I am following the footsteps of a crusty, local woman while trying to take quick mental notes of my surroundings, for I will have to come this way again soon. Up a narrow stairway, right at the time worn door numbered 20, past the alley flapping with laundry and right again. Then more steps. Steep ones. The ancient stone buildings lean on each other for support as we navigate the maze they have created.
Presently we arrive at a door, not unlike the others we have passed on the way here, and the unnamed local produces a key. Gesturing for me to follow, I squeeze through. My backpack just fits.
She points up and we continue the climb, inside now. The lights are on a timer and I can hear its faint buzzing as it counts down to complete darkness as the walls are built solidly of thick stone, with no allowances for windows. Uno, due, tre, quattro, she counts the flights aloud in her native tongue as we climb, presumably to help me to remember how far to ascend when I return without her.
We reach a tiny landing and she fiddles with her keys. A door swings open to reveal a simple and sunny room whose most redeeming feature is doubtless its view. We make a trade; a considerable handful of euros in exchange for the key. Worn out already, I set my bag on the modest bed. I have reached my home for the next three nights in the Cinque Terra.
Italy crawls with tourists, but only a handful have discovered this unique stretch of coast on the Riviera. But this is enough to warrant UNESCO protection, national park status, and plenty of locals who have given up farming and fishing in favour of renting rooms. The Cinque Terra, literally meaning “five lands,” may have been saved in the nick of time from the overdevelopment that tends to follow the beaches of the Mediterranean.
Next day, armed with my Cinque Terra Card granting me permission to hike the coastal trail, I point myself northward and start walking. Five little villages cling to this precipitous stretch of coast, tumbling down the stepped hillsides of grapevines and olive groves, the area’s mainstay for centuries. My legs, weary from the previous day’s stair-climbing, are appreciative of the undemanding nature of this first stretch of hike, for the short, one kilometre stroll between the southernmost villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola is indeed quite civilized. The path, romantically dubbed Via dell’Amore, or “lover’s path,” paved and wide enough for a stroller, hugs the hillside high above the sea, and offers sweeping vistas of the scenic coastline. This part is easy. Seeing the rest requires lacing your boots!