The Chime

View of Manarola from our Villa in Corniglia.

Our villa in Corniglia had a spectacular view of the Ligurian Sea and of the neighbouring cliff-side village of Manarola. It was a truly enchanting experience to spend time on our spacious patio, enjoying an espresso or a glass of wine, and kicking back with a book.

The Villa’s only irksome feature – aside from the fact that it had the world’s tiniest shower when there was clearly adequate space for a bigger shower enclosure – was the fact that it overlooked the train station…but not for the reason you might think.

It’s not that the trains were loud. They were far enough away that the noise they made was mostly limited to a steady rumble. And the steady flow of pedestrians trekking to and from the station was a welcome sight for people-watchers like us.

No, the real cause of concern came from the loudspeakers at the train station, and specifically from the DING-DONG tone that would precede every announcement.

That chime would ring out clearly (and frequently) above everything else in the area. And EVERY time it did, it would trigger me to start singing the same song: Hello! from the musical, Book of Mormon.

From the day we arrived in Cinque Terre until the moment we left, I had that song stuck in my head.

Thankfully, I love that song and that show, so it wasn’t a hardship, but ANY earworm that lasts several days is bound to start getting on one’s nerves.

Thankfully, the chime couldn’t be heard when we were off exploring other villages. More on our exploration is coming in the next post, including lots of photos!


The Climb

Of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre, Corniglia is the only one that doesn’t have a harbour. The village is built atop a cliff.

I didn’t do enough advance research to know that fact.

The instructions from our rental property had mentioned a staircase into town, so I knew that there were stairs between the train station and the town center. But I had pictured a couple of flights at most – not the 365-step monstrosity that greeted us upon our arrival!!

A shot of Corniglia that Junkii took during a hike later in our trip. You can see the whole length of the switchback staircase here, but I’ll include more detail in the photo below.

The Scalinata Lardarina, as it’s called, is immense! We all had the same reaction as we spotted it from the platform of Corniglia’s train station: a sense of dawning dread as we realized exactly what we were looking at.

We knew right off that we were all going to have to climb that massive set of stairs, with our luggage in tow. But that didn’t stop us from trying to ponder a way out!

To be fair, there were options to climbing. There is a regular shuttle van that runs from the train station into town, carrying a small number of people on each run. But it was raining lightly when we arrived and there was a huge lineup of tourists waiting for the shuttle. The shuttle just didn’t seem feasible – especially since we were scheduled to meet our property manager.

Still, we were hesitant to launch into the climb because we weren’t ENTIRELY sure we actually NEEDED to climb the stairs to meet our property manager.

The written directions for our property were not especially clear. They said we were to meet our host at the staircase, but did that mean at the top or the bottom? Our confusion was further compounded by our brief text exchange with the host. There was a language barrier, and her final text before we arrived in Corniglia hinted that she might just meet us at the station.

Either way, we were meant to contact her on arrival to let her know we were in town. But as soon as we stepped off the train, cell reception disappeared and we couldn’t get a text through to her.

So we were left to make a choice based on partial info. Do we climb the stairs and hope to find cell service at higher ground? Do we wait at the base of the stairs in the hope our host comes looking for us? Do we wait at the station, and possibly take a shuttle if the host takes too long?

We stood in the rain for a bit, unsure of what to do. But the more we stood still, the wetter we got and we agreed the best course of action would be to climb, and to keep checking the phone along the way. Besides, we figured the villa was likely closer to the town center anyway.

We started the short trek from the rail station to the base of the stairs, and as we did so, we were met with more than a few bemused smirks, and a few scoffs to boot. Several people even looked at the rolling suitcases my parents were dragging and muttered sarcastically, “good luck with that.”


Okay, so my parents hadn’t heeded my advice to use a hiking pack (like Junkii and I) and chose instead to travel with rolling suitcases. Yes, they learned their lesson the hard way in Corniglia. But it irked me that so many fellow tourists would be so callous about it. We certainly didn’t expect help carrying the bags, but a little sympathy would have been a hell of a lot nicer than the sarcasm we got.

