It was a stroke of luck, really, that my luggage was lost when I flew to Italy this summer to visit the jewel-box villages of the Cinque Terre — five heart-stoppingly picturesque hamlets on the Ligurian coast, dotted with pastel houses nestled amid terraced hills that drop to the jade and lapis waters of the Mediterranean. All I had with me were my eyes and feet. For the next few days, that would be all I needed. Unencumbered, I could leap lightly onto trains and trails, feeling sorry for the heavily laden travelers around me, even as I mourned the absence of my hiking sandals.
I had longed to visit the Italian coast for years, spurred in part by a racy Victorian memoir by an intrepid traveler named Margaret Fountaine, who wrote in “Love among the Butterflies” of her hunt for Italy’s sublime views and handsome men. “No wonder these southern natures are quick and passionate when every scene around them is such sensuous loveliness!” she rhapsodized.
So many riches
Planning this trip, my traveling companion and I had been stymied from embarrassment of choice. Which village to visit first? Which next? And how to get there: walk, boat or train? The missing suitcase made the decision easy: The first night we stayed in Monterosso, awaiting calls from the airline (which never came). Around 7 o’clock, we strolled down the hill to Monterosso’s centro storico to see what serendipity might provide. The sun still blazed, and the stone walls along the Via Corone radiated the heat of the 90-degree day. Pausing for an aperitivo on the Bar Bagni Alga patio, which overlooked festive ranks of green and orange beach umbrellas and sun beds, we watched fearless teenagers fling themselves off high rock ledges and splash, whooping, into the sea.
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Invigorated, we resumed our saunter to the old town, passed a bocce court where old men played unhurriedly and turned through an archway onto the Piazza Garibaldi, then into the Piazza Colombo, in search of the perfect meal.
There were simply too many options — bouquets of umbrellas tempted us from the paving stones, left and right; the scent of lobster and aglio e olio wafted up deliriously from al fresco tables. A wine festival on the piazza distracted us, but after sampling half a dozen glasses of locally grown, sunny and playful vermentino, we followed a peach-colored light to an inviting alleyway off the Via Roma and floated into the Ristorante Al Carugio. There, within minutes, we were waited on by the owner’s strapping son, and soon dipped our forks into fettuccine with succulent mussels, netted from the waters of La Spezia, and tender trofie — the region’s signature pasta, shaped like mini-torches, irresistibly slippery with pesto (a Ligurian invention, by the way).
By chance, a woman at a table near ours, Miriam Rossignoli — not only a native Monterossan, but also a photographer — offered to guide us the next day on a walk along the Sentiero Azzurro — the coastal path between the villages (picture the steps of a pyramid, set flush against a verdant mountain). The walk between Monterosso and Vernazza had been completely repaired after a recent mudslide, Miriam told us. But the path that usually connects all five villages stopped at the next village over, Corniglia, high in the hills.
We could still visit all the towns by train, Miriam assured us, or by tour boat (except for Corniglia, which has no harbor). And though the Sentiero Azzurro had been interrupted by rockslides south of Corniglia, stubborn hikers could still travel by foot between Monterosso and Riomaggiore on trails higher up the mountain. She urged us, at the very least, to visit the tiny village of Volastra, accessible by foot or by minibus from Manarola, where we could observe properly maintained orchards, olive groves and vineyards. The trailhead of the Sentiero Azzurro started right next to our hotel, she said. Could she pick us up the next morning and lead us to Vernazza? Delighted, we accepted.
Drinking in the landscape
It is such a mercy, in a terra incognita, when you’re afraid of missing the right sights, to have a knowledgeable local guide. Then again, having crisscrossed the rugged paths since she was in pigtails, Miriam dashed ahead of us like a mountain goat, completely unwinded, while we panted.
The walk, which is supposed to take less than two hours, took us three (I was relieved, later, chatting on a local train with a 17-year-old Texan named Claudia, to learn that she’d also found the trek challenging: “I’m really happy I did it, but in the middle of it I wanted to kill myself,” she said. Exactly.) And yet — the views! Whenever Susan and I paused to catch our breath, we drank in the landscape — cataracts splitting the piney hillsides, lemon trees heavy with fruit, olive boughs snooded with orange netting.
Why, I wondered the next day, as Susan and I walked to the Ristorante Miky on the Via Fegina, passing couples strolling hand in hand, had some of my well-traveled friends warned me that I would find the noble Cinque Terre “touristy?” (This, mind you, from people who regularly go to Aspen and Las Vegas.) Yes, there were tourists — but most of them dispersed into twining passageways, pursuing their individual whims. As we sat at a patio table at Miky, marveling at the fillet of Monterossan red mullet with eggplant and walnut caviar, we were not troubled by the happy families who sat near us, cracking delicate pizza crust over their fragrant bowls of risotto, or the honeymoon couples who leaned across their tables gazing moonily at each other. We didn’t even mind the children who cavorted under the palms across the Via Fegina, giggling over their ice creams. Not in the least.