Tag Archives: village

Cinque Terre

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour


By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train

Romania — We’re not in Kansas any more…

We approached the Romanian frontier at a small crossing in the east of Hungary.  Ours was the only car visible as we approached the remote border post in the dusk of late afternoon.  A man in a green uniform was smoking and put his cigarette down on the curb as we approached.  The country of registration of most European vehicles is indicated on the license plate, so it was obvious that we weren’t from around here.  Two other men in green appeared.  They flipped through our passports and our vehicle registration.  One asked, in surprisingly good English, “Do you have any special baggages?”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant or how to answer so I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Nothing special”.  They were handing us back our passports and the English speaker said, “Enjoy your stay in Romania”, when he noticed that we were from Canada.  Up to this point they had assumed that we, like our camper van, were from England.  This was apparently an issue.

All three men disappeared for a very long time.  We sat there with the engine off, waiting.  Ours was the only vehicle there.  We could hear the crickets chirping, but after what seemed like an eternity, they re-appeared with our passports and let us pass.  The English speaker said, “Welcome to Romania”.  Romania recently joined the European Union, but it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the zone of 26 European countries that share a common customs and immigration boundary.  So we needed to receive passport stamps to leave the Schengen and to enter Romania.  I don’t think that many Canadians pass through this lonely border crossing.  I am thankful yet again for the fact that Canadians are welcomed into so many countries.  We bear one of the best passports for international travel.

As soon as we arrived in the first Romanian village we noticed a big difference from Hungary.  Things were visibly poorer and less developed.  The roads were paved, but full of holes or patched and bumpy.  The few cars we saw were small, old, and in poor condition.  There were as many horse-drawn wagons on the road as cars.  We passed a man using a pitchfork to load his wagon with fresh grass cut from the roadside using a scythe.  It felt like we had gone back about a hundred years.

Horse drawn wagon on road with wheels, rubber tires, white horse

Horse-drawn wagon on roadway (Photo Credit: Diane)

The houses were simple and some had outbuildings made of wattle-and-daub.  There were open ditches in town and no sidewalks or landscaping.  The ground in front of the small homes was just mud.  The children were playing in the street.  A popular toy for the boys appeared to be a whip.  Definitely not child safe.

Three children running toward the car wearing pants and jackets

Romanian children playing in the street

The few adults we saw had dark, weathered complexions.  Some women sat in front of their homes wearing kerchiefs and house smocks.

Romanian woman walking beside road wearing skirt and aprom

Rural Romanian woman walking beside road (Photo credit: Diane)

Several times we had to slow to pass small herds of cattle in the streets as they were being brought in from the fields.  Each group was being prodded by a man with a whip, usually accompanied by a boy.

Cows walking on the street. Picture taken through windshield of the RV.

Cows in the street!  (Photo credit: Diane)

As we passed, everyone stared at us.  It felt like we had been teleported back to a village in (rural Africa, India, or Nepal).  Suddenly we were curiosities again, instantly recognizable as being outsiders.  I had expected to encounter this somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe, thinking perhaps it might have occurred earlier in Poland or Hungary, but they were both more developed and more frequented by tourists.  In rural Romania our large vehicle and our light skin colour make us stand out.

Patrick driving RV with cows visible outside the windows

Dodging Cows!  (Photo credit: Diane)

There were not many shops and none were open.  Eventually we arrived at a gas station, hoping to buy a vignette.  There were no cars there, but there was a person filling plastic containers with fuel.  They didn’t sell vignettes.  Surprisingly, we did find a bank machine and were able to get some Romanian lei (pronounced ‘lay’).  I had to walk through the mud to get to it.

We headed for the only campground in this part of the country.  It is operated by a non-profit foundation led by a Dutch couple that takes in battered women and their families.  They are glad to see us and asked about our journey, seeming almost surprised that we had made it.  There is only 1 other camper here.

Burn the Witch — Hexenbrennen

In Saxony, a province in eastern Germany, near the city of Bautzen lies the small village of Schwarznaußlitz.  It is the home of some family members of our friends Werner and Henny, whom we visited with them last September.  We enjoyed that time tremendously, and since we were passing by again on our way to Poland, we wanted to stop and say hello.  By coincidence, we happened to arrive the afternoon before the village’s annual witch burning.

Each year at this time Schwarznaußlitz and the surrounding villages burn their witches.  Rooted in antiquity, it is a major social event for the village and especially for the children.  Everyone gathers together after dark on the last night of April to burn a witch, and by doing so, usher out the bad spirits of winter before welcoming the spring.

Huge pile of branches and wood in a field

The witch pyre accumulating

The village saves all of its waste wood (tree trimmings, scrap lumber, etc.) throughout the year, bringing them to a designated space in a farmer’s field during the week before Hexenbrennen (‘witch burning’).  The wood is all pushed into a huge pile, upon which is placed the Hexen (witch).  Don’t worry, it’s not a real witch, but an effigy made of wood and fabric.  Sometimes, perhaps after a particularly bad winter, they burn more than one witch!

