A quick jaunt across Italy
We made the flight from Barcelona to Milan only by the narrowest of margins and we were similarly rushed when we arrived. We bolted to the underground only to realise that we needed to buy tickets from the unmanned upstairs counter. The train was about to leave so we grabbed a rail security guard and in .... not even remotely understandable Italian, advised him we needed to catch the train. He nodded casually and pointed upstairs. I held the bags and Shelly ran back up the escalator. The guard indicated we should chill, "Is okay." he said. Shelly got the tickets, we jumped aboard and the train pulled away. We were off to Como.
In 2004 we'd spent two months travelling across Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Egypt and we loved Italy very much, but there were a few times when things didn't go our way. Our time in the Cinque Terra was completely rained out and we could have spent much longer in Siena and Rome, so this was an opportunity to go back and relive our Italian adventure. We were also catching up with some friends. Our friends Matt and Aggy had just popped over to Italy to catch up with a friend in Como so we agreed to catch up. They were staying with their friend in a little village just south of Como. We went directly to the city, but after a quick trip to the tourist information office we were confronted with some bad news. There was an international cycling meet across the border in Switzerland as well as powerboat racing on Lake Como so accomodation was scarce. Even worse, it was Fashion Week in Milan and the every hotel between Como and Milan and all the surrounding districts was full. Given that we did not have any accomodation organised, we were in deep trouble. Instead of enjoying Como in the afternoon we ended being driven around to every hotel, B&B and hostel in the Lakes district by Matt's Italian friend. In the end, Matt's friend offered us a couch in his tiny flat and he slept on a friend's couch. We were extremely grateful.
That night we ate a delicious meal in a local restaurant before crashing out.
The next day we were all in a bit of a quandry. We'd given everyone the run around the day before so didn't want to make a fuss, Matt wanted to go to Switzerland to watch the cycling, and Aggy didn't want to spend the day in the car. Eventually we decided to drive over to Lake Maggiore. It was quite lovely and there were preparations in hand for jet boat racing later that month. After a couple of hours of wandering, conversation, reminiscence and gelati we bid everyone adieu and hopped on the train to La Spezia. It was time to revisit the Cinque Terra.
As I mentioned, we'd visited the Cinque Terra in 2004 and although we had a wonderful afternoon in Portovenere, just around the headland from La Spezia on the day we arrived, it promptly poured with rain for the next three days and was a total wash out. The weather this time was beautiful. We arrived in the late afternoon in La Spezia, the port city where the main train line terminates. La Spezia is big, busy and a little grubby - certainly not our favourite city. As soon as we got off the train we rushed to the tourist information office and tried to arrange accomodation. We were in a bit of a quandry - should we catch the local train to the furthest village of Montorosso and then work our way southwards and finish up in Portovenere? Or should we start in Portovenere? The clerk, who was dressed like he was on his way to gay rave party, was a little indifferent. "Either is good.", he said, "Is the end of the tourist season, there is lots of accomodation." We opted for the lovely Portovenere. Although it's not officially part of the Cinque Terra, it is one of the largest towns and has more facilities.
Portovenere is a very beautiful village situated at the end of a promontory at the edge of the bay of La Spezia, but it's also quite isolated. We'd just missed the bus so had to wait half an hour and by the time we arrived it was beginning to get dark. The first hotel we visited had one room available but it was 160 euro - far above our price range. The next hotel was more expensive. The next one was full. And so on. Every hotel in town was either full, closed down for the season, or ridiculously expensive. It was Como all over again. We did two laps of the town and were on the verge of giving up and heading back to La Spezia when an Italian lady came up and asked us if we needed help with accomodation. She was staying at a hostel at the top of the town and was pretty sure they had a couple of spare rooms. She kindly phoned the hostel manager and then led us up a long winding path to the highest point overlooking the over to the Ostello di Porto Venere e Isola Palmaria. As the hostel was virtually empty we had our pick of rooms. We chose the one overlooking the port. It was magnificent and only 75 euro a night! We could not believe our good fortune.
The Five Lands
The next day we took the train to Montorosso. Although it was the end of the season it was beautiful and sunny and the were a smattering of people on the beach, including the obligatory topless sunbather. She was 106 years old with skin like old leather but she still went off like a firecracker. Motorosso is perhaps the less scenic of the five towns but it has a real beach and lots of little cafes and bars. We stopped to enjoy a couple of wines before heading off to Vernazza.
Vernazza is my favourite of the towns. It has a lovely little harbour surrounded by cafes. We'd spent some time here in 2004 so didn't spend too much time exploring. We stopped for a delicious gelati while the late afternoon sun bathed the ancient church is a rich honey glow.
Just before sunset we took the train to Manarola. We walked out around the headland and took some photos of the town as the sun set. It was beautiful. Then we walked along the Lovers Walk to Riomaggiore. We ate that night at a cute little restaurant that looked promisingly simple and rustic. We were made even more hopeful when a small tour group we bumped into at Genoa train station the day before walked in. We'd overheard the guide telling the group how he knew of this little local restaurant that served traditional Ligurian cuisine. But it was not to be. Italian food is so international now that no matter where you go customers can tell crap Italian from real Italian and the food they served us here was nothing more than ordinary packet pasta and sauces that can be picked up from any supermarket shelf anywhere in the world. Italy has so much great cuisine that it is really a highlight of any trip to Italy so to be served that sh*t is a great disappointment.
The next day we opted to take the ferry that links Portovenere to five towns. It was a beautiful day and it was great to see the towns from the water. We got off at Vernazza with intentions of walking all the way back to Riomaggiore but got a little distracted shopping and sightseeing.
We took the train back to Riomaggiore as we'd never visited that town in daylight but shortly after we arrived we realised that both the ferry and trains stopped running between 1pm and 3pm. As we were taking the overnight train from La Spezia to Munich at 4.30 that afternoon, we had a bit of a problem. We ran down to the port but just missed the boat. There were worst places to be stranded but it was hard to relax. All the problems of transport to and from Portovenere were coming home to roost. At 3pm we would catch the local train back to La Spezia, then we'd have to wait for the next bus to Portovenere, take the half hour trip out, grab the bags and catch the next half hourly bus back and then walk from central La Spezia to the train station for the 4.30 train. It was going to be a VERY close run thing.