There are many different estimates for our walk to San Fruttuoso in the bay of Camogli, a former pirate den accessible only by foot or boat: one hour and a half, two hours, one hour, or ‘five minutes for every year you have.’ We set off from Belmond Hotel Splendido, continuing along the road with the switchbacks and the breathtaking views of the mountains in the distance. On this slightly misty morning, the mountains seem to be sinking into the Ligurian sea like an oil painting of giant hunchback whales.
Upon entering the Parco Regionale di Portofino, our conversation is droned out by a helicopter overhead, flying back and forth from one side of the bay to an unknown patch somewhere on the path ahead. A bucket is swinging from the end of a rope, but we can’t figure out what it is. Is he dumping something somewhere in the Apennine forests? The helicopter comes so close to our heads, we can just nearly peak into the bucket. Maybe it’s the milk man, flying high above the pine-woods. After all, the few farmers who live on this remote hill are quite a steep trek down to the village. We don’t see any roads- just barely there, overgrown walking paths, and a deadly drop to any possible boat below.
We pass an arched wooden doorway that surely leads to narnia, and an old flannel- wearing farmer, carrying hose to and fro on a cliff-side olive grove, accompanied by his sweet black lab. That is the extent of life in the park, and the rest of the time we are quite certain we are the only ones on this mammoth mountain. After an hour and a half on the rocky pathway with unobstructed sea views, a rushing waterfall, and spurts of wild flowers, we both start to wonder how far along we actually are. With no cell phone service, your guess is as good as any. As this is Italy, marked posts along the way are not to be expected, and so we do not whine in recognition of their absence. Finally, after holding tight to positive endorphins for what we assume to be the majority of the hike, one of us gives in. ‘I am getting a little tired.’ And then the other. ‘I wonder when we begin the descent.’ ‘Do you see any sign of the village?’ And then the truth comes out. ‘Okay, I’m done with walking now. And I’m hungry.’
By the time we make it to the steep descent, our legs are jelly and our mood is slightly tinged with hunger and weak muscles. The stone steps leading down to the bay are certainly made for bears; I have to get down onto my behind to slide down on all fours, and if there are not actual bear-size steps to make you weak in the knees, there are slippery, slanted rocks on which you can challenge your balance and agility. I warned my friend at the start of this hike that I prefer to take my rocky steps like an over-cautious grandma at the pool. I would much rather look ridiculous and progress at the speed of a snail than twist my ankle in the middle of an empty mountain, with the only hope of help a craggy 500 meter drop away.
I truly never thought I’d see the Abbey, but finally, we reach the final staircase and descend into a serene San Fruttuoso. There are distant voices at one of the just-opened-for-the-season restaurants, whose yellow and white umbrellas were propped open on the pebbly beach. A beautiful, blonde cat is our welcome committee, darting behind a stack of shored, wooden boats when we hold out our hand to say hello.
In the height of the summer, this tiny cove, whose half-moon shaped beach takes about 60 seconds to traverse, is packed with vacationers who have docked their yachts in nearby Ligurian seaside towns. Portofino pleasure seekers sail over to this gem of a ‘village’ tucked into the mountains of the park in search of a fresh fish lunch and fragrant pasta pesto. In mid-April, the three or four restaurants are just finishing the winter clean-up, and the only voices I hear around the pearl-colored 10th century abbey are Italian bimbi, a group of 8 year olds visiting on a school field trip. In terms of choosing restaurants, everyone has an opinion and everyone has a favorite. I can only assume you can’t go wrong in this jewel of a setting.
The next day we head south in pursuit of a hike between two Cinque Terre towns. From Monterroso, the path to Vernazza is noticeably more crowded than that of San Fruttuoso. I have to wonder if the infamous five villages have recently become French colonies, as we hear more French than any other language. I say ‘Pardon’ about a hundred times as I refuse to walk on the edge of the path, where one slippery pebble will send me on a Daniel Craig ‘skyfall’ to the sea below. The trail is about three feet wide in most places, and steep narrow staircases allow for just one person in one direction. If these were the narrow, switchback roads snaking around the mountains of the Amalfi Coast, we would be blowing our horn every five minutes, alerting the oncoming French of our presence. I can’t imagine this path in the height of the summer; it would feel more like waiting in a 4 hour line with magnificent views than an active 2 hour hike.
We pass a few savvy salespeople who have set up shop on the trail; one is selling cats and one is selling jewelry. Their presence further highlights the fact that this is one of the most touristy locales in the world. Are the views magnificent? Yes. Is the hike challenging? Absolutely. Do I wish that the region would limit the amount of tourists able to visit in one day? Honestly, yes. (One last one: is there a bathroom on the trail? No.)
We hear a man playing a violin and spot a group of hikers crowding around a viewpoint. We politely maneuver our way to the front of the outlook, careful not to put all of our weight on the loose wooden rail. The horse-shoed, crayola-colored town of Vernazza is directly below our feet. Wooden row boats bob in the cove, and the church tower stands above the dozen or so houses circling the minute beach. One last staircase past an olive grove, and we find ourselves in the tiny village. Immediately at the end of the trail are green front doors and potted plants on front stoops. Imagine living at the bottom of a Cinque Terre trail with hundreds of people landing on your front step, tired, bewildered, excited, taking photos and looking for the first plate of pasta they can get their hands on.
We search high and low for a less touristy restaurant, but alas it truly does not exist in Vernazza. We resign to an outdoor table in the cove and dive into plates of fresh fish, our legs still shaking underneath the table, wondering how anyone manages to do all five towns in one day. One is plenty for me. I’m ready to return to Splendido for an evening by the infinity pool. Now where is our boat?