A Little Less Preachy, a Little More Peachy: Stories From Solo Travels in Italy

After one last night with my best friend in a campsite in Venice which involved a torrential downpour, soaked bedding (No, not by our own doing. The tent wasn’t secured shut), and excessive laughs, I finally arrived in Riomaggiore, the southern-most village of the 5-village stretch on the northwest coast of Italy called Cinque Terre. The size of this tiny town made me feel instantly at home and my calves already began to burn as I made my way up the small streets that were built along a mountain’s grade. Because the entire next day would be spent hiking as much of the trail that connects the 5 villages of Cinque Terre as possible, I decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing in Riomaggiore, to unwind from a trip that had thus far been full of social interaction and begin to settle into the reality that I was now on my own for the next 7 days.

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The first thing that caught my attention in Riomaggiore (aside from the surreal beauty of the multi-colored buildings) were the cardboard cones I saw people holding that were filled with fried seafood. After showering and settling into my hostel, I embarked on a one woman mission to find these cones of fried deliciousness. I made my way to the beach with my fried bouquet and a beer and found a nice vantage point on the coastal rocks and ate. It was strange to be sitting in this picturesque place looking at the same view I’ve seen time and time again posted on social media.  I took a video of my fried cone for Instagram and immediately afterward became nauseous. Why on earth did I think it would be a good idea to sit on a giant slab of rock that had been roasting in the sun and eat an ungodly amount of fried seafood while sipping a warm beer? I laughed at the inconsistencies between my flawless Instagram post and the actual sickness I felt in my stomach as I cooked under the sun. Highlight reels tend to gloss over things like struggles, failures, and most importantly, seafood nausea.

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I explored the main street of Riomaggiore, testing out the small amount of Italian I knew, each phrase or word that I learned was a small victory, a tally on the wall where I scribbled my tourist testimony. I had to ask how to say “Have a good day” (Bueno giornata) at least 20 times before the phrase finally stuck in my head (only ultimately remembered by teaching myself that giornata sounds like, you’re-notta, as in you’re-notta-gonna-have-a-good-day. Which made me feel really cynical but also like a practical linguist that knows how to use my linguistic resources and affordances from my L1 to make connections to context, where my linguists at?). I found a gorgeous tree that overlooked the coast at the top of the hill and sat at a nearby bench watching the Ligurian Sea. Many older locals were out for their evening walks. They greeted each other warmly and exchanged expressive stories in Italian. I pretended it was juicy gossip, and I drank it in. I pretended the two older gentlemen sitting on the bench next to me stroll to this very spot every day. I made up all sorts of rituals. Maybe one of them keeps a an antique jadeite comb in his left breast pocket and makes sure to always comb before and after each gossip session. Maybe they have seen sunsets from this vantage point since before I was born, noting how their continually changing features contrast to the consistency of the sinking ball of fire that has never once let them down.

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Pulling the book out of my bag and a large peach I had bought at the market on main street, I began to read and eat. Peach juice dripped down my chin and all over my arm. I normally hate to be sticky, I have been prone to let stickiness mess with my whole vibe and send me in a downward spiral (yes, sometimes I am that irrationally fragile) but I’ll admit, I wasn’t even the least bit phased. I was connecting with this peach on a mental, emotional, and spiritual level. If I could have changed my name to James, grew this peach to the size of a duplex on the suburban side of town, and made a home inside of it, I would have. The sea sparkled before me, and I smiled back with layers of stickiness drying on my chin.

The next day was the perfect mixture of hopeless exhaustion and unrelenting wonder. I had read countless blog posts like this one: “How to See the Best of Cinque Terre in One Day” to prepare me for the big day. The man at the park office in Monterosso where I bought my ticket provided me with a map, some logistics about which trails to take, and information on what to expect. Although I bitterly cling to his misleading comments that described certain parts of the trail as “easy”. The trail was much more difficult and had much steeper inclines than I had anticipated. Although I began hiking relatively early in the day, I was drenched in July summer sweat within the first 40 minutes. After climbing what seemed like a thousand stairs, I began to hear faint music in the distance. As I got closer, I realized it was what sounded like a live accordion. For several minutes I hiked with this soothing music cheering me on until I finally rounded the corner and thought, there’s no way this is happening. Here I was, in the middle of the Italian countryside, engulfed in a thick green wilderness with a view of the freaking ocean and came upon an older gentleman who was posted up on in a wicker chair on the side of the trail playing his accordion for the hikers! This surely was an every day occurrence for him, but I felt like someone had picked me up and plucked me right into a movie scene where the daring protagonist (clears throat) finds herself transversing not only the foreign countryside but also her deepest personal triumphs and existential questions.

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My heart skipped a beat whenever I saw a new village on the horizon. These village checkpoints were like prizes in a CrackerJack box, I knew they were inevitable but it didn’t make them any less exciting when I saw them appear in the distance along the coastline (although, or course, they were much better than the single use stickers that come with the caramel corn).

In each of these five villages I felt like a different person. Allow me to outline them for you below:

 

Monterosso: 

Jade, the daring early-bird holding a legitimate Cinque Terre park ticket, a naive Nancy who thought that filling her water bottle before leaving wasn’t top priority, an excited, eager kid in adult shoes.

