So, I have about a million different blog posts to do but tonight I’m alone with a glass…or two…of wine, and I’m in the mood for Italy. To understand this mood, it might be necessary to crank up a lil bit of this and look at a lil bit a that.
Aight. Now you feel me? Grab yourself a glass of vino and settle in. Let’s take a little trip across the Med. Forgive my lengthiness, I know not all of you are my family members reading my blog for pleasure, so feel free to skip to the list of tips at any time.
I don’t actually know when hiking Cinque Terre became a dream of mine. It must have been during my study abroad experience, when everyone was jetting off somewhere new every weekend, (because we weren’t smart enough to realize Spain itself is actually the shit….es la leche guys, seriously), and someone probably told me about their “ah-maaaahhhhhzing weekend” hiking through these tiny colorful towns and eating fresh pesto Genovese. But when I suggested it to my good friend and workmate, Pili, she had no idea what it was. In fact, everyone we told about our trip gave the same blank stare when we told them where we had gone. And when we arrived, it was clear that somehow, Cinque Terre was every American’s personal mecca. But let me be clear, it is not difficult to understand why.
As our train pulled into a packed station at Monterosso al Mare, we made our way through flocks of (mostly American) tourists, squeezing their way on to the train taking them to the other towns. With our suitcases and sleep-covered faces, we wove our way through the center of town and up the hill to our Airbnb. Aside from the fact that it didn’t have Wifi, (take a moment to imagine our faces, plz), it was a dream. The easiest way to get to and from it was to go down the steps outside and follow the path that bordered the lemon groves along the mountainside. As a woman who, as a child, always loved secret passageways and trap doors, this was probably one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.
View from our apartment balcony. Check out those lemon trees!
Cinque Terre, like most places, really shines with a sunny day and blue skies. So naturally, the weather for our weekend there forecasted three days of rain. And I´m not talking about 30% chance of light showers, this was full out, every day, no-getting-around-it, rain. The area is known for landslides as well, so our biggest fear was that the trails would be closed all together. Our first day in Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most northern of the five towns, was, for lack of a better adjective, wet. The clouds painted a thick layer of grey across the sky and there was a constant mist that made me feel like a head of lettuce in the produce department. Well, shit. This isn´t what my Pinterest board looks like. I tried to put on a good face and pretend like it didn´t bother me, but my strong RBF was not doing a great job at hiding it. But when in doubt, food, and wine. Friday night was spent with thin crust four cheese pizza and a bottle of bianco. We could only hope that the clouds would hold out their water works in the morning.
Did I mention it was the weekend of the lemon festival in the entire zone? Can you say, limoncello on limoncello?
A misty Monterosso is still stunning, and this flower is luh-ving-it.
I have this thing when I’m on a vacation that is weather dependent, (ie, most of them), where I can judge by the light coming through the curtains if it is sunny or not. That morning…was not. But, we put on our best faces and worst shoes, and headed out.
We walked to the south end of town and found the steep entrance to the trail to Vernazza and we were on our way. Starting off, it seemed we had the trail to ourselves, but that myth was quickly dispelled. More and more people appeared as we continued on. As I gazed out at the sea and the mountains and the now very small, town below, I tried to imagine it against a startling blue backdrop. I eventually told myself I needed to get over it. So we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. We climbed until it felt like we had the asses of supermodels. And with each step, the sky opened up a little more.
This gives you an idea of the quality of the trails. Watch your fucking step, man. We saw more than one person eat it on these stairs.
We continued to wind through the national park, catching our breath every once in awhile, and taking a moment to marvel at the views. I don’t want to sound cheesy guys, but lets just say the sun coming out was making it really hard for my RBF to come out. I was smiling like a kid who just got her wisdom teeth out. (Mom, don’t comment on this post with something about my wisdom teeth. No one needs to know). We didn’t pass a single hotel or house on the hillside except for one. The man who lives there sells fresh squeezed juice to hikers.
