August 18: When We Almost Didn’t Go to Italy

To adequately capture the dramatic flavor of this day would be difficult. Reading back over my journal from the afternoon, I find it doesn’t even come close. Imagine yourself preparing for an 8:45 a.m. flight out of a regional airport on a small regional airline. Still, you will need to ride a shuttle for 45 minutes to the airport. But you already have your boarding passes and have only to drop off your checked bag and head for the gate. To get to the shuttle should take approximately 20 minutes from dorm to train and you need about 30 minutes to dress and gather your things in the morning. So getting up at 5:30 should do the trick if you don’t waste any time. Not the presumptuous types, and not wanting to jeopardize our shot at a chance to decompress from our London work week on the shores of Italy, we set our alarm for 4:20 a.m. We were out the door of College Hall on Malet Street about 4:45 and walking towards the train station, confident now after a week of navigating this city. In fact, we’d packed away our London map. Equal distance from us were two stations and my memory took us to the wrong one for a direct connection Liverpool Street – that confounded destination that played a role in both of our two travel disasters. (Not that it was Liverpool Street’s fault, but those are not happy memories.)

Arriving at Euston Station, one of the busiest we’d experienced, was surreal. No one was around. The escalators weren’t even running. We dragged ourselves to the elevator with our six bags, weighing easily 150 pounds (we bought a lot of stuff and packed for two climates and two lifestyles, and don’t forget the reams of paper involved in choral and organ music). Once underground we realized our error: Euston Square was the station that went straight to Liverpool Street. Not to worry, we thought, we’ll just make a connection from here. So after scanning our Oyster Cards and blundering through the turnstiles, we descended quite a few flights of spiral stairs to the train platform, discovering that the next train wouldn’t depart for 20 minutes. Clearly we were up before the rest of London. Now breathing heavily and starting to sweat, we lugged those six bags back up those several hundred stairs, returned to the ground floor by the elevator, and headed for Euston Square. There, too, we had stairs to reckon with. But the wait was short and soon we were en route to Liverpool Street, still in good humor. After all, we’d built in over an hour of time into our morning.

We boarded the Stansted Express we’d intended to be on just a moment after the prior one left the station. Without our Euston Square error we would’ve been on that earlier train and probably all our woes would’ve been over. Instead we waited 15 minutes, glad to put the “hard part” of the morning behind us. We dozed on the train and emerged at Stansted Airport.

We moved quickly, climbing yet more stairs and riding a million escalators. We found our ticket desk and got in the back of a very, very long line to drop off our bag. That’s when things went really wrong. We were starting to be pressed for time when we finally got to the counter and the lady who helped us looked at us with shock on her face when our bag weighed in at 28kg. We hadn’t wanted to shoulder all the heavy stuff on the plane, so we’d stuffed it all into our biggest suitcase. Quickly we moved out of line and re-organized our luggage. Now we were only 3kg over the limit and owed 30 pounds. Whatever. It was time to be on our way so we settled for it. She directed Mike to an automated kiosk where he could purchase the extra weight allowance. No dice. It wouldn’t take our credit card.

Mike stood with the bags in the customer service line while I sprinted down the corridor in search of an ATM, hoping against hope it would accept our card. It did and I sprinted back, handing Mike the cash. Recognizing that we were pressed for time, the agent pointed Mike to a shorter customer service line around the corner. I stood where we’d been standing with the rest of our luggage and watched the minutes fly by. 10 minutes later he came back around the corner, still with the bag. The counter had closed and he was sent to stand in the long (now longer yet) line we’d originally been in. The agent now realized that we were in a predicament (not to mention getting pretty pissed) and came over to cut line for us. All we needed was to pay the stupid cash and be on our way. Even then, the agent she spoke with totally ignored her for a few minutes, obviously being passive-aggressive. UN.BE.LIEVABLE. I was hopping mad, sure we were not going to make our flight.

When we’d finally left our bag, just moments before the gate closed for checked luggage, we sprinted for security, discovering at the entry that we had only one of our boarding passes. Seriously!? We dropped a boarding pass!?!? Not seeing it, we dashed for a kiosk to reprint, discovering there that a 15 pound fee was required. Of course, we didn’t have cash, so we were out of luck. No time to fix it. In a last ditch effort Mike ran back to the baggage counter, discovering that our boarding pass was there with the agent who’d “helped” us. She had been holding it, waiting for our extra weight ticket to stick to it before she could give it to us. I’d left the bag so quickly and dashed off that she hadn’t had a chance to give it back to me. So we were set. We got through security quickly enough and for once didn’t get the pat-down treatment.

