Running for Trains – a day trip to Cinque Terre

A day trip sounds so easy. Yes, a day trip, YES! Let’s do a day trip.

Everyone told us that Lucca, Italy is the best place in the world to stay (and they are right). They also said it’s the easiest place to do day trips from (hmmm, I’m not so sure). Of course I may be tainted by the seemingly inexhaustible things that can go awry when it comes to our travels.

Indeed, let’s do a day trip from Lucca to Cinque Terre. Why, it’s only a mere 90 minutes by train, which is nothing for us seasoned travelers at this point. As long as it doesn’t involve a night train, we are good to go.

We are up in plenty of time to catch the 8:42 am train. I shower, and pack a light lunch since we’ll be eating at quaint cafes in Cinque Terre for lunch and dinner. It’s no surprise what I pack – salami and mozzarella sandwiches, on bread that is fresh but altogether too thick and dry to make a good sandwich. I tuck in 10 clementine oranges to boot. These little delicacies are like eating candy right off a tree. We bought 4 dozen at the outdoor market, and finished off 2 dozen in 2 days. I carefully place these little treasures into the backpack.

At 8:10 I am screaming now, we must leave! God bless Gracie, but the speed at which she moves makes the tortoise look like the hare. It’s utterly remarkable and completely unnerving at the same time. She is the absolute replica of my sister Michelle in this regard. Michelle who was nearly set upon by every sibling and parent in our household, for the same slow reasons.

Finally, we are OUT. Out of the house, and we are walking briskly. Curtis is way up front, trailed by me, then Zack, and way at the back, Gracie. I wave my arms frantically, yelling at them to hurry, urging them forward with my arms. Zack passes me in 10 seconds. I hurriedly look back to Gracie, she’s gaining on me. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

We scurry along the medieval fortress wall which runs 4km in a circle around Lucca. A wide, lovely walking, biking, running path is on top of the wall, providing a great viewpoint of the surrounding area. And also a barometer of how far you still are from the train station.

It’s chilly, but I’ve pulled off all layers except a t-shirt now. I glance at my watch, 10 minutes until the train leaves. I scream, “10 minutes!!” We start to run. Down the medieval stairs, across the medieval lawn, across the busy street where we launch ourselves into the traffic barely pausing to look for oncoming cars.

We skid into the train station, 8 minutes to go. We buy tickets and I’m sure we are overcharged by $50 while simultaneously trying to exchange a previously unused train ticket. It’s always good to throw in a complicated maneuver like that when time is on the line.

“Which train platform?”I ask. “Platform 1,” the ticket seller says. Seems right, as a thick mob of people wait on platform 1. Finally the train arrives, we all hop on. But it seems strange that the train whose first destination is Pisa, has only 2 cars on it, since Pisa is a main tourist destination.

We sit on the train and wait and wait. I get this feeling that we are not on the right train. I ask one of the passengers, “Pisa?” “No, no, no,” she says. We hurry off the train, find a conductor, confirm this is not the right train and he sends us to platform 3.

I look at the clock. It’s well past 8:42, but we run to platform 3 anyway. Thank God for the Italian way of life, because the train is late, and just arriving as we reach the top of the platform stairs. We throw ourselves onto the train and hastily find seats. I sit in a pool of sweat.

Nevertheless, we are on our way and I am grateful just to be on the correct train. Thirty minutes later we change trains in Pisa, then 45 minutes later, in La Spezia. The connections should happen one after the other. Except, inexplicably the train from La Spezia to Cinque Terre has been cancelled “indefinito.” That costs us 90 minutes of waiting around for the next train at noon. We eat lunch on a long bench outside the station. We while away the minutes in wait. Finally we board the train at noon, arriving at our first Cinque Terre destination at 12:20pm.

To recap, we left at 8:52am, we arrived at 12:20pm. We are just 2 hours over the 90 minute “day trip” time. Sounds about right for us. We try not to remind the kids that it’s taken 3-1/2 hours to get here, but they are painfully aware of it.

