Cinque Terre in One Day

Many of us would have seen pictures of Cinque Terre, commonly listed in articles such as “Most beautiful places in the world” or “Places to visit before you die”. After all, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of five little fishing villages along the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera. Much of its charm and allure comes from its distinct colourful houses, each village with its own unique character.

Now that you have set your heart and eyes on this gorgeous seaside town, you might find yourself in the same situation as we did, having only 10 days in Italy, but not wanting to miss Cinque Terre. You would be happy to know, that a day trip to Cinque Terre (from Florence) is very much possible!

If you are planning to soak in the sun, sand and sea, the best time to visit would be the warmer months of mid-May to mid-September. If you are interested in hiking or sight-seeing, mid-March to mid-October is ideal.

Getting there

From Florence, take a direct regional train to La Spezia. I would recommend starting your day as early as 6 or 7 in the morning as the journey takes 2.5 hours. When you arrive at the La Spezia train station, stop in the tourist information office and get the 1-Day Cinque Terre Treno card which allows you unlimited train travel, access to the coastal trails and public toilets. It’s worth it.

From La Spezia you can take another shorter train to any of the five towns. The travel time between each town ranges between 2 to 5 minutes. A schedule for 2017 is available here.

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Image Source: Tripsavvy

So much to see, so little time

Since you only have one day, it’s best to focus your sightseeing on 3 towns, so that you have enough time to explore and enjoy each one.

In the Summer months, see Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso, the most beautiful of the five. But if you are going off season (the idea of dipping in freezing seawater not very appealing), exchange Monterosso with Riomaggiore.

Tip: If you can afford the time, spend a night in Cinque Terre to enjoy the sunset and watch the seaside houses illuminate into a warm glow of colours (this was something we missed as the sunset in Summer only begins at 9pm, and we had to catch our return train back to Florence).

Swim from rocks in Manarola

Manarola was the first stop we made. It’s main street, lined with tiny shops and cafes along a steep slope, was quaint, charming, and quiet. Keep walking down and you will reach an opening leading to some rocks and sea. There is also a lookout point further down where you can capture this famous shot of Cinque Terre.

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We were not planning on getting ourselves wet (not until the beach in Monterosso), but the glittering sea was inviting us in and the rocks created a perfect swimming hole. In a moment of spontaniety, we ditched our bags and jumped in.

The water was freezing! But it was the best decision we’d made. Floating on my back in the Mediterranean Sea, the sun burning my face, and the cold water on my skin. I have truly never felt more alive

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Try Friggitoria in Vernazza 

The town of Vernazza is the most bustling out of all. It should be about lunch time by the time you arrive. Walk down to the harbour where you will find plenty of seaside restaurants. Enjoy the view while sipping on a glass of wine.

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The lobster linguine at Gambero Rosso is pretty famous, and so are its seafood. If you are looking for a cheaper option, Ristorante Pizzeria Vulnetia serves pretty good pizza and pasta. For a quick snack, try friggitoria – delicious bite-sized fried seafood in paper cones.

Before you leave Vernazza, don’t forget to get a gelato at the Gelataria Vernazza to cool down from the afternoon heat. It was one of the best we tried in Italy.

Soak up the sun in Monterosso

Monterosso is the only sand-covered beach area in Cinque Terre. Lined with umbrellas and deck chairs, you will find plenty of beach goers getting a tan, frolicking in the water, or just soaking up the sun and sea.

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You will be able to get cheap massages here – I did mine at 20 euros for 40 minutes. The massueses, usually ladies covered in long sleeves and pants, wearing hats, come around and do the massage on the spot.

Tip: Do note that these umbrellas and deck chairs are not free. We paid 10 euros for two chairs and an umbrella!

Catch the golden hour

If you are lucky to stay and catch the golden hour, I’ve heard that the best spot is from Riomaggiore. Shh, it’s a well kept secret. Just remember to thank me later when you get your picture on National Geographic.

How I traveled Europe with Chronic Back Pain 

I am an avid traveler. Or rather, I was. In 2011 when I was in university, I spent 6 months  in Paris for a “student exchange programme”. That’s what they call it. We, on the other hand, took it as an opportunity to travel. What classes? 

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Visiting the Loire Valley during a weekend on our Student Exchange Programme

Two years down the road I found myself entering the working world. And it was also the point where I suffered a slipped disc in my low back. The pain persisted and became chronic even as the injury “healed”. Till today, four years after the injury, I experience daily constant back pain (at times debilitating) throughout my entire spine.

