Tips for visiting Cinque Terre, Italy with kids!

Hiking Vernazza to Corniglia in Cinque Terre
Hiking Vernazza to Corniglia

The Cinque Terre or “Five Villages” is a popular destination within the Italian Riviera. The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre National Park are, from the north, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and each are unique in their experiences. The village of Monterosso is a favorite of ours and boosts variety with two towns, an old town and a newer more modern resort town, it also has the only sandy beach of the Cinque Terre. Next you’ll arrive in Vernazza, the most popular of the villages and the most expensive to find accommodations. The middle village, Corniglia, is the smallest and the only village not on the water, instead this quiet village is tucked into the mountain, surrounded by vineyards and terraces. To reach Corniglia from the train station you zig zag up a flight of 382 steps. Manarola is next, it’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the sea creating a perfect backdrop to some of the most well known photos of this area. Rounding out the five is Riomaggiore, home of a rocky beach perfect for grabbing a bite and having a picnic. Whichever village you choose, whether for a day or a week, these little gems all have experiences to offer.
Getting There and Getting Around

When flying into Milan or Florence, a train ride from either is the easiest way to arrive in the region. From Milan you will go through-and possibly change trains-in Levanto and from Florence you will change trains in La Spezia on your way into the Cinque Terre. Once there the regional trains run the short distance between the coastal villages pretty frequently, you’ll just want to know the last train if planning on staying later in the evening. There are also walking paths, some more strenuous than others, between the villages as well as ferries for a view from the ocean.

 

Hike the  Trails

There are many trails of varying difficulty all throughout the Cinque Terre region. It’s a national park, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with many beautiful vistas. The easiest and most well known walk is Via dell’Amore, “Lover’s Lane”, a short 20 minute stroll from Riomaggiore into Manarola. Unfortunately this and several other hiking trails were badly damaged in a devastating flood in 2011. Most have been re-opened but it’s recommended to visit the Parco Nazionale (http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/sentieri_parco.asp?id_lingue=2) website to find out the current status and difficulty levels of the trails. This Guided Tours (http://www.trekguyd.com/via.html) website is another good resource. During our most recent trip to Italy in Spring of 2014, we hiked from Vernazza to Corniglia, a moderate hike of about 90 minutes. This hike offers multiple stunning views of Vernazza, Corniglia and the staggering coastline of the Cinque Terre. You can easily make a day out of visiting Castello Doria (Tip #8), enjoying your hike and then have a late lunch at Il Pirun (Via Fieschi, 115) once you arrive in Corniglia. Don’t forget to bring water, sunscreen and snacks for the little ones!

Corniglia, Italy
Corniglia
Hiking Vernazza to Corniglia in Cinque Terre, Italy
Hiking Vernazza to Corniglia

Do, Get Lost

If you’re not up for the trail hikes then walking the many streets in the villages can provide hours of investigative fun. Venturing off the main drag, heading up steps through the maze of tightly snuggled buildings offer unique experiences around every corner. There are many beautiful churches, cemeteries, vineyards and colorful old buildings to meander through so put those walking shoes on and enjoy.

Enjoy a Picnic on the Rocks

There is so much to explore here you won’t want to spend precious outdoor time sitting in a ristorante. Enjoy some amazing grab and go specialties then head to the rocks for a picnic. First stop Vernazza for possibly the best focaccia in the area, maybe anywhere. You’ll find Batti Batti on your right at the end of Via Visconti closest to Piazza Marconi. Grab a focaccia and head to the rocks on the Piazza to eat and enjoy the view. Next stop Riomaggiore for a cone of fried veggies and seafood at Il Pescato Cucinato (Via Colombo 199). We were lucky enough to have a kitty greet us at the door, can’t imagine why? Willing to try everything, get a Misto, a mix of veggies, calamari, anchovies and other fish or you can just get what you know you love. Take a couple of these on a walk around town or down rocks on the water. Mangia!

