Cathedral in the Leaning Tower of Pisa complex

A Little Cliché… A Visit to Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa in ItalyWhat round the world trip is complete without a cheesy record of all the places I have visited. While I do jumping shots in many iconic spots, there’s only one pose that’s appropriate for the Leaning Tower of Pisa! That’s right, it’s the cheesiest possible photo, and one that has been done to death by tons of people the world, but it happened. My bestie Jenn and I had both never seen the UNESCO listed Piazza del Duomo in Pisa. Not only does it look beautiful, but we wanted a chance to hold up the leaning tower, then knock it over, and to make general fools of ourselves. Plus, we had just hiked Cinque Terre and the train to Florence passes right through Pisa. It was begging us to pop into town for a little exploration and a few quick shots in front of this iconic Italian building.

We hopped off the train in Pisa, and I am not sure why, but for some reason I expected the leaning tower to immediately within sight. But when we left the train station, my seeking gaze was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t adjacent to the train station. Call it poor planning on our parts, but we had neither a map nor directions on how to actually get to the Leaning Tower.

With the many other tourists visiting, I had expected that it would be straightforward, but it took a bit of figuring out. Still very easy to visit as a day trip, however, once you have directions! We had decided to pop into Pisa for just a couple of hours for pictures of the tower, lunch, and then onward to Florence. For that reason, we also had our backpacks with us! With the sun beating down on us, it added a good bit of pressure for us to make quick work of sussing out directions.

We searched the bus timetable for directions, but the tower wasn’t directly listed. My cousin and I have a bit of Italian under our belts, and Jenn speaks Spanish, so we split up to question strangers on how to get to the tower.

Eventually, a really nice Italian guy took pity on me. We were having trouble communicating in our mangled Italian/English, so he grabbed my hand, walked me 500 feet around a corner, and deposited me at a bus stop with firm instructions on which bus to take. I thanked him profusely with a mille grazie and hollered for Jenn and Helen to join me at the bus stop. After just two minutes, we boarded Bus 4 and it dropped us off on the doorstep of the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

My cousin Helen had already visited the Tower, so she planned to spend the afternoon in a coffee shop catching up on work (like me, she works online). Jenn and I dropped our backpacks behind Helen’s chair in the coffee shop, and then headed into the Leaning Tower complex to explore and take photos. It’s not huge, so it’s easy to explore in an hour or two.

Everything gleams. The church, the bell tower. It’s all limestone structures coated in white marble and it’s stunning. Even more though, this strong tall marble juts at a precarious angle from the ground. With the church nearby, and other tall and straight buildings in contrast, it seems like a building better suited for a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum.

cheesy tourist shot at the tower leaning tower day trip to the leaning tower of pisa

cathedral in the Pisa complex

sunlight on the leaning tower leaning tower of pisa columns

Construction on the bell tower first broke ground in 1173, and it would take just shy of 200 years to construct the tower. And one would think that the lean only came later, as the earth moved, or perhaps as the result of an earthquake. But that’s not the case. The ground was too soft on one side of the construction site, and this soft foundation caused the building to start slowly sinking as soon as the workers began constructing the second story — this is why the building tilts. As they finished the building, the builders attempted to correct the tilt. In later centuries they would replace many of the lower columns with stronger substances to withstand the unnatural weight of the building. The book TILT: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa is a great source of fascinating information. As recently as 2001, building engineers worked to lessen the tilt. Usually weight like that is distributed across many columns, but with the pronounced lean, it puts a tremendous stress on a substance not accustomed to carrying that much weight across the centuries.

with friends at the leaning towerThe bell tower (now bell-less to relieve weight from the structure) and the the spectacular cathedral are the highlights of visiting Pisa. Jenn and I didn’t pay to go up the tower, but we did enter through the back entrance of the cathedral so Jenn could pray. After that exploring, we took many fun leaning photos. Then we grabbed lunch and a gelato, strapped on our packs, and headed back to the Tower for a group photo with my cousin. Since we all dearly love gelato, we wanted a picture of the three of us with our packs, ice cream, and all of the tower. This is actually a tall order (no pun intended). As I am sure everyone has experienced, some people just don’t seem to understand that when you ask for a shot of you in front of a major monument, you kind of want the monument, too!

