coast sounded downright magical. However, I had read in my Rick Steves book that Cinque Terre is basically like a cattle call and good old Rick urges people coming in on cruise ships to head elsewhere, as the local infrastructure can’t support the flood of tourists descending on the tiny villages all at once.
Somehow we were still undeterred, so the night before our Cinque Terre nightmare, we had frantically tried to get on a sailing tour, but of course everything was booked. This is the one that we really wanted to do. It would have been perfect, as it departs at 10:00am from La Spezia, which is where you have to get off the main train from Florence, and purchase tickets for the miserable sweatbox train that goes between the Cinque Terre Villages. So had we gotten on the sailing tour, we could have avoided one of the most awful experiences of our lives (more on that later). The sailing tour visits several places, allowing for amazing swimming experiences in the beautiful turquoise blue sea, stops in either Portovenere or Vernazza, and then it returns to La Spezia at 5:00pm. The departure also would have been perfect, as we could have just walked over and hopped back on the direct train to Florence, and likely would have just experienced one of the most magical days ever. I can’t even imagine the incredible photo opportunities we would’ve had while sailing the coastline. If you’ve been to Cinque Terre, then you know that the biggest draw is it’s unique landscape, which is best captured from a safe distance offshore.
If you’re simply wanting to get to the coast, but can’t get on a sailing Cinque Terre excursion, consider other coastal destinations, such as Portofino, Porto Venere, or Levanto.
If you’re traveling during high season and decide to take your chances with a Cinque Terre day trip and don’t explore it via a sailing tour, prepare to be largely underwhelmed, along with elbow to elbow hoards of other miserable, underwhelmed people. Expect to find most restaurants packed and unable to seat you, and an equal number inexplicably closed. Towards the end of the day when everyone needs to start heading back to their cruise ship, or vacation home base, expect to be shoved, nudged, elbowed, and/or possibly run down by rude tourists who are stressed about getting back to their ship in time. And then look forward to riding in a really old, non-air conditioned train out of Cinque Terre that is literally packed (as in not an inch to spare, and some people will not be able to get on as it travels back to La Spezia) full of sweaty, smelly passengers all smushed together. So if you’re short like me, you’ll have armpits shoved in your face, and basically feel like you’re suffocating in 100+ degree temps with zero air circulation.
I’m sure Cinque Terre is more lovely in the off season, but I’m also sure a lot of businesses are closed in the off season. Also keep in mind that these villages are all on the side of a cliff, so be prepared to climb a ton of stairs if you really want to explore.
Everyone that we saw carrying luggage have deterred me from ever wanting to stay here, though I’m sure the experience is better when one is able to enjoy the peace each evening after all of us day-trippers leave. Which is the case for most popular cruise ship stops, but Cinque Terre is exponentially worse just because it’s too small to accommodate such large crowds, and you’re limited with transportation options, so everyone is basically traveling the same path. They have water taxis, but they all looked packed too, so you’re essentially stuck with the miserable sweat box train to get around.
3. Avoid showing up without a plan.
If you’re thinking you can just show up in Florence and go with the flow, spoiler alert, you can’t. Unless you have loads of time there, or you literally don’t give a hoot about what you see and/or getting the most out of your visit. Otherwise, get yourself a Firenze Card and have a decent plan
The Firenze Card doesn’t exactly come cheap at 85 euros for a 72 hour pass to all of Florence’s main attractions, but it can save you loads of time, and vacation time is invaluable.
For the most part, we’ve always found these types of museum passes to be worth it when we calculate individual admission fees of all the places we want to visit. Plus, we usually end up popping into more places than planned, since we don’t have to contemplate paying another admission fee.
The Firenze Card covers over 70 museums and attractions, so if you know what you’re doing it will definitely pay for itself. Even if you’re terribly disorganized like we were, you’ll still get your euros’ worth.
What Our 4 days in Florence Looked Like
(Here’s your cue to grab a snack and settle in)
As I mentioned earlier, we began this journey in Krakow, and Florence was our second stop, followed by Corfu Island in Greece, and then London. I have heard and read many incredible accolades surrounding this city, so we were all really excited for our visit. Perhaps a little too excited.
