To The Cinque Terre
Sunday, September 6
The red-eye flight from North America reached Europe early: only the faintest glimmerings of dawn were visible as we descended into Frankfurt's main airport. I had managed to get an hour or two of shut-eye on the flight, and that was good - at least for me (I have a hard time sleeping on flights). It was also important because we now had a long auto journey ahead of us: a drive south to the Cinque Terre in Italy, approximately 900 kilometres away - and I was the driver.
After a bit of a hold-up with our SIXT rental car pickup (they didn't have any examples of the car class I booked), we loaded up our luggage and began our journey south on Germany's autobahn. Sunday morning meant a relative lack of traffic, and that, combined with Germany's "unlimited" speed limit sections, allowed us to make good time to the border with Switzerland. Curiously, every single heavy transport truck we saw was parked at gas stations or roadside pullouts. We wondered, was there some sort of "no trucks on Sunday" mandate?
After obtaining the mandatory autobahn vignette for Switzerland, we continued south. Tourist traffic started to build, and by the time we neared the Gotthard Pass tunnel, we were in a long line of backed-up traffic. We decided to exit off and take the overland route over the pass rather than wait for the tunnel. Whether this actually saved us any time, we don't know, but it was definitely more scenic.
Alpine Grasses of Switzerland
Once over the Gotthard Pass, we began our descent into the Italian part of Switzerland. Immediately, the weather changed from cloudy and gloomy to warm and sunny - no doubt an effect of crossing over the main divide of the Alps. The landscape, vegetation, and buildings all began to change into types and forms typical of Mediterranean European countries.
The Val Bedretto
Just south of Lugano, Switzerland, we crossed into Italy, and continued our journey south. We were still roughly on schedule for an early evening arrival at our destination, and this was important: we had a 3-night stay arrangement at an Airbnb apartment in one of the Cinque Terre towns, and we had agreed to meet the owners (at the apartment) between 6:30 and 7:00pm.
Roland enjoyed spotting various bits of semi-ruined Italian farm buildings as we took the autostrada south across the flat plain of the Po Valley. Just before Parma, we turned right, climbing into and ultimately crossing the Appenines - the long mountain range that forms the spine of Italy.
The descent on the west side of the Appenines brought us directly down into the port city of La Spezia - the second-largest city after Genoa in the Italian province of Liguria.
We exited the autostrada on the outskirts of La Spezia and began following brown "Cinque Terre" signs. It was a pleasant, sunny evening, and the waterfront was filled with strolling residents and buzzing scooters. As we began our drive up into the low coastal mountains that backed onto the Cinque Terre, we were presented with a fine view of La Spezia's harbor.
Nearing Cinque Terre
A short tunnel transferred us from the La Spezia area to the Cinque Terre coast. We popped out onto a winding road, high above the Mediterranean.
The Cinque Terre (or "Five Lands" in english) is centered around five historic coastal towns, spaced out along a stretch of coastline. Our Airbnb apartment was located in the central town - a little spot called Corniglia.
The Cinque Terre
The coastal road became narrower and twistier as we made our way north along the coast towards Corniglia. We were now cutting it close with the arrival time: the GPS destination estimate showed an arrival time in Corniglia at 6:45pm, which was cutting it close. There were many excellent viewpoint pullouts, but we zoomed past them, unable to afford the time to stop.
We finally reached the little side road descending down to Corniglia. We caught our first glimpses of the town's multicolored buildings as we descended, clustered along a narrow ridge that thrust into the sea. The evening light was coming in at the perfect angle, accentuating the town buildings' pinks, oranges, and yellows
Corniglia offers car parking at a small two-level parking area at a hairpin in the road immediately above town, as well as on the strip of road between the parking lot and the town. We had no problem finding an empty 'blue' (pay-parking) spot, and hurriedly squeezed into it. Taking a bare minimum of stuff needed for our first night in the apartment, we quickly walked downhill to the town. We were nearing the upper end of our agreed-upon meeting time.
Corniglia Car Parking
The road we parked on was the only road where cars are allowed in Corniglia. It crosses the upper end of town and continues down towards the train station. All other "roads" in the town are for foot traffic only. Therefore, as soon as we reached the point where the road crossed through the town, we turned off onto a narrow, antique-looking alleyway that led off in the direction of the apartment.
I had pre-oriented myself with Corniglia's layout before leaving Canada, but even so, via alla marina - the street upon which the apartment was located - eluded me for a few minutes. We finally confirmed a narrow set of side steps with a local resident and hurried down. We soon located the apartment - a floor-level unit in a narrow but tall five-level pink structure.
Via alla Marina
We opened the gate to the small courtyard immediately in front, then knocked on the door. A "momento" quickly came back, and soon a lady appeared at the door, hair still wet (presumably from a recent shower). She introduced herself as the wife of Marco (my Airbnb contact) and the co-owner of the apartment. She called out to her husband, who soon also came and introduced himself.
We had a look around the apartment as Marco and his wife busied themselves with a few last minute chores. Clearly they weren't quite finished with the preparations, and were rushing to finish up. In a few minutes, though, they gave us a few basic pointers about the kitchen stove, the way the shower worked, what pots and utensils were where, etc. Extra towels had just been washed and were hanging outside the window to dry, and would be ready for us to use the next morning.
The place was a typical Italian flat: high ceilings, all-concrete construction. Gas range, dish drip-dryer over the sink. There was one bathroom - clean but with old furnishings, immediately right of the entrance. The entrance foyer also held the bunk beds that made this place a "4-person flat". A long hallway connected with the other two rooms in the apartment: a spacious bedroom with two windows giving a fabulous view down to the coastline, and a spacious but relatively spartan kitchen that contained the back door leading out to the patio area.
By the time we were fully settled in and our hosts had left, it was well into evening, approaching 8pm. We'd been travelling for close to 24 hours straight, and there were only two basic things on our minds: food and sleep. We wished the former to come before the latter, so we immediately headed out into the town for an introductory Italian dinner.
We walked back up the narrow foot-only alleyways to Corniglia's only road, then walked along it for perhaps a minute or two to a restaurant called "Cecio" - the place recommended by Marco before he'd left. The restaurant had a nice spacious covered terrace that looked out over much of the town - which was rapidly fading from view in the dwindling light. I had an arugula salad and a nice plate of pesto gnocchi, enjoying our first true moment of relaxation since leaving Canada. Three cheers for newlyweds Stephanie and Roland - without them, we wouldn't all be here, enjoying fine Italian food in a scenic restaurant in the Cinque Terre.
Looking over to the other tables, we noticed that the group next to us contained none other than Marco and his wife. I guess he puts his money where his mouth is, at least where restaurant recommendations were concerned. Roland noted that, in effect, we were paying for their meal!