“Surely the gate is just a moment away,” we thought. But the glitzy, glamorous, winding aisles of duty free shopping went on eternally and to our horror, at their end was a platform where we were to wait for a shuttle. Our gate was due to close in less than 10 minutes, and the shuttle was due to arrive for the 5-minute journey in about 5-minutes. No chance we were making that plane. Even an airport employee who we asked in despair looked at our boarding passes, looked at the clock, and said “Just run. And good luck.” So we did. We jumped through the train doors as they opened and literally ran up two or three stories of escalator. Remember, we were still carrying all but 13kg of our luggage. And all the bags were now bulgy, besides. Finally, we saw our gate, and it, a long line of waiting travelers. We were getting on that plane.

Can I just say one thing? Don’t fly RyanAir. Don’t fly any of those cute little cheap regional deals in Europe. I mean, yeah, great if you are making a quick weekend getaway with your cute little roller bag and your purse. But these companies make their money on baggage, and we had plenty. (Seriously? 10 pounds per kg!?) And we got treated like crap. They just didn’t have the systems or technology to handle customers in an efficient way. We almost didn’t make it to Italy that day. After all, it’s not like they fly that many planes from Stansted to Genoa each day. And even still, only so many trains arrive in tiny Monterosso on any given day.

But there we were, standing on the tarmac north of London on a freezing cold morning, sweating profusely. Surrounded by bundled travelers with sleep still in their eyes, I was wearing a tank top and shorts and feeling ready for a nap. And then we were on the plane (the tiny plane with tiny seats where they bring you a catalog of things you can buy (like the usually-complimentary in-flight beverage) for ridiculous prices). Again we dozed awhile and woke to see epic mountains beneath us. As we descended into Genoa after the short two-hour flight, the scenes were incredible, and it was surreal to watch as we came in for landing at an airport built right on the edge of the water. It looked for all the world like we were about to crash land in the Ligurian Sea. And then there we were, standing on the tarmac in Italy, the sea on one side and the steep hills dotted with villages on the other. And so, we were in Italy after all.

Monday 18 August, 2:00 p.m., Genova Brignole Station

Our train approached a station and we recognized “proximo fermata” – an estimate of the time we’d be stopped. We laughed at our ridiculous slice of Italian vocabulary and Mike said “If anybody needs to know how fast to go we should be good.”

We were up at 4:20 and congratulating ourselves on being out of the dorm a half hour early. Unfortunately my memory of which train station to go to was wrong so we arrived at Euston – and down all its steps – to discover we were in the wrong place. We thought we’d make a connection until we discovered the next train wouldn’t depart for 20 more minutes. So we climbed with all our bags back out of the belly of the earth and relocated to Euston Square, an easy train ride to Liverpool Street. We laughed at our last-minute joy-riding with the spare funds on our Oyster Cards. We boarded our train to Stansted with 15 minutes to spare.

Unfortunately, once at Stansted, we discovered that our checked bag, weighing 28kg, was 13kg over the limit and we’d owe 130 pounds (10 pounds/kg) if we didn’t reconfigure. We got it down to 18kg and settled for paying 30 pounds, a likelihood we’d anticipated and chosen rather than the work and cost of mailing ourselves a box in London. We stood in several lines – the fault and incompetence of the airline, and on several counts almost missed our flight, running full speed to catch it. We won’t be sorry never to see Stansted or RyanAir again.

Our flight arrived in Genoa about noon and we made a tight connection – but no running this time – to our train, via a shuttle. While waiting for the shuttle we successfully acquired both cash (a significant question was in my mind about this) and lunch at an airport food court. I may’ve only been in Genoa an hour, but I ate salami there and it was marvelous.

