Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Day 5 ~ The Magic of Cinque Terre

Day 5 (6 Sep) - La Spezia: To the north-western coast & Cinque Terre! 

A view of Vernazza from the pier. My iPhone.
"Ok, our train leaves at 9:50am.  We need to remember to validate our train tickets and make sure we don't miss this train," the usual sternness.

Table of Content:

Waiting for train

A train ride to Las Spezia! 

Eddy, the Leng-zhai holding the selfie stick. [Photo: Serene]

A two hours 20 minutes ride ahead of us, we had our breakfast of croissant and standard in San Giorgio, and made our way on foot to the train station which was just a few minutes away.  It wasn't difficult to validate the tickets, several machines around.  It simply required a little bit of technique to insert deep and to the left of the slots.

Happily waiting to board the train...

Another pick pocket...

Train Italia was really nice and clean.  We were fortunate for the seats were abundant and short of a young gipsy girl helpfully trying to guide Serene to find a seat for her luggage, the rest of the train ride was uneventful.  At least uneventful until when we arrived in La Spezia.  An innocent looking young girl, about in her perhaps 10-11 years old, tried to chat up one of our innocent but good-looking male members, and had her hand already almost into his bag when she was spotted by Adrian, and she sheepishly withdrew.

Jeffrey and I making sure our belongings were still belonging to where they should be belonging to...

Her accomplish, another very young girl, walked up the train, squeezing in between me in the narrow doorway, pressing her front against my back on her way up.  Luckily with my back to her, there was nothing for her to pick.  And a check after that confirmed that I lost nothing.

La Spezia

La Spezia was the gateway city to Cinque Terre, the Five Lands - the five villages along the south-western coast.  Historically La Spezia was a military and naval base.
Taking a train ride in Italy was an enjoyable affair.  with my table top laid open and my bluetooth keyboard opened, I was able to do some typing.  Time just passed so quickly.

Train station at La Spezia, turned out, turned right, 2 minutes and we were at the
Casa Dane hotel already.


Affittacamere Casa Dane

Joanne and Lai Peng were suitably impressed by Casa Dane.

The Affittacamere (Landlady in Italian) Casa Dane was a B&B located just at the Train station building itself at La Spezia Centrale Railway Station (Statione Centrale di La Spezia).  Right out of the station, a small right turn and a few tens of a metres' walk brought us right to the doorstep of the indiscreet-looking entrance of Casa Dane.


"It's a four flights of stair-climbing without lift," pre-warned Adrian, even during the pre-departure briefing. "But it's one of the better accomodations.  So make sure you all try to pack as compact as possible."
And we were all impressed by Eddy's endurance.

How was that possible?  Not if we had plenty of photographic equipment to lug along.  In the end we still managed the four flights of stairs with the luggage.


"Wow, this hotel is nice!" an excited Michelle took a picture of the room.
"And it even has the USB port on the wall! Saved me the trouble of using an adapter for my USB equipment," Kai Sing was very impressed.
A photo of the room captured by Michelle.

"And did you all see the shower head? It had kinky blue and red lights going round and round when you turn on the shower!" Joanne was amused.
What I personally had found was, Italians knew next to nothing about Asians.  Many of them lived in their own European (and maybe American) world.  Anyone who had black hair, dark eyes, and looked vaguely Asians, they would think you were PRC Chinese, maybe Korean, perhaps Japanese.  And the boss of this Casa Dane was the champion... As I took the shot below, he actually uttered those very words about us 'back home in Thailand.'.
If I had my ways, I would say they couldn't tell one Asian apart from another.  What was even more apparent, throughout our trip was, many didn't know what on earth Singapore was!

Paolo, the boss of Casa Dane, trying to strike a friendly Asian conversation with Adrian and Mrs Yik.

Lunch at Ristorante Roma

The entourage eagerly waiting for their seafood platter. [Photo: Kai Sing]

Lunch at the one-month-old Risorante Roma in La Spezia was served with shishamo-like fish, calamari, seafood and such.  Understandable, as this part of Italy was coastal.  The cappucino came from what appeared (according to Adrian) to be a $13,000 coffee-making machine.
The food was appetizing and bread was tasty.  Some of us, including myself, couldn't get enough of the pastry and kept asking for more.