The three of us scoped the area until we spotted two women in their late twenties jabbering in English — perfect. The girl taking the picture was so committed to getting the shot right that she even kneeled on the ground even though she was wearing pristine white pants! Now that is commitment I can respect! The shot looked great, we reciprocated and captured a great one of the two of them, and then the three of us hoofed it over to the bus stop. We needed to continue south to Florence!


ReadingLolita by Vladmir Nabokov. I traded one of my other books for this, and it’s a creepy book but I am happy to have read it since it’s a cultural touchstone.

Listening: Dookie album by Greenday

Where am I really? Slovenia! And it rained all day.

Cinque Terre, Italy

A Little Splendor… Views of the Sparkling Mediterranean Coast from Hiking Cinque Terre

Colorful houses drip from cliffs and hang over the sea. Sunlight sparkles in the ocean and across the gentle curve of sandy white beaches. The five towns comprising Cinque Terre are among the most photogenic of Italy’s coastal cities. Even more, Cinque Terre is one of the most popular and iconic of Italy’s towns. While Rome and Venice are known the world over for ancient history and modern culture, Cinque Terre is among the next most popular destinations travelers consider when planning a trip to Italy. And for good reason — the region is stunning. It’s worthy of the acclaim. Years ago, I intended to visit while living and studying in Italy. Life got in the way during that last visit, so I was determined to see this region for myself.

how to hike cinque terre, italy

When my best friend Jenn decided to join my round the world trip, we planned to meet in Italy and then cross into Croatia. She arrived in Milan and we plotted a route across Italy that would take in Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Assisi. From there we took the ferry to Croatia to switch our exploration mode from Renaissance history to gorgeous national parks and waterfalls.

The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five-hour hike that hugs the coastline. It starts at the water’s edge, scales the side of mountains to reach cliffs hanging over the sea, and then drops back to sea level. Throughout the hike, you pass through five small towns — hence the name, which translates to five lands. Cinque Terre is unapologetically spectacular. I met a backpacker at one of the hostels who scoffed at our plans because it’s so touristy. And yet, they are the one that deserves scorn because there is just no reason to skip something that beautiful just because others also recognize the beauty and want to visit, too.

hiking cinque terre italy

Ligurian coastline from the Cinque Terre hike.

There are many ways to do the hike, we found budget accommodation in Riomaggiore, so we started there. No matter which section you choose, there just isn’t a poor choice — the entire hike is stunning. The path snakes along the edge of the cliffs. Each time you round a bend, a new vista awaits, with views that leave your mouth agape for a love of the beauty.

While the natural beauty is one reason to do the hike, the towns are also beyond charming. Suddenly the hiking paths veer from the trees and coastline and weave into one of the five towns. We would emerge from the path, panting, and suddenly the trees cleared and we found a tightly-packed Italian town filled with colorful, stacked houses. Being on the coast, the towns also had tiny harbors and inlets for sunbathing and for docking the small boats that bobbed gently.

There is just something compelling about Italian architecture — it’s not so much the style of the houses, but rather the colors. It’s exactly what you imagine the Mediterranean looks like from the photos! And while cookie-cutter suburbs in the U.S. attempt to replicate the aesthetic, there is no contest to see the architecture and culture woven into the landscape. Without the sparkling blue sea, the rolling grape fields, and the lilt of the Italian language, it loses that je ne sais quoi.

Riomaggiore, Italy harbor Riomaggiore, Italy

And although I have a love/hate relationship with hiking in general, Cinque Terre is so beautiful and compelling throughout the hike that I easily forgot that some sections were a bit strenuous. Once we made it through to the fourth town, we had the last and hardest part of the hike ahead of us. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes to hike between Vernazza and Monterosso. To fortify ourselves for the hike — and even though it was only 10:30am — we stopped for gelato in Vernazza.

It was the best gelato of my life.

And what’s funny is that it wasn’t even one of my favorite flavors! The day already scorching hot, so my bestie, my cousin, and I opted for an icy gelato rather than a creamy one. The limone was so divine. In fact, let’s take a moment of silence in my memory of that exquisite flavor. If you’re planning your own hike through Cinque Terre, hunt down the gelato shop in Vernazza. It’s unmissable when you first step into town. It’s directly in front of you as you when you leave the the south trail and enter town.

