Monday, June 22, 2009

European Adventure: Cinque Terre

Hands down, the greatest hike a person can ever take. This, while not for the faint of heart, is a beautiful trek through the coastal hills of the Liguria region of northern(ish) Italy. If you take the low road, which we did, the entire journey is about 11 kilometers, or just under 7 miles. Don't let the relatively short distance fool you, though. There is an elevation difference of about 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, between the lowest and highest points of the trail. And let me assure you, you don't just go up and down once. But I don't want to give anything away. Let's start from the beginning.

Sentioro Azzuro
The famous trail along the coast, sometimes called Sentioro No. 2, literally means, I think, Sky Trail, or Blue Trail, or something like that. It passes through the Five Lands of the region, so we'll take them in order.


The first stretch of the hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola is affectionately referred to as Via dell'Amore, or Lover's Walk. There is a spot along the way with a kissing bench and a gorgeous backdrop of the deep blue Mediterranean. Behind the bench, which actually has a rudimentary carving of two people kissing as its back, is the deep blue of the Mediterranean. People put locks anywhere they can with their names written on them as symbols of their eternal love. Very romantic, but Johnny and I decided that was not really necessary for our trip.

This stretch was mostly paved, but the views (below) were astounding.


Our first sign that Manarola was close, unfortunately, was the train station. We came across it after coming around a bend in the cliff line. Our path took us up and around it, though, so at least we didn't have to trudge along the tracks.

Then, we caught a view of the city, high atop a craggy jutting rock. These towns were founded by Dark Age colonists who wanted to protect themselves from marauding pirates, so they are in very strategic places with good vantage points and sheltered harbor. Manarola's 'harbor' isn't really a harbor in the true sense of the word, though, as it would be hard to navigate much more than a dingy into the town itself, as you can see for yourself below. The two non-landscape pictures are of the central 'square' in the town and a strange carving in a little fountain just below it.

This is the Manarola harbor in all its glory.

On our way out Manarola, we got--of course--some amazing views again. I should probably stop saying that. From now on, when you see "we did x," assume the view was indescribably spectacular. The water along the coast is a blue that Crayola could never dream of capturing. There is a hint of green reflecting from the lush hillsides. Try imagining the deepest blue sky at high noon, and make that the color of the water. As we climbed and descended amongst vineyards and olive gardens, that was the glory we were treated to. There were locals living on the hills in practical little houses, fully self-sufficient, never having to leave their land for anything. The prospect of living that sort of lifestyle is intriguing, if not a little claustrophobic.

The next town is the only one not directly on the water. Corgnilia sits high up in the rocks, overlooking the rest of the lands. You can't actually see any of these towns from any of the other ones, but for some reason they have always been linked as the Five Lands of the Italian Riviera. We didn't stop here for whatever reason. It seemed like we just passed the outer edge of the town as we followed the Sentioro.

This was the town as we left on our way to Vernazza. In a blunt bit of foreshadowing, it turns out Johnny is not nearly as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Throughout the hike, I either saw him stumble or heard him stumble countless times. Twice he just missed smashing his camera on the rocks. Keep that in mind. And before you clever kids try to guess what happened: no, his camera was not damaged.

As we made the descent to Vernazza, the fourth town, it began to drizzle. We were both hiking shirtless so it got a bit chilly. We put shirts on before arriving in town after making the decision to stop here for food since it was starting to rain.

This was on the way.

This is the approach to Vernazza. Next to Monterosso, this was the most beautiful town on the itinerary.

And the view as we left. Towards the right hand side of the picture below the food, if you look where that little cluster of blue and yellow umbrellas is, is the spot where we ate lunch. Just outside of the built up part of the city next to the coral colored buildings. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was good. We got a couple beers with names we couldn't pronounce. As an appetizer, we ordered bruschetta with pomodoro (tomato) e (and) pesto (pesto). For the entree, we each got pizzas. Johnny's was a frutti di mare (literally, I think 'fruit of the sea' or 'food of the sea') that came with octopus, mussels (in the shell), prawns (in the shell, with heads) and cheese and tomato sauce. Mine was mozzarella with ham, artichoke, and something else I don't remember. I had them hold the olives. Very good pizzas, and just the right amount of carbs (and the wrong amount of beer) to get us going on the next stretch.

Forgot to mention, the red pepper flakes you see in the pizza picture were taken from the apartment as well. Again, sorry girls if you read this. We were being economical, and those things are impossible to find in Florence. We view them as an absolute necessity to most meals.

Little did we know that we were in for the hardest stretch of them all. I didn't count, but I would estimate that we went up and down at least 1,000 steps throughout the city and the trails.

