Elisabetta had recommended getting an early start to hike the Cinque Terre. As she put it, the sun comes out and hiking becomes nearly unbearable due to the heat. If we caught the train out of La Spezia around 8:00am, we would be off to a good start.
Ughhhh… after the night we had, the last thing I wanted to do was get up early! I had hoped for an opportunity to sleep in as the past few days we were up with the birds. We compromised with Elisabetta’s recommendation and got out of the house around 9:00am. The sun seems to rise quite early, and it was shining in through all the windows shortly after 5:00am. I was awake for a while – long enough to hear Sarah’s alarm go off, but I managed to drift back to sleep. I figured if she wasn’t going to get up to her alarm, neither was I! Nonetheless, we managed to make it out for our day of adventure!
Dressed and ready for our day of hiking and swimming, we set out to the street to find the path to the city. After several minutes of walking, we came to what we thought was the stairway down. Instead it was someone’s private pool. In retrospect, perhaps we should’ve just stopped there! Instead, we continued on until we found the real stairway down… or should I say stariways. We met multiple stairways, and despite their leading downward, they were rather challenging as the space between them was akward and inconsistent distances.
Down, down, down we went and finally met the road. Taking a moment to reorient ourselves, we soon continued our commute to the train station. Upon arriving at the train station we got in the ticket line to purchase our Cinque Terre passes, which would allow us to get on and off the train multiple times between the 5 cities. Cinque Terre literally means the “five lands.”
The first, and most southern stop, was Riomaggiore. Here the easiest hike, the Via del Amore, commences. We got off the train and stopped at a nearby cafe to grab breakfast and coffee, as we hadn’t had time in our rush to leave the house. I got my usual croissant and coffe. Confession: I actually bought two croissants. I’m used to eating 6 egg whites, 1/4 cup of oatmeal and 1/4 cup of berries every morning. One measly croissant does not cut it! Especially when I’m walking all day long! We finished our breakfast and approached the entrance to the hike. It was closed! I suddenly remembered the route was closed due to mudslides. For some reason I thought it had reopened, but evidently not. Disappointed, and our start further delayed, we went to the information desk and talked with a very delightful and helpful attendant. She provided a map and told us of another route we could take that was “easy”. Sounded good to us!
We set out in the direction she had pointed, and kept our eyes peeled for the Manarola sign, indicating that’s where the hike would lead. Manarola is the next city to the north in the Cinque Terre. We soon found it and stood in shock at the path that awaited us. Narrow with unending stairs going seemingly straight up. We took a quick picture, and gleefully accepted the challenge.
Up we went, one step after another; one stair after the next. We climbed and we climbed. The sun was indeed hot, but there were drfiting clouds and a frequent cool sea breeze that gave us refuge. We quickly decided not to take trail difficulty advice from Italians, who are generally in much better shape than Americans given the frequency they walk and in some locations, the challenging terrain. This would be one of those locations.
After an eternity of exhausting hiking, we finally (after a few teases) reached the top! It was beautiful. The hazy sky that once blended into the ocean making it impossible to differentiate between the two, had finally cleared up and the vast horizon was left in its place. We looked north to the rest of the Cinque Terre and heard their bell towers in the distance. To document the beauty, and admittedly, as an excuse to rest, we took the opportunity to take several photos.
Getting increasingly hungry, we were ready for the trek downward. As we started, we met an Italian couple who spoke very little English, but they were able to convey how difficult the climb was. Cinque Terre can be hiked from either the north or the south. This couple was hiking in the opposite direction, so we didn’t know if that meant we were in for a grueling trip downward as well, or if we could expect a reprieve. Down we went and it was so much easier, though my quads were becoming increasingly weak and were entirely jello by the time I got to the bottom. It was one of the best leg days of my life – not just for the workout, though it was certainly effective, but for the scenery and experience as well.
