Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Several steps closer to heaven

written 31st March

We had the best day on sunday.

After a night just outside a nearby mountain village, e parked at the top of the cliff road, overlooking Riomaggiore and set off down the hill in the sunshine. 

The village was picture perfect, tumbling down the cliffside and painted in the pastel colours of fairy cakes and all things sweet and delicious.  A quick coffee and then we were off in search of a cliff path - unfortunately along with half the country but you can't have everything on a sunny sunday morning.

The Cinqueterre National park is so named for its 5 small villages, spread nine kms apart and which cling to the coast line and which were apparently only connected to the outside world recently (although I can't find a definition of recent) by means of the rail and roads which exist today, with all previous contact being by mule track.  The real world has not been slow to find them - hundreds of people, gelaterias and tat shops attest to this! - but the famous cliff path is still pretty darn stunning.

The first section, from Riomaggiore to Manarola is an easy (and therefore crowded), wheelchair friendly, 1km stretch, hugging the lower cliff. 

It is apparently also known as the Via delle Amore (Road of Love) and apparently the thing to do is fix a padlock with your names on it somewhere along the path and you will stay together for ever, or get the man or your dreams or whatever. 

Unfortunately we didn't know this in advance and the only padlock we have is kinda instrumental in the security of our bike rack (although to be honest, it is such a pain to get off that I don't think anyone would but you never know) so we were padlock-less and our marriage is clearly therefore doomed.  oh well   ;)

It was still a pleasant walk,

up until the ugliness of the station anyway, and we decided to head straight on through Manarola (typical streets of pastel houses leading down to small harbour) and on the next section of path to Corniglia.

Less pretty, less wheelchair friendly, but still just as crowded, the next section is just as flat and again fairly near sea level so the 1km or so was quite easy, until we got again to the station where we found that, as the only village not to have its own harbour, Corniglia is actually perched - 350 steps up (but only 15 minutes) according to the reassuring sign at the bottom! 

But that is nothing to Dome of Basilica climbing van dwellers so off we set and were soon surveying the marvellous view from the top (having conquered 380 steps according to the triumphant sign at the top...)  (BTW, there is a free bus if you want to wait for it, but who can be bothered with that!)

Typical perched streets this time, and pizza!  which was delicious as we ate it, on the belevedere overlooking the perfect azure sea on a warm sunny bench.  Three villages down, two to go!

The path becomes significantly more interesting after Corniglia. 

The Rough Guide had advised to be sure to walk from east to west (which we were doing) as it was slightly easier and at least had the sun behind you, and also to be properly prepared for all conditions; water, sun hats, rain mac, hicking boots etc etc  silly hat and an orange or two turned out to be just fine though.

The 4kms between Corniglia and Vernazza winds its way up and down near the top of the cliff.  A proper mule track - although there are bits where I think your average mule would take some considerable persuading, well known for their general amenableness are mules... -  at times along olive groved terraces, at other through scrubby woodland and up and down rough cut stone steps.  Just perfect. 

Unsurprisingly this section is also much much less busy, and all the nicer for it is the dappled shade of the trees, with the sea stretching out to infinity beyond.  Bliss.

We stopped for an orange on a sundrenched rock and there we met Bruce and Sheila (don't actually know their real names, were told them but have forgotten, but they were aussi so bound to be called Bruce and Sheila right?), who are inter-railing round europe on a three month sabbatical.  They too have been to England (London and Bath), Spain, France (we all agreed Eze was just heaven on earth) and are now making their way down through Italy by way or Florence and Rome.  So we had lots to chat about as we continued on, arriving in Vernazza just, as it seemed, 4 trainloads of people did!

