Friday morning of our Italy trip, we got on an 8 AM train and cruised up the coast. Like this, more or less:
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La Spezia is the entry point for the Cinque Terre, which was where we'd be staying for the next two nights. From La Spezia, you take a local train that stops at each of the 5 villages; we stayed in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, at a Rick Steves-listed place. For the record, I think Steves said the place was basic and overpriced, but I found this out after I booked the room, and the price was fine with me. Look, I'm an internetizen. I like to do business on the web. Any place that doesn't have a website or the ability to book online through some larger site simply isn't going to get my business. I realize this may mean that I miss some hidden gems, and I'm okay with that. Italian websites are uniformly wack, but I still want to see the website of the place I'm staying. All of this is kind of beside the point. Suffice it to say that I booked based on jillions of internet reviews, price, and ease of use. And for Cinque Terre, any place that did have the ability to book directly on the website was probably out of our price range. (Also, if you want names of places we stayed, just send me a message; I don't necessarily want this site to come up in searches for Italian accommodations.)
All that said, I really liked where we stayed. The room was just fine, spacious and clean, opening out onto a private terrace with patio furniture. In the morning, we got a nice breakfast and espresso drinks made to order, and the proprietor was plenty helpful, especially compared to the general non-existent standard of service in Italy. The hotel's location at the top of a punishing hill wouldn't be ideal for everyone (especially if you have a lot of luggage), but we were backpacking it and as I like to say, "we have legs; let's go."
This is descending the hill, and it's only a third of the overall distance.
About the second thing we discovered in Riomaggiore, after we checked into the hotel, was the planned train strike, due to start the next day and end after we were already supposed to be back in England. (Sad trombone.) There was a little bit of rage, confusion, and panic, until we later found out that a train strike just means A) that no one knows what trains will actually be running, or B) that local service is canceled but the bigger lines still operate. Our hotel proprietor was completely unperturbed by news of the strike and he told us he'd drive us to the main station in La Spezia on Sunday and we could get our Pisa train there, no problem. Which was awesome, as our other options (cutting our trip a day short, eating our hotel fee, buying another set of plane tickets, or maybe finagling a one-day car rental) were decidedly less attractive.
Part of the attraction of Cinque Terre, for us, was this hiking trail (you can see it above the train station, there) that connects all five villages. There's actually an upper trail that's much longer and connected to a bunch of sanctuaries, and that would have been fun to explore if we'd been there longer/planned a more hardcore hiking trip. As it was, one of the trails we walked (Monterosso to Vernazza) was like the hardest 3 kilometers ever. It took almost two hours, thanks to skinny ledge trails next to dizzying descents, plus like a thousand stairs and other uphill activities. Amazingly, the trail was rife with 1) American teenagers 2) people in bathing suits 3) people in inappropriate footwear who were ill-prepared for the trek and 4) people without water bottles. The Venn diagram of these groups would have a very large intersection.
About 2/3 of the way through the aforementioned trek
Vernazza without my big sweaty face in the way
All this happened after Dom left us, though. On the first day we walked the first three towns together, ate anchovies (a big big deal in Cinque Terre; I nibbled and remain unmoved), ate pesto (invented in Liguria, the region we were in!), ate pizza (of course), and put our feets in the ocean.
We avoided the joints with the rental umbrellas.
Dom took off for Milan on Saturday morning, hauling U.S.A. gifts of Mrs Butterworth and Spanx for his friend Giulia (her request). That's when the Brit and I got serious about our hiking. We'd intended to hop on the train to Corniglia, climb a whole pantload of steps, hike to Vernazza, and eat lunch, but we got on the wrong train and went all the way to Monterosso, where we decided we were hungry for lunch and the Brit ate like 5 pounds of anchovies. We should have chilled for awhile, but instead we started our epic walk back to Vernazza. Fortunately, this decision did not lead to any toilet troubles.
Olive groves on the hike
I joked that we should collect some olive branches to take home, for when we need to make peace with someone, but considering we were cruising through people's farms, that would have been a faux pas. You can see in some of the photographs that the hillsides are completely terraced, which just shows how we human beings are very very determined to grow food. Everywhere we went, there were lemon trees and grape vines, zucchini and tomatoes, even in people's negligible yards. In the house next door to our hotel, there were flowering zucchini vines trained overhead, shading whatever was growing underneath. We could see this from the little private terrace outside our room.
Cinque Terre is definitely worth seeing, even in the high season--unless people make you crazy. There's almost no car traffic; they didn't even have a road to the outside world until the 1950s, and that road is high above the towns. You can walk everywhere even if you're not in very good shape, and as long as you're not staying way up a hill, it's probably fairly accessible to less able-bodied folks as well. Monterosso, in particular, had plenty of flat, paved (not cobbled) walkways. The good thing about tourist destinations is that they're set up to cater to the needs of tourists. The bad thing is that they're crawling with people. But with so much coastline and so many hills and paths, it was easy to wander out and enjoy an amazing view without feeling like an ugly American among ugly Americans.
Next up: Pisa, where everything leans.