As we stood at the base of the stairs (making one last desperate but failed attempt to text our host), it was clear that the stairs wouldn’t actually be that hard of a climb.

Junkii’s shot looking down the staircase from about halfway up. You can see it’s not a terribly steep climb.

Yes, there were a lot of them, but they had a shallow rise, and each step was quite long. Without luggage, it would have been a breeze. After all, that’s why we do step aerobics, right?

Still, while it was a fairly gentle incline, we knew Mom would need help with her bag.

She started up on her own, dragging the case up each step: clunk-roll-clunk-roll-clunk-roll. We got about ten steps up and it became clear that dragging the case up wasn’t going to work. The wheels on the suitcase would have broken for sure.

So Junkii and I hoisted Mom’s bag between us and started to power our way up. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to climb. We were wet from the rain. We were sweaty from the humidity. And our hands were sore from trying to balance the heavy luggage between us. Plus we were both wearing our own hiking bags AND we each had a camera bag strapped to ourselves.

It was unpleasant, but slowly and surely we made our way up. And thankfully, George packed a little lighter and was able to carry his own suitcase.

A tourist from the southern U.S. on his way down the staircase inquired politely whose bag we were carrying, and we told him it was Mom’s. She was bringing up the rear on our little mule train and was a few switchbacks behind us. He stopped her on her way up and kindly told her what good sons she had, which she promptly agreed with.

Thanks for the recognition, random stranger! That went a long way to lightening the load and to taking the edge off the sting I still felt from the snarky travelers below.

As we neared the top, the switchbacks ceased and we climbed the last few steps straight up, dropping the heavy luggage as soon as we reached the peak.

Junkii immediately wandered off to locate a cell signal while I waited for Mom and George. They had just reached the top when Junkii returned with news that he was able to get a signal and had sent a message to the host.

She wrote back that she had actually wanted to meet us at the train station.

This was my face:

Meh. What can you do?

The property manager sent her daughter to climb up to meet us at the top of the stairs, where we waited, trying to cool off and catch our breath. The daughter arrived about 5 minutes later and explained that our home for the next few days was actually about halfway back down the Lardarina.

We had just climbed more than half the staircase for nothing! Pointless exercise and pointless sweating. Argh!!

Still, good blog fodder. So it wasn’t a complete waste!

Junkii and I hefted the bag between us once more and backtracked, retracing our steps down – a much easier undertaking!

The view of the Ligurian Sea – and, in the background, Manarola, another of the five villages – as seen from our patio!! (Photo: Junkii)

We arrived at our place, which was pretty much the only one built right onto the staircase. The gate literally lets out onto the staircase, with a short pathway leading to our villa.

It was awesome, and it more than made up for the travails of the day. We met the property manager who walked us through our lovely place, set back from the staircase but still plenty close enough to watch the people climbing up and down like ants.

We would eventually climb back up and wander about the town center for happy hour and dinner, but for the rest of the afternoon, we threw open the windows on our cliff-side villa, opened a bottle of wine, kicked back on the sofa and took it easy.

We had finally arrived in Cinque Terre!

Ciao, Siena. Buongiorno, Corniglia

Train passing through Corniglia station.

Two days in Tuscany was barely enough, but it was time to keep moving.

Our next stop would take us to Cinque Terre, which promised to be a photographer’s paradise. (And by that, I mean our friend and occasional co-traveler Jenn literally promised us that every photo we would take in in Cinque Terre would be exquisite; so blame Jenn if any of our photos from Cinque Terre are not to your taste.)

But getting to Cinque Terre, and specifically to the village of Corniglia, meant another day of travel. And that meant stress for me.

Our trip from Rome to Florence had been straightforward, requiring just one train. The only stress was in coordinating our rental car.

