It was a warm summer night when we arrived in the sleepy hillside town of Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages of Cinque Terre. I’m almost hesitant to write a story about this place since (despite breathtaking photos and other pieces touting the beauty of the region) there were only a few tourists when I was there, and that was a huge part of its charm.
Cinque Terre is an area in Northern Italy, on the Italian Riviera. A train connects the five towns and you can walk from the first to the last in about 6 hours, with each trail getting a little longer. The five cities are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare. Though I happen to be of the school of thought, “the world is big, why go somewhere twice?” this place would be one definite exception to my rule. This is one of two stories of Cinque Terre that I will share on this blog. Anyway, let’s get to it.
Our train from Milan arrived in the early evening, and as we exited the station we entered a world full of colorful buildings and sloping stone streets. In this world, nobody seemed in a rush and nobody cared that we were tourists. And, in this world, we had no idea where we were staying because the friend who reserved the guest room was arriving on a different train.
With no agenda, we strolled the streets looking at the small shops which lined the main road. These shops were not souvenir shops nor tourist shops, but essential shops like a butcher, a baker and an alcohol maker. We picked up supplies at all three and lingered in the latter. The train they were to arrive on was meant to be there before we had arrived, but was delayed until 5. After a short walkabout, we returned to the station to await their arrival.
Like all Italian trains, this train was late. But, oddly, they weren’t sure when it would arrive. Well, maybe they had an idea, but we had no way to ask for clarification since none of us could speak the language. To make the best of a bad situation, we bought some wine and took a seat in the square.
I’m not sure how the locals put up with our singing (one of my companions and I enjoyed frequenting punk rock shows together when we were in college and both fancied ourselves lead singer material), but we received no complaints as we sat on the stones of the elevated square. From its overlook of the city, we would know when any trains or new people arrived. We had prepared for a wait, but were beginning to worry—the last train was scheduled to arrive at 11 and the train station would be closed. If they didn’t arrive before that, the square would be our home for the evening.
Just before 11, the sound of a train echoed gently through the slumbering village. A few passengers stepped off and we saw our long awaited hosts. The train had been delayed by 7 hours. Seven. No, not minutes. Hours. When they had asked the man at the station, he just shrugged. I guess he was right, it didn’t really matter now.
Our friend guided us to small cork board with various keys and town notes attached to it. He had stayed in the same guest house before and knew where the owner would leave the key. That is, if he had left it, which he hadn’t. It wasn’t there.
Although we returned to the square, we stayed just long enough to wait for the last scheduled train. After it rolled in, the station man turned off the lights and began to lock the doors of the small building. He confirmed that it was the last train of the day, so we made our way back to the board.
Miranda. I think that was the name of the girl’s key we took. We reasoned that it was the last train, and no one else could be coming into the city this late, so we took it. At this point, you may be wondering, “what if they drive or take a bus?” Well that’s another wonderful thing about the area, it couldn't be reached by car.
It was a beautiful little apartment and just below the exit were stairs that lead to the ocean. A movie couldn’t have produced a more quaint setting. To celebrate our journey, we each had a glass of wine and everyone fell asleep shortly after—the three of us had been drinking already, and our hosts had just experienced a 7 hour delay.
While the other settled in, my punk friend and I crept down the mystery stairs to the ocean. The waves lapping at the rocks were the only sound we really heard. No boats, no cars, no nothing, just the water. Even the town was silent. It glowed a soft orange from the lamps throughout the town; colorful laundry hung like colorful banners from windows. A picture of peace.
In the morning, we got up early to return the key and find the guest house owner. We earnestly apologized for stealing the key which earned us a puzzled look.
Did she come looking for the key? He had asked.
No. We responded.
Did you break anything or steal anything?
And you had a place to stay?
Then what’s the problem.
He shrugged, smiled and led us to our new rooms. They reminded me of a nice hospital in one of those old classic World War I movies. Our roommates were three very nice Canadian girls who would later prove to be above-averagely nice. But, that’s a different story.