Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cinque Terre and Rental Car Experience (Post #11)

Hope you are ready to read a long entry and don't mind the swearing!!

Lenny, my Australian friend (a finnochio, please do not look that up if you are under 18 years old and it is nothing big, just part of a joke we have) had the idea of renting a car and driving to Cinque Terre (the 5 towns on the western coast of Italy). He, his friend Thomas from Australia, and Nick from Long Island were up for the idea and asked me if I wanted to join. I had to think about it for a bit for a couple reasons. First of all, do I want to go to Cinque Terre in mid-March when the weather may not be that great? My response: I can go back again, and I can tell you I will be going back. My second problem was that none of them could drive standard transmission cars, (stick-shift or manual for those unsure) and Thomas can drive standard but Australians drive on the wrong side of the road. Do I really want to take a chance on driving in Italy after seeing some of these people drive? Did I know what all of the signs mean? How the hell do we get there? I don't want to be arrested because they never let Americans out of jail! Is my driver's license even valid? I thought about it for a couple days and talked to a couple people to come to this conclusion. Italians are stubborn drivers, but so am I and it cannot be that much worse than driving in New York City. Also, I am good at the fast-paced decision making in vehicles as well as going fast yet controlled. I did not know what all of the signs meant, but I knew most of them because they have similar signs that I saw in Aruba and common sense lets you figure out the rest. How the hell do we get there? Well that was a huge problem but one of the receptionists gratuitously offered his Garmin GPS to us when we were printing out our MapQuest directions. That solved that question! As long as I am smart I will not get arrested, and apparently my driver's license is valid. Plus, we put the financial contract under my friend's name so I wasn't completely accounted for!! Kelly from Cali was in the room when I made my decision and we asked if she wanted to go. She was hesitant but had heard good things about Cinque Terre and I told her to be spontaneous!! She decided to come along.

Lenny, Thomas, and I woke up at 7am to go find this stupid EuropCar place that for some reason we said we would pick the car up at 8am. We finally got there and online we were told we would get a Fiat Panda. I don't know if they ran out or what but the car given to us was the Fiat Punto. We were kind of disappointed because we really were excited about driving a PANDA; it just sounds awesome doesn't it? It was alright though because our silver punto pictured below was a good car.
It smelled brand new and looked it too. The inside was pretty awesome and a bit luxurious looking as well. Needless to say, I was ready to drive this Punto down to Cinque Terre in a foreign country!! We hop in and are on our way back to our residence! Within five minutes of driving, a tram pops up in my mirror and is bearing down on me. That was pretty nerve racking for some reason but no big deal. I find out that this standard is easier to drive than my Subaru Legacy (with a spoiler) back home because the clutch is not as sensitive in the Punto. We miss our turn and continue driving god knows where. There are barely any lines for the lanes so cars are all over the place. I get cut off, cut people off, pull a legal (I think) U-Turn, and finally make it onto the main street necessary to reach my destination. I get excited seeing speed limits of 70 and 60 but I remind myself that everyone but the USA uses the Metric System so these numbers are kilometers per hour...ugh! We arrive at Arcobaleno and take a few pictures. We walk inside with the keys feeling like hot shots as if we are on top of the world.

We have this car a day before our trip to Cinque Terre. We decide to be cool and go DRIVE to a gelato place. We don't have to walk, we don't have to take the tram; WE DRIVE! We reach Navigli where all of the gelaterias are located and try to park. Not one parking spot was found after driving for 15 minutes looking for a spot. Cars are parked bumper to bumper, on the streets, on sidewalks, all over the place. Consequently; we go for a forty-five minute drive and return to Arcobaleno gelato-less but that is ok because we have a CAR!

A couple of my friends were going to Budapest the morning we were leaving; only thing is they had to be at the airport by 5am. They offered to pay me to drive them, but I needed to get some sleep if I was the only driver for this entire trip. The five of us met in the lobby at 7am and hit the road. It was a relatively smooth ride the whole way. We played a new game Kelly introduced to us where you start with A and in a clockwise manner each person names an animal starting with the letter A, then to B, and so on through the alphabet. When you cannot think of one you are eliminated and last person in wins. The two Australians kept naming animals that they swear are in Australia that I have never heard of and when Kelly, Nick, and I would question them the other Australian assured us it was real. I still don't believe them! We ate peach rings and my Navigator Lenny did a great job directing me with the GPS while continuously finding Radio Stations in english that we could actually understand. The speed limit was usually 100 (kilometers which is about 60mph) and I stayed around 110 kilometers most of the time. Every car on the road passed me which KILLED me because I am usually the one passing all of the cars so I had to bite that bullet.

