Saturday, 15 December 2012

Cinque Terre - Day 17

Pisa Bus Spotting

We decided to slot in a day trip to Cinque Terre from Pisa on the extra day that we had due to extension of our original itinerary to enjoy cheaper airfare.

A complimentary standard continental buffet breakfast spread was included with our room tariff at Hotel La Torre. Hotel guests were able to choose from a selection of croissants and pastries as well as cereals at the small but cozy cafe located at the ground floor of the hotel.
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After the quick breakfast, we explored the area for suitable locations to obtain photos of Pisa citybuses operated by Compagnia Pisana Trasporti (CPT). One feature of the Pisa citybus network is the branding of key routes as LAM (Linea ad Alta Mobilità; High Mobility Line) services and we spotted a number of buses in the striking blue, green and red colour-coded route liveries.

6359 is a BredaMenariniBus M240L Avancity CNG photographed working a blue-coded LAM Blu service back to Stazione FS.
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6355 is a similar BredaMenariniBus M240L Avancity CNG and was found working on green-coded LAM Verde.
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CPT also operates a small number of Citaro citybuses with second generation front mask, such as 3408 being spotted on the red-coded LAM Rossa service to Stazione Aeroporto located beside the city's airport. Pisa's Galileo Galilei Airport is located just 2km south of Stazione Pisa Centrale and functions a major hub for Ryanair.
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3207, an Autodromo BusOtto, was spotted picking up passengers opposite Stazione Pisa Centrale travelling on LAM Rossa towards Torre S. Jacopo during the morning rush hour. The Autodromo BusOtto was produced locally by Carrozzeria Autodromo Modena (CAM) based on a MAN chassis and was in production between 1994 and 2003 before CAM was declared bankrupt. With its distinctive angular bodywork, the Autodromo BusOtto was one of the more interesting models that we had spotted during our brief sojourn through the Italian peninsula. Photobucket

Unfortunately, the boarding berths at the bus terminal was totally under shadow from nearby buildings at that early hour, and a solitary Iveco Cityclass, 3142, parked at one side was in good lighting.
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CPT also operates a small fleet of Irisbus CityClass 491.18.35 articulated buses on its heavily patronised routes. Fleet number 7355 was spotted laying over at the nearby bus terminal and proved to be a challenge to photograph due to the one-directional routing.
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BH914FM Kässbohrer Setra is a suburban/regional bus operated by Lazzi and was photographed turning into Viale Antonio Gramsci towards Stazione Pisa Centrale.
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We proceeded to join the queue at Stazione Pisa Centrale to purchase the seat reservation tickets for our next sector to La Spezia Centrale. The station was constructed in 1871 but extensive damage during World War II necessitated a rebuild with some modifications to its original design.
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Instead of advance online booking, we decided to reserve our seats for the relatively shorter-haul intercity train rides today over the ticketing counter, in order to obtain the tickets for souvenir. The reservation cost €10 per sector on a Eurostar City Italia (now rebranded as Frecciabianca) service. One is also required to validate the reservation at one of the many bright yellow validating machines scattered around the station platforms, or it can also be validated by the inspector on board during the journey (note the imprint at the bottom left corner).
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A Trenitalia MDVC (Medie Distanze Vestiboli Centrali) driving trailer with a rack of MDVE (Medie Distanze Vestiboli Estremi) carriages was parked at the opposite platform. Operated by Trenitalia’s regional directorates, the MDVC & MDVE were introduced in 1980 and were intended for use on short intercity routes and regional operations. MDVE carriages could be easily distinguished from the MDVC carriages by the presence of a single width door located at each end of the carriage as compared to the centralized positioning of a pair of double width doors.
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While waiting for our train, we were amused by the strong Italian accent of the English platform announcements, which sounded like English text read out as Italian by a computer (but at least English announcements are available)! We embarked on our journey to Cinque Terre on a Eurostar City train to La Spezia, which arrived two minutes late.
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Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre is a picturesque rugged portion of the coast on the Italian Riviera. The name means Five Lands in Italian and the area comprises of five small villages, (from southeast to northwest) Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, which cling to the jagged Ligurian cliffs on the western coast of the Italian peninsula. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides form the Cinque Terre National Park, which is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Cinque Terre is “a cultural site of outstanding value, representing the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality that illustrates a traditional way of life that has existed for a thousand years and continues to play an important socio-economic role in the life of the community”. The Cinque Terre region had been transformed from a string of quiet fishing villages to a popular tourist destination, which draws visitors to its stunning vista of settlements with pastel hued houses perched atop steep cliffs and the excellent hiking trails in the national park. (Ed: Four months after our visit, on 25th October 2011, the villages – in particular Vernazza and Monterosso – were severely affected by floods and mudslides caused by torrential rains.)

