I just recently returned from a trip to Italy were I joined my son Nick to fulfill a long time dream to hike the Cinque Terre trail. For those who are not aware of this Italian beauty-the Sophia Loren of nature hikes- the Cinque Terre is a national park (Parco de Nazzionale della Cinque Terre) that borders on the Gulf of Genoa-part of the Mediterranean Sea on the Italian Riviera- between La Spezia and Genoa in the province of Liguria. The hike was breathtakingly beautiful. Experiencing the five villages- Riomagiorre, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso- from within each village and from the multiple vantage points along the trail, was pure magic.
Many years ago, I found a particularly fetching photograph of the village of Manarola, drenched in the diffuse, orange tinted sunlight of the early evening. It was this picture, ripped from one of those cheap giveaway calendars some twelve years ago, which I plastered to my office wall with what a friend of mine likes to call “intention”. I would often time gaze at the mysterious looking hideaway. I mused about the craggy coastline with it pastel colored residences pinned precariously against the cliffs floating in suspension over the surrounding azure colored sea. I wondered in those self-indulgent moments, between the responsibilities of work and family, what it might be like to wander those steep, serpentine streets. I imagined myself idyllically meandering along cobblestone alleys. There, residents would lean out of second story windows, pinning bleached laundry to air from clotheslines suspended to take advantage of the sea breezes.
There, plump bright red tomatoes of unbelievable beauty and unimaginable succulence copiously adorned the displays stands of local vendors.
Olive oil would be so light, aromatic and tasty that you could almost drink it like an aperitif. Blood oranges would burst from flaming dimpled skins revealing the exotic ruby color of the luscious fruit inside. In my musings I would climb up the manicured cliffs, along terraced stone steps that lead to the neatly arranged plots accessible only by foot. There, locals would have judiciously grown olives, oranges, lemons and chestnuts for generations.
ROAST PORK ANYONE? We made our way to our starting point, Riomaggiore at the southern most end of the Cinqueterre trail. After a four-hour train journey from Rome to La Spezia, with a connection to Riomaggiore, we found our way to a less than inviting, barely tolerable dwelling with a name that was full of ironic hyperbole- “La Dolce Vita” apartments. After a day’s worth of travel, we settled into our damp accommodations, to explore the first of five towns that famously make up this area. I began to realize how really compact these villages are. The population of Riomagiore in 2008 was listed at 1694 in an area of 3.9 square miles.
To my son and I it felt more like a town of several hundred in the village area where we stayed. With one main street, it offered a few cafes, several restaurants, a bar, a Laundromat, several retail shops and two local markets. Freshly caught fish and shellfish were delivered daily early morning by truck to local vendors and restaurants. A great deal of homes seemed to have rooms available for rent and depending on your budget you could actually get a view overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean. In our case we got to look out onto a rear alley that featured an outdoor sink on top of a neighboring roof. We were there for the hike not the accommodations and two guys can sleep almost anywhere for two nights, although I sheepishly admit to feeling a bit skeeved out by the permeating dampness of our room.
The first part of the trail is the widest and easiest part of the overall journey. Many visitors take the trail just north of Riomaggiore to the lover’s walk section were tradition has it that if you leave a padlock on the trail it will “lock” the bond between your and your loved one for all time. A nice sentiment but not exactly a ritual my son and I were interested in practicing.
I could sense myself getting psyched as I contemplated finally realizing my dream, transporting myself into the picture on my wall. As we approached Manarola we were stuck by the contrast between this village and Riomaggiore. Manarola is one of the smallest of the five villages and my dreams of walking through the serpentine streets were quickly vanquished by an unexpected build up of crowds that were traveling to the towns for Easter week holiday. The actual town center was very small with a narrow main street that appeared even tighter than it was with all the tourists milling about the tiny center. After a short perusal of the area we decided to forgo spending too much time lingering here, preferring to view the village from the vantage point of the trail beyond as we continued our hike. In retrospect, I wonder why we spent such a short time in the village, whose image was most responsible for my coming here in the first place. Its beauty was still intact and the gritty reality of the place in no way diminished its charm.
