A Tale of Five Lands

We planned the journey meticulously the night before, over several glasses of beer, in our rented flat in Lucca: the previous itinerary item had become a tedious gap, and we wanted to fill it with something glorious. Cinque Terre is the epitome of glory. Armed only with a decent Wi-Fi signal and the resident copy of Rick Steve’s Italy, we did our research, and plotted our way to a boat.

We were overjoyed with our decision, and couldn’t wait to get going. We had checked timetables for the boat; we had checked locations of the train stations, and found the best times for changes and connections; we had plotted in locations of potential stops for refuelling our tired and footsore bodies. We would get the train down to Vernazza, pick up a boat tour, and look at the rest of the towns from the sea – catching their best sides as we eschewed the usual tourist and hiking trails.

What we misunderstood was the sheer volume of the tourist hordes visiting, and based in, Cinque Terre. What we failed to do was look at the weather, as we knew it would be as hot as hell. What we completely missed was the need to assess its implications on the potential running of the boats.

The town of Vernazza is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Once you escape from the hustle and the bustle of the train station, and the main drag of the town itself, the harbour and the piazza were images I never thought I would bear witness to. I am distinctly northern in both my English-ness and my European-ness. Nothing could prepare me for the colour of the light, the water and the buildings. All I could see around me was abundance and a louche affluence I found repulsive.

Everyone was lithe and tanned, rich and frolicking. I felt so utterly out of place I found it hard to hide my complete revulsion. I am fat, pale and awkward. I experience this self-same cognitive dissonance every time I am somewhere hot, where everyone else seems to know what they are up to, where confident teenagers run amok in packs. I do not know what I should be up to. I am alienated by the need to know what I should be up to. I know this to be my failing, all mine; I am not part of the club.

Added to that, the lock on the toilet was broken: each person had to hold it shut for the person going before them, lest the non queueing cohort of this planet open the door, and terrify someone.

The waves crashed on the shore, and children played in the burning sunshine. Spray was flung and spume was blown as the sea heaved all around and about. There was no way a boat could sail on this. There was no way we were going to complete our plan. There was only the way back to the station.

In the end, we were glad to leave Vernazza and the Cinque Terre: every town was full to the rafters with people, and every action was difficult. Even standing on the train platform was difficult, with a growing throng of witless tourists pushing us further and further from the light. The harbour area, for all of its exclusivity, for all of the beauty it displayed, was an uncomfortable mix of sand, concrete and water, which left the place feeling abrasive, as if every movement resulted in another wound.

It was at this point my daughter took an interest in kicking the air, often inhabited by strangers. I understand we were bored, peeved, waiting in a dank tunnel for a train. Yes, it would be rammed, full of a complex and combustible mix of sweaty tourists, local revellers and inconspicuous pick-pockets, but that doesn’t mean you’re permitted to swing your leg about like a crazy thing. Just saying.

Italian trains are a dream come true. They are clean, fast, they are efficient, and they run on time. That last fact was the biggest surprise to me. The efficiency of the Italian train service meant that we could very easily plan a day trip from a little town in Tuscany to the celebrated Cinque Terre, and be absolutely assured that we would be able to get there, in safety and comfort. We would also be able to radically change those plans, on the fly, when everything planned went catastrophically wrong.

We tried to book tickets for the boat trip the night before, and we were bemused that we could not. It seemed that this purchase was the one remaining task which had not yet been ported over to the internet era. The site administrators probably still spelled the word “Internet” with a capital letter.

We tried to book tickets from the boat trip on the day, and we were bemused that we could not. We could see a table with an old woman reading a book. We could see instructional information laid out on the table, some of it in lurid colours. We could find no information on how to get on a boat. In the end, we had to ask, and the inevitability of the day came in to stark focus, clear as a bolt of lightning.

Oblivious to the non-running of the boats, and with plenty of time to spare, we sat in the town and ate the bread, meats and cheese which we had brought with us. We watched the throngs of people coming and going. Waves of people, never ending. We liked the look of the town immediately, its walls seeming to creep together overhead. There was little in the way of tourist tat in Vernazza, and that was a pleasant surprise. Instead there were bars and restaurants; a small Swiss supermarket.

We wondered out loud what it would be like at the close of the day, when the day trippers were long gone, and only the townsfolk and those staying the night would be left. We longed to try it.

We took a spur of the moment decision to reroute to Pisa: we wanted to see the Leaning Tower and the Campo di Miracoli. It took very little effort, and we were safe in the knowledge that the Italian train service would get us there. The changes all went smoothly, there were no delays, the longest wait between trains was ten minutes. My daughter still talks of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with awe. She wouldn’t recognise Cinque Terre even if we showed her a picture of her actually being there.