My Journey to Jerusalem

“Oh Jerusalem, the city of sorrow
A big tear wandering in the eye

Who will halt the aggression?
On you, the pearl of religions?
Who will wash your bloody walls?
Who will safeguard the Bible?
Who will rescue the Quran?
Who will save Christ, 
From those who have killed Christ?
Who will save man?”

Nizar Qabbani

The feeling I had when arriving in Israel was one of curiosity. Knowing that this was the Holy Land and the birthplace of Jesus (In Islam: Prophet Isa) was something I felt blessed to be able to witness. However, I was also interested to know what was happening on this side of the world. To me, believing is seeing.

Our journey began and ended at Eilat. Immediately after we got our rental car, we drove to Dead Sea, which is located at the southern tip of Israel. The drive took us about four hours as we took the scenic route through the Negev desert.

Dead Sea

We woke up early for sunrise at Masada National Park. The queue already forming when we got there. The quickest and easiest way to the top is by cable car but we opted for hiking via the Snake trail to watch the sunrise. It took us 90 minutes before we reached the top.

The Snake Trail is a combination of hard dirt, some loose rocks and stone steps. It is a constant climb to the top, about 980 feet in elevation. It is strenuous, especially in the heat of midday, but to watch the views over the Dead Sea unfold as we steadily climb higher is rewarding. Phenomenal.

Masada is a Unesco World Heritage Sites. When I did my research, almost all the historical stories about Masada comes from the first-century Jewish Roman historian, Josephus. But there was also contradicting evidence from the Archaeology. Whatever it is, this ancient fortress Masada is worth visiting.

Ein Bokek is located right next to the hotel strip of the Dead Sea, and not far from the hotels’ shopping center and the Ein Tchelet Mall. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the beach. Floating on the salty water of the Dead Sea is a must do activity. Beautiful blue waters with salt build up at the shore are contrasted with the red earth and mountains.

On the way to Jerusalem, we stopped at The Ein Gedi Spa. You can’t visit Israel and not take a dip in the Dead Sea. Known throughout the world because of its high salt content, which allows visitors to float effortlessly, and for the therapeutic mud which forms at the edges of the water. 

The mineral baths and the solarium offer a fine and relaxing retreat from the turmoil of everyday life. It offers a chance, together with the Dead Sea mud, to renew oneself. There is a shuttle bus to the sea, heated pool, a swimming pool, restaurants and stores selling Dead Sea products.

JERUSALEM

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is a holy city to the three most important monotheistic religions; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is home to the Western Wall,  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and two important mosques: Al Aqsa and The Dome of the Rock.

Streets of Jerusalem

We enjoyed wandering the streets of Jerusalem. There is no place in the world that could make you feel at peace and to live such a different experience in places with so much history in almost every corner. There are four quarters in old Jerusalem, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. Each offered something different and they seem to blend extremely well given their differences. We let ourselves get lost in it, exploring the old, winding streets, wandered into the many stores, smell the fragrances, eating the beautiful food and snacks, drinking the most flavourful chai tea, and let the history seep into us.

Al Aqsa Mosque (Masjid Al Aqsa)

“Recite the Al Fatihah (verses of Holy Qur’an),” the Palestinian Guard said. One can enter the The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque only if they pass this elusive test among others, to prove one “Muslimness.” Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque or the Dome but can wander around the Temple Mount site outside the buildings.

The inside of the Al Aqsa mosque was breath taking and serene. Al Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medinah. I took my time in absorbing every detail that caught my attention. Beautiful recitation of the Holy Qur’an inside, and I get to meet the people of Al Quds and Palestine who were very warm and friendly. Watch the Video

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra)

The Dome of the Rock is something one has to witness himself or herself. Words cannot do it justice. This octagonal mosque structure with significant gold-coated dome is a breathtakingly landmark for Jerusalem. The interior artwork, motives, patterns and decorations are amazing, and it’s history even more so. Muslim believes this is where Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended into heaven, where he met the earlier prophets, and eventually God (Isra and Mi’raj).

I walked downstairs to a quiet space where the famous rock is located and just sit, taking in the momentous occasion. After several moments of praying for families and friends, and paying homage to this holy place, I continued my stroll outside the compound.

“The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.”              

