Walking the Cinque Terre

We arrive at La Spezia railway station at about 10:45am. Nice and early to buy the tickets, and get onto the 11:05am train to the Cinque Terre – Five beautiful (and fairly isolated) villages dotted along the coast of the Mediterranean.

I am so excited to see them in March – it s such a great time of year to be in Italy! Although its cold (it’s been getting down to around 3/4 degrees at night, and 11/12 during the day) the days are still long (compared to the end of winter in Melbourne) there has been no rain, and the sky is still beautiful and blue most days, even if its overcast. The best part though, is the lack of crowds. Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world, and welcomes over 48 million tourists every year, most of them between the summer months of June – August.

Cinque Terre 2

Pete, our tour leader comes back over. “Our train has been cancelled. They are striking all day today, so there are no trains going from La Spezia into the Cinque Terre”

Oh.

“We are trying to sort something out… Sit tight, and we’ll let you know how we go”.

I’m on a Topdeck tour. I usually travel independently, and sort out my own alternatives when things don’t go to plan. Right now, all I can do is wait for Pete to come up with a solution for us.

In summer, alternatives would have included the ferry, but it doesn’t run in the off-season. We discuss hiring a car (a few cars) but parking is limited, and road access is only to one town, not all of them.

Pete hurries back over with a grin on his face. He’s managed to get us onto a regional train that should be passing through Manarola, one of the villages, on its way somewhere else along the coast. This is our only opportunity to get into the Cinque Terre. Once we get there, we will have to make sure we are on one of the trains leaving this afternoon (the trains are scheduled to go off-strike between 4 and 6pm, so the workers can get home, both in and out of the villages).

We hurry to the platform and jump onto the train.

Ten minutes pass. We don’t move. Twenty. We look around, and see that there isn’t really anyone on the train, besides us.

A few more minutes pass. Some other people get onto the train. Well, that’s a good sign! At last, we start moving. Everyone on the carriage claps.

The train takes off! We are on our way to the Cinque Terre!

About fifteen minutes later, we arrive in beautiful Manarola.

Manarola is one of the smaller towns, known for its seafood restaurants. I’m okay with that! Our plan quickly changes. What was going to be a day spent at leisure exploring the villages, and then meeting back at the end of the day, changes to a day exploring Manarola, together. Pete makes a reservation for the 20 of us to go to one of the seafood restaurants which gives us some time to walk down to the harbour, then up to the walking path which would lead to the next village along, Corniglia, if it was open.

Cinque Terre 2.jpg

Although the path is closed once you get out-of-town, the views you get from where we get to are well worth the visit. If I had to travel all this way just to see that view with my own eyes, and turn around and go straight back home, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

We head back into town, and find the little seafood restaurant on the harbour that Pete has booked for us. So far on this trip, I’ve made friends with two girls from Adelaide, Cheryl and Bek. We had already spent a few days together in Florence, and had already planned on spending this day together as we originally wanted to do the walk between some of the towns during our time here.

The toughest part about travelling in Italy is definitely deciding what to order when you are out for a meal. Luckily, we had discovered that we are all a fan of sharing our food, so we order a few different things but get to taste it all (on second thoughts, maybe that’s why we became friends?). We settle on a seafood platter, a salad, and some salt & pepper calamari, and a bottle of rose. One bottle quickly turned into two before lunch was over. Most of the others headed off to explore the town. (The plan was that we had a bit of spare time here in Manarola, before all meeting back at the train station for the 6.20pm train).

It was only early afternoon. A few others were staying here, so we did too. One more bottle please! What a nice way to pass our afternoon on the Cinuqe Terre!

Some of the others had wandered off to find the “Via Dell Amore” (tunnel of love). To get there, they had to walk back to the rail station, and walk the other way to what we had, out of town towards the next village of Riomaggiore. We had til 6.20pm! Our plan is still formulating over this bottle of rose. I’m sure we’ll be ready for a “tunnel of love” after all of this booze though! All five of us can go, how romantic!

I wandered off to find a bathroom. Across the road and at the back of the other half of the restaurant. A few minutes later, I get back, and Bek and Cheryl are hurriedly putting their things in their bags, and coast and scarves on. “There is a train! We can go to Monterosso! But it leaves at 3:25pm… Which is in six minutes!” I join them in an earnest attempt to meet the train. We throw on our coats and scarves, leave some Euros on the table, and start off for the station; about a ten minute walk uphill.

