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The Flying Dutchman

The Cinque Terre!

ITALY | Friday, 5 February 2010 | Views [914] | Comments [3]

The Cinque Terre!

 

Australia Day in Rome, celebrated by two Aussies, a Canuck, a Brazilian, and an Argentinian, was a smashing success, bringing people together across cultural divides, but much more importantly, informing us (thanks to Fernanda the Brazilian) that there was a train strike in all of Italy (sidenote from Alice: Australia day will ALWAYS be more important than train strikes).  This was the day before a train was supposed to take us from Rome to Cinque Terre.  Apparently, in Italy, strikes are kind of flaky things, they weren’t sure if they would work tomorrow or not, and we had no way of knowing until the train actually started moving out of the station – or didn’t.  So we realized there was nothing we could do about it and celebrated the occasion as planned. 

 

The next day we went to the train station, got on our train, and luckily, they decided that they would take us to Cinque Terre, so we breathed a sigh of relief and watched out the window as Rome rushed past one last time and evolved into rolling hills in the countryside.

 

The train pulled into the first stop somewhere outside of Rome, and a team of six (desperate?) Italian housewives boarded and took up the six previously empty seats surrounding Alice and I.  We smiled and said “ciao” (that’s ‘hi’ for all of you not fluent in Italian, its also ‘bye’ – which can sometimes be awkward) and then one of them dove right into a quick Italian sentence directed at us until Alice told her that we don’t speak Italian. “buono” (good) she said, and made hand signals to let us know that we are lucky because otherwise she would have chatted our ears off. 

 

Sitting next to these soccer moms was interesting, because they were just like Canadian soccer moms, only they spoke Italian.  They were just a bunch of gals off for a weekend at the spa (I really have no idea what they were doing), except for one difference.  After settling themselves in their seats, they each pulled out a paper bag with a cheesy, delicious-smelling ball of something good, and munched on them.  Once they had finished, they each, in unison, pulled out another bag and had a foot-long Italian sandwich.  They all polished these off efficiently, and then pulled out dessert.  Note that these were not especially large women either.  I remember feeling a bit puckish myself, and sitting next to the women enjoying a seven-course meal didn’t help.   I have no idea where all the food was coming from (or more importantly, where it was going) but they still had room for intermittent snacks for the rest of the trip.

 

As we drew close to La Spezia, where we had to change trains, Alice kept asking me the time (she doesn’t have a watch), so she would know when we should get up to put on all our bags.  We usually do this what feels like half an hour too early and become exhausted just standing there with all of our stuff on our backs (sidenote from Alice: this is normally due to the other Italians, not me. Just saying!).  This time, (I guess I was having a bit of a power trip/messing with Alice) I said that we didn’t need to get up so early because its not like we are going to miss the station completely.  I wouldn’t tell her what time it was.  She played it cool, and acted like this wasn’t bothering her at all, but I could see the anxiety in her eyes as she tapped her fingers nervously on the table.  She suddenly lurched forward and grabbed at my wrist, but my cat-like reflexes meant that my arm evaded her grasp and I threw my hands under the table.  “TELL MEEEEEE!” She whined forcefully.  “You don’t need to know” I smirked, my voice conveying all the enjoyment I was having with this situation.  I would be deciding when to get ready.  I guess I am too nice of a guy, too benevolent a soul, or maybe I finally fully realized how much it pained her not to be completely prepared for everything, but eventually I gave in and showed her the watch (sidenote from Alice: one day Neil is going to tell a story about missing a train and we will all think back on this story and about the lesson that he SHOULD have learnt rather than being a smart ass).  We got up and put our packs on, and only stood waiting to arrive at the station for ten minutes.  The Italian Housewives had watched (stared) in awe as we rose from our seats and soon tripled in size.  They stared quite a bit (not discretely) and talked about us in Italian.  I even caught one of them making a hand motion to portray the bags on our fronts that made us look pregnant (either that or she was talking about how fat she was going to be after everything that she had consumed on that train).  I said “Ciao” and they all reciprocated warmly and watched us as we waddled off the train, quite amused by us tourists. 

