Riamaggiore was quiet as a morgue. We arrived in mid-November to find no life on the streets and most of the shops had closed for the winter; the only travelers we met in our first hours in town were completely annoying. Traveling through Italy in the off-season is a great way to avoid the tourist hordes, but for once on our trip we wished there was more going on.
Luckily for us, we imported our own friends. More on that later. First, lets talk about the hiking.
Hiking in the Cinque Terra
My wife had a very difficult time wrapping her head around the whole concept. I explained to her that the Cinque Terra is five villages on the Italian coast, connected by about 12 miles of hiking trails and train tracks. We were staying at the southernmost village (Riamaggiore) and we could hike from town to town and take the train back. A train stopped at each town about every 20 minutes.
This blew her little blonde mind. I had to draw her a map and explain it to her. (Now that we’ve left the Cinque Terra, she still occasionally makes jokes about not understanding the concept, but this is clearly just a means by which to annoy me.)
Cinque Terra played a cruel joke on us. The easy stretch, a flat couple of miles from Riamaggiore to Vernazza, was blocked off for “repairs to the trail.” Evidently these repairs have been going on for years now. We could only hike the trail from Monterrosso to Corniglia, which happens to be the most difficult – albeit the most scenic – part of the trail. We were sore the next day; our legs were not impressed with the scenery.
The great thing about doing the trail mid-November is there are no crowds. Our guidebook describes one section of the trail as “hideously busy” in peak season. We walked long stretches without seeing any other people. Those we saw were usually in one of two states:
Happy – These people were fit, with toned legs, sturdy footwear and proper clothing. They would greet us with a hearty “Hello,” then comment on the glorious views and weather. When we’d inquire about the length of time to the next town, they’d usually give a positive response, saying we had about 20 minutes of steep climb ahead culminating in life-changing views, before descending to a town with cold beer and 400 varieties of gelato. They would then bound off enthusiastically.
Grumpy – These people were a bit “soft,” wore jeans, sandals, and button-down shirts. They would greet us out of breath and exasperated, telling us we had to ascend a trail meant for a goat for approximately 3.5 days, give or take a week, before reaching a knife-edge trail where one false step would send you plunging down a steep cliff and shatter every bone in your body. They were usually sweating freely and took several panting, desperate breaths between sentences – the result of walking uphill for the first time since the Clinton Administration, one must assume.
Although the trail is in no way easy, I found the hiking to be manageable without too much swearing and complaining, but then again I have the body of a god. Ok, Buddha, but still. All in all, it is one of the world’s greatest walks and if you get tired, hungry or thirsty, you can stop at a village and regroup. And if you want to give up and take a train back to your guesthouse, as many people no doubt do, there is always that option.
Maddie Jacobs and family to the rescue
Backstory: My good friend Maddie and I were talking this summer when we realized we’d both be in Italy at the same time. We decided to meet up in the Cinque Terra, along with some of her family (her lovely sister, Deborah, and Deborah’s husband, Michael).
We arrived to comatose Riamaggoire ahead of our friends; every time we heard the train arrive, we’d keep an eye out for Maddie and entourage. We thought we’d probably hear her before we saw her. You could say that her voice projects well. Or, to be more direct, she is loud. We told them to find us at the happening place in town, but this was a joke since there was no happening place in town.
Each night we went to the same restaurant (the only one that was open), and had a 2-hour meal, complete with wine and beery bonhomie. Maddie is very fun, one of the world’s great story tellers, and Deborah and Michael were interesting and fun as well. It was great to have friends, especially in Riamaggiore, or we’d have returned to our room at 7:30pm and been crushed under the weight of our own boredom.
There was only one business of any kind that stayed open past 9pm. It was a small bar and it was the domain of about five local eccentric alcoholics. After our lengthy dinners, we’d go there to chat just a little longer before retiring to our rooms (it was 9pm after all). The quirky owner had a crush on Kristi and Maddie and flirted with them. Said crush did lead to quality service, an anomaly in Italy.
Cinque Terra in the off-season is great if you:
1.) Bring along your own friends
2.) Eat all your meals before 8pm
3.) Enjoy the company of eccentric alcoholics
4.) Enjoy being bored
5.) Like hiking in peace
Cinque Terra in the off-season is bad if you:
1.) Are a solo traveler looking to make friends
2.) Want to meet the boy/girl of your dreams
3.) Like to have a choice in restaurants
4.) Enjoy nightlife
5.) Enjoy hiking on trails that are hideously busy
Those are my tips for you. And if you need an explanation of the trails work, I’ll gladly draw you a picture. I have experience in that.
Cinque Terra Photo Gallery