Regular llamagoose readers might be wondering where we’ve been the last two weeks. The answer is, we’ve been on vacation. Yes, that’s right, we’ve been on a vacation from an eleven-months-and-counting trip around the world. At least, that’s what spending time with my family in Italy felt like. Seeing them was wonderful, of course, but it was also a bit weird. For one thing, I kind of forgot how to socialize with non-backpackers. There’s kind of a general spiel you go through when you meet a fellow traveler in a hostel: where you’re from, how long you’re travelling, how long you’ve been on the road already, how long you’re staying in that particular place, where you’ve been, where you’re going next, etc. I’ve gotten so sick of answering these questions over and over again, I think I’m just going to print up a nametag that says it all and wear it on me at all times. Anyway, the point is that my social skills have gotten a little rusty. I mean, what do normal people talk about? For us, talking about work or houses seems as out-of-date as discussing college essays and final exams.
It was also strange, but very fun, to have a nice place to hang out. We stayed in hostels, but my family and Kara’s family rented nice villas with space for everyone to get together and relax. Hostels have common areas, of course, but it’s much better to have an area exclusively for your group. (Especially if that area includes an ocean view balcony!) Since we could all just chat in the living room, I kind of felt like I was at home.
And, of course, the hallmark of many vacations is getting exhausted by the time they’re over. The family kept us busy, much busier than our typical travel pace. That might seem a little weird, since obviously we have nothing else to do, but there’s just no way we could keep that busy for over a year. Maybe some people have the energy to be on-the-go constantly, but I am not one of them.
Our first stop was Manarola in Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is a group of five small villages strung along the Mediterranean on Italy’s west coast. They’re only a few minutes train ride away from each other and they’re all perched precariously on the cliffs, making for a lot of steep hills and staircases. It’s a very touristy area, but it’s so picturesque and quaint that it just doesn’t matter. There are winding, cobblestone alleys, colorful buildings and shutters, balconies with laundry fluttering in the sea breeze, bright flowers and lemon trees lining the roads, ancient bell towers that toll unnecessarily frequently, green vineyards in the countryside, and waves of clear blue water smashing against the cliffs. It’s almost exactly how I pictured Italy, except I always figured there was no way the reality would match my expectations.
Manarola was quieter than the other villages (except our first night there, when one of the bars hosted a late night disco dance party). One day we walked along the path to Riomaggiore, which seemed a little bigger and busier than Manarola. We hung out on the beach in Monterosso, the most built-up and lively town of Cinque Terre. We spent a morning in Vernazza, then in the afternoon made the hike up the 380-something steps up to Corniglia. Corniglia is the smallest, windiest, and most charming of all the villages. I enjoyed them all, but I’m glad we stayed in Manarola.
And the food. Oh, the food! We had many delicious meals while we were there. Everything tasted extremely fresh–which it was, because in Italy restaurants are required by law to disclose if they use any frozen ingredients. (I think that alone is proof that Italy is an amazing country.)The pesto, bread, bruschetta, cheese, fruit, pizza, and pasta were all exceptional, but what really stole the show was the seafood. Kara ordered grilled octopus and it was the most tender, yummy, and gigantic octopus any of us had ever eaten. The mussels were also the best I’ve ever had. I didn’t try any clams, but I’m sure they were just as good. I’m probably going to gain a ton of weight while we’re in Italy, but I just don’t care.
We enjoyed Cinque Terre so much that I was worried the rest of Italy wouldn’t be as nice. Little did I know, our fun (and our problems) had only just begun.