cinque terre

“Welcome to family,” Francesco said as our small glasses of wine clinked together on our first night in Cinque Terre.

After 24 hours in Milan, where pizza was eaten in excess and even the little kids were more fashionable than I will ever be (yes I’m talking about you, little Italian girl in sparkly Doc Martens), my friend Dilara and I hopped on a train to Cinque Terre and arrived at Francesco’s hostel.

5terrebackpackers is in Corvara, a twenty-minute twisty drive up the mountains from Monterosso, the northernmost village of Cinque Terre. We arrived in Monterosso with enough time for seafood spaghetti, white wine and a seaside view before catching the shuttle up to 5terrebackpackers. After Francesco showed us around, we quickly found ourselves swapping stories with fellow travellers on the deck. I’m not sure if it was intentional, or if it is just a weak Wifi connection, but the Internet only worked in the communal outdoor living room. Forcing all of us, and our iPhones into the same room resulted in some serious interaction, which was pretty cool. It didn’t take long to start reminiscing with a few American girls about hand-clap-songs from our childhood (stella, ella, hola, tap, tap, tap) and playing each other our favourite John Oliver videos.

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The next morning, Dilara and I had a grand old time exploring Cinque Terre. A set of five coastal fishing villages, Cinque Terre is on the east coast of Italy between Genoa and La Spezia. One of Rick Steve’s favourite spots, the area attracts heaps of Americans and was bustlin’ with tourists even in late October.* There are beautiful hiking trails that link the five towns, so you can hike from one place to the next, working up your appetite for gelato/focaccia/ pasta/more gelato. Which is exactly what we did. We started off in Monterosso, the northernmost town and hiked a couple of hours on the main trail to Vernazza, where focaccia was on our menu. After another two hour hike, we arrived in Corgnilia, where it was time for gelato. In Manarola, we drank white wine in the sun. Back to Monterosso, we swam and (of course) ate pasta. In the evening when we arrived back at Francesco’s hostel, there was more pasta waiting for us, which really isn’t surprising, because Italy is a dream world. After dinner, Francesco popped into the dining room in his red apron to ask us how everything was. The homemade wine, strudel and pasta was all to die for, we told him. It’s pretty evident that Francesco has put his heart and soul into getting 5terrebackpackers up and running. The place closes down in the winter, and he’s looking forward to it. He needs a break, he said, “to sleep, to take care of his body, to travel, to drink a beer with his friend – those kind of normal things like that.”

After working as a lifeguard and bartender for twelve years in Monterosso, Francesco decided it was time to start his own business. He tried to buy property in Monterosso, but at 10, 000 euros per square metre, he decided to look elsewhere. The building that Franscesco did decide to buy is over 300 years old, and renovations took longer than expected. But he salvaged as much as he could, giving the renovated building a contemporary and rustic feel. 5terrebackpackers opened last year, and it looks like things have gone pretty well. Just check out all of the online reviews. Staying somewhere with scheduled shuttle bus rides (two in the morning and two in the evening) may not be ideal for everyone, as it can limit your time in bars and things like that. “This hostel is more for the traveller than the tourist, I think,” Francesco said. I’d have to agree with him, and for Dilara and I, our stay in Cinque Terre was perfetto, as they say.

-J

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*I don’t know much about it, but Cinque Terre seems to have suffered quite a bit from the consequences of mass tourism. I could definitely sense that the region was catered almost entirely to tourists and that the locals weren’t necessarily happy about it (for rightful reason). I plan to learn more and write more about the problem with mass tourism in the future, so stay posted.

on: CYCLING CITIES

With a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and his bicycle by his side, Alderman Paul de Rook welcomes us to Groningen. Within moments, you can tell how proud he is of the small and lively student city of 200,000 that he calls home.

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de rook and his bike

Groningen is known as the “Cycling City” and de Rook tells us about the public spaces and bike routes that help make the city a wonderful place to be. Parking lots and busy roads have been transformed into fish markets, pedestrian shopping streets, and public parks. The city centre, says de Rook, isn’t a commercial district. People come to the city centre “to be,” and to have fun with their friends and fellow people in the city. While they’re there, if they need to, people shop. But shopping isn’t what brought them there. It makes sense that people come to the city centre of Groningen just to be among the hustle and bustle of the day. People like being around people, after all.

This idea that people actually choose to be around others may seem strange to some, considering the isolating design and way of life in many North American cities. In Calgary, for example, one can go an entire day without even really interacting with a stranger. You leave your house and enter your attached garage, get into your car and turn on the radio. You drive down the freeway into the city centre, and park your car in the parking garage. You enter the Plus 15* and walk to your office where you start your day of work. For lunch, you go grab some food in the office building, where fellow office-workers are having lunch, and then you head back to work. Once work is finished, you go back to the parking garage and get in your car, and drive home.

Here, in a city like Groningen or Amsterdam, it would be near impossible to not interact with people on your daily commute. You hop on your bike and instead of obeying traffic signs you make eye contact with each other to decide who has right of way. You bike past people sitting on their windowsill eating breakfast, and slow down for a mom who is riding her two kids to school in a carriage on the front of the bike (a “Dutch-minivan” as my mom likes to call it). As you bike along the bumpy cobblestone streets, an older woman bikes up next to you and says she really likes your dress! You say thank you, and she bikes ahead. You lock your bike to a canal bridge and head to work, or school, or whatever it is you do. A tourist asks you for directions and after pointing them in the right direction, you go inside to start your workday.

De Rook walks us through the city and tells us stories about different historical buildings, canals and shops. We walk down one of the roads where he hopes to banish buses to create even more public space for pedestrians which will, he tells me, help the city breathe.

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While talking to de Rook, I couldn’t help but think of Enrique Penolosa, a past Colombian mayor that revolutionized the crime induced and automobile oriented city of Bogota. Although I haven’t met Penolosa, I have read a lot about him and have seen some films,** and both of these municipal politicians possess an inspiring amount of enthusiasm for their city. They emphasize the importance of designing a city that is happy, and is built for people as opposed to cars. De Rook didn’t focus on the economic strengths of Groningen, but instead spent the entire night talking about public spaces, bike routes, and the overall happiness of Groningeners. During his election campaign, Penalosa’s assurance to the people of Bogota wasn’t to make them richer, but was to make them happier. He did this by adjusting the infrastructure of the city so that everybody could use it. Concentrating on the development of bus routes and bike lanes as opposed to freeways and parkades can do wonders for a city’s overall well being.

I could go on all day about why cities that focus on pedestrian use versus automobile use enhance the public life, safety, energy, and overall happiness of cities, but I have to head out on my bike now. There are things to do and places to be. Maybe someone will even tell me they like my outfit on my way.

-j

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*The Plus 15 network in Calgary is an extensive pedestrian skyway system, connecting over sixty buildings downtown with bridges that are about fifteen feet above ground. Although the system is usually praised, the quasi-public space has resulted in a number of unintended consequences, such as a lack of vibrant street life.

**If any of this urban studies stuff interests you, I suggest watching Urbanized (it’s on Netflix) and reading Happy City, if you haven’t already.