For my first few days in Italy, I chose to make Genova my base. After being fooled by a quick, half-baked Google search, I assumed I would have easy access to the more expensive villages of Portofino and Cinque Terre for day trips without the expense of an overnight stay. While the Portofino trip was short, I quickly discovered that visiting the Cinque Terre was quite an ordeal.

However, I set off on a two-hour train ride to Monterosso, the first town in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, which means “five lands,” consists of five villages separated by a dramatic coastline, vineyards and many stairs. While walking along the Blue Route, I was able to find solitude walking between the five villages rather than taking the crowded trains.

First village: Monterosso

It should be noted that no Cinque Terre village has been discovered. It’s full of wanderlust tourists, idealizing the version of Cinque Terre they’ve seen on social media and in the Disney Pixar movie “Luca.” But of the five, Monterosso was the most crowded. Other villages are built into or on cliffs, but Monterosso is on a flat strip of coast and is therefore well equipped for beachgoers. Unfortunately for those of us on a budget, beach clubs have taken over Monterosso’s beaches and it’s hard to find a place to swim for free.

While I longed to take a dip in the pristine blue waters of Monterosso, it was the first town of three on my day trip itinerary and I didn’t have time to waste, so I fled straight into town to resist the temptation. I was grateful I did because although the boardwalk was a disappointing tourist proposition, the town of Monterosso was quite charming within the village. Of course, it’s impossible to escape tourism anywhere in Cinque Terre, but when you look at Monterosso, you can feel the history of the village with its lively cobblestone buildings that wrap up the hillside.

I was soon overwhelmed by the crowds and the desire to see the view, and the only businesses I had in this first village were the train station to get my ticket and the corner shop to buy a large bottle of water to refresh my room which I desperately needed. A mile hike to Vernazza.

Being a native of the Pacific Northwest, the area where I feel smug about my physical abilities is hiking. I have never been so humbled so quickly. This path has to be a one way path (in the opposite direction to the way you walked) because the stairs from Monterosso to Vernazza are killer. Not to mention everyone who was on the trail seemed to know something I didn’t know because I was the only one going up. I soon discovered why when the trip to the other side of the hill was less stairs and more fun and winding slopes.

Even though my body was suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration from excessive sweating, the views along the way were incredibly worth it. Every time I looked back I had a wonderful view of the beaches of Monterosso. Umbrellas were distributed on the colored sand, making the blue sea stand out even more brilliantly. The trail climbs through the wineries, cacti and dry foliage of the Cinque Terre slopes. As I started to descend, Vernazza was lying on the cliff in front of me, and at every corner there was a perfect vantage point to look out over the village.

The second village: Vernazza

Of all the villages, Vernazza looked the most impressive from afar. Vernazza was disappointed by the commercialism of Monterosso, which achieved everything I had hoped for in the world of historic Italian villages. The main street divides the village in half, sandwiched between rows of shops selling ice cream, souvenirs and a happy hour at 3pm. The business ends at a cove enclosed by a cement pier jutting into the sea. The beach is certainly not meant for crowds, but it doesn’t stop people from throwing towels in the company of others on the pebbles.

While I stood in awe of the village from my position atop the hill, I wanted to get out of the village once I was in it. Being on the road provides solace from crowds, which makes immersion in them extremely jarring and overwhelming. But after walking and sweating all that way I knew I deserved a treat, so I stayed in town long enough to find ice cream. I got a cone filled with creamy dark chocolate and rich, nutty hazelnuts and sat on the dock licking while watching the kids dive into the ocean.

I left Vernazza in a daze, still with a headache, and now feeling even more lethargic from the sugar pooling in my stomach. Once again, the path refused to be easy for me, but the incline was a little less harsh than my first ride of the day and I was grateful for the stretches of flat ground between the stairs. The distance from Vernazza to Corniglia is about 2.5 miles and climbs to Privo, the highest peak on the Blue Trail. At the top, I was rewarded with views of Corniglia and Manarola, but more importantly, I was rewarded with alcohol.