Ibn Battuta (14th century travel writer)

Western Wall

The Western “Wailing” Wall, otherwise known as HaKotel in Hebrew, is one of the absolute must-sees on any visit to Jerusalem. The raw, emotional power of this huge wall (the only remnants of the famed Second Temple), blow my socks off, regardless of my own religious persuasion. Thousands of people journey to the wall every year to visit and recite prayers. Visitors to the wall have long followed the practice of wedging small slips of paper, upon which prayers and petitions are written, into the cracks between the stones.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a church in the Christian Quarter. The heartbeat of Christianity within Jerusalem can be found at this church. It contains two holiest sites of Christianity, the site where Jesus is believed to be crucified and his empty tomb where he had been buried. Watching other people reaction and worshipping is spiritually enlightening. Watch the Video

Mount of Olives

Located on the eastern side of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives is the place to come for spectacular sunset views across Jerusalem and especially vistas of the Old City of Jerusalem. We walked up the hill and enjoyed the scenic view from above.

Historically, the Mount of Olives  was a site of great importance and considered the center of Jerusalem. The site is a location of holy pilgrimage for both Jews and Christians, with over 150,000 graves and a number of important Christian churches located on this amazing mountain ridge.

Bethlehem

We travelled to Bethlehem from the bus station across Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. There are plenty of taxis at the checkpoint but we have hired Abod, a Palestinian, who guided us. Bethlehem is part of the West Bank that forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, the remainder of which is comprised of the Gaza Strip. Abod brought us to see real life Banksy’s famous works, the Flower Thrower and the Girl frisking the Soldier.

We then made our way to Manger Square where the Church of the Nativity stands. Abod spoke to the guard and we managed to escape the very long queue of pilgrims. The Church is one of the oldest churches in the world and was built above the cave where, according to the Bible, Jesus (Prophet Isa) was born. The church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is ornate and beautiful.

We descended the narrow flight of stairs into the crowded Grotto of the Nativity under the Orthodox side of the Church, after waiting our turn among the throngs of tourists. I am always overwhelmed by the significance of the major historical religious sites regardless of which religion they relate to and the birthplace of Jesus was no exception. It was an incredible moment to touch the star and the atmosphere in the Grotto was electric.

Our next stop is the Separation Wall that blew our minds. The tall concrete wall, lined with watchtowers, cameras and barbed wire, was a shock. It highlights the severity of the political situation and the reality of those who live under its shadow. The wall is covered with graffitis and messages, many of which are dedicated to the political situation between Israel and Palestine. We could spend hours checking out the walls if not for Abod. If we ever visit again, we would not take a guide so as to be free to explore on our own.

Aida Refugee Camp which hosts refugees from demolished villages. The entrance to the camp is marked with a right to return key, which signifies that the refugees have a right to return, and a right to the property that they left behind. To both of us who have the freedom to travel all over the world, it was difficult to comprehend life within the borders of Palestine. The constant tensions, frequent clashes and the realisation that many of the children have only known life within such a confined area is exceedingly difficult to comprehend.

Bethlehem is surrounded by so many Israeli settlements, which are visible from various vantage points throughout the city. The settlements are populated with Israeli civilians and are considered illegal in the international community. Watch the Video

Eilat

Eilat is located in the south of the Negev desert, on the top of the Gulf of Aqaba and has a border with both Egypt and Jordan. Eilat is a compact city with most activities centered along King Solomon Promenade. Being in such close proximity to the Dead Sea, the city is home to a range of unique items, from mudpacks to salt scrub.

OUR VIEWS

Before traveling to Israel, I was very apprehensive due to the situation of the country; the occupation, civil unrest and all the negativities in media. But once I got there, I was fortunate to not witness any aggression, and I felt very safe.

Israel is not a cheap country to visit but it is very special because of the unique landscape, the history of religion, the world-renowned and Unesco world Heritage Sites, and the wonderful weather. Very small, yet very diverse. This is a place we would want to visit again. And we wish nothing but peace and love in Jerusalem.

