I awoke to the chimes of tinny church bells, sunshine and blue skies and villagers of Riomaggiore greeting each other below my windows. The plans for the day were to explore the town. Looking out a window to the alleyway below I saw an older man carrying one of those supersized IKEA bags and thought he must be a tourist going out for the day. An older woman, laden with the day’s groceries, pulled herself up the stairs to a landing .
I wasn’t sure if I could find breakfast in town but went out in search of it. There were quite a few older women and men doing their day’s shopping and I noticed now that there were at least two co-op shops, one almost directly across from my street. I checked out menus on closed restaurants and wandered down to the marina where a cook at a trattoria told me it didn’t open until 11:30 a.m. My Italy guidebook too said that Italians don’t really ‘do breakfast’ and that restaurants open at midday until about 2:30 and then again in the evening from 6:30 until about 9 p.m.
I love breakfast and needed a full stomach for a day of wandering so decided I would buy Italian. First, I went to my local cocktail bar/cafe and after a ‘buon guorno’ ordered ‘uno americano con latte, per favore …. grazie’ (one americano with milk, please … thank you), which is how I began every morning that I was in the Cinque Terre. Then I went to the co-op and bought some lovely young zucchini, tomatoes, a red pepper, garlic and a lemon along with a bag of pasta and some oranges. I could cook up a pasta dish quickly and easily and be ready for the day. I bought a rather greasy salami sandwich at another cafe to take in a packed lunch for later.
In the afternoon, at the high end of the street, I noticed a handmade sign marking a new trail to the nearby town of Manarola, in place of the closed seafront walk. It estimated it was about two hours, and only moderately hard, and I thought I can go to the summit and come back in that two hours. It would be a good warmup for the five-hour hike to Portovenere the next day. Oh, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
I imagined switchbacks and instead found myself, for most of that hour, lifting my body weight up ancient vineyard step after ancient vineyard step. My calves burned and became heavy bricks. I stopped and rested often, wondering if I had somehow missed the trail, realizing later that, no I hadn’t, I was on it.
Going down is easier than going up, but I was feeling very decrepit and was seriously concerned about my planned walk the next day. Walking along summits is fine, it’s getting to them that can be a challenge.
There are so many stunning views in Riomaggiore — so many little streets and alleyways that turn you up in the most unexpected places. The light in the Cinque Terre at dusk is utterly beautiful. It’s no wonder it is called ‘the golden hour’. I took more photos, walking down through the town. Along the inner streets I saw the giant IKEA bags, as a man was carrying in the morning, hung on wall posts. As they were open at the top, I was able to see in and they were filled with clean, folden linens. This seemed to be some kind of laundry service for larger objects. Theft doesn’t seem to be a concern in Riomaggiore either. Down at the marina the motors for the boats were kept out in the open unlocked — though it would also be difficult to make an escape with them, I suppose.
I wanted to eat by the sea and there were only the two restaurants down at the marina; actually one was a restaurant and the other a trattoria (a more relaxed dining experience) and the trattoria’s patio had a higher, better view of the water. I decided to go for their tourist menu. My guidebook had explained all the hidden charges that can crop up in Italy (they often charge extra for service) that tourists don’t necessarily understand, so the tourist menus are there to simplify matters, not to necessarily give you a lesser experience.
Saying that, I’m afraid my dining experiences in Riomaggiore were quite ‘hit and miss’. They start with amazing ingredients, but much of the local food and bread in Riomaggiore was very greasy (good for climbing and hard days’ fishing). Even my morning coffee was just coffee — I’ve had better coffee and Italian meals here in Cardiff, and back home in Windsor, Ontario on Erie Street. It was disappointing not to be wowed by the food, especially in Italy. My dinner by the sea was memorable because of the location and the sounds of the water. Unfortunately the tiramisu was some kind of mass-manufactured dessert exactly like one that I had here in Cardiff (the same glass container, too) and which at the time I thought was not tiramisu at all, but more like an unflamed brulee.
The next night I got smarter and studied the restaurants on main street a little closer, picked and chose instead of taking the preset meal and had a very memorable experience of calamari as a starter and a deeply flavoured seafood pasta at Il Grottino.
And a grand ‘hit’ — the gelato! Authentic gelato was a revelation: Gelateria Centrale in Riomaggiore has at least two locations: one on the main street and one or two in the marina. I have never had anything so heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth creamy — two scoops gave you a choice of two flavours. My favourite was a scoop of hazelnut and one of pistachio. I could happily become an unofficial gelato sampler, though I could as happily just eat pistachio gelato for the rest of my days.
After my dinner down at the seaside I made my way back up the steps from the marina to Via Colombo, up the street to my alleyway, up the steps to the other set of stairs and then to the bottom of my stairwell. My stairwell was dark even during the daytime and had a timer on it that lasted approximately 25 seconds. The first few times I didn’t make it to the top before the light went out and I had to turn the key, fumbling in darkness. Now, as a veteran of a day in Riomaggiore, I was able to get to the top and into my room with light.
I closed my shutters and collapsed into bed, not certain if I would be taking, or could physically take, the five-hour hike to Portovenere the next day.