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Italy: Hiking the Cinque Terra

Our happy hiking group on the hotel patio in Santa Margherita

On Our Way to Italy
After much frantic packing the night before, I am on my merry way to the airport at 8:30 in the morning to begin my first-ever trip to Italy. Although it is drizzling rain and I am tired and cranky, I mellow out on the plane, meet Lene in Newark, and it is onward to Italy, a land which has always entranced me!

Genoa Nervi
We arrive at the Milano airport, where we clean up and hairspray, hairspray, hairspray! (Unfortunately, Lene leaves hers in the bathroom…much discussion of this throughout the trip.) We drive into Milan with a silver-tongued taxi driver who wants fifty dollars American and almost runs out of gas on the outskirts of town. Much commotion! Once in the train station, it is disconcerting to find that no-one speaks English! We finally find our train and settle for the ride, by which time we are exhausted.

Off the train at Genoa, on the train to Nervi
Here we are in Nervi…a beautiful town. We taxi to the Hotel Pagoda, an elegant and charming villa awash in hot-pink bougainvillea, unpack and are out again for a 2-1/2 hour walk around the village.

A panoramic view at the start of the Cinque Terra

We reach the sea front from an increasingly winding tree-lined path which rambles through a wrought-iron gateway into a small tunnel out onto the front. Such glorious views – sea, cliffs and coastline are magnificent and spectacular. We continue back through the rose garden and park, and so back to the hotel. As we look from the window of our room, the hills strewn with colorful villas look like a Renaissance painting. Soon it’s dinner: scampi tempura, sea breen and pasta. Yum! Again…no-one speaks English…trying to make ourselves understood with the tiny bit of Italian learned prior to the trip is not easy! 

A beautiful doorway leading to the magical coast

Walk Up the Coast in Genoa Nervi
We wake at 1:15 PM! Our group meets at 2!! Pulling ourselves together, we gallop down to the bar where we meet Mario (gorgeous) and Diane, Jean and Jann. Immediate rapport.Then Barb arrives, and we take off for a walk up the coast and all around the town. Once back at the Villa Pagoda, we meet the rest of our small group in the garden for drinks and hors d’ouvres. Mario gives us a brief talk about the hikes to come…we’re surrounded by roses, awash in scent, and the weather is heavenly.

First champagne, then dinner: everyone seems to be in our age group. The table is beautifully set, very elegant, with lots of Italian food and wine. Then at 10PM, it’s upstairs to pack for the move to Riomaggiore the next morning.

Riomaggiore and Manarola
The sun is intense, and the weather is perfect. The bus takes us to Riomaggiore, the first town of the Cinque Terra.

Although we forget a bag, and turn back, the driver narrowly missing the back of parked cars, we are soon on our way over the Ligurian Mountains.
We drive through many tunnels, over bridges…ears popping. Vineyards cover the hills, and clumps of red poppies are everywhere. The gray-green of the olive trees emphasizes the colors of the flowers.

We come to La Spezia, the second largest port in Italy, which houses the Naval Academy. La Spezia’s main street is lined with orange trees absolutely drenched with fruit. Here we stop for a quick coffee break.

One hour later, somewhat frazzled, we roll into Riomaggiore. We ramble through the town stopping for lunch at an outdoor cafe. Stray cats meow around our table (I find this upsetting, but I am the only one). Lunch is tomato and mozzarella cheese, and a delicious crusty bread. Our real hike then begins, across the cliffs to Manarola. The views are so spectacular, it’s hard to know where to look and what is the most beautiful.
Immediate impressions: villas on hillsides, all colors – pink, mauve, yellow, green, painted trompe l’oile. Amazing flowers bloom everywhere – on ledges, stone walls, in window boxes, on bridges, and trees. Immense vivid hydrangeas, bright red and yellow poppies, hollyhocks, pots of margarita daisies, bougainvillea – a deep deep purple. Our hike is challenging: about four hours on trails often as narrow as a footprint, and very very steep. We must be climbing “thousands of stairs” up and down the hillsides. The weather is amazing. Apparently pouring rain until the day we arrived, today the sun is streaming down and it’s very hot. Wonderful!
From our view on the hillside, we look down to the sea – azure and glorious. The sea, the sun, the flowers, the jungle growth of the greenery, and the olive groves and vineyards -all combine to create a fantasy view. It is a movie setting…incredible in every way.

Apparently a Sanctuary is situated on the high ground of every village. From the sanctuary above Riomaggiore can be seen the “panorama of the islands of Elba, Corsica, Palmaria and Tine as well as the entire coast from the Cinque Terre to Punta Mesco.”

Look at that beautiful backdrop…sheer heaven (really!)

Although it is Monday, many people are hiking the trails – Americans, French, German, all sorts of nationalities. Overheard on one of the steeper and rockier slopes, an English woman remarks to her companions “I’m just looking for a little flat place.” The Cinque Terra is very beautiful, but physical ability is pretty much necessary to hike these steep, narrow trails.

We reach Manarola, and Mario pulls us into a tiny villa where an old Italian woman is making homemade wine. She pours out a glassful, and we pass it around, each taking a sip. Mario buys a bottle to take with us on a picnic. Walking on to Corniglia, we have a delicious lunch, then it’s back to the hotel for a rest.

Vernazza
Up at the crack of dawn…and out on the trail by 9AM. A healthy breakfast of muesli is satisfying, but the coffee is, to put it as nicely as possible, strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth! I must be ordering the wrong kind… but, no, this IS Italian coffee!
We walk for three and a half hours, climbing ever higher and higher. Thousands (possibly millions!) of steps up, thousands down. Ledges two inches wide; green prolific vegetation all around. We walk past olive groves, vineyards, vegetable gardens growing on the terraced hillsides, stone tanks providing water. Hills are covered with vines growing wild. Narrow, narrow paths, so slight, you can tumble down the mountain in a New York minute. The hike is challenging and invigorating, and clears the mind of all niggling worries.

We come to Vernazza, and stop to eat lunch at the Blue Marlin. The bruschetta – toasted bread with tomatoes and anchovies, lightly drizzled with olive oil – is absolutely yummy. I can’t believe how much I enjoy the anchovies here…delish. The joy of the day is embodied in an impromptu waltz around the cafe by Jean and Tad, to much laughter and singing.

We leave the Blue Marlin and walk around the town. Turning from the path, I see a small piazza almost deserted in a sunny street. As I sit there alone, face turned toward the sun, a woman on a terrace waters her plants, while another hangs clothes on the ever-present clothesline. Flowers, flowers everywhere. The biggest geraniums, hydrangeas of all colors, nasturtiums bright orange, big white daisies in pots, yellow gorse, wild cyclamen, bougainvillea, vetch! In the town square, we hear church bells chiming from a beautiful green and white marble Catholic church with a rose circular window.

We hike back to the hotel, clean up, pack for the next morning’s move, and leave for dinner at an outdoor café. The tables are set out in the street, and we eat under the silver Italian moon. First is antipasto: broiled octopus, squid, shrimp, tiny little clams, anchovies and swordfish. The entree includes prawns & shrimp, broiled. When they are set on the table, they are as big as lobsters, and taste great. And we finish up with wine and cappuccino.

Vittorio’s Villa
Up at 7AM for breakfast, and ready to walk at nine. This is to be our longest hike, and it will be difficult.
We walk up – up – up – climbing up stairs and steps and over boulders, about 9000 feet according to Mario, to a ruined monastery sitting on top of the mountain. Lorenzo, Mario’s son who has acccompanied us so far, is gathering cherries for us from the wild cherry trees. The view from here is – well, I can’t keep from using the word “spectacular’. Below is the misty deep blue sea, and the mountainside is covered in flowers.
From here, we hike to an isolated primitive villa belonging to Vittorio, a friend of Mario’s. An old man who lives alone (except for weekly visits from his wife), he is an artist whose canvas is his marvelous garden. Mario met him on one of his previous hikes, and Vittorio offered him homemade cheese and wine, salami, beans, and cherries for his picnics. It’s magical. We sit outdoors at two trestle tables.

Mario slices the tomatoes and bread he has brought, arranging them on platters with fresh basil from the garden; nasturtiums decorate our plates. Vittorio brings out salami and his wonderful homemade cheese. We sit in the sun and drink wine at his villa on the side of a mountain in Italy. All tastes are intensified. The foccaccio bread tastes like no other bread, whether filled with either olives or onion, or plain. The tomatoes embody the flavor of Italy.

Behind the villa are the cherry orchard, and a field of yellow daisies which seems to go on forever. Vittorio allows us to fill our caps with cherries from the orchard; they are only the best cherries I’ve ever eaten. It is an incredible moment.
Then we say goodbye to Vittorio and his two black cats and one black dog, and walk down the other side of the mountain through forests of trees and ferns, wild sweet peas, mayflower bushes brimming with sweet-smelling white blossoms, daisies, dandelions everywhere.

The mountainside is covered with fragrant yellow gorse. Soon, red brick walls begin to appear, covered – dripping – with flowers of all kinds, again bougainvillea, geraniums in colors I haven’t seen back home, a wall choked with orange nasturtiums, terra cotta pots of white daisies, roses everywhere, hedges of fragrant white jasmine, hollyhocks.

We begin to sing on the trail, yodelling “The Happy Wanderer” at the top of our lungs. Mario then sings every Italian song he can think of; he is so delightful. Lene and I drift along to the top of a hill and are suddenly showered with a handful of yellow gorse blooms which Mario has thrown over our heads. Then we all share a big kiss on the cheek.

Reaching town, we stop for a quick gelato, then catch a train and are soon back at our hotel. Molto bene! Lene and I have a balconied room on the third floor overlooking the Meditteranean. The shuttered doors are open wide as I’m writing this at 10PM at night, and I hear the plash of the waves against the sand, and see glimmers of white boats anchored in the bay. Just outside our window, to break the mood, we also hear an Italian woman next door yelling into the phone at her mother for some time!

Our room is nice, lacking only in towels. A knock on the door is the maid, who (naturally) speaks no English. “We need more towels,” I try to tell her, picking up something I think is a towel and saying”vorrei dua.” Responding in Italian, we are both nodding and shaking our heads like yoyos. Then off she goes, and I leave the door open on the off chance she’ll be back. Meanwhile, I disappear into the bedroom.
The maid returns and knocks at the door. Lene answers. The maid offers her three bath rugs and more voluble Italian. Now we have four bath rugs and one towel.

Sestri Levant the Bay of Silence and the Bay of Fables
Up and out at 9AM feeling fresh as a daisy, albeit slightly damp. We have another challenging hike today, 6,000 feet – up, and up again, steps and more steps. According to Mario, “This is an easy walk!” We hike for three hours – through deep green ferny woods up, up the mountain -the path initially ditficult as it is studded with boulders, but soon, less so. Pine needles carpet the trail. The air is evergreen-scented, clean and fresh. We take many photographs at every possible stopping point: overlooking the ocean, in the ferns, against brick and stone wails, going up, going down. The sun is shining, the birds singing madly, the only sound as this is a quiet walk – no other people are on the trail, whereas before, we’ve had lots of company.

The beautiful bay

We reach Sestri Levanti around noon and reconvene at the Hotel Miramare. Lene and I have a great room – small and comfortable – with a balcony overlooking the sea. We converge for lunch out on the terrace, where the tables are laid with deep salmon-colored tablecloths. The terrace overlooks the Meditteranean; small white boats are floating on the Bay of Silence. Across from us lies the Bay of Fables {entrancing names!)

After lunch, some of us ramble up to see an eleventh century church and an old villa that’s been converted to a hotel – very, very beautiful. The hotel is a little eerie – no one is here, and it is quiet as a tomb. We walk up more and more steps, finally entering the grounds through an archway into an incredibly lovely avenue. Lined with stone walls starred with daisies, and immense terra cotta pots overflowing with geraniums, the avenue takes us into another world. So peaceful, so quiet.

The pathway to an absolutely exquisite hotel

We wander around, looking for and finding the old stone monastery, and after a brief respite, return to our hotel. Sitting on the balcony of our room, I sip a ginger ale while Lene washes her hair. Afterwards, we sit outside in the sun, then somehow discover that the balcony doors are “locked” (don’t know why, don’t know how.) After much hoo-ha, we manage to finally get back into our room, and quickly shower so that we can go shopping! I buy a pristine white sweater and Lene buys two.

We return to the hotel in time for a drink on the terrace with Diane and Barb – then into dinner and to bed. What a day…what a splendid, splendid day.

Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino
From Sestri Levanti, we drive to Santa Margherita Ligure. According to our guide book, this is “a temple of the sun where the sea, sky and pastel colored houses are so intensely luminous as to instill optimism and joy of life in its inhabitants …a mythological place where eternally young beings conduct a happy existence in adoration of Beauty. Of Roman origin, it was conquered by the Fieschi, then Genoa, and suffered many raids by Saracen pirates…”

Hiking down into Portofino

At the Colonial Hotel in Santa Margherita, we drop our luggage and immediately begin one of our loveliest hikes, to Portofino.
The hike from Santa Margherita is through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Endless fields of fern stretch to meet woods of chestnut, pine, and wild cherry trees, and all sorts of flowers perfume the air and line our trail – this is our pathway. !t is all enchanting. General impressions are of blazing color: bright yellow gorse everywhere and villas dotting the terraced hillsides in all the warm beautiful tints of Italy. We have a slight shock when I inadvertently step on the tail end of a snake – screams reverberate.
We come to Portofino, lit by the gold of the Italian sunlight.

Lene on the road to Portofino

I love Portofino. Our first view, from high atop a hill: narrow walled paths, starred with daisies. A painted ship floats below upon a painted ocean. The Hotel Splendido – all shining white -clings to the side of the hill fronting a fairy tale bay of the bluest of blue water. We are in a movie! The tiny town of Portofino floats within this panorama, the bay dotted with white boats and yachts. We eat grilled shrimp outside in one of the myriad cafes dotting the square. The colors! The flowers! The people!

Like a small blue sapphire within an emerald green cup, Portofino is the quintessential cosmopolitan seaside Italian Riviera town. Lene and I shop and walk and shop and walk and look up at the sun and are happy…and why not? We are in one of the most beautiful villages in the world, in glorious weather, among friends and feeling great! We end our day with a drink in the square, and catch the 5 o’clock boat back to Santa Margherita and the Colonial Hotel.

A quick shower before supper – not the best supper, but who cares at this point. Afterwards, several of us cross the grassy stretch behind the hotel in the silvery moonlight. The night sky is navy blue velvet hung with a silver moon and twinkling stars, which are reflected in the swimming pool carved from lava rock. Across the bay, the lights of some other tiny town twinkle in the hills. We stroll through streets rife with atmosphere and mystery to wander around downtown.

San Fruttuoso and Comiglio
On our walk by 9AM. This is to be the most challenging of all our hikes, and one of the most spectacularly beautiful. Only three of us choose to go on this hike with Mario (ah, Mario!): Diane, Lene and I.

Mario points the way

We cross log bridges into a primeval forest, the trees resting at 90 degree angles beside the trail. Paths are as wide as a footfall. Ivy covers the chestnuts, pines, and oaks. We edge across narrow edges. Lichen and moss cover boulders blocking our paths – boulders big as cliffs, small daisies sprouting from their crannies. At this point, we’ve come approximately five miles (all up) from Santa Margherita.
The trails are strewn with pine needles in some places, rocky and rough in others. Our destination is San Fruttuoso, the tiniest port on the edge of the world. It’s located in a tiny cove, once frequented by pirates and bandits, and houses a single small hotel, two villas and a monastery. It perches on the edge of the sea like a miniature jewel. It is completely enclosed by mountains and sea; we can only reach it by hiking or by boat.
What a climb: two hours up, over massive boulders blocking our trail, up steps cut into the mountain, up vine-trailed pathways, over rock and stones, ever up to the top of the world! Barely pausing for a sip of water, up, straight up we hike. We are breathing air scented with pine and flowers, crystal clear and intensely fresh. Pines, oaks and chestnuts surround us.

Then down, ever down – down – to San Fruttuoso, where the tiny cove now welcomes tourists in place of pirates. (Which are worse?) The water is bluer than blue, deeper than emerald, azure as sapphires – clear as a bell. The little hotel where we have lunch is a marvelous picture. We eat on a covered terrace overlooking the bathers below on the small beach. A variety of seafood, olives, bread, and prosciutto e melone is served – every wonderful taste intensified by atmosphere, water and scent. We are high, high up overlooking the Meditteranean; small white boats float on the waves below.

After this splendid lunch, we catch the ferry back to Comiglio, where we are surrounded by a splendid view of the mountains. We walk through town to the train station and in three minutes, are back in Santa Margherita. Lene and I change clothes, find the bar, order vodka tonics, and sit on the hotel’s veranda, pretending we are rich, worldly jet setters. We have a most glorious view: from the veranda of the hotel, we look onto a landscaped lawn and garden, leading to a natural pool and rocky terrace.

The crystal emerald clear water- the immense terra cotta pots of red geraniums – the white sailboats floating on the Meditteranean – the jewel-green mountains surrounding us – the manicured gardens – I really, really feel we are on the Italian Riviera for the first time. We walk down to the natural pool formed by lava rocks and sit dipping our toes into the Meditteranean Sea. All around us are suntanned gods and goddesses – as well as a few not so goddess-like! This has been one of the really perfect days. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world!

Then up to change for dinner and out to Nostromo’s, a tiny Italian trattoria Mario has found off the beaten path. Here, I buy a delightful painting from an itinerant artist who is showing his wares in the small restaurant. The painting is very simple, very !talian: a bicycle leaning against the wall of a villa. Lene buys a view of Portofino seen through a side street. After we eat, we walk back to our hotel, but not before standing on a street corner overlooking the sea and singing “Blue Moon” to the stars at the top of our lungs.

Cinque Terre is so incredibly rich in beauty, no wonder it was beloved by painters and poets, writers and philosophers, actors and composers: Nietsche, Guy de Maupassant, Keats, Shelley, Byron (who drowned off the Ligurian coast), Wagner, D’Annunzio, Laurence Olivier, Nicola Abbagnano, sculptor Maragliano, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Dante and Petrarca … all have lived, loved and been happy here.
“…/ saw the vessels glide
Over the ocean bright and wide…
And the wind that winged their flight
From the land came fresh and light,
And the scent of winged flowers,
And the coolness of the hours
Of dew, and sweet warmth left by day
Were scattered o’er the twinkling bay.” Shelley…”Lines written in the bay of Lerici”

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About carpediemrosemary

I was born in England...and moved to Wales when I was two years old...to a small fishing village called The Mumbles, just down the railroad track from Swansea, along the sea. Back in the day, this village was everything you'd want to live in as a kid...surrounded by the sea and the mountains, cliffs and fields full of buttercups, hedgerows high and filled with brambly scrambling vines and flowers...Red currants and peas from village vegetable gardens were plentiful, and we were able to play among the sheep wandering everywhere. The green of the fields was intense. We left Wales to come to Houston, the other side of the world and not QUITE as green, and since then I've travelled more or less constantly...later in life I took up hiking, when my first hike with a friend took me to the Cornish coast in England. There I was able to walk the causeway from Marazion to Mount St. Michael, visit Mousehole where my mother was born, and return to The Mumbles decades after I first lived there. Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth...but then, there are so many beautiful places...you have to seize the day, or it passes you by...gone in the wink of an eye.

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