Day 1: Arrival Day
We touched down in Italy at noon, 12:05 to be exact, via a quick direct flight from Krakow. Too easy. Well, except that the earliest direct flight out of Krakow on that day landed us on the east coast in Rimini. When we planned our logistics months prior, we weighed the different flight options and still opted for an earlier touch down in the country, but further away from Florence, vs landing in the early evening in either Florence or Bologna. It’s difficult to relax and enjoy yourself when you have to keep an eye on the clock to make sure you don’t miss your departing flight, so it didn’t make sense to take an afternoon flight out of Krakow. Plus we’d have to find somewhere to store our luggage in Krakow after check out. We also generally try to get the earliest flight option so we have some wiggle room if something gets canceled or delayed.
Anyhooo….our sardine can with wings took off from Krakow and before we could even slip into a light slumber, we were descending over the spectacular looking coast of Italy. So far our travel day had gone off without a hitch, and we were soon standing in the tiny Rimini airport. And from the looks of this airport, it felt like we had accidentally traveled back in time. It was a Saturday, yet it oddly felt like we may have been the only flight arriving that day. We expected it to be bustling with summer travelers, but that definitely wasn’t the case.
We quickly got a hold of our luggage, which I can’t exactly recall doing, but my memory is trying to tell me that we just grabbed our suitcases straight off the tarmac as the crew pulled them out of the guts of the plane. It may have been the pilots and flight attendants performing this duty for all I know (this is slight sarcasm, but these flights are dirt cheap for a reason).
Then we happily strolled out of the airport looking forward to our next travel leg in Florence, and all we had to do at that point was grab a taxi for the short jaunt from the Rimini Airport, to the nearby train station. In all our experience traveling in Europe, this is never ever an issue. You just find the taxi queue, and stand in line for a few minutes, and boom….off you go.
We found the taxi queue with minimal effort, as we saw a family who had just gotten off the same flight pile into a mini van taxi. But where was the next taxi? There’s usually a line of them waiting to collect passengers, but not that day. At least not at Rimini Airport.
About 30 minutes later the same taxi, who had shuttled the family who was at the beginning of the line off to wherever they were heading, finally returned to pick up the second group of travelers. We were fourth. You can see where this is going. Thankfully there was a shaded area for us all to post up, as the temperature change between Krakow and Florence was rearing its ugly head in the form of pit and under-boob sweat stains and the dreaded swollen ankles I mentioned earlier were making their debut.
Yada yada yada….about an hour later, that lone cab driver finally circled back to the airport to scoop us up for our 10 minute ride to the train station so we could continue on to Florence. We did try to find an Uber or Lyft, but no rides were available. Ohhhh the joys of foreign travel.
We spent about 30 seconds trying to figure out the train schedule, but as soon as we saw a ticket counter, we just asked for the fastest train to Florence, and the agent was super helpful. Thankfully the train left about 30 minutes after our arrival at the station, so we didn’t have to wait too long and it gave us just enough time to use the restroom, grab snacks etc.
The ride from Rimini to Florence went pretty quick, and it was somewhat entertaining between the views, John having to get up at every stop to keep our luggage from rolling off the train, and the awkwardness I imagined the quiet italian mother and her two young kids felt who were stuck in the same cabin as us. We just had to change trains once as we got closer to Florence, and then we soon arrived at our destination.
Michael and John tried to convince Alissa and I to walk from the Firenze train station to our Airbnb, but we were not having it. No how, no way. And THANK YOU CHEESES, there was a legit taxi queue right outside the train station. So after a truly nail biting ride where our driver literally almost took out several pedestrians, seemingly intentionally, and quickly weaved and darted through all the barricades intended to stop vehicle traffic from entering the pedestrian only zones, we were safely discarded right outside the door of our Airbnb, where our smiling host (who I had been texting all day to keep her updated on our arrival) was eagerly waiting to welcome us.
Our Airbnb was probably one of the best decisions we made during this leg of the trip. If you’ve been to Florence, we were literally facing the main tower of the Duomo….as in, it felt like we could reach out the window and touch it (if our arms could stretch the width of the pedestrian walkway between the two structures that is;)). The views were INSANE, the flat was clean and modern, the AC worked, it had two ensuites, and the beds were COMFY. Highly highly recommend this place. Not to mention it was miraculously one of the cheapest 2 bed/2 bath rentals we could find in Florence, and it had the best location.
We got changed out of our sweaty train clothes and headed out on the hunt for a bite to eat. Our first attempt at eating was a bit of a flop, as we ended up at a place with great reviews, but the atmosphere was lacking since it was off the beaten path, all the seating was indoor, and we arrived sort of in between meals, so there was only one other couple who left basically as soon as we got there. We ultimately decided to do what any sane person would in this situation: after we finished our food and a bottle of wine, we went in search for a second meal. Frankly, all we wanted was cheap italian pizza and pasta, cheap table wine by the carafe, and to dine al fresco. We were essentially looking for a typical tourist restaurant, and it didn’t take long to find one.
