Sunday, May 12, 2013

Canadians in Cinque Terre (Letter #8 from Italy: April 26, 2013)

We board the 8:43 a.m. train from Minucciano to Riomaggiore, the first of the five islands of Cinque Terre. There is another couple on the train and we quickly realize they are from Quebec (Francesca told us last night a couple from Quebec has just arrived in the village). We introduce ourselves. Marie-Claude and Pierre are in Europe for three months and are on the Italian leg of their tour. We stop in Aulla to change trains, and are approached by a girl asking if we speak English. As it turns out, Yuko lives in Calgary (originally from Japan, immigrated to Canada 13 years ago). She too is on an extended trip – in Italy this week and then she heads to Barcelona for a two-week intensive Spanish course, followed by another two weeks travelling Spain. I am inspired; ever since I took Spanish in University, part of me has wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country and immerse myself in the language – she is doing it! (Life note: I will do this too.) We get off at different stations, and wish each other well.

On the train, we sit next to a woman who is probably in her early 40s. We don’t pay her much attention at first, until we make a stop and her face lights up. She sees a man with whom she is clearly in love. They embrace and kiss and he hands her a package. I’m not sure what their story is, but we imagine they have perhaps been separated, and are now reunited. The train is crowded so he moves to a nearby seat (I wish now I’d given him my seat, but we did get off at the next stop). She continues to glow, her eyes bright and her smile unshakeable. We are witness to her joy, and can’t help but soak a bit of it up ourselves.
When we disembark at Riomaggiore, we begin to understand what Rick Steves was telling us in his guide to Cinque Terre (he tells us to stand close to the train door and be ready to get off before the throngs of people getting on prevent us from getting out). 

We stop at the Tourist Information office and buy our walking pass. A large portion of the walk has been closed due to rock slides; the only portion remaining open is from Vernazza to Monterosso. We decide to eat breakfast in Riomaggiore, then take the boat from there to Vernazza, and then walk to Monterosso (a 1.5 hour walk, Rick tells us). 

Finding a washroom soon becomes a priority, so we follow the “WC” signs. The women’s washroom is out of order (this is the second time we have encountered this today) and both women and men are lined up for the men’s. 

The outside door to the washroom is open, so the sink is visible. It soon becomes evident that there is no running water, and I can almost see the spread of disease as one after another, each person comes out of the bathroom, pushes the sink faucet in an attempt to wash their hands, then walks away. I am tempted to leave, not wanting to be part of the disease chain, but decide I will simply skip over the touching of the sink and find another place to wash my hands (not sure where – I can’t believe I didn’t think to pack hand sanitizer!).

It is finally my turn. I open the door to the stall, only to find it truly is designed for men – it is a hole in the floor. And, to top it off, there is no toilet paper. I turn and leave immediately, vowing to find somewhere – anywhere – else to go, mentally cursing the National Park system (yes – this is a national park). Rick’s book hadn’t mentioned the state of the WCs in Cinque Terre (although he does tell us that generally, public washrooms are hard to find in Italy. He is right. One of our lessons is: If you’re in a restaurant, use their washroom, whether you have to or not). He does mention that, unfortunately, there is a history of corruption among those running the parks in Cinque Terre, happily bilking tourists. I would like one of them to be forced to use the WC.
Disgraceful washrooms aside, Cinque Terre is astoundingly beautiful. Villages built into the cliffs, terraces of gardens and olive trees overlooking the turquoise ocean. We decide to take a boat from Riomaggiore to Vernazza to see the sights from the water. We compete for photo opportunities with the many other tourists on the boat, many of them part of a few different cruises.

When we disembark in Vernazza, we hear the tour guides say to their cruise charges, “Five minutes. Get off, take pictures, get back on.” Ours will be a more leisurely exploration. We stop in a café to use the washroom (thank you!) and then begin our hike from Vernazza to Monterosso. As we are about to start, we run into Pierre and Marie-Claude again – they have just hiked from Monterosso to here. Pierre’s face is red and sweaty. “How was it?” we ask. “Hard,” he says. They wish us luck.
Rick’s book says that this is the most challenging of the walks with many ups and downs and narrow paths. We are up for the challenge. We quickly realize it will indeed be a challenge. While we consider ourselves relatively fit, the first part of the walk is largely up, and any downhills lead quickly and predictably to more upwards treks. At points, when we encounter people hiking the opposite direction, one or other of us will flatten ourselves  to let the others pass. We see and hear hikers from many different countries, including Australia, the US, Canada and Germany (and many Italians). We pass a woman we met a couple of days ago in Lucca; she is travelling Italy with her friend, who is finishing up a military posting in Germany. As we pass fellow hikers on the path, we sometimes trade pleasantries in Italian, sometimes English, and sometimes we just smile and nod in mutual respect. One girl passes us going in the other direction. We are tackling a particularly challenging part of the trail, and are sweating and breathing heavily. “Courage,” she says. It is an apt word of encouragement, and is appreciated. We repeat this to another person a bit further down the path, and they repeat the word in Italian: “Couragio.” I imagine the word making its way around the hike, being passed from person to person.

