Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This morning, it is time to leave the rolling hills of Tuscany and Umbria and head for the sun of Liguria and the almighty sea.

It’s just after 10 in the morning and I’m on a train to Monterosso al Mare, the largest of five small fishing villages that make up a region known as the Cinque Terre, or “five lands.” It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park, but it’s also a major destination for U.S. travelers. Arezzo isn’t even mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebook, but the Cinque Terre has an entire chapter all its own, which has me a bit apprehensive about the crowds.

As I change trains at Pisa Centrale, the weather also has me worried. The villages of the Cinque Terre are connected by hiking trails that wind up and down along the cliffs, but according to some online message boards, recent downpours have forced the closure of many of the paths for sake of safety. Still, the air has been unseasonably warm these past few days, so as we speed by La Spezia and I crane my neck toward the window to catch brief glimpses of the ocean between tunnels, I am hopeful that things have dried out.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM by the time we pull into the station in Monterosso al Mare and I drag my luggage from the train along with scores of other passengers wearing shorts, sundresses, and flip flops. I stop briefly at the tourist information window to buy a three-day Cinque Terre treno card, to cover entrance to the trails and to the local trains that connect Monterosso al Mare to the towns of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

Emerging from the station, I turn left toward my hotel in the Old Town, but feel compelled to stop and stare at the scene before me. I’ve never spent much time at seaside resorts. I’ve never been to California or the Caribbean, and I’ve seen Florida only once, so this is new and exotic to me. There is a long stretch of sandy beach, decorated with rows of colorful umbrellas and chairs, set in a perfect arch along the shore. Palm trees strung with streamers of yellow and green line the street, and there are shops selling racks of postcards, sunglasses, tote bags, and beach balls.

I have not travelled far on this trip. The distance from Rome to Florence is just 182 miles—roughly equivalent to the drive I might take between my house in northwestern Vermont and Brattleboro, the city at its southeastern corner, near the border of Massachusetts. From Florence to the Cinque Terre, it is just 116 miles, which at home would get me only as far as White River Junction. And yet from the urban intensity of Rome, to the rustic charm of Tuscany and Umbria, and now the brilliant seas of the Cinque Terre, I am finding that the geography of Italy is astonishingly diverse.

I make my way through the pedestrian tunnel and up Via Roma until I reach the front door of the Hotel Margherita, a friendly place painted in shades of tangerine with green shutters. I check into room 101 and begin to unpack as a warm breeze through the louvered windows draws in the scent of lemon and basil from the garden below.

I feel energized when I make my way back down Via Roma toward the beach, and more so after grabbing a sandwich and a bottle of water. I climb a set of stairs by the Obertenghi Castle to the Aurora Tower, and continue up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. My legs are still feeling fresh on the descent, so much so that when I reach the sign at the end of the beach reading Per Vernazza, I decide, with little hesitation, to walk there for dinner, despite having just half my water left.

I had not planned on hiking any trails until tomorrow morning, especially the first leg to Vernazza, which is said to be the toughest climb, so this is either a moment of divine inspiration, or one of supreme lunacy under the heat of the afternoon sun. According to Rick Steves in his infamous guidebook, he often gets e-mails from readers “who say the trail was tougher than they expected,” but he assures us that while “it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s perfectly doable for any fit hiker… and worth the sweat.”

I spent months on a treadmill preparing for this, with the incline set to its highest point, so to believe that I am anything short of a “fit hiker” would amount to personal failure. Besides, I have already taken Assisi, Cortona, Orvieto, and San Gimignano in stride—hill towns all. Surely, this can be no worse.

Except that it is. That much is clear early on.

As the trail starts to climb, I can feel the burn in my legs. Before long, I’m stopping to catch my breath. Soon, it’s not so much a hiking trail as it is a never ending staircase.

The countryside is beautiful, to be sure. The path leads me along terraces of grapevines and olive groves, by crumbling stone walls overgrown with wildflowers, through the woods and over streams, but always uphill. Ceaselessly uphill. It’s late afternoon, the sun is scorching hot, and I don’t have nearly enough water. I start to ration it into the smallest of sips.

As a father and son approach from behind, I can overhear snatches of their conversation. They’re carrying fully inflated inner tubes. This seems like a bad idea on so many levels, although it occurs to me that if they happen to slip off the edge of the cliff—the footpath is narrow and there are, in most places, no guardrails—that it might actually break the fall.

The son is bounding forward, while the father lags behind and grumbles about wanting to turn back. I can’t say that I blame him, although as we meet others coming from the opposite direction, some wearing flip flops and others ballet flats, I am forced to question whether I am indeed a “fit hiker,” or merely a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes. As I march on, I begin to formulate a letter to Rick Steves in my head about how the trail was “tougher than I expected.”

When I cross paths with a group of friendly Australians heading from Vernazza, I dare to ask them about what lies ahead. Am I almost there, or almost to the ridgeline, at least? “Oh, dear,” the woman says. “Oh my, no.”

I’ve been on the trail for nearly two hours when, at long last, I reach a clearing high on the hill. The view from the summit takes my breadth away, although this time not from exertion, but out of sheer euphoria.

I am looking down upon the tiny village of Vernazza. I’ve arrived at the top of the hour and the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia are just beginning to chime. I can see rows of pastel houses that fold back from a snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle, and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea. It is a picture postcard, perfect in every way.

Perhaps I won’t send that letter to Rick Steves, after all. It was worth the sweat, just as he said.

I make the descent into town and walk for a bit through the lively streets, but decide that it would best to head back to Monterosso al Mare, after all. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished—the hike is one I will long remember—but for now I’d like nothing more than a long, cold shower and a nice lie down before dinner. I head back on the train.

It’s 7:30 when I venture back out and, mercifully, the heat of the day is beginning to lift. I stop for dinner at Ristorante al Pozzo and relax on the outdoor patio, studying the menu and chatting with folks nearby. There is a couple from Australia on my left, and a young woman from San Francisco named Amber on my right. She’s quit her job and has been travelling solo around Europe for the past five months. She reminds me of Serena, who I met on the train from Assisi, and I find myself envying them both.

Italian cuisine is regional cuisine, and like Tuscany with its ribollita and wild boar, Liguria has specialties of its own—namely, anchovies, lemons, focaccia bread, and pesto. I’ve seen a dish called trofie al pesto on restaurant chalkboards all over town, and rows of basil are growing right outside my hotel window, so trofie al pesto it is.

Trofie is a variety of pasta made with flour and water, and not with egg. It’s rolled into thin strips, cut into pieces, and then twisted like a screw, with channels into which a sauce can cling. Famished from the day’s exertion, I gobble it down in astonishing speed.

Afterwards, I take a short walk around town before crashing into bed.  And in a conscious effort to reward to myself, I don’t set the alarm clock on the nightstand.

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.

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.