The one great thing about summer travel is how late the sun hangs around, so even though it was probably around 4pm by the time we left our flat, we still had plenty of daylight left to do some exploring. We basically wanted to get the lay of the land, and soon realized that Florence, or at least the main old town, is actually quite small. We had our handy Rick Steves’ guide in tow, so Michael played tour guide and we did one of Rick’s walking tours to get a good overview of the city.
We ended this evening with more food, and more wine, and some gelato, of course. And then Alissa and I capped it off with a cold foot soak to try our best to remedy the swollen feet/ankle/calves sitch.
All things considered, it was a good day. Especially considering the day had begun in Krakow after a particularly fun time out the night before.=\
Day 2: Sightseeing in Florence
After a full night of chugging water like it was my job, and peeing said water like it was my job, plus sleeping with two pairs of compression stockings on with my feet elevated, I awoke to a bursting bladder, and also with normal sized ankles (yay!).
We got a pretty early start and planned to try to hit as many of the main attractions as possible that day, as the next day we had a Tuscan Wine Tour scheduled, and the following day we tentatively planned the day trip to Cinque Terre, assuming we’d accomplish everything on our Florence wish list prior.
Honestly, none of us were going nuts to see anything in particular, but we definitely wanted to see as many highlights as possible, such as Michelangelo’s David, and Galileo’s crusty fingers.
After a few miscommunications and a bit of confusion on our part, we finally got our hands on some Firenze Cards so that we could save time by skipping lines and not have to overthink popping into any of the museums or historical sights that are included in the pass (which seems to be basically all of them).
Note: our ankles started swelling in the intense heat about an hour in, but that’s neither here, nor there.
We took turns playing tour guide with our Rick Steves’ book, which has continued to prove its usefulness time and time again, and gave ourselves wine and water breaks whenever the need arose. To be clear, we were sweating our butts off and downright irritable at times. It’s just somewhat challenging to enjoy your surroundings when you’re marching around in large crowds, mostly in the scorching sun, in 100+ degree temps. But if nothing else, we did get a lot of sightseeing accomplished that day.
Here’s a list that I think includes just about everything seen in just that one day:
Accademia ~ Michelangelo’s David and his unfinished “Prisoners” are on display here, along with several other notable works of art.
Uffizi Gallery ~ Famous masterpieces by lots of big names here, such as Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Raffaello, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.
Bargello ~ Sculpture museum housed in one of the oldest buidlings in Florence dating from 1255, which was previously used as a police station, as well as a prison.
Duomo Museum ~ Amazing sculpture museum where Michelangelo’s Pieta and Donatello’s Mary Magdalene are on display, among many other famous and some lesser known works of art.
Baptistry of San Giovanni ~ Well….the boys got to go in here. Alissa and I had to sit this one out because both of our shoulders and my lower thighs were showing in my romper, but this is the oldest surviving building in Florence and original home to beautiful bronze doors by Ghiberti, which are now on display at the Duomo Museum.
Medici-Riccardi Palace ~ Lorenzo the Magnificent’s home, and former home to the Medici and Riccardi families.
Palazzo Vecchio ~ Palace that was once home to the Medici Family (evidently they had a lot of real estate in the area;)).
Galileo Science Museum ~ Really neat stuff for all the science-y nerds who also enjoy history, but weirdos like me just visit to see Galileo’s fingers on display.
Ponte Vecchio ~ Oldest bridge in Florence, which has been lined with shops since the 1200s.
Feeling quite accomplished, we capped off the day with a scavenger hunt of sorts. Alissa and John’s friends had visited Florence about two weeks before we got there and hid something for them somewhere in Florence. I think Alissa and John were only given grid coordinates initially, which after some internet research they discovered there was a speakeasy at that location. So once we were primed with a bottle or two of wine, we went on the hunt for the speakeasy. We ended up splitting off into pairs, so it was Alissa and I against the boys. Once we figured out where we needed to go and were hot on the trail, we got a text from the boys saying they had found it….so annoying. The entrance was so. dang. obscure. I’m honestly shocked any of us spotted it.
