Italy 2006 - Cinque Terre

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Back in the fall of 2002 Sandy and I had taken a hiking trip in Tuscany that was organized through REI Adventures.  We really enjoyed that trip, so in June of 2006 we joined their trip to the Cinque Terre region of Italy.  The trip was run by Custom Walks, a company based in Florence that does tours in Italy, France and other countries.

We spent six days hiking along the coast of Italy just south of Genoa.  The Cinque Terre, the Five Lands, are a series of five villages along a very rugged section of coast.  The area is a national park and a UNESCO preserve, so development has been limited and the villages are much as they were a hundred years ago or more.  Each day we would do a hike along a beautiful section of the coast.  Sometimes we would start or end the day with a train ride between our base and the trail.  We usually would have a chance to stop for lunch at a village somewhere along the way.  Each evening, we would stay at a hotel in a local town and have great food and wine at dinner.  We'd also have time to explore the towns on our own.

On our own before meeting the group
The trip to Italy was no fun.  We started with a flight from Boise to Denver.  From there we had a ten hour overnight flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa.  The seating was really crammed and it was hard to get comfortable.  We arrived in Frankfurt the next day with little or no sleep.  Frankfurt requires that you go through security even when you are just changing planes.  After a mad dash through the airport, we found out that our flight was delayed an hour.  Eventually we took off and flew to Milan.  There we had to catch a bus from Malpensa airport, which is way outside the city, to the downtown train station.  Then we caught a train to Genoa which took two hours.  At the station in Genoa we caught a local train to Santa Margherita.  This was a little tricky because the signs at the stations were really hard to see until you were pulling out of the station.  Not very useful.  We managed to find the right stop and jump off the train, luggage and all.  From there a short taxi ride took us to our hotel.  We left Boise at 10 am on Wednesday and didn't get to our hotel until 8 pm on Thursday (26 hours total).  After a quick dinner, we fell into bed.

The next day we started to explore Santa Margherita.  We had a full day and another morning on our own before meeting the group.  It is a pretty town with a tree-lined promenade all along the waterfront.  We spent most of the day walking around town and exploring.  It is the center of the Italian Riviera so there were lots of tourists.  And a lot of them had lots of money.  The harbor was filled with some really impressive yachts.  That meant that there were a lot of really nice shops, with lots of designer clothes, shoes, etc.  Sandy was in heaven.  But although there was lots of nice stuff, none of it was cheap.  So Sandy had to make some tough choices on a few really nice things to get.

Then things started to go wrong.  Friday night as we were checking what time to meet the group the next day we found out that we were off by a day - the group didn't meet till Sunday!  No finger pointing, but it was Sandy's fault.  Since our hotel reservations were hard to get, we were expecting that we were going to get thrown out on the street the next day.  The desk clerk said the hotel was full and our only chance was to talk to the manager in the morning.  After a night of dreaming about hauling all our stuff back to Milan for a day and then hauling it back, I was at the front desk at 7 am sharp to talk to the manager.  She said there was no problem and we could stay in our room an extra night.  Whew!

Relaxed again, we set out Saturday morning to get Sandy's tax refund (she already had made some pretty large purchases) and then went to do some more shopping.  Late in the morning Sandy noticed that her passport was missing.  She had used it for the paperwork to get her tax refund.  So we raced back to the office - not there.  Then we frantically retraced all of our route around Santa Margherita and checked in with all of the shopkeepers along the way.  Still no passport.  Finally we went back to the hotel so Sandy could call the consulate to find out how to get her passport replaced.  As a last check she asked at the desk and found that she had left her passport there when she had picked up the room key earlier in the morning.  That was really a relief.  I had been really bummed at the idea of doing the whole trip by myself while Sandy waited in Milan all week at the American Consulate to get a new passport.

So all was right again.  Hotel and lost passport disasters had been averted.  Sandy completed her shopping.  She got a nice pair of boots, Prada shoes, Prada sunglasses, some Armani jeans, a nice dress, and a blouse.  Only slightly nervous that bad things always come in threes, we were ready to meet the group and start the next part of the trip.

