Our final driving test of the day came as we approached La Spezia. Knowing we had to fill up the car with gas prior to leaving it at the EuropeCar office, we pulled off the highway when the signs started indicating the town would soon be reached. (What great gas mileage those diesel-powered European cars get! Gasolio is the way to go.)
I asked the gas station attendant if he knew how to get to the EuropeCar office on Viale San Bartolomeo. Patiently, he painstakingly drew a detailed map and explained the way. With my head swirling with directions, we re-entered the highway and followed his instructions. But detailed as they were, maps rarely seem to comport with reality, at least in Europe, and before long we were lost again.
But I knew we were close — it was just a matter of stopping every few turns to ask. Slowly we closed in on our destination. Finally, we found ourselves on Viale Bartolomeo, but it was a busy street with nothing that appeared to be even vaguely suitable for a rental car drop-off. We finally saw the address — posted above a tiny, barely visible office on a very busy corner. The drop-off was here?? No matter, we were ecstatic at having found the place.
Relieved, we pulled over in front of a small cafe a few yards down and dashed back to the office. It was locked. According to the faded sign, it wouldn’t reopen for another couple of hours. By now, we just wanted to be done with it and on our way to Vernazza. But with the office closed for the afternoon pausa, we trudged back to the cafe and dejectedly ordered some snacks to wait out the time.
After lingering over lunch as long as possible, we poked up and down the street waiting for the minutes to tick by. I scurried back once, just to make sure the office hadn’t miraculously opened early and peered again at the hours painted on the door. My eyes grew big as I realized I had converted the 24-hour time incorrectly: it would reopen at 15:00 (3:00) — not 2:00 as I had first thought. I hated going back to report the bad news: another hour to tack onto our waiting time!
A few minutes before 3:00, a small group had gathered in front of the office door, waiting. We all watched hopefully as a woman jumped out of a car and flew across the street, key in hand. Finally!
The EuropeCar clerk advised us to take the train to Vernazza, but by this time we didn’t want to deal with the logistics of getting ourselves to the train station, buying tickets, waiting (again!) for the right train.
I had an idea: let’s spring for an exorbitantly-priced taxi ride all the way from here to there! Perche’ no? Without any discussion, we all agreed. The clerk called a taxi and, most likely thinking we were nuts, explained our plan to the driver. Not long after, the taxi pulled up and a kindly older gentleman emerged.
From the comfort of his roomy car, we zigzagged up and down the mountains that border the dramatic Lugurian coastline between La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. The hill-hugging road took us through thick green forests; fabulous views of gaping chasms flashed in and out of sight. I had no idea the road to Vernazza was so long and convoluted — the train is a straight shot. But, delighted at this completely new perspective of the Cinque Terre, we all agreed it had been totally worth the splurge.
Our driver chatted amiably as we drove, pointing out things along the way. I was glad to have him correct my pronunciation of “Sciacchetra’” (shaw-keh-TRA), the renowned dessert wine made in this region. Having enjoyed it on previous visits to the Cinque Terre, I was looking forward to having it again — this smooth golden elixir that will knock your socks off.
With nose pointed downward, the taxi rolled up next to the barrier that prevents vehicles from going further and we bid our new friend goodbye. Then, pulling our bags behind us, walked the narrow road that follows a creek from above.
A few more steps took us under the train tracks. And then we were there — Vernazza.