The Lost Day

Trip Start Feb 05, 2010
Trip End Feb 17, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Somewhere along the line, in the rush to get from France to Italy, I managed to skip a day. And what a day. A 600km day, Graham tells me.

Menton was where we stayed the night after leaving Saint Remy de Provence, visiting Pont du Gard, apricot trees, peaches enroute. We rolled into this busy town right on the Italian border at around 10pm, noticing a distinct lack of parking anywhere and even less near our hotel. Thankfully, the hotel receptionist had been waiting for us to arrive so she could go home, and she gave Graham her prime parking spot just at the door. We had a reasonable night's sleep with the cry of seagulls indicating we were near the seaside. The wail of sirens indicated that we were opposite an ambulance station.

Since Graham had gone out on foot shortly after we arrived in search of beer and found none (and nowhere for us to have breakfast), in the morning, we jumped in the car and drove beach-ward.

A prime parking spot awaited us on the corso, just across the road from the markets where the stall holders speak to their customers in both French and Italian.  We spent a good while checking out the fruit and vegetables and having bad coffee, quiche and cake for breakfast before heading towards Italy.

Anyone who travelled around Europe in their 20’s and now are 'closer to the gravedigger than boarding school’*, will remember border crossings and passport control. That’s all a thing of the past and we drive straight through with our universal currency. No more of the ‘don’t change another traveller’s cheque into Francs, we are going to need Lira from now on’. Euro (and plastic) speaks all languages.

You would imagine that to get around this part of the world where the mountains meet the sea, you’d be clinging to cliff edges on a proverbial long and winding road. We did initially: to get as far as  Ventimiglia, home of the duty free shops and best bargains in the known world for buying cashmere (yes, more shopping). If it was, we never got a chance to find out. Graham put the kybosh on that idea as we had already spent a bit too long over breakfast in Menton. I could have made a fuss, but thought better of it as I looked longingly at the markets through the window of a (only just) moving car. The traffic was really something else, but at least it was moving. Coming from the other direction we passed kilometer after kilometer of nose to tail traffic. The most amazing thing was that there was never the sounding of a horn.

After getting us through Ventimiglia, Miss Sat Nav- with wisdom beyond her years- took us the quick route.

Now that I have the luxury of sitting and looking at a road map, something I like doing almost as much as studying a dictionary, I can see the wriggly red line that traces the coastline is superceded by a blue and white ribbon, threading it way over gorges and through mountain tunnels. On it, we crossed land bridges by the score, far more dramatic than the Seacliff Bridge near Stanwell Park. Eventually we paid our dues, (in the form of a $25 toll), and resumed driving on first a red road, then onto a yellow track to get to Monterosso al Mare.

I had looked forward to this part of our trip since first hearing the magic words, Cinque Terre. Five villages, huddled on the edge of rocky cliffs, looking in danger of slipping off into the sea, are linked by a footpath, and trails of various levels of difficulty. The most difficult of all is the ‘where will I park my car’ trail, which involves driving down a steep and winding hill towards Monterosso where by mid afternoon you can be sure the tiny car park is already full. Seeing cars creep back up the hill for a few kms, their drivers eagle-eyed and watching the local policewoman gaily filling in pink parking tickets at Euro 88 a pop for those daredevils who parked illegally would be enough to turn most day-trippers around.

But not Graham. His mojo with parking spaces has not deserted him over here. A fellow right alongside us opens his car door and confirms he is leaving, a miracle in the same order as the parting of the Red Sea, especially with a space that can fit the Merc. Graham’s only worry now is whether he can get a ticket for parking facing the wrong way … but this is Italy, so we don’t. It is also hot, so hot I change into my shorts at the back of the car and slip on a t-shirt. We set off down the road and arrive at Monterosso just as the heavens open, thunder and lightning sweeping everyone off the beach and under any shelter they could find. We joined them under the railway bridge. Before long the rain stopped, sun resumed its former place in the sun and we set off walking the path towards Vernazza.

We planned to take the train between the five villages, and maybe a boat back. But the train drivers were on strike that day, which pushed all the passengers onto the small boats, which looked more packed than Wembley for a Champions League Final (no idea what that means, Graham told me to write it). So we decided to walk some of the way.

Too many people had already trudged it through the rain and it was unpleasantly muddy, and it was a two-hour slog all the way there, so with great reluctance we turned back, watched people swimming in the blue waters of the ‘marina protetta’, wishing we had brought our snorkels and masks. We decided to press on - too much driving ahead.

The blue and white ribbon on the map led us to Lucca where we stopped for dinner. We could have stopped for a couple of days to enjoy the laid back feel if this walled city, where you can ride a bicycle around the car-free old town, even on top of its walls. But as we had failed in our attempt to get any accommodation near Cinque Terre- (long weekend for French and Italian, apparently) we were pressing on past Pisa and Florence to get to John and Tracey’s place near Cortona. At this point, Mrs SatNav had no idea where we were, but with John’s good directions through Centoia we were at their amazing place at about 10.30pm.

*Thank you A A Gill for this lovely phrase.
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