Cinque Terre and Tuscany

9-16 May, 2015

9 May. I travelled alone to Manarola, and had the apartment by my lonesome for a night before friends arrived. I had been anxious before the trip, but quickly relaxed into the monotony of the jouney.

La Coste apartmentI checked in to the apartment (Le Coste via booking.com). Secured the place and headed to the cafe opposite the station for a lunch of lasagna al pesto. Service was slow, food was just ok, wine was borderline ok. I walked about the town, bought wine, water, cheese and biscuits and made myself at home. Dinner was stuffed mussels that I had been dreaming about since I first set foot in Manarola years ago – but I was made to sit in a not so good table as I was alone. The mussels were good but not as I remembered, and loud music was blaring from the top of the hills attracting the younger crowds. The years seemed to have changed cinque terre. Manarola

I settled with a glass of wine in the apartment’s terrace and chatted with the husband online as I watched the day trippers leave and the town slowly fall asleep.

10 May. Started the morning off with a long walk to the top of the hills. Had tea and biscuits and cheese and lounged at the terrace people watching. And then it was off to the station to meet my friends. Turns out the steep hills is a bit too much for those with heavy luggage. It was a good thing this apartment in only halfway up the hill.

They settled in and we tried to catch up on stories. I booked us in the restaurant up the hill as they do their laundry all the while downplaying how steep a climb it would be before we reach the restaurant.

We walked to the seaside, taking in the views of the town and the Italian riviera. No loud music blaring tonight, and it was a nice walk down the hill. We headed up hill with plenty of time to spare, and plenty of time to rest between walks.

Trattoria al BillyTrattoria al Billy was well worth the trek. Booking is necessary, and book well in advance if you want to get a seat on the terrace. We had the mixed antipasto di mare – 12 plates of seafood antipasti – and it was wonderful. We had seafood pasta next. And the staff were showing other guests how fresh the fish are by taking the fish to the table. You also have to love seafood to eat here. We went back to the seafront to see Manarola at night. it was a more peaceful walk with less people about. Fireflies have started coming out. I would have loved to take a beer and sit out here and watch it get darker. Manarola

11 May. Tea and biscuits at the apartment. Breakfast at the cafe. Bought our cinque terre pass al treno and off we went to the first town, Riomaggiore. We had fritto misto – fried anchovies and calamari in a paper cone – on the way up. And then took the train again to the farthest town – Monterosso. This is the town to stay in if you wanted a beachfront. Plenty of tourists, but it’s a big place. Plenty of pickpockets here too. It is beautiful, but it’s the town that doesn’t look like the rest of cinque terre. We had lunch a bit farther in – a big pot of risotto di mare.