 

So we had arrived at La Spezia, the small city near the Cinque Terre and headed straight to find out if we would be able to get to Riomaggiore, our home base for the Cinque Terre and site of our hostel, or if the train strike would be in effect.  The nice lady at the desk told us that they still had no idea if they would be striking at that time or not, so we would just have to get on the train and wait, and if it didn’t go, we would be able to go in another hour and a half.  She also told us that the hike along the coast, which connects the five towns of the Cinque Terre and is the reason that everybody goes there, was closed, and we would not be able to do it.  Our dreams were shattered.  We would still be able to hike through the mountains and take the smaller, less scenic trails, but it wouldn’t be as magnificent as planned.

 

We decided still to go ahead with it and do the lesser trails, and maybe take the train between the towns, since we weren’t allowed to walk.  So we got on the train, waited, and luckily, the strike was apparently not in effect and the train pulled out of the station and into a tunnel under a mountain.  After ten minutes tunneling through the mountain, we suddenly emerged from the darkness and were greeted by a view of the Mediterranean Sea.  It was, surprisingly, nearly as exciting as when I first saw the Eiffel Tower, the water stretching on forever just left me awestruck.  The train slowed to a stop and we tumbled out and onto the platform of Riomaggiore.

 

What we now saw as we looked out over the ocean, only a few steps out of the train, was one of the most amazing sights, it was a perfect sunset.  I have a feeling that Alice is going to have a large and descriptive sidenote right about here, so I will leave it at that. (hi! from Alice: So I don’t even think that words can begin to describe the phenomenalness (definitely a word) of the sunset that we saw as soon as we stepped off the train. The sunset in Venice does not even BEGIN to compare to this sunset. Think about what you might have imagined when you read about that sunset; multiply the beauty of that picture by at least ten and you have this sunset over the beautiful sea! Even the pictures do not do it justice. I IMMEDIATELY knew I was going to love whatever the Cinque Terre had in store for us)

 

After the sun had dropped down off the edge of the Earth, we grabbed our key from the office and made our way up the steep hill that is Main Street Riomaggiore to our hostel.  It was probably about a hundred feet higher than the train station, and was a little apartment with five beds, a kitchen, and a washroom.  We had some supper and waited to discover who we would be sharing the place with, as three beds were already spoken for, but no one was home.  In the door came our answer in the form of two Canadians and an American: Alex, Charlene, and Isaac, respectively.  For the sake of speedy reading, we will call these three Charlexaac (I just came up with that).  Anyway, these three turned out to be the coolest hostelmates we’ve yet had, and the next couple days were to be a really fun time.

 

Charlexaac had invited two people they had met on the trail that day over for dinner and wine, Americans Matthew and Katherine (affectionately dubbed MatKat), so we partook in the eating and drinking and soon became good friends with everyone.  MatKat were really great, interesting people.  For instance, Matt was the American military’s version of James Bond, so he couldn’t really tell us anything specific about his job.

 

We all slept well that night and the next morning we prepared for some hiking.  Luckily for us, Charlexaac had told us that they had hiked the entire coastal trail the day before, despite it being closed.  They merely had to scale a few fences and jump over a couple rockslides. (sidenote from Alice: as dangerous and illegal as Neil made this sound, Charlexaac (if that is what I must call them) reassured us in a much more reassuring way that it was a perfectly safe trail).  Alice and I were pretty pumped about this, our dreams had been restored, and there was hope yet.

 

While going through my bag, I noticed that I had three pairs of jeans, though I had only brought two to Europe.  We concluded that I had accidentally STOLEN someone’s jeans from a hostel somewhere along the way.  I tried them on and they were too small, so I let Charlene try them on and they fit perfectly.  They also fit Alex, and he really wanted them, so I thought, “I don’t need them” and said that he could keep them.  Look at me, a modern-day Robin Hood.  I did kind of feel bad though for whomever’s pants I had stolen, if someone took one of my two pairs I would be distraught!  Fast-forward a few days and I get a wallpost on Facebook from Karl (remember Karl, from in Rome, he made the risotto and traveled with us?). Ya, they were his jeans.  My bad… Sorry for stealing your jeans and then gifting them to someone else Karl… we can laugh about it now though right??  Apparently there were also 8euro in the pockets so Alex is a lucky guy. 

