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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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