Last updated on June 30, 2009
After nearly 40 transit hours to travel from Kathmandu, Nepal to Milan, Italy, I was read to see a friendly face. I studied abroad in Northern Italy years back, so arriving in Milan felt like a warm hug from an old friend.
I was also en route to an actual warm hug from an old friend. My friend Jenn had arrived earlier in the day and had spent her extra hours wandering through the parks and panting her way up the windy staircase to the top of Milano’s beautiful Duomo.
Having already seen the highlights during my study abroad, we had planned just one night to meet up, and then we’d journey south through Italy, across the middle and into Croatia.
But first, my cousin and I had to meet up with Jenn and officially add her to the backpacking team. Jenn is an actress and model living in LA, but her roots are also firmly planted in the shallow Florida soil. She and I met in college on the University’s interactive improv team in college. Then a few years later, we bonded and commiserated as we struggled to make a life in Los Angeles.
Jenn is one of my more adventurous friends, and when I announced my plans to backpack the world for a year, she proclaimed that she would join the trip. And then she actually did!
Jenn packed smartly for the trip. I was immediately jealous of her possessions. Leaving on this trip, my research had convinced me that it was smart to travel around the world with a 52-liter pack and a front pack for my full-sized computer. I had thought long and hard about how to pick my backpack, as well as what to pack inside of it.
But pocket-sized Jenn is just 5’3 brought and she learned how to slim down her packing list to fit her pocket-sized backpack. She showed me the art of minimalist travel. Granted, she was only joining us for three weeks and we knew it would be warm since it was June in southern Europe, but even with that in mind, she had done well.
Jenn’s small rucksack backpack came in at just 45 liters and she added a tiny Camelbak that nicely held her 8-inch netbook. Now, a note on the rucksack style pack — the key drawback to this backpack style is the fact that it only allows top-loading. That’s became a pain when she had to unload everything to get to stuff in the middle and bottom. But other than that, I came to the sad conclusion that my 15-inch laptop was excessive.
Netbooks don’t have the power for my work and photo editing, but I plan to downsize the front pack to a Camelbak next year when I hit Central America. That said, I still love my 52-liter and I’m not sure a long-term trip fits in 45L when it’s hitting a mix of warm and chilly climates. Jenn’s streamlined look suits perfectly for her few weeks here with us. Plus, she brought me treats from the U.S. (like my favorite deodorant!), which made me doubly happy to see her.
Anyhow, with Jenn now on the team, the three of us headed south two and a half hours to the Ligurian coast. Our chief goal? To hike along the spectacular coast that runs through Cinque Terre, an area named for the five Italian villages sprinkled along this stunning bit of jagged rock and sparkling sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is one of the only things protecting this coastline from over tourism. It’s so pretty that I completely understand why it’s so popular with travelers from around the world.
Trains in Europe are simple, even without buying a Eurorail pass yet, we had an easy ride out of Milan. The landscape changed as we chugged across the countryside, everything growing in beauty the closer we got to Cinque Terre. This was Jenn’s very first train ride and she squealed with delight as the train chugged out of Milano Centrale.
Having logged more than 200 hours on more than 40 trains throughout India and Australia, I had harbor less outright joy for prospect of more hours on a train. But Jenn’s delight served as a reminder that this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I need to shelve the cynicism and find the joy.
Our train hugged the shimmering coast for hours and it made for a pretty reminder of why I fell in love with Italy all those years ago when I first came to study the language and culture.
I will admit this right now because anyone who has traveled with me has learned — transportation puts me to sleep. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is outside, or how uncomfortable the position, I can nod off at a moment’s notice. Except for the hilarious head-bobby sleep, I can’t do that.
Jenn hadn’t ever seen me in contort into weird positions before, and she took special delight in snapping the unflattering photos of me. Both my cousin and my friend take a bizarre delight in showing me what it looks like when I fall asleep hugging my backpack and propping myself on one elbow. So very, very unflattering.
Anyhow, they poked me awake when we reached our stop. The three of us stopped in our tracks when we stepped off the train in Monterosso. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. The late afternoon sun shone blindingly bright, casting an ochre glow across the clear blue water. Bodies bodies glistened on the beach as the men and women tanning their already bronze skin.
We had found cheap hostel accommodation in Riomaggiore online, so we hopped onto the local train connecting the towns along the coast and then quickly hopped off. We had landed in a one-road town lined with a handful of tourist shops and a smattering cafes. The road dead-ends into a darling harbor with boats bobbing on the surface on the glassy surface.
With an hour to kill before checking into the hostel, we plopped down in a café with all of our belongings and ordered up a panini to tide us over. I have a love affair with Italian food even though I am not actually much of a carb junkie. Months in India eating knock-off Western food (only occasionally because I love me some Indian food) had me craving the plump red tomatoes available in every hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and café.
Indian and Nepali pizzas contain a distinct “other” flavor that gave Italian-style pizza a lead role in my dreams these past five months. I opted for a warmly toasted tomato, mozzarella, and pesto panini. It was so favorite it nearly brought me to tears. Naturally, we also went to a gelateria before checking in because, Italy.
I had warned my cousin way back in India that I planned to show no self control when it came to Italian gelato. When I lived in Italy during a summer program in college, gelato was a thrice daily occurrence.
I feel strongly that this is the only way to effectively and happily travel through the country! My standby is pistachio with stracciatella as a runner up. And then of course, mint chocolate chip has been my favorite flavor for all the decades of my existence.
I succumbed to my favorite for my first gelato in the country and checked into the hostel with replete and happy. For a first day in Italy, everything was pitch-perfect. And even better, the hostel boasted free laundry and Jenn flat-out laughed as I went running toward the washing machine with joy painted across my face.
Up until that moment, I had hand-washed every single item in my pack for months, particularly my under-garments since the women in South Asia generally won’t hand-wash those for you. That sign was the nicest invitation I’d seen in six months and I dumped my entire backpack onto my bunk, scooped it up, and galloped downstairs to the washing machine.
When my spasms of laundry joy subsided, we ventured out for a quick dinner and then back to the hostel early. The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five hour hike along the Ligurian coastline and we all wanted to feel strong and well-rested during the hike!