I thought my days of traveling were over. If I can barely sit through a 2-hour movie, how can I possibly sit through an 11-hour flight? 

I won’t tell you it’s easy, but I will tell you it’s possible. In June this year, I took an 11-hour flight from Singapore to Athens, travelled 5 cities in 18 days across Greece and Italy, of course, not without making plenty of adjustments and special arrangements on my part, some even requiring me to buy an extra seat on the plane. But if you love travelling and adventure as much as I do, you would understand when I say that the moment I stepped foot in our destination, it was all worth it.

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Two seats for me and one for Edwin 😀

So here are 25 tips to survive traveling with chronic back pain and minimize the chance of spending your entire trip in bed. 

(Disclaimer: I have found these tips useful for my condition and I do not claim that they will work for everyone. I do hope however that those traveling with a bad back will find some useful tips here.) 

Some background info: Travellers with pain start each day with a limited number of “spoons“, which is a unit of personal energy. Once I’ve used up my spoons for the day, I’m done. I need to get back to the hotel and lie down for the next 3 hours or so.

  1. Get lots of rest the week before you travel – sleep well, go for massages. Be careful not to do anything that may possibly overstrain your back and cause a flare up. I would also suggest to take a day off work before your trip just to relax your mind and body.
  2. Bring a small (foldable) pillow for long plane or train rides to support your low back. You can also roll up a towel or jacket.
  3. Get a doctor’s letter for any pain medications that you are taking, if you are bringing them in significant quantities. Bring extra medication in case of flare ups. 
  4. Set your expectations right. Know your own body. 
  5. Do not try to squeeze too many things in one day. Allow plenty of time to rest. I usually plan for one main attraction or activity a day (which can take a couple of hours to half a day), any more is a bonus. 
  6. Do not move around too many cities in too short a time. Spread out your itinerary. Cater a day of rest in between cities so that you have time for your body to recover. Sightseeing does not have to be making a list of attractions to check off one by one,  I’ve found it equally enjoyable sitting in a cafe, or by the beach, enjoying a cup of coffee or a gelato.
  7. Communicate with your travel partner(s) before and during the trip. Tell them how much you can and cannot do. It helps when you and your travel partner(s) have similar expectations. 
  8. Planning is key. Research. Know exactly where you need to go to avoid making unnecessary detours (having to figure out directions to the hotel while your hands are full with luggages is not fun)
  9. Location of hotel is extremely important. Stay in a central location near to the main attractions so that it is easy for you to go back and rest if you need to. 
  10. Booking an extra seat on the airplane will allow you to lie down throughout the flight (lucky for me I am small sized). It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s better than nothing. Or upgrade to first class if you can afford it.
  11. Don’t wait for the pain to come before you do something about it. Plan ahead to prevent flare ups. 
  12. Listen to your body. Rest if you need to, even if it means staying in for half a day. Your body will thank you for it. 
  13. Pack light. And hopefully someone travelling with you can help carry your luggage at airport security and onto the plane’s baggage compartment. If not, it doesn’t hurt to ask a stranger. Most people would be happy to give a helping hand. 
  14. Carry a backpack instead of a sling or handbag. It evens the weight on your shoulders. Also, resist the urge to overdo the shopping. You can’t expect to carry around a bunch of stuff and feel good by the end of the day.
  15. Wear comfortable shoes. I love Skechers because they feel like walking on clouds! Comfort over style. Always. 
  16. Don’t scrimp on taxis if you need to. When your “spoons” are used up and you’re not anywhere near the hotel, you need to have the money in your pocket to hail a cab without guilt.
  17. Bring heat pads, pain plasters, whatever that helps provide temporary relief to sore and aching muscles after a tiring day.
  18. Don’t forget to do your daily routine of stretches in the morning and before bed.
  19. Have loads of fun! It helps take your mind away from the pain. 
  20. Don’t push yourself to follow the group. In Santorini, we joined a day tour which took us up a volcano on foot.  When we reached the first out of three pit stops, I knew there was no way I could make it to the top. So we waited (and took lots of pictures) while the group went up. Which brings me to my next point. 
  21. Always go free and easy. It is tough keeping up with tour groups. Free and easy allows you to see what you want to see at your own pace, and not having to waste your limited energy seeing things you don’t. 
  22. Be flexible. Things will not always go the way you have planned. It’s ok if you didn’t manage to do something on your list. 
  23. Be thankful for the things you managed to do and the unforgettable experiences.
  24. Travel safe. Having a chronic back pain condition (or any condition) means that there will be limitations to what you can physically do. Please do not try extreme sports like skydiving or bungee jumping. You get the idea. For myself, doctors have even advised against sitting on roller coasters. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun 😉
  25. Have a positive mindset. You are in control of your pain. Your pain does not control you. Your pain does not define you. Yes, you with the wild and restless heart. Adventure is waiting. Are you ready?

