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. And I saw at once that the Cinque Terre (pronounced CHING-kway TAY-ray) should not be reserved as a bucket-list destination: they are best seen pre-bucket, while you are still limber enough to hop on and off platforms and boats, scamper up winding medieval staircases and clamber onto slick sunning rocks in secluded coves and on friendly beaches.
A millennium ago, when pirates began marauding in the region, the Cinque Terre had no beaches (or, for that matter, trains), and villagers hid high on the hills amid their vineyards and gardens. Eventually, they built watchtowers to look out for buccaneers. Those watchtowers still spike the coastline, darkly romantic mementos of an age of swords and bullion.
Half a dozen centuries later, following the raiders’ retreat, a garland of beaches and breakfronts bloomed at water’s edge, eventually attracting an invasion of vacationers. They came to sunbathe, to swim, to eat fresh fish and to admire the dazzlingly archaic backdrop of the villages. They also came to do by choice what local farmers and fishermen had done out of necessity: hike the vertiginous stone stairways and narrow paths that link the villages and afford breathtaking views.
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.
When, more recently, I read “Beautiful Ruins,” Jess Walter’s bewitching 2012 novel set in the Cinque Terre, on an islet called Porto Vergogna, my inchoate longing acquired a specific destination, and I got on a plane. It would be impossible, alas, to visit Porto Vergogna, since the author had made it up. But I could stay in the dreamy village that inspired his novel, Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the terre. I booked a hotel with excellent views — Porto Roca, perched on a rocky hill called Punta Corone above the town’s historic center. This would be my base for five days of feasting, boating and hiking, and a swim in the grotto where Lord Byron once skinny-dipped, below the nearby cliffs of Porto Venere, the harbor of Venus.
Unlike Margaret Fountaine, I would have no belli ragazzi (beautiful young men) in my viewfinder. I was traveling with my friend Susan, who had jetted in from London to join me, leaving behind her husband and children. But as we descended the steps of the Monterosso train station to the beach promenade along the Via Fegina — Susan with her carry-on, me empty-handed — orange and white butterflies fluttered down from the pink oleanders and palms that lined the sidewalk, as if in welcome. Grinning in the sunshine, baking in the heat, we stopped at a roadside stand and treated ourselves to gelato — creamy fior di latte and tart mango — and set about the leisurely walk from the Via Fegina, through a muraled pedestrian tunnel, to the harbor of Monterosso’s old town, then uphill to the Hotel Porto Roca.
Planning this trip, 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.
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 alfresco tables. A wine festival (there’s always some festival afoot in the Cinque Terre) 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, Rico Currarini, and soon dipped our forks into fettuccini 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).
Here is where the stroke of luck truly began.
Two years ago, on Oct. 25, 2011, a torrential rainfall hit the Cinque Terre, drenching the olive groves, vineyards and lemon orchards, flooding the streams, shattering the tracery of stone walls that support the terraces and sending a wave of mud and rubble into the two northernmost villages, Monterosso and Vernazza. Every business in Vernazza was damaged or destroyed. In Monterosso, the main street of the old town, Via Roma, was transformed into a rushing river. The cozy, spick-and-span restaurant where we were enjoying our trofie had been swamped in mud. Rico spent weeks mopping up the mess.
How did we know this? By chance, a blond woman at a table near ours on that late July night — Miriam Rossignoli — not only was a native Monterossan (her grandfather was mayor of the town during World War II, and was decorated for his anti-Fascist heroics), but was also a photographer. Miriam had exhaustively recorded the devastation of 2011 with her camera, and had turned her photographs into a book, “MonterossoAmare,” chronicling the disaster and its aftermath, and contrasting it with a 1966 flood of similar destructive power. Two years ago in Vernazza, “the mud went up to the second story of the houses,” she said. “It was terrible.”
Miriam 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, Miriam told us. But the path that usually connects all five villages stopped at the next village over, Corniglia, high in the hills. (Young backpackers take note: Corniglia draws the fittest visitors, as apparently nobody with a rolling bag can face the steep ascent.) The coastal path to the southernmost terre, Manarola and Riomaggiore, was still closed, as was the popular stretch between them, the “Lovers Walk.”
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 rock slides 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.
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, grabbing at branches for balance and crouching as we ducked under rocky overhangs. Also, since my suitcase (with my brand-new hiking sandals) had yet to arrive, I was wearing three-inch wedge-heels — not the ideal footwear for scrambling up (and down) steps that spiral among rocks and shrubbery.
The walk, which is supposed to take under 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 — “the farmers shake the olives into the nets at harvest time,” Miriam explained. And when we looked out to the sunlit sea, where yachts and ketches frisked, we knew it was worth it, and that we would gladly do it again (though the next time we would remember to bring water).
We also knew that we were very, very hungry. When, from a rocky promontory fringed with feathery tamaricciu trees, we at last beheld Vernazza — a cluster of sage, golden and terra-cotta puzzle-piece houses hugging a piazza filled with a rainbow of cafe umbrellas — we doubled our pace.
