By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea (Part One of Two)

Everyone has seen one of these and had to stop and take notice; beautiful pictures of the Cinque Terre and the Ligurian Sea are all over Facebook, Pinterest, blogs and the web.  The Cinque Terre is one of the most beautiful destinations and most photographed places on our planet.  It has been on my bucket list for at least five years.  Well, this was my year.  The day had finally arrived that I would be visiting the Cinque Terre.

Map of Italy highlighting Cinque Terre
Map of Italy highlighting Cinque Terre

Located in Northern Italy, the Cinque Terre is really not that difficult to get to. Convenient trains run to all five villages from most cities in Italy.  I found a $100 per person, one-day hiking trip advertised through Viator (a TripAdvisor Co.) that included bus transportation to the Cinque Terre from Florence, Italy (as well as lunch, trains between all towns and a boat ride if weather permitted).  Now, this is NOT the best way to experience the Cinque Terre.   The ultimate trip to this area would include a long luxurious sit under an umbrella by the sea in Montorosso with hiking and a lunch in a new town each day.  As for me, I’ll take what I can get – and today I get the whole enchilada in one day.

CINQUE TERRE
CINQUE TERRE

The Viator charter bus picked up me and my family in front of the Santa Maria Novella Train Station bright and early one morning in June.  A couple hours later we passed through La Spezia, a beautiful little port town and home to Italy’s largest naval base.  We started a winding ascent up into the hills and I sensed we were getting close to our destination.  The views overlooking La Spezia and the sea were stunning.

Road to Cinque Terre from La Spezia
Road to Cinque Terre from La Spezia

The bus slowed to a crawl and stopped on a very narrow roadway.  The bus driver informed us that a sign recently placed along this road said buses were not allowed to go any further up the roadway.  All of the passengers must exit and begin our hike immediately.  Today, we had five towns to visit in the Cinque Terre: Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso and Riomaggiori  (and so little time).

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Roads leading to the Cinque Terre
Roads leading to the Cinque Terre
The ledges of the Cinque Terre
The ledges of the Cinque Terre

The first town where we disembarked was Manarola, the second smallest town of the Cinque Terre.  We began with a quick walk downhill on a narrow street with no traffic (but plenty of people) toward a scenic lookout over the clear blue water.  Manarola was a great place to start.

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Manarola

We caught a glimpse of the sea, got a feel for the stacked homes along the pathways and saw the crowds of people already elbow to elbow on some of the narrower sections.  In town, the San Lorenzo Church cornerstone bears the date 1338 giving you the idea of just how old this town is.  Our tour guide told us that these beautiful hill towns were not designed for the large numbers of people descending upon them recently and the roads not designed for large tour buses.  I believe the Cinque Terre we see today will evolve with the increase in tourism and will lose some of its old world feel as the large crowds continue arriving. It is bittersweet to think about this aspect of tourism changing the charm of an ancient landscape.

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Street Scene - Manarola
Street Scene – Manarola

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As we departed Manarola, our tour guides broke the news that our previously described downhill hike had suddenly become an uphill hike since the bus had not been allowed to take us to the highest point.  Therefore, our next town, Corniglia, would take some effort to reach in the form of 33 flights of stairs (or 382 steps).   This was not a time for picture taking.  The steps were challenging for many except the youngsters among us.  The temperature at noon was hovering in the low 90’s this day.

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Map of Italy highlighting Cinque Terre
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Corniglia Steps

Corniglia is the highest village of the five in the Cinque Terre and the only one that does not have its own harbor. Waiting for us at the top of the stairs was our complimentary lunch at the Ristorante Cecio.  This restaurant, perched high atop a hill that looked out over the Ligurian Sea, has a lovely dining patio with breathtaking views. As we sat under the patio catching our breath following the climb, we were told Corniglia is home to only about 240 families.  We enjoyed our lunch as it was the perfect time to rest up, enjoy a seafood and pasta lunch and drink water and wine before heading off towards our next town.  Our lunch today included local fish like anchovies and calamari.   I’ve never been a fan of anchovy until I tried their fresh version.  It was pickled and lemony, not salty like the anchovies placed on pizza back in the states.  The pasta was topped with a fresh pesto sauce for the boys and a fresh tomato sauce for me.

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The view from Ristorante Cecio
The view from Ristorante Cecio

Shortly after lunch we were told that we needed to return to the 382 steps and walk back down them in order to catch our train to Vernazza.  This would be a record setting day for me – 764 steps in a day.  As we walked down the steps (much easier than hiking up them) the view from the summit overlooking the beautiful sea is just terrific.

The view of the sea from Corniglia
The view of the sea from Corniglia

The blue of the water, the flowers in full bloom on the hillside, the ledges that are an essential part of the landscape of farming and agriculture in the Cinque Terre and the men hard at work cutting away grasses and bamboo growing wildly along the trail are just a few of the images I will remember from this part of our hike.  The train tracks appearing at the bottom of the steps were a reminder that before long we would be arriving at our third stop – Vernazza.

My memories of Vernazza are colorful harbor images.  Here I waded in the Ligurian Sea for the first time and watched tourists swim and splash about on a very hot afternoon in June.  How I wished I could peel off my hot clothes and just jump in.   Many people were feeling the effects of the 90 degree temps as we made our way down through the narrow streets in Vernazza that lead to the harbor.  The closer we got to the water, the cooler the air felt.  Our tour guide pointed out the best artisan gelato shop in the Cinque Terre, the Gelateria II Porticciolo, and we promptly made our way over without delay.  Nothing beats melon or lemon gelato on a hot day in the Cinque Terre.  We strolled with our gelato a few steps over to the beach.

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The effects of the devastating mudslide of 2011 that descended on the town of Vernazza  were still evident.  For those of you not familiar with this tragic event, torrential rain and massive flooding resulted in mud sliding down the narrow streets, entering the businesses and essentially burying the town deep in mud.  One can still see on some of the buildings the mud line imprint etched on the colorful buildings and how this little seaside town was buried and had to rebuild (or digout).  Some of the store owners pointed out to me how high the mud was at that location.

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Vernazza

Despite that tragedy just four years ago, the beach and town are still lovely.  Many families were enjoying the clean fresh seawater this day.  Couples were renting kayaks while others just swam.  There is something very surreal about being in a place that you have read about, imagined, or even dreamed about so many times before.

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Here I was with my camera and it was hard to stop taking pictures.  I watched my son skipping stones into the sea.  I watched the couples drinking wine under umbrellas and dining on octopus at tables placed just beside the beach. I can’t imagine a better way to spend the day.  I still had two more towns to visit.  I wish I could have stayed longer (and will one day), but today, it was time to move along and make my way back up hill to the train station that would take me to my next stop, the resort town of Monterosso.

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Fresh Squid
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