We arrived in Riomaggiore in the afternoon sunshine and were immediately enthralled with our surroundings - the train came to a stop on a platform that was built out over the ocean, the buildings were brightly painted and built right into the hill sides, life happened right on the main street where you could find the restaurants, markets, and barber shop. My favorite little old Italian ladies wore their big wool coats and rounded-toe shoes as they sat quietly on the benches that line the main road, and their husbands stood nearby laughing loudly about something, pausing to pet the neighborhood puppy as he ran by. Riomaggiore, the southernmost town of Cinque Terre, was the least touristy, and where many families lived. Up the hill on a terraced square kids played kickball and practiced karate as their parents chatted. Jake and I love when we discover that our temporary home happens to be where locals live, where families congregate, where life happens. This is what we're looking for on this trip - to see how people really live and interact. Our apartment was located about halfway up the hill, between the handful of restaurants below and the lively square above, and lots of stairs in between!
We spent the afternoon getting acquainted with Riomaggiore, walking as far as we could in every direction, up and down stairs, around the rocks to beach where the pebbles chatter as the waves washed over them, on top of the cliffs that overlook a popular fishing spot, noticing the number of lemon trees and staggeringly steep grape vines that line the coastal hills to the north.
For dinner, we chowed down on the gifts of the ocean- a platter of fresh fish (the whole thing), underneath hanging skewers of grilled shrimp, squid, and baby octopus, and a dish of clam linguine to start. I was in seafood heaven!
For our first full day in Cinque Terre, we set out to hike! Unfortunately the trail that runs from Riomaggiore all the way to Monterosso was closed between most of the villages due to rock and mud slides, bad weather coming in, or broken bridges. So we took the train from Riomaggiore to Monterosso to explore the "resort town". Indeed, the biggest of the five towns also had the most hotels along the strand, and the largest sandy beach. But it was still so small that it's really hard to think of as a resort town. We spent the morning walking as far north as we could and ended up climbing 312 meters to the ruins of the San Antonio Monastery. The walk provided gorgeous views of the coast (we could see 3 of the other towns from the top), and little shelter from the on and off rain. Halfway up we stopped under a few trees to get out our umbrellas (the ones we bought in Galway have been useful afterall!) and let a rather torrential downpour pass. By the time we had made our way back down the mountain and had lunch, the rain had disappeared, leaving warm sunny skies- just in time for our 2 hour hike between Monterroso and Vernazza. Like I've said before when talking about Connemara in Ireland, Jake and I are no strangers to national parks. This one is certainly the most interesting one we've seen - the main trail is a narrow path that winds along the coastline, climbing and descending dramatically with steep (and I mean steep) stairs, over small streams and next to staggering cliffs. At one spot, some setup a "cat hotel"- the area has many stray cats and someone put several little padded houses and cans of food out for them. When we walked by, a few kitties were snoozing in their tiny houses next to a sign that asked for a donation and invited us to open a can of food that was stored in a bucket. It was pretty strange, I'm not gonna lie.
Two hours later we reached Vernazza, "the jewel" of Cinque Terre. Not much to say about it except that it was quite pretty. The boats in the small marina swayed back and forth under the shade of colorful buildings and a stone tower. We relaxed with some gelato - my favorite so far, actually! The cinnamon flavor was SO good! - before taking the train back to Riomaggiore. For dinner we pitted two local spots against one another over a local specialty- a paper cone filled with fried anchovies, fried calamari, fried shrimp, fried chunks of white fish (all caught that day!) and whatever else they could fit like fried zucchini, onion rings, or fries. It was "Mamma Mia Take Away" versus "Il Pescato Cucinato", and "Il Pescato Cucinato" took the cake- the batter was so perfectly salty and thin, the fish was so flavorful...I could go for a cone right now!
Eager to check email and connect to the world, we grabbed some beers at the local bar that has wifi (necessary to wash down our salty dinner, too). As we sat and watched the passersby, a group of young girls (probably 21 years old) caught our attention. They walked into the bar and asked the bartender "so where do people, you know, go out around here?" He didn't really know how to respond; first off, he told them "old people live here, there are no clubs. There is this bar or that bar." Second, the bar was playing loud Top 40 music and advertised a "big mojito" in a bucket with one straws (like a scorpion bowl), I think this was the place to satisfy their spring break mentality! And third, isn't it weird to ask a bartender where to go out? Isn't the obvious answer "how about right here?". People watching - one of my favorite things about this trip!