Fortified by the gelato, the three of us tackled the vertical part of the hike that connects Vernazza to Monterosso. This section is by far the hardest part of the hike. Jenn is very fit and even she was huffing and puffing along the route. About 40 minutes into the steep climb, I nearly lost the will to continue (it was hot!). Then, a fellow hiker from the other direction noticed my delightfully attractive splotchy red face and gave me the best news of the day — it was all downhill from there!

riomaggiore, italy hiking to Monterosso

gelato in Monterosso

white sand beaches Monterosso, Italy Monterosso in Cinque Terre, Italy

We nearly skipped the rest of the rest of the way. And when walking into Monterosso Bay, with its white sandy beach, we sent up squeals of glee. We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped into the icy cold waters of the Ligurian Sea. After a hike like, that we rewarded ourselves with another gelato (nocciola, hazelnut, this time!)

With the hike finished, and having relaxed and recuperated on the beach, we used the local train to return to Riomaggiore. Thinking back on the beauty, I can’t help but just smile at the happy memories. In the years since I visited, Cinque Terre has seen untenable tourism surges. For that reason, the government plans to cut tourist numbers by more than a million annually. Research the current restrictions ahead of time, and be prepared for serious crowds, especially if there is a group tour coming through. You can buy a ticket for the hiking trail, the Cinque Terre Card, from the National Parks Service.

Quick Tips: Visiting Cinque Terre, Italy

How to Visit: This is a fast-changing situation, so research ahead of time to see if the government has yet implemented the tourism restrictions — when that happens you will have to apply months in advance for entrance to the towns.

Getting Around: The five towns are made for walking — be prepared! There are buses and the Cinque Terre Express train to connect the towns as well. These towns are built into cliffs and seaside, so expect that you will be hauling your own luggage to your accommodation! Pack wisely.

What to Do: The hike is gorgeous and some sections are very gentle inclines, others are steep. Plan on hiking, but match the sections to your fitness level. The coastal trail requires the Cinque Terre Card, and it offers free WiFi too, which is good because data is not guaranteed and internet can be pricey! There is also snorkeling and other water activities on offer, I highly recommend the kayaking as it would be my choice when/if I return! And if you aren’t up for the walk physically, there is a minibus tour with pretty views too, and allows you to still see the magical five towns.

Plan Your Trip: Although I usually use the Lonely Planet guides all over the world (and the Lonely Planet Italy could work if you prefer it), in Europe I find that the Rick Steves guides have a great mix of suggested routes and detailed culture and history sections to accompany them. For that reason, consider using the Rick Steves Italy to plan your route around Italy. Besides that, I recommend using Booking.com or Airbnb to research for affordable accommodation (both of those links offer ALA readers $25 off your first booking!).

vernazza italy

A Little Welcome… My Bestie Has Joined My RTW Trip!

backpacker on trainAfter nearly 40 transit hours to travel from Kathmandu, Nepal to Milan, Italy, I was read to see a friendly face. I studied abroad in Northern Italy years back, so arriving in Milan felt like a warm hug from an old friend. I was also en route to an actual warm hug from an old friend. My friend Jenn had arrived earlier in the day and had spent her extra hours wandering through the parks and panting her way up the windy staircase to the top of Milano’s beautiful Duomo. Having already seen the highlights during my study abroad, we had planned just one night to meet up, and then we’d journey south through Italy, across the middle and into Croatia.

But first, my cousin and I had to meet up with Jenn and officially add her to the backpacking team. Jenn is an actress and model living in LA, but her roots are also firmly planted in the shallow Florida soil. She and I met in college on the University’s interactive improv team in college. Then a few years later, we bonded and commiserated as we struggled to make a life in Los Angeles.

Jenn is one of my more adventurous friends, and when I announced my plans to backpack the world for a year, she proclaimed that she would join the trip. And then she actually did!

Jenn packed smartly for the trip. I was immediately jealous of her possessions. Leaving on this trip, my research had convinced me that it was smart to travel around the world with a 52-liter pack and a front pack for my full-sized computer. I had thought long and hard about how to pick my backpack, as well as what to pack inside of it.

But pocket-sized Jenn is just 5’3 brought and she learned how to slim down her packing list to fit her pocket-sized backpack. She showed me the art of minimalist travel. Granted, she was only joining us for three weeks and we knew it would be warm since it was June in southern Europe, but even with that in mind, she had done well.

Jenn’s small rucksack backpack came in at just 45 liters and she added a tiny Camelbak that nicely held her 8-inch netbook. Cinque Terre, ItalyNow, a note on the rucksack style pack — the key drawback to this backpack style is the fact that it only allows top-loading. That’s became a pain when she had to unload everything to get to stuff in the middle and bottom. But other than that, I came to the sad conclusion that my 15-inch laptop was excessive.