Prior to the full opening of the railway line between Pisa and Genoa along the Ligurian coast in 1874, Cinque Terre was only accessible on foot or by sea. Today, the villages are served mainly by regional trains which call at every station, and some intercity trains that call at Riomaggiore and Monterosso.

Our train encountered further delays along the way and reached La Spezia seven minutes behind schedule. We rushed to the adjacent platform to transfer to a regional train, which thankfully waited for passengers from our connecting Eurostar City Italia train. The train was very packed with tourists heading to the Cinque Terre region and we had to stand for the short ride to Riomaggiore.
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Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is the southernmost village in the Cinque Terre region and is thus the first of the five villages that visitors will encounter on the train from La Spezia.
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It was interesting to note that the terrain results in the platforms of Riomaggiore station extending into the railway tunnels at both ends.
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We jostled with the large crowd of like-minded day-trippers after alighting from the train and the trilingual station signs (Italian, English & German) allowed us to quickly orientate ourselves.
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Our first task was to visit the tourist office to purchase the Cinque Terre Card for €5, which allows use of the hiking paths and facilities such as the eco-friendly minibuses in the villages. The proceeds from the tickets go to the national park authority for the maintenance of trails and terraces. In addition, we grabbed copies of maps and train schedule from the office to plan our day. We also went to the Trenitalia ticketing counter to reserve seats for our return train from La Spezia to Pisa, but the staff informed that reservation could only be made at La Spezia.
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A short pedestrian tunnel links the town's railway station with the main street of Riomaggiore, Via Colombo where the bulk of the shops and restaurants are located.
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View of Via Colombo with charming al fresco cafes and souvenir shops flanking the narrow street.
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Tucked away in the numerous alleys that branch off the main street, quaint pizzarias and bars tempt visitors for a quick bite and drink along with a respite from the intense summer sun.
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We walked along the main street and managed to get a record photo of an Iveco which functions as a local bus that provides an essential connection between the town centre and the carpark as well as the fringe settlements.
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Local grocer along Via Colombo. The name of the cooperative is a creative play on the name of the region.
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Colourful wall murals pay homage to the hard work of the farmers and fishermen who had crafted out the unique defining landscape of the Cinque Terre region over the course of history.
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We decided not to venture too far uphill and headed to the waterfront instead. Along the way, we passed by the ferry ticketing counter and took a photo of the ferry schedule to aid in our planning.
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Making our way down to the rock strewn coast, we spent some time admiring the “postcard view” of Riomaggiore. It definitely did not disappoint with the dramatic view of the colourful houses which seem to be stacked haphazardly atop each other. The view of the 13th century settlement rising steeply away from the coast while being sandwiched between two verdant hills in the bright morning sun ranked as one of the most memorable sights of our trip.
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With a view of the crystal clear azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea and excellent summer weather, sunbathing is a popular activity among many visitors as they took advantage of the flat rock surfaces that had been worn smooth over centuries of wave action.
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Via dell'Amore (Lover's Path)

The path originated in the 1920s to facilitate the construction of a new railway tunnel between Riomaggiore and Manarola for double-tracking works. After completion of the railway line upgrading, residents mooted the idea of using the coastal path to connect the two villages. The path soon became a popular destination for young lovers after it was re-opened in the 1930s, following improvement works with support from the municipal council, volunteers and residents. Hence, the path was nicknamed as Via dell’Amore, which was adopted as the official name in the 1970s.