Getting from Florence to Corniglia, however, would require three trains, each with only a short 10-minute layover (is it called a layover in train travel? Probably not.) That’s not a lot of room for error; especially given all the tales we had heard about how notoriously unreliable TrenItalia trains can be!

The fact that I was also coordinating a key exchange on our Cinque Terre rental property (using an unreliable cell phone plan) didn’t help matters.

The house rules required us to meet our Corniglia contact before a certain hour – something early, like 7 pm – or risk missing our check-in. Our scheduled arrival was for 3 pm or thereabouts, but a delay in Pisa would have made it tricky to make it to Corniglia before the check-in deadline.

Thankfully, the first train was on time. That was the critical leg, and Junkii and I were able to guide my parents through the mass of people in Pisa.

Getting successfully through that station was a big stress relief and I was able to breathe easier as soon as we were on the right platform, ready for the second leg.

From that point on, everything went pretty smoothly. Aside from the weather turning to rain as we got near the coast, the rest of the trip to Corniglia was uneventful. Damp, but uneventful.

But it wasn’t until our arrival in Corniglia that we would be truly tested…

(How’s that for a cliffhanger?)

Wine tour of Tuscany

With four people traveling together, there’s always a good chance that you’ll get at least one person that prefers a different variety of wine. That’s the case with my step dad, George. He’s a white-wine drinker. Junkii is happy with either while Mom and I both prefer red almost exclusively.

Mostly that’s not a problem – restaurants in Italy are happy to offer a selection of both red and white wines, meaning everyone at the table can take their pick. The only time it really caused us concern was when we were planning our wine tour of Tuscany.

Given that I was the one who booked the tours, there was NEVER a chance that we were going to do a white-wine-tasting tour. Thankfully, George was open-minded enough to just go with the flow and sip away at the various reds that were presented to us on our day-tour of three Tuscan vineyards.

I’m frequently asked what was the highlight of our trip. I’m cagey in that I only narrow it down to three highlights. But THIS one is always included in the list: a small-group wine tour focused on one of the region’s most famous wines – Brunello di Montalcino.

The tour wasn’t cheap, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

Photo: Junkii

The guide picked up our group of seven bright and early and we drove from Siena to Montalcino – the small village around which all the wineries are centred. We were given a short time to wander the streets of Montalcino and take in some breathtaking vistas of the countryside.

Seriously, everywhere you look in Tuscany is like a postcard. It’s impossible to take a bad photo!

A detail from the cellar at Podere le Ripi winery. Gorgeous building, and you can see more photos from inside below. (Photo: Junkii)

After grabbing a coffee at a local Montalcino café, we headed off to our first vineyard: Podere le Ripi. This place is stunning. It’s owned by the fellow who owns Illy coffee, and no expense was spared in the construction of the gorgeous, spiral-shaped, brick building where the grapes are processed and fermented. It was at a table inside the cellar that here that we had our first tasting: a sip of three of their best vintages.

From there, we took a little detour to visit the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, for more gorgeous views outside this former Benedictine place of worship. I’ll make sure to point them out below with a caption.

Thanks to Tat, one of our fellow tourists, for sharing this group shot with me, from our lunch at the Piombaia farmhouse.

Our next stop was to the family farmhouse that’s home to the Piombaia winery. That was probably the best part of the day. Not only did we get to spend time with the family walking around their grounds and in among their grape vines, but we also had a delicious lunch inside the farmhouse. Mom still raves about the soup!

Piombaia also offered us one of the two favourite wines we tasted throughout the day, a simple Montalcino Rosso called Gato Negro. Really though, who am I kidding? ALL the wines we tasted were superb.

A second photo courtesy of Tat – this time at our last tasting of the day.

By the time we left for the third winery of the day, we were all slightly buzzed on delicious wine, and our entire tour group was starting to gel as a collective. Nothing works as a social lubricant quite the way alcohol does. We were all best friends by the time we got out of the van at Casanuova della Cerbaie. It was here that we had our best Brunello.

