Northern Italy & Cinque Terre Walking Tour, San Gimignano & Riomaggiore, Italy   13 comments

Northern Italy & Cinque Terre Walking Tour, San Gimignano & Riomaggiore, Italy

Sept. 16 – Oct. 2, 2014


Jim & I booked this walking tour with Go Ahead Tours.  This is our sixth trip with this company and as usual we were very pleased with the trip and itinerary.  I will admit that some of the walking and the mountain climbing was a bit too challenging for us.  However, a great itinerary for a little younger and more “fit” people.  For no additional charge Go Ahead booked our air and we arrived in Stresa two days before the other eighteen in our group, and we also stayed behind an additional 6 days so we could go to San Gimignano and Riomaggiore on our own. 

Quoting from Go Ahead Tours:  This is the different Italy—a region bursting with the happily unexpected. Go north and step into a land where rock spires rise above lush, green landscapes.  Tranquil lakes and perfumed vineyards spill across the horizon, stretching on for miles and miles. An epic coastline runs alongside towering cliffs and terraced vineyards. From Lake Maggiore and the staggering Dolomites to the “Five Worlds” tucked within the Riviera’s Cinque Terre, tread through Italian landscapes at their most surreal and surprising.

Oda, was our excellent tour director.  She was indeed a joy, making it obvious that she loves her job.  Her favorite expression was “yippee”  and she was always encouraging and helpful.


Lake Maggiore, Stresa, Italy:  Stresa is a town of about 5,000 on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.  Since the early 20th century, the main source of income has been the tourist trade.  Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and the largest in Southern Switzerland.  It extends for about 40 miles.  The climate is mild in both summer and winter, producing Mediterranean vegetation.  These pictures of the lake were taken from the balcony of our hotel (Grand Hotel Bristol) in Stresa. 


  The little town of Stresa is a cute little town.  Lots of good restaurants also.  The weather was still good to eat outdoors.


Borromean Islands:  While in Stresa, Jim & I took the local ferry and visited the three Borromean Islands that are located close to Stresa.  We bought our tickets at the Ferry Station. We purchased the Rover Tickets, which is unlimited travel for one day between the islands and included entrances to the Villas and Gardens on Isola Bella & Isola Madre. We qualify for Sr. Discount and the lady cheerfully gave us the discount. We paid 32.10 Euro each for the tickets.

Isola Bella:  This small island has a stunning Baroque palace and elaborate Italian gardens.  Isola Bella was originally just a rocky crag until in 1632 when Charles Borromeo began the construction of a palazzo dedicated to his wife, Isabella D’Adda.  Visiting the palace we saw sumptuous rooms filled with paintings and ornate furniture.  (No pictures were allowed).  The gardens were spectacular. 


The palace is at one end of the island, the gardens at the other end and a small fishing village in between. 


 Isola Madre:  It’s the largest island of the Borromean Islands.  The palace was built in the 16th century (pictures not allowed inside) and it is surrounded by spectacular gardens.  It is one of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens with rare sub-tropical plants, exotic flowers and many multi-colored birds & parrots. 


Isola dei Pescatori:  This island is a characteristic fishing village rather than a noble residence.  It is inhabited by fishermen and their families.  There are lanes lined with homes, and also some shops and seafood restaurants. 


 Sacro Monte:  From Stresa we drove by coach to Lake Orta & Sacro Monte.  Sacro Monte is a Roman Catholic devotional complex dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.  The project began in 1583 and involves 20 chapels that are positioned on the slopes of the mountain along a trail.  It is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  The last picture of the island is San Guilio Island which we visited after the town of Orto San Guilio.   


Orta San Giulio:  We walked down the mountain from Sacro Monte to Orta San Giulio.  It’s a pretty little town of about 1,200 population. 


San Giulio Island:  A small island on Lake Orton located near Orta San Giulio.  We took a water taxi to get over to it.  The most famous building on the island is the Basilica of Saint Giulio.  Next to the Basilica is the old Seminary (1840s).  Since 1976 it has been a Benedictine monastery.  We exited the Basilica in a driving rain.  We sloshed around and tried to look at the island. 


 Centovalli Railway Round Trip:  While we were still in Stresa, Jim & I decided we wanted to ride the Swiss train through the mountains and see the views.   The scenic train (the Centovalli) goes between Locarno and Domosossola running through the magical “Hundred Valleys.”  There were lots of beautiful views. On the ride between Domodossola and Locarno we saw gushing waterfalls, vineyards, chestnut forests and quaint villages, roll right by our window.

