Salt on the Lips, Gelato in the Belly


Today the fishing villages in the Ligurian Cinque Terre National Park are tourist magnets, but originally, they were only accessible by boat. So, what could be more natural than strapping the folding sea kayaks to your back and getting on the train?

Admittedly, I’m not sure whether our plan falls into type 1 (excellent idea) or type 2 (can-do idea). But by the time I have time to consider it, it’s too late. I’m already standing on the platform with what feels like a hundred-kilo rucksack on my back waiting for the train.

Let’s put it this way: our plan is definitely an idea worth thinking about. Starting from Rosenheim, we want to cross the Alps by train to the south and spend a few days sea kayaking on the Italian Mediterranean Sea. We plan to follow the coast from Genoa to la Spezia and then take the train home. Those 100 kilometers of rugged coastline hug the wild and romantic Cinque Terre National Park.

The pitfalls of overweight luggage.
Our folding sea kayaks are our main means of transportation once we reach Genoa—until then, they are our biggest hindrance during the train travel. Not to mention, we also have our paddling kit—paddles, life jackets, etc.—and camping equipment for a few days.

“Our train is 10 minutes late,” Ingrid says with worry. “We only have nine minutes to change trains in Verona.” We’re not really fit to sprint with this stuff on our backs, so we have no idea whether we can manage the transfer. “It’s probably just the track opposite,” I reply, trying to exude optimism.

But despite the German pessimism, after changing trains several times, successfully persuading one conductor to unlock the bike compartment for our additional luggage—though not the other—we board our last connecting train to the small coastal town of Nervi just in time for the rush hour in hectic Genoa.

Greetings from the wave god.
The tail end of a storm lingers off the coast of Nervi when we arrive, pushing waves into the mouth of the small harbour. Some of the waves crest two meters high. We had booked a room in advance for the first night, but the forecast doesn’t look promising. Venturing into the open water with our folding kayaks and gear in these conditions might be possible, but it’s probably a bit foolish.

The forecast promises golden weather in the next few days, and luckily, we can add a night to our booking. We use the forced break to hang out ‘Italian style’ with fresh espresso and delicious cantuccini. We stroll the narrow streets of the coastal town, sort out our equipment, buy provisions for the next few days and reassess our route.

Ultimately, we decide to swap our first leg of paddling with another train ride. Conveniently, a railroad line runs along the coast. Instead of pushing ourselves to make up the miles lost, and considering the trip highlights will happen in the last few days, we bridge the first stage to Siestre Levanti by train. Keeping the rest of the tour relaxed.

The five fishing villages.
On our first day of paddling, the Mediterranean is still quite choppy. The water wobbles a little challenging our core, and a light headwind makes our biceps work. With the taste of salty sun cream on our lips, the prospect of the next three days can’t be better, after all there’s nothing more to do than stick the paddle in at the front and pull it out again at the back.

Cinque Terre roughly translates to “five territories” and refers to the historic fishing villages that were originally cut off from the outside world due to their exposed location on the cliffs of the Riviera. The region is now protected as a national park, and in 1997 the Cinque Terre and Porto Venere were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For many centuries, man worked this rugged region, building huts on the slopes and creating terraces. The cultivated wine, citrus fruits and olives. That, along with fishing, formed the basis of the inhabitants’ livelihood for centuries. With the construction of the railroad line in the 19th century, the villages became accessible to the outside world, changing the inhabitants’ lives.

Like a fairytale movie.
After Levanto, the last larger village before the national park, the coastline steepens, and the water turns rougher again. Although we are never completely alone, as other tourists explore the coast in their motorboats, we are somehow transported from the world we know. We pass rugged cliffs. The cool blue of the Mediterranean twinkles below us as an oppressive landscape towers above. The exposed nature of the open water makes us sweat, and I catch myself wishing for a tree so I could just lie down in the shade.

To cool off in turn, we try out the ice cream of every Gelateria in the villages of the Cinque Terre. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore—the names roll off the tongue like a glass of Italian red wine after a long day of paddling. Our time in the old villages is in stark contrast to the solitary paddling on the sea. As soon as a train arrives at the station, the day tourists come flooding through the narrow streets like a tsunami.

Back to the real world.
The church and fortress of Porto Venere signal the turn back towards civilization on day three of our paddle tour. Built on a spit of land, the complex guards the strait between the mainland and the island of Palmaria. Built on the rocks, the massive facility exudes a dominant past, signaling that not everyone was always welcome at the entrance to the bay of La Spezia.

The water becomes increasingly turbulent from the excursion boats stuffed with tourists ready to explore Cinque Terre, the small dinghies chugging past, as do jet skis and oligarch yachts. Together they emit a sedate hum. After a few kilometers along small suburbs, we wind our way past a huge military dockyard. As I unpack my tele lens to take a picture of the huge sailing two-master opposite, a jet boat from the military guard immediately comes and chases us away.

In front of us lies the huge port area of La Spezia, surrounded by 650-meter-tall mountains. The contrasts could not be greater. Container ships are being loaded, the loudspeakers of the 12-story cruise ship emit the good-humored cheering of the entertainer across the entire harbour. The water smells foul.

Where is the dock for paddlers here? I feel out of place. Olaf pours over the map: “If we make it to the back, it’s only a two-kilometre walk to the station”. He grins. How much heavier is a wet folding boat compared to a dry one? I have a feeling this is not an excellent idea, but we can do it.


Guest contributor Jens Klatt is a German photographer with a love for paddling and adventure. Check out the film from this trip here