It was hard to leave each of the wine makers we visited empty handed; damn Canada’s alcohol import restrictions! (Also, damn my empty wallet!)

Photo: Junkii

As the sun started to drop in the sky, though, it was time to head back to Siena. I remember noting that the tour guide must love the afternoon shift. He had to work fairly hard in the morning, providing information and keeping the conversation in the van going. But after three rounds of wine tasting, we tourists were all happy to chat amongst ourselves on the drive home.

The entire van was abuzz, reflecting on all we had seen and tasted throughout the day, leaving the guide to focus on the driving.

Sadly the day came to an end all too quickly, but as the guide dropped us off just in time for dinner, we all knew we had spent one of the best days of our entire trip.

Junkii’s Photos

Inside the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

Inside the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

Inside the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Podere le Ripi cellar.

The Podere le Ripi cellar.

Ron’s Photos

The Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The Podere le Ripi cellar.

Found ‘Round Siena

The Piazza del Campo is a massive public gathering space, and it’s the heart of Siena. (Photo: Junkii)

Leaving the Fortezza Medicea, we had no particular destination in mind. Our Lonely Planet guidebook helped us make sure sure we didn’t overlook any of the major sights, but really our day was just spent wandering.

We knew we had to take in the Duomo – the massive church that Siena was built around. We poked around a few shops. We wandered into a residential neighbourhood, just to get away from the crowds. And of course we spent time in the Piazza del Campo – Siena’s massive central square.

In the piazza, you can shop, grab a meal or a drink on a patio, or just laze about, like these folks. It’s that kind of place. (Photo: Junkii)

Siena has the warmest and most welcoming public square of pretty much any City in Italy, as far as we’re concerned. As we wandered the City, we kept returning over and over to this space, enjoying lunch nearby, people-watching, and swigging back some afternoon drinks on one of the many patios that lined the square.

We don’t have any brilliant and memorable stories about Siena, just a lot of photos of this gorgeous, medieval town.

Here are my Photos:

And here are Junkii’s shots:

Weary wanderers, tired after a day of traipsing around Siena.

Parking Problems

One of the staircases leading to the tree-lined pathways atop the fortress wall.

The plan for our first full day in Tuscany was simple: we would drive into Siena, park the car, and wander around to see what we could see.

That morning, our first stop was inside the Fortezza Medicea – a 16th century fort that has been opened to the pubic and converted to park space.

Inside, it’s quite a lovely place, and valuable for locals who seem to enjoy the treed walking/running trails that sit atop the wide fortress walls. The same can’t be said for the view looking out. From the edge of the wall, one can look down on the paved expanse of a busy, paid parking lot.

Such splendor!

Junkii did get some lovely photos inside the walls, as you can see below, but as we waited for Junkii and George to finish taking photos, Mom and I leaned over to watch the vehicles below.

Mom had spotted a car very near us that was having a lot of difficulty getting parked neatly between the painted lines. I mean, an absurd amount of difficulty. Granted, the spaces were tight, but not so tight that this little sedan should have given him any trouble.

And yet, after two or three tries, the driver had utterly failed to get his car aligned properly.

We watched as the car emptied out and all four people (I think it was two married couples from France – I could hear them conversing in French) wandered around looking confounded by the parking space. They argued between them for a while Mom and I watched, reeling at our realization that these tourists decided their ridiculous parking job was good enough.

There was some initial heated debate between the driver and his wife, but he ultimately put his foot down, declaring it was the fault of the parking space and that nothing could be done to get the car to fit; this despite the fact that many larger vans and trucks were clearly parked properly nearby in identical spaces!

Mom and I just looked at each other, dumbstruck both by how little skill the driver had and, more importantly, by how audacious and shameless these tourists were. How could anyone think it was okay to take up two spots in a paid lot just because they were incapable of inching their car over another foot?

I wanted to yell down at them to try again, but I’m not that kind of guy.

We must have watched this spectacle for at least 10 minutes – so at the very least they gave us some entertainment. I would like to think the parking lot owner would have ticketed the car for their shitty parking job – or maybe towed it away.

