Monday, November 4, 2013

The Cinque Terre Challenge

Ever since we watched Rick Steves explore the Cinque Terre on public television about 10 years ago, Audrey and I have wanted to go there to visit the five villages that Steves calls “one of God’s great gifts to tourism.” (Amanda has also lobbied to go with us should we ever decide to make the trip, but we couldn’t bring her this time.) On our screen, Rick lithely loped along the path between two of the five hillside villages, stopping to share a succulent cactus fruit with a local farmer and smell the lemon blossoms. Then he boarded a local train that literally hopped between two other villages. His short-sleeve summer-color shirt remained neatly tucked in the entire time. There was not a drop of sweat in sight, not a hair out of place. After Audrey, Phyllis, Harvey, and I slowly and tortuously (at times) traversed, climbed, dipped, slid, and even crawled along the rocky path between villages for more than three hours, we wondered, “Just where had Rick Steves actually been in that video?” And we had hiked between only two of the five villages; we couldn’t imagine having the stamina to walk the entire pathway.

This was day 2 of our Italian biking adventure. We were going on a leisurely stroll that we hoped wouldn’t tire us out too much before the actual biking would begin the following day. Oh, how misguided we were!

Please don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to disparage the Cinque Terre, which is spectacularly beautiful. And I don’t really mean to put down Rick Steves, whose tour videos I really enjoy. It’s just that we were not prepared for the real Cinque Terre. The pathway between towns five and four —Monterossa and Vernazza—is only about three kilometers in length, and Steves estimates that it will take a “fit hiker” less than 2 hours to complete. It took us more than 3½. And by the end I was breathing hard and really sweaty, and my shirt was untucked (as usual). Now, admittedly, Steves does call that part of the trail “the most challenging,” so we should have been warned. We also should have been warned when a young couple we met at the start of the trail (who had just completed the trip from the other direction) offered to give us their trail passes for the next day for free (“No way we’ll be using them,” they shared).

But we were in the Cinque Terre at last. And on vacation! So we set off on the first leg of our tour of the “five lands.” I won’t provide a full play-by-play, but here is a little of the flavor of our “stroll.” We started on the beach in Monterosso and began a slow but steady climb up the hillside, heading southeast. The path quickly turned from dirt trail to stone steps (some fairly steep), then to narrower steps, leading to an even narrower trail that looked out over a hillside vineyard and many fruit trees. On some of the trees were lemons as large as etrogs, the Israeli citrus fruit that is part of the Sukkot celebration. Even as we held tightly onto the rock walls, we were enticed to take photo after photo, looking back toward Monterosso and forward toward what we hoped would soon be Vernazza. How beautiful was this!
A view of Monterosso where we began our climb

Being 60-somethings, we often found ourselves moving aside on the trail as much as we comfortably could to let younger tourists pass us by. “They must be the fit hikers Rick Steves mentioned,” I thought. I also wondered just why they weren’t sweating or huffing and puffing.
Hanging on as we get closer to Vernazza
I kept telling myself that once we reached the highest point in the trail and began heading downhill, it would go easier for us. But I hadn’t figured on the effect of heavy rains that had fallen in the region in the days before our visit. The downhill rocks and steps were better gravity-wise, but they were somewhat slick and tough on the knees. Still, everywhere we looked there was something unusual and picturesque, demanding to be photographed. There were the cactus covered with fruit, just like the ones Rick Steves had shared with the farmer. There were flowering bushes literally springing out of the rocks. There was even a workman incongruously blocking our path with a cart filled with more stones. Where could he be taking them?
And there at last were the pastel-colored houses of Vernazza, crowding a small harbor on the coast of the Ligurian Sea. And we were being welcomed by a singular saxophone player, whose notes bounced off the hillside. I think he had his case open for tips, but most of us were too busy wiping the sweat from our eyes to notice.

One last picture before we enter Vernazza

We had made it to Vernazza. Whew!

We explored the town and decided to pick out a restaurant for lunch. Characteristically, Phyllis wanted us to go to the one that sat atop a steep wall of steps. (Phyllis is part mountain goat, I am convinced.) And she wasn’t satisfied with our climbing just one set of steps. “The ones on the next level will have an even better view,” she insisted. We talked her down, literally, and she agreed to let us be seated at tables on the second terrace. Our waiter was gracious and oh-so-Italian. “My name is Andrea, like-a Bocelli,” were his first words. He proceeded to flirt with all of the women at our table and the ones nearby too. He brought us wine and pasta and never stopped charming us until we were rested and stuffed and happy. We had friendly thoughts about Rick Steves again.

As we climbed down from the restaurant, Phyllis came up with a new idea. “Let’s walk off lunch by hiking to Corniglia (the next town),” she suggested. Audrey and I shook our heads, stamped our feet, and pointed to the train instead. It took a few minutes of convincing, but the train it was. Of course, when we got to Corniglia after a two-minute train ride, we read Rick Steves’s description and noted that the town center was some 33 flights and 382 steps above the train station. 382 steps! Up! So we climbed, even though we realized that we would eventually have to descend 382 steps to get back to the train.

And it was worth it. If we go back to the Cinque Terre, we plan to find a room in one of the narrow alleyways in Corniglia and bask in its atmosphere for 2-3 days. Now that would be a “great gift to tourism.”

In Corniglia, the alleyways are so narrow
 you can almost touch the walls on both sides.
Day 2 of our Italian adventure was filled with a crazy bus and train ride, a death-defying hike, and way too much exercise. After this, the biking was bound to be easy. Right? R-i-g-h-t!


  1. Mike, sounds like quite the adventure. Glad you survived in one piece.

    1. Thanks. And I haven't even written about the biking yet. More trials and tribulations to come from a fun vacation.