VernazzaWe went to Vernazza next, the most beautiful of the 5 towns, they say. Nearing the station, a group of youngsters crowded around us as we were near the door, seeming in a hurry to get off. Another man shouted to watch our bags – must have been pickpockets. Vernazza is indeed beautiful, but it’s hard to appreciate when it’s overcrowded. We did not spend a lot of time here. Last of the towns was Corniglia. We were only planning to take a photo at the station as I know it’s a steep climb up. But we found out there was a shuttle that regularly takes people up and down from the station (until 6:30pm I think). So we boarded the shuttle and got off at the sleepy town. We’ve enjoyed our time here, less tourists, quaint shops, and they offer aperitivo (cocktails and light tapas) at the bar opposite the church. Dinner was back at the apartment, with takeaway pizza, fried anchovies, wine and leftover pasta from trattoria al billy. Manarola station12 May. Checked out at 10, had a big breakfast at the cafe opposite the station and took the train to La Spezia at noon. The lift at La Spezia was a funny experience – you had to press the button all the time as the lift goes up/down, else it stops. Train to Pisa, then changed again for Firenze. I could only imagine how tiring it is for my friends who had to drag heavy luggage up and down the stairs, but I know my back would not be able to bear that. Rang the agency where we’re renting the apartment at Florence and took a taxi. Found the apartment (Porta Rossa Halldis suite) and waited for a full 30mins before our agent got there 😦 It is a big and beautiful apartment, but it had a poky, tiny bathroom. And I really hate it when self-catering apartments don’t think about the little things – not enough toiletries nor loo rolls, not providing dishwashing liquids, coffee filters, bin liners. I should also remember to ask about access to wifi routers as it conked out on us and we had no access to the hallway where it was located. Dinner was at Buca Mario after getting turned away at our first choice. There was a line of tourists at the restaurant when we got there just before it opened. It looked a bit touristy, but the bistecca alla fiorentina was why we’re here and it did not disappoint. We ordered the mains straightaway, and it was a huge chunk of steak. We were near the river and Ponte Vecchio. And the grocery was just across the bridge (turn left after crossing the bridge). We shopped for water and breakfast there. 13 May. I booked us on a coach tour of Siena and San Gimignano the night before via Viator. We had a quick breakfast at McDonald’s, shameful I know, but it was the nearest place to the bus stop. Coach wasn’t very full. Tour guide had a sleepy voice, that we practically were half asleep on the way to Siena. The walking tour in Siena was really good. I got to find out more how the locals lived, their history and how the bi-annual Palio features in their daily lives. We had the town’s specialty, Pici pasta, for lunch. And bought home almond cookies from Il Magnifico, touted as the town’s best bakery. San Gimignano was less crowded than I remembered it. And I still have not had enough time to explore it as before. Dinner was back at home for some take away pasta from the grocery and leftover steak. 14 May. Breakfast at the apartment and we’re off to Firenze SM Novella station, about 10 mins walk away. Bought tickets to Pisa S Rossore (NOT Pisa Centrale) and it’s a short walk from there to Torre di Pisa and the duomo. There isn’t any fee to pay if you just walk around the grounds, we opted not to go up the tower as it costs a lot and there is bound to be much waiting time. We’ve taken the obligatory photos and walked towards Pisa Centrale to see a bit more of the town. Lunch was a simple pasta along the way. Pisa towerI was buying tickets from the machine and my travel mates were looking at the train times. Not a very busy station, but I always have my guard up against pickpockets when I’m appearing distracted. One of my friends hurriedly called me over to them and warned me that a man had been eyeing us individually. We headed for a shop at the station as we looked for our platform, and the guy along with another companion was following us. We can’t find our platforms, so we headed for the customer info office and stayed there for a bit. At the platform for Lucca, we found the men who had been following us. We boarded the train and stayed in the car with the most people. One of the men boarded the train and walked up the aisle as if looking for someone and I tried to stare him down so he’s aware we know he’s been following us. He got off and boarded the train again at the last minute with his companion. We ended up heading for Lucca but didn’t leave the station. My friends were already terrified at this point and are only likely to have a miserable time. So we bought our train tickets back to Florence and called it a day. Ponte Vecchio

Carlo arrived from Prague and Racky and I headed out towards the duomo in search of flowers for Gemma’s birthday.

15 May. A slow relaxing day as we try to recover and celebrate Gemma’s birthday. pizza for lunch at the apartment.  And a lovely dinner at Golden View Open Bar Ristorante. We didn’t get to sit by the windows as we only booked the day before and it was a busy night, but we still could see much of the river and the food was good.

We stayed up till late talking and I had to say my goodbyes as I have to sneak out early in the morning to catch my flight.

Florence

16 May. 0500 start for me as I shower and finish packing. Left soon after 6am to walk to the station and catch the Terravision bus to Pisa airport. A more relaxing flight back as I checked in my backpack and did not have to compete for overhead space.

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San Francisco and New York

5-16 July 2014

1pm flight means we can afford to be early at the airport and eat properly. But we were a bit too early this time checking in at 3h ahead of time, wanting to be on the safe side as there are terror alerts for US-bound flights.

I have finally realised why people rave about Virgin Airlines – it’s the premium economy seats. Leather seats and those few extra inches all around makes a lot of difference. Food is made to look better with cloth napkins, silverware and breakable dishes, though it’s the usual (unpalatable) fare inside. Costs £200+ more, but (reminder to self) don’t use the virgin airmiles (I was quoted £150+ per person + airmiles to upgrade, not worth losing the miles for). I thought it was worth it , considering that business class is about double the fare.

But I tried and still failed to get some sleep.

5 July. Arrived early at SFO (around 4:30pm) and Karen picked us up. 14 long years. Last time I saw her, I was saying my goodbyes in Manila. It was a flurry of food shopping afterwards and we were off to her house in San Mateo. I am glad to see her family looking all settled here. Mike arrived soon afterwards and Catherine was with Karen to pick us up. Food was great! But Karen’s mom’s kaldereta (with a  bit of coconut milk) was the best (I was still reminding her of my favourite chicken sotanghon that I tried to replicate over the years – but I keep failing).

