Travel disasters

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The five towns of the Cinque Terre in Liguria are splendid

Well maybe “disasters” is too strong a word. Other alternatives might be “inconveniences” or  even “adventures”. What we make of unexpected events that occur as we travel depends in large part on our state of mind at the time, and also to the desires and expectations we packed in our carry-on when we left home. You decide.

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The flood in Vernazza, October 2011

This post briefly recounts a trip I took to Vernazza, one of the famous “Cinque Terre” towns located on the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria. I’m writing this post so that others might learn from a stupid mistake I made. The post has a usable take-home message:  When you book a hotel via the internet in a town you don’t know, read every single word carefully and call ahead if something is unclear.

The Cinque Terre are now fixed in the mental “tourism maps” that most North Americans have developed for Italy (along with Rome, Florence, Venice, San Gimignano, the Amalfi Coast and a few others).  These five small towns did something rather usual in Italy: they joined together in a cooperative venture to do something that would enable all of them to thrive. Their tourism development project was successful beyond their wildest dreams. Now a great many foreigners and Italians visit the Cinque Terre towns each year to walk the inter-connecting hiking trails, enjoy breathtaking views of the sea, and eat well.

The streets turned to rivers

The streets turned to rivers

My wife and I visited Vernazza on a Sunday in October, 2011 with friends from Liguria. We found Vernazza to be charming and picture perfect. While there we enjoyed an excellent lunch with our friends and began making plans for a longer visit.

Alas, two days later Vernazza and neigbhoring towns were inundated by a flash flood.  We watched live TV coverage in horror. People marooned in the houses looked down on streets below that had quickly been transformed into raging torrents. Cars floated by like runaway gondolas.

One of the great strenghts of Italy is the rapidity and efficiacy of disaster relief. It was clear to me during my first visit to Vernazza that the people there are resourceful, hard working and well organized. I wanted to see how things stood a year later. My primary motive for returning to Vernazza, however, was to meet up with a cousin and her husband and to hike a portion of the trails with them. My wife suggested that I take the Freccia Bianca up the coast from Rome to La Spezia rather than drive. From La Spezia I could then take a local train down to Vernazza.

I searched on the internet for a hotel in Vernazza on the date of my cousin’s arrival there. Even though I was checking three months in advance, there was very little available.  After repeated searches I finally found a Locanda that appeared to be just outside the center or Vernazza. I figured I’d have to  climb a lot of steps to reach the Locanda, and reasoned that the view was apt to be splendid and the excercise good for me. The Locanda was pricey, to be sure, but I attributed this to the fact that my date of arrival was at the peak of the trail-walking season.

Clean-up began as soon as the flood waters subsided

Clean-up began as soon as the flood waters subsided

I wanted to do some exploring in Vernazza before my cousin’s arrival. I was hoping to speak to the mayor about a development project we have underway in my own home town. I therefore arranged to arrive two hours before my cousin.

Good thing I did. Once in Vernazza I discovered that the Locanda in which I had booked a room was nowhere to be found. When I called the owner (who I’ll call Luciana) for directions she told me that I’d need to take the local train to the next town, Corniglia, where her husband would come pick me up.

When I reached the station in Corniglia I discovered that it is not feasible to walk up the hill to the town center. The road is narrow and twisiting, and so too dangerous for pedestrians. Along with a crowd of tourists, I waited for the next shuttle bus. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones to find a seat on the first shuttle to arrive and so needed to wait a half hour for the next one. When I finally reached the charming town center of Corniglia I discovered, once again, that the Locanda was nowhere to be found.

An enormous amount of material needed to be hauled away

An enormous amount of material needed to be hauled away

I called Luciana again to ask how to reach the Locanda. She told me to wait a bit for her husband to come fetch me. When no husband materialized I called Luciana a third time. This is when she gave me a full account of the situation.

Luciana explained that the Locanda was technically in Vernazza. (On the map it is indeed far closer to the town center of Vernazza than to the town center of Corniglia.) There were no buses or even a taxi in Corniglia, which is why her husband transported guests in his free time. Luciana explained that she and her husband ran a restaurant in Corniglia, and that renting rooms was for them just a sideline.  She told me that her husand was quite busy at the moment in the restaurant and wouldn’t be available again until about midnight.cinque_terre7

I informed Luciana that I wanted to cancel my reservation at the Locanda and return to Vernazza in the hope of finding a room.  She accepted this and promised to communicate a “cancellation” rather than “no show” to Booking.com so that I wouldn’t be charged for the room. She promised to hold a room for me in any case, and to send her husband to Vernazza to fetch me after midnight if that proved to be necessary.

I eventually made my way down to the train station. While I waited for the next train my eyes feasted on the sight of two perfectly parallel railroad tracks because, alas, there was no view of the sea. I chatted with a couple from St. Louis who were travelling independently. They actually seemed to be enjoying the twists and turns of travel in Italy. Taking their lead, I decided to mellow out a bit and enjoy their company and the nice weather

I reached Vernazza about 1.5 hours after the time I had arranged to meet my cousin. The small train station there was thronged with tourists. It reminded me of WWII movies with lots of agitated refugees fleeing an advancing enemy army. From the size of the crowd I readily understood why it had been so difficult to book a hotel room three months earlier.

It was a great pleasure to meet my cousin and her husband at a bar overlooking the sea. We had a lovely visit, but she remained concerned about my room-less state. I told her that earlier in the day there surely would have been no rooms available anywhere in Vernazza. However, given that tourists in Italy frequently get lost or change their minds, the best strategy was to wait until about 7 pm in the hope of claiming a room just freed up by a cancellation or no show. That’s what I did and indeed found a perfectly nice, centrally located room at one-third of the price of Locanda mentioned earlier.

When I got back home to Tuscania, I had another look at my reservation with Booking.com. When I scrolled down to the very bottom I found something I hadn’t noticed earlier:

Please note there are no means of public transport taking you to the Locanda. You will need a taxi or a private car. If you intend to take advantage of the shuttle service from and to the railway station, you must book it and inform the establishment of your time of arrival.

This disclaimer isn’t completely accurate (e.g., there are no taxis and you don’t need to reserve a seat on the shuttle from the train station). However, if I had read the disclaimer it would surely have prompted me to call, thereby avoiding the — disaster? inconvenience? adventure? — just described.

In retrospect, I realized something about my state of mind when I made the reservation. I had been intent then on two things: getting the date straight and making arrangments for my dog (which the Locanda was willing to accept at no extra charge).

Moral of the story: read every word and if something is not clear, ask! Next time I hope to follow my own good advice.

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About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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