07 July, 2014

Day 4: Rick Steves doesn't lie

Departure for a 9:55am train that we don't want to miss, so we got ourselves in motion early, and left with the goal of having ~1 hour to spare if everything went to plan. We got ourselves out of the place, doing the check to make sure we left nothing behind, and made our way toward the bus. Unfortunately, moments after we left, Allie realized that her scarf from her brand new fancy old hat was gone, and we didn't see it outside, which must have meant that it fell off the hat inside the B&B. But now, we were locked out, and had no time to mess around (actually, maybe we had time, but we didn't want to pester anyone that early in the morning, so we let it go).

We took the #1 bus, without a hitch, all the way to SMN, and all we needed to do was print our tickets from the machine. I had purchased this train ticket in advance, but these particular tickets are issued at the station by entering a confirmation number. I enter the info, and the machine says it is unable to complete the request. I try again. And again. The translated English interface is not all that "perfect" so it's not even clear if I have made the correct choices. Only a few minutes have passed, and we have like 45 minutes to spare. But, of course, I decide that worrying is a good idea. Sigh. So we go to the information person, and she tells us to make sure we are using such and such a machine, since not all the machines allow this transaction. I am pretty sure we are, but I go back and try again. No avail. We tell her, and she says she can help us, but only when her shift ends which is in about 15 minutes. We decide we'll take her help, but keep trying in the meantime.

While I am having my mini-panic, Allie asks some people who look like they're doing the same thing, and they are successful, on a different (but identical) machine. Also, in the meantime, I see various other people successfully purchase tickets on the spot from the machine I have been trying. So I am increasingly convinced the problem is my ticket. But, anyway, I get in line at the machine where the other people successfully collected their tickets, and we have to wait for several people now in front of us, and there's a 12 year old Italian girl, begging/conning us in Italian to buy her a ticket for some nebulous destination. Finally we get to front of line, and I enter the info, and the tickets print fine. In hindsight, I think what happened is that the other machine didn't have the paper to print the large tickets, so the error message was actually trying to inform me that this transaction was not possible because of being out of paper. Other people had purchased tickets that printed on small paper. Bad translations, or bad design? You decide.

Anyway, now we were "good to go" with our tickets, so we waited for the train to become available, and we hopped on. It was about a 2.5 hour ride from Florence to La Spezia (which, at this point, we finally learned is pronounced "La Spet-see-ah" not "La Spee-zee-ah" like we'd been referring to it up to this point). The ride was rather uneventful. Maybe I wrote a bit. I don't know. Upon our arrival, we had to sort out the business for train tickets to Corniglia, and make some decisions about the "Cinque Terre Card" which entitles you to various inclusive permissions on hiking trails (most of which are closed --- actually, correction -- the trails for which you need the pass are mostly closed, but there are plenty of other trails that don't need any pass -- we did not know this). So the Cinque Terre Card is 12 Euro per day. If we'd read our Rick Steves in advance, we would have learned from him that the only way you "break even" on the card is if you hike the trails (that require a pass) *and* ride the train at least 3 times in a day. Otherwise, you're better off buying individual train tickets and if you are hiking, to buy a cheaper version of the trail pass that doesn't include the train. We didn't know this, and our friendly ticket salesman, of course, sold us the full deal card. Lesson learned, and at least the money goes to preserving/restoring the park.

All this to tell you that we took the train to Corniglia, and then took the bus up the hill to the village (instead of walking up the 382 steps with our bags, or walking up the 1 mile hilly road).

When we got to the village, it was clear from the moment we arrived that we picked a good place to stay, and the impression only got better and better. Corniglia is the smallest village, and it is incredibly quaint, relatively quiet, without nearly as much touristy crap. And even the touristy things it has are understated. There is only 1 "main" road, and it is not even a main road -- it's an alley that's wider than the other alleys -- and it even takes a turn in the middle, and then dead-ends at a cliff overlooking the ocean. Different from all the other villages, as I will tell you later.