They say

If we love God most

We will love others best

But why oh why

Jerusalem oh Jerusalem

Intan
Tips & Suggestions:
  1. Dress appropriately
  2. Be prepared to be strictly interviewed at the Airport
  3. Currency
    • The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). ATMs are readily accessible in all major cities and most places accept foreign cards.
    • During our trip, the rate was: 100 shekel = €25 / SGD38
  4. Business Hours
    • Weekend falls on Friday and Saturday
    • Most restaurants, shops and public transport close on Friday afternoons and reopen late on Saturday (Shabbat)
  5. Transportation
    • We chose to hire a car for our trip.
    • Do not miss Eilat shuttle (Bus), which costs USD8 per person. As we missed the shuttle, we took a taxi to Eilat which cost €50
    • Eilat shuttle offers a cheap and easy bus between Eilat city, hotels and Ovda Airport.
  6. General etiquette and conduct
    • Being sensitive to cultural traditions and political tensions
    • Regarding photography, getting a camera out is generally not an issue in most places frequented by tourists, but be considerate and ask for permission.
    • Off-limits for photographers are military sites and border police at checkpoints.

Thaipusam 2020

First time in Greece – 12 nights

I have always thought of myself as an independent and organised traveller. For my trip to Greece, I didn’t plan much, except in figuring out the general routes. I wanted to experience traveling like hippies. But this is not my style.

It turned out that it was more expensive to purchase ferry tickets and hotels on the go. And it was very stressful to figure out how to go from one place to the other. We spent two nights in Athensthree nights in Santorinitwo nights in Naxostwo nights in Paros, and three nights in Nafplio. On our last day, we took early bus from Nafplio to Athens, stored our luggage, and explored Athens for the last few hours.

ATHENS

Staying at a hotel next to Monastiraki station is the best choice. Monastiraki neighbourhood is near to many iconic landmarks, restaurants, flea markets, and direct metro to and from Athens airport, and Piraeus Port for island hopping.

Monastiraki Square is lively and provide a very nice experience. I love hanging out in Monastiraki and Plaka, and soaking in the ambience. Athens streets are picturesque, full of graffiti, with views of every day life accompanying by soothing Greek music in the background.

We climbed the Acropolis hill and had our first view of the Parthenon, the iconic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. Once we’re done with the sacred rock, we headed to the Acropolis Museum before stopping for a lunch-Greek style.

We visited Syntagma Square to see the changing of the guard in front of the House of Parliament. It was rather unique. Their uniforms and movements were so interesting and they have the greatest tassels on their shoes.

 

In the evening, we went to Mount Lycabettus to enjoy the sunset and panaromic view at the top of the hill. Indeed it was beautiful.

During our last day in Greece, it happens to be a Sunday where Athens flea market is opened. We visited the bustling and quaint market and have a late lunch accompanied by live Greek music.

SANTORINI

As soon as I arrived Santorini by ferry, I was overwhelmed by it’s beauty. I was in awe. Everything about this place is stunning.

From Santorini port, we took a bus to Fira, and changed another bus to Oia. Oia is a charming, bustling village and has plenty of exciting places to dine. We witnessed the beautiful sun set over the caldera as the town literally lights up into wonderful shades.

 

Oia village is the most popular spot for sunsets, and we were happy with our choice of stay. We wandered at the boulevard at anytime of the day and able to take good pictures without any other people in the frame.

During our stay, we rented a car and explore the island. We visited the ancient Akrotiri, Pyrgos, Emporio, Ancient Thira, Kamari Beach, and Perissa Beach.

 

As we were short of time, we didn’t complete the full trail to Ancient Thira. It was worth the hike up to the top of the hill to see the ancient ruins and the entire island from a bird’s eye view.

We were fortunate to experience Easter in Pyrgos village. The prayers, chanting, and the lightings were spectacular. The entire village glows ablaze, it is a true magical sight not to be missed.

NAXOS

The first thing we noticed when we arrived Naxos is the unfinished Temple of Apollo (also known as Portara), that has become the postcard for Naxos. The view was amazing especially as the sun goes down between the columns.

We were looking for our place of stay, but got confused with the little alleys. Greek people are warm, friendly and eager to help. The lady walked with us to our destination, we were so grateful.

I rated Pension Irene as the best value for money accommodation we had in Greece. It really is such a great place to stay! The rooms include a kitchenette with a mini fridge, stove top, and kettle. The location is ideal and the host is wonderful.

 

We rented a car and enjoyed wandering around the island. Naxos is a big island in the heart of Aegean sea. A very interesting place that we can experience variable activities. One needs at the minimum three nights to explore, and we had only two.

The church of Ayios Nikolaos is peculiar and the surrounding environment is full of nature. We also visited Halki, Apiranthos, Filoti, Koronos and Koronida.

