Tag Archives: national park

Where’d All the Good People Go?

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…to Cinque Terre, apparently.

5T: Good days made even better!

Almost a year ago, when this trip was just a twinkle in our eye, my good friend Jamie Pierce told me about this magical heavenly place he had hiked called Cinque Terre. Jamie is not one to go off on long soliloquies too often, so the way he raved about this particular Italian destination made us seriously consider it.

The train spat us out in a sleepy, palm tree lined town called La Spezia. Rome, in all its eternal glory, is also an eternal throng of people and vehicles all trying to squeeze through impossibly narrow alleyways and navigate chaotic roundabouts. Quiet, tiny La Spezia, with the smell of the sea so close once again, was a welcome change.

‘Cinque Terre’ refers to five towns on the Mediterranean coast, each separated by a small mountain and connected by winding trails. The entire place is a national park, and has become something of a pilgrimage for those who appreciate natural beauty.

We set out early the next morning to find the trail. Classically, the goal is to reach all five towns in one day, but we had decided not to rush it and just see how far we could get.** This was a particularly good approach when, an hour in, we had still not found the beginning of the trail. Our instructions told us to climb some stairs by a church, then turn left at the castle (oh, Europe). Church, check. Stairs, check. Castle…none in sight. How do you hide a castle? (We rapidly learned not to trust the Italian sense of direction.)

Instead, we found some new friends who became an inseparable part of our Cinque Terre experience. Sarah and Alicia had recently finished a two-year term with the Peace Corps in Senegal, and were now looking for the same imaginary castle. We decided to stick together, and ended up doing so for the whole day, and the next one as well. Along the way we picked up Stacy, who was traveling Europe between teaching English in France and studying the history of women’s rights in Morocco. Definitely some of the most interesting and inspiring people to spend a couple of days with!

And this is what we saw:

Town #1 – Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore

We quickly realised that “trail” was a loose term that could involve ridiculously steep dirt paths up a mountain, vineyards, or crumbling stone steps:
Steep steps!!

Vineyard paths

They're a lot steeper than they look!!

Town #2 – Manarola.
Manarola

Necessary swimming break in Manarola!
Freezing cold beautiful Med!

Directions to the trail continued to arrive in the most surprising forms:
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Stretching break between Towns #2 & 3:
Stretch those quads, ladies!!

Town #3 – Corniglia.
Mountainbound Corniglia

Sometimes, it’s just as important to know where you’re not:
Dorothy, I think we're not in Vernazza anymore...

Town #4 – Vernazza.
The fortress of Vernazza

Supper & swimming break in Vernazza:
Vernazza supper & swimming

Necessary refreshment break* between Towns #4 & 5:
Limonata fresca!!
*We were making our way down the trail through a vineyard, when a burst of radio music and cries of “Limonata fresca!” stopped us. The owner of the vineyard had set up a little hut on the side of the mountain, from which he hawked his wine and freshly squeezed lemonade from the surrounding lemon trees. A gregariously rakish old man, he had not only heard of Manitoba, he knew about Morden’s Corn & Apple and used MB flour in his pizza. “Normal Italian flour, it makes dough like old woman’s skin. Tough! Special Manitoba flour, it makes like young woman’s skin!” I will not try to describe his accompanying hands gestures here, but ask me next time you see me 😛

A truly Italian experience to hike down a mountain drinking from a bottle of wine!
Towards Monterosso (credit to Stacy for the photo)

Town #5** – Monterosso al Mare.
A beautiful end to a beautiful day
**We hadn’t planned to do all five towns in one day, but we had just enough time to make it to Town #5 and be rewarded with a sunset that felt like a worthy prize for our accomplishment.

…………………………………………………….
We had only 20 minutes to catch the last shuttle of the night, but we were starving and stopped at a pizzeria to see if it was possible for a pizza to be ready. “20 minutes?” mused the owner. “Si, e possible!” (As the bemused chef behind him shook his head and mouthed, No, it isn’t!) With enough encouragement (read: getting slapped on the head by the owner), the pizza prevailed and we made our shuttle!
Pizza never tastes as good as after 10 hours of hiking!

The joy of small towns: running into our new friends at the beach the next day. More supper, swimming, and sunsets!
Rock art and calamari cones

To Sarah, Alicia, and Stacy: Thank you for making a beautiful place an even more beautiful experience! This world is so small, we know we will run into you again one day. And remember: Festival du Voyageur is in February, and then you’ll definitely still have time to make it to Mendoza for Vendimia! 😛 Arrivederci, amici…

Paradise found!

