Travelling solo, and not being inclined to wear obviously branded clothing, I think people are a little confused by me. It’s a thing I notice on the train to Cinque Terre. The few words I speak to the conductor are in Italian. The many English-speaking travellers around me don’t know if I can understand them so I sit there quietly, watching and listening.
Cinque Terre will be my first full-blown tourist experience of the trip. I’ve been places with other tourists already, of course, but these have usually included a lot of Italian tourists and been places full of locals too. Such as the piazza in front of the Duomo in Milan, for instance.
As we near the Cinque Terre stations the train fills with English, German, Scandanavian, Chinese and Japanese speakers mostly dressed for hiking – walking shoes, walking sticks and sun hats. I have read up on Cinque Terre on the way and have some notes prepared. What I haven’t prepared for, though I knew it was a possibility, was for the Blue Track to be closed due to landslides. That route is the “easy” 12 km walk from village to village.
Riomaggiore is a narrow artery of a village clotted with tourists. Many are in organised groups – wearing little stickers and following a folded umbrella; and a lot of them are sort of, well, loud Americans asking one another where they are from and talking of suburbs outside of St Louis.
It feels rather like the Cinque Terre of tourist hell (cinque terre = five lands).
The trails that climb up into the hills are open. But the lady at the information counter warns: “Very steep, very hot, too hard.”
I wasn’t going to allow my visit to Cinque Terre to amount to taking the train from one village to the next and elbowing my way around fellow tourists. So at 1:00pm I start climbing. My legs are not impressed with the decision. The walk is the hardest 1300 metres I’ve ever walked. Sweat pours off of me as I press upward in the baking sun on a narrow dusty rocky path.
But distance gives me the village views I’ve come for. Down there amongst the hordes the village is cute but crowded with tatt, above you see it as the ancient remote human settlement it is. Up here in the hills I am walking (climbing really) past their terraced gardens and vineyards which are held into place by remarkable dry stone walls.
My favourite places on this trip have been those where modern life is active and present in ancient spaces. The places which are preserved for the sake of preservation and where the life lived in them is dedicated to an economy of tourists bore me. That’s what I loved about the old city of Genova. That’s a real, living, neighbourhood that tourists pass through. There are children playing in the alleyways and friends chatting, there are grocers and hardware stores. Life, just like you and I live it, only in narrow ancient alleyways in one of the world’s greatest historic ports.
When I arrive in Manarola I am pretty shattered. I’m glad I have done the walk but my body is protesting loudly. I have lunch by the little harbour watching local and visiting kids jumping off rocks into the water to the admiration of their ever changing audience.
I take a ferry to the second-last of the towns, Vernazza – the ferry was dearer than the train but it’s good to see the Cinque Terre villages from the sea.
They are all, but one, port villages after all. Vernazza is cute enough … with a little rubbly beach and the usual crowds of Americans asking one another where they were from. I’d had enough. I needed a coffee and a train back to Riva Trigoso.
Once there I visit the grocery store and walk through the town proper on my way home. It’s a nice antidote to Cinque Terre – everyone is speaking Italian and people are going about their afternoon business.
I had hoped to leave in time to catch the 8:20 am train to Sarzana which would cut some 13 kilometres of undulating road off my ride to Pisa. I fail. Instead I get a train to La Spezia and have to cycle from there.
At La Spezia station I fall into conversation with an American I like and who has a cool attitude about life and travel – it was a nice moment for me and good to reminder to be wary of my prejudices and, instead, be open minded and take people as they come.
La Spezia has a nice feeling to it and I wish I had time to hang around. I am still running at a deficit (rest-wise) and am just motoring on. Beyond the old town La Spezia has a large and active port which I have the pleasure of riding past and then through a very ugly industrial area on roads shared with big trucks (Sydneysiders think some combination of Botany and Port Kembla).
There is climbing, though nothing too severe, and the usual amount of confusion which comes with exiting unfamiliar cities. I keep hoping and waiting to reach the sea and the long flat road which lay next to it that will take me most of the way to Pisa.
I might say something here of the plethora, veritable multitude, of road cyclists I’ve seen every day here. On my ride in Australia I saw maybe a handful of other riders of any sort. Here, every single day, I have seen lots of road cyclists – only a few tourers – and thousands of everyday cyclists, you know just people going from A to B.
The road cyclists, almost to a person, have given greeting – anything from a nod of the head to a big wave and shout of “Ciao! Ciao!” They have also almost all been men of middle or mature ages. Mostly of mature ages (mid-50s plus) – which may reflect that many of my riding days have been weekdays. I’ve also seen some quite young riders (in their 20s). One group of these were all wearing Team Lampre kit. In Australia I would have presumed them to be fans. Here, I realised, there was a good chance they were professional riders out on a training run.
I stop in a little resort village for lunch. An Italian dad walks with his sons who are carrying a li-lo down to the sea; two boys are racing back and forth on their bicycles. In the bar a worker of some sort, a regular, has a couple of limoncelloes (I think it was) before resuming his labours.
Then, finally, the seafront. Again … having been spoiled by Australian beaches these hot rocky shores leave me a bit … meh. The spectacle for me is the mountains – sharp peaks of dark grey granite, carved areas of white. I am nearing Carrara – of the famous marble and I think the white are areas of quarrying.
I am reminded, in a general way, of Queensland’s Gold Coast, but without the skyscrapers or the good surf. And with added industry.
In mid-afternoon I spot a sign pointing away from the water “Stazione” – yup, I’ve had enough. It’s time for a train into Pisa.
Pisa is another lovely old-town. I’m staying at the Hostel Pisa Tower on the opposite side of town from the station – I get to cross another river to get here – the Arno. The hostel really has a view of the Tower – it’s clean and comfy, the owner welcoming and helpful. My interest in exploring Pisa suffers from my exhaustion. I go look at the Tower and the Cathedral – which are beautiful, really amazing. But I am too late to pay 18 euros to go up the Tower.
I batter away the immigrant touts with their trays of watches and sunglasses, tarps full of hats and random little trinkets. I note that within 100 metres of the tower are a Burger King, McDonalds and Subway. I shun the camerieri spruiking their English menus and walk on seeking something a little more local.
I find the Osteria La Toscana – recommended by the hostel. I am early, not quite 8 pm – a good time for a solo diner. I have the place to myself as I enjoy the pappardelle al chinghiale (pappardelle pasta with boar sauce), roasted vegetables and a glass of Chianti.
I walk back through Piazza dei Cavallieri – and the insanely beautiful building there turns out to be the library of one of the universities. Fantastic – not preserved for preservation’s sake but repurposed and useful in everyday life today. I walk through the campus and find uni students being uni students – there is anti-establishment graffiti and posters for upcoming concerts on the walls.
Back at the hostel I find a chatty young woman from Ukraine in my dorm room; we speak for while – which is nice – but I am wrecked and ready to sleep. Which soon I do.