Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza

This morning the minimart, Coop, for alimentary necessities, that is, self-catering, was open, thankfully. Last night when we went past it had been shut. It had been Sunday. Dominica.

The peaches looked delicious. I asked the lady in charge if the price was per kilo. As has happened repeatedly, her reply in Italian to a direct question was incomprehensible. The brush-off. She said something I heard as, Where have you been living? On the moon? Which could’ve meant anything. Yes, the peaches’ price is per kilo. No, don’t be a lunatic, we’d be giving them away at that price.

My stomach was doing strange things so I settled for bio-yoghurt with blueberries, produced locally, hoping to settle it.

We breakfasted and headed out on the path to Corniglia, the next of the Cinque Terre towns up the coast, supposed to be an hour’s walk. It was early enough that the path, one of the many sentieri, pathways, connecting the towns up and down the coast, had not yet filled with tourists, grimly well-equipped Germans, loud Americans having conversations about things with absolutely no connection to where in the world they were, Spanish, Israelis, over-adventurous Aussies, for whom the whole thing could be written off as an afternoon stroll, in other words, people we did come across later on the track but thankfully not all at once.

The path between Manarola and Corniglia clings to a splintering slope of schist stone, precipitously at times, and therefore, to cater for the numbers using it, concreted for long stretches. But nevertheless possessing that characteristic of Italian public works of being in disrepair, wobbly, spasmodic, sections brilliant, sudden holes, and the remnants of past jobs done on the path left to one side, or the other. For example, a swing bridge on rusted pylons and bolts and then not too much further along, past a man digging postholes for the inconsistently reliable rail, a replacement for the bridge, seemingly awaiting its turn to be installed, in the fullness of time, and rusting like the one in use meanwhile.

A smell in the air, which Q. later identified with precision as pee in a swimming-pool. An aromatic weed. Convolvulus. Mellow. Clematis. Various other creepers. Some succulent like sprawling geranium. Berries on vines, inedible, colourful. Skinks making audible retreat through the crepitant foliage. And spread out against the sharding splintering cliff-face rolls of retaining wire, chicken wire, occasionally attached to pylons, wrapping the coastline against the likelihood of it all crumbling away.

The towns, as the brochure puts it, is connected via an intense network of pathways. Given its age, one wonders how many times landslides have taken paths with them, and what work went into maintaining them in their ‘intensity,’ that now has been surpassed by a kind of afterlife of the area. Well, yes and no – to afterlife. Manarola is a fishing village. Corniglia has more of an agricultural bias from what we saw. Vernazza, bigger, combines the two. But the opening up of the region to mass tourism has obviously altered an economy reliant on footpaths to bring goods from place to place. Unless, of course, you count tourists as ‘goods.’

We come bearing benefits and at a cost. The benefit being that we are prepared to pay for access to the National Park, for accommodation in the area, and like pennies from heaven cause capital to trickle-down through the different aspects of the infrastructure, first and foremost to local entrepreneurial activity, the food and drink business being a primary benefactor. The cost comes in the accommodation the region has to make in letting the tourism industry in.

This is further complicated in the case of the Cinque Terre by green politics. The region advertises itself as eco-friendly and sustainable. Today. Its authority for so doing – of course rubberstamped by local government – derives from an historic self-sufficiency in the area that led its inhabitants to develop sustainable systems for agriculture on seaside schist slopes and water provision, including irrigation. The paradox is that Cinque Terre ceases to be an advertisement for traditional sustainable technologies as soon as the advertisement has the effect of attracting numbers of people from outside who come with demands that minimally have to be met. Of course, Italy is quite good at meeting the demands of visitors minimally.

The message of the Cinque Terre comes undone in the telling. It’s worrying to see, even when one is among them, the masses surge sweating and thirsty and hungry and tired into Corniglia’s narrow streets and alleys, occupying steps, piazzas, benches, taking the water from the central public faucet, putting it in their bottles, blithely crossing frontyards, back stoops, while the locals try to get used to their roles as stage-managers for the experience the tourists are having, and make the best of it, or as scenery for their trips, local colour.

