Oct 16th, 2009
Around twelve minutes after leaving the station, any uncertainty that I was on the wrong train had congealed into cold fact. According to both the train schedule and basic math, Riomaggiore, my destination for the night, should’ve been a mere five minute trip, but this train was rocketing along the coast with no indication that it would be stopping anytime soon. It seemed I was going to get a tour of the Cinque Terre coastline as I arrived from Venice, which would’ve meant something if it wasn’t pitch black outside, the sun long gone for the day. Instead I was left to wait out what became a half hour trip in an empty car, pondering an increasingly uncertain bed for the night.
Unloading at the first stop to catch the next train back down the coastline, the platform almost completely deserted by this late hour, I noticed two Asian girls loaded with large backpacks staring in confusion at the train schedule, snippets of Australian accents escaping their huddle. As I had quickly discovered on this trip, the instinct to help other travelers comes up unexpectedly often; somehow someone falling victim to their intrepid nature strikes an emotional chord in quite a lot of otherwise disinterested people, including myself. I felt confident enough in my bearings, and that it was certainly more than theirs, that I sidled over and offered a bit of help.
As it turned out the girls were not only staying in the same town as I was, but with the very same hotel/hostel company, which instantly cemented us into a small if temporary team, since being lost is generally much more fun and less embarrassing when you’re with other people who are just as clueless as you are. We made our introductions on the trip back down the coast, chatting about our travels and discovering a whole string of coincidences; Hana and May were med students from a Sydney suburb that was walking distance from my house, going to school in London and taking extended weekends throughout Europe. They had also made the same fatal flaw of judgment of getting on the wrong train, but they hadn’t noticed until moments before they got off the train; I had wandered over in just as they were realizing they had no idea where they were. My timing had been impeccable.
Finally reaching our destination around ten, our hope of checking in was dwindling fast as the only sign of life was a small bar occupied by only a few dedicated tourists and a handful of committed town winos. Reaching the address of the office, our worst fear was confirmed; the door was locked and the small room inside long since vacated for the night. As we were to find out later, generally every business in the town but the bar keeps a closing hour of five PM, which meant that everything closed at four thirty PM at the very latest.
While I had a travel sleeping bag in my backpack, I in no way relished the idea of finally having a chance to use it as I looked up and down the steep, very uncomfortable-looking cobbled street. However moments later one of the girls recognized her name on a sheet of paper hung by the door, and realized on closer inspection that it was an envelope scrawled with directions and containing the keys to their booked apartment. It was the only envelope; my booking had apparently not made the cut. Looking as sheepish and morally upstanding as possible, I suggested that perhaps I could use a convenient couch for the night in exchange for my help at the train station. They brushed my embarrassment aside and insisted I stay in the apartment until I could get things sorted out with the office. I had clearly taken the right train.
Climbing the stairs to the apartment, we found it already occupied by four other people who, judging by the pile of bottles in the corner of the kitchen, had been making the most of their stay. Thankfully there was an unoccupied couch in the living room and they had no issues with me occupying it for the night, although I immediately stretched out on it to guard against anyone drunkenly deciding to pass out on my temporary bed. The coincidences were not over however. The ritual exchange of backstories revealed that not only was everyone either Australian or American, one person was from Corvallis, an hour away from my hometown in Oregon, and another lived literally two or three blocks from my house in Australia. I’d come to the other side of the world to a tiny apartment perched on cliffs in the remote Italian countryside to meet people I’d probably been stuck behind in traffic back home.
By the next morning all but one of our new-found housemates had already vacated, leaving Abby, a recently recently unemployed marketer from LA, to join our group. The rest were almost immediately replaced by Luke and Renee, an Australian brother and sister who were touring Italy before spending a season in Japan, an incredibly enviable position to people on a limited time budget. In fact the more Luke, a charismatic guy still in his mid-twenties spoke of his career history, the more the rest of us felt that we had squandered our years, an absurd train of thought given we were all sitting in a quiet villa on the Italian Riviera. As we peeled each layer of his past back, the more improbable it was: running the family bar in Queensland, working as an airline steward around the world, flare bartender for VIP events all over Europe, and now seasonal ski lodge manager in Japan. He spoke fluent Japanese and had learned passable Italian in a month, and looked vaguely like Ethan Hawke. He was disgustingly likable. Renee by contrast was quiet and even a little taciturn, but I would imagine part of this was social defeat in the face of her gregarious sibling.
