I think if there were one day of our journey that I could recreate moment for moment, it would be this one. We swam, we lay in the sun, we read, we hiked, we explored. As the afternoon sun sank low, we sat over drinks (and over the water) and talked till well after dark. The record shows that I took no less than 268 pictures on this day, so I hope you will appreciate that I have included only about a hundred here.
The only thing I didn’t manage to fit into the day was an account of it, so my journal dates from Saturday as we traveled home.
Saturday 23 August, 9:00 a.m. EST, in the air over Canada
Now all that remains to be told is the story of Wednesday, last but by no means least. A magical day if any of them were. We enjoyed it every minute, and it seemed to stretch to contain everything we could want. It was our day to rest and rest and rest, to enjoy Cinque Terre at its finest. We slept late – perhaps till almost 8:00, and then went straight to the beach, checking train schedules and trail closures on the way and picking up brioches for breakfast.
We swam, slept, read – acquiring chaises and an umbrella till 1:30 for 15E and arriving early enough to be in the front row, right near the surf. It was chilly and breezy but the sun was warm. The water was so clear and bright out past the surf that we could look down and see our toes. Mike mostly read. I swam and swam and played like a kid in the surf. From out in the water the town looked so picturesque, gold walls, green shutters, fuschia bouganvilla climbing all over it.
About 12:30 we returned to our room for hot showers, eating a quick focaccia sandwich first, and set out to get cash, food for the journey, and an epic 2-hour hike up and down steep narrow stairs and trails, along bluffs, amidst vineyards, terraced fields of lemon or fig trees, mountain streams, dill and rosemary growing like weeds. How to capture the sound of the birds and the streams and, 600 feet below, the surf crashing on the rocks? Not to mention the awe of the houses we came upon nestled up there or the thought of these stone paths as the only connection between two tiny worlds not so long ago?
We hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza and walked to the water’s edge and stopped in a shop for the beautiful olive wood kitchen utensils we’d seen the day before, spoons and a jar of pesto will make the perfect gift for some friends as we pass back through to see them next week. And a little cutting board for us – for many years of cheese dinners to come.
We caught a train after a few minutes, squeezed in like sardines for the 6 minute journey to Manarola, which has been the village I’d originally wanted to stay in. There we had only a few minutes to take in the views – it was the most ridiculously picturesque of all the five villages – and eat the best gelato of our trip, and then another quick train to Riomaggiore, the last village.
We arrived about 6:30, walked the steep main road to the top of the village and then along a high side street back to the water’s edge, where we climbed down steep stairway “streets” to sea level and then up where, to our wonder, we found a table right on a bluff in a little bar where we drank wine (and more) and ate cheap bar food and watched the sunset over the water, the whole region in our view.
We left our perch happy almost to the point of silly, well-warmed by the wine and beer and limoncello and sweet, deep conversation of what we’ll be returning to and who we want to be, how we want to live. A completely perfect day.
The only thing remaining to recount from the day that can’t be accomplished within photo captions is also one of our most anxious moments of the whole trip. After a brioche for each of us around 9:00 (OK–two or three…?) and a yogurt for me, and a small salami sandwich which we shared around 11:00, we were starving at 1:30 as we walked towards town center to pick up the hiking trail. Starving, and penniless. We had used up all our cash and had by now grown accustomed to the complicating reality that almost nobody in these small villages would take credit cards. So the sole bank in Monterosso was our first stop. It was closed for a 2-hour lunch and the ATM refused us. Not expecting to find any other ATMs in town, our hearts sank. The moment we’d feared had arrived, and we genuinely had no spending power and very little hope of any. With our hearts in our throats, we set out for the 25-minute walk back to our hotel to retrieve our passports so we could wait for the bank to re-open and withdraw money at the counter. The day was growing hotter, our stomachs were growing emptier, and our time for exploring Manarola & Riomaggiore was slipping away. It was not a good feeling. Just before entering the tunnel that led to the other side of town I spotted a line of people at what looked like an ATM. Sure enough, there was another one. Thinking it would be stupid not to try, we headed for it. The happy dance when it spat cash out at us against all our expectations probably looked a little undignified to bystanders. And then we were on our way back towards food and trail.
Vernazza was bafflingly small. Really, there was just one main street, winding its way from the train station to the harbor. There were other “streets” but they seemed so intimate, almost like private property, as they wound away from the main street into the pile of towering residences. Oh, and did I mention they were mostly stairways? Even the market on Tuesday morning surprised me with how small it was. And yet it is a lynchpin of the village’s economy and daily life. A community of this size fascinates me to no end.
Manarola was a little larger, but still tiny and preposterously adorable. Of the five villages, Manarola has the most haphazard-looking pile of buildings leaned precariously up against the mountains. It was the town I’d hoped we might find a room in. Our original plan was to arrive, a la Rick Steves, and wander into the cafes in the late afternoon, inquiring of the locals for a room available. Fearing the worst, we bailed out on this idea, booking a room ahead of time a few weeks before our journey began. In retrospect it would’ve been a terrible ordeal arriving with so much luggage, jumping on the standing-room regional train, walking the long tunnel into Manarola, and then navigating its stair-streets. If we can ever go again with just one or two light bags, I would totally risk it though. What an amazing experience it would’ve been to have a room with an open window looking right onto the sea past the cascading color of neighboring buildings!