A crisp early morning in the middle of the European summer and I am sitting on an east-bound train weaving along the jagged coast of the Italian Riviera. I sit transfixed as I watch the yellow sun peak over the horizon, lighting up the infinite stretch of water in front of me. As the speeding train darts through dusky tunnels hollowed out from the rugged mountainside, I press my cheek to the cool window and attempt to see around the curvature of the carriages - because judging by the few sun-kissed locals who are already gathered at the exit doors, ready to disembark - my destination must be just around the bend. And then I see it. Set against the dark coastline, a brilliant flash of yellow, pink and white architecture draws my attention. The steep cliffs that I have sought for many years are finally here.
Gloriously threaded along 18km of jagged cliffs in the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (directly translated to ‘Five Lands’) is one of Italy’s purest treasures. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – the five scattered fishing villages set like dazzling jewels into the coastline that make up Cinque Terre - are cut off from civilization by magnificent mountains teaming with olive grove vineyards and rich plantation, where farmers have sweated out a humble living under the harsh Italian sun for many centuries. Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and this title has thus spared the uniquely-landscaped area from the tainted propaganda of trivial souvenir stands and environmental destruction. Cars and motorbikes are forbidden in the steep-street villages, and unless you are fit and brave enough to make the two hour trek along the steep hiking paths that connect each of the five adjacent villages, the only way the towns are connected is by the local train and ferries that run three times daily.
As I shoulder by backpack and disembark from the train at Manarola, I am immediately greeted by a brigade of toothless smiles and a quiet murmur of buongiorno (good morning) from the aging locals who pass the hot summer days by sitting on a long wooden bench at the shaded and breezy train station, welcoming wide-eyed tourists like me to their magnificent humble abode. With a smile of my own, I return the villagers greeting and begin the treacherous trek up the steep road of Manarola to my accommodation. Breathless and exhausted, I reach the summit of the small town and under the shade of a towering local church I meet middle-aged Carlo, who fetches me a glass of water almost immediately as I drop my bags in the reception area. After such a steep climb, something tells me that Carlo is all too familiar with dehydrated tourists reaching the doorstep of his lodging in need of a cool beverage. Carlo checks me in and spreads out of colorful map of the five adjacent towns that make up Cinque Terre, detailing every hiking path that I must complete before I depart in two days’ time.
At the crack of dawn the following morning, the echoing church bells chime in a new day, and I rise from my bed with purpose. In a small backpack I pack three bottles of water, bandages, sunscreen, my camera, Carlo’s map, some dried biscuits and nuts and more water. The Cinque Terre villages are interconnected by over twenty different hiking trails. Some trails run flat and can take as little as thirty minutes to walk at a casual pace – these are usually the trails that directly connect the townships – but other trails rise with the steep mountainside and can take more than two grueling hours to reach the summit. Because I am a sucker for punishment, and because Carlo reminded me that there is no point coming to Cinque Terre unless you see the views from atop the cliffs, I decide to hike the hard trails.