Vernazza, Italy -- Atop a sheer cliff dropping to the rocky Mediterranean shore, I lean over the precipice hoping to snap a picture of the dramatic coast of Italy's Cinque Terre National Park before acrophobic dizziness hits.
My partner, taking a break from the daunting climb up this steep seaside hill, chats with a rosy-cheeked German family who groan in unison, "I didn't know the trail was so long."
She responds with what should be the park's motto: "Hell, it's worth the climb."
Indeed, the amazing view here has healing properties for sore legs and sweaty brows. The morning fog from a seemingly horizonless sea leaves a misty aura around rugged cliffs capped by olive orchards and vineyards.
Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast in northwest Italy, means "five lands." Actually, it's five villages Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore all linked by hiking trails.
Recognized as a national park and UNESCO-protected territory in 1999, Cinque Terre is notable not only for its natural wonders but also for its constructed ones: tight circles of terraced orchards, vegetable farms and vineyards supported by 6,729 kilometres of dry stone walls.
This pastoral, characteristically Italian way of life is fast disappearing thanks to encroaching urbanization and industrialization, phenomena we followed on yesterday's train ride from Milan.
Today we're only able to reach two towns due to trail washouts from a recent storm. But this abbreviated itinerary still requires a rigorous six-hour hike, and hiking's not all there is to Cinque Terre.
Cafés and outdoor market stalls line village squares. Plus, we can swim on a reef teeming with marine life that's also a national preserve.
We begin in Vernazza, the most spectacularly picturesque of the villages. Jutting out between terraced hills on a rocky point, its landmark is the Round Tower, a medieval castle's lookout.
Vernazza's narrow alleys better suit mountain goats than people. Descending the five flights of stairs from our hotel, Trattoria Gianni, located just below the tower, we meet a griping New Zealand couple on their way up, dragging ample luggage behind them.
It's a sharp ascent to reach nearby Corniglia, too, along the terraces circumscribing the hills around Vernazza.
We stop at the "gourd house," a cottage snuggled into a hill, covered with shiny lacquered gourds as well as creeping vines. Little here isn't greened over. And we can't resist the chocolate tortes decadent even by Italian standards sold at a little café that's half a converted house. Its picture window faces Corniglia's colourful houses and fishing boats, now close and fortunately downhill.
In hotel-free Corniglia, which consequently has more local ambience than the larger Vernazza, we linger over glasses of the park's "official" Cinque Terre Merlot, the most recognizable label in this wine region.
My partner returns from swimming refreshed but with small scrapes from the rocky beach and strong current.
A more groomed beach runs along the shore of Monterosso, a larger and more touristy village in the other direction. A decent stretch of sand dotted with uniform blue-and-white-striped beach umbrellas, it's a lesser-known but more budget-friendly version of the French Riviera, which is only a three-hour train ride away.
And it's a two-hour hike to our hotel. Despite encroaching sunset and increasing stiffness, we forgo boat or train options.
We'd prefer to retrace our path across a footbridge over a narrow waterfall and walk alongside the brook flowing off it. Soon we see the Round Tower, an ancient exclamation mark punctuating Vernazza's now orange-tinged horizon.
We complete the requisite sunset viewing on our hotel's terrace garden, where we run into Angela and Mike, a young couple from Santa Monica sharing, as we are, a bottle of wine.
"We got engaged here two nights ago during the storm," Angela beams proudly.
In pouring rain, sheltered by a 4-euro yellow umbrella, cliffs dropping to a wave-pounded shoreline, fog-dipped castle looming above, Mike proposed.
Take that as a warning of what may happen in sublimely romantic Vernazza.