On my first long backpacking trip to Europe, my travel partner and I were terrible planners most of the time. To missed trains, running after buses, and not checking in for our Ryanair flight before we got to the airport, we were the target of most rookie travel mistakes.
But sometimes terrible planning worked out better than we could ever have imagined. Like the time we got on a much later train than expected from Milan to Monterosso.
Our plan for Cinque Terre was simple. Get up early, get on a train, hike what we could and take a late train to Florence. We arrived at the Monterosso train station on the most beautiful of days you could arrive anywhere. The sun was shining against a bright blue sky with a cool breeze.
COASTAL TRAILS CLOSED
We were excited for the weather and the glimpses of coast we saw on the ride over. So we handed our belongings over to the stations luggage check and hurried over to the tourist information center. There we were told immediately that the coastal trails were closed.
Closed? That’s kind of why we’re here.
The woman giving us directions handed us a paper map and marked up the trails that we could hike. The ones away from the coast. Sounded easy enough. With our limited time we figured it would all work out for the best. So we bought the daily train pass that would get us from village to village.
Then we headed out to where the Italian coast met the Ligurian Sea.
Let me just tell you right now, this is the most beautiful place I have ever been to. We took one look around and knew that the small window of time we had wasn’t going to be enough. We decided right away to look for a hostel or cheap hotel and actually spend the night in one of the villages.
Being such the great planners we are, we just figured we’d get Wi-Fi later and figure it out. That sounded pretty reasonable at the time. We had exploring to do.
BREAKING THE RULES
Once we were near the water we saw the coastal trail. (The one that was closed, remember?) But it didn’t look closed to us. Plus the idea of not being able to hike the coast once we saw it, and on such a beautiful day, just seemed cruel.
So we decided to try and see how far we could get before it was blocked off. Or wait for some Italian police officer come running after us.
Except it wasn’t blocked off. Or at least not for awhile. Following the trail made up of green rocky cliffs, we stopped often to bask in the view of the coast. We were so pleased with ourselves that we discovered we could in fact do this. Plus we could buy limoncello in a plastic container from a man in a little hut on the way.
We had gotten pretty far before we realized why it was “closed.” At one point the trail just sorta stopped and we were looking down the angled side of a cliff heading right down to the water. It was clearly missing the bridge to get us around the unclear path in front of us. Seemed like the time to turn around to me.
I’m not going to lie when I say I am terrified of heights. I’m not really a risk my life in the name of adrenaline kind of girl. But Tatiana was pretty insistent that we keep going. Being the brave soul she is, she held on to the side of the cliff and started across.
Now it’s hard to describe exactly what I am talking about. And (unfortunately) sometimes you just can’t stop to take a picture (like when you’re hugging the side of a cliff). But I’ll just say that we were pretty much a half a step away from rock climbing with no gear that day.
After Tatiana got around the cliff and out of sight I really had no choice but to follow. So with the whole don’t look down idea in my head, I placed my foot the same place she put hers. And I began. I can still say now that holding onto the side of that cliff is the single most terrifying thing I have ever done.
I haven’t gripped onto anything that tightly since. On the verge of tears, I kept moving feeling as vulnerable as I have ever felt in my life.
Needless to say that getting to the other side was also one of my biggest accomplishments. I was riding the adrenaline wave, feeling like I could do anything. Except do what I just did all over again.
HIKING TO NEW HEIGHTS
Do it all again was exactly what I was confronted with shortly after. We soon reached a locked medal gate that was easily seven feet tall or more.
The only option we had was to go back the way we came or find a way over. Going back meant me climbing up the side of a rock again. So with a lot of coaching (and Tatiana going first once again), I held on and climbed again. Using the side of the cliff for climbing, I hoisted myself up and over the gate.
And we finally had a clear path to Vernazza.
Vernazza is the place you’ve seen on Pinterest. It’s the photo that probably comes up most when searching for destinations on the Italian coast. It is breathtaking and charming and everything you can hope for in a tiny Italian village. It’s a place that you can stop and let time pass without worrying or caring that the minutes are lost and hours mean nothing.
It’s a view I don’t think I could ever get tired of.
After the adrenaline filled hike from the first village to the second we stopped for lunch. We soon realized that Wi-Fi wasn’t easy to come by on our coastal paradise. It was getting later in the day and we were a little worried that we were running out of time to find a place to sleep.
So what do you do when you have nowhere to sleep and no way to get on the internet to find a place? You decide to sleep on the beach, atop the rocks of Riomaggiore. And that’s exactly what we did. After a full day of hiking and climbing we camped out at a restaurant with a clear view of the sun setting. We had some dinner and stayed until it closed (which was actually earlier than we were hoping).
BEACH SIDE ACCOMMODATIONS
The entire village was silent when we walked out of the restaurant and carried our belongings to a secluded area with little to no foot traffic. We weren’t actually sure if what we were planning to do was even allowed and the last thing we wanted to do was draw any attention to ourselves.
So we found some rocks to climb and tucked ourselves away from the immediate view of anyone who might happen to pass by. Using our bags as pillows we grabbed our tiny blankets and made the jagged rocks of Cinque Terre our bedroom, under a ceiling of stars – the most I have ever seen in my life.
It wasn’t comfortable, it got colder than we were hoping it would and once the decision was made there really was no changing our mind, as the trains had long stopped running. But it was a perfect day, with all it’s imperfections and I wouldn’t change any of it if I could.
We stayed there for hours, in and out of sleep, talking and listening to the water and waiting until the tiniest bit of light peaked over the horizon and we could make our way to our next destination.