Posting this in Florence, where we are back with the WiFi (pronounced here wee-fee). Hope to get some more photos uploaded to the Flickr too, which I believe you can find at this link:
Cuccaro Club, our mountain retreat near the Cinque Terre, was perfect. All the charm and quirk and Italian rustic we could ask for. We had to wind way up the mountain to get here, 800 meters up, on small back roads (all paved at least). When we arrived we were greeted by Tania, the granddaughter of Cuccaro Club's founder with excellent English (a relief). She showed us our room, spacious and comfortable with a large bathroom and two windows with old fashioned shutters. At 5:30 p.m. the mountain air was just beginning to grow cool. We unloaded our bags in the room and then went to explore the grounds.
The closest thing I can think to compare Cuccaro Club to is the Poconos resort where Dirty Dancing is set. It is much smaller - just one sprawling building full of twists and turns, no separate bungalos (or dance lessons, as far as I know). It is surrounded by pine trees and small Italian farms mostly growing hay (so I assume livestock somewhere beyond the viewpoint of the road). Cuccaro Club itself has a small herd of goats we discovered on our walk. At dinner later, Tania (who was also our waitress) told us that just this spring the guests helped feed the baby goats when the mother died in childbirth. Then one of the goats managed to get into the hotel! She showed us pictures of the little goat standing at the top of the 3rd floor stairwell on her cell phone.
The resort is not crowded - a couple of families and several older people. Tania told us her grandfather opened Cuccaro Club in 1960 and it is a family business - her mother does the cooking and others around are also family, though they have some hired staff as well. She said it is like their home that they get to welcome all sorts of guests into. We liked Tania very much. She seems maybe just a little younger than us, and is very nice and bright and very good English.
At dinner there was a pasta course and a meat course, no menu, Tania just gave us four choices for each. I had the gnocchi with zuccini and carrot for my pasta, followed by a fantastic beef with green beans and carrots in savory au jus, probably the best dish I've had so far on the trip. Chad chose the lasagna, which had no meat and a white sauce and was also delicious, followed by a salad with "sea fruits" as Tania put it, which turned out to be shrimp and eel and fish. We had a bottle of tuscan red wine, unlabled, so I imagine they buy it by the barrel direct from the vintor. For dessert, we were stuffed, but managed to split and panicotta (custard) with strawberry sauce, apricots and grapes. It was worth it.
The next day (yesterday), we hiked the Cinque Terre. The five towns that make up the Cinque Terre are bracketed by the larger towns of Levanto to the north and La Spezia to the south. We asked Tania the best way to reach it from here and she said to drive to Levanto 35 minutes away and take the train in. I wanted to start our hike with the southern-most town, Riomaggiorre, so asked about driving to La Spazia for the train. "You don't want to do that," Tania said. "There is no place to park, and there is nothing to see there, it is a city. Levanto is a nice seafront town." She was right, Levanto was easy to navigate and plenty of parking at the train station. We simply took the train through the first four towns to Riomaggiore, which only took about 25 minutes. We were right on time to catch the 10:15 train, so by 11 a.m. we'd seen just a bit of the town and were on the trail at the Via D'ell Amore (something like the road of love).
The Cinque Terre is indescribably beautiful, and since we took over 100 pictures, I'm not even going to try to put it into words. We did the coastal walk, Via D'ell Amore, from Riomaggiore to Manola. There we walked through a vineyard outside of town before taking the high road to rejoin the trail to Corniglia. Corniglia is the only town not on the sea, so we grabbed a small shuttle bus at its train station to go up into the town. There we enjoyed some of the fantastic Cinque Terre wine at a small, dark wine bar. We each had a glass of the white, which almost smelled chocolatey and was incredibly smooth, and then split a glass of the red, about the smoothest red I've ever tasted - the start of the sip is like water and then after you swallow there is a burst of flavor. Both were great.
After the wine we got the bus back down and caught the train to the fourth town, Vernazzo. It is also very beautiful. We backtracked up the trail a bit to get the spectacular view into town. Headed back into town we stopped at a restaurant in along the stairs, just closing for the late afternoon break. Nothing on the menu appealed so we just go salads.
(Warning to Tisha: You may want to quit reading here because it will drive you crazy with curiosity, and I will give away no details until I give you the gift.) Across the alley was a small shop with handmade Italian goods and I found a birthday gift for my best friend, Tisha, truly perfect. The shopowner was so nice and excited with our purchase, but had no English at all, but very sweet and carefully wrapped our purchase with many smiles and "grazie's", from us too.
After we left Chad noted maybe we should have got a photo to show Tisha the cool little shop and so we went back and explained what we wanted. The woman was so flattered, she laughed and smoothed her hair and traded her reading glasses for her regular pair and held up our little package with a broad smile as Chad snapped the picture. She also gave us her name and a business cards and we all shook hands and said good-bye with many more "grazie's." Since, Tisha, I know you went ahead and read this despite my warning, I'll reiterate that the gift is truly perfect. So chew on that for the next 17 days!
We found a fun bar with the kitchen open despite the time (most places close from 3 to 5 p.m. between lunch and dinner) and got pints of beer and pizzas. From Vernazzo we took a ferry boat to the fifth town, Monterosso, and then took the train back to Levanto and drove back to our mountain retreat, where we showered (the hike was quite hot), relaxed, read, sorted through our photos, played a little ping pong, had more yummy Tuscan wine, and then had an early night. We definitely want to visit Cuccaro Club and the Cinque Terre again in the future.