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During our travels, we had encountered several Uruguayans, and whenever we asked them for recommendations on where to go, we would receive the same answer: “You have to go to Cabo Polonio.” Described as a tiny fishing village of forty inhabitants hidden amongst sand dunes, with no electricity and no way of reaching it save for horseback or 4X4, Polonio intrigued us enough to attempt a trip there. Exactly as all our Uruguayan acquaintances had described, our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway. It was already night, and we were totally lost in the pitch black but for a tiny light in the distance. We stumbled towards it and found it to be the park office, where presently, a 4X4 dune buggy pulled up, and we clambered aboard to be carted off into the darkness.

Our transportation… but picture riding atop this in inky blackness!
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After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we reached a park office and a ranger came out. “Tienen una carpa?” he asked brusquely. (Do you guys have a tent?)
“Si, por supuesto!” we responded, eager to prove that we were prepared to camp, since we were entering a national park, and as we Canadians know, national parks were made for camping!
“Hand it over,” he demanded.
“… ?!??” replied us.
“Tents are prohibited in Uruguayan national parks. You’ll have to leave it with me.”

Away went our romantic plans of camping on the beach and enjoying to the fullest this rustic experience. Plus, our tent was our baby, from which we hadn’t been separated since we received her. Could we trust this man to care for her as we did, and did he realise how indispensable she was to us?!? Regardless, we handed it over, and with many bemused looks exchanged between the two of us, our buggy continued to bump away into the void.

About halfway through the forty-minute journey through the dunes, we became aware of a strange sound, and if we strained our eyes in the blackness, we thought we could make out odd white shapes just in front of us. We finally realized that the sound was the roaring of the ocean, while the whiteness was huge waves crashing ashore, barely ten meters from where we were driving. We were completely surrounded by and lost in the darkness: the only relief came from the beam of Polonio’s lighthouse.

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We were dropped off in an open space, and while we stood bewildered by the disorientating blackness and the vicious winds, we heard a disembodied voice asking if we needed a place to stay. Disembodied voices normally aren’t the most reassuring, but when your only other apparent guide is a lighthouse surrounded by menacing rocks, even a disembodied voice can sound relatively friendly.

We followed our shadowy host through ankle-deep sand and waving sea grasses, arriving finally at what turned out to be not a hostel, like we had been expecting, but his own house. Gabriel, our host, offered us the loft of his tiny, one-room beach shack, and while we hauled our bags up the ladder to our room, he lit candles and invited us to share his dinner of buñuelos de algas (aka seaweed fritters) and a single glass of red wine for the three of us (“The glass is new!” he told us proudly.)

After eating our fill of fritters, he then invited us out for a drink. We stepped back out into the dark and the howling winds, wading through sand dunes until Gabriel commented, “Well, we’re now on Main Street!” In the dark, Main Street felt exactly like every other sand dune we had just crawled through. (In the light, it turned out that wasn’t far from the truth.) We entered what looked like a massive heap of vines, but turned out to be a bar, dimly lit by candles, with little private “rooms” formed by bamboo partitions overgrown by living plants. Josh and I sat there with Gabriel, feeling as though we had stumbled into Lothlórien.

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Main street in the light of day. (Note the large bush behind Josh? Yep, that’s the bar!)
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The next morning, it was the sun that woke us up. The window right next to our bed was lit up by a dazzling glow, and rolling over, we were greeted by the view of the sun rising over the Atlantic. We ran outside and directly into the ocean, because what we had been unable to see the previous night was that there was absolutely nothing between our front door and the shoreline.

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View from our front door:
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We were planning to stay only two days in Polonio before continuing northwards. But when the day of our planned departure found us lounging in hammocks while gazing dreamily at the ocean, we suddenly wondered why we were in such a hurry to leave. If seven months had taught one important lesson about travel, it was that seeing ten new and different places will never be as amazing as finding one incredible place that you love.

So, two days stretched into an unforgettable week filled with sunrise and sunset swims, watching dolphins frolic so close to the shore we could see their faces, enjoying many performances by a hilarious folklore music troupe from Ushuaia, and many candlelit dinners (in Polonio, there isn’t any other kind!) of shrimp empanadas and shark ravioli, all caught that morning by the town fishermen.

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Shark* sighting from the beach!
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*Turned out to be a dolphin, but the picture was too good to pass up!

Lunch in our favourite empanada place (with our favourite traveling music troupe, Los Pinguïnos de Ushuaia, serenading us!)
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Josh taking on the Atlantic (…and valiantly losing)
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Everyone Together practice (having to go back to practicing in the basement will be hard after this location!)
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Lessons learnt?
Never be in a hurry to end a beautiful experience. And always take travel advice from the locals. Lonely Planet just doesn’t cut it!

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