Italy’s Hidden Gem

Date posted: December 8, 2011

*This is part 4 in my Adventures in Italy blog series. Click here to read part 1, “Livin’ Like a Local”. Part 2, “When in Rome… Literally,” can be found here. To read part 3, The Canals (and Crowds) of Venice, click here.

Note: Our thoughts go out to the people affected by the recent floods and mudslides in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. It breaks our heart to see our beloved village of Vernazza devastated by the rains, yet we are confident that, being the resilient people they are, they will rebuild.

[dc]W[/dc]e wake up, surprisingly rested from our disjointed night’s sleep, and excited to head out to Vernazza, one of the five villages on the Italian Riviera that make up Cinque Terre, and its only natural port. In our research, we’ve learned to expect lots of uphill climbing and stairs, as well as a relaxed energy and tranquility. Since we enjoy both hiking and peace, we’re pretty stoked.

Arriving at the Venice train station in plenty of time (phew!), we’re approached by an older couple who asks us if we know which platform to stand on for the train to La Spezia. Despite being tourists, we must either have a knowledgable vibe or seem approachable because this is the third time in our travels thus far that people have come up to us for help (directions, how to use a calling card on the public phone at the train station, and now this).

We find out this couple is traveling to the same village we are, via La Spezia, so we team up to make sure we all get there smoothly. Jack and Victoria, from Kansas, are three weeks into their 12-week European excursion. Suddenly, we feel like rookies on our big two-weeker. It’s great to talk with them about life and travel, and hear of the places they’ve been. It makes us eager to think about where we’ll go next.

our arrival at Cinque TerreAfter a couple hiccups (why, exactly, are there two “La Spezia” stops?), we arrive in Vernazza. As soon as we walk down the stairs from the station, we find ourselves in the middle of this tiny village. It’s adorable! The buildings are a variety of pastel colors, the crowds are minimal, and the energy is so settled and welcoming.

We make our way to Taverna del Capitano (a local restaurant whose owners also have a few rooms in the village) to find Marcello who will show us where we’ll be staying. He leads us down the main drag and opens a door in a building you’d think was a residential apartment house (well, their version of an apartment house). We look inside and there they are — stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. And not regular stairs. These steps are like double the average size back home — the only thing in Italy that’s bigger than its American counterpart.

climbingMarcello is kind enough to take our larger suitcase up the mountain, er, flights (yes, plural) of stairs. I take the backpack and Missy takes the smaller suitcase. We climb the large, very steep, stairs (52 in all. Yes, we counted). Huffing, puffing, and out of breath, we’re shown our room and are pleasantly surprised at the size of our temporary home. It’s spacious and clean, and Missy is happy that we haven’t had to use our sleep sacks yet. No squalor for us!

After we settle in, we venture downstairs to find some place to have a late lunch and check out our surroundings. We’re excited to be staying in the same location for three whole nights. The thought alone helps us to feel grounded.

Our first discovery is an adorable, little beach where local kids are playing and some visitors sunbathe. This place really feels like a local’s haven. We find out that Cinque Terre is, in fact, a place Italians love to come for vacation. Tourists are mainly Europeans and, as Rick Steves puts it, “in the know” Americans. When looking for this type of beauty, most Americans default to the Amalfi Coast on the southwest part of Italy. Cinque Terre is similar in look, just much smaller and more intimate.

It’s an odd time for a meal (3:30 PM or so), but we find a place that serves food all day, and we eat the most delicious pesto pizza ever. The Liguria area of Italy, where Cinque Terre is located, is known for its pesto. Now we know why. Yummers!

After lunch/dinner, we walk around some more, which doesn’t take very long. It’s a very small place. You see almost no cars in this village of 300 people. Residents are more likely to own a boat. Their version of a pickup truck that comes to deliver grapes only has three wheels — two in back and one in front. It has to be that small to maneuver in here.vernazza italy

We visit some markets and shops, look into where we get our hiking pass for our trek the next day, and spend some time petting the kitties that are everywhere (yes, I’m in heaven)! We hang out at the beach for a bit, watching people cliff dive into the Mediterranean Sea. Despite my super fair skin and blue eyes, I’m totally feeling like a local! Vernazza is like a hidden gem that we feel fortunate to have found.

After a while, we decide to head back to the room for the night. We mentally prepare ourselves for the climb. You may think I’m exaggerating, but these stairs are s-t-e-e-p. Oh, and did I mention that, once inside our room, the attached bathroom requires you to climb three additional stairs?

