Village Italy Tour

Day 14 Friday May 27, 2005
Levanto, Hiking Above the Cinque Terre

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Half of the breakfast layout in Levanto.

The other half.

Breakfast was at 7:30. We have been treated to some really fine breakfasts on this trip, but this one was better than any of the others. It just edged out the spread at La Luna in Lucca. The cappuccino was excellent. Two long tables were arrayed with two kinds of juices, peaches, lots of other fruits, about twenty kinds of bread and pastries, and everything one would need for sandwiches. We three hikers all ate big breakfasts.

Tom wisely brought two bottles of water with him. Bob and I only brought one. I wore my trusty trail running shoes, shorts, and a tee shirt over my wick-away long-sleeved shirt. The long-sleeved shirt was in my backpack before we had left the city limits of Levanto.

These shoes were made for hikin’.

We departed from the hotel at about ten minutes after eight. Things did not start too well. Bob seemed to have only a vague idea of where the trail began, but with a little help from Carlo, the proprietor of the hotel, we managed to find it. Our first encounter was with a young Italian lady who was walking her dog. Bob was very taken with her, but we had important hiking to do. So we moved on.

A view of Levanto from trail #1, the Alta Via.

I had read three write-ups of the first leg of the trip, which went up over the mountainous area between Levanto and Monterosso Al Mare. They varied wildly in their predictions as to how long it would take. I was looking forward to reaching the first turn so that I would have some idea of whether the planned excursion was within the capacity of three middle-aged men in mediocre condition. It took us about two hours to reach the turnoff at Punto Mesco, at which point we were at an elevation of about three hundred meters. We looked around for a shrine that was supposedly in the area, but we couldn’t find it. So we moved on.

This is where we hit trail #10, which leads to Monterosso. “Don’t look back, Bob. Never look back.”

At this rate I projected that we would reach Vernazza somewhere between 1:00 and 2:00. That seemed reasonable.

No, the fact that there is a tree across the path does not mean that it is closed.

The views in the first part of the hike were exceptional. The walk was not that difficult. It was mostly uphill, but the ascent was not that steep. At several points you could actually see all five towns of the Cinque Terre. In fact, if all that you were interested in were spectacular vistas, the best hike would probably be to take trail #1 and then #10 into Monterosso. Then take #2 into Vernazza. We wanted more. So we moved on.

After the turn the trail started rising and went back west and north toward Levanto. Our views for the next hour or so were not of the Cinque Terre but of the Levanto Valley. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. The next check point was at the village of Colle di Gritta. One of the Internet sites had estimated that it was 2.5 hours from Levanto. We would obviously not make it that fast. The going became more difficult. Both Bob and Tom were already out of water. I was pretty sure that we could get some at Colle di Gritta because I had seen a sign for it displaying a knife and fork.

If it weren’t so hazy, you would be able to pick out all five of the Cinque Terre villages in this photo.

This one is a little clearer.”

We came to a clearing in which we discovered a box on an orange pole. The box had instructions and some buttons on it. Evidently you could use it to call for help if you had an emergency. We did not have one. So we moved on.

We saw almost no one along the way. At one point near the highest point, Mt. Rossini, we were passed by a young lady and her dog. I should have taken a picture, but I didn't. A minute or two later a couple passed us. We never were certain whether the couple were companions of the girl with the dog or not.

A bird’s-eye view of Levanto.

Bob, a retired investment consultant, told a joke. In the interest of equal time, I will recount it: Einstein died and went to heaven. His only regret in life was that he was not sociable enough. He resolved to do better in heaven. To the first person he met, he asked, “What’s your IQ?”

The person replied, “140.” Einstein lit up and told him that that was terrific because he would be able to discuss whether the speed of light was really constant, the difference between general and special relativity, the mass of the muon, applications of the uncertainty principle, and all kinds of other interesting subjects.

Another guy floated up and Einstein asked him, “What’s your IQ?”

We finally get a glimpse of Monterosso Al Mare.

He answered, “100.” Einstein was thrilled again. He explained that they could talk about earned run averages, on base percentages, their respective brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament, and the ratings of NFL quarterbacks.

This was the last that we saw of the Cinque Terre coast for a few hours.

A third guy came up and joined them. Einstein again asked, “What’s your IQ?”

He said, “”60.”

Einstein said, “How’d the market do today?“”

We finally made it to the Colle. It wasn’t really a village at all. There may have been a house or two somewhere, but it was primarily just a roadside bar that sold all kinds of stuff. It was nearly noon, and it might have been reasonable for us to stop for an early lunch, but we wanted to cover more territory. So we moved on.

