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:


One thought on “Running for Trains – a day trip to Cinque Terre

  1. Thinking of you and wondering if u r nearing home. Love reading about your adventuresome days. Your family’s bond must b deeper and stronger then can b imagined. Happy new year.

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