Map with route of Centovalli RailwayDSC05489

It wasn’t complicated and only costs 32 Euro each.  The package included taking a train from Stresa to Domodossola.  In Domodossola we followed the well marked signage to the Centovalli Railway platform and boarded that train.  We rode of the narrow gage railway about 2 hours seeing the lovely scenery.


  After our scenic 2 hour train ride we arrived in Locarno, Switzerland.  The train station is right in the center of the town.  We enjoyed the lakeside area the most.


The conclusion of our Centovalli Railway Round Trip was the return from Locarno, Switzerland to Stresa, Italy by ferry.  It was a lovely, sunny day and we really enjoyed the three hour voyage.


It was fun seeing the bride & groom and the little decorated wedding boat. 


The next morning we left the Stresa and the Lake Maggiore area and drove towards Bolzano and the Dolomites.  En route we stopped in Valpolicella, a countryside area known for its olive groves and superior wine vintages.

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San Giorgio di Valpolicella:  This little village is located on the top of a rocky outcrop, built around its church.  The church was built around the 8th century. 


Next on the agenda was a hike from the little town to the next town on the “health path” through the forest.  The funny part was the great debate on putting Jim’s walking stick together.  He finally had to come to his own rescue and assemble the stick. 


Masi Vineyards:  We arrived at the Masi Vineyards for a winetasting, lunch and tour.  The Boscaini family have been the owners of the Masi vineyards for six generations.  It was a lovely place and we had a delightful lunch. 


  Bolzano, Italy:  It is the capital city of the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy.  The town was German until after WWI, and it’s character remains distinctly Germanic.  The town is known for it’s apple strudel & it was delicious.  Bolzano was our hotel base while we discovered the Dolomites. 


 Earth Pyramids & Panoramic Landscapes of Ritten:  A favorite of mine.  We rode on a cable car, then a train, then walked to discover the Pyramids, lastly we had a delicious German dinner. 

First, we boarded a cable car and rode to the village of Soprabolzano, which is a provincial village set on a plateau. 


Next we rode the panoramic railway to Collalbo.  We saw views of rolling pastures and soaring limestone peaks along the way. 


From Collalbo we set out on foot to the towering Earth Pyramids.  First a walk through town.  We thought the town had a Swiss look about it. 


We walked towards the Earth Pyramids on the Ritten plateau.  This is the day that someone’s pedometer indicated that we walked 9 1/4 miles. 


Then we walked through another village and stopped to look at a cemetery.


The Earth Pyramids:   They are unique formations that were formed by moraine clays left by the glaciers of the last ice age.  We were overlooking the Earth Pyramids in a stunning valley, surrounded by mountains, with a beautiful little church situated perfectly.

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Then relaxing with a cold drink and later eating a delicious German meal.  A lovely day!



Dolomites from Alpe de Siusi:  Info indicates that the Alpe di Siusi is the undisputed queen of all high mountain plateaus in the world.  It is regarded as one of the most fabulous landscapes in the Dolomites.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In the summertime, many trails are enjoyed by hikers, and in the wintertime, these same slopes are a paradise for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoe hikers.  Well, I must say that since Jim & I are none of the above, the hike up & down, (mostly up) was a bit of a challenge.  We didn’t go as far as the rest of the group, but we made it to a great restaurant that is on one of the many trails.  (Yay).

First we rode the big cable car.


Next, was the death march up the mountain.  I didn’t have strength enough left to click a proper photo.  (LOL)


Now on the rolling plateau.  Scenery was beautiful.


The high road or the low?  It was the high.


Almost to a rest stop & restaurant and a good German meal.  Wish I knew how many miles we’d walked. 


Jim & I decided not to go on with our group on another loop of the trail.  Instead we hiked for another half-zillion miles and found a small cable car down to another level, then walked back up to the big cable car to meet the group at the end of the day.  We were fascinated with the groups of fat, healthy cattle (including bulls) that were separated from us with a single electric wire.


On the closing laps of our zillion mile hike, Jim & I enjoyed stopping to watch some Italian farming in the high country. 



We said goodbye to the Dolomites and traveled south from Bolzano to the sunny shores of the Italian Riviera.  On the way we stopped for lunch and a delightful tour of Mantua, Italy.

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Mantua, Italy:  Mantua is a beautiful, historic city in northern Italy surrounded on three sides by lakes. It was one of the greatest Renaissance Courts in Europe and home of the wealthy Gonzaga family. The town’s center is three spacious and lively squares that join together.  Mantua’s historic power and influence under the Gonzaga family made it one of the main artistic, cultural, and especially musical hubs of Northern Italy.  Mantua’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


I enjoyed pumpkin ravioli, and Jim had yet another kind of pasta for lunch. 


