You will have to excuse the sappy nostalgia of this weeks’ post—I discovered a recent photo a few months ago and was eager to write about the memories it stirred up in me. There’s a reason why this week is the week I write about it too, because September 8 is the eight-year anniversary of my hike through the Italian preservation known as Cinque Terre (translates to ‘Five Lands’).
If you read any travel guide, Cinque Terre is typically labeled as a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting the Italian Riviera. It’s smaller than the trodden towns along the Amalfi Coast, but thanks to its National Park preservation status, the trails in between give you a more authentic look at the natural coastline of this country. Rick Steves (author of his self-titled series of guidebooks, aka ‘The Bible’) raves about the five towns in this region regularly, and encourages anyone planning a trip to spend at minimum two nights there. And with hiking trails, white anchovies, chilled Liguarian wine, and beaches at every stop, it’s not surprising why this place comes so highly recommended.
I think about this place all the time still, but specifically September 8, 2008. On this day, I woke on a beach hidden deep below the cliff side of Cinque Terre’s two towns of Corniglia and Vernazza.
It was actually Rick Steves’ guidebook that brought us there too–I had made friends with some hikers in my program, and we still had a few weeks left of warm, summer weather and wanted to take advantage of a trail with both stunning views and swimming. We did some research, and because of the guidebook’s heavy push to see this place, we decided it would be a great way to get that hiking fix. We took an early train from Florence’s main train station to La Spezia, a coastal town outside of Pisa, and switched there to enter the five towns. (A note if you want to visit there: Cinque Terre has its own rail system that stops in each of the five towns. You can hike between each one as well, but if hiking isn’t your thing, you can still go from town to town by train. All you need to do is buy a Cinque Terre rail pass at La Spezia train station).
Stop one on the train is Riomagiorre. The ride from La Spezia is only ten or so minutes long, with the final portion cutting into the rocks of the mountainside. Sitting in complete darkness, I was staring at my reflection, probably rearranging my ponytail or telling some story to my travel companions while simultaneously watching for a view to appear, when a short spurt of light poked through, revealing our first sight of the sea crashing upon the rocks. I gasped, audibly, so much so that my friend burst into laughter. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.
Our two-day hike had a lot of similar, jaw-dropping moments—the region is stunning, with pastel homes built into the cliffs overlooking the Liguarian sea. Life moves a little slower in Cinque Terre too—the locals are up early, taking advantage of the morning to get their boats out and bring supplies down to the ocean side stores and restaurants before the tourists roll in. You forget the rest of the world for a moment, with every turn bringing you a new surprise, a new photo opportunity, and new memory to store away.
I truly believe the best way to experience a place is on foot—it gives you a chance to take the time to see everything and to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of where you are. In Cinque Terre, walking the narrow (and steep) streets in many cases is your only option too—in the five towns–Riomagiorre, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare—cars aren’t allowed in the center part of the cities (Monterosso is the exception, with wider streets for cars and a more level beach).
For the amateur hiker, I would recommend walking the first two legs, starting at Riomagiorre and walking to Manarola and onto Corniglia, which includes the popular ‘Lover’s Lane,’ complete with locks along the covered stone pathway. You will need to purchase a pass to hike (it’s less than 10 euros for the day pass, and you can purchase it at any trail entrance), and be sure to check the weather and trail conditions (depending on the season, mudslides or the threat of falling rocks will close portions of the trails). Regular hikers will find more of a challenge between the last three towns, and there is a network of trails that go through the higher peaks if you have the time to check it out.
If I can make one recommendation though, it is this—do not miss Vernazza.
On that particular trip in 2008, we climbed down a narrow, steep path (with ropes to attached to the rock for safety), which strayed from our main path, just to get to the staircase leading to the beach. Because it was so hot, we dedicated most of our afternoon to swimming. As the sun started to set, we climbed back up into the hills and stopped in Vernazza. If you do even the most minimal amount of research on this region, Vernazza will always pop up—it’s the picturesque cove town, with a stone watchtower looming over the curved docks. Here is where I spend most of my time when I return to Cinque Terre every few years—I would recommend trying to find a room here, but book well in advanced, most travelers will have the same idea.
On this specific occasion, we only had a short stay in Vernazza. We grabbed a few bottles of wine and pizza from a local shop, and ate dinner seated by the cove that protected the small fishing boats from the rough seas around the bend. The air was still that night, and we packed our bags to hit the trail one more time, this time, to find a quiet place to camp. We went backwards, back to the beach we had found earlier in the day, and watched the sun set, feet in the sand, wine passing around between the four of us.
The beach was small, only about 400 feet from the cliffs to the breakers. Between the two borders was a large rock, and we set up our camp behind that, lying our sleeping bags in a row with only the night sky as our cover. The idea was, with the rock there, we would have some protection from the tide, giving us a chance to pack up and move if it came all the way up to the wall. I doubt I slept for more than an hour or two that night, but looking up at the stars and hearing the faint sound of waves crashing, I felt comforted—I felt home.
As expected, the tide woke us first—it hit the feet of one friend, and started a chain reaction of us waking up in a rush, and we moved to higher ground to watch the sun rise from the vineyards above our heads. But before we climbed back up the cliffs to start our second day of hiking, we wanted to leave a mark, so we scratched the name of our school and the date into the cliff side. It was our small reminder of the memory we had there, of the experience we shared.
I don’t want to sound too corny, but I really fell in love with Cinque Terre on that trip—it was such a new experience for me, and between the hiking, the swimming, and the camping, I pushed myself way outside of my usual comfort zone. Since that first trip, I try to go back as often as I can. I brought my family later in 2008 when my semester in Florence was ending, and I returned in 2011 with two of my other friends during our trip across Italy. For me, returning to Cinque Terre is like returning to myself—I get a chance to revisit the place that help shaped who I am today. But I also love bringing people there who have never experienced Cinque Terre before. The reaction is always the same—we sit in the dark on that train, passing through the rock, and that first blip of ocean, that first glimpse, is enough to make anyone gasp. I still do every time.
Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.