Two steep flight of steps near the entrance of the railway station link Riomaggiore to the start of the path.
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An access control point at the start of the Lover's Path ensures that visitors had a valid Cinque Terre Card to enjoy the iconic trail. The Cinque Terre Card is valid for unlimited use of the trails in the region for a day.
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Hugging the steep rock face and boasting an expansive view of the Mediterranean Sea on the other side, it is no wonder why this dramatic scenery had attracted lovers and curious visitors alike from around the world.
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Steps lead down from the path to the sea below for visitors who wish to enjoy the waters at a closer distance.
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View of the Lover's Path to the south showing the harmonious play between man and nature in the form of terraced vineyards with the vibrant village of Riomaggiore neatly tucked out of sight behind the hills.
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Sheltered walkways and arresting nets help prevent visitors from being hit by falling rocks from the steep cliffs while minimising the impact to the environment and the natural beauty of the path.
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A sculptured bench along the Lover's Path allow lovers to take a well-deserved rest to gaze out at the unparalleled view of the Italian Riviera while reaffirming their unconditional love and commitment towards each other.
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Many lovers often choose to attach locks to specially design fixtures or to the arresting nets on the rock face and throw the keys into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea to symbolise their everlasting love for each other. Though frowned upon, scribbles of love messages and declarations are also commonly found on pillars and supports along the path.
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Wild flowering scrubs along the Via dell'Amore add a dash of colour to the picturesque trail.
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After a very leisurely 30-minute stroll and stopping to take photos and take in the breathtaking scenery, we arrived at our second of fifth village in the Cinque Terre region, Manarola. The Lover's Path runs above and parallel to the railway station platform along a balcony with the familiar pastel coloured buildings of the village just visible in the background.
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Manarola

The village of Manarola is regarded as one of the oldest settlements in the Cinque Terre region with a cornerstone of the local church dating back to 1338. The name was probably derived from magna roea which means large wheel in the local dialect of Manarolese after the mill wheel in the town. We followed the signboards and emerged out at the top of the main street of Manarola after passing through another tunnel.
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The main street leads down to the coast and was bustling with activity with visitors checking out the offerings from the numerous cafes and restaurants that line the street.
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As it was noon, we decided to have lunch at a café (Trattoria la Scogliera) along the main street after a short walk around the village. Seafood is an inseparable part of the region’s distinctive cuisine and we decided to sample dishes such as mixed seafood grill and crayfish spaghetti. It also occurred to us that Italians generally have a huge appetite, when the waitress gave us the “look” apparently because we only ordered the first course.

