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Cinque Terre - Italy's Slow Country

We have just spent the last four nights in the little town of Riomaggiore, in the beautiful coastal region of Cinque Terre. I think that Jess and I both feel like we could have gotten off of a plane in Florence, jumped on a train here, and been very happy with our decision. That is how relaxing it has been here.

We arrived from Lucca to Riamaggiore on January 5th, after what turned out to be a very slow trip over a short distance. Somehow we ended up on three trains to go about two hours worth of traveling. To add to the stress of the trip, I needed money and had a strangely hard time finding an ATM in the stopover towns. Once we reached Riamaggiore, we realized that each little town in the Cinque Terre has an ATM, so it was an unnecessary stress.

Once we arrived, we found the guesthouse we had called from Lucca. That was our one disappointment our entire time in the area, because our room wasn't so great. It's small window looked out onto a wall, it was freezing and musty, and it didn't have any any kitchen facilities. We had already paid for a night, but we immediately went out looking for another place. For future reference and for those who might travel to Cinque Terre, it is quite easy to find rooms, we found an apartment very quickly, booked it for the following morning, and went on for the rest of our day.

The evening was upon us by then, it had taken far too long getting into town and checked in. So, we walked around Riamaggiore a bit, exploring its alleys and steep streets. The Cinque Terre is an area of coastland that is UNESCO protected, as it is a real jewel. There are four little towns along the coast, though several others can be found further up in the hills, which cascade steeply down into crashing waves and dizzying cliffs. The four towns, including Riamaggiore, cling to this hostile environment by backing up into ravines,  which seems like a bad idea given the likelihood of flash floods (actually in October 2011, horrible floods killed several people and severely damaged two of the town, to the point they are closed to visitors). The towns look like the inhabitants simply found a piece of land level enough to build on, and made up for the lack of acreage by building up, so that many buildings are three stories. Or a better way to describe the towns is if a giant shook out a box of buildings to spill down the walls of the gullies, and the buildings just happened to land upright. At any rate, they make for picturesque views. 

The streets of each town climb progressively from a central plaza-like main street that runs down the middle to smaller walkways that are sort of like alleys, building mazes behind the buildings for a few levels. Above that, this hillsides rise up to tree-lined ridges far above. These hillsides have been worked and carved into terraces for, according to some, over 1000 years; those terraces grow all sorts of agriculture, like grapes, olives, citrus trees, and other produce. This time of year, the vines are bare, and many of the terraces seem empty, but from pictures we saw, they are lush and green in the summertime.

We didn't get into the hills that evening, instead fully exploring Riamaggiore and then finding a walkway that followed the cliffside around to the next town, Manarola. The walkway clings to the cliff, jutting out over the crashing waves, and gives great view of the sunset. We didn't walk all of the way to Manarola but stopped midway to watch the sun drop below the horizon. Once it set,  we went back to Riamaggiore and found a market still open, to get some cheese, sausage and wine. We found a cafe for a spritz, then went back to our room for dinner. It was really brisk there, so we piled on the blankets and set in for night.

We weren't too sad to say goodbye to our room the next morning, especially after our lukewarm showers. We were packed and out by 9, to head over to the office of the other rental place. The lady there took us directly over to our next apartment, which was really a treat, especially compared to the first room. This was a full studio apartment, with a nice kitchen and dining area, a great bed,  and a large bathroom. Even better, our window looked out onto the small cove that served as the town's harbor. By 9:30 each morning, we had direct sunshine into our room, and the waves crashing against the breakwater served as a relaxing background sound. Then, in the evenings, the light from the sunset set the buildings across from ours aglow with color. We could have easily had some belongings shipped over to us and moved right into the place.

As soon as we put our bags down, we headed out to the market and bought some breakfast foods. Our little apartment had an Italian coffee pot, which I didn't know how to use, but we also had wifi, a quick google search had us brewing up cups of espresso like native Italians. For our mornings there in the apartment we did well for meals, with eggs, cheeses, salami, and yogurt for breakfasts. We would have soup and focaccia bread for lunch, and for our dinners that we at the apartment, we would get fresh pasta and pesto sauce. Apparently, both pesto and focaccia bread originated in the area, and they certainly did well with both. Of course, we drank gallons of coffee, and we didn't do so badly with the chianti either.