I was a little skeptical when we stepped off our train in Monterosso after a beautiful journey south along the coast. We’d seen so many peaceful, sleepy towns along the way, and this one had me a little worried at first. At 3:00 p.m. on an August day the train platform was packed like sardines with people. The train station itself looked right out onto the sea, but the surrounding businesses were all tourism: busy, over-priced, and full of kitsch. As we pushed and shoved our way through the crowds I started to worry we hadn’t picked the right destination for a serene Italian experience. But in the end, we couldn’t have done much better. Even our accommodations, though not quite what I imagined (I was initially hoping for a rented room deep in the heart of one of the historic villages – the kind with a sea view, no air conditioning, and three flights of stairs to the entrance. As we got to know the town we realized what a mercy it was that we were staying the nights there on the north side of Monterosso al Mare, the tourist side, half a mile outside the historic town. After the day we’d had it was nice that we had only to drag our bags a quarter mile up a hill and we were “home.” I shudder to imagine the mess we’d have been in to situate ourselves in one of the smaller villages further south, with all our luggage in tow.

We stayed in a darling villa called Marvit Affiticamere, owned by a kind, quintessentially Italian husband and wife who barely spoke English. The husband met us as we gazed bewildered at the building we hoped we’d found and showed us up several flights of stairs to a fourth-floor apartment with four rooms. We had the only one without a balcony, and its window looked onto the stairs below. The other residences in the building were inhabited by locals and we got to enjoy a slice of local life. It would’ve been nice to be directly on the coast, but being set back a quarter mile up the hill meant we walked several times a day through a local neighborhood, getting a taste of what it was like. Not something you get to enjoy every day. It was inspiring – yards planted with lemon trees and fig trees, all the evidence of daily life set about: laundry hung out the windows, bikes and children’s toys at the doorways, lounge chairs well-used.

We made our peace with the tourists, finding our marvelous room to be all the consolation prize we needed. Three nights in one place, and no more dorm mattress. This felt completely luxurious. We put our stuff down and promptly took a nap. About 5:00 we donned our swimsuits and headed for the shore. We ate our first gelato – mountains of it – and got acclimated to the offerings of the beach and its vendors. We decided it was too cold and breezy to swim, and after awhile we were even too cold to comfortably lounge around in our suits. We returned to our room to dress for dinner and then wandered down the coast to the historic city center, finding it less crowded and more sophisticated. We sat for several hours right by the sea and enjoyed the perfect light supper, watching as the guests around us were served the restaurant’s specialty: a deep earthenware pot dumped right before your eyes into a large serving bowl. The contents: every crustacean and shellfish you can imagine, cooked whole into a stew.

Thursday 21 August 10:00 a.m. Monterosso al Mare

Monday night after settling into our completely lovely, sleek, modern room, full of every comfort – even wine glasses – we ventured out for gelato and then sat about 7:00 for a lovely dinner at our hotelier’s recommendation – Ristorante Belvidere. We sat on the sea side under a canopy, shared a bottle of local white wine, pesto bruschetta and “insalate al mare,” then a bowl of pasta with pesto – a local specialty, in fact pesto originates from this exact region. We lingered over each dish long and walked home as darkness set, going to sleep early.

Riding the empty tube before the crack of dawn...
Riding the empty tube before the crack of dawn…
Genoa, Italy
Genoa, Italy

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The runways were practically bit right on top of the water.
The runways were practically built right on top of the water.
I just loved this piece of loveliness in the plain setting of the train station platform.
I just loved this piece of loveliness in the plain setting of the train station platform.
We played cards while we rode 90 minutes from Genoa to Monterosso al Mare.
We played cards while we rode 90 minutes from Genoa to Monterosso al Mare.
Beautiful Italy!
Beautiful Italy!

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And this was our crazy-awesome room in Cinque Terre. I want hanging baskets like this to put make up and toothbrushes in.... Also, a shower like that would be pretty nice. ;)
And this was our crazy-awesome room in Cinque Terre. I want hanging baskets like this to put make up and toothbrushes in…. Also, a shower like that would be pretty nice. 😉
Obligatory toilet shot...? :-/
Obligatory toilet shot…? :-/
Our beautiful room, with a large closet and a mini fridge.
Our beautiful room, with a large closet and a mini fridge.

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View out our window
View out our window
Looking down toward the road from our room
Looking down toward the road from our room
Dinner!
Dinner!

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The view of the sunset over Monterosso's pier and castle from our dinner table
The view of the sunset over Monterosso’s pier and castle from our dinner table

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