The only blip on the trip down was some guy was RIGHT behind me. No joke he was probably 6 feet behind me while we are going about 60mph. I would slow down to annoy him and he would somehow get closer than 6 feet without hitting me. He probably tailgated me like that for ten minutes. He finally decided to pass me, but all of you who know me well enough could predict what happens next. Of course I flip this huge asshole off and the driver and the girl with him flip me off. Just to my luck, he slams on the brakes and gets behind me again. We finally get out of the tunnel (by the way there was a tunnel every 100 yards as we got closer to Cinque Terre because you go through at least a couple dozen mountains tunneled through) and he pulls over to the side of the road while simultaneously flashing his lights. He wanted me to pull over!! hahaha, I kind of wanted to pull over but everyone in the car told me to keep driving. If I would have pulled over he was either going to shoot me, try to fight me in which I would have gladly dropped him, or sworn at me because he would have realized I would drop him. He realized I wasn't pulling over and sped up and caught me. I passed a couple cars and cut back over to the right lane and tried to box him in, but somehow he was always able to get behind me. In the US I totally could have lost him, but he had the "home-country (opposed to home-field) advantage" and I wasn't confident enough to try to lose him in this rental car with my friends in it. Finally he turned right 20 minutes later when I turned left. The rest of the ride was smooth and views were BEAUTIFUL as we got closer and closer. The only time I stalled the entire trip was at the toll-booth which instantly Kelly and Nick made sure to call me out on it.

We got to Levanto where our Hostel was (minutes from the closest town of Cinque Terre). The hostel was great. We could park right in front, the lady at the desk was SUPER nice and helpful, and the rooms were pretty cool. It was a private room with 6 beds (3 sets of Bunks). This was Kelly's first hostel experience and within five minutes she had a memorable experience. She went to use the bathroom and locked the door. She couldn't unlock it haha. You could see the end of her key on the opposite side of the door through the keyhole. At first, you can see her slowly and calmly trying to figure out how to unlock the door. Shortly after, you can see her lose every bit of rational thinking and her calmness turns to a worried, frantic mood. Haha, you could see the key moving as fast as possible in any way possible. We sent someone to go get the woman at the front desk but by the time she returned Kelly somehow unlocked the door. THe result of the story: a good five minutes of entertainment and the woman at the front desk confiscating the key to prevent "Kelly Being Locked in the Bathroom, Round 2".

We have this unreal view from the window and this hostel is a 5 minute walk from the gorgeous coast and first beach I have seen in Europe. Anyways, we settled in the hostel, asked for recommendations for dinner, and walked ten minutes to the train station where we went to the farthest of the five towns to the South known as Riomaggiore. We walked up the first flight of stairs to get to the path that weaves through the cliff sides from town to town. As soon as I got up to the top of the stairs and took a left to head to the first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea hundreds of feet below I was speechless. I finally understood and could see for myself why Mr. Olsen, my "sister" Em, Mr. Lopes, and everyone else I spoke to RAVED about Cinque Terre. Mr. Olsen told me a handful of times that it was his favorite place in Italy, and I couldn't imagine why. I wondered how it could possibly beat Rome or Venice among other magnificent Italian cities. Just the natural beauty, isolated villages, preservation, and low population (very few tourists at the time as well) made it sky rocket to number one on my list of places I have visited (until I recently went to Prague).
In this picture above you see the beautiful blue water of the Mediterranean and the steep, detailed rocks making up the cliffs. Also shown is the path 3/4 of the way up the picture with the fence in front of it. In the picture below you see the backside of the second town of Cinque Terre. This second town is Manarola and you can see how eye-popping the view is. I found it amazing how these towns are built into cliff sides.

The picture above was taken after walking through Manarola on our way to Corniglia. The next two pictures are also taken on the way to Corniglia. Again you can see the path edged into the cliffs with the water crashing into them at the bottom. These towns are gorgeous by the way. I can't go into depth too much because they were relatively similar. All of them specialize in wine with the plentiful vineyards all over the coast. As you can see, it was great weather for the time of year we went. Kelly said it was supposed to rain the whole time we were there so I was quite depressed. It rained that night for maybe twenty minutes at best. Just like Verona when she said it would snow, we ended up having great weather. I am starting to like when she lowers my expectations and I plan on having a miserable time because it is an excellent surprise when the weather is fantastic!!
We met a very nice couple from Long Island who was visiting their daughter in Rome the following day. They were generous enough to take our picture on this very sketchy bridge because of the wobbliness. It reminded me of the swinging bridge from back home that I used to be petrified to cross (when I was little). They were very personable and were cute just slowly walking together enjoying their beautiful hike. We actually ran into them more than once from village to village and the guy recommended a good bar to go to.

This photo above may be my favorite picture of the trip. Not only does it capture the town of Manarola tucked into the valley behind us but it captures the beautiful mountains with the vineyards, the path we walked to get to this point, and the Mediterranean Sea below.

Ha, I don't even know how to attack this picture. I used to make fun of people (usually oldER people but obviously not my young, lovely mother (emphasized the ER opposed to OLD)) who enjoyed sunsets. I never was intrigued by sunsets nor did I ever appreciate them. Well, I am officially a hypocrite because this picture is BEAUTIFUL if I do say so myself.