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P.S. I just want to take this opportunity to thank Edwin, my husband and travel partner, for being the most patient and understanding with me. It was not easy for him to carry all of our luggage across canals, cobble stoned bridges, and up the 4th floor to our Airbnb with no lift! Really I could not have done it without him.

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The Soundtrack of our Summer

The idea behind this video came about when we wanted to find a way to document our adventures. It was quite the ambitious undertaking because Edwin and I have never attempted such a video before. But we decided to try! Though our attempts did wane at the end… you can tell from the lack of footage. Anyway, here is the final product! Captured with my humble iPhone SE (lol sorry no $ to buy GoPro).

P.S. If you’re wondering about the song choice (and surprised because I don’t like electronic dance music), Edwin introduced it to me on the train ride from Florence to Rome and as we were listening to it together, watching the world pass us by, I knew that this was the song! The soundtrack of our summer.

Athens: Greek Gods and Temple Rocks

Athens was the start of our 18 day honeymoon, so you can say that it was here that we were first welcomed by Europe’s summer heat (almost at its peak), and were we not ready for it!

Still, countless reapplications of sunblock later, I must say it was pretty surreal, standing on the Acropolis and seeing the Parthenon in front of our eyes, learning about the layers of history that exist between these marbled rocks.

We’d booked our Airbnb apartment with Sean quite early in advance for 40 euros a night. Yes, it’s possible to get an apartment for 40 euros here in peak season! The location was perfect, just 5 minutes walk to the Acropolis station. Some communication breakdown led us to wait outside the apartment for 2 hours before Sean arrived, but he was so passionate in giving us suggestions on what to do, see, and eat, which was especially useful because we had no idea where to go for food. And by then we were famished.

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Our humble Airbnb apartment in the heart of Plaka

After resting our post-flight achy bodies, out we went in search for the falafel joint recommended by Sean. It was a quick, juicy and satisfying bite for only 2.40 euros. The combination of greek yogurt, pita bread, tomatoes and beef kebab was so good (or perhaps everything tastes good when you are hungry) that we even got a second!

Now that hunger was off the list, it was about mid-day when we started exploring the Plaka area, the neighbourhood where we lived. The streets, lined with souvenir shops, were quiet. The skies were clear. People were moving at a leisurely pace, unhurried, a stark contrast to the crowded Orchard Road shopping district in Singapore.

Now we were on a quest to find Anafiotika, which we’d read about – a tiny, picturesque 19th century “village” on the northern slopes of the Acropolis that very much resembled The Cyclades – and we got very very lost.

A waiter, mustached, with a strong greek accent approached us (we were wary of how forthcoming he was), and asked if we were lost. When we told him where we wanted to go, he quickly pointed us in the right direction. “Just up these stairs!” It was a long flight of stairs. But I was just thinking to myself how kind of a stranger to offer his help, when we’d showed no interest in patronising his restaurant.

I still am not fully convinced that we’d found Anafiotika, because it did not look quite the same as the pictures online. Perhaps where we wandered was only a part of it, but the views from the top of the hill were lovely, and we were both flushed red and dripping with sweat – it was enough exploring for the day.

On our way back down we stopped by an ice cream shop that served organic greek frozen yogurt. It tasted nothing like Llaollao or Yami Yogurt. It was thick, rich, with a slight sweet aftertaste. Edwin added a raw honeycomb topping which he happily finished (not quite to my liking).

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Oops took a bite!

At about 9 in the evening, we headed out of our apartment for dinner, surprised that the sun had only just set. The traditional greek restaurant we had chosen was a short walk away, one that we had passed earlier in the day. “Choose 5 dishes. 30 euros for 2 people,” we were told, with complimentary wine and dessert. First attempt to order failed. “No, no, 1 from here, 2 from here, 2 from here” pointed the waiter. Second attempt to order failed. Eventually, he impatiently chose something on the menu – an appetizer – and hurried off before we even had time to ask what it was. It turned out to be Tzatziki – a yogurt sauce mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt and olive oil that we heartily ate with bread. It complemented our other dishes well and we were both full and satisfied by the end of dinner. That night, we fell asleep thinking about how nice our first day in Athens had been, and if the next 17 days would be so.

