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The Pastel Palette of Italy’s Cinque Terre

Pixar’s 2021 film Luca looked awfully familiar. The coming-of-age story of sea monsters living incognito among the humans of a small cliffside Italian village seemed at once a fairy tale setting and something very much real. Christine and I recognized those old European buildings, laundry strung from one to another across a narrow and winding back road, the pastel color palette, rolling green hills on one side and the churning froth of the ocean on the other. In the film, the village is called Portorosso, but some quick research confirmed that Pixar’s artists had visited the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre for inspiration.

We’d stayed in one of the Cinque Terre’s “five lands” back in 2016. Vernazza sits dramatically on the sea’s rocky lip, hillside vineyards sloping away behind it. Our arrival had been something special: an inland train that disappeared into a mountain tunnel, swallowed in darkness for several minutes before darting out into the Tyrrhenian sunlight and the otherworldliness of the colorful Cinque Terre, as though we’d just time-traveled several centuries backward.

We had learned through our years or European travel that breaking up the big-city visits with smaller towns and villages makes good travel sense. On this trip, we were visiting Italy’s kings: Venice, Florence, and Rome, so a few nights in these five remote seaside villages, lost in time and preserved as though by the amber sun, called to us.

Our home for the stay was a second-floor Airbnb right on Via Roma, the pedestrian “road” cutting through the heart of the village and landing at the mouth of the sea. We had a shuttered window that looked down at the street, the perfect nestle to sit on its ledge and people-watch with a morning coffee. Vernazza, like all of the Cinque Terre, is car-free, which only adds to the illusion that one has traveled back in time. Here, it seemed almost sacrilege to pull out a smartphone (not that you’d get much cell service). This was a place to unplug—to get out in the Italian sun, to stroll leisurely, explore the thousand-and-one nooks and crannies, impossibly narrow and crooked side streets disappearing in shadow and angling dramatically up lopsided stairs and into the earthy walls of the hills. It is a place built for wandering, for getting intentionally lost. Hidden gems wait around each corner: maybe someone’s tiny boutique shop on a skinny side street entirely devoid of tourists, or sometimes just the back steps of a residential home, potted plants sitting in the shade, a cat in a window, a broom leaning against a stucco wall, a dilapidated wooden fence overrun by vines.

The magic of the Cinque Terre reveals itself at night. Under a wash of moonlight and canopy of stars, the villages become magical. On our afternoon train arrival, we’d been met with a wall of summer heat and a throng of day tourists socked into the narrow roads nearly shoulder-to-shoulder and moving with all the efficiency of molasses. Our small village getaway, our respite from the crowds of the big cities, looked like a gross miscalculation. Everyone in the world was right here, trying to jockey down this one thousand-year-old street.

If we’ve learned anything during our travels to twenty-plus European countries and countless cities and villages, it’s to avoid, whenever possible, day excursions to satellite towns. For instance, we’d day-tripped by bus from Salzburg, Austria to the iconic and impossibly beautiful town of Hallstatt, subject of a billion Instragram posts and counting. But it can be hard to see the beauty underneath the walls of tourists clogging its streets, the dozens and dozens of tour busses lining its parking lots. You sort of had to squint to imagine what this place could be, under better—quainter—circumstances.

And the same holds true for Vernazza and the other villages of the Cinque Terre. But by late afternoon, the sun began to slide behind the hills and a welcome breeze introduced itself from the sea. Tourists clamoring at the train station filtered into the late trains and were, at last, whisked away, the cruisers back on their massive and imposing cruise ships, and suddenly—magically—Vernazza revealed itself, practically exhaling with relief, and this enchanting village is ours for the night.

* * *

Many come to the Cinque Terre for the hiking. There are no cars, after all. A network of trails connect the five towns, from Riomaggiore in the south to Monterosso in the north, thirty-plus kilometers from point A to point B. Some spend a day, or a weekend, hiking all five lands, six or eight hours in total, not including time spent in each town. One day Christine and I hiked one section, from Vernazza to Monterosso, a modest four kilometers in length and about an hour and a half of hiking. The trail looms high above the villages, a dirt path stitched along the ragged spine of the cliffs, sometimes bordered with wood fencing, sometimes not. The views are dramatic, so much so that the hike turns especially leisurely, a vista at every turn, another reason to pause, another photo op: the lush greens of the hills, blue sparkle of ocean, tight clusters of each village’s colorful structures. The pace is such that it’s hard to get too tired despite the heat and sun and inclines.

From here the villages below look artificial, as though built from Lego bricks, or maybe something out of Star Wars. The colors from the towns are sun-bleached\and baked, like they’ve been here forever, which of course they have. It’s easy to imagine the lives lived here so long ago, rural and remote, long before that train existed connecting the Cinque Terre to the rest of the world. Hard lives, I’m sure, but beautiful and well-earned lives.

At the summit of one sloping peak we came upon a tiny stone church, perched in the foreground of a sloping vineyard and adjacent to an ancient cemetery. Christine and I wandered in, appreciative of the cool air protected by stone walls almost cold to the touch. We looked around, rested, even paused for a prayer (Christine has left prayers in churches and cathedrals all over the European continent). Then we heard monks chanting from a back room somewhere, so we listened for a while, letting the song and the moment fuse us forever to this place.

In Monterosso, we lunched at a sidewalk café in the shade. I had a simplified bruschetta—red-ripe grape tomatoes and mozzarella on toast, the perfect light snack after a tiring hike. We sat on the beach and rested, our bodies warm and T-shirts damp with sweat. A couple hundred yards from shore a bank of boulders protruded from the choppy surf, parallel to the shore, and I watched several swimmers sitting atop them. I decided, despite my weary body’s protests, to swim out there myself. Christine didn’t like the idea, but the water looked inviting and I could already feel the looming regret had I not gone for it.

Of course, halfway out there I began to think she was right. My limbs felt heavy and sore, the surf slapping against my face. I swallowed seawater. Occasionally I turned onto my back and floated a spell, then rolled and stroked some more. At the base of the rocks I rested again before trying to heave myself aboard. The rock’s dry peak was sun-warmed and inviting, and I lay on my back and caught my breath, feeling the sun warming and healing me. It was quiet out here, everything else too far away now. I sat up and looked to the beach, wrapping my arms around my knees, locking fingers. I had a panoramic view of the whole village—the staggered buildings in pinks and yellows and reds, the tiny church high up on the hill to my right, silhouetted in the blazing afternoon sun, the steep incline of the green vineyard in the distance. To my left the zig-zag trail leading down into Monterosso, tiny figures hiking in a single line. Before me was the beach, distant and dazzling white. I squinted, looking for my wife, and finally spotted her sitting on the sand, her legs stretched out before her, head tilted to the sky, lost in serenity. I looked at her for a long while, at everything. All this beauty before me.

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