Vernazza, Monterosso, Riomaggiore e la Via dell’Amore

Every statement I make herein should be subject to revision. And so, having today visited both Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, my overall impression of the Cinque Terre has changed. In regard to how old it is. The name was in use before the fifteenth century. And in regard to what effect tourism is having on it. In reality, it is an extension of the Italian Riviera, part of the Liguria region; without the intervention of the European Union in, I think, 1995, parts of it would have become inaccessible – having been closed in the 1980s – and potentially left to fall into the sea.

Unless the state becomes a benefactor of the region, unlikely, then tourism does seem to be necessary for its sustainability, both cultural and natural. Why it might be evil was yesterday written all over the faces of the locals in Corniglia, the smallest of the coastal towns: there was nowhere to sit in the public spaces not already occupied by an outsider; they are under occupation, in the most literal sense of there being no space.

I would add that not only is every statement herein subject to revision, there are also the errors that will pass through revision without being corrected. Errors of every kind, perhaps. Errors even of English.

Why write then, or our travels, or at all? Not to be too flip, but for the reason that nobody knows what writing is, and because tomorrow the opportunity to write this now will have been lost.

Today we had reconfirmed the devastation wrought on the American psyche by belief in the power of communication and the strength in the senses of identity national and selfish. A racist comment to make? I apologise. But not to retract. Passing a group of American tourists you can find out who has their period, what state their quads are in or ought to be, who doesn’t call enough – Carl, I’m talking about you! -, what use a top-secret job at the top of the corporate ladder makes of white noise. In short, sshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! In short, too much. You are privileged – yes perhaps we can concede a little and be generous – to learn about frames of reference, let into worlds of gym-class and personal hygiene, while a world that the American tourist doesn’t seem to be aware of unfolds around them. They remain wonderfully oblivious, un-enfolded.

Smugly we look down on them? Having our half dozen words of Italian, which most locals reject as unintelligible anyway? No. Want to get away from them, speaking English having become a terrible liability where wherever one is that they are one hears too much.

The other factual revision I should make is that Cinque Terre is, is in, a National Park, Parco Nazionale della Cinque Terre, and so has that special relationship with regional and national government, somewhat retarded, but it would be a crying shame to ignore it, and good press internationally to be seen to support it. Just not too much.

We went by rail to Vernazza, our visit there having been the last time foreshortened by rain. This time we were greeted with stalls selling fish and bulk cleaning products and clothing and flowers, a half-pie market. The foot traffic was denser than before. More Australians, more Americans.

We walked down through the town to the water, the marina, full of the same kind of boats as Manarola, fishing dinghies, with a sandy beach, and a couple trying to launch their sailing dinghy off of it. We saw some jellyfish, some as large as dinner-plates, brown, and dragging themselves through the water and smaller grey ones, moving sideways, comet-like, slowly. Despite them, people were swimming. The sun was shining. It was a cloudless day.

We looked into San Margherita, a beautiful medieval church rising out of the water, Roman arches in the knave, Gothic in the aisles, columns of sections of rough-hewn rock stacked supporting a wood-beam roof. And windows out towards the sea. Later we heard mass echoing down from the church as we ate Pizza di Margherita. The saint is depicted standing on a dragon.

We set out on the track to Monterosso del Mare, rising above Vernazza to the cemetery, the dead again getting the best views, through perfect pottagers, terraced with everything you could possibly want in a garden, figs, grapes, tomatoes, herbs, all within reach of the kitchen, basil, oregano, rosemary, savoury, sage I didn’t see, but I’m sure it was there, higher and higher we climbed up to the top of the seaward ridge flanking the valley, and crossing it, came to more steps and more steps and more steps. The path for this section was narrower in places than any we’d used and where there were other walkers there were also bottlenecks, stoppages, waiting for the way forward to clear.

The demographic appeared to include chiefly retired couples, when it was not young adventure-seekers. Perhaps it was evenly split between the rowdy and the sedate and those you found it hard to believe had negotiated the track at all, but the impression gained was that there was a larger proportion of the latter. Which made the going slow at times. While the presence of Americans made you want to run the whole way and not stop until you were well out of earshot of them.

It was however pleasant to meet up again with two men we’d first met on the train from Rome, both from Washington, both with a cousin in the Armed Forces stationed north of Venice. One older and heavier than the other. Brothers? They tested the rule about Americans being worth avoiding but not so as to break it.

By the time we reached Monterosso we were in a swelter. And came down to the beach to see rows of umbrellas and sunbeds. A pay-to-use beach. But approaching from this direction, the first beach we came to, difficult to spot if coming from any other, was free. We got as far as the town, swiftly doubled back and jumped in the sea. Sand. And cool. Relief.

I had a ridiculous conversation with two Russian kids, one of whom proudly informed me her patronymic was Alexandrovna. When I told her my name she sang Simeon Simeonovich, Simeon…

Visited the Genoese style church, bicolour, black white horizontal stripes, again a light and airy ascending vault, with Baroque additions around the sacristy, well-done but sort of tacked on. Wonderful statuary and one oil of note, to the right of the alter, in a Mannerist style.

Out and to the right, another chapel, this time Baroque in total. Much of it dating from the seventeenth century. In a bad state of disrepair. But really striking for that. Articulated around seven circles, so organised for vertical space, short and tall.

More Marguerite pizza and insalata Caprese in the town with fresh chewy real mozzarella. Up the hill at the edge of the town construction underway for more accommodation. As the guide puts it, the predominant industry in Monterosso has changed from those traditional to tourism. By train back to Manarola.

Superb self-catering again. Fresh pesto and pasta, griglio, tuna and egg and bocconcini salad.

And running to catch the train to Riomaggiore by 7:36 to make the walk back from the last or first of the Cinque Terre: the Via dell’Amore. We took a wrong turning from the station and through a tunnel with a great mosaic up into a steep medieval street, on either side the five-storey-or-so Ligurian house, after house. Paint peeling off. Different shades of ochre, yellow, beige. Or rose, red, crimson.

I asked someone. Visit during the day, he said. Too late now to enjoy. And we were told to go back the way we’d come through the station.

Everywhere along the Via dell’Amore, which is fully paved, protected from the cliff by a metal fence, and sometimes overhung by the cliff, sometimes by the steel netting to stop rock falls, padlocks cinched on to anything at all. Onto each other in chains. Like bragging about conquests: deals cinched in probably Chinese steel. And in one passage, a passage, open to the west, past sunset now, a chalky red smudged along the horizon, graffiti on graffiti on murals on bombs with tags on top. Ti amo. Ti adoro. Pledges and poems, crass and crazy and nothing if not in profusion. Profligate professions of love. Because called for by the tag-line of the path? Of course! Why not? Per che no? No smell of pee. Warmth and the drama of great planes of stone slantwise hitting the sea, confused, folding and enfolding.