So begins the catch-up period of the Europe Trip 2015 blog posts. Like the other posts, this one hasn’t been proofread, so apologies in advance for typos.
I had planned out the train ride from Milan to Vernazza, Italy, and it involved a transfer down the line, however my first train was running 15 minutes late, which would mean I would miss the connecting train and have to wait an hour or two for the next one. I quickly looked over train schedules to see if I could find a workaround and found that if I rode the train a few more stops down the line I might be able to then get on another one that would take me right away to Vernazza. The time gap was very small, and when I got to the station it seemed like my plan had failed since the first train hadn’t made up any time on route, but I found that the train I was hoping to catch was itself a little behind schedule, so I got on and soon arrived in Vernazza. The tourist horde was swarming the town when I got into town, giving me a preview of what to expect during most daytime hours in this part of Italy.
Vernazza is one of five small coastal towns in what is called the Cinque Terre (aka, the Italian Riviera). If you laid them out from west to east, Vernazza would be the second from the left. These towns for centuries were difficult to reach from the rest of Italy other than by boat due the mountainous coastal terrain they were built on, but around the end of the 1800s construction of rail lines began, and these days you can reach them without too much trouble by either car or train. The Cinque Terre has been thoroughly discovered by the tourism industry and every year these little towns are overwhelmed by tour groups and individuals coming to experience the towns and hike the surrounding mountains. No doubt many travel snobs and others lament the Cinque Terre being “ruined” but even with the tourist horde I still think it’s a great place to visit, especially if you can spend the night in one of the towns.
Vernazza is not a cheap place to stay in. Since there were no hostels, I was stayed at a hotel, which is not the sort of place I normally stay at, but this hotel had the cheapest bed I could find in Vernazza. At $50 per night, it was easily the most expensive accommodation during my entire trip, but it felt like a bargain compared to everything else I looked up online. Everything else, including listings on Air BnB, was going for at least $70 per night. Certainly I could have stayed in a different town outside the Cinque Terre, where there are cheaper beds and then day-tripped into the area, but from what I had read, it seemed like the Cinque Terre, similar to Venice, is worth paying the extra money to stay in so that you can experience the early morning and late day version of the area when most of the tourist horde is gone. This suspicion proved correct, and I’m glad I stayed in the Cinque Terre, though my wallet hated me during the time I was there. Also, I should note that my hotel was up on a ridge on one side of the town, and that my room was on the top (4th) floor of the building, so I had a lot of stairs to ascend each time I went up to my room. On the plus side, my small balcony had a fantastic view of the town.
Not much happened on the day of arrival in Vernazza, though I did spend some time walking around town and planning out a hike for the next day. That next day got off to a good start when I found that the breakfast that the hotel served was at a restaurant they owned, on a bluff overlooking the sea. Normally when I travel I have a very basic breakfast and I could care less where I eat it, but having a meal with a view was nice. The only bad thing was that there was this hornet that for some reason took an interest in my plate and I’m not a fan of hornets or bees flying close to me. I set out for the day a little later than I intended, and by then the first wave of the tourist horde had arrived in town. Watching the horde from the train station is something of an interesting sight. It reminds me of the beating of the heart, where the each arriving train is like the compression of heart chambers, sending a surge of blood, or in this case, tourists, flowing down the main street of Vernazza. Just as a side note, trains are late in the Cinque Terre at least half the time, so if you’re running late for your train, there’s a decent chance that you’re actually ok. I, however was leaving Vernazza for the next town over, called Monterosso. Normally I would have explored Monterosso first, but I wanted to start my hike before it got warm, so I walked straight through the town to the trail head. There were a lot of people also doing the hike that day, but I was able to find the gaps between the groups and for the most part not get crowded while on the trail. The hike from Monterosso back to Vernazza took about 1.5 to 2 hours and had a lot of steep steps and rugged terrain. It’s the hardest of the trails linking the five Cinque Terre towns, though very doable by anyone in average physical shape. Being a coastal trail, there are a lot of great views, especially on the approach to Vernazza. Back in Vernazza I refilled my water bottle and rested in the church by the harbor for a little bit before setting out the trail again. The next part of the hike was a little easier than the one between Monterosso and Vernazza, but at this point in