On Sunday morning at 9:57am, Nik and I took our 2nd Class seats in a compartment of 6 and rode for 3 hours from Termini Station in Rome to La Spezia Centrale. Then we transferred to a local train for the final 15 minutes of our journey to Monterosso Al Mare (Red Mountain of the Sea), which is the northern most town within the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. The train rides were uneventful in a depressing way, I was tired from another restless night combatting an allergic reaction to laundry detergent, it was 2 hours past lunchtime, I was carrying 4 months worth of luggage, we had been warned about pick-pockets 5 times within the last 10 minutes, we were slowly walking shoulder-to-shoulder with 100s of gawking tourists and students towards an underground tunnel which nearly caused me to have a panic attack, and Nik was stopping every 10 seconds to take photos. I could not handle it so I took it out on him by whining that I just wanted to get to our hotel. He had been looking forward to visiting Cinque Terre for over a decade, and was excited to capture his first impressions. He calmly told me that he wanted to do this, and at that, I accepted that we were in one of the most incredible places I had ever been. The Mediterranean Sea was to my right, an historic town dating from the 11th century was to my left, and my husband was beside me documenting it all. Basically, I had no reason to be in a foul mood.
We checked into Manuel’s Guesthouse at the top of the hill (highly recommended…no pun intended!), set our bags in the closet, and dropped our jaws as we stepped out onto the terrace. I honestly could have sat there all day long, but Nik was ready to explore. He really wanted to walk all the way to the next town before sunset, but given my exhausted state and the fact that we could enjoy the view from our balcony, we compromised and only went to the nearby church. We tried to stop for food on our return trip around 3pm, but found that nearly everything was closed so we gave up and took a nap.
We went back out around 6:30 to the nearby Gastronomia San Martino which is a fantastic little place. The owner/chef sets a menu based on his whim for the day and either heats up prepared dishes or cooks pasta to order. The catch is that all meals are take-away only which is perfect because we could bring it back home to take advantage of our view. We ordered ravioli filled with spinach in an almond sauce, spaghetti bolognese, and grilled vegetables.
(Since the first night, we have gone back twice. We have ordered two versions of hearty lasagna, one meat and one vegetable, as well as a grilled vegetables and fettuccine that were all delicious.)
After a restful night of sleep, hot showers and a breakfast of breads, cheeses, fruit and cappuccino, we set out early on our second day to hike as much of the coastal trail between the 5 towns of Cinque Terre as we could. The path between Monterosso and Vernazza was through lemon trees busting at the seams with ripe fruit, olive groves full of new buds but not a single olive, and a few terraced vineyards that had been cut back for the winter. Some of the larger and steeper farms had elevated monorails that made Nik’s head spin. He has dreamed about building a miniature train in his back yard, and every time we go on a hike or spend time in a large park, he mentions his dream. Now he has seen it in person, and has done the research to know that the Swiss-made pre manufactured version will cost approximately $125,000 for 300 meters. He also knows that we have some handy family members that are good with automotives that might be able to help design and build one!!!
The path itself was narrow and made with stones set into a mud bed and lined with meticulously built stone walls where the earth had to be cut back to make way for pedestrians. During the first couple hours, we only saw 3 or 4 other hikers which made us thankful that we decided to come during the off season.
In Vernazza, we wandered through narrow streets and up and down ancient stone steps between buildings that had tilted and twisted over time. All of the town’s shutters were modern green metal contraptions, and most were closed. I am not sure if that is because most of the buildings are hotels that are only open during the summer and have been closed for winter, or if most people simply keep their shutters closed.
On the path between Vernazza towards Corniglia, we passed more and more hikers. Each time I did a quick evaluation of their clothing and their conversational style to decide if they should be greeted with the native “Buongiorno” or “Hello”. I used Italian most of the time so that our nationality was ambiguous, but occasionally it was nice to connect with fellow Americans with a familiar greeting.
Corniglia was supposed to be our final stop for the day, but the day was still young and the weather incredible. We decided to take the train on to the fourth town, Manarola, because we could and because this was the town that Nik REALLY wanted to see. He claimed that it was the most photogenic and that if he was to have a dusk photo of any town, Manarola was the town he wanted.
We arrived at the Manarola train platform around 4:30pm to find the perfect viewpoint. First we went south along the base of the town and quickly realized that we could not see the city from there. We could see the sea, so we lingered for a while as clouds moved in and out. Next we went north and found our spot on an elevated walkway about 30 feet above the water where we could see the city open towards the Sea and nestle into the mountains. We sat there for well over an hour watching tourists take selfies with the town as their background.
The sun eventually set and Nik captured his perfect moment even though very few the town’s residents came home to open their shutters for him. As the sky turned black, we consulted my phone for dinner recommendations and settled on Nessun Dorma, a bar perched at the top of a hill opposite the town with the view above. We were one of three couples at the outdoor bar, and once again, we were thankful we had come during the off season. Our drinks, bruschetta and panini were perfect after a day walking by the sea.
Our third day began with another great breakfast with Manuel (the guest house namesake) and a hike up to the cemetery at the top of the mountain between the new and old areas of Monterosso. The grounds were well maintained and the memorials dated back as far as the early 1900s with clergy members situated on the western edge facing the sea.
After the local jaunt, we took the train to the fifth and final town of Riomaggiore. The literal translation of the town name is “Grand River” because a river once ran through the center of town with only bridges connecting the northern and southern slopes. Nik and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have water rushing beneath our paths, and wished we had seen the town then. But we were also grateful that the town had continued to prosper, so if covering the river was necessary for progress and stability, I understand it.
We knew it would be raining for most of our fourth and final day, so when it was barely sprinkling after breakfast, we took advantage of the decent weather to go further uphill to the car road that services all five towns. It is positioned about half way up the side of the mountain and has hairpin turns every 1000 meters or so. As we walked on the shoulderless narrow road, Vespa Apes (pronounced app-ee), delivery trucks, Fiat hatchbacks and construction vehicles passed going both directions. It was not the most relaxing walk we have had here, but it’s always good to see how the locals get around! We ended the walk at the private club located at the northern edge of the public Monterosso beach. It was an unremarkable building with a small “marina” filled with small boats.
On the way back we had lunch at Trattoria da Oscar which came highly recommended by our host. It is a 14 seat restaurant nicely designed with a well-lit arched stone ceiling and simply painted steel blue tables with pumpkin orange chairs. When we sat down, it was empty and the hostess (that I assume was an owner?) took our order of a caprese salad, marinated mussels and gnocchi with pesto. It was all amazing, especially the mussels.
The meal was followed by piccolo (small) gelati (pl. gelato), and then we confined ourselves to our room as it rained outside to edit photos and write our blog posts.
*Photo taken by the daughter of a lemon-eating American on our first day in Cinque Terre and edited by Nik.