It goes without saying that the best of it is not the best for a fragile environment, an obviously fragile environment. In, interestingly, predominantly the cultural sense. Because what is left still of the way of living in these steep coastal towns makes a very strong case for its protection. Not just its sustenance. Or preservation.

The brochure puts the exceptional achievement in a difficult environment of this culture down to what it calls ‘man action.’ Terracing, sustained enrichment of soils, careful irrigation practices. As a result, there are grapes, olives, tomatoes, zucchini, in profusion, of excellent quality. Supplemented with fish from outside the marine reserve, off the coast. That the former is a man-made resource makes its sustainability more complicated according to what is driving the economy.

If it is to be tourism, even eco-tourism, or especially so, given the historic accident that the area’s self-advertising, branding, sets out to exploit in the first place, then I can’t see the resource remaining sustainable for long. As for the pulling of fish out of the sea, the boats of Manarola are in use, but I doubt it is economic necessity compelling their continuing use.

What will survive of the boats is their design, of deeper draught than dinghies, with an upright bowsprit, and a flat tail fin to aid stability. The idea of the Cinque Terre has already usurped the reality.

Except when it comes to the beauty of the place seen sort of divested of the interests of the people. As if depopulated minute by minute. Another contender for what one might call its postmodernity, its disappearance into its own self-advertisement. A vestigial history serving only to authorise the advertising slogan.

Am I saying I would rather know about the success of the Cinque Terre towns with coastal survival than visit and destroy their chances of continuing success?

Tourism is not a necessary evil, definitely. However, I am pointing to the error in the conflation of natural and cultural ‘sustainability.’ And the obviously self-destructive notion that inviting thousands of tourists to a region with a unique economic, social and cultural system – as a network of towns – is a way of teaching the lesson of that system. It is rather a way to replace that system with another one entirely different. Tourism is not grafted on top or overlaid. It is introduced to the veins, directly, like heroin, maybe preserving the outside shell of the body for a while. For a while.

Corniglia had a more medieval flavour to it than Manarola. But surpassed the latter in the excellence of its terraced gardens. In both the cemetery claims some of the choicest land, high up, with views out to sea.

The path to Vernazza was more rugged. Less of it was concreted, more of it simply rough stone set down in random patterns, worn by constant foot-traffic to the sheen of onyx, sometimes, with a brown stone, like brown pounamu. And dusty and hard uphills. Attenuated sections of steps, steps. For which the zig-zag up the hill to Corniglia had been meagre preparation.

Half-way along there was the second of the failed enterprises we saw along the track, a series of semi-deserted buildings, through the arches of which we passed under the extreme blue eye shadowed gaze of the Madonna.

A section of descents by rough stairs, as lengthy as the preceding ascents, gave notice that we were getting near to Vernazza. Its fortifications were more obvious than the other two towns we’d seen. A circular stone tower loomed over the track and at its seaward end there appeared to be a castle.

We didn’t get long to explore before the rain came down, bringing the shopkeepers to their doors, some to cover or remove wares that might be damaged, others to see the rain. As if it didn’t happen very often.

Americans in a fit of Schadenfreude laughed at the people running for cover. They, like us, were under an umbrella at a Gelateria.

We decided to train home. It was anyway covered in the cost of our Cinque Terre tickets. And so did a lot of other people.

The platform was full. And inevitably the train was delayed. By fifteen minutes.

Back in Manarola we swam in the deep clear water of the pool beneath our window, the fish hardly perturbed, noticing also spiny sea urchins near to where we were standing on a ledge in the water. Beautiful.

We ate bocconcini and tuna salad with lettuce and tomato, and for the obligatory pasta course tried the regional pasta sheet, which you cut into squares before boiling, and had it with fresh basil pesto made just up the road.