Before you begin reading this post, make sure you’ve read Part 1 here! Ok, carry on…
Walking what felt like forever between Riomaggiore and Manarola the day before had given us a false sense of confidence in our stamina levels. We foolishly challenged ourselves to walk between all the other towns we hadn’t visited and “make a day of it” as they say. So we started with a dilatory wander across the pebbly beach at Monterosso, skimming stones on the water’s surface without a care in the world and each of us collecting a measly 50cl bottle of water for the “leisurely walk” we had naively chosen to embark upon. Before starting the voyage that nearly killed us all, we went and explored the more residential area – a mass of hanging baskets, woven fences and vehicles with four-wheel drive.
We stopped by an adorable little chapel, its interior adorned with white votive candles and the soft smell of smoky incense lingering in the cool air. Plump oranges hung from straining branches, tourists nibbled on hot Belgian waffles doused in sugary ice cream.
As we ascended the small staircase leading to the start of the walk from hell, myself in high-waisted jeans and converse, and Rach and Drea in leather jackets and flimsy T-shirts, we smiled at each other as we foresaw a gentle and incline-free journey from village to village. I think back on that time and laugh at what a group of unknowing fannies we really were. Unbeknownst to us, the hike we were about to inadvertently partake in was rated as one for experienced hikers only. Walking across a French field during a PGL trip didn’t count as experienced, apparently.
So we set off, incidentally at the hottest part of the day because why the heck not, ey? After about half an hour of consistent ascent, a staircase of about eleventy thousand stone steps and giant beads of sweat trickling into our eyes and blinding us, we rounded the first hill (read:mountain). Gasping for breath and doubled over in an attempt to have less far to fall should a coronary set in, we took a much-needed breather at the top. Between expletives and the shedding of outer layers, we were wrecked.
We heard gentle chatter approaching us from behind and realised that, naturally, there were other people coming, and that we wouldn’t have all day to dilly-dally and procrastinate from continuing. Plus, there wasn’t enough room for us and the people coming to all take a breather at the same time. We were compelled to go on. So we geed ourselves up and began climbing the next set of vertical steps. I attempted to take them two-at-a-time because I’m rather long of leg, but after catching a cramp in my left arse cheek that had me contorting myself into lunges like something off a Jane Fonda DVD, I decided to just stop at the top and wait for the girls to catch me up.
“God, that was rough,” I wheezed, hearing footsteps right behind me. Spinning round expecting to see either one of my friends, I instead came face-to-face with the sweat-free face of a blonde woman, about 10 years older than me and looking a lot less on the precipice of a sudden death. I looked down and saw that she was about 12 and a half months pregnant and nearly fainted.
“Excuse me,” she smiled as she slid past me, her burgeoning bump round and resplendent under her branded hiking top. I had been overtaken by someone literally carrying someone else. I looked down the steps to Drea wide-eyed in a “did you see that?!” kind of way. Oh I saw that, believe me.
So we climbed and we climbed, zig-zagging across the green face of the mountain. At one point I’m sure I heard the voice of God, we were so high up. Sweating, heaving and trying to avoid eye-contact with mountain rams, we were torn between praising ourselves for being so resilient and cursing ourselves for ever having been so stupid. The walkway had started as very dry and earthy. Orange dust swooped up in clouds if you were to lose your footing and say, stick your leg straight through a bramble bush. But it’s not like I’m talking from experience or anything…
40 days and 40 nights about 3 hours, we eventually turned a corner and saw the most welcome sight we could’ve imagined. It was so beautiful I had to squint to make sure I wasn’t just hallucinating. Vernazza. Or, more importantly, civilisation.
On descending, I felt like Rose must’ve done when she saw the lifeboats coming towards her. By this point I was panting like a dog so I was a lot less pretty and porcelain-faced, but I imagine the sentiment to have been along the same lines. It was all downhill from here (thankfully only literally and not metaphorically) and boy, was I relieved.
When we reached the bottom and set foot on solid ground, we pulled each other into a sweaty embrace. My legs were trembling and I could feel the beginnings of a hernia, but I felt more accomplished than I had done in a while. There’s something about being so far out of your comfort zone that it’s barely even visible on the horizon, and achieving something you never thought possible in the process. My spirits were singing with the promise of future athletic success.
“Maybe we should sign up for an ultramarathon after this,” I pondered as we clung to each other and swayed.
