Five Towns

Trip Start Aug 01, 2006
Trip End Dec 29, 2006

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Flag of Italy  ,
Friday, October 27, 2006

Completely touristed-out from Venice and Florence we boarded the train for Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is more accurately a region rather than a town. In all approximately five small towns are linked by a high cliff walkway that overlooks the ocean. This walkway varies from 20 ft to about 150 ft above the sea. Each town had its own characteristics and atmosphere. We picked Riomaggiore, the first one, for no better reason than it was the first one.

In Riomaggiore, a rocky narrow ravine leads from the mountain range to end abruptly at the rocky shore. Three to four-story buildings built onto each other in a chaotic mess along this ravine spill into the tiny harbor. The trademark of Cinque Terre is that each building is painted in bright colors including greens, oranges, and reds. The towns looked like arteries with a main branch and little random smaller branches off of it

Our apartment was on the second floor with a stairwell so steep and narrow it resembled a stone ladder, and Collette was afraid to walk down it on her own. A shuttered window looked at the building across the way so we could see people having breakfast on small balconies and laundry billowing in the wind. Collette waved to an old woman who was ironing. She smiled and waved back. Due to the steepness of the cliffs this side of the apartment was more than three stories high. If one leaned out the window they were rewarded with a view of the harbor squeezed between two rock jetties and a few brightly painted boats. If you walked anywhere inland you immediately started to go uphill either by a road or stairwell. It was like living in an Escher drawing.

The first day we walked along the sea cliff walkway and it constantly reminded us of Big Sur. There were huge barren rocky cliffs that become steeper as they got closer to the sea and eventually become a sheer cliff that is anywhere from 70 ft to 200 ft.

The next town up, Manarola, was much the same as our town, Riomaggiore. Steep, narrow, beautiful, and exotic. After changing an especially stinky diaper while crouching behind a few dry-docked fishing boats we decided to take the train to the fourth town Vernazza. The train ran above the walkway and we could often hear it rushing past to Collette's delight. The towns were so rocky and steep that the train line was riddled with tunnels leaving very little room to place the stations. When the train stopped, half of it would be in a tunnel and we frequently had to get off the train in semi-darkness and then walk down the cool tunnel to the station. This caused anxiety because it made it difficult to identify your stop deep in the tunnel's recess so we always tried to get a car in the front of the train to read the station signs. After awhile we gave this up because we could just count the stops and related it to the corresponding town. Riomaggiore 1, Manarola 2, and so on.

Town 4 (Vernazza) was bigger and had a wider harbor that even included a small beach. This town was the most popular and this was evident by the masses of tourists walking up and down the main street eating ice cream, taking pictures, and asking locals the touristy questions. We enquired about a room but any thoughts of staying here were dismissed about two seconds after hearing the price. We were plagued with this dilemma. Each time we saw a new Cinque Terre town we wanted to stay in that one, Ohh look at that beach, this one has more stores, that's a nice café, and so on. In the end we stayed the whole time in Riomaggiore not because it was the best but because we were there, had a cheap apartment, and at one point you have to accept some things or you would never be content. I called Riomaggiore Morder because its high buildings and narrow lanes gave it less sunlight than the other towns. The mornings were especially cool with a steady wind blowing off of the mountains and through the main road. On our way to our favorite café for delicious pastries and croissants we would wear our jackets but discard them as the day heated up. However, this name was born from affection and not dissent because it was a beautiful place and quite welcoming.

On the third day we had big plans, get up early, get a quick train to the central station, two trains and then a bus. We had not seen all of Cinque Terre but felt compelled to see more of Italy and to see a town that was less touristy and representative of the "real" Italy. Even though we were still tired and burned out we were going to stick to the plan of heading towards a small town near Siena.