(Left: Tzatziki served with bread. Right: Fried Calamari and Chicken in a Lemon Mustard sauce)

Day 2

We arose early, excited to get to the Acropolis while the sun was not yet at it’s peak. Quickly, we grabbed a bagel sandwich and chocolate croissant at a nearby bakery. Breakfast in hand and iPhone in the other with Rick Steve’s audio guide playing (highly recommended if you don’t have a guide), we were ready for the climb.

The word Acropolis comes from the Greek words ἄκρον (akron, “highest point”) and πόλις (polis, “city”). Each step up the Acropolis’ slopes was a laboured climb, though the higher we went, the better views we were rewarded with. Along the way, we caught sight of the Theatre of Dionysus, Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Temple of Athena Nike before reaching the Propylaea, entrance of the Acropolis marked with tall, grand columns and monumental statues.

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Theatre of Dionysus in the foreground

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Odeon of Herodes Atticus

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Temple of Athena Nike

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The Parthenon soon came into full view, and around it, hoards of tourists snapping pictures of it (and with it) from all sides. From this height, the heat was starting to become unbearable, but we could not tear our eyes away from its impressive marbled columns, and grandeur of the entire structure. It felt like we had entered a different time period. I later discovered that The Parthenon was built in 447 BC (more than 2000 years ago!) as a temple dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom.

What remains of the Parthenon today is just a fragment of it’s original glory, yet the fact that it is in ruins only amplifies the significance it has played throughout history, of fallen empires and casualties of war. Parts of the Acropolis have been under construction for the past few decades in attempts to restore it. As such, there is much scaffolding against its structure.

The journey downhill was easier and we were thankful to sneak into the air-conditioned Acropolis Museum next door. Real physical artifacts of the Acropolis were on display, pieces that have broken off over the years, damaged from war and arson. Though I was clearly struggling to appreciate these artifacts for what they were (never been much of a history person), I did find the The Contest between Poseidon and Athena particularly interesting. One thing I know is I will not look at olives in the same way again!

Later that night, we met up with friends staying in Athens, who brought us to a rooftop restaurant in Monastiraki Square overlooking the Acropolis, and introduced us to a dish that would become our favourite Greek food – fried Zucchini! (Why have we not tried this before??). Over casual conversations and catching up on life in Athens and Singapore, day slowly turned into night and before we knew it, our short time in Athens had come to an end. Though we were sad to leave the place that had treated us so well, our next adventure in Santorini was just about to begin.

Follow the rest of our Europe 2017 adventure:

Day 1 – 2 / June 24 – 25 Athens: Greek Gods & Temple Rocks
Day 3 – 6 / June 26 – 30 Chasing Sunsets in Santorini
Day 7 – 8 / June 31 – July 1 Lost in Venice (coming soon)
Day 9 – 13 / July 2 – 6 Romancing Florence (coming soon)
Day 10 / July 3 Under the Tuscan Sun (coming soon)
Day 12 / July 5 Colours of Cinque Terre (coming soon)
Day 14 – 17 / July 8 – 11 Rome: The Eternal City (coming soon)

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Chasing Sunsets in Santorini

White-washed houses atop rocky cliffs. Breathtaking sunsets. Endless blue seas that stretch forever. Yes, they were not lying when they said that Santorini is the perfect honeymoon destination. This was hands-down the highlight of our trip and it remains the most amazing travel experience to date we’ve ever had.

If you ever decide to go to Santorini, please do yourself a favour and spend at least four nights there. And splurge on your hotel.

Edwin and I are not the kind of travellers to spend on accommodation. When we travel Europe, we prefer to stay at Airbnbs as they are not only cheaper than hotels but we also get a local experience. In Santorini however, we paid 816 euros for four nights at Gizis Hotel, for a room overlooking the caldera, with a private outdoor hot tub. No regrets. (Tip: Book your hotel early as they tend to get full quickly in peak season!)

Gizis Hotel was a 15 minute walk to the nearest town, Imerovigli. We enjoyed the peace and privacy, though food options nearby were limited. If you happen to be in Imerovigli, check out Anogi or Avocado, two of the best meals we had on the island.