the day it was hotter and I was sweating a lot. My left knee was hurting (the one I injured two weeks earlier during my bike ride in France) and I was being careful to not put too much strain on it. The trail took me to the town of Corniglia, which I believe is the smallest of the five Cinque Terre towns and the only one not directly on the sea. From Corniglia I could see the next town in line, Manarola, but didn’t immediately set out for it. Instead I looked around Corniglia and ate a little gelato to cool off. There were notices stating that the trail between Corniglia and Manarola was closed, but after resting up I set out for Manarola anyways because I had read online that sometimes a trail being closed meant that it was officially recommended to not hike it but you could still do so at your own risk. A quarter mile down the trail I found out that it really was closed, and for good reason. A landslide had taken out a wide stretch of the trail, leaving behind a chasm far too wide for me to jump or climb around. I went down to the beach to see if there was a safe way to bypass the destroyed section of the trail, but couldn’t find one. By that time it was late afternoon. If the trail was still intact I could have definitely reached Manarola, and probably have continued all the way to the town of Riomaggiore before the sun went down. Looking at the map, I saw there was winding trail through the hills and mountains that could get me to Manarola, but it was much longer than the coast path and I wasn’t sure how long it would take. I decided it was best not to take chances, so I got on a train back to Vernazza and finished up the day there.
The next day I paid a visit first to Riomaggiore, the town at the far southeast end of the Cinque Terre. For some reason I kept thinking it was named Raggiomayor. It’s the largest and least touristy of the five towns, and I followed a self-guided walk from my guidebook through town. I got some photos of the town itself from a hill alongside it, and a little while later almost lost my phone in the San Giovanni church. Not sure why I took the phone out of my pocket while sitting in a pew in the church, but I distinctly remember telling myself to grab it before leaving. As I was walking away from the church I noticed that my pocket was feeling lighter than normal and I realized what had happened. I ran back to the church and was looking around for my phone for a minute when a British couple came up to me and asked me if my phone was missing. They had picked it up and were trying to find me outside the church but came back inside and saw me. I gave them both a big hug and thanked them profusely. It’s true that I could have continued on without my phone, but it’s loss would have been a severe mental setback and the data and photos on it were irreplaceable. The rest of my time in Riomaggiore was (thankfully) not as eventful and I went down the town’s main road, snapping photos along the way. I then got on a train to Manarola and there I followed another self-guided walk, which took me from the harbor to the top of the town and then into the vineyards in the hills surrounding Manarola. It was a warmer and more humid day than the one before, so I was I had already done my serious hiking. The views of Manarola from the vineyards are really nice and I got a good photos from up there. Cinque Terre grapes supposedly produce a distinctive wine, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not as I don’t drink wine. But what is definitely true is that the vineyards in Manarola and across the Cinque Terre are integral to the maintenance of the area as their roots go deep into the rocks and soil and help minimize landslides. After finishing in Manarola I got on a train back to the other end of the Cinque Terre, and the town of Monterosso. This time I didn’t follow any guidebook walk and just explored on my own. Monterosso, like the other Cinque Terre towns, isn’t big and you can walk the whole thing in less than an hour if you choose. For me the most notable parts of my time there were going up to the ruins of the old castle and the nearby I visited the small church of the Capuchin Friars, who are a local group of monks. Once I was satisfied with my time in Monterosso, I returned to Vernazza, where I did some reading and dipped my feet in the sea. I also got gelato from a shop at the harbor, which had a few flavors that I hadn’t tried yet. The two flavors I got were white mint and cinnamon, which were both interesting individually as well as combined. The rest of the day was slowed paced with dinner, laundry, more gelato, writing and various other things.
On the following day I was scheduled to leave Vernazza at around 11:30am. During breakfast I got a cappuccino, just to try it, and of course it tasted awful. As some of you know, I can’t stand the taste of coffee, but every now and then I attempt to stomach some sort of coffee-related drink, though the result is always the same. I checked out from the hotel at 10:30am and spent my final hour in Vernazza down at the harbor, watching the waves and taking in the sights of the area. My time in the Cinque Terre had been a good change of pace from my normal travel routine of museums, historical sights, and urban living. The next town on my European journey was Sienna, which is where we’ll in the next blog post.