PAROS

Upon arrival at the port, we couldn’t find our hotel host. It turned out that Andreas has waited for us the previous midnight,  mixing up the ‘am/pm’ as they use 24 hours time format in Greece. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay at La Sellini.

Parikia is the main village and it was wonderful. It has everything; shopping, eateries, bars, castle, beaches, and lovely locals who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and special.

We rented a car and drive around the entire island. We wandered through beautiful traditional villages like Naoussa. Naoussa is a charming and colourful village, where the ruins of a Venetian fortress stand at the entrance to its beautiful small harbor.

 

Lefkes is a quaint village in the middle of the island with lots of little nooks and crannys. The Byzantine church is beautiful with a breathtaking views of the sea.

The island itself has some nice beaches with sand and clear blue waters, some great mountain and sea experiences.

NAFPLIO

Upon reaching Piraeus port, we bought bus ticket at the Nafplio ticket desk (across the road), crossing back, and took bus 420 to Kiffisos bus terminal. From there, we took a bus to Nafplio.

Located in the eastern Peloponnese, Nafplio is a seaport town with it picturesque bougainvillea streets and lovely sunny squares. We are forever thankful that a friend, Gio, is kind enough to let us stay at his cozy and beautiful place near the main square.

While we can take taxi to Palamidi fortress, we enjoyed the climb up to 999 steps. The views were spectacular and we had plenty of stops along the way to catch our breath and taking pictures. The site provides a great vista to see the surrounding area and other castle ruins dotting the neighboring hills. It gives you the sense of what it was like to live in those times.

On Saturday, we visited farmers’ market that stretches from Kyprou Street to Martiou Avenue. There were plenty of fresh fish, vegetables, cheeses, fruits and daily stuff. We paid €1 for 3 kg of oranges! Maybe the old lady likes us or just wanted to clear her produce. Whatever it is, the oranges that came straight from her farm were sweet and juicy.

 

On one of the evening, we visited Bourtzi, another fortress on an islet west of the old town. The boat sails along the coast and we enjoyed the beautiful view of the sunset. We also enjoyed relaxing at the lovely Aarvanitia beach with white pebbles and aqua water. The view was spectacular.

 

We encountered some greatest food moment while in Greece. We enjoyed the food at Lotza, Oia – Santorini, Relax Pizzeria at Naxos overlooking the port, and Bairaktaris Tarvena at Monastiraki Square in Athens.

Relax Pizzeria at Naxos. What a view!

Greece has many islands to discover, and is a fantastic country to visit all the year through. This country has plenty to offer and we truly enjoyed the picture-perfect scenery, fascinating culture, the friendly people and cats, and the food.

 

SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Be sure to plan ahead – plan and book early.
  • Purchase ferry tickets online. The tickets were sold out fast even in the month of April. Blue Star Ferries – www.bluestarferries.com
  • Stay in Oia for an exclusive view to the sunset, comfort and serenity.
  • Rent a scooter or car to explore the villages. Like everywhere else, we suggest you to take pictures and videos of the vehicle before signing the dotted lines. In Santorini, they wanted to charge us for a small dent on the car, which we seriously did not commit.
  • Travelling between the main towns is easy on the comprehensive KTEL bus network – www.e-ktel.com
  • Do not flush toilet paper.
  • Be culturally sensitive – bring scarf to cover shoulders when visiting holy places.

ACCOMMODATION:

ATHENS           2 Nights Accommodation: Cecil Hotel Athens www.cecilhotel.gr

SANTORINI      3 Nights Accommodation: Pension The Flower http://flower-santorini.com

NAXOS             2 Nights Accommodation: Pension Irene II https://irenenaxos.com/home-2/

PAROS             2 Nights Accommodation: La Sellini http://laselini.com

 

Portovenere – the Gulf of Poets

“Why are there so many English flags here?” I asked. I’m so confused seeing St. George’s flags being worshipped in Portovenere, Italy. They were hanging everywhere.

Lorenzo explained that St. George’s flag is originally the flag of Genoa, a province in the Liguria region of Italy. Portovenere became part of the Republic of Genoa in 1113, and the flag is still used in Genoa today. The St. George’s flag was “borrowed” by England to benefit from the protection of Genoese fleet, and they later adopted it. It was also believed that King Richard (the Lionheart) adopted the flag during his crusades. How could I not know about that? It was satisfying to learn more about the world when we travel, it shows how travel is the best education we can get.