I jumped in the car with Karen to head to Oakland airport to pick up Allan. It was almost 6:30pm, Allan would be waiting for an hour by the time we get there. So much for making every minute count. I was messaging him on facebook on his wife’s account and his wife would text him. wished we could meet his family!

Back in San Mateo, after more eating, Karendrove us around San Francisco. We parked at Union Square and headed for the cheesecake factory. We were freezing in San Francisco weather but still took tables out in the terrace. Picture taking at Union Square. And more hurried photos in the Palace of Fine Arts. Nobody wanted to get out of the car after that. And we were ready to call it a night. the perils of getting old – sleep is a necessity now.

6 July. availed of breakfast at the hotel. tried the waffle maker. but really, having breakfast here felt like having breakfast in some cheap cafeteria. tasteless food, plastic cutleries, paper plates. not worth the money they’re charging for it esp since i hardly ate anything.

karen and her mom and allan picked us up late morning. crossed the golden gate bridge, trying to find a good vantage point. i remembered san francisco and it’s fog. this had been a very different experience for me some 20 years ago. i thought it was very cold then. it still is even when the rest of california swelters.

ended up in sausalito, with its gorgeous houses, winding, steep streets and views of the marina. settled in the seats in the sun and promptly got burnt. i guess it would have been a shame not to sit outside in this weather.

we tried in and out burger. whilst i understand it’s popular because it’s cheap and tastes better than McDonald’s, i don’t understand why people would travel just to taste it.

fisherman’s wharf was not what i remembered it to be. it’s crowded now. and the sea lions aren’t there this time of the year at the pier.

mike joined us later at fisherman’s wharf. wished i had the chowder in those bread bowls, but i just wasn’t hungry.

Can’t believe the parking rates here costing $32 for a few hours.

7 July. breakfast at a french bistro/cafe a couple of blocks down the hotel. not sure why i keep ordering pancakes when i never really enjoyed it as much as i thought i would.

we ended up going around san francisco by ourselves that morning. tried getting in line for the cable car at powell, but the line was just too long. walked around union square. got a 3-day muni pass from woolworths.

headed for the caltrain station to take the trains to san mateo so we can meet up with karen and take allan to the airport. passed by safeway (i am still in awe of the huge supermarkets here and the variety of food items).

at the caltrain station, a teen dropped her drinks and a cleaner was promptly called. the teen’s family grabbed the mop and handed it to the teen. it was a refreshing sight. and the cleaner could only protest and watch as a customer does his job. maybe it was a lesson to the teen – to try harder to leave each place as she found it.

there was also a homeless man, dirty and wearing clothes much too big for him, who was roaming around. as the doors to the platform was opened, he went in to the platform too. the staff couldn’t do much when he did not produce a ticket. note to self – what a great way to dodge a ticket, also guarantees you a row of seats to yourself on the train too. actually, i did not see if he got on the train.

got off at hillsdale and went to the hillsdale mall to roam and wait for the 2 to arrive. turned out allan did not go shopping that morning, should have just spent the time hanging out.

karen did some (very) last minute shopping for gifts for allan to take. and turned out allan prepared gifts for all of us too 🙂

flight was an hour delayed. so we went to a nearby chipotle to eat. and finally dropped off a close-to-tears allan.

went to karen’s that night and got everyone together for another dinner at a japanese place in foster city. lovely food, and it was great they knew the owner who kept plying us with more sake. unfortunately, the burritto earlier had been enough and i couldn’t eat any more.

8 July. we got picked up at the hotel by the tour company we booked to go to Yosemite.

booked the Yosemite tour thru extranomical. always have wanted to see the Yosemite national park. but it was 4-5 hours from san francisco one way and all park lodgings were fully booked. so a day tour was my only choice.

Leo, our driver and well-travelled tour guide, is a pinoy and have been calling us ‘my people’.

It was a big bus, with some 30+ people. Driver makes the rounds around San Francisco and picks up everyone at their hotel. And not everyone is quite ready to board, so those little delays can add up.