Fortunately, the view overtakes us all as the train rambles along the coastline. Cinque Terre is a serious of 5 villages built into the sheer cliffs and rocky mountainous area along the west coast of Italy. Built some 1,000 years ago, it is like stepping back in time. And stepping up a thousand stairs at the same time. Actually, it’s more like 10,000 stairs — in every village.

It’s possible to hike along the coastline from village to village, but with the recent rains some of the trail has been washed out and the trail is closed. So we trundle via train from village to village.

We start with village #4, Vernazza. The homes steeply slope down to the water’s edge, which is ringed with a small, beautiful, clear-blue marina. The kids climb the rocky face to reach their own personal viewpoint. I turn away when they climb down, I cannot watch. I am sure I will have to have them medi-vac’d out when they take a misstep.

Other tourists sit on the piles of large, black rocks that encircle the marina, eating slices of pizza and drinking small bottles of wine. We promise the kids we will eat pizza like this in the next village.

After an hour of wandering around, we head back to the train and stop off at village #2, Manarola. We walk up, up, up and are rewarded with a fantastic panoramic view of the town and sea. The sea is forever, without a landmark visible as far as the eye can travel.

We walk down, and back up again. I should be counting the actual steps, but I’m not sure I can count that high.

Gracie loads up on photos. We cannot stop taking pictures of each other, of ourselves, of the view, or us in front of the village, or us in front of the sea, or us in front of the vilage and the sea at the same time, which takes some serious photographic maneuvering.

We take so many photos that we lose track of time. We think we’ve missed the next train, but aren’t sure. We run up to the train station (everything is up). We run through the train corridor. We’ve missed the train.

That’s ok, we need pizza anyway. But there is not an open pizza joint to be found in this small village. We search in vain. We are in no man’s land according to Italian time. Nothing is open from 1-4pm in villages, towns, cities. We forget this every day, I don’t know why we can’t remember. Instead, we buy postcards and eat clementines on a bench, followed by Mars bar candy bars. Hopefully, this will tide everyone over until our last village where we will sit down and have a nice, leisurely early dinner.

We catch the train to village #1, Riomaggiore. We disembark on the only piece of flat ground that exists in the village. We dutifully begin our upward ascent, step by step. It becomes a mantra of sorts, the eternal upward motion of foot to hill, foot to stair. It’s like climbing Mount Rainier, but much warmer and without a guide.

We scurry up to viewpoints. A cathedral sits at a distant point, and we make our way there. The view I can’t explain, it is like a painting that you want to buy and put in your bed to sleep with every night. It is so beautiful that we take 1,000 photos of it, hoping they will capture one tiny shred of its reality.

We wander aimlessly through the tiny village, looking at a smattering of shops that are actually open. Most are closed. So is every pizza joint and restaurant. We look longingly at the menus posted outside. We search for a sign that declares they will open at 4:00pm. None exist.

We walk down to the marina, downhill streets filled with small, colorful fishing boats stacked side by side on the pavement, proof of the winter that’s come and coming to these deserted outposts. Fishing tackle drapes over their sides, on the walls behind.

Then we walk up, up, up for the sunset view. We’ve arrived at the absolute, perfect time and watch every last thread of the sunset. The colors span the entire sea, cast golden light on the village and we wonder if we’ll ever see anything this stunning again.

Except for the clock. The clock is stunning because it says our train is leaving now. We yell to the kids, they turn and run towards us. We run up the street. We run up 4 of the longest, rock slab flights of stairs I’ve ever known. Curtis and Zack sprint ahead. Gracie passes me on the 3rd flight. I’m trying, really trying to run up the 4th flight but oh my word my legs. In my mind I feel as though I am running but when I look at Gracie running, I realize I am not running at all. I might actually be standing still.

I make it to the top. Gracie turns around and yells, “It’s here!” Now I must sprint to the train which is ready to leave. I can hear the train sounds, sputting, chugging, ready to leave. I mentally will myself to pick up the pace. My legs feel like two large round drums filled with rocks. I want to lay down and roll all the way to the station.