Picnic on the rocks in Cinque Terre

Mangia in Vernazza, Italy
Mangia in Vernazza
Kitty at the fish shack in Riomaggiore, Italy
Kitty would like some fried fish in Riomaggiore, Italy

Visit a Sandy Beach, a Giant, and a Tower

Though all but Corniglia have water access, only Monterosso has a true sandy beach, Lungomare di Fegina. If you go during the summer season it will be lined with brightly colored umbrellas and full of people. Take a walk to the northern end of the beach to see Il Gigante, a 14 meter high statue of Neptune that was built in 1910. Unfortunately he lost his arms during WWII, but is still quite impressive. Heading in the opposite direction, walk south, you’ll see a 16th-century lookout tower. Below it is a “Nazi Pillbox”, a low concrete bunker where gunners hid. From here continue around the point to arrive in the Old Town of Monterosso.

Coastline of Monterosso Al Mare, Italy
Coastline of Monterosso Al Mare
German Pillbox bunker in Monterosso Al Mare, Italy.
German Pillbox bunker in Monterosso Al Mare, Italy.

Spot a Kitty

There are no shortage of cats in Cinque Terre. You could make a day out of spotting kitties. We’re a family of cat people so this is always great fun for us. Kind of like playing “I spot a Punch Buggy” on a road trip, you can do “I spot a kitty” while visiting the Ligurian Coast.

A kitty in Vernazza, Cinque Terre, ItalyA kitty in Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

Visit with the Cannoli Brothers

Sicilian twin brothers Massimo and Gianluca, AKA the Cannoli Brothers, run Il Pirata in Vernazza (via Gavino, 36). They bring to Cinque Terre authentic Sicilian pastry. This is a great place to be entertained by these two silly brothers while sipping on fresh squeezed blood orange juice or cappuccino and catching up with loved ones back home with complimentary wifi. We would make it a daily ritual to stop in, catch up on-line with their complimentary wi-fi, have a truly amazing cannoli and talk to the brothers. If you crave a quick savory bite the bruschetta is recommended.

Cannoli in Vernazza
Cannoli in Vernazza

Ride The Ferry

Aside from hiking the trails, the best way to see the landscape is by ferry. They run from every village except Corniglia. It’s not the fastest way to get around, taking from 10-15 minutes between villages and it’s not the cheapest route either. However, the ferries certainly provide a way to see the coast from another breathtaking perspective.

Check out the view from Castello Doria

Built in the 15th-century to protect Vernazza from pirates, Castello Doria can not be missed. Maybe you’ve already eyed it while sitting on the rocks in Piazza Marconi eating focaccia? It’s cylindrical tower, the Belforte, rises high above the marina in Vernazza. Views from the top are incredible and its only a small fee of 1.50 Euro per person for entry.

Head up the Coast

Here during summer? Beach in Monterosso too crowded for you? Try taking the train north into Levanto or Bonossola. These neighboring towns also have lovely sandy beaches and are usually less crowded by tourists. If you still need to release a little energy afterwards you can walk from one town to the other in 30-40 minutes through the tunnel of a former railway and then along the coast. In addition, Levanto has an array of unique shops just off the water worth strolling around with the family.

Walking in the tunnel from Bonassola to Levanto
The tunnel from Bonassola to Levanto

You’re in Italy, Eat Gelato

Though this region isn’t known for gelato, you’re a kid in Italy, go ahead, indulge!

Homeshooling: EPCOT Scavenger Hunt

Epcot Scavenger hunt
Morocco Pavillion at EPCOT

I love Disney as much now as I did as a child so it’s no surprise we go often! My husband & I’s favorite park is EPCOT and we got lucky, it’s our kids favorite too. You can’t go to EPCOT & learn nothing, NOT possible, but we took it to the next level by creating an EPCOT Scavenger Hunt! Just engage with the Cast Members. Did you know that the Cast Members in each of the Pavillions in the World Showcase are hired from those countries? They are and it’s great fun and a super educational experience to talk to them about their home country. Go for it, it’s easy and so much fun!

