Hike of a lifetime

These two weeks weren’t supposed to be spent at home. Before thumb-sucking alien baby made its presence be known, Big Ring and I were a planning a vacation touring the Amalfi Coast and other such European destinations. It’s been three years since we were last in Italy, an adventure we both fell in love with, and wanted to experience again. While we weren’t planning on visiting the same destinations this go around, we were planning on falling in Italy love all over again.

Gelato, how could I not love Italy?

But alas, the responsible one in this marriage (take note, that is not me) decided it best if we hold off on the trip for a bit, and instead paint our loft and put our savings towards baby accoutrements. Damn his responsible nature 😉

Painting chaos… thank goodness I spent the weekend at my parents!

Still, Italy has not been far from the brain … especially with all the hiking I’ve been doing lately. And so, today’s post is a journal entry I wrote (and later published to Facebook, long before I was in the blog world) on Day 9 of our Italian tour.

Day 9: Cinque Terre:

Oh-my-god! My legs are shaking like a 7.0 on the Richter scale, my heart is beating like a jackhammer beats cement, and my skin is soaked with the taste of a salt lick as my body teeters on the narrow cliff-side trail.

I look down, all I can see is open air with nothing but a blue dot representing the Mediterranean hundreds of miles below. I hear the waves raging war on the rocks, I imagine my own body crashing against those same rocks like a limp, little rag doll; my bottom lip quivers. There’s no barrier, no guardrail, no nothing to prevent me from losing step and crashing down to my death.

The self motivator in my head tries to reassure me: “You can do this,” she says. But I’m dubious. Everything inside me tells me to stop, turn back, don’t do it. I say her words aloud: “You can do this,” a little too weak. I repeat: “You can do this,” this time my fists clenched in determination.

Fear will not stop me. A force far more powerful pushes me forward: Beauty. The beauty of Cinque Terre.

Already I’ve seen every hue imaginable blooming around me: hot pink, orange, yellow, magenta, blood red. I’ve seen butterflies, powder-blue, pink, orange and yellow butterflies, dancing before me, and honeybees, twice the size of North American bees, buzzing full of nectar. I’ve seen lemon trees with lemons the size of baseballs, olive trees and vineyards interspersed in amongst the cliffs, lizards scampering across the trail, brooks babbling, and red-orange poppies growing like wildflowers – it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a real live poppy.

Something inside me tells me there’s so much more to see.

Cinque Terre is an area made up of five villages along the coastline of the Italian Riviera: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Although this area has been built up for centuries, it seems to have turned its back on modern-day developments. Cars can’t access the villages from the outside – only footpaths, trains and boats connect them. It’s not a world I could regularly live in, but my god, for a day it was so primitively amazing.

When Big Ring first presented the idea of spending a couple of days in Cinque Terre as a break between all the sight seeing and busyness of Florence and Barcelona, I was in – especially when he told me it would be a hiking trip. I was pretty sure that my body would be in desperate need of some intense exercise by that time, given that I knew I’d be mowing down on mondo amounts of gelato, pizza and pasta in Florence.

But Cinque Terre was nothing like the stairmaster I used to be obsessed with at the gym, nor like the Grouse Grind that I have a love-hate relationship with. It was 5,000 times more intense, 5,000 times better!

The brochure told us that the hike in total would take approximately five hours to complete; it took us eight. And not because of my slow-moving legs, oh no, I was moving just fine. Mario’s feet, however, were rather sluggish due to the fact that his finger was glued to his camera’s snapping trigger – he took 200 pictures that day alone.

But could I really fault him? No.

No place before – not the Vancouver Aquarium, not San Miniato al Monte, not even Sacré Coeur – has ever taken my breath away (figuratively and literally) like Cinque Terre did.

We set off at 10 in the morning for the first trail out of Riomaggiore: Via dell Amoré “Lover’s Lane.” It’s a fairly easy trek with a wide path and railing almost the entire way – deceiving, I would soon learn.

A chain link fence at the start of the trail is covered in padlocks. The story goes that if you lock a lock to that fence, your love will forever be intertwined … we didn’t. Oops.

The second path towards Corniglia is a bit more hilly, forcing us to climb rocky stairs, some with one step that should have been more like three steps, and others with hardly a spot to fit your foot into. We cross shaky, suspension-style bridges, squish our backs up against the mountain and suck in our tummies at spots to let those coming from the other direction safely pass.

A flight of stairs, consisting of nearly 400 steps, welcomes us up into Corniglia. Some hikers are huffing and puffing, even leaning over in exhaustion, but not me, I’m in Grouse Grind mode, says Big Ring – I fly pass them all until I reach the top where I vigorously fist bump the air!

Corniglia is like something from the ‘20s. The locals all seem to know each other, waving and exchanging Italian pleasantries, helping the older women up the stairs, hanging their laundry high above the winding streets, letting it flap in the warm breeze.

We sit on the stone steps, watching in wonderment.

We walk down to the fisherman’s dock – another crazy flight of stairs down and then back up again. I kid you not, if you were to calculate all the ups and downs we did that day, I’m sure it would have easily amounted to the Grouse Grind four or more times over!

By the time we hit Vernazza, the next village, I’m soaked in sweat (thank goodness I chose to wear a black tank top that morning) and cursing the girls who are confident enough to walk around in their sports bras and bathing suit tops. Mind you, it was usually those same girls who were wearing flip-flops – this was NOT a trail to take lightly in flip-flops.

When we spot the beach in Vernazza, neither of us care that we are without swimsuits. We rip our hiking shoes and socks off, and plod right into the Mediterranean. I was only planning on dipping my toes in, but within seconds I’m wading in further and further, loving the waves crashing against my calves, knees and thighs, swaying my body from side to side. I squish the wet sand between my toes, over my feet, around my ankles. All my worries, all my stresses, instantly disappear.

The last trail from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare is by far the hardest. We climb hills, we descend hills, we jump over creeks, we maneuver our bodies through narrow stretches. It’s also the most exciting.

We don’t see too many other hikers on this trail … could be the fact that they knew a storm was brewing, or maybe the fact that there was a rescue chopper flying not too far from where we were. But we do see two cats basking in the sun on a picnic bench a quarter of the way through the trail. An orange bucket nearby is filled with stale white buns. A sign on the bucket reads: Please feed these cats who are homeless and unloved. We give them love.

Finally at 6 p.m. with weary eyes and slowing legs, we descend the final stretch into Monterosso al Mare. We were planning on celebrating with a beer in the village but all the shops are shutting down their patios, bringing everything inside. We look behind us and see a black cloud fast approaching. We forgo the beer and hop onto the train instead.

Descending the last steps.

That day was probably the cheapest day of our entire trip, just 5 euros to hike through the villages. The best five euros I have ever experienced, and by far, the most memorable!

For a photo slideshow of the trip, click on the link: http://www.roadhockey.net/cinqueterre/

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