Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Cinque-freakin'-Terre, baby!

The Cinque Terre - to whomever it was that told us we MUST NOT MISS this section of Italy... thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Riomaggiore is the southernmost of the five towns and it is here where we booked our two night stay. It turned out to be like Siena in that we booked a room and then once we showed up, we were walked up the hill to the apartment to which we had been assigned. It is not lightly that I say uphill because it literally was a 10-12 minute walk straight uphill on staircase after staircase. We slept on the top of the town, and though we did not have a view of the sea, our window opened onto a nice little courtyard with lemon trees backed by steeply rising hillside which peaked a short distance away. There had been a booking snafu at the "hostel", which had told us we'd have 2 dorm beds; instead, we were required to upgrade to a private room (still with shared bathroom), though we only had to pay 4 Euros more for this. We initially were a bit irritated because we did NOT want to share a bed, but hey, whatever. Ultimately the private room turned out to be a godsend because we ended up needing to hang and lay out copious amounts of laundry to dry IN THE ROOM after we were unable to get our clothes dry enough at the laundromat before it closed. (Ok, maybe we ran out of coins because I bought a caffe macchiato from a vending machine at the laundromat.) Disgusting, you may think, but au contraire! You had to SEE this machine!! It had fresh espresso beans you could SEE, and when you put in your order, it ground just enough espresso for your shot. A minute later it dropped out a cup with a shot of espresso and a bit of milk, with a little spoon, and a packet of sugar!! Best parts of all, it only cost 50 cents (Euro) AND it was better than Starbucks by far!

It was here that Trip decided to try to get a "faux-hawk", the name which we have given to the male haircut that has swept through Europe over the last few years. I think David Beckham, the soccer player, first made it popular. Anyway, it's kind of a mohawk, but more subtle, less drastic, and actually kind of cool. (I always am egging Trip on to adopt various hairstyles (i.e., the fauxhawk or the long rocker hair, or dreads) clearly because I am limited in MY ability to show my creativity through anything hair-related.) So, while our laundry was drying, we headed off and found a little shop on one of Riomaggiore's TWO, yes two, streets. After indicating through charades what he wanted, the guy was soon shearing off Trip's blonde American-ness and replacing it with something more fashionable. At least that was the plan. A week has gone by and the fauxhawk still won't stand up at all; we cannot decide if it really was a shitty haircut, or if Trip is just as American as they come and subconsciously resists any attempt to change that.

We had a boring dinner that cost way too much (seems this is a European trend, as it was like this all over Spain last year and Italy this year) and headed to bed because we were to wake early to begin the hike between the five towns. It's a good thing we got an early start too, because the more the hours passed, the more people we saw on the trail. In the end it turned out to be really way too crowded, but by that time we had seen all the best parts in a relative solitude. In all, it took us about 8 hours to hike the 12 km (about 7 miles or so).

The first section, between Riomaggiore and Manarola, was short and largely paved, called the Via dell'Amore. There was graffiti everywhere, which on one hand was unsightly, and on the other hand really interesting as lovers from all over the world have come to leave their permanent mark of devotion. Some have even left locks, indicating their unbreakable lifetime bond, clasped around various sections of chain that form the barrier between the path and the ocean waves crashing far below.

The second section, between Manarola and Corniglia, was longer, unpaved, and pretty flat until the last section which involved 10 minutes of straight up stairclimbing to the town perched on the hilltop. We grabbed a 10 a.m. beer and salami sandwich and sat at a little town cafe in the shade before striking out for Vernazza. The section between Corniglia and Vernazza was supposed to be closed in one section due to a big landslide, and because of this we were supposed to take a longer detour trail which involved a signficant amount of uphill. So we headed out of town on the trail that was closed, waiting for the detour trail signs...but they never came. After a couple of hours of solid hiking, with a lot of up and down, we started descending into Vernazza. Never did we take a detour, but more on that later.

Vernazza was spectacular and by far the most picturesque of the five towns. The town is at sea level, but it is in a steep canyon so there is a steep descent into the town and an even steeper ascent leaving town. Parts of the town are built on a steep rock spit that juts out into the ocean, affording spectacular views and photo opportunities. I think I used half of my camera's memory card in this one town alone. Anyway, we took some time to relax in Vernazza. We had some delicious gelato sitting on a long dock, surrounded by the sea. I hiked to the top of the rock spit and paid a couple of Euros to climb to the top of the castle for photos...a modest castle by Italian standards, but in a most interesting and amazing location. I ended up getting interviewed by a camera crew for the American AFN (Armed Forces Network) that was there in Vernazza doing a piece on travel to be broadcast to the troops. Nothing fancy....just what I've liked about the Cinque Terre, etc.

After spending a couple of hours in Vernazza, we readied ourselves for the final 2 hours or so of hiking into Monterosso. There was a lot of steep climbing and descending and we were far from the sea, without a lot of shade, on a fairly hot day. At some point we stopped to eat dark chocolate and oranges under a shade tree. At another point, there was a Italian guy who looked like Santa Claus, standing along the trail under a tree in the middle of nowhere, selling homemade Limoncello (a liqueur made from vodka, lemons, sugar, and water, I believe). He made it right there on his hillside farm. We had to buy some and partake, of course. It's strong stuff, actually, and we continue to sip it here and there when the mood strikes, but we do wonder if the stuff they sell in the liquor store may be a bit smoother and nicer.

Finally, we descended into Monterosso and there were two long beaches where we could take off our shoes and cool off in the surf. I say cool off because it was COLD...the Oregon Coast's water isn't much colder than the Mediterranean Sea here! We had great pesto lasagne and kick-ass bruschetta for dinner at a little cafe on the beach, which was a major score as we've been getting stuck with a lot of bland, expensive food in small portions throughout Italy. After dinner, we hit a train to get back our B&B in Riomaggiore.

Here's a funny aside, and I say funny because Trip and I are getting NO love from any of the Italian women... I had been checking out this cute girl as we boarded the train, as she was helping her mother down the aisle to find a seat. We ended up facing away from them so I didn't see her again until they got up to disembark. She flashed me a shy smile as they walked down the steps. I turned and told Trip that she'd smiled at me...I then told him that she was going to be waiting at the end of the platform, looking in all the train cars as they passed, hoping to make eye contact with me. He just laughed at me. (I just laughed at me too, because I was totally fantasizing and bullshitting.) Then, sure enough, as the train accelerated and our car passed the end of the platform, there was the girl, looking into all the train cars as they slowly rolled by. And, as we passed, her eyes finally locked on mine and she flashed me a big smile and a coy wave. Ha! Maybe there's hope yet. The next step is to now find a girl that will flirt with me when I'm actually standing in her general vicinity.

Tomorrow we cruise up to's supposed to be a pretty sleepy town, but with an older district at the top of the hill, and a newer lower district where our hostel is located.