Many of us ordered the seafood platter, since it was highly recommended.  The plate of gang-her-kiah and calamari, shrimp and fish that came up was really tasty.  We enjoyed them thoroughly.

The main dish. [Photo: Serene]
After we had the entree above, we waited and waited.  But nothing else came forth.
"Erm... where is the main dish ah?" someone asked Adrian.
"Huh? Just now that one is your main dish already lor!" referring to the above platter of splattered seafood.
"Oh. Ok. OK." Looks like later tonight got to eat Maggie mee already.

A little bit of history about Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre in Italian meant 'Five Lands'.  Geographically it consisted of five villages - Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore and Corniglia - scattered over the rugged coastal terrain of the Italian Riviera. It had been listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.  The characteristic of these villages was that the medieval buildings (yes, many were still medieval in nature) were built right on the cliffs themselves and they were spread steeply upwards.  The houses were originally not colourful like they were right now, but from 1970's they started to wear different coats of hues that finally gave them the multi-coloured appearances.
The first village that sprouted out were Vernazza and Monterosso in the 11th century, made up of mostly fishermen and grape and olive growers.  These were the mainstream industries during those days, and the villagers would trek up the slopes and cultivate their plantations on terraces.  Until today, we could still see some of the old photos on display along the train stations and walls of the villages depicting the women and men carrying baskets on the heads during those tough days.

This region was under the rule of the Republic of Genoa in the 16th century when they were defending themselves against the attack by the Turks, and built forts and defence towers, several of which were still in place today.  The establishment of La Spezia as a military base eventually strengthened the Cinque Terre in the 19th century, and also in part due to the construction of railway between La Spezia and Genoa.

Until today, there was still very little inroads to Cinque Terre for motor vehicles.  And access was via railroad and ferry.  And of course on foot.  The trail, Azure Trail, that connected all the five villages had the section between Riomaggiore and Manarola closed after the 2011 flooding and landslide. The rest of the trail was still trekkable as of this day.


Another short train ride to Vernazza, the seaside town.

On the train ride to Vernazza.

Vernazza was the first of the five villages of Cinque Terre that we would visit on this day, soon after we arrived at La Spezia.

Walking out of the quaint little train station.


"If you loved Montepulciano and San Gimignano, you would love the medieval village of Cinque Terre, because they have got even more of the medieval feel to them," reassured Adrian.  And indeed he was not wrong.  The only difference was, the villages of Cinque Terre had much more colour and much more vibrance to them than the slightly more serious drab tone of Montepulciano and San Gimignano.  And there was a festive feel to all these colourful villages.
Festive feel? Well, it was the people strolling around that made it feel festive to me.. click here to see...

Vernazza from the breakwater by the Portrait Master Alex Kaan.

I remember reading a book in my primary school days about a little Italian boy who went for a summer holiday with his parents.  There was an illustration inside that portrayed a scene that was exactly like what met my eyes on this fateful day.  I could no longer remember the names and details of that story but it was dejavu seeing this colourful Ligurian village with its colourful walls embracing the marina.

What the iPhone 6 can do.  No need to wait until the iPhone 7 Plus comes out.
The water was nice and clear, but outside of the breakwater the waves were choppy.  That did not stop many of the holiday-seekers jumping off the rocks and enjoying the waters.  In fact many beautiful sun-worshipping  ladies and men laid on the rock surfaces soaking in the rays.

The 360 degree wefie-video:

Michelle ma Belle was quite tickled by the way we we-fied video ourselves on the iPhone.

The clear water and choppy wave made me wonder why wasn't there a 70.3 event held here?  The beautiful sea, the festive atmosphere, rolling hills for the cycling route and the run all would have made for a great race.  Throughout the trip, from Cinque Terre to Portovenere to Sorrento, Kai Sing and Alex kept telling me:
"If one day you come and race here, we will come and support you."
Apparently the breakwater of Vernazza was also good for capturing other things...
[Photo: Serene]
These guys were damn good lah.   They were constantly on the look out for race venues for themselves to go holiday-ing. Hahahahaha!