 

Any way, we headed out to trek the trail through all five scenic little villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, in that order).  The first stretch was the easy part, it was actually paved and had railings and was flat and only took twenty minutes and got us to the second town, Manarola.  That part had not been closed, so now came our true test.  We looked around the sleepy little village and looked out over the beautiful expanse of water.  Alice then said to me in a hushed voiced, “That guy has been following us…” and motioned to the man also looking out over the beautiful expanse of water, only a few metres away from us.  I recognized him too, we had seen him in one of the tunnels, in another part of the town, and he had even been in Riomaggiore with us at the start of the day.  As we talked quietly and discreetly, he stepped back and walked behind us and then stopped again on the other side of us.  We were a little creeped out, so we pretended to keep looking out over the ocean, and decided to wait him out.  Eventually, he went into a café and we took this chance to lose him and made for the closed portion of the trail.

 

We left the town and came around a corner on the trail and were confronted by a ten foot high steel gate blocking off the entire trail.  We hemmed and hawed about whether or not we could get over the gate, or even if we should, and then someone came around the corner behind us.  It was not the follower, but I thought it was at first.  Instead, it was a girl named Ashtyn from Minnesota whom we agreed to hike with.  We talked about the trail and turns out Ashtyn had started from the very far town Monterosso, a couple of days earlier. She had asked the national parks people if she could walk it despite it being closed and they told her that she could.  Alice was suddenly inspired, and within seconds had scaled the fence like a champ.  Ashtyn and I followed, and we set out happily on the beautiful/forbidden trail along the coast. 

 

We didn’t make it very far, just around another corner, before we met two officials who were locking all the gates or surveying or something.  Our lack of Italian came in handy here, as we were able to play dumb and act confused and as though we didn’t know that we weren’t allowed on this trail.  The massive gate had been no indication.  We didn’t want the embarrassing event to happen in which they would walk us back, and then watch us climb back over the gate, so we ran all they way back and scaled the fence in record time.  We went to the train station in town to see if we could take the train to the next town.  Of course, the dude who had been following us also came out of nowhere at the train station, but we just ignored it.  We never did see him again after that, which was fine by us.  We learned that we would be unable to take the train for another hour, so we had no choice but to attempt the route through the mountains.  On the way up to the trail we met some Belgians, Simon, Candice, and Peter.  So, the Canadian, Australian, American, and three Belgians all set out together to conquer the Cinque Terre!

 

For the next hour, we climbed stairs.

 

Then we reached the top of the mountain.  Seriously.  The strenuous trail heading straight up the mountain tired us out quite effectively, and we were forced to stop several times to catch our breaths and let our muscles relax.  (Sidenote from Alice: in future tourist guides they should literally call this trail “the stairs of death” ALMOST DIED) Once at the little hamlet on top of the mountain though, we realized that our efforts had been more than worth it.  The views of the ocean, of the mountains, of the little villages so far below, were absolutely breathtaking.   We took way too many pictures, and yet none of them were able to capture just how spectacular the view was. 

 

Next we continued on the trail which now descended just as quickly as it had risen, as we head back down to sea level.  This trail took us through vineyards and terraces and past mountainside houses and olive farms.  The trail headed into the forested parts of the mountain, and got quite skinny and steep, and you had to watch your feet to make sure you didn’t drop off the side of the mountain.  Peter (of Belgium) at one point was focusing more on the view than on the trail, and his foot slipped off the side.  He fell off entirely and was lucky the drop was not as steep as in other places and there was brush and branches to stop him from falling.  This was a bit of a scary experience, but Peter was okay, and we got him back on the trail and continued onward.  Eventually we made it into the third village, Corniglia, and unsuccessfully searched for a Gelato Shop that was open in winter.   Alice and I realized that our detour through the mountains, though scenic, had taken up a much larger portion of the day than we had allotted for that span of the trek.  Ashtyn, Candice, Simon, and Peter, wanted to sit down by the waves for a little bit, but we had dreams of catching the sunset in Monterosso that evening, so we said goodbye to our new friends and carried on the trail. 

