Sunday, January 2, 2011

Italy: Day 10-11: Cinque Terre

New Years Day we arrived by train from Venice at Vernazza, one of the five towns that comprises the Cinque Terre (Five Earths). This tiny region along the northwestern Italian coast, about halfway between Pisa and Genova, is one of my favorite places ever, exceptional even in Italy in its loveliness and charm and antiquity. It has gained the world’s highest designation for uniquely wonderful places, being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even the famously-hard-to-please New York Times has called its “intense beauty, great cuisine and amazing aromas” “almost unfair”.

Steep folded hills of rugged grey rock dive into the bright azure sea. Giant aloe plants and tawny grasses tower taller than your head while scrubby pitchy trees twist and stunt in the salty wind. Unseen beneath the colorful water, rare corals bloom. The elements share in the intensity: sun coats the hillsides thickly and bleaches everything, wind tears tiles off of the roofs, and the wash of rains sweep stones down to the sea. Everything seems to cling, perched on the edge of falling into the glorious water.

In four of the steepest folds and prominences sit the tiny villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and just north on a rare beach sits the slightly-larger Monterosso al Mare. A few additional clusters of buildings form even smaller villages, monasteries, and farms high up on the ridges of the mountains. The spare, blockly buildings are exactly the color of sunsets, peachy pinks, oranges, creams, and blues, all with slashes of deep green shutters.

The steepness of the terrain and sheer-cliff waterfronts have kept these villages and farms relatively inaccessible: only a few outliers can be reached by automobile, with the footpaths, the tiny ferry boats, and the relatively-new regional train that burrows through the impeding mountains still the only ways of getting to most of the area. Everything is stairs, as there’s not a piece of flat ground to be found. Instead of streets, there are stairways. Instead of trails, there are stone and earth stairs cut laboriously into the steepness. Instead of fields, the hillsides are turned into giant’s stairs of terraces.

Being so inaccessible, and until very recently having no other real alternatives for commerce, the villages and people of the Cinque Terre are generally much as they have been the thousands of years these unlikely cliffs have been inhabited. Fishermen go out in tiny wooden boats and bring in cuttlefish, octopus, sea bream. Farmers terrace the hillsides for their grape vines, olive trees, and lemons. A very few shops in each village sell staples brought in from outside, while the local eateries mainly serve up the fish and wines of their neighbors, as well as flat pan breads drenched with the delicious local oil. The boats are simple and utilitarian, and houses are very simple stone and plaster, literally built one on top of the other, perched on the few pieces of hillside that can support them.

It’s changed noticeably from my last visit, though. I felt conflicted. I was glad for the noticeable capital-D Development improving some aspects of the quality of life of the formerly-poor residents: in our previous visit, many houses and fields had been in disrepair, fresh water had been somewhat precious, electricity unreliable, and ambulance services to outside the towns a daunting challenge. These had all been vastly improved thanks to the tourist and UNESCO dollars.

But I found it saddening and ironic that the tourist and UNESCO appreciation of the antique culture and unique landscape were swiftly eroding exactly what they came to enjoy, sometimes literally. Twenty times the number of tourists prowled the streets. English was prevalent on signs. Educational displays on public walkways told of the history of the region, showing black-and-white photos of the old culture Petra and I had seen in person just seven years ago, while the townsfolk walked by in Adidas. Metal nets held together some of the more volatile hillsides while hand rails and paving smoothed large sections of the popular seaside walkway, but landslides still swept away swaths of the coast. It made me wonder how much longer what I enjoyed would remain.

The train from Venice was smooth as butter, and the one between Pisa and La Spezia had allowed us stunning views of the Apennines towering in their spikey marble and snow-covered fierceness 15,000 feet above the tracks. I stared at the tails of snow dust blown from their peaks by the high-altitude winds, the giant scars of millennia of quarrying their finest marbles, and the improbable hilltop towns and fortifications in their foothills until my eyes ached.

By the time we emerged into the Cinque Terre blinking into the sun from the regional train, which had clacked its way through the long black tunnels so laboriously bored along the coast up from La Spezia, I was absolutely ill with sunshine and shadows and the swaying of the trains, as well as dehydrated and very very hungry. In a painful vertiginous haze I managed to make it up the 101 stairs from the train station to our rooms, stomach a quick piece of focaccia from the street below, and blink stupidly for a moment at the meltingly pink sunset light on the rooftops and fields before the inevitable migraine incapacitated me.