What the Leica M9P and 35 Summilux can do, but the iPhone cannot.
"I'm already immune to all these," said Adrian when Serene ogled at the large number of sexy creatures laying around, some sunbathing while others leisurely walking out there, and yet some more desirable ones posing unintentionally.
"My operators told me that during the earlier part of summer, there were more people here, when the temperature was around 39 degrees Celsius.   Now it is around 30 degrees, and getting less warm as autumn approaches." and Adrian hopped off the (boring) rocks to shoot a panorama of the sea.  This man must really have seen too much of these places already.  Nothing excited him any more.
I couldn't get enough of these flaky Italian walls.

Eddy pointed up to the top of the hill across the bay.
"Last time when we were here we trekked from one village to another village through all these routes.  The vantage point was beautiful from high up there.  But ever since there was a landslide, they have closed up the tracks," explained Eddy with a pang of sadness.
We looked back and saw Serene looking around. searching, searching... as though she had lost somebody.  But I was there with her all along.  Silly girl lah, she. Love would forever be there beside her, even though the undulating path of life was full of potholes and cracks, and sometimes she might lose sight of her loved one, but he would always be there.  Like I'd always been.  Even during days when she made me mad.

The old Vernazzan man.

The Engineers marvelled at the building hanging down from the rocks.
[Photo: Kai Sing]

Through the hole in Vernazza. [Photo: AlexK]

 The cacophony of Italian, French, Queen's English and a myriad of other European languages rose all around me as my optic nerves grappled with the abundant display of areolae peeking through spandex-thin veils.  This place was touristy.  But it was a must-visit.   As the shadow started to elongate, we took the path up the side cliff with Adrian leading the way.

My iPhone shot of the long shadows (legs).
So as we walked up the steps and rocky paths to the vantage point, Serene remarked that this felt like trekking in Nepal.  It did, somewhat.  But the feeling was different.  This hadn't the rural-ness of the Nepali villages, and this was at sea level.  As we ascended to an opening in the shrubs, the boys and girls looked across to see the headland in the glistening water.

Excited by the view but it was against the light.  No choice but to still shoot.
This was the view of Vernazza that we came for. But this wasn't the best vantage point, merely a by-the-way.  The best spot would be somewhere a little higher up, somewhere planned for the evening shoot.  Right after our dinner.

This was that exact view that the boys and girls saw. Photo by the Landscape specialist Ng Kai Sing

The walk up was leisurely.  Old houses, old doorways, old gates appeared at every turn and every corner.  I was personally delighted to find many nice subjects for iPhone photography.  So was Serene.  Her whole day was literally taken on her iPhone.

Serene the die hard iPhone photographer.

Dinner at Bar La Torre

The mandatory shot of the tiny peninsula in blue hour laid awaiting, as Adrian led the group further upwards to Bar La Torre, the only restaurant that had the best vantage point of the village below.
Adrian came up after us, obviously upset with the waiters.
"I tell them we would like to take orders and they just bo chap me.  Gestured me to wait one side.  The attitude here is like that one.  The last time when we were here, they were also like this," this poor Adrian. 


"If I have a choice, I will go somewhere else to eat. But this restaurant here they have the best vantage point. So we really bo bian," continued this irate tour leader.
I could understand his frustration, this Adrian.  I think, and this was my personal opinion, many a times we from Singapore would get mistaken by these less-travelled Ang Mohs to be inhabitants of a bigger northern Asian country that was notorious for their poor behaviours overseas.  They really must have made a poor name for Asians, and somehow we all got dragged into it.

The umbrellas were the only thing that kept our cool.

So we just sat down and waited.

One of the perpetrators of Adrian's angst.

Italain mannerism prevailed among the burly waiters of this little establishment, and soon we began to understand the futility of ordering as the staff operated in a style not dissimilar to what one expected from an old overworked hawker centre stall owner.  Still, the food was surprisingly not bad, attested Serene and Joanne.  


As we sat, mired in the uncertainty of dinner and a search party, we could only douse ourselves with glasses after glasses of water, the evening sun bearing right down at us from an angle.  David our Rice-cooker expert was truly in his elements.  As long as this man had a beer coming, he was happy in whatever position he had to sit, even as we were stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Waiting for his beer was David.

Fortunately for most of us, we finally had the time to slowly enjoy the food while the sun set.  The tour leader often hadn't that luxury, and oft had to debate deep within himself whether he should walk further up towards the next village or walk back down towards the village centre of Vernazza before the whole place became too dark to mount a search party. 



