Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cinque Terre, Italy

I am calm in Cinque Terre.

I don’t know what kind of magic or fancy anti-anxiety power this place has, but from the moment I stepped off the train in this wonderful area, I’ve been wonderfully relaxed.

Currently, I’m sitting on the front step of a random house in sleepy Manarola, the fourth and most unvisited of the five (cinque) lands (terre). From north to south, the Cinque Terre consist of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. On my right, two women sitting next to some parked fishing boats talking about Godknowswhat in Italian. In front of me, a light green house with sheets and clothes hanging out on the clothesline. To the left, an old woman at what looks like a painted plates store reads a paper (it doesn’t look like people like her plates). And above me, two men sit on their terrace chatting very loudly, once again, about Godknowswhat in Italian. I love just listening to the locals talk. It’s loud and passionate, but so very fun.

This place is spectacular. Each town is very, very similar, but each has its own unique qualities. It’s tourist season here, so this place is somewhat crowded. Luckily not a lot of people know about it, so it’s not overwhelming. Cinque Terre is clean and wonderfully Italian.

What keeps Cinque Terre so clean and authentic is that they have made it a National Park. That way, new buildings can’t be made and old ones can’t be torn down. There are garbage and recycling cans everywhere, and people actually use them. The trains are electric and the buses are fuel-efficient. There are no cars allowed inside five villages. Cinque Terre is kept simple and clean, which is why I’ve been so happy to be here.

I’ve been staying in Riomaggiore, the last of the five villages. It’s very quiet, and unhurried, which I like. There are three pizza places along the town centre, each one a little different, but they all have one thing in common: they’re super cheap. Five euro for a full, delicious pizza is something of God, I swear. Cheap American pizza is crap; cheap Italian pizza is amazing. There’s something in the crust or the sauce or the meat that makes it so much better than any pizza I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful.

Since we’re on the subject of food, my favorite subject, allow me to reflect on the magic that’s entered my mouth in the last couple of days. I promised myself I would not leave without having some local cuisine. Cinque Terre is apparently of the birthplace of pesto, and I freaking love pesto, so I had to eat that.

Pesto with gnocchi. Gnocchi, for those of you who don’t know, are potato dumplings. The pesto on this dish was a little salty, but still very enjoyable.

Cinque Terre is also known for its anchovies. Luckily for me, the anchovies here are not like the crap that you find on American pizzas; they’re caught fresh and cured and served as actually a quite spendy dish. I got some for an appetizer, and well, I didn’t like them very much. At first I did, but then they were so incredibly salty I had to stop eating them. I could appreciate, however, the work that went into putting them on my plate.

Troffie is a kind of handmade pasta that I could eat meals and meals of. Something that I’ve enjoyed a lot is the pasta here because it is so uniquely different than the pasta we have at home. Troffie is chewy and obviously natural, and I just loved it. (On this, my last day, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have it for lunch.)

Sometimes I forget the chronological order of the events during my stays. I had this dish, along with the anchovies, for dinner one of the nights with to very nice women from Austin, Texas. They were both tired of working and decided to take a vacation together. We had wonderful conversations over our delicious meals.

I was told when I was in La Rochelle that eating any kind of mussels besides those caught in the Atlantic would be a waste of time. This dish of Mediterranean mussels with spaghetti was definitely not a waste of time. The shells are bigger and the meat is smaller, but man alive…it was delicious.

Sciacchetra is the Cinque Terre’s local dessert wine. It took me quite a long time to find a chance to drink it, for some reason. Probably because it was really expensive in most places (about €35 a bottle and €6 a glass, but I found one that was like €4, which wasn’t necessarily that bad). It came with these little cookie things with almonds that they told me I should dip in it. I did. The cookies were delicious. The sciacchetra was really strong, really sweet, really syrupy, and almost unpleasant. I went back and forth on whether I liked it or not. At the end, I decided I didn’t really like it, but I was really glad that I tried it.

And then there was the gelato.

