Chapter Twenty-Two
May, 2000

Along the northern Italian coast, five tiny villages cling to rocky hillsides while dipping their toes in the Mediterranean Sea. Life moves slowly in the Cinque Terre, to the rhythm of the sea and the grape vine and the olive grove greening the hillsides; it is a place which stubbornly refuses the panic-pace of modern commerce and MTV-Europe. The only link to the rest of the world is the train to La Spezia, sporadic and irregular on its best days. This is picturebook Italy, sun-drenched hillsides of rioting plants and a weathered population that whiles away the afternoon in drink and conversation.

There is nothing to do here. The Cinque Terre has no museums, no monuments, no grand cathedrals. Which made it the perfect antidote to the bustling chaos of Rome. Here, there are no deadlines, no must-sees, no cars challenging physics. There are only the five towns, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, and the footpath that strings them together like pearls.

We stayed in Vernazza because it is Ian's favorite. I loved it immediately; not before or since have I visited a place so thoroughly cute, but in a way that doesn't inspire eye-rolling. Sweetness oozes from the pink and yellow buildings, drips from the laundry hanging from windows, and bubbles over the cobblestones of the one street large enough for the one emergency vehicle (manned by a pool of 30 volunteers). The stones cemented to every roof do double duty, tethering the cuteness to Vernazza and keeping roofs attached to buildings through the winter. Simply walking to dinner (pizza and the heady local wine at the Blue Marlin), it's impossible not to smile, to giggle. Vernazza is warm, embracing; you can't visit and not feel loved. I wanted to pinch its cheeks, could I find them, and that's before the wine went to my head.

Although not summer, early May is still plenty warm in the Cinque Terre, and the plant life seemed enthusiastic about the heat. I, on the other hand, don't do quite as well. Eleven kilometers of coastal mountain trail seemed overly ambitious. We split the hike over two days, exploring outward from Vernazza and training back in the evenings. Why rush beauty when you don't have to?

The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia is full of ups and downs, and the going was hot in the early afternoon. Still, the views were lovely and more than worth the work.

Heading into Manarola, the trail becomes less strenuous. I found myself watching the horizon, or, more accurately, watching for it. It seemed the sea and the sky were one; it could have been the sea arching above us and the sky lapping at the rocks below. Perhaps the two are not as separate as they seem but a continuous swath of blue wrapped around the greens and browns of earth.

The trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore, called the Via dell Amore, or Lover's Way, is paved, covered, wide enough for several families pushing strollers to pass each other comfortably, with a low concrete wall on the seaward side. The mountainside is smoothly walled and completely graffitied with poetry and declarations of undying love.

We caught an evening train back to Vernazza. The Blue Marlin, Vernazza's only nightspot and source of last night's dinner, is also the town's cyber-cafe (one computer, with spotty dial-up habits) and the laundromat. Up a narrow street, we found a quiet restaurant, and between loads we feasted on a pesto-rich dinner, garlicky basil in the soup and on the pasta. Several stray cats stopped by for conversation; a black and gray tiger striped fellow actually begged by our table, using every doggy detail except the panting.

We took our time the next morning, moving slowly. It's impossible to be stressed or worried or in a hurry here. On our way to the trail to Monterosso, we stopped for fruit and cheese and fresh foccacia, then detoured to the harbor for a picnic breakfast. A collection of 14-year-old girls descended a few rocks over, stripping down to bikini tops and unbuttoning their jeans before lying back to smoke cigarettes and chew bubble gum simultaneously. (That can't possibly taste good, smoke and sucrose.) So tempting was the music of the waves against the rocks, the caress of the sun, Ian and I almost didn't make it back to the trail. The girls, I'm sure, were there until the sun drifted beyond the faded horizon.

The trail between Vernazza and Monterosso is the most challenging, with lots of steep climbing right as you leave Vernazza. As we climbed, the sounds of the girls on the rocks and the children playing on the beach below faded until all that was left was the wind in the olive trees and the bees in the flowers. We wandered at a leisurely pace through olive groves, past vineyards, along paths which lead through gardens so lush the very air seemed green.

The mountains creased into little valleys, dipping gently to a gurgling stream then rising back into gardens and orchards. While Ian watched for other hikers, I dunked my shirt into a crystal pool for some instant air conditioning. As we prepared to leave, we were accosted by a white and gray cat who apparently didn't want to be left alone. He followed us, mewing, until we found a local man selling lemons and wine by a picnic table. An Australian couple heading toward Vernazza stopped to haggle with him, and the cat looked from one pair to the other before turning his back on us and following the Australians down the path. We could hear him mewing from around the bend.

In a completely surreal moment, our cellphone rang. We'd nearly forgotten we were carrying it, and we certainly weren't expecting any calls. The caller wasn't expecting us either. Ian had to switch from our hybrid of English and Italian back into German to explain to the voice from Köln that they'd reached a wrong number, that we were in Italy and we didn't know how to help them find whomever they were trying to call. Big world, small world, and the joys of technology.

There isn't enough film in the world to capture all the beauty of the Cinque Terre. We paused in our walk for flowers, cats, lizards, bees, waterfalls, and the play of light on it all. If you're thirsty for more, check out this small collection of flowers.

I could live here. Absolutely. Of course, what I mean is, I could live here in the ideal that I've made from the Cinque Terre. A place of gentle sun, constant water, lush greenery. The scent of a million flowers and the quiet of bee-buzz and birdsong. A house that looks as if it grew here on this hillside, with herbs drying in the kitchen and a garden full of ripe tomatoes, with a big kitchen/dining table surrounded with good friends and conversations every night. The Cinque Terre is like that, putting shape to the vaguest of dreams, making you believe that no matter how unlikely, here they'd be real.

We made our way down the last hill into Monterosso, and the sounds of children on the beach faded in to gradually replace the stillness of the trail. Lured by what appeared to be a collection of fun rocks, and not willing to let go of the peace of the trail, we made a slight detour just before town. The rocks turned out to be more fun from a distance; up close they were just rocks and a substitute vhike for the tourists not brave enough to tackle the hill to Vernazza.

In Monterosso, we bought cherries and gelato, of course, then headed to the water. Ian swam in the Mediterranean, and discovered that the small dark-blue ovals we'd seen floating on the water all along the coast were not, in fact, empty muscle shells but small clear jellyfish with a deep blue sail ridging each back. I, who happen to be afraid of jellyfish when they are not at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, remained perched on the rocks, eating gelato and writing postcards. The rocks' whiteness and subtle sheen made me wonder if they were marble, and if so, how had they ended in this jumbled pile as a winter wave-break. Is marble so plentiful that it's a utilitarian as well as artistic material? Or were these blocks too flawed for art? And how could you tell?

We caught a train back to Vernazza; the ride is frightfully short after a day spent going up and down, all out of breath, on the trail. In the morning, we'd be leaving, and we quietly stretched the evening out as far as we could. I don't think anyone is ever really ready to leave the Cinque Terre. Life feels alright here, like everything's going to work out, like, at the root, everything is fundamentally good.

Dinner lasted until the restaurant closed. We took our unfinished bottle of Cinque Terre wine, light and bubbly and extra intoxicating, to the rocks of the stormbreak, where we'd had breakfast, and watched the night-fishermen (Winken, Blinken and Nod?) spooling out their lines with the glowing bobs. We stayed until the tide came in and Night had wrapped her arms around Vernazza, to hold us safe until morning.

Chapter Twenty-three

Ian Gilman / Germany Journal
DolciDeleria / Germany Journal
Copyright 1998-2013, Ian Gilman & Christina Gilman