Monday, October 15, 2012

"This is problem for you": Adventures in Italian train strikes.

Cinque Terre is actually the most beautiful, romantic place I’ve ever been to in my life. You couldn’t dream up a place this pretty. I was actively planning my future honeymoon the entire time I was there. I was absolutely in my element. Coming here with no expectations, I fell in love with this place.

If you’ve ever read the children’s book series Strega Nona, I’m 99% sure she lives in Manarola (the 5th town comprising Cinque Terre where our hostel was located).

(Pictured: Strega Nona’s street. IT EVEN SMELLED LIKE SOUP!)

Z and I landed at Pisa Aerporto and enlisted the help of some friendly employees and locals to find our way to Manarola. Except for the last of 3 transfers, where the train ticket was decidedly unhelpful and we threw caution to the wind and hopped a train we were pretty sure was the right one. If you asked me to get on a train and cross my fingers 2 weeks ago, I would have told you you were crazy. This is growing up and becoming a seasoned traveller, guys. We decided that travelling is 30% planning, 60% intuition, and 10% blind luck.

We met friendly couples from Ohio and California who were adopting the same “here goes nothing!” attitude and stood with them in front of the train door, shrugging haplessly at every person who came up and asked us if this was the train going to Cinque Terre. Fortunately, we were dropped off at a picturesque train station in Manarola, and we were absolutely blown away.

Everything was the bluest blue, forever ruining the questionable navy of the Atlantic for me. Between the mountains, the rocks, and the Mediterranean, the entire area was a postcard waiting to happen. We trekked up to the hostel, situated behind the giant church, with our giant bags on our backs. Cinque Terre is a hiking destination, but no one warned us that we would need to hike just to get up the street. It was a system of impossibly steep hills, and I think I got an amazing calf workout just walking back and forth through the town. Which is nice, because I ate roughly half my body weight in food.

We were starving upon arrival, so we hit a charming little cafe outside of the train station. They were selling bruschetta for 6 euro and, expecting Olive Garden-esque tiny toast rounds, we were a little bummed out. But for authentic Italian bruschetta, we were willing to pay the price. I ordered pesto, Z ordered peppers, and we got a Margherita pizza to split. Then, it came to the table.

And it was the size of our heads. The waitress was laughing at us because she couldn’t fit the pizza next to our ginormous tomatoey treats. I think there was an entire garden on there. And I’m pleased to tell you, we finished all of it. It was shockingly fresh. I’ve never tasted anything like it in my life.

The view from our hostel, which was at the very top of the complex series of hills, was breathtaking.

The cornerstone of that church apparently dates back to 1338, making this the oldest part of Cinque Terre. We traipsed down to the “beach” (a series of rocks) in our swimsuits and shorts. In October.

(Cute couples EVERYWHERE. Z and I started to joke that it was our honeymoon because the ratio of couples to non-couples was like 99:1. It’s where adventurers go to swim in the Mediterranean and rock jump and hike and be adorable.)

We got gelato,

(This is actually me with sorbet, but rest assured I also tried 4 flavors of gelato. We ate a lot this weekend.)

Visited the love lock bridge (I had a minor mental breakdown from how cute this was. I’ve always wanted to visit the one in Paris, and this one was a completely welcome surprise)

And watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.

We ended the night with a glass of local wine on the patio of our hostel with a lovely stray cat who we dubbed Ingrid. It was actually the perfect day, easily the best I’ve had while I’ve been here.

We set the alarm for 8 AM on Saturday in the hopes of taking the “easy” (read: not at a 90 degree angle to the ground) hiking trail around to the other towns. To our chagrin, it was closed, so we headed up to the information center to find alternatives. Little did we know, this would be the least of our problems.

A tiny sign in Times New Roman delivered the bad news.


We figured this had to be a mistake. This area of Italy is literally only reachable by train. How could we have been through 3 train stations and not have heard a word about this until now?

Easily, apparently, according to the woman at the information desk who had a painfully calm attitude about the whole ordeal. She didn’t understand the gravity of our situation until we repeated for the 3rd time that our flight was at 5:30 PM on Sunday.

“Oh…” she said. “This is problem for you.”

She eventually gave us a dubious time of “5:30…15:30…I mean, 17:30” for a train out of La Spezia and into Pisa. Z and I dealt with this major setback like champions, booking a hotel of questionable quality whose display picture was a dingy bed with a bold stamp over it proclaiming “LITERALLY 1 MINUTE FROM THE AIRPORT!” This was all the convincing we needed. Our hostel in Cinque Terre refused us a refund (although they were very aware that there was a train strike and neglected to tell us, despite the fact that we were checking out on Sunday at 10 with literally no way to get anywhere else in Italy. Can you tell I’m still burned by it?) But we decided to make the best of it.

We spent the rest of the day dipping our feet in the Mediterranean (rock jumping and swimming were sadly not an option, as the water was too rough),

And walking around the amazing trails

(This is my favorite picture ever).

And generally lamenting having to leave.

(I was crying on the inside).

We made our way to Pisa Aerporto and the hotel was, as promised, one minute away. Under the highway overpass. The doors were barred shut, the lobby was locked, and the hotel owner wanted nothing to do with us until he was done with his phone call…so he left us outside in the cold with our giant bags. Now that’s service.

At least we were in a private room with one of roughly 3 full length mirrors I’ve seen in all of Europe.

(It was a little squiggly).

The owner lead us to the room, and Z asked him about the sign in his lobby referencing luggage storage. He paused, then said, “Leave your bags in your room and your room unlocked. Leave a note with time you be back. I take into back office.”

Needless to say, our bags never left our sight. It was one of the more frightening places I’ve ever stayed (when one of us went to the bathroom, we locked the other one into the room). We abandoned all hopes of late-night pasta and barricaded ourselves in our twin room to watch Italian Teen Wolf and wonder what in the world was happening outside of our boarded-up windows.

Outer Pisa was even a bit disconcerting in the day time. We did manage to find some delicious pastries, and eventually made our way into the nicer part of town, where we scored fresh pasta with pesto sauce for a paltry 6 euro. Everything we ate was amazing, but we were pleasantly surprised by the abundance of inexpensive fresh fruit juice in every flavor imaginable. ACE was a personal favorite (stands for vitamins A, C, and E, I later learned), which was a mixture of orange, carrot, and lime juice. I will be dreaming about it forever. We found some cute shops, an adorable flea market, and had a grand old time. Hey, worse things have happened than a day in Pisa, and since we kept our wits about us (and put on our best “seasoned traveler” hats) we lived to tell the tale without any major mental breakdowns! Italy, you were great, and I hope you got all the rights you wanted from your strike…but next time, make it on a Tuesday, would you?

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