Speaking of learning to be Italians, we also were surprised at the €5 each that they charged for a spritz in the local cafes in the evenings. As having a spritz each evening has become something of a habit for us, we decided we would be better off making our own. We bought a bottle of aperol, a light Italian liquor that isn't as strong as wine, for €12, while a bottle of local champagne only set us back €3. With an ice cube and a slice of orange, we were in business, and our purchase paid for itself after the third drink. Believe me, we had a few more than three. This is a perfect evening refresher, especially after a day of hard hiking, and while the champagne is long gone, we have the last third of the bottle of aperol in a metal water bottle tucked away in my bag at this very moment.

Anyhow, on the 6th, our second day, we were in the mood for some exploring. A little train goes in between all four towns as well as the city La Spezia on one end and the larger towns Monterosso and then Levanto on the other. We rode all of the way to Monterosso, bypassing Manarola for the next day and Corniglia and Vernazza as they were damaged by the floods. Passing by those two towns on the train, we could see the damaged buildings and main street, strewn with debris and dirt, though people were out painting and making repairs. Monterosso is mostly just a beach town, having a nice spit of white sand that people must love in the summertime. We didn't stay long in the town, heading out for what looked like a nice hike into the hills. The hike quickly turned arduous on us, going from a gentle ascent to the tortuous stair climb. Whereas hiking in the US usually involves well-groomed trails, this trail was carved into the hillside a thousand years ago and hasn't been worked on since. Apparently, the idea of zigzagging  up a hill hasn't caught on, despite a civilization being in place in the area for a millennium, and instead the trails tend to aim straight up the hills. We sweated our way to the top, where at least we had great views to look at (at least when the white dots in my vision receded). We continued down to Levanto, where a cone heaped with some gelato  helped ease our tired muscles. We watched bodysuit clad surfers hitting the waves in the fading sunlight and eventually sundown--making the association with California's coast complete--before boarding our train back to Riamaggiore, a pasta dinner, and a couple of spritzes.

Our third day, the 7th, started out very slow. We slept in, then had a leisurely breakfast. We set out for further exploration, but found that our legs were still tired from the previous day's hiking. So, we went back and enjoyed a few more cups of espresso in our apartment. We did a bit of laundry and lounged around until early afternoon, when we started to feel a little guilty about not having done anything with our day. So we walked around Riamaggiore a bit more, looking for a path that would take us to a chapel that sat far above the town on to top of the hill, shining white above the green of the hillside and even lit up at night. We soon found a trail that seemed like it would take us in the direction (that is to say up), and started walking. It did indeed head towards the church, never deviating into switchbacks or anything that might have proved helpful in our ascent. Let's just say that it would be impossible to be fat if you lived in one of those towns and had to walk anywhere more than just across the street. Even crossing the street involved somewhat strenuous exercise. I'm not complaining, though, because with all the cheese and cured meats I've been discovering in Italy, I need all the help I can get.

So, we didn't quite make the church; it soon became clear that although we were close, we wouldn't have enough time to reach the church and still get back to the village before sunset. So, we headed back to Riamaggiore to watch the sunset paint the cove in vivid oranges and reds. A fisherman was sitting on the rocks of the cove, using a pole that couldn't have been much shorter than 20 foot long to catch tiny little fish; I was waiting for him to catch a doozy so that I could run out to help him pull it in, but he was largely unsuccessful. Most of the boats were sitting in their winter storage spots, but a few go-getters were scraping peeling paint from their little boats and getting them ready for the next season. A few folks gathered to watch the sunset, but yet again low-season proved to be the best time to travel, as we mostly had the cove to ourselves. A fine dinner of fresh ravioli and pesto sauce followed our standard spritzes, rounding out the day just right.

