Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hundreds of steps

We are advised to hike early or late in the day as the midday sun is quite hot and sweating is guaranteed. We start out at 8am but our efforts are thwarted in many ways. On the path, we find a gate blocking the coastal trail from Manarola to ─ćorniglia due to dangerous trail conditions; then we find people turning around because the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is not scheduled to reopen until 2017. The heavy flooding in 2011 destroyed many of the trails of the Cinque Terre and devastated the towns of Vernazza and Monterossa. Although the towns have been cleaned up and restored, the trails have not. In addition, trail maintenance is often unscheduled and unannounced, typical of Italy, so the trail from Monterosso to Levante is also closed. By now, it is getting quite warm so our Plan B is to ride the "milk train" to Riomaggiore and have coffee, then explore all five towns by train. Figuring out the train system is an education in itself.  They run about every hour but not all trains stop in each town; the information booth has printed schedules that change every few months. We learn that tickets are sold at machines and are good for a few months so fines are high if you don't validate them before boarding. The most crazy sight is the crowd of people trying to get on and off the trains at mid day, mostly due to all the tour groups that descend from La Spezia and cruise liners around 10am. We later learn that October is a better time to visit. As we watched one train arriving, some got on board but a tour guide was frantically waving the other half of his group to run and get on another car. People were yelling at family members to hurry up and get on. One tourist said she saw people's faces pressed against the doors. Is that insane or what? Fortunately, most tour groups had already bypassed Riomaggiore, the first town so our train was fairly empty. 
      That said, the Cinque Terre is absolutely gorgeous. The towns sit on cliffsides and look down on the Mediterranean; the water is blue and warm. Once you get above the train stations, the crowds are nonexistent. These used to be anchovy fishing towns and we see photos that remind us of the canneries in Monterey.  Riomaggiore and Manarola have single pedestrian streets that winds upward with shops and restaurants lining them. A few smaller cobblestone alleys branch off or run along the top of the hillside. In Manarola, the sunny side of the cliff is terraced and families have individual plots of gardens or vineyards. Along the edge of the top terrace runs a single track on which we see gardeners riding motorized carts. As families move away, it is the disappearing vineyards that leads to erosion, causing massive damage like the floods of 2011. Our apartment is at the top of the hill by the church square. Colorful houses and apartments are stacked up on the shadier side of the cliffs; there are no modern structures. I think this is one of the few places in the world that we have not seen Starbucks or McDonalds. A single river which used to run down the ravine through the town, is now paved over and used as a sewer.  We hear rushing water as we walk. The towns are romantic and magical here.  Evening shots of these cliff towns are the photos you see at art fairs and what draws people to come.
     Next, we ride the train to Monterossa and enjoy a fish ravioli lunch at Via Vente where we chat with a solo traveling woman from Santa Barbara. We learn that most of the flood damage in 2011 was in Monterossa and Vernazza. Water rushing down the cliffs exploded and burst open the streets in Vernazza, leaving a sea of mud 22 inches deep. These two towns have been rebuilt with the exact same style and character as they were before.  Monterrosso is known for its long beach with brightly colored striped umbrellas which remind us of Malibu and Venice Beach minus the roller bladers and volleyball players. Gelato stands are everywhere and we feel no guilt or shame in frequenting several times during the day. 
     Fully nourished, we are ready to try the hike from Monterossa to Vernazza, a 3 mile trail, which starts with a climb of what seems like 100 tall stone steps before leveling off to a rocky and very narrow dirt path that hugs the cliff. Although the cliff is terraced and you can't fall far, the lack of railings and edges are a bit disconcerting, especially seeing people hiking in flip flops; one Chinese girl has on a long white chiffon skirt and chiffon slippers with silk flowers! The view is wonderful and we stop before the end to wait for the sunset over Vernazza with several other photographers. We have a fun time sharing stories about our travels in Italy. 


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