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Cinque Terre, and a glorious slice of Italian coastal living

The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of the Italian Riviera coast in northwestern Italy. Comprised of the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Liguria region of Italy. Homes are terraced on the steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Cars cannot easily reach the villages from the outside; they are connected by hiking paths, trains and boats.

We had cancelled an earlier reservation in Vernazza so we headed to the Cinque Terre totally unprepared. As risky as that may sound it is a situation that usually ends with us discovering a wonderful place that we would never have known about otherwise. After several stops for directions and several wrong turns we settled at a hotel on the cliffs between LaSpezia and Riomaggiore, just outside the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

The room was rustic but with a tremendous amount of character. Tile floors meant echoes and coolness, which was fine by me. If you’re looking for modern comfort and fancy amenities, you’ve come to the wrong place my friend. I doubted the noise would be an issue. We had been without sleep for close to 48 hours by now – a couple of five minute cat naps at the side of the road today and that was it.

The hotel, despite being full, was reasonably quiet through the night; or maybe it was just that we were so tired it didn’t matter. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect. Dinner last night was an adventure, yeah, let’s put it that way. We ate in the hotel restaurant which is pretty much unheard of for us but there was no other choice. The meal was fine but, be warned, if ordering shrimp in the Cinque Terre, you ain’t gonna get what you expect in North America. You get, well, a shrimp, a prawn; shell, head, eyes, antennae, a whole shrimp. And inside a shrimp there is not a succulent shrimp. There is some mushy, sweet tasting, foreign (to me) material. Oh well, live and learn.

After breakfast the following morning the owner came up to us and asked if we were checking out. We said, no, we were going to stay another night. He offered us a better room. You see, the one we had was the one they save so that when they’re full they can offer “one last room”. That explains it. There you go, without even trying, the Whiteheads check in and end up changing rooms.

Our day in the Cinque Terre was magnificent. We quickly learned to pronounce it Ching-quay Terra not Sank Terre the way our limited French led us to think. The hiking trails connect one town to another traversing the rugged terrain from the top of the cliffs to the sea below and back again.

We drove from our hotel, past the southernmost village of Riomaggiore to Manarola. It was exceedingly busy as we parked and walked about a kilometer into the village. It was a beautiful day and the shops, hotels and private residences were quite picturesque. We stopped for a while to check out the church. It was Sunday so we sat in on a bit of the service. I’m not religious but have an avid interest in people and culture.

Cinque Terre, ItalyAt the railway station we waited and waited and waited some more for the train. It finally arrived about an hour later. Fortunately the group of a thousand high school kids we saw in the village must have hit the trail there because they were not on the train. We rode the train past Corniglia to Vernazza, the town in which we had originally been booked to stay.

Vernazza was spectacular but busy! Once again fate had dealt us a winning hand. This town would have been an absolute nightmare to get to and to find the hotel had we been able to make it. It’s kind of a thousand-year-old Whistler, BC in Canada, full of tourists and hikers. We took a few minutes to view the harbour…then a quick gelato stop to build up our energy…then on to the hike.

We chose to trek back to Corniglia instead of to Monterosso at the end of the line, because it appeared in photos to be a beach town and I figured at the end of the rail line it would be a zoo with all the kids. As it turned out we passed a monstrous group of them going the other direction on the trail, so what the hell do I know?

Cinque Terre, Italy

The hike was difficult at best. Shades of the Inca Trail and Kailua. We started by climbing about 500 steps to the trailhead then proceeded along a rocky, stair-filled treacherous trail made bearable only by its incredible views of the Cinque Terre towns, cliffs and sea. What a difference 3 years makes. Peru was a life changing, awesome workout. Today, 30 pounds heavier and 3 years older was damn near life threatening – but still awesome. My right hip and left knee may need surgery before we get to Tuscany, but that’s life.

Sitting on our balcony, just before 7 PM, sipping on a glass of Chianti, which I bought in a gas station for half the price it was at home, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, I felt pensive. How was I ever going to get back to any semblance of normal life after this?

Dinner started at 7:30PM, remember, the Europeans know how to live. Breakfast was usually light. Lunch could be whatever you wanted it to be, maybe around 2 PM. Dinner was usually a production to satisfy your zest for life and, in essence, the reason for living. Wine is a must. Eat what your heart desires, but take it from me, no shrimp!

Cinque Terre, Italy

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