Over 72 hours we whizzed through Italy’s Cinque Terre: 5 coastal villages, crowded buildings crawling with tourists connected by mysterious trails that were all closed. We caught trains between the towns, their arrivals variable, sometimes according to schedule, sometimes half an hour late for varied reasons spoken in Italian, then English, over the tinny PA on the platform. We have eaten seafood. We swam. We are a little pink from sunshine, but unlike Galapagos, not sunburnt. These are the 5 things I wish I’d known before agreeing to come here:
1. A Postcard’s lighting captures the most magical appearance of the landscape, visible up to twice a day, at sunrise or sunset. Other than that half the time it’s bleached by full sun and hot or it’s night time, dark, and you can’t see anything. It’s always crawling with other tourists.
When Dan floated the idea of spending a few days – a big investment of time when one only has a week of vacation before the conference in Roma – I summoned a vague memory of sprawling coloured houses on the coastline and Dan’s cousin, Fiamma, waxing lyrical about walking between villages. In reality it’s a crowded over built and slightly decayed string of village-shaped nidi for tourists to overpopulate with the tide and small shops to sell either fried fish, fish with pasta, lemon-scented soaps, or bric-a-brac. We started North in Monterosso and really, after an hour, had walked around, eaten focaccia, seen a church, a cemetery, the ocean and I could have happily gone home. Instead we repeated the experience five times.
2. There are hiking trails, just like there are moose in Canada; we never saw one. This means walking. And stairs. And a swarm of motivated noisy tourist hiking-type people behind and in front of you.
Thankfully because of inclement weather or rocks falling or because they couldn’t be stuffed to open them, the hiking trails were all closed. All weekend. And on Monday. So we caught trains between the towns. The trains either run on time, which is helpful, or they don’t. Up to half an hour sitting people watching: the American wife driving her husband batty asking, “When will the train come!” so he replies, “It will come when it comes.” The toddler having a monumental tantrum on Platform 2. Screams, choking sobs. His mother’s attempts at first to placate then to threaten did nothing. Then the train arrived and he was distracted from the injustice that he protested and they calmly got on board. The stations have wifi. I am now Level 500 on Candy Crush.
3. Seaside towns like to sell seafood. I don’t even like seafood.
In Vernazza we were advised to book a balcony table at BelForte. We rocked up without a booking and missed out on the balcony table but got a table upstairs. The weather turned. It began to rain. Sideways. The couple that had happily sat at the balcony table were soon swept away, over the rocks, their brains smashed into red pulp foaming as the waves lapped away the bone shards. Or maybe they just moved inside. Regardless, they were gone. Dan ate squid ink pasta and I was jealous. It looked good and tasted good. So, on Monday I ordered my own gamberi rosso, pasta with squid ink. I couldn’t eat it. The prawns had eyes and legs and the ink was fresh and I could imagine a squid sunk in a fishbowl, his ink glands squeezed dry.
4. The weather is variable and you need to have packed prepared.
We started with shorts and tank tops. Then the rains began and it was very cold. And wet. I washed our socks and jocks in the kitchen sink and pegged them on the line on our balcony. Everybody else had sheets out today. We had unmentionables. In Manarola Dan saw a handful of tourists frolicking in the bay and got severe FOMO. I rolled my eyes and told him to borrow my bathers and jump in; otherwise he’d spend the whole trip pining for lost opportunity. Today only I thought to bring my bathers. So we shared them. Dan first. Then he stood in his Bonds undies drying while I jumped into the water at Manarola.
5. You’ll adapt quickly and, hopefully, filter out the material things or experiences you want to exclude from your time and include those things that will bring you pleasure, or joy to give to somebody back home.
We quickly assessed each village and saw in it similarities to every weekend festival in Toronto: instead of a corn on a cob store there were fried fish stores; instead of those deep fried onion things, there were lemon-scented soaps. Somehow having spent a lot of money to fly a quarter of the way around the planet and elbow through crowds to go to a beach when we could have gone to Rottnest which has much nicer beaches, a Red Rooster and quokkas, you are thankful for things that you could have got at home but take for granted. For example, I hand washed our clothes in the kitchen sink. I thought this the most enjoyable experience. Furiously rubbing a cake of soap onto our socks. “This is great!” I thought, then realisation dawned, “But at home a machine does this for me. I could be watching Netflix, not hand washing clothes in an Italian village!”.
I’ve enjoyed our three days here, plus we’ve only had one severe disagreement (Dan inferred that I was “in a mood” because I had not responded with sufficient chirpiness which, because I had not been upset at all until then, made me immediately incredibly upset, thereby supporting his assessment because it became true, which made me furious). I’ve resisted buying small chicken-shaped ceramic bowls or medium-sized fish shaped bowls, or faded T-shirts. Instead, as we had explained to the Melbourne couple next to us as we were rained out of the Bel Forte Ristorante, we live for experiences and stories. Not getting the table we wanted and not being able to finish lunch because of a sudden downpour made for a much more memorable experience.