Our tiny guest house was comfortable, really just spare bedrooms and a tacked-on toilet in the house of a resident family. As there isn’t space or foundation to build anything resembling a hotel, hosts and visitors make do with the buildings and rooms already there. Ours were clean and private, though. And unlike most, they boasted an absolutely unbeatable view (thanks to the height afforded by the aforementioned 101 steps it took to reach the door) looking over the town, down the coast, across the castle, up to the tower, and onto the terraced fields across and above. Even without the headache, my head wheeled from turning around and looking up and down, trying to take it all in.

By the next morning I felt revived, though as weak and ravenous as I always am after a migraine bout. We found breakfast at the Blue Marlin, humorously a Hemingway and hard-rock themed cafĂ© that was the only place in town open at the according-to-them-ungodly-early hour of 9am. In their defense, the sun had not yet crested the steep hillside, so I could understand their late definition of “morning”. I had hot-from-the-oven chewy and sweet ricotta cake that was among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, and thick myrtle-berry yoghurt. Lisa had a piece of rice quiche, and my mother enjoyed a hot spinach and ricotta pastry.

Then we walked. First we were off to Riomaggiore for a quick look around, then we walked to Manarola via the Via de Amor section of the trail (it’s views are especially romantic). There’s a fairly recent Italian fad of lovers locking a padlock onto something at a romantic spot, preferably with water nearby, and throwing away the key (inspired by a scene in a 2003 movie). Resultantly, the fences on is section of the trail are smothered in padlocks, lending an unusual but whimsical visual element to the walk.

Once in Manarola, we lunched at the breakwater quay on more foccaccia-like things, all regional specialties: Farinata is a savoury and crunchy pancake made from a base of chick-pea flour, which we ate with a gooey local cheese Lisa rightly described as the love-child between brie and fresh mozzarella. Castagnaccio is a pasty chestnut flour cake with pinenuts and raisins, very filling and naturally sweet from the nut flour. And a stuffed spinach pastry too.

We had intended to walk onward from there, but landslides had taken out a chunk of the trail, so we hopped on the local train to Monterosso, the northernmost town of the five. From there we walked up a steep and crumbly path about a mile to the bluff that protects and demarks the little region, allowing us to look back along the entire coast. At the top we found the ruins of an old church, fortifications from WWII, and a bevy of paragliders, whom I envied for their ability to swoop and fly. If I ever decide to take up a recklessly expensive hobby, paragliding would definitely be a top contender. Another fascinating aspect of the view from the top of the bluff was that the clouds and sun and sea conspired to blur the horizon so that it looked as if the sky turned into the sea: very distracting, very disorienting, very lovely.

Despite that the sun was beginning to set, after consulting with some returning hikers, we decided to walk from there back to our town, a mere five valleys away along the path that was, as you’ll recall, closed because of landslides. The path was quite dodgy in parts: there was a good reason it was closed. The ground was saturated with all the recent rain, and as you’ll recall it goes along very steep terraced cliff-hills. At most parts, when it wasn’t actually stairs, it was an unprotected 10-inch-wide dirt ledge with a sheer drop to the next terrace or farther. At one point the path crumbled beneath my foot and I almost went down with the shower of pebbles, but I caught myself. Also, it was very dark, and my night vision these days is worthless.

However, the walk and views were well worth the danger, as it is among the most gorgeous sections of trail on the planet. Ancient olive groves, terraced vineyards, stone walls and embankments, tiny arched footbridges, crumbling farm sheds, giant and prolific plants, steep rushing streams, and a general sense of an ancient relationship between humans and the earth. Petra calls it her Garden of Eden, and it certainly does have a mythical, idyllic sense to it. I’d risk more than nighttime falls off of cliffs to see it again.

After returning safely to Vernazza just as it was truly becoming pitch black, I grabbed some more fresh foccaccia (delicious though it is, I’m getting a bit sick of it) and cozied up with my grad school applications and about twelve blankets (remember what I said about my opinion of Italian heating?) while Lisa and Ma had another delicious many-hours-long dinner. Then sleep.

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