My wife Kari and I celebrated our 30th anniversary with a trip to Italy and we had a great experience. Our trip was booked through a company called Backroads, a company that specializes in hiking and biking adventure-style trips. For our trip, we chose to hike in Cinque Terre, Italy, and it was magnificent. A mixture of beautiful and colorful seaside villages, colorful vistas, and hiking trails that were a mix of easy walking and technical terrain. We seemed like we were busy from the moment we got to Pisa, to the moment we left the group in Florence. It was an incredible trip. I’ve summarized the trip below, but my words and photos barely do the trip justice. I hope you enjoy reading it. Here’s a link to Backroads and our trip: Backroads Cinque Terre Hiking Tour
GETTING TO PISA
Our flight to Pisa Italy included a stop in Frankfurt Germany, which helped break up the trip a little. We landed in Pisa in the morning and taxied to our hotel a little bit outside of Pisa. Upon checking in we taxied back into Pisa to explore the sights.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it was an amazing tour. Thanks to Kari, we had tickets to go up inside it and see the views of the city. We walked along the top of what I considered the fortress walls and had a nice lunch in an open market-type setting. Lots of walking and discovering. We hopped the local train back a couple of stops to our hotel, which was within easy walking distance. After some time in the whirlpool there, we opted to have a nice dinner in the hotel. Jet lag was setting in and we opted for bed.
FIRST DAY OF HIKING TOUR –CAMPIGLIA to PORTOVENERE
We decided that the train was a great option, even with having to drag our bags to the station to go back to Pisa and meet up with the tour group. But one thing we learned the day before, TrenItalia can be a little hit or miss with consistency. The train was ten minutes late yesterday and on a different track than what it said it would be on. Fortunately, most locals speak English and we were directed to the correct train. The ride into Pisa was also an adventure. We figured out where to be, but when the locals heard the announcement they all got up and left. I asked a guy if he spoke English and could explain what was going on, and he said that the train had switched tracks. We hustled back over to the other side and caught the train in time.
Meeting the group was next, and everyone was very friendly and excited to meet everyone. The group was all from the US and I think Kari and I were just barely the youngest of the group. It was exactly how I pictured the demographic of the group to be – retired, or almost retired. From the east coast to midwesterners, to the west coast, we had it covered.
Soon our tour guides appeared and made their introductions. David was a young man from Spain, Auguste was a young lady from Lithuania, both would serve as our main guides, and Lauren, a young lady from Great Britain I think, a tour guide who would provide support and move our luggage and stuff from point to point on this trip.
We took a bus to our first stop and David and Auguste laid out some ground rules and provided info on how our trip would go. We ended up at a small mom-and-pop restaurant at the top of a hill called Il Piccolo Blu in Campiglia, and the views of the Mediterranean Sea were impressive. The lunch was samples of a variety of local kinds of pasta and sauces and it was delicious. After lunch, we headed outside and prepared for our first hike. David said that had it been wet he would not have taken us on the whole hike, as the rocky terrain could get slippery. But we lucked out and were able to do the whole distance. He and Auguste had warned us as to the difficulty of this hike and I was doubtful at first, but it wasn’t easy! This was no stroll in the park.
HIKING IN CINQUE TERRE – DAYS 2-3 – MANAROLA to CORNIGLIA to VERNAZZA to MONTEROSSO
We woke up and had a buffet-style breakfast at the Hotel Belvedere and then we met for the hike briefing for the day. A bus awaited to take us to Riomaggiore where we would begin the day’s hike. As we pulled into the very quaint town, my eyes were drawn to the hillside that seemed very steep, and I could see people climbing up it. It was at that point that I knew where we would also be going. It looked challenging! And it was beginning to rain lightly as well. The hiking was definitely a cardio buster. Lots of vertical climbing, but the views from up high were well worth it.
This day had options for hiking, and you could do extra as long as you were quick. Kari wasn’t quite feeling well, so we played it safe and skipped one of the extra hikes. We needed to catch a train to the next town to continue the hike and it would have been tight. I think only one or two of the group did the extra one. We passed through several very cool towns. At the end of the day, the group met up for a train ride back to Santa Margherita Ligure. Our hotel for the next two nights was the Hotel Continental. There was a mix-up with our bags, but it got figured out. Our room had a beautiful view.
