Hauling Ass Through Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre, Italy
Due to poor train coordination on my part, it took me almost the entire day to get from Bologna to the tiny town of Riomaggiore, my staging point for the Cinque Terre nature walk. I had no accommodations planned due to the fact that the region is simply too small for Lonely Planet to address in their giant, all-of-Europe encyclopedia. Arriving late with no room reserved was starting to make me a little antsy until I got off the train. Turns out that even in the off-season, the pension owners – A.K.A. “Accommodations Pimps” – in Riomaggiore stake out the train station for all trains arriving from big cities. I wasn’t in the station for more than a minute before an elderly Italian guy accosted me and asked me in nearly indecipherable English if I needed a room. He had an open “apartment,” with a full bathroom, kitchen, the works. I tried to explain that I didn’t need that level of accommodations, all I wanted was a room with a bed and a sink, but he stopped me and told me it was only 35 euros a night. I said “Let’s go.”
In most cases you can count on these train station Accommodations Pimps to exaggerate a little bit on the quality of the room and if you’re in an exceptionally predatory tourist ambush zone, sometimes they even like to play little word games with the price. I learned the hard way back in ’93 that if an Accommodations Pimp says “thirty” in English fast enough with a bit of his native accent thrown in there for color, he can make it sound like “thirteen.” This brings about no shortage of grief after you have stayed in his room for two nights and you go to settle the bill. When you hand the guy 26 and he goes bananas and demands 60, there’s little you can do. It’s impossible to out-run anyone short of a quadriplegic when you have a 50 pound backpack weighing you down. I double and triple checked that we were indeed talking 35 euros during the short walk to the “very, very clean” apartment. Well, dagnabit if he wasn’t telling the truth. Sure enough, it was a large, nicely decorated, “very, very clean” apartment with a full bathroom, a kitchen (which other than the refrigerator I never used), a TV and two beds, in case I decided to bring home friends.
I was famished after a full day of jockeying from train to train. I dropped everything and headed to a restaurant by the marina that the Accommodations Pimp had recommended, where I honored the region’s invention of pesto by indulging in the pesto gnocchi. It was much warmer in the Cinque Terre region than it had been anywhere else in Italy up to that point. The region looks out over the Ligurian Sea, the same body of water that equally temperate Nice, France cuddles. I couldn’t figure out why it was noticeably warmer here than it was on the Adriatic side of Italy, but I wasn’t going to complain.
The next morning I shot out of bed at the crack of 9:00AM. I had a big day. As my balls-out nature demands, I planned to tackle the entire Cinque Terre national park walking path in one day. The path stretches from Riomaggiore through the neighboring, coastal towns of Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and winds up in Monterosso. Almost 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) of calf blasting up and downhill hiking. The Cinque Terre map estimates the full walk at four and half hours, though many people I had spoken to reported that depending on how much you lollygag, the walk can take up to six hours. I don’t usually get very excited about the prospect of hours of painful, torturous hiking, but for some reason I was very amped for this experience. I had been running into people all over Europe since about August who had done the walk and raved about the beautiful surroundings and the quiet, dream-like towns along the way and I had pretty much allowed myself to wholly buy into the hype.
I got ready in a hurry, set out to find some breakfast and survey the town of Riomaggiore in daylight. The town was indeed very small. “Main Street” was about four blocks long on a mostly vehicle-free, ridiculously steep part of the mountain. I bought some fruit at a grocery the size of a shower stall and stopped in a cafï¿½ for a cappuccino and a pastry before heading out. I got as far as the train station before I turned around and went back to the apartment to change clothes.
View of the City
When I bought my ticket to the park/walking path the previous evening I inquired about what type of weather conditions I should expect. I was at a loss as how to dress considering at the time it was 7:30PM, dark, but according to the pharmacy time and temperature sign it was still over 60ï¿½F. The lady in the tourist office told me that yes, it would be quite cold on the path and I should wear pants and a jacket. This seemed a little odd, considering that I was comfortable in just jeans and a t-shirt so late in the day, but I assumed that she would know better than I about appropriate dress on the walking path. After all, we were in a small town, protected on three sides by mountains. For all I knew, once I climbed out of Riomaggiore, up to those seaside cliffs, the wind and sea chill could torment and punish me all day long. Well, it didn’t occur to me that I was taking advice from a person whose idea of “cold weather” is anything below 80ï¿½F. Italians break out their parkas and trudge around with their heads hidden deep in their fur hoods as soon as it dips below 60ï¿½F. I suppose in her mind, only a nerve-dead, lunatic would go out in the low 70s (which it easily reached while I was out that day) without several layers of clothing. The short walk around town for breakfast and then out to the base of the trail next to the train station had been enough for the sweat to start dripping down my forehead. I switched into shorts and dumped the jacket. Just for luck I packed my jeans in my day bag, but I never touched them.
I poured through about six brochures pertaining to the walking path and the surrounding Cinque Terre nature reserve as I climbed up to the beginning of the trail. The route from Riomaggiore, through Manarola, to Corniglia was beautiful and unexpectedly easy. The path was mostly paved and flat as Britney Spears’ singing voice. Though I was overjoyed to be in the fresh, wide open country after so many weeks in teeming, stinking, crowded cities, I was a little disappointed in the apparent non-challenging trail. Consequently, I burned through the first half of the trail in a disappointingly easy hour. Cinque Terre wasn’t as much a hike as it was a stroll. But I got my wish after Corniglia when the stroll turned into a resolve-testing struggle. The trail switched from flat, even pavement to haphazardly laid stone. The uphill grade was moderate and the ground was bumpy enough that you had to take care where you stepped so as not to break your leg on a protruding rock or step in one of the hundreds of piles of shit laid by the countless wild cats that thrive in the Cinque Terre nature preserve.