Portovenere is not one of Cinque Terre, but it is located strategically on the Gulf of Poets, formally known as Gulf of La Spezia. This city was built by the Romans, and during that time, Portovenere was a small fishing community. The town was later used by the Byzantine Navy as a base. When we were sourcing for a place to stay in Cinque Terre, Nicky thinks that it is better to explore a place that is off the beaten track. Portovenere is equally beautiful and much less touristy, and it was much convenient to park our vehicle here.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Portovenere was the bright colorful houses perched on a rocky shore, and beautiful boats docked by the beach. Portovenere is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was made famous by poets and authors who have been struck by its beauty and sought inspirations for their many creative works. Grotta Byron bears a plaque honoring the English poet, Lord Byron, who swam across the bay of Portovenere to meet his fellow muse, Shelley, in Lerici. Lord Byron is believed to have written his poem “The Corsair” in the grotto.

“Oh! too convincing–dangerously dear–
In woman’s eye the unanswerable tear!
That weapon of her weakness she can wield,
To save, subdue–at once her spear and shield.”
Lord Byron, The Corsair (1814)

Despite its small size, there is a lot to do in Portovenere. This town is a definite destination and a hidden treasure among other destinations in Italy. We enjoyed the walk through the lovely typical narrow streets, where we explore the steep staircases, houses, churches, castle, and shops. We walked on the waterfront, watching people sunbathing, swimming, and small children playing in the water. The promenade along the harbor is a pedestrian-only zone, and like the rest of the people, we admired the magnificent sea and many caves in front of us. The scenery was mesmerizing.

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On Sunday, Lorenzo accompanied us to explore the beautiful Doria Castle, which remains a landmark in Portovenere. We climbed the steep and narrow stairs to the top and our effort was well paid off by the amazing panoramic views from above. Doria Castle belongs to the extremely wealthy and influential Doria family from the 12th to 16th century. The ruins of the castle structure give us a glimpse of how amazing this castle was centuries ago, with the breathtaking view over the typical Ligurian black and white church of San Pietro, and the sea. The place was well taken care of, the fruit and vegetable trees look lovely. The figs were so sweet with a soft, smooth texture.  Nature perfumes the air with breezes that drift through the plants and added to the delicate charm of Portovenere.

Suggestions and Tips:

How to go?

By Car

We drove from Verona, where we stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

By Boat

There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands.

By Train & Bus

La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it).

In La Spezia, take bus 11/P at The Mercato Nord Bus-stop. You need to buy a ticket prior to your trip; tickets are normally sold in Tabaccheria (tobacco shop). Buses run frequently to Portovenere, about every 20 minutes from 7am to 11pm. After 8pm, it runs once every hour. In Portovenere, you can get your bus tickets at the shop near the bus stop. It is possible to buy tickets from the bus driver, however, the price will be double.

Bus stop at Portovenere

In Portovenere, bus tickets are sold at the shops behind the bus-stop.

Where to stay?

As per our previous Blog on Cinque Terre, we would suggest separating the stay between Cinque Terre (three nights) and Portovenere (two nights). It would be good to explore and enjoy this amazing places without rushing through it all.

I would definitely recommend Lorenzo’s apartment for those who wanted to experience a beautiful home that is close enough to the main bars, restaurants, and the sea. Lorenzo made the booking process very easy and he could arrange everything (directions, information, and place of interests). He even let us borrow his scooter for a ride to Cinque Terre. If the weather is right, you can join him for a fishing trip.

Our stay at Lorenzo’s apartment was amazing. Everything felt so cozy and the house is beautifully decorated. The bedroom was quiet and peaceful with a private balcony. Having breakfast while looking out to the charming sea of Portovenere was an experience I will always remember.

If B&B is not your thing, the four-star Grand Hotel Portovenere located nearby looks promising. It is centrally located near the bay with bars, restaurants, and supermarket and bus stop just around the corner. This hotel has a charming character with a beautiful view.

What to do?

History says a lot about this wild bay being a place of inspiration for Poets and Writers. The key element to visit Portovenere is relaxation, enjoying time with loved ones while being inspired.  Take your own sweet time to explore its beauty and timeless picturesque village. I would suggest spending two nights in Portovenere. It would be nice to enjoy the beach, sunbathing and swimming too. If the weather is good, take a boat trip to the Three Islands. Or even go kayaking or fishing.

