Iran Escapades

 “Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,
Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door
My address is somewhere else.”

– Hafez, The Gift (Persian Poet)

When I posted pictures of Iran in social media, sharing opinions about how amazing the Iranians truly are, and the inaccurate facts of countries like Iran that potrays in medias, I received adverse responses by some friends. While most kind of agreed to my statements, a few started a debate and sent hyperlinks and news posted online of why I shouldn’t be kind towards Iranians. A friend, took it personally.

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Must visit: UNESCO World Heritage Site PERSEPOLIS

Iran is also known as Persia, and there are almost 82 millions inhabitants. 99% of them are Muslim (Islam) with nearly 90% Shi’a and about 10% are Sunni. The key theological differences between the two branches of religions are their beliefs over the successor of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Sunnis dominate the Muslim world (more than 85% of the world 1.6 billions Muslim) and vast majority of the Shiites can be found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Although both share the holy book of Quran, they practice differently. Sunni Muslim mainly practice according on the Sunnah, and the Shiites rely heavily on their Ayatollahs (clerics, experts in Islamic studies).

In Shiraz, I was unexpectedly thrown a question by a stranger, “What do you think of Shia?” In my own personal opinion, our faith is what we make it, to say one belief is more evil than another is absurd. “There is no compulsion in religion” (Holy Quran Al Baqara: 2/256).

For decades, sanctions against Iran has jeopardised and hurt the core sectors of Iran economy. And despite being miserable and disgruntled, I only see smiling faces in Iran. To me, beliefs are made for humanity. 

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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Naghsh-e Jahan Square @ Shiraz

Three decades ago, the shah of Iran was overthrown by an Islamic uprising, the Iranian revolution. With the new government, the country was known as Islamic Republic of Iran. There were immediate and drastic changes to the way of life of the ordinary citizens. Women suddenly have to cover their hair while in public, regardless of their religion or nationality. Stricter laws were enforced.

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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Golestan Palace @ Tehran

Despite these laws, there isn’t much of a culture shock as I might have think before visiting this country. For example, there are more conservative Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia, than in Iran. Iranians, especially the youth, are trendy and stylish. As a matter of fact, I saw some beautiful ladies wearing sleeveless and hair uncovered in the plane. And like the tourists, by the time we landed, we had our hair and arm covered.

According to the international reports and social media, Iran’s human rights record is exceptionally poor and the regime is undemocratic. I was at first in fear when Nicola decided that we travel to Iran. However, after returning from this country, I find that my concern was baseless. Iran is one of the safest countries, and Iranians are kind and gentle. We were approach by many Iranians that were just curious, wanted to take pictures together, or strike up a friendly conversation with us. It was easy to take photographs everywhere we go, than for example, Morocco, and I remembered lamented, “If only more places were as welcoming as Iran.”

After oil, Iran is most famous for its Persian carpets. We make friends with an Iranian, Reza Abashi, who is an expert in carpets being his family business for years. He educates us about the different types of carpets and their values. Iranians have woven beautiful carpets for over 2,500 years and they often make mistakes intentionally. “There is a beauty in imperfections,” Reza said.

While in Isfahan, Reza brought us to a wonderful lunch at Malek Soltan Jarchi Bashi. The restaurant was previously an old bathhouse (hammam) and it was turned to a beautiful restaurant with an amazing atmosphere and delicious Iranian cuisines. For the total paid per person (500,000 IR = 3.30 euros), this is by far the best value meal of the whole trip, at least for me.

Iranian (Persian) food has much in common with middle-eastern cooking. Traditional Iranian food combines the savory of saffron, cardamom, turmeric, herbs, and merges it with the sweet of pomegranate, dried raisins and rose water.

We had almost the same breakfast routine every single morning. The combination of feta cheese, honey, jam, yoghurt, and Persian bread (noon-e sangak, noon-e barbari), served with Persian tea is unforgettable. In some hostels, we had boiled eggs and omelettes, salads and Haleem, a stew.

Nicola and I spent almost a month travelling Iran (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Varzaneh – Yazd – Shiraz), and we’ve definitely formed our own opinion. While we were overwhelmed at the beauty, hospitality and friendliness we encountered during our travels, that don’t put Iranians as superhuman. In Isfahan, a fellow traveller had his phone stolen. There is always a black sheep in every flock. Never let your guard down, anywhere in the world. That being said, Iran is an incredible place and I would love to visit again someday.

