We typically travel to tropical destinations seeking sun, fun and relaxation or the pursuit of more hedonistic exploits. This year we decided to experience a cultural venture. Spinning the globe our dart found the Cinque Terre region of Italy.
We left America and ascended on balmy Nice, France, after many hours of inactivity and artery-clogging indulgence. Renting a snappy little Peugeot diesel, we enjoyed the splendour of this decadent Riviera community before venturing south for a contrasting week in an ancient Italian village. Our intent was to drive ourselves through small villages, sipping wine in quaint restaurants while revelling in the quiet and beautiful countryside. We soon found, however, the winding and busy coastal road would not allow us to achieve our destination in a timely manner. We, consequently, ventured onto the much feared freeway. This ribbon of asphalt slices through the Italian countryside, mostly underground, transporting us quickly to our destination, but the towering walls and unremitting tunnels severely limited our sightseeing and wine sipping. We also discovered that freeways are costly. Our first attempted disembarkation from the freeway almost provoked an international incident when my credit card failed and a lengthy entourage of vehicles in my wake were required to seek alternate routes while I sorted myself out.
After a lot of map analysis, a few wrong turns and five hours, we arrived in Le Spezia, the largest city closest to our destination. Cinque Terre is a very rugged portion of coastline on the Italian Riviera whose inhabitants migrated to the area before Columbus had ever dreamed of America. Cinque Terre means “The Five Lands” and comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. These villages, and the surrounding area, encompass the Cinque Terre National Park that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the centuries residents have constructed their terraced villages along the sheer cliffs, with only trails and boats to connect them. Motor vehicles are not allowed on the streets but trains now provide access. The area is known for its scenic hiking trails that were constructed over the centuries. Torrential rains in 2011 caused floods and mudslides, damaging some of the trails along the coast. We enjoyed hiking a few of the inland trails that consisted of ancient stone and were very steep but provided many beautiful vistas. The houses of the Cinque Terre have a wonderful variation in color reportedly because, while fishermen were working offshore, they wished to readily identify their homes to ensure their wives were performing their household duties.
We stayed in the southern most town of the Cinque Terre called Riomaggiore, a small fishing village of about 1000 inhabitants. Built on the edge of a rocky abyss, Riomaggiore had only one semi-flat street in town that lead to a large square adjacent to the town church. The church bells served to awake the entire community with clanging daily at 7:00 AM. The main street follows the canyon midpoint to the tiny port with restaurants, tourist shops, grocers, and numerous fishing boats near the water. There is a train that stops hourly to discharge tourists who snap a few charming pictures, or grab a meal in the local restaurants, before re-boarding the train for a visit to the next village. We emulated this practice during our week and visited all of the villages along the Cinque Terre. They were comparable in appearance but Manarola was the most dramatic with its brightly coloured buildings atop sheer cliffs that descended many meters to a crashing sea. Train travel, for us, was initially problematic as our Italian is non-existent. One incident resulted in an inadvertent expedition to Le Spezia where we met the local Carabinieri and endured a lengthy line-up before purchasing new tickets and ultimately reaching our intended destination several hours later.
Italian homes are unlike those in North American. Our flat, lacking an elevator, was characterized by a very narrow, dark, and steep stairwell of three flights that would induce laboured gasps during ascent and anxious ones during descents. The flat itself consisted of five bright rooms and an outdoor deck. The kitchen was clean and modern, while a spare room, which I soon adopted as my man cave, was adorned with a lovely ceiling fresco and a mini screen television. Interestingly the local television network offered over 150 channels but not one news channel. Being on the third floor, we overlooked the town and harbour. The washroom offered some challenges as the shower accommodated one person of very slim visage and nothing could be retrieved from the floor if an item was dropped. We enjoyed a lovely week in this spacious flat and, due to torrential rain storms, appreciated several nights of home cooked meals.
After a week of hiking the trails, sampling the wine, food and lifestyle of a simpler time, we were happy to return to Kelowna. The Cinque Terre was well worth the visit and will hopefully be preserved for future generations to enjoy.