After a hiatus, a solo traveler travels solo again.
My recent trip to Cinque Terre, an infamously photogenic span of cliffs, rocky beaches and pastel coloured villages in Italy’s Liguria, marked my first time traveling alone since joining Rémi in Paris nearly two years ago. Prior to this move I had visited 15 countries alone, and this capacity to be unaccompanied in unfamiliar places was, for a while, a key part of my identity.
I was curious, naturally, to see how I would fair traveling alone now that I was out of practice. It was nice in all the usual ways: sleeping when I want (in bed by midnight and out of it by 9); eating how I want (drawn out meals aren’t the most effective use of limited travel time, but, for me, allowing for a few of them slows down my pace and thus helps me relax. Holidays are, after all, a time to repose, no?); doing what interests me most, at my own pace; and having those lovely introspective stretches of reading, writing, observing and reflecting that are harder to come by when tethered.
One of the downsides of traveling alone, I quickly remembered, is having no one to lean on when falling ill. On the plane ride to Florence there was more turbulence than I could handle and we descended with my face glued to a spew bag. My Sardinian neighbour (I knew he was Sardinian because earlier, when I smiled at him, he pointed at his chest with both his hands and declared, “Sardinian!”) wordlessly handed over alcoholic wipes as I puked out my hot stink.
I thought that would be the end of the health dramas but on my third day there was more. At some point between a perfectly al dente plate of pesto trofiette and a much anticipated seafood platter for one, I suddenly felt a strong desire to throw up everything I had just eaten.
I was ready to pay my bill and fight my way through the crowd of holiday-goers on Vernazza’s main street to the pharmacy I had seen earlier, but the restaurant’s manager wouldn’t have it. She lined up four chairs and got me to lie down on them, then she placed stacks of perfectly folded white tablecloths under my dirty feet to elevate my legs. In between serving drinks, answering calls and orchestrating the mad rush of a beachside summer lunch service, she rotated ice cold cloths on my forehead, ankles and wrists, and cooed reassuring words: “this has happened to me many times; you will be okay”. I surrendered to my nausea and rapid heart beat and just lay there. As my mind cleared and with a bit of Googling, I was able to piece together that I was probably experiencing heat exhaustion - my symptoms and everything the manager had done to care for me matched the online information (I went to see a pharmacist afterwards and she confirmed it). After nearly three hours, I felt stable enough to leave, but when I went to pay my bill, the manager wouldn’t let me. Kindness, folks, at Ristorante Beleforte in Vernezza of Cinque Terre.
Clearly, it would have been nice to have a travel companion on both occasions (nice for me, at least). It’s also nice to have a travel buddy to take photos with, to share a meal with, to strengthen ties with, and to one day be able to say to, “Remember in Vernazza when…”.
To conclude, I don’t think I would tie 'solo-traveler' to my current identity. The trip helped confirm that, at this stage of my life, I’m more interested in learning how to effectively go about things interdependently, rather than optimising my independence. But that doesn’t mean I will never travel alone again. It’s just that, now, I have no preference. I’ll go with a companion for the memories, and in case I need them to hold my bag while I puke. And if no one is available, then I’ll go alone, because so long as the kindness of the Sardinian and the manager continues to exist, I - we - will be okay.
Traveling in the Cinque Terre
Personal musings aside, some information - not at all concise, just things that spring to mind - that might help you plan your own trip to Cinque Terre.
The five villages
From east to west, the five villages of Cinque Terre are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. A train connects all five and can get you from one to another in a few minutes. You can also hike between the villages, with each stretch taking around 2 hours.
Note: I didn’t hear anything about it while I was there, but apparently the Italian government has introduced a travel limit to deal with the swelling number of visitors.
There are numerous hikes - some inland and some coastal - and once you’re in the Cinque Terre region you can find maps at the tourist centers, train stations and some hotels. Some hikes are as short as 90 minutes and many others go on for longer. There’s even one, running inland, that needs to be done overnight.
The water was pleasantly warm in July, but note that most of the swimming spots aren’t sandy beaches but, rather, are rocky coastlines (see picture to the right). There are a couple of sandy beaches - a small one in Vernazza and a larger one in Monterosso al Mare - but they're extremely busy and lack beauty. The rocky “beach” at Corniglia, however, which you have to climb down the stairs of a high cliff to get to (and, consequently, climb back up again) was much more pleasant, albeit still surprisingly busy. Quieter swimming spots can be found between the villages, but, being alone, I wasn’t keen on seeking them out.
I saw that rock diving is a popular pastime for both tourists and locals in Manarola. There are also numerous ferries that can take visitors to islands and other coastal towns in the region.
Before leaving for my holiday I did a bit of research on Ligurian cuisine, but was disappointed to find that most of the restaurants in the Cinque Terre offer more or less the same stuff (what sells best to tourists, perhaps?). Things like trofiette (a local pasta), focaccia, pesto and seafood was easy to come by, as was gelato, tiramasu and pizza - the latter apparently aren't traditionally Ligurian. But I didn’t find pansouti con la salsa di noci - ‘little pockets of dough filled with ricotta and a seasoning blend consisting of borage, chervil, chicory and other herbs, served with a walnut sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano’. Nor did I find mesciua, a classic soup of beans, olive oil and farro, or stocchefisce - 'salt cod cooked with potatoes, vegetables, mushrooms, olive and pine nuts in a herb and anchovy seasoned white wine and tomato sauce'. Perhaps I came in the wrong season, or maybe these dishes would have been easier to come by in other Ligurian cities. Anyway, it's a good reason to back and look again.
Some Ligurian things that I know can be found in Cinque Terre:
The pastas trenette and trofie/trofiette
Corniglio alla carlona - rabbit, black olives, rosemary and pine nuts in a white wine and caper sauce
Farinata, a local alternative to pizza made out of chickpea flour
Ravioli alla Genovese
Minestrone alla Genovese
Pesto alla Genovese - look out for the letters 'DOP' which assures that the product was truly made in the traditional manner.
Corzetti, another pasta
Apparently seafood isn't central to traditional Ligurian fare. I read that, as long-time seaports, the sailors returning home craved things from the land, like lamb, veal and certain herbs and vegetables that couldn’t accessed at sea or in other port towns, and it was catering to these preferences that their traditional cuisine stemmed from. There are exceptions, though, such as stocchefisce, the cod dish I mentioned earlier.
I don’t think it's traditionally Ligurian but particularly noteworthy was the basil gelato, served with olive oil, at Alberto Gelateria in Corniglia. I didn’t see it in any other gelato shop in Cinque Terre, so for the moment perhaps isn't a readily available thing.