Off to the Cinque Terre to weather the storm

After the wine and food weekend at the Fortezza, I was beginning to feel as if I were coming down with a cold, and the good weather was predicted to be coming to an end. Watching the forecast on the television in my flat, a major storm system was approaching from the north, and I decided to jump on a train and return to the Cinque Terre, where I could find a room with a sea view and watch the storm hit the coast that had been so tranquil and blue just a few weeks earlier when I had visited with Cheryl.

As I arrived at the train station, I found a sit-in (shades of the 60s!) of students at the train station, sitting on the ground and trying to block the entrance to the station. The protests have been organized all over Italy, but especially in Rome and Milan, and here in Florence the students have “occupied” the university buildings for a few days, refusing to go to classes. Government cuts are coming to all the school systems, and one of the proposals is to privatize some of the universities, so the students are showing their disagreement with these changes in all regions of Italy. In Milan, in particular, the students have actually sat down in large groups on the railroad tracks and blocked the trains from coming into the station.

On Monday morning, I packed sweaters and jeans, my silk thermal wear, and my long raincoat, and passed through Pisa (raining hard), and La Spezia (raining hard), and came through the tunnel to Riomaggiore, the most southern of the five towns in Cinque Terre, to find sun, stifling humidity and all the tourists waiting to board the train in shorts and t-shirts, with trekking poles in hand from their hiking trips. I was feeling a little overdressed in my long coat and scarf, and was uncomfortably warm, but not for long.

I found a room overlooking the ocean, as I had hoped, with little problem. This late in the fall, many of the tour groups have stopped heading for the trails of the Cinque Terre, with weather and trail conditions uncertain, so there were many rooms available. The one I found was both up on the hillside across from the train station, and also was on an upper floor of the building, so I could see the ocean building up with the coming storm, as predicted. Best of all, the room had a television that received a closed circuit broadcast from park service cameras which scanned all five towns and the beaches in between, so I could see the coast for the entire length of the Cinque Terre without leaving the sofa.

That night, the first of the waves of storms hit. The windows were all closed “tight,” but the sheer curtains were slowly being blown inward from the windows by the force of the winds. In no time, the rains began in earnest, and I settled in to my oncoming cold and the warm comforter there, all at the same time. All night, and in waves the next few days, the rain came with force, removing laundry from the lines of anyone who had forgotten something outside on a line. Potted plants were being blown over, and the flowers were shredded by the high winds. Once in a while, a loud noise would bring me to the window to see what had blown over, or been damaged by flying debris. In that room, I was getting just the experience I had come to find in Riomaggiore, and I had a front row seat to watch the drama of the storm.

At one break in the storm, I went out with my camera to see if I could get some photos of places that I had photographed when the sea was calm. The park had closed due to the storm, and the gates leading to the hiking trails in and out of Riomaggiore were locked. When I tried to look over the seawall at the train station, toward the little beach Cheryl and I overlooked while we had our lunch and beer at the little cantina there, I was hit in the face with the salt spray from the breaking waves, thanks to the strong winds. With only a couple of photos, I decided getting salt all over my little camera was probably not a good idea, and I was getting drenched by blown spray.

I climbed up the trail as far as I could go before coming to the locked gate, to get some height and a better angle for another photo, and managed to get one of the deck where Cheryl and I had enjoyed our final celebratory beer. The deck chairs were all upset and piled up, and the spray from the waves crashing into the rocks way below was coming up nearly 100 feet, and I was still getting covered with salt water spray. I gave up the effort, and went back to the room to dry out. I could experience the storm myself, but I was risking damage to my camera by trying to take any photographs.

The beaches where we had seen people out in swimsuits a couple of weeks earlier were not even visible—the breakers covered the beaches and many of the rocks where we had seen people sunbathing. All access points to the ocean were gated and locked, and the park office was not even open. I could see tourists arriving and getting off the trains at the station, only to find that they could not access the trails at all, and could either leave on the train or just use the train to visit the towns for a meal or a room, but there would be no hiking.

I had a low-key couple of days, staying indoors in my wonderful place. At night, when the lightning and thunder would begin, power was on an off several times. There was nothing quite like a nice down comforter and a flashlight, and the train whistles below keeping time until the last train passed by at around midnight. I could not have been happier than cocooned up in that wonderful spot, enjoying every moment of the storm and being there.

Thursday, during a lull, I got a ticket back into La Spezia to take a look around (a ten-minute trip). I had been there in 2006 only to park the car with Barbara and Dee, and had passed through with Cheryl to get to Cinque Terre, but this time I decided to go and look around a little. First, I passed through a square with a fountain known by the locals as “The Peeing Woman.” I came across the weekly marketplace, under cover in the center of the town, with produce, clothing, cheeses and meats, and lots of fresh fish.

At least some was fresh—the boats had not been able to go out fishing for several days, and women who asked for fresh anchovies left empty-handed. I spent a little time with my camera, making sure I hadn’t damaged it with the salt spray earlier, and all seemed to work fine.