I still had some water left, but I bought a bottle at the bar. Bob and Tom each purchased two more bottles. They saved their empties. I finished off my first bottle and, because I didn’t want to deal with the extra weight and bulk, threw it away. This was a mistake.

Two of the first symptoms of sunstroke are wandering into the street and looking around aimlessly.”

The next part of the hike was the least interesting. We trudged up one of the widest two-lane roads that we had seen so far in Italy. It was straight uphill without a single break. There was no hint of shade.

We only had to worry about falling rocks for another mile or two. After that nothing was above us except sky.

On the side of the road I found a good hiking stick a little over five foot in length. It even had a notch in just the right place for the index finger. It worked just as well with either hand. I have never seen the need to employ a stick for level terrain or climbing, but I don’t like going downhill without one. It is nice to be able to use the stick as a third leg.

We came to the Madonna di Soviore sanctuary, which also included a hotel. It was a little way off the main road. At this point trail #9 peeled off and went down to Monterosso. We sat for a few minutes to rest next to a public water faucet. We all filled up our water bottles, or in my case bottle. We had to be careful to take the correct trail. It was not obvious which trail was #1 and which was #9, but I spotted the sign, so we were confident of our route. So we moved on.

Almost immediately trail #1 joined back up with the road. We were perhaps two hundred meters up the road when I realized that I had left my stick back at the shrine. I was upset. It was a very good stick, but it certainly was not worth the effort of going back. Bob berated me for displaying questionable leadership.

I never expected to be able to see Levanto this late in the journey.

The back side of the sanctuary complex, where trail #9 came in.

Walking stick notes: Eventually I found a replacement, but the new one had a little curve to it that made it not feel right when used with the left hand. I lost this one, too, when we stopped to rest a mile or so up the trail. I found a third stick, which was of similar quality to the first one, if a little heavier. I kept this until we got almost to Vernazza. It gave me a sliver on the palm of my hand. I would have to get it out before we get to the airport in Milan. They do not allow you to bring agricultural products through customs.

Just as we were finally leaving the road we were passed by a pair of English girls who were as tall as we were. They got confused at the turnoff, so we passed them as they puzzled over the signs. Then they passed us again.

A tree had evidently fallen on this line that runs down to either Monterosso or Vernazza. Nobody had bothered to remove it.

In a few minutes we were walking along the ridge. Occasionally there was a nice view either inland or toward the sea. We went up and down and up and down again. The highest point we reached was about 568 meters. At one point we came very close to a big green square thing. I have no idea what its function was. It was a little way up the hill, and we had no interest in going even a foot higher than we needed to. So we moved on.

Yes, it was hot up here. Those trees are on the ridge.

At one point Bob said, “It’s nice to be alone like this. I can tell an off-color joke that I have been itching to tell the group.” At just that point a man and woman going in the opposite direction appeared from around the corner. Bob continued his narration any way.

We passed the trail marked 8b. We could have taken this path, but we knew that it was a secondary route, so we figured that it might not be in good condition. From my analysis of the map, I deduced that we must be getting pretty close to our turnoff onto trail #8, but we never saw a sign for it. There were a couple of roads and driveways, but nothing that looked like a marked trail. So we moved on.

We were getting pretty tired at this point. I usually eat these hills up, but even I was ready to start the long descent into Vernazza.

We then were surprised to find ourselves entering an area that involved a long strenuous climb over rough terrain. At one point I had to use my hands. Tom and Bob seemed to be extremely hot and nearly exhausted, but they kept going because they had complete trust in my legendary orienteering skills.

Eventually we caught up with the English girls again. They were lying in the grass next to the trail. It didn’t appear that they were much interested in moving any time soon. Bob struck up a conversation with them. He said that he was interested in joining a new group. They told him that he could join them if he had a pillow. He didn't.

We continued the uphill slog. Not too long after our encounter with the English girls the trail leveled out and even went down a little. We were well past the time at which I had expected to hit trail #8. In fact, I thought that we would have reached Vernazza by this time. All three of us were tired, hot, and thirsty. Finally we came to a clearing. There was another one of those orange poles with emergency buttons. There were also signs for trails 05 and 06 going off to the left. I pulled out my map to try to figure out where in the world we were. I soon determined that we had overshot trail 8 by a good distance. All of the last bit of uphill walking had been for naught. At this point we were approximately eight hundred meters above sea level.

This time we didn’t move on. We turned around.

A pair of young ladies with a guidebook written in German came into the clearing. They spoke neither Italian nor English, but they made it clear that they were trying to find their way to Cordiglia. Someone was asking us for directions! They were worse off than we were; they did not even have a map. My German is pretty much limited to sieg heil and danke schoen, but I showed them where they were on my map, and I pointed to the signs for 05 and 06 to show how I knew where we were. I had no advice for how to get to Cordiglia. It looked like a long haul to me. I told them in sign language that we were going to Vernazza. They did not follow us. If I looked half as bad as Tom and Bob did, it was probably a prudent decision.

