The train to Cinque Terre
Termini Station is like every other train station in the world, hustling, bustling, filled with the shriek of steel-on-steel and the whistle of trains pulling in and out. We’ve just made it, Italian regional trains being the usual (un)dependable sort they are. I run ahead, holding on to my hat with one free hand, my beachbag bouncing on my hip. We’ve agreed to meet on the platform, and I’ve memorised our train number, carriage and seats. We say the words in Italian, so that I know what I’m listening for when the announcements come on. Breathless, I ask for a brioche, and paninis, packed into a paperbag; an espresso is a longed-for but bad idea, so I pay quickly and dash out. Running again, past the crowds, I see Jeff’s trilby ahead of me, on the platform. We glance at each other as we meet at the carriage doors, grin excitedly and haul up our bags. We are going to Cinque Terre , and this trip has been looked-forward-to for a long time.
1. Our seats are in a six seater carriage, our tickets purchased the day before from Trenitalia. We share with an Indian family from Bangalore going to Pisa, and an Australian woman heading to Turin. I curl up in my seat, with the sun on my legs, and watch the clouds as we race northwards. We pass San Marinella, our local beach on the way, the water glittering in the light, me waving at the sea. It is a long journey, but comfortable, and Jeff and I do not talk much. We are tired this morning; the night before we walked home from Campo del Fiori , all the way across the river to Trastevere, about an hour’s walk through the streets of Rome, noisy and dusty and foreign. It was late and there were no trams or buses or trains left to catch. So this morning we sit and we do not speak, content to just watch the views pass us by.
After Pisa, I look at my watch – our stop is La Spezia and from there, another smaller, regional train to get to the five little towns that make up Cinque Terre. Jeff glances out the window; La Spezia, in that blue and white round script that Trenitalia uses – we jump out hurriedly, backpack and wheelie suitcase and hats askew. A quick purchase of the three day Cinque Terre Card and a runback across the subways to the platform to catch the next train. We’re off, and my excitement makes me dizzy. We catch glimpses of bright light and sparkling sea through the tunnels, bored into the cliffsides as the train hurtles past; Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre, a bare two minutes away from La Spezia.
Manarola, Cinque Terre
Our B&B, Arpaiu is at Manarola , a tiny town nestled on a cliff dropping into a small bay. We get lost, of course, but it’s hard to be lost for very long in such a small place, and a phone call to the proprietress soon puts us on the right track. There are no cars allowed in the city centre, and the towering, toppling pastel coloured houses are no more than an arms width apart from each other. The sky is a brilliant, strong blue. The streets wind uphill steeply, across cobblestoned staircases – we find a church, and its attendant postage stamp piazza. Our room has a tall window that overlooks the bay, the sound of waves greet us as we walk in. There is a balcony on the top floor, deck chairs set up. The view is all terraced hillsides filled with vineyards, the sweep of horizon and the beginnings of the coastal trail to Corniglia .
We drop our bags, slather sunscreen on and head down to the bay, find a spot on the concrete. There are young boys jumping off the rocks, feet first 20 feet into the cold, refreshing water. A man and his golden retriever; the dog jumps in first while his master hunts for a stick. We watch them both, and I’m laughing in sheer joy at being outdoors, in the sunwarmth of the coast, with the sound of breakers crashing on rocks while a great big loping and above allwet dog with a smiling mouth swims and fetches and barks and gnaws on a stick. Life is filled with small moments like these.
The trail to Riomaggiore
The water is cold and choppy, it’s getting to evening now and the waves are strong, even in our little bay. After a quick swim, sea stained and starving, we take to the trail. The days are summer long and it’s still bright and beautiful as we walk along Via del Amore, the Path of Love, towards Riomaggiore. The path is an easy 1km, paved and hugging the coasts. There are gorgeous views, rugged, exposed cliff face and that dark, unending blue water, so reminiscent of Australia that my heart hurts, unexpectedly. I miss the Pacific Ocean.
In Riomaggiore, we choose a restaurant called La Lanterna . A black cat pads her way silently amongst the diners, drawn, no doubt to the smell of fresh fish cooking, until a waitress gently, firmly carries her out. We order – spaghetti with Ligurian pesto , seafood pasta, baked seabass, swordfish steak. Everytime I find myself in Italy it is the food that I remember, an honour roll, a list of syllables rolling off my tongue as I list the food we’ve eaten, delicious in their sound and clatter. We walk home in twilight, sit and listen to the waves while the horizon melds between sea and sky into darkness.