Here is a Scavenger Hunt I created for our recent trip to EPCOT. The kids LOVED it! You can use it as is or research the other countries on-line. A great Disney resource is www.allears.net. So GO create and have fun learning!

Countries General (these were all a ton of fun!)
1.Learn to spell & say Hello, Goodbye & Thank you in the language of each country.
2.Which Candy-bar best represents each country?
3.Have a picture taken of you wearing a hat from each country.
4.What is the hat called in the native language?
5.Take a picture of the flag of each country.
6.What is the dominate religion of each country?
7.Find out what the acronym of EPCOT used to be?

Individual Countries – we choose a few to focus on, most answers given in ().

Mexico:
1. What is the pyramid modeled after? (aztec temple of quetzalcoatl
at Teotihuacan, Mexico)
2. Whatʼs the name of the animal wood carving art? (oaxacan wood
carving)
3. What is Dia de los Muertos? (Day of the Dead) Very interesting, spark up a conversation
with a cast member about the details of this holiday, why it’s celebrated, what it represents, the date, etc.

Italy:
1. What is the structure modeled after? (building & tower) (Doge
Palace – prison & St. Marks Campanile – Bell Tower)
2. Learn about the masks. Where are they made, what do they
represent, what are they used for, is there a celebration around
them? (Engage a Cast Member in the Mask shop)
3. There are three wood burning ovens in Via Napoli, what are the
names of the three active volcanoes that these represent?
(stromboli, etna, vesuvio)
4. Learn five words in Italian.

Japan:
1. Find out the time of the Taiko (what does this mean?) drum show
and watch it.
2. What is the red structure in the water called? Itʼs the entrance to a
what? (torrei, shrine)
3. Find kakigōri and sample a flavor. (shave ice)

Morocco:
1. What language do they speak here? (Arabic) (Great time learning words in Arabic, we had a cast member write some down even).
2. What continent is Morocco on? (Africa)
3. Name three foods specific to Morocco. Letʼs try one! (Great shop in the market with food items, then we had lunch:-).
4. The prayer tower at the entrance of the pavilion*** is a detailed replica
of the Koutoubia Minaret in the city of Marrakesh.
5. What Hollywood Studio’s attraction is visible from this pavilion and is
designed to blend in? (tower of terror, must be at a good distance to see this)
***The king of Morocco sent his royal craftsmen to lay all the tile work, carvings and paintings in the pavilion.

France:
1. The waterway running next to the France Pavilion represents the
Seine as it flows through? (Paris)
2. Locate the spitting Gargoyle. What does this guard in France?
(Notre Dame)
3. Find three cast members from three different cities and have them
locate their hometown for you on a map. (I-pad or paper map).

 

Here’s some additional cool things while at EPCOT!

Head over to Club Cool! 
This “exhibit” situated near Innoventions West, offers free samples of soft drinks from around the world, as well as Coca-Cola merchandise. They updated the beverage choice in 2013 an currently have samples from Italy, Greece, Thailand, Japan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Peru and Brazil. Enjoy!

In Paris!
You may notice the ugly green metal boxes lining the wall that separates the pavilion from World Showcase Lagoon. In Paris, boxes similar to these line the embankments of the Seine. Containing rare books, artwork, and modern-day souvenirs, bouquinistes (secondhand booksellers) hawk their wares from these boxes, just like their ancestors have been doing since the 1500’s. Note, nothing is sold from these boxes at the France Pavilion.

There is a lovely park-like setting bordering the “Seine.” Although not accessible to the public, this area of the France Pavilion was inspired by the famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by pointillist artist Georges Seurat. In reality, this was better illustrated before International Gateway was build and the embankment installed.

Jardin à la française (French formal garden) is a style of landscaping based on balance and symmetry. The idea is to impose “order” into nature

African Outpost!
Located between the China and Germany Pavillions, head here to get your groove at the interactive drum circle!

