Cinque Terre

March 22, 2013

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

Vernazza

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

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No good deed goes unpunished

October 30, 2011

We arrived in La Spezia on the north-west coast of Italy in a rain storm at 5:30 PM.  A British couple that we’d met the night before had recommended a camping site in an industrial area near the port.  As best they could figure, it was on land used by the local ambulance service (there are ambulances and attendants on call there), and which is also rented out to locals to store their RVs.  They also allow overnight camping by donation.  We needed a base to explore Cinque Terre, and this seemed like a good one.

On arrival I stopped at the small office (more of a shack really, about 2 meters by 2 meters with a small counter and 1 computer) to register my passport with the young man in the office.  After finding a spot to park and enjoying happy hour with Diane (1 beer and a snack), I returned to the office to see if I could charge my laptop because no electricity is provided in the parking area.  By this point it was dark, the wind was really howling and the rain was pelting down.  Lightening had begun to flash and Diane was worried about the weather.  When I left the RV she asked, “How long will you be?”, and I said, “Just a few minutes.”  On my way to the office I waved to the ambulance attendants who were outside battening down the hatches, securing some of their temporary structures against the howling winds.  They waved back.

The office was unattended when I arrived.  It was difficult to open the door because of the strong winds.  The rain was blasting down in sheets, ricocheting off the roof of a covered area nearby containing an old ambulance.  I waited for a long time.  The wind was whipping and the door began to shake in its frame.  I wondered if the shack would stand up to the elements.  I speculated whether the young man I’d met at check-in had gone home for the evening, or was just hanging out with the ambulance attendants somewhere.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, I questioned whether the office and gate were unmanned after a certain hour.

Outside the storm was getting worse.  I was starting to worry about how the S&M Motel would stand up to a night of this.  An RV appeared at the front gate.  He honked for the gate to be opened.  Through the torrent, I could see that he was staring at me, wondering why I wasn’t doing so.  I think he thought that I worked there.  He wasn’t prepared to leave the warmth of his RV to brave the storm, nor was I willing to go out and speak to him (although I did briefly consider it).  After a minute or so he backed up and disappeared from view.

A short while later another RV arrived.  Same story.  He started honking, starting at me through the window.  I wondered why no one was coming to assist, and thought perhaps they had gone home or were out on an emergency call.  After a couple more minutes, another RV (or perhaps the first one returning) joined him waiting at the gate.  In an effort to be helpful, I reached behind the desk and pressed the button to open the gate.  Both RVs entered and I closed the gate behind them.

I continued waiting.  I realized that there was a plug-in behind the counter and I thought perhaps I could start charging my laptop while I passed the time.  I stepped around the counter to plug in my laptop.  At that moment I saw two men running through the torrential rain toward the office.

Can you see what’s coming?  I certainly didn’t.  I thought that perhaps they were the owners of the RVs that had just arrived.  Or maybe the staff that should have been manning the office.

They burst through the door yelling at me in Italian.  The first guy was squat, thick, and balding and was wearing a black hoodie (let’s call him ‘Sluggo’).  The other was a young guy wearing the reflective orange uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo raced around the counter, grabbed me, and pushed me up against the wall.  He was very agitated, shouting at me in Italian.  He grabbed my half-empty backpack containing my laptop, minus the cord which I’d just plugged in to the wall.  It occurred to me at that point that they thought I was a thief, and so I tried to calm them down.  I raised my hands and, because I speak no Italian, I repeated the simplest English words I could think of that they might understand, “It’s OK.  No problem.”  Sluggo was having none of it.  He threatened to punch me.  At this point, I realized that things had the potential to go very wrong.  I offered no resistance because I’d done nothing wrong.  He reached into my jacket pockets to see whether I had taken anything.  Nothing there but my iPhone and reading glasses.  He checked my backpack but found only my laptop.

Keeping with my theme of simple and honest, I said “My name is Patrick King.  I am from Canada.”  They asked me for my passport.  I said, “It’s in my camper, with my wife” (I hoped the ‘wife’ part would make me seem more respectable).  I said that my passport information was, “in your computer”, because I had previously registered.

Sluggo pulled a cell phone from his pocket and dialed it.  I thought he was dialing the police.  Initially I figured this might be a good thing, having some cooler heads join the party, but then two things crossed my mind – that Italian police don’t have a reputation for being particularly honest or trustworthy, and that police everywhere tend to look out for their own (and presumably this would include other emergency response personnel like ambulance attendants).  Thankfully, it seemed that he was calling one of his buddies waiting outside to call the police (in case things took a turn for the worst), so at that point I realized that they figured the situation was under control.

While Sluggo was on the phone, I appealed to the younger guy, “Do you speak English?  Can we talk?”  They agreed.  I slowly lowered my hands and tried to explain, “I was waiting here for 15 minutes and no one came.  I wanted to charge my laptop.”  They spoke to me in Italian, and I could just make out that they were asking whether I had let the two campers in.  I said, “Yes.  They were waiting and honking the horn”, which I demonstrated in mime with the addition of a honking sound.   Again I said, “No one came.  And so I opened the gate.”  More chastising in Italian, presumably saying that I shouldn’t have done that.   I said, “I was trying to help.”  They asked in Italian whether the drivers had come to the office to register.  Surely that was going above and beyond the call of duty, and they didn’t expect that I should have registered them too!  I replied, “No, they didn’t”.  I then made out that they wanted me to go and get the newcomers and bring them back to the office.  I agreed, glad to get out of the confined and hostile space.