I kind of wish we could have stayed around to find out… but there was a City to see.

I didn’t take a photo of the crooked parking job, but here are the photos Junkii took around the Fortezza.

Tuscan Sunset

Casale Virgili (Photo by Junkii)

In prepping for our trip, I had certainly been excited for the ancient wonders that awaited us in Rome and the winding canals of Venice. But really, there was nothing I was anticipating more than our planned visit to the Tuscan countryside.

I’m not sure why I’ve had such a fascination with this place. Maybe it’s the countless TV and movie characters I’ve watched talk of it like it’s paradise. Maybe I was inspired by the hours spent playing Assassin’s Creed, which is set, in part, among several Tuscan hill towns.

Whatever the reason, I’ve had a desire to see this part of Italy for years.

In planning the trip, I briefly toyed with swapping out Tuscany for a stay in the Abruzzo region, but I wasn’t really fooling anyone with that threat.

The beauty that greeted us as we arrived at our inn near Siena exceeded even my high expectations.

We turned down a dirt road, lined with cypress trees, before finding our way finally to a lovely stone villa that overlooked rolling green hillsides, dotted with olive trees.

This was B&B Casale Virgile, and we arrived just in time for a photo walk as the sun was getting low in the sky.

Gosh. I could live here!

The photos here are from our stroll on and around the property. Between Junkii and I, there are a lot of them, but it’s too hard to edit the album down any further. It’s such a gorgeous place.

Photos by Junkii

Photos by Ron

A Basic Vocabulary

We were excited to be on our way to Siena after we picked up our rental vehicle: a Fiat 500L.

I have to find a better way to recount to friends the beginning of our adventure in Tuscany. I always start by saying, “We took a train from Rome to Florence,” and invariably my audience cuts in to tell me how much they loved Florence when they were there.

Then I have to disappoint them by continuing my tale with, “And as soon as we hopped off the train we rented a car and drove to Siena.”

They always look crestfallen when I tell them we didn’t stay in Florence because they thought we were going to connect about how awesome it was.

I have no doubt that Florence is indeed awesome. Junkii and I definitely want to go back there to explore, and especially to see Michelangelo’s David. But it didn’t happen this time. So I move on, assuring them that Siena is also awesome.

The drive to our Tuscan inn was pretty uneventful, largely taking us along well-paved four-lane highway. But it was en route there that Junkii and I realized we were finally starting to feel a bit more comfortable with basic transactions in Italian.

In Rome, most tourist-oriented businesses employ people with some degree of skill in English. That makes it very tempting to communicate exclusively in English and to avoid learning any new words and phrases.

That might be comfortable, but it’s not advisable.

In any new country, when you have access to someone who speaks both English and the local language, it’s important to practice. Even if it’s just the basics like greetings, thanks, and numbering, you really need to make an effort.

That’s what we did, and it’s why we managed to get a decent lunch on the way to Siena.

Along the way, we pulled into a highway rest stop that offered a small lunch counter with a variety of hot and cold sandwiches and drinks. But because we were now outside of Rome, the staff were much less comfortable speaking English.

Haltingly, we gradually made ourselves understood. Between pointing to what we wanted and working together to figure out the employees clarifying questions like “Is that for here or to go?” and “do you want that cold or toasted?” we managed to use our newly-acquired, broken Italian to get a tasty grilled sandwich and a cup of hot coffee, all without reverting to English.

It was far from fluent but it was a start. And after half a week in Italy, it was nice to know that we were both starting to expand our vocabulary.

Side note

I don’t want to forget this, so I’ll include it as an aside. It’s not important enough to warrant it’s own blog post.

The highway rest stop was not big. There were about three tables inside beyond the lunch counter, and a one-room water closet. That’s it.

The four of us only just nicely got seated with our meals in the cramped dining area when a tour bus full of Koreans pulled into the parking lot. The bus emptied out and ALL the tourists headed inside to line up for the toilet.

