The Cinque Terre, or “five lands”, was definitely a highlight of my trip even before I arrived. I love the ocean and nature, and with these five picturesque villages roosted along the rocky Italian coast connected by gorgeous hiking trails, I was sure to be satisfied.
The train rides from Siena to Cinque Terre were dicey, especially because I had three transfers with less than 10 minutes in between arrival and departure to haul ass and luggage to a screen and find out which track my next train was on. Trenitalia (the Italian rail system) was not my best friend on this trip, but I needed her nevertheless.
The train ride from Siena was beautiful –the Tuscan countryside– and then dulled as we neared Pisa. Out of Pisa it got progressively beautiful as the towns crept higher into the hills and the hills grew into mountains. The train entered a dark tunnel for a few minutes then a stunning view of the grand ocean zipped by and we were back in dark again. I was staying at the second town of the five, Manarola. The train pulled in, I scrambled off with the mass of passengers, then decided to wait for the train to pass so I could see what lay behind it. After the train pulled away my eyes soaked in the expansive ocean framed against steep rocky cliffs. After the hustle and bustle of Rome and Florence, this was exactly what I needed. I belong by the ocean.
Finding my room was tricky. I rang the bell of an unassuming home with a small placard on the front. I little old Italian lady greeted me with not a word of English and led my up a hill as I scrambled for my Italian phrasebook with one hand while hauling my luggage with the other. She demonstrated keys, pointed at things, and smiled at my obliviousness as nodded and smiled. I had no clue what she was saying but she didn’t seem to mind much. She left me to my room –which wasn’t a hotel, nor a bed and breakfast– just a room by the sea.
Overlooking the ocean and the village of Manarola, the room was unbelievable ideal. There was a balcony with chairs, flowers, and a lemon tree just for me. I had the perfect view of what was Manarola –adorable sea-worn buildings stacked on top of one another as though they were piggybacking, many with little balconies of their own, each varying shades of pastel. The cove of Manarola had jutting rocks protecting it from the aggressive surf, which continually crashed with explosive splashes. The sun was warm, the air smelt fresh, and I had a bathing suit. Off I went!
I grabbed a Mediterranean calzone for lunch for only 3.50 Euro –way cheaper than any other city I visited– and sat along the coast with my feet in the water. The Cinque Terre villages don’t have beaches, well, except Monterosso, but it’s not really sand, more like dirt I discovered. Instead they’ve made stone and cement platforms that lead into the ocean and then protected them with rock barriers. There are no coral reefs out here, so you feel the full force of the vicious ocean waves. I scoped out a good spot to lay where the water didn’t splash up very often and set out my blanket on the concrete. It wasn’t exactly comfortable I have to admit. Sure wasn’t Hawaii! But the steep mountains nose-diving into the ocean, the quaintness of the town, and the remoteness of the location made it all very fulfilling.
Despite my fear of getting thrust into rocks or the concrete wall by the waves, I mustered up enough bravery to jump in the ocean. It was warm and invigorating, especially rising up and down with the waves. I laid in the sun some more, read The Hobbit, and did some people watching. My favorite games had become, “Are They Americans?” and “Guess What Language These People Speak”. Most Americans are SO obvious. They don’t even try to fit in. Same with Asians, but they have a harder time blending in with Italians.
For a couple of days I simply enjoyed my room by the sea. I found this smaller cove about a 10 minute walk around the coast where a mix of locals and chill tourists go to relax in the sun and venture for a swim. I switched villages halfway through my Cinque Terre stay and moved to Riomaggiore which was a bit more busy and touristy. However, Enricho, the owner of the B&B, provided quite a delectable breakfast spread.
Okay, now after a few days of relaxing and appreciating the simplicity of the coastal village lifestyle, it was time for the epic hike. The mountains of the Cinque Terre are laced with trails of varying views, popularity, and difficulty. I planned to do the popular coastal hike called the Blue Trail, which is over 11 km, almost 7 miles, and takes between 5-6 hours. There are four stretches connecting each of the five villages –Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corniglia to Vernazza and then to Monterosso– but the stretch between Manarola and Corniglia was closed so you have to hike into the mountains through terraced vineyards to get to between the two villages. A man sharing internet access with me on the patio the night before warned me that doing all four of the hikes in one day was awfully ambitious; he did the hike between Vernazza and Monterosso and that was enough for him in one day.
As I geared up the next morning, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goal of visiting all five villages by foot. Since my suitcase was jam-packed, I couldn’t bring my hiking sneakers and instead only had a wimpy pair of Sketchers. I recalled a painful hiking experience with the wrong footwear a few years ago and shuddered at the thought of throbbing blisters. Well, it wasn’t going to do me any good sitting around whining about it, as Llyod Christmas once said, so off I marched.
Like my hiking hero Larry Moll, I plowed past sauntering tourists and hand-holding couples clearly not prepared for a full day of hiking. This first stretch of the hike was the wimpy, flat, paved part called the Via Del’Amore –The Lovers’ Walk. I wanted nothing to do with it, so I blazed through it in about 10 minutes. The next stretch was the ridge hike, which required a shuttle bus to get to the trailhead at the top of the mountain. Most people skip this part because they don’t want to deal with the shuttle bus. Losers! This was the most beautiful part of the entire hike! The trail led me up and down tiers of terraced vineyards high in the mountains, through the quiet yet powerful beauty of the Cinque Terre landscape. It was still morning, so the sun was soft in the almost cloudless blue sky. I heard water trickling through makeshift aqueducts and birds sweetly chirping from wherever they were hiding. It felt like a perfect world.
The other stretches of the hike were not as peaceful, but they were equally spectacular in terms of their views of the ocean. I powered through all of them, only stopping for a half hour lunch break. My little wimpy Sketchers did not let me down! As I neared the last village, Monterosso, I was shocked to see people –well, women– beginning their hike heading in the opposite direction from me in the most inappropriate footwear: strappy sandals, platforms, and dressy flats. They obviously weren’t planning on doing the whole coastal hike, but still, I knew what lay ahead of them on this stretch and it was not easy! I guess my Sketchers were great choice after all.
I was BEAT when I arrived in Monterosso, the most touristy and crowded of the five villages. It boasts the villages’ only “sandy” beach. It was more like dirt, if you ask me. I hung around there for a little bit, hoping to get a victory gelato, but eventually I tired of the touristy vibe. I was sad I didn’t have a buddy with me to congratulate and felt a little lonesome all alone, especially after seeing so many couples being all snuggly in the past few days in the Cinque Terre’s romantic atmosphere. I jumped on the train and headed back to my B&B for a nap.
But… nap postponed! I bumped into a middle-aged American couple looking for a bar in Riomaggiore that supposedly serves the best mojitos. They were way off their mark, so I helped them locate it and they invited me for a drink. Unfortunately the bar was out of mint, so no mojitos, but I sucked down a nice margarita and told them my elevator-pitch summary of why I was traveling alone in Italy. I sure get a lot of sympathy that way! Once the couple took off –after treating me to my drink, woo!– I got my victory gelato and crashed back in my room. I went out again a bit later to get some last minute coastal lounging in and soak up just a little more relaxation and sun before heading to Venice the next day. The Cinque Terre was such a fantastic experience that I’m sure I will see again, if only in my dreams.