August 20: La Vita Bella

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.

This is where we swam and sunned and read--Mike making progress through his Franck biography, I finally making headway on my N.T. Wright book after having finished Weber's Surprised by Oxford.
This is where we swam and sunned and read–Mike making progress through his Franck biography, I finally making headway on my N.T. Wright book after having finished Weber’s Surprised by Oxford.
This is the view from the trailhead of the small beach on the edge of historic Monterosso. The restaurant where we dined the night we arrived was just out of view in the bottom right corner.
This is the view from the trailhead of the small beach on the edge of historic Monterosso. The restaurant where we dined the night we arrived was just out of view in the bottom right corner.
Monterosso, from the trail
Monterosso, from the trail
Resort, tucked into the edge of the bluff. I wish!
Resort, tucked into the edge of the bluff. I wish!
What follows are 45 pictures from our hike... Here, grapevines.
What follows are 45 pictures from our hike… Here, grapevines.

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The trail was very narrow in places, and we met people coming towards us all along the way. Often someone's body would have to be pressed up against the rocks to let another person pass.
The trail was very narrow in places, and we met people coming towards us all along the way. Often someone’s body would have to be pressed up against the rocks to let another person pass.
A large percentage of this trail was stairway. You can see in other photos the height of these foothills as they jut into the water. The Cinque Terre are five of these mountain arms, each with its own village at the tip. So we hiked up the side of one and back down again, from sea level to sea level.
A large percentage of this trail was stairway. You can see in other photos the height of these foothills as they jut into the water. The Cinque Terre are five of these mountain arms, each with its own village at the tip. So we hiked up the side of one and back down again, from sea level to sea level.
Each vista was breathtaking and we always imagined it might be the most breathtaking of all. But each one that followed was always better yet.
Each vista was breathtaking and we always imagined it might be the most breathtaking of all. But each one that followed was always better yet.
Figs
Figs
Mountain farming is amazing!
Mountain farming is amazing!
Monterosso is the northernmost village.
Monterosso is the northernmost village.
This one is for Mike's organ professor, an avid hiker. Mike was hoping to make him jealous.
This one is for Mike’s organ professor, an avid hiker. Mike was hoping to make him jealous.
Vineyard
Vineyard

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Our first glimpse of the other side of this "mountain shoulder" looking southeast.
Our first glimpse of the other side of this “mountain shoulder” looking southeast.

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A German family was playing in the stream up the hill from this little footbridge. I was jealous! By this point we were sweating profusely and winded. Not long afterwards, Mike, carrying our backpack, ditched his shirt.
A German family was playing in the stream up the hill from this little footbridge. I was jealous! By this point we were sweating profusely and winded. Not long afterwards, Mike, carrying our backpack, ditched his shirt.
Can you imagine living in this house?
Can you imagine living in this house?
View towards Monterosso again...
View towards Monterosso again…

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Straight down from where we stood...
Straight down from where we stood…
At the center of this picture you can see Vernazza, our destination. The hike took a little under 2 hours.
At the center of this picture you can see Vernazza, our destination. The hike took a little under 2 hours.

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Beginning the descent
Beginning the descent
Aloe plants larger than us grew all over this region.
Aloe plants larger than us grew all over this region.

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In the distance, Monterosso.
In the distance, Monterosso.
Vernazza getting closer
Vernazza getting closer

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Terraced fields
Terraced fields
Bouganvilla and grapes
Bouganvilla and grapes

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Looking back up the trail
Looking back up the trail

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Oh, Vernazza!
Oh, Vernazza!

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These boats get used by fishermen the way we use our cars in a morning commute. Every day they are out on the water fishing before dawn. World's most picturesque parking lot.
These boats get used by fishermen the way we use our cars in a morning commute. Every day they are out on the water fishing before dawn. World’s most picturesque parking lot.
You can see the colorful china plaque on the wall--this was the display of choice for addresses on the sides of buildings.
You can see the colorful china plaque on the wall–this was the display of choice for addresses on the sides of buildings.

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The church we'd visited the day before, now in mid-afternoon.
The church we’d visited the day before, now in mid-afternoon.
Tired, happy feet.
Tired, happy feet.

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As we headed back up the center street of tiny Vernazza we spotted this cave-like entrance, noticing the surf crashing on the other side.
As we headed back up the center street of tiny Vernazza we spotted this cave-like entrance, noticing the surf crashing on the other side.

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What a magical little alcove, this rocky inlet hidden from view!
What a magical little alcove, this rocky inlet hidden from view!

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!