We headed back the way that we came. We had a long way to go, and we didn’t know where out trail was, but at least we knew that it was going to be downhill. We came to the English girls again. We told them that we had missed our turn. Bob tried to pick them up again, but he had no more luck than previously.

After a good piece we came to an unmarked road/path/driveway that went off to the left. It appeared to me that it might be a candidate for trail #8. I proposed that we go down it a few hundred yards to see if we saw a trail marker or any other kind of indication, such as a sign with an arrow pointing toward Vernazza. After a ways it began to look more like a private drive than anything else. I went on ahead and checked it out while Tom and Bob rested. Sure enough, I found a sign indicating that it was private property. Rats.

This house sits hundreds of meters above Vernazza.

Not far after that we reached the major road again. I consulted the map and deduced that the turnoff must be imminent. We came to an intersection with a minor road going off to the left. There was a sign on the pole there that clearly indicated that the minor road was in fact trail #8. We had just missed it the first time because the sign was only a couple of inches wide, because it was only visible to people facing the way that we were going now, and because it was a road, not a dirt trail. I knew that I had to come up with a story to explain our foolishness. This is the best that I could do:

The devil took down the sign for trail #8 in an attempt to discourage us, break our faith, and make us turn to him in our despair at failing to find the right trail. Instead his foul deed had the opposite effect: we got down on our knees and prayed to St. Anthony for assistance. He told us to continue on our path until we saw signs indicating trails #05 and 06. At this point we should abruptly make an about face. He would then show us the proper path. By the time that we had reached the proper trail, St. Anthony had wrested the trail sign from the devil and had restored it to its original position on the pole. It was a miracle!

This house was not quite so high above Vernazza. Whoever owned it sure liked potted plants.

They even got a dog to guard them.

The descent into Vernazza still took over an hour. The sign on the road said that it was six kilometers away. Along the way we found where trail 8b came in. We probably should have taken it several hours back. At the time it seemed a little risky, but there is no way that it could have been as bad as what we ended up doing. Shortly after the intersection we found a pretty large shrine, which was called Nostra Signora di Reggio. Two people were seated at the picnic table there, but they did not seem sociable to us. There was a spring or fountain or something there. We were all very thirsty, and we were all out of water, but we dared not try drinking from it.

I took some great photos of Vernazza as we came down to it from on high. The town looked a lot better from a distance.

This was definitely a sight for sore eyes – and feet.

As we got close to Vernazza we heard a girl screaming not far above us. Shortly thereafter we heard her again. We never found out what this was, and we were in no mood (or condition) to go even one inch uphill to find out.

Even though we were dying of thirst and had not had lunch, we agreed to make the train station our number one priority. When the town was in view and the trail was accompanied by a railing, I went ahead to purchase tickets, and I arrived at the station at 4:40. The ticket salesman told me that the train was coming at 4:49. Perfect. Tom and Bob bought water bottles from a machine. I bought a “Coke Light.” We did not even think about getting food.

A through train to Genoa came by and nearly blew everyone off the platform as it pushed all of the air out of the tunnel.

I was surprised that we were able to get seats on the train to Levanto. Tom and I sat on one end of a car. Bob was in the same car but on the other end. We tried to get his attention to come join us, but we were unable to do so without expending energy that we did not have. I was surprised a second time when more people boarded the train in Monterosso, the most tourist-oriented of the five villages, than got off. It mostly turned out to be one large group of school kids who had been on an outing.

We left the train at the second stop in Levanto. Bob stayed at the train station there to acquire tickets for the next leg of his vacation. Tom and I staggered back to the hotel. Fortunately it was downhill. Along the way we spotted Dick Corley imbibing a beer at an outdoor café. He asked us to join him. It was tempting, but we knew that we looked and probably smelled like the Donner party, so we decided to get cleaned up a little in our hotel rooms and return to the café in a few minutes.

Note: at this point Tom had consumed eight bottles of water and had not gone to the bathroom a single time. It was a good thing that he was wearing a quick-drying shirt. All that water must have been converted into perspiration.

Neither of us opted for an immediate shower; that would have been work. We did however wipe off the top layer of grim and put on fresh clothes. We then returned to the café and ordered a couple of beers alla spina. We took them out to the tables on the sidewalk. The beer tasted great. The only bad thing was the noisy motorcycle traffic. I don’t know why, but there seemed to be an inordinate number of them in town that evening.

