Hey, my name is Alex Khatchadourian, and I have been living in the small Italian town of Siena, located in the heart of Tuscany. Seeing as I have been here for the past month, I have come to find a pizza stand where I can buy a slice, as large as half a Domino’s pizza, that is only 3 euro; I can openly drink a beer in the streets without having to worry about a cop coming up to me on a horse and asking, “What is that in your hand, young lady?”; and that people will not judge you if they see you eating a gelato at 9 a.m. (well, at least not openly). Among all these great discoveries, I could sense that something was still missing in this new place I call home: the beach. Like most Santa Barbara inhabitants, the beach is my haven for evening jogs, excuses not to study on a Sunday afternoon (or any day of the week in fact), and a place to just relax, swim and enjoy the sounds and smell of the waves as they roll onto the shore.

Just as I had thought I was going to have to live without the one thing I have grown up with all my life for four whole months, a group of us in the program decided to travel to the five beautiful towns of the Cinque Terre, nestled nicely on the northern coast of Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. As you can imagine, when I found out there was going to be an ocean, I immediately booked my train ticket and began to contemplate which of the seven bathing suits I had brought to Siena I would actually take with me. (Yes, I brought seven bathing suits to a place where there is no ocean, but you never know.)

As my friends and I took the five-hour train ride north from Siena to Cinque, I could not stop imagining how gorgeous this place was going to be. Yet, my imagination seriously underestimated how great this place actually was.  Take a second; imagine a crystal clear, teal blue ocean, with small waves crashing lightly along the side of towering grey, stone cliffs, with tall, vertically built colorful houses. That description still does not even do the place justice, but I thought I would try.

The Cinque Terre which is Italian for “five lands,” is a span of land on the coast where five small beach towns rest, among miles and miles of land that have been agriculturally cultivated by locals for thousands of years. The greatest thing about Cinque is that it has been designated a World Heritage Site and is an internationally recognized National Park, where all the businesses, inhabitants and tourist attractions have taken an oath and made an agreement to create a sustainable environment and create a lifestyle with the least amount of negative environmental impacts. This includes environmentally friendly buses and an amazing recycling program. There are literally recycling bins on every corner that include one each for paper, cans, plastics and other waste.

You don’t really realize all the work that the local inhabitants of Cinque Terre put into preserving the environment for travelers from all over the world to be able to still hike all 9 kilometers, through all five cities, until you witness the breathtaking views as you stand on the edge of the cliffs hundreds of feet above the Mediterranean, are able to swim in the ocean and get out without any sign of tar on your body and can pick olives and wine grapes off bushes and trees as you hike.

The hike was definitely no cake walk (especially not from the third to the fourth city, where, I kid you not, each step is at least 16 inches tall), but no matter how much you are sweating or how badly you wish you could just already be sitting in the next town on the beach, eating Foccacia bread with pesto on it, seeing the beautiful scenery and finally dipping my feet into that blue Mediterranean is beyond worth it.