The sinking city that haunts my dreams

Venice is haunting me. I didn’t think it was my favorite place in Italy. That title would have to go to Cinque Terre. Nor did I think it was the most memorable place at the time that I was there. But Venice is the place I keep returning to in my dreams. And it looks just the same in my dreams as it did in real life, with shimmering waterways plowed by gondolas, misty views of distant islands, and buildings that sometimes seem to lean a bit too much toward each other.

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An Introduction to Camino Life

Sometimes the need to walk away from your life can become overwhelming. Do you ever wish you could walk for miles each day, across open farmland, over rolling hills lined with vineyards, and even along suburban thoroughfares, past gas stations, mini-marts and fast food take-outs, even as your feet become blistered and sore? (Okay, I know that last bit didn’t sound so appealing!) I think people have always had this desire to some extent, even if they aren’t fully conscious of it. Across the world there are ‘pilgrimage’ trails – some of which were established for more traditional pilgrimages, or long walks that have a spiritual significance. Others are newer – old roads and sheep trails through mountains become pathways for tourists taking the slow route. The resurgence of interest in pilgrimage routes in recent years is a clear indicator of how much this desire pulls at us.

The Tuscan hilltop town of San Miniato Alto after a September rainstorm.
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Cinque Terre Trails Part 2: Corniglia to Monterosso

I woke up feeling utterly wiped out. My swollen and sore calves felt like they had extra weights attached to them. But when I saw a patch of blue sky, I decided to make my way north from Corniglia, along the trail to the village of Vernazza. The hike along the coastal Cinque Terre “blue” trail is advertised as strenuous and dangerous, as it winds high up along the cliff faces. Any threat of rain will close the trail.

A morning thunderstorm out over the Ligurian Sea, off the Cinque Terre coast.

When the church bells in Corniglia chimed at 9 am, I found myself the only person embarking on the trail, past the still-empty checkpoint where rangers will look at your trail pass and make sure you have decent shoes. There were still puddles from the rain the night before, but the dry earth on the trail drank that water up quickly so I didn’t have to pass too many muddy spots. I had heard that there can be a conga line of people along this trail by midday, so it was sweet to have it all to myself. There was a thunderstorm out over the ocean and I wondered briefly if I was doing something dumb, but the forecast had shown everything shifting southward, so I decided to chance it and make a dash to the next village.

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Cinque Terre Trails Part 1: Corniglia to Riomaggiore

I came to Cinque Terre to hike. I expected late September to be warm but not hot on the Ligurian coast. I had not anticipated things to be unstable, with a front coming in that promised some steady rain, or at least some good thunderstorms. Normally, I’d be excited by a some storm activity, but I really wanted to hike. It’s actually illegal to hike the Cinque Terre trails in the rain. The trails close at the checkpoints that sit on the edge of each village. So, on my first morning in Corniglia, I was up early, hoping to get on the trail and beat the incoming storm to the neighboring town of Manarola. Based on local radar and satellite images, I figured I had a couple hours. I decided to make a run for it – as much as you can ‘run’ up a steep, rocky trail that takes you up nearly 1000 feet.

Looking northward along the Cinque Terre coastline on a cloudy day in late September.
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Captivated by Corniglia, Cinque Terre

In the northeastern corner of the Italian peninsula, the train moves through long, dark tunnels beneath the cliffs that rise straight out of the Ligurian Sea. But I kept my eye on the dark window, because I knew that I would get a glimpse of the ocean soon. And when I did, I was nearly blinded by the green sea sparkling in late afternoon light. I had arrived at one of the coastal towns of Cinque Terre.

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Finding Florence without the FOMO

Why not Milan? Or Rome? Or Naples?

I didn’t want to be in a big chaotic city. I wanted a place where I could walk everywhere, a place well contained in a small area with no need to flit around on a subway or bus to get to where I want to go. I’m not a big city person, after all.

So, in my jet lagged, sleep-deprived state, I found myself walking through the streets of Florence at sunset, carrying the two small backpacks that made up the full extent of my luggage.

And I was not disappointed.

My first view of the Arno River after 24 hours of traveling from Denver.
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Sono sola

It can be dangerous to travel. A strong reflecting light is cast back on “real life”, sometimes a disquieting experience. Sometimes you go to the far interior and who knows what you might find there? — Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany

Just to keep you headed in the right direction. The Via Francigena is very clearly marked.

I had it in my mind that I needed to go on a pilgrimage. I needed to walk. Somewhere else. For many days.

If we drop the religious definitions of pilgrim, we can define a pilgrim as ‘one who walks in foreign lands’. I believe there is also some deep personal motivation involved in a decision to walk in foreign lands. Maybe there’s the desire for novelty and adventure. A yearning to see beautiful places, and really take the time to absorb them in a way that you can’t when you’re on the two-week-21-city Euro-tour. Maybe there is also a desire to step out of your life, and out of time. Even if just for a short while.

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