EuroTrip 2007: Cinque Terre (or More Accurately, Una Terra)

Having heard good things about Cinque Terre, and feeling that I needed more Italian food in my life (despite having stuffed myself stupid on the first go-round), I found myself a hostel in Riomaggiore (one of the five villages that make up this area on Italy’s Ligurian coast) and got the shuttle from my hostel in Nice to board the train that I had of course booked in advance, being an old hat at this Interrailing thing by now. In the shuttle to the station, I encountered a pair of American twins who I immediately began referring to in my head as the Bob Sagets (Bob Saget in his nerdily wholesome Danny Tanner from Full House incarnation, not the actual Bob Saget, who is a fairly raunchy albeit still kind of lame comedian). They had not booked a train, and were also hoping to go to Cinque Terre, so I advised them they needed to book a ticket right away, and went up to the ticket window to show them how to do so; essentially, they would have missed the train without me, but the jerks didn’t even thank me. Fortunately, they had seats in another compartment, as I was dreading having to sit with them and listen to them fangirling over Rick Steves (they had money belts, zip-off trousers, and even walking sticks, even though they were only in their 20s!), but as it turned out, I might have preferred the Bob Sagets over my experience.

I’ve really struggled with how to write about this incident without sounding like an awful person, and debated leaving it out altogether, but it did happen, and I’m all about honesty, so here we are. I was sharing a compartment with a French woman and her severely mentally disabled daughter, who was probably in her 20s or 30s, which is of course not a problem in and of itself – I’m not that terrible of a person – but unfortunately the daughter kept flailing her arms around and hitting me with them. To make matters worse, she very obviously soiled herself early on in the journey, and though it was a hot day on an un-air-conditioned train, which meant the smell got progressively worse, her mother didn’t go help her clean up or anything, just left her sitting in it (and believe me, after my experience in Paris, I’m certainly not going to judge someone for losing control of their bowels, but I know it’s not nice to be left in your own filth). All this was perfectly forgivable (even though I felt bad for the daughter, who was visibly distressed), because of course this woman was entitled to travel with her daughter, and I’m sure her life must have been difficult, but what I couldn’t forgive was this woman having the nerve to yell at me when my fruit salad leaked a bit on the floor. I had bought a fruit salad for lunch which was just in a plastic container with a bit of plastic vacuum sealed over the top, and the seal must have sprung a leak, because some of the juice started dripping out on the floor. It was already sitting in a plastic bag, so I picked it up and wrapped it completely in the bag, and did my best to wipe up the juice with a napkin, but obviously the floor under the seat was still a little sticky. This wasn’t good enough for the mother, who started screaming in my face in French for making a mess, which, given the circumstances, was just a bridge too far. Fortunately, we weren’t too far from my stop at this point, so I pretended like I was leaving to get supplies to clean up the mess, and just hid in the corridor until my stop, when I rushed back, grabbed my bags, and ran off the train, where I ran right into the Bob Sagets, who were also changing at Genoa to get to Cinque Terre. For some inexplicable reason, they wanted to show me the lunch they had bought – initially I had thought it was because they were going to offer me something in thanks for getting them on the damn train, but of course they didn’t offer me anything, not even a bottle of water (of which they had extra), even though I specifically mentioned how thirsty I was. As predicted, they did proceed to tell me about the merits of Rick Steves on the next train – fortunately, Rick Steves recommended staying in Monterosso, the first of the five villages by train, so that’s of course what they did, and I happily found myself free of them.

Arriving in Riomaggiore, I crossed under the tunnel from the station into one of the most charming towns I’d ever seen, and checked into my hostel, which was just an apartment on a back street crammed entirely full of beds. Not plush at all (it was actually kind of grody, as a couple would loudly have sex during the day even with other people sitting in the room trying desperately to ignore them), but I was so enchanted with the town that I didn’t care. Since Liguria is the home of pesto and focaccia, which are two of my favourite foods, I immediately ventured up the hill to one of three focaccerias for a giant piece of pesto focaccia, which remains to date probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.