The mixed seafood grill (€16) comprised of a platter of freshly grilled crayfish, squid, prawns and a generous chunk of fish which was sprinkled with finely diced aromatic herbs.
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We explored our options during lunch and charted our itinerary through the 3 remaining towns for the rest of the day. Following which, we proceeded to the waterfront where we purchased our ferry tickets to our next destination, Monterosso which cost €7 per person for a one-way journey. The irregular rocky coastline encouraged the formation of several deep pools which were put to good use by many who jumped from the rocks into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
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It was entertaining as we joined the rowdy crowd of onlookers as they cheered and spurned the people to attempt increasingly daredevil jumps from the rocks into the sea. This was a stark contrast to relative non-event when people plunge themselves into the Inland Sea at Gozo.
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With quite some time to spare before the scheduled arrival of the ferry, we went to explore the higher portions of the village which is distinctively quieter and more residential. However, only one of us made it to the San Lorenzo Church at the top, while the rest backed out along the mercilessly steep slope. The colourful brick houses soon give way to the lush greenery of the vineyards which produce the grapes that are used to ferment a high quality local white dessert wine known as Sciacchetrà.
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Back at the village centre, we observed that a group of people was gathering outside the COOP store, and suspected that they were waiting for the local bus. Thus, we readied ourselves at the junction with a side road further uphill, in anticipation of taking perfect sunlight photo showing the front and nearside of the bus. However, we were deeply disappointed when the bus reversed its way down!
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As we made our way back to the waterfront, some of us took the opportunity to grab a cone of gelato to cool ourselves down in the summer heat. The pathway to the boarding point for the ferry curved around the rocky headlands and we were thus unable to view a similar scene as we had at Riomaggiore.
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The small ferry dock at Manarola is carved out of a series of rocks that jut out into the sea and a long queue for the ferry soon formed and snaked through the gap in the jagged rocks under the intense early afternoon sun.
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It is perhaps impractical to expect Swiss-like efficiency and punctuality in the laid back Ligurian region, thus it came as no surprise that the ferry finally turned up 8 minutes behind schedule. Due to the challenge posed by the terrain and the razor sharp rocks strewn along the coast, the ferries dock head-on at the pier and passengers board and alight using a flimsy-looking ramp that is manually deployed by the deckhands at the bow. It is also common for the ferries to skip villages when the water is rough due to safety concerns and there are several reports online where passengers had accidentally injured themselves while embarking and disembarking the ferry.
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The ferry is often recommended as the most scenic way of touring Cinque Terre, by offering a view of the rugged landscape from the sea. It was certainly worth braving the sweltering sun on the exposed upper deck as we savoured and photographed the unique vista of the coastal villages from the sea.
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The vibrant village of Manarola photographed shortly after our boat departed the pier for her journey northwards.
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Perched at the top of the coastal hills, Corniglia is the only one of the five villages in Cinque Terre that is not directly served by the regular sightseeing ferry service.
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The prominent circular brick watchtower of Vernazza’s castle soon came into view. The castle, Belforte, was originally built in the mid-16th century to protect the town from sea-faring pirates.
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Another view of Vernazza as the ferry rounded the headland and adjusted its course to follow the coastline. The steep terraces in the background are shown to good effect in this photo; the olives cultivated on these terraced groves are used to make one of the finest olive oil in Italy.
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The swanky seaside resort of Monterosso is the northernmost village in the Cinque Terre region. It took slightly over half an hour to cruise from Manarola to Monterosso but we had certainly enjoyed the clear turquoise waters and the undulating topography of the Ligurian coast on this short journey.
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Euro 5 (SP4543) disembarking passengers at Monterosso pier. The ferry is certified to carry a maximum of 400 passengers on both decks during the summer months and accommodate 194 passengers on her enclosed lower deck when operating on the coastal routes in winter. Before we left the ferry for terra firma, we purchased bottles of cold mineral water from the onboard bar for a rather reasonable €1 per bottle.
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Monterosso

Monterosso possess the only extensive stretch of sandy beach in the Cinque Terre region and is consequently a popular choice among many visitors who choose to laze out under the warm sun or under the comfort of colourful beach umbrellas during the summer season. Having spent our lives in the stifling warmth of the tropics and where beaches are nothing but stretches of sand to many of us, the town did not appeal to us and we decided to only settle for a whirlwind tour of the seaside resort town en route to the railway station.
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A combined pedestrian and vehicular tunnel connects the old and new section of the town where the railway station is located.
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Rows of brightly coloured beach umbrellas compete for space along the narrow stretch of sand along the crowded beachfront at the new section of the town.
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Apart from the beach, visitors can also while away the day at many of the al fresco cafes at the tree lined street with an uninterrupted view of the Mediterranean Sea.
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The hillside location of Monterosso railway station meant that the ticketing concourse of the station is actually located below the platform level and passengers have to climb a flight of stairs to the appropriate platform for their train.
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While planning for the trip, we had read of reports that the local trains between the Cinque Terre villages are not tourist-friendly, as the trains often arrive late and there are no announcements in English. As a result, whenever trains deviate from schedule, tourists are left wondering whether the train would call at the destination village. Thankfully, we did not experience any problems, and quickly located the correct train which arrived on time.
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Vernazza