Vernazza:

Jade, the accomplished spectacle of sweat and dehydrated tongue who wades into the cool ocean like it’s the answer to life itself, the hungry tourist who savors her breakfast like a death row meal, a loner on a one-woman mission.

Corniglia:

Jade, the sipper of cappuccinos and reader of books with soggy pages, the drinker of crystal clear, fresh spring water with tired legs that feel like they belong to someone else.

I made a quick pit stop for some freshly-squeezed orange juice between Vernazza and Corniglia. You can see Corniglia in the distance.

Manarola:

Jade, the tattered hiker of high altitude grape fields who took the wrong trail but resourcefully found her way back, who felt so far away from everyone and everything and was scared and humbled by it, the hungry hungry seeker of pesto in any form that fits her budget.

Riomagiorre:

Jade, the defeated yet accomplished walker of earth’s treasured paths, the lover of warm showers, the thankful wearer of a clean, flowing summer dress, finally the finder of the single best bowl of pesto she’s ever encountered.

 

That evening, when I set out to find my pesto, I was 100% against the possibility of any form of human interaction. I was tired and had put my blinders on, and all I wanted was for no one to talk to me (particularly because the night before I had gone on a rather bizarre and unexpected date with my Italian waiter who looked eerily like a carbon copy of one of my ex-boyfriends, but that’s a story for another day). The host sat me next to a couple about my parents’ age who looked to be travelers. They struck up a conversation with me and my heart sank. I can’t human. My brain pathetically thought. I just want peaceful pesto and sleep. However, after a few minutes of talking with the couple, I quickly realized their genuine interest in talking with me and their down-to-earth nature. The part in me that was resistant to the situation fell away, and I realized that, when I was able to relax, an instant friendship started to grow. We talked for hours, and they treated me to red wine and told me of their amazing travels. My intention for the night was to be completely unbothered, but I ended up making a meaningful connection with two amazing humans I would have otherwise not crossed paths with. (If you’re reading this: Thank you Craig and Karen for extending kindness and warmth to me when I didn’t even realize I needed it!)

I caught the 5 am train out of Cinque Terre and spent a large portion of the next day hugging my travel pillow and digesting podcasts on my way to Rome. After feeling so at home in the tiny, secluded countryside of the Cinque Terre Trail, I was honestly not looking forward to Rome. I had heard from friends about the magnitude of the city and the never-ending lines of tourists at every turn. Once again (is this a theme here?!), my expectations were transformed and my resistance gave way to experiences that warmed me to the core. I absolutely, positively fell in love with Rome. I think this was due in large part to the fact that I chose to explore as much as the city as I possibly could entirely on foot. I still can’t believe how many beautiful, awe-inspiring sites I saw in one and a half days (on a budget, I think I paid a total of only $30 in entrance fees and still saw some of the most amazing sites in Rome, thank you to the lovely Molly Renaldo at The Very Hungry Traveler for all your suggestions, as well as Audio Tours by Rick Steves which allowed me truly experience some of Rome’s history in a fun and engaging way without paying a dime).

The Coloseum

View from St. Peter’s Basilica
The Pantheon

Exploring on foot allowed me to notice the intricate details, the storefront owners cleaning up trash from the evening before, the recent street art that reminded me that humans will continue to adorn this earth with the same devotion that Michelangelo gave to the Sistene Chapel (Well, at least a portion of it. If there is one thing I learned from Rome it’s that that man was a true master of concentrated devotion to craft).

Instead of outlining all of the sites I visited, I will share some prose I wrote about my experience for those few days. Hopefully it captures the essence of that part of the trip

Who dares to bother me as I walk through a city I’ve never been as if I’ve felt its abrasive cobblestones under my steps a thousand times? As if a tattered tourist map with overpriced advertisements isn’t hanging out my back pocket, waiting to be studied again. And again. And again. Where did this confidence come from? I must have pulled it out from under ancient stones placed there by human hands thousands of years ago. It must’ve rubbed off from centuries of advantageous creation. It must’ve been pumping through my earbuds as I walked miles and miles of this city alone, smiling, knowing ancient fears are modern fears are future fears and somehow using that fact to fuel my feet through dusty streets.

I ended my solo trip with a swift but glorious 24 hours in London before heading home. (Yes, I took a picture of a double decker bus and ate fish and chips. I’m basic.) Like in Rome, I did a significant amount of walking and listening to more of Rick Steve’s Audio tours. Listening about its rich history, I imagined I was walking through the streets of London as they looked in the 18th century: dirty and dazzling with corsets and pastel colored frills, like the set for the show Harlots (I can’t recommend this show enough: Female leads, writers, and directors. and it’s a period drama?! But I digress)

Westminster Abbey

It’s been roughly seven months since my first solo trip abroad, but I swear I can taste that peach like it was yesterday. I think this week will always hold a special place in my heart. Nothing earth-shattering or all-entirely exhilarating happened, but sometimes all you need are two throbbing feet, a tourist map covered in scribbled notes, and a wandering heart.

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