Thursday in Cinque Terre ~ Part 1 of 2
Day broke and I was up and out the hostel before you could say “breakfast”. Strapped into the shuttle bus, hurtling far too quickly through Bassia, down the hills and into Cinque Terre, I arrived nice and early into Riomaggiore before the tourists flocked. I tiredly strolled to the rocky shore and climbed onto the rocks for a moment to breathe, listening to the sea waves bump against the tiny wooden boats parked in rows against the cliff faces and getting an amazing view of the whole town.
Early wake-up calls, constant walking and a lack of vegetables started to run me down after a couple of days; my body ached, my throat scratched and my nose was bunged up. I hunted down a cafe on the main road in Riomaggiore and made sure to down a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice before drinking a macchiato and small piece of freshly baked cheesecake and Riomaggiorian lemon pie (don’t judge). I felt super crispy, drinking my beverages and sitting on a little terrace on Via Columbo (the only road) and watching visitors begin to ebb and flow in and out of the town. Old ladies peered out of cracks in windows in the tall pastel tower houses down onto the busy road, braving to venture out onto their terraces every now and again.
With pretty much the whole of Wednesday to thoroughly explore Cinque Terre, I had to make my move. I hopped onto a train to Vernazza, the second town from the North, but in futile; as a photographer you always need the best light to capture a place/person/environment – this time of day was definitely NOT the best time of day to see Vernazza, the sun rising up behind the town and casting the worst backlight onto the town, making it look hazy and, although still beautiful, a bit … meh. In fact, the entire town was trickily placed in relation to the sun, as returning toward sunset later in the day yielded an orangey glow that washed out all the beautiful tower house colours. I did my best to just enjoy the view and the experience, but my pedantic photographic nature nibbled away at me.
Unable to capture the town how I wanted to through a lens, I spontaneously decided to do the hike from town to town, almost to relieve the unnecessary frustration. Now, I was definitely not well equipped to do this hike. I had heard it wasn’t too tricky, some people even daring to do it in flip-flops and a bikini – do not do these hikes in flip-flops or a bikini. I mistakenly, but through no other choice, did two of the possible hikes in Dr Marten shoes (the only pair of shoes I had brought) and my feet were… let’s say, worse for wear. Nonetheless… if you’re up for it, or even if you’re not, I’d say doing at least one hike is a MUST when visiting Cinque Terre – you’ll still have plenty of time to explore each town too.
The first of the two hikes I did was from Vernazza to Corniglia, towns two and three. It probably took around an hour and a half, walking fairly leisurely – not too steep or rocky and very refreshing at that time of day. However the second left me… lets say, again, worse for wear; the sun burned my ghostly white arms and neck as I, mistakenly, began the hike at midday; I had to employ my light jacket to mop up the perpetual sweat rolling off my body; my legs began to tremble rather madly after the 2.5-3 hour non stop walking. That said…. it was truly the most stunning of the two hikes and the best experience I had had over the trip – it’s like they say, you gotta crack a couple of eggs to make an omelette. Lucky for me the easier hiking trail was closed due to recent landslides in the area – alas, I had to take the path less travelled.
On my journey, there were groups of 60/70-year-olds, equipped with safari style hats, hiking boots and those walking sticks that look like ski poles doing far better than me on the trail. Once you had completed a steep set of rocky steps up one cliff face and turned a corner, another dusty, rocky path loomed, twisting and turning through the forest and into the darkness. A soundscape of severe panting and heavy breathing accompanied the hike, from both myself and those around me. But it was strangely what one could use to bond with others; at one point, one German lady caught my eyes (which were probably watery and red with tears of pain at this point), chuckled, wiped the beads of sweat from her brow and puffed out “SCHWIERIG!” (meaning “hard” in German).
The steep rocky inclines and dusty, rough ground made treading all the more difficult as even more lurked in the distance. But once the ground began to level off slightly, flatter paths becoming longer and less awful, it made the struggle a bit more bearable. Quite suddenly, I had walked around a bend on the rock-face, and I was aghast; the most beautiful landscape appeared.
The terraced vineyards were magnificent, the unique pattern a result of centuries of work and culture intimately linked to wine production. Rows and rows of grape vines on thin paths were layered behind and above one another, stone and land carved from the rock-front in a way that seemed each leaf was given the chance to look at the sea. The vibrant green from afar seemed faded up close, turning into a more yellowish hue and the dusty pale paths made the waved carvings even more spectacular, almost like frozen waves of water, but in foliage and earth. If you looked a bit closer, into the distance, tiny moving specks revealed vineyard growers hard at work; working in the Cinque Terre vineyards means being a combination of farmer, general labourer, stone mason, and architect. These terraced strips, called ‘ciàn’ in the local dialect, ornament the hills of Cinque Terre and is luckily home to one path in the Manarola to Corniglia hiking trail, so you can get a behind the scenes of wine production and agriculture in the area. Luckily this unique “wine landscape” has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 so the beauty will surely last for years and years to come.
The view was just astounding. The bright blue-green water below that met the same hue of bright blue sky starkly contrasted the green ‘cian’ encrusted hills in the foreground – talk about photogenic landscapes. I lost a lot of time on the hike just because I stopped so much to soak it all in on this path through the vineyards, stumbling up and down dusty steps in between vines and taking cheeky mini detours into some of the farmer’s working areas to look at the tools used for agriculture. Twenty minutes or so into walking through the vineyard, other kinds of groves and orchards emerged that gave way to more Italian agriculture, such as lemons, oranges, olives and even elderberries (which is unusual seeing as they’re usually found near water and in colder parts of an environment – as far as I know). I was in heaven, slowly strolling along the trail, eyes slightly glazed over, making a big change from the heavy huffing and puffing and fast-paced struggle of the first part of the hike. It was truly stunning and I’m gonna say it again; if you go to Cinque Terre, make sure you do this hike… it’s really magical.
Approaching magnificent Manarola.