I’m a firm believer in the importance of taking sporadic breaks from your surroundings as a means of refreshing your mind and preventing the slow onset of cabin fever and subsequent descent into hysteria. Ok fine, that may be a touch dramatic, but I do find that when I stay in one place for too long, I get restless. I start to lose inspiration. I succumb to the clutches of itchy-foot-itis.
Thankfully, living and working to a Spanish calendar allows for plenty of opportunities to escape the dross of daily life. Madrid operates on roughly 13 public holidays a year. Should that public holiday fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday, people will then link it to the nearest weekend and take that Friday or Monday off also. Yes, you heard (read?) me correctly. Enter the best concept to come out of Spain (aside from the siesta and a free tapa with the order of a drink) – the puente. “Puente” is the Spanish word for “bridge” and in the case of the public holiday, it means “long weekend”. Olé.
Semana Santa (Holy Week in Spanish) is perhaps the most desperately-anticipated national holiday of the year in Spain. It falls around March/April and comes just in the nick of time – about 5-6 months after you return to work following a long, relaxing summer and are ready to consider breaking your own arm just to get some time off work.
Ex-pats in Spain will, more often than not, use this time to take a trip to one of the nearby countries in Europe because flights are cheap if you book in advance and as if you’re going to spend a week doing nothing in the place you actually live, I mean really? (joke.)
Myself and my two best friends Drea and Rachel decided that, given our shared love of food, architecture and attractive men (note: this trip was taken before my husband made an honest woman out of me), Italy would be the perfect place to visit. Cierto. After hours of scouring flight comparison sites, researching crime rates and endless indecisive back-and-forth, we decided that the Italian Riviera was where we were headed.
Sparkling blue waters, craggy cliffs and luscious greenery made the perfect contrast to Madrid’s high-rise architecture and the constant buzz of people traffic and constant noise pollution.
Rachel suggested we give Cinque Terre a try for the last weekend of our trip, and given that it is quite possibly one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my two eyes, I’m glad she did.
So after an episode in Milan involving Drea nearly perishing from influenza, all 3 of us consuming our bodyweight in overpriced gelato and Rachel and I almost being swept to our deaths by a perilous breeze at the top of the Duomo, we boarded our train and headed down to Monterroso to begin operación descansar.
Cinque Terre is a collection of five Italian fishing villages: Corniglia; Manarola; Monterosso al Mare; Riomaggiore; and Vernazza. We booked a 3-night stay in an Airbnb in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five. After walking through a long, beautifully-decorated cliff tunnel connecting the train station to Riomaggiore centre, we decided to drop our bags off at our accommodation and then hurry down to the waterfront to enjoy the rest of the afternoon before the sun set and the temperatures dropped. As it sits right on the sea, things can get preeetty nippy down there.
We meandered through the narrow pedestrian streets down to the water’s edge which was lined with vacant sailboats and fluorescent buoys gently bobbing on the sea foam. In the 7 or so minutes it took to reach the sea from our Airbnb, we had already ploughed through a gelato and were baying for the second.
Candy-coloured facades decorated the cliff faces, transforming the village into a hazy mirage of oranges, yellows and pinks. Boxy houses stood irregularly like a pixelated image from a distance. Amateur photographers listen up, this is the kind of place that is impossible to take an unflattering photo of.
With pure intrepidation coursing through our veins, we took it upon ourselves to venture out onto some giant boulders that had inched themselves away from the shore and settled into the depths of the turquoise waters instead. The risks we’re willing to take for a good photo opportunity, amirite? Rachel, perhaps the one with the most common sense out of the 3 of us, decided that she’d rather stay firmly on dry land and commit the view to memory. Meanwhile, Drea and I went galavanting over the rock faces like Duracell bunnies on acid. Looking back on it, I do think the gelato might have had something to do with it.
After darkness rose, we retreated back to our Airbnb to begin preparing dinner. We had considered eating out but after having thrown a cursory glance at the prices of the restaurant opposite our apartment, we decided that pesto pasta at home was the only thing that fell remotely into the catchment area of our budget. So we sat with our backs to the heater as it was, without any exaggeration, the coldest flat in existence, and munched away on our pasta before calling it a night and hitting the hay.
The following morning I was up first thing. A brutal combination of Baltic temperatures in our flat and the excruciating pounding of a pneumatic drill emanating from the construction site right below our window was enough to put an end to the patchy slumber I had struggled through all night. Did I mention just how cold the flat was? We had swiped every spare blanket from the airing cupboards, even putting the spare tablecloth to good use in an attempt to stave off hypothermia. What an inconvenience that would be in a town so small it didn’t even have thoroughfare, never mind a hospital.
We opted for a full day of exploring in an attempt to cover all bases and leave no stone unturned since we only had 2 more full days there. First stop was Manarola, the neighbouring village. We figured that if we hit them in chronological order, we would not only be smart, independent travellers, but also time-savvy ones. We walked along a narrow, shale-covered footpath with the blazing sun beating down on our backs. Every now and again we would come across a seasoned and probably Dutch holidaymaker who we’d have to shimmy past and give that feeble eyebrow-raise-followed-by-a-“oop!”-acknowledgement of our unavoidable proximity.
Manarola is the epitome of girl hold my handbag and take my picture. As we rounded the corner, we came upon a cluster of coloured houses positioned comfortably onto a rock face that jutted out into the sea. Just behind the wall and nestled into the shrubbery was a small bench on which Drea and Rachel collapsed and I rode out an asthma attack. Perhaps there should be some sort of mandatory fitness test you take before you attempt to trek across the way, you know, for those of us who don’t climb mountains in our spare time.
We went into the old town to collect our congratulatory gelato that we had awarded ourselves, and to enjoy our first meal. Wew!
Evening crept up on us and we spent it walking around and ducking into handmade souvenir shops. Each one housed incredibly appealing trinkets – delicate handmade jewellery, dinner sets made from stone-baked clay, organic clothing made from unbleached linen and all at prices that made your eyes water. As much as I love supporting local artisans, 90€ for a sun visor made from recycled newspapers is a no from me, I’m afraid. So, a small pair of yellow stone earrings and a snazzy fridge magnet later, we were back in our apartment removing our makeup and ruing the day we decided to switch on all the heaters at once and blow the fusebox to smithereens.
The following day was our last full day and, in true Nattie, Rachel and Drea style, we went out with a bang…
Want to read about how we almost died, how I was beaten by a pregnant woman, and how we got turfed off the train in Monterosso? Click here for Part 2 of our Cinque Terre Adventure.