In the fall of '06 my husband Les and I decided to spend a few days on the Ligurian coast of Italy to see what all the fuss is that others have made about this part of the country. We only allowed ourselves three days there, and the first was spent recuperating from our long flight from California. We managed to do a little exploring that first day in our base town of Levanto, about three-quarters of the way down this section of the Italian coast, and we of course were able to squeeze in a pizza and some wine at a local trattoria before collapsing for the night.
The next day we did the tourist thing and spent the day in Portofino. Unfortunately, as it was Sunday, half of the population of Europe also seemed to have had the same idea, and we were less than thrilled with the Disneyland-like atmospheres of what appeared to have once been a quaint Italian fishing village.
On our final day we took a train down the coast a little ways (15 minutes) to a town called Corniglia. It's one of the Cinque Terre—five coastal fishing villages that hug the rocky cliffs of southern Liguria. The five towns are very small and are connected by a frequently running train, a narrow, winding, rickety road, and a hiking trail that looks better suited to mountain goats than humans in some areas. Our plan was to take the train down to Corniglia (the middle village), then hike up to Vernazza, the next town north, and take the train back to Levanto from there.
The rain began as the train pulled up in Levanto to start us on our journey. Luckily, Les had gone back to retrieve our umbrellas from the hotel when we first arrived at the train station and had found out we had half an hour to wait for the next train. When we got off the train in Corniglia we looked around for the village and couldn't seem to see anything. We noticed people walking north and started to follow them towards this sheer cliff that housed the train tunnel we had just come through. Then I saw it. What looked like a colorful parade of caterpillars zig-zagging up the cliff was really the people from the train (under their umbrellas) walking up the steps that led up to Corniglia (very high up on top of the cliff). We were huffing and puffing when we finally reached the top, but it was worth it -- a peaceful village that dates back from Roman times.
After a wonderful lunch of seafood pasta in an outdoor restaurant (under dripping umbrellas, of course), we hemmed and hawed about whether or not to take the 90-minute hike up to Vernazza or wimp out and take the train instead, seeing as how it was still pouring rain. The skies cleared up enough to lull us into a false sense of security and we chose the hiking path. The clearing only lasted long enough to get us far enough to be committed to the hike, then it began to rain again. We looked back longingly at Corniglia, too far behind us now to make turning around seem worthwhile. Through the mist we could also just barely make out the village of Manorola, the next one south of Corniglia.
The hike was really spectacular along the cliff edge and though the woods and olive terraces. The path seemed almost paved at parts, due to the natural occurrence of granite and marble in the area (Michelangelo acquired his marble from this area). In many places the path was so narrow we had to go sideways, and there were no guardrails to keep us from plummeting to the beach many meters below. It was a little scary at times.
I must say I was quite relieved when we came to a signpost announcing our arrival at Vernazza, or so I thought. The path sign in Corniglia had indicated that the hike to Vernazza would take one and a half hours, and we'd only been walking for about 45 minutes. But I figured that they allowed for people to stop and enjoy the scenery, assuming no one would be foolhardy enough to make the trip in the pouring rain.
It turned out that the Vernazza sign was really only indicating that we were in fact still on the path to Vernazza. We hadn't actually arrived there yet. As it was, we hiked another 45 minutes, and stepped around a corner to see the village spread out just below us almost exactly an hour and a half after we had left Corniglia.We were in fact getting exhausted from all the climbing up and over the many hillsides that by the time we got down into the village we wanted nothing more than to collapse and have a drink. We found a Gelataria instead and had ice cream cones sitting on a stone bench under an overhang in the rain. They were wonderful.
The rain finally stopped and we met up with some special friends (Bill Womack and Linda Robertson of Spotted Antelope Multimedia, producers of Wandering Italy) who were staying in Vernazza, and had a wonderful dinner, then took the train back to Levanto and slept very well.