Cinque Terre is one of those special places in the world, a World Heritage site encompassing five villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) that have existed for centuries. That they are strikingly beautiful is a blinding flash of the obvious.
What is truly memorable is the monumental effort made by inhabitants over the centuries to carve a life out of an unforgiving landscape defined by virtually uninhabitable cliffs rising straight from the ocean. There is little room for anything and nothing is flat.
Over centuries these villagers have made their living as fishers, over time they have reshaped the landscape, rock by rock, handful of soil by handful of soil to create a terraced landscape, a terroir, that now yields an abundance of vegetables, fruit, grapes and olives; all built into steep hillsides only a goat, or a determined Ligurian, could navigate. Every stone in every step in every path, every rock in every wall in every terraced square foot has been careful placed to wrestle a spot for a foot and a root. While
I enjoy my visit, I do so with some chagrin because I am an intruder. Cinque Terre is famous, a weekend hikers paradise; every few kilometers offers another picturesque village, complete with a cappucino, frita mista, delightful local wine, a pasta pesto, and olive oil to take home. In addition, there is the ocean for water bathing and enough flat rocks for sun bathing. As an aside, there should be strong consideration given to outlawing Speedos on 99% of the male population; lycra is a privilege not a right.
The rich and famous discovered this oasis of charm, the rest of us flocked to see what we were missing. It is now a top ranked tourist destination, served by ferries, an efficient train system, roads and hiking trails with stunning vistas. Charm is being replaced by a souvenir hut, villages are overrun with the arrival of another overstuffed train/boat/bus filled with me and my friends. My advice: see it now before the ever-elusive charm retreats even further into the hills.
Russell and Jane, our Backroads tour guides have deftly shepherded us through the best this corner of Italy has to offer with energy, enthusiasm and dexterity – they’ve managed to herd 15 Type-A adults forward on schedule without it seeming so, not an easy task. Cinque Terre adds a new dimension to my awareness of the depth, complexity and contradictions that are Italy.
This is chapter 3 of my Italy adventure and, as I stared out my window one morning to an achingly beautiful sunrise, it occurred to me that every adventure has context. It can be enjoyed (more or less) or sullied (more or less) by the alchemy of time, place, circumstance and people.
I met up with John and Laura for the Cinque Terre trip; they are delightful traveling companions. They are curious, thoughtful, insightful travellers. Italy fascinates them; they admire Italian ways and respect Italian traditions, making them perfect guides for a neophyte. They add texture, context and empathy to my impressions of Italy.
Wandering through the Apennines alone with Skippy emphasized how out-of-the-way I was in the hills and villages of Umbria. My Backroads travel companions share my curiosity, openness to the ways other people live their lives, interest in the past, present and future of the culture we are privileged to observe and emulate for a few moments in time.
Over the past month, I have traveled with a team – my community brought together by a sport and months of training. I have traveled alone, all alone. I have anthropomorphized my traveling companion Skippy to give me daily company as I navigated a hastily prepared plan B. I have met people along the way and shared meals and stories and ideas. I have joined a tour group of strangers to share a few weeks of mutual discovery. Lastly, I have had the privilege of joining with close friends to experience a place dear to their hearts.
Each offers a new prism through which to explore and define my adventures. Shake the kaleidoscope and new colors and patterns emerge. Each offers unique opportunities and a few challenges; all are full of possibilities.
Like Ligurians, we use the place where we are, we build homes on the edges of what is available, we build paths to connect with others around us, and we scrape out bits of ground to create our terroir; our place to grow a few tomatoes, a few grapes, a bit of cheese, an olive or two. A place where we break a bit of bread, tell a few stories and share our experiences.