We are advised to hike early or late in the day as the midday sun is quite hot and sweating is guaranteed. We start out at 8am but our efforts are thwarted in many ways. On the path, we find a gate blocking the coastal trail from Manarola to Ćorniglia due to dangerous trail conditions; then we find people turning around because the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is not scheduled to reopen until 2017. The heavy flooding in 2011 destroyed many of the trails of the Cinque Terre and devastated the towns of Vernazza and Monterossa. Although the towns have been cleaned up and restored, the trails have not. In addition, trail maintenance is often unscheduled and unannounced, typical of Italy, so the trail from Monterosso to Levante is also closed. By now, it is getting quite warm so our Plan B is to ride the "milk train" to Riomaggiore and have coffee, then explore all five towns by train. Figuring out the train system is an education in itself. They run about every hour but not all trains stop in each town; the information booth has printed schedules that change every few months. We learn that tickets are sold at machines and are good for a few months so fines are high if you don't validate them before boarding. The most crazy sight is the crowd of people trying to get on and off the trains at mid day, mostly due to all the tour groups that descend from La Spezia and cruise liners around 10am. We later learn that October is a better time to visit. As we watched one train arriving, some got on board but a tour guide was frantically waving the other half of his group to run and get on another car. People were yelling at family members to hurry up and get on. One tourist said she saw people's faces pressed against the doors. Is that insane or what? Fortunately, most tour groups had already bypassed Riomaggiore, the first town so our train was fairly empty.
We leave Venice just as the crowds begin to stream into the city. Huge groups follow tour guides waving little flags. Our train from Venice to Florence is filled with tourists, many who have suitcases way too large to fit in the overhead racks and we watch with amusement as people desperately try to fit their bags somewhere, anywhere. I wonder what is in their luggage and why they need to bring so much stuff! In Florence, we transfer to a regional train to La Spezia, which stops at many small towns. These towns are grittier than the ski towns up north, graffiti art decorates the concrete walls. Air conditioning is weak and occasionally a cool breeze blows through. Passengers on the train are a mix of local residents, students and tourists. I spend my time people watching- the young teen couple sitting across from us, she sharing photos on her cell phone with him; he looks totally disinterested.
Our destination today is Venice where we will return our car. Patchy clouds turn to gusty winds as we make our way around the Alpse mountain plateau to Selva in the Val Gardena. One after another, we see small ski towns carved into sections of mountains and we think of Tahoe, - that this would never be acceptable. Though people tell us that Colorado, particularly Breckenridge, is similar.
The winds have been gusting all night long and the bedrooms feel like a frigid 45-50 degrees. I don't think anyone washed up last night. The price of breakfast puzzles us- for 7.50 euros you get a basket of bread with jams, and coffee. A la carte we get coffee, eggs and speck for 7 euros, with a basket of bread but no jam. We linger in front of the space heater and listen to the howling wind. Everone is very quiet this morning, most likely contemplating the hike out! I decide against a 20 min walk up the nearby trail to the overlook of m. pez.
This morning, we are just about to seat ourselves at a 2 person place setting, at a different table from yesterday when Michaela's mother very quickly stops us and says, " no, no,no!" motioning for us to sit in the exact same chairs as yesterday. We dare not argue and obediently take our appointed spots! What difference does it make, we wonder? The b&b only has 5 rooms and they are not even full!
It is cloudy and gray outside and we are in a quandary as to whether we should hike today or not. Michaela from our b&b helps us change our reservations at the rifugio and delay hiking until tomorrow. We learn that her mother has owned the b&b for 30 years and she has been there for 22. They formerly ran a hut up on the plateau where she grew up and would walk out and come down to Siusi to school. In the winter they rode snowmobiles to get around. What a different childhood she had; reminds me of the story of Heidi in the Swiss alps.
Today's lesson is the importance of German order and processes and the domino effect leading to chaos that occurs when a link is broken in the order of procedures. In the wood paneled dining room this morning, various groupings of placesettings are arranged on the 6 tables. Not particularly liking our seats from last night, we fill our plates from the buffet and seat ourselves at a different table where there is a setting for two, in the half empty room. Midway through our meal, the waitress comes over and tells us we must move and sit in our assigned seat from last night. Not seeing any logic to this, we voice our desire to remain. She is not happy with us but accepts that we are difficult Americans or Chinese and in response, begins to completely rearrange place settings at these two tables, which we don't yet understand the importance of. She proceeds to remove four place settings at our assigned table, bringing dishes and bread baskets to our current table, which now is super crowded! We watch with amusement and curiosity. Soon after, more guests arrive, including the two women who last night were seated where we currently are. They sit at our so called assigned table, which now has only a few settings(?), but then, uh oh, the German couple arrives and also try to sit there. The two women get up and are now standing in the middle of the roon, coffee cups in hand, with nowhere to sit. If they take different place settings at another table, others will not have their seats and there will be mass disorder! We watch horrified and totally amused that we have created chaos in the breakfast room! We quickly gulp the rest of our cofee and duck our heads to slink away before we are spotted! As we make our way down to the shoe room to retrieve our boots, still giggling over German order, we are tempted to rearrange all the boots which sit so neatly in pairs on the wall. The thought of everyone trying to find their boot mates fills us with laughter.
A quick ride back to the airport in the morning, a stop at Europcar and we are off, equipped with a compact Nissan. The autostrada immediately takes us past farm fields of grapes and surprisingly, lots of corn. Has Italy joined the global market for corn syrup? In less than an hour, we climb in elevation, passing charming towns that sit in valleys and cliffsides. Is it the uniformity of houses with their red tile roofs and stucco walls that give them their charm? Many of the small towns in the Sierra foothills feel out of place in the forested landscape and certainly do not add charm. What is it about Italy that gives these small towns such character? I am reminded that everything in Europe is a smaller scale than the US, from the size of cars, highways, tractors, houses, to cups, shower stalls, and even forks and spoons! Are we just used to excess or why are our things so big?
We leave home before sunrise marveling at the peaceful and near empty highway. The hustle and bustle at the airport in these wee hours of the morning is reminder that as the city sleeps, the day has already begun for so many. There is a sense of excitement in the air, of the unknown adventures and new places to explore. We fly to Newark then on to Venice as the sun rises over the jagged peaks of the Dolomites and a colorful palette of polygon shaped farm fields. We are greeted by cool breezes, sunny skies and bonjournos; after 12 hours, like the blink of an eye, we walk out into early morning in Venice, this city too coming to life.