LIVING THE DREAM IN MANAROLA
But in thinking about it now, I believe that subconsciously I had formed my own virtual reality for Manarola, developed over a period of years of gazing at that idyllic calendar picture. Deep down inside I realized that there was no way, if I chose to fully hold it up to scrutiny, that this picturesque village could ever live up to the fantasy I had created. Rather than destroy my myth, I protectively chose to simply pass through it quickly and let it live on unspoiled in my mind.
As we continued on this wonderful adventure the trail started to become noticeably more arduous. The well-traveled path between Manarola and Corniglia meanders up and down the hillsides.
It climbs over ever narrowing trails that are lined on one side by shear cliff walls sprouting spring flora in whites, yellows and violets with an occasional pale green cacti and on the other side precipitous cliffs that glissade down to the craggy shore of the shimmering aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Genoa below. Corniglia is unique amongst the towns of the Cinque Terre in that it juts out into the water on a peninsula-like outcropping, looking from a distance like a jewel set on a rocky pronged setting.
My son Nick, who had known about my desire to hike this area, had actually hiked the trail previously the year before when he was studying for a semester in Rome. Having experienced the beauty first hand he encouraged me to take the time to do the hike with him this year as a celebration of my sixtieth birthday. As we approached Corniglia, he suggested we use the slowly ramping road for a short part of the hike, an offering to my aging knees, to avoid the up and down stairs that he knew the main trail provided.
As we traveled up the slowly elevating road, we were surrounded by groves of fruit bearing lemon and blood orange trees interspersed with olive trees. No part of the steep hills, no matter how seemingly inaccessible, were left fallow. I marveled at the resourcefulness of these rugged people who do not allow the inhospitable terrain to dissuade them from making every inch of this hilly ground agriculturally productive.
As we entered Corniglia we decided that it was time to rest a bit and enjoy a cold Italian beer. More than any of the other four villages, Corniglia seemed to retain a medieval feel.in its small central district.
It undoubtedly was some Italian native’s idea of a joke, to be played on naïve and unsuspecting American or English tourists. A sure fired way to limit beach access to the only the most daring of intruders.
We approached Vernazza with the intent of stopping for a brief lunch for what was supposed to be a planned rendezvous with my best friend “Doc” and his wife Karen. “Doc”, who lives in New Jersey, was coincidentally traveling these parts with his wife on one part of a thirty-year anniversary vacation in Italy. We had been in contact the day before via cell phone and tentatively set up to meet for lunch in Vernazza. He and Karen were traveling the trail from the Monterosso side and Nick and I would approach from the Corniglia side.
TWO FRIENDS MEET
After a few hearty hugs and some high fives we both reveled at the serendipitous resolution of our seemingly ill-fated plans. His phone had died and they had gotten a really late start that morning, jet lagged from the flight of the night before. With the afternoon slowly coming to an end and more of the trail to complete, there was but minutes to stop and socialize. We commemorated the occurrence with some pictures, bid each other adieu and continued on our respective journeys like passing ships.
As the trail continued toward Monterosso it became increasingly narrow and seemingly more dangerous. At times, the two way traffic gave way to alternating one way passage in each direction. Evidence of rock slides that partially blocked the trail became more frequent. As the elevation of the trail increased the shear drop to the shore was much more visibly precipitous.
The trail never became too arduous for an average hiker but I was surprised to see some travelers carrying young children in their arms. The occasional dog passed us by unfazed by the terrain and most people found it exhilarating. A never-ending commanding view of the magnificent azure blue Mediterranean below kept all trail goers in perpetual awe. As we approached Monterosso, which has the largest stretch of beach and is the most built up of the five towns, we could see that our journey was almost coming to an end. The final descent into the village of Monterosso was a series of stone steps that cascaded besides a mountain stream. The rugged stone was very unforgiving on the knees.The steps relentlessly seem to go on forever as they made they’re way down through cultivated groves of lemon, olive and orange trees. When we finally landed at the shoreline there was a large boardwalk that was bustling with people.
We were both thoroughly satisfied with our accomplishment and I for one was anxious to down several Advil. The trip, including our stops for lunch and beers, took us about five and one half hours and covered about nine and one half kilometers. We had another celebratory beer at a seaside cafe in Monterosso and made our way back to the train station where we would grab the next train back to Riomaggiore for our last night in the area. For me it was the culmination of one of life’s simple but grand pleasures; to walk in the majesty of the beautiful Italian coastline with my son was an experience I will never forget.