Hiking in Cinque Terre
It’s a long walk ahead of us the next day; its an early morning wake up call the next day. We catch the train to Monterosso , the northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns. The region is UNESCO listed, and made up of a string of five small villages, clinging precariously to the cliff sides along the Ligurian coast, connected by hiking trails. Monterosso, named after a red mountain, though I see no evidence of the colour, is the largest of them, the most Riviera-like, bustling, almost, compared to the quiet solitude of Manarola. The beaches here are volcanic black sand, and filled with sunseekers on their deckchairs and underneath striped umbrellas. We find a shop selling local produce; Ligurian pesto, pesto rosso, acciughe, fresh lemons, local pasta. There will be a return shopping trip at some point I think, but for now we want to keep our packs light – there is 4km between Monterosso and Vernazza, the next town.
The trail starts from the Old Town, and winds through vineyards, set on terraced hillsides, past lemon trees and underneath blue blue skies. The hike curves up and down rough stone steps, across dry stone walls. The views are incredible, and it is good to be outdoors, in strong sunlight, breathing in the smell of lemon trees on the Italian Riviera. It takes us two hours to get to postcard-perfect Vernazza. We stopped many times on the way, to catch a breath, capture a moment, drink in the coast, make way for other walkers coming the other way. The trail narrows to a bare foot at some points. Mostly Jeff and I talk, about nothing and everything – wandering walks, I find, are very conducive to a good conversation.
Vernazza has a pretty little bay, where the fishing boats tie up in abiding rows. There is a belltower and a piazza fronting the sea. We walk through narrow winding streets, dressed in pinks and oranges; tissue paper flowers line the door frames. The town is not my favourite, despite its beauty, which is also its drawcard for the throngs of daytrippers and Americans. It is too pretty, too filled with people. It’s gelato o’clock when Jeff and I trek in, weary from the steep inclines and the heat of the day. We find a trio of cats – there are cats aplenty in Cinque Terre – piled up and asleep in the midday sun.
It’s late, by now and I’m dying to hit the water. We skip Corniglia, and take the train back to beautiful Manarola, back to our little swimming bay, catch some swim and sun before having dinner at Marina Piccola in Manarola. The meal is, in a word – divine. Jeff orders a Manarola white wine, there’s fresh bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The day’s walk, fresh air, sunshine and a cold swim have honed our appetites to a fine edge.
As the sun begins its slow descent, we start with fresh anchovies, smoked and served with lemon, then a primi each; mine a seafood spaghetti and Jeff’s linguini with crab in a tomato sauce. Our main is the seafood platter; filled to overflowing with crayfish, more crab, squid, prawns and a whole fish. We attack the food ravenously, stop, start, slow down. We can’t finish it and our waitress laughs as she brings by some bright yellow limoncello – lemon liqueur – unasked for.
“This will help you find some space for dessert.”
But she’s wrong, because when she comes back to collect the empty plates and glasses, after the sun sets, neither of us have any space for dessert, in fact, even though I am longing for gelato. We go back to our room with the view, and watch as a small yacht makes anchor in the bay below our window. There are stars out in the clear sky, and the sound of the constant sea.
Market day in Cinque Terre
The next day we check out from our wonderful B&B, and take the train to Corniglia, then the bus up to the town. This turns out to be a good strategic decision as the town is perched 378 steps from the train station. Corniglia is the highest of all the Cinque Terre villages, and the furthest away from the water. We hike down to the Marina, a sharp drop in a tiny enclave. The day is cloudy, and the hills are a verdant, misty green. On our way back we pass a peddler selling gold and silver jewellery – I buy a silver crane, winging out from the hollow of my throat.
It’s shopping day and we head back to Monterosso. Our haul includes: maize linguini, porcini pasta, seppia nero (squid ink) pasta, Ligurian pesto, crema di pomodoro (tomato cream), and anchovies soaked in olive oil. Lunch is at a loud, cosy little trattoria. We are greedy and order a pizza between the both of us, and a primi each. My pasta is trofie – handmade, handrolled twists of dough, drenched in that trademark Ligurian pesto. Neither of us can finish our pasta, though the food is delicious.
We roll ourselves back towards the train station, to Manarola to pick up our luggage, then to La Spezia, before boarding our five hour train back to Rome. I do not want to leave the Cinque Terre – it is a little slice of heaven here; the sea and the horizon and the rustic charm of good food and fresh mountain air, stone streets and vineyards flowering on hillsides and bright boats lining the village streets. We’ll probably go back, I think, and spend a week ferreting out the secrets of the towns, finding new paths on horseback trails and bicycle lanes, swimming and soaking in the sun, falling asleep to the sound of the sea again.