Back my actual experience in Cinque Terre. On the first day, I just walked around little Riomaggiore, where I was staying. I was shown to my “hostel,” which was really just an apartment with extra beds in it. Usually that would bother me—I would think, “Gosh, these people are just trying to make money by charging for the bed,” but it was different here. The reason for this was that having just an apartment in the middle of everything meant that I got to remain in the middle of everything. I wasn’t in an ugly building outside of town. I was in town, in one of the many apartments, just like the other travelers, but more importantly, just like the rest of the locals. And check out the view from my balcony.

After I checked in and got situated in my room—and ate a homemade meal of bruchetta and a small mug of wine made by a group of American friends my age who were also staying in my eight-person room—I walked around Riomaggiore and got to know the area. I wandered down to the shore of the Mediterranean, sat down on some rocks, and watched the amazing sunset that didn’t skip a single performance the whole time I was there.

I went to bed and woke up in the morning to the sound of the Mediterranean waves hitting the shore. And though I was in a cramped, €30-a-night hostel with seven other people, I felt like I was one of the luckiest people on the planet.

That morning I got some cheap breakfast and picked up what would be my daily snack: three figs and ten apricots. They were only like €1.75, so I bought some every morning and ate them throughout the whole day. Delicious, cheap, what can be better?

Me and my apricots.

A nine-kilometer hiking trail runs along the coast and connects each town of the Cinque Terre. I was told that Riomaggiore was the best place to start, and that it would be a good idea to set aside at least five hours to walk to the last town, Monterosso. “This will be a piece of cake,” I thought.

Yeah, I was wrong.

Some of the stairs I had to walk up.

It started off just leisurely and nice, but after I passed through Manarola and began to climb the hill to Corniglia, nothing but hills and hills of steps and steep in- and de-clines awaited me. Luckily I had lots of water and it was pretty cloudy that day. I loved every second of it. Even when the trail became difficult, I was always a few feet away from a breathtaking view.

More stairs!

I spent time in each town. I sat and ate some of my apricots in Manarola, had gnocchi in Corniglia, gelato in Vernazza, and some iced tea in Monterosso. (Wow. I would do something food-related in each city.) I also took some wonderful pictures and had some very interesting people watching.

It's good to be a cat in Cinque Terre.

The more I look at this picture, the more I wonder what the heck that nun is looking at.

Getting pictures of the locals here was very difficult. I don’t know why—maybe because the roads were so narrow. But I slipped a few in. Notice how I had to hide my camera behind my bottle of iced tea.

Even the train stations are beautiful here.

After my long trek through the Cinque Terre, I hopped the train back to Riomaggiore. I stopped at a cute wine bar that overlooked the sea. (I actually visited this little bar a few times during my trip. The view was spectacular and they had Cinque Terre wine on tap, which was interesting.)

I went to this bar the first day I was there, and that’s where these two pictures are from. The day of my trek I just got water. I say this because I don’t want you to think that I’m just this big alcoholic when I tell you that…

I came back down, got some really delicious pizza and some cheap Italian beer (which was delicious, even though I usually don’t like beer), and watched the sunset again. So wonderful.

By this time, I was pretty tired, so I thought I’d head back to the hostel. I had been moved to another room (which means another apartment) another place in the city. This one was just as nice, except instead of a nice view, it had a lovely little cramped walkway that lead up to it. Once again, I felt like a local.

The door up top is an extra bathroom and shower; the door on the right was the door to the apartment.

I had originally planned to just got to bed early, but was surprised to find that some really fun people from Australia were also in that room. I talked to them for awhile, trying to keep the conversation short so I could get into bed, but then found that they were way too fun to miss an opportunity to hang out with them. So we kept hanging out. They told me they really felt like some cocktails, and I told them I had never had one before, so they insisted we go out. Lo and behold, we went to that same wine bar and got cocktails. They told me I should get a Long Island Iced Tea (which would have been a horrible idea if I would have planned on drinking anything after it, because gosh was it potent). We all had a very nice talk.

The other guy in the picture besides me (I forget his name now) had just flown to Cinque Terre from the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, where I had originally planned to be. He told me that he arrived in Pamplona at noon, and there were already people plastered and passed out in the city, and that it was really just a major drunken party. Maybe it was best that I didn’t go there this year. With my all my struggles, it may have just been too much. It was cool to hear his stories, though, and I would still like to see it someday. Not by myself, though.

