“We will be arriving very late,” I wrote in my email. ”Our train gets into Monterosso close to midnight.”
“That’s okay, just ring the door bell when you arrive, as the door will be locked,” said Emanuela.
We left Rome on Thursday evening and took the train north to Spezia and then another train to Monterosso. I was excited to leave the city. I was excited to visit the Italian countryside.
“Walk along the sea and under the tunnel and the hotel is on your left, as you exit the tunnel,” wrote Emanuela.
And so, at close to midnight, in the darkness, we walked along the sea as Emanuela had told us to do. We walked through the tunnel and there it was – Hotel Pasquale. We rang the bell and a very mature gray haired woman answered. ”Come in,” said Emanuela as she carried my very heavy suitcase up two flights of stairs. She was very strong.
Our room was beautiful, with a stone wall shower and a balcony overlooking the mountains and the sea. My daughter A and son D and I were glad to see the three beds too and quickly climbed in and went to sleep.
A Little Bit of Paradise
I awoke in the morning to the smell of freshly baked croissants (I know in my previous Ciao,Ciao, Ciao blog post, I told you about these amazing croissants dusted with sugar and filled with homemade jam, but they were so good that my mouth waters every time I write about them) and couldn’t wait for breakfast in the hotel dining room overlooking the sea.
“That water is so blue…aqua blue,” I said as I looked out the window. I was so ready to hit the trails and go hiking along the mountains of what felt like a little bit of paradise.
“Let’s go,” I said to my kids A and D. ”I’m ready.”
Emanuela gave us a map of the five towns. ”There have been some landslides and some of the paths are closed,” she said. ”Take the train to Riomaggiore and then you can walk to Manarola. It’s about a 20 minute hike around the mountains. If you are up for a more strenuous hike, the climb from Monterosso to Vernazza takes about two hours. See that path over there,” she pointed to the path along the mountain, “it will lead you up the mountainside near the vineyards. There are 500 steps up and the path narrows as you go higher. Be careful.”
“Let’s try the easier hike today,” I told A and D. ”We can do the harder one tomorrow.”
We hiked. I breathed in the fresh air. I smelled the flowers and the herbs along the path. I smelled the fragrant scent of the lemon trees too. I looked at the sea and the mountains. I was in paradise. Yes, I was in paradise and all my worries were fading fast. I was in paradise and it was so great to be outdoors…to awaken all my senses…to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, to see.
In town, we passed the shops with pesto, pasta, pignoli nuts, capers, oregano, basil, olive oil, wine. In town, we passed the restaurants with pizza, lasagna, bruschetta, tomatoes, swordfish, gelato, I wanted to eat it all. I was in love with this Italian paradise and I was truly in love.
I went to sleep that night, dreaming of the Bacio hazelnut and chocolate gelato I had just consumed, but I couldn’t sleep too well. (I likely couldn’t sleep too well because I couldn’t stop thinking and strategizing about potential ways for me to spend more of my fifty-plus life in this fantastic Italian town.)
Landslide – Turn Back
It was Saturday, and with only one more day left in Cinque Terre, I knew it was time to test my muscle and see if I could climb the 500 steps on the path to Vernazza.
“You think you’re up for this mom?” said my son D.
“Of course, I am,” I said with a tiny bit of hesitation. ”Yes, yes, I’m going to climb the mountain.”
We put some water bottles in our backpacks and headed off. I walked up the first hill. That wasn’t too bad, I thought. I can do this. I thought about what Emanuela had said the day before, “The path gets narrower the higher you go.”
I climbed 100 more steps. I looked to the left and there were the mountains. I looked to the right and there was no railing, just the sea. While I loved the color of the water and I loved the view, I didn’t want to fall into the beautiful aqua blue sea. No, I didn’t want to fall into the water. Not that day and not from such a high point. (I’ve never jumped off a diving board and I didn’t want to try jumping off a mountain at my age. No, no, no.)
