Travel Thursday: Cinqueterre before the crowds

Unlike previous travel blogs, this one is gonna be edited rather than one smooth flow, because too many things happened that were just uninteresting. . . to other people; I liked them just fine. So feel free to treat the spaces in between paragraphs like two-second commercials, not long enough to go to the bathroom or make popcorn. Call ‘em blipverts. . . though I promise you won’t explode. . . from the blipverts, anyway.

I have this habit of not looking at a town, whether I’ve been to it before or not, until I’ve thrown my stuff down on the hotel’s bed and am squared away. So after finally getting the key I went up to my room to dump my stuff {not a euphemism} and look out the window at the perfect view; there was a reason this was my favorite room, and as long as I had it, I might as well use it. I thought of it as tradition as I reached for my camera, for despite all the times I’d shot this view through this same window, it just didn’t feel right unless I took a photo to start off the stay. Maybe I was trying to avoid a jinx, if you want to get metaphysical about it.

The name of this Terre, out of the Cinque, was Riomaggiore. Being the easternmost of the five towns, and therefore the first one you came to when driving from La Spezia, it was a little more touristy than the next three–we’ll leave the last one for later. As you might guess from the name, there was a river nearby, but it was hardly noticeable when up against the picturesque harbor where the boats were used more to add to the pretty than for actual fishing or sailing.

There was a flier on the desk in front of the window, with quotes and fun facts. One person, listed as anonymous of course, had obviously taken the view of the little valley in from the footpath leading from Manerola, for they’d said “the vertical buildings were leaning against each other, like someone stole their crutches.” Not bad, I grinned, in a Escher or Picasso or Dali sorta way.
The next tidbit informed me the pastel colors of the buildings, which I couldn’t really see from this angle, were enforced by the local government’s “commissioner of good taste.” At this point I sighed and dropped the brochure, then put my camera into my daypack so I could go hunt down some lunch.

I took in the upwards view. This village had a layout made up of a series of steep footpaths, some of which allowed direct access to the upper floors of some of the houses. I wondered if teens snuck out a lot at night, having that easy way outside. Not that there was much to do in this place, but on the other body part, there was only one thing for teens to do when sneaking out, right? Well, only one that really mattered, anyway.

Good thing everyone knew everyone else in this little village, I mused, figuring a tourist should tread gently if he knew what was good for him, something tourists in general were not usually prone to doing. Anyhoo, I went back up to my room to snatch up my backpack full of camera gear and other necessities, my brain making plans seemingly independent of the running of my body. I did stop to check the map, but only to confirm that the place I wanted to go right now was Vernazza.

Not long after I was stepping off the boat, then making my way through the town. There was one main street, running from train station to the sea, and a ruined castle at the top, but I decided to take the carrugi instead, the narrow lanes of steps that zigzag up to the top. You could go from harbor to castle on these and not see the views, but on the other hand they kept you safe from pirate attack till you got to the castle.
Unless the pirates had cannons, but that’s neither here nor there.

My hearing was even more attuned than usual, I thought as I heard snippets of dozens of conversations, and even some clanking of silverware. Then I remembered no cars were allowed in this town, except on market day to bring the goods in. No wonder it felt surreal.
I also noticed the architecture here was a bit different than Riomaggiore, a little ritzier, if that was the proper way of saying it. There was probably something written in the history books about why, but since I didn’t come to shoot buildings I resisted the urge to root through the guide book or ask.
After walking past the last building and turning away from the castle ruins, I found myself in rural territory, groves and vineyards and other fields with more ocean than sky as a background, once I turned around. Taking a few photos, I decided I needed to get a little higher for the perfect shot, and with a sigh my legs complied.
Having shot to my heart’s and eye’s content pretty quickly, I checked my complaining legs and felt they weren’t really barking so badly, so there was no need to go back down for the train or ferry. And since Lindsay wanted to take me on that shoreline walk later, there was no point going down to take that path either.

Cinque Terre had thousands of footpaths that crisscrossed the rural area above the seaside villages. Most tourists didn’t get off the coastal or main paths, missing delightful little side trips. Not that I had that much time right now either, so I headed back toward Riomaggiore, thinking I might get some shots along the way as well. I just hoped I wouldn’t get tired walking back now, then decided sunset was far enough away to allow me to take her to dinner first.

