Wednesday, July 3, 2013

La Spezia, Italy → Cinque Terre, Italy

It felt like Christmas, and going to bed was really difficult. I set my alarm for super early in the morning, double checked the train schedule, and laid out clothes so I could just get up and go. In the morning, I was going to Cinque Terre. Finally.
I had originally planned to do the towns in order. I wanted to get off the train in Riomaggiore and hike through all of them the first day. However, as soon as we arrived in La Spezia, I had to run into the Cinque Terre tourist office to get train cards for the next day, and they informed us that all but one of the trails between the cities was closed. Boo! But I came all this way! I decided, no matter, I would do the one trail I could, and look into the higher up, longer hikes through the mountains for the other towns. Everything would be okay, because I was here, finally, where I'd been trying to get to my whole life!
So it wasn't quite like Christmas. I woke up and was made painfully aware of the fact that I hadn't showered in two days, what with all the traveling, so that needed to happen. And then I was starving, so leftovers were warmed up and scarfed, and then there was the waiting around for certain other people to get ready. But finally, finally we headed to the train station.
Birds en masse on the street, and birds on wires, everywhere.

The train schedule is set for Cinque Terre from La Spezia, and the whole set up is rather self explanatory and easy to figure out. However, if you're not used to the trains in Europe, as we were not yet, it doesn't occur to you at once that they can go in both directions from the same platform. The train we needed was leaving from platform 2, and as there was a train there already, we hopped on it. And it sat for a long while. And people had luggage. And I began to feel very uncomfortable. "I'm sure this is the wrong train," I kept saying, but we stayed, waiting. When its scheduled departure time came and went, I got really anxious. Noah finally asked some people who had just boarded and sat beside us if this train went to 5Terre. They looked at him blankly. I tried in horribly broken Italian to ask, and the man shook his head, looking across at his wife, who was seated beside me, for help. He asked her a question, pointing at the map that Noah was pointing at. She answered back, and I realized suddenly that I could understand them. "Hablan Español?" I asked excitedly, and the woman, startled, put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Sí, sí!"
And then I, in all my brilliance, go "Moi aussi!" ....which is French. I catch myself immediately, and correct myself, but they find this immensely hilarious, and have a nice laugh at my brain not functioning properly. In any case, I am now fully able to ask them where the hell this train is going, to which they reply, "Pisa."
I don't want to go there yet! That's not for, like, five more days! They say it's nonstop, and it's leaving quite soon. I jump out of my seat, and they push me forward, telling me to hurry as we yell thanks over our shoulders. Running back out onto the platform just as the train is starting to go, we stand there, feeling rather stupid, and realizing we've now completely missed the train to where we're going. Ugh.
So it's back down the stairs, through the underground tunnels, then up the stairs, to the 5Terre office, "Where does the next train leave from?" She takes me outside and points to where a train is just arriving, and this looks more like it. There are tourists, and people with beach towels and sunglasses, and decidedly less clothing than the train to Pisa.
And it's crowded. When the train finally goes, all the seats are taken and people are pressed against the doors, including me. And they're all loud and annoying, but I don't care, because I'm going to 5Terre.
The train tracks were laid through a series of tunnels blown into the mountains on the coast of the Mediterranean. Thus, most of the train ride is in the dark, inside the mountain. But there is this one part...the train has been going for a while, and you can feel it, that you're almost there. And with no warning at all, the darkness of the tunnel breaks, and there is a flash of blue sky, and sparkling blue sea, a verdant green mountain cliff stretching down into the water, flat and glassy as an opaque mirror, the sun sparking off that pure blue in a dazzling display of light. And the whole train gasps. It's amazing. All at once, all talking stops, and there's a sharp intake of breath - from everybody - and then "How beautiful!" "Did you see that!" "It's gorgeous!"
It was lovely.
A few minutes later, the train slows and we pull into the station at Riomaggiore. The first town of five, and I can't help it - I step off the train and my eyes well up, and I'm so happy to be here I'm going to cry. It takes a lot of will power to keep myself together. To be totally honest, I didn't think I'd ever really get here. But I'm here, walking in this place I dreamed of for years, in a different country, surrounded by a language I don't speak, breathing this air thousands of miles from home, by a sea I've never seen, and I want to stay forever.
We head out of the station and up toward the Via dell'amore. This is the famous walk (and the easiest of all the hikes) - the Lover's walk - where you bring a padlock and lock it to the railing, throw the key into the sea. It's also the shortest of the hikes, heading toward Manarola, but as it's closed, we decide to explore the rest of Rio before heading on to the next town. Heading up in the opposite direction is a steep hill and a little path, climbing higher up the cliffs. The view is amazing.