Gold mine, dude.
I finally got my startling blue backdrop!!
Ok guys. When you go to Cinque Terre and you hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, (cuz you will, I’m telling you, you have to), there is a point when you think you can’t possibly walk anymore. You’ve passed the juice guy, cuz “you’re almost to Vernazza so who needs juice”, and you’re ready to eat the next fucking lemon you see you’re so hungry. Don’t do it. Hold out. Because this is waiting for you.
I cannot tell you what seeing this sight felt like. (I’m serious, I really can’t. My writing skills are super out of practice and its 12:30am and the only simile I can think of is “cool as a cucumber”). The best thing I can say is that as much traveling that I had done over the last six years, it had been a really long time since I had been left speechless. As I looked at that color palette of reds and oranges and burnt yellows below me, my heart was in my throat, blocking all of the words from coming out. Even when I look at it now, I remember that feeling so clearly. And it is a feeling that stuck with me for the entire day, with each town we visited.
We descended the hillside slowly, our quadriceps giving out beneath us, and emerged into a back alley of the city, full of afternoon shadows and fresh laundry. Our two goals: food and wine. We walked to the minuscule beach, (idyllic nonetheless), and tried to eye out a table outside. The owner of the restaurant told us with his thick Italian accent that if we waited a few minutes, we could get a table. So we grabbed a glass of vino bianco and took in our surroundings.
We sat under colorful parasols and ate fresh Genovese pesto. We sipped cool white wine and looked around us silently, not really being able to say anything at all. To top off our lunch our waiter, (who lived in the house just up the hill), invited us to a round of limoncello, made from lemons grown right there in Vernazza.
Just your average lunch views.
We only had one full day to explore the towns, so after lunch we hopped on the train and in less than three minutes, (I don’t think I’m exaggerating, it could have been less), we were in the next town. I wish we could have spent more time in each place, to truly get a feel for it, but for those of you with only a weekend to visit, it is enough time to give you a decent taste of each one. We had our post-lunch coffee in Corniglia, we walked off our pesto pasta in Manarola, and were just in time for a spectacular sunset in Riomaggiore, gelato in hand. We watched as the sun dipped below the horizon, splashing bright oranges, furious pinks, and somber violets all over the sky. As I licked the last drops of mint gelato from the cone and hugged Pili and Marta as we stood watching the sea below us and the entire Crayola palette stacked along the hill, it was all I could do not to pinch myself.
This picture barely does justice, but its all I have.
Alright. Who’s still with me? If you made it this far, CONGRATS, you are either a family member of mine, a really close friend, or are a dedicated reader and enjoy my flowery imagery. Whoever you are, you’re awesome. On to the tips and tricks I promised about 1,000 words ago.
GETTING TO ITALY
Vernazza’s “main street”.
Arriving to Cinque Terre is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is well worth your efforts. The closest airports are Genova, Pisa, and Florence. But who has the money to choose where they fly? Not me! So naturally we flew to Milan, usually the cheapest Italian airport to fly to from Barcelona. Depending on where you are travelling from and how much time you have, it could be worth your time to fly into Rome or Florence for a few days, enjoy those cities and take the train from there.
An easy way to find the cheapest airport to fly into, (in an entire country or in the entire world), is to use Skyscanner. You guys know how much I hate exaggerations but this site is the milk. (See, I tried using my own coined phrase there and I am officially not cool enough to do that. Retract it.) ANYWAY, in Skyscanner you can manipulate the site to find the cheapest flights ANYWHERE in the world for a specific date, or an entire month.
GETTING TO CINQUE TERRE
Even on a grey day, Monterosso’s charm shines. Our Airbnb was tucked away in a maze of lemon groves.
