Five Guys

All the best things in life come in sets of five*: the Spice Girls; the number of days each week during which you can countdown to the weekend; golden rings. And the five villages making up the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are certainly no exception. In fact, even better than the brightly coloured bric-a-brac towns themselves are the spectacular hiking trails which take you from one coastal haven to the next.

Staying just outside the five official chosen ones (I’m on a budget, darling) in La Spezia, I visited the nearest of the quintet on my first afternoon – the picture-perfect Riomaggiore – before (bravely or foolishly) attempting the remaining four, adjoining hikes included, the following (very hot (31°)) day. After an initially frustrating start to the morning (requesting laundry be done by the most away-with-the-fairies hostel volunteer I had ever come into contact with (who turned out to be the manager (I was flabbergasted to say the least)), followed by said manager attempting to help me (loosely used) pre-book my ‘Cinque Terre travel card’ online (categorically unsuccessful), I headed to the train station – much more willing to stand in line to buy my ticket in person over dying a little bit more inside with every confused nonsensical noise which escaped from the hostel manager’s cake hole. (Rant over.)

I bought my ticket (allowing for train travel between each of the villages (if I got lazy) and entry on foot to two of the payable national parks through which the last two hikes ran (if I didn’t)), boarded the train and set off for numero due dei cinque: Manarola. And – man-alive-a – it was beautiful. As in Riomaggiore, the jaunty, pastel-coloured, lego-like houses sat sweetly along the dramatic and menacingly jagged charcoal grey cliff side, with the luminous turquoise sea glistening cheekily at its feet. My reward, if I completed the four-stop hike, was a swim at the last resort, so I resisted the temptation of a quick dip and got on my way to the start of the first inter-village hike. It started on a somewhat uphill leg, and as I completed the first few hundred metres (of twenty nine thousand) with my clothes already sodden, my cap positively stuck to my head, my panting akin to an overweight Elmo on a treadmill for the very first time, and my water bottle at near depletion, I doubted my chances of a successful completion of the self-set task (doubting also whether I would indeed make it to the next village alive). But then I saw Manarola from above and realised: I was totally going to smash this. The views were breathtaking (literally – the pants were audible), and, once I had decided I was definitely going to complete the feat, my newest worry was making sure I stopped to take in the scenery instead of moving and musing simultaneously (which is never a good combination for me). (Visions of newspaper headlines echoing ‘Girl Prone to Accidental Damage Not Paying Attention to Feet Trips and Falls to Dramatic Death Between Village Three and Four of the Italian Cinque Terre’ did enter my thoughts on more than one occasion.)

Arriving at the third village – Corniglia – in one (rather sweaty) piece (imagine a cone of melting strawberry gelato and you’ve near enough got it) I headed boldly down about 673 steps, along a path about one hundred miles long in search of the secluded swimming spot (which would most definitely make a ruddy good photo). Was it at the end of this twenty-five-minute sortie? Of course not. I don’t believe anything ever touched by mankind was at the end of that trail. So back I went, and up (UP 😭) I went, to find the lovely little town, and secluded little swimming spot, just a three-minute sortie from the starting point. (It wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience.) Consoling myself with the now warm apple I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, I had a wander, got my snaps and got back on the road, headed to the fourth wonder of this magical coastline.

Vernazza (quattro dei cinque) was going to be my lunch stop so, naturally, I picked up pace and had a renewed determination with the thought of eating food in the back (front) of my mind (one of my three favourite hobbies along with cooking and restaurant research). 🐷. Another beautiful hike was had and I made my way into the main thoroughfare in search of a suitable place to eat (you know me). I settled on a lovely little café / restaurant cum wine bar. Caprese salad and small beer plus complimentary crisps and bread consumed (nothing better than a complimentary nibble (or two)) I was rejuvenated, replete and a touch on the tipsy side – the perfect state in which to commence the day’s final hike. 

I navigated the last stretch in record time (undoubtedly the easiest climb – thank the lord) and made it to Monterosso al Mare – CINQUE DEI CINQUE – just shy of 7 pm. I did it!!! And I was bloody well going to have my swim. I bought a towel / blanket situation from one of the tourist shops, found a shady corner, and did a highly embarrassing Mr Bean-esque change from my sportswear into my swimwear. (I think one or two passers by may have caught a glimpse of a buttock (or two), but hopefully they were in good shape from all the uphill action.) Bikini on, bystanders bemused and BO at its best (disgusting but true) I immersed myself in the Ligurian Sea (never heard of it either) and floated away into a hazy dreamlike state of elation and exhaustion. There was only one thing for it: pistachio gelato. I got my cup (with half a scoop of peach (much regretted)) and walked to the station to catch the evening train back to La Spezia.