I think many people were there to get out, and could shop under the canopy and stock up for the next few stormy days, too. I picked up a couple of things for later, but I mostly headed for fruit and cheese and breads, not being much in the mood for cooking.

I started walking toward the harbor, where the big boat that usually transports tourists between towns in Cinque Terre is tied up during storms, and I could see that the maintenance crews for the city had been busy piling up broken tree branches and downed trees, and trying to clear the debris before the next wave of storms. I took a photo of a guy raking up the last bits of a lot of storm debris in a city park, and he started walking toward me with his cigar, asking why I was taking HIS photo. At least he was friendly about it, which I was not so sure about, at first.

Walking along the sea front, the wind damage was readily evident. One restaurant had lost its canvas umbrella, torn and broken off by the winds of the storm. Several men were assessing the damage, and trying to figure out how to get the broken pieces off the pavement, plus shaking their heads at the steel beam that had sheared off from the power of the storm.

An outdoor space heater was toppled over, and had taken a stack of chairs along for the ride. It looked as if this one seafront restaurant sustained a lot of damage to its outdoor eating area, and would not be able to use the space until repairs were made.

At the boat harbor, the tide was in and the storm surge had the water almost over the sidewalk along the edge.

Looking toward the west, the next storm was coming in behind the boats, and it was clear that this break was just a pause, not the end of the series of storm fronts. All boats were tied up, and no one seemed to be going out to sea or coming back in.

In the seafront park, I noticed a memorial to those aviators who died in military service to Italy, with six small planes represented, and contrails of green, white and red (the Italian flag) behind them. I have seen planes with colored smoke for special events in Italy, and the last time I saw them was when I watched the funeral of Luciano Pavarotti, when they did a flyover with the tri-color smoke representing the Italian flag.

On a side street, near a supermarket, I noticed the latest of new parking regulations in Italy: if the spaces are designated for motorcycles and scooters, just park the car far enough up on the sidewalk to stay inside the outer lines. Many of these cars are no longer than the scooters, but certainly wider. I guess when you need a parking space, you just “make it work!”

When Cheryl and I had hiked through Corniglia, the middle town of the Cinque Terre, we had noticed the wine and beer bottles with the Pope and Hitler, side-by-side, and wondered what THAT was all about. Well, La Spezia had them in the store windows, too—only 1.89 Euro per bottle, so the label must be more important than the wine inside.

After a final night in Riomaggiore and another wave of the storms, I packed up on Friday morning to head back to Florence. I was on one of the first trains back to La Spezia, but my Regional Plus train to Pisa was a reserved seat, so I had to wait for my train at 11:30. I checked my suitcase in at the train station, and went back into the city center, where the Friday marketplace of clothing stands was supposed to be operating in the streets. With a steady rain coming down, many of the vendors had already begun to pack and leave, without the customers they would have had in dry weather. Others tried to protect their goods with plastic covers and large umbrellas, but were losing the battle with the rain and wind. The streets were getting wetter and wetter as the rain continued, and there was little to see of the marketplace. Instead, I just did a lot of window shopping, and didn’t find a thing I needed to carry back to Florence. (The poor little almond tart didn’t make it that far, I’m afraid.)

One of the special treats of La Spezia (and the Liguria region, I think) is “farinata,” a pizza-like fried batter made from the flour of chick peas, or garbanzo beans (“ceci”). The yellow flour is mixed by hand in a wooden bowl, and then poured into a pizza pan that is thick and heavy. The pan is pushed into the wood oven, and turned every few minutes to cook evenly. When the farinata is finished, it is pulled out and sliced up, so I gave it a try. The pan is coated liberally with oil, so the bottom and top are crispy, and some have added onions or spinach. I tried one right out of the oven (I had to come back after waiting for it to be finished cooking), and it was splendid, but the plain variety. With crunch and soft center and great flavor, and only about ¼ inch thick, it was quite a special treat on a cold, rainy morning. They just served up cut pieces on a napkin, and I leaned at the bar along the wall and finished it off. Next time I go to the Cinque Terre, I hope I can find that little shop again in La Spezia for another helping.

That was it for my trip to see the storm, and recover from my cold. I took one photo in the La Spezia station, fully aware that I had been in handcuffs once for doing the exact same thing, but this little digital camera was not quite as noticeable as my big Nikon had been. At least I had no problem and have the photo to show for my effort. I had stayed Monday evening through Friday morning to watch the storm, and enjoyed every moment of my time in Riomaggiore keeping warm and cozy. What a wonderful way to “recharge my batteries!”

2 comments to Off to the Cinque Terre to weather the storm

  • laura

    What fun……….I am sorry I passed my darn cold on to you:-( At least you made the best of it. I spent 3 days in bed and my voice is STILL 3 octaves lower. xxoo laura

  • Glad you didn’t get arrested again. With a 2nd one and a track record, you might never get home.
    Take care of that cold so it leaves.

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