Once we got inside, we immediately realized it was wayyyy too quiet and sophisticated for us….and like really really dimly lit, so we could barely see anything. We ordered some interesting (and somewhat expensive) cocktails, and then Alissa found the ‘prize’ of our little scavenger hunt, which was a ring that was left in a drawer of one of the antique tables there. Overall, it was super fun experience and I 10/10 recommend doing something like this if you and someone you know are in a similar situation and traveling to the same destination around the same time.
After dinner, we closed out the night at this amazing wine bar called Signorvino, which was another Rick Steves’ recommendation (if you recall, he had several similarly great recs in Krakow). It wasn’t touristy at all, at least not at night, and it had an incredible view of Ponte Vecchio. We stayed until they closed because it had such a nice relaxing atmosphere, and a really really great wine selection, of course. We actually bought a nice bottle to go, since we weren’t quite ready to call it a night.
Day 3: Tuscan Wine Tour Excursion
Michael and I always try to partake in a wine tour or tasting wherever we travel, as long as there’s wine production in the area, of course. In doing so, we’ve had the opportunity to taste some really unique, and often rare wines that are difficult, if not impossible to find in the US. We’ve also met some wonderful people along the way.
We received a few Tuscan wine tour recs from friends who had visited before, but I always vet recommendations, as should you when reading about my experiences. We all like different things. I had friends recommend a few large bus tours that they raved about, but once I did my own research, it just didn’t seem like what we were looking for.
In past trips, Michael and I have always had really good luck with what are usually labeled as “small group tours.” So basically a group of maybe 6-10 people in a van hopping from winery to winery. Sometimes we’ve only had four people show up on these sort of tours in the off season, and that’s been a lot of fun too because you really get to know each other. And often with fewer people the hosts are more generous with their knowledge…and their wine.;)
So after scouring the internet, I narrowed it down to a few different tour operators, but we took a vote and all of us felt like Grape Tours stood out with great reviews. We opted for their “Chianti and Cheese tour,” and the tour itself was exactly what we were hoping for. We had to meet at their office around 9am (I think), and then the tour returned around 4pm. We visited three wineries, got to roam the picturesque vineyards a bit, sampled cheese at one of the wineries which actually produced the delectable goat cheese, and we were served a huge farm-to-table lunch at another winery.
I would say the only thing that ended up being somewhat unfortunate about this experience is that the four of us were the only two couples in our group, and the rest of our crew were younger, single women (I cringe that I just wrote that bc I sound like I’m 80 years old). They were all super friendly, but they weren’t as outgoing or talkative as traveling couples our age tend to be, so the overall experience and vibe wasn’t as upbeat, or fun as it could have been.
Obviously we had all had plenty of wine by the end of the tour, and typically everyone is loud, giddy, and basically BFFS at the conclusion, but instead everyone just fell asleep on the way back to Florence because nobody was really chatting in the van. I know some of the ladies were still struggling from a late night out as well; which we were too, but we somehow always manage to rally on vacation. I guess we’re pros at this point.
This is zero reflection on the quality of the tour, bc the hosts did an amazing job, and took us on an incredible, engaging excursion. It’s more so a sign of how touristy/bucket list-y Florence and Tuscany are, so you have a higher likelihood of encountering people on these tours who might not necessarily be all that interested in wine, nor co-mingling with other people.
After our tour, we planned to walk up to San Miniato Church because we’d heard from friends that the Gregorian chant prayer sessions couldn’t be missed. The previous evening we had double checked the church’s website to get the correct time the chants were supposed to take place, so we were feeling pretty good about our time management, since we were going to be able to squeeze it in perfectly between the wine tour and dinner. Plus, when we looked on the map, the church seemed pretty close to the Grape Tours office, where we ended our wine excursion.
Welp….I can feel my eye start to twitch bc of PTSD when I think about this experience. First, it was alllllll uphill getting there. Literally. Worse than that, it was mostly stairs, and once you get to the church grounds, you have to climb at least three additional huge flights of steep steps to get up to the entrance.
Alissa and I nearly died getting up to the church, in the 100+ degree heat, on our swollen Flintstone feet. But even worse than that, once we got into the un-airconditioned church, we immediately learned that the posted time on their website for the Gregorian chant was wrong and it wouldn’t start for another hour. We were all so miserable, cranky, tired, and hangry by the time we got up there, none of us were interested in sitting in our sweat puddles in a stale, humid church for an hour to wait for something that at this point, we almost certainly would not have enjoyed just bc we were so irritated. Alissa and I sat inside for a minute trying to summon the holy spirit to cool us off and heal our feet and ankle swelling, and then we were off on foot again.
