I gave myself four and a half days to enjoy the Cinque Terre. Meaning “five lands,” the centuries old cliff seem like quintessential Italy. The many other tourists seem to think so, too. They’re backpackers and hikers, lovers of pesto and wine. They also seem to be French, for the most part. People come here for the hiking and the vistas. There’s an ironically exciting lack of Things To Do in these tiny coastal towns, and I came for the indulgent purpose of relaxation.
My hostel was more like a very small apartment stuffed with beds. The owner, a friendly man named Luciano, exclaimed over my young age as he looked at my passport and gave me my keys. In the room already were two Quebecois girls and a few older guys from Chicago. Starving, I rushed off to lunch at the nearest restaurant I could find. I ate a regional specialty (which I can’t remember the name of) involving three circular, flat noodles. Each was slathered with a different sauce: pesto, ragu, and olive oil and Parmesan. The Johnny Depp-lookalike in Florence had mentioned that Liguria is known for its pesto. It tasted different from any pesto I’d eaten: vivid green, super fresh, and delicious. According to Bon Appétit, Ligurian chefs blanch the basil quickly, which “heightens its color and mellows its flavor.” Then, they puree every ingredient but the olive oil before splashing the sauce with pasta water. That way, the pesto coats every piece of pasta. (Check out the May issue’s Ligurian pesto with spaghetti recipe.)
I was staying in Riomaggiore, the first town from La Spezia. The town center was comprised of one street with a few co-ops, restaurants, specialty food stores, souvenir shops, and one bar (staffed by some very sassy middle-aged Italian men). Cats lounged lazily in the hot, midday sun. Church bells rang at an ear-splitting volume. Fat, butter-yellow lemons drooped from trees, one of the many reminders I was far, far way from England. Having investigated all of Riomaggiore within an hour, I happily read on the rocks by the water. Apparently I didn’t “need” four and a half days for the Cinque Terre, but I certainly wanted them.
The next morning I walked the 15 minutes to Manarola, the next town over. The popular custom is to trek the entire Cinque Terre in one day. The sequence of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare takes around five hours to hike, with your choice of paths. However, October’s flooding damaged much of the coast, so you couldn’t do it all by walking. Luckily, the most scenic path was open for tourists. The Via dell’ Amore stretches along a cliff face overlooking the Mediterranean, and it’s certainly a romantic walk. The walls, rocks, and even cacti are inscribed with couples’ names and grand proclamations of love, and backpacking couples hold hands along the way.
There was a bit more going on in Manarola, but it still took me little time to see the whole of it. After a stroll, I relaxed at Da Aristide, which sold the cheapest espresso at 70 cents a cup. I had just ordered a cappuccino when a woman brought out a fresh batch of thick, warm focaccia smothered with olive oil, herbs, and roasted tomatoes. I couldn’t resist, and it was so, so delicious. That pairing quickly became my breakfast of choice in the Cinque Terre. Later on I ate a lunch of fresh swordfish and a light green salad. I opted for a locally made white wine, which they craft from the terraced vineyards marking the hills. Each town has its own unique wine. I loved this wine, which was pale-colored, buttery, and tasted like distilled sunshine. After a languorous lunch, I realized that I’d settled into the rhythm of the Italian countryside. I spent all my time in the Cinque Terre reading good books, having good conversations, eating good food, and drinking good wine. I never knew what time it was, or what day. After a year of intense pressure to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere, it was marvelous to have all the time in the world to simply sit and savor.
I spent the rest of the late afternoon back in Riomaggiore with a new hostelmate, a French Canadian named Marie-Line. We split a bottle of white on the rocky beach and talked about love and life. It’s amazing how much you can find in common with someone you’ve just met. I admired the confidence of a darkly tanned, middle-aged man sitting with his wife nearby. He wore the tiniest pair of hot pink swimming briefs. Only in Europe. Marie-Line and I decided to buy more provisions (including a pizza each) and return to watch the blood orange sunset. That night we met even more 20-something travelers and had a lively reunion with the Canadians I’d met my last night in Florence (who were staying in Riomaggiore as well).