The great thing about Europe is that their public transport is centuries beyond that of the US, and you can pretty much bet that any airport you fly into will have easy connections to other parts of the country. Cinque Terre is no different. From Pisa, Genova, Florence, Rome, and Milan, there are trains that will take you to Cinque Terre in 4 hours or less. On our trip we took an easy bus from the airport to Milano Centrale, and then a train from there to Monterosso al Mare, where we had our Airbnb. Use the Italian train website to check out times and fares for tickets. Check here for more transfer tips.
Okay. You made it. Step one complete. Read on for five tips when you get there!
In case you don’t speak any romance languages and haven’t opened Google translate yet, Cinque Terre means “five lands”, or more precisely, five teeny tiny colorful villages stacked along the western Italian coastline. They are linked together by hiking trails through a national park. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “OMG I just HAVE to stay in one of the smallest towns and get the authentic Italian feel!” Yes, sure. Do that. Let me know how it goes. Better yet, stay in Corniglia and haul your luggage up 382 steps to get to the city. In case you don’t speak sarcasm, please don’t do this. I think anyone who has been to the towns would recommend using either Monterosso al Mare or La Spezia as your base, (depending on your arrival and departure airports), and taking day trips to the small towns. Even if you aren’t hiking between them, the train takes about two minutes to get to the next town. If, however, you have plenty of time to spare and really do want to stay in one of the towns, it is possible.
Vernazza from the top of the Doria Castle. Worth the entrance fee for the views if you can manage a few more stairs after the hike!
We went on a long weekend that we had at our school, so no one else in Europe had a holiday that weekend. Strangely enough it felt like everyone did. I think it is safe to say Cinque Terre is busy pretty much year-round, except for the rainy fall and winter months from November to March. But, if you want to catch it on its shoulder season and still experience warm weather, try going in April-May, (March can have some rainfall which closes the trails), or September-October. Even during our May weekend we were in a slow moving single file line from Monterosso to Vernazza, so I can’t imagine what that same hike would be like in July or August. Probably a lot sweatier.
In case you haven’t done your research yet, Cinque Terre is located in Genova. Yes, THE Genova of pesto Genovese. This is the birth place of this amazing Italian sauce so eat it WHENEVER you can. Another thing you will notice about the five towns is that there are lemons. A lot of them. We actually coincided with the official lemon festival in Monterosso so you can imagine the limoncello was flowing. In all seriousness, the pesto and lemons here are the freshest and tastiest you’re ever going to find. Do not make this the week you decide to do a cleanse.
Depending on when you go, not all of the trails may be open, but the one from Monterosso to Vernazza usually is. It is the longest and most difficult of the trails, but trust me, it is so, so worth it. I love the way that we did it, leaving Monterosso in the morning, just in time for lunch in Vernazza. You probably won’t have much of a hiking appetite afterwards, but the train has your back. But I can not stress this enough, you are doing yourself a serious injustice if you go to these five lands without doing the trek. Check this out for more detailed info on these amazing trails.
If you start walking on the Monterosso to Vernazza trail, at some point you will come across a small wood hut where you must buy a Cinque Terre card to have access to the paths. People who don’t know about it might complain, but this is a national park and needs a lot of upkeep to maintain the condition it is in. The card also includes Wifi in certain areas, and bus shuttle services in the park, (not sure of what this entails, as we didn’t use them). IMPORTANT: if you buy a Cinque Terre train card for 6 euros more, you have unlimited access to the train for 24 hours. If you are going to be taking the train at all, it is worth it. But, then again, this is Italy, and half of the passengers are probably on the train without a ticket anyway. Your choice.
Ha! You thought I was done at five. Bonus tip: you need to see the sunset in one of the small towns. I recommend Riomaggiore because I can’t possibly imagine how the other towns could be better, but then again, I don’t have much to compare it with. Whatever you do, when that golden hour strikes, find yourself some good ass gelato and a front seat view. You will never forget it.
My iPhone 4 can only do so much, guys.
There’s only a few things left to do, kids. Fill up that glass of wine you’ve got there, head to Skyscanner to find some cheap flights, and start packing.