14 Cinque Terra
At Jura’s suggestion, CiCi and I booked a train to France that ran through an area of the Italian Rivera called Cinque Terra. Cinque Terra is five towns that are connected by a beautiful walking path tucked into the side of a mountain. Each town sits nestled into the hills overlooking the Mediterrean. Jura’s travel suggestion was as good as his wine suggestion. Too bad I hadn’t kept his contact information. When we arrived, CiCi and I were absolutely blown away by the beauty of the area.
The first town of the five, Rimagiorre, was a sleepy fishing village with cobblestone streets and quaint apartment buildings tucked into a street that wound up a canyon. We decided to start there, get a good nights sleep, and go exploring in the morning. Since it was one of the only nights that CiCi and I were not drinking, we both woke up at the crack of dawn, thankfully, without a hangover. We woke to the smell of crepes and the sound of a rooster crowing. I poked my head out the window of our rented room, and my jaw literally dropped at the view that awaited me.
The sun was just rising over the hills and casting glitter across the sea, as a few fisherman made their way down to begin a day’s work, nets in hands. We had learned about a hike we could take which covered all five towns and took an entire day, so we were both excited to get going. As we hit the cobble street, I was reminded that we shouldn’t hike on empty stomachs, so we stopped for a quick crepe. Oddly, this little town in the middle of nowhere was one of the only places in Italy which had big, American-style coffee cups. As we got a little buzz on from the delicious Italian coffee, and sugary crepes, we were set to begin our day’s journey.
The first leg of the hike is from town one, Riomaggiore to town two, Manarola. This part of the hike was easy peasy. It was a scenic and short drag called “lovers way.” Etched in the hillside to the right, someone had drawn caricatures depicting faces of couples in love. By the time the sun was fully out, we had reached Manarola, and explored the town a bit. As we made our way down to the water, we saw a group of kids jumping off a 50-foot rock. Cici was adamant that we join them immediately. So, resigning to wet under-garments for the rest of the day, we stripped down to our skivvies and climbed up the rope to the top of the rock.
I hate heights, but I hate fear more, so with a count of three I hurled myself off the rock, and with a girly scream landed safely in the water. It was more fun than scary, so with my new-found courage, I repeated the exercise a few times. After we’d grown physically tired of pulling ourselves up the rock, we lounged in the sun to dry off before heading further up the trail.
As we neared Corniglia, the third town of the five, I immediately regretted the repeated climbs up the rock. We sat at the base of over 400 flights of stairs that we had to climb to reach the next town. “No way.” I thought. But as I watched the crowd that couldn’t make it up the stairs … fat, old, and lazy, I resolved that I’d have no problems with the climb. We both reached the top after a few rests, but the increasing heat from the sun had us reapplying our sunscreen, which was literally melting off.
Corniglia was a bit more medieval, and because of his elevated position, was probably the safest town to be in, if ever there was an attack from sea by vikings. By the time we’d reached the town’s square, it was about high noon, and we were ready for lunch. We ended up finding a little bistro which served white wine with the Bistro’s label. Curious, I asked if it was local, which lead to a detour of our hiking trip.
The young woman who was waiting on us, grabbed a brochure showing a small, rickety train, which appeared to pull tourist higher into the mountains above Cinque Terra, allowing them to see where the wine comes from. As I read the brochure, I learned that Cinque Terra is famous for its white wines, particularly those made from the Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes. Bosco grapes are acidic and usually grown in high altitudes. The Albarola grape is light bodied with hints of floral and honey and Vermentino is a late-ripening sweet wine. Together, these wines are blended to make up two famous Cinque Terra wines: (1) Cinque Terra the crisper namesake, and 2) Sciacchetra, a more desert-style wine.
The young woman, who was nearly as blonde as I was, quoted us $20 to ride the train up the mountain and see where the grapes were grown. “Impossible!” I thought. The hillsides were far to steep to let Wine Blonde laypeople have a go. But, she wasn’t kidding, and the price was right, so up, up, and away we went. She led us to a countertop, where an older woman, possibly her mother or aunt (but surely a relative) took our money and gave us a carnival-ride style ticket and a small, hand-copied map to where the train took off.
Making our way to the edge of town, we matched the brochure’s label with a wooden sign indicating an entrance to a small farm house. As we began our way up the drive, we were greeted by an middle-aged man who had been thoroughly weathered by the sun and sea. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but the 10-year-old little boy who bounced by his side, was happy to translate. The farmer called the little boy “tanto,” and the little boy called the farmer “poppy” so we did too.
We hopped on the vineyard train, which was just about as narrow as my hips. As Poppy turned on the engine, I began to doubt whether this metal contraption could pull all four of us up to the top of the mountain. As it began to tug us along, Tanto translated Poppy’s wine speech. He told us how the vineyards were terraced, and indicated that there was as much rock in Cinque Terra’s vineyards as all the rock used to make the Great Wall of China. When we reached the top, or turn-around point, we got out to walk through the vineyard. It was a moment in my life that I will never forget. The romance and greenery of the vineyard was kissed with the cool sea breeze. It isn’t often that you get to naturally combine the two: a vineyard with an ocean view. Usually, vineyards too close to the ocean suffer from mildew and other growing problems. But in this instance, a perfect harmony had been created throughout history. At the top of the mountain, we enjoyed a glass of the “Cinque Terra” namesake wine, and then headed back down to Cornglia to continue our day.
When we said our goodbyes, gave the guys a tip, and returned to the trail, we were hoping for smooth sailing. That is not what we got. The old phrase, “what goes up, must come down” rang very true for the exit in the town of Cornglia. We had climbed hundreds of steps to the top. The only problem was, the path to the next town, Vernazza was made up of dirt trials, rocks, and gravel: Terrain that was much more difficult to navigate than mere steps.
It took us until almost dusk to reach Vernazza. As we did, we were thankful to find a beautiful outdoor café overlooking the ocean. As we sat down, in what seemed like an overly crowded area, I looked over and realized that we were in the middle of a wedding party. The blushing bride and groom were dressed in traditional and modest Italian wedding clothes. It was like the opening scene from the Godfather with music, light, and dancing. We obviously did not fit in with our wet under garments and hiking clothes, but that had little effect on our desire to leave.
We ordered a bottle, resolving to skip the last of the five towns, Monterroso, which we learned through our hike was the most commercial of the five. We were excited about the new wine knowledge we’d gained in Corngilia, and wanted to continue drinking and living in a Cinque Terra sort of way. For that night, we were the female versions of wedding crashers, and as everyone loosened with local wine, we danced, ate, and celebrated the marriage of the lucky couple…whoever they were.