As I said, this was the hardest stretch. We went straight up, straight down, hugged cliff sides on walkways that were no more than a foot or two wide. We had to pass people coming the other direction, which was tricky. But the place looks like a fairy tale. We went deep into the forest, crossed bubbling creeks, ran into countless stray cats. At one point, we actually found a cat neighborhood, I kid you not. There were little pet tents scattered around a rock grotto, and several cats were lounging on the rocks and in the dirt. We saw farmers at work, hikers from all over the world, lizards, birds: nature at its most purest. No one had strewn empty bottles on the side of the paths. No one had defaced the purest parts of the coastline with graffiti or office buildings or anything remotely human.

And this was all before Monterosso was in sight. That changed everything. The beauty of Monterosso is unparalleled. After climbing stairs until our legs burned, resting, and then descending more stairs until the other side of our legs burned, we were greeted with a voyeuristic preview of what was to come.

Monterosso is known for its beaches. Many would argue that Vernazza is actually the most picturesque of the five towns. It would be a tough argument to win, though. This place is incredible.

At this point, as we walked into Monterosso, where our day had started, we were beyond exhausted. To bring my foreshadowing full circle, just as we approached the final guard station checking our Cinque Terre cards to ensure we had paid our fee to hike the trail, Johnny yelps. There was a small, sharp rock jutting out of the dirt that he managed to kick head on with his big toe. At first, we thought nothing of it, but when I looked down, his toe was split open and oozing blood. He got the picture on his camera, so I can't post it here. Fortunately, we were literally five feet away from the guard post and a first aid kit when it happened. It was gross, but he soldiered on.

We went straight to the beach and laid down in the rocks around 3:30 or 4pm. Didn't even lay out towels. We just passed out laying in the rocky sand, listening to the waves gently crash, kids laughing and playing, and a soft breeze across the water. Cue music.

We took turns swimming in the Mediterranean, washing off the day's toils from our skin, while the other person stayed ashore to watch our bags.

Around 5:30, we got up to find food and a train schedule and ran into one of the Australian kids from our class. We knew he was going to be there at some point, but we never got in touch. They were on their way out, so we just walked around a bit and sad our goodbyes so that Johnny and I could find dinner.

We settled on a place called Barabba's in White. It was just after 6 when we got there and their kitchen didn't open until 7. We waited at a table and got a bottle of wine that turned out to be Prosecco. It was called Spumante Monterosso, but it was actually made further up in northern Italy, despite the name. Prosecco is, as far as I can understand, the Italian version of Champagne. Our server, with whom Johnny fell in love instantly, brought us some snacks (no charge) while we waited. It was a big panino with ham and mozzarella that she had cut into bite-size niblets. In front of us, a small, net-enclosed soccer field was full of kids playing the world's most famous game. To our right, the water. To the left, the town. Behind us, the bar in the restaurant. We just relaxed. Enjoyed the wine. When 7 o'clock rolled around, we ordered sort of tapas style. We split a pasta dish that was called, I think, Cacio e Pepe, which was a Roman-style (spaghetti) noodle in some oily sauce with pepper. We ordered calamari fritti with tempura vegetables and some french fries (strangely, we were both craving french fries when we, surprisingly, saw them on the menu) to share as well. The food was delicious. We took our time getting finished up, then paid and headed to the train station.

The train schedule to get home was nothing short of a nightmare. We had tickets already to get back to Spezia, so we did that. Upon our arrival there, we were lost as to how we returned to Florence. The ticket window was closed, as was the information desk. There was one operational machine to self-serve tickets (biglietta: "bee-lee-YETT-ah"). There was a long line full of impatient people behind some non-Italians struggling with the machine.

We commissioned a particularly fed up Italian woman to press all the buttons for us so that we would not delay people. She was more than happy to oblige. We had to take one train to Viareggio, then switch onto the train to Santa Maria Novella, our stop in Florence. The timing was absolutely perfect. We waited about 5 minutes for the train to Viareggio. When we arrived there, our train was scheduled to leave in 5 minutes. We got on, and it was delayed about 2 or 3 minutes, but left relatively promptly.

Three hours later from when we left Spezia, we were walking home in Florence, where the temperature had dropped considerably.

My hands are tired of typing, so this will do it for the details of our journey. More internet problems when we got home, but I have finally figured out the problem. Now it's just a matter of avoiding it. I will discuss that later.



Lisa said...

Sam great write up, I felt like I was with you the entire time. I discovered Prosecco in Tuscany, and LOVE it. Glad your trip was fun and what luck on the train!

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Julie said...

the pizza looks DELICIOUS!!! It's 9:40am right now and I'm considering ordering pizza for breakfast.

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