We only had to hunt around for about 5 minutes before finding the door of our "landlady" who was named Eleonora. She came down to greet us (she lives on the "Main Street"), and walked us up to our apartment, which was about a 3-4 minute walk to "the other side of town" which is essentially a couple of flights of stairs, a couple of turns down some narrower alleys, and we're there. The place is called Sole-Terre-Mare, which means Sun-Earth-Sea, and it has 3 apartments. Ours is apparently the least desirable, because it's a bit of a cave (albeit, on a cliff), and doesn't have as good of a view as the two apartments above it. But it had a charm of its own, and we loved it. There was a brick arch inside the room, cut into the wall, probably where this apartment used to be connected to the adjacent one before these things got apartmentized. After settling in briefly, we walked down to "The Square" and decided to eat at the restaurant that was there. I can't remember the name, but it's Locanda Something, and it's the most prominent place, directly opposite the bus stop in this tiny piazza. The servers were both older men, with a lot of character. I ordered Penne All'Arrabiata, and Allie had... what was it? Pesto Spaghetti, with green beans and potatoes. We also had some wine. About 10 seconds after our food came, it started raining. A little, then more. We were outside under large umbrellas, but I guess the staff decided this storm could become intense, and feared whatever might come, so they actually interrupted all the diners, and moved us inside. They were a little brusque about it when it happened, but they were then extremely polite once we were inside, and apologized. I think it's just a matter of business. If a storm is coming, with wind, need to get the umbrellas down and the people inside. So we finished our meal inside. There was a large American family, with like 4 teenage kids sitting across the room from us. They were nice, it seemed, but very typical American, and not all that polite or formal with the staff. And they all ordered the exact same dishes, with the exception of maybe one person. It was a little weird. I think our waiter was a little annoyed with them, and at one point, after bringing them some of their dishes, he says "Buon Appetito" to them, and as he walks away from the table, he gives me a big wink, and then makes a hysterically funny sniveling gesture with his mouth, as if to say "God, can you believe I need to deal with this?!" I laughed. It was neat that we'd apparently behaved well enough we were "on his side." Then we met some people who were young, early 20s, at the table next to us. Two guys and a girl. They were speaking German, but I was pretty sure they weren't from Germany. My guesses were either Swiss or Austrian, in that order. I asked them where they were from. Switzerland, near Zurich. I guess I know something about the sound of the German language? I shouldn't kid myself. We talked to them briefly, and they were friendly and funny. They asked us why we came to Italy, and we said "Why not?" They laughed. We asked them why they came, and they said it's because it was close enough to drive in a few hours.

After lunch, we wandered around Corniglia a bit more. The rain had stopped. We got the basic lay of the town, which we loved. Then we decided we'd do a hike. The hike to Vernazza is supposed to take about 90 minutes or so, and we figured that would be a nice plan. See another town on the first day. Oh, that reminds me of a funny side story. On the train from La Spezia to Corniglia, there was a family (clearly from either New Jersey or New York) with 2 youngish kids. The guy was most definitely Italian American, and you could tell this trip was like some big bragging thing for him about going to the homeland or something. He was probably late-40s. The kids are misbehaving a bit, and both he and the wife are taking turns berating the kids. Then the wife starts berating the guy about the trip plans. It is clear they've decided to go from some major city, I think Pisa, and spend one day to see the Cinque Terre. As if that's possible. I mean, people do it, but it's really a horrible idea, I can assure you, in hindsight. If you set out to do this, you are setting yourself up to have a pretty bad impression of the place, because you'll undoubtedly want to just jump from town to town, and you won't go deep into any town, so you'll see mostly the touristy parts, and it will all look the same, and you won't find the real beauty, which is in the hikes, and in the little corners of the towns. But I certainly wasn't gonna tell them that. In the meantime, the wife is saying "I would really like to see two towns. It's a lot of work to come here for only one town." And the husband has obviously heard her complain about a thousand things before this, and he just snaps at her, and says "What's it to you, anyway?!" Heh. Allie and I were giggling to ourselves. And when it started pouring rain later in the day, we laughed again about what a marvelous time the family must be having in Cinque Terre, and now one of our favorite things to say to each other (or, I should say, my favorite things to say to Allie) is "I'd really like to see two towns. It's a lot of work for one town."

So we did the hike to Vernazza, which is spectacular. It is mostly flat, with slight climb through the first small portion, and then a pretty big descent into Vernazza for the last 30+ minutes. I wouldn't want to do the hike in the other direction. Even though this hike is on "Trail #2" which is the one that supposedly requires a pass, I am pretty sure that this particular hike does not require the pass. There were spectacular views of Corniglia as we headed out of town, and of Vernazza (and some unnamed town on a high hilltop) as the hike progresses. We ran into a number of friendly people and had some small chats along the way. Maybe we took some photos for people too.

When we got to Vernazza, we wandered around a bit, but it actually started to rain again, quite heavily. We weren't really equipped for the rain, so we got wet. We went to the top of the tower in the center of the town, and had a beautiful, but wet view. Then we walked around some more, wet. We stopped for a gelato. I think Allie had coffee and I had gelato. It was okay. But we were kind of wet. We had to wait a bit for a train back to Corniglia, and that's what we did. It was a long day of travel, and we were kind of tired from the walk too. And wet.

When we got back, Allie was actually not feeling well, and was resting, so I went out in search of food by myself. I came across a pizza place, called La Gata Flora, on the "main street" and ordered a couple of pizzas. One Quattro Formaggi, and one Quattro Stagione (artichoke, mushroom, prosciutto, olives). This was the best pizza of the trip, for sure. When Allie started feeling better, she was hungry, but was skeptical about eating pizza. But she did, and immediately agreed that it was amazing. Yes. Amazing. The 10% pizza miracle that one always hopes for.

After dinner, we relaxed. And then we slept. A long, but good day, and a good intro to the 5 lands.

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