The day after we took our day off in Rome was absolutely the best day of the whole trip from Amsterdam to Athens to that day. The ship was docked in Livorno, Italy, which is the port for Florence. And about 95% of the passengers on board were headed to either Florence itself or the Tuscan countryside and Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. We, on the other hand, had decided to do our own thing.
As I said about Rome in my last post, you can’t see Rome in one day. I also believe you can’t do justice to Florence in one day. If you really want to see the Uffizi or the Academia, you need half a day in each. That leaves no time for the Duomo, the baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, or so much more that is Firenze. Besides, we had been there before. So we opted out. But sadly, that was the only place that Viking was offering tours to. So we created our own.
About three months before the cruise, I started looking for someplace else to see in the general area of Livorno that we had not seen. We had never seen the Leaning Tower and the rest of Pisa, but that was a two-hour tour, and we would be in Livorno for two days and would see that on the second day. So where to go? I searched maps and Cruise Critic for ideas, and in doing that, I looked up the coast, and lo and behold—Cinque Terre. We had heard so much about it but had never been there, and we really wanted to see it, but for some reason, Viking does not do any tours in that direction (although it took us the same amount of time to get there as it did to get into Florence). That meant I had to find us a tour. So off I went to Google, and the first tour that popped up was a “Tour to Cinque Terre from the Port of Livorno” by BellaItalia Tours. That sounded like just what we were looking for, so I contacted them.
Like most tours, this had one price—the price of the tour. Actually, there were two possibilities—a tour with a driver who got you there and got you off on your way into the first “land” and then picked you up and took you back to the ship after you finished touring everything. The other option was a driver AND a guide. The driver got you there, but the guide accompanied you throughout the day from village to village telling us all about them on the way. We wanted to do this because we were looking for someone to walk us through the entire thing.
If you got the driver and the guide, the price was just about 800 euros for two people. But if you could find more to join you, the price went down because you were paying for the car, driver and guide no matter what. Up to 8 people could come along. To find someone else to join us (the other four in our party had never been to Florence, so they were going there), I went on Cruise Critic to our roll call (click here if you need Cruise Critic and Roll Calls explained) and found Corky and Larry from Maui who said they would love to join us. This meant our price was basically cut in half. And not only did that make this tour a bargain, but we made two great friends in the process.
As soon as the ship had been cleared by the port authorities, we were off and looking for my name on a placard being held by our guide, the amazing and hilarious Luigi. And he and our driver (Alessandro) were waiting right where they said they would be, we jumped in their Mercedes van, and we were off. What joy it was to ride in a van and not a “luxury motor coach.” It meant that there were two of us to a seat, with plenty of legroom and Luigi giving us non-stop play-by-play as we drove along.
On the way, we got to see some things we hadn’t expected, like the famous marble mountains of Carrara. I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the Carrara marble that makes up so many buildings in the Mediterannean or our very own tile floors at home comes from a huge mountain of marble. The mountains are magnificent to look at, as you can see in this small gallery. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…
A little while after passing through Carrara and some amazing hilltop towns on either side of the AutoStrada (Italian for freeway), we reached La Spezia, a coastal community that is the gateway to Cinque Terre. You climb far above it and that puts you about even with those hilltop towns, so here are some views from the hill above La Spezia and some hilltop towns we had seen between there and Carrara. Don’t forget; they can be viewed as a slide show.
As soon as you have seen La Spezia go by, you go over the hill, and you are looking down at the first of the five “lands” of Cinque Terre (literally translates to “five lands”), Riomaggiore. It’s a beautiful little village built into the side of a very steep hill. Alessandro dropped us off, and we walked down into the town itself. We would next see our illustrious driver at the other end of Cinque Terre. From this point on, our transport was the Cinque Terre ferry. Luigi led us down through the town, pointing things out to us as we went. We all took a much-needed restroom break and then met Luigi to board the ferry to move to the next land.
Luigi was a font of knowledge all about the region. We all learned a lot, especially that we should wait for the fourth village, Vernazza, to get gelato because they had the best, then have lunch at the end of the journey in Monterosso because they had the best food. We liked that—eat dessert first.