We left the restaurant with me shouting something along the lines of “We’ll be back for that wine in fifteen minutes if we miss the train! Don’t let them take it”

Seconds out of the restaurant comes the sobering thought… Obviously this the time to run… NOW!

Those three bottles of wine might not have been such a good idea after all?!!!

We make the station just one minute before the train is scheduled to arrive! Our friends cheer as they see us running up the steps to the platform. “Do we need a ticket, or does the group ticket work?” we ask call to Pete. “No… it doesn’t. You need a new one!”

We turn around, and rush back downstairs to the ticket machine, and frantically try to work out how to buy a ticket to Monterosso. The machine is in Italian, so this isn’t the easiest task! Three (slightly inebriated) Australians who have only been in Italy for a few days, and not expecting to even be in this situation is not ideal. Thankfully, another passenger helps us, and we can even purchase all three tickets at once! Melbourne Myki system take note. We run back up to the platform just as the train rolls in, and we jump onto the nearest carriage.

What an accomplishment! We’re on the train! We barely recover from the excitement of the past ten minutes before the train stops and we arrive at Monterosso.

Monterosso is just beautiful! It’s much larger than Manarola. It is the only village accessible by car, and also the only one to have a reasonable stretch of beach – both drawing crowds exceeding most of the other villages purely because of its accessibility. The buildings are newer, nad less unique than those of the other villages. Monterosso is not without its charm; but being a group of five villages, I can’t help but compare them to each other and try to conclude; which one is the best?

Cinque Terre 3.jpg

We stop to take a few photos, the observation deck makes a great paragraph and formulate our plan (The fourth one we have devised today!). Our group has dinner reservations in La Spezia at 7pm, so we need to be on the 6.25pm train back to La Spezia. That gives us about two and a half hours to walk to Vernazza, the next village (we just found out the path is open today!!!).

Cheryl ducks into the nearest caffetteria and buys three bottles of water, and three espressos. She is brilliant! We down the coffee knowing the caffeine will help metabolise all of that alcohol we just drank, and we set off! We leave the rest of the group again – nobody else wants to walk the beautiful cliff edges between Manarola and Vernazza. Maybe they just don’t want to miss the potential only-train-out-of-town tonight! Our walk starts well. We head out of Manarola on the only path we see. It leads up past a beach club around the cliff. We start climbing stairs single file, only to discover we are on a path to a restaurant! Back the way we came, past some men playing bocce we find the right path, (we think) and set off again. Bek, Cheryl and Sarah walk to Vernazza – Take two!

The path that we are now on takes up quickly out of town. Most of the path is single file, but being such a popular walk (and what used to be the only way between these villages) the pathway is well-worn. We continue climbing what feels like a lifetime of stairs. They are steep, narrow, and uneven. Why did we order that third bottle? Turning to look back at the village we just left,  we are high above the village. Between us now, on the other side of the gully we just ascended out of are expanses of grapevines, olive groves and paddocks full of rows of lemon trees, dotted with the odd house and of course stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea below.

We continue climbing up, and up, and up again. Whenever feeling-the-burn is just a little too much, we stop, and admire the views. No matter where you look, it is breathtaking.

Cinque Terre 5.jpg

The walk continues flat for a while, before we descend into another valley. We are walking away from the coastline now, and for about fifteen minutes, don’t really have any views of the water. We come to a little waterfall, and cross a small bridge, before the path winds back out to the coastline. Our second ascent begins, and it’s not long before we come to a fenced-off cliff that is screaming for us to climb over and take in the views. We drop our bags, scale the fence (made of one piece of wire between two stakes) and take in our first glimpse of Vernazza in the distance.

Cinque Terre 6.jpg

Cinque Terre 7.jpg

While we stop, we do a time check. We guess we are about halfway. We can see there is another uphill and downhill to go, and no real idea of how long it will take to get there. We have an hour and fifteen minutes left before the train leaves, so we pick up our bags and continue on our way.

We climb again. The uphill isn’t difficult, but it gets the heart pumping, I’m regretting my choice of clothing for today. I though the paths were closed, so I wore jeans and a heavy woolen jumper, with a coat and scarf. All three of us are carrying whatever outer layers don’t fit in our bags; appropriate clothing would definitely help with the comfort levels we are all in right now (oh, and perhaps not three bottles of wine pre-hike).

