The Sweetness of Doing Nothing (Except a Lot of Walking)
Limoncino my not be the healthiest pit stop on a hot morning hike but the lemon farmer is serenading me from his trail-side stall. Apparently I resemble a famous and beautiful Italian singer. Who could resist? Thankfully there are fig trees dotted around, strategically planted for shade. Perfect for naps. The Cinque Terre is paradise for unserious hikers.
The Cinque Terre hardly needs an introduction, although it doesn’t seem to be as well known amongst my fellow Brits as with Americans. This spectacular string of coastal villages is deservedly popular. Here all of your favourite Italian cliches come to life. Pastel buildings, a rainbow of fishing boats, laundry hanging from the balconies, azure water, trees groaning with lemons. Singing farmers.
The five villages of Cinque Terre are popular with Instagrammers and travel editors, cruise-shippers, daytrippers, and backpackers. Seductive photographs abound on social media. Nonetheless, I was wary of the crowds. There is a correlation between my enjoyment levels and the number of selfie sticks. But the flights to Genoa were cheap and I fancied being by the sea. Besides, I’m surely getting better at finding the heartbeat of a place.
I learnt my lesson on my first big trip, interrailing across Europe aged 18. I excitedly scheduled a whirlwind punctuated by long train journeys with a maximum of 3 days in each place. By the time we reached the Amalfi Coast we had travel burnout and gave ourselves over to cocktails and swimming. The rest of the trip was much more enjoyable. These days I don’t like to spend less than a week in a place.
I made no particular plans but came armed with a 67-page research document, because that is how I roll. Work must have been slow.
I didn’t expect to completely fall in love with it. I certainly didn’t expect to find my zen.
Yes, the five villages are a tourist magnet. Beloved of day trippers with their matching fanny packs and copies of Rick Steves. Besieged by packs of lithe long-limbed Americans on their own whirlwind tours. Whilst there are issues with the number of visitors to the area, it’s testament to the continued resilience of the place that it doesn’t spoil the atmosphere. Not if you can avoid the crowds, anyhow. See How to Avoid the Crowds for my top tips.
The trick here is to tap into the particularly Italian kind of zen – il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Delightful idleness. This sounds like my kind of thing.
Now well-known thanks to its appearance in Eat, Pray, Love, I adopted the phrase upon arrival as my theme for my week. It’s an ideal location: no long days here schlepping between art galleries, museums and ancient sites. No bucket list items to tick off except the views themselves. Nothing to do but live simply, eat well, and walk lots.
The majority of visitors attempt to “do” the Cinque Terre as a day trip. Whilst this is possible, you certainly won’t find il dolce far niente this way. You’ll just find the all the other people attempted to “do” the Cinque Terre in day. No, it pays to linger longer here. Slow travel is rewarded.
Caveat emptor: doing nothing in the Cinque Terre still tends to involve a lot of walking. But this is the best kind of walking: ridiculously picturesque, sandwiched between lots of great food, wine, and refreshing dips in the sea. After all, frequent hiking justifies frequent eating.
My favourite flavour of il dolce far niente was a leisurely morning swim off the rocks in Manarola first thing in the morning. As the locals do, before the first batch of tourists arrive from Riomaggiore. Manarola is the second village in and so is granted a fraction more peace and quiet in the mornings.
My morning swims were followed by a breakfast of cherries, figs, and apricots. Washed down with espresso and sometimes also a gelato. I fully indulged my fondness for listening to crooners of the 50s and 60s on this trip. It seems to me the fullest expression of vacation joy to sunbath on the Manarola rocks with a pistachio gelato whilst listening to Jerry Vale belt out Amore, Scusami.
My first day of hiking was supposed to start gently enough – I headed out of the Park to Levanto, one village along from Monterosso. I was the only soul on the beach in Levanto in early June. I’d read somewhere that Monterosso was “just around the corner” and figured it would make a pleasant introductory hike.
Now, Monterosso may be technically “around the corner” but that corner involves a moderately strenuous three-hour hike. With 750 steep steps. If I’d known this I might have worn something more suitable than Converse. However I was rewarded with amazing views and complete solitude. This section turned out to be the most strenuous I walked as the trail gets easier towards the east.
By the middle of the week my calves had forgiven me for my footwear error. I was soon overtaking the long-limbed Americans on the trails.
By accident rather than design, I managed to find tranquillity on the paths most days, only crossing one or two other hikers. Arriving hot and sweaty at the next village, I’d find a spot for a swim and a gelato. If you consider yourself an aficionado, the best in the area is generally considered to be the honey flavour at Alberto Gelataria in Corniglia.
The villages empty as the day trippers go home; it’s as if the land sighs in relief after a hard day at work. Although the train does run late enough to enjoy dinner at any of the villages, I usually stayed in Manarola for seafood pasta and sunset drinks.
I’m one of those solo travellers who enjoys having dinner alone, particularly if there’s a view. Italian waiters seem to struggle with the notion of a woman dining solo and so furnish me with extra prosecco. I’m not complaining.
One night I was seated with another solo female traveller called Crazy Jenny. I’m not too sure how I came about to know her as Crazy Jenny. But we started the night at Cantina dello Zio Bramante, a cute bar with live jazz music, and ended it swimming with locals underneath the pitch-black starry sky. All the best trips have a Crazy Jenny.
By the end of the week, I’d covered the Coastal Trail and a few of the surrounding villages. This is the tip of the iceberg as far as the trails are concerned, which gives me ample excuse to go back.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so relaxed as I did at the end of that week. My soul felt cradled by lobster sauce and the fresh sea breeze. Most nights I headed to bed early, pleasantly exhausted and gently drunk, to be woken by bells of San Lorenzo in the morning, accompanied by cats and the hum of activity as the village prepares for its daily intake of arrivals.
Have you hiked in the Cinque Terre? Blissful relaxation or tourist torture? Leave your stories in the comments below!