Five Lands, Two McDaniels

utepils n. (Norwegian) a beer you drink outside enjoying the sun.

When you choose quantity of places over quantity in places when travelling, it can be hard to leave places you feel you’ve only just gotten to know.  We had really grown to love Genoa, especially our extremely nice hostel and it was thus difficult for us to pull ourselves away from it (without time for a pot of coffee, I might add) at 7am the next morning. Our next and final destination was Pisa, and so you, if geographically inclined, might be wondering why the hell we had decided to take such a ridiculously early bus to reach a city only a couple hours away. We, however, were not going straight to Pisa, but rather decided to stop along and hike the Cinque Terre, or “the five lands”, before continuing on to Pisa. An hour or so later, we rolled into Monterosso, the first of the string of five brightly colored seafaring towns that have today become popular tourist and hiker destinations. My first priority was food and caffeine, as usual. We could have passed out from sheer joy when we emerged from the train to find a little chalkboard sign reading, in English, “Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, salad, toast, orange, and coffee, 8€.” It was little we had died and gone to America. If you ever hate the place you’re in, travel away from it and you’ll quickly learn the things you appreciate about it. For me: pots of coffee and breakfast.

 

After a satisfying breakfast and visit with an adorable Belgium shepherd who absolutely would not stand for me taking the slightest break in petting him, my mother and I found out three of the four trail segments connecting the cities together were closed from landslides and only the longest and steepest segment, spanning from Monterosso to Vernassa, was open. While disappointed we could not hike the full Sentierro Azule, as it is called in its entirety, we were willing to take what we could get and thus payed a minimal 10€ fee to store our packs and hit the trail. Before leaving Venice, we had met an Australian who had just come from the Cinque Terre and she informed us it did not seem necessary to buy tickets for the trial as no one ever checked them. This was not wholly unusual for Italy as we had noticed in our time there that no one ever seemed to pay or check tickets for getting on trams, busses, trains, you name it. In fact, our travels in Italy probably could have been a lot cheaper had we been less honest (or less nervous) people. This one time, however, we thought we’d go for it and try our luck. We should have known better than to EVER count on our luck. As my mother always says, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any at all.” After hiking along the Monterosso beach, the only actual sand beach in the five towns, and climbing a series of steep stairs, we were met with a little station a little ways into the trail checking for tickets. Of course. It was then we remembered it was Easter Sunday and perhaps that warranted the sudden concern over tickets.

Not wanting to even go near the grouchy looking Italian man, my mom and I turned tail and descended back to the town to buy tickets. Once we arrived at a little gift shop to inquire as to where we might be able to do so, hoping we wouldn’t have to go all the way back to the train station where we had last seen a ticket booth. She smiled and said, “On trail!” as if it were the most intuitive thing in the world. Maybe it was. Maybe we were just stupid. Angry that we had wasted 20 minutes, we hiked back up where we just were, waited in the queue and finally obtained tickets to hike this stupid trail that was beginning to look less and less appealing by the moment. Yet the magic of the trail is always fast to cast its spell upon me and before I knew it, I was enraptured by the narrow little path, winding up steep hillsides on wet stone and mud. On the right hand side was the ocean, that vast void of turquoise glittering in the dim morning sun, and on the left, the primitive hillsides of Italy still existing in another time all together. While the ocean was beautiful and undoubtedly captured the attention of most of the hikers (when they weren’t concentrating acutely on where to place their feet at least), I found much more interest in the slopes rising above me. It was as though I was looking a new lifestyle that, despite its centrality in what had become a huge tourist destination, maintained the integrity of simple, obsolete living. There, the hillsides were scaled into layers where rows of grape vines and lemon trees grew and flourished among who knows what other crops. The houses were more like bungalows, sealed away by crooked wooden gates and set into the very foundation of the mountain, as the though the hills had grown around them like trees do alien objects. At one point, we even passed an old man, white beard reaching mid chest, selling vegetables from a basket to passing hikers. I have no doubt they were all harvested that day on that hillside.

He was not the only curiosity we passed, as a little while later, we passed a low fenced area with several cats laying about and a little doghouse (cathouse?) that read, “Hotel” with five little gold stars next to it. Right beside the trial was a plastic bin bearing a sign that read: “Please use the food inside this container to feed these homeless and unloved cats.” The sign broke my heart because I wanted to yell how they weren’t unloved. Clearly someone cared about them to go through all this effort to make this shelter and if nothing else I did. One of the mangy cats clearly looked in need of a vet and he scowled angrily at me but once I started petting him, he turned into the biggest sweetheart and wouldn’t leave me alone. If only I could charm people so easily. Another looked painfully like my own cat, Millie, who was probably extremely angry at my mother for leaving her by this point. If I had been at home, I would have scooped up all three cats residing there and given them homes with me. Alas, I had to settle for petting them, assuring them that people cared about them as if they could understand me, and be on my way.

