Cinque Terre, like many corners of the world, is a magical spot embroiled in the age-old cyclical dilemma of true and honest travelers. The five villages clinging to the cliffs of Italy’s northwestern coast are so unlike any other place on earth… which means people like me (and anyone going on a Mediterranean cruise or leafing through a copy of Rick Steves’ Italy) want to experience them. Yet in doing so, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I can’t help but worry that I’m aiding in the demise of the very uniqueness that I came to visit.
How does one travel instead of ‘tourist’?
Day #10,361 (Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy): We woke up an hour before dawn and tiptoed down the creaky stairwell of our locanda to keep from waking our neighbors. Partly to avoid the sticky summer heat on our trek along the Cinque Terre trail, partly to avoid other trailgoers, and partly because waking up early enough to see the sunrise is always the right decision.
We walked to the edge of Monterosso del Mare in the cool, damp air as the last patches of night clung to cobblestoned corners. Shopkeepers swept… scruffy cats groomed… and the tourists were fast asleep. Just the way we like it. :)
We hiked (truly hiked… the sections of trail from Monterosso to Corniglia were not for The Weak of Quad) alongside near-vertical vineyards and cliffside cottages and laundry drying on clotheslines.
The view coming down the hill towards Vernazza was spectacular. I felt like an Adventuress, capital A.
We reached the as-yet empty harbor sweaty and hungry for breakfast, as the sun began to peak over the hills. A local shopkeep was setting café chairs up outside, and we stopped in to ask the specialty of the morning. With espressos and sfogliatelle in hand, we sat on the beach watching the local cats watching the local fishermen bring up their catch.
Off to Corniglia, past construction workers lugging their equipment up the hill to a removed cliffside cottage under renovation.
But like the sun, the tourists were up.
Beautiful, tiny Manarola was clogged with a boat-full of tourists coming in off the cruise ship. We couldn’t get through the main square. The final paved walk to Riomaggiore felt like moving through Italian-themed Disneyland.
Hungry after four hours of walking, we ordered a freshly made pizza from a tiny shop up the hill and sat on the pier, waving our feet and letting grease drip down our fingers. A breeze cooled the sweat from my tank top. The ocean sparkled. A bottle of Coke never tasted so fizzy.
For laughable reasons (waves hitting me, fish touching my feet, seaweed touching my feet, anything touching my feet), I’m terrified of swimming in the ocean. And for precisely the same ridiculous reasons, I force myself to swim in the ocean every now and again. Even if it doesn’t help to resolve them, facing your fears at least keeps you from taking them too seriously, no? Besides, it’s impossible to hike alongside the sparkling Ligurian Sea (side note: I can confirm that the Crayola crayon Aegean blue is aptly named) without dipping in.
So sandals and hats were shed, and into the ocean we went… far enough out to where I couldn’t touch and could float and stare back at the village of Monterosso and imagine I was a pirate seeing it for the first time from sea. At which time a ghostly, amorphous creature that may have been a plastic bag or may have been a killer jellyfish danced by me, and I squealed and swam for the shore. The Italian children splashing nearby laughed.
Cinque Terre is best explored at the peripheries of the day. It’s the sort of place where you see an intriguing set of stone steps and can’t help but follow them (it is beyond me how anyone anywhere can choose not to follow stairs that lead beyond their scope of vision… what’s up there on that next landing? And the landing after that?).
Cinque Terre is precisely the sort of place where you’re always met with another flight of stairs leading upward and onward and somewhere beyond your line of sight (perfect for those with insatiable wanderlust, no?)… and where you eventually find yourself lost in the hillside under a huge moon listening to midnight chants at a monastery built into the cliffs.
Sometimes it’s wonderful to be sweaty or scared or lost.
Because then when you come upon things like morning espressos or sweeping vistas in a sweaty tank top or dips in the sea requiring superhero bravada or even monastery chants somewhere deep in the Italian hillside… they become that much more marvelous.
Because you’ve truly traveled.