So I love my girlfriend Tennille but anyone that knows her knows she’s not the adventurous type. Convincing her to come on this trip to Italy was worse than the process of turning coal into diamond (and yes, I’m fully aware that diamonds are not formed from coal…but it’s just a saying!)
First came the delicate process of introducing the idea of her coming in a way that didn’t send her into a total tailspin. Then it was the daily reassurance that she actually deserves to take a vacation and that the world isn’t going to stop spinning because she’s taking a break.
Then it was convincing her that she could spare $1000 for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy with friends, one that is from Italy and could actually take us around and do non-tourists stuff–cajoling her that that money would not be better spent on bills or her family obligations.
Once I finally got her to break the bank and buy the ticket, I felt like I was home free! That is, until I shared with her my plans to go to Cinque Terre and hike the cliff-side trail that joins five towns on the western coast of Italy. Ha! Then I really saw the panic set in!
The guidebooks say that Cinque Terre is the finest coastal walking in Europe and it’s known to be the most beautiful section of the Italian Riviera. The five charming villages of the ‘Chinquay Terray’, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore have been praised by artists and poets for centuries. I could see why–the pastel painted homes line the mountainside with crashing blue waves just below.
The hike is almost seven miles long and takes an estimated five hours to walk depending on your speed and health. There is a total elevation difference of 500 meters between the highest and lowest points of the trail. The plan was to hike portions of the trail over the course of one day while stopping to explore the villages, eat the amazing food, and dip in the beautiful water or relax on the beach.
I was still in hand-holding mode when we arrived in La Spezia, a town just south of the Cinque Terre, where our hotel Firenze e Continentale was located. The hotel was perfect as a base because it was close to the train station La Spezia Centrale.
We purchased a one day “blue card” that covered unlimited train rides between Levanto and La Spezia (including all the Cinque Terre towns) as well as use of the walking trails. The price of the card was 5.20 €. I assured Tennille that if we got tired we could just hop back on the train. See how perfect?!? But really I was hoping we could hike from Riomaggiore to Monterosso and then take the express train back to La Spezia.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. After a great night’s sleep, I wanted to get an early start and catch the first train from La Spezia Centrale around 7:30 a.m. However I didn’t count on my friend moving as slow as molasses. Of course I’m exaggerating.
First, here’s a little about me. I’m a serious Type A personality with all the weaknesses (or I believe them to be strengths…) that come with it–I’m an impatient, perfectionist, overachiever who has a to-do list for everything and everything has its place. I hate wasting time, I want to always be first in line and I’m always on time (usually!)
Tennille, on the other hand, is easily flustered, almost always late, takes her time doing everything (because she over thinks it), and lives in a perpetual laundry pile. But I love her to death! And I admire her because sometimes I wish I could be less uptight. In fact, despite all the traits I just mentioned, she’s one of the most caring, sensitive, kind, thoughtful and fun friend that I’m blessed to have.
But on this day, when I was trying to catch the damn train I wasn’t thinking about all that! So of course, we missed the first train. But really it didn’t matter (it never really does)–we caught the next one.
We arrived at Riomaggiore very soon after and we were greeted with views of the Ligurian Sea. The village, dating from the early thirteenth century, is characterized by it’s jagged mountain cliffs and it’s valley villages. Climbers will be content to find a high perch on the rock formations that jut out of the sea. The more bold among them dive in! The water and mountainside have been declared national parks. The town has a small wharf and a beach and plenty of restaurants, bars and shops that can be found along Riomaggiore’s main street, Via Colombo. It’s easy to locate the start of the hiking trail here, as it’s a nicely paved, wide path along the cliff’s edge with railing.
We walked the path north to the next town, Manarola. The path, called Via dell’Amore, “Love’s Trail,” was a bit crowded (we went in August) with people of all ages and it was hot. It’s a good idea to wear a hat, sneakers, comfortable clothes with a bathing suit underneath, and sun glasses. Although this part of the trail is a piece of cake considering what was to come.
