Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This morning, it is time to leave the rolling hills of Tuscany and Umbria and head for the sun of Liguria and the almighty sea.

It’s just after 10 in the morning and I’m on a train to Monterosso al Mare, the largest of five small fishing villages that make up a region known as the Cinque Terre, or “five lands.” It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park, but it’s also a major destination for U.S. travelers. Arezzo isn’t even mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebook, but the Cinque Terre has an entire chapter all its own, which has me a bit apprehensive about the crowds.

As I change trains at Pisa Centrale, the weather also has me worried. The villages of the Cinque Terre are connected by hiking trails that wind up and down along the cliffs, but according to some online message boards, recent downpours have forced the closure of many of the paths for sake of safety. Still, the air has been unseasonably warm these past few days, so as we speed by La Spezia and I crane my neck toward the window to catch brief glimpses of the ocean between tunnels, I am hopeful that things have dried out.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM by the time we pull into the station in Monterosso al Mare and I drag my luggage from the train along with scores of other passengers wearing shorts, sundresses, and flip flops. I stop briefly at the tourist information window to buy a three-day Cinque Terre treno card, to cover entrance to the trails and to the local trains that connect Monterosso al Mare to the towns of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

Emerging from the station, I turn left toward my hotel in the Old Town, but feel compelled to stop and stare at the scene before me. I’ve never spent much time at seaside resorts. I’ve never been to California or the Caribbean, and I’ve seen Florida only once, so this is new and exotic to me. There is a long stretch of sandy beach, decorated with rows of colorful umbrellas and chairs, set in a perfect arch along the shore. Palm trees strung with streamers of yellow and green line the street, and there are shops selling racks of postcards, sunglasses, tote bags, and beach balls.

I have not travelled far on this trip. The distance from Rome to Florence is just 182 miles—roughly equivalent to the drive I might take between my house in northwestern Vermont and Brattleboro, the city at its southeastern corner, near the border of Massachusetts. From Florence to the Cinque Terre, it is just 116 miles, which at home would get me only as far as White River Junction. And yet from the urban intensity of Rome, to the rustic charm of Tuscany and Umbria, and now the brilliant seas of the Cinque Terre, I am finding that the geography of Italy is astonishingly diverse.

I make my way through the pedestrian tunnel and up Via Roma until I reach the front door of the Hotel Margherita, a friendly place painted in shades of tangerine with green shutters. I check into room 101 and begin to unpack as a warm breeze through the louvered windows draws in the scent of lemon and basil from the garden below.

I feel energized when I make my way back down Via Roma toward the beach, and more so after grabbing a sandwich and a bottle of water. I climb a set of stairs by the Obertenghi Castle to the Aurora Tower, and continue up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. My legs are still feeling fresh on the descent, so much so that when I reach the sign at the end of the beach reading Per Vernazza, I decide, with little hesitation, to walk there for dinner, despite having just half my water left.

I had not planned on hiking any trails until tomorrow morning, especially the first leg to Vernazza, which is said to be the toughest climb, so this is either a moment of divine inspiration, or one of supreme lunacy under the heat of the afternoon sun. According to Rick Steves in his infamous guidebook, he often gets e-mails from readers “who say the trail was tougher than they expected,” but he assures us that while “it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s perfectly doable for any fit hiker… and worth the sweat.”

I spent months on a treadmill preparing for this, with the incline set to its highest point, so to believe that I am anything short of a “fit hiker” would amount to personal failure. Besides, I have already taken Assisi, Cortona, Orvieto, and San Gimignano in stride—hill towns all. Surely, this can be no worse.

Except that it is. That much is clear early on.

As the trail starts to climb, I can feel the burn in my legs. Before long, I’m stopping to catch my breath. Soon, it’s not so much a hiking trail as it is a never ending staircase.

The countryside is beautiful, to be sure. The path leads me along terraces of grapevines and olive groves, by crumbling stone walls overgrown with wildflowers, through the woods and over streams, but always uphill. Ceaselessly uphill. It’s late afternoon, the sun is scorching hot, and I don’t have nearly enough water. I start to ration it into the smallest of sips.

As a father and son approach from behind, I can overhear snatches of their conversation. They’re carrying fully inflated inner tubes. This seems like a bad idea on so many levels, although it occurs to me that if they happen to slip off the edge of the cliff—the footpath is narrow and there are, in most places, no guardrails—that it might actually break the fall.

The son is bounding forward, while the father lags behind and grumbles about wanting to turn back. I can’t say that I blame him, although as we meet others coming from the opposite direction, some wearing flip flops and others ballet flats, I am forced to question whether I am indeed a “fit hiker,” or merely a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes. As I march on, I begin to formulate a letter to Rick Steves in my head about how the trail was “tougher than I expected.”

When I cross paths with a group of friendly Australians heading from Vernazza, I dare to ask them about what lies ahead. Am I almost there, or almost to the ridgeline, at least? “Oh, dear,” the woman says. “Oh my, no.”

I’ve been on the trail for nearly two hours when, at long last, I reach a clearing high on the hill. The view from the summit takes my breadth away, although this time not from exertion, but out of sheer euphoria.

I am looking down upon the tiny village of Vernazza. I’ve arrived at the top of the hour and the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia are just beginning to chime. I can see rows of pastel houses that fold back from a snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle, and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea. It is a picture postcard, perfect in every way.

Perhaps I won’t send that letter to Rick Steves, after all. It was worth the sweat, just as he said.

I make the descent into town and walk for a bit through the lively streets, but decide that it would best to head back to Monterosso al Mare, after all. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished—the hike is one I will long remember—but for now I’d like nothing more than a long, cold shower and a nice lie down before dinner. I head back on the train.

It’s 7:30 when I venture back out and, mercifully, the heat of the day is beginning to lift. I stop for dinner at Ristorante al Pozzo and relax on the outdoor patio, studying the menu and chatting with folks nearby. There is a couple from Australia on my left, and a young woman from San Francisco named Amber on my right. She’s quit her job and has been travelling solo around Europe for the past five months. She reminds me of Serena, who I met on the train from Assisi, and I find myself envying them both.

Italian cuisine is regional cuisine, and like Tuscany with its ribollita and wild boar, Liguria has specialties of its own—namely, anchovies, lemons, focaccia bread, and pesto. I’ve seen a dish called trofie al pesto on restaurant chalkboards all over town, and rows of basil are growing right outside my hotel window, so trofie al pesto it is.

Trofie is a variety of pasta made with flour and water, and not with egg. It’s rolled into thin strips, cut into pieces, and then twisted like a screw, with channels into which a sauce can cling. Famished from the day’s exertion, I gobble it down in astonishing speed.

Afterwards, I take a short walk around town before crashing into bed.  And in a conscious effort to reward to myself, I don’t set the alarm clock on the nightstand.

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