That evening we went to a café to watch the sunset. The outside café was perched at least a hundred feet above the sea on a rock that jutted out over the cliff like the bow of a ship. We were not as brilliant or unique in picking our sunset watching location because the café suddenly got crowded. One table next to us contained someone we couldn't fail to recognize. The man dressed and looked like a garden gnome. He had tan puffy pants with suspenders, white shirt, a full beard, and a bald head topped with a hat that was more appropriate for the Italian Alps than the café (as evidenced by the feather sticking up out of it). We had seen him on the train in Florence and were ripe to figure out his "scene". He eagerly (a little too eagerly) filled us in on his background. He was friendly and interesting, and his wife revealed the details of Siena. She told us like a witness testifying at a trial that is was nice but hot and very touristy, and then she added that she liked it better here by the coast. Her demeanor changed as if she didn't want to have the weight and responsibility of us changing our travel plans purely on her whims. She quickly added, Well that's how I felt."

Troubled by this new information and seriously considering changing our plans on her word we bought our first train tickets. Sporadically discussing our travel plans we bought some pizza and gobbled it down in the hotel room where we could better control Collette. After unwrapping our pizza slices like greasy Christmas presents Collette ate exceptionally well. Late in the night some instinct or small noise brought me awake and I could see Collette sitting upright in her bed. I went to her and sensed that something was not right because she kept looking down and made barely audible grunting noises. Then it came, or more precisely, then it came out. Collette started burping out streams of hot vomit. As any parent knows, vomit makes your reflexes faster and I picked her up over the sink to spew at will. As I held her heaving little body I could feel the convulsions moving up her spine. This was the first time I seriously started to question our ambitious travel plans to Siena. She threw up two more times that night so the whole room smelled like half digested warm olives and I knew that there was no way we were going anywhere.

Vomit is like an archeological dig and in its contents the last 48 hours were laid out in a variety of forms and colors like 3-d spin art. Ohh that's right I remember that café, it was chilly in the morning but those croissants were warm.

Collette was in fine healthy spirits the next day showing no sign of last night's illness. Toddlers appear to be able to throw up at will and suffer no repercussions. The sun was out and we took the train to town 5, Monterossa. Being less hilly than the other towns gave several advantages. The sun was more accessible and the streets were easier to walk. It contained more restaurants and shops than Riomaggiore and once again the old feeling that I wished we had stayed in another town remerged. This was tempered by my general happiness and relief that we were not having a hard long-range travel day and this buoyed my spirits for the rest of the day. Monterossa had the most extensive sandy beaches and we had a nice lounging day in the sand while Collette played with an kid from Denmark until we overstayed our welcome. Before heading back we had a relaxing lunch on the road that overlooked the beach, and then Collette got to play with a whole group of rampaging kids terrorizing a few paddle boats and fishing boats that were spread out on the sand. With more hot tears on her cheeks we pulled her away to catch the train.

Collette's knees and legs looked like the bottom a ship covered in barnacles and scrapes from the mosquito bites, constant falling, and crashing through plants. She now refuses to go into the ocean, not because she doesn't enjoy it but because the salt water causes her owies to sting. She will sit and cry until the effect wears off and then she will be wary of the water and prefer to play in the sand.

It was about this time in the trip that Collette began to be less intimidated by strangers and started giving her patented tourists response. If someone prompts her for her name she proclaims," I am Collette" Followed by "I'm three" and finally," Santa Cruz". It is often up to the listener to decipher these cryptic, poorly pronounced, and random remarks.

Now we had to do town 3, Carniglia, the only one not yet explored. This town is the only one that is not right on the beach. Instead it resides about six hundred feet above the sea with houses and buildings wedged into small ravines and openings in the rocky face. We took the train to the station and then instead of taking the 489 switch back stairs that took you from the station to the town we waited for the little tourist "special bus". I was strongly opposed to this and when I saw the crowd of old German people, hunched Italian ladies with grocers and a mix of tourist chronic smokers my dissent bubbled over to anger. We waited for the driver long enough for my frown to become fixed and when he finally opened the doors Christy and I flung some unpleasant words at each other. This lasted just long enough for the whole crowd to shove their way in front of us and we boarded close to last. Completely humiliated and dejected I rode standing up (those ladies never give up their seats) with a sweaty Collette smashed to my body. My protests were purely rational because I don't like crowded spaces and I didn't want to ride in a bus with a bunch of lazy losers who couldn't climb a few stairs. I was the last to depart the bus because it was difficult to move Collette and myself in the bus and as a passive aggressive gesture to show that I was resolved and dedicated to my displeasure. The town had one narrow sunless alleyway winding up and down its center with hordes of tourists looking at nothing I could discern. After swapping a few, "I don't care what do you want to do for lunch" we decided to buy some food at a small market. It was crowded and Christy came back from the market looking dejected explaining that the market clerk had completely ignored her. Flustered and drained of energy she asked me to take over. This problem flared up every so often. I don't know if they ignore us because we are tourists or because they would rather chat with their friends than work. Some of my resolve waned and I bought the bread, salami, and cheese in better spirits even though I remembered to give an occasional frown from time to time.