Here you see the view from the fourth town, Vernazza. Vernazza was probably my favorite of the towns we visited (we didn't see the fifth town, Monterosso because the trail was washed out). I liked it because it had a little bay surrounded by a small peninsula with the Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia RIGHT above this bay. You could walk out onto the peninsula type land (I guess you would say) and simulatenously standing on the rocks seeing exactly what you see above. The bay looks like this with a small beach and the Church overlooking these immediately to the right.

All-in-all, I loved this hike a lot and would recommend anyone who goes to Italy to ABSOLUTELY come here. The views will stick in your mind forever; I can already tell! The hike is relatively easy while getting a solid workout at the same time. It was even better because we took our time and told jokes and entertained each other throughout the trip.

We got back to the hostel, relaxed for a bit and hit the town. We went to a sit-down pizzeria and got our own pizzas for like 5 euro and they were good sized. A gelato for dessert was on all of our minds. After a half hour walk we finally found one thank god. On the way we checked out more of the town, appreciated some of the art, and the beach at night. There was really no place in Levanto to go out so we went to the hostel. Kelly said there were like ten girls downstairs somewhere so of course Nick and I go check it out. We ended up talking to two girls we met from Auburn for a couple hours. They were abroad in Rome and were very nice. They were from the South which was obvious because they used "yall" and told us WE had accents! haha Also another characteristic that distinguished their Southern heritage they had two names such as Mary Hester and Sara Beth. Anyways, we finally went to bed. Nick, Lenny, and Thomas woke up at like 7am the next morning to go fishing in the ocean in the FREEZING cold while Kelly and I gained as much sleep as possible. They came back later on and said it was a good experience but were miserable with the temperature.

We got back to the car and we found our car was sandwiched between two cars. Luckily an experienced driver such as myself with help from my friends telling me how much room I had we could get out quite quickly.

To finally wrap this blog entry up, we got in the car and drove through Genoa on the way home. I have heard great things about it, but we all hated it for the most part. The architecture like the rest of the country was phenomenal but it really was just a giant ship yard. Saw hundreds of smaller sail boats and what not in addition to a half dozen Cruise ships. Grabbed a bite to eat after my exceptional parallel parking and headed back to Milano.

I ate a sandwich Nick had made that was a day or two old. It was delicious but something about it...I can't even explain. It was like my throat instantly swelled up. Lenny asked me a question and I guess I kind of let out a gasp. Right then he knew something was wrong and was like "Big Sam (myyou alright? Hurry get this man some water!" haha. Everyone started stuggling looking for water as I kept driving and my navigator Lenny was calm and collective as could be. I finally got some water and could breathe. It was really weird, but my terrific Australian navigator saved the day. As a side note, everyone was impressed with my one-handed driving of our standard transmission Punto.

We go to return the car at the EuropCar near Central Station. Lucky for us there are four of them near it so we have NO idea which one to go to. We try the first one and the main one; it's closed. We remember we have to return the car with a full tank of gas so we pull into the nearest gas station. Our three options for FUEL are so ridiculous none of us even have a clue which one to use. Kelly calls the company and speaks to a huge asshole who apparently was like yelling at her and treated her with no respect. He finally tells her what option to choose. We then try to pay and nobody can read the machine because it's in italian and has buttons and pictures and random stuff all over the place. Some guy comes over and decides to help us. What a nice guy huh? I sure thought so. He helps us put "LITERS" (not gallons) of fuel into the gas tank (damn metric system). Right after he puts out his hand and asks for something in return for offering his help. OH MY GOD!! Instantly I look at this guy, and all I see is a huge target on his face between his eyes just screaming for my fist. WHAT AN ASSHOLE! I miss America where people do kind things without expecting something in return. I am sorry to be degrading in this section but I could care less. It is absolutely ridiculous how not one person in this entire city can do a favor for free. Every other place I have been people are nice. ITALIANS are nice. MILANESE people are like their own race from their own planet, they are ASSHOLES. HUGEEEEEEEEE ONES! I gave him a euro and told him to get lost. Me not punching this waste of space in the face was a huge victory for me. **Most of you know how I am and that if you treat me like a human being and with respect I will go MILES out of my way to be nice to you and do favors for you. These small things just send me over the edge. It is experiences like this that make me THANK GOD I am American where people can do a favor for someone without expecting something in return. Not that other countries aren't like that, but the US is the only experience I have of this.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. I do not think I would ever rent a car here again, but I am really pleased that I had the experience and could share it with some of my good friends. Cinque Terre was beautiful and I cannot wait to go back. Everyone, thanks for the recommendation to come here. Please email me if you have any comments or questions or if you would like to see the complete album from Cinque Terre as there are some beautiful pictures., next blog will be Bologna/Florence followed by my visit to Prague. I leave on Friday to head to Rome where I have a ticket to Easter Mass at the VATICAN!!! Happy Easter everybody!

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