28 May 2006

Cinque Terre, part 1

If you're a PBS-loving American, a reader of Rick Steves' ebullient travel guides, or a recent college graduate, we can safely assume you've acquired a pretty clear idea of Italy's Cinque Terre (Five Lands). For those not yet briefed, Cingue Terre is a far-flung national park on the Italian Riviera, which crests the Ligurian Sea. It's composed of five rainbow-colored coastal towns and connected by a stunning and sometimes challenging hiking path.

This area is best accessed by train and is slightly off the beaten bath - but not by much. Please do not imagine a secret lair or a mysterious journey. This place is no secret and it is filled with people speaking heaps of English; but there's a reason for the crowds. It's simply too beautiful to be kept a secret. And besides, Rick Steves couldn't keep a travel secret if he tried.

Our Cinque Terre experience began at the painful hour of 4:30am and included a 14 euro cab ride. Ouch! But we were at the train station by 5:45am and sitting on our 6:10am train well before it raced off into the Milano dawn. The 3 hour train ride is a bit of a blur, there seemed to be some beautiful views and also a large amount of napping by everyone on board.

When we arrived at out first stop we had to wait for one of the slower local "milk-run" trains that drop passengers at each of the five villages of the Cinque Terre. We'd heard that these trains are always at least 10 minutes late and ours did not disappoint. I have yet to figure out if the Italians find this casual attitude towards time & schedules to be normal, quaint, or aggravating. In the end, though, the train comes and you get on. Just forget about looking at your watch as a gauge of when it will arrive.

We rode the train to the farthest out of the towns, with the intention of walking back through the other four with the sun at our back. It was a good plan although the trails increased in difficulty as we moved forward. And by the end when we were scaling large stone steps in steep chunks, our legs were far from perky and alert. But we can happily report a sunburn-free experience. (Which is more than I can say for a great many other people who were out for the day. One of the more depressing and amusing games you can play on the trail is spot the sunburn -- a lot of hikers appear to forget to sun-proof their ankles and the tops of their feet, gaining a pair of pink sunburn socks for their troubles.)

The first town we visited was the small and gentle Riomaggiore. We found a little café with great macchiati and brioche (one filled with chocolate, the other with apricot) and headed out with a heap of energy. Riomaggiore's harbor is home to fishermen fixing their boats under the morning sun and pastel homes tumbling along together. But the most colorful aspect of this area, and the feature we could not stop talking about over the entire distance of our hike, was the stunning color of the sea. Beyond blue and more like teal melting into aquamarine with a snap of turquoise - you could clearly see the rocks spattered along the seafloor and fish darting through the sunspots. Blue is nice but Ligurian is better.

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