Cinque Terre, A Pictorial

I would like to dedicate this next episode to Andrea, Barbara, Bettina, Abbie, and every one of our Tribe who has seen the colored-up filter-enhanced impossibly beautiful images of Cinque Terre on jigsaw puzzles and travel brochures and thought to herself, “Self, a place can’t really look like that and be real.”

You and your selves are wrong.

The five little villages of Cinque Terre, in the province of La Spezia, the region of Liguia, are connected by a local train, a local water bus, and a narrow hiking trail (each require a purchased ticket). They perch along the cliffs like tiny jewels. Throw on your sturdy shoes and grab a water bottle, because we are going exploring.

“New” Monterroso “Old” Monterroso

Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed, has an original section and a newer section, connected by a little tunnel. These are the views from that middle spot, looking both ways. The beach is what draws people to Monterosso, but it has a sculpture at the far west (under scaffolding during our visit) and a tiny castle to the east if you want to “see a thing”. You can walk the whole length in twenty minutes or so, which we will do, because this is the morning we are hiking the tiny, famously outrageous trail to the next town over: Vernazza.

So it begins… Along the cliffs, heading south in the morning mist. And straight up, stairs, ramps, boulders…just UP forever. But you are rewarded by beautiful surprises, ocean views, flowers, vineyards… Until you finally (an hour and a half later, ahem) find Vernazza.

Vernazza is a lovely hamlet, if you are a giraffe. I love Italy’s use of space. Vernazza has the only natural port of the Cinque Terres and was buried in a mudslide in 2011. 

Welcome to Vernazza. From the cliffs. And the train is a blip on their radar. Remember fountains? Who needs a water bottle?

We took the train for the rest of our adventures. (Whew!) When it stopped in Corniglia, the next town south, we discovered what makes this place extra-special:

Read it and weep. Looking back. Do not attempt this in the heat.

Once you reach the top, you must still climb through Corniglia and around the little chapel of St Catarina to the cliff for the view.

Could not decide who this is…but he guards the place. Corniglia is in the middle: two towns on either side…waaaay over there. Looking inland.

We treated ourselves to a fruit smoothie and headed back to the train. Our next stop was Manarola. This is the one featured on jigsaw puzzles, colorful homes perched at the water’s edge.

Main Street, Manarola. You share with the boats. You can walk left to the boat dock… Or you can walk right to get that village view. But what is THIS? You can swim here, too…

We hadn’t thought to bring our suits, but it’s just as well, we had one more village to find. Riomaggiore is the fifth stop and if you have any steps left in you, climb left and follow the path…

The little marina. Keep walking, the water color gets crazy beautiful. And here is the hidden end of the path. Just wow. You can go inland, but it’s also uphill!

To end this day just right, we took the train back to our hotel, got fancy and returned for the spectacular finale:

This one’s for you, ladies!

Vernazza at sunset is not to be missed. Everything changes color with the sky: you, the town, the water, the air. My friends, you must sit here some day.

Golden sunset from Vernazza.

Doing Absolutely Nothing in Cinque Terre

We sat at a table along the beach front next to another two random couples, in the true Italian way of forcing you to make eye contact and offer a word of introduction while you wait for your meal to be delivered.

I hate that.

I never know where to begin and I always worry there’s spinach in my teeth. Thankfully, Hubby thinks it’s great. He dove right in and told our life story to the four unfortunate souls.

Ahi, strawberries, basil…

All I can remember about them is that one of the ladies was from Santa Barbara and appeared to be trying to land a business deal with the uneasy elderly gentleman across from her and the other lady was super excited to hear about our plans for “doing absolutely nothing” that day.

Her companion and I kept busy with the wine.

“We’ve been running through Italy at high speed,” said Hubby, “so we planned for a day when we would do nothing but lounge on the beach,” he took a sip, “especially since we want to do some hiking here tomorrow.”

He paused and waited for the raised eyebrows. He was not disappointed.