Note: we ended up just YouTubing the Monk Chanting that evening, which is what we should’ve done in the first place.
Thankfully, once we made our way back down the 500 gazillion steps leading off the church grounds, we walked over to the Piazzale Michelangelo overlook, which is where we talked our frugal husbands into saving our feet and catching a cab back to our flat. Our glow from the wine tasting experience was long gone at this point, and we couldn’t wait to change out of our stanky clothes and shower before dinner.
We ended the night with an al fresco dinner at a nearby piazza trying to come up with a game plan to tackle Cinque Terre the next day. Dinner was perfectly good, but nothing to write home about. And unfortunately we spent most of it on our phones looking up sailing excursions, train time tables, and sending desperate emails trying to put a plan in place for our day trip to Cinque Terre.
Day 4: Day Trip to Cinque Terre/ Vacation Doomsday
So as you’ve already read, we were unsuccessful at getting on a sailing tour from which we could have enjoyed Cinque Terre at a safe distance away from the bustling crowds. Our next best game plan, from what we could gather, was to pack some swimsuits, catch the earliest train there, and hope that everything we’d read up until that point had been a gross exaggeration.
Things started off well. We’re all really good at getting up and at ’em and out the door at a specific time. Even if that specific time is long before the sun comes up. Despite how early it was and how little sleep we got, it was actually quite magical to see the big square surrounding the Duomo Cathedral completely empty, while knowing in a matter of a couple hours it would be filled with tourists, street vendors, and really sad looking carriage horses all tacked up to cart around tourists in the sweltering heat, as well as an equal number of people standing around protesting them. But I digress.
The train ride to La Spezia station was super comfortable. The AC was kicking, maybe even a little too much (Brrrr!), the train was clean, never got too crowded, and it was quiet, so we all got a couple of much needed hours of snoozing in. Remember this when I tell you about the ride back to Florence.
If you’re planning your own trip to Italy, this website is a good place to start to research train routes and timetables.
The only goal set for the day was to visit the beautifully picturesque town of Manarola. When you see instagram pictures of Cinque Terre, I would estimate 92% of them are taken in Manarola. In hindsight, we should have planned more. What I’ve learned over the years from traveling with couples is everyone is usually too polite to speak up on the spot about what they do or don’t want to do, so often you end up making no decisions at all and waste time, or someone is forced to make a game time decision that half of the group doesn’t really care for, but everyone just suffers in silence. People make fun of me for my itineraries, but the major benefit is that everyone contributes to the plan, so everyone has a say in it, plus everyone knows the plan, so it takes out a lot of guess work that happens on the ground once you’re there.
When we hopped off the train at La Spezia Centrale, we were met with a little preview of things to come. It was a bit chaotic, but after waking up from our train naps and gathering our bearings, we found the right line to grab all-day passes (16 euro a piece) for the Cinque Terre Train. Each hop on the train is 4 euro, so it made sense to get the unlimited day-pass.
Then off we went to the first pit stop, which was Riomaggiore, or as we call it “rigamarole.” We were pretty hangry, so our plan was to find a breakfast spot, and then do a little research over some mimosas and fine tune our game plan, now that we knew exactly how much time we had to play with. It was around 10am by the time we made the short little train hop to “rigamarole,” which happens to be the first village stop on the train route.
At this hour, and because we were only on the train for one short leg, we were still blissfully unaware of the unmitigated misery that would eventually be contained in these old sweatboxes on rails. Sure, we could clearly see that this Cinque Terre train was outdated, and lacked air conditioning, but it wasn’t crowded, and again, we were only on it for a few minutes to get to the first stop. The nightmare would rear its ugly head a little later.
We got to Riomaggiore and after making our way in the sweltering heat from the platform to what seemed to be the main part of the tiny village, we began our search for a place to eat. After not seeing anything that looked open, or able to accommodate four people, we noticed a larger restaurant up on the edge of a cliff that looked promising and others were making the hike up there, so we followed. After a sweat inducing trek uphill, we were immediately defeated with a closed sign (or whatever the word is in Italian).
We had stopped at this village because there’s a hiking trail to the next village, Manarola, which was really the only thing we absolutely wanted to see. But naturally, the hiking trail was closed, which soon became the running theme here.
We were quickly becoming frustrated and a bit underwhelmed with what we were seeing, so we trekked on back to the train platform, with the sun beating down on us, and waited for the next train heading up the coast.
