The Cinque Terre – not quite in season

Cinque Terre in Italian simply means “Five Lands”, and refers to the five villages that are inserted into crevices in a rugged coastal peninsula at the eastern end of the Italian Riviera. For most of their long existence, the villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – were pretty well isolated; by land, they were accessible only by way of sketchy donkey trails leading through rugged and densely forested wilderness, so that the only realistic way of approaching them was from the sea. This made them a target for pirate raids, against whose depredations the towns built forbidding fortifications, but otherwise they were left in peace until the 19th century, when a railway line was built through a series of coastal tunnels, inaugurating the era of mass tourism. The whole area has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1997, which has no doubt been a saviour of sorts, preventing rampant over development.

For our visit, we based ourselves in the most northerly of the five villages, Monterosso al Mare. After a two hour train trip from Florence, towards the end of which we had a series of tantalising glimpses of the various villages and the sea as we flashed in and out of tunnels, we decamped from Monterosso’s railway station to find ourselves on the waterfront of the “new” part of the town. We were lugging our entire worldly belongings, so it was a relief to realise that our accommodation, the Hotel Baia, was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Hotel Baia
Hotel Baia, Monterosso al Mare

There is a breed of hotel in Italy that hovers somewhere between two and three stars, comfortable enough in itself but not quite ever aspiring to heights of greatness in terms of service or facilities; the Hotel Baia is one of those. Built in 1911 as apartments and converted into a hotel after the second world war, its four stories stand right on the waterfront. The rooms are well appointed, and the public areas well kept; the staff are polite and helpful, though not effusive. They are presided over by a somewhat grumpy looking woman who we presumed was the owner, who, when she wasn’t sitting out on the street having a cigarette, was engaged in endless conversations with her employees, the kind where even without a word of Italian you can just tell that they are all having a good old whinge together.

As we observed the operation of the hotel, we could sense the faint ghost of Basil Fawlty. For example, the lift, though perfectly functional, is reserved only for the movement of baggage, definitely not for the use of hotel guests. And though there is a big restaurant, it is only open for breakfast, which seemed to be a wasted opportunity, especially considering that it sports a splendid outside terrace facing onto the beach. Anything that involved moving food or drinks outside the confines of the hotel building also seemed to be a problem; though the hotel offers its guests an exclusive beach area, complete with umbrellas and sun lounges, it couldn’t quite manage to organise food or drinks down there. And when we were meeting some new acquaintances for a drink before dinner, we were told that we could drink on the terrace, but our guests couldn’t. You get the idea – it all seemed slightly comical without ever really being inconvenient or difficult. And we did have a very pleasant stay there.

I read in my faithful Lonely Planet guide that “coming to the Cinque Terre and not hiking is like sitting down for dinner in an Italian restaurant and eschewing the wine”. Anybody who knows either of us would of course be aware that hiking is not exactly our favourite pastime, but that phrase rang in my ears like a challenge, and so we decided that we had to attempt at least one of the trails. Several of them are completely closed following the floods in 2011, and all of them are prone to periodic closures if there has been any rain. When we were there, the supposedly most accessible Blue Trail between Monterosso and Corniglia was open, so we decided we would at least do the first section, to Vernazza. Can’t be too hard, we thought – a couple of hours walking, we were told by the park officials, and we’ll be sitting down for lunch.

What they didn’t tell us is that the first part of the hike is more or less straight up. A short stretch of gently climbing path lulls you into a false sense of security, and then you are hit with a good forty minutes of climbing upwards along a series of flights of steps, each cunningly arranged – or so it seemed – to mislead you into thinking that this was the last flight before the path levelled out; arriving panting and red-faced at the top, you would turn a corner to be confronted, not with the nirvana of a flat stretch, but with yet more steps. Having overcome the temptation to just quit and go back down, all we could do is soldier on, with frequent stops get our breath, admire the view, and chat to the many others who were out that morning attempting the same feat. Though there were many experienced hikers who passed us, all properly kitted out and with determined, professional looks on their faces, there were also plenty who, like us, hadn’t quite anticipated the challenges the trail would bring. There was one particular girl, American and very much on the large economy side with respect to physique, who had clearly been duped into making the attempt by her friends; she was entertainingly inventive in her curses for them and for the obstacles she was being forced to clamber over. But she did have pluck, I’ll say that, for she kept going and made it to the end.

