The Five Lands

I hope you get the chance to hike the Cinque Terre someday.  The Cinque Terre (“CHINK-kweh TAY-reh”) or “The Five Lands” refer to five (cinque) remote villages tucked into a remote section of the Italian Riviera on the Mediterranean coast. Until the last century, these towns were pretty much inaccessible, even to each others’ residents. Until 1545 they were regularly invaded by pirates. The spectacular trails linking them became a national park in 1999, and this treacherous, challenging seven-mile trail hugging the coast of the Ligurian Sea is beyond beautiful. Hiking it was the one thing I looked forward to more than anything else on this trip with the WXXI Travel Club, and now that we’ve seen it, I could fly home tomorrow a happy woman.

The entire group took a train to Riomaggiore, a town stacked with peach and pink homes leading to a tiny harbor. I’d picked up a stout walking stick in the middle of the road on the Sacred Mountain in Orta (I’m not making this up) and there was much joking about me being Moses leading folks into the wilderness, miracles, the parting of the sea, how by the end everyone would loathe me for making them suffer etc. etc.   It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Cinque Terre trail connects the five villages, and the first section is flat, wide, easy, and breathtaking – basically, an enclosed stone walkway hugging the cliffs of the Mediterranean Sea.  We all walked that part.  The weather was perfect; sunny and warm. The second led of the trail was closed for repairs, so seven members of our group jumped the train to Town #3, Corniglia.  That’s when things got a bit challenging.

We climbed three hundred plus crumbling stairs to a landing and stopped, lizards darting in every direction.  We hiked through a haze of rosemary bushes, straw, olive trees, grape vines, and sea salt. Up and down, up and down, up, up, up. Stairs. Tree roots. Gasp.  Birds.  We lost track of time. Every now and then I laughed out loud at the sheer beauty of what lay before us. 

Our original plan was to eat a gelato in every town, but after the first leg, we marched on like Germans, determined to keep momentum going without stopping to smell the jasmine. Then we reached Vernazza! Let me show you a picture.

From Vernazza we hiked up another cliff and turned around.

I almost lost heart halfway between Town #4 (Vernazza) and Town #5 (Monterosso al Mare.)  A thousand stone steps rose before us. At some point, I dropped the sacred mountain stick which didn’t seem to have any magical powers and was pretty heavy, anyway.  Everyone slowed down a little. One hiker in our group sat to eat a protein bar. I felt a little wimpy, and then I heard a bunch of teenagers chattering behind us. One said, “Can you image doing this in ONE DAY?”

Er, yes, I thought. We will.

The descent to the last village offered delight upon delight: a ravine of cascading water, a guy selling lemonade and wine, cats, a garter snake. The path narrowed to the width of a shoe and then expanded to a wider shelf perched on the edge of destruction.  One moment of inattention and we might have slipped into the sea.  I am not exaggerating. We wove through a tangle of grape vines and farms, groves and wilderness to the last town, Monterosso al Mare. There, I pulled off my stinking, sweaty clothes, slipped on a bathing suit, and plunged into the Mediterranean.  Cold water has never felt so good.

I hope you see this place someday.