Published on February 22nd, 2005 | by Ann Rickard0
Travel – Walking the legendary Cinque Terre.
Ann Rickard looks back on the first time she encountered the legendary Cinque Terre.
The first time we met the infinite charms of the Cinque Terre we got it all wrong. We’d been staying at Santa Margherita, a seaside town of boundless prettiness on the Italian Riviera. All the locals told us that summer we must visit nearby Cinque Terre, that legendary rocky, rugged strip of coastline rising dramatically from the Mediterranean between Genoa and Pisa.
“Take the ferry from here,”’ they encouraged. “See the five villages of the Cinque Terra; you will love them all very much.”
We planned to walk the track between villages, perhaps lunch in one of the villages, make a pleasant day of it.
The young woman at the ferry terminal took one look at us as we bought tickets and told her our plan.
“Impossible,’’ she said in gorgeously accented English. “You need the fitness, and anyway, the ferry does not go today, too much wind.’’
A disappointment. And a challenge. We had the fitness. And even though we knew the best way to approach the Cinque Terre was by boat…the views, the cliffs…belisimo…the train would do nicely.
We arrived at the southernmost of the five villages, Riomaggiore, an hour later. We would walk back to the other four villages, Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, finishing at Monterosso.
No cars can get into the five villages, only the path, trains and boats connect the villages. If it all became too much, we would catch the train from one of the villages back to our base in Santa Margherita.
It was midday when we headed off down the romantically named Via dell’Amore – the street of love, from Riomaggiore walking towards Manarola.
“What was all that talk about fitness?”’ we laughed as we strolled easily down the man-made path curving around the rocky cliff face, walking briskly, passing ambling tourists. We had not lingered in Riomaggiore, and as we approached Manarola 15 easy minutes later, we regretted it.
“This is easy,” we boasted and wandered into the village of Manarola to fall in love at first sight. An enchanting cluster of yellow, pink and grey stone buildings built into the cliffs spilt down to the sea.
We walked a narrow road towards the water, flanked by busy shops, cafes and restaurants. It was a Sunday and the Italians were doing what they do best: eating, drinking, enjoying life with an exuberance that seems especially reserved for them.
There was no hope of getting a table at any of the restaurants so we bought giant focaccias filled with mozzarella and chargilled eggplant from a flustered baker barely keeping up with demand. In a nearby deli brimming with local produce we bought a bottle of local white wine, the woman behind the counter happy to open the bottle and supply two paper cups. We took our bounty down to the tiny harbour and sat on the rock wall, ate, drank and watched teenagers jump off the rocks into the cool green water. It was hot, they were cool, we were tempted. While jumping from the high rocks was out of the question, a swim was not. We slipped discreetly out of our outer layers and slid quietly into the welcoming water.
Nothing had ever felt so good.
Back out, dried, cool, well wined and fed, we pushed on to the next village
“Don’t’ know why that woman at the ferry thought we couldn’t do this,” we laughed as we walked and climbed on a rough track past clusters of sweet peas and wild poppies, the views down to the water becoming more beautiful each high step.
On and on we climbed, our confidence slowly seeping with each steep step. We had not brought hats or sunscreen. We sweated and cursed, but we continued. The ferry woman had challenged us. Going back and admitting defeat was not an option. A strenuous hour on the rough cliff face track we staggered on shaky legs into Corniglia. We had trekked hard, but seen beauty. The vivid blue ocean below, the neat vine-filled terraces above created over the centuries by farmers.
Corniglia’s enchanting streets, some so narrow we could not walk them side by side without scraping our shoulders, instantly revived us.
“This is worth it,” we said finding ourselves in a small quadrangle looking out and down to the sapphire sea and over to the right, to the distant cliffs we must walk to get to the next village.
It was mid afternoon now, Corniglia was sensibly settling down for siesta.
A sign told us the next village, Vernazza was an hour and a half away.
“Can we do this?” we asked, but knew the answer. We had to. Large bottles of chilled water fortified us and with our bellies sloshing liquid we soldiered on.
The track curved and climbed forever in front of us. But there were beguiling villas and endless rows of grapevines above us, more fabulous ocean views below.
Up rocky steps carved into the mountain we climbed, some so steep we had to stop and hoist ourselves up, hands on knees, groans on lips. Far below us, lavish yachts were anchored in beautiful small bays. Voices drifted softly up to us. No doubt bella figura Italians sitting on the yacht decks drinking Prosecco and thinking about the love-making to come during siesta. The air was still and hot up on the cliffs and we cursed the fortunate Italians and their yachts and pulled ourselves up another steep step.
After almost two hours we staggered into Vernazza, almost weeping with relief.
Like the other villages Vernazza was old and proud of its fishing traditions. It faced a tiny bay dominated by cliffs and two ancient towers. There was a Gothic church waiting there for our appreciation. But it required us taking a few more steps. Our legs were already jelly. We headed for the nearest bar.
Two fortifying gin and tonics later, we asked the waiter how far it was to the next village.
“How far have you come?” he asked.
“Vernazza, and it nearly killed us.”
“The next walk to Monterosso is about the same distance,” he replied and hurried away before he had to witness us weeping.
We could have caught the train, given up on this last section. But it was mid-summer, there were many hours of daylight left. It would be cheating not to go on.
Again we climbed. Up and up, the path becoming narrow and impossibly difficult. We hiked past wild flowers, olive and lemon groves, sometimes past extravagant villas high above, their gardens terracing down towards us.
Sensible people geared up for a rugged walk with good shoes and backpacks came towards us, hiking in the opposite direction.
“Is it much further to Monterosso?’’ we asked hopefully. Some nodded, others shook their heads. .
We were sunburnt, sweating, bitten, panting and dribbling by now. I wanted to lie down, give in. “Go ahead without me,”’ I wanted to say to the others. “Save yourselves, forget about me.” But they would have none of it.
After more than two hours we came to a levelled part of the path, but then it suddenly sloped frighteningly down and then up again.
“One final effort,”’ we encouraged each other. “We must be nearly there.”
Finally, we fell into Monterosso, vowing never to take another walk again in what might be the short time left of our lives.
The town was teeming with beautiful people strolling the waterfront licking gelati. This was Italy in flagrante at passaggetia, that delightful promenading they so love in the early evening.
We had completed the Cinque Terre walk in one long afternoon.
The next year we returned, stayed in tiny hotel in Riomaggiore looking down to the tiny harbour and savoured the charm of the little village. The following year we were back on the Cinque Terre track once again, this time walking it at a much slower pace, caught behind a gaggle of school kids. Another year we stayed in Monterosso and joined the Italians over red wine and antipasti in the little enotecas. Yet on another visit we watched the fishing boats being lifted out of the water at Manarola by a hoist and tackle. It was all so very charming, but nothing compared to our first visit to the Cinque Terre.