A Beautiful Hike 

A significant draw to this region is the challenging and beautiful hiking trail that connects all five villages. It starts in Monterosso, then goes through Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and, finally, Riomaggiore, with the hiking transitioning from most challenging to easiest, respectively. This hike has been in our plans from the beginning, and we intentionally scheduled the day we’d do it to be on Missy’s birthday, as she anticipated this being her favorite part of our trip. This was her dream — to spend her 40th birthday hiking in Cinque Terre. And so it is.

We lay out our gear — CamelBaks? Check. Hiking shoes? Check. Sunblock? Check. Camera? Check. Double check the sunblock? Yup. We’ll be hiking in 85-90-degree weather with high humidity and my Casper-like, Irish skin needs all the protection it can get! We turn in early so we can be up and at ’em before double digits (a big deal for us!).

I set the alarm for 7 o’clock (making sure it’s AM this time!), and drift off into slumberland. Of course, when the alarm goes off, I hit snooze a bunch of times, so we don’t get to breakfast until 8:30 AM. Hey, it’s still before 10!

We fill our CamelBaks (best invention, ever) at the local water fountain and off we go. I’m mentally prepared for a challenging day of hiking, but am also glad that we’re starting out at the most difficult part, so it’ll get easier as we go. It’s hard to see from the ground where exactly we’ll be climbing, so we start at the sign that points to Corniglia and follow the trail.

The hike, even at the outset, is pretty darn steep, but I know it’s going to be worth it. Because it’s early, the heat and humidity is low, making the start of our trek more bearable. We have about two hours of hardcore hiking ahead of us before reaching the next village and Missy is already smiling ear to ear. Her birthday dream is happening.

Not being in the best shape of my life, it’s perfect to be taking on this challenge with Missy — no one makes me feel as safe and supported as she does. Her excitement is infectious, and she reminds me that we can take as many breaks as we need.

We climb and climb, and climb some more. Will we ever go downhill? Or even walk a flat path? It doesn’t feel that way, but with each section hiked, the view gets more and more stunning. We’re looking down over olive trees and
olive trees, grapes
grape vines, then our eyes feast on the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea. It is truly magnificent.

As I continue to climb, I feel stronger and stronger, and so proud of myself for taking this on. I’m beaming, Missy’s beaming, the sun is beaming. We are blessed.

We reach Corniglia, and are eager to rest and have some food. We walk to the center of the village and sit down on a set of stairs leading up to an old, beautiful chapel. We’re tired, soaked with sweat, sore, and couldn’t be happier. As we munch on our bread, cheese, Nutella, and fruit, we sit in silence and take in the beauty that’s all around us.

After we’re full and hydrated, we decide to do a little geocaching before getting back on the trail. The search takes us to a paved soccer field where, although empty, I can almost hear the joy and laughter of kids as they kick a ball around. Following our GPS coordinates, we find the small cache tucked into the stone wall near the playground. Our first international find! We sign our names to the log and hide it back away.

padlocks of loveAs we head back out on our trek through the rest of the villages, we learn that there had been a rockslide the day before (not uncommon), so we couldn’t hike to the next village, and instead, had to take a train. We continue our journey to Manarola, and then onto Riomaggiore. Our journey takes us along Via dell’Amore, or the Pathway of Love. For a lovely little story about the history behind the name of this path, click here. Along the Via dell’Amore, we find lots of lovers’ graffiti, professing their commitments to each other. We also see lots of padlocks, and learn that people, when walking the path with their love, will lock in their love by leaving a lock on a bridge or fence. Very sweet!

As we reach the top of the path, we decide to have a rest, a cocktail, and some bruschetta at the Bar dell’Amore and take in the backdrop-like view. We toast to our accomplishment thus far, and to Missy’s birthday, all the while knowing more magic is yet to come.

Welcomed Relief 

We continue on until we reach Riomaggiore where we find a “beach” that’s calling our names. I put “beach” in quotes because it’s not like any we have where we live. Instead of sand, there’s boulders and rocks. The coveted spots on this beach are the big, flat rocks on which you can put your towel to lie on. We don’t care. We’re just happy to rest and take a swim. Besides, the large rocks create perfect barriers behind which we can change into our suits!

After a long, strenuous hike, the refreshment of diving into the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea can not be adequately described in words. Perfecto! Floating in the water, we each sound like broken records. “Oh, this feels so good.” “Oh my gosh, this is so nice.” We repeat ourselves over and over and over. We are so in the moment, acutely aware of the water as it comes in contact with each part of our body. Yup, this must be what Heaven feels like.