Their is really and incredible amount of fun and learning to be had at EPCOT!

Choosing accommodations in Italy!

When traveling we generally prefer to go “low-key”. We like apartments or b&b’s over hotels most days. We’ve used sites like VRBO and HomeAway many times with much success and, in the last few years, have come to love Airbnb. It’s similar to VRBO and HA but, in addition, can choose to share a house or a room with others or to rent just a room or an entire home/apartment. They also have much better budget pricing available. When on a limited budget (we always have traveled with budget in mind even before my hubby resigned), this is a big bonus. We recently found a perfect stay right on the beach in Costa Rica for $19/night for the four of us. AWESOME! Gotta get on that.  Recently Michael used Airbnb to stay in Sacramento for a life coaching retreat, they even had a bike for him to use so he didn’t have to rent a car, SWEET! And it was only $40/night, with a kitchenette and his own space.

Anyway, on our tour of Italy Spring of 2014 we stayed in three accommodations listed on Airbnb. I connected with each of the owners prior to our stay and had a lovely, comfortable feeling going into each with good communication.

In Venice we stayed in Massimo’s apartment in the Cannaregio/Jewish Ghetto area (on the back of the fish if you’re looking at a map). We chose this area because it’s a little less touristy, still walkable to everywhere and close to the train station, we did backpack it after all. Yes, you read that right,  we each had one backpack, we like to travel light, no checking bags.

Our apartment in Venice!

Airbnb apartment in Canneregio, Rome, Italy

Airbnb apartment in Venice, Italy. Cannaregio neighborhood.

View walking out of apartment in Venice

Airbnb apartment in Venice, Italy. Cannaregio neighborhood.

Next stop, Roma! Oh how I love Rome, especially the neighborhood of Trastevere home to one of my favorite Piazzas in Italy, thus far, Piazza di Santa Maria. We found a lovely one-bedroom apartment in Trastevere listed on Roman Reference. We walked to the Vatican in 20-30 minutes and to the Colosseum in about 40. Gotta walk off all the pasta:-).

Our apartment in Roma!Apartment in Trastevere, Rome found on Roman Reference. Apartment in Trastevere, Rome found on Roman Reference. Apartment in Trastevere, Rome found on Roman Reference.

Piazza di Santa Maria is magical at night!

Piazza Santa di Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy

 

We scheduled 15 nights in Tuscany, 12 of those in Impruneta a small town 20 minutes south of Florence. This was our home-base for most of our time in this region. A friend in our home-schooling circle runs the Tuscan Tour company Capturing la Vita and we stayed where her guests stay at Bellavista Impurneta, a quaint family-run, boutique hotel.

Bellavista Impruneta

Bellevista Hotel in Impruneta, Tuscany, Italy Bellevista Hotel in Impruneta, Tuscany, Italy Bellevista Hotel in Impruneta, Tuscany, Italy Bellevista Hotel in Impruneta, Tuscany, Italy Bellevista Hotel in Impruneta, Tuscany, Italy

We also wanted to see towns like Arrezo, Perugia (Baci chocolate factory), Assisi, Cortona…, further south in around Umbria, so we chose to stay three nights at this (exactly what you picture an accommodation in Tuscany to be) villa just outside of Cortona, famous for the movie Under a Tuscan Sun. It was perfect for that countryside experience. We were there in early May and it still was chilly at night there. The home was built over a 100 years ago and made of stone. With only one wood-burning stove in the family room area the heat did not manage to warm the bedrooms at night, so lots of blankets and snuggling.
Villa in Cortona CountrysideVilla in Tuscany, Italy, Countryside found on Airbnb Villa in Tuscany, Italy, Countryside found on Airbnb Villa in Tuscany, Italy, Countryside found on Airbnb Villa in Tuscany, Italy, Countryside found on Airbnb

