It's been a while since our last trip to Seattle, so I decided it was time to pull out our passports and head to someplace new over Easter weekend. Our destination? Italy! Though Matt and I went to Rome for a day on our honeymoon, we haven't made it back since, which is surprising given that Germany really isn't that far and we've already lived here for four years now. Most of all, we decided this trip would be a great opportunity to explore all of the Italian cuisine that we've been missing.
Day 1 - Milan
Our trip started with a short flight (~1 hour) from Stuttgart to Milan-Malpensa. Easyjet offers direct flights from Stuttgart's airport for just 30€ one-way, which is quite a steal! Of course once we got to the airport, we had to take a train another 45 minutes into the city, but we still got there with an hour or so of daylight left thanks to daylight savings that day.
After dropping our bags off at our hotel near the train station, we took a leisurely stroll downtown to see the Duomo and get something to eat. This was my first time in Milan, and true to what I'd heard, I found the city to be more trendy with wide boulevards and high-end shopping as opposed to old cobblestoned streets. Still, I was impressed by the bright lights of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world's oldest shopping arcades dating from the 1860s. Milan's Duomo (or cathedral) was equally impressive with its spires and rooftop fences resembling sugared lace. Unfortunately, we were too late to go inside or on top of the Duomo, but I'm okay with saving that experience for another time.
Our stomachs were grumbling, so we headed to the Obicà Mozzarella Bar on recommendation from good friends of ours. Obicà began in Italy, but has since expanded to such metropolitan locations as New York, Los Angeles, London, Dubai, and Tokyo. The glitzy Milan location next to the Duomo was hidden away at the top of a shopping center. Though there were several other restaurants on the floor and a gourmet grocer, Obicà was the most crowded; we felt lucky to snag two seats at the bar when we did.
Since we were dining there on Easter, we decided to go all out and have an Easter feast! We ordered the full tasting of mozzarella, cured meats, and grilled vegetables along with two glasses of Nebbiolo wine. Our meal came out swiftly, and we dutifully listened as our waiter suggested that we start with the most delicate-tasting mozzarella to the strongest: stracciatella from Puglia, buffalo ricotta, a "delicate" mozzarella, an "intense" mozzarella, and, finally, a smoked mozzarella.
I'd never had a stracciatella mozzarella before, but absolutely enjoyed the sweet taste and texture like thick cream. Matt was a bit more in love with buffalo ricotta than I was (I didn't think it had enough flavor), though it paired well with the salame di feline (pork salami with herbs). Both of us equally enjoyed the delicate and intense mozzarellas, which paired well with the prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham cured for 18 months) and the prosciutto cotto alla brace (charcoal roasted ham) respectively. I think the smoked mozzarella was a bit too intense on its own, but it worked with some of the vegetables and would have been even better on a sandwich with other toppings.
My only regret was not asking the waiter to be a bit more generous on the wine. Italy does not appear to use the lovely 0,2 l marker on their wine glasses. I remember from waiting tables that this can be a bit of a challenge to eyeball, and so I probably should have helped the waiter out a bit. Next time.
We didn't stay out too late that first night, opting instead to return to our hotel and get a good night's sleep before catching our 6 o'clock morning train to Cinque Terre.
Days 2 - Monterosso, Vernazza, & Corniglia
The Cinque Terre (or Five Lands) is a coastal area in Liguria that consists of five villages. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Park through which you can walk. There's also a train and a ferry that goes from one village to the next. We, however, had our hearts (and feet) set on hiking in order to see as much as we could of the coastline.
We arrived in Monterosso shortly after 9:00. The train was non-stop from Milan, and we found it to be both fast and reliable (for now). Though we'd had breakfast on the train (jam-filled croissants and coffee), we were already hungry and decided to share some deliciously stuffed focaccia from a small stand before heading out.
Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the morning was not very promising, and the clouds were threatening to spill over. Undaunted, we zipped up our jackets and put up our hoods as we headed off on the first trail.
I really had no idea what to expect from our hike. We don't frequently backpack, though we enjoy walking and the occasional short hike. As such, we were super glad to have bought new hiking shoes for the trip and to have worn appropriate clothing. The trails, though pretty well marked, were often uneven, and we were grateful for the grippy treads on our hiking shoes that protected us from falling on the slippery rocks on the trail.
We made the first hike from Monterosso to Vernazza in just over two hours. Even though the distance was only about three kilometers, the hike itself went straight up the side of the hill (mountain?) and back down again. Once in Vernazza, we took a break and had some lunch at Belforte. We arrived right when the restaurant opened at noon, and though we were met with a hesitant "hmm" when we said we did not have a reservation, they were able to squeeze us in at a small table on the patio. I'd read that anchovies and seafood were the dishes to get in the region, and so we dined on fresh anchovies prepared three ways (in oil, cured in lemon, and fried) followed by Matt's entrée of squid ink tagliolini with shrimp and seaweed and my fried fish with prawns, shrimp, and calamari.
I had a bit of a quandary when it came to the fried shells and anchovy bones, but I'd like to think this Maryland girl picked through the prawns with ease. My favorite was probably the lemon-cured anchovies, which was a new way of eating anchovies for me. I'm used to eating salty anchovies cured in oil, but these were cooked like ceviche, making them light and delicate. Following our lunch we stopped for some gelato before heading back out on the trail.
