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The Italy Diaries: Cinque Terre

This week, Nadia El-Awady shares her tale of roaming around the cutest darn fishing village you've ever seen, among other things.

About three months ago, a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. It was a night scene of a small fishing village, the houses snuggling up against a cliff, as if protecting themselves from the angry sea below. I was mesmerized by the picture and decided almost immediately that I would go there one day. I asked my friend where this place was. She said it was in the Cinque Terre. I had never heard of it before so I looked it up. The Cinque Terre National Park was a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Italian Riviera made of five cliff-side fishing villages and the mountainous areas in between. I filed this information in my bucket list folder in my head. I would go to this place one day.

And that’s how my dreams come true. I decide to make something happen and it does. Not magically, mind you. But it does. Some of my dreams have taken years to accomplish. I never mind. I have the patience needed to get to where I need to get when the time is ripe. This time I was fortunate. A few weeks after seeing that picture I was hiking on the narrow and steep trails of the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre National Park lies on the northwest coast of Italy. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

The Cinque Terre became a World Heritage Sitein 1997 because “the layout and disposition of the small towns and the shaping of the surrounding landscape, overcoming the disadvantages of a steep, uneven terrain, encapsulate the continuous history of human settlement in this region over the past millennium.” It covers an expanse of 15 km of the Ligurian coast of Italy and is composed of five medieval villages, from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.

My husband Colin and I arrived into Riomaggiore Train Station from Pisa in the early afternoon. We were visiting the region slightly off-season so we decided to take a risk. We made no hotel reservations. We wanted to have a flexible schedule, hike as far as we wanted, and stop to stay in the villages we fancied. It was a well-calculated risk. We walked up the main street in town

and stopped at the first room vacancy sign we saw that included the magic words “Wifi available”.  Our room was in a very narrow three-story building overlooking the main street. Although modernly furnished on the inside, the building itself was a normal village building that was now used to host tourists.

We set our backpacks down on the bed and almost immediately went back out. We were excited about discovering the first of the five fishing villages of the Cinque Terre (pronounced Cheeng’-kway Tear’-ray).

Riomaggiore is the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

We walked down to the bottom of the cliffs that cuddle this small fishing village and there we sat, mesmerized by thewaves, rolling in with a roaring, thundering sound and crashing against the rocks. I was in a trance. As the waves rolled into the small pebbly beach at the far end of town they pushed against the heavier rocks, moving them against each other, making a sound as if a mountain was preparing to crack and crumble. It was an eerie sound.

Sunset in Riomaggiore was dramatically breathtaking. We sat on the rocks on the south side of the small harbor. The skies and the clouds lit up with the setting sun as the waves provided a symphonic concerto as they rose high in the sky and then broke against the rocks like fireworks. In the backdrop lay the brick reds and yellows and pinks and whites and various shades of brown of the buildings of Riomaggiore.

We witnessed a dramatic sunset in Riomaggiore. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Our intention was to start hiking the following morning. The tourist information office informed us that the famous Via Dell’Amore, the trail between Riomaggiore and the next village, Manarola, was closed due to a landslide that happened some three weeks earlier. An Australian tourist was seriously injured in this landslide. We asked about our options. You need to take the train, we were told. We asked if we could then commence the hike starting in Manarola. No, they replied definitively. All the trails between the five villages are closed. The train was the only available option to get from one village to the next. Colin and I were heartbroken. We had organized this whole portion of the trip specifically because we wanted to hike. We concluded we would take the train to Manarola and then decide what to do afterwards.

The train trip between Riomaggiore and Manarola took some two minutes. Once we arrived, we spoke with the tourist information office employees at the train stationto see what they might tell us. Having researched the area before we arrived, we were aware that there were several trails, some easier than others, in the general Cinque Terre area. In Riomaggiore, we were told that all trails were closed. In Manarola, the tourist information office told us that it was only the simpler blue trail, the most commonly used of the trails, that was closed. If we were up for a more strenuous and longer hike, we could take the red trail. Colin and I rejoiced. The red trail it would be.

We first walked into the second of the Cinque Terre fishing villages, Manarola, and down its main street towards the harbor. The harbor is surrounded by a circular stone wall that keeps out a significant proportion of the waves, making it a great swimming hole on calmer days. But today, the waves were high and there were no swimmers to be seen. A walk around the edge of the town provided excellent picturesque views of the village. From this perch I saw that, like the waves, tourists flowed in and out of Manarola with the coming and the going of the frequent trains.

Manarola. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

We began the hike up the red trail, Colin and I both carrying some 14kg on our backs. We were in Italy to attend a friend’s wedding but we wanted to make use of the trip and visit some places in the general region. So in addition to hiking clothes and boots, we had city clothes, wedding clothes and shoes (in my case very high stiletto heels) in our backpacks. Colin, being a proper Scotsman, had his heavy kilt in his backpack. He would not attend the wedding of his Scottish friend, even if it was in Italy, without the proper Scottish attire.

