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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

The Calm After The Strike

UNITED KINGDOM | Wednesday, 17 June 2015 | Views [223]

The Cinque Terre is a popular destination for travellers heading to Italy. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and protected national marine park on the Italian Riviera. It’s uniquely picturesque and highly recommended by all good travel websites, so of course we had to see it. Travelling as cheaply as possible whilst not skimping too much on comfort is my mantra so we were staying a little outside of the Cinque Terre in a hostel in a small town in in the hills called Biassa, just outside La Spezia, the nearest city.

Our plan to get there was admittedly convoluted and without time for mistakes, which is never a good idea. It was the day we were meeting our other friend and instead of using common sense and meeting her in Genoa, which was about equidistant from where we were in Turin and where she was in Milan, we decided to go back to Milan to get the train back to Genoa and then a connection to La Spezia in time for the last bus to Biassa before the hostel reception closed at 11pm. Trains in Italy are cheap and easy to use but they have one fatal flaw. Although it would be disingenuous not to say I was at least partly to blame. We arrived back in Milan from Turin at 2:55pm, only 5 minutes late, with 15 minutes to find our friend and get our train. We almost made it. I had given her the instructions to wait at the metro entrance inside Milano Centrale. How was I to know there were about 20 entrances to the metro from Centrale? We had no way to call her, since our phone plans didn’t allow us to call abroad and there was no wifi, so we couldn’t even try and find out where she was. We ran around in a mad farcical haste with our heavy backpacks jangling like a one-man band, to every entrance looking for her. It really doesn’t help that the place is a maze! The train station above ground is really just a disguise for the underground mall below with its network escalators and packs of confused and angry people. I could hear the Benny Hill theme playing in my head. At 3:08 we spotted her sitting against the glass banister as we whizzed by on one of those said ramped escalators they have everywhere. We then went up and down the ramp about three times trying to get to each other; Three Stooges style. We finally reunited and without any time for greetings and we ran to our platform just in time to watch the train lock and pull away without us. So we missed our train, thanks to my terrible instructions.

But Milano Centrale wasn’t done with us yet. We begrudgingly headed downstairs to buy new tickets, although the others saw the comedy in this a lot more than I did. The ticket office and the main area outside the platforms were teeming with people. The station was like a bomb shelter. Crowds of people crammed together looking bewilderedly at the departures board as all their trains seemed to be cancelled. I desperately tried to find wifi to find out when our next train was and what the hell was going on. I got on to the TrenItalia, the national train service, website and at the top of the page there was a notice, the only word of which I read was “Sciopero”. Strike. It says a lot, that my Italian tutor had specifically taught us the word for strike. All the engineers and signalmen and train drivers were on strike until 6pm when they would maybe, think about getting the trains moving again. So trains in Italy are cheap and easy to use, but reliable they are not. For 4 hours we sat on the cold marble floor of Milano Centrale, waiting for the trains to start, stranded with a group of New Zealanders heading to the Cinque Terre too, and watching the torrential rain pound the humid streets of Milan.

But eventually the trains started again and a train arrived in which our new tickets were valid and, after a further 20-minute delay, we finally left Milan. I won’t do my companions the injustice of pretending I had coped well with the wait. The train ride was tense to say the least and an argument broke out at the hostel when we finally got there. Looking back at it now it seems ridiculous that I got so stressed, after all everything worked out in the end, but at the time I was so angry, mostly because we would have avoided it all if it wasn’t for my terrible instructions. Luckily for us we weren’t the only travellers caught out by the strike so there was a steady supply of taxis from La Spezia train station to the hostel in Biassa and the reception was still open when we finally arrived at 11:30 pm. The rude Americans who pushed us out of the way of a taxi and the fuming hostel worker who yelled at people for not even bothering to call and let him know they would miss pre-booked tours and activities made me feel better knowing I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t handle a minor mishap.

But tomorrow was another day, and as the bell chimed in the town square and the soft dawn light cracked through the window, serenity awoke us from our exhausted sleep. As soon as we got up we headed outside to the patio to have a much needed cigarette. In the darkness we didn’t get a good look at where we were, but now in the white morning light we were greeted by the thick green jungle that engulfed us on all sides. The cute little villas are all painted in warm pastel colours and each have a neatly kept garden full of bright exotic flowers. After a quick breakfast we headed down to the bus stop to catch the shuttle bus to Riomaggiore. From the bottom of the hill where the bus stop was you could see the glittering turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea biting into the port city of La Spezia down below. The rock of the mountain on the other side of the road was covered in tiny little lizards and dainty flowers. An advertisement board nailed into the rock was covered in nothing by black and white posters announcing which grandfather or mother had died recently and inviting the whole village to the funeral, if they so wished. The house by the bus stop had a playful little dog who barked at us for attention through the fence. We had so long to wait for the bus I even sat to sketch the blue domed church tower, with its regulated but somehow soothing bell. There is little in Biassa other than the hostel, a pizzeria, a tabbachi, a bar, a shop and the church. To quote the shopkeeper, Biassa is “tranquillo”, in fact, it’s like peace personified. The only noises are the birds singing in the thousands of trees that cover the hillside, the faint calls of “Ciao Luca”, “Ciao Luigi” as the villagers go about their quiet lives and the regular toll of the bell. But, unfortunately, we didn’t come to see Biassa. We hopped on the small infrequent bus to Riomaggiore, the first town along the coast of Liguria which makes up the Cinque Terre National Park.

