A wee walk

A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Category: Italy

A paddling, eating and drinking trip to Italy’s Cinque Terre and Sardinia.

Walk ‘n Blues

The trip ended on a Thursday morning after a big dinner the night before. The members of the group dispersed in various directions, many staying longer in Europe. I stayed an extra day in Genoa and Ellen and Jim stayed two.

On my last day we took an outing Ellen had found in her research.  It was to the Regional Natural Park of Portofino, an area between Genoa and Cinque Terre.  We took a half-hour train ride to the town of Camogli and then hiked along the coast to an abbey whose origins were in the 11th Century, at a place called San Fruttuoso.

We climbed out of Camogli on stone steps and ramps, past terraced gardens and olive groves.

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In one place the wall along the path was built so that a tree could grow through it, suggesting that parts of the path were former terraces.  Nets that catch falling olives were furled; it wasn’t harvest time.

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The path leveled out at San Rocco, which had a church whose idolatrous decoration helps explain why many Protestant houses of worship are plain and simple.  There were a few houses, shops, and cars too, so there was obviously another way to get there other than the one we took.

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A woman at the tourist office in Camogli had told us there were two trails to San Fruttuoso—an inland one that was manageable, and one along the coast that required holding onto ropes in places.  She recommended against that one, but we decided to take it anyway.

It was steep in places (and flat and downhill in others), with spectacular views.

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We passed some artillery emplacements with no signage and of uncertain age.

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We skirted the base of a cliff made of pudding-stone—rounded stones of varying size cemented together by natural mortar.

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Where the path was extra-steep, canted laterally, or beside a drop-off, lengths of chain had been fixed to the rock. It was possible to get by without them, but they proved reassuring.

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We had lunch—focaccia, beer and apples—sitting on an outcrop and looking down on a cove of azure water