After my big decision that I was going to say no to the job, I tossed up going to Cinque Terre for a day trip. It was somewhere that I’d vaguely heard about and came recommended from a friend; so on the Saturday morning of, I made a last minute decision to go… and I’m so glad that I did.
Dressed in exercise gear with a snack and water bottle in hand, I left on a two hour train ride to Monterosso. I had train travel down to a fine art, where I’d take a photo of the timetable and the stops along the way, so I could recognise when my one was approaching. I sat near a window where a young family was dressed up to the nines and the toddler kept catching my eye, with her shy smile.
I changed trains at Genova and of course there was another Italian train story. This time it was an old drunk guy who had wobbled up the aisle and plonked himself in the section in front of me. It was morning and he was sporadically swigging on a bottle, reeking of booze. When he went to leave, his empty vessel was wedged in between the seat and the wall. Another passenger, a middle-aged man, hit him up about leaving his rubbish behind. ‘Drunk’ turned and came closer to him, harping on about something in a loudly defensive slur. Keep It Clean started arguing with Drunk, who wearily traipsed back and forth past my seat. I sat wondering where I would hide, just in case a sloppy fight broke out.
I was thankful to see Drunk finally leave. Keep It Clean sat there going on about the beer bottle on the seat, to his wife. Another patron poked his head over and they pointed at the rubbish and let their anger filter through their new found commonality. They did this until they both disembarked, leaving the lowly bottle in its new found home.
I reached Monterosso on an absolutely stunning spring day. I was busting and totally learned that train station toilets are like train station toilets in other parts of the world and must be avoided unless pee is dribbling down your leg. There is simply no need for signage, because you can smell stale urine wafting out through the heat.
Just out of the station, I grabbed a bite by the beach that was peppered with holiday makers and college students drinking beer. I thought that was all there was to Monterosso. This theory was quickly disproven after I walked through the cave tunnel, passing an explanation to a walking tour group of ladies, and then was delightfully surprised by an old village tucked in from a bay.
It was May and not yet high-season, but the coloured flags were up for guided groups, and the accents were everything but Italiano. I walked up the main street, where the accents flooded the walkways and cradled glasses of vino from under ristorante umbrellas. They were living their Italian dream. I however, am unfulfilled by just visiting the standard traveller spots.
I turned into a little wee alley that curled around through homes. I stopped at a Catholic church along the way and poked my head in. Inside was a glorious spectre of intricate detail; weary with age but still shining with awe. I saw that it was ok to take pictures, so I waited for a man who sat on the end of a pew with his head bowed low. Finally he stirred, revealing his source of stance. He wasn’t deep in prayer as I had assumed, but was flicking through his camera deciding which photos to delete. So I took a picture of him, trying not to sneak out a laugh that would echo through the solitude of this sacred place.
En route selecting left or right wherever I pleased, I found some steps that climbed up to a garden path lined with a stone fence. From there I wrote:
“Finally, this was the Italia I had come for. Not imposed upon by tourists and away from the chitter chatter of suitcase wheels across the cobbled streets. Away from the ristorantes with menus neatly typed in Italiano and English. The quiet places where you don’t quickly take photos, to say that you’ve been there, or walk with a nose buried in a map. The kind of place you find yourself hiding, simply to find yourself. It may be a turn down an unfamiliar lane or somewhere to poke your nose just to be nosey. The din disappears as the path turns and it’s not long before silence is interrupted by the beat of your heart, or hearing a local farmer calling out to his wife. It’s that quiet that I crave, the peace amid the exchanging of turisto dollars. The simple way of life.”
After my little rejuve in the promise of summer sun, I pottered on down a different path and smiled to myself at the elderly couple tending their plot. I made my way back to the bustle and decided it was time to begin the most difficult leg of the Cinque Terre; the route from Monterosso to Vernazze.
I climbed up toward a restaurant that took advantage of the view and squashed myself against the cliff side when a van decided to drive down. To begin with, there were some stairs and then a ticket office manned by an unenthused attendant whose minimal sentences were reflective of her repetition. She charged more than what I’d read online and gave me a wifi code, in case I felt the urge to prise my eyes away from the scenic route.