We finish up our time on the beach and decide to take the ferry back to our village. No need to make the hike again! The views from the boat are gorgeous, the refreshing breeze on our face feels amazing, and it’s so cool to see, from this vantage point, the entire stretch that we just hiked. Wow, were we high! So freakin’ incredible!the magic of Vernazza

Back at our village now, we face the 52 double stairs again. Really? This after hours of hiking? As you can imagine, we took breaks after each flight! We get to our room and collapse. It’s weird because we’re both exhausted and energized. We take turns indulging in a long, leisurely shower before getting ready for Missy’s birthday dinner at Al Castello — a restaurant located at the base of a castle, offering the most magnificent views in the village.

Birthday Dinner 

We head off to dinner, all gussied up, and find, you guessed it, a hike to get to the restaurant. Although we knew this in advance, after our day, our legs are spent! We make it and are seated at our requested table for two along the perimeter of the room — the best view in the house! We start off with a litre of house wine (in America, we know to avoid the house wine, but that is so not the case in Italy!) and some delicious bread. I order the pesto lasagna (can’t get enough of this pesto!), and Missy orders a dish of pasta to start, followed by grilled fish. She had no idea what she was in for.

Her fish arrives at our table — in its entirety — head, fins, eyes, everything. As the woman at the table behind us points out, we Americans don’t ever like our food to look like what it is (she was from Idaho).

“What the heck do I do with this?” Missy asks. I just shrug my shoulders.

The nice woman behind us gives us some guidance, having lived in Italy for a year or so. Once we figure out how to eat this thing, we can’t get enough. It’s delicious! Missy had a bit of trouble eating it with its eye staring at her, so I covered it with a piece of lettuce. 🙂 We learn that they serve their fish this way to prove its freshness. “If you’re ever given a block of fish in a restaurant in Italy, it’s not fresh,” our waiter tells us. Good to know! After finishing dinner and paying the bill, we’re given two shots of homemade Limoncello. The drink is so strong, neither of us can get it down, despite having had it at home before. The bottles at home are nothing like the homemade kind here!

vernazza at nightWe finish up dinner and head back down to the village center. We sit along the beach wall, digesting our delicious meal and enjoying the sunset. Rick Steves warned us that the magic of Cinque Terre would slowly settle in, making it so you didn’t want to leave. We’re glad this is only our second night here and we have one more coming.

After resting a bit, we head off to get some gelato at a quaint, little market. Pesto, bruschetta, and gelato — I can’t get enough of any of it!

It’s been a long, full, and unforgettable day, and now it’s time to retire.

Beach Day!

The next day we decide to relax on the beach of Monterosso — the most resort-like village of Cinque Terre. We rent an umbrella and two chairs (despite being resort-ish, the beach is still rocks — just pebbles this time), and settle in for the afternoon. We’ve got reading material, iPods, sunscreen, and towels. What we should have brought was our

Missy in Monterossowater shoes! Walking into the water on this beach is painful! The rocks kill any normal person’s feet, let alone my super-sensitive ones! (I can’t walk barefoot on our seagrass rug at home!) Once we get into the water, it’s so worth it — beautiful, clean relief from the 90+ degree heat and beating sun. We swim for longer than we want to, only to avoid the walk back to our chairs.

Next, we’re off to find some lunch. We get a lovely table at a beachside restaurant and dine while looking over the sea. While it’s not the best service, the food is still great (as is the wine!) so it serves the purpose. Clearly we’re getting a little spoiled with the food here!

We wrap up our day at the beach and take the train back to Vernazza. After a much-needed low-key night to follow our low-key day, we’re exhausted. We turn in early as our travels begin again tomorrow when we’re off to Umbria to meet our next CouchSurfing hosts! We re-pack once again, get ourselves organized, and prepare the itinerary for the next day. We need to train it back to La Spezia and then find the rental car place (not at the train station!) to pick up our Fiat. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find, right?

*To read part 5 in my Adventures in Italy blog series, about the Green Heart of Italy — Umbria, click here.

For a brief video about the Cinque Terre, see below:

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  1. Bella! It makes us want to jump into the car and head south!!!!!

  2. A delightful story. The pictures are wonderful! How special to visit Italy for you two as a birthday gift. The walking would end my trip! Nice to read and see it through your eyes.

    Love DAD

  3. Kerri…..How beautifully you write!
    I am following along with you, and feel my own desire to travel begining to awaken.
    I know the path through the 5 towns, through the Rick Steves special. I am adding your commentary to his video and can vicariously travel that stretch in my mind..I am all smiles..
    I am waiting to read “the book”…..
    Be well…..Helene

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