Thursday, June 10, 2010

When I wake up at last, it’s 9:30 in the morning. By the time I laze around and dress and take care of a few small chores—including a batch of laundry—it’s after 11 and I’ve missed breakfast at the hotel entirely.

I drop into Ristorante da Ely for a take-away slice of foccacia bread and a della de casa walnut torte, and this time—just to be safe—two extra bottles of water, and then sit on a bench in the shade overlooking the Old Town, eating and listening to the waves and the market below.

To start the day, I head up the long sloped stairs to the Capuchin church of San Francesco, to appreciate its quiet interior and the stunning views out along Fegina beach, all the way north to the Giant statue, and then make my way to the train station for the quick hop down to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village in the Cinque Terre. Today, the plan is to start at the bottom and hike north, as far as my legs will carry me. And if I am forced to stop for the sustenance of gelato in each and every town along the way, so be it.

There is an elevator in Riomaggiore, and it takes me to highest elevation in town, which allows the luxury of exploring downhill. I visit the church of San Giovanni Battista and the tiny oratory of Santa Maria Assunta, and gaze up at the castle and clock tower, but really the attraction here—and throughout the Cinque Terre—is the town itself and its easy charm.

The stucco houses are densely packed and painted in alternate pastel colors, regulated (I am told) by a commissioner of good taste. There are shades of lemon and peach, strawberry and lime, and together they remind me of a scoop of rainbow sherbet. There are open windows with green wood shutters, and laundry hangs in the sun to dry. The whole effect might be characterized as a kind of Mediterranean “shabby chic.”

From here I follow signs to the Via dell’Amore, or Avenue of Love, which connects Riomaggiore with Manarola, its neighbor to the north. It’s a beautiful path, wide and well paved, and it clings to the edge of the cliff in reckless abandon. After World War II, it became a romantic rendezvous where couples would meet and commemorate their love in amorous graffiti, a tradition which continues today. Layers of graffiti—some of it quite skilled—are caked onto the walls of the tunnel, and in a spurt of creativity, carved deep into the leaves of cactuses. And then there are padlocks. There are padlocks everywhere, locked onto signposts and fences and marked with initials.

I wonder if Nat and Lewis are still together? Or, Ludo and Giuppi, who wrote: Sei il mio primo pensiero al mattino, e l’ultimo alla sera. Grazie di esistere. Ti amo. “You are my first thought in the morning, and my last before bed. Thanks for being there. I love you.” At least I know that Aldo and Jnge are, since they wrote their names above a heart in 2007, 2008, and again just two months ago. There are hundreds of stories here, left dangling and unfinished, and I find myself wondering about them on the path to Manarola.

The next few hours slip by pleasantly, almost unnoticed. There are more tiny Gothic churches, more pastel colored homes, more stunning views out to sea and along the cliffs, and gradually my early prediction about gelato is fulfilled.

At about 4:00, I weigh the next step of my journey, from Corniglia to Vernazza, and decide against it. My body is weary and the hike would be the longest of the day, about 90 minutes. Perhaps, I think, I’ll tackle one that tomorrow. But I know I won’t.

Corniglia rests high on a promontory of rock, the only town in the Cinque Terre without a natural harbor. To get there, I had been lucky enough to snag a free bus to the top, but when I retrace my steps to where I got off, there is a sign warning that bus service has been discontinued for the day. And so I head down the “Lardarina” to the train station, a long set of switchback stairs—377 in all—my knees groaning in protest on every one.

Back at the Hotel Margherita in Monterosso al Mare, I rest up and head out to dinner a few hours later. At l’Altamarea, I dine well on some bruschetta, followed by pansotti in a walnut cream sauce, and a plate of grilled vegetables.

By now I’ve gotten a second wind, and so rather than heading to bed, I take the train to Manarola to watch the sunset, and then set up my tripod for some night shots. I follow the footpath north to the next jut of land

and look back on the village—my favorite of the day, second only to Vernazza. The sky is falling into a deep and brilliant blue, and there is a warm breeze on my skin. I slow the camera’s shutter, and the effect creates a dreamy mist on the waves as they crash towards the shore, and turns the pulsing of the street lights into a constellation of finely pointed stars.

Veramente questa è la vita.

This truly is living.

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