“Manarola only has rocks, but it is very popular for sunbathing,” explains Ricardo Vernazzari, who works at the green hostel, Ostello Cinque Terre, perched on a hillside in Manarola. “The only sandy beach is in Monterosso.” That simply won’t work for me. I am determined to find the magical cove I read about in Let’s Go Florence. When I specificially asked Vernazzari about the hidden Guvano Beach, he was more forthcoming: “Take the path toward Corniglia. You will need a ticket.”
Guvano Beach is also described in guidebooks as the only “clothing optional” beach in Cinque Terre. I found photos of Guvano on Google and was captivated by the cove’s jagged cliffs jutting out of the serene Mediterranean.
Cinque Terre, or “five lands,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been restored and preserved in large part because of fees hikers pay to walk hiking paths connecting the five towns named from, south to north, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso. There is a red high path, and a coastal blue path. Although not entirely car-free, the villages are remarkably clean and unspoiled. Visitors can buy hiking passes at stores attached to the railroad stations, and can ride back by train if they are winded by a one-way hike. Most routes have huts with a paid employee to check passes, but you can buy them there.
Hiking to Corniglia looks simple enough, a straight shot from our tiny town to the next. After taking several photos of Manarola from the paved path, we start to hike. The pavement ends and a dirt and rock path lined with wooden railing begins. Signs warn hikers of ticket requirements, and soon enough a log hut appears and we buy our passes.
With the sun glaring, we walk the flat path for about 30 minutes, coming upon a not-too-sturdy wooden bridge. While discussing the stability of the bridge my companions stumble upon a tiny map showing us stairs and the tunnel to Guvano, plus areas under construction.
We pound up the stairs past where the path is closed and continue north until we come to a dead end at the foot of the steps to Corniglia. Confused as to where the path continues, we go down a flight of stairs to a small house and a gate leading to the rocky beach below. A woman and her daughter appear with a key to the gate and I yell “Mi Scusi!” In broken Italian I ask where we are and she tries to explain. I then say “Guvano?” and she smiles and says “Oh! Guvano!” and gestures to go around the corner of the house and I interpret her next movements as button pushing, and she says “Light? Bzzz Bzzz.”
We round the corner to find a tunnel with painted scenes of nude figures on a beach. “This must be it,” I say, and head into the pitch-black tunnel. There is an intercom with the words “Push here for lights” written next to the button, and so we push. And we push. And nothing happens. Someone finds the circuit board, and we press every button and flip every switch. No lights come on. A sign next to the intercom says, “Guvano Beach one kilometer this way” and our group of four young women begins to have second thoughts about the black abyss before us. Tech-savvy students, we pull out cell phones, no good. Cameras, better but not enough. Finally, someone suggests lighting a stick. Though the stick is not much better than the cameras, at least it isn’t using up battery power, so, with a little courage, we head towards the unknown.
At least one of my companions wants to turn around, but I offer lead the way with the LCD screen on the back of my camera. We stay to the left and walk slowly on the sidewalk of the cavernous tunnel. Every step, incline, and slippery spot we shout “STEP!” to warn the girl behind us so she doesn’t trip.
The tunnel takes a curve and we are suddenly in a darkness I had never experienced. The tunnel feels endless and we can’t walk fast enough. We imagine what kinds of creatures lurk in the blackness. I block the terrifying thoughts of bats and focus on the ground before me. It was cool and wet, and the girls wearing flip-flops call it muddy and slimy.
We hear a loud noise coming towards us, like a train or a truck, and I have the sudden urge to bolt. Who knew what was coming for us in the dank depths of the darkness? We stop and stare into the abyss and realize it is a train in the tunnel next to us and we timidly trudge on.
We come around a bend and see a tiny light, our pace quickens, and the light at the end gets closer and closer, then we hear footsteps behind us. I’m terrified that someone is coming to mug us, but it is just two better-prepared beach-goers with flashlights.
The tunnel opens up to an oasis of trees and a clearly marked gravel path. We pass three men sitting at a table under an umbrella, half expecting to pay them a fee to use the beach, but no one stops us and the beach is free.
The friends are talking to the flashlight couple, from Atlanta, about where they found the flashlights and how we managed the tunnel with only our cameras. “How did you find out about the gay beach?” one of the men asks. After I tell him about the articles and guidebooks I read, a stark naked man with no shoes walks leisurely past, smoking a cigarette. We giggle for a moment about the man’s nudity and get it out of our system.
The Atlanta couple is ahead of us and jumps down the rockslide slope in a swift, graceful motion, and one of the girls asks, “Is that the only way down?” I assume it is and try to calm their nerves and tell them I have done this before and give them tips on how to balance on the way down. As we begin our descent, one of the kind gentlemen from Atlanta offers to help us down. I tell him I can handle it since I’m wearing sneakers, and ask him to help my companions. I nearly fall all the way down the steep slope when a rock underfoot gives way and sends me sliding on my butt for about a meter before I come to a stop. I gain my composure and finally make it down to the elusive Guvano Beach.
When I was 12, I read a book about a young woman who goes to Greece for the summer and lives in a villa near the sea. She discovers a secluded beach cove where the sea is crystal clear. She is alone there and she feels peaceful and free. When I read this book, I created a similar place in my imagination, and at last I found it.
I pause and gawk at the paradise before me, proud of myself for finding the beach and successfully getting to it. Once all of us are on solid ground we strip down to our bathing suits and sprint into the turquoise sea after working up a sweat on our hike. It is perfect; the water is refreshing but not cold. The large pebble beach lay out before us with only four pairs of people lounging in the sun. We swim out to where the salty sea turns royal blue and yell, “You can see straight to the bottom!” We high-five and congratulate each other on making it through the adventure. We float in the ocean and stare at the green terraced vineyards above and the black cliffs that surrounded us.