Tuesday, September 4, 2007
I arrive in the Cinque Terre wearing the smelliest shirt ever. Ever. I left Naples at 9:38 pm, and stumbled off the train at La Spezia at 4:14 am. I dozed off sometime in the first couple of hours, and woke up in a puddle of sweat. Thankfully the evening got cooler, and by the middle of the night it was cool and breezy enough to close the window. Nighttime train travel is a strange, twilight time. No one is really getting any decent sleep, and it's not unusual to wake up from a nap to find one of your compartment companions standing at the window just watching the world go by and getting some fresh air. Trains pull into stations during the wee hours, and people are lined up on the platform with their bags and suitcases waiting to go somewhere else. Time passes differently on a night train. It kind of floats and flickers by.
Even if I could get to the Cinque Terre at 4:30 in the morning, I'd just be sitting around there, so for the time being I choose to sit around the station at La Spezia. The station police and agents are walking around, and a few other travelers are hanging about, so it's hardly deserted. I'm walking in circles to keep myself awake and warm when one of the wedding guests from the previous weekend strolls down the platform. He's on his way back to Rome, and we kill time in the cafe, drinking tiny cups of coffee, waiting for the ticket office to open.
The Cinque Terre is five teacup-sized towns strewn along the coast within walking distance of one another (or you can hop on a train). Much of the land is terraced for agriculture, and if you're a fan of sweet white wine, you may want to indulge in a Cinque Terre vintage. I tried a taste at a wine shop and told the proprietress it was delicioso, but ugh...like Dracula, wine has never appealed to me. Give me just the grapes. The area is a national park, so you need to purchase a pass in order to do any walking in the area outside of the towns themselves. I get my pass at the train station ticket office, from a goofy agent who's either had too much caffeine or not enough sleep. He's making fun of my lack of Italian, but in a laughing with, not laughing at manner. So far, he's the happiest Italian I've met. He hands me various papers and booklets of information, one by one, and makes a show of looking for more things to give me.
I'm staying at the hostel in the second town, Manarola. When I get there, it's still early, and the hostel door is closed, so I just sit in the cafe at the beginning of town catching up in my journal. Once checked in, I need to make myself scarce, since hostels close down for at least a few hours during the day to clean. This hostel kicks people out from 10-5, which is actually a fairly long time for a lockout.
The Cinque Terre challenges me. I generally fill my waking hours with active things to do; if I'm on my own, just sitting and relaxing is sort of a foreign concept. I figure that's what sleep is for. I get twitchy if all I do is sit around for more than a couple of hours. And there isn't a whole lot to do here except relax. Each of the towns has a main street lined with shops and eateries, but unless you're extremely hungry or buying up buckets of souvenirs, it's hard to spend more than one hour ambling up and down each of these. Needing the give my legs and feet a break, I spend my first day in the area taking the train between a couple of the towns, giving them a cursory inspection. All the other holidaymakers here aren't having any problem adjusting to the lack of things to do. Vacationers everywhere are sporting hopelessly wrecked skin, doing their best to completely turn their hides into leather fit for purses, and competing for the Tiniest Swimsuit prize. The Cinque Terre also practices another concept foreign to me, that of paying to go to a beach. Despite the fact that it's on the coast, there is only a scrap of beach here, and it's taken up with ranks of beach chairs and umbrellas. Most of the rest of the coast is just big rocks that lead right into the deep cool sea, which are free to sit on or jump off of. It also poses a challenge if you have a boat; in Manarola, the boats are lowered into the water via a winch on a big I-beam that projects over the cliff.
Ignoring the pay for the beach rule, I sneak on and spend a few minutes just walking in the water. It may have been a mistake, since I get some sand in a blister on my foot. It doesn't hurt, but I want to get it flushed out anyway, so I pop into a farmacia looking for a plastic dental syringe. Italian farmacias are pretty small, and a lot of items are behind the counter. Not finding what I want on the shelves, I ask the pharmacist. He give me a syringe. A shot in the arm syringe, sterile needle and all. It'll work, but I 'm a tad concerned about using it in the shared hostel bathroom, imagining having a non-English speaking guest walk in, and trying to explain why I have a syringe stuck in my toe.
I spend my second day hiking the coast between the towns. It takes about five hours at a good ambling pace, including one stop for gelato. The path between the first and second towns is basically a paved path right on the cliff, but the hikes are harder between the last two towns. The path can be narrow and rocky, and continually rises and falls. Along the way there are a lot of stone walls that seem to be holding together only through careful placement and gravity.
Half along the way I meet Shem, also staying at the hostel, and we finish out the hike to the last town, Monterosso. He wants to work on his tan, so we sit on the free rocks, watching some local fishermen and fisherwomen catch small fish with small maggots. It doesn't take me long to start burning, so bidding Shem and his developing tan goodbye, I seek out a cooler place to rest. Monterosso has a Cappuchin monastery with a mausoleum at the top of the cliff, offering a good sea view and shade. The entire area is overrun with little green and brown lizards, who rarely stay still long enough to get a picture. Wondering amongst the tombs at the monastery I startle a little silver snake, who in turn startles me, and it slithers off into the wall as I'm fumbling to get my camera out.
Walked out for the day, I take to train back to Manarola. By now it's early evening, and the sun has lost its midday blaze. It's time to join to throng of people enjoying the sea. I definitely come in last in the ongoing Tiny Swimsuit competition, sporting my Speedo racing suit, which goes down to my knees. It's not that I race, I just don't like baring my legs. I don't even really want to swim, I just want to float around. I guess I finally found my form of relaxation. The sea is very clear here, and all along the coast, you can see the rocks at the bottom.
In contrast to Pompeii's snoozing dogs, the Cinque Terre is full of napping cats.
And that wasn't even all of them. There was also one wide awake Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy.
He was tied up to a boat and looking sad until some of us came along, and then he was happy as a clam.
I'm in the Cinque Terre for three mornings, and each time go to the same cafe for a cappuccino and a pastry. The same woman is always behind the bar, and always takes her sweet time acknowledging that I'm standing there, clearly waiting for service. Perhaps I needed to look a little more feeble and caffeine-deprived. Even flipping a coin or wafting a bill about wouldn't work, since she takes payment after goodies have been consumed. And when she does acknowledge me, she has a way of sort of looking just past me, through her designer spectacles, so I wasn't sure she was actually addressing me, or someone else. On the third morning, I was pretty sure I had exactly the same thing as on the second morning, but she charged me less. Either the price on the flaky pastries was wrong, or she cut me a break. I like to think it's the latter.