One of Italy’s greatest gems is the area known as Cinque Terre, a national park (and marine park) consisting of five small villages and the surrounding area. With dramatic scenery, colourful houses and a sense of isolation, Cinque Terre is a treat to visit.
Unless you come during a train strike, when three of the four famous walking trails are closed.
The five villages of Cinque Terre are connected by a hike that should, if you take the time to stop and explore each village, most of the day to complete. The trail is supposedly well marked and busy enough that, should I have been unable to find a hiking buddy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. I knew that the trail between villages #2 and #3, Manarola and Corniglia, was more or less permanently closed but was very surprised to find that the others were as well. The only one that was open was the walk between Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare… but, to walk on the official trails you need to spend €12 on the Cinque Terre card. It would also give you unlimited use of the regional trains for the day.
Busabout dropped us off just before lunch at that train station in La Spezia, the gateway into the Cinque Terre. We had close to an hour until the train would come, so I made a beeline for the tourist information desk to see about acquiring a map and to finish fleshing out the plans for the next day. The woman, cheerfully told me that there would be a train strike and that I might not want to buy the Cinque Terre card just yet.
This was the first I had heard of the train strike and I looked for my fellow Busabouters, desperate to warn them of the incoming storm. It was the first they had heard of the train strike as well. Another mark against me, however, is that I was staying in Corniglia which was the smallest village and the only one that the small ferry/tour boat didn’t stop in. Great planning on my part.
Corniglia was also the only hilltop village and getting to the main square, where my hostel was, required either a 15-20 minute uphill walk, complete with a staircase that was approximately 400 steps high… or a €1.50 bus fare that took you door to door. I quickly, and without question, shelled out the €1.50.
Asking tourism and train officials about the train strike became a new source of entertainment for me because everyone seemed to have a different answer. The only consensus was that, if I wanted to be guaranteed to get onto a train, I should be at the train station in Corniglia by 7am. Then I could hike between the villages – taking the high trail that was classified, for some reason, as “expert hikers only” and which other travellers were of two different minds about. One opinion, coming from travellers who looked pretty fit, said the hike was terrible. Others said it wasn’t that bad.
I had a chance to explore Monterosso al Mare and spend a bit of time on its sandy beach. You can apparently swim at all of the villages, but Monterosso is the only one that actually has a beach. The others just involve navigating around sharp rocks and trying not to injure yourself. This village felt more like a town and was extremely busy, especially compared to the quiet atmosphere of Corniglia. I took the train to the next stop down, noting i would technically have enough time to get off the train, explore Vernazza and get back on the next one without having to buy a ticket. That was the theory, at least – in reality, the trains in Italy are always late and these regional trains were the worst.
Vernazza was another picturesque little town and I walked its winding main street towards the water’s edge. There was a massive landslide here several years ago and a large photo mural documented the immediate aftereffects. Walking around, however, you would have no idea that the first floor of most buildings had been covered in mud and dirt. The town, quieter than Monterosso al Mare, still had plenty of tourists and many bustling restaurants, bars and shops. I had some time to kill before my train and stopped for a glass of local wine, enjoying the selection of snacks that had been laid out on the bar’s counter. Small sandwiches, potato chips, cheese and meats were all on offer – and were, as intended, the perfect thing to cure a bit of late afternoon hunger.
I met a Canadian girl, Danika, in the hostel and we agreed to basically hang out around Corniglia the next day. We weren’t overly ambitious, didn’t feel like getting up too early and felt that a bit of relaxation time in the village would be a great idea. We planned to firm up plans that evening, but first I needed to eat something. I had purchased a small watercolour earlier in the day and the artist had recommended a restaurant near the top of the staircase, but when I checked it out the prices were a bit high and I think the entire meal, including service and cover (an annoying Italian habit of charging you for the privilege of sitting down) would have come in at well over €30.
There was a small restaurant I had spotted earlier with a seaside view and I settled in, ready to sample the local food and wine. Frito misto, a local specialty, basically consisted of a mess of lightly battered and deep fried seafood served with a plate of french fries. I had no idea what I was getting, beyond the fact that it was seafood, so when the plate showed up I stared at it, slightly confused at what exactly I was eating. Jumbo shrimp was the easiest to identify, but with a bit of pointing and a few questioning looks, I finally figured out what the rest of it was. It’s not like it affected whether I was going to eat or not – I was just curious. I was really impressed by this place because when I went to pay she actually rounded down by €0.80 – this was the first time I’ve ever had someone round down a bill.
