If you don’t know about The Cinque, well, now you’re gonna know.
Cinque Terre is a national park, a collection of five small fishing villages situated on the coast where the mountains meet the sea. The order of cities, from south to north, is Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. They are characterized by their brightly colored buildings, clustered on the edge of the water. Each town is small; it takes no more than an hour – usually less- to see one in its entirety. There is a train that runs through the area and stops at each town, with the shortest travel time between cities at 4 minutes and the longest at about 15. In addition to using the train to travel up and down, there are hiking paths going from city to city. Due to natural forces, some of these paths are closed, but the (arguably) best one is open, going from Corniglia to Monterosso (or the reverse).
When visiting The Cinque, most people (I’m talking about backpackers on a budget here) try to stay in La Spezia. It’s about 30 minutes south of Riomaggiore, and there’s a great hostel located there. Since we like to book things less than 4 days in advance, this hostel was completely full when we wanted to stay. Instead, we booked the only hostel in Biassa, a small mountain town between La Spezia and Riomaggiore. When I say small, I mean two-restaurants-two-small-markets small. When we tried to eat at the locals’ favorite restaurant, we were given the silent treatment from a couple rude waiters who didn’t care if we ate there or not. They literally wouldn’t give us any of the (open) tables. Safe to say, the people of Biassa really don’t like tourists.
After eating dinner at the hostel instead (the food was actually delicious), we drank some wine with a couple of the girls at the hostel. They’d been there a couple days, so they told us about their experiences with the hostel (bad) and in The Cinque (good). The men working at the hostel must have associated me and Em with these girls, who pissed them off, so of course they treated us like crap our entire stay. Still, we did make friends with our girls Anna and Zoe. Anna was a Swede, and taught us the phrase, “Bit ihop,” meaning “bite it” or “just do it.” This became one of our favorite sayings during the trip, and sort of a motto for us.
For our first full day, we decided that it was the right day for the beach since the weather was warm. Em, Anna and I took the train to Monterosso, the only town with an actual beach. As we laid there for a couple hours, alternating between swimming and tanning, we discovered where to get the pina coladas we’d been craving: a little beach shack serving Drunk Ass Buckets (real name). The bartenders made them right there in front of you, pina coladas and margaritas and other delicious, alcoholic beverages. The buckets were huge and made perfect companions for our beach day. That night, we hung out at the hostel with Zoe, Anna, and our new friends Nick, Cain, and Heather. “Hanging out” means a couple bottles of wine, several limoncello shots, and trading stories. While not a huge fan of limoncello in the past, the stuff in The Cinque is delicious and well known throughout Italy.
Our second full day there, we decided that we would hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, and then (hopefully) Vernazza to Corniglia. Think of it as going from 5 to 4, and 4 to 3. Anna, Em and I took the train all the way up, and followed the crowd up the hill to the beginning of the trail. While it’s not the hardest hike, it’s definitely not easy. The entire thing (to Vernazza) took us around 3 hours. While there are some flat parts, much of our way was made up of stairs. Add to this the fact that the day was warm and muggy, and you can understand why everyone on that trail was sweating buckets.
The hike is one of the best ones I’ve ever been on. It feels like you’re trekking through a jungle when suddenly you can turn a corner and be met with a stunning view of the sea. At certain points, you can look up the coast line and see where the other 4 cities jut out. The water is blue and clear and sparkles under the sun.
When we finally made it to Vernazza (we ran out of water with 45 minutes of the hike left), we grabbed food and gelato. I ducked into a random gelato place and got some of the best of my life: they were known for their blackberry and their lemon flavors. I got them together in a cup, and I have to say that I don’t think I’ll ever have something that good again.
After wandering Vernazza a bit, we took the train to Corniglia; we were tired and didn’t want to walk. However, Corniglia is not like the other towns: when you get off the train, you then have to climb 400 steps up the cliffside to the village itself. It was very cute and quiet in a quaint sort of way. The view from the lookout spot is spectacular, especially since you can find 3+ cats roaming around or lying in doorways.
That night at the hostel was much the same as before: wine, limoncello, laughing with new friends until 1 in the morning. We made a plan for the next day, however: we would meet back in Riomaggiore at 7 so that we could watch the sunset all together. Anna, Em and I spent a lazy day in Manarola, swimming and sunning ourselves as best we could with not a lot of sun. We headed back to Riomaggiore, where we shared a bottle of cheap, house wine and an awesome appetizer platter. We met back up with the group, picked up a couple of beers and some cones of seafood, and went to watch the show. Riomaggiore doesn’t have a beach, per se; there are a bunch of rocks that you can sit on, and stairs leading down to the water. We clustered on the rocks, each finding our own little nook, and sat back. The sunset was amazing, breaking through the clouds and lighting up the coastline. Somebody suggested a swim, so at 8pm I jumped into the sea and watched the sunset from the water. Trust me, it’s way better from there.
The best way I can describe The Cinque and how I felt about it is that you constantly get a little jolt of realization. I’m here. I’m in Italy. I am so lucky to be where I am right now. And, most of all, there’s nowhere else I want to be. Surrounded by great people, who are now my friends, and one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s a kind of perfect bliss that doesn’t come along that often. Fortunately for me, Europe has given me several of these moments.
We were very sad to leave The Cinque, and our friends. But we were headed somewhere just as amazing, but in a different way… Florence.
Ciao, Cinque Terre!