It was for R’s upcoming birthday that we made the plan to go to Cinque terre…the ‘five lands’…referring to a group of fishing villages that for many years only had German and Swiss tourists. Now, thanks to unnamed American travel writers, overrun with Americans.
I have to say that I didn’t know what to expect.
Sure, it is true that I have had too many details in my head but after managing to accidentally make reservations to go to place seven hours’ away from where I intended to…(hey, I was processing so much!), I was able to reboot and find a place — special for birthday guy — near the sea.
I didn’t expect that the train would stop in a dark tunnel and we wouldn’t be able to open the train door, thus missing our stop.
I didn’t expect that we were actually supposed to get out in that tunnel…and when the next stop came, even the Italian man talking to us couldn’t open the door.
So then we were in the next station, waiting the hour for the train back.
Then we were on the train back to Monterosso al Mare. Then, when the capotreno came to collect our tickets, I explained, ‘yeah, long and embarrassing story….” (Allora, una storia lunga ma anche un po’
But she smiled. Piu’ degli stranieri stupidi. More stupid foreigners.
Now off the train, walking the boardwalk to our hotel. Through the tunnel. By the sea.
And now, up the hill.
Up. Up. Up a steep grade of cobblestones.
And up some more.
And now we are there.
The Ligurian Sea. So green.
I didn’t expect that either.
The next morning we are back on the train. This time a local one…we pop over to Vernazza on the first train, the 8.42. Was a great idea, frankly…we explored Vernazza before the crowds. After a couple hours as soon as they arrived we were out of there and back on the train. This time: Manarola.
We bought impulse soap and lemon cookies. We ate grilled pesce overlooking the cove. Then with the arrival of crowds, we were gone.
Dinner that night in Monterosso al Mare at an Osteria. Super piccola ma super buona. We listened to Fabrizio de Andre almost on repeat all evening.
The owner of the restaurant came over to the table.
Complimenti, signora, per il Suo italiano, he said.
I blushed. It is just like me to blush over something intellectual.
We are traipsing back up the hill. Every time. Climbing back up.
For his actual birthday, R decided he wanted to take the boat to Portovenere. I am anxious about this, don’t know why. I am always like this with new things. Slow to say ‘yes’…true to my nature.
But it is his day today. Oggi. Again we are out early.
And now we are on a boat on the Ligurian Sea. We are on a boat with dogs and their people. Many, many dogs.
It is chilly but the sun is bright on the green sea. I know I have mentioned this three or four times but here it goes again: that sea is green. After an hour we enter the Gulf of Poets. (Also known as the Gulf of La Spezia).
Yes, the Gulf of Poets. Yes, there is such a place.
Il golfo dei poeti! Named for Lord Byron and Percy Shelley…and how much they were inspired there.
Buildings are aqua and mango and salmon and terracotta and blush and peach and gold and…everything. This is the home, also, of the Italian merchant marine…or used to be. Italian naval ships in the distance, dotting the landscape. Beyond the sea, the Appennines — still covered in snow. We sit and watch the water with a pot of tea, some lemon and a caffè.
There are children playing on the boulders, their parents enjoying gli Spritz and chips in the sun. Mamma, mamma!, one eight-year-old boy beckons from our side…calling to his mommy to watch as he stands naked, proud as can be, relieving himself off the rocks. The stream sparkling in the sun.
We exchange glances.
We are walking again. There are hydrangeas. Ortensie. There is basil…basilico. I lean over and inhale, getting a nose full.
In time there is lunch and more walking and the boat…and the climb back to the hotel.
And a rest.
For dinner we are at a place called La Tortuga…a restaurant built into a modest WWII military bunker on the side of a cliff.
It is a cave, actually…but overlooking the now-dark water.
It is a special restaurant for a special dinner for special someone.
The place was really good…despite the loud-talking table of American twenty-year old young women, probably on a semester abroad. This was not a low-budget place.
R, nodding over at them, murmurs to me…’yeah, they are spending their parents’ money’.
Now si’ it is Sunday morning and we are walking on the boardwalk. We have a midday train.
There is sun. C’è sole.
There are huge agaves, umbrella pines, rosemary bushes and flowering vines not yet budded. It is still too early in the season. Still too cold.
There are lemons, with leaves, in baskets. Dappertutto, everywhere.
The practical Germans, French and Italians are wearing light down jackets. Wool, anoraks. The Americans are wearing neon — and shorts.
Certainly we are missing the full floral beauty of high season…but we are also missing all the crowds.
I am sitting on a bench. Waiting.
From the train station stairs tumble five Italian families with children, strollers. Probably twenty-five or thirty people…suddenly.
And now, all the benches near mine are full. They are taking selfies…family by family, altogether of them all (Pronti? Pronti?). And then one of the fathers is taking selfies…only of himself.
Then they all tumble off again, the children asking for gelato.
R has been in line for awhile now at the place just to the right of the station stairs…the best fritto misto di mare in town, I had heard…served in a cone. Now that the holiday is over and we have left the mazzah in the hotel room, it is time.
Now la polizia are in arrivo…discussing among themselves how they can catch those guys on the beach…spiaggia…illegally selling Indian coverlets as beach blankets to tourists. Above me are vineyards layered precipitously on the cliffs.
The sea is behind me.
I am thinking that the folks that work here in these businesses…they have spent hours and hours studying German and French and English…probably at their kitchen tables or in their beds late at night after working. They have studied to take the B2, C1, C2 standardized examinations so they could get these jobs.
I have a new appreciate for their efforts.
More folks spill down the station stairs. From the cities. Wearing black, smoking.
R is walking back with his lunch. After a thirty-minute wait. Each order is made fresh, separately.
He is smiling.
It has been a good weekend.
It is time for the train, I expect.