On Wednesday morning I met the Canadians for breakfast along with a trio of 19-year-old guys from Ontario. The new Canadians and I ended up spending most of the day together. We took the train to Monterosso, the farthest town. It’s a bit more touristy and doesn’t have the same narrow streets and charm of the other towns. It does, however, have an actual sand beach. I wanted to keep up the “tan” (read: freckled burn) I’d acquired in Turkey.
On the beach, we spotted sea kayaks for rent and took some out right away, my eyes still glued to the gorgeous shoreline behind us. The water was tranquil and turquoise near the shore. I dove off my kayak at one point to cool off, only to spot a giant, pink jellyfish under the water later on. Not content to float, the boys suggested hitting the big waves farther out. So I found myself catching air on immense swells and working arm muscles I hadn’t used in ages. It was exhilarating to battle the waves, almost capsizing. We eventually headed back to shore, completely exhausted from kayaking against the wind but happy. The four of us grabbed some gelato and a train to Manarola, where someone had heard there were good spots for cliff jumping. Unfortunately, the beach was fenced off, so we watched the waves for a while then parted ways.
Back at the hostel, I met an Australian girl named Melanie, a young, professional show diver traveling solo for a few months. Inexplicably, swimming always makes me crave pizza, so she and I grabbed wine and pizzas to watch the sunset from the entrance of the Via dell’ Amore. We ended up back at the bar later with an even larger crowd of Canadians, old and new.
Thursday marked my last full day in the Cinque Terre. Mel and I walked to Manarola in the morning so I could introduce her to my focaccia and espresso cafe. We also bought little heart-shaped, custard-filled donuts. I’d long ago adopted a “why not, you’re in Italy” attitude, and they were scrumptious. From Manarola we trained to Corniglia, the next town over. Corniglia is definitely the most beautiful town to walk around in; the streets are tiny and colorful, offering random glimpses of the sea. There was an afternoon lull, with only the sound of laundry flapping in the breeze and the occasional shouts of children.
Melanie and I followed the signs for Vernazza. We had suspicions the trail was closed due to storm damage, but plowed through anyway and no one stopped us. We panted up steep, rocky paths and scrambled over work sites and abandoned rock slides. After a while, we established the path was definitely closed and under reconstruction, but we were too far along to go back and the views were too pretty. We were intrepid explorers, braving nature. The time passed quickly with conversation and soon we came upon Vernazza. We noticed on the way out a sign announcing the trail was closed. There wasn’t much to see in Vernazza. It had suffered the brunt of the damage in October and the whole town was under repair.
Melanie and I hopped aboard a train to Monterosso for some much needed lunch. I had a bellini, spaghetti al pomodoro, and bruscetta covered with olive tapenade. Everything tasted pure and flavorful, especially as a reward for exercising more than I had in months (hey, I’m abroad okay?). I can’t get over how true the flavors are in Italy. You can see where the food on your plate grew, feel the same soil under your feet. There’s no plastic wrapped, frozen, or genetically modified anything, just good food. We bumped a few of the Canadians and all caught some early evening sun on the beach. That night Melanie and I hung out with an entirely new group of Canadians staying in our hostel. The two of us wolfed down a very late dinner of salty gnocchi al pomodoro and margarita pizza at the bar as we socialized with our new friends.
It was very, very hard to leave the next morning. The couple of days had felt like an unending vacation, as though the Cinque Terre is a place you’re not meant to leave. Melanie and I took the train to La Spezia, where she left for Rome and I for Milan. I could feel the approaching end of my trip and I did my best to ignore it on my long train ride. It wasn’t the time to think of leaving, it was the time for listening to Dawes and The Avett Brothers, for The Importance of Being Earnest and watching the landscape rush by.