Vernazza is often thought to be the most picturesque of the villages in Cinque Terre with colourful pastel houses and centuries old castles juxtaposing with the steep olive grove terraces that rise above the seaside village. The main piazza for the town is located beside the small beachfront and overlooked by a charming rustic church with its own bell tower next to the sea.
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After amusing ourselves with a lopsided game of beach soccer where a group of youths kicked a soccer ball into the sea where an unfortunate goalkeeper had the unenviable task of retrieving the ball, we decided to walk around and explore the town which was founded in the 11th century AD.
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A selection of gelateria and bars located along the main street exude a unique blend of old world and Mediterranean charm that lure visitors into the establishments for a quick look.
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A discreet sign points the way to the hiking trail which connects Vernazza to the neighbouring hillside village of Corniglia. A handwritten notice below the sign indicated that the trail was closed for critical improvement works at the time of our visit (left).
Many shops in the Cinque Terre region have limited opening hours, such as the sign in front of the local pharmacy indicating that it is open from 8am to 1pm in the morning and from 5pm to 7pm in the evening (centre).
Aqueducts had been a hallmark of Roman engineering and while many of them still remain serviceable after centuries of use, some water fountains are purely for decorative purposes today and a sign cautions against drinking from it (right).
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We tried to spot the local bus but did not manage to locate the bus stop. For the first time in the trip, we actually had to kill time while waiting for a train, instead of rushing to get onboard. Thus, we decided to explore the higher part of the village and find a quiet spot to relax to review our photos and soak in the ambience. One of us decided to relive his childhood on a playground merry-go-round but in his excitement did a slip worthy of a proper comedian which had the rest of us shattering the peace of the serene surroundings with our uncontrollable laughter.
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As with Monterosso, the hillside location of the railway station in Vernazza and the spatial constraints resulted in the station platform being stacked on top of the ticketing concourse with the trains rumbling through the middle of the village.
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We boarded the driving trailer of a MDVC carriage for the short 9-minute ride to our last remaining village in Cinque Terre, Corniglia. As the automatic door mechanism for the front doors were not working, the train guard had to manually activate the door after the train came to a stop. A separate train driver sat in the elevated driver’s cabin and we were also able to view a large mail sorting room which divided the driver’s cabin from the rest of the carriage.
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Corniglia