The path winds up and then down, down, down, through narrow little walkways that two people can hardly squeeze through, and steep, tiny little stairs, back down toward the sea. My favourite part about all the towns is that they made me feel like a little kid at a particularly extensive playground. There was so much to explore, so many nooks and crannies to investigate, corners to hide in, alleys to turn down - it was like an amusement park where you just get to wander, and marvel at how beautiful everything is. It was so much fun.
We finally got down to the water, and the edge of the sharp cliff where the buildings of the town were clustered together, in all their colourful glory. We sat on the rocks for at least an hour, soaking up sunshine and just being happy to be where we were.

The colours of Italy are enough to put you in a permanent good mood.

I hardly have any pictures from Riomaggiore. When we first got off the train, I was too enchanted by everything and way too overwhelmed by the simple fact of being there to take any pictures. But, by the end of my time in Cinque Terre, I had taken over 600 photos. Craaazayy.
Being here also made me wish I had remembered more from all my geology classes. The rocks here are amazing. You can see the way everything has shifted and moved over thousands of years, and it's just ridiculously beautiful.
We headed down from our perch on the rocks and up the other side of the cliff. There was a breakwater that I wanted very much to climb out on. As we made our way from rock to rock, I realized the giant stones were made of marble. These were giant freaking slabs of marble, just thrown into the water to keep the waves out of the harbor. I soon learned that Italy has so much marble, it really doesn't matter if they throw some of it into the sea. It's just everywhere.

While disturbing the sunbathers on the rocks, we discovered (and you can see it in the picture 3 up from here, actually), that there is a boat that will shuttle you from one town to the next. The next boat was leaving in just a few minutes, so we hurriedly bought tickets and hopped aboard. Since we were paying the money for it, I decided we had to go further than just the next town, so we headed to town number 4, Vernazza. So much for doing them in order.
From the sea

Manarola (Town#2)

First glimpse of Corniglia, my dream town, and town #3

The boat ride was lovely. It was sunny in Rio, but by the time we arrived in Vernazza, the sky was a bit hazy and grey. It was nice, though - not too cold, not too hot, with a nice breeze, and without the sun beating down on you, it was almost perfect. We passed all the towns by sea, except for Monterroso del mare, which we could see down the coast, a little ways from Vernazza.
Pulling in to Vernazza, there are more amazing rock formations, a castle, and the most adorable little town I have ever seen.
and this guy, who was also adorable.

I loved this place. There were so many winding, cobblestone streets to explore, and heading up a staircase chosen at random, we ended up at a little castle, that overlooked the whole town, and the sea.
Up more stairs.

With just a 1 euro suggested donation to go in.

The dark spiral staircase

View from the top

So, the only trail that was open was between Vernazza and Corniglia. Since I absolutely needed to be able to approach Corniglia via one of these trails (since that's the way I'd always imagined it happening), I decided the hike from here to there would be necessary. Nowish.
So we headed back down from the castle, and wandered about the alleyways between buildings for a while, until we found the slight uphill that led to the beginning of the path to Corniglia.

 As soon as I saw the sign, I sprinted toward it, and then had to take a picture with it, naturally, feeling a little giddy.

So, I have this thing about accordion music. I don't know why, but it does something to me - it's something I've always wanted to learn how to play, and listening to 'French cafe' music with accordions will send me into this weird dream state that's hard to escape from. I love it. Immensely. I love Yann Tiersen and the Amelie soundtrack, I love horrible Mexican ranchero music chock full of accordions, and...well, you get the idea. So, we started up this path, blue signs pointing toward Corniglia leading the way. There were some stone stairs, bringing us higher up into the mountain, and giving us beautiful views of Vernazza's little bay. And then the path turns, and I hear accordion music. And this little Italian man, skin dark from the sun, his little dog laying belly-up on a mat in front of him, has a perfect red accordion and is playing it, starting the walk to Corniglia. It could not possibly have been better - almost crying moment number two. I had to stop and just take in the view, and take in the moment before we continued on the path. I dug around in my pocket for some loose euros as I walked toward him. "Ciao bella," he says as I walk up. I say, 'Ciao', dropping the euros in his case, and he says, "Grazie, bella," as I continue passed him up the hill. So perfect.

To be continued.

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