August 3, 2013
There is no map – we didn’t go anywhere!
Vacation! We were officially starting our vacation. No schedules, no emails, no plans – just as it should be. Saturday morning dawned clear and warm, as one would expect in a coastal town in August. Bob had gotten up well before Dan and I and had done some solo exploring of the town but he came back to join us for breakfast. We found a casual eatery right along the waterfront and settled down for the slow Italian service we’d come to expect already. Breakfast was slow and small but delicious. We eventually paid our bill and decided to take the train to the village at the far end of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare.
The view from our room
Monterosso in the distance
Dan and I had been prepared to leave directly after breakfast but poor Bob had to climb the stairs back to his room to grab his pack. Dan and I waited for him on the main street, watching the locals schlep supplies to and from various businesses, using either hand trucks for short runs or smelly three wheeled trucks for the bigger loads. In addition, waves of people worked their way into the streets, tourists that had arrived via the train from either La Spezia or Genoa. It was a weekend in a tourist town and it would be busy.
Moving a boat down the street in order to load it in the water
Clear water from probably 100′ up
The train station was located at the other end of a long tunnel, invisible to anyone in the town itself until you needed it. We purchased our tickets (2 euros!) and waited for the train to arrive. It was crowded when we got on, but we managed to find seats. The ride was only 20 minutes and not very scenic, as most of the rails were located in tunnels along the coast. When the train stopped in Monterosso everyone got out – it was the end of the line. We flowed with the crowds that pushed us along the station’s tunnels, eventually popping out into bright sunshine and oven-like heat. We were on a narrow street that paralleled the coast and below the sidewalk was a wide sandy beach packed full of umbrellas and people. It was daunting, but we headed away from where most of the people congregated to search out our own private paradise.
The view from the sidewalk
We found an umbrella and two lounge chairs, appropriating a 3rd one for Bob, and made ourselves at home. We had seen a sign that indicated that there was a rental charge for the equipment, but since none of us knew Italian we just bumbled our way in, figuring that if they wanted money, they’d find us. They found us about 10 minutes later. The charge was 10 euros per person for use of the umbrella, chairs, shower, toilets and lockers. Considering that we planned on being there all day, it was a great deal.
The view from our chairs
The day passed by leisurely. We took turns swimming in the sea and catching some sun (or shade, in my case). We always left one person to watch our stuff, although I have no idea what the crime rate was. Better safe than sorry, I say. Besides, I had my camera with me; it would have been tragic to lose that mid-trip! The water itself was amazingly clear and I could see the sandy, rippled bottom even around 5′. Small fishes swam through and the occasional jellyfish came around. One young boy was apparently stung by one, as he ran to his family’s umbrella and cried loudly until someone came to help him. I felt guilty just watching but not knowing the language or the solution, I was in no real position to help. Our little corner of the beach was also the “family center” and many kids were playing on the beach, building sand castles and paddling around in their water wings. It was surprisingly quiet, with no yelling, screaming or crying (except for jellyfish boy). In fact, it was quieter than the frat parties that appeared to be happening further down the beach.
Eventually I decided to check out the old town of Monterosso, located on the other side of the headland at the far end of the beach. Bob wanted to join me so we left Dan baking in the sun with the promise of returning with another cold beer for him.
We walked along the sidewalk, looking at a sea of umbrellas crowded right up to the edge of the sea. It was a little depressing, but somehow cheerful at the same time. The lunch crowd had come and gone and now the streets were lined with lingering guests nursing their drinks and cigarettes. The party on the beach, however, was still in full force. An embarrassing number of American-sounding college-age kids were floating around on air mattresses, talking about how drunk they were, or how drunk they were going to be, and generally being loud and obnoxious. Or maybe it was just because I could understand what they were saying, and anyone else would have been just as obnoxious if I could have understood them. Probably not. It was cool though: at one point the girls to my left were speaking German, the family to my right, Italian and the guys behind me, Arabic. I truly was part of an international group.