There was a bit of action on the road as we exited the city, saw a man in front of a car at the intersection. car must have stopped on time, but another man pushed the disoriented guy and they were making quite a scene.

there are quite a lot of homeless and crazy people in san francisco than most any other cities i’ve seen. tells you something is not quite right in this society.

we stopped at a fruit stand on the way, loading up on snacks (that we didn’t get to eat and ended up taking home). we had another stop at supermarket Raleys in Oakdale before heading to see the Sequioas.

we ate our sushi in the bus and walked the circuit around the Sequioas. it wasn’t a challenging walk with the skies a bit overcast. i was here for the sequioa trees, whilst they are very tall and there are a few really old trees there, i was a bit underwhelmed.

a day tour of yosemite from san francisco is supposed to be a drive-by tour. but there were quite a few stops to take photos. yosemite is beautiful. and the viewpoints into the valleys are breathtaking. it can be busy in some places, and hiking at this time of the year with the temperature soaring well above 30C can be quite exhausting. We saw a bear (a young one) hiding in the bushes and a few deers in the woods.

we had more than 1 hour to ourselves at one point, walking in the trails to the visitor centre, ansel adams gallery, village store and took the shuttle back to the meeting point. The shuttle took it’s time and we were some 10mins late, good thing there were quite a few of us who were delayed.

we had early dinner at this sleepy but really atmospheric town called Mariposa on the way back. this place is the real wild, wild west. we almost succumbed to having chinese food, as suggested by the guide. instead walked a block under the intense sun to get beer and burger, which was more fitting. time was tight, though.

approaching san francisco, our guide took us to traseure island, which offers very nice views across bay bridge and the city.

ending the tour, you’d be reminded of tips and gratuities, as is customary. but thought our guide worked really hard for his tips. it’s not a joke driving some 14 hours within a day and having to be entertaining at the same time.

extranomical tours are quite good value for money. but expect that it will be a big group, and there will be delays on pick up and drop off time. i’m guessing the non-english audio guides are not good, as the italians in our group  complained several times. and consider, too, that Yosemite is 4-5 hours each way, that means there’s only a very limited time to see the park.

9 July. there was hardly any queues at the cable cars in california street. but here you get sweeping views from the top of the hills into the streets of san francisco. obviously not popular with the tourists as this line doesn’t pass by other touristy spots.

we changed to the muni buses to get to ‘The Painted Ladies’ and walked around to see more victorian houses. Haight street with it’s quirky shops and restaurants. Tried coffee from the blue bottle coffee shop. went to golden gate park to see the conservatory. some parts of the golden gate park looked like a place where some homeless people hang out.

we came back in time for the hotel’s free wine tastings (they serve the same wine every day though). and waited a bit more for karen to arrive so we can have dinner together. we ended up in karen’s house because parking had been a nightmare.

10 July. we stayed the night at karen’s because mike is to take us to napa valley today. mike arrived with his dad and took us and karen’s parents. karen had left by then (she leaves for work at 6:30am :O).

Jollibee for breakfast! I honestly don’t miss the food at jollibee, but it’s a piece of home and that somehow makes you happy. but they had no daing na bangus for breakfast 😦

Napa valley is quite a pretty place. We went to V. Sattui first and paid for wine tasting (i was told it was free before). They do have knowledgeable staff, but i didn’t like that they keep pouring the wine in the same glass and that there wasn’t much explanation on the history of the place and their processes.

we went for a couple more places (but no more tasting) around napa valley and we headed to Max’s for lunch and back at Karen’s for the rest of the afternoon.

11 July. breakfast at the Scala’s Bistro and back at the hotel to finish packing. checked out at 12 and left our luggage at reception.

went to civic center station to try and find trinity apartments. this was my home for some 2 months the last time i was here and home to my parents for several years. it was a huge block of apartments – and now it’s all gone, with the site being redeveloped to become luxury flats.

took to the muni trains again and headed for ocean beach. i’ve expected to be in the cliff house. but we were on a big stretch of beach with the cliff house still a good distance away. so, never mind the leather shoes and inappropriate clothes, we walked the beach and gaze at the Pacific Ocean whiling away our last few hours in this city.

found late lunch at a barbecue place in the city. and headed back to the hotel to wait for karen to pick us up.

airport. and as much as i don’t want to live here, this place holds a lot of memories for me and leaving is always hard.

people checked in online really early for this delta flight. it’s a 5 hour flight and there are no more places where we can sit together. so we paid extra for exit seats. and i did forget that there are extra fees for checked in luggage. i still think delta is better than flying AA.