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Beautiful Iranians – World Peace

“The world is a book

and those who do not travel, read only one page.”

~ St Augustine

Click on Video: Beautiful Iran

 

Tips & Suggestions:

  1. Dress appropriately

Female :           Wearing a loose fittings clothes, hair must be covered

Male :               No shorts

  1. Bring Cash you need for the travel
  • Iran is a cash country as foreign card won’t work in any ATM and you cannot pay by credit or debit card.
  • Iranian Rial is an official currency but all prices are in toman (1 Toman = 10 rials).
  • Bring Euros, not US Dollars.
  • During our visit, we had the best exchange rates at Tehran (1 euro = 150 rials). We spent a total of 250 euros for our stay (all inclusive without flight and visa).
  • DO NOT change money with the taxi drivers or black markets which usually refer to the bank exchange rate online (XE.com) (1 euro = 48 rials).
  • Change your money at the hotel or the official money exchange rate.
  1. Get Iran Visa at the airport

Visa on arrival can be issued at major international airports in Iran. You cannot get this visa on the land borders. The passports of foreign tourists visiting Iran will not be stamped. During entry, you will be given a paper containing your personal details that you must keep with you and return it during exit.

Countries whose Nationals do NOT NEED a Visa to Iran:
Armenia (90 Days), Azerbaijan (30 Days), Bolivia (30 Days), Egypt (20 Days), Georgia (45 Days), Lebanon (30 Days), Malaysia (15 Days), Serbia (30 Days), Turkey (90 Days), Venezuela (15 Days).
Countries whose Nationals CAN Apply for the Iranian Visa on Arrival (30 days):
Albania, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China (People’s Republic), Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea. Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam.
Countries whose Nationals CANNOT Apply for Iran Visa on Arrival:
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka.

Documents required for Visa on Arrival:

  • A valid passport with at least 6 months validity period.
  • A confirmed return ticket (within 30 days).
  • Travel insurance valid for Iran (Nicola was asked for this, but not me. He bought his travel insurance in Italy. My travel insurance (Singapore) do not cover Iran and I was ready to purchase at the airport but as I was not asked for it, I took the risk of traveling without insurance).
  • Visa stamp fee, which is payable to the Iran Visa & Passport Office at the airport (75 euros for Singaporean and Italian).
  • Hotel Reservation Voucher and Travel Itinerary.
  • A photo is not needed for the Iran visa application form (We have the photos ready but was not asked for it. They take a copy of our photo contained in our passport).
  1. Buy a prepaid SIM Card with Data

There are SIM card booths at the airport, but I bought mine at Seven Hostel for 150,000 rials (2 GB). As I did not access Facebook or Youtube, the data is more than enough to stay connected with families and friends.

  1. Imam Khomeini Airport Taxi

Beware of “taxi drivers” that wanted to rip you off. Take the official Imam Khomeini Airport Taxi services just after you exit the custom. You can even book a ride in advance at this website www.irantts.com.

  1. Make a copy of your passport

Hotel receptions will keep your passport and give them back upon checking out. Make sure you always have a copy of your passport printed with you wherever you go. We were stop by policemen at Taleghani metro station, and the passport copy came handy.

  1. VPN is needed to browse internet freely

Do note that Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are blocked in Iran. You’ll need to install a VPN (virtual private network) in order to access them. Download multiple VPN before you arrive (OpenDoor, Hotspot Shield, Cloud VPN, Psiphon, Hide Me). We survived our stay with the minimal (Whatsap, Instagram).

  1. Stay in Traditional Houses or Guesthouse

We enjoyed the beautiful setting of traditional houses and guests house. Nevertheless, the hostels we stayed are equally wonderful. The cheapest room (dormitory) costs 5 euros per night. You can try negotiating with your host (smile and be nice).

  • Tehran – Seven Hostels Tehran  sevenhostels.com
  • Kashan – Ehsan Historical Guest House  ehsanhouse.com
  • Isfahan – Ragrug Hostel
  • Varzaneh – Varzaneh Traditional Guest House
  • Yazd – Yazd Friendly Hotel
  • Shiraz – Niayesh Boutique Hotel
  1. Iran is Safe

Contrary to negativities portray in media, Iran is safe. I actually felt safer in Iran than some parts of Europe or Morocco. Iranians are kind, friendly and helpful, and random strangers would go the extra mile just to help you out. I never encountered people being so nice and helpful anywhere in the world. On this trip, we forged good friendships with Iranians.

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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