We left Florence in the breaking dawn, carefully packing in the dark. I continue to travel as “that guy,” the one who comes in late and wakes up before anyone else. My consolation is I think I’m pretty quiet about it. Josh is also the master of the early exit (as long as you can get his feet on the ground after he wakes up). With a wave at the former cultural capital of Europe, we started our ride west. If Italy is a giant boot, the “Five Lands” are at on the upper-most thigh.
We rode from Florence to La Spezia in a cabin that slowly filled, finally joined by two Montanans who commented on Josh’s Michigan Music T-shirt. They were traveling with an adult Italian-language class. He was a well-informed good ol’ boy who wanted to talk football. I don’t know my western conferences very well (except that I should loath USC), but I provided a few vague comments. This is why a working knowledge of athletics is key for wandering the world. It’s always a safe topic and everyone can bond quickly.
We also found out they knew a curator at the Musuem of the Rockies and referred to Dr. Jack Horner as “Jack.” There aren’t many laymen who would know that was a big deal, Montanans know their fossils. They also knew the area we were headed to and raved about the beautiful cliff towns that perch over the Mediterranean Sea, waiting for vigorous tourists to explore the protected coast and stop in for a glass of wine or some indigenous pesto. We were getting pretty excited pretty quickly.
They helped us find the correct regional train to Cinque Terre and we piled off onto a narrow sidewalk of the platform. Directly below us was the crashing Mediterranean. Josh took in the folded cliffs and quaint pastel homes while I distractedly searched for a sign telling us if we were in the right town. I could finally enjoy the moment after I found the sign proclaiming we had arrived in “Riomaggiore.”
Through a tunnel below one of the twisted mountains then up a steep street lined with fruit stands and cafés. This was Mediterranean life, Italian style. We found our hostel’s address and were told to wait for the owner outside the establishment. With stilted English he demanded we pay then, with our cash in hand, he disappeared into the laundry room. We waited on the street, confused by the process, wondering where we would sleep and if we were getting ripped off. We had nothing to worry about.
He led us down slope to a narrow hallway of an alley. Unlocking an ancient, peeling door, he revealed a large room with laundry facilities, a small kitchen, a bunked bed and a queen sized bed, all gilded with golden duvets. Hostel luxury. But we couldn’t enjoy the swinging green shutters or the shampoo that exploded all over my backpack for too long. We had hiking to do.
We quickly arrived in Manarolo from Riomaggione and grabbed lunch at a focaccia and pizzaria. We were giddy over the prices. We may not be the most economical travelers to hit Italy, but we know how to get excited about a deal. This was vacation. We ate our pesto calzones on a rocky outcrop by the port surrounded by snoozing sunbathers.
With more pictures and sighs of contentment we carried on past a massive assemblage of locks (you write your lovers name on the lock then throw away the key) and a profile of a smooching couple. I missed Carolyn even though I forgot to bring a lock along.
We turned a corner along the cliff and found a footpath leading to a rocky beach and a quiet cove. A solitary rock sat about 40 feet out with the waves crashing over. “I want to swim to that rock.” I didn’t expect Josh to make such a suggestion. “Then let’s swim to that rock!” We clamored down to interrupted two women sunbathing on a boulder. We changed, discrete exhibitionists, and waded into the frigid waves. The first few steps were breathtaking, literally. I reached the end of the rock, braced myself for the shock, and dove under the waves. Glorious.
The water was perfectly clear and incredibly deep. Fish and crustaceans were discernable through 25 feet of water. We explored the coast, climbing onto the rock in the center of the cove that Josh had first targeted and dove off after schools of anchovies. My first real swim in the storied Mediterranean (without a wetsuit). It was first definition awesome. We even found a secluded coastal cave to explore. I climbed back to our bags along the narrow lip of rock that forced me to cling to the folded face. Even though I was surrounded by a tourist Mecca, I found a moment of personal adventure.
Once we dried off, we started up the slope, swinging by a rope to make it up the first step, and continued to Corniglia. The next town sits high above the coast. After a steep climb we wove past quaint cafés and shops, grabbing a gelato as we climbed past the town church to a prominence capped by a brick-walled fortress that was maybe erected to defend the town or maybe constructed to defend the citizens from the sheer cliffs below. We licked our ice cream and basked in the Mediterranean sun.
On to Vernazza. The trail became more rugged and the flowers more abundant. The trail opened into orchards and vineyards with stray cats and lizards crossing the path or watching us cautiously (the only way cats and lizards can watch). It wasn’t a strenuous hike, but it worked up a bit of a deserved sweat. The day continued with perfection as we crossed rock bridges and passed pairs of other contented hiking couples.
The trail wove into town, culminating at a castle tower that sits on the peninsula. We sat by the small public beach at a café with the breeze, a castle, and the ferry boats (the way to get around if you can't hoof it and want something a little more exotic than a train). We drank wine (and some requisite water) and didn’t think about much (including our guide. We abandoned Rick Steves at the café and didn’t realize it until we were in the final town). As we left town, we walked through a small church with a domed tower. Stained glass was unnecessary with a view of the cliffs and bay from the pews.
The trail continued through the orchards of lemons and flowers. It had the feel of a wild garden rather than a protected National Park.
At Montarossa we found the largest beach yet. We were glad to have stopped earlier at the rugged, more secluded rock beach, though the water was still shockingly clear and blue at Montarossa’s tourist haven. We were hoping to rent a kayak or canoe, but the boats are only rented on weekend or by appointment. In other words, geschlossen. I was too relaxed to really be disappointed. Into the water we went, finding a sharp-faced rock to try to climb with the assistance of the thundering waves.
After much deliberation we ate dinner at a restaurant by the beach. We were hoping to avoid the touristy (i.e. more expensive) front but only discovered bars further from the water. Dinner was wine, lemon anchovies, and pesto lasagna. Excellent foods that I want to try making on my own at some point in the near future, but they will never taste as good as they did after a day of hiking along the Mediterranean.
Content, per the orders of the day, we went back to Vernozza by train to recover our book, but the restaurant had closed for the night. Rick would just have to guide other travelers. We were a little apprehensive about getting through Naples and Pompeii without him (he basically allows us to save our pennies by not getting audioguids), but we didn’t worry about it for too long. There was a moon over the sea and subdued-but-warm bars to enjoy We ordered lemon cello, a specialty of the region, and toasted Cinque Terre. When we arrived in Riomaggiore we found another bar with a happy hour and more relaxed tourists. We went to bed, tucked in to our gold duvets with images of sunset over the Mediterranean drifting through inebriated brains. We would need to store this relaxed state in our memories if we wanted to make it through the craziness of Naples.