Netbooks don’t have the power for my work and photo editing, but I plan to downsize the front pack to a Camelbak next year when I hit Central America. That said, I still love my 52-liter and I’m not sure a long-term trip fits in 45L when it’s hitting a mix of warm and chilly climates. Jenn’s streamlined look suits perfectly for her few weeks here with us. Plus, she brought me treats from the U.S. (like my favorite deodorant!), which made me doubly happy to see her.

Anyhow, with Jenn now on the team, the three of us headed south two and a half hours to the Ligurian coast. Our chief goal? To hike along the spectacular coast that runs through Cinque Terre, an area named for the five Italian villages sprinkled along this stunning bit of jagged rock and sparkling sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is one of the only things protecting this coastline from over tourism. It’s so pretty that I completely understand why it’s so popular with travelers from around the world.

Trains in Europe are simple, even without buying a Eurorail pass yet, we had an easy ride out of Milan. The landscape changed as we chugged across the countryside, everything growing in beauty the closer we got to Cinque Terre. This was Jenn’s very first train ride and she squealed with delight as the train chugged out of Milano Centrale. Having logged more than 200 hours on more than 40 trains throughout India and Australia, I had harbor less outright joy for prospect of more hours on a train. But Jenn’s delight served as a reminder that this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I need to shelve the cynicism and find the joy. Our train hugged the shimmering coast for hours and it made for a pretty reminder of why I fell in love with Italy all those years ago when I first came to study the language and culture.

Cinque Terre, Italy Cinque Terre, Italy

I will admit this right now because anyone who has traveled with me has learned — transportation puts me to sleep. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is outside, or how uncomfortable the position, I can nod off at a moment’s notice. Except for the hilarious head-bobby sleep, I can’t do that. Jenn hadn’t ever seen me in contort into weird positions before, and she took special delight in snapping the unflattering photos of me. Both my cousin and my friend take a bizarre delight in showing me what it looks like when I fall asleep hugging my backpack and propping myself on one elbow. So very, very unflattering.

Anyhow, they poked me awake when we reached our stop. The three of us stopped in our tracks when we stepped off the train in Monterosso. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. The late afternoon sun shone blindingly bright, casting an ochre glow across the clear blue water. Bodies bodies glistened on the beach as the men and women tanning their already bronze skin.

We had found cheap hostel accommodation in Riomaggiore online, so we hopped onto the local train connecting the towns along the coast and then quickly hopped off. We had landed in a one-road town lined with a handful of tourist shops and a smattering cafes. The road dead-ends into a darling harbor with boats bobbing on the surface on the glassy surface.

Cinque Terre, Italy and the sea

With an hour to kill before checking into the hostel, we plopped down in a café with all of our belongings and ordered up a panini to tide us over. I have a love affair with Italian food even though I am not actually much of a carb junkie. Months in India eating knock-off Western food (only occasionally because I love me some Indian food) had me craving the plump red tomatoes available in every hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and café. Indian and Nepali pizzas contain a distinct “other” flavor that gave Italian-style pizza a lead role in my dreams these past five months. I opted for a warmly toasted tomato, mozzarella, and pesto panini. It was so favorite it nearly brought me to tears. Naturally, we also went to a gelateria before checking in because, Italy.

I had warned my cousin way back in India that I planned to show no self control when it came to Italian gelato. When I lived in Italy during a summer program in college, gelato was a thrice daily occurrence. I feel strongly that this is the only way to effectively and happily travel through the country! My standby is pistachio with stracciatella as a runner up. And then of course, mint chocolate chip has been my favorite flavor for all the decades of my existence.

Cinque Terre, Italy

I succumbed to my favorite for my first gelato in the country and checked into the hostel with replete and happy. For a first day in Italy, everything was pitch-perfect. And even better, the hostel boasted free laundry and Jenn flat-out laughed as I went running toward the washing machine with joy painted across my face. Up until that moment, I had hand-washed every single item in my pack for months. That sign was the nicest invitation I’d seen in six months and I dumped my entire backpack onto my bunk, scooped it up, and galloped downstairs to the washing machine.

When my spasms of laundry joy subsided, we ventured out for a quick dinner and then back to the hostel early. The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five hour hike along the Ligurian coastline and we all wanted to feel strong and well-rested during the hike!