“Hey look babe, that white stuff up there isn’t snow…it’s marble. That’s where Michelangelo got his stone to sculpt The David.” I was of course referring to Carrara, the famous marble quarry of Italy.
No response. She was out. Our journey from Siena to the coast, via Pisa, was stretching into the long afternoon hours, and it had taken its toll on us. We were beat. The train steamed onward, and the rolling hills of Tuscany had suddenly become towering mountains on our right. The brick houses were replaced by pastel estates. The sea was close…I could smell the salt in the air. I soon woke Missy up…”we’re getting close” I told her. One more train switch in La Spezia, and we’d be home-free. The short train ride to our final destination was just like the rest…only this time, the tunnels we were going through were cut under the mountains of Liguria.
A sudden flash of light on our left…then darkness again. Whoa…did we just see what we think we saw? Three minutes later, a longer flash of bright sunlight. Through windows cut out of the mountainside seemingly for this purpose alone, the brilliant setting sun reflecting off of the blue Mediterranean Sea had captured our gaze. Once again, jaws dropped as we were transfixed, almost wetting ourselves with excitement. This is how we entered the region of Italy known as the Cinque Terre, which was our last stop before heading home.
When trip planning for the last leg of our journey, we weighed many options and had settled on heading south of Rome to the Almalfi Coast or Sicily. However, after consulting many guide books and heeding the gentle persuasion of friends and co-workers, we altered our course northward. Venice was an option, but after seven days of sightseeing, we both wanted a vacation from our vacation. So we settled on seeing the beaches and mountains of the Cinque Terre, which is part of the Italian Riviera located on the northwest coast of Italy.
Now, this very specific region is actually a National Park of Italy. It is made up of five (Cinque) lands (Terre), or villages, that were built right into where the mountains meet the sea…surrounded by vineyards and lemon groves. The five small villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso-al-Mare, have been isolated from the rest of Italy for centuries. That is, until travel writers stumbled upon them, realized the tourism potential of this little slice of heaven-on-earth, and told the world about them. Even though there are more tourists these days, you can certainly get a small taste of what life was like before we all arrived. And it turned out to be the perfect place to spend the last days of our trip.
Our destination was Monterosso-al-Mare, the furthest town west in the Cinque Terre. Monterosso is more developed than the other four, but we didn’t mind…it had the best beach. Now, when I say developed…I really just mean that it has the most people. The National Park designation has stopped any true “development” as we know it, so our hotel was a small Bed-and-Breakfast in the old town (Monterosso has a new town, which is more built up, and old town) I found online called the Albergo Marina, which was amazing. Included in our cost was a full breakfast (with made to order omelets) and an afternoon lunch spread that featured wine, pesto lasagna, salads, fresh cheese, bread, and much more. If that wasn’t enough, when we didn’t feel like eating in the dining room, we could take our food upstairs to the roof-top lemon garden. Plus, our room was one of only three with an outdoor patio, with a sitting table and chairs that looked upward towards the lemon garden. Did I mention perfect?
Needless to say, Missy and I were blown away from minute we stepped off the train. We hauled our gear to our aforementioned hotel, which was a 10 minute huff from the new town to the old. We didn’t mind though, the views were breathtaking. We soon checked in, dropped our gear, changed, and headed back out. There is a pier that keeps the waves from eroding the beach that we were able to walk out onto, which was our first stop. With the waves crashing around us we were able to get our first real panorama of the five lands.
“Where am I right now? Is this real? Places like this exist?” were the questions we kept repeating.
Most of our days in the Cinque Terre were spent catching rays on the beach. The blue water and golden sun was exactly what we needed after sweaty sightseeing, noisy cities, and stressful train rides. We spent our evenings shopping and the toughest decision of the day was determining where we would eat dinner. Our nights were spent out on the jetty, usually accompanied by a bottle of wine or champagne (and a few unruly German teenagers one night…grrr).
The National Park and villages of the Cinque Terre are connected by a series of hiking trails. To give us a break from the beach (as if we needed one), one day was spent exploring the other four villages. We were able to purchase a day pass that let us hike in the hills and vineyards overlooking the sea. We hiked to the next town over, which was Vernazza. This hike took us up hundreds of steps and we worked up quite a sweat…only later did we learn that this was the hardest of all the inter-town hikes. No matter, our ails were cured watching the breakers crash on the rocks of Vernazza while enjoying some gelato!
Our passes were also good for train-hopping between towns. So rather than continuing onward on foot we jumped onto a train and headed down to Riomaggiore. We hiked from Riomaggiore to Manarola on a trail known as “Lovers Road” because long ago this is where boys and girls from the two villages met, flirted, and fell in love. We soon continued hiking to Corniglia…but this is where our hiking ended. We were worn out and it was getting late…we still had shopping to do!
Sadly, by the week’s end, we came to the unfortunate realization that we soon had to return home. Our last day was spent on the beach, and our last night was spent on the pier in Monterosso. We toasted champagne and listened to the music of the Italian “salsa/jazz” band playing nearby. We also realized that four days in the Cinque Terre was most definitely far too short of time to spend in such an amazing place. When we return, we will double, if not spend ALL of our time in Monterosso-al-Mare. The rest of the trip was great, but this sincerely was as close to heaven-on-earth as it gets…
…and we truly saved the best for last.