After my Long Island Iced Tea, I was tired, but not drunk. I drank it really slowly to make sure that exact thing wouldn’t happen. I went back to the hostel and had a really nice night sleep. It had been a long, wonderful day.

I awoke the next morning, had another yummy breakfast, walked past a bakery that had some delicious looking pastries in the window and bought one, got my fruit, and decided that it would be a good day to go swimming in the Mediterranean.

The pastry in the window. It was magical.

This is what I walked out to every morning, by the way. It's a school yard. Usually there are kids playing.

I took the train to Monterosso and went swimming there. It was a beautiful day and the water wasn’t too cold. I had never actually swum in a large body of water before, so that was an interesting experience. Nevertheless, it was fun and wonderfully refreshing. I still can’t swim very well, though, which makes me happy that there were lifeguards on duty at the beach I went to.

I may have spent the rest of that day walking around the different towns. (Once again, I lose track of the actual order of events.) I remember wandering around sleepy little Manarola and Riomaggiore and eating some more gelato. I was just so very happy in Cinque Terre.

There was a wedding on this day. Apparently it's a custom that the bride and groom walk around the whole town after the wedding. Everyone was cheering for them and throwing rice. So cool.

This is probably a good time to mention that it is a law in Cinque Terre that every house must have green shutters. Take a look at the previous pictures. Only green.

And, at one point, I found a little trail.

Sunday came around and I went to church in the morning with one of the women that had been with me on cocktail night. We went to breakfast and then to church. We had some really nice conversations because she was also a Christian, and I hadn’t necessarily “talked God” for awhile. Even though we disagreed on some things, we had a really nice time. Church was cool, too. It was a Catholic service, and even though it was all in Italian, I totally knew what was happening the entire time because the Catholic routine is the same all around the world. (Hehe, I don’t mean “routine” to be insulting…maybe a little “too true,” but not insulting.)

That Sunday there was a train strike. I don’t necessarily know what the reason for it was, but it still happened. That meant, unfortunately, that the main way to travel between towns was cut off. I wanted to get to Vernazza because it was the only town that had wireless internet and I had set up another wine date with my parents and friends. Luckily, the Cinque Terre has a ferry system. So I took the ferry from Riomaggiore to Vernazza.

This was great because it allowed me to get some wonderful pictures of four of the five towns.

I arrived in Vernazza and walked around a bit. My original plan was to get the ferry back after the Skype party, but I found out that it stopped running quite early, so I decided to take the train back when the strike ended at 9pm. Here’s the picture from the Skype party.

We had a really nice time. The wireless spot was actually outside, which allowed me to turn my camera and show my friends the lovely Vernazza and it allowed many interested locals to peek over my shoulder to see what I was doing. At one point a stout old woman in a floral dress and tennis shoes stood next to me and watched. I moved my camera so everyone could see everyone. She waved, they waved, then she left.

After the Skype party, I still had some time to kill so I figured I’d go get some dinner. It was my last night in Cinque Terre, so I decided to get the spaghetti with mussels. I’ve already described it, but let me say again: it was fantastic.

The view from my table.

At nine o’clock, I headed up to the train station to get the 9:15 train. I looked up at the arrivals screen, and saw that that train had been cancelled. The next train would be coming at 10:30. So I had to wait. I had a conversation with a nice family from Missouri. Pam, Joe, and Joe Jr. were their names. We actually ended up talking for a long time because the train was delayed—first thirty minutes, then an hour, then another thirty—until it would have been after midnight when it would arrive. As we watched the clock, Joe Jr., a former soldier, said, “You know, I could run back on the trail to Riomaggiore and pick up our car and drive it back.” After some thinking, they decided it was a good idea and he ran back through Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola to Riomaggiore on that trail that I had taken on my second day. His parents and I talked in the meantime, and were surprised when he arrived only about an hour and a half later. It was great.

