By train, the ride to Manarola takes all of 10 minutes from the nearest major city, La Spezia. After being hurtled through dark railway tunnels, you emerge. The first sight of bright sunlight and sparkling Mediterranean blue sea is, in a word, breathtaking. It as as though you've been blind all your life and suddenly have sight. The moment I first saw the sea, an involuntary cry rose from my throat. The water was so impossibly blue — and yet, there it is.
In fact, The Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is a feat of impossibility made possible. The cities have literally been built within the steep cliffs and mountains, precariously set beside the sea. The terracotta buildings are painted bright shades of blue, yellow, red, pink and green and they look like a doll village, something so precious it could not possibly be functional, but it is and has been for centuries. The cities are a testament to Italian determination, aesthetic and love of beauty. Who else would imagine to carve vineyards into mountains and wrest lemon groves from arid ground? The word "terre" holds deeper meaning when you appreciate the terraced gardens that rise to the very tops of mountains that touch the clouds. And to think that all this was accomplished long ago, without benefit of technology or even electricity, for that matter.
Manarola was to be the first stop of our tour of these five precious villages. We arrived on Monday evening and planned to commute the next day to at least two of her sisters — Corniglia and Vernazza — by train or ferry. Having only about 24 hours to explore these wonders, we thought we were being conservative to restrict ourselves to three. But Mother Nature and the Italian Rail Workers Union had other plans in mind for us.
One of the charms of the Cinque Terre towns is that there is no car traffic. Motor vehicle use is extremely limited and is only a few towns are even accessible by car. The roads are perilously narrow and steep, precluding only the most skillful, stalwart drivers. Buses are limited as well. So the train and ferry systems are the way to go, and (normally) these modes of transportation are ideal given the terrain and the port access. But on Tuesday, as we rose early to make the most of our day, we discovered that our two transportation options had been eliminated.
Italy enjoys many customs. On Tuesday we were introduced to the common practice called transportation strikes. The various unions actually schedule their strikes with the Minister of Transportation, so Italians know to check with the proper authorities before they schedule their flights and buy their train tickets. But for ignorant Americanos, the concept of the Italian train strike was introduced at the window of the ticket office as we tried to buy our tickets to Corniglia.
"There's a strike," the lady behind the counter said flatly. "No trains are running right now. Maybe later. We don't know for sure. It's a national strike."
"Do you have any idea when the next train will come?" I asked, dumbly. (Maybe she hadn't understood me??)
"No," said the lady. "You'll have to just come back later. Try later."
She smiled and shrugged a little. She made no apologies and none was needed, really. Train strikes happen all the time in Italy. We could have consulted the Ministry of Transportation website before venturing out. But we're silly Americans who expect to show up and have something work as advertised! (Note: The woman was not the least bit sarcastic or rude. In fact, she was extraordinarily nice given the number of travelers who asked her the same question over and over again that day. Honestly, I was impressed with her sense of compassionate detachment.)
We walked back through the tunnel that lead from the station to the town. During WW II, this tunnel was used as refuge from airstrikes. Today, we welcomed its coolness and shade.
We headed to the ferry stand only to discover that the sea was too rough for the boat to come into the crude port. (We marveled at how they navigated into the simple, rock enclosed harbor even in the best conditions.)
Just like that, our plans changed. There would be no town-hopping that day. The trails between the cities were steep and long. It was a difficult two and half hour hike from Manarola to Corniglia. And even if we made it to Corniglia with our belongings, we would be in the same predicament with respect to the train.
At first, I wanted to be disappointed. After all, we had spent a lot of time and money getting to The Cinque Terre and now we couldn't even see most of it! Plus, I had spent months gazing at images of the five towns and learning the distinctions between them. I wanted to be angry or frustrated or upset, but oddly I could not muster the enthusiasm for any negative emotion in this beautiful place. As soon as I heard myself say, "Looks like we're stuck in Manarola!" I had to laugh. "We're stuck in Manarola. Poor, poor us!"
We lunched on the excellent focaccia and purchased biscotti and water and took a stroll to the path called "Via dell Amore." This path leads to the town of Riomaggiore, but due to a landslide in 2012, the trail was closed and has yet to open. We walked a short distance and found the path barred with a fence. Stuck again? Hardly.
There was an empty shop (once the last stop for gelato) along the closed pathway. Tables and chairs remained on the covered veranda overlooking the blue, blue Mediterranean. We marveled at the view. The train ran directly below us, and we were with a few blocks of the station. This was the perfect vantage point to watch for the errant trains. I retrieved a deck of playing cards from my backpack, and we settled in for a game of Gin a' fresco beside one of the most amazingly gorgeous vistas in the world. We were stuck in Manarola. Thank God! We were stuck in Manarola! As we munched Italian cookies, I pinched myself to make sure it was real. How could I be so incredibly fortunate to be with my family in this beautiful place?
I was dealing out our second hand when we heard a rumble beneath us. It took a minute to register what was happening. The train! We watched as it pulled into the station. It was heading to Levanto, the furthest stop on the line. But this meant that it would pendulum back south through Manarola on its return trip to La Spezia (and the parking lot where we left our rental). I regretted that we had to break up our card game, pack up our things and go, but we weren't sure when another south-bound train would come through. We had to hop aboard this one while we could.
In the end, I was grateful for the train strike. All of my planning and hours
of TripAdvisor perusing could not have landed us in this idyllic spot,
playing Gin with the Mediterranean as the backdrop. If the trains had
been running, we would be trekking around one of the other pretty
little towns, but we would not have paused to have this time together.
As we boarded the train and I gazed out at that gorgeous sea, I tucked away a most valuable lesson:
Sometimes the things that go "wrong" are what yield your most cherished experiences.