Yesterday was our last day of exploration in the area, so we were determined to get started as early as possible. However, when you have your own apartment, getting out of bed and started at 7:30 is nearly unfeasible, and we didn't get started on the day until nearly 11. Still, it was an epic day of walking. We first took the cliffside route over to Manarola, which was pretty dead, as it was a Sunday morning. Nothing much was happening in the village, so we found a tiny little path that led up a hillside. It grew more narrow and more ancient-looking the higher we climbed, and we almost had to turn around when the path took us closer to the edge of a drop off into the ocean than Jess was comfortable being. I had to carry her coat and water bottle for her, but she soldiered on, and soon we came over the top of a terrace to a small flat area. A small bungalow sat in the clearing, and an older couple was working on a terrace in front of it. We didn't know if we should continue, but upon seeing us, the man came over and told us that the building was his home. We were in awe, as it looked out over a bit of the hill and then out across the Mediterranean. We still didn't know if we were trespassing, so we sort of stood there nodding our heads appreciatively, until he told us it was fine to sit on the terrace and rest, which we did. He must have been quite surprised to have a couple of Americans show up on a trail that most definitely was not on the standard tourist itinerary for hiking, but he's sure was nice about having us in his yard.

From there we pretty much took our own route through the hills, aiming vaguely for a town on the top of a hill across the entire valley that ended up being called Volastra. There is actually a trail that leads directly from Manarola to the village, but we weren't aware of it, and besides we were probably at about the halfway elevation point, though across the valley, and figured it would be better to cut around the valley rather than go down to Manarola and then head straight uphill. Seemed like sound enough logic, except there was no trail, so we followed the footpaths along the terraces until we reach a road. From there, we picked up a trail that seemed to be going in the general direction of Volastra. In general, it was, but at some point, after a fair amount of bushwhacking through some serious scrublands and gaining some battle scars from the thorns we found there, the trail headed off in a much different direction. We weren't aware of the direction change, with the towering thorn bushes around us, until we were actually higher than Volastra, so we had to head out again across grapevine covered terraces, then taking these tiny , ancient steps down stairs made for Italians much smaller and less clumsy than myself, to reach the village.

Once there, we found that the single cafe was closed for the season, and there was precious little else to do in  the town besides take in long views of the valley, Manarola, and the Mediterranean. We kept seeing these hikers in the village, looking fresh and happy and less scratched, and then we came across the well-kept, cobblestoned trails leading straight down to Manarola. As we started down that beautiful trail, we didn't envy those hikers coming up, as they still had a massive climb to reach the top, but rather felt very arrogant that we hadn't taken such an easy trail. Midway, we grew bored with the monotony of a well-groomed trail (I did, at least, and Jess was kind enough to indulge me). We set out yet again across a terrace until we found a decrepit looking trail that was more like a heavily eroded gully to make our descent. I will say, it gave us much better views of Manarola and the Mediterranean than the well-groomed trail could have (I think).

Back in Manarola, we stopped  in a little cafe to have a coffee, some pumpkin soup with focaccia bread, and a delicious slice of lemon tort cake. The sun was fully shining in Manarola, so we strolled around the village, checking out its little harbor and walking along its cliffside pathway that sadly did not go far along the coast. By late afternoon, after I'd taken all possible pictures of the village, we walked back to Riamaggiore, where we had a spritz and watched another beautiful sunset. Both if us were pretty tired, so we took a well-deserved nap. We both got in a couple of hours of sleep, getting up at about 7 to go out for a nice dinner. Seafood is naturally a very large part of the local cuisine, so we ordered stuffed mussels and a seafood soup, both local specialties, washing it down with a bottle of the house white wine. It made sense to have another coffee and dessert, so we indulged ourselves. It was a most excellent meal.

We are currently on the train to the city of Perugia, which is between Florence and Rome. We were very sad to say goodbye to Cinque Terre, especially since we now only have five nights left in Italy. In a way, leaving the region was preparing for leaving Italy itself, as Perugia is the only destination we have left before we arrive in Rome, our last stop. We'll have three nights in Rome and then it's off to Nepal we go, though we will have lots of great memories and experiences to bring along.

Until next time, be safe.


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