Subject: May in Italy, Part 4
The beautiful and varied Italian landscape takes on another face as we whiz by on the autostrada...that of rugged mountains inset with the famous marble of Carrara. We pass factories with slabs of every imaginable shape and size, trucks loaded down with thin sheets or square blocks, carefully secured. The dust of the distant quarries hangs above the hills, and coats the warehouses and workshops by the expressway. Soon we begin to tunnel through the ridges descending to the sea, and arrive in Santa Margherita Ligure. We find our way to the charming Hotel Nuova Riviera, a pretty yellow and white 16th century palazzo, where friendly Signor Sabatini welcomes us and shows us to our room -a corner with big windows opening out over the fragrant garden. After settling in, we walk down to the seaside promenade, and join a sociable group of spectators waiting for a band concert to begin. Across the street are lots of interesting shops, restaurants, and cafes. The band opens up with Funiculi, Funicula, and follows with more traditional favorites, the locals singing along and children dancing to the familiar tunes. Rather than a tourist-packed resort town, Santa Margherita is a lived-in and friendly haven. The small marina is overlooked by a crumbling fortified castle, and further up another hill, the impressive Villa Durazzo, rusty peach with golden yellow trim and surrounded by luxuriant gardens, looks down on the sailboats bobbing at anchor. I want a sunset over the water to color my dinner, so we drive along the cliff-hugging corniche road to west-facing Camogli, where tall vibrantly colored homes terrace down the steep hills to surround the tiny harbor. The brightly painted fishing boats and piles of nets on the stone breakwater, ready for an early morning departure, let us know that our seafood dinner will be full of fresh local specialties. We claim a table on a terrace over the pebbled beach, and fill up on course after course of the daily catch - which includes lots of shrimp, calamari, and octupus. I have to admit that it's a bit much for me - but Kirk is able to finish my portion as well as his. I thoroughly enjoy the penne with pesto (a Ligurian specialty, different at every restaurant, and delicious at all). As the sun sets behind the picturesque church across the curved harbor, we finish our dinner and walk along the beach to our car. The next morning we awake, refreshed from sleep in our jasmine-scented room, to another gorgeous sunny day -just perfect for a daylong hike in the Cinque Terre. The train takes us along the dramatic rocky coast for the hour and a half ride to Manarola, in and out of one tunnel after another, speeding by tiny towns just big enough for a beach and a church. We start our walk from tiny Manarola, perched over its harbor and hemmed in by the cliffs, beginning with an easy walk along the Via del Amore, joining groups of school-children, european families, and oriental tourists. The walk becomes more interesting, edging a beautiful cove far below, as we approach the hilltop village of Corniglia. A hand-lettered sign advertises a beach. A dip in the water, teasing us from our perch above on the cliffs, sounds wonderful on this warm sunny day! We follow the arrow, which leads us to a long abandoned railway this the way??? After a 15 minute walk through the damp and dimly lit tunnel, we come out above a rocky beach, where an entrepreneurial family has established a cliff-side concession charging 5,000 lira for beach access. A scrubby steep path leads down to the waves, and we welcome the chance to cool off before hiking back to continue on the coastal path. The only way to Corniglia, perched high above the water, is up 373 steep zig-zagging stairs. We follow our noses towards the good smells coming from a wood-burning pizza oven, and enjoy our delicious lunch under colorful orange umbrellas shading the piazza at the top of the town. We replenish our water supply at an outdoor stone sink, surrounded by other hikers eager to splash on or guzzle some cool water before continuing towards Vernazza. A challenging 2 hour hike leads along narrow paths edging the cliffs, sometimes through fragrant and flowery vegetation, with superb views of foamy surf crashing along the rocks below. Motorboats and ferries pass by out on the deep blue sea. Songbirds encourage us on our way through groves of olive trees. Picturesque Vernazza, with its tall multicolored houses circling the tiny harbor, is hands-down the prettiest town of the 5. One photo-op after another! And accessible water! We join many of our fellow-hikers to cool off in the sea. Everyone's having a great time-swimming, diving, sunning on the rocks, sampling delicious gelato. Tired, we consider taking the ferry to the final town of Monterosso al Mare, knowing that the final 2 hour hike is the most difficult...but decide to just do it and complete the trip by foot. The final leg begins with a steep and steady climb up, up, up, to the start of the cliffside trail. Rough and sometimes very narrow tracks, high in the hills, offer spectacular views back to bright Vernazza, as well as the previous towns. We climb past little creeks, and can hear but not see waterfalls off the trail. Through olive groves, past bright wildflowers, we follow the path, which sometimes narrows to an inches- wide ledge curving in along the mountainside, then juts out again high above the rocky shore. The approach to Monterosso is down what seems like hundreds of uneven stone steps - hard on the knees! We walk down to the first beach we see, at the head of a cove surrounded by cliffs, and dive in...finishing our Cinque Terre hike with a splash! Anne in Virginia