June 6, 2007

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

The word for today is ‘Schiapito,’ which in english means strike. The strike I am talking about is a gas strike. Something I had never heard about before. But had the effect of putting damper on what was otherwise an absolutely beautiful day.

We took off by 8:00 this morning toward Cinque Terre which is an italian national park consisting of 5 small villages along the Mediterranean. To get there we drove two hours to La Spezia to take a short 10 minute train ride to Riomaggiore, the first of the cities. As we got into La Spezia it started to rain. We were also down to 1/8 of a tank of gas. As we drove through town I noticed that all the gas stations were closed. This was very curious to me until Jane said rather offhandedly ‘they do have gas strikes in Italy occasionally.’

As usual it was difficult to find parking around the train station, but after driving around for a while we found one relatively close. We got our tickets and hopped the first train to Riomaggiore. When we got there the clouds were at about 500 feet and we heard thunder. In Riomaggiore you walk through a short tunnel and then take an elevator to the top of the town. From the top there is a beautiful view of the ocean, mountains and vineyards surrounding this little town.

Our plan for the day was to hike the trails between the first 4 of the five cities and then take the train to the last city to avoid the most difficult part of the hike. Unfortunately it started to POUR as we were walking down main street. So, rather than stand in the middle of the road under our umbrellas we got a covered seat and bought some hot chocolate. While sitting at the table we heard a couple of guys from Virginia talking. They said they left Rome a day early to avoid the gas strike. When I asked them about the strike they said ‘didn’t you hear!?’ ‘You can’t buy any gas until tomorrow morning at 7AM.’ This didn’t do my worry gene any good at all so we started looking into getting a hotel room right there in Riomaggiore. No pajamas, no clean clothes, no toothbrush or anything. A real adventure. The first two places we checked were completely booked, but the third place had a small apartment available. When I inquired about the gas strike she told me that stations on the autostrada and some 24 hour stations would be open after 7:00 that night. So after some thought we decided to postpone our confirmation of the apartment. We confirmed her information about the gas strike and availability of gas at the national park office.

So, feeling as relieved as I could in a country where we don’t understand the news we set out on our hike in a very light drizzle. The first part of the hike, between Riomaggiore and Manarola is a very easy and short walk on a well paved trail. The best news was as we were hiking along we could see blue sky offshore headed our direction! There was not much to see in Manarola so we continued our hike toward Corniglia. This leg of the hike was only slightly more difficult and a little longer, until we arrived at the Corniglia train station. To get from the train station to the main part of town you could either walk a winding road or take 500 stairs!

Having hoped, but missing, the shuttle bus We opted for the road over the stairs. At the top of the stairs we found the pretty town square and the restaurant Cecio! Pesto was invented here in Cinque Terre so of course there were lots of pesto options on the menu. It was very good! Josh and Kaia had pesto spagetti; Jane and I had linguine with pesto. We ate outside under an awning and had a beautiful view down the valley to the ocean.

One of the most remarkable things is the walls in this area. There are literally thousands of walls built to make it possible to grow grapes and other fruits and vegetables. It would take Shane and his crew a hundred years to build all those walls. We also saw some cute little ‘roller coaster’ vehicles, single rail electric powered cars for getting the crops up and down the sides of the hills. We saw oranges and lemons and lots of other vegetation.

After lunch and some wine we headed off toward city number four, Vernazza. This was definitely the longest and most difficult part of the hike for the day. And the sun came out in full force just in time to get us all hot and steamy along the way. The hike was even slower and more difficult than usual because of the mud and slippery rocks. However, along the way we had some spectacular views!

The hike to Vernazza took us an hour and forty five minutes and we were all very glad to get to town to find some drinks and gelato. We also found two other fun items for purchase. At a gastronome we bought some pesto in a jar, along with some special noodles produced in Cinque Terre. These noodles resemble communion wafers more than anything else so it will be fun to cook them when we get home. Across the street in a clothing store I found a pair of Capri pants, so now I can look ‘tres european.’

Vernazza also has a small beach, so Jane and I sat on the bench while the kids waded in the water. We had fun watching the kids and a golden retriever who raced around the beach with the same enthusiasm as Alley races around the backyard. The golden seemed to think its job was to keep the beach free of Pigeons! It was great fun watching him chase from one side to the other leaping at the Pigeons just as they took off to get out of his way. Eventually the Pigeons gave up and found a quieter beach somewhere else. Kaia adopted the dog as her new friend and spent some time petting and talking to him.

Finally, we decided to catch the 6:28 train to Monterosso al Mare, the most touristy of the five cities. We only spent about 45 minutes in town walking around and looking at the beaches before we caught the 7:24 train back to La Spezia and our ¼ tank of gas.

We headed out straight out of town for the Autostrasse hoping that the information we had received was correct. I was worried that La Spezia would not be a very nice place to spend the night. As we approached the entrance area to the highway the sign still showed that there was a strike and no gas was available on the way to Pisa. We kept going, hoping that maybe we would find something. The first station we saw did indeed look closed but the second station was an Agip and we saw cars by the pumps! We pulled in and saw two attendents standing out by the pumps. When the first asked if we wanted a fill up I answered ‘YES FULL’ the kids say it is difficult to capture the depth of the emotion and relief in my voice when I said that and dubbed that the quote of the day. I was indeed happy and very relieved to have a full tank of gas.

It was a good lesson. It is amazing how much we take the availability of gasoline for granted. I don’t think anything like a gas strike could happen in the USA and I’m interested to read more when we get home to understand the motivation and background behind these periodic strikes here in Italy.

Unfortunately the gas station did not have any snacks and everyone was looking forward to a bit of junk food at this point. We noticed along the way that several gas stations looked like the pumps were working even though the station houses themselves were closed up tight. So, we continued to our apartment and had a junk food supper of chips, salsa, cheese and crackers. Parmigiano Reggiano is very good on crackers and flat bread!