  • Doria Castle – It costs 5€ to visit, but with two charming Italians beside me, we paid nothing
  • Town Gate and Tower
  • Grotta Byron
  • Churches of San Pietro and San Lorenzo
  • Sunbathing and Swimming
  • Boat trip to Three Island (Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto)
  • Walk the island of Isola Palmaria
  • Hiking to Cinque Terre – there is a trail from Portovenere to Riomaggiore (5 hours)
  • Explore the tiny lovely streets and offset alleyways of Portovenere
  • Eating and Drinking – Walk around the tiny street, and don’t miss trying delicious Ligurian street food and having romantic dinner on promenade
  • Buy Souvenirs – Pasta, Foccachia & Pesto Sauce, yummy!

Cinque Terre – Charming Italy

Six years ago, on October 25, 2011, a freak rainstorm hit Cinque Terre and buried Monterosso and Vernazza in the mud. It was the most devastating floods in the area with 13 people dead. The people worked hard in rebuilding their villages and since then, Cinque Terre has undergone a miraculously recovery.

When Nicky first mentioned about Cinque Terre, I was like, “What is that?” I immediately google and fell in love. I can’t help feeling a little ashamed for not knowing one of the most beautiful places in the world. Where have I been hiding?

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Cinque Terre literally means five villages; Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The five fishing villages are a UNESCO world heritage site and easy access by train.

We chose to base ourselves in Portovenere. On the first day, we took a bus to La Spezia, and then a train to the northern-most village, Monterosso. The next day, Lorenzo, our host, is gracious enough to let us borrow his scooter. So, we started off with the first village, Riomaggiore.

Some roads in Cinque Terre are a bit scary with impossibly steep sections and hairpin bends but the road journey was extremely picturesque. On the way back, we stopped in a middle of nowhere and taking in gorgeous sunset views. We loved the experience of riding through the “Terrazza”, steeply terraced cliffs with the unbelievably breathtakingly scenery. Nonetheless, the parking in any of the little villages is limited and we were forced to walk a long distance from the parking place to reach each village.

Monterosso

The beach of Monterosso in the northernmost of Cinque Terre is the biggest and nicest. The sea is blue, and the view is stunning. It is well protected by the giant, “Il Gigante”, a rocky statue. Il Gigante has broken arms and legs, suffered from an allied bombing during the second world war. He looks ill and weak and becomes a symbol of Monterosso beach with a hidden story of luxury and tragedy.

We enjoyed walking along the beach and taking photos of lovely scenery. We visited the beautiful black and white Saint John the Baptist church, and Mortis et Orationis Oratory, the black confraternity which is also known as a religious “club”. The mission of this club was to arrange for funerals and taking care of people in needs: orphans, widows, and shipwrecked people.

After that, we enjoyed our sumptuous seafood lunch in Monterosso before heading to the next town, Vernazza. We thought of hiking to Vernazza but were informed by the hikers we met that it took them about two hours. Timing and stamina was an issue here, so we missed out on the spectacular views of the town from above.

Vernazza

Vernazza is a charming small fishing village. In 2013, this town was listed as the top 20 destinations to visit in the world by the New York Times. Beautiful colourful little houses clustered around a picturesque harbour, topped by a small castle.

Cinque Terre (196)a

Tourists were crowding near the main square and enjoying the view when the big waves came by, and then crashes down making a huge splash of spray. Everyone was clapping and laughing. Those affected by the splash took it in stride and enjoying the fun. What a beautiful day, smiles and laughter of people surround us make our day sparkle with happiness. We ventured the tiny squares and little alleys and had our aperitif.

Corniglia

Corniglia is our least favourite, just because of the difficulty to reach the village on top of the hill. To reach Corniglia, after exiting the train, we must either walk the street followed by climbing 382 steps or take the shuttle bus up the hill. Not feeling quite that adventurous, we waited for the bus. It was a small bus, and as the queue was long, we had to take the next cycle (that was the only bus). It took us almost one hour to arrive at the destination (including waiting time).  Corniglia itself is a relaxing and authentic town where we enjoyed another aperitif with the view of the statue and church Oratoria di Santa Caterina.