On Day Three we met the group for breakfast and then hiked from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino, hiking up stone staircases, past villas, and churches, through olive groves, and ended up in the beautiful seaside town of Portofino. We had a nice lunch and dipped our bare feet into the Ligurian Sea. We chose to hike the coastline back to Santa Margherita Ligure, which provided stunning water views.
We were on our own for dinner, and even though we had reservations at a restaurant, it looked a little too fancy (i.e. fancy fish-type meals) for my tastes, so we called an audible and ate at one of the local places on the plaza.
Day 4 Bus trip to Chianti in Tuscany – Rainy Hiking
For Giorno Quattro, we took a bus to Tuscany. Of course, the bus had a mechanical issue, but we all took it in stride. It was a rainy day, and when we got to Greve in Chianti, we enjoyed some local meats and cheeses for lunch. It was raining pretty hard and both David and Auguste were a little surprised to hear us all say that we would hike to the next stop instead of taking a shuttle. On this hike, we arrived in the Chianti Classico region and a town called Montefioralle, the birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci. The rain eventually stopped, and we slogged through some wet spots until we arrived at our next lodging place, the Villa Le Barone, a really fantastic villa with stunning views of the Tuscan Hills.
We cleaned up and then enjoyed a wine tasting with a local expert (with many of us nodding off!) before having a nice dinner with the group in the hotel.
Giorno Cinque – Radda in Chianti
Day Five began with a great breakfast at the hotel and then we did a short hike to Radda. There was a really cool cycling event going on called L’Eroica, with the participants riding bikes made in 1985 or earlier. They dressed the part as well. We attended a balsamic vinegar tasting at the shop of the wine expert from the previous night. It was clear he knew his wines and balsamic vinegar. We sampled some ice cream with balsamic vinegar on it and it was very good!
We were afforded a little time to do some shopping and I bought a cool retro bike jersey with the Chianti Black Rooster on it. It’s pretty cool.
Our hike took us to the 11th-century vineyard and wine cellar of Castelvecchi winery. Our snack samplings there were great, especially the focaccia bread! We attended another wine tasting and learned about the process of making wine. They were actually harvesting grapes there at the time, and I watched a machine remove the grapes from the vines.
Hiked to another town for lunch and enjoyed great conversations and watched some of the bikers go past. We needed a good lunch as the hike back to the hotel was about six miles on some gravel road. At one point there were some dogs guarding some sheep and barking at us, but the weird part was a guy laying in the grass yelling at the dogs. Very strange.
Upon getting back we enjoyed some beautiful sunset views and met the group for our last dinner together. We all enjoyed sharing what our favorite parts of the trip were, and many of us did not want it to end.
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Day Six – Our Final Day of Hiking
On Day Six we took a short hike to another local vineyard on a cool damp morning. After breakfast at the hotel, we packed our bags and walked to the bus for a trip to Florence and to say goodbye to the group. It really was a great tour group!
Florence seemed hectic and intimidating for me at first. Kari and I walked around and got the lay of the city. Kari purchased tickets for a local museum which was very cool. Lots of marble statues and beautiful art by some very well-known people – Michaelangelo and Donatello to name two of them. Our tickets also allowed us to climb a bell tower that gave stunning views of the city and the boisterous clanging of bells was quite deafening being right near them as they rang. We walked the one bridge with shops that somehow escaped the destruction of WWII, and then got lost looking for a spot offering views of the city. Made it back to a piazza for dinner and then walked back to the hotel exhausted from the day.
Day 7 – Florence to Rome via train
We hopped onto a high-speed train to get to Rome. We checked into the hotel and then set about seeing some of the best of Rome on our last full day in Italy. We wandered over to the Colosseum and realized that tickets were going to be needed to see the inside. There were plenty of pushy tour-selling agents standing around, but we happened to find one of them who explained to us the benefits of paying for a tour instead of trying to do it ourselves without being pushy about it. We did a lot of walking around on a sunny and warm day. The tour was great – we got to see and get informed about the Colosseum. The history there was amazing. We were getting exhausted and opted to return to the hotel for a shower and dinner at a nearby restaurant.
And that wraps it up! I think the way we chose to experience Italy was fantastic. A little bit of our own wandering coupled with a great hiking tour. I highly recommend Backroads for tours. They have tours all over the world, and I’m sure Kari and I will be doing another Backroads tour soon.