The air down here was cooler and refreshing. My damp clothes clung to my body and fresh blisters throbbed on the backs of my heels. Actually, maybe the ultramarathon can wait.
As we sat down to ravish a plate of authentic lasagne, we ordered 3 large glasses of wine and sank into our chairs as the sky grew darker. Tucked away in the corner of a tiny restaurant with terracotta walls and splintery, wooden tables, we enjoyed plate upon plate of sumptuous carbohydrates followed by tangy tiramisu and fresh fruit. La dolce vita indeed.
We decided to do the sensible thing and take the train back to Riomaggiore because we’d out-walked ourselves for at least another year, and collapse was definitely possible. The train journey lasted only several minutes, but in that time we had fallen into a lull and were positively drowsy by the time it came to depart. Despite the apartment being colder than a polar bear’s proverbial, we crawled into bed and slept like contented babies until the sun poured through our net-curtain-covered windows the following morning.
Time to leave. After packing up our belongings and checking out of the apartment around noon, we trudged around the town with our burdensome suitcases and severe muscle fatigue. Our train back to Florence was leaving from Monteroso at around 5pm, so we decided to head on over there early and have a casual lunch before leaving Cinque Terre. We discovered a restaurant that served pizzas the size of an inner-city roundabout for 5€ so, naturally, we gravitated towards it like moths to a flame. After demolishing a crusty margarita, it soon came time to grab our last gelato before leaving. I went for Nutella and Pistachio, because I clearly wasn’t feeling sick enough.
I assume people find it easy to identify tourists in these parts because who else has the lack of dignity necessary to stand at the edge of a train platform with a small suitcase, a thick coat under arm, and a travel pillow looped around their neck, and still be furiously licking a rapidly-melting ice cream?
So our train pulled up literally at our feet and we got in. Rachel was in charge of booking the train tickets before we left so we followed her as she charged down the narrow aisle of the carriage to claim our seats. We had booked seating at a table with plug sockets and plenty of luggage storing space so the chances of a repeat pick-pocketing experience were as low as we could make them. Once we pulled up to seats 36A, B, C, and D, we saw a family of 4 already occupying them. Awkward. Whenever I book a seat on a train and I see somebody sitting in it, despite them being a cheeky blighter who knows the seat booking wasn’t made for them, I still feel impending dread at the thought of asking them to do one. This was like that, except worse – they were Italian, and apart from grazie mille, we were at a linguistic loss.
Rachel asked them to leave in English (accompanied by hand gestures incase the message wasn’t clear.) They sat there looking at us, along with the entirety of the carriage by this point, and shook their heads vehemently.
“No, these are our seats!” Rachel smarted. Drea and I stood there like a couple of spare ones at a wedding, completely blocking the carriageway.
More head shakes.
She showed them the paper confirmation she had printed out but a week earlier with our seat booking clearly written on. Pointing violently between the seat numbers printed on the paper and the ones printed above their heads, she, and 78 other pairs of eyes beheld the spectacle unfolding in front of them. Drea and I still stood there like ornaments. The mother of the family pulled out her ticket and copied Rachel, pointing at the seat number, which was identical to ours. Check.Mate.
We turned on our heels and retreated out of the carriage as every other passenger watched us unabashedly. Time for an action plan. The train conductor was checking tickets in the carriage before ours so once he came to pass us in the stairwell, Rachel stopped him and explained, again in English, that a family of audacious Italians has robbed us of our seats. He took the paper from her hand and read it from top to bottom as we stood there watching him, unsteady from the motion of the moving train.
“No,” he exclaimed sharply. And he used his index finger to underline the date. Our train was tomorrow. Rachel had booked the train for the wrong day, and we looked like a group of prize idiots. People had actually leant out of their seats into the aisle to continue watching the onboard entertainment that these 3 nonces had provided them.
We were instructed to leave the train at the next stop, go back to Manarola and once there, buy new tickets to Florence. Fan-bloody-tastic.
So, 90 minutes and 79€ later, we boarded our actual train to Florence, this time with our tails between our legs and absolutely no desire to socialise with anyone. Dishevelled, exhausted and longing for a little less adventure, we sank deeply into our seats and watched the glorious sights of the Italian Riviera go flashing past our window.
Have you ever had a holiday go pear-shaped? Let me know in the comments!