The house wine, by the way, was absolutely fantastic. I had ordered a small carafe of the white and it had all sorts of bright, fresh citrus notes. I never order the house wine in Canada because it’s usually terrible or cellared in Canada, but the Italians have too much pride to have ever allowed something as terrible as cellared in Canada to happen there. The only place in Italy that had a terrible house wine was the PLUS Camping Roma restaurant, the hostel I stayed at in Rome.
I went to bed a bit tired, very full and with firmed up plans. I should have been able to sleep for hours – and I think I would have, if it weren’t for the roosters. I don’t think I’ve actually ever been woken up by roosters before, but there is a first time for everything and just below 5am they started. Danika and I even looked for the roosters while we wandered CInque Terre, and I think she could have easily been sold on a nice meal of coq au vin, but we saw no physical evidence of their existence. Once the roosters seemed to die down a bit, the church bells started. Hmmmm. Maybe I should have stayed in a larger village.
After the roosters, the French Canadian girls in our dorm started packing up. Instead of doing it the night before, as polite hostel guests usually do, these girls decided to really enhance everyone’s morning. There were a few slamming doors, some loud chatter and a lot of banging and clanging on the lockers as they rearranged everything. To say that the rest of us were less than impressed would be nothing more than a massive understatement. These girls are in for a massive dose of hostel karma.
As I’ve said before, Corniglia is a very small village. Danika and I headed out in the late morning with plans to leisurely stroll around, sit by the water and have a few big meals. We started with breakfast, stopping at a café she had visited the day before and had highly recommended. We had delicious coffees, light and flaky jam croissants and a little glass of orange juice. Perched on small chairs just outside of the main entrance, we watched the diminished tourist traffic – there were less people in town than there were the day before, likely due to the train strike – and a few of the locals as they went about their daily business.
Finishing breakfast, we followed the hand painted signs leading us to the sea, carefully walking down the staircase that slowly wound its way down the hill. There were all sorts of beautiful gardens, some perched directly on the cliff face above the ocean, with vineyards located directly across from us in the best place to soak up the afternoon sun.
There were a few people sunning themselves on the harbour below – if that’s even the best word – and a group passed us on the way down. We watched them as they decided to walk across the wet rocks, with the waves surging around them, and wondered if we should stick around in case of rescue. Danika and I settled in with a bird’s eye view, surprised as one of the guys almost fell into the water and still decided to keep going before hauling himself onto a big, slippery, wet rock. It was a Darwin Award in the making, but the guy and his friends managed to remove themselves from the situation relatively unscathed.
Wandering around the village, we walked up and down each of the small streets and alleyways, stopped in the two churches in town, visited with the storekeepers and even ate some gelato. There were a couple of places to get gelato in town but we went for the one that was recommended by Rick Steves, complete with a photo of Rick and the proud owner. The gelato was delicious, but I have to be honest: I haven’t found a difference between Rick’s favourite gelato, the world famous gelato in San Gimignano and the gelato I bought from a random place in Venice. The only truly memorable gelato was the one I had in Rome and that was because it still had big, delicious chunks of fruit in it.
We still had a while to go until our hostel reopened, so we pooled our funds and bought the cheapest and most appetizing bottle of chilled white wine that we could find. Complete with plastic glasses and my emergency corkscrew, we headed to a scenic overlook to sample a few glasses and enjoy the view. There were a few more tourists around this time of a day and we chatted with some of the hikers who said the slog had been a bit harder than expected. A few people told us the trains were running occasionally and without any sort of fixed schedule and that waits of an hour or more were more common than not. Neither Danika nor I had any regret at our day’s plans and I think a few people were jealous that we were simply sitting in the sun, drinking wine and hanging out by the ocean.
Dinner was going to be at the restaurant I had visited the day before because I wanted to try their pizza and we both wanted something cheap. We ordered a little of their house red, had some pizza and once again enjoyed the ocean view. Our goal was to eat early enough that we could catch the sun set over Vernazza and as the day had been quite clear, we were optimistic that things would work out for us. Finishing up dinner (pictures to follow later, in my Italian pizza post), the lovely waitress once again offered a discounted price and cut €1.50 off our shared wine bill. This was getting cheap!
The sun set over Vernazza, representing the end of my lovely day in Corniglia. Was it an unplanned day of rest and relaxation? Yes, yes it was. Do I think I missed out on anything? Not in the least. I made a new friend, drank some wine and had some delicious snacks. I suppose I’ll just have to come back in the future to do the hike!