Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Cinque Terre

I never really blogged about my travels in continental Europe. Here’s one of the stories.

It’s Happy Hour at a hostel in Florence, Europe’s City of American Tourists. I describe my grand plan to hike across the villages of Cinque Terre the next day. I feel I’ve accomplished something just by mentioning it, and my to-be-written story catches the interest of a Hawaiian.

“I just want to make sure it’s not too difficult,” she says. There are two trails across Cinque Terre: red and blue. The Internet summarizes the difficulty level of the blue trail in one word: none. “Let’s do the blue one,” says the Hawaiian. She’s in.

An English-language paper forecasts a record-setting high for the region the next morning, and by the time the train gets to Cinque Terre, it’s noon. The plan is to hike from Monterrosso al Mare to Riomaggiore before the 6:00 train back: 11 km, 5 hours, with a one-hour break in Vernazza for lunch. Yum.

The first leg of the trail is from Monterrosso to Vernazza. The scenes are breathtaking and remind the Hawaiian of home. We pass by a group completing the trail in the opposite direction. “Good luck!” they say as they walk past them, heading downhill. It turns out that this part of the cakewalk is uphill, and by the time we reach Vernazza, my stomach’s making demands.

“That wasn’t so bad,” says the Hawaiian as she admires the beach. “I think I’m going in for a few minutes to cool off.” I look down at my jeans, remember what’s underneath them, and realize I came unprepared. As the Hawaiian takes a dip, I refill my water bottle and check out a few local shops.

Lunch is quick, and we’re on our way again. The sun is at peak strength as we make the trek from Vernazza to Corniglia, which also turns out to be uphill. After talking to some more hikers walking in the opposite direction, we realize that we are walking the easy trail in reverse. To keep ourselves in high spirits, we play a game. During the course of it, the Hawaiian reveals that she’s both a triathlete, marathon runner, and, of course, a surfer.

I laugh. “What was all that about an easy trail?”

“Oh, I just didn’t want to do any rock climbing,” she responds.

As we continue, I start consuming water at a faster rate, and before long, my bottle is dry. So is my throat. My steps become more deliberate. Someone’s filling my bag with rocks.

“You look dehydrated,” says the Hawaiian. “Let’s take a break.”

We stop, but I’m too embarrassed to rest for long. “Let’s just go,” I say. “I can take a break at Corniglia.” My walking slows as we make it to Corniglia, and it’s already 4:30 when we arrive. We’re only halfway. Can we make it the rest of the way on foot? Not at my pace, I worry. Not if we’re going to make the train. We come to a fork in the road: train station or trail.

I stare failure in the mouth and have my answer. “I think I’m just going to catch the train,” I tell the Hawaiian.

“Oh,” she says. “In that case, I think I might just run across the final two cities.” She doesn’t miss a beat. She’s off!

I guess it was easy for one of us, I think as I buy a ticket. I’m preoccupied by my failure when the ticket agent says something to me that I don’t understand. I smile and nod in response, making my way to the platform. Then I see the platform: it’s filled with people. Most of them are seated, waving maps against their faces.

Conversations with a few of them explains the situation: there’s a strike, and the next train won’t be for another hour. I look back at the fork, and after a little hesitation, I make my way back onto the blue trail. Ten minutes later, I’m in front of a simple suspension footbridge. I’ve seen bridges like these in the movies, and treks across them usually don’t end well. I look behind me. Phew! No evil villains. I look at the water below. Phew! No sharks or alligators. I check underneath the bridge. Phew! It’s clear of trolls. With the safety checks in place, I make it across. Darn! No suspenseful music. What a pity.

It’s only 4:50 when I reach Manarola. That was fast, but I don’t take any chances: I set forth immediately to Riomaggiore. The final stage is called the Via Dell’Amore. I look to my left, then to my right. So much for that, but the walk is quite pleasant. I guess the title makes sense… in theory. Graffiti fills the path with variations of “Joanie loves Chachi” spray-painted in Italian.

I make it to Riomaggiore by 5, with an hour to spare before the train. I run into the Hawaiian again. We hang out for a while. Then a bit longer. Then longer still. It turns out the strike delays the trains by four hours, and by the time we’re back with the other American tourists, it’s midnight.

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