Manarola may be the oldest of the towns in the Cinque Terre, with the cornerstone of the church, San Lorenzo, dating from 1338, according to Wikipedia. Manarola is a cute town with brightly painted homes that dangle from the mountainside almost over the water. The absence of an actual beach in Manrola doesn’t stop people from finding a free spot on the cement to lie down their towels.
After taking a quick dip in the fairly rough water, Tennille and I set out on the path to Corniglia. The trail north to Corniglia is not as pristine, with fewer paved sections, skinnier paths and some questionable wooden bridges. A steep descent down a mountain wall brings you to a rock lover’s paradise. The beach is made up of perfectly rounded stones of all colors (they look black when wet, but dry into tones of yellow, red, and gray). Bold tanners strip completely naked and lay across the rocks. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds–if you’ve ever had a hot stone massage then you can imagine it. But water shoes are a must! It takes some getting used to if you’re expecting a nice sandy beach. If you look carefully you’ll occasionally find some stairs that lead down to the water.
As we got closer to Corniglia the path turned more inland. Corniglia is not directly adjacent to the sea like the other towns of the Cinque Terre. It’s on the top of a landmass about 320 feet high, surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces and the fourth side descends steeply to the sea. To reach Corniglia, it is necessary to climb the Lardarina, a long brick flight of steps composed of 33 flights with 382 steps. That’s right about when the midday sun started beating down on us and our legs started to wobble. So we decided to hop on the train and take it to Monterosso. The idea was to walk south toward Vernazza.
Monterosso is divided into two distinct parts: the old town and the new town. The two areas are divided by a tunnel shared by pedestrians and very few cars. In the old town there’s a partially ruined castle built by the Genoese and the parish church of St. John the Baptist. Above the door is a beautiful fresco portraying the baptism of Christ. There is also a square medieval bell tower crowned by merlons.
Monterosso is the only town in the Cinque Terre with an extensive sand beach. Hence, it gets a little crazy here in the summer. Monterosso is what you might expect of the Italian Riviera–neat rows of sun umbrellas and chairs with sunbathers puffing cigarettes and sipping S.Pellegrino on a pristine beach.
Interesting fact: the village was briefly excluded from the Cinque Terre trail in 1948, but was re-introduced in mid-1949, according to Wikipedia. Apparently Italian officials thought the village was too big to be considered part of the historic trail. Thank goodness they came to their senses!
From Monterosso the path to Vernazza is markedly different–picture narrow dirt paths winding up and down the mountain’s edge with no railing. There were portions that barely had enough room for people to pass without fear of falling off the cliff. Not to mention, tripping over rocks was a real problem. This is when it stopped being fun for Tennille. Of course, she was in a panic–cursing me for bringing her on this trip. I attempted to placate her even while my back was pressed against the mountainside slithering along edge and hoping not to drop hundreds of feet down to my death.
I finally gave up the fight half way into the trail. The sun was scorching and I had sweated out every last drop of water I had in my body. I didn’t even mind her hurling threats and expletives at me, my mind was focused on getting to the next town and getting something to drink. But the path just kept going, and going, and going. Passersby didn’t offer any hope. They said there was at least an hour more to go even after the hour we had already spent on it.
I was desperate. I felt like I was hiking in the Sahara Desert. I finally broke down and picked up a discarded water bottle off the trail, climbed down a section of the mountain to a small cave where I could see water rushing out. Meanwhile, Tennille was taunting me about catching some killer virus or bacteria if I dare drink that water! I was seeing double anyway so the potential threats of disease didn’t slow me down. I gulped that water down like it was straight from Poland Springs–with Tennille shaking her head.
Thank God for that water because it really did take us at least another hour to reach Vernazza. There we found the first restaurant and rolled up on it like beggars on a NYC street. “Water, please….” We actually sat down and had an amazing seafood meal. Then we caught the train back to La Spezia and fell out on our beds.
That day we surely took our friendship to the brink and back, but it was one of my best days with Tennille because we saw the real in each other and we still love each other anyway!
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