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February 19, 2002
The Cinque Terre (or at least part of it) (Russell)

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Monterosso al Mare

The Cinque Terre ("Five Lands") is quite simply one of the most stunningly beautiful areas in all of Italy.  During Medieval Times it was called "The Five Castles," when five small stone fishing villages were established -- each under the protection of a castle -- in a remote and inaccessible area of the Italian Riviera.  With each of the villages protected by terraced mountains on one side and crumbling ocean cliffs on the other, the Cinque Terre remained undiscovered by tourists until just a few years ago.  Today, the locals -- whose families have lived here for hundreds of years -- fight continuously to keep the area unsullied; the Cinque Terre has been declared both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We originally planned to visit the Cinque Terre -- about an hour's drive from our villa -- on February 18th.  However, it takes about 4-5 hours to hike the steep paths between the five towns, and we got a very late start.  In addition, the weather on the 18th was very overcast.  We ended up waiting until the 19th, and we're glad we did; we got out of the villa by 10:00 AM amid sunny and blue skies.

It actually took us an hour and a half to drive from Pontemazzori to Monterosso al Mare, the most northern of the five towns.  Once we exited the autostrada, the last section was a very windy and mountainous narrow road down to the coast.  Monterosso is the most developed of the five towns, with both an old town and a new town, and a large parking lot right down near the beach.  The parking lot was both unattended and empty (unheard of during the summer months!), and we left the car here so that we could explore using the two preferred methods of travel within the Cinque Terre: the small inter-village train and hiking.

We have only been in Italy for a few days, but we are already beginning to see why things don't happen on-time or on-schedule around here.  We had intended to start hiking from Monterosso to Vernazza by 11:00 AM, but we didn't even get the car parked until almost noon.  While searching for the trailhead, we stopped for ice cream (we couldn't find gelato), postcard stamps, and an international telephone card (but the Internet Point was closed for the winter, and Gail drew the line at letting Russell steal a "Euro" poster from a building wall).  The boys discovered a small playground and decided that they needed some free play time.  We finally set foot on the trail at 12:45 PM.

Each of the five towns of the Cinque Terre (in addition to Monterosso and Vernazza, there are Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are connected by a series of sentieri (hiking trails) that become progressively easier from north to south.  We decided to start with the hardest trail -- at the north -- so that the day would get easier as we went along.  The Monterosso-to-Vernazza trail is described as "tough, but worth it," with an estimated travel time of one-and-one-half hours.  While Cameron and Joss zipped on ahead, Russell stayed back with Gail, who was in the process of discovering that the only thing worse than the precipitous narrow path alongside ocean cliffs... was the precipitous narrow path alongside ocean cliffs with absolutely no handrail of any kind.

(We actually met a couple from Washington DC with whom we shared part of the hike.  While Russell and the woman compared digital cameras, Gail and the man discovered that they shared a phobia of edges.  The couple only made it halfway to Vernazza before they turned around and went back.)

The hike from Monterosso to Vernazza was absolutely spectacular, with steep up and down climbs (several times, the path turned into flights of stone steps) through terraced mountains of vineyards on one side, and sheer côte sauvage ocean cliffs on the other.  We stopped along the way for a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and finally reached Vernazza two hours later at 2:45 PM.

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Terraced vineyards on one side...
...and sheer ocean cliffs on the other

Although Russell and Joss were still full of energy, Cameron, Gail, and Gail's knees all decided that we should go no further than Vernazza today (the next section of trail, from Vernazza to Corniglia, is described as a "hard hike" with an estimated travel time of two hours).  Instead, we wandered the quaint and pastel-colored town (Vernazza is Rick Steves' favorite Cinque Terre town), discovered that there was no food or ice cream to be found in the middle of a winter afternoon, and settled for sitting and resting down at the harbor.

We decided to take the small inter-village train back from Vernazza to Monterosso.  At the station, we were surprised to run into our hiking couple friends again -- they had decided to take the train from Monterosso to Vernazza, and arrived just as we were departing.  We ended up having to buy our train tickets two times; the second was on board the train, because we had failed to validate our first set back at the station.  Cameron and Joss were amazed to find that the train took less than five minutes to reach Monterosso, after they had struggled for two hours to cover the same distance on foot!  Back in Monterosso, we gave the boys additional time at the playground before we rejoined our car and drove back to our villa.

All in all, it was a picture-perfect day.  We hope to explore the rest of Cinque Terre before we leave Pontemazzori, but in the meantime we will take a well-deserved rest day tomorrow.  The boys are already discussing all of the fun things they're going to do with their free day.  The adults are already discussing tomorrow's home schooling program.

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