Portovenere:  Our hotel for the Italian Riviera/Cinque Terra was in Portovenere.  The town is located right on the coast, with a beautiful old town right along the water.  Overlooking everything is a castle and the Gothic Church of St. Peter.  We walked past the little town that lined the water to the far end and visited the Gothic Church of St. Peter which dates from 1198.   


Beautiful sunset in Portovenere.


 Cinque Terra, Italy:  Clinging to the cliffs is a group of five picturesque seaside villages perched atop the rocky Mediterranean coastline of the Ligurian Sea.   The villages abound with ancient churches, castles, and homes that line narrow streets and squares.  These coastal cliffs keep Cinque Terre in scenic isolation.  Most visitors arrive by boat or train because it is very difficult to reach the villages by road.  Most of the villages are linked by footpaths along craggy trails.  Cinque Terra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Our group set out by boat to visit the Cinque Terra on a bright and sunny morning.  As you can see by the above map that our hotel town of Portovenere is just down the coast from the villages of Cinque Terre.  On the boat ride we enjoyed the water view of Portovenere’s and it’s Church of St. Peter.


Monterosso:  This is the first town of the Cinque Terre that we visited.  It is the largest of the five, and the most heavily visited.  It is the only village with a nice long span of beach right in town.   


All of our “fit” travel mates hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza.  Jim & I went by train and enjoyed it “just fine.”  And here they are!  We caught them having a bite to eat.  Yes, they not only hike…they eat.


Vernazza:  It has a charming central square located right by the water, and there’s a lovely church tower on one side.  The ruins of a castle is on one of the hills overlooking Vernazza. 


Manarola:  It is a little more rustic and less polished than its northern neighbors.  The tiny harbor features a boat ramp and picturesque multicolored houses facing the sea. 



Jim & I didn’t go to the town of Corniglia because it’s located on top of a cliff overlooking the sea.  We weren’t in the notion to hike up the 33 flights with 382 steps.  Since the two of us were coming back to Riomaggiore to stay for a couple of nights on our own, we decided to not walk into that town either and to just save it as a surprise for later in the week. 

We left the Cinque Terre area and drove towards Florence, stopping at Lucca on the way. 

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Lucca, Italy:  It’s historic center, with medieval towers and nearly 100 churches, is completely enclosed by its intact Renaissance-era city walls.  These walls are some of the best preserved ramparts in Italy and you can walk completely around Lucca on top of the wall.  It has a population of around 89,000.


Florence, Italy:  The last stop on our walking trip with Go Ahead was in Florence, the birthplace  of the Renaissance.  The historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.  Since this was our fourth trip to Florence, we didn’t do the extension in the city with the group.  This time, Jim & I just barely touched on the highlights of the city.  


A trip highlight:  Our oldest daughter and son-in-law live in Vienna, Austria.  They came by night train into Florence to meet up with us.  We met them at the train station and later took a bus to San Gimignano to spend the weekend together. 

San Gimignano:  A medieval hill town in Tuscany, which is famous for its medieval architecture and towers.  At the height of its glory, San Gimignano’s patrician families had built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power.  They stood in defense of the walled city.  Only 14 have survived time, but San Gimignano has retained its feudal atmosphere and appearance.  It’s like walking back into time….a taste of what it must have been like more than 700 years ago.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.  A delightful weekend!


We stayed “La Cisterna Hotel” which is located at the top of the village on the beautiful and famous Piazza della Cisterna in San Gimignano.  The hotel is the buildings covered with ivy.  I booked our hotels on Expedia, and everything turned out perfectly.


The views out of the windows of the kids hotel room.  The Tuscan Valley is beautiful. 


The Cistern of Piazza della Cisterna. 


  We decided that this was our favorite restaurant in San Gimignano..…Antica Macelleria Trattoria.


“Gelateria Dondoli”, world champion Gelato winners & a scale model of San Gimignano.


Street scenes.  Busy during the day, very pleasant in the evening without the crowds.


Directly in front of the Duomo (1st photo) is the Palazzo Vecchio dei Podesta, (2nd photo) imposing and topped with a tower.  The construction dates back to the 12th & 13th century. 


Guess what?  More eating!


The cisterns of San Gimignano, and us. 


Good-bye San Gimignano, it was grand!


The morning after the kids left, Jim & I took a bus to Poggibonsi (no train station in San Gimignano.)  At the little train station we bought tickets from a machine to Riomaggiore in Cinque Terrra.  The journey took about about 3 1/2 hours, with two connections and cost about 18 Euro each.


Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre:   The Cinque Terra is a stretch of five towns along the Italian Riviera.  Each town is perched on seaside cliffs along a ravine, with old colorful building leaning upon each other.  Riomaggiore is considered the most substantial non-resort of the five towns, (and I quote) “with a fascinating tangle of pastel homes that lean on each other like drunken sailors.”