No one had been in the outdoor seating area when we arrived. Even Dick had left. Subsequently another party arrived, but they were intelligent enough to select seats as far away from us as possible.

I tried to nap after that, but I don’t think that I ever fell asleep. I got up, took a shower, and got dressed. The tour group’s final dinner was scheduled for the evening. It would be the last meal that we would have with Mario. I wore my tie in his honor.

Nina proposes a toast for Mario. Carlo, the proprietor of the hotel, is on the far left.

Carlo outdid himself with dinner. The spread at the banquet was truly unbelievable. There was pesto minestrone, roast beef, anchovies (which Carlo warned were very salty, but which were, in fact, not very strong by American standards), octopus, mussels, a spinach turnover, salad, and prosciutto with melon. There were other things, too, but my plate was too full to try them. Needless to say, there was plenty of wine. Everything was excellent.

We sat near Claudia, who had hiked on the lower trail with Blaine from Monterosso all the way to Rio Maggiore. She must be in pretty good shape. None of the women in our group two years ago had completed all four stages of the lower trail. Blaine had at some point in their adventure suffered an allergic reaction to some hazelnuts, so he didn’t come to dinner. Claudia asked me why I had worn a sweater in such hot weather. I replied, “Because I have a big olive oil stain on my shirt. Thank you for asking.” She said, “As if anyone would care.” I determined that she must not hold herself to the same demanding standards of personal appearance that I do.

This is our table: Dorothy, Bonnie, Claudia, and Patti.

The other side: Sue, Ruth A., and Sandy. Wait a minute. There are no other men at this table.

Sue gave Claudia a little moose doll that was wearing a blue sweater, i.e., Bullwinkle in Periwinkle. Patti used her shopping instincts to locate the store in which they got this. Sue somehow found the moose. Keep in mind that there have never been moose anywhere in Europe when deciding how amazing it was that they found this.

Patti gave Mario one of her million dollar bills. Sue had previously given him a printout of her photo of him wearing the pope hat. I think that Sue and Patti were competing for his affection, which probably could not be purchased for such a paltry sum.

At dinner Bonnie provided me with the information about the intensive Italian school that she had attended in Rome.

Pat, Barb, Jan, Tom C., and Nina.

Mario, Ed, Ruth M., and Wayne.

Bill, Cecile, Billie, and Dick. I don’t know how I missed the Doggetts.

Dessert was tiramisu. Then there was limoncello, which must have been really potent.

Habemus papam!

The evening ended outside with an impromptu party on the sidewalk under the umbrellas. Wine bottles kept appearing. Soldiers kept dying. At the end, the people got to see and hear the Tom Corcoran known previously only to Patti, Sue, and me. The last ones standing, or rather sitting, were we four Nutmeggers and Nina.

Then I left. I had exactly enough equilibrium remaining to climb the stairs, walk to the room, unlock the door, shut it, and collapse on the bed.

I did not learn until much later what Sue had done all day. She, Jan, and Barb Krause had indeed taken the train to Vernazza for breakfast. Sue was disappointed that Il Pirata Delle Cinque Terre had already sold their entire daily supply of her favorite pastry when they arrived; the same thing happened in 2003. They all seemed to enjoy the food and cappuccino anyway.

Tom and Wayne discuss the use of synecdoche and metonymy as employed in the later works of Proust and Goethe.

This young lady seems to be having a good time.

Bonnie, Ed, ... Hold on; Patti isn’t taller than Tom, and whose hand is that on his shoulder?

They took the train to Rio Maggiore and essentially repeated our program from two years earlier. The looked around the village a little bit and then hiked the Via Amore to Manarola. Their exploration of the second village was followed with a hike to Cordiglia.

I am not positive, but I suspect that some gelato may have been consumed at some point. The most interesting part of the day for them was the train ride back to Levanto.

We had seen many young people in Italy wearing tee shirts with English words on them. Sometimes they make little or no sense. I saw a guy wearing a shirt with “High School” printed on it; a girl’s shirt said “Running Contest” in a circle around the number 07; the one with “Michigan College” on it should definitely be banned. On the train Sue saw a boy with a shirt that said “General Dynamics.” She tried to explain to him – in her unique Italo-Spanglish/sign language – that GD was a company in her home state of Connecticut and that they manufactured submarines. The last point was lost on him, but the girl next to him suddenly seemed to understand and sang out, “Submarine – we all leeve een a yellow submarine!”

Soon she and all the rest of the people in the car were singing “Yellow Submarine” at the top of their voices. I am sure that Sue and Jan and Barb joined in as soon as they could contain their laughter.

I fervently wished that all my days could be like this one – adventure, physical exertion, camaraderie, beautiful weather, breathtaking scenery, great food, good friends, beer, and wine.