I walked back through the storm to our RV first.  I knocked on the door and told Diane, who was in the middle of making dinner, that, “Things didn’t go so well at the office.”  I said that, “I’d let two campers in through the gate without permission, and that they wanted me to bring the drivers.”  I didn’t want to worry her but I wanted her to know that something was up, in case things escalated.

I could see that a new camper had arrived beside ours, and so I knocked.  A German man answered the door, and I asked, “Do you speak English”.  Like many Germans he spoke a little, and so I asked him to come to the office to register.  He seemed to be delaying and so I asked, “5 minutes?” and he replied, “3 seconds.”  He joined me for the walk back through the rain and I explained that I didn’t work here, that I was from Canada, and that the men were angry with me that I’d let him through the gate.  They thought that I was a criminal.  I wanted him to know the situation and to have him on my side if things turned ugly.  He pointed out to me the other RV that arrived at the same time, and I knocked on this vehicle from France.  An older couple opened the door tentatively and they did not speak English so I used some terrible broken French to ask “Nouveau.  Arrivé.  Dix Minutes?”  I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that given that my mother was a French teacher, but it was all that my addled, adrenaline-charged brain could come up with.  They understood, and responded in the affirmative.  I said, “Registration”, to which they replied with a lot of rapid fire French, from which I deduced that they had already registered (and perhaps paid) and had just returned from a day trip to Pisa.  I said, “Merci”, and walked with the wet German to the office.

When we arrived, there was a third guy in the room, also wearing the uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo and the first guy began to speak with the German.  I spoke to the other guy, asking “Do you speak English?” and he replied, “Quite well”.  Excellent.  I started to explain what had happened, and he interrupted, “I know.”  I kept on anyhow, wanting to make sure that he heard my version of the events.  When the German was registered, I apologized and repeated that, “I was trying to help”.  The new guy said that, “They had had some problems here”, and presumably they had thought I was a thief.

I wondered what kind of thief would have taken the time to let RVs into the campground.  Like the Seinfeld episode when Kramer was telling his story about driving a bus while fending off a mugger and kicking him off “at the next stop”.  Incredulous, Jerry asked “You kept making all the stops?”, and Kramer replied, “Well, people kept ringing the bell!”  They kept honking, and so I opened the gate!  In hindsight it occurred to me that the ambulance attendants couldn’t hear the honks over the storm; I could barely hear them from 3 meters away.

I collected my stuff and the new guy said, “Did you want to charge your laptop?”  By this point, I was a bit hesitant to leave it with them, but I said, “Yes”, hoping it would mend some fences.  We plugged it in and I left it sitting on the counter.  I apologized for any problems and made a point of shaking each of their hands before I left the office.

I returned to our RV, trying to remain cool and collected in front of Diane.  Eventually, in response to her questions, I told her what had happened.  She didn’t say much, but had the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t make out whether the cause was nervousness or humour, or perhaps the Italian wine she’d been drinking while making dinner.  I wasn’t very hungry, but I enjoyed Diane’s excellent meal of pan seared pork, steamed rice, and sautéed white beans, which was prepared during the two tempests.  I retrieved my laptop an hour later and wrote this blog, with the events still fresh in my mind — a kind of private therapy while my wife is sleeping.


Storm in Tuscany

October 26, 2011

We arrived in the city of La Spezia last evening.  It’s on the west coast of Italy, a couple of hours north of Pisa in the region of Tuscany.  Last night, this area was hit by a huge storm.  Nine people are confirmed dead and six more are missing.  Several villages were hit by mud slides or flooding.  We are safe and we are grateful.

Yesterday afternoon, we traveled north up the coast from the city of Lucca.  It was raining hard but the driving was manageable.  We followed the coast road and a strong surf was visible on the beaches.  At one point we crossed a bridge and could see the swollen river below.  It was brown with runoff and filled with debris.  People were frantically trying to save their boats moored on the sides of the river.  We were passed by several emergency vehicles heading to the scene.

We arrived in La Spezia in heavy rain.  We found a camping place near the port and hunkered down for the evening.  The rain came in torrents.  At one point, the water was cascading over the sides of the S&M Motel like a waterfall.  The thunder clapped and the storm raged.  It rained hard all night.  Both we and the S&M Motel survived undamaged.

Not so fortunate were the citizens of many nearby communities.   We came here to hike the famous Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’), a 12 kilometer trail along the Ligurian Coast (‘Costa Ligure of Levante’), a rough stretch of Italian coastline that passes through five villages that are so unique and picturesque as to be deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site and to be protected by a national park.

Last night’s storm devastated this region, and in particular two of the villages along the Cinque Terre — Vernazza and Monterosso.   More information and video are available here.

The trail is closed for the foreseeable future as rescue efforts continue.  Most of the roads out of La Spezia are blocked, as are the train tracks, so we’ll probably wait here for another day or two then move on.

I sit in a bar watching the news with the local people, drinking wine, and writing.  Every day above the ground is a good day.