Despite its beauty, the Sentierro Azurro had its flaws but most of them are to do with the people on it. In other words, the trail is actually so good that is suffers from the people it attracts. Travel irony at its finest. On this particular day, the trail was extremely busy and I’m not sure whether that was an Easter Sunday phenomenon or a constant thing. Either way, I would hate to see this place in high season. As it was, we often crawled along at a snail’s pace while someone up ahead struggled with a certain bit of the trail or decided to stop and take pictures when the trail was not wide enough to allow the line behind to pass. As a naturally fast hiker, I hate when this happens. One common philosophy for long distance hikers is, “Hike your own hike.” Everyone has a rhythm, a groove if you will, that is natural to them when they hike. Mine is fast and driving and getting stuck ip whine slow people was absolute torture to me. Yet it did allow for me to observe not only my surroundings in terms of nature but in terms of people as well. Part of the reason I love trail life in general is that you get the opportunity to dive into the lives of so many people if only for a brief moment. Sometimes it’s meeting new people and hiking with them, sometimes just a nod of acknowledgement, and sometimes it’s just passing people and catching snippets of their conversations. Granted, being in a foreign country makes this more difficult but I also find it fun to try to guess what people are saying in other languages. It’s like my own narration in my head and sometimes it’s fairly easy to tell what people are saying simply by their tone (except the Germans and Eastern Europeans who always sound angry even if they’re exchanging pleasantries). I’ve gotten so used to this torrent of language at this point, the dull roar of foreign words constantly in the air. It is now background noise to me, but because of that, it makes the occasional English phrase stand out sharply amongst the garbled gabbing.

“Well this trail is certainly not what I expected!” an older overweight American exclaimed to her husband as she dragged herself up a steep incline. I couldn’t help but grin as we pulled away from her. I mean, it’s a hiking trial, what exactly did she expect? Maybe I’m not being fair coming from Montana where hiking is generally assumed to be hard no matter what. The confusion over what this trail actually consisted of seemed to be a common theme on it, which I noticed as we frequently passed people in skin tight leather pants or high heels, barely managing to make it up the steep stone stairs, often slick with slime and water. I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t necessarily an easy trail. It required careful footing and had I not spent the last three weeks walking literally everywhere, it probably would have winded me as well. Yet it was also not as hard as some people made it seem. While many were clearly unprepared for the trail, there were just as many who were over prepared and thus the spectrum of clothing ranged from high heels to thermal underwear and trekking poles. I was in a tank top and loose cargo pants and that suited me just fine.

After three miles of sharp ups and downs, we looked down upon Vernassa and all its animated high rise colored houses. It was like something straight out of a cartoon. As we descended down into the town, we were greeted by an accordion player performing for incoming hikers at the mouth of the trail. We wandered through the narrow streets of the town itself, littered with potted plants and other oddities, until emerging into the main square and bay of the town. On one side, a brown stone cathedral, rather bland in comparison to those we had grown accustomed to, rose overlooking the sea. To the other, a small trail wound up to the top of an old fortress that now contained a restaurant sitting high above the water. My mom had thought it was just the coolest thing but I vetoed the idea of eating there because I knew cool things also mean rip-off prices, especially in places like this.

Instead, we settled for getting drinks at a little bar next to the sea than seemed to have surprisingly low prices for being in a tourist town. After having seen people drinking these bright orange cocktails for about a week, we decided to take a chance and try some. It turn out these spritzes, as they are called, are simply some fruit liqueur mixed with prosecco for a satisfying combination. After our drinks, we headed over to the opposite end of the bay to watch the waves crash against the rock carved in stratified layers, almost like petrified wood, spiraling like the flow of water and time. I love watching water, and here was no exception. I found it fascinating to see the way the dark blue water like the color of my eyes washes over the rocks, taking away unnoticeable flecks with each wave. How many tides does it take to notice erosion, I wondered. The water was so inviting, and had it been warmer I would have been tempted to jump in, yet I knew that below the light layer of white foam lay deadly undercurrents that would drag me into the cave and beat me against the rocks. The real mermaid of the sea is nothing more than the water itself and its siren call.

After pulling myself away from the hypnotic rhythm of the sea, my mother and I started the hour and a half journey back, which was pleasantly slightly less crowded as I imagine many people probably said, “Screw this,” and let their high heels carry them to the bus stop instead. We returned to Monterosso just before sunset, the perfect time to sit asps a beachside restaurant for a dinner of smoked salmon sandwiched and a beer. Nothing tastes better than beer on the beach after a hard day of hiking. To top off the day, we rewarded ourselves with three scoops of ice cream each, figuring we had burned enough calories to merit the extra scoop. It’s easy to see where I get my food justification abilities from.

After collecting our packs from the storage place, we waited around for the train and were suddenly struck in idea, that would either be the best or worse decision we had made. Right next to the train station was a little bar with a big sign that advertised something called the Drunk-ass Bucket. Now, as curious as we were as to what this bucket contained, we did at least use our judgment to curb one bad decision to a slightly less bad one and instead ordered an upside down Corona in a margarita bucket. By the time it came, we only had a few minutes until our train so what we did we do? Took it to the platform of course! Surely people wouldn’t be that judgmental… I tell you, I haven’t felt more like the bastard at a family reunion since last summer in Glacier National Park much to the disapproval of the tourists when I reemerged onto the trial after doing a bit of off- trial exploring. The look my mother and I received were withering, the worst of which came from an old lady with a young boy who acted as though our very presence would corrupt the poor innocent child. But here’s the thing about having a bough alcohol to drive you to carry a margarita bucket with an upside down beer on it to a train: you don’t care. So my mother and I happily sipped away at our bucket, shaking off the judgmental looks by people who literally had no bearing upon our lives. My philosophy for life is “You do you” and that’s just what we did. When the train came, we hauled our bucked onto the train, where we sipped and giggled all the way to Pisa.