We arrived in Manarola and after taking a photo of all 6 feet finally on the city sidewalk, we continued downhill and browsed a few shops.
I found some souvenirs I thought would be perfect for my family, and wished I could buy a bottle of limoncello to take home. As I refuse to check my bags, it wasn’t a possibility. The store clerk was also the maker of the limoncello and she beamed with pride when I mentioned it. Mal told me to ask her where we should go for lunch and I did. Each day I find my Italian improves more and more. Having successfully communicated our question and understood most of her response, I responded with proud beaming of my own, and she conveyed her satisfaction with my attempt.
We walked down the merchant-lined road toward the ocean and soon came upon her recommendation, Il Porticciolo. We looked in and every table was occupied. A server approached us and I told her there were 3 of us. She directed us across the street to their smaller bar. We walked across the street and found the second location to be a more modern and comfortable spot. We took a table by the door and browsed the menus. Nothing was really jumping out at me. I was afraid to try any seafood, even though it would probably be some of the freshest yet. Indecisive, I was pushed to make a decision when the server came and Mal and Sarah were ready. I had been eyeing a mixed fish dish, but was hesitant given my previous prawn fiasco. I asked the server what “mixed fish” were in the dish. Her limited English made it difficult for her to communicate, so I started offering suggestions: salmon? swordfish? No… no… she shook her head to everything. Sarah suggested perhaps it was octupus, clams and such to which the server nodded yes. Those were a safe bet for me, and I pulled the trigger.
As we waited for our food to be served, we couldn’t help but notice a very familiar looking limoncello was for sale on shelves above us! So that’s why she recommended this restaurant…. humph… Feeling a little adventurous, we had ordered bruschetta with sardines. I’d read the sardines in Cinque Terre were prepared delectably and were nothing like those in the states. When in Cinque Terre… I don’t think Mal and Sarah were big fans, but I found it to be quite good. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to eat all that was left for me.
Soon our meals were served. Two delicious pizzas were placed in front of Malorie and Sarah; in front of me, a mixed fish dish with PRAWNS!!!!!!!! Ughhhhhhh!!!!! Not again! I immediately received a loving lecture from Sarah. “You said you didn’t want anymore seafood. What did you think you were going to get?”
Fortunately, these prawns were much smaller and not quite as intimidating. Nonetheless, I didn’t even attempt to eat them. I pushed them all to the side and enjoyed the other mixed “fish” on my plate – none of which was actually fish. Perhaps “Mixed Seafood Dish” would’ve been a more appropriate title. They weren’t all wasted, though. Malorie braved a prawn to see what it was like. One was enough for her.
Learning the hike between Manarola and Corniglia was closed as well, we wrapped up our lunch and took the train to Vernazza – the city I most wanted to visit. The sky was getting cloudier and the air much cooler. It appeared as if it might start raining at any point – not to my surprise. We continued on, as this would be the only day for the three of us to explore Cinque Terre together. As we walked into Vernazza we immediately found the shops to be nicer, with a larger quantity and variety in products. I was looking for a pair of Converse-like shoes to replace my sandals that were giving me blisters. I thought I’d made a good choice for footwear for this trip. I’d heard gladiator sandles were the best, and they probably wouldn’t have been so bad if my feet weren’t as swollen as they’d been. I don’t think my sodium intake has been any higher than usual, but between my dehydration and the heat, I had developed a good pair of travel cankles.
We browsed the shops, and though I didn’t find the shoes I was looking for, I did find some other goods to bring home. We had a nice time shopping and then decided to walk all the way to the water, which we’d had yet to do in any of the cities. I grabbed a gelato for the walk… Cream of Cinque Terre and Cream of Vernazza. I can’t tell you what the flavors actually were, but they were tasty, as per usual.
We got to the water and found some people dangerously boarding a ferry, which was thrashing up and down in the large waves. Further in the cove were kayakers and paddleboarders. There were a few people sunning upon the rocks, and some braver souls actually swimming. We’d brought our swimsuits with the intention of swimming at the nicer beach in Monterosso, but between the declining weather and our available time withering away, we had to make the decision to skip it. (Next time).