Pierre and Marie-Claude tell us it took them two hours to complete the hike; a couple from Hamilton, Ontario tells us the same. Although we think initially we are likely more fit than most and can complete it in the 90 minutes that Rick allots, the trail demands humility, and we soon suspect it will take us the full two hours. At several points along the route, we see signs (in several languages) warning of falling rocks. While the warning is appreciated, I’m not sure it will do us much good if rocks actually begin to fall. It’s not as if there is much room to maneuver to avoid them. Judith muses aloud, “I wonder how many people they lose on these trails every year.” I would rather not reflect on that question right now, and say as much – perhaps something to google later from the safety of solid ground. At one point we see a local man working at covering a rock face with wire to prevent such rock falls – I am grateful for my office job.

There are several points that lend themselves to stunning photos. We take advantage of some opportunities, and forfeit others after weighing (very briefly) the risk of falling over the side of the mountain.

At the top of a mountain, in a small clearing, a cat lies contentedly in the sun. He obviously lives here; someone has set up food and water and a makeshift shelter in case of rain. The cat pays little attention to the passersby, stretching out to soak up the sun.

At several points in the walk, Judith says, “I think it must be all downhill from here,” (which, I reflect, takes on a whole new meaning from the usual negativity associated with downhill). “I wish you wouldn’t say that,” I say, reflecting on the times before that the downhill was quickly followed by an uphill climb. However, in the final 30 minutes or so, it is mostly downhill as we descend into Monterosso. At the 90-minute mark, we arrive in Monterosso, asking a local to take our photo together as evidence that we’ve completed the trek.

Our first post-hike stop is the train station. If we’ve learned one thing on this trip it is, “Always check the train schedule first.” They gave us a train schedule for Cinque Terre at the Tourist Information office, but it is incomprehensible; it includes all kinds of footnotes about trains running or not running certain days of the week or on holidays (and today is, after all, the day after a holiday). It is 3:15 p.m. and we find out our train leaves at 4:43. We have time to eat a late lunch. We stop at a little restaurant with a patio overlooking the beach, where brave children swim and their parents dip their toes in the water.
After lunch, we head down to the beach where I put my feet into the water. It is not warm (perhaps low teens or 15 degrees) but coming from Nova Scotia, it’s absolutely fine – and refreshing).

We head back to the station, my flip flops frothing from soaking up the salt water (a phenomenon I have never before experienced). We take the train back to Riomaggiore, where we spend another 30 minutes passing the time until our next train arrives. We wander the streets and come across a tiny café and bakery. I buy what turns out to be a perfect pastry cradling a smooth, sweet, creamy lemon filling. It is bliss.
We board the crowded train (standing room only) to see Yoku, our friend from Calgary. We greet one another like long-lost friends and marvel at the fact that we have managed to connect again. We trade details of the day and get off together at La Spezia, where Yoku is staying and we must wait for our next train. We trade contact information and promise to connect by Facebook. We encourage Yoku to come to Nova Scotia (she’s been once and loved it) and I suspect we will see her again. I tell her I want to hear all about her experiences in Barcelona, as she has inspired me and I want to do the same. We hug goodbye, certain our paths will cross again.

Judith and I have a couple of hours to wait until our train arrives, so spend our time wandering La Spezia. Like many of the Italian cities we have visited so far, a significant portion of the city is made up of stone streets with pedestrian access only, lined with shops and restaurants. We continue to muse on the fact that Dartmouth and Halifax could have this too; I have a vision of downtown Dartmouth with the same setup, drawing people from the municipality and the province (who’s on the dark side now, Haligonians?)

We take the train to Aulla, then back to Minucciano. I read my book, “The Glassblower of Murano,” set in Venice. While we won’t make it to Venice on this trip, I am already able to identify with many of the elements of Italian culture noted in the book. The train pulls into the station in Minucciano, and we stumble home, exhausted in the best possible way. 

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