I climbed 100 more steps. ”Look over there,” said D. ”Isn’t it magnificent?” I could no longer look at the sea or the mountains. I just looked down at my feet. The path had gotten so narrow, I was concerned that my feet might miss the track and that would be the end, into the sea I would go.
I climbed 100 more steps. ”I’m not sure I can do this,” I said to A and D. I was starting to get a little scared. I told D to walk in front of me and A to walk behind me.
“You can do it,” said D. ”I’m so proud of you.”
I climbed more steps. I held on tight to the rocks on the left-hand side of the mountain.
“I feel like I’m mountain climbing,” I said to D.
“The reason you feel like you’re mountain climbing,” said D, “IS BECAUSE YOU ARE MOUNTAIN CLIMBING MOM! YOU REALLY, REALLY, ARE MOUNTAIN CLIMBING.”
I was glad that D had confirmed that fact for me.
I put my courage cap on and climbed higher. I was so scared and sweating too. I had dressed in sweats and a long sleeve black tee. I rolled up the sleeves of the tee and rolled up the bottom of my leggings.
And then, and then, and then…there was a sign about an hour into our hike. Up high in the mountains halfway to Vernazza there was a barbed wire and a sign with a big X on it. ”We can go through the fence,” said my son as he followed others in front of us. ”Come on, let’s do it.”
I looked back and I looked forward. I looked forward and I looked back. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. I followed my son.
And then, and then, and then…we saw those ahead of us coming back on the narrow one lane trail. ”We tried to break through the next trail, but the guards stopped us,” said the young couple. ”We must go back.”
“Go back, go back, go back,” I cried. How was I going to climb back on that narrow path? How was I going to walk down 500 stairs? Sweat began to pour down my back and my forehead. I thought if I died and fell off the cliff, at least I had eaten well during my vacation to Italy.
I turned around very, very, very slowly.
And then, and then, and then…I saw about eight hikers in front of me on the same narrow path.
“How are we going to get around those people?” I said to my son D. ”Tell them they must turn around. Tell them they cannot hike to Vernazza. Tell them the path is closed.”
D tried to tell them, but they did not budge. Instead they laid their bodies flat against the mountain and motioned for us to go around them.
“Are they kidding? How am I going to get around them?” I said to D. ”That lane is soooo narrow.” I climbed inch by inch as more sweat dripped off my back. (Please, OMG, please, if I fall off this cliff, please let me be a cat with nine lives.)
Down, down, down, we went back to Monterosso. Down, down, down, we went along the mountainside and along the vineyards. Down, down, down, we went. I was so happy to be back on level ground.
We showered and went out for pizza. It was our next to last day in Cinque Terre and I was so happy to be alive to enjoy it.
“I was scared up in those mountains,” I said to my son D as we ate our pizza. “I was afraid I was going to fall.”
“Really?” said D. ”Well, I couldn’t tell. You were a pro out there.”
“Really? Well, thanks. I’m glad I conquered my fears and climbed that mountain” I replied back. (Now that I am 50+, maybe I am finally starting to be more fearless. Am I? Am I? Am I? Maybe, maybe, maybe – although I don’t intend to do any more mountain climbing anytime soon.)
As I settled in for my last evening in Cinque Terre, I was curious to read the “Let’s Go Italy – The Student Travel Guide.” I wanted to see what they had to say about the hike I had been on earlier in the day:
“The hike from Monterosso to Vernazza is the most challenging of the four town-linking hikes, the pain is worth the gain. Breathtaking vistas of the towns and spectacular panoramas of the sea crown the uphill journey. The start on the far-left side of Monterosso lulls hikers into a false sense of security with gradual ramps, before throwing them – BAM! – straight into a wall of steep, uneven, and seemingly un-ending steps. “
I was so glad I hadn’t read this Guide before I went on my hike. I may never have gone. But, now that I’ve done it once, I may just have to go back and do it again. Yes, I may just have to climb every mountain next time.