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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The Train Trip

May 20, 2009

We promised you no more bus stories, so this is a story about the train trip that we took in the last 24 hours…

We wanted to travel from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, both on the western side of Zimbabwe. The options were a five hour bus trip leaving at 4 AM from somewhere out of town, or an overnight train leaving at 7PM from the train station only five minutes walk from our guesthouse. We asked several local people about the train, and they confirmed that it was safe, despite our guidebook’s comment that accidents are common. We chose the train because of the ease of access, better departure time, avoidance of the cost of one night’s accommodation, and the positive experience we’d had on the overnight train in Tanzania. The train trip was scheduled to take 14 hours, and to arrive at 9 AM in Bulawayo.

We arrived at the train station just before dark, and waited until the list was posted showing which people were assigned to which saloon (i.e. car) and compartment. We were assigned to saloon 1121 compartment C, which a 1st class ‘coupe’, a sleeping compartment for two people only. It sounded wonderful.

When we boarded the train, we found that almost all the lights in the car were not functioning. The passageway was completely dark, making it difficult to find out compartment. Our compartment was one of only two that had lights, while the other 1st class passengers sat in complete darkness. Our compartment had an intermittent smell of smoke and urine. The lower bench, where we both sat and Diane slept, was missing much of its upholstery, so dirty foam was visible instead. Above the upper bunk was a small storage compartment which we closed after discovering that it contained bones, hopefully from a previous passenger’s dinner and not from a previous passenger. There was a small medicine cabinet above what was once a fold down sink, both of which we were afraid to open. Patrick opened them and looked anyway.

The two African men in coupe D had no lights, and we struck up a conversation with one of them. He was a businessman from Zambia, with good English and a laid back attitude. He was traveling in Zimbabwe as part of his work in import/export (i.e. smuggling). Apparently cooking oil is much cheaper in Zimbabwe than in Zambia due to the fact it can be obtained from South Africa duty-free. By purchasing it in bulk in Zimbabwe, and then smuggling it into Zambia without paying duties, he makes a tidy profit.

There were signs posted on the train like ‘Preserve your Heritage, Don’t Damage the Trains” and “No Smoking”. Our chain-smoking conductor came by to check our tickets. In 1st class, they normally provide sheets, blankets, and pillows to passengers, then rent any extra ones to those in second class for $1 US per person. On our trip, they had no sheets, but we were given two blankets and a pillow each. We used our own sleeping sheets and the blankets, which were just warm enough when the temperature dropped significantly at night.

You could tell that our National Railway of Zimbabwe (NRZ) train was, in colonial times, a beautiful thing, but it has seen better days. In 1st class, in addition to no lights and sparse upholstery, the cars were also lacking many pieces of window glass, all the door handles, and any form of maintenance or cleaning. Our compartment and the passageway were dirty. The toilets had no seats, no longer flushed, and like other trains in Africa, were basically just a hole opening down through the floor onto the tracks. There was no running water in the bathrooms, but there was a sign asking people not to occupy the bathroom for more than 10 minutes, which was not necessary in our case, as we tried to get out of there as quickly as possible, without touching anything.

In the morning, Patrick walked down a few cars to check out 3rd Class. Between the cars, all the doors were missing. In 1st class, the doors to the exterior did not shut (due to the missing door handles), but in 3rd class, they were completely gone. The ground rushed by outside, and the wind poured into the cars. In 3rd class, in addition to the missing doors, there were was no glass in any of the windows. The passengers were huddled on benches under blankets, wearing toques and gloves trying to stay warm as the wind blasted through the cars. This was definitely not a pleasant way to travel, especially when you’re not used to the cold. 3rd Class costs $5 US per person and 1st Class costs $8.

The train was running late, and we were expecting to arrive around 10 AM, when the train stopped unexpectedly on the outskirts of Bulawayo. The conductor wandered by to let us know that the train had run out of petrol. What? Lawnmowers run out of gas. Gas barbeques run out of gas. Occasionally, Patrick’s car runs out of gas. But trains do not run out of gas. Or at least they shouldn’t.


People started to disembark from the train, and stood beside the tracks in the tall grass. Patrick walked the length of the train, up one side and down the other, seeking information on what was happening. A group of male passengers were crowded around the engine at the front of the train. One said that another engine was being sent to retrieve us. Many of the passengers who could had already started to walk. We were apparently about 30 minutes hike from the second-to-last station before our destination. From there, it would likely be possible to get some form of transport to the end. When Patrick reported this to Diane, she was not pleased. We were getting ready to start hiking when we heard that the rescue engine would likely arrive in 15 more minutes. After about 90 minutes of waiting, the train started moving again, and we made it to Bulawayo at about 1 PM, only 4 hours late!