The Italian Riviera: Cinque Terre

About 3 weeks ago I was deciding how I should spend my weekend before I started my co-op. Everyone was going home or going traveling so I knew if I didn’t do something myself I’d sit in Madrid sad and alone. So after staring at photos of Cinque Terre all year, I decided to just book my flight and start planning to get me through my last two weeks at the horrible place that some prefer to call ICADE.

I booked my flights and crossing an item off my bucket list I traveled alone for the first time. Cinque Terre was the perfect trip to do this because it’s not a city and I felt completely safe. It was nice to have some time to myself. It allowed me to just laze around and read on the beach, meet new people and also surprisingly realize how little credit I give myself. Sometimes I underestimate and doubt my abilities to be a real human, but having to get by in a country where I’m unfamiliar with the language, the people, the transportation system and the customs, I managed it make it out okay and have an amazing time (mostly because the Italians I encountered were really friendly, welcoming and helpful).

Cinque Terre means five lands and it stands for the five little villages on the Italian Riviera. I stayed in Riomaggiore, the first town coming from the south. It’s probably the tiniest and has a really pretty marina. There’s also a secret beach if you follow a path from the marina. I hiked to Manarola, the second town over and one of my favorites. It’s bigger and it has a bunch of different lookout points that give you a fantastic view of the village. I finally made it to Corniglia on the last day, but not before I climbed the 365 stairs from the station (I didn’t hike that day because the stairs sufficed). I found the town more labyrinth-like than the others. The marina here was especially beautiful because it was more rustic and secluded than the others. The next village was Vernazza, or what’s called “the gem of Cinque Terre.” It really was stunning and earns the name. Monterosso al Mare is at the end. It has a giant sandy beach with a boardwalk and a little village through the tunnel.

Unfortunately the famous hiking trails (Via Dell’amore and the Blue Trail) were closed for construction so I had to take another route to get to Manarola from Riomaggiore. The route took me through the mountains up rustic staircases that never seemed to end. Since I was going on a less popular hike, the trail wasn’t well-marked and since my common sense level is pretty low, I ended up in a family’s garden. Fortunately, the man and woman planting when I arrived were kind and laughed at my pathetic apology of “me scusi, me scusi!” instead of chasing me away with their shovels. They were friendly and told me how to get to Manarola. Unfortunately, they explained this in Italian while I responded in Spanish. It wasn’t the most productive conversation, but I eventually found my way to the trail.

The whole hike was cool because my only choice was to talk to and rely on the kindness of strangers along the way using my extremely limited Italian skills: “Manarola?” **person responds with frantic pointing because they know I won’t understand Italian sentences** “Grazzie!” It was the kind of hike where I doubted myself with every step but somehow made it to the village in the end after climbing over 827 stairs (I am 100% making this number up but it felt like that many), walking through a tunnel and going down tiny walkways between houses and gardens.

I also went on a hike in Vernazza that I didn’t finish. The man at the tourist office told me it should take 45 minutes total, up and down. So I set off on this hike from the train station and 1.5 hours later (and after being lapped by a man in his 80s) I was still going up this mountain. I figured that the man at the office had probably never met anyone of my pitiful physical caliber before so I decided to retreat. It wasn’t without its great parts though; there were a bunch of lookout points to the pretty Vernazza port and rustic beauty was everywhere with overgrown flowers all over the walkway. I also passed a stunning cemetery (when do people ever say that?) that had walls of graves with fresh flowers on each one overlooking the port. When I die, I’d like to be buried there, besides the fact that it was a Christian cemetery, but details, details.

IMPORTANT: food. So Cinque Terre is famous for pesto and focaccia. So naturally I was eating the two together for the entire trip. They’re also famous for farinata which I had never even heard of before, it’s delicious with pesto. The local Cinque Terre white wine is definitely worth a try. My favorite bar I went to was Bar a pié de mà in Riomaggiore. It’s right next to the train station and the Via Dell’amore and overlooks the water. I had an amazing caprese focaccia here while I finished reading Hyperbole and a Half (I’m confident that I’ll read 15 books before we’re even halfway through 2014, another bucket list item to cross off). I discovered the Marocchino, my new favorite coffee. There’s also a store in Monterosso al Mare called Cantina Du Sciacchetra to buy authentic local foods to bring home. The warm and entertaining owner, Lorenzo, will make you try everything before he allows you to buy anything so by the time I was done tasting limoncello and other assorted liquors he poured for me I left with a small buzz. Make sure to ask him the story about the Viagra liquor!

I flew back out of Pisa so I stayed there for a night. While I wasn’t expecting much because I was sad to leave the Cinque Terre, I was pleasantly surprised. The Piazza del Duomo where the Leaning Tower sits is stunning and the tower was actually really cool to see. Although there wasn’t much to do, it was perfect for the night and I met friendly Italians from Milan that told me NY pizza is shit (I’ll forgive them) and taught me to make the perfect coffee (important stuff) at the hostel.

Leaning tower

Leaning tower

Traveling alone was an amazing experience. I was able to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and realized that I can actually function on my own despite the very small amount of faith I have in myself. It also made me reach out to other people and I think people found me more approachable. I met more families, groups of friends traveling and other solo travelers during my trip than I did in my past trips combined. I loved hearing their stories and getting advice from them on Cinque Terre. It also made me think about how I travel in a group. All of these people were so friendly and warm, but I’m not so sure that if I were traveling with my group of friends I’d make the same effort to talk to someone on their own. It was a bit of a wake up call to me and hopefully on my next trip I’ll find the courage to talk to new people!

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