“You’re staying in Riomaggiore too, right?” they asked me. I told them that I was, and they said, “We don’t want you to be waiting for a train that may not come. We’ll drive you back.” And so, they drove me back to my hostel. They were so very kind to me. I just don’t understand how I’ve been blessed by so many wonderful people on this trip. I’m positive that I don’t deserve it.

I went to bed, and woke up the next morning for may last couple of hours in the Cinque Terre. I finally found a place to fly my kite (I had been looking the entire time I was there), and I had breakfast as usual. Trofle was my lunch, like I said. And I just relaxed for the rest of my time there. It was absolutely wonderful.

Reflecting on my experience in Cinque Terre, I try to think about why I was so much more relaxed. Was it because I knew that I was going home soon? Was it because I had done a lot of research and was more comfortable with Cinque Terre? Was it because there was less pick pocketing to worry about? Those all may be true, but for some reason I feel deep inside that God may have just looked at me, looked at Cinque Terre, and said, “You take this one, Brian,” and gave me the peace that I had been looking for my whole time in Europe. And for that I am deeply grateful.

After this, I had a few hours in Milan, and then on to Paris for two more days. That post will be coming.

Love you all,


(P.S. Stay tuned for the Bastille Days post from Paris!!)


  1. Alright. I'm tired, and this is pretty long, so my first chunk of comments will be on the first half, got it? Good. :)

    I LOVE CINQUE TERRE! Your description of your surroundings in the beginning sounds awesome! And I see now why you couldn't split this up into day 1, day 2, etcetera... it's fun to hear about all the food at once. The pesto and handmade pasta look wonderful, the mussels still creep me out.

    Oh, yeah, and... I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU LOVE ICE CREAM SO MUCH NOW! What happened to "I just want one bite, that's all?" How exciting, we can eat ice cream/gelatto together all the time now :)

    Hahahaha and the videos are a nice touch.

    Oh and I forgot to say how spectacular it is that God got rid of your anxiety for the last part of your trip! Yay :D

    You WOULD take a picture of you hanging out with apricots. Hahahahaha

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the city pictures! They do not get old! Such pretty colors and shapes all thrown together in a big collage and then the landscape around the buildings is amazing in its own respect! Fantastic!

    I think the picture of that tall skinny tree stretching and trying really hard to reach is the sky is just precious. I love it.

    The trail is crazy!! So, does it mostly go around the cities, or kind of through them too? Because, it seems like in some of the pictures you are walking through alleyways or backyards or something. Are you?

    Love you always,

    p.s. I commented on some of your earlier posts as well... up to Nimes.

    p.p.s. more to come soon.

    p.p.p.s. ^_^ love you.

  2. B-E-A-UTIFUL! Those cities look so great!!! I cannot wait to see the rest of your pictures!!! Yay!

  3. Amazing pictures Brian! Plus I think the gelato would be a highlight for me too! I love seeing the pictures of the food and the colorful cities and your video's made me smile.

  4. Alright, here is my 2nd batch of COMMENTARINOS!!

    You look so wonderfully happy-- no, JOYFUL-- in the video by the ocean where you are showing us some of the cinque terres. It just makes me smile watching you :).

    All of the town pictures are absolutely gorgeous, of course! I don't even think I can comment on every single picture because it would take up so much space, but it is beautiful there! I'm so glad you weren't anxious so you could fully enjoy it. Seems like arguably the prettiest place you've been too.

    I love in the wedding picture how every single person in the town is watching the couple. There is even someone on the 3rd floor of a building looking out from his/her green shutters! It makes me think of in cheesy movies when the climax comes and everyone around starts watching the main characters (you know, like at a school dance or something). I've always thought it seemed so fake that that many people would do that for something so little, but this gives me hope. Hahahah.

    Oh, and I love love the videos of you going up that random trail. Hehe, they are so fun to watch.

    Meeting the Australian friends and the Christian girl from that and your skype wine party all sound really fun! It's cool that you were never really just a loner, but interacting with people all the time :)

    Finally, that is a good kite-flying picture, even though it does look a little posed ;), the background is amazing.

    I love Cinque Terre!!

    And I love YOU,