As the sky darkens and beautiful Vernazza prepares itself for the evening, we finally reach the village! It is absolutely stunning! Our final descent into the town is quite a steep one, past little houses whose gates open directly onto the path we are on, their yards filled with citrus trees. We get closer to the amphitheater shaped village, which hugs the port.

Cinque Terre 9.jpg

We reach a pathway that looks like it leads straight to the rail station, which we can see by looking back the way we came – its higher above the village centre. Perfect! Cheryl speaks some Italian, and asks the first person she sees where we can buy a drink. This sleepy town is probably filled with caffetterias, ristorantes and wine bars in busier times of the year, but today all the boats are in dry-dock, and one family are watching their kids kick a football around in the piazza.

With enough time to go to the bathroom and buy a cold drink from the bar we got directions to, and to have a few minutes wandering the narrow pathways around the village, we had to head straight to the station. What timing!!

We book our rail ticket like pro’s – we are experts now! A few minutes later the train arrives. We meet up with everyone else and head back to La Spezia. What a perfect day on the Cinque Terre!!

 

On the train back to La Spezia we reflect on our day – it really couldn’t have been any better! The stars well and truly aligned for us today! We share stories with the others from the group (secretly knowing we had the best day of all).

Continue reading

What to expect on the Mt Batur Sunrise Trek, Bali

While Rowan and I were on holiday in Bali, we decided to get out and do something we love doing back home – hiking!

There is a day tour operated by Buffalo Tours that I sell at work, so we decided to give it a go and see what we thought.

Here is my review of the day tour, of buffalo tours, and of visiting Mt Batur in general.

The day tour starts with a VERY early start. We were picked up from our hotel at 3am.  We get offered a bottle of water each, and before they suggest we go back to sleep – it’s about a 2 hour drive to Mt Batur. We take their advice and catch up on some sleep (after spending most of the day before at Potato Head beach club, its a welcome rest).

We wake up just as they park the car at a small village at the base of My Batur. It’s about 4:40am. This is where we meet up with G’Day, our guide, who will take us up Mt Batur. He gives us each a torch, and we set off.

The trail is single file, but there are hundreds of other tourists all trying to make their way up to the summit of Mt Batur before sunrise, which is expected sometime between 5:50am and 6:15am (its Bali, so you can’t really expect anything more specific than that!). G’Day thinks we might not make it by sunrise, so we hotfoot it, and try to overtake the slower walkers wherever the track is wide enough for us to pass them.

If I had planned this hike at home, I’d be wearing a headtorch, not carrying one, which would make the small amount of scrambling required much easier. After the first twenty minutes or so I didn’t even have it switched on most of the time, as most of the other walkers had theirs on, and that provided enough light to see where we were going. It was only once the real ascent started and the groups started to thin out that I needed to switch my torch back on.

We continue climbing steadily, and try to pass the slower hikers where we can – we don’t want to miss the sunrise! G’Day assures us we will be there with more than enough time – we are moving much quicker than many of the others (and I think he underestimated how quick we would be at the start!)

The single track is steep and rocky, and in the dark it is a challenge to not fall face first onto the ground at my feet, or worst still, into the climber ahead of me. There really are a lot of people here.

We reach the summit of Gunung Batur with about twenty minutes to spare. G’Day sets down a piece of cardboard on top of a damp timbre bench, and sneaks off to make us a cup of tea and a toasted banana sandwich.

Just as the ascent was starting to burn, we had arrived, and it was nice to sit for a few minutes with a hot cup of tea. Within a few minutes, we are cold. I didn’t bring a jacket, so Rowan offers his up, and braves the morning chill alone.

It’s November, which is the start of the wet season, which will run through to March for the island of Bali. There hasn’t been any rain in the week I’ve been here, but it does mean there is a lot more moisture in the atmosphere, and a lot of cloud cover this morning, adding a mysterious element to the anticipation of catching a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise.

The sun peaks up and over Mt Agung, and the clouds clear just long enough for us to take a few photos before the cloud is back.