The track was slim and craggy, and up ahead I navigated my way around a husband and wife who had decided to bring an oversized pushchair and two large Alsatian dogs. I climbed the stairs thinking that with all of my Mount fitness I’d be okay. But I had quickly forgotten that that was over a month ago and I had eaten my way through The States and Scotland.
I stood to the side to let descending people pass by. I powered up billions of stairs and got stuck behind a group of young tourists who had no idea of spatial awareness or track sharing etiquette. With the tail end’s cigarette smoke blowing into my face, I made a quick dash passed them, speaking in Italian to ask them to move. Their scatter fooled me, as I managed to be right behind Ol’ Smokey again. Thank goodness they’d noticed this time and let me through again. There seemed to be enough people, that would warrant that I wouldn’t want to do this in the high season.
I found it hard to find a balance between admiring the scenery and not falling over, so I took a lot of stops to just think ‘Wow!’ Seeing Vernazze from the hilltop was breath-taking and I ended up chatting to an Italian guy who was from a village nearby. In rusty English he explained that he lives abroad in Eastern Europe and for him, coming home meant walking this track. He kindly offered to take pictures of me with the village in the background, which I looked at that evening and freaked out at the fantastical flab overhang from my previous trimmed ab. I also offered to take photos of him, of which he later emailed to me and asked me to reciprocate. I politely just penned something back.
I walked with Mr Friendly, down toward the town. It was slow because I was listening in hard to understand his sentences and I was carefully selecting my words to make conversation in the easiest possible way. I was also snapping up the view at each new corner we turned. He explained about the big flood that had been, wiping out some of the tracks and houses along the Cinque Terre, and invited me for the local specialty of sciacchetra e cantuccini (dessert wine served with a special biscotti).
The zig zag through the crowds in the village, found us a spot near the moored boats, amid the hundreds of gelato lickers. The bar was steps down into a cellar that only had space for three two person tables, so we perched on a wall outside. The wine was the colour of someone’s dehydrated pee and was served in a shot glass with a side of two stiff bikkies. I sipped politely, enjoying the sweet glory in a glass, while perusing the travel brochures of NZ that Mr Friendly had happened to be carrying in his backpack. I made recommendations while he knocked his sciacchetra back in 2 ½ gulps. He kindly paid and then went to go, leaving me with directions to the tower that I must go up.
The tower looked down on the colourful palette of houses bunched at the base of the hillside; flanked with small crop farms and artisan vineyards that crept toward the peaks, then out across the ocean with ferry paths carved in the tide. I nudged into a spot looking over the edge. Downwards was littered with people posing for pictures and the village seemed to be crawling with ant-sized tourists. I watched a man sitting upright on the park bench with his eyes closed and his wife stretched out into his lap, fast asleep. I wondered what the locals thought of their home at times like these, a once small sleepy seaside settlement interrupted by a throng of foreigners.
I muscled my way through the streets to grab my train back to Varazze. The woman at the ticket counter had misheard me and thought I was asking for a ticket to Vernazze, which is where I was. She pulled out a map and showed me. “Non, Varazze.” I explained, until she understood.
My train trip home was relatively normal considering my previous experiences, just one stop forward and two hours back. I rested my weary head, plugged in my headphones and lost myself in thoughts of life.
Dinner was at a cute restaurant that I’d taken a shine to, who only just let me in, because I was on my own. I was jammed in between the wall and a young couple on a date. I tried to enjoy the moment and refrain from devouring the spaghetti and meatballs before me. The quart of vino o rosso della casa made my shoulders loosen and my head flop to one side.
I also managed to Skype my mum for Mother’s Day, on the correct day in New Zealand. She spent the first part peering closely into the screen, and trying to sort her microphone out. Even though I have written that, I still maintain that I am probably the favourite child.
The Cinque Terre was no doubt a blog upon itself, too delicious to condense. So until then I will leave you savouring on this blog morsel; ready to be wowed by my ability to unknowingly attract a persistent creepy man, walking from town to town and being shown around Genova by a police officer.
Until then, x.