Our final stop was is in the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre. On our last trip to Italy in April 2010 (read about this here & here) we home-based at a friends apartment in Deiva Marina, a small town north of the Cinque Terre. Accommodations are more expensive inside one of the five towns, but if you stay just outside to the north or south you can save money and you’re only a very short train ride away. This trip we stayed in Bonassola, another coastal town just north of Cinque Terre. Perfetto! We we’re there in early-mid May so the tourists were just arriving and the weather was supposed to warming up a bit, however, it remained a bit cooler than expected for our time here. We still managed to sneak in some sun-bathing while noshing on panini and gelati though.

Coastal view from the balcony of the apartment in Bonassola!Ocean View apartment in Bonassola, Italy near the Cinque Terre, found on Airbnb Ocean View apartment in Bonassola, Italy near the Cinque Terre, found on Airbnb

 

Ciao!

Planes, Trains & Transportation with kids.

TrainMilano
Milano, Italy Train Station

I hear comments often referring to the dreadful long plane and train rides with kids.  I’m glad to say I don’t know what they’re talking about. Long plane and train rides for the most part have always been a pleasurable part of traveling for us as a family. It’s the beginning of the journey and for us the journey is part of the destination. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve encountered non-perfect situations (missed flights and other not foreseen delays).

One that stands out vividly was on our way to Norway, summer 2013. We missed our flight from Atlanta to Oslo, via Amsterdam, Delta’s fault, and couldn’t get on another flight till the next evening. We luckily have a friend in Atlanta, so after not getting on another flight standby, we visited for a sleep over.  Unfortunately, missing this flight totally changed our train & tour plans once in Norway, so we had to stay up till 3am, Norway time, to call the tour company to change our itinerary, so not much sleep. Since we had no choice of where we sat on the nine hour flight to Amsterdam, YEP we got the very back row, near the restrooms, where the light stays on all night,  people hang out, talk and there was a crying baby. So much for sleeping on the plane.  It was miserable. By the time we reached Amsterdam and made our connection to Oslo it was me, not the kids, that was melting down.  The hours we had to spend in Oslo train station were the icing. Normally I love this time, but instead I was  incredibly irritable, it felt as if my skin were crawling and my clothes were the cause. I wanted no one near me in this busy Oslo train station.  I was so thankful my kids were troopers, no complaints, not once. I’m sure I did enough of that for all of us. By the time we got off the train in Flam it was 10:30pm, still bright as day out and we had a mile walk to our hostel, but the scenery was breathtaking and I was happy and tired.  It’s a wonderfully surreal memory, all a part of the adventure.

The walk to the hostel. Flam, Norway 2013
The walk to the hostel. Flam, Norway 2013

As far as why my children travel well, I can’t possibly know this for sure. We’ve had them on planes, ships and automobiles since they were babies, we didn’t wait until they were older, maybe this helped. With today’s technology there is an abundance of hand-held devices to keep them occupied, most long flights are equipped with current blockbuster movies to watch. Great time to catch up. To Italy you have time for four movies if you don’t sleep.  We even love the horrible food they serve because it’s novel, part of the adventure of flying.  My daughter likes to put a couple of dolls in a baggie and prepare some coloring tools for travel. Bring books. Now is not the time to force a child to do something un-fun, like homework or reading if they’re not in the mood, you’re asking for trouble. Make this time fun and let them bring an assortment of small things that they choose and are interested in. My son prefers sticking to hand-held devices and movies, maybe music for a bit or reading. At the time of this writing my children were 10 & 12, but when they were younger we’d bring snacks too.

So kick back and enjoy the hum of the plane and the scenery out the train window, it’s all a part of the adventure.

Our first overnight in a Sleeper Car. Norway, Summer 2013
Our first overnight in a Sleeper Car. Norway, Summer 2013
Finally boarding the plane to Oslo, Norway. Summer 2013
Finally boarding the plane to Oslo, Norway. Summer 2013