I started my trip on the Blue Trail without much research, so imagine my surprise when I found a porch bar serving ice cold drinks halfway through my trip. This was perhaps the most serendipitous hour of my two months in Europe. Although I was red and drenched in sweat, I had no complaints as I sat on the rocky peak of the balcony, sipping an Aperol and staring in amazement at the Cinque Terre coastline.

Third village: Corniglia

Feeling dehydrated, I practically stumbled into Corniglia and arrived in the evening around 6pm when the day trip crowds finally disappeared. Although it was the smallest village, Corniglia became one of my favorite villages. It is located on top of a cliff and is the only village without access to the sea, which I think is why it is the least crowded. The main part of town has a few restaurants and shops but in the middle there is a courtyard with several cafes. I made myself comfortable on the cheapest pesto pasta and more Aperol in the company of a particularly friendly street cat.

If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre area, it is absolutely essential that you order something containing pesto as it is most known for it. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of pesto, but this meal was one of my favorites of the trip – handmade pasta, fresh pesto and piles of parmesan for just eight euros.

I left Corniglia as the sun was setting, perhaps foolish for a young solo traveler who had a two-hour train ride back to Genova, but it was worth it once I was safely home. Exhausted from my big day, I slept soundly in my hostel that night and woke up early the next morning to head back to Cinque Terre.

Fourth village: Manarola

Strategically, I planned to see Manarola and Riomaggiore on my second day so I could start in Manarola and avoid the hike from Corniglia. Advertised as the most challenging section of the Blue Trail, this stretch is about three and a half miles long and climbs 1,200 steps. I’m confident I would have survived the flight, but my schedule for the day was more geared toward relaxation, so I decided not to spend two hours wondering why I kept torturing myself with exercise.

Unfortunately, my day at Manarola started out rather angrily. After waiting in a flock of people to exit the train station, I purchased a somewhat disappointing sandwich out of hungry desperation only to find much better options down the road. Unfortunately, this situation happened to me a few more times during the trip, and I learned to force myself to be optimistic – not every meal can be perfect when you’ve been eating out for two whole months.

After I’d checked out most of the town’s businesses and stood on the edge of town for a while watching the cliff divers dive into the sea, it was time to begin the arduous ascent to Riomaggiore. This section of the blue trail is known as the most aerobically exhausting section due to it being straight uphill. Fortunately, it only takes half a mile of agony up and then the second half down (good for my lungs, but not so good for my knees). Due to the short distance traveled, this is the busiest part of the blue trail. Although it was exhausting every time I had to pass someone, the ego boost of being in better shape than other tourists was rewarding.

As I made my way, I took regular breaks to admire Manarola. The town looked very quiet, covered in pastels and white and sitting at the bottom of the terraced wineries. It’s hard to believe that these villages are so crowded because when you look at them from afar they look almost deserted – like little patches of color breaking up a huge sloping line of green.

When I reached the top, I was so disgustingly sweaty that there was only one thing on my mind: swimming. I practically ran to Riomaggiore, a dangerous undertaking as the winding stone steps are slippery with dust.

Fifth village: Riomaggiore

Of the villages in the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore was the one I had heard the most about, and for good reason, because it was ultimately my absolute favorite of the five. The city is laid out in horseshoe-shaped tiers, with the sea at its center and cliff-top views from its outer streets. Off the blue path, you enter the village from the side and descend through the residential areas into the main business area.

Normally, I would explore the city before swimming, but the need for refreshment was extreme, so I headed straight into the water and replaced the salt on my sweaty skin with seawater. There is no real beach in Riomaggiore, so swimmers congregate on one small block of cement. Searching for a more secluded place, I hop awkwardly between the boulders extending from the cliffs until I found a flat slab of granite overlooking the city. I was grateful for the extra effort because although the blue trail doesn’t offer great views of Riomaggiore, my swimming spot certainly does.

I was accompanied that afternoon by a good book and a group of Italian boys who wanted to know if I thought their friend was handsome (he was). The water in Riomaggiore Bay was cool and clear, and I was quite happy to float in it all afternoon, confident that I had chosen the best village out of the five for swimming. I reluctantly left the beach in search of calamari and returned to Genova full of seafood and satisfied with my Cinque Terre experience.

    (Marks for translation) Arts and Culture (R) Multicultural

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