Eurotrip 2011, Part 5: Dodging a Bullet in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 11–13 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After a long, long break, I am finally returning to the journal of my 2011 trip to Europe. When we last left off, I had just spent two days in Venice, my first ever solo trip in a foreign country.  Upon returning to Florence from Venice, I caught the bus back up to the villa, arriving in the early evening, but I was stuck outside the gate for about 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get the non-English-speaking caretaker to let me in. There were only a limited number of gate keys, I did not have one of them, and nobody else from our group was home. I thought I was going to be stuck outside for the next few hours until somebody else came back (that’ll teach me to not learn enough of the local language when I travel).

I sat outside the gate with all of my luggage trying to call my uncle (in between curses) to see if he could contact somebody to get the caretaker to let me in. Before the call went through, the caretaker finally realized I wasn’t a criminal and the gate opened at last. I went inside and enjoyed a couple hours of peace and quiet before the rest of the group started filing in. Once again, however, I would not have much time to rest as I needed to pack for a long train ride to Cinque Terre the next morning.

By the time the train was making the final approach to La Spezia, where we would catch a cab to our hotel, it was already dark.  At one point we were confused and got off the train at the wrong stop in a remote area. Something didn’t look right, however, and we jumped back on just before the train left. I can’t recall definitively, but I think that may have been the last train of the night, so if we had missed it, we would have been screwed.

We were checking in a day late because we got our dates wrong, but the hotel was kind enough to move our reservation back a day without penalty. As it turned out, missing our check-in date was the best thing that could have happened because Cinque Terre was ravaged by terrible flooding on the day we were supposed to be there (you may have read about this in the news). It had been raining heavily during the train ride in, but it did not seem extraordinary and we thought nothing of it until we learned of the devastation the next day.

We checked in to our hotel, located high on a cliff outside of the five connected villages that make up Cinque Terre. We had a long climb down the cliff to get to our room (a good fifteen minutes), hauling heavy luggage in the pouring rain. When we finally got down to where the rooms were situated, we walked around and around but could not find our room. We finally gave up, soaking wet and tired from a daylong train ride as well as the climb down. I left Uncle Kipp with the luggage and I ran all the way back up the cliff to the hotel office to ask them how to find our room.  We finally found it, nestled in this little blink-and-you-miss-it nook area that was easy to bypass in the dark.

The room was a little skeevy, but I was tired enough that I didn’t care. If nothing else, we had a great view overlooking the Mediterranean when stepping outside of our room.

The view from outside our hotel room (the next day).

There were no other restaurants in the area because of the middle-of-nowhere location of our hotel, so we went to the hotel restaurant (which meant climbing all the way to the top of the cliff again). I had spaghetti Bolognese with boar meat; it didn’t really taste much different than other types of meat, especially when drowned in pasta sauce. After dinner there was really nothing to do but turn in since it was already pretty late and we were so far outside of the villages.

The next morning we awoke early with the intention of hiking the trail that winds its way among the cliffs and through the five villages—only to discover that the trail was closed. This was when we learned about the massive flooding that had devastated the area and rendered most of the villages inaccessible.

A highly zoomed-in shot of one of the villages we could not reach, possibly Monterosso.

In fact, the only village we were able to access was the first one, Riomaggiore, and that involved about an hour of walking down the main highway and through a dark automobile tunnel.

The end of the tunnel we walked through.
Approaching Riomaggiore

We walked around for a bit when we got there, making our way down to the little harbor, but we didn’t stay very long because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do with so much being closed down.


We were bummed that the whole trip out to the coast seemed to be for nothing, but when we later learned of the sheer level of the devastation, we realized how lucky we were to have accidentally checked in a day late. We almost definitely would have been right in the middle of one of the villages when the flooding and mudslides began, needing to be evacuated like so many others, and it could have been even worse—nine people lost their lives.

When we got back to the hotel my uncle spoke to a Spanish couple who had been stuck inside their car in one of the villages during the flooding for hours, thinking that they were going to die. They were eventually evacuated by chopper and ended up at our hotel, but their car and everything in it was lost.

An evacuation chopper.

It was unbelievable to hear stories like this because the previous night’s storm hadn’t seemed like anything out of the ordinary, but the images we would later see on television were shocking. We were truly fortunate to have missed it, just as we had missed the rioting in Rome by one day earlier in the trip.

A capsized boat apparently washed out to sea by the flooding.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon when we got back to the hotel so I decided to hike down a nearby cliff. There was a trail that led all the way down to the beach. My uncle stayed behind so I went by myself.

Part of the trail (more treacherous than it looks).

For late October the weather was as warm as mid-summer, so I was able to wear shorts. There were beautiful views of the Mediterranean on the way down.

View from the trail looking north.
View from the trail looking south.

I also passed by a couple of houses that looked like they had no business being in the middle of a cliff.

One of the houses along the trail.

Along the way, there were some interesting sights, such as this red ant-infested rock that I could easily have leaned against if I hadn’t been paying attention:


However, it was much farther to the bottom than it had appeared when I started, so I only made it about two-thirds of the way down when the sun set.

The setting sun.

I found a place to sit and admire the sunset over the sea. I was the only person on the trail so it felt as if I had the entire Italian coastline to myself. I was amazed at how peaceful the Mediterranean appeared, almost motionless.

Mediterranean Sunset

I climbed down for a while longer but I never made it to the bottom. I didn’t want to hike back up the cliff by myself in the dark, and I was already pretty tired anyway, so I turned back. I made it back to the top by around eight in the evening. That night we had dinner at the hotel again. I ordered shrimp and was very surprised to be served a plate with fully-formed shrimp staring back at me, eyeballs and all. They don’t serve them that way in the states. 🙂

We turned in shortly after dinner. We had to wake up early the next morning to catch a bus into La Spezia, where we would hop on a train back to Florence and the final two days of the Italy leg of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment. Until then…

View More Photos from Cinque Terre

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