We took some pictures near the water and turned around to see the charming city with different colored pastel buildings connected to one another. It was just as pretty as in the photos I’ve seen, but so much better in person.
We decided to call it a day and catch the train back to La Spezia. As we approached the track, we realized we had just barely missed the train and would have to wait a little more than an hour to catch the next one. We took a table at a nearby restaurant patio to have an aperitivo. I noticed sangria on the menu and thought that might be a nice change. Malorie was also interested, so we shared a pitcher – and a good thing! They’re not playing around with their sangrias! It was delicious. As I sipped the refreshing drink, I took advantage of the restaurant wifi and FaceTimed my dad. FaceTime has been a lifesaver when compared to my last trip abroad. It’s been so reassuring to see my dad’s face and talk with him every couple of days, and because it’s used with wifi, it’s free.
We hopped the train back to La Spezia and instead of making the insufferable trek back up to the apartment, we first explored the town with a few goals: find meat, cheese, fresh pasta and focaccia bread. Having eaten out multipe times on our trip, we wanted to make use of the wonderful welcome basket Elisabetta had provided and cook our dinner at home. We found a few “mini markets” that were, in fact, mini and had nothing we needed (or wanted). I happened to notice the man behind the counter was watching a sports channel in English, so, in Italian I asked him if he spoke English, to which he replied he did. I asked where the nearest grocery store was and he directed me down the road. Easy enough. So we walked down the road… and we walked… no grocery store. We kept walking and saw a bakery where we could get our focaccia. We walked a little bit further when we saw a childrens’ store that Sarah wanted to go into. Before leaving that store, I asked the workers if they could direct us to the store. Their English was very limited, but we learned we needed to go back the direction we came – I guess we went to far! On our way back down the road, we stopped at the bakery and I ordered two types of focaccia bread. The lady working the bakery spoke no English, but somehow I was able to understand her much better than anyone else! I asked for a supermarket for meat and cheese and got a left, right, then left. She asked if I understood, and I replied so-so! We all laughed and the 3 of us headed down the road with hopes I could get us there. After a short walk, 2 lefts and a right, we stood in the middle of the street with no market in sight. Suddenly, Sarah pointed directly behind us, “It’s right there!” I was so excited! Feeling confident in my Italian speaking skills, I went ahead and ordered meat and cheese from the deli counter while Sarah went to look for some other items. Our supermarket experience was a success!
This area of Italy is the only area with which I’ve found a significant language barrier. Knowing I might need to speak Italian, and that I’d definitely want to speak Italian, I had been brushing up with my old college textbook in the months prior to this trip. As was true when I was attending college, text books put me immediately to sleep. I never actually made it past the first few chapters. I remember thinking – church, supermarket, street, right, left…. when am I ever going to use this vocabulary?! As it turns out, there’s a reason why it’s one of the first things in the book! Ha!
We were all feeling a bit drained, so before the grueling walk back to the house, we stopped for some coffee. The coffees provided are very small, and mine hardly lasted 2 blocks. Perhaps that’s more a testament of how delicious it is!
Up the stairs we went to the comfort of our “home” for the night. We each got cleaned up and then started on dinner. Malorie got the noodles started and made the spaghetti sauce. I prepared the meat, bread and cheese and ensured proper music: The Three Tenors, followed by Andrea Bocelli. We sat down to the table and had a lovely, relaxing meal together.
Once finished, we cleaned up the mess and retired outside to the patio where we would drink wine and chat for another hour or so. Meanwhile, a little Italian mouse kept running back and forth across the concrete. He was a cute little mouse.
Soon Bocelli quit singing and in the sudden silence, and complete peace, we realized how sleepy we were. We came back inside and passed out… another Italian adventure in the books. Heart full.