Oh,” said the other lady, “You haven’t been hiking yet?” She leaned into Santa Barbara’s personal space, “Wait till you see the trails!”

Her companion took another drink.

We went on one of the trails,” she continued, “and the steps go absolutely straight up! They just go for ages and my legs are still aching!”

She nodded wisely.

“Give yourself plenty of time,” she finished, as the food was served.

Fresh fish is a big menu item everywhere in Italy. Who knew?

Hubby smiled into his glass. This challenge had been accepted, even before we left home. Hubby reckoned that if “regular” people had done a hike in an hour and a half, we could certainly accomplish it in forty-five minutes. He had done his math. I had rolled my eyes.

Thirty years of marriage: I had also calculated how this would end but kept my mouth busy eating pasta.

Which proved to be a challenge in itself.

See these?

I can remove the crawly legs. I can forgive the buggy eyes. I can work around the crunchy tail bits. But for the love, why must I spend my time fishing out stray antennae from around my noodles? These long hairs were the only frustrating part of a gorgeous day.

Grab your towel, let’s go. I’m giving you my beach chair.

Cinque Terre is where Italians go to unwind. When they are sick and tired of creating art, discovering ruins, and eating gelato, they toss their pizzas into the air and hop a train to Monterosso. And this is where we stayed.

We sauntered out to the beaches that morning like professionals. SoCal is not short on beaches. It’s a language we know.

This narrow strip of beaches runs west to east, as Monterosso al Mare sits in a little alcove before the coastline turns south and into cliffs for the rest of the “five terraces”. The beach is pebbly to rocky, shifting as you walk it, and not easy if your feet are tender. You can burrow a nice space in it with your shoulders, but by far a better way to go is to rent a couple of loungers and an umbrella from the guy running one of the private beach areas.

I’ll give you a minute to stop choking on your arugula.

You have a choice.

Yes, there are free beaches that people pack into during the day, and it’s really not a bad rap if you aren’t the fastidious type or you have an hour to kill. You can walk through the “private” beach areas with your feet in the wavelets.

But for twenty euro, you get comfy chaises, wide umbrella shade, and use of their showers, changing rooms, etc (these resemble porta-potties, don’t get excited) for the entire day. This is not a spa experience, but you can come and go as you please and your chairs will be right where you left them, unclaimed.

We did a fair bit of “coming and going” that day, to the boardwalk for lunch, to the tabacchi for post cards, to the trattoria for the outrageously good specialty of the area: deep fried seafood in a paper take-away cone.

This, this, all of this!! Sardines turned into french fries…

And when I say “we” I mean “Hubby” because once you are settled in that lounger with the gentle waves serenading you and the light breeze blowing by and the warm sun slowly melting away your troubles, everyone and everything else around you no longer exists.

I can watch these sparkles all day.

Well…the street vendors exist. They followed you to paradise and if you want to have a foot massage right there in your lounger, be my guest. If you must buy a sarong, go ahead. But if you aren’t interested, you can plop your hat over your face and feign death. They will pass by your chair and let the tassels of the sarong brush over your feet to get your attention.

And you will have to decide whether responding with a kick will get theirs.

After what happened in Rome, I decided to play nice. You never know.

Hubby enjoyed the Med, snorkeling and floating and wandering along the jetty. There were plenty of fish (although not the variety that you find in Hawaii or the Caribbean), and large, jagged rock formations. One just off the beach offered adventurous types a fifteen foot jump into the bright clear blue water.

Is it blue? Is it green?

All morning, we watched incoming waves of visitors arrive at the train station, doing Cinque Terre as a day trip. They flowed along the tiny main street and eddied into the public beach areas, wrestling luggage, eager to experience the area. They came and went and finally washed back out to the countryside. Those of us who had the great fortune to be staying overnight then strolled through the quiet dusk to enjoy the small community vibe, the splendiferous sky, and of course, a lovely meal with new friends-of-the-moment.

When you order seafood in a restaurant, you get the whole enchilada. When you order at a window, you do too, but it’s all deep fried and heavenly.