Fun on Assumption Day

La Spezia, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre. The ferries pass between Portovenere and The island of Palmaria to go to the Cinque Terre

We decided to go to Portovenere for the Assumption Day holiday on 15th August (big deal in Italy). Apparently it’s the day the body of Mary, Mother of Jesus was raised to Heaven. You can see on the map Portovenere is at the entrance to the Bay of Poets and it’s a popular holiday destination – as well as a place to catch ferries to the Cinque Terre.

We bought return bus tickets from a shop and hopped onto a very crowded bus, wriggling our way through the passengers standing near the front to the middle area where there was a bit more space. In fact, Sandy and I snared seats when a couple of people alighted but the boys stood in the crowd. A few stops later three uniformed men (one carrying a sidearm) came on board through the centre doors. We gathered one was a ticket inspector, checking tickets of a couple of people in the immediate vicinity. Then all three zeroed in on us. Col and Pete produced tickets, they took a look and we got the shock-horror treatment. It took us a while to understand we’d done something wrong, because they spoke little English and we spoke even less Italian but we gathered we should have validated the tickets in one of the two machines located at the front and rear of the bus. We hadn’t seen a validation machine because of the crush of people. We apologised and tried to explain that we didn’t know, nobody had told us the tickets had to be validated, we were Australian tourists and we’d never been on a bus in Italy before, but they weren’t having any. Everybody else (they insisted) had validated – just not you four.

Things started to get ugly. The man with the gun became aggressive, leaning at us and jabbing his finger. “Papers.”

It took us a few moments to realise he wanted ID, but we weren’t quick enough for him.

“Public Officer,” he shouted, jabbing his finger at each of us. “Papers. Four. Now.”

Sandy and I had no ID on us. We had photocopies of our passports but they were in the hotel (lesson learned). Pete and Col produced their Australian driver’s licences. We all felt threatened over what was a trivial offence. I was starting to have visions of being dragged off the bus and being banged up in an Italian police station. At least there was an Australian embassy in Rome. Hopefully they weren’t on holiday.

About then an Australian on the bus intervened in fluent Italian, explaining we were tourists and didn’t know. They calmed down a little, but they weren’t shifting their position, telling her with this crowd of people watching, they would have to fine us or risk losing their jobs. That would be 35 Euros. Each. Now. That’s about $AU57 each. The tickets had cost 3 Euros each. This had suddenly become an expensive bus trip. Col didn’t have that much cash on him, but they accepted credit cards. Pete was reluctant to give them a card so he paid cash. 140 Euros. Not bad for a few minutes’ work. We were given receipts but I had to wonder if that money ended up in the public coffers. A bit like the bed tax at the hotel in Milan.

We found out later that we could have deferred the payment, which would attract a higher fine but given us more time, but that option was not offered. Discussing the matter later, we all wondered if the bus driver had alerted the inspectors about the elderly tourists who hadn’t used his validation machine. The men definitely targeted us, showing only the most cursory interest in the other passengers. We were certainly not the only ones to have been treated like this. Here’s another tourist’s story. And here’s another.

The whole episode left a decidedly sour taste in the mouth.

However.

It was a beautiful day and Portovenere is gorgeous. We also went on a fifty-minute boat ride around the three islands clustered nearby. Here are some pictures.

Portovenere from the quay

The church on the point. On the way up you pass by Byron’s grotto

Narrow shopping streets and steep slopes – just like Cinque Terre

The church from the sea. That’s Palmaria (popular beach destination) on the right with the Apennine Mountains in the distance

The town from the sea. Note the castle strggling up the hills. There were forts on all the islands, too.

Mary stands guard on a reef with Italy behind her.

The islands boast some amazing coastlines, some of which have been mined. There are also many fortifications dating back to WW2, of course – but doubtless a lot further back than that. In the above photo you can see a regular arch which was probably a gun enplacement, and further along, a pill box.

Col and Pete both had some fun with Italian toilets. Pete set off into the underworld, following a maze of passages until he finally went up a few steps and found the right place. When Col tried the same place, there was a queue, so he asked the café proprietor if he could use their toilet. That was fine until he found he was locked in and had to bang on the door until somebody let him out.

We caught the bus back and carefully validated our tickets as we got on. We kept an eye on the passengers as they got on. About half of them didn’t validate their tickets. The bus back was nowhere near as crowded. We expected it to take the same basic route as the one we’d caught – but it didn’t. It came within shouting distance of the station, where we should probably have alighted, then headed off out of town and into the hills. In light of our previous experience we were getting a tad worried. We asked one young woman who spoke a modicum of English if the bus went back to town. She said yes, but explained it would stop at a terminus first.

Oh shit. Would our tickets cover us? What if another Public Officer came on board? Had the ticket’s time limit expired? Should we buy another ticket? We held our nerve until we got into areas in La Spezia that we recognised. From there, Col, Sandy, and I couldn’t stand it anymore and walked the rest of the way, passing through a deserted city. Assumption Day is BIG in Italy. The shops and restaurants were closed and wouldn’t open until after 7pm. But we did buy a gelato each. That was nice.

We had an early dinner and went off to bed. Tomorrow we would avoid buses at all costs and catch a train to Monterosso, where we would catch a ferry back to La Spezia so we could see the villages from the sea.