We ate lunch in a small concrete courtyard overlooking the mountains and the coastline as it stretched out several hundred feet below. Now in complete agreement we did decide to leave this most unpleasant place and walk the two hours back to Riomaggiore. A long scenic walk away from the bustling hordes would improve my mood, and after perching Collette on my head, we happily headed out.

Two related things of no consequence happened to us on the way back. We saw a group of three college young men with beers in their hands slowly doing the frat boy swagger. I noticed one had a Crow's Nest t-shirt but the other two had English accents. They looked out of place and aloof of their surroundings. We asked the t-shirt owner if he was from Santa Cruz and he said, "yes." Apparently the Crow's Nest not only provided him his employment but his wardrobe as well. After some superficial talk of Santa Cruz the English one broadcast, "I'm not from there." Brilliant. The conversation ended awkwardly because they weren't articulate or good conversationalists (I'm being more than generous). Later in the walk we ran into a girl wearing a Pizza My Heart t-shirt and we asked her the same questions. Yes she was from Santa Cruz but we didn't find out if she worked there. Strange.

Christy was feeling slightly ill the last day so I suggested a hike to the top of the mountain looming over the town. Leaning ridiculously forward I pushed the stroller up the incline until the road ended at a rocky path. We hiked about ten feet and then Collette demanded that I pick her up by stretching out her arms and making small grunts. I put her on my head and started climbing and sweating while Collette talked and sang happily. "Look at that butterfly daddy, he can fly fast". The trail followed a narrow rocky ravine that was cut out by a stream. A few sparse houses dotted the mountainside. It was rocky enough that I had to bow my head to watch were I put my feet and my neck ached from the 15.2 kilograms of extra weight. I know Collette weighs this because I put her on the luggage scale while Christy was checking us in. After passing a few mountain vineyards we were rewarded with a beautiful view and silky hot chocolate. The road terminated at an almost empty hotel and café that had a demanding view of the coastline in both directions. In the distant haze town 5 could be seen where the sea cliff made a hook. Again I was struck with the similarities between this coastline and Big Sur. After letting the sweat dry on my shirt we took a new path of mostly stairs to Riomaggiore laid out far below us like a model train set.

While browsing e-mail for financial disasters we were informed of another more personal piece of bad news. My father was in a severe bike accident and had broken his hip and shattered his arm. To those of you who know my father his physical prowess is not something that he just takes pride in-- it is part of his being and his soul. To hear that his body had been broken and that he would be immobile for an extended period of time shook me to my core and brought out deep feelings for him that are difficult to express. I have a strong sense of sympathy for him but know that his mind is stronger than his body and he has an unlimited capacity to take on physical hardships and overcome them. Others and I admire him for this. Being so far away I felt helpless. So, with an umbrella over my head I used the phone card purchased in the local bar to call home. My dad sounded distant and weak. Obviously he was still freshly injured and had the slow speech belonging to pain medication. I know he is a strong and marvelous man and no accident can take away his vitality and resolve for life. I wish him the best.

We left Cinque Terre feeling refreshed and Collette perhaps a little bit lighter. It was an interesting place with a complex blend of extraordinary features. The Italian culture, the dramatic landscape and the haphazard and beautiful architecture worked together to form something completely unique. We were happy that we had taken the time to feel the rhythm of the place and to explore of all the towns. So we launched ourselves from the relaxing slow pace of the village life of Cinque Terre and into the chaotic hectic nest of Rome.
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