A 'witch' made of wood and fabric on top of the wood pile

The Witch and her Friends

Hexenbrennen is Saxony’s version of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis’ Night), a traditional spring festival that takes place on April 30th in large parts of Central and Northern Europe.  This date is exactly 6 months from All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween).  It is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who was canonized on May 1st (May Day) in the year 870.  The eve of May day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known in Germany as Walpurgisnacht. On this night, witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken (the highest mountain in the Harz mountain range) and await the arrival of spring.

The burning of people that were thought to be witches was common throughout Europe between the 15 and 18th Centuries.  Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 50,000 accused witches (about three-quarters of whom were women) were killed in this manner.  The peak of the witch hunting phenomenon occurred in central and southern Germany from 1561 to 1670.   Hexenbrennen may be a carry-over from this legacy, but it has long left its tormented history behind, and despite potential misogynist undertones, it is now a fun family celebration that we looked forward to attending.

We arrived around sunset with our generous hosts Andreas and Regina after enjoying some warm-up beverages at their home.  They introduced us to their friends, including the man who owns the house that we stayed in when we visited last September.  Everyone was very welcoming and the whole village seemed to know that we were visiting Canadians (it’s a small village and word gets around).  Many were glad to speak with us, using their limited English and my extremely limited German.

Andreas with his arm around Diane in front of the witch pyre

Diane and Andreas

The local volunteer fire department was serving food and drink as a fundraiser.  We tried all of the food, washed down with generous amounts of German beer.  I enjoyed the herring sandwich (strips of pickled herring on a white bun soaked in herring juice), but it wasn’t to Diane’s likingWe both really liked the wurst (sausage, pronounced ‘vurst’) and delicious schaschlik (a shish kabob of pork).

A man cooking food on a grill with a customer in front of him

Great food!

Soon after nightfall, the children of the village were armed with flaming swords and marched up the hill in a procession.  They approached the huge pyre, circled it, and threw their torches into the tangle.

Children in the dark carrying burning torches

Village children carrying torches

The fire started slowly at first, but soon grew into a massive inferno.  The heat it threw off was overpowering, and it was necessary to stand at least 20 meters away.

The burning pyre with the remnants of a witch on top

The witch burning

At some point in the proceedings, we climbed the hill with Andreas to look out across the countryside.  In the distance we could see 8 fires burning in other villages, each casting an eerie orange glow. By tradition the villages compete to amass the largest wood pile, something that when lit will be seen for miles around and be the envy of all the other villages.  The people in Schwarznaußlitz seemed a little bit dismayed by the fact that their wood pile wasn’t larger, and talked fondly of the good old days when it was much bigger.  They spoke nostalgically of the grandest pile they’d ever seen, in which village it was located, and in what year.

Also by tradition, the young men of the villages compete in a related ritual.  They try to sabotage the other villages’ plans by igniting their wood piles before the big night.  As a result, it is necessary for the young men of each village to provide round-the-clock security for their own wood piles from their inception until the night of Hexenbrennen, which is typically about a week.

The young men of Schwarznaußlitz take this to a rather extreme level.  Each night they protect their wood pile while sitting beside it on old couches.  They also erect a massive guard tower equipped with high powered search lights to monitor the perimeter.

A tower made of scaffolding and plastic in the field near the witch pyre

The elaborate guard tower with Diane in front.

At night the farmer’s field where the wood pile is located resembles a prison camp, with scheduled watches, posted sentries, and foot patrols.  Armed with pellet guns, radios, adrenaline, and beer, they guard their pyre with paramilitary bravado.

Special forces flag with words 'Mess with the best, die like the rest'

Do you think they’re taking this a bit too seriously?

Although it is a now a crime to burn another village’s wood pile before the big night (a huge uncontrolled fire, even out in a farmer’s field, could be dangerous), it does happen.  In a bold nighttime sortie, someone set fire to the couches of the security squad of the neighbouring village Singwitz.  The cunning perpetrators have yet to be apprehended.  I heard stories of the sneak attacks that the Schwarznaußlitz men had repelled, and how the assailants from other villages had repeatedly been denied.  At first I thought these stories were concocted or the result of overactive, beer-fired imaginations, but when on the final night I was told that they repelled 7 different groups of invaders, I started to believe.  Once again this year, the young men of Schwarznaußlitz were triumphant, and the wood pile survived until the time of its scheduled immolation.

Burning pyre with remnants of the witch visible in the flames

Burning pyre with the remnants of the witch

We greatly enjoyed our repeat visit to Schwarznaußlitz.  We would like to thank Andreas, Regina, Lilo, Stephan, and Juliane for hosting us.  We are very fortunate to know them, and it was great to visit them during Hexenbrennen and to participate in this unique event.