One of the most strenuous, sweatiest and sublime days of my 6 months so far. High five to that.

*They don’t. It was very tricky to even think of three examples. Any better suggestions very welcome.

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The Ginger Monkey

Little did I know when I set off on my European expedition almost two months ago that I would end up in a little cottage in the depths of the Slovakian High Tatras, taking Wally the dog on my first ever solo dog walk through the beautiful mountainous terrain, or indeed that this would be my best stop by far. Thank God I was recommended this gem of a getaway by a fellow traveller in Poland (Harriet (the hilarious one), Kraków), and go me for adding it to my itinerary.

I arrived in the picturesque village of Ždiar rather bruised (ego) and battered (knees). (En route to the train station in Bratislava that morning I had tripped up – with mahousive back pack strapped on – fallen over, my knees as my breaks, unable to get up due to the weight of my back pack, lying in the middle of the street like a capsized tortoise, with three Slovakians rushing over to come to my rescue / fight back their hysteria (I don’t blame them; it must have looked bloody (literally) ridiculous). Unclipping my back pack I was able to right myself to sitting, and appreciate the gravelly damage in all its glory. For my knees it was like a re-run of when I fell over while running (lol) last February, and I think they rolled their eyes and sighed as I bust open the scarring once more. It was a great look. But I had a train to catch! After trying to style it out with the kind Slovakians – attempting small talk while emptying my bottle of water onto my legs, looking up at their totally bemused faces from ground level – I needed to get going. I walked (limped) to the station with weeping knees, hoping that no passers by would notice my unfashionable plasmatic leg accessories. I managed the last ten minutes of the walk with no further injuries, and headed to the pharmacy next door to the station. I thought (naively) that they would clean and dress me (my knees not the whole of me – don’t be silly) as the nurse had done in Leamington following Knee Bust Up #1 last year. I wasn’t to be so lucky, and had to spray and patch up my knobblies myself, and even made use of my trusty first aid kit (thank you, Karen!). Open wounds amateurishly covered, I made the train and subsequent bus with relative ease, which brings us back to where we left off.)

As I hobbled from the bus stop I couldn’t stop looking around at the scenery (probably unwise for someone who is prone to tripping up…). Huge majestic mountains surrounded me, with cute little huts dotted around covered in bright flowers and wooden decking. It was as if I had been transported back to a simpler time, where being at one with nature was simply the way of life. It felt magical and exactly what I craved. Arriving at The Ginger Monkey I was welcomed by Dan, the coolest, funniest, shell-embellished-hat-wearing, long-haired, slipper-loving Aussie who ran the hostel. He was great. After removing my shoes (house rule) he showed me round as if he was giving me a tour of his home, and I felt instantly part of the Monkey family. 

The mornings consisted of fuelling up on soft boiled eggs, toast and tea; the days spent hiking, walking the dog and gazing at the unbelievable view; and the evenings enjoying hearty dinners and drinking beer. It was a tough life. On my first full day I tackled The Saddle – a 26 km hike through the mountains with 26,000 stops for photographs. It was steep, long, windy… and I loved it. We celebrated with pizza night at the local pizzaria (I made my own and chose blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, onion, walnuts and rocket (possibly the poshest pizza Eastern Europe had ever been asked for)). The following day we were due bad weather and a village-wide powercut – the perfect opportunity to pretend we were nature-loving hippies who didn’t miss WiFi, hot showers or toasted bread. After a very cosy morning spent in pyjamas, laddleing gas hob heated water for our tea, a couple of us took Wally (the dog) for a river walk (my second ever dog walk (my first being with Rachel and Rocky in Brinklow (not quite as scenic but enjoyable none the less))). After such a back to basics day we relaxed in the evening – when the power resumed – by watching Liam Neeson strut his stuff (Taken) while nursing our electronic gadget separation anxiety. And then all of a sudden it was my last day, and not even a full one! I had until 14:51 precisely to end my time in the Tatras on a high. I decided to spend my last morning having some alone time with my latest bff (that means best friend forever, dad): Wally. We were going to do the forest walk. We set off in good spirits, and got about five minutes down the road before Wally decided he did not want to go on the forest walk, but was much MUCH more interested in smelling his friends’ urine markers. Lovely. Despite a good ten minutes of my best negotiating skills, I could not win this war. I had to return to The Ginger Monkey, tail between my legs, and return the defiant dog before setting off (for the second time) on the forest walk. I managed to progress past the piss path without Wally, and had a lovely lone stroll through the woodlands, making it back in record time (they said four hours, I did it in two hours ten 😉), giving me time for a last Ždiarian lunch before making tracks (and I’d like to point out that the onward journey did not involve any capsizing tortoises).