By Kerry Tinga
I tried to laugh at my friend’s joke but I was too busy trying to do the thing she had just said, subtly gasping for air and hoping nobody noticed that I was out of breath so early in the hike (it also did not help that we had gone through dozens of steep stairs and narrow walkways, meeting dead ends and getting lost). Although the trails between the towns were closed for the season out of fear of seasonal rain and the potential landslide, the guards along the trails still let tourists like me and my friends go through some parts, up to the hills, so that we could take a snapshot and copy the pictures we saw on Pinterest and Instagram.
Saying you are going to the “Riviera” often suggests luxury, from the glamorous Grace Kelly driving along the Cote d’Azur in To Catch a Thief to a carefree Jude Law lying on the beaches of the southern coastlines of Italy in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The term, however, originates somewhere in the middle, from the province of Liguria, the little crescent coast along the Mediterranean by the French-Italian border, an area known for its focaccia and pesto that is best appreciated together in one bite. The Riviera literally means “bank” or “river” in Italian, first used around the 1630s to describe the simple, seacoast villages of the Liguria.
Perhaps no destination embodies that old village simplicity by the sea than Cinque Terre, right in the heart of Liguria—five colorful villages built on the high and rugged hillside landscape, facing the ocean: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, connected by a series of hiking trails and train tracks. It was here that my friends and I decided to spend our last week before our scheduled lectures began.
We flew from London to Pisa, which is an hour train ride away from Cinque Terre. Cheaper than staying in the villages themselves is staying at either La Spezia or Levanto, the towns on the opposite ends of the train line that goes through all five villages and is included in Cinque Terre track, which you can get unlimited day passes for. So we took our train to La Spezia and I began eavesdropping on the conversation between two American couples that had just met beside me (although the volume of their voices seemed to be inviting the eavesdropping). The couple directly to my left were retired schoolteachers.
“My husband has never been to Europe, and I went when I was a little girl. So we decided that once we were retired we would go. I thought it would be fun to travel around Italy by train like we were students again!”
We eventually got to Manarola, the first of the five villages we would visit, and the streets were filled with what seemed to be retirees and I heard more French than I did Italian. While I was expecting a majority of the tourists to be other students my age, I was surprisingly met with elderly men and women and their hiking shoes and walking sticks. I guess they all seemed to have had the same thought as the American couple on the train. It was like a scene from The Exotic Marigold Hotel, if it was mixed with Under the Tuscan Sun.
It was on the next day that we were walking up the steps to Corniglia, the only town that is not accessible by the passenger ferry because it is up in the hills and has no port, when my friend made her quip about the difficulty of trying to sound like we weren’t dying. From the train station we still had to walk several steep flights of stairs. Since we had been told the trails were closed I decided to wear ballet flats. This, in hindsight, was a terrible idea. I took a break to drink some water and heard a cough behind me. I turned to find an elderly woman and although she seemed like she was someone’s sweet grandmother, her eyes said to me: “Get on moving or get out of the way.” So I did the latter. I was probably the youngest person walking but most certainly the slowest.
There were elderly couples walking hand-in-hand down the trail, and others, as if their knees had finally given up for the day as mine were starting to at that point, sitting on a terrace bar watching the sunset with a glass of the local white wine. No matter how old we are, the sense of wanderlust and desire for adventure never goes away. Like wine, and the colorful houses of Cinque Terre, some things get better with age and here it was the appreciation of the no-frills simplicity of a long but beautiful and worthwhile hike.
The next day we went to Vernazza on a passenger ferry and found a small gelateria that I forgot the name of but I swear was so good we went back right after lunch. I was looking through the flavors, even though I knew in the back of my mind that I would go for stracciatella like always, when a woman came up the counter and began ordering in French.
“That’s pretty funny that she just went up and assumed that the cashier would know French, and that she did,” I whispered to my German friend.
“Why funny? You assume everybody knows English.”
It was a lesson from an unlikely source in an unlikely setting, a small hole-in-the-wall gelateria in a seaside town in Italy. But my whole trip was filled with lessons as traveling is one of the finest teachers we have, giving us a global view and new perspective, to never have a closed mind and make presumptions.