The old and new parts of Monterosso are separated by a tunnel, used primarily by pedestrians, but occasionally a local vehicle will have to make the trip through. A guy was playing guitar at one end and Bob recognized him from the bar in Manarola from the previous night. The guy was good and his music amplified nicely throughout the tunnel as we made our way through. The old town was small but thriving with outdoor market stalls and stores that put their wares up along the sidewalks. Not that there were many sidewalks, as many streets were generally too narrow to even qualify as streets. I have no idea why I didn’t take any photos.
Monterosso old town and beach
Inside the local church
Part of our mission was to explore the option of taking a ferry back to Manarola. We found the sales desk and bought three tickets for the last sailing of the day: 5:50. We had plenty of time as it was only 3 o’clock. The walk back to our umbrella was uneventful and Dan was happy to see us – and his beer.
The view from the tunnel towards our umbrella
Past their prime, but still beautiful
I needed to cool off after the walk and the sea felt wonderful. I found it odd to try and swim in the salt water, as the buoyancy that the salt provided threw off the geometry of my lifelong swimming skills . Instead of my legs sinking down and giving my arms a known angle to pull against, my legs now floated and my arms flailed around in a less than effective position. So I spent most of my time in the water just floating around and watching people. It was very relaxing.
Eventually we gathered up our stuff and walked back to the ferry on the other side of the tunnel. We were early but I’m glad, as we were then ahead of a large group of college-age kids who were taking the same boat. We took good seats on the upper open deck (thank goodness I had my awesome tourist sun hat on!) and prepared for the 30 minute ride back.
Our ride home
The boat made a very short stop at Vernazza before continuing on to Manarola. It didn’t stop at Corniglia although that wasn’t too surprising, as the only access to the water from that village is via a long flight of steps composed of 33 flights with 382 steps. No sooner had we passed by Corniglia than Manarola came into view.
If you recall, the footpaths following the coast from Manarola were closed in both directions due to unsafe trail conditions. Based on this photo taken between Corniglia and Manarola, I can see why. The area suffered from very bad landslides in 2011 and it looks like the damage has not been repaired. Also, I noticed the “bathtub ring” that one normally sees in reservoirs from the rise and fall of the water levels. I can only assume that this line was from storms washing away any soil and plant life often enough to prevent anything from growing down to the current water level.
I hadn’t seen the ferry dock during our time in Manarola, so I was curious as to where we’d be disembark the ferry. It turns out there’s a small concrete jetty tucked behind a narrow cleft in the rocks at the far end of the harbor. It worked out well for us and also gave me a chance to watch a couple of kids jump off of the tall rock in the middle of the harbor.
Having been turned away for dinner at Marina Piccola the previous night, and being very hungry from our hard day at the beach, we stopped by to see if we could either eat now or at least make reservations. There wasn’t anyone in the restaurant and we even wondered if they were open, but one guy was busy putting Reservation Notices on the tables so we approached him. Most of the locals had a good grasp of English which made our interactions much easier and this guy was no exception. He explained that all of the tables were reserved but we must have looked pathetic because he said that he could squeeze us in now, if we’d like. We quickly took a small table in the back and rejoiced at our good luck. This was at 6:30; by the time we left around 8pm only two more tables had been seated and at least a dozen people had been turned away.
Our own private restaurant
The impending sunset
Dan ordered a bottle of wine only to learn that it was out of stock. Our waiter suggested something else, which turned out to be a very good wine. Our meal was fantastic and I can understand why there were reservations for every table. Bob and I both ordered the swordfish and Dan tried the grilled sea bass. Everyone was pleased with their meal and when we finally left our table it was with contented bellies.
The sunset was beginning as we were leaving the restaurant so we stood along the waterfront to watch it. While we were there, a couple of guys rolled one of the boats down from the main street and prepped it for the water. They had a handy pulley system set up which appeared a lot easier than rolling the boats up and down the steep concrete ramp.
Our evening was pretty much over. I knew that Bob would go out again and hang with the musicians at the bar, seeing as he’s a bit of a musician himself and a bit more outgoing than Dan and I. Before he left we studied the map for the morning’s departure. There was no way we were going to repeat our journey through Hell to get back to Switzerland. There had to be another (better) way. I suggested following the coast to the west and then turning north past Genoa, staying well away from Milan and coming into Switzerland near Lake Maggiore and the city of Lugano. The plan was set and we each went our own ways for the evening.
Day 3: more roads and back to the Alps!