It became clear on this train hop that the cruise ship crowd was in full effect. We later learned there were at least five cruise ships in port that day, so thousands of cruisers, along with a big dose of day-trippers like us, were soon flooding every nook and cranny of what was once just five quaint little coastal villages.
After a slightly agitating ride to Manarola, we arrived to a much more bustling village, which also meant that the handful of restaurants and cafes that were open, were also jam packed and had no room for four people, and patience was wearing thin. It was around 11am by this point, and we still hadn’t gotten our sweaty hands on caffeine yet, let alone any food, and I desperately had to pee.
We were basically just aimlessly weaving through the increasingly thick crowd in a single file line, and eventually half of us filed into a packed takeaway coffee shop. I actually don’t drink coffee, so I asked Michael to grab me a diet coke and waited outside until there was enough room for me to stand inside the hot, stuffy cafe to wait in line for the single restroom available (mind you, it’s after 11am now, and we haven’t had a chance to pee since leaving the apartment back in Florence at like 5am). Michael ordered his coffee and a diet coke….but of course, no soda available. Well damn. Michael pays for his coffee and gets the hell out of there to make room for others. John’s turn to order for him and Alissa, orders made, he goes to pay and quickly learns it’s cash only. Well damn. He apologizes and runs outside to get cash from either Michael or Alissa. The barista hates us and the day is not getting any better, but at least Alissa and I did finally get a chance to pee in the truly vomit inducing bathroom. Still no caffeine for me though. Oh, and we’re still hangry.
We start making our way to the main event, which is the view of the colorful cliffside that Manarola is known for. It’s a bit of a hike up. Everything is a hike either uphill, or downhill, but it’s so scorching hot that it all feels like it’s uphill.
This is such a busy stop, so we figured there’d be tons of food options, but it seemed every large restaurant that could potentially accommodate a table for four was closed….at the height of the tourist season, and during normal restaurant hours no less. Truly perplexing.
The good news was it looked like there were a couple large restaurants where we were hiking up to for the good view of the cliffside.
Annnnnnd once again we were soon defeated by closed signs. We snapped a few pics of what we came for. We could barely take decent looking ‘couple pics’ because we were all dripping in sweat and didn’t want to put an arm around each other. Then we sat for a second in a scarce shady area while Michael did some quick crash reading in our Rick Steves guide.
He suggested we skip ahead to Monterosso al Mare, which was described in Rick’s book as the “most resorty town” with the best beaches. Bonus: it’s also mostly flat, and lawd knows we were already tired of battling steep inclines.
Back to the train platform we went. With every passing minute more and more people seemed to be filling up the walkways, so it was no surprise that the train was even more packed on this leg.
We hopped off in Monterosso al Mare full of hope, as we rushed over to the closest large, legitimate looking restaurant along the beach. There were only two tables open, and miraculously our luck had finally turned, as we managed to be seated at the quiet table in the far corner overlooking the sea. I think we all breathed a giant sigh of relief, and promptly ordered several drinks to help cool off and relax after what had been a bit of an irritating morning.
There were probably two hundred sunbeds in the section of beach belonging to the restaurant we were eating at. We saw plenty of open chairs, so we figured we were DONE trying to explore, and we’d go down to the beach and lounge for the rest of the day once we were finished eating.
Service was extremely slow, but we were okay with it, as we were in no hurry to get up from our prime location in the restaurant. Though we did feel bad for the people being turned away because there weren’t any seats available. Evidently we had just beat a mad rush of hungry travelers. I felt their pain.
After taking down some extremely satisfying, yet underwhelming food and adult beverages, we parted ways with our little corner table that had been so good to us when we needed it most, and headed downstairs to the entrance to the beach to rent some lounge chairs. It was around 2-3pm by this point, so we saw a lot of people leaving and lots of empty chairs. Evidently that didn’t matter, as once it’s at capacity, that’s it. People rent for the whole day, so they don’t turn over the chairs. So when we excitedly walked up to the guy managing all of this, we simply got a firm “No” in response. When I mentioned that there were a bunch of empty loungers, he just shook his head and said “No. We’re full.” Ughhhhhhhhhhhh,
Back on foot, and agitated once again, we headed down the coast to the least picturesque beach of them all, but they had open loungers, and buckets of margaritas available. Sold! They had changing stalls available, so the boys went to go change while Alissa and I watched our stuff. That’s when we looked at the time, said screw it, and slickly houdinied our way out of our clothes and into our swimsuits right there at our lounge chairs. When in Rome…err Cinque Terre. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ The sand was like fire, so we were super glad we didn’t have to try to change in what was basically the equivalent of a port-o-potty, minus the potty. According to the boys, it was pretty sweltering in there.
