Friday, November 1, 2013

You CAN Get There from Here, but It Won’t Be Easy

We started off our biking adventure in Italy with a walking adventure in the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre, which is located on the northwestern coast of Italy along the Ligurian Sea, was a hidden treasure until Rick Steves started singing its praises about 20 years ago in his tour books and public television broadcasts. Now its narrow footpaths and quaint villages tucked into steep cliffs are filled with tourists eager to follow Steves’s advice to “take it slow . . . smell the cactus flowers and herbs, notice the lizards, listen to birds singing in the olive groves, and enjoy vistas on all sides.”

Cactus in flower above the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza
From our recent experience visiting the region, Steves has not understated its beauty or charm, but he surely has underestimated how challenging a hike through the Cinque Terre can be. And, for us, just getting to the five tiny towns presented its own challenge!

We were based for our first two nights in Italy in another tiny Ligurian coastal town, Portovenere. We Americans pronounced the name (port-oh-ven-AIR-ee), accenting the penultimate syllable (how literary does that sound!) until we discovered that real Italians put the accent on the third syllable from the end (port-oh-VEN-uh-ree). No matter how you pronounce it, Portovenere occupies only a small spot on the map and is not a transportation hub. To get the few kilometers northwest to the Cinque Terre, we would first need to travel northeast about 8 kilometers (5 miles) by public bus to the nearest city, La Spezia, a “blue-collar” metropolis filled with industry, traffic, and part of the Italian naval fleet. Once in La Spezia, we could walk a few blocks to the train station and board a Genova-bound train for a brief 18-minute ride to the first of the Cinque Terre towns, and a 27-minute ride to the fifth town, Monterosso del Mare, where we planned to begin leisurely hiking and exploring.

"Downtown" Portovenere close up and from a distance.
The structures in the water are mussel pots, where the tasty delicacies are farmed.
 Of course, traversing the five miles from Portovenere to La Spezia took about 45 minutes by bus. But I am getting ahead of myself. To board the bus, you needed to have purchased a ticket previously (you couldn’t just pay the driver). That meant using the ticket machine in the small bus stand, which noted that it accepted 10-euro and 5-euro notes (but really didn’t). So one of us (me) hiked back to the hotel to request some euro coins to feed the machine. The hotel staff was obviously hoarding those coins for better clients, and would change only one 5-euro note, enough to purchase 2 tickets, with 1-euro change, but not enough to help any of our fellow travelers to buy tickets. When all was said and done, one couple boarded without tickets, offering the driver paper notes, which he refused. So they rode for free, and no one seemed too upset by it.

We had a general idea of where to debark in La Spezia to be close to the train station and asked the driver to give us a heads-up when we were near. We debarked, walked through the middle of a packed market-day crowd, and followed street signs during a brisk 10-minute walk to the train station. Using hand signals, we managed to buy our tickets, which would include our trail pass for the Cinque Terre, and to determine on just which platform we should stand to await the train. The train station was bustling, which was all pretty invigorating. After all, we were going to the Cinque Terre! And despite the fact that we were carrying cameras, iPhones, hats to ward off the sun, and a backpack containing a Rick Steves guidebook, we imagined ourselves not as American tourists but as Italian natives, riding local buses and trains.

I plan to write about our actual hiking in Cinque Terre in my next posting (please stay tuned), but I still want to describe our adventure getting back to Portovenere later that same day.

We were pretty worn out, as you can imagine when we trained back to La Spezia (or you will be able to understand better after you read my next post). Now, we had to buy bus tickets and find our way from the train station to the nearest bus stop. This was not as easy as retracing our earlier steps, even if we could remember them exactly. The street on which he had debarked from the bus earlier that day had been one way; now we needed to go in the opposite direction. Audrey took the initiative to ask directions in the train station, and emerged with a marked up map. Of course, Phyllis, Harvey, and I questioned whether the directions she had been given were right. Somehow, we each thought we knew a better way to go. Inevitably, we got a little lost. Harvey needed something from a supermarket we passed, and Audrey went in to try to ask for more directions. A few seconds later, an animated young woman Audrey had approached behind the deli counter in the market emerged from the store with an older man, and the two of them began debating in rapid Italian just where to send us to get the bus. Finally, the woman threw up her hands (she WAS Italian after all), and shouted at us to follow her. She proceeded to race three blocks ahead, while we tried to keep up. We arrived at a main street, where she pointed out a bus stand less than a block away. I’m not sure we could ever have found it without her help. We turned to thank her, only to discover that she was already racing back to the store, probably to finish slicing salami for a customer who must have been wondering where she had gone.

Portovenere's busy marina
We boarded the P bus, and joined a rush-hour crowd already onboard. Some 30 minutes later, the bus pulled into Portovenere, but not the part of the town in which were staying. We had arrived at the end of the line, it seems. Luckily, the driver indicated that he would take us by our hotel a few minutes later, when he began that next part of his route. And he did. We had had quite a day, wending our way to and from La Spezia, with a hike through the Cinque Terre in between. We had been adventurers à la Rick Steves. And this was just our second day in Italy!

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