Sunday, June 26, 2011


To Riomaggiore

Our day of travel out of Lucca was the most daunting, yet one of the smoothest we've had. We had the luxury of sleeping in (or attempting to), then packed once again and prepared to leave. After a final hearty breakfast ala Claudio, we left our big packs with him temporarily, as our train didnt leave for another few hours. We visited the ATM, then a gelateria for some early panna cotta and caffe. For close to an hour we watched the activity of piazza San Michele, a much busier day than previous. As we were anxious to get to the train station, we retrieved our bags and said arrivederci to Claudio and Jerry. Even the short walk through the town, under the wall and to the train station was difficult with our packs. As the self service stations in Lucca are fairly rudimentary, I decided to wait in line to personally order the ticket. I did get a ticket to Riomaggiore, but it had hardly any information about our trip. Luckily, I had looked at the train schedule that morning, and knew what our connections were. During our hour wait for our train, we noticed a crowd beginning to form, with yet another camera crew at its center. A tall man with dark curly hair and nondescript casual clothing seemed to be the center of attention, and we figured he was some kind of Italian celebrity director, though neither of us knew who he was. I guess we'll have to google it.
Our train finally came, almost a little late, but we soon were heading for Viareggio, our first leg of the trip. The ride was short, only about a half hour, then we made our connection for La Spezia, the longest portion. The entire ride was truly stunning. The countryside here is just beautiful, with mountainous peaks on all sides, carpeted in greenery and closely knit villages, some in valleys, some perched atop steep hillsides. The sunshine was only interrupted by the swirling clouds which engulfed the upper massive peaks of the Carrara mountains. We made it in to La Spezia sooner than we expected, and it was only a ride of minutes to Riomaggiore, as it is the southernmost of the Cinque Terre. After the darkness of the tunnel through the mountain, we were suddenly propelled into bright sunlight, the train stopped, and we stumbled out to a panorama of the glittering ocean. Without fail, the expanse of water always amazes me. We made a short trip underground to reach the main platform. On the huge natural stone wall above us was painted a beautiful mural honoring the heritage of Riomaggiore. Once again we headed underground through a smaller tunnel which runs along the main train tunnel, domed with a bright blue ceiling, its walls decorated with maritime mosaics, shells, rocks, and colorful paintings. Then we emerged into Riomaggiore proper. It was love at first sight. It is truly a beautiful little town. And in truth not that little. The main street, Via Columbo, makes a lazy arc where the canyon of two steep hills once converged, the slopes of these hills now ridged with the cheerful, almost humorously multicolored buildings of infinite height, width, and character. A veritable myriad of stairways, passages, and narrow lanes lead up almost vertically on both sides through the village as it ascends. I will say first off that Riomaggiore is a very bohemian place. Everyone is friendly and understanding. Two or three tiny grocery stores can be found along Columbo, and the many restaurants, pizzerias, and bars zigzag their way up the street, mixed among private residences and hotels. Everything has a very lived-in feeling, without being trashy in the least. We found the office of our 'hostel' with ease, a small room with vaulted brick ceiling and stringed beads on the door, a cluttered yet seemingly organized jumble of things, with a desk. Giacomo, our renter, is a personable, laid back guy in his 30s, a bald surfer, if likened to our culture. He spoke English very well and used his hands while talking more than any other Italian I'd seen. After some paperwork, we began the long hike up many, many stairs to the apartment, all the while hefting our packs. He also pointed out a faster way from Via Columbo (which we found later was still a good deal of stepping).
The supposed hostel is doing itself a disservice by the name. It is perfect. With two separate rooms, one with a single bed Erik used for storage, and the small bathroom, and the other room with the double bed. The kitchen utilities were across the hall but exclusive to us, with our key. And all those steps were worth the effort. As if the apartment could not be more ideal for our use, the view is absolutely perfect. An entire panorama of Riomaggiore, including the small harbor and ocean. Literally breathtaking. Both of our expectations were completely overwhelmed. Giacomo left us the keys and we settled in. Not long after, we set on the town. We explored the length of Via Columbo, quite a steep hike toward the end, but the shops waned, and we turned around. On the way we saw two kitties lounging and stopped for a pet and photos. We scanned the restaurants along the way, and decided on one farthest up the street, with a nice covered seating area and good menu. I ordered swordfish, and Erik had breaded veal with French fries. The most unique part of our meal was the end, as we ordered panna cotta with carmel, (delicious but about half too small), and sciacchetra with biscotti (a local dessert wine which my mom loved on our last trip). The wine was for old times sake, and didn't appeal to either of us, but it was worth a try. After we paid il conto, we descended Via Columbo to the marina. It's a very narrow harbor, but vertical, framed on either side by sheer cliffs, with a mishmash of structures rising from them. Below, the concrete ramp meets the tide, flanked by archways which house all manner of nets, buoys, and small fishing boats docked in a line. As you pass the marina and ascend more steps to the left, a path which opens to bars and gelaterias on the way, a view of Riomaggiore's small harbor and the coast of the Cinque Terre expand before you. The path continues around the stone cliffs which crumble into the ocean, hugging the mountain, until another tiny bay opens up, seeming to be cut directly into the mountainside. Here is the closest Riomaggiore comes to a beach, which is simply a surface of pebbles, boulders, and cliffs. Far above the beach stands the exterior of the train tunnel, with arched openings to give the travelers inside a taste of what is to come. This tiny beach seems to always be crowded. We stayed long enough to take in the views, then got gelato and enjoyed it on the return down the blue tunnel toward the train station, where the Via dell'Amore begins.
This flat walk follows the majestic cliffs between Riomaggiore and Manarola, with only a railing between you and a two hundred foot plunge to aquamarine waters below. The cliffsides are beautiful, covered in local vegetation, with colorful flowers and prickling cacti. The sun sank below the far range on the coast of Monte Rosso, the Northernmost town, painting the entire Cinque Terre in dusty orange. One could not ask for a more romantic welcome to such a beautiful place.

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