I turn the corner, and there stands Curtis, Zack and Gracie waiting anxiously for me to arrive. The conductor stands with them, somewhat perplexed and disgruntled by us all. I leap onto the train, wipe the sweat from my brow and collapse into the train seat. Then I undress. I stop just short of complete nakedness.

We all recover in the 8 minutes it takes to reach La Spezia. We’ve timed it perfectly so that we can get a nice dinner in town, then catch the train back to Lucca.

It’s 5:00 pm. We walk down a very touristy pedestrian-only street filled with shops, cafes, restaurants. Correction: Restaurants that are closed until 7:00 pm. Cafes with lots of things to drink, but no substantial food. I make a decision — we are not going to find anything to eat before the train leaves. Let’s take an earlier train back to Lucca instead, and have a nice dinner there.

It’s 5:20pm. We have 20 minutes before the train leaves. A quick snack for the kids will have to do for now. We stop at a Creperie and order Gracie a nutella and banana crepe through the little window.

We run back towards the train station and up the hill. I search the train departure schedules and find the train we need. It’s on platform 6. It leaves in 3 minutes. We run to platform 6. There is no train, and it appears that there never will be a train on this platform.

We run to platform 1. We see a train, it could be the one we need. We have 1 minute to make the decision to get on or not. We are paralyzed. A train conductor sees us, we say “Lucca!”, and she points to the train further south on the tracks. We run to that train, hop on, and 1 minute later we are traveling down the tracks to Lucca.

We high-five each other, we are so proud of ourselves. We’ve done it, we’ve done the day trip. Now, if we can only find an open restaurant when we get to Lucca. When we do, we sit down exhausted at the table, order up 4 pizzas, and calculate our trip. Thirteen hours. An easy, breezy day trip of 13 hours. Twelve of those hours spent running.

Gracie’s blog:
Zack’s blog:


Bicycling in Tuscany, somewhat disastrously

I had visions. Beautiful visions of cycling through the Tuscan countryside, hair flying in the breeze, sun shining on my shoulders, a fresh picnic lunch tucked into my basket.

It’s such a nice vision, isn’t it? I had thought about it for so long I thought it actually might come true. But alas….cycling with the Brown family cannot be that easy.

It all started with a bang. “Up, let’s get up! It’s time to ride bikes!” I urged to my family. The weather was overcast and a little windy, but otherwise perfect for biking. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get my sunshine-y day with a picnic, but who cares? I’m in Tuscany in November for heaven’s sake!

Our villa we are renting comes with 4 bikes. What a coup! And yes, I said villa. At least I like to refer to it as my personal Tuscan villa. It is a large 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom home in Pugnano, smack dab in the middle between Pisa and Lucca. A 15-minute drive will land you in either town. But believe me when I say there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Pugnano. Which is why you must bike to get anywhere.

Arianna, who owns our villa, lives next door in her own villa with her family. Her parents live behind her. Her dad, who speaks no English, had fixed up the bikes for us and told us all about it. We understood nothing.

Not to worry. The bikes were fixed, and off we go. My bike had the baby carrying seat on the back. Everytime my pedal went around on the right side, it bumped into the baby seat. I adjusted my foot forward on the pedal to steer clear of this with every crank. Now we’re really ready.

I stuffed 2 apples, chocolate cookies and a big bottle of water in a small pack, and loaded up my front basket. How efficient a basket on a bike is!

Now in Italy, no one wears helmets, so neither did we. Only the super racing cyclists that speed by you at 90 mph every 5 minutes wear them, and believe me we do not fall into that camp. And FYI, Italy is loaded with cyclists — out here in the country they love to ride.

So here is my little tribe out on the narrow backroads of Tuscany, sticking as close to the white line on the right side of the road as possible without having their handlebars scrape against the building at the same time. There’s just not much space. It doesn’t help that Zack’s handlebars are vibrating and bugging his hands, so he has pulled his sweatshirt sleeves down and over his hands and is gripping the handlebards between a thick layer of bunched up sweatshirt.

But the Italians, they really know how to work around a cyclist. They seem to have unwavering confidence in the cyclist’s ability to keep their bike upright and not veer into the car’s path. And the cyclists seem to have unwavering confidence that the car will pass within 2 inches of their bike and yet not run them over.