After an uneventful night, the next day I got to know some of my hostelmates a bit better (I already knew the randy couple far too well), and immediately hit it off with a guy from Canada named Mike. Mike and I would be best buds for the remainder of our time in Cinque Terre, mainly because we were both hella lazy and loved to eat. Now, the reason most people go to Cinque Terre, especially back then, is to do this coastal hike that leads between all five towns, and is meant to be gorgeous. Everyone else in our hostel was doing the hike, and they couldn’t believe that neither Mike nor myself had any interest in it whatsoever. Rather, we hung around on the terrace reading books all day, and saying “ciao” to everyone who passed by, including the Bob Sagets! (I think I was in the process of telling Mike about them when they suddenly appeared out of nowhere, which made it even funnier!) We found that only the Italians were polite enough to say “ciao” back; the tourists just ignored us, so we took to swearing at them in Italian instead. Since I had limited space in my backpack, I was making ample use of the book exchange shelves that were set up at most hostels, and I kept encountering Discworld books (a series I already knew and loved), so spent most of the trip exchanging one Discworld book for another (which would lead to an interesting experience when I got to Amsterdam). I had focaccia again for lunch, but I was more ambitious for dinner. Mike and I had spent the day eyeing up the giant pesto pizza advertised at a pizzeria up the hill as a pizza that could easily feed five people, and we took that as a personal challenge. We managed to polish off one between the two of us, much to the amazement of our hostelmates (I was pretty slim back then, and Mike was a bit smaller than I was, so it looked impressive). It remains one of my proudest accomplishments (which maybe doesn’t say much about my life, but whatever), and I even got gelato after!

The next day, though we were both still firmly opposed to doing the hike (we’d come to relax, not to bloody exert ourselves!), we decided we should probably do something other than sit around the hostel all day, so we went to the beach. This consisted of a small strip of pebbles surrounded by boulders, with aggressive looking waves (those waves are no joke – a tourist got sucked off the cliffs whilst posing for a picture a few months after we were there, and died as a result), and though it looked pretty, it was definitely not ideal for swimming, not that I would have done so anyway, so we basically just watched leathery nude old people sunbathe for a bit before deciding to head up to La Spezia, the nearest city, to see if there was anything worth doing there. There really, really wasn’t. We walked around for an hour, and it was really dirty and industrial, so we decided to come right on back to Riomaggiore and continue sitting around guilt-free, since at least we’d made an attempt to explore. That night, we opted for spinach cannelloni instead, which was much more delicious than the stuff in Florence, and had more gelato, including a special Cinque Terre flavour that had too much dried fruit in it for my tastes, but I ate it anyway because it was still ice cream.

I had to sadly leave the next day for a very long trek up to Liege, but stopped by my favourite focacceria before I went to stock up on a few more slices of pesto heaven. It was good I did, because I had originally planned on spending the afternoon in Milan, from which I was taking a night train to Cologne, and gave myself hours between trains as a result. Unfortunately, when I got to Milan, I realised there was not a single locker or anywhere to leave my bag in the station, and since my bag had gotten progressively heavier throughout the trip, there was absolutely no way I was going to be exploring Milan to any significant extent with that thing on my back. So I was limited to basically the half mile or so around the station, which is typically the shadiest part of town. I did manage to find a subpar gelateria before just giving up and resigning myself to sitting in the station for hours, though I at least had my beloved pesto focaccia for comfort. I also got some emergency Happy Hippos and red orange Fanta for the train, but this experience soured me on Milan, even though I never actually saw the city. What kind of a station doesn’t have lockers?! Fortunately, for once I had managed to book a train with a couchette, and even better, they were single sex couchettes, so I didn’t have to worry about creepy pervert men! I ended up sharing a four person couchette with only one German woman around my age, so I actually managed to get some sleep on a train, which was a miracle in itself, before disembarking in Cologne extremely early in the morning to catch a train to Aachen, and then from Aachen to Liege, which was memorable mainly because I tried to use the toilet at one point and was strongly dissuaded from it by the German man who emerged, who somehow managed to convey with hand gestures that he had absolutely destroyed that toilet, and I should under no circumstances go in until it had aired out, which I found absolutely hilarious (and kind of thoughtful in a way).

