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Longest Night in Cinque Terre

The first Friday after I had arrived in Siena for a Summer Abroad Program through UC Santa Cruz, my new friend and soon to be soul sister Allison, and I, decided we needed to get away. That first week of language classes had tired us out and we were ready to let loose and start enjoying ourselves.

We had both heard of a small area to the northwest called Cinque Terre, or five lands, which was really five small cities situated along a breathtaking coastline with a hiking path connecting them. It was the perfect two day vacation we needed and on Saturday morning we took an early train out to the first city, Riomaggiore, and were immediately drawn to the startling view of calm, turquoise waters, which flickered specks of sunlight into our eyes as we stared down at the small city below, dazed by its beauty. We started along the path, which proved an easy and enjoyable walk that took all of 15 minutes.

The next city, Manarola, was more stunning than the first, with brightly colored buildings built one on top of the other, where happy Italians live their lives in the midst of all the tourists that coat their cities during the warm summer months. Here we treated ourselves to a mid-morning gelato and headed straight for the next city on the coast, Corniglia, where we planned to find a hotel and spend the night before attempting the two notoriously more difficult hikes the next day. We wandered around the city, inquiring at small inns at first, but found that they were all completely booked. After an hour we became a bit frantic and began going into restaurants and bars, asking if rooms were available upstairs. At one point a sweet Italian waiter guided us to his local bar where he said there were always rooms, but even this little unknown spot was taken. We began to freak out. We decided to hike to the fourth city, Vernazza, hoping to find a room there for the night.


This hike proved to be incredibly strenuous, and we practically ran it since the sun was setting and we didn’t want to be hiking in the dark. We arrived in Vernazza, sweaty and exhausted, and watched the sun set over the sparkling water, alternating between gold and black, and then we rushed down to the city below, in search of accommodation.

We washed ourselves briefly in the public bathroom at the train station, which I would not recommend to anyone, as it was merely a hole in the floor and a sink, and smelled of rotting, sour things. We phoned every hotel on a huge posting near the station, using the little Italian I had learned during the previous quarter at school, only to discover again and again that they were “tutto pieno”, or totally full.
Finally we gave up and decided to spend the money saved from not staying in a hotel, on pizza and carafes of wine instead. We located the nearest restaurant, but as it was already after 9:00pm, they were no longer serving. We found this was the same throughout the little city so finally we ended up in a bar, where we ordered a carafe of wine for each of us and sat there resigned to our fate, exhausted, and smelling of sweat and dirt with a lingering hint of lemon gelato. We were just starting to follow the soccer game playing on a small television over the entrance when we saw two large pizzas being carried from a back room, presumably a kitchen, which were then set down in front of waiting patrons. We immediately called the waiter over and ordered two margarita pizzas for ourselves, sipping wine and recounting the day as we waited. The pizzas arrived and we finished them off in minutes, thanking some unknown force for the best food we’d ever tasted. Once the game was finished, the bar started to close down, and as we had nowhere to go, we figured we’d wander down to the rocky shore and sleep there for the night, but our friendly bartender told us of another spot that stayed open ‘til four in the morning and said he would take us there if we waited for him to lock up. Wait for him? Was he joking? This was our first weekend in Italy and we were being invited to an afterhours bar with a cute Italian barman. Of course we would wait. After about half an hour we wandered with other locals to a bar situated on the water, where you could hear the waves crashing on the rocks below, and see all of the stars clearly from each of the stone windows. We drank, laughed, spoke in broken Italian as our new friends spoke in broken English, and found ourselves happy and impressed at how we had turned the situation around. Allison and I walked out to the rocks and took a moment to talk of how lucky we were to have found each other, experienced this together, and knowing that this was a night that neither of us would ever forget.

We later found nooks and crannies in the rocks that lined the shore and drifted off for a couple of hours before the sun woke us in the early morning. We stumbled to the train and admitted defeat as we rode it to the last city, here we spent the entire morning and early afternoon, sleeping on the beach, arriving before the first fisherman and leaving as day trippers began crowding in around us. The ride back to Siena was quiet, and we watched the small houses cluttered along the tracks fly by, their small grape crops being tended by the owners, and wild chickens pecking at the dry dirt.