The second stop on our visit was to the village of Manarola, which might have been the most picturesque. The photo at the top of this post was taken there. Luigi was more than thrilled to help me find my shots because he said we had something in common. His real vocation in life was a guitarist, and he loved it. He told us it was “his art.” And he said photography was mine. I truly appreciated his interest, and from that point on (he had this conversation with Kathleen on the ferry while I was outside taking photos) he took me to what he thought would make great pictures…and he was right.
The ferry to the next of the five lands (actually four because the ferry does not stop in the middle land of Corniglia as there is no place for it to dock—it is only accessible by train) comes just about every hour, so once we landed in Manarola for instance; we had an hour to take photos and look around before we got back on the next ferry and left for Vernazza.
Vernazza was the village where we heard about the awesome gelato, and again, Luigi proved to be correct. He had advised me that if I truly wanted to try what the locals loved, I would have basil gelato (seen at right). So I did, and it was wonderful. Kathleen had lemon, and when we put the two together…perfection. Vernazza was a great village for photography, so again, I took more shots until the hour went by and we boarded the ferry for Monterosso.
Monterosso was the final village and is the most commercialized of the five. It has bigger hotels, sandy beaches, etc. It also has amazing food, and this was where Luigi said we should get lunch. He was all set to drop us at a restaurant to fend for ourselves when we insisted he join us for lunch—our treat, which he did. He said that like the gelato I had tasted, the people of the five lands believed their basil was better than any other basil in the world and therefore, their pesto sauce was the best anyplace—hands down. So, of course, we had to try it. The traditional pesto pasta is improved in Cinque Terre by the addition of potatoes and green beans to the mix. This came about when they started making pesto at a time when those things were plentiful, and the recipe stuck.
Besides the pesto, there was one more thing I wanted to try while we were having lunch. It is something that Rick Steves had mentioned in his Cinque Terre video—fresh anchovies. Rick said that if you come here and order them fresh, you would be amazed how little they would resemble the anchovies you see on a pizza or a caesar salad and he was right—almost. I ordered (with Luigi’s help) “Tris di acciughe del marinaio” or Lemon, salted and stuff anchovies. The salted looked very much like what we put on pizza but bigger. It tasted like you might think but much less salty. Luigi told me that this is what it should taste like when brined, but it is much saltier when we get it because it has sat for weeks in a can on its way to America.
Then there was the stuffed version, filled with some rice, some veggies and who knows what, but it was delicious. But the winner of the three was anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. I could eat those every day, all day long. Delicious.
After we finished lunch, we walked around Monterosso for a while longer before we walked up a hill (thankfully much less steep than the one we walked down in Riomaggiore) to the top of the village to be met by our faithful driver Alessandro and transported back to the ship. This was around a nine-hour trip from ship to ship, but I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it.
This brings me to the subject of shore excursions. One of the reasons Viking appealed to us was that they included a free shore excursion in every port. But we are just not sure if that is a selling point anymore. After our day in a van with a guide and being able to move at our own pace, we think if (probably when) sail with Viking Ocean again, we will book our own shore excursions again. We had pretty much always done that in the past until COVID came along, and you couldn’t book a lot of private excursions. Now you can again and we likely will. It is so much more personalized, and you meet incredible guides. We had done three tours on this entire trip with private guides (in Amsterdam with Hans and Athens with George), and those were the best tours. Far better than being put into a “luxury motor coach” with 26 other people and a guide who is just a monotonous voice in your “whisper headset.” This really hit home with us after touring all day with Luigi and Alessandro. Luigi became a part of our group. Just look at the photo at the top of this post. Don’t we look happy? Cinque Terre—what a day. And here are the photos from that day. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…ESPECIALLY THESE!
It took us about 90 minutes to get back to the ship, but after the day we had, the time flew by. I truly hope I did a good job expressing my joy about this day and my gratitude to the amazing Luigi, who took such great care of us. I can’t recommend him more highly. If you decide to go, book with Bella Italia tours and ask for him specifically. You will not be sorry.
I think people in Italy live their lives better than we do. It’s an older country, and they’ve learned to celebrate dinner and lunch, whereas we sort of eat as quickly as we can to get through it. —George Clooney