Though we didn't have a map, we found the trails easy enough to navigate. Only at this point, we were finally confronted by a trail attendant who told us we had to have tickets. Up until this point, we weren't sure if we'd have to pay or not. We'd heard mixed reports from friends who'd been to Cinque Terre and online, but it seemed to me that some of the more popular trails were paid while others weren't. The trail to Corniglia was one of them, and we paid 7,50€ each.
Though the trail was only supposed to take us about 90 minutes, by this time we were slowed down by full bellies and sore legs, not to mention we kept stopping to take many photos. At some point I saw Corniglia quite clearly from the trail and said to Matt, "That doesn't look very far." Famous last words, right? It probably took us closer to two hours to get to Corniglia, which is the only village of the five without sea access. We made the decision to break up our hike by stopping in Corniglia for the night, and it was our best one. We stayed in a little guest house with an incredible view of the coast!
After taking a nap and showering, we walked around the town a bit (which took all of 15 minutes to get from end to end) and settled on Enoteca Il Pirun for dinner. When we sat down at 7 o'clock, there wasn't anyone else in the restaurant, which was a bit bizarre. We quickly found out that dinner time didn't start until an hour later for most people when the restaurant started to fill up then. We were mostly joined by other tourists staying in Corniglia, judging my the number of languages we heard, except for the few locals who stayed downstairs.
I'd read that pesto dishes were very popular in Liguria, so after our starter of artichoke and bacon bruschetta, Matt ordered the gnocchi al pesto and I ordered the testaroli al pesto. I'd never heard of testaroli before seeing the word on many of the menus around Corniglia, but always up for a new taste, I decided to give it a try. The "pasta" had a consistency that reminded me of a French crêpe, and though I found the taste okay, it seemed to be missing something. Matt's gnocchi was more to my liking, and I'm glad we got to try the regional pesto that we'd been seeing in all the shops. We ended the night with some more gelato at a local shop that had a really yummy "Easter cake" as a special.
Since there wasn't much of a night life in Corniglia, we headed back to our hotel where I clicked through the TV stations on our satellite television and marveled at the programs that had come to represent America (mostly dubbed TV shows and self-help talk shows). Since we don't own a television at home, I'm always curious to at least turn one on in hotels and see if I'm missing anything. I'm not.
Day 3 - Corniglia, Manarola, & Riomaggiore
The next morning we got up around 8:00 and had a quick bite to eat at Caffe Matteo before heading out on the trails again. I was really looking forward to what I thought would be a more gradual walk from Corniglia to Manarola (two kilometers and one hour, according to the internet). But after setting off down a road and thinking that the scenery looked wrong, we doubled back and headed back up onto the mountain for what turned out to be another strenuous, two-hour hike. I was glad for our mistake: we walked through lemon and olive groves, and along the terraced hillsides of the Cinque Terre vineyards with breathtaking views of the coast! Though my calves were sore and shaking by the time we got to Manarola, I would gladly make the hike again. There also didn't seem to be any ticket booths, so we avoided having to pay the second day.
In Manarola we snacked on some more focaccia and arancini (fried rice balls) for lunch before making the final leg to Riomaggiore. We were expecting to walk there, but found the Via dell'Amore still closed after the 2012 rockslide. Instead, we took the train (just a couple of minutes) to Riomaggiore, where I bought a cone of fried seafood for lunch and we walked around a bit. Many of the shops sold jarred regional pestos, squid-ink pasta, limoncello, and other kinds of cookies and sweets in addition to the usual postcards, t-shirts, and glasses. We avoided the shops and instead saw the harbor and found some cute back alleys and a lovely church.
Though I found that most of the towns were largely the same with the same tourist shops and food and the same coastal architecture, I think Vernazza was probably my favorite since that's where we had our best meal. I also really enjoyed the coastal view. And though the towns certainly had their fair share of tourists, they were much less crowded than I had feared for Easter weekend, and we ended up seeing maybe 20 people in total on the trails. Hiking was definitely the way to go.
In Riomaggiore we intended to catch a train to Florence, which should have been three hours with two transfers. Unfortunately, our train from Riomaggiore to La Spezia was 10 minutes late. We had to rush to catch out connecting train to Pisa, or so we thought, because that one was late, too. Unfortunately, this meant that we'd just be able to catch our train to Florence if we ran. With two minutes to spare, we dashed off the train in Pisa on platform two, asked a helpful platform conductor where to find the train to Florence, and ran to platform eight where our train was waiting. We just squeezed through the doors before the train pulled out of the station.
Everything was going swimmingly until an hour later when we should have been in Florence and realized instead that we were halfway to Rome! I might have freaked out a little at this point, but Matt maintained a level head. We got off at the next station, checked our phones for a new train, and called the hotel in Florence to tell them we'd be late. Luckily, we only had to wait at the station for 15 minutes before catching another train back to Pisa. The train cars were standing-room only, but the conductor (probably seeing me near tears) was kind enough to ignore the fact that we didn't have a ticket for that train and let us continue on to Pisa. In Pisa, we found the correct platform (again eight) and got on the right train to Florence. Luckily, we got in just a couple of hours after our original train, so that we still had time to get a bite to eat before bed.
Our lesson? Always take a minute, no matter how late we are, to check the train's destination before getting on (or double-check the platform, because I'm pretty sure we got on nine by accident because there was a train there and not on platform eight as we were expecting). Lesson number two is probably something along the lines of "don't expect Italian trains to run on time" like they do (mostly) in Germany.
Since this post is already quite long, I'm going to leave off here and write about Florence separately. See what we did in Florence on the next two days of our trip in my next post.