Thursday, November 27, 2008

The sight that made all the travel struggle fade from memory...

After our French sidetrack, it was time for the next big main event... our first trip to Italy. And once again, the efforts of border crossing seemed to be not so simple as they seemed. We trained from Avignon to Nice, and from Nice to Ventimiglia, just inside the Italian border... arriving by midday due to getting up at 5am in Avignon to make sure we made good time... and so, with five hours before our hostel closed for check in [at 5pm - somewhat ridiculous, but 'when in Rome'..] we had just 250km of rail track to go to our destination, Riomaggiore. At which point, we consulted the timetable, discovered that it was, in fact, a Saturday [who knew?] and that the fastest, most direct train we could get left just after 1pm and would deliver us to our destination some time after 7:00. Hmmph. So, after a quick re-plan, and a little more than a moment's panic, we changed route and headed for Genova for the night. And here is where we found out how our original planned journey would have failed... our train stopped, on average, over a four and a half hour journey... once every six minutes. Not cool. Seriously not cool.

But we arrived safely in Genova, and, determined not to let our first experience of Italy turn into a negative one, we hunted down the best available accommodation when arriving in a city sans booking, after 5pm on a Saturday night... and went exploring. Genova felt like a city of wealth, the buildings lit up with beautiful soft lighting, and groups of well-dressed people pouring in and out of theatres and hotels along the streets. Still, we did our best not to stick out too badly, wandering past the Piazza de Ferrari, the main square outside the opera house, with a very cool fountain, and down the main pedestrian street, Via Garibaldi, through the old town. This district is on the UNESCO world heritage list, and was quite different to much of what we had seen thus far. Most of the buildings were designed in the 16th century for the wealthy ruling families, and we were told that several of the houses facing each other across the street were built specifically in a show of 'one-upmanship' between feuding families. We didn't have the time to do the city justice, but what we did see was impressive, and saved the detour from being a complete disaster.

The next morning we planned to get up and get going early, then managed to do both an hour earlier than planned due to forgetting that daylight savings was ending... oops... but happily ended up in Riomaggiore by 9:30 in the morning. After checking in we strapped on our walking shoes, filled the bag with lunch and set off for the main reason we stopped in this part of Italy: the Cinque Terre walking track. And within five metres of the entrance, all the stress, the early starts, the long train journeys, the uncomfortable waits at stations.... it all disappeared from memory, because we were standing looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, pure, blue and shining in the sunlight, and it would take a hard person to fault that view.

The path is traversed by thousands of visitors every year, but our run of good luck continued and the track was pleasantly empty. As we were staying in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, we took the track north, which starts out as easy as a stroll in the park, a nice wide, paved, gently winding path leading the way to the second village, Manarola. This stretch is known as the Via Dell'Amore, as you can imagine taking a leisurely romantic stroll between the two clifftop villages. Step two wasn't much tougher than the first, though the final ascent to Corniglia was a winding set of 368 stairs. That's when it really got interesting. The path to the next village, Vernazza, was a whole lot steeper, a whole lot narrower, and a whole lot more winding. And when, about an hour and a half later, we finally made it.. we found out that the path from there to Monterosso was the steepest and most challenging... Oh. The path went from standing by the sea in Vernazza to 150m above sealevel in the space of about 10 minutes walk.. then dropped another 40.. gained another 60.. you get the idea. On top of that, the path [two-way path] at times was no bigger than a foot wide, with a sheer cliff up on one side, and sheer cliff down on the other - no handrails. The path winds between olive groves and vineyards and at times felt quite like trekking in New Zealand bush.. But finally we emerged in Monterosso, after a spectacular descent into the bay, dipped our feet in the Mediterranean, and congratulated ourselves on a job well done :)

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