This third leg of the trail was by far the longest and at about the half way point between Corniglia and Vernazza the hike turned into a mountain climb. Suddenly the trail went straight up and after a ceaselessly ass-kicking ascent, I was panting at the very top of the mountain range. I stopped to drink nearly all of my water and take numerous panoramic photos in every direction. At this point I was pretty happy to be at the top of the mountain range. After all, it was all downhill from there. I fairly floated down the mountain into Vernazza, feeling good to have gotten through the hard part and after glancing at my watch, I saw that I was making serious time. Soon I would be three-fourths of the way through the walk and I had only been on the trail for two and a half hours. I casually meandered down the mountain, stopping to laugh at a dog that was maniacally barking at its own echoes from across the valley.
Stairs of Hell
In Vernazza, I stopped to refill my water bottle and gobble down a heaping dish of chocolate and coffee gelato while I mentally mocked all those people who had tooted on and on about how hard the Cinque Terre trail was. Those wimps! Here I was, 33 years old, over 10 years older than many of the people who had whined about the difficulty level of the trail and I was blazing through the thing like a well conditioned athlete. Boy, I thought, I was in fantastic physical shape! Then I departed for the fourth and final leg of the walk. I rounded the corner leading back onto the trail and I was horrified to see that the “path” was now just a poorly maintained series of rock steps going straight up into the sky, further than my eyes could see. For some reason I hadn’t counted on the path going back up the mountain again, much less to the highest peak in the range. I let out a pathetic little whimper and got started. Parts of the path were so steep that I almost wanted to get down and climb up on all fours. The going wasn’t as bad as Preikestolen in Stavanger, but I hadn’t been walking for 2 and a half hours, through a semi-challenging mountain climb before I hit Preikestolen. I was totally destroyed by the time I stopped at what I guessed was the half way point up the mountain. I turned around and to my dismay I was still looming almost straight above Vernazza. I knew that I had over three horizontal miles to go, but I had been killing myself going straight up and I was still just barely out of town. The agonizing vertical progress I was making was getting me nowhere fast in the horizontal scheme of things. Yep, the Cinque Terre people had saved the best for last. This last leg was going to slaughter me.
Then, God decided to inflict more agony on me when the trail deteriorated into a six inch wide balancing act that forced me to walk hugging the rock face. The path was so narrow that many parts lacked any kind of safety railing to keep you from tumbling straight down, through a jungle of cactus plants and impacting messily on the jagged rocks in the swirling ocean below. I would have taken pictures of this indignity, but I am not ashamed to admit that I was sacred shitless and I had no intention of doing anything, but focusing on getting one foot squarely in front of the other on that goddamn path.
Finally I was at the top. I could see for miles in every direction. The hazy day had lightened up and the view was incredible. So was the pain in my quads. Again, as I sat and panted and tried to replace the 15 pounds of water weight that I had lost during the climb up, I consoled myself knowing that it was all downhill from there on out. No matter what. I could see Monterosso off in the distance and there was absolutely nothing higher up than the position that I was currently happily, if not weakly, enjoying. Then I started down. While I was heartened to be using different muscle groups, the walk down wasn’t as leisurely as I had anticipated. The steps going down were just a precarious as the ones going up and I was forced to take every step slowly and carefully, straining my muscles to their failure point and making me admit to the possibility that I was in fact not remotely in what would be considered great shape and if this trail went on for much longer I might need a helicopter evacuation.
The mountainsides along the entire Cinque Terre trail are littered with vineyard fields, carved into the mountain like huge steps. I felt sorry for the unlucky peasants who had the duty of climbing the mountain every day to care for and harvest those grape vines. They must have legs as big as church columns. The one labor saving device that I saw along the trail was the basket carrying conveyer lines that snaked up and down the mountain through the vineyards, so the backbreaking loads of grapes didn’t have to be hauled down on foot. Being late fall, there wasn’t much action going on in the vineyards, but I was willing to bet that in September/October, the mountain was wild with harvesting action and no doubt there would be huge bunches of fresh, juicy grapes laying around that had fallen from one of the conveyer lines or, if you were audacious enough, with a little creative work with a strong ‘Y’ shaped stick, you could reap an entire cluster of grapes right off the vines through an opening in the meticulously placed chain-link fences. This thought made me mentally earmark time the following autumn for a repeat visit to Cinque Terre.
Finally the path flattened out, or at least was a downhill grade rather than precipitous steps, and I coasted into Monterosso with the relief and glee of a man completing his first Ironman triathlon. I stopped to address a shoelace failure on my quickly disintegrating Merrell hiking shoes when I was overtaken by a young Aussie woman who I had been trading leads with since Corniglia. She too was looking the worse for wear after the last stretch of trail and was astounded to hear that I had walked the full length from Riomaggiore. She had taken a train to Corniglia and started from there. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the first half of the trail was about as punishing as a siesta. I looked at my watch. It had seemed like an eternity, but I had done the last leg of the walk in under an hour and my total time for the Cinque Terre walking tour came in at just under four hours. I was slightly comforted that I had blazed through the entire thing in less time than anyone else I had met, even with the lingering, indulgent stop in Vernazza. As I stood and watched the Aussie woman disrobed down to a delightfully small bikini and fling herself into the ocean for a jolt of refreshment, I reflected on a recent email exchange that I had had with a friend in Minneapolis. She had made mention of my “scuttling” around Europe and I had replied saying “Baby, I don’t ‘scuttle.’ I haul ass.” It’s funny, ’cause it’s true.
I took the train back into Riomaggiore and limped back to my very, very clean apartment to freshen up and refuel myself on water, Coke, chocolate and, much later, another cheap, but tasty, bottle of white wine.