12 July. reached new york at around 7am with the flight being delayed. found a diner at the airport and killed time at breakfast. whilst SFO was full of asians, JFK was full of south americans.

took a cab. around $50. new york skyline from brooklyn bridge on a quiet saturday morning – pretty amazing for this new york first timer.

greenwich village, manhattan. i do love this place. countless restaurants, world-famous jazz bars, very central. i can live here. we left our luggage at the jade hotel – beautiful lobby, almost patronising staff. tells you a lot of information on check in, but i forget all of them as soon as i leave the front desk. can’t check in yet, too early, but promised me they’d ring if the room is ready earlier. used the wifi to get my bearings and walked to the high line, a few blocks away.

it’s quite hard to get hopelessly lost here, as the streets are numbered and pretty much laid out in a grid.

the high line is really pretty and vast. but it’s quite warm in new york today and i am still dressed for san francisco. seen a sign for the chelsea market and headed there. a bit like borough market, but completely covered, and not as crowded.

headed back to the hotel and just sat at the lobby waiting for them to ring me. no call came, but when i approached the reception at 2:40pm, we were handed our keys – so our room was ready, but they never got around to ringing me. was told our luggage would follow us upstairs. it took almost an hour for our luggage to arrive at the room. not really happy with that as we were exhausted. if they only had 1 porter, we should have been given an option to take our luggage ourselves.

we walked around that evening looking for dinner. saturday night in manhattan, and i wasn’t reallly expecting it to be this sleepy. and who said this city never sleeps?

we found a small and quiet italian restaurant and had pasta and wine. looked like a friendly, neighbourhood place where friends meet and hang out before heading to clubs or just to wind down. waitress quickly served the wine and was pouring before we realised she was serving us the wrong wine. apologetic, but still asked us if we wanted to change it. of course we do, new york was too sweltering to be drinking red at this time when we ordered white.

food was ok. but clearly the waitress was new. another table was complaining loudly with the women asking for something free to compensate. not sure if they got anything, but after a while they piled out of the restaurant. with the staff realising a few mins later that they haven’t paid.

13 July. we were meeting up with my old colleagues from manila who are now based in new york. walked around times square, sheltered at M&Ms when it rained, walked around the rockefeller. and lunch at a churrascaria. it was good we did not get breakfast (and turned out we didn’t need dinner too). it was a meat feast, and i’d be ready to go vegetarian for a while after that. I am happy for them how their lives turned out. And I am glad to hear about old friends again.

back at the hotel and watched the football finals.

and we went back that evening to the Rockefeller building  for the Top of the Rock. We booked online so we didn’t need to queue for tickets. but as we got in, we were told the upper decks are closed. so much for seeing the NY skyline view without fencing. We went straight for the terrace with its glass fencing. Turns out there was an accident, a small fire, and there were a few people who got injured. Soon enough, the terraces were evacuated and we waited a bit until they reopen. Never reopened and everyone was ushered out. We got a refund, but we spent more time queuing for a refund than looking at the view from the top.

14 July. we explored manhattan using the subway. we end up spending more than $10 a day though we walked a lot. i had a habit of get-in-to-the-station-and-then-think-where-to-go. turns out here, some stations, once you get in, you have to make sure the trains go in the direction you want. because once you exit, you get charged the full fare.

new york is dirty, gritty. the locals are a varied lot. there’s real jazz musicians playing on the subway platforms. people rush about purposefully – but not any more so than in london. there’s an atmosphere here that you won’t get from anywhere else.

momofuku noodle bar. people used to queue up for their pork buns and chicken wings. i was surprised to see neither are in the menu. so i asked. it was written in the corner of the board. the chicken wings we ordered after seeing it served on the other table. we also tried their ramen. it was good food. but, i’ve tasted better. but it was an unpretentious place and food was good value for money.

we’ve gone to the garage for jazz that evening. food was nice. music was even better. but on a monday night, the place is not busy. towards the second set, there were only 4 tables occupied. it got really quiet. The Cecilia Coleman Big Band were really good. The trio on the second set were good too, but just about gets you ready to sleep.

15 July. tried ihop. retro looking place. good old american service exactly like i’ve always watched how they serve in diners in american tv shows. huge menu. lots of choices. but i don’t get why it’s so popular as the food is still normal diner food.

Awed by the grand central station and the flat iron building.

it was already late afternoon that we made our way to battery park to see the statue of liberty. had no intentions of going to the island, but the statue was a lot farther than we realised. and on a gloomy day, it would just be a speck in the photos. besides, al was already looking around and heading to get ferry tickets. we took the last ferry ride out, straight onto the statue grounds and no time to go to Ellis island or head up the crown (tickets to the crown were sold out anyway).

if you want to see the liberty, you really have to get up close. and you don’t really have to spend the whole day there.

16 July.  early morning flight. reached london by evening.

mortality

i still half expect the world to stop when a good person dies. rest in peace old friend. i know you lived your life the way you always wanted to. i grieve for the rest of us who are still figuring out our way.