Mt_Batur sunrise trek 3

Mt_Batur sunrise trek 7

Sunrise over Mt Agung, which stands tall above Lake Batur

After we take a few snaps, we eat our banana sandwiches, then G’Day takes us to the central crater, where we can see remnants of previous eruptions. Mt Batur is an active volcano, but last erupted in 2000. He tells us about the four main villages that are not far from Mt Batur. One village was significantly damaged during a major eruption in 1968, and you can still see the black lava field all down one side of the volcano today.

G’Day told us to save any of our banana sandwiches that we don’t want, to feed to the monkeys near the lava field. I don’t want to go near them – it was only two months ago that I got bitten by two monkeys while I was in Thailand. I still have the bruises! I’m not going near these ones.

He feeds the monkeys our scraps, and we take a few photos of the other tourists and guides who are much braver than us – the most confident of the monkeys are climbing on people’s heads and helping themselves to whatever snacks they can find. I’m not interested!

Mt_Batur sunrise trek 8Mt_Batur sunrise trek 4

We make our way down Mt Batur along the old lava flow. I think there are a few different ways to go back down, because there are far fewer people going the way we are. (I think G’Day said something about an easier way and a more difficult one, which we took). The landscape changed quite a few times, considering Mt Batur only has an elevation of 5,633. I guess it has a lot to do with the destruction the lava flow has caused.

Mt_Batur sunrise trek 6

 

Overall, my recommendation for this trip is to do it! If you are a novice hiker, have never hiked or climbed a mountain before, or have only a moderate fitness level, you can do this! It only takes two hours to walk up, and yes, its steep, but if you have good footwear on you will be fine.

What to bring: A headlamp to keep your hands free. A small backpack with your camera, some water, and a light jacket or raincoat. Shorts or leggings, and a T-shirt or singlet is all you will need to wear, but its cold once you are up the top! Sturdy footwear is a must – runners or hiking boots.

If you are an experienced hiker, and want to be challenged, then Mt Agung is probably a better choice for you. It is 3,033 meters (9,944 feet) high, and will take you 6 – 7 hours. I haven’t done this one yet, but I will if I find myself in Bali again!

Buffalo Tours: Buffalo tours are one of the many tour agencies operating in Bali, that will offer you a guided climb of Mt Batur. The difference between Buffalo and many of the other operators is the quality and comfort of the car, communication, and the rest of the tour (there are several options to do Mt Batur and white water rafting, Mt Batur and Ubud city tour etc). This will all be done by a knowledgeable and friendly guide who works for buffalo tours. I can’t comment on the experience you get with other companies, but I would go with buffalo again next time.

Private or group tour: We didn’t even realise we had booked a private tour, and I don’t think there was a significant price difference. Obviously the trek part of the tour is with hundreds of other people, but each small group or private group will have their own guide, regardless of if you book a private or a group tour. The difference is the time you get picked up from your hotel (we got picked up at 2:50am as we were going directly to Batur. If you are on a tour with 8 other people, you might have an extra hour or two on the bus while you drive around each hotel picking people up). We slept the whole way there in comfort, and the tour to the rice terraces, and a few other sights in Ubud were all able to be tailored to our interests, because we were the only ones there. That was really the only benefit, and I was happy with it, but would probably have been just as happy on the group tour version.

When to go: Best time to go is when the weather is at its best, which is April to September. As Bali is a popular holiday spot for so many, you will probably encounter greater crowds than we did when we went, so I’d suggest the private tour option.

We did this hike in November, when cloud cover is to be expected almost every day. The weather was fine on the day we did it, but it is more humid from October to March, so keep that in mind if you don’t love that type of weather. December to February gets the most rainfall, and I imagine they either close the track all together on wet days, at it would be a major hazard for falls, especially among the inexperienced.

 

Mt_Batur sunnrise trek 5

 

My last words of advise: 1. Tip your guide directly! G’Day, and his colleagues all live in the small villages near the mountains. This is their only source of income, and tips make all the difference to their families. If you tip the main company, or the tour operator who picks you up from your hotel, only a small portion (if any) of your tip will make it back to your mountain guide.

2. Take your rubbish with you. If you have ever been to Indonesia, you will have seen rubbish, from plastics especially is a major issue. Anyone who enjoys the great outdoors should be well versed on the motto, take only memories, leave only footprints.

 

E-N-J-O-Y!

 

Until next time,

Sarah