May 18 – Vernazza & Portovenere
Remember that post I wrote about how important it is to roll with the punches when traveling? Well, I have an addendum to that bit of wisdom, or maybe caveat is the better term.
Gina and I visited Vernazza yesterday (town #3 in the row of ‘five lands’) which looks much like Riomaggiorre, and indeed I’m beginning to think these towns are all pretty much the same, except that for whatever reason Vernazza attracts more tourists than Riomaggiore.
Now, I have nothing against tourists—I’m one of them, obviously—but when people gather into groups, they tend to behave worse than when they are on their own (just look at Congress, English soccer fans and people who talk in the theater during movies).
Worse, when the party in question has some kind of unifying identity (e.g., cruise ship tour group all branded with numbered stickers so they know which guide to follow—really) and a defined purpose (“we’re here to see Ching-quee Terry!”), they lose even that last modicum of sense that military types refer to as situational awareness. Their world shrinks to the dimensions of the group and anything outside of that bubble is something to be ogled, consumed or photographed with as many other members of the group as possible. Otherwise, it’s something to ignore, like your fellow traveler trying to just get into the damn gelato shop for a freakin’ ice cream already.
Seeking refuge from the herdlets of tour groups, we took to the high ground—a bar/restaurant located in a bona fide tower overlooking the town and the sea below. None of the stickered people made the trek up the stairs (everything is up stairs here), so we had the terrace to ourselves save for a nice young American couple we chatted with for a while.
Cut to twenty-four hours later and we’re visiting Portovenere, which is a 30-minute boat ride south of Riomaggiore on the coast. It’s a larger town and not part of the national park that makes up the Cinque Terre. We had a great time exploring an old church and an impressive castle with very light tourist traffic. Then we saw them: the stick people.
Stick people are like sticker people, but only in terms of the herd mentality—everything else about them is different. These are serious hiker types, typically German or maybe Swiss, and they walk everywhere with what most of us would call ski poles. The German word for them is alpenstock and Rick Steves humorously refers to them as task-oriented, which is a good way to describe the user as well as the instrument.
There was a stick tour coming down a path on the backside of the castle and sure enough we met up with them down at the marina to catch the last boat back to Riomaggiore. Most of the hikers had stowed their sticks on their backpacks by the time they got to level ground, but that only meant they were now more likely to whack you with them as they pushed by. That’s what happened to me in line for ferry tickets.
I say “line” because I thought there was one. In fact, it was more like a cluster of stick people, but several of them weren’t even buying tickets—they had designated one Big Stick for that—so they were just taking up space, like they needed to monitor the transaction or something. Finally, one stick-whack and two line cuts later I had our tickets and we made the voyage back with relative ease.
The caveat to my sage advice is this: I can put up with unforeseen problems that simply happen (delayed flights, vague directions to restaurants, etc.) but I have a much harder time with problems that are the direct result of someone else’s behavior. Granted, most of the time your stick/sticker types don’t even realize they’re messing up someone else’s experience, but occasionally you do see flat-out rudeness.
Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed would probably say it’s best to just smile and move on—this too shall pass, etc.—but there’s a reason those guys have whole religions named after them and I don’t. I have a very low tolerance for thoughtlessness, as anyone who knows me can confirm. The best defense, in my case, is to run away, preferably to a twelfth century castle with corner turrets or a hillside fort with cold beer and pesto lasagna. You know, whatever’s handy.