Cinque Terre Travel: Bad Luck, or Good Adventure?

Dispatches from the Road, Italy, Studying Abroad — By on October 28, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I huddled with my friends in a corner of the Ventimiglia train station on the cold floor, waiting to be rescued. The station was dim. Clumps of people sat on the floor muttering to themselves. I glanced at the departure list, hoping for any updates but the word “soppresso” flashed menacingly across the screen. I was exhausted. My shoulders ached, my stomach rumbled, and my jeans were damp from the rain. Next to us, a homeless man mumbled obscenities and played Sodoku. This was not what I had in mind for an Italian vacation.

Cannes 48 hours earlier…

“We’re going to Italy!”

I was thrilled. Two friends and I had just scored train tickets to the Cinque Terre despite la grève, the ongoing national transportation strikes in France.

Many of my friends have been to the Cinque Terre before, and after hearing their stories and googling pictures, I decided I just had to go. And what better time than when I’m already in France with some open weekends? Things were looking good.

We got up early for our long trip of train transfers – we left the Cannes station and change trains in Monaco, Ventimiglia, and Genova. Immediately upon our arrival in Ventimiglia, we noticed everything was in Italian – definitely not French. None of us spoke a word of Italian, and our hodgepodge of  English, French, and Spanish wasn’t going to cut it… the Italians we encountered only spoke broken English. As we headed for the exit to relax before our next train, a pack of chattering nuns squeezed us down the stairs. Welcome to Italy.

Three hours and two trains later, we arrived in Monterosso al Mare…and it was raining. We were not prepared for this – I checked  the weather  earlier and it promised  60-degrees  and sun with only 20% chance of rain. None of us brought rain jackets or umbrellas–our backpacks were stuffed with shorts and t-shirts. Hiking apparel for the mediterranean. Alas.

On the fifth and last train of the day,  the 10-minute train to Corniglia, one of the workers came around to check tickets. He checked Alejandra’s, frowned, then started berating her sternly in Italian. He whipped out his ticket book. From what we gathered, we forgot to validate our tickets with a stamp –but we hadn’t seen any stamp machines. “This time you pay 5…next time you pay 50!” he said curtly, before we handed over the 15 euro. We were resentful but in no real position to argue. We were just happy to finally be in Corniglia. We stepped out into the rain and started to walk up the hill toward the town.

By then, it was about 5 p.m. so the first order of business was to get a hotel room. A sign hung on the door next to us that said “rooms.” An old lady watching us from the window above called to us, presumably inviting us in.  She met us with a huge grin on her face, a sweet old plump lady with glasses and thinning hair who didn’t speak a word of English. She muttered something in Italian, smiled, and started to walk in the other direction. Expecting the rooms to be right there, we were surprised and unsure what was going on, but followed her anyway. She walked. And walked. And walked. We exchanged bemused glances. After an eternity, she stopped at a corner building and led us inside to a double room. We exchanged unsure glances until she pulled down a bed from inside the closet and smiled broadly. The room’s price was cheap, so we paid her and managed si and grazie until she smiled and hobbled away. We breathed a sigh of relief and dropped our stuff.

We ate a quick meal of spaghetti out and headed back  to the room, exhausted and freezing. There didn’t seem to be any heat in the room and the covers were impossibly thin. Leah and I, shivering in the double bed, agreed that spooning was probably inevitable. We set an alarm for 7 a.m. so we could wake up early and get a full day of hiking in. We crossed our fingers for good weather the next day and drifted off to sleep.

We woke at 7 a.m. to howling wind and pouring rain. UGH. Unwilling to hike in a storm, we went back to sleep until checkout. Luckily by then, it wasn’t raining, just windy.  We divided our long sleeved layers (which wasn’t much) and headed out to hike the five towns.

We didn’t get on the trail until 11 a.m. but we were thrilled to be en route to Vernazza. The views were worth every buffet of wind and slap of rain. The strenuous path was slippery from the rain. We managed to reach Vernazza in 90 minutes, and decided to continue on to Monterosso al Mare to catch a train back to Genova.

The second hike was more difficult, because there were SO MANY STAIRS. Between sections of hundreds of stairs, we squeezed by other hikers on a path only wide enough for one person, with a substantial fall just over the edge. Two hours later we reached Monterosso al Mare, exhausted but proud of surviving a 7km hike. We went straight to the station to check for tickets, and the teller first offered us tickets to Genova that arrived there at 4:58 p.m.…and our train left from Genova at 4:55 p.m. I mentally panicked for a moment until she said, “oh, a fast train…” and we got tickets for a train that would get us to Genova by 4:15 p.m. Sweet. We had just enough time to grab a sandwich before getting on the train.

The rest of the journey passed with few problems. Or so I thought…We reached Ventimiglia at 7:35 p.m. and according to our itinerary, the next train to Monaco would be at 7:43 p.m. The woman in the compartment with us asked if we were heading to France, and warned us that there was a grève going on and we might not be able to get a train. We smiled and said thank you, mentally blowing her off and thinking, “That was yesterday.” Since we only had eight minutes before our train left, we hurried inside to find the platform number.

We looked up on the screen and saw all the trains to Monaco were “soppresso.” No no NO. We had to get to France – stuck in Italy wasn’t an option. The ticket counter verified our fears; no more trains until 6am the next day. Stranded.

As dutiful study abroad students should, we decided to call Beth, our program director, to notify her we were stranded and to see if she could somehow help us. We went to the station café to buy a phone card.

We tried the phone at least 20 times hitting a wall of indecipherable Italian words. Before almost admitting defeat to sleep in the Ventimiglia train station, a young Romanian named John came to our phone-rescue. We finally reached Beth. Luck, for once that weekend, was on our side as she had rented a car for sightseeing – we were saved!

We hung out on the cold station floor until Beth rolled up an hour and a half later. Sigh of relief. We survived a thrown-together weekend of language barriers, train fines, 7km of hiking in rain, and (almost) getting stranded. After which, I decided I prefer traveling with a little more planning, but would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY.

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  • jwhitneyk says:

    Definitely good adventure! I stumbled upon Cinque Terre in 2005 and loved Monterosso so much I ended up moving there for a year. Your story brings back many memories of “il trenno in retardo”, unvalidated ticket encounters,and the stairs to Vernazza. When living there those stairs actually replaced my Gold’s Gym membership as my daily workout routine. For all your bad luck, I’d say it was still worth it for glimpse of all the beauty that is La Cinque Terre. : )