Adrian still deep in his own thoughts about the prospect of conducting a rescue party.

Getting ready for the sunset shoot...

Dusk approached fast.  And the sea breeze, now escalated to gusts, carressed our hair.  An old weather-beaten railing on our left led down towards the promontory where the boys and girls were already setting up their tripods.

A video of the sea view in the setting sun by Serene.
"Wah, it's been a long time since we set up tripods to shoot blue hour photos," Kai Sing was absolutely right.  For me it was even longer.
I didn't have time to clean up the sensors of my rangefinders, and a preliminary glance revealed quite a few specks of dust spots.  But again, I seemed to have become blase towards the quest for photographic perfection.
Around me, Jeffrey, Albert, Mr and Mrs Yik and Jonathan were peering into their LCD screens. Eddy and Michelle were on my left enjoying the slowly disappearing golden rays.  Kai Sing, Lai Peng and Alex were all over finding the best, unobstructed view and playing around with their new-found in-camera capabilities.  The smartest were Joanne and Serene, who were relaxing up at the dining tables, enjoying the cooling summer evening on the Ligurian coast.

Only upon reviewing this photo did I realise that the Italian even prepared a red Tam-Tong on the steps for us to PWEE our phlegm into.  We all must have really
appeared like our constantly mucus-clearing northern neighbours for them to take such precaution against us.

"How come the villagers down there didn't want to turn on more of their lights?" wondered David.  He was right, because only that few window lights dotted the buildings below.  I could imagine a scene with significantly more window lights creating a more Medditeranean (again it was actually technically more correct to say Ligurian, as in Ligurian Sea) feel.
The lovely Vernazza at dusk.  Photo by the Landscape expert Ng Kai Sing.

"Alamak, not much blue sky leh," Alex and Eddy lamented.
These guys really seek nothing short of perfection, and when perfection did not materialise, the in-camera HDR painting processing filled in the deficiencies.  I could sense their excitement by the chatter around me.  It could ONLY be a Sony, my conclusion.

"Even my Rice cooker cannot do that," admitted David.
No choice lor.  I was shooting as though I was on an ASA 400 film with the M9P.  But it was ok.  In those good 'ol days of film photography, when the sun goes down, the photographers retire to the pub for a drink and pasta.  
The minimalist shooter (nowadays) Kai Sing.
"I am a purist in that sense," I laughingly told Mr Yik during one of the dusk sessions when we were feeding mosquitoes, holding on to our cable releases. "So aga aga can already lah."
 "I don't know lah," Kai Sing confided one night, despite his elation with his new-found toy. "Last time we used to shoot frame after frame, and even when the sun went down, we continued shooting.  But nowadays I will just take that few shots, and aga aga when I capture the scene, I will Sao-gong already."
"OK! Sao-Gong-lor!!!"

I shared his sentiments.  I'd become a lazy shooter.  And on this evening,, I was amongst the first few to Sao-gong and made my way slowly with Albert back up to the dining platform.

Michelle & Lai Peng enjoying the night.

Vernazza transformed into a magical stage as night falls.  Watching the little village came alive down there, from where we were perched high above, was an experience in itself.  Even Serene, from where she was seated in the restaurant, could not help taking a couple of shots on her iPhone.  I believed this was what visitors to these enchanting parts of Italy came for.  The Magic of the Cinque Terre.

Walking down back to the train station...

Nightfall signalled the end of the day's activities.  Along the dimly-lit paths on the hills, it was easy to trek down the wrong fork. 



Waiting for the train at Vernazza was also quite an experience.  Not all the trains that went through the station would stop.  Some that were not meant to stop would horn loud and long to warn the passengers to stay clear as they sped through the station, creating a whirlwind of draft in the process, leaving us quite thrilled by the experience.

Enjoying the quiet station waiting for the last train was David and Yik.

This Eddy really made full use of his stealthy video cam.

The train brought us back to La Spezia, and by the time we arrived back at Casa Dane just slightly before 10pm, the supermarket was already shuttering, and McDonald's had only limited selection of food left.  We couldn't care less.  We were tired out by then already.  And most of us just wanted to lay down on the nice beds of Casa Dane.

Click here to continue to Day 7 ~ The Magnificent colours of Ligurian Italy