So once again, except for the train journey to Riomaggiore, and the afternoon in Milan, I had an absolutely lovely time. In fact, Cinque Terre was my favourite place that I visited on this trip (or more accurately, Riomaggiore, since that was the only one of the five villages I ended up seeing, hence the title of this post), and I came back again the next year, and had a similarly nice time, that time making friends with an Australian guy. I actually kept in touch with Mike for ages via Facebook, and we’re still Facebook friends, though I’ve not spoken to him in years. He was the perfect companion to enjoy doing absolutely nothing but eating with for a few days, and I’ll always remember that time fondly. However, I did try to go back to Riomaggiore for my 30th birthday five years ago, and that place has been destroyed. It is insanely busy and crowded, and most disappointingly of all, the perfect focacceria is no longer there, having been replaced by a fish’n’chips in a cone establishment, which seemed to be all anyone was eating when we were there. It was such a disappointment to see it completely wrecked by the tourism that had in small numbers allowed it to flourish, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now.

I loved this sign on the door of my hostel reception in Riomaggiore, though I would have been seriously annoyed if I had actually been waiting to check in when I saw this sign, with no indication of when anyone would be back. For the record, Mike and I spotted this when we were sitting in the street eating pasta, and no one came back for at least an hour. We saw multiple groups of travellers getting increasingly frustrated!

11 comments

  1. You don’t sound awful, I feel really sorry for the poor woman with a disability. What a mother to have. I read a blog recently where someone did that hike and it sounded hellishly busy. Strange that everywhere which became over-touristy will now be empty and might not recover. As for those notices, they irritate me immensely. “Back in 10 mins” – but 10 mins from when I always want to scream.

    1. I felt bad for her too. Hopefully the mother was just having a rough day, but I don’t think that was a justifiable reason to not have helped her daughter clean herself up, and I certainly hope she didn’t scream at her daughter the way she was screaming at me.

      I do hope these places eventually recover, but if they can avoid becoming overtouristed again whilst still making enough income to get by, that wouldn’t be a bad thing! I kind of wish I could travel now and get to experience these places whilst still fairly empty, but I don’t think it’s very responsible to do so at this stage!

  2. Reading about all the amazing food you had certainly made me feel very hungry! It’s a shame to hear now the overcrowding in the area is ruining it… at least you got to visit when you did.

  3. Sounds like an epic journey that you did well to survive. The German guy keeping you from his toilet destruction was funny but the French mother sounds horrendous. Accidents happen but she could, and should have cleaned up her poor daughter. And then having the nerve to shout at you? Good job you got off soon after.

    1. Good thing I was a fairly intrepid traveller by this point! The German man was a delight, in a kind of gross way, but that mother was the worst. I just hope she didn’t take out her residual anger on either her daughter or the train staff.

  4. Oh that mother does sound just horrid. Poor girl having to suffer that way. I don’t blame you for not doing the hike. When you find the perfect place, why not just bask in it? Makes sense to me. Too bad it changed for the worse by your second visit.

  5. I was waiting for the Rick Steves appearance – he loves the Cinque Terre and I don’t think any Steves fan can visit Italy without a stop! It probably was a backwater when he recommended it 30 years ago, but I guess those days are long gone.

    1. I wonder if he still loves it, or if he’s even been back in the last decade, because there’s nothing much to like about it now, unfortunately. The last time I went, I was so excited to go for my birthday, and then I almost cried when I saw how awful it was. It’s good we had only planned on spending a day there, because if it was the whole focus of the trip, I probably would have had a complete meltdown. As it was, I think I lasted about an hour before we got the hell out.

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