Friday, October 8, 2010

Incredible journeys from sea to sky

Every trip has a bumpy day. Our travel day from Rome to Monterosso had a fair share of stress, panic and frustrations. I can sum up the challenges of the day by recounting one incident that happened on the train. I was opening a 2 litre bottle of water that I had perched between my legs to get a good grip on the cap. Apparently my thighs had a good grip on the bottle because as soon as the lid came off, I squeezed with more force than intended and the water came spurting out - all over my pants. And I don’t mean a spot. I mean the full front of my pants were soaked. Dave being the uber intelligent man that he is knew better than to laugh. About 5 minutes later, I was still soaked, but we were both laughing. That’s the good thing about our bumpy day, despite the missteps and the stress, we still laughed a lot.

Most of our problems of the day were solved by the kindness of strangers. It’s funny, everyone warned me quite a bit about how bad Italy is for pick pockets and that everyone is out to rip you off. While I will continue to be vigilant about my bags and my wallet, I will say that we have been greeted with a great deal of helpfulness and generosity. From the custodian at the train station in Rome who directed us through the poorly signed station, to the 2 local gentlemen in La Spezia that helped us find the unmarked train and our unmarked stop (would it kill them to call out the stops?), to the lovely young man who helped me carry my 12,000 lb suitcase up the stairs as we were running to catch our train – they all helped us to get to where we were going.

It’s also kind of cool how a single day in a new place and little bit of information can make a huge difference. I now know how to read the once mysterious train schedules and how to decipher the stops between these five local towns – especially in the dark. This brings me to the spectacular area where we are hanging out for the next couple of days – Cinque Terre.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I learned about this region in Italy while watching a travel show hosted by Valerie Pringle. She talked of this magical place where you could hike between 5 rustic villages and have lunch or a coffee in a secluded piazza while looking out to sea and chatting with the locals. I have wanted to travel here ever since. When I was putting together our itinerary and realized that a side trip to this region was a definite possibility, I was so excited.

The 5 towns are perched on the rugged coast. Until the latter half of the 20th century, there was no access to the towns by car – and the only access between towns was along ancient trails carved out of the steep hillside. Astonishingly, farmers have managed to make use of every square inch of the mountainous area by building terraced vineyards and olive and lemon groves. That takes fortitude and determination.

We decided to summon our own fortitude and hike the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza. We pretty much had no idea what we were in for. The trail is scenic, picturesque and at times breathtaking. It is also treacherous, physically challenging and at times downright frightening. There were points where we were hiking along a ledge that was no more than a foot wide, no barriers, nothing to hang on to and if you slipped, your fall would likely require rescue by professionals and a series of broken limbs. And that’s exactly the point when you’d meet another hiker coming from the opposite direction and you’d need to figure out how to give way.

I was amazed by the trail we were on, especially the stairs and the walls that make up the terraced vineyards. Someone worked to build all of that. How? What made them say: “Yup, this looks like a good steep side of a cliff. Let’s build a farm!”
The satisfaction of climbing what seemed like a million steps and hiking about 100 km (OK, it was only 4, but it was all up hill) was surpassed only by the spectacular views of the 2 towns and the sea. Along the way we were treated with waterfalls and the perfumes of the flowers and lemon trees warmed by the sun. After our 2 hour journey we wandered the town of Vernazza and sat by the sea watching the kids play in the water. Thankfully there is a train that runs often between the towns. There was no way we were doing that hike again – hells no!

Today, the towns have been discovered by an endless number of tourists. In fact, they are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are no secluded piazzas anymore, but you can still enjoy a coffee or a bottle of wine while looking out to sea. I won’t lie; Vernazza is so crowded – crazy crowded. I can only imagine how over run it becomes in August, which is the true high season. With the temperature in the mid 20s it was just this side of tolerable for hiking. I’d love to know what it’s like in November, though the rains would likely make the trail impassable.

The next day, although we were physically exhausted and slightly dehydrated after the Monterosso to Vernazza trail, we were determined to conquer all five towns. On a whim we decided to take a ferry over to the furthest town, Riomaggiore, and hike our way back. Excellent decision. The ferry gave us a view from the water that just isn’t possible from any point on land. It also revealed that 2 of the 3 remaining hikes would be just as demanding.

A casual conversation with a British couple sitting next to us led to a thoroughly delightful day. Sarah and Ed, our new friends, decided to pack up and move from their respective homes in London and Ireland to Northern Italy. They told us all about the challenges of living in Italy and adjusting to a new culture. We spent the day chatting and laughing and probably wisely, doing a minimal amount of hiking. The three towns we explored are much less crowded, which was a welcomed surprised.
The walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola was a gentle stroll along a paved path that covered a distance of just 1 km. The path has been nickname La Via dell’Amore. All along the path lovers have fixed padlocks to the side of the cliff to seal their love. An adorable tradition.

We ate lunch – the highlight of the day - in Manarola. While the scenery wasn’t great, the food was. I now have found a new food to love - pesto. Pesto is not served in Southern Italian households. Something about it did not appeal to me, so it was something I had always avoided. Liguiria is known for its pesto, so I had to try it. I now love it. Basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmeggiano mingle together to create happiness. Another discovery on this leg of the trip was made during dinner last night. Our cheese tray was served with honey. The sharpness of the cheese contrasted beautifully with the sweetness of the locally produced honey to produce a heavenly combination.

The path from Manarola to Corniglia was closed – likely because of rain in earlier in the week. We took the train instead and this is where we said goodbye to our friends. Dave and I explored the tiny town perched 382 steps above the train station (there was a sign, I didn’t count) and luckily, we even found gelato. Tomorrow we plan to return and hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. My legs will be done for – for a few days anyway.

Ciao ciao for now.

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