You may not have heard of the Cinque Terre before, but chances are you’ve seen photos of them. Five colourful little villages on the northeast coast of Italy, clinging to the cliff tops and mostly inaccessibly by car. The stuff jigsaw puzzles and fairy tales are made of.
I did the research beforehand. Most tourists drive to La Spezia and then take the train from there to Monterosso, the first village. Somewhere on the internet I read that La Spezia is a busy town with expensive street parking, and that it would be best to drive to Levanto and catch the train from there. Then I talked to a friend who had visited the Cinque Terre a few years ago and she told me that I could take the boat that stops in each little village, providing a more scenic view from the coastline, and then take the train back.
Armed with this knowledge, we set out from Lucca early one morning. At first, everything went well. We had data for our GPS and the A12 autostrada was smooth and straight. We found the correct exit to Levanto and even navigated the twisting bends down to the village without mishap. We parked the car at the train station, fed the coin meter with enough Euros to last us until late afternoon and walked down to the beachfront.
I think Italy must have experienced a heat wave when we were there. It was 9AM and the sun beat down relentlessly. Soon, we were dripping with sweat as we strode along the esplanade in search of the boat that would take us to Cinque Terre. We searched and searched. We walked from the one end of the beach to the other. Nothing. Eventually we headed into town, hoping we might find a ticket office somewhere next to a hotel or a beachwear shop. Still nothing. Back to the beachfront we hiked. By now we were both red in the face, frustrated, tired, dehydrated and generally fed up. After two hours of fruitlessly searching for a boat, we were ready to give up.
“Screw the boat,” Gareth said. “Let’s take the train.”
We plodded back up the hill to the train station. As we stumbled into its shady interior, what should we see? A ticket office for the boat to the Cinque Terre! As the woman explained to us that you can only take the boat from Monterossa and that we needed to take the train there first, a high-pitched whistle indicated that the train was about to leave. “Hurry,” she said. “You don’t want to miss this train, or you’ll miss the next boat.”
We sprinted! We piled onto the train just as the doors closed and it pulled out of the station. Sitting down for the first time since we got out of the car, Gareth and I smiled at each other. Not the best start to the morning, but at least we got it right in the end.
We got off at the next town and started walking down to the beach again. A signboard caught my attention: “Benvenuto a Bonassola.” Bonassola? Bonassola! I stopped two passersby and in broken Italian asked if we were at the right village. Of course we weren’t. We had taken the train in the wrong direction! We sprinted back up the hill again and arrived at the train station just as the train pulled away. It was an unmanned station. We didn’t have a train ticket back, we didn’t know how to buy another one and we didn’t know when the next train would show up. Dejected, we sat down in a small patch of shade and waited.
When the next train finally arrived, we took our seats nervously, knowing that you could get hefty 50 Euro fines if you were caught without a ticket. Luckily for us, no conductor showed up and, much to our relief, the next town we stopped at was Levanto again. At least this time we were headed in the right direction.
We knew we were at the right place the moment we set foot in Monterosso. The streets thronged with tourists and a holiday vibe hung in the air. Following the flow, we made it down to the harbour. As we had feared, we had missed the previous boat and the next one was only due in three hours.
Never mind, we told ourselves. At least now we had time to explore…
Next up, the Cinque Terre villages as seen from the boat. Have you visited the Cinque Terre? If so, how did you get there and can you give hints and tips on how to do it better?
For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.