Past the Alps to the Ligurian Sea
Monday, May 13, 2019 (Part 2)
In response to overwhelming (n=1) demand for information on whether we actually made it from Padua to La Spezia in time to catch our train, I offer this interlude to assure readers that we did (though not, of course, without a bit more drama), and also to provide additional information on the Cappella degli Scrovegni offered by friends on Facebook since my last post (thank you, Caterina Edwards and Suzanne Hillier).
First the Cappella. Caterina, who has located several of her novels in Italy and knows whereof she speaks, told me that the museum only lets about ten or twelve people into the Giotto Chapel at a time – and that the people have to be cool and dry to be admitted. “We went to Padova on a super-hot day,” she recalls. “Before we could enter the chapel, we had to sit (and watch a video) for 15 minutes in a special room where we were ‘dehumidified.’ This was to protect the fragile murals.”
While her story made me appreciate better why they hadn’t let us in, it also intensified my wish that we had booked tickets ahead of time and seen the frescoes. Suzanne (retired lawyer, now a full-time writer) added to my regret by saying, “Hate to tell you but it was fascinating. Can still see those visions of hell, with the doomed being savaged by evil little devils!”
Today Arnie reminded me there were probably photos of the frescoes online, and since “online” just happens to be my second home it didn’t take me long to find them. They are indeed astonishing: particularly considering that Giotto di Bondone completed them more than 700 years ago: in about 1305. It’s not the same at all as seeing them in person, but it will do for now.
It rained off and on between Padua and La Spezia but the weather cleared enough from time to time to offer us views of the Alps on our right and the northern Apeninne mountains on our left. We were beginning to get a sense of how quickly the landscape changes in Italy, and of the wide range of geographical areas and climates that make up this small country (small compared to Canada, that is). When we’d left the relatively flat region around Padua I’d wondered how our destination, a village only a few hours away, could be described as almost inaccessible due to its location on a mountainous coastline. But as the foothills rose around us and our elevation increased, I began to see how this could happen.
Last Train to Monterosso
Our destination was Monterosso al Mare, the most distant of five villages that lie north of La Spezia along the coast of the Ligurian Sea. Together, the villages comprise Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), designated a UNESCO site in 1997 and part of the Italian Riviera. My younger son and his wife had stayed in one of the villages on their honeymoon, and raved to us about the beauty of the region.
While the walking trails between the towns are mostly hike-able (where they have not been washed downhill into the sea), tourists are advised not to attempt the roads between the villages by car. This doesn’t create too much of a problem since there are 54 trains between La Spezia and Levanto (beyond the northern end of the chain of villages) every day. The train tickets are quite reasonable — you can buy a one-day pass for about €8 that allows you take as many train rides as you want between the villages, or you can buy a Cinque Terre card that allows you to use buses as well as trains and to gain access to the walking trails, museums, etc. Our only challenge as we drove from Padua was to make sure that we caught the last train of the day, which would depart from La Spezia at 23:10, and to arrive in time to park the car and get to the train before it left.
It turns out there are many places to park your car in La Spezia but of course the one I had picked out was inaccessible after 8 p.m., which was when we arrived. Fortunately for us, we took a “wrong turn” and ended up in a nice big parking lot right inside the train station. This parking lot is reasonable (between €18 and €25/day depending on the season) but the fact that it is “in” the station doesn’t mean it is secure. We had been advised by many people never to leave anything in an unattended car in Italy, so we took everything with us to Monterosso. It was a lot to carry up and down the stairs and hills that are everywhere in Cinque Terre, but when we returned two days later, we found another couple parked near us who had lost all of the possessions they had left behind in their locked vehicle. So we were glad we’d taken the precaution.
If you have any physical disability you’ll have trouble getting around the train stations in the Cinque Terre region — several of which have no elevators. Even in those that do, the elevators may not be working. We hauled our luggage up the stairs onto the wrong platform then downstairs again, and then up onto the right platform, and finally managed to get ourselves and our bags onto the last train to Monterosso.
Right on time, the train pulled out into a pitch black night (it seemed more dark than even nighttime could explain for a reason, we learned the next day: much of the route along the coast winds through a series of tunnels). Twenty-two minutes later, we were in Monterosso. There we carried the suitcases and packs down two more sets of stairs, then rolled them out of the station to the street, and down the street to our beach-front hotel, where we gratefully checked in.
Utterly exhausted – it had been a long rainy-day drive after a long rainy day in Padua, after a long rainy evening the night before traipsing around the Venice Airport exchanging vehicles — we went to sleep. And awoke the next morning to the most spectacular visual treat I’ve ever had.