Everyone agreed a hike along the Cinque Terre coastline trail was top priority, and with that magical bonding effect of encountering fellow travelers we left on a day trip as suddenly unified house-mates. The air still cool with the autumn that had chased me south, we wandered down the cobblestone street, found the trail’s beginning, and quickly found ourselves leaving the past 150 years behind. The trail took us on a wandering path through olive groves and vineyards clinging to terraced hillsides, passing now and again through clusters of terracotta villas that looked impossibly old. Views of the coastline were abundant, making our walk twice as long due to regular photo stops. My impossible lucky streak continued yet again halfway along the trail as we almost literally bumped into Ian and Emily, the caretakers from the hostel in Gimmelwald, coming the other way. We exchanged greetings in bewilderment and carried on in our own directions. I was beginning to get used to having the incredibly unlikely thrown in my face like a startled pigeon.
By mid-afternoon we turned a corner to be greeted by the magnificent sight of the village of Vernazza stretching below us. Creating a semi-natural harbor, the tiny peninsula was packed to near overflowing with pastel villas and tipped with a slowly crumbling medieval fortress tower. The sun glinted off of small, brightly-colored fishing boats moored in the harbor, and people sunbathed on the rocks and small sandy beach at the base of the clock tower. If there was a more idyllic sight on earth, I would’ve been at a loss to think of it.
Descending into the town we split up temporarily to locate water, food, and transportation, and reconvened to decide on a course of action. As Ian and Emily had warned us, the last leg of the trail to the next village was in fact the hardest. Between the amount we had already hiked and the incredibly compelling offering of gourmet, homemade food and wine and a dip in ocean, we unanimously arrived at a decision to screw the remainder of the trail and once again split up to get pizza and bottles of wine. Successfully laden with our late lunch, we scouted a large rock perched in the harbor and spread out. Luke and Renee immediately added to their value to the group by pulling out a seemingly endless array of meats, cheeses, and olives from their bags, and suddenly we had a picnic that would make French impressionists roll their eyes at the extravagance. We feasted and drank our bottles of wine, dangling our feet in the ocean, and when we’d done all the damage we could, rolled back onto the warm rock to doze in the sun.
After a while, one by one we rose from our stupor and decided a swim was necessary. I had unthinkingly forgotten my swimsuit, and in the face of having to possibly swim in my underwear, went on a mad dash to try and find a suit I could buy. My luck held out once again, and the first shop I stopped in had one left hanging from the ceiling, just my size. I returned, hurriedly changed, and jumped in with the rest. We treaded around the surprisingly salty harbor, then swam for a far rock standing at the entrance, shakily clambering to the top in the name of giddy adventure. By the time we returned, dried, and changed, the sun was beginning to speed towards the horizon. As a way of capping our adventure, we grabbed gelatos and found perches on the rocks beneath the church tower and chatted and drank the rest of our wine as the sun burned away into the Mediterranean.
Stopping briefly for provisions and more wine, narrowly avoiding being driven out of town by irate shopkeepers mortally protective of their fruit, we caught the train back to our apartment and the kitchen became a whirlwind of activity as a massive dinner of pasta and bruschetta was produced. The local wine coursing through us, we ate, drank, laughed, told endless stories, and practiced our non-verbal Italian, especially the ever-useful “you’re busting my balls”. Abby produced a tiny set of portable speakers, and we carried on as Sinatra crooned to the starlit sea outside the window, the night passing quickly until sometime in the early morning, tired, full, and happy, we bid each other goodnight like the chorus from the Walton family and retired to our beds. Sleep was effortless.