Friday, June 11, 2010

It’s my last day in the Cinque Terre and I’m determined to make the most of it, if not wholly by land than by sea. I think it’s time to buy a ferry ticket.

The first boat doesn’t depart Monterosso al Mare until 10:30 AM, so I bide my time in the Old Town. I do a little shopping and visit the church of San Giovanni Battista and the oratory of the Confraternita dei Bianchi.

It’s a beautiful morning, but the sea is rolling hard and when the ferry arrives the passengers need help to board, since the wheels of the gangplank are sliding forward and backward on the dock.

The journey to Vernazza takes all of 10 minutes, and the contrast and ease of transportation makes me laugh when I think of the 2 hours I spent hiking there on Wednesday afternoon. The experience was well worth it, but now I can’t help feeling like a kid playing hooky from school.

I hop off to explore the town on fresh legs. I duck into the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, and then decide to follow the footpath towards Corniglia—not all the way—but far enough to catch a scenic view of Vernazza from the south. I also climb to the top of the Doria Castle for another stunning view of the harbor and the surrounding rooftops. And then, before I go, I grab a slice of foccacia bread from Batti Batti’ for lunch, and the green of the pesto, layered on a thin coating of red tomato sauce, with a white slice of melted mozzarella cheese reminds me vaguely of the flag. Viva Italia!

I reach the harbor just in time to catch the 12:20 ferry south and for the next hour ride it pleasantly past Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, all the way down to Portovenere. We see the ancient church of San Pietro first, and then swing around the bend toward the town and its famous “Palazzata”—a fortress of narrow houses crowned by a castle on the hill.

Portovenere faces the “Gulf of Poets,” named for those eternal friends, Byron and Shelley. Byron’s history here is rather dashing, recorded on an archway above a cave. The inscription reads: “This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron. It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici.”

As for Shelley, he penned the lines I recalled on my first day in Rome, the ones that spoke of his leaving England and of the “loveliness of the earth and the serenity of the sky” in Italy as making “the greatest difference” in his sensations. Yet in spite of that, his years here were filled with unspeakable tragedy—the deaths of three children, and the demise of his friend and fellow poet John Keats. Shelley himself perished nearby in 1822 when his boat, the Don Juan, was hit by a storm on the way from Livorno to Lerici.

On a glorious day in June such things seem unimaginable, and so as I amble out past the yachts in the harbor toward the spit of land on which the church of San Pietro rises organically from the rock, and lower myself down onto the steps, I think of the words Shelley penned about this place more than his fate, and find them fitting:

I sat and saw the vessels glide
Over the ocean bright and wide

I walk slowly back through the town with a dish of lemon and strawberry gelato, and then along a back street toward the Porto del Borgo. At the foot of the stone gate, under a 15th century fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Lorenzo, an old woman sits, leaning on her cane. She’s holding a handwritten sign on a square of cardboard that reads: Sono una nonna malata e povera bisogno di vostro aiuto. Grazie. It says she is a sick grandmother, and poor, and in need of help. She has a kind face and I drop a few coins into her basket, knowing I can do little but wanting to do something.

In the late afternoon, I board the ferry for the hour long journey back to Monterosso al Mare, where I retreat to my air conditioned room at the Hotel Margherita to rest before dinner and to post some of the day’s pictures online.

Since it’s my last night along the coast, I decide to take the train to Vernazza for dinner. It’s my favorite of the Cinque Terre towns, and the one I keep returning to time and again. I’m in search of a view tonight, so at 7:00 PM I ascend the long narrow steps leading up to Ristorante Al Castello, perched high above the water near the Doria Castle, under a protective row of red and black striped umbrellas. I order a green salad, some pesto lasagna, and a slice of lemon cake for dessert, and smile when a woman at the table next to mine asks the waiter if he knows they are in the Rick Steves book. He does, and says they are featured in the TV show, too!

After dinner, I walk down through the town and follow the footpath north, to the elevation from which I first saw Vernazza and its snug harbor. I set up my tripod and wait for the light to fade, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the train schedule. Lingering here is a risky move. Trains between La Spezia and Levanto run infrequently in the evenings and many skip Vernazza entirely. If I delay too long, I may miss the 9:44 and have a long wait on my hands—a not unpleasant proposition, but one that would rob me of the sleep I crave.

I lean over and look through the viewfinder. The street lights have come on, the day’s laundry has dried, and most of the swimsuits and beach towels have been pulled in by their owners. The church bells may toll at the top of the hour, but by then I’ll be well on my way, back to Monterosso al Mare, where I leave for Milan in the morning.

I must hurry and press the shutter. Night is descending, and I want nothing more than to steal the moment and take it with me.

Click.

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