(Left: Pork Souvlaki and Roast Beef Pasta at Anogi. Right: Moussaka at Avocado. Moussaka is a traditional baked Greek dish with eggplant and potatoes in a cheesy meat sauce. A must try!)

Day 2
To get around the island, we rented an ATV which cost us 23 euros a day, excluding petrol. We highly recommend the ATV if you are traveling as a couple – it’s easier to find parking, and way more fun than renting a car! To be honest, I was a little scared because diverting off the road would mean a fall of 300 metres down the cliff. But once past the stage of fear, I was literally screaming with excitement while poor Edwin had a hard time trying to calm me down. Of course, thanks to Edwin’s stellar driving skills (and my not-too-shabby navigation skills) we were alright 🙂

The smell of sea water greeted us as soon as we strolled down the path leading towards Ammoudi Bay. Crystal clear waters. Fisherman boats. Quaint seafood restaurants. Sun-dried octopuses hung on display. Donkeys lined up in a row waiting to transport tired tourists up to Oia (about 300 steps give or take). We explored the bay a little before settling on one of the four restaurants along the water. Unsurprisingly, the prices were steep. 4 grilled prawns for 19 euros! Definitely a tourist trap, though with the views, I guess you can’t complain.

Our next stop was Oia, the most beautiful and picturesque village in Santorini famous for it’s blue-domed churches, windmills, and spectacular sunsets. Oia is also the most expensive if you choose to book a hotel there. Its streets have plenty of tourist shops, taverns, cafes, and restaurants, though it is quieter than Fira, the main town.

I cannot begin to describe how beautiful Oia is. Every street and corner we turned overlooked gorgeous views. I guess photos speak louder than words.

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Later that night, we took our ATV down to Fira for dinner and to watch the sunset. Fira is the heart of Santorini, bustling and vibrant with restaurants, bars and hotels. Amazing views, but we agreed that it was better to watch the sunset from our hotel without having to squeeze with the summer crowd.

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Day 3
We spent our third day on board the Thalassa – a semi-private sunset cruise which sailed about 55 people. We were picked up at our hotel at 1:30pm and dropped off at the old port of Fira where we boarded the cruise and departed to Nea Kameni, an active volcano which is one of the calderas that you can see from our hotel. The guide led us up to explore the rim of the volcanic crater (we did not hike all the way up to the top because my back was in pain, so we took pictures instead).

The ship then took us to a nearby hot spring, but wait, there’s a catch! To get there, you have to walk the plank (I mean, jump off the side of the ship) and swim about 50 metres in cold 21 degrees seawater. The swim was actually more enjoyable than the hot spring itself. Nothing special. Apart from a family of chickens running around.

In the meantime, we were given time to swim in the Aegean Sea while the crew onboard prepared a traditional greek barbecue buffet, which we gobbled down with a glass of complimentary wine.

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As soon as the sun started to set, we departed to Oia, this time seeing it from a different angle, where we relished in the magic that unfolded in front of our eyes, serenaded with live saxophone music – truly an experience we will never forget.

Day 4
Most of our last day in Santorini was spent in our hotel, enjoying the view and each other’s company. (Singaporean mentality is because we paid so much for it, might as well make good use of it, right?). When the golden hour arrived, we lay at our balcony watching the sun slowly engulf the sea, bringing an end to yet another perfect day in paradise.

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“I am looking across the sea to the caldera, and the whitewashed houses over the cliffs of Oia so that I can remember this view long after I leave, and the sun burning my skin, and the wind across my face, and most of all this feeling, of being in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and having him next to me. I want to keep this feeling forever. In a few days all I have will be pictures. And a part of me will be left behind in them.”

Follow the rest of our Europe 2017 adventure:

Day 1 – 2 / June 24 – 25 Athens: Greek Gods & Temple Rocks
Day 3 – 6 / June 26 – 30 Chasing Sunsets in Santorini
Day 7 – 8 / June 31 – July 1 Lost in Venice (coming soon)
Day 9 – 13 / July 2 – 6 Romancing Florence (coming soon)
Day 10 / July 3 Under the Tuscan Sun (coming soon)
Day 12 / July 5 Colours of Cinque Terre (coming soon)
Day 14 – 17 / July 8 – 11 Rome: The Eternal City (coming soon)

 

 

 

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