I had booked a little apartment “Mar-Mar.”  It was the Punta A apartment.   It was up and up a zillion uneven steps, but had a view to die for.  Of which I thought I might (die) after about the tenth hike up the zillion uneven steps.  The arrow on the following photo indicates the location of our little apartment for two nights.  The small picture of steps is one tiny section of the approximately ten sections of steps that we went up to get to the Mar-Mar apartment. 


Looking off the balcony from our apartment.  A double door opened onto the balcony from both the living room and the bedroom. 


The main street (only street) in Riomaggiore.


Our favorite eating in Riomaggiore was buying the cone of mixed fresh seafood, or all calamari.  It was only 5 Euro, and was fresh & delicious. 


Close-up of viewing the fishermen from our balcony.


The harbor area of Riomaggiore.


Jim is in the height of his glory.  He’s getting to fix breakfast for us just like he does everyday at home. 


And thus the sun sets on another glorious, fantastic adventure!!


The next day we took the train back to Florence, stayed the night and were in flight back to Kansas the next morning. 


Posted October 18, 2014 by marilynfarmer in Travel

13 responses to “Northern Italy & Cinque Terre Walking Tour, San Gimignano & Riomaggiore, Italy

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  1. Great pictures as usual. I always look forward to seeing your pictures and the narrative that accompanies them. This travel group seems to be a lot different than OAT or GCT.

    • Hi Frank. Nice hearing from you again. Yes, you are correct, this trip was a little different than our usual. Probably too much walking for our age, but we managed. It was a great trip and we saw lots. Had never even realized there was a Dolomite area in Italy and now we’ve walked a zillion miles through it. haha

  2. fantastic blog, marilyn! love your original hi pixel photos also. your side trip to swiss & post-tour trip to riomaggiore really make me envious!… oh, no one can document addiction to gelato gelato like u guys! mama mia! la doce vita! la vita romantica!

    • Thank Kwan, glad you enjoyed it. Man, you really keyed into our gelato addiction. And…I didn’t even post all the pictures of the various varieties that we experienced. As I documented we even had a gelato from the “world champion” gelato makers while we were in San Gimignano. Sure was fun being with you two on this trip. You, my friend Kwan, you are just too funny.

  3. dear marilyn: funny can cure anything & can keep the doc away! 🙂

  4. Marilyn,
    Excellent photos. You write a great blog. It was a pleasure to travel with you guys. Hope to share a Gelato again with you sometime.

    Marty & Andy

    • Hi Marty & Andy,
      Glad you enjoyed the blog. It was such a joy being with the two of you. You are such positive people with personalities to match. Hey we’ll have a gelato again with you any time of the day. Happy travels to you!

  5. These pictures and narratives are wonderful. We are going to Italy in July to meet our son and his family who will visit Switzerland first. I have trouble walking and wonder how it will be in San Giorgnanno (spelling). Any suggestions? Thanks, Gail

    • Hi Gail, glad your enjoyed my blog. Yes, San Gimignano sits on the top of a hill. Two possibilities: From the bus stop or parking lot walk very slowly up the street to the top of town, there are no stairs involved. We stayed at “LaCisterna Hotel” and it’s located at the top of town. Once you get there you can just enjoy every minute of this fantastic location. You are at the top of top and you won’t have to walk more hills. Or…Check out getting a taxi up. The hotel ordered our daughter and son in law a taxi to pick them up to take them to the train station. Email the hotel (we loved this hotel) and ask them for a suggestion. They were extremely helpful to us while we were there. I don’t think the town allows cars, except with special permit. Good luck. You will LOVE this town.

  6. you did a great narration. Thanks for the heads up on this region!

  7. I don’t know how I found your blog site but love it ! My husband & i went on the walking tour of cincaterre with tour guide “Oda” what a wonderful trip with go ahead tours”
    Now we will be leaving on the great rivers of Europe next month with grand circle & just like your trip we are flying to Amsterdam so excited’

    Alice & Floyd Wolfe
    • Hi Alice, so glad you enjoyed my blog. That was a fantastic trip with Go Ahead. Everytime Jim and I talk about it he gets gets a twinkle in his eye and starts huffing and puffing. He swears I was trying to kill him. My thought is the challenges of two older individuals “getting it done” makes it all so memorable. You will love the Great Rivers of Europe with Grand Circle. Happy trails, Keep on traveling!

      • You have inspired me to set up a blog using WordPress just can’t figure out how to download pictures . Also I have the free version and am asking you if you had to get premium . We leave for great rivers of Germany in October. & want to be able to use my iPad for pics & comments? CAn you direct me????

        Alice & Floyd Wolfe

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