Corniglia is unique in being located on top of a steep 90-metre promontory and does not have any direct seaside access unlike the other four villages. Visitors alighting from the train at the railway station situated at the base of the cliff have the option of tackling 382 steps up the flight of switchback stairs (known as Lardarina) to reach the town centre located at the top of the cliff.
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However, we were fortunate to chance upon the local bus which was operating a shuttle service between the railway station and the town centre and we hopped onboard without any hesitation. It was perhaps not surprising as the Iveco Daily minibus filled up quickly with like-minded visitors and made the quick 4 minute trip up the hill.
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As our previous photos of the local bus were shrouded in shadow or in sub-optimal lighting, we were lucky that the sunlight direction was favourable at the alighting area to obtain both nearside and offside photos of the vehicle.
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We retraced our steps downhill and posed for photos for having “accomplished” the gruelling climb up the steps next to a congratulatory signboard (left). Additional signboards point the way to the railway station and the hiking trail to Manarola (top right), as well as to the village centre (bottom right).
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In contrast to the other 4 villages which sport a wide paved main street, the village centre of Corniglia comprises of a warren of narrow alleyways that are hemmed in by buildings on both sides. We navigated our way to a designated viewing platform located at the edge of the town where we had a good view of the rugged landscape and the steep terraced olive groves.
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The San Pietro parish church in Corniglia was built upon a pre-existing less important church which dated back to the 11th century.
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We stocked up on cheap drinks at the local grocer before making our way out of the labyrinth like alleyways to the Lardarina to begin our hike to Manarola. It was also possible to obtain a bird’s eye view of the coast at the top of the stairs where Manarola could be seen in the distance. The railway track which form part of the trunk La Spezia – Genoa line cut across like an ugly brown scar at the base of the verdant hills.
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We spotted an A4 sized notice which stated that the trail between Corniglia and Manarola was closed. However, we assumed that the notice was outdated as we did not see any advisory at the visitor's centre earlier in the day, and it is common for trails to be closed for short periods of time throughout the year for temporary works. The notice was plastered over a weathered poster which informed visitors of the presence of an access control point 350m ahead.
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The flight of stairs located beside the notice led us into a large storm canal, and we threaded gingerly past the slippery steps and walkway to emerge on the other side of the railway station.
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Bolstered by the presence of an additional sign which confirmed that we were on the right track, we walked past a row of abandoned and dilapidated shacks along the coast while some of us fell prey to the hunger of mosquitoes.
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We continued our walk along the well-trodden trail with the golden rays of the evening sun illuminating the hillside scrubs and the occasional sea breeze providing a welcome respite from the afternoon heat.
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We eventually wound up at a padlocked gate and a dead end which confirmed our worst suspicions that the trail was closed. Thus, we decided to backtrack back to the railway station and catch a direct train back to La Spezia.
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Corniglia FS has 2 pairs of tracks split among 4 platforms for services heading towards Genoa and La Spezia. An irritating buzzer sounded for an extended period of time before a non-stopping train was due to pass through the station, and was ironically not really effective as most passengers had gotten used to the buzzer and oblivious to the danger when the train eventually sped past.
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Regionali R 24523 was operated with a rack of UIC-X carriages which was similar to what we had rode on the Leonardo Express from Rome Fiumicino airport a couple of days ago. It took 16 minutes for the train to arrive back at La Spezia with a stop at Manarola and Riomaggiore where the bulk of day-trippers boarded for their return trip out of the Cinque Terre region.
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The second class UIC-X carriages deployed on the Regionali services are fully air-conditioned and configured with non-reclining facing seats in a standard 2-2 layout. In addition, there is a separate compartment located at each end of the carriage.
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La Spezia Centrale

On arrival at La Spezia, we went to the ticketing concourse to purchase seat reservation tickets for the InterCity train back to Pisa. We had chosen to take an InterCity instead of Frecciabianca train due to its suitable schedule and to enjoy a significantly cheaper seat reservation supplement of €3 instead of €10.
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Interestingly, there was a shop unit which carried the signboards of both Chef’s Express and MacDonald’s. It was only after some time that we concluded that the MacDonald’s outlet is actually part of Chef’s Express. One of us had strong objections over eating at MacDonald’s which we just had the day before. Hence, we walked around town to search for other dining options. As expected from our experience at Pisa the previous evening, most of the eateries were closed at that hour. We returned to the station, where most of us settled for a MacDonald’s meal.

A Trenitalia E.464 locomotive with a rack of MDVC carriages. The E.464 series of electric locomotives were initially manufactured by ABB Traction to replace the aging E.646 and E.424 locomotives at the turn of the century. Today, production of these versatile locomotives continues at Bombardier's Vado Ligure plant in Italy.
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Introduced in 2005, the Vivalto is a new generation high capacity double deck trainset used by Trenitalia on high demand regional services. The Vivalto usually comprises of a driving trailer and carriages attached to a E.464 locomotive and has a maximum speed of 160km/h.
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We were very pleasantly surprised to get an old couchette service in first class, where the seats are in individual compartments of 6 seats each. We spent most of the journey exploring and taking photos of this interesting configuration.
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Each of the 6 seats in the compartment of the Carrozza Gran Comfort carriage have individually adjustable head rest and recline. The temperature could also be controlled from a dial controller located above the partition door.
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Aisle of a typical first class Carrozza Gran Comfort carriage. Each carriage has 8 compartments of 6 seats each. The carriages were introduced in the mid-1970s and were meant for providing a high level of comfort on Trenitalia's long haul services.
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