Of course, coming from the shores of Lake Washington, this is a newfound realization for me. In Seattle, cars give cyclists about 6 feet of space and even then they are afraid to pass a cyclist.

We ride about 2 km on the town road before turning onto a dirt path that glides along the river. Perfect biking on a tree-lined path bursting with the colors of autumn. Finally, my long-awaited Tuscan bike ride!

“How long are we going to bike for?” Gracie asks. We’ve been going for all of 15 minutes. “For a while,” responds Curtis.

Fifteen minutes later Curtis realizes his back tire is getting flatter and flatter and flatter. We decide to keep riding anyway, just a little further. Another 15 minutes and we realize we need to turn around if Curtis is going to make it back home at all. It starts to rain, lightly.

I watch Zack turn around and bike towards me. He seems a little wobbly. I look down at his bike, and his handlebars are loose. I offer to switch bikes with him which he readily accepts. He races off down the trail with the baby seat.

I hop on his bike and start off. I quickly realize just how loose the handle bars are. They are swimming from side to side. By “swimming” I mean, if you took your handle bars and shoved them all to one side so that 80% of your handle bars are on the other side of your bike, and then you shoved them back to the other side again.

I looked like a total drunk trying to ride that bike.

Gracie, ahead of me, is having troubles with her bike too. It wants to veer right, which is a little dangerous since the river is on the right. If she doesn’t continually overcorrect, she’s going in. This doesn’t stop her from strapping her camera onto her right wrist, banging it against the handle bars as she rides along.

She decides that taking pictures while she is riding is a good idea. She puts the camera at eye level, veers right, overcorrects, loses her balance and falls down in the grass.

I don’t see this because I’m way behind Gracie. I’ve stopped to try and re-tighten the loose handlebar bolt. That’s when my chain falls off. I kneel in the damp dirt, grasping at the very, oily chain (newly oiled, apparently), dislodge it, re-position it, and get it working again. I grab a handful of gravel and rub it between my hands to try and get rid of some of the oil.

I zoom off again, all over the trail, and pray to God I don’t come across anyone, let alone someone walking their dog or their frail grandmother that I will assuredly run over.

This is because not only were my handle bars now moving side to side as though pig grease had been applied to them, but they also began to twirl around and around like a magical wand from Harry Potter. So you know how you hold onto your handle bars and can reach the brake? Well, that’s harder to do when your handle bars are upside down and moving side to side.

I somehow manage to weeble wobble my way back to almost the beginning of the trail. I ride up and down small hills without shifting gears since, well, I can’t reach them as they are twirling around.

I crest a small hill to find Curtis on the other side, at the bottom of it, waving his arms. “Don’t ride down this hill!” He’s right, it’s a straight shot into the river if I can’t turn at all, and if I turn only a little, I will crash into the cement tunnel holding up the bridge.

I walk my bike down the hill, under the bridge and try once again to re-adjust my handlebars. “Oh my God, no functione,” an Italian man running by says as he stares at my bike incredulously. He’s clearly panicked at my bike’s state of affairs. “No functione!” He gives me directions (I think) to go get it fixed in the nearby village. “Buono!” I say, “Good,” like I understand every word.

I look down at my bike. The chain has fallen off again. Down into the dirt and oil I go, reclaiming the chain and putting it back in place.

I hop on the bike, Gracie behind me. I balance very precariously and begin to ride. I promptly lose control, can’t reach my twirling brakes, and screaming, down I go, into the grass. All I can hear is Gracie laughing.

I stand up, dust myself off and pick up my bike. My handlebars fall off — completely.

I just laugh and laugh. The vision of my perfect Tuscan bike ride has long since vanished but the hilarity of the excursion has saved the day!

Curtis comes to my aid, and switches bikes with me. He “runs” my bike home, jogging alongside it while simultaneously trying to control it. We must look like a bunch of freaks out here.

“No functione!” Truer words were never spoken, about my bike or about my vision of a Tuscan bike ride.