"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Florence, Week #8: In Which I Take A Lot of Trains, Momentarily Own A House in Levanto, and Run Around in the Rain

Last weekend, my friends and I found ourselves in Cinque Terre, a quintet of towns along the southern coast of Italy. Even if you've never heard of the Cinque Terre, you've probably seen pictures of it. Imagine a cluster of colorful buildings precariously perched on a cliffside, looking as if they might suddenly slide downwards into the sea. One of the towns is also featured on the cover of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. (Great book, btw). Anyway, after taking a train to La Spezia, then to Corniglia, and finally to Levanto (a town adjacent to the Cinque Terre) we found ourselves at our air b&b, a beautiful pink house deep in the hills. We spent most of Friday afternoon marveling at how adult we felt: the six of us with a hilltop cottage all to ourselves. We drank tea and chatted, and we even managed to make a real, honest-to-goodness dinner complete with pasta (with olive oil and garlic!), caprese salad, and white wine. We lost some of our dignity when we all freaked out over a sudden downpour of rain, half of us thinking there was someone outside, rattling the door, and half of us mistaking the noise for the terrifying crackle of a fire in the kitchen. Momentary terror aside, it's nice to know we'll at least be able to survive in London, where we'll be living in flats and cooking our own meals.

Our original plan was to walk the five cities of Cinque Terre, a feat which might have been possible if the weather hadn't intervened. We were able to catch a train to Rio Maggiore before the rain started. This is probably my favorite memory of the whole trip. After getting out of the train station, you walk through a long tunnel that gets you to the marina, which is a small inlet that is surrounded on three sides by brightly colored buildings. They look a bit like colorful wooden blocks a child would play with, and they're arranged in much the same way. There are a set of stone steps that lead down to the water, and a curving arm of rocks that I assume protects boats during rougher weather, which my friend Lia insisted on crawling all over like the little adventurer she is. After being totally undignified tourists (we practically had the whole place to ourselves!), we wandered along the coastline to a deserted beach.

Actually, it was less of a beach and more of a pile of rocks that happened to occur along the shoreline. To one side was a railroad bridge that looked like it could have been a repurposed aqueduct or else some kind of mediaeval structure. We took more ridiculous pictures, and I sat on the boulders overlooking the sea, marveling at the fact that this place even exists. I seem to have these kind of moments a lot now.

The landscape of the Cinque Terre is completely different from Tuscany. Wildflowers grow along the rocky, steep hillside, and the landscape is punctuated by palm trees and prickly pear. In some places the landscape looks more like Hawaii than Italy. Unlike the sun-kissed tan of Florence, the Cinque Terre is a symphony of color. Almost nothing is painted tan or grey, and even Levanto, which isn't technically part of the five famous cities, had a pop of yellows and pinks and blues. The ocean, too, was a different beast entirely. Even on the overcast weekend we were there it was a beautiful, deep blue or a startling green.

By the time we finished exploring Rio Maggore, the rain had started. It was a downpour that would continue pretty much all weekend. We tried to not let it deter us, but the Cinque Terre was pretty much shut down in a lot of places. The walking paths were closed, so we took trains between four of the five cities. We ate lunch wherever we could find an open restaurant.

We were supposed to catch our train home in Corniglia, the highest city in the Cinque Terre. We arrived a couple hours before our train to Florence was supposed to leave so that we'd have time to explore. What we didn't realize was that the city center was reachable only by way of a 365 step staircase (and, apparently, a bus which was nowhere in sight). It was rainy and cold and we had all of our luggage with us, but one of my friends had been told that she had to try the lemon basil gelato in Corniglia. So, up we went. (If you haven't noticed this by now, most of our decisions are heavily influenced by gelato)

The hike up was pretty brutal. Each time I thought I could see the end, I'd reach the top of one flight only to discover another. Thankfully, the steps were shallow and wide, and it wasn't as bad as it could have been. (Although I think I would have preferred not climbing in the rain). Once we got to the top we followed a short, winding road and found ourselves in the center of Corniglia...which was completely deserted. Imagine for a moment, five girls with huge backpacks huddled in the middle of a deserted town square in the rain. We found the gelataria. It was closed. We saw a couple restaurants. All closed.

I must say, the walk back down the 365 steps was much more enjoyable. I has able to appreciate the view this time, and my goodness was it an amazing view. The rain had turned everything an impossible shade of green. Flowers clustered along the edge of the steps. The coastline melted into the sea, and the sea into the sky. In the distance you could just barely make out a splash of color on a hillside: another town in the Cinque Terre.

The whole time I was there I couldn't help imagining these tiny little towns inundated with tourists. I imagined that the people who lived here, the shop and restaurant owners, were cherishing the silence that both the cold and the rain brought. Even though I would have appreciated a couple more hours sans-rain, the weekend was in many ways just what I wanted: a relaxing holiday on the coast.

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