Manarola

When we arrived Manarola, we took a stroll down to the waterfront where the crowds were already forming. This village has the most stunning view of the sunsets.  We took the trail up until we reached the perfect lookout spot. We were graced with an amazing view of colourful houses in the steep hills, and beautiful amidst cloudy sky. The sky was divided into two parts; one part was pouring, and the other half still showing off beautiful sunset over Manarola. The sunset sparkles reflecting off it, and the village became a curtain of gold. The view must be seen to be believed, it was magical!

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is located in the most southern village in Cinque Terre. It is the most rustic village with big rocks and pebbles and stunning views of the Ligurian sea. It is in a beautiful natural environment, and we enjoyed people watching; avid photographers taking amazing shots, families enjoying gelatos, people sun-tanning and swimming, and lovers walking hand in hand.

Cinque Terre is incredibly enchanting. There are plenty things to do here; nature walks, trails, photography, getting inspired, getting lost, exploring the villages, the food, the monuments, enjoying the sun, the beaches, the people, and visiting vineyards and olive groves in the surrounding areas.

Suggestions and Tips:

How to go?

By Car

Portovenere (125)We drove from Verona, where we stopped at Mantova and stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

Depending on your stay, you can park your vehicle near La Spezia Centrale Train Station or Levanto. The parking in any of the little villages in Cinque Terre is very limited and expensive.

By Train

For those flying from Singapore, choose a direct flight to Milan or Rome by Singapore Airlines. And then continue the journey by taking the train to La Spezia Centrale (3 hours from Milan or 4 hours from Rome). If you are travelling to Italy for the first time, I highly recommend flying directly to Milan and back from Rome (vice versa) so that you can plan to visit the most beautiful cities Italy has to offer.

La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it). In La Spezia train station, purchase a Cinque Terre Card (16 EUR for the day) that grants unlimited access to the trains, buses, and the footpath that connects the villages for a day.

By Ferry

There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands. On our first day, we planned on taking the ferry to Cinque Terre but the ferry services were suspended due to bad weather forecast. I can only imagine the beautiful views of the villages and surrounding areas from the water.

Where to stay?

Portovenere (23) copy

We based ourselves in Portovenere for three nights. While Portovenere is a wonderful place to stay, it should be visited separately. It took us about one hour and a half to reach Cinque Terre by bus and train. We had to rush after sunset to ensure that we did not miss the last bus from La Spezia, and waited an hour for the bus to arrive.

We would suggest booking in advance and staying three nights in Cinque Terre (our pick would be Monterosso), and another two nights in Portovenere. It would be good to explore and enjoy Cinque Terre without rushing through it all.

If budget is an issue, base yourself at La Spezia, which is less touristy and have more of an authentic feel. It is easily accessed to the train station in Cinque Terre, and to other cities across Italy.

What to do?

Discover the charm of each village in Cinque Terre, and enjoy the stretch of beautiful beaches at Monterosso. The water is so blue, and the sound of the sea is relaxing. Cinque Terre has its own distinct personality that you won’t mind sharing with the crowds.

Monterosso (2)

The water level during flooding that hits Cinque Terre on Oct 25, 2011.

If you are physically fit and have great stamina, wear comfortable shoes and hike Cinque Terre’s coastal trail. Lorenzo told us that the trails to Cinque Terre provide most amazing walks, you can even hike to or from Portovenere. He showed us the starting trail in Portovenere, and the view is strikingly beautiful.  Whatever you do, do not miss visiting Portovenere, the forgotten ‘sixth village’. You won’t regret it!

What to eat?

Eat, eat, and eat! Italy is a paradise of food, don’t be afraid of growing fat because you will never be. According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is the healthiest country in the world. The food is healthy, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and local herbs, and you will not gain any weight from being physically active, walking up and down steep streets. There is a lot of walking in Cinque Terre.

We love seafood, and Cinque Terre is a paradise for seafood lovers. I ordered “Muscoli” (muscles) for three days straight and never got sick of it. I also savour myself with anchovies (fresh Ikan Bilis), octopus salad, and Spaghetti Allo Scoglio (seafood pasta) with focaccia bread. Focaccia is a local speciality, simply a bread infused with herbs and olive oil. To have it on its own with pesto sauce is also heavenly.

Cinque Terre grows its own olives and DOC designated-origin wines. This country is also famous for its coffee and desserts. When I say desserts, it includes cakes, pastries, tiramisu, pannacotta, and gelato. Yum! So, after every walk, stop for a drink and try their olives and desserts.

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