So here's the promised but long denied scoop on Cinque Terre.
Hands down it's a great place to go. Especially if, like my group, you go when it's not the height of tourist season. Cinque Terre is a series of five tiny towns sandwiched among mountains on the shore of the Mediterranean. Or to be more accurate, the Tyrrhenian sea. It's pretty gorgeous naturally, which is one of the reasons the area is now a national park. And its national park status is in turn much of the reason that it's a huge tourist attraction. Despite that, the national park status has been very nice in the sense that the towns in the area are preserved in a remarkably traditional manner. They're tiny and crowded and brightly colored, with the surrounding hillsides covered from the summit to the place where the buildings stop climbing the hill completely terraced for olive trees and vineyards. Of course, the town itself is designed to be easily accessible to English-speaking tourists, but there wasn't a touristy feel to the place so early in the off-season, and everyone was very friendly.
My friends and I stayed in a tiny hostel tucked away in a narrow street near the harbor in the town of Riomaggiore. Actually, we had a rather amusing time getting there. We took a train from Rome to the north, and then switched trains with the help of an Italian lady whom we got to know rather well on the four hour ride, despite the fact that she knew no English whatsoever and we hardly any Italian (she had been in Rome to see the Pope and was delighted to hear that we were Catholic and wanted to see the Pope too). We successfully boarded the train to Riomaggiore, but when it stopped at that station, it stopped behind the platform for our car - we were still in the tunnel in the hillside and couldn't get out. We explained this to the next conductor, who let us off at the next stop, five towns up the coast. All well and good, but there were only three options for getting back: breaking into the national park area and hiking, swimming the whole way, or taking a returning train.
It's hard to buy return train tickets when the machine is out of order and the ticket booth worker has decided to skip out for the night.
Not knowing what to do, we made a dash for the next train which was pulling up at the opposite platform just then. It was probably quite a sight, all seven of us running madly towards the head of the train (not getting on the thing; we didn't want to be fined for not having tickets!) lugging backpacks and schoolbooks. However, there wasn't anyone there to see it but the conductor, who got out at that point to check the platform and sound his very official conductor's whistle.
We collared him, and tried to explain our situation, but he kept motioning us to get on the train; "We don't have tickets, no tickets" we kept explaining. He responded "Tre stop, Riomaggiore".
You should know at this point that rules in Italy are by no means hard and fast laws. Their implementation is almost always at the discretion of the worker you encounter that day. So this conductor, apparently, decided that tickets didn't really matter for seven desperate American students who needed a ride back on his nearly empty train.
However, we didn't hear him quite right, and some of us thought he said "one stop". So at the next stop, the wrong one, we all piled off, very quickly, to avoid being stuck on the train again like at Riomaggiore the first time. The conductor came rushing out of his car. "No NO! Due stops!!" TWO stops! He rather bellowed it, and we sheepishly climbed back on board.
When we finally got off at Riomaggiore, he came out of his compartment again, beaming at us and spreading his arms wide. "This is Riomaggiore!" he announced.
And so it was. Many more interesting things happened before the night was over. We got slightly lost looking for the office to our hostel, but as there are only two major streets in town, this was easily cleared up. At the office, we found a letter and a key waiting for us. The former gave us detailed and cryptic directions to our hostel, which was located in a totally different part of town. Rather like one of those kids' treasure hunts, you know.
Anyway, the hostel was very nice, though, as I said, very tiny. It "fit" 11 people into a space where US fire codes might have allowed three. But it was very clean, nicely decorated, had two bathrooms (one of which was accessed by going outside, down some steep stairs, and into a closet underneath the main doorstep), and had a kitchen. This last will figure prominently in the next installment of this tale.
For now I must sleep.