 

Alice and I now rejoined the closed portion of the trail, and luckily there were no patrolmen, or even gates to clamber over.  We took the trail up onto the mountainside overlooking Corniglia and had some beautiful views.  We stopped for Nutella and banana sandwiches for lunch at one such vista, and then carried on along the forbidden trail.  Apparently this portion of the trail was more accessible and the rules less enforced, as we met several groups of people hiking it.

 

At one point, we came upon an open flat part of the trail, with a clearing in the forest, and were surprised to find a little village of cats.  There were no people, just cats, lots of cats, and there was food set aside for them and little cat shelters.  It was really weird so we continued on without even taking a picture.

 

Around 4pm, we made it Vernazza, the prettiest of the five villages, and marveled at its position jutting out on a peninsula into the sea.  We decided that, because of our foray away from the coast, we would not be able to make it to Monterosso in time for the sunset, and if we attempted to, we may die of exhaustion on the way. 

 

We walked down to the harbour of Vernazza and met Alex and Charlene reading there.  Before we were able to tell them we had decided to take the train to Monterosso, they told us how good of time we had made.  We are not ones to refuse compliments, so we agreed that we had covered a lot of trail in a decent amount of time.  We were kind of a big deal, ya, we know.  Alex was super-impressed by us (high fives all around) and Charlene said that we probably could make it there by sunset.  They told us that if we left now, we could do it.  With one big boost of confidence we walked past the train station and onto the final leg of the trail: to Monterosso. 

 

We made our way out of the scenic little village, and on the outskirts, we came upon two elderly women speaking Italian to each.  We “ciao”-ed and walked past, but one of them started speaking to us in Italian.  We had a sunset to catch, so we continued walking but she yelled after us.  I let her know that I didn’t speak Italian, but I could see by her hand gestures that she was telling us that the trail was closed and that we shouldn’t walk there.  I hurried and caught up to Alice, who told me that it didn’t really matter because the old ladies were not going to be able to catch us up all of these stairs anyway.  Hopefully. 

 

We pushed ourselves as much as we could, and soldiered on through the toughest stretch along the entire coast.  The trail through the mountains had probably been tougher, but this felt harder because we were so tired.  We came near Monterosso, and got a wonderful view of the setting sun, and took some pictures.  We then began our long and painful descent (going down thousands of stairs when you are tired is hard on the knees, and pretty much everything else) and now realized that we would not be able to see the sunset at Monterosso anyway, as it was in a bit of a bay, and the sun would be behind a mountain.

 

We got into town just as it started to get dark, and made our way down to the beautiful beach.  There we noticed the huge one-day-away-from-a full moon rising over the village, and it was a good enough substitute for a sunset for us.  We each took a picture of the other touching the Mediterranean, to symbolize our finishing the trek, but Alice took a really fricken long time to snap the photo  of me so a wave came in and soaked my recently dried shoes. (Sidenote from Alice: the photo was taken a good five seconds before the wave hit Neil; he is just looking for an excuse for his apparent lack of reflexes).   I walked to the train station in bare feet and we caught the train back to Riomaggiore, hobbled up the hill to our hostel, and crashed on our beds, nearly unable to move.

 

Isaac came home from his hike, Charlene and Alex came back from their adventures, and we had pasta and wine (that’s the third night in a row, for those of you keeping score at home) and chatted and went to bed and all slept soundly. 

 

In the morning Charlexaac got up at 6am to leave, and we wished them well on their travels and went back to sleep for a few more hours.  After said hours we packed up and fondly said goodbye to the Cinque Terre, the most beautiful place we have yet been on our trip!

 

 

 

Tags: alice berents, cinque terre, hiking, italy, mediterranean sea, neil loewen, sunsets

 

Comments

1

So do you think the other people were calling you guys Neilice... so they didnt have to say both of your names :)

  Lindsey Feb 5, 2010 10:38 AM

2

I cant believe you stole someones pants! Lmfao!

  Katie Feb 5, 2010 10:41 AM

3

Oh I wish I would've done the walk when I was there...I just tood the boat between the villages but I agree, vernazza is the prettiest. I loved your description of everything, felt like I was actually there:)

  Eygló Einarsdóttir Feb 9, 2010 10:40 PM

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