This plaque caught my eye as we walked into Manarola. Fascinated as I am by both agriculture and architecture (like music, an incredible blend of science and art) I think it will be plain how intriguing I found these words.
This plaque caught my eye as we walked into Manarola. Fascinated as I am by both agriculture and architecture (like music, an incredible blend of science and art) I think it will be plain how intriguing I found these words.
Sweet Manarola
Sweet Manarola

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You can see the train bridge here.
You can see the train bridge here.
A little trail in the rock jutted away from the village, overlooking the harbor, making a great view back toward the center. We picked up gelato (for me, a simple flavor that was like slightly sweetened milk--divine!) and walked to its point and back.
A little trail in the rock jutted away from the village, overlooking the harbor, making a great view back toward the center. We picked up gelato (for me, a simple flavor that was like slightly sweetened milk–divine!) and walked to its point and back.
Manarola's harbor
Manarola’s harbor
I would love to have brought back an entire kitchen full of dishes. I settled for a wine stopper, salad spoons and a cheese board of olive wood, and a small blue plate in the shape of a fish which now sits by my stove to hold spoons.
I would love to have brought back an entire kitchen full of dishes. I settled for a wine stopper, salad spoons and a cheese board of olive wood, and a small blue plate in the shape of a fish which now sits by my stove to hold spoons.
Manarola, as we walked back toward the next train, bound for Riomaggiore.
Manarola, as we walked back toward the next train, bound for Riomaggiore.
As in Manarola, a long tunnel led from the train platform into the town center of Riomaggiore. This one was lined with an incredible mosaic.
As in Manarola, a long tunnel led from the train platform into the town center of Riomaggiore. This one was lined with an incredible mosaic.
The wide, steep main street of Riomaggiore climbed high up the edge of the mountain. Riomaggiore seemed large by comparison with the three middle villages, perhaps just a little smaller than Monterosso.
The wide, steep main street of Riomaggiore climbed high up the edge of the mountain. Riomaggiore seemed large by comparison with the three middle villages, perhaps just a little smaller than Monterosso.
From the top of the hill we doubled back on a side street set high into the edge, past houses cascading down toward the main road.
From the top of the hill we doubled back on a side street set high into the edge, past houses cascading down toward the main road.

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zucchini? this was a terrace below the street where we were standing. gardens in the city.
zucchini? this was a terrace below the street where we were standing. gardens in the city.

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We saw three churches on our short exploration of Riomaggiore.
We saw three churches on our short exploration of Riomaggiore.
Looking back towards the hill where the main street dead ends.
Looking back towards the hill where the main street dead ends.
This little church was right near the cliff.
This little church was right near the cliff.

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The streets were so very, very narrow in these old European towns.
The streets were so very, very narrow in these old European towns.

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This was looking straight up the hill from our table at the little cafe we found. Having walked off our gelato we were ready to look for a place to eat a nice dinner. The only essential was that it be right on the water so we could watch the sun set. Unfortunately we didn't get a nice restaurant, but we got the location and we weren't about to give that up.
This was looking straight up the hill from our table at the little cafe we found. Having walked off our gelato we were ready to look for a place to eat a nice dinner. The only essential was that it be right on the water so we could watch the sun set. Unfortunately we didn’t get a nice restaurant, but we got the location and we weren’t about to give that up.
This was our view from our table, and after a half hour we snagged the table right on the edge there when it was vacated. Perfection.
This was our view from our table, and after a half hour we snagged the table right on the edge there when it was vacated. Perfection.

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In the distance, cutting a horizontal line into the far hill, you can see what I am pretty sure is the Via del Amore, the most famous stretch of the trails that connect the 5 villages. Many hikers hike the whole set of them, which takes a full grueling day at least. We had hoped to hike at least this southernmost trail, but most of the southern trails were temporarily closed because of landslides. I'd see we did pretty well for ourselves anyway.
In the distance, cutting a horizontal line into the far hill, you can see what I am pretty sure is the Via del Amore, the most famous stretch of the trails that connect the 5 villages. Many hikers hike the whole set of them, which takes a full grueling day at least. We had hoped to hike at least this southernmost trail, but most of the southern trails were temporarily closed because of landslides. I’d see we did pretty well for ourselves anyway.

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The food was pretty mediocre, but we did avail ourselves of the opportunity to eat another local specialty: anchovies. A first for both of us, and we liked them pretty well. Although the food was rather poor, it was very cheap (as were the drinks) and they brought us a complimentary veggie tray too.
The food was pretty mediocre, but we did avail ourselves of the opportunity to eat another local specialty: anchovies. A first for both of us, and we liked them pretty well. Although the food was rather poor, it was very cheap (as were the drinks) and they brought us a complimentary veggie tray too.

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Having nearly reached the end of our journey and having spent days and days talking about the world and our hearts and our past five years, we began looking ahead, envisioning our next five and hoping for what they would look like, made wiser for the things we'd learned in these weeks. This night is not one I'll soon forget.
Having nearly reached the end of our journey and having spent days and days talking about the world and our hearts and our past five years, we began looking ahead, envisioning our next five and hoping for what they would look like, made wiser for the things we’d learned in these weeks. This night is not one I’ll soon forget.

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Boats spilling down the ramp toward the water, ready for the next morning.
Boats spilling down the ramp toward the water, ready for the next morning.

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2 thoughts on “August 20: La Vita Bella

  1. Dear Susan,

    The ultimate “show and tell!” What a wonderful 24 hours you had on August 20th. Can any couple be happier or more fortunate than you and Mike are? I don’t think so.

    Love, Aunt Marilee

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