europe · italy · Travel

Train strikes and long hikes: Cinque Terre, 2015

We wake up to more blue skies and sunshine. Mr Fletche’s trusty weather app says “intermittent cloud” – at the moment there is not a cloud in the sky.  Intermittent or not.  We amble down to breakfast and discuss our plan for the day.  Today we’re going to use the handy train to village-hop, spending a little time here, having a drink there, having lunch somewhere else…  we’re going to expend as little energy as possible today, letting the local trains do all the work.

Unfortunately, no-one tells the local train drivers this.  Instead they are enjoying an unscheduled Tuesday off in the sunshine.  Yes, today, on one of our two days in Cinque Terre, there is a train strike.  And a ferry strike (just in case we thought there was another way out).  The women in the ticket office thinks that trains will run from 5pm.  But maybe they won’t

Now, if you’re stranded in a town, then Monterosso isn’t exactly a bad place to be stuck in.  But it seems such a waste of our short time here to spend the day doing nothing (although after such a hectic 10 days it doesn’t seem that bad an idea).  So that leaves us with one option.  The only way to our neighbouring town Vernazza is to walk.  We study the handy hiking trail map.  It’s around 4km.  We have plenty of water, suntan lotion and a full camera battery.  I am wearing sensible(ish) shoes.  We decide to make it to the first headland, and then decide whether to continue on further.  And anyway we can see Vernazza from here – so it can’t be that far…

Let's hike!
Let’s hike!

The first set of steps out of Monterosso are a killer.  There’s a hotel up here – despite the beautiful panoramic views from its terrace I’m mighty glad we didn’t stay here (although I possibly would have come home with thighs like Beyonce’s…).  We pass the point of no return – also known as the point that we have to pay for a hiking pass.  Yes, you have to pay 7,50 euro each for the pleasure/torture that is hiking.  Once we’ve handed over our precious money, we know we can only stubbornly continue onwards. And upwards.

Surely the steps/incline must level off soon anyway.  Nope.  The steps keep going up and up, and the Fletches keep going up and up.  We stop regularly on the pretence of taking another couple of photos.  Monterosso is slowly disappearing into the distance, but there is no sign of any descent – or even a nice level pathway that doesn’t get our hearts racing at an alarming rate.  Not only do the steps continue to climb upwards, they seem to get bigger and bigger, with athleticism and flexibility essential skills when I find steps which are at waist-height.  Finally, we’re at 150 metres elevation, we can no longer see Monterosso and we are surrounded by citrus trees and vineyards (grapes, grapes everywhere and not a drop to drink!)

Looking back over Monterosso
Looking back over Monterosso
More steps
More steps…

Whisper it quietly, but I’m quite enjoying myself.  Even when the path is so narrow you have to pray you don’t meet anyone coming in the other direction.  Even when we do meet someone coming the other way and we have to press ourselves against a tree, cliff or fellow hiker to make room.  Even when loose shale underneath my pumps threatens me with plummeting to my death over a clifftop.  Even when the sweat is dripping down my face, stinging my eyes, leaving me blind to any obstacles.  I even start to think about how it’ll be no problem to hike back later in the day…

Eventually, we get our first view of Vernazza, with its inviting blue-green sea and pastel coloured houses.  Surely now we must descend?  Nope, there’s still a few more steps to climb… this is where it starts to get tough, knowing we must be so close, and yet showing no signs of descending.  Finally though, we reach a series of uneven steps, the type where you have to watch every placement of your foot, where a waist-high step is followed by one just an inch high.  Coming down is every bit as intense a work-out as going up.  More so, as it’s as much of a mental challenge as physical.  Every glimpse we get of Vernazza coming ever closer spurs us on though, and eventually we’re passing the checkpoint at the other end, and descending a narrow staircase through pink and orange alleyways.

We practically fall into the chairs of a handily placed caffe and order the most welcome Aperol spritz of our trip yet.  It has taken us exactly two hours, spot on the time for a “relatively fit hiker” according to that handy trail map at the other end.  And that has included lots of stops for photo opportunities (codeword for rests).  We are extremely proud of ourselves.  We order focaccia for lunch to extend our sitting down time a little more.  Despite my earlier intentions of attempting the return hike, I am now hoping desperately that the train strike does indeed end at 5pm and we can return home in relative luxury.  However, 5pm is still a couple of hours away, so we give our limbs a tentative wiggle, surprised that all are still in working order, and have a wander around the town.  We are grateful that the town is small – just one street between the railway station and the waterfront!  We do foolishly decide to climb the steps up to Castello Doria but then decide not to pay the nominal admission for the final panoramic views.  We sit on the waterfront, and remain in our rather exposed spot during a quick rainstorm (luckily I have that handy ombrello from Florence with me!)  The sun soon peeks back through those pesky intermittent clouds; the fervent sunworshippers have barely moved from their spots on the tiny beach.
Stranded in Vernazza
Stranded in Vernazza
We stop for a drink, and for a yummy gelato from Gelateria Vernazza before checking out the train situation.  The trains are “definitely almost maybe” going to be running after 5pm.  The platform is already crowded with tourists seeking to escape from this lovely town.  We have time for Mr Fletche to go off on a quick photographing tour whilst I perch on the steps at the waterfront and read my book for a while.  This was the nice relaxing activity I had planned for today!  Finally we join up with the masses at the station, hoping that the 5:20pm train is a) going to stop at Vernazza and b) is going to stop at Monterosso.  Success on both counts!  We’re finally back at home base and we make our way back to the hotel for a much-needed shower and change of clothes.
Where to eat tonight?  Mrs Fletche fancies a big plate of fried seafood… Most of the seafront restaurants are busy tonight with no vacant outside tables to be seen.  The fried seafood offering at Il Gabbiano catches our eye.  There is a 45 minute wait for an outside table – even for those with reservations, but we’re seated straight away inside.  No sooner have we placed our order for two fried seafood plates when two huge mountains of food are served.  The plates are slightly smaller than the dish served in San Francisco (which if I hadn’t conceded defeat I may still have been eating now, almost five years later) but I can only manage half before I’m all sea-fooded out.  Mr Fletche and I should have shared.  It’s just over 40,00 euro for these two food mountains, beer and ¼ litre of wine.   We stop for a final evening drink at Bar Midi on our way back to the hotel, mingling with the locals and planning our final full day tomorrow.  Barring any further unforeseen train strikes, we have another three villages to tick off the Cinque Terre list…
On a Seafood Diet
On a Seafood Diet…
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