September 10-11, 2016: Postcards of Cinqueterre

Photo album: https://goo.gl/photos/f8HyQvV5FqPnMMam9

So after the going to the Naipalm concert the night before, I woke up at 5:30am to catch a 6:30 train. The sun wasn’t even out. My windows can actually totally cancel out sunlight when they’re closed, but that’s besides the point. I hadn’t even really slept. It was more like a nap. I packed everything for the weekend in a backpack. I packed real light. And I also hiked with this backpack on. So it would not be an inaccurate statement to say I backpacked.

The train to Cinqueterre was pretty long, a few hours to La Spezia, the biggest town next to Cinqueterre. Our train went through the typical farmland of Emilia-Romagna, but then we also saw some majestic mountains in the distance. Despite the early hour, it was actually a pleasant-ish train ride. And of course all the trains were always delayed at least 10 minutes. There are lots of tourists going to Cinqueterre, so you actually hear quite a bit of English.

Gift found us a cheap, huge place on booking.com. It was an apartment from a Chinese guy who actually didn’t speak Chinese. He spoke Italian. And I would’ve tried to speak back in Italian but we had a couple of students from the top Intensive Italian class, though it was mostly Spanish. I think it was intentionally Spanish though, I don’t think she was trying to speak Italian, she just figured that they’d understand her fluent Spanish. And actually the housekeeper was Dominican. So it somehow worked out.

So typically, I’m a planner. I like to plan things. And I’m good at it. But I figured that I was going with a group of 6, surely someone else would have planned. And I didn’t want to have clashing plans. But alas no one was prepared. And then what was worse, we all tried to be in control. I try to relax, but I’m too much of a control freak. Even a little thing like whether we should buy a 1-day train ticket or a 2-day train ticket. We had quite the debate. And some of us ended up getting 1-day tickets and some 2. In the end though, 2 was a waste of money, even 1 was a waste of money because not a single time did anyone check our ticket. There was never a chance that anyone was going to check. And you really feel like a sucker every time you buy a train ticket in Italy because so rarely do they check for tickets. And if you are sleeping, they’ll often just leave you alone.

Cinqueterre is so pretty. It is literally straight from the postcards (accordingly I bought a bunch). There are so many different vibrant colors in these small towns right along the Mediterranean Sea with terraces built into the sides of the hills amidst the terraced vineyards and olive farms. And each town has its own distinct look. They are all within walking distance from each other, so you can take a hike between towns (either along the water or up into the mountains). And you see the towns from different aerial angles. And each angle is incredible. They are also all connected by train or by ferry.

The first day, we did the last 4 of the Cinqueterre starting from the furthest, Monterosso. Monterosso is the only one with an actual stretch of beach. It’s a beach town. And as with Italian beaches, you have to pay for a spot. But there is one section of beach that is free. And it was packed. In early September, it was still prime beach time. So everyone was out there. Each town of course also has its main church/monastery and we were trying to reach the monastery way up in the mountains. We got up halfway and then hit a gate with a hole in it. I wanted to go right on through and continue up (it was a guess), but instead we turned around to find another way up. And lo and behold, the other way up went along the same bit of gate. Too many people trying to be in control with no one knowing what they’re doing.

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The second town was Vernazza. It is really cool because it has a little enclosed harbor. As pretty as this one is, it doesn’t quite live up to the postcards. This is a town that is better seen from above- and afar-should’ve hiked to it. Clearly, the postcards saturate all the color but you wouldn’t know that until you see it in person and wonder why the water looks that color. There’s not too much to do per se in each town, but you walk around and take pictures and take in the different character of each town and go to the church and eat gelato. I mean, what more do you do as a tourist in Europe?

Corniglia was a pain in the ass to get to. Because the train station is actually nowhere near the town. Unlike the other ones along the water at sea level, this one is way up on a cliff. So you have to do a bunch of switchbacks to climb all the way up.  Corniglia is also where I stopped to buy a postcard and there was this stupid American tourist ahead of me buying limoncello and asking too many questions. So it took a long time, and then when I exited the store, I lost my group. And my phone was dead. And when I plug in my phone to my portable charger, it keeps disconnecting itself because it has to be in a very specific position to charge. So I walked all over the town (I actually ended up seeing more of it than did my friends). Twice over looking for them. It’s actually very pretty because it’s high up. But I wasn’t stopping to take many pictures. Because I was worried about finding them. And eventually I spotted one of them outside a little caffe, and found they had stopped for a drink at the caffe right across from the souvenir shop where I bought my postcard. Of course…

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Now we chose to hike between Corniglia and Manarola. It was a highly recommended hike by the New York Times up into the mountains. So it wasn’t exactly along the water, but you could see the water from just about everywhere. In fact, the paths right at the edge were closed due to landslides from a few years back. We walked through terraced vineyards that looked like private property (we were basically in someone’s backyard), but it was also the hiking trail. This hike was roughly 2.5 hours and the last hour we were all in pain and we were exhausted. But I just kept telling myself that if I could climb Mt. Fuji I could do this little hike. One in the group was an experienced hiker and she had no problem. The rest of us were out of shape. I actually was not so bad, but my feet were killing me on the downhill sections. We were going to stop at a little village halfway for a drink (as recommended by the New York Times), but we walked right through it without knowing. It was that small.

We watched the sunset from Manarola. It was quite picturesque. And then at night, the sea is pure pitch black. We had dinner at a restaurant. They all seemed to basically serve the same food. Seafood. And they were all pretty touristy. But we had a decent meal. There was a group of American students that sat behind us and we realized, well not realized but confirmed, how obnoxious and loud Americans are. And then I had some gelato. And obviously gelato is always good, but this gelato actually just wasn’t that impressive. Bologna is actually the best place for gelato in Italy. So when traveling to other places in Italy, go for other things for dessert.

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The second day, we took the ferry from La Spezia to Portovenere, which isn’t technically one of the Cinqueterre but it is included in the same UNESCO World Heritage site. Personally, I thought Portovenere was the prettiest of the towns. It was my favorite. Coming in from the water, you see the whole town from afar. And each building is a different color all lined up. There was a fort/castle that looked like the Great Wall of China. We also went swimming in Portovenere. The water was so pleasant and comfortable, not too cold. It is very clear. It was a little rough when boats would make waves. There were people cliff diving–I wasn’t about to do that. I brought in my GoPro and saw some fish. My swimming ability while holding a GoPro was not very good. And this wasn’t a beach, really just rocks where people set up towels and hang out.

Also, we decided that SAIS needs to buy a boat or a yacht for student groups to use on the weekends. It would be a great use of our tuition. We should start a petition or something. That’s what would really set it apart from other schools.

We took another ferry from Portovenere to Riomaggiore, which is probably the town you picture when you think of Cinqueterre. It’s sort of rugged looking with the houses stacked on top of each other. The region is near Genoa, so they’re known for pesto, salami, and focaccia. The focaccia is basically pizza but on focaccia bread. And it is so good. You can also buy boxes of fried calamari the way you buy fries. You see people walking around with a box of fried seafood. It’s kind of brilliant.

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In summary, Cinqueterre is gorgeous. But Portovenere is even better. And if you really wanted to, you could do them all in a day, but that’s a lot.

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