Dinner had basically been a continuation of lunch, mostly usual getting-to-know-you stuff without digging too deep. Soon enough we were off on our walk, heading along the shore to the next town.
The coastal path linked all five villages, making for a hike from the first village to the last that took about five hours. I doubted many tourists or even locals did the whole thing, at least not without stopping, but it was good to know in case I ever needed it.
Yeah, right. If I ever needed to get from the first town to the last in such a hurry, I’d take the train. And since I was here on vacation, I saw no need to worry about it now. Thing is, I’m such an information whore I can’t help but remember every little thing that might one day be of use.
I let the blonde babble on as I concentrated on the views in my camera as well as views of her, often managing to combine them. Despite her purported shyness, she certainly didn’t mind getting her photo taken, though she joked about not being charged my obviously exorbitant rates. When I’d asked if she was still talking about photography, she’d dropped that angle and moved on to the history of the area and such.
“This whole area is a national park now, as well as a UNESCO site, so there’s a fee, but at least the trails are better maintained.”
“If the money isn’t being diverted by devious bureaucrats, of course.”
“There is that. This town we’re heading for is called Manarola. Not that we’re going to check out the town, it’s the walk that’s the big deal, La Via dell’Amore.” Her hand squeezed mine.
“Lovers’ Pathway,” I said without showing my usual irritation at being so taken for granted. I’d been here so many times I could give tours, and soon enough I’d have to tell her, but for now I reigned it in and let her prattle.
“It’s a winding footpath along the coast, a thirty-minute walk. I assume you can handle that.” Smirk.

Luckily there wasn’t much she could say about the town we were heading to, because I knew there was a scarcity of historical info, for whatever reason. It made concentrating on her and the sights much easier.
“This is the shortest walk between towns, popular with artists and romantics.” She suddenly blushed and automatically squeezed my hand again, then gasped at herself.
And then we turned the corner in the rock face, and there was the town. Sheltered in a deep gorge between two promontory rocks was the little port that generated most of the eye candy, but the vertical pink buildings, a little brighter than usual in the sunset, added to the scene in a way I’d never seen here before.
I had her strike a pose by the railing so I’d get the whole town in the background. She seemed patient enough, so after I got the requisite shot, I waited a few more minutes until the sunlight was just as perfect as it would get. As soon as the shot was done she turned around to look.
“I love that!” she shrieked. “I don’t care if I ever see the photo. Just the fact that you wanted to take it, and framed it so well. . .”
Why can’t all women be that easy? I sighed.

We climbed up to the main part of town and found the streets full. “Isn’t it a caution the way everyone knows to come out at the same time?” she teased, knowing I liked her acting country, if not actually being.
I was glad to see her well out of her funk. “It’s the vasca.”
“The who?”
“Vasca is Italian for lap. . . not what you’re going to sit on later, but laps around a track, or in this case, the town. At this time of the day the locals go out to walk the main streets and say hi to their ol’ buds.”
“I see. I like it. We should do that back home.”
“Home as in Riomaggiore?”
“Home as in everywhere in the States! And they do it in Riomaggiore too.”

Corniglia was the middle of the five towns, and in my mind, the least interesting. It was all about wine, more like a little ag village in the middle of Italy. The highlight of the town, other than ways to get drunk, was the church. Bo-ring.

“I don’t know if this story is true, just heard it–”
“Hit me.”
“–but I figure you’d appreciate it. An American shopping in Rome, goes into a clothing store looking for a specific item. He wanted to say maglia–”
“Sweater,” she blurted before she could stop herself.
“Instead said moglie.”
Gasp. “Wife?”
“So the store girl asked what kind, and he said negra.”
Shocked. “Black?”
“More specific, the girl said, having a wonderful time, so he said pesante.”
“Heavy?” she hooted. “He was ordering a heavy black wife?”
“‘Why do you want that?’ the girl asked. ‘Riscaldarmi,’ he said.”
“Don’t know that one.”
“It means ‘to keep me warm.’ So by now there was a huge crowd howling at his every word–”
“Oh lawd, I hope that never happens to me!”

Monterosso al Mare was the westernmost of the Cinque Terre. Since I was well on the opposite side of the region, I took the boat. From the dock I walked through the tunnel under the castle to get to Old Town, from where I took in the view.
The village was topped by hills covered with vineyards and olive groves and was surrounded by vegetation, like the rest of them, but that was where the similarities ended. Its beautiful beaches, steep rugged cliffs and crystal-clear waters made it one of the most charming resorts in the whole of Italy. . . some said, anyway. I was no expert; all beach towns from Portofino to Cannes looked the boring same to me.
Glancing up as I trudged toward the house in question, I used my hands to frame a good shot of the medieval tower which separated the ancient part of the village from the more modern part. My memory was telling me the tower was called “Aurora,” but it wasn’t important enough to check right now. On the off chance anyone was watching me, I wanted to look like a tourist, so I reached for my camera and got a good shot before continuing.
This was the most resort-like town–cars and big hotels, real beaches with umbrellas–pretty much like any part of the Riviera. Big crowds, warm water, a promenade. . . bor-ring. . .

The rest of the story involves helping an old friend solve a murder mystery, so I’ll spare ya all the–yes, bor-ring–details. . .



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