A Ligurian jackpot!

Cinque. Yes, five in a row. What a superb day!

When I was a kid my father and grandfather would try and pick a trifecta at the races. Today I won a Ligurian coast jackpot and ticked off the Cinque Terre hike from my bucket list. Monterossa al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggorie. I’m feeling weary but so very happy as I write this post and enjoy a cold Peroni at a beachside bar.

I first came here 11 years ago, with only enough time for Megan and me to do the Monterossa to Vernazza stretch. I’ve wanted to come back ever since. Now I will post many photos from today, but I don’t know if Megan would welcome me home if I shared with the world some great shots I have from our last visit, including her walking the coastal track in her striped bikinis. She looked superb – still does! The same can’t be said for me, hot and sweaty with my shirt off, wearing my “Kevin07” cap.

Yes, it was 2008, a few years before we would begin our Prime Minister carousel. Italian politics has always been crazy, but I did have a local ask me on the weekend why we keep churning through national leaders. 2008 doesn’t seem all that long ago, but I did carry a paper map on my last walk here and my Canon camera and Sony videocam were around my neck. I didn’t check to see if I had coverage to post to Facebook.

Today I kept my shirt on – although thankfully I am lighter and fitter. The same can’t be said for some of big shirt-less men [who just between us had American accents] and who were certainly punching above their weight. They looked like they were going to struggle on some of the walk’s giant staircases.

I set out early this morning from my home base in Monterossa la Mare, looking forward to the natural beauty and historical, colourful architecture that weave together in the Cinque Terre – which literally means “five earths” – or today more usually referred to as the five villages. The five townships and surrounding hillsides are part a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One of the things I love about the area and in particular the walk, is as you trek along majestic coastline and up and down steep green hills, you are often walking alongside family properties that have been here for hundreds of years. Today I had a brief conversation with an old lady as she picked some vegetables, while her son attended to their vineyard and their dog ran in their sloped fenced farming area. It’s so removed from suburbia – it’s a natural canvas of a different way of life.

Cinque Terre is mentioned in documents dating back to the 11th century. It experienced significant economic decline in the 17th to 19th centuries, recovering in part when a rail line opened to Genoa. It seems little did the government realise how by the 1970s that rail line would spur the beginning of what is now an international tourism boom.

Thanks to some track closures, the result of landslides and rock falls, I ended up visiting seven villages today – two bonus smaller villages in the grapevine hills – clocking up 25kms and 280 floors climbed.

I was on the red and white marked track by 8am, expecting big crowds, but for the first hour I walked without seeing another person.

To my pleasant surprise there were no big crowds on any of the tracks and often I got to enjoy the paths on my own, occasionally meeting some other hikers from across the globe and doing my best to always stay ahead of the ladies walking group from North Carolina. [Power to them – most looked in their 60s and 70s – and they were trekking in style in matching shirts, each with their hiking poles.]

I had a three-pronged self-care approach as I walked today.

  • Crowd avoidance
  • Salt water therapy
  • Refreshment stops in each of the villages humble, ancient churches

Yes, maybe I’m getting old – but less and less do I want to be around big crowds – particularly loud, pushy, rude, “me-first” tourists.

There is such a stark contrast in Cinque Terre – common I guess across the globe now with international tourism. This area is at its best on the coastal hiking tracks or swimming in the deep, blue Mediterranean, but most people on organised tours to the area, don’t do either, rather swarming into the villages for photos, shopping and food.

Good luck to them, but I had read and came prepared to avoid taking on the “BIBOs” – “bus in, bus out” crowds in the small village shopping areas. [For food today, I adopted the tried and tested strategy of packing some extras snacks from the hotel breakfast buffet – a great money saver and giving me more time to explore the beauty of the area.]

As my family and friends know I yearn for salt water on a regular basis, so it was so good to dive into the deep blue sea today in Vernazza & Manarola. I was the only one jumping from the jetty in Vernazza and seemed to be getting some friendly waves from some locals – only to see that I needed to get out of the way of a ferry set to dock to pick up another round of tourists. I’m glad a middle-aged Aussie with a love for the sea could keep them entertained for a while.

Wherever I travel around the world and I am near water I want to swim – no matter what the weather or water temperature. Talking before about photos that should never be publicly published I recall Megan snapping me running from a New Zealand west coast beach in the middle of Winter. I was moving quickly in my underwear – it was so, so cold!

Each of the Cinque Terre villages have their own personality – but they all have one or more ancient Catholic churches – often in the piazza.

Today it was soulful to pause briefly in the small, humble chapels. They are so refreshingly cool and they are a beautiful, quiet place to rest weary feet and take a water break.

They are a powerful reminder of our need for solace and sabbatical rest and renewal.

For me, one of the most special things of solo hiking is escaping the noise and rush of our busy world. There is time and space to breathe, to think, to reflect, to remind yourselves of things that really matter, there is time to imagine and dream.

And whenever I hike I am struck by the powerful metaphor with life itself.

There are times when the wind is at your back, you are walking on flat ground in the shade, you turn a corner and suddenly you see a sight like Vernazza showing off below you. Times that remind you of the beauty, colour and richness of life – the blessings of family and friends, the joy of special experiences, the good things in life we can take for granted.

But then there are the other sections – like today when the weather was steamy and the track so steep. Between Corniglia and Manarola you climb steep winding rock stairs, carved into the hills, and they seem to go on and on and on!

We all face those times in life that seem so stretching. Circumstances and experiences that seem steep and hard – maybe overwhelming. Sometimes it seems they won’t go away, but as I caught my breath on the stairs a number of times today, I reminded myself that the flat paths will be ahead. Hiking, like life, has different stages and phases, but with God by our side we can make it through all of these.

As I walked downhill into Manarola today, on a steep, winding road, it started to rain. It was just what I needed – so refreshing – a brief shower – that seemed to expand the metaphor in my mind. I even messaged Megan to tell her, mindful that she often reminds me of the simple joy of walking in the rain [after years of having my parents & grandparents teach me – never play in the rain – you will get sick!]

It was good to briefly revel in the rain today – as my tired body – got some unexpected refreshment.

And as you explore each of the villages – one thing is constant – the church bells ringing out throughout the day. I smiled each time I heard them. Not only was I getting to tick off one of my big bucket-list dreams and celebrate the beauty of creation, I was struck again that the bells represent an ever-present and faithful God who walks with us on all the “treks of life” we experience individually and with our families.

I am so thankful to Megan and the kids for supporting me to take this solo, soulful adventure.

I am so thankful for the opportunity to be back in this amazing part of the world – breathing in the “five earths” and all their sheer beauty.

I am thankful for the voices I hear all around me – different languages – reminding me of the global village we share in; and for the tastes and smells of food from a different part of the world.

Most of all I am thankful for the One behind all of this beauty – the one who stands with us in the beauty and brokenness of life – on the mountain tops and dark valleys; the one who is there with us in the mundane and ordinary, as well as the extraordinary moments, including the green hills and blue ocean of the Cinque Terre.

Time to sign off – another hike to Levanto tomorrow to consider – and dinner calls – maybe trofie al pesto – a Ligurian pasta speciality – which has been recommended to me.


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