Descending to the village, we found a festival in progress — it was the name day of Vernazza’s patron saint, Santa Margherita — and as Susan and I staggered down the last staircase to level ground, gasping with thirst, we saw priests issuing forth from the doors of the medieval butter-colored church, converging on the Piazza Marconi for a celebratory lunch. As Miriam herded us to an outdoor table at Gianni Franzi, a marching band came tootling down the piazza. She ordered for us her favorite dishes: squid ink risotto, its pungent pearls of molten arborio rice flecked with red peppers; gleaming, garlicky black mussels with spaghetti; linguine alle vongole, and best of all, a layered timbale of potatoes, tomatoes and melting, savory anchovies.
We were just digging into our pasta when a beaming mustachioed man passed by, saw Miriam, kissed her on the cheek in greeting, and sat next to her. He turned out to be the mayor of Vernazza and Corniglia, Vincenzo Resasco. Miriam, we belatedly realized, was something of a local celebrity. Enzo, as Miriam called him, was mayor in October 2011, and worked so hard restoring Vernazza in the first months after the flood that he had to be helicoptered to a hospital for heart palpitations.
He had recovered, and so had Vernazza, though restoration continues. Looking around us at the bustling restaurants, sun-dappled loggias, boutiques and focaccerias (and the long table 10 feet from ours, where a dozen priests were making merry), we could scarcely believe that disaster had so recently blighted this idyll.
Miriam would have to leave us before dinner, she told us, so we all hopped the next train back to Monterosso. But later, before she vanished into her weekend, she scooped us up onto a boat in the old town harbor captained by Beppe Martelli (a distant cousin), and off we scudded to see the Punta Mesca, at the western tip of Monterosso, just north of the public beach at Fegina, where a massive statue of Neptune called “Il Gigante” looms over the bay, clinging to a boulder. Erected a century ago, Neptune lost his arms and his trident to bombs during World War II. Since then, rough seas and winds have battered him, extending the damage, but his scars lend him character; he looks as if he has grafted himself to the Cinque Terre soil, and draws strength from it. “We’re not like Rome,” Miriam said proudly. “We don’t have a cathedral. Our museum is nature.”
Why, I wondered, 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, visible in gaggles as they emerged from platforms and gangplanks or plopped their beach towels on the strand — but most of them dispersed into twining passageways, pursuing their individual whims. Would my sophisticated chums have preferred, like medieval pirates, to have arrived in Liguria to find empty, beachless, cafeless shores, and to scrabble up unpopulated rock faces to feast their eyes on the vegetation in utter solitude? Perhaps. But 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.
The next morning, my suitcase arrived (minus my jewelry, which I had foolishly tucked into my checked baggage, but never mind; the change of clothes was the important thing), and under a sublimely blue sky, we boarded a tour boat to Porto Venere. As we pulled up to the Gulf of Poets — which got its name after Lord Byron swam the five miles from Porto Venere to Lerici in 1822, supposedly to meet his friend Shelley — we saw the hulking Gothic church of San Pietro, built upon the ruins of a temple to Venus, looming from a stone cliff above the village.
¶ Walking up from the harbor, through an arched gateway and up a staircase, we reached the Via Capellini, Porto Venere’s main road, no wider than a library corridor. The church was only a three-minute walk away, and at its foot we saw a rough rectangular entry in a high wall made of stacked stones. This was the entrance to the Grotta Byron, which lets onto a perilous stairway down to Byron’s swimming hole. Stepping carefully, we crawled, crablike, onto sea-splashed rocks, and slid into the water for a dip as pleasure yachts lazed a few hundred yards away. I floated on my back, looking up to the towering cliffs.
¶ Wanting to hop back on the next boat north, we soon returned to the Via Capellini, where we lunched at a petite cafe on tris di testaroli — Ligurian crepes with walnut sauce and Parmesan — and cool slivers of fresh tuna carpaccio, tangy with lemon-spritzed arugula, which deserved a Byronic ode. Later that night, we would take the train to Vernazza for Sue’s send-off and watch the sun set from a crow’s nest of a restaurant called Belforte, beside the town’s castle watchtower.
¶ The next morning, sitting in the sunny waiting room of the Monterosso police station, to make a “denuncia” about my stolen treasures, I daydreamed as I looked through the window grille to the leafy branches outside the carabinieri. The young policewoman, Agata, dressed in a crisp light blue and navy uniform, her chest crossed with a white leather bandoleer, reminded me of a Gilbert and Sullivan soldier. She sympathetically took down my complaint, and when she heard what the thieves had done — removing the best jewelry and leaving the costume pieces — she gasped. “Hanno scelti!” (“They picked and chose!”) I just smiled, tucked the sheaf of impressively stamped documents she gave me into my backpack, and headed for the train to Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia.
¶ For the rest of the day, I would continue to greedily devour the wealth of a living museum whose brilliance defied thieves, tourists and nature at her worst. I had steps to climb, scenery to savor. I even took the minibus up to Volastra, as Miriam had recommended, and surveyed its lovingly tended vineyards; and this time I was wearing my hiking sandals for the walk down. If the pirates of the Mediterranean had managed to strike again, I congratulated them on their ingenuity and rued only my naïve packing mistake — who checks jewelry? On that last, long, sun-drenched day of my trip, the jewels that mattered most still flickered around me — the emerald glimmers of the sea and the orchards; the amber butterflies; the pearl and topaz gelati; the timeworn cameos of the paint-box houses — all the inexhaustible treasures of the Cinque Terre.
As I left the next morning, I already yearned to return. I knew I would come back to Liguria again, and when I did, it would be with a carry-on.