A word about the trains.  If you ever go - and again, I think you should! - the five villages are connected by train (which is part of the main line which runs from Genova to La Spezia).  If you just want to see the villages without the walk, you can travel between them by train.  To to use the paths you have to buy a national park day pass.  You can also buy a national park pass with unlimited train travel so you can hop on and off trains.  Don't both.  Well, I wouldn't.  Really, walk, its not that far.  And the coast view is the thing.  Despite what the guidebooks may say, the trains go through long tunnels in the cliff and whilst yes, you do get views of the sea, it is literally only in the dismally grim concrete stations - at least in England we might dress the station up as a Ye Olde Village Station and put some picket fences up and geraniums in tubs or something - but here they are pretty drab functional places.  my opinion; walk, from one end, then get one train back, a single ticket being much cheaper than the rail bit of the train+paths card...


Despite the crowds piling down the hill, when we got to the harbour it was very pretty and we decided we deserved an icecream - well we have walked a whole 6km by this point!  Will and Sheila finally agreed on a gelateria where the icecream was suitably piled up (as in Florence) and the pistachio was the correct shade of olive green (apparently a good indicator of quality of icecream is the pistachio scale from lurid floresence to dull olive, this one was the colour of those 1960's plastic bathroom suites so deemed to be 'just the thing' and apparently the aussis do know their gelato!).  And it was definately worth the search!  yum yum yum!

Bidding farewell to our walking companions, we set off once more

and were soon high up in the hills over looking the town again on the final 3kms, which was the most challenging yet. 

As the least trodden path, it was at times no wider than me with no fence but again, just beautiful, winding over hills and down dales,

across stone bridges (fortunately no trolls) and over stepping stones.  lovely, lovely, lovely.

We arrived at Monterossa in the late afternoon - perfect timing for a lovely cold beer in a pavement cafe - but sadly failed to find the anchovy salting museum or the virtual aquarium, entrance to which is included in the parks pass.  Not really a day for being indoors but really, a virtual aquarium, that would have been worth it for novelty value alone!

The parks pass also gets you free bus travel in the park, on one of the 'ecologically friendly' buses that run from the coastal villages, up and down the hills to the myriad of tiny villages perched high above.  And also free mountain bike hire up on the higher paths.  Sadly though we didn't have enough time for any of that on sunday, and we had seen in the paper that the weather was supposed to be wet the following day so we hadn't go for the two-day park pass otherwise we might have had some more perched village fun.  but hey ho, pretty smug about our cliff path trekking prowess though!

Sheila had been regretting the fact that they didn't have time to go to the Amalfi coast on their trip, but honestly, lovely though Amalfi is (and I still say it is beautiful) CinqueTerre is even nicer.  You can walk it for a start - so better for people who don't have their own transport - and you can therefore be actually out in the landscape, not just seeing it from the road.  Also, the villages here are much better kept.  Positano was pretty but in a pictoresquely slightly decrepid way.  In common with a lot of our tourist experience here, it seems the attitude it, "well we know you'll come here anyway so why should we go out of our way to make an effort".  The villages in CinqueTerre were just on the right side of 'lived in'.  These are real villages, despite the tourist deluge, there is no disney here, but just a little bit more in the way of care and upkeep.  And its closer to france - a day's drive Nice if you go up and got on with it - and very well worth your time I think it would be :)

Train journey back to Riomaggiore then and a hike back up the hill to the van and we spent the night in a quiet cliff side layby.  Lovely

It didn't, as it turned out, rain on Monday.  It was in fact glorious.  But we usefully spent the day trekking up and down the hill with water and washing before heading on out.  And spent yesterday on a different mountainside in thunder, lightening and hailstones the size of walnuts (really!) whilst Will did spring cleaning and I sewed new seat covers for the back seats - it is not unfair to say that, when kitting the van out, the previous owners did not really pay much attention to durability of the materials chosen - anyone would think they didn't think it should be lived in full itme...

We have also found that our leisure battery is officially dead :( so have spent the night in an aire randomly found in Parma (€10 but it has toilets and showers - such luxury for half the price of a campsite!), where Nik, the cheery owner is going to tell us where we can buy a new battery which is only round the corner - perfect.

The sun is shining, I have 10 daisies to paint and one cushion cover to sew, and then we are off to Bergamo airport to pick up Kathryn and Austin for our Lakes Break in Como.

Buon Giorno indeed!

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