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Monterosso, far below us – and we had barely started climbing!

 

Once the climbing finally stopped, and we were on a relatively flat section of the trail that clung rather perilously to the side of the terraced hill, closely planted with olive trees and vines, the view made it all worth it, and the pain of the climb was if not forgotten at least buried. As we looked back down on Monterosso, we marvelled at the toughness of the villagers who must have made this trek on a daily basis to get to their trees and vines in order to eke out a living, something that many still do – although these days there is a kind of simple funicular that carries them to and from work. Of course, the advent of mass tourism has also created opportunities of other kinds for the locals – including one old timer who, with the shrewdness of country people everywhere, has installed himself at a bend in the trail with a pile of oranges and lemons, and a small electric juicer plugged into a power point somewhere up in the trees, from which he sells juice to just about every tired and thirsty hiker who passes, at €2 per cup. We reckoned he probably made a tidy sum over the summer.

Old Man Juicer
Not a word of any language other than his local dialect – but always happy to pose for the cameras!
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A relatively civilised section of the Blue Trail

When the objective of our walk, Vernazza, finally came into view we were well and truly ready for lunch. After an equally steep – and at times just as trying – descent down the hillside, we jagged a great spot at a waterfront restaurant just below the iconic castello. Vernazza is pretty as a picture, and really the iconic Cinque Terre village. The houses rise in pastel painted terraces from the only really workable harbour of the five towns, shadowing a warren of narrow lanes, strung with the ubiquitous washing lines that seem to be a visible measure of the villagers’ indifference to the tourist tide surging below their windows.

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Picture-perfect Vernazza

While it would have been possible for us to continue walking along the trail, we felt we had done enough to claim our “I’ve walked the Cinque Terre” T-shirts, and therefore had earned a leave pass to use the railway to visit the other villages, starting with the furthest from us, Riomaggiore. This is the largest of the five and considers itself the “capital” of the Cinque Terre, boasting such marvels as a proper supermarket and a post office. Like Vernazza, it clings to either side of a narrow crevice that runs up from the water, where there is the tiniest of bays, barely big enough for fishing boats to creep in and out. Manarola, where we arrived the following day by boat from Monterosso, also has a miniature harbour, and a nice laid-back feel to it. The smallest of the group, Corniglia, which we didn’t get around to visiting, is perched on a hill somewhat inland; unlike the others it is without any water access at all.

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Riomaggiore
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Manarola

Back in Monterosso, we also took the brave step of spending an afternoon on the beach. In early May the weather is pretty well perfect – averaging 20 degrees plus or minus, mostly sunny days with the occasional thunderstorm that passes pretty quickly – and while there are plenty of people about it’s nowhere near as crowded as later in the summer. So planting ourselves under an umbrella wasn’t a hard decision to make. What did require bravery was going into the water, which is still pretty cold. I’m a Melbourne boy, and I’ve swum in Port Phillip Bay, and it can’t be any colder than that, I thought. I was wrong. It was bloody freezing. Still, after ten or fifteen minutes my body adapted and – weird – it actually seemed quite OK! And I will report (with appropriate smugness) that I was much braver than Robert, who couldn’t manage much more than a quick hop up to his knees …

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The beach at Monterosso late in the afternoon – perfect weather but very cold water!

So that was the famed Cinque Terre. All up we spent three nights – effectively two and a half full days – and we could easily have spent another day or two, enjoying the pleasant small-town vibe of the place. But it was time for us to move on to our next stop, Santa Margherita Ligure – the subject of my next post.

 

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