We only got about and hour and a half, to two hours max to enjoy our loungers and swim a little, which felt more like 20 minutes. We were back in good spirits, but that was about to change.
So there we were, finally fat and happy in our little beach loungers, drinking buckets of margs (hey…we had a rough day. We deserved them, dammit). But Michael, being the king of the buzzkill and always keeping us on task, convinced us to pack up so we’d make it back to Florence at a decent time to get showered, and grab dinner before most places closed up. I know everyone in the US thinks Europeans are all sitting down to dinner at 10pm, but that’s usually not the case in the really touristy zones that cater more to travelers, so somewhat surprisingly things can get very sleepy pretty darn early.
We quickly threw our clothes on over our swimsuits and started the trek to the Cinque Terre train platform, blissfully unaware of the sheer pandemonium we were about to endure.
There’s a fairly long pedestrian tunnel leading to the platform at the Monterosso al Mare stop, and upon our approach to it, things rapidly deteriorated and it immediately became clear the ride back to La Spezia was going to be exponentially worse than our journey to Monterosso al Mare. It was also obvious that we were not the only ones who needed to leave Cinque Terre. In fact, it seemed everyone needed to leave Cinque Terre right then and it was every man, woman, child, and dog for themselves.
As hundreds of tourists funneled into this pedestrian tunnel, it was jam packed with smelly, greasy, sweaty bodies. Thankfully the crowd parted just enough for me to avoid stepping in a giant pile of dog poo that was in the tunnel, and once again a handful of meters ahead of the poo to avoid something that looked like vomit. The whole scene was suffocating.
Yet, somehow things only got worse when we reached the end of the tunnel and emptied out onto the platform just as the train pulled in. All at once everyone began making a mad dash for the doors, including people who were still stuffed in the tunnel. Elderly people were throwing elbows trying to get ahead, and within seconds I lost sight of Michael and Alissa, as people were bulldozing their way to get to the front of the crowd. There was absolutely nothing orderly, or even civilized about this scene. It was just a huge, anxious mob on this train platform trying to find a train car that still had space. I just figured we’d wait for the next train, but it likely would have been the same scenario in 30 minutes. Maybe even worse. But it wasn’t something we even had time to, or were even physically able to discuss, as Michael and Alissa were out of sight, and I was right behind John trying not to get separated. An elderly man was forcefully trying to cut me off from moving ahead toward the train, and thankfully I was able to quickly stretch myself to grab the back of John’s backpack so he wouldn’t succeed. Being somewhat vertically challenged, I really couldn’t see anything going on around me, so I just kept hanging on to John’s backpack, and luckily right before the doors shut, John found a car for us to squeeze into. And I do literally mean “squeeze.” As in the doors didn’t close the first time because John’s backpack was blocking the door. And THANK GOODNESS I latched onto that backpack when I did, otherwise I never would have gotten on that train and would’ve been left behind by myself to wait for the next mad dash in 30 minutes.
Since we were departing from the last stop of the five villages, we would now be stopping to pick up even more passengers at each village on the way back to the main train hub, La Spezia. This would prove to be a very long, incredibly miserable ride spent just trying to breathe without tearing up due to the overwhelming scent of horrendous body odor, and dodging armpits being shoved in my face as people reached up to grip the grab bars so they wouldn’t topple over. Though, we were packed like sardines in there, so nobody was toppling anywhere. I was wedged in the corner of the car so far, that I felt like I was folded in half as I felt sweat dripping from under my boobs in the stifling 100+ degree temperatures. I’m no stranger to packed metros, subways, underground and/or tubes (depending on which term you’re familiar with), but this whole scene felt exponentially worse.
I just closed my eyes and tried to stave off an astma attack, but things only became more dire at the next stop, when somehow more people squeezed into the already packed car, some were being yelled at by fellow passengers, and many more were turned away, as there wasn’t another inch to spare in each train car. I can’t even imagine the temperature it was inside that train, considering it was over 100 degrees outside that day, and the train didn’t have any air conditioning, and ventilation was scarce.