It was absurd! I can’t for the life of me understand why a tour bus would use THIS place for a rest-stop. Yes, it was just about the only place that was actually right on the highway, but surely there are other stops nearby with an off/on-ramp that would have provided a bigger bathroom.

Needless to say, we didn’t join the queue. We all agreed we could hold it until we reached our B&B. 😂

The Earnest Helper

Photo from Google image search…not one of ours.

One always has to be wary of scammers trying to make a quick buck off an unsuspecting traveler.

Thankfully, with the help of pre-trip internet research and some wise words from our travel guidebooks, we have more or less managed to steer clear of real scams so far. Knock wood.

There is, however, a scam-adjacent personage that has managed, from time to time, to get money from me: the earnest helper.

It happened to me in Beijing when a diminutive fellow I’ve come to refer to affectionately as The Elf helped us out at Tiananmen Square. The Elf managed to help us get our bags checked and get us through long security lines quickly enough that we were JUST able to see the body of Chairman Mao before the mausoleum closed for the day. You can read all about it in this blog post, if you missed it the first time.

The Elf wasn’t employed in any official capacity by the Chinese Government; he was just some guy trying to make a quick buck by helping hopelessly ill-informed tourists.

No, it’s not a proper scam, but the assistance provided is sometimes accompanied by suspicion; the feeling that you’re merely a tourist who is being taken advantage of. Then again, you do get something out of it, so providing a few bucks in tip for a valuable service only seems fair.

While we continued our scammer-free streak in Italy, the earnest helper did make an appearance. He made his move the morning we left Rome for Siena, and he had us pegged from the moment we entered the Rome train station.

It was the first time any of us had taken rail in Italy, so we were bound to look confused. I have no doubt that, with a bit of time, we would have been able to figure everything out by ourselves, but we must have switched back and forth one too many times between looking down blankly at the train tickets in our hands and up at the electronic departures display.

The helper came up to us, excited and insistent. He looked at the train number on our tickets and motioned us over to the printed poster of all the train schedules. It took him no time to point to our train and figure out the platform number.

From there, he motioned us to follow him and he ran ahead toward the platform. We followed slowly, not sure whether we wanted anything to do with this fellow. But, like the Elf, he was tenacious and he wouldn’t let us out of his sight. We finally caught up to him and he pointed us toward the correct platform.

Now, I’m happy to pay an earnest helper if I think the service is valuable, but this whole interaction took less than a minute. Where’s the value in that?

But I knew that if I tried to walk away without paying, he probably would have put up a big stink. So I gave him a Euro. Frankly, I think it was too much, but he looked at it and gave me a face that said, “Seriously?! Come on! What kind of tip is that?!”

But I held my ground. We trotted off to the platform and left him behind to mourn his bad luck.

After all, we weren’t pressed for time and we would have figured out everything easily on our own. The only thing we did learn from this guy was what the printed train schedules look like. That did come in handy throughout our trip, and for that, I don’t begrudge giving him a Euro.

What do you think; was I too stingy?

Ciao, Roma

Well, Rome, it’s been a blast, but the time has come to say goodbye.

Time to get away from the hustle and bustle and check out something a little more pastoral. It’s onwards to Siena next, and the Tuscan countryside.

We’ll be back, though; there’s still too much of Rome left to see.

For now, I’ll just put these last few photos here. These are some of the many photos Junkii took during our time in Rome. I didn’t have access to these while we were in-country.

This was the first time Junkii didn’t bring a laptop on our trip, so he couldn’t process his photos as we were traveling. I think we both realized that was a mistake. His photos do add a lot to this blog, and not having them means that you only get my visual perspective – and I tend to be a lazy photographer.

Let this be a lesson to us to always bring a computer on our travels.

Junkii still hasn’t processed most of his photos. These are just the ones he thought were Instagram-worthy. Eventually he’ll post all his photos on our SmugMug page.