Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A nice article from a traveler to Levanto and Le Cinque Terre

Living a Tough Life in Cinque Terre


The sun setting on the beach in Levanto
After having spent the majority of my trip so far in large, crowded metropolitan areas, my body was telling me that I was ready to get out into a more natural environment, soak up some countryside, and to adjust to the pace of small-town living.  And I couldn’t have picked a more perfect place than Cinque Terre National Park on the Northwest coast of Italy (thanks for the recommendation, Julie!).  The park features some of Italy’s most dramatic coastlines and is highlighted by five small villages within a few kilometers of each other – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazzo, and Monterosso — thus the “Cinque Terre” name.
When looking for a place to stay, however, I had heard that the 5 villages themselves could be quite touristy and expensive due to their relative isolation.  Thus, I decided to make the town of Levanto (1 town north, and only a 5 minute ride by train) my home base for exploring the area — and as soon as I set foot in town, I knew that I had made the right decision.  It was the perfect blend of beautiful mountains, sandy beaches, and that small rural town atmosphere that I was looking for (though if other folks are looking to visit, be aware that there isn’t much English spoken this far away from the cities).
The skyline of Levanto, a town of only around five thousand people
The streets of the city with mist-covered mountains in the background
Boats near the harbor
…and I finally got the beach I’ve been waiting for, and it couldn’t have been much more perfect
But enough about Levanto — let’s move on to the reason I came to the area in the first place: a bit of hiking in the Cinque Terre National Park.  Though there are hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails, the highlight of the park – and the big draw for tourists – is the coastline trail that links all five, known as the Sentiero Azzuro or simply the “Blue Trail,” that runs the 9 kms between the villages and takes roughly 5 hours to hike.  Though not an exceedingly difficult hike, it does require a good amount of stamina and a willingness to tackle a large number of steps repeatedly.  It can certainly be a bit crowded on the trail at times, but I found that if you head out a bit earlier in the day, you can avoid having to wait behind a string of double-knee-brace-and-dual-hiking-stick-wielding-pensioners.
The trail itself does cost a few euros to hike, but if you’re staying around for a few days, the best bet it to pick up a Cinque Terre Treno Card, that will allow you access to the trail and unlimited rides up and down the rail line that also connects the 5 villages, as well as Levanto to the north and La Spezia to the south (so you can hike a much or a little as you feel, and simply take the train back from wherever you are).   And although the Blue Trail is the most famous portion of the park, the other criss-crossing paths of various difficulties and lengths in the remainder of the park (all of which are free aside from the Blue Trail itself) are excellent options in themselves, making this whole area a hiker’s dream come true.  FYI – my favorite hike was from Lavanto to Montessoro, as it offered some great views without the crowd.
A view of the trail itself
View back at Manrola, the 2nd city you’ll come across when hiking the trail northbound
In addition to the coastline vistas, the path will also take you right through both Olive Orchards…
…and local vineyards, whose grapes are destined for the production of regional wines
The towns themselves can be quite breath-taking, too. Seen here is the 3rd town, Cornigila, upon approach
The harbor in Corniglia. There is also a ferry that connects all 5 towns — if you happen to have forgotten your hiking boots
I did spot a few cairns along the way, which I took to be a sign that I hadn’t yet strayed off my path
As mentioned earlier, if you get tired of hiking, you can easily stop off at any of the towns along the way and enjoy the scenary before catching a train back. Shown here is the beach in Monterosso
On the food front, the cuisine was a bit more rustic and homestyle than you might expect of Italy, but it worked well for me, as I was basically trying to find easy food to carry while hiking (my usual go-to was a huge hunk of foccacia bread and a cup of pesto).
The ever-present Foccacia Pizza. As you can see from the photo, I couldn’t quite get my camera out in time
A typical trail lunch: a foccacia sandwich and a veggie pie
The terrific view from a cafe
So as you can see, my life was pretty tough in the Cinque Terre region.  My daily routine was to wake up, have breakfast with new hostel friends, hike the trails for a few hours, hit the beach like a sack of potatoes in the afternoon, and then enjoy a nice leisurely dinner with a fair amount of cheap, local wine before repeating the cycle again the next day.  Yep, sometime life can be really tough.
All kidding aside, it really was a beautiful area and served as the much-needed rest time for me at this point in my trip.  Now that I’m feeling back to normal, I’m venturing back into the cities again, as I’m making my way to the heart of Tuscany: Florence.  Until next time, Salute from Italy!