Imagine renting an apartment on the first floor of the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland on a Sunday in June. Or better yet, throwing a mattress down in the middle of Grand Central Station and trying to catch forty winks. That’s what our first night in Cinque Terre is like: riding a raft on a surging, choppy sea of noise. For some reason, being on the second floor magnifies it. Thank goodness for Ambien!
It’s early in the morning of the next day, though, and things are looking up. Did you know that Cinque Terre is the home of focaccia? This is like no focaccia I’ve eaten before, though. It’s puffy and light and fragrant, and at the same time deliciously oily and salty. I’m eating a focaccia sandwich for breakfast with mozzarella, ham and tomato in it. It’s been toasted, the cheese is halfway melted. . . need I say more? Along with my delicious cappuccino, this is going a long way towards assuaging my grumpiness about the tourists. We’re also getting a rare treat at the moment—the chance to see the real Vernazza, since the revelers are still asleep.
Old women dressed in shapeless black dresses, their heads covered with shawls, shuffle across the stone square to the church, throwing baleful glances at their husbands, who are gathering in the little cafés to drink espresso and play dominoes. Fishermen are tidying up their boats and folding their nets, and children are running and playing in the square while their mothers drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and chat. Some little ones are playing in the little waves that lap at the tiny sand beach. I read in my Rick Steves book that the population of Vernazza is 500 people, and I can see that now (although last night it seemed like at least 20,000).
One thing we’ve been looking forward to since before coming to Italy is hiking the trails here. The five villages of Cinque Terre are connected by a network of trails that traverse the steep hills between them. There are also trails you can take that go all the way up to the tops of the hills. We’re avid hikers, so naturally we’re excited about this. We decide to take the trail from Vernazza to Monterrosso, the last of the five towns. This is supposedly the most difficult of the inter-village trails.
So, one last sip of our cappuccinos and we set out. The fun thing is that you don’t have to hike back—you can just jump on the little train and get off at whichever town you want. The trail’s quite narrow and meanders around the hill.
It’s a level dirt path interrupted frequently by stretches of steep, narrow steps carved out of the rocky hillside. There are guardrails in some of the narrowest sections, but even so, it’s not the safest trail I’ve ever hiked. I wouldn’t want to be caught on it during a summer storm! In spite of being a bit perilous, it’s a beautiful walk.
It winds through lots of steep little hillside farms interspersed with the native landscape and all kinds of wildflowers. There’s beautiful desert vegetation, including prickly pear cactus with big waxy yellow and white blooms, and orchards everywhere: olives, apricots, cherries, figs, all the trees laden with fruit. There are also rows and rows of grapevines and beautiful little plots planted in tomatoes, basil, corn, zucchini, and other vegetables. It’s a Mediterranean paradise, set against the backdrop of the deep blue Ligurian Sea. Far down the steep hillside, you can see the waves crashing against the rocks.
We discover an interesting thing, a tiny track, sort of like a monorail, about five feet above the ground, that winds up so steeply through the fields it’s almost vertical. There’s a small car on the track with a plastic seat on it. I guess the farmers use it to travel up and down the steep hillsides to the various parts of their vineyards and cornfields. I don’t see how they keep from falling off!
At first there aren’t too many people on the trail—it’s early yet—but as we get closer to Monterrosso, there are more and more hikers. It’s a bit dangerous because sometimes the trail is only wide enough for one person, so you have to flatten yourself against the wall or the fence to allow people to go by.
We finally arrive in Monterrosso, hot and sweaty. This is one of the larger towns, and it reminds me of the Babar books I loved as a child because the beach is dotted with cheerful blue and white umbrellas and beach chairs, all in orderly rows, just like in Celesteville.
We make a beeline for the nearest gelato stand, where I prove what a pig I am by ordering not one, but two chocolate shakes. I rationalize this gluttony by pointing out to Rick that they’re served in those ice cream soda glasses that get narrower toward the bottom–they don’t really hold much. He nods, but doesn’t appear convinced.