Eventually it was all over….well, at least that part, and we had finally arrived at La Spezia so we could exit the miserable sweat box. Thank goodness for working cell phones so we could text each other, as it turned out Alissa and Michael had gotten separated from each other as well. A few minutes later we were all reunited and briefly compared notes about our unpleasant journey. Now all we had to do was hop on the cozy, air conditioned train back to Florence. Too easy.
Oh but wait….apparently so was everyone else. And also, what the hell happened to the freezing cold AC?! I’m not sure if the train conductor shuts off the AC as some kind of sick joke, or punishment for all of us idiots who flock to Cinque Terre for the day thinking we’ll actually enjoy ourselves? Or if the AC mysteriously broke at some point that day? Either way, our cozy ride back was anything but. The train was already pretty full by the time we hopped on, so we had to go to the upper level to find four seats together. We found a group of four seats that were facing each other, and I just remember we were all so hot and sweaty, but the space was so tight, so our knees would touch, which made it ten times worse. Everyone just closed their eyes and tried to sleep through the misery. I remember opening my eyes and seeing sweat dripping down everyone’s faces as they napped and the evening sun beamed brightly through the window, right before I dozed off again.
About halfway through our two and a half hour ride back to Florence, the train had emptied out a bit, so we decided to move downstairs hoping it would be cooler. It wasn’t. This is also when I noticed that my favorite folding rayban wayfarers (by “favorite” I mean they’re the second pair I’ve purchased bc I lost the first and loved them so much I bought a replacement) had apparently slipped off my head while I was snoozing and sweating away on the upper level. I hurried back up the stairs and there were already two sketchy looking dudes sitting in our old seats. I looked under the seats and didn’t see my sunnies, and then asked if they saw anything when they sat down. I guess they weren’t too terribly sketchy after all, as even though the one guy already had my sunglasses zipped up in his bag, he did at least give them back to me without much hesitation. Phew! Mini crisis averted.
The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. Thankfully.
Oh, except for the signs that greeted us at the Florence train station notifying us of the mass transit strike that would be happening the next day, so our train ride to Milan to catch our flight was about to become a bit more stressful.
When we got back to Florence the sun had already set, so I’m pretty sure we went straight to a little traditional sidewalk cafe we had eaten at on our first night in Florence. It was nothing to write home about, but the staff was friendly, the pizza and pasta were good, and they kept the water and wine flowing. I think we figured if we at outside, hopefully nobody would smell us. The last pictures any of us took that day were on the hell train, so I’m not even sure if this is how the rest of the night went down, as the earlier events overshadowed everything else.
I’m 100% certain we made another run for gelato though.
Day 5: Departure Day
Once again we were up and at em long before the break of dawn, as we had about a two hour train ride from Florence to Milan, and then we had to hop on a bus to get from the train station to the Milan airport. And we had to get all of this traveling done prior to 9am, because at 9:01, all public transit was shutting down. We wouldn’t have even been able to get a taxi past 9am. Just a little stressful, to say the least. Our direct flight from Milan to Corfu took off around 11am, so we’d have some time to spare if all went well.
Again, thank goodness we did go to the train station the day prior and saw the notice about the strike. I have to imagine we would have found out about it regardless, but who really knows.
Anyway, our plan was to take the first train from Florence to Milan that morning, and it was a good thing we did. Everything went smoothly, but we barely made it on the bus at the Milan train station before the strike began. When they were loading our luggage under the bus, Michael overheard one of the employees indicate that it was the last run. Phew!!
We made it to the Milan airport at a reasonable time before out flight, and miraculously it took off on time….woohoo!
Final thoughts on Florence
Honestly, I feel like a need a Florence do-over. I’m sure if we had visited during the off season I would have walked away with a different opinion of it, but overall, I still can’t help but feel that it’s a bit overrated and there are far more charming destinations in Italy. If you’re looking for a romantic city and incredible authentic cuisine, I think you’d be better served elsewhere. If you’re traveling to Italy to see fascinating historical sights and you can only choose one destination, choose Rome. There’s just so much more to see and do in Rome in my opinion. But again, don’t go to either of these destinations in the high season.
I haven’t written about it yet, as it was pre-blog, but for reference Michael and I have traveled to Italy two other times. Between the two trips we visited Rome, Sorrento (with day trips to Capri, Pompeii, and the Herculaneum), Bari (just to catch a ferry to Croatia), and stayed in Venice on a separate trip. So if you have any questions about these destinations, just ask:)
Next stop: Corfu Island, Greece. Stay tuned!!