The pictures of the Cinque Terre may seem too perfect and too idyllic to be true but they are not. Even the flocks of tourists and backpackers can’t ruin it. The sea, bluer and stiller than any sea I have ever seen stretches for eternity across the horizon. The pastel coloured houses and vineyards nestled in the hills and around the coves are just as you imagine, well kept, bright, clean. That’s thanks to all the tourism and protection this place gets but also to the pride of the locals who live there. Riomaggiore is steeply set on the side of cliff, and a lot of the streets are narrow steps and steep hills. There’s a sweet almost hidden little chapel on a side street that we stepped into, that had a few chairs, a tiny altar and very little light. There is a small path that runs along the cliffs to the neighbouring village of Manarola called the Via Dell Amore. We had planned to walk along it since it’s the shortest distance but there had been some sort of landslide and half the path was covered in mud so we just had to catch the train. A kind woman who was reading a book beside the entrance to the path explained what had happened and kindly stopped reading to walk us a little way and then point us in the right direction.

To get from the main town to train station you have to walk through this underground tunnel that’s all decorated with brightly coloured tiles. We sat down for another slice of focaccia, a particular local dish for Liguria, and waited for the train to Manarola. We had planned to get the train between all the other villages anyway because since we only had one day we didn’t have the time, or the stamina or the correct footwear, to hike between the villages like you are supposed to. A special service links the towns together and they do special discounted tickets, so it make it a popular (a.k.a crowded) choice. The next town, Manarola, is slightly bigger, or at least slightly less squashed together. Its bay is wider and the flower lined path that snakes around the cliff to a sweet little garden and some nice restaurants that overlook the cove make for wonderful views. The bay has a few rocks strategically perfect for cliff diving tourists. In the off season Manarola would be like heaven. We sat down to eat lunch in the café on the cliff then sat for a while in the garden above it and looked out over the sea and across to the next town Corniglia.

Corniglia is on top of the cliff rather than on a bay like the others so to reach it from the train station you have to climb a hundred or more steep steps. From the bottom is seems like hell, especially in the blinding midday sun, but it’s not actually so bad. On the way down, when you can stroll and look at the flowers and trees that frame the stairs and a pretty little shrine to Mary that looks over the bay, it is actually quite relaxing. The stairs, or the heat, must put people off because it was mostly empty when we got up there. It was nice and secluded, a lot less touristy than the other villages, but there wasn’t much to do. We sat and had some gelato in a little gelateria and popped into the small church on the top of the cliff. The day began to pass by and we still had two more villages to see before we caught the last shuttle back to Biassa at 8:30pm. As a result we visited Vernazza and Monterosso very briefly. Vernazza is famous for its caves and as a good spot for a swim. It has a tiny little beach that was full of people. I wanted to dip my feet but we didn’t really have time. Onward to Monterosso! Monterosso is by far the biggest of the villages. It has actual hotels and an actual beach with deck chairs and parasols. It’s the Italian version of an average seaside town, but so much nicer. Go through the tunnel at one end of the town and to the quaint winding streets of the old town and it’s much nicer. In the last fifteen minutes that we had in Monterosso before we had to catch the train back to Riomaggiore to catch the shuttle bus back to Biassa.

The next morning it was time to head back to La Spezia and catch the train to our next destination. We bought a breakfast from the shop in Biassa that is owned by a lady and her mama whilst we waited for, and then missed, the bus. It sells everything, including the sweetest cuorecini biscuits and tastiest Zucchini Torta ever. We sat and chatted (or rather attempted to chat since none of them knew any English and my Italian is mediocre at best) with Mama and her daughter and all the other old ladies that came to start their morning routine with a trip to the shop. Although, I did understand more of what they were saying than I let on but when they all started demanding bewilderedly “Dove sono I tuoi uomini?!” I had no idea how to answer in English or Italian. One grandmother tried to get her young red headed grandson to speak English to us, as he had been learning it at school but he comically stamped his feet and protested that English was hard, he wasn’t very good at it and he wasn’t about to talk to some strange girls anyway. Then sadly it was time to leave Biassa and I watched the pastel houses and the bell tower disappear in the trees from the bus window.

Tags: biassa, cinque terre, corniglia, manarola, milan central, monterosso, riomaggiore, train strikes, tranquillo, vernazza

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