A family hike along coastal Italy's "5 Lands" region gives sisters a perfect opportunity to bond and celebrate a milestone birthday in the Cinque Terre.
If you want to plan the ultimate hiking adventure for someone you love, read on. I turned 50 in June and I wonder if it was any accident that my sister decided to take me to a place with a five in it. Cinque Terre, Italy, or “Five Lands,” is better than 50 lands, especially when we decided to hike from one to the next.
My husband and I flew into Frankfurt, Germany, not far from where my sister lives, and we boarded a Ryan Air flight to Pisa. This site is where you really will find the cheapest flights available throughout Europe. My sister often talks of “penny flights,” but while the flights cost a penny, the taxes do add up to about US$40 round trip, a bargain nonetheless.
Once in Pisa we took a bus from the airport to the train station. After we purchased our tickets for Cinque Terre, we took a leisurely stroll through town to the great leaning tower. It was hot, it was crowded, and there was at least an hour’s wait to walk up to the top of the infamous bell tower. Reading about it and looking at the tower made me wonder: why would anyone continue to build a structure that was clearly sinking from the beginning of construction? Answered my brother in law, “So tourists would come by the thousands to pay and see it.” We debated whether to wait until after 6pm to make the climb but decided it was best to move on. There are parts of Pisa, while beautiful, that are “sketchy” as my teenaged son would say. There is construction by the train station and some very “colorful” people decorating the area. People I don't think I'd want to pass in the dark.
During the hour-and-a-half-long train ride from Pisa to Manarola, gateway to the Cinque Terre, there was nothing really striking until we saw what looked like snow-covered mountains. We were in Carrera, home of Carrera marble, and that wasn't snow we were looking at, but chiseled mountains of marble. Not long after that eye opener we went through a dark tunnel and emerged looking over the Mediterranean Sea. It was a breathtaking sight with the sea on one side, and the rugged coastline on the other.
The Coastline at Manarola
We arrived in Manarola and had no idea where to go. We walked from the train station through a tunnel into a pleasant coastal village that went straight up hill. Nothing was open, no one was around, the sun was setting behind the mountain and so we walked up and kept walking for quite awhile. Our bed and breakfast, Da Baranin di Barani Sara (Via Rollandi 29, 19010 Manarola (SP); 39/0187 920595) appeared to be nestled, like the town, right in the side of the mountain.
Our first priority was dinner. “Billy's” was right around the corner. Walking straight down several dozen steps, we found a terrace where about 12 people could dine comfortably. The waiter told us there was no room. Thank goodness my husband speaks fluent Italian; he was able to convince Billy that we could sit two at a table and fit just fine. Billy relented and wound up putting tables together to accommodate us. The seafood was magnificent — plump juicy mussels, a seafood salad of squid and shrimp, freshly pressed virgin olive oil in which to dunk our homemade bread, and wine. We thought it best to test both white wines from the region, several bottles, in fact, to make sure the flavor would never leave our palates. Suffice to say, it was easier walking down to Billy's than walking back up to the street and down the mountain back to our rooms.
From Manarola to Monterossa
The next day was warm and sunny and perfect for a hike. At the train station we purchased train and hiking passes that allowed us to train or hike through the five towns. The map said it was a 5½-hour hike from Manarola to Monterosso but only 9 kilometers. We did it in 4 hours and managed to stop in each beautiful coastal town along the way.
In Corniglia, we had water and moved onto Vernazza where we found pesto pizza. From looking at the size of the basil growing along the hillside and smelling its fragrance, we knew it had to be good. So out came the pizza and the paintbrush dipped in what looked like a vat of pesto, then the chef smothered it with tomato and cheese to create an explosion of flavor. There is a small beach in this "Land" and a castle. We hiked up to the top of the castle to survey the views, and back down to the beach to feel the water that was a beautiful blue-green and so inviting.
Then, back to the hills we went, winding up steep hills, over rocks, looking down on the coast and meeting people from all over the world along the way. In some places there are steep steps going straight up which can only mean steep steps on the way down. Up in the hills were lemon trees with fruit the size of cantalopes, romaine lettuce leaves large enough in which to wrap up a small child, along with beautiful flowers and vines. Farmers built terraces in the steep hills on which to grow their grapes for wine and other crops, making it look like steps of green winding right up to the top of the mountains.
At the end of the day we found ourselves in Monterosso. The village was packed with tourists, and a 10-year-old Italian boy with an accordion who wandered the piazza playing no more than two measures of the same song over and over again and holding his hand out for change.
After a dip in the Mediterranean and a couple of Becks, we were on the train back to Manarola just in time to buy local wine, bread, cheese and pesto. Once back at the bed and breakfast we were accommodated with ice, glasses, knives and plates, and on our terrace and we relaxed and enjoyed the food and the spectacular view.
Manarola to Riomaggiore
The next day we planned to train it from one town to the next. Our "Cinque Terra Card" for hiking was good for three days and included train and bus transportation between the five towns. When you plan for such an excursion in Italy you can expect only one thing, a strike…on a Friday.
So, we went for a short walk up the hill, this time going the opposite direction toward Riomaggiore, the fifth town, walking down to the sea and about two hours later, straight up to Monte Nero, a church with a bell tower on top of the hill. We stopped at a Nature Center, Torre Guardiola, half way up. Good thing they served lunch and beer (or Pils as they say in Germany) at the top. The walk down went much faster than the walk up and we wound up taking the Via dell Amore, the path between Riomaggiore and Manarola where lovers used to meet.
The Beach Below Monterosso
On our last day we took the train to Monterosso, where we swore we would take it easy. But why do that when there are trails we hadn't scaled?
So straight up we went through what looked like forests you would find in Yellowstone National Park to the ruins of St. Antonio with spectacular views of the entire coastline. We hiked back to the beach where we actually spent the rest of the day frolicking in the Mediterranean, eating fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and you guessed it, basil.
I was amazed at the way Italian people beach. There are no waves to speak of like at the Jersey shore, so body surfing and boogie boarding are out. For the most part you just bob around, get out, and go back to your chair to read, sleep or watch the people packed in like sardines with their colorful umbrellas and chairs, not to mention beachwear or lack of it.
Touring Levanto in the Cinque Terre
As we headed out on our final day we decided we had to try and see Levanto. After all, it was the furthest west we could go. It’s a shame we only had 15 minutes to see the place once we got off the train… it took us 16 minutes to walk a few blocks and we missed the train. Some high anxiety followed but another train came along and guess who was on board? The little Italian boy with the accordion was playing the same two measures of the only song he apparently knew, holding his hand out for money.
This is the first time I ever took a vacation I had nothing to do with. My sister, Lyn, planned the whole thing. She could have flown back to the States and thrown me a party, but that would have lasted just one night and how many people can you really call your friends anyway?
When it comes down to it, all we really have is family and nothing beats sharing a travel memory that will last a lifetime. I can't wait to see what she dreams up for my 60th. Is there a sessanta terre?
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