Our destination was Corniglia, the third of the Cinque Terre villages. While the blue trail links almost directly between the villages near the coast and is thus relatively short, the red trail takes you up into the mountains, high above the coast. Most travel books and websites say that the red trail is only for the experienced hiker. It is along this trail, however, that we met quite a wide variety of people aged four to 74. The trail in general can be quite steep and narrow in places. In some parts, the descent on the very narrow and slippery footpaths can be tricky. But for the most part, it is doable for anyone who is moderately fit. The advantage to this path is the stunning view of the coastline and the villages from high above. You also get to walk through the terraced vineyards that are some 1000 years old.

The 1000-year-old terraced vineyards of the Cinque Terre. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

The trail from Manarola starts with a very long series of steps that eventually (in our case it was 40 minutes) take you into the small village of Volastra high up in the hills. Here Colin and I sat in the village churchyard and ate some sweets. It took us another 1.5 hours to hike to Corniglia, the only Cinque Terre village that is situated at the top of a cliff.

Corniglia has the smallest population of the five Cinque Terre villages, at less than 300. Colin and I decided we would spend the night here. As was the case in Riomaggiore, we found no difficulty finding a room to stay in. It was in someone’s home. The second floor was turned into four ensuite bedrooms to host tourists. We spent the afternoon and evening eating gelato, good food, getting splashed by the waves and holding hands as we walked through this very quiet town. To get to the coast, one must climb down (and obviously then up again) more than 300 steps. But it is well worth the trouble. The area by the sea is very small. But I spent over an hour there, daring myself to get closer and closer to the crashing waves.

Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre village that lies on a cliff top. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady
Three fishing villages down and two more to go. We began the final day of our hike at nine in the morning. This day involved some confusion, as there were times when we were not sure we were following the right trail. The trail that took us down to Vernazza was the trickiest part of our two-day hike. The final 45 minutes of this 1.5-hour-long part of the hike was very narrow, tortuous, precipitous and slippery. At one point, Colin said to me what I had been thinking, “This is not safe.” I was scared and climbed down very slowly with that 14kg pack on my back. But finally, Vernazza appeared before us.
Vernazza. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Vernazza stretches over a promontory that sticks out into the sea. It is a sight to behold, with its buildings, church, waterfront and castello at the very tip.Vernazza was abuzz with tourists and its 1000 townspeople as Colin and I walked in. We did a quick tour of the main street, the harbor, and castello and then set out on the last stretch of our hike, heading to the touristy beaches of Monterosso.

The hike between Vernazza and Monterosso, the fifth and last of the Cinque Terre villages, took considerably longer than we anticipated; about four hours. Colin and I both believe we made a wrong turn somewhere but have never been able to figure out where the original mistake was made. Regardless, we eventually came across the trail sign that indicated we were heading in the right direction.

This path went continuously upward until we eventually reached the very top of the mountain between the last two villages. It was a steep and difficult climb. And then it was a two-hour hike down. The whole trail between Vernazza and Monterosso was nice and wide. The main problem with it was the length of the trail and its steepness. Carrying heavy backpacks for hour after hour was rough on the knees and the soles of my feet.

Monterosso from high in the hilltops. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Finally we found ourselves walking into Monterosso. This town is the largest and the most touristy of all five. It has much wider expanses of beach, with many hotels lining the coast. Monterosso is formed of an old town and a more modern beach town, separated from each other by a pedestrian tunnel. The old town is not as exciting as the previous four villages. Finding a vacant hotel room here was significantly more difficult than the previous two nights. But eventually we found one at the far end of town. Again, we put down our backpacks and left the room almost immediately. Colin insisted that he go for a swim before the sun set. We had not seen any swimmers over the past two days. The late October weather was not particularly warm and the seas were raging. Today, however, although the weather was on the cool side, the beaches had calm waters and a few daring swimmers.

Colin took no time to strip down from his fleece jacket and jeans to his swimsuit and jump into the water. I called out to him, “How cold is it?” He yelled back that it was cold but that it gets warmer as you settle in. A 60-year-old Italian woman wading in the water in a bikini chimed in, “It’s fine! Come in!”

I thought about it for a couple of minutes. Colin can be crazy. He doesn’t mind swimming in freezing water. He’s done it before. But why would this old Italian woman tell me the water was fine if it was not? I decided to jump in and try my luck.

It was ICY cold. This wasn’t just the normal kind of coldness you get when you first jump into the sea. This felt like ice water was surrounding my limbs. Colin and the old Italian woman continued to encourage me in. “It gets warmer!” they both promised. So I forced my whole body into the water. Never in my life had I done anything of the sort. It was as if I had been dunked into ice water. But as I moved my limbs frantically in the water, my sore feet and legs began to feel soothed. It was as if they were being massaged. It was the best sensation ever after the long hike. Colin and I swam in the icy water for no longer than 15 minutes and immediately got out and dried up. The rest of the evening was spent walking along the shore and marveling at the pearly shiny lights of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, and Vernazza. This was the first time that we could see the lights of all four villages at once. It was magical.

The Cinque Terre from beginning to end. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Next time, read about our scary adventure as we searched for the nudist beach in the Cinque Terre.


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