Hike #1: Over the ridge from Santa Margherita to Portofino
We finally met the group in the lobby of the hotel on Sunday afternoon.  Jennifer was the bravest traveler - she pulled up in a taxi from the train station almost exactly at the meeting time.  I wouldn't have wanted to hike after the trip over with no rest!

Our first hike was billed as a "warm up", but we started off heading up the ridge behind town at a fast pace.  After what seemed like a forced march we arrived at a church high on the ridge that gave us a nice view of the bay and Santa Margherita.  Then we did what was to become the norm for the week - after a hard hike to gain elevation onto a ridge, we headed right back down to sea level again.  And of course both sides were pretty steep.

After about two hours we arrived at Portofino.  If there was money in Santa Margherita, then Portofino was straight out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  The hotel Splendido as we entered town had a guard at the driveway to make sure that unsavory characters like us mere hikers didn't wander onto the hotel grounds.  Claire said that the hotel started at 800 Euros a night - and that was for the cheap rooms in the back with no view.  We finally got to the main piazza of Portofino.  We spent a few minutes looking around and then caught the bus back to Santa Margherita.  After a chance to clean up and change at the hotel, we had drinks at the hotel and then our first dinner.  We got to meet our trip leaders and other trip members.  Our trip leaders were Claire, and American who now lives in Florence, and Virginie, a French woman who lives in Avignon and leads all of the Custom Walks/REI Adventures trips in Provence.

Hike#2: Camogli to Santa Fruttuoso to Portofino
Our first full day of hiking started with a train ride back towards Genoa to Camogli.  There we spent about an hour in town so people could get food for the hike.  Then we hiked out of town - uphill of course.  After a long climb, we reached a beautiful viewpoint.  We could see the town of Camogli below us and the coast up to Genoa.  We did get a nice group photo - everyone was along on this hike.  On later days some of the group members would skip the hike if they wanted a day off to rest or recuperate.  Then onward, contouring along the ridge with beautiful views of the coast.  Finally we reached the point where we could see down to our lunch destination, the abbey of St. Fruttuoso, built in the thirteenth century.  It was a long hike down losing all the elevation that we had gained earlier in the day.  It was mid afternoon by the time we got to the beach at the abbey.  At this point most of the group opted for a water taxi back to Santa Margherita.  Only Virginie, Anthony, Polly, Jerry and I continued the hike to Portofino.  Of cousre it started with a steep hike back up onto the ridge we had just climbed down from.  The pace was tough and I was really working hard to keep up.  When we finally got up on the ridge we had another great walk traversing the hillside with views in all directions.  After a couple of hours we finally reached Portofino.  Everyone hopped on the bus except me.  I hiked back from Portofino to Santa Margherita by myself.  Hiking along the coast was pretty and easy, and gave me a chance to enjoy some time by myself.

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Our first morning exploring Santa Margherita.

The tree-lined promenade that runs along the waterfront.

Lunch at a sidewalk cafe after a hard morning of walking around town.

You can't visit an Italian town without a picture of the local church.

Our room at the Hotel Jolanda was on the corner just above street level.  We sat out on the balcony to enjoy wine and snacks.
The "Patient Husband Bench" outside a shop.  With two and a half free days before the group met, I spent a lot of time sitting on these benches while Sandy was shopping.

Sandy looks pretty happy.  She must have just bought her Prada shoes.

The group meets in the lobby of the hotel.

View of Santa Margherita from the ridge above town on our warm up hike to Portofino.

A faux castle along the coast between Santa Margherita and Portofino.

The first full day hike started by catching the train to Camogli.

The group takes a rest at a viewpoint after a long, hard climb up from sea level.

Sandy and Steve

Our first view of the abbey of Santa Fruttuoso.  It's waaaaaay down there.

Most of the group took the boat back from the abbey, while a few took the trail to Portofino.

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