Jan. 19, 2016: Cinque Terra and Pisa
Cinque Terra (“five lands”) is a group of five somewhat isolated mountainous villages on the coast of Italy. Their history dates back about 1000 years. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site. And they’re only about an hour’s train ride from Pisa.
So we set off to the station first thing in the morning, and Kimberly again gets to try out her (very) recently acquired skills in Italian at the ticket window. While a panhandler, umolested by police, stands close to the window and hits up every customer who approaches.
Fortunately, she doesn’t make the kind of blunder she did before we left for this trip. She’d sent an email to each of our upcoming hosts, and for those in Italy she decided to begin with the informal greeting “ciao”. But in looking over her messages later I discovered that on three of them, she transposed the “i” and the “a”, so instead of an informal greeting, she ended up with a very informal term for male genitalia. I hastily sent a message to these hosts, apologizing for the error, but it probably was unnecessary. They’ve no doubt seen this and other blunders plenty of times. Especially from Americans, those caios.
Today she does admirably, and the gent speaks a little English too. So when she asks in Italian how much our tickets will be, he replies, “no, no pay”. It seems that this time, our fare is totally covered by our Eurail passes. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; the trains we expected to be covered aren’t and the ones we don’t expect to be, are. At least it’s nice, after encountering so many unexpected expenses, to have for once an unexpected unexpense.
After a ride on two trains packed with college students and an Asian tour group, we disembark at Monterosso, which is the most accessible and probably most modern of the five villages. There are actually a few streets with cars on them, which we gather is unusual in Cinque Terra, which is mostly just accessible by foot.
There is a fine beach, but the weather is a bit too nippy to take a dip. It’s easy to imagine this beach dotted with parasols during the summer, however, in this, the most resort-y of Cinque Terra’s villages.
On the beach is Il Gigante, a 14-foot sculpture erected in 1910 that originally was a statue of Neptune holding a trident. During World War II, the trident and Neptune’s arms were bombed off. (The sculptor, who was Jewish, went into hiding during the war.) But he still stands, holding up the patio of the villa on the cliff above him.
Looks like a good place to assume the pose we’ ll be maintaining throughout the hike today.
After buying a little food at a mom and pop produce stand, we scout out the coastal trail, which we find with a bit of difficulty. This portion of the trail leads to the village of Vernazza, and it’s a rigorous hike, through the hills that give you a great view of the coastline.
Occasionally we come upon a stream or waterfall.
Or other kinds of surprises.
One of which is a sanctuary for homeless cats, consisting of several, um, cat houses, and dishes where people can leave food and water. There’s a sign urging visitors not to leave food early in the day during the summer, because it can go bad and make the cats sick, especially if the food is meat-based.
About a quarter of a mile from this sanctuary, we see a stray cat, thin and scruffy and pitiful. It’s meowing weakly but frantically, applying for assistance to anyone who will pay attention. It even comes up to me, apparently having lost all of its fear of strangers. I’m not an animal person at all, and I’m probably breezing through at least a year’s quota of my sympathy for cats, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the little guy.
I break off a piece of my bread and drop it at his feet, but after nosing it over a bit, he declines, as if he’s holding out for sardines or something. Sorry, kitty, but I don’t carry fresh rodents on me. It occurs to me that he might be dying of thirst as much as hunger, so I squeeze some of the water out of my camelback into a hollow in a tree root. Sure enough, he laps it all up eagerly, and when I give him a refill, he drinks half of it too. But as we take our leave, he still hasn’t touched the bread.
The hiking trail is wooded most of the way, and hilly all of the way, and almost all of it is uphill, it seems. We are able for part of it to take off our coats and long sleeves, especially since it’s the warmest day we’ve had yet, and quite likely the warmest we’ll have the whole trip, seeing as how we’re going to be heading considerably farther north soon.
Finally, we reach what seems to be the crest of the trail, and it leads us to an open hillside terraced with vineyards.
There’s a conveyance for getting crates of grapes across the hillside; it looks like a miniature roller coaster, with a seat for the farmer up front, and “cars” for the grapes towed behind it. We wanna ride, we wanna ride!
Then finally, the trail descends on the postcard village of Vernazza.
It’s a village that cries out “movie set” at every twist and turn, with its steep, impossibly narrow thoroughfares (Should we call them streets or alleys, or just passageways?), its quaint storefronts, and its fleet of boats that the residents seem to rely on heavily.
One distinctive feature is the slightly differently colored-houses packed tightly together. Apparently, there is a practical reason for the color variation. Traditionally, the men of the village were mostly fishermen (maybe they still are) so they each had a different colored house so they could spot their homes from a few miles off the coast. This may have helped them keep an eye on their wives, to make sure they were hanging out the laundry rather than gossiping or taking too long to pay the milkman.
We have lunch and catch up on some Internet at a little place called The Lunchbox– yes, in English. Lunch is delicious made-or-order sandwiches with quite a variety of ingredients to pick from.
Near The Lunchbox is one of the few reminders that we’re in the Twenty- First Century rather than the Fifteenth: a pay phone. Actually, a payphone is more a relic of the Twentieth Century, but this one looks quite retro-futuristic. Perhaps the Italian word for it is artoodeetoo.
It’s decision time. Do we continue farther through the hills to get a glimpse of more of Cinque Terra? Alas, we conclude that it would not be practical. It’s already considerably later than we’d expected, and we’re quite tired. The rest of the trail appears to be even more rigorous than what we’ve just done; so there’s little chance that we’d be able to get to another village before dark. We’ll just have to save it for the next time.
We go to the Vernazza station and get on the train, but then realize that we’re heading back toward Monterosso rather than Pisa, which is the other direction. Fortunately, we realize it in time to get off. But having just missed a train, we have to wait another 45 minutes. That gives us time to walk around the streets of Monterosso a bit. And it gives me time to obtain my beloved decaf, which is not bad. I have to hand it to these Italians.
We arrive back in Pisa shortly after dark, and take a bit of a detour to see a certain oblique architectural landmark. You don’t usually see photos of the tower by moonlight, and that’s too bad; it was made for moonlight. Nonetheless, we’ll return to see it by daylight tomorrow.
On the way back home, we have to scout out some groceries. We first try a health food store (or “bio market” as they’re often called in Europe, with “bio” being the French/ Italian/ German equivalent of organic) but we arrive shortly after it’s closed.
So it’s on a little farther to a mega market called Carrefour, which is rather similar to the Monoprix supercenters we encountered in France, only this one is much bigger. It has everything you possibly could want, from beer to bicycles. There’s so much food to pick from, we have a hard time narrowing down our dinner, especially given our difficulty in deciphering labels.
At one point, I find a product that looks really enticing, but there is one ingredient I can’t make out. I ask a lady shopping if she speaks English; she says she does a little, so I point out the word on the label and ask her what it is. She looks at it, ponders a moment, then says “fish”. (A specific variety; I know the Italian word pesce.) So it’s back to the menu planning board.
As we’re having dinner later, Alessandro goes out for the evening again – this time to play “football” (soccer). He certainly seems to live an active life.
In fact, we don’t know if he scored in the game, but he seems to have scored in other ways. As we’re settling down for the night in our room, we hear him enter the apartment with a young lady, talking, laughing, singing and having a grand old time. We hear them clattering around in the kitchen, cooking up something that smells tasty, and then eating it.
Finally, close to midnight, they check out. And so do we.