A bit later (we sipped our beers for about 3 hours!), I was reading the weather report to Jake (it's like we're an old married couple). When I mentioned rain, a girl with a southern twang leaned over and asked if that was for the whole week. One thing lead to another and we made new friends! Turns out Blanche and her husband Josh just got married a few days before and were on their honeymoon! These great newly weds are from Lousiana and were great fun the talk to. Soon the one beer Jake and I had intended to drink that night turned into 4 plus a dinner date set for Saturday night! I love when we make friends!
Whenever we make friends in a bar, my headache reminds me the next morning that I'm not all that young anymore. Four beers with Blanche and Josh had me moving a bit slow, but we still made it to the platform of the train station with 15 minutes to spare before our train to the next town over, Manarola, was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately, thanks to the super reliable Italian train system (insert scoff here), our train was about 45 minutes late! And, to add insult to injury, Manarola was less than a mile down the road; our train station at Riomaggiore was at one end of a tunnel, Manarola at the other, and we could see it through the light in the distance. We would have walked, but the trail was closed for maintenance. We considered walking down the center of the tunnel between the tracks, but decided we didn't feel like getting hit by a train or arrested. So we waited.
I'd love to say that our wait to go 1.5 km down the road was totally worth it, but the truth is that Manarola looks just like Roomaggiore, Vernazza, and Monterroso. It was beautiful and the building were brightly colored, and we finished our tour in about an hour and a half. I think it tool is longer to get there than to see the whole town! That night we got Italian take out- fresh homemade pasta and a sauce of our choice packed into a little Chinese takeout box! Our favorite was the trofie, a short pasta about an inch long that's a few millimeters thick with great texture, with pesto. We loved that even the cheap takeout pasta was freshly made by hand just hours before. You can't beat the freshness of Italy!
The next day held more exploring for us (just like everyday), only this time it was CROWDED. We had forgotten that this was a holiday weekend in Europe- happy Labour Day, or May Day! Apparently everyone in Italy thought Cinque Terre would be a good weekend getaway- the train stations were swarming with people. The trains were so packed with people, we missed our train because we couldn't get on! Hoard of people were yelling at one another, pleading for more room, begging others to get off the train so the doors could close- it was total chaos! Like Manarola, Corniglia was pretty close- 2 towns over and less than 2 miles- but we couldn't walk. So we waited, again, under the tunnel and out of the rain, as we watched the platform fill up again with hundreds more. Our transportation to Corniglia took about 2 hours since we couldn't board the first one and , of course, the 2nd one was 30 minutes late.
Corniglia was interesting because it is the only one of the five that does not have direct access to a beach. It sits high on a hill overlooking the water below. To get tithe town, you must climb the steep steps up up up (or take the shuttle, but we wanted to walk!). Up we went for some great views of the coast and the rain clouds blowing across the angry ocean. After a little lunch (mmmm fresh caprese), we decided to not risk missing another train and made our way back to the station. As luck would have it, a train arrived just as we did, so we hopped on and we're back in our home of Riomaggiore within minutes! It turns out the train we caught was an hour late for its scheduled stop, and the train we thought we were catching was also an hour late. At least we didn't have to wait again! It was nice that the delay worked in our favor tat time! When we arrived back in Riomaggiore, the platform heading north to the other towns was still packed with holiday traveled, standing in the rain waiting for their delayed train and fighting for space.
For our last night we went out on a double date with Blanche and Josh. We started the evening with cocktails at a small bar carved into the side of the hill, looking north along the coast. Since we were about to leave Liguria, the birthplace of limoncello, I figured I had to try it. Unfortunately it tasted like a lemon flavored jolly rancher (or what I would imagine one would taste like), and I quickly moved on to Prosecco. After cocktails, we wandered 25 meters down the hill to Dau Cila, a small restaurant right next to the water near the marina. We sat on the patio and enjoyed the cool breeze as we drank the house wine and stuffed ourselves with fresh pasta and sea bass.
We loved chatting about our weddings, life back at home, pets...it's so fun getting to know new friends! We even got them to invite us to Louisiana for Mardi Gras- be careful guys, we're probably going to show up on your doorstep! To finish off the evening we headed back to where it all started, La Zorza Bar, for beers. Of course one beer turned into four (and after wine and drinks before dinner, we were having some fun!), and before we knew it, it was time for us to pour ourselves into bed - we had a 6am train to catch (assuming it would be on time). We hugged our new friends and made our way back through the maze of stairs and walkways one more time.
We loved our stay in Cinque Terre and would recommend it to anyone! Our advice, though, is avoid any holidays and never count on the regional trains to run on time! Just go, relax, and let go of any schedule. You might even make great new friends while you're there. Congratulations Blanche and Josh! We hope you had an amazing honeymoon and can't wait to see you again!