Chronicles of a writer abroad

Italy and the Cinque Terre


One can attempt to describe a country by listing its characteristic traits, or by making references to its “national character”. Having just spent four nights in Italy, I want to sketch one such character for you while it is still fresh in my mind.

To begin with, this country is undeniably female, if you hadn’t already guessed from the high-heel boot shape that she takes. Walking through Italy’s nonurban regions, you are enveloped by strong perfume from flowers growing on trees, on bushes, and all along the ground. Her land is ever-fruitful, bearing olives, lemons, and unfathomable quantities of grapes. Her sea is an incredible, sparkling azure blue, and her coastal fingers are studded with gleaming jewels of cities with luscious names like Portovenere (“Port of Venus”).

But before you get the impression that Italy is simply an earth goddess, I have to warn you that she has another side — one that’s a little…well, dangerous. These things that you might have heard about her are true: she likes strong coffee, leather jackets, and clouds of smoke outside restaurants and bars. She likes to talk loudly, drive quickly, and gesture with her hands. Unfortunately, she also likes to litter. But man, can she ever cook

Through all the stimulation she offers — in terms of overwhelming landscape, food, and natives — Italy tends to make my head spin a little bit. Did I breathe a small sigh of relief when I was back in Switzerland, where the air is easy to breathe, the streets are free of garbage,the trains are not routinely crowded and in ritardo, and it’s acceptable to drink tea? Yes, I did. Okay, I know: you didn’t pay the entrance fee to hear about this. So clamber onto the vespa here, don your helmet and hold on tight — we’ll travel back to the Cinque Terre together.

[please insert your own time-travel sequence here]

We arrived in Monterosso al Mare, one of the “five lands” that comprise the Cinque Terre, on Friday afternoon, along with an enormous gaggle of other Easter-weekend tourists. It was a warm, sunny day, so the beaches that characterize Monterosso were crowded, though no one was swimming (the water was still much too cold, despite the summery air — Italy can also tease in this way). We were hungry, and soon sat down at a restaurant where we ordered a Ligurian specialty dish. A little while later, a proud waiter carried out a pan bearing a whole roasted dorado fish, which he proceeded to filet in front of us — this was very fun to watch. Also on the pan were potatoes and olives roasted to perfection in delicious local olive oil. It was already a dinner to remember, but it went over the top when we tried the restaurant’s housemade tiramisu. It was my birthday, after all.

When we awoke the next day to cloudy skies and light rain, we were initially somewhat dismayed, until we reasoned that 1) the less-than-optimal weather would likely mean fewer people on the trails, and 2) having lived in Raincouver, we are pretty much impervious to the wet stuff, as long as it’s not a downpour. So we set out after breakfast, and were greatly rewarded: the path was indeed not very crowded (as it otherwise should have been), the air had that lovely smell of wet greenery, and my pasty skin was not in danger of burning during what turned out to be an 8-hour hike. We hiked the entire “blue” trail that connects the five villages on this day. We were surprised by the intensity of this hiking: getting to each village meant having to climb up, and then down, unforgivingly steep trails and a large number of stairs. But the views, and the villages themselves, were well worth it.  Without further ado, let me introduce you to these five beauties. First up, Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed and where we started the hike:

And next, Vernazza — so very dramatic and lovely, but unfortunately also teeming with tourists who must have arrived there via train or boat (since the Cinque Terre are car-free):

So we admired Vernazza quickly, and then got back on the trail to Corniglia, which, unlike the first two villages, doesn’t sit right on the sea, but on some cliffs above it:

We had lunch in Corniglia, but then hit a bit of a snafu as we returned to the trail: the section between Corniglia and the next village, Manarola, was closed. We considered our options, and after walking to the train station and just missing the hourly train to Manarola (and seeing tourists packed into it like sardines), we decided to take one of the alternate (“red”) trails, which essentially went straight up a mountain. A couple of hours later, we arrived, exhausted, in Manarola, a village that is artfully arranged around a column of rock:

And from here it was pretty easy — we simply had to drag our wasted legs across the flat and paved 1-km Via Dell’Amore…

…which led us to the last village, Riomaggiore. At this point, we were quite tired and just headed for the train back to Monterosso — I didn’t even take a picture of this village until we passed it by boat the next day.

I think it goes without saying that this day was one of the most scenic of my life — but, there you go, I’ve said it now.

I’m going to conclude the tour for now (my high word count is making me anxious), but I’ll be back sometime in the next two days to tell you about Portovenere, a special place that we visited on Sunday. If you want to see all of our trip photos right away, though, please visit this link to my Picasa album.


3 thoughts on “Italy and the Cinque Terre

  1. What a wonderful excursion-the pictures are just lovely!

  2. I love to hike and your pictures and description have convinced me to add Italy to my “someday” vacation list!

    • Great! This place is really a paradise for hikers. The one caveat is not to go to the Cinque Terre in high season (i.e., summer): apparently the villages and trails are oppressively crowded then.

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