Travelling alone Part 1 - Hiking through the most beautiful national park on the coast of Italy.
29.09.2007 - 01.10.2007 26 °C
I fell in love with Italy in 2007 when Anja, my mom and I went to Rome and Venice. Since then I have always dreamed of exploring the rest of Italy and returning to Rome, so when it came to planning the Italy trip I decided to take a week off school and visit Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence and Rome. By this time Kyle had had enough of traveling and decided to stay home. The idea of traveling alone was a little daunting at first and on the eleven hour train ride to Cinque Terre I definitely felt nervous, but I knew that I could do it and most of all I knew that I would love it.
A series of five sea-side towns below the Italian Riviera form the protected national park of Cinque Terre: Monteresso, Vernazza, Cornigilia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Until 50 years ago these towns were only accessible by boat and were true fishing villages; now trains connect the towns to each other and to the rest of the world, but other than service vehicles, no cars are allowed. Thanks to Rick Steves the area has become a widely popular tourist and hiking destination, but the local people are working hard to maintain the authentic coastal atmosphere. Mountain paths run between each town and provide an excellent hiking experience as well as spectacular views.
I arrived in Vernazza on Saturday September 29th at 8pm with no reservation. The sky was dark by this time and it was raining a bit, but the little village was still fully alive; people hung on corners enjoying pizza and wine, dogs ran down the sloped, cobble stoned road to the harbour and waiters danced around romantically lit café tables. With the help of my Italian phrase book I began my search for an available room, and after the first few unsuccessful attempts I realized that I wasn’t the only one that was temporarily homeless: backpackers, with their luggage spread around them, were huddling over guide books, talking urgently into cell phones and looking quite distraught. I really started to worry about my situation when I heard a group of three saying that they needed to go to the next town to find rooms, but it was just my luck that the next person I asked knew of someone with an available room. An old lady led me up five narrow flights of stairs to what looked like a normal apartment, not just a room; there was a fully stocked kitchen, a living room complete with china cabinets, a couch and a dining table, a large bedroom and a private bathroom. She collected her laundry from outside the apartment window and then I began to negotiate the terms. She knew no English whatsoever, but with the help of the phrase book I determined that the price was 70EUR a night and with some determined negotiation I brought the price down to a more feasible price of 55EUR a night. She took my money, but no contact information and I never saw her again. That night I took a short walk through the town, enjoyed some pesto pizza while watching a Pug waddle around the pizzeria and sat by the dark harbour reflecting on how lucky I was to be wandering around Italy.
The next morning I got up early and after enjoying my splendid ocean view while seeing the sunrise, I took the five minute train to Monteresso, the town north of Vernazza. The town was still asleep when I arrived and the peaceful silence was broken only by the crashing waves, a pair of howling dogs and the lone chime of a church bell. Not a single tourist was in sight! I climbed to the top of the town, explored the grounds of a private stone villa and ascended a hill to the town cemetery. This cemetery was typical for the area, but I had never seen anything like it: the ‘graves’ consisted of a somber maze of rows and rows of engraved marble tombs, framed with flowers and other decorations. Accompanying the cemetery was a small church with a spectacular view of Monteresso and the mountainous coast. Back on the bottom of the hill I wandered through the now awakening town and ordered some breakfast. A short train ride brought me back to Vernazza and from there I started my day long hike through the mountains between the remaining three towns: Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia was supposed to be a 1.5 hour hike and began in a backstreet, led me up through the town and then started winding along the side of the mountain. Never before had I experienced anything like it. The mountain hike in Appenzell was impressive, but this was absolutely breathtaking. Gnarly cacti lined the hill side, interrupted by olive groves, thin trees and stubborn flowers. Below me the ocean sparkled in the deepest blue and I could feel the hot sun shining on me from the clear sky. A strong, but pleasant smell invaded the path, presumably from the ocean and the surrounding plants and flowers. To me it was, curiously enough, like breathing in a flowery fresh cream soda scented air.
Halfway along the path some local guys were bringing up bushels of grapes from somewhere on the mountain below the path. The grapes were small and sweet looking and sweat shone on the men as they heaved bushels of them over their heads and onto the path. Embracing the opportunity for a break I watched them work and talked to an American couple for a few minutes, but assuming they were going the other way I said goodbye and continued on. Further along the path I saw the sign for a free beach that I had heard of and feeling adventurous, I veered off the main trail onto the narrow overgrown path down the mountain. After a half an hour and a couple minor injuries I reached the end and found myself in an olive grove overlooking a beach with naked men sprawled all over it. Deciding that it I didn’t want to go to the beach after all I made my way through the olive grove and looked for the stairs that should bring me back to the town. Instead of stairs I found a tunnel with a permanent campout and tons of cats beside it. A leather faced, pot bellied guy in shorts informed me that this was a private tunnel and that to get to Corniglia I would either have to go back the way I came, which would take 1.5 hours or pay the 5EUR to go through it and get there in ten minutes. Not wanting to hike up that dangerous path again or waste all of that time I paid my fee. I entered the tunnel and the door slammed shut. I now found myself in a dark cavernous tunnel, with dripping walls and a creaking ceiling. Gripping my pepper spray I hurried through it and cursed my adventurousness; it was only my second day traveling alone and I had already got myself in a potentially dangerous situation. Ten minutes later I reached the end, and after a short panic due to not being able to open the door, I was back in the sunshine.
The town of Corniglia was the only one of the five that wasn’t on the water; it sat on a tall cliff and I had to climb a few hundred stairs to get up to it. As in the style of the other two towns, Corniglia’s houses were painted brightly and crowded around the little alleys and squares. The weather, the colours and the friendly Italian locals created a warm, jovial and carefree atmosphere that made you want to stay forever in each of the towns. Once there I was surprised to see the American couple again; apparently they had been walking the same way as me anyways. We introduced ourselves and decided to eat lunch together in a small outdoor trattoria. Roy and I ordered two Toros, a double malt beer, and two Maestrales, a seafood bruschetta dish. I tried anchovies for my first time, and other than being a little salty they were quite good. It was great to have met some people and be able to share traveling experiences. We explored the backstreets of Corniglia and found cute shops, a lively little square and a terrace with an exquisite view of the coast on either side.
The walk to Manarola from Corniglia was shorter and easier than the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia and talking with Roy and Kathy made it seem even shorter. I stopped to pick a prickly pear from a cactus, and it was quite sour, but still pretty good. The town of Manarola was nestled into a small bay and crept up the hillside from the shore. The bright colours of the houses contrasted nicely with the deep blue water in the harbour and the streets bustled cheerfully. We enjoyed a warm slice of what tasted like rice pudding with lemon and tried a Farinata filled with local cheese. At the top of the town there was a 13th century church, with an intact stained glass rose window from the 14th century. On our way there we saw a bunch of lemon trees and to our surprise and wonder: a Kiwi vine! I had always thought that Kiwis grew on trees, but I guess I was wrong.
The walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore was the shortest and easiest, but also the most popular, so it was quite crowded. The views however were still absolutely spectacular, and the deep blue of the water way below the trail kept inviting me to jump in. I wanted to quite badly, but I had already had one close call that day and I wasn’t about to risk jumping into unknown waters from a height that I had never jumped from. The town of Riomaggiore was the biggest, but also the most disappointing. It didn’t have the same friendly atmosphere, felt more commercial and was more crowded. We searched for the famous ancient marble doors, but the church that they were supposed to be in only had wood doors. Perhaps someone stole them. Having lost interest in the town and feeling quite worn out we took the next train back to Vernazza and Kathy and Roy went to their room for a rest, while I walked down to the harbour to eat my sandwich and watch the sunset. The low sun bathed the bright colours of the town in a soft, warm glow and created an even more beautiful scene than the bright daytime sun did. The sunset was quite beautiful and made a perfect ending to a perfect day.
As I was walking to the town grocery store I peeked into a little hidden room and found grapes hanging all over the ceiling. I had read about a local desert wine, Sciacchetra, which was made out of dried grapes and therefore required four times as many grapes as a regular wine. The old lady in the room assured me that that was indeed what it was for. Roy saw me in the grocery store and after realizing that there were no plans for the night we got Kathy, went to my apartment and spent the evening discussing traveling, god and the world. They are both very intelligent people with lots of interesting things to say and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the things they’ve done and what they’re thoughts were on certain subjects. Late at night we said our goodbyes, they wished me a safe and happy trip and I the same to them. It had been a truly wonderful day and I went to sleep exhausted, but full of experiences and good feelings.