When we first arrived in La Spezia, admittedly, we struggled a bit more than usual as we spent a solid twenty minutes searching for the hostel, walking around in circles. We ended up bothering a sweet, elderly Italian woman for directions while unsuccessfully trying to locate ourselves via Google Maps. She didn’t speak English but she did speak with her hands. I’ll let you imagine what she was saying to us.
Eventually, behind a nondescript door next to a seafood restaurant, we found the logo of the hostel printed on the glass. The Grand Hostel Manin is located three stories up, which you can either reach by following a set of winding stairs or by hopping on the glass elevator that rises through the middle of it all. Despite our difficulty finding the place, this was by far one of the best hostels we stayed at on our trip. The reception area is large and bright, with a mini-fridge of wine available to purchase, and an impressive amount of information and event flyers to keep every traveler engaged with their trip. You also are given a coupon for a free drink at a restaurant around the corner. The kitchen is narrow and seats about five or six at a time, they offer free breakfast, and there’s a small balcony to watch La Spezia wake up right alongside you. The rooms are spacious, the bathrooms clean and private, and the WiFi is reliable throughout the whole place.
The only downside is the common area closes at around 10 p.m., and the corridors themselves are somewhat confusing, almost resembling the moving staircases and hallways of Harry Potter. The door that led to my floor was actually only accessible from a door on the wall in the middle of the staircase, but that really just adds to the charm. If you ever find yourself in the area, I can’t recommend it more, and the prices are reasonable, too. Also, upon getting to our rooms, Harman and I immediately made friends with two lovely Australians, Emma and Maddie, and we suddenly found ourselves having plans for a night out on the Italian coast.
In Milan, Harman and I had helped ourselves to some of the best pizza Napoletana we’d eat while in Italy. But we figured it was time to get some pasta in our stomachs. The four of us went to a cute little restaurant called Joe Bistrot, where we shared a couple bottles of wine and some delicious, authentic meals. The portions aren’t huge, for your information, so that’s why we made our next destination Gelateria Vernazza. The chain has a few locations in the area, with one falling in the namesake village up the coast. As I’ve said before, I’m not a religious man. But if you are ever able to go, get the Strawberry Ricotta gelato. It will make you believe in God, herself.
The four us spent the night talking about our lives back in the States and Australia, respectively. We spoke about school and jobs, crazy exes, where we’d already been and where we hoped to go next. We sat outside on big, comfortable patio furniture enduring hectic waves of customers and relishing in moments where we found our voices to be the only ones on the street. We enjoyed some gelato in Italy with our new friends from the other side of the planet, and it was blissful. Did we really have to go back?
It was getting late, about 10 p.m. local time, and Emma and Maddie still had to pack for their impending departure the next morning, and Harman and I still had to figure out how we would be getting to Switzerland in two days time, so we headed back to the Manin and said goodnight to the Aussies. On the fourth floor, in the lobby outside my room, we began planning for Luzerne and how we would spend our last full day on the Ligurian coast come sunrise. We were greeted by a group of rather intoxicated travelers, some from Chile, some from other parts of the world, and we made loose plans to watch the sunset over Portovenere the following evening with the group.
When we woke, we had our typical European breakfast of Nutella-covered everything and casually said, “See you later,” to both Maddie and Emma as they went back to their room, not yet realizing that by the time we would be back that night they would be gone. To both of you, it was great meeting you and, even though we all followed each other on Instagram, I apologize for not properly wishing you safe travels in person.
Harman and I made our way to the train station which was about a 15 minute walk from the hostel and proceeded to stand in line for a special ‘all village’ ticket for the better part of an hour. But soon enough we were on the train to the first stop on our list, Corniglia, and began our 2 hour hike to Vernazza. Admittedly, the trail gets somewhat crowded at times, but the views are worth the tourist-pace.
The thing that struck my soul the most was just how vibrant the water is. The sea fades into the horizon through a foggy pastel blend of blue and white, the clouds disguising the rest of the villages up the coastline until you’re close enough to truly appreciate them. From where we hopped on the trail, the third village, Corniglia, is visible in the distance as you head either north to Vernazza or south to Manarola. Throughout the trail, you meet multiple paths that lead you into the backyards of the people who call the heavenly hillside home and footways that bring you to one-of-a-kind lookout spots that are tangled up in trees and thorns.
At one point we were lead through a small cluster of restaurants, homes built into the rock, and those iconic water fountains that line the trail and are perfectly safe to drink from. A part of the trail actually lets you (or at least Harman and I did this) climb onto the flat roof of a what is either a house or café, presenting you with a truly time-stopping view of the Sea, the sky, and the hills. We took some photos then swung our legs over the edge, put our things down, and breathed deeply. Neither of us said a word for quite some time. After hopping back on the trail, and after grabbing a handful of rocks for myself and my mother back in Ohio, I stopped and turned to my best friend.
“We’re hiking Cinque Terre,” I repeated multiple times. It didn’t feel real, nothing for the next 12 hours would come close to any reality that I had ever felt before. And maybe I had my week-and-a-half of lackluster sleep to blame once again, but my spine was a tangled mess. Admittedly, all of this sounds and feels a bit overdramatic, even just to write. But maybe this part of the world is known for the romance languages because it’s impossible not to romanticize almost every single interaction and event. The feelings that find us in the evening are rarely those that greet us when we wake. But the truth always finds us when we are our most vulnerable, and everybody is a vulnerable mess at night. Yet there also isn’t a single person who can help but feel entirely open to the universe when standing thousands of miles from home in the one place they’d always dreamt about visiting. I like to think that something greater than myself was just trying to get through to me.
But so, we hiked on, eventually reaching the 3rd village, Vernazza. Just before the trail takes you directly into the heart of it all, a part of the trail branches off into a steep 10 foot stretch up the hillside. Once you get to the top you are greeted with a gorgeous view of Vernazza roaring out into the water like an arm of God reaching out to the rest of the world. The trail actually snakes back into the trees, so naturally, I followed it, eventually reaching the farm of a family who lived just above the village out of sight. I found two men in the middle of their workday; One older and the other who looked to be about my age, different generations breathing in the same story. I still couldn’t believe that people actually lived here, making their livelihood in paradise, surrounded by countless tourists who didn’t know more than a handful of words in their native language – myself included. I snapped their photo and waved to them, but they’d seen it all before. I thought I’d ask if they were hiring.
When I returned to Harman we continued on our way into Vernazza and grabbed a bite to eat before taking a seat on the harbor. Small fishing boats were everywhere, rowboats docked and tour guides ready. You can actually swim there, too, but the water was crowded enough and there would be larger beaches up the coastline. Besides, I had another cup of gelato in my hand so I wasn’t planning on moving anytime soon.