I find traveling is a set of skills that stays sharp when you do it often, but we’ve been on a bit of a travel hiatus. After spending a couple of weeks (a long stretch for us) in Mexico this January, we pretty much stayed put for early 2018. Besides, there was plenty that needed doing here. But the drought ended with a road trip to the Cinque Terre, on the northwestern coast of Italy, south of Genoa. In blundering ahead with our rusty skills, we missed a few points on the mental checklist. Here is what we learned so that you don’t have to:
- Do the homework and study your map!
L’OrtoBio, the place we stayed in Sarzana was a really nice, a quiet, newly-renovated vacation apartment with a minimally equipped kitchen (no oven). It worked well for breakfasts and snacking (the bowl of fresh strawberries from their organic farm upon check-in was a nice touch), but cooking whole meals would have been a stretch. The location posed another challenge: tranquil and located on an organic farm, but not particularly walkable if you want to access town without a car. The distance wasn’t an issue, there were just no sidewalks on the cramped, busy roads. So strolling in to hop on a train, to hunt for postcards or for dinner and a glass of wine weren’t realistic options. Naturally, we discovered this by doing it and not asking for help.
- Know when to ask for help!
The restaurant we chose for dinner ended up being completely booked on both Friday and Saturday night, and since we (in accordance with the theme of not learning a damned thing) hadn’t reserved, we were turned away. If we’d been brave and asked our hosts for some help as native speakers to make the call for us, we’d have known this and made other plans.
- Check which season you’re in!
Our accommodation priced that weekend as their low season, but Cinque Terre specific resources call May mid season and the crowds were pretty intense. I shudder to think how packed it is at peak season (June-July-August).
- Be prepared to stand on the train!
Again, this is season dependent, but by the time we headed back into La Spezia (larger city at the southern end of the Cinque Terre and often a used as base), the train was completely full with people standing all along the aisles.
- Bring your climbing knees!
Even if you don’t elect to do the hikes from town to town, you might have to face the many, many, MANY steps up to and down from Corniglia. If you take the train or walk in from Manarola, you’ll climb them (or elect for the bus) and if you walk in from Vernazza, you’ll have to descend them to continue the path southward. My biggest suggestion: don’t count, just get on with it.
- Don’t even think about driving if you feel like getting out of the car!
This was our major error. On Friday, we had illusions of driving to La Spezia and taking the train from there. There is a serious lack of parking spots, given the demand on the train station there. So we thought “Let’s just start driving through them and we’ll park where ever there’s room!” But that’s the thing: there is no room. All of the parking we saw available was already taken, and much of it claimed by town residents, as whole hillsides of parallel spots were marked for residential use only. On top of that, there were people directing traffic at the entrances to the town, basically telling drivers to turn back, as there was no room. So we got a nice view of the mountains, but didn’t actually experience the Cinque Terre until we returned Saturday, sans car.
- If the crowd is too much, head upward! Anytime we arrived in a town to throngs at the marina, we just headed up the steep slopes into the higher streets and they thinned right out. Still plenty to see, you just have to earn it a little.
- Where ever you end up, stop, look up and turn all the way around!
There’s a reason they’re so packed. The Cinque Terre are stunning, with every step and at every turn. It was a little overwhelming to have all that beauty trying to get into your eyes at once.