Thursday, June 03, 2010

As Advertised

When does the 3-hour journey from Rapallo to Florence take over 11?

When you do the right thing and catch a bit of Cinque Terre along the way.

I've been wanting to go to Cinque Terre for years. Ever since I first saw Europe Through the Back Door (which wasn't at all what I thought it would be, but instead a travel show by Rick Steves) I thought, "If I ever get to Italy, I'm going to Cinque Terre."

Our train ride from Rapallo to La Spezia (the nearest city with left luggage facilities, we were told) was nothin' but class. Three minutes before the fast train was set to depart Rapallo, I rolled up to the ticket window. "Due biglietti per La Spezia per favore," I asked. The lady behind the bullet-proof glass machine-gunned something back. Uhhh... "Lei capisce l'inglese?" I sheepishly replied.

"Dee tren leaves now. Impossible to sell tiiiicket! You take next train. A el dieci. Ten."

I felt as though I was being scolded. It's not my fault Ligurian cab drivers take their sweet time getting you to the station.  I bowed my head and bought the tickets for the upcoming slower train.  For 2 euros or so, I couldn't complain.

Alannah had already made her way to the platform with our bag. The idea was if I could buy a ticket quickly enough, we'd hop on the fast train. I passed under the station and got up to the platform to deliver the bad news, but the 9:23 express to La Spezia was still there. A conductor was walking by.

"Scusi, scusi!" We ran after her, waving our ticket and asking, "This train – go – La Spezia?"

"Yes, but not with this ticket."  We fully knew this and put on our dumb American sad puppy faces.  "You can pay supplement. But you must get on now. Follow me."

We followed her to the front of the train and hopped on. She punched something into what looked like a relic of a Palm pad, accepted a 10-euro note, and set us on our way. "This is first class car, but it's OK. You can stay here."

Thanking her graciously, we installed ourselves in a private compartment with its own sliding glass door, reclining seats, electronic blinds, and blessed air conditioning. All of a sudden, we wished this was the slow train all the way to Florence.

La Spezia was a mess. The train platform was absolutely packed with every American with a passport who'd heard of Rick Steves, sporting Nikes and clutching their copies of Europe Through the Back Door. (Again, not nearly as enticing as it sounds.) The left luggage service took forever and two days for me to drop off one article. And by the time our local train that would backtrack us into Cinque Terre was ready to board, it was already hot and packed with loud Americans. As if hearing the repeated "Oh mah gawds" of a bunch of Florida sorority sisters wasn't enough, imagine putting up with it when getting stuck in train tunnels over and over.

So far, I was not impressed by my Cinque Terre experience. Thanks, Mr. Steves.

Any and all disappointment melted away after peeling away from the train platform and into Vernazza. After about three minutes, it was already decided that our next Italian vacation travels require at least a few days here. A cove with a tiny beach and turquoise water... Cute little pasticcerias with delicious little pastries of which we had to partake right away... Twisted little alleys and stairways... Despite being firmly on the tourist track, it was a place I was happy to explore. At least while waiting for our ferry to the next town. No more hot trains, thankyouverymuch.

What I really wanted was to tuck into some seafood at one of the numerous – get this – affordable trattorias and ristorantes along the cobbled streets. "It's as slow as France," Alannah warned me. "Maybe slower. We would miss our boat."

Mia moglie
Curses! Foiled again! We'd have to eat in the next town along the way, but at least I had a boat ride to look forward to. I'm not sure the boat had a name, but if it did it'd have to be Italian for "The Vomit Comet." This boat was so buoyant, it would pitch up and down at the slightest ripple in the water. Despite having pretty decent sea legs, I was almost ready to hurl off the side of the boat as we made our way along the Ligurian coast to Manarola. Between the bouncing and the diesel fumes of the engine, I was feeling a bit queasy. Yet, somehow, it was all still fun. Probably because watching a bunch of old pensioners hang on for dear life while a vessel rocks violently is, well, funny.  And because my wife looks awesome with a sea breeze blowing through her hair like some 80s rock video.

The rockin' boat tugged and pulled at its ropes when we arrived at port, and the gangplank nearly kept popping off. It's as though we were on a stormy sea, all while enjoying warm, gorgeous weather. It didn't make much sense, but I was happy to be off the boat and ready to find some food.  Manarola seemed a touch more modern and a tiny bit less charming than Vernazza, but that's like comparing Greta Scacchi and Isabella Rosselini. You'd find nary a captain who wouldn't still dock his ferry there.

And while Vernazza's a touch sexier, Manarola's where you want to eat out. At least, so we felt looking at all the menus. We finally decided on La Scogleria which, eye-rollingly enough, has a little temple to Rick Steves out front. But the man knows his stuff, and the food was spectacular in that simple-but-astounding way we've come to expect in Liguria.

A bombing run of rain
We sat on the covered terrace, sucking down various seafood, pasta, and Cinque Terre specialties and polishing off a bottle of the local white. Then we realized why the boat was rocking earlier: A giant thunderstorm moved in, dousing the coast with a torrential downpour. The waiter brought us our check and told us we can stay as long as we like. No one else would be coming in in this weather!  "This is like one of those summer storms," I assured myself. "It'll go away in five minutes. Ten, tops."  But it didn't. It just kept pouring and pouring. The thunder and lightning getting bigger and bigger.

And finally, as if by magic as is usually the case with these things, it went away. And thus we could start our walk along the Via dell'Amore (Lover's Lane) to the next town. While utterly cheesy, it's appropriately named. The 1km paved walk between Manarola and Riomaggiore is disgustingly romantic, with a beautiful vista along every inch of it. There's even a bar mid-way, perched over a cliff with views of the swirling ocean below, and local grappa and organic limoncino at enticingly low prices. Add to that some obscure 80s new wave on the sound system, and you had my ideal bar.

With a grappa buzz and gorgeous sunshine – that's how you enjoy Lover's Lane. Of course, it helps to have someone you love with you.  We didn't do the cheesy thing and buy an 8-euro padlock to put our names on or anything like that, but we did get pretty gross with the picture taking and all that.

Locked in
The path led us to Riomaggiore, which was.. umm.. there's a train station there. And – contrary to all the info out there – a left luggage office. Exciting.

Sleep train
Fortunately, the train back to La Spezia – while still packed with fellow Americans – was a bit more roomy and a lot more air conditioned. Despite the trip back being only 10 minutes, it seems everyone took advantage and took a nap.  Again, I wish the train could've been longer.  La Spezia was hot. It was dry. And with Wednesday being a national holiday, everything was closed.

Well, almost everything. We managed to find a gelateria that was open. And if there's anything Alannah won't say no to, it's an offer of gelato. I had something that was like a marshmallow fluff meringue. She got the golosone, which means "gourmand" or in some cases "fat kid."  Maybe that's more my flavor!

The main drag in
La Spezia
The most excitement we got in La Spezia was at the left luggage office. While we got back to the train station in time for our 5:41 to Florence, the guy holding my suitcase hostage had other ideas. As is often the case in Italy, the left luggage job isn't a busy one. Which means a lot of smoke breaks. Or really, it's a day-long smoke break punctuated by occasionally having to take or give back people's luggage.

I rang the buzzer once.  A minute later, a second time.  Two minutes after that, a third time.  I told Alannah she'd better just go to the platform with our ticket, and I'd run over if I ever got the bag out.  Five minutes later, I started pushing the button repeatedly.  The trouble with a remote buzzer is you don't hear it. You don't know if it's working. Or if someone on the other end is listening. I buzzed a few more times.

Eventually, a man in a green Trenitalia shirt started walking down from the other end of the platform, waving, "I'm coming!" He certainly didn't look like he was in a rush. Never mind that he works at, you know, a place that works on tight timetables.

Well, we made it on the train. Barely. But we made it.

Having enjoyed our experience in the morning, I bought first-class tickets to Florence. We'd enjoy reclining seats, air conditioning, and our own private compart –– what the? For the next 2 hours and 40 minutes, we enjoyed stifling heat, stiff seats, and Italian youth with no concept of voice modulation.

Oh well, you can't have it all. And despite some wonky transport, we'd had an ace day. We arrived in Florence in the evening, in time to meet up with my cousin Neema and his family (who've come from California) at the apartment we've rented for the rest of the week. They'll mind the kids. We'll cook. But for now, we sleep.

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