It is, however, an exceptionally scenic part of the Italian coast in the province of Liguria. In fact, it is so scenic that this post is almost pointless without some photos, which I absolutely positively promise I will post later in a separate entry when we return from Internet Limbo.
Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), as the name suggests, is an agglomeration of five villages spread out along a narrow section of coast, built up over about a thousand years by farmers who terraced the rocky hillside. Each village presents a dramatic and beautiful mien, especially viewed from the sea: split-level streets filled with ancient Ligurian Gothic churches and tiers of orange, yellow, and red houses clinging to the cliff walls. There are basically three kinds of streets: very level ones that follow the coastline; very steep ones that run up and the hillsides; and very zig-zaggy ones that traverse the cliffs like a ski run. All are paved in stone of one kind or another. There are many, many hiking trails, largely of the level and zig-zaggy varieties, offering spectacular views. One such trail — recently cut off by a rock slide — was about 15 miles long and connected all five towns. There are also many shorter, more level but no less rewarding hikes for wimps like us, and we followed a few of them to assorted outlooks.
The five villages, running like a string of ochre pearls from southeast to northwest along the coast, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. (I have no idea why I am telling you those particular details other than making me feel very well-traveled as I type them.) All are right down at the water and are easily accessible by short train rides between them, with the exception of Corniglia, which is perched atop a 300 ft rock above its own train station. In other words, if you take the train to Corniglia, your first activity is to climb 400 stone steps up the hillside. We did not visit Corniglia.
What we did do was buy a 10-euro day pass in La Spezia that gave us unlimited access to the local train that connects all five towns as well as the buses within the towns. (The duration of the train rides to the first town — Riomaggiore — and between the towns is little more than about 5 minutes each. ) Knowing that the some of the best vantage points are from the sea, our plan was to take the train from La Spezia to the second town, Manarola, where the ferry port is, then for an additional 9 euros take the boat along the coast to the last town in line (Monterossa) and finally come back stop-by-stop via train. Which is more or less what we actually did, and which I recommend as your itinerary should you make it here.
I used the term “ferry port” to describe our boarding point in Manarola, but the term is a major exaggeration. The “port” is a level section of rock at the bottom of a flight of stone stairs, separating you from the sea by a 5 ft long chain connecting two waist-level posts. The ferry motors up to you, the crew members push out a wheeled narrow aluminum gang plank onto the rock and disconnect the chain, and you and 300 other people march aboard. Or more accurately “stumble” aboard; as the boat bobs in the sea, the gang plank rises and falls with it. If that all sounds a little precarious, it is: if the sea is even slightly rough, the ferry does not run.
The ferry stops for a few minutes at each town along the way, and the entire run from one end to the other takes only about a half hour. But it does indeed offer wonderful views of the sheer rocky coast and the towns along the way.
We walked around Monterossa for a while, stopping for lunch, nosing around a few churches, and eating gelato as Biblically mandated. The gelato was particularly welcome because the day had turned hot and sunny and it seemed the right thing to do as we walked parallel to the modestly-populated but inviting sandy beach. We were not too ambitious, Jim and Elaine now having officially caught Alice’s cold (which I also caught but am now over). But we managed to see quite a bit.
Here is an epidemiological aside. I have heard that the average person catches something like 3 colds a year, thus on average one every 17 weeks. By the time we are home, this trip will have been 3 1/2 weeks long, so with two couples we are talking about 14 person-weeks (4 x 3.5) of travel. Since 14 is close to 17 it becomes highly probable that one of the travelers will catch a cold, which in such continuous close quarters makes it pretty much inevitable that the other three will catch it from the first, which is exactly what happened. All of which is a quantitative way of asserting that we were pretty much doomed from the start, virologically speaking.
Our plan was to catch a 3:30 train out of Monterossa and visit one of the other towns, but we mistakenly boarded an express train, which we hadn’t even known existed and whose conductor roundly berated us since our day passes were not valid. It took us straight back to our starting point in La Spezia. The trains run quite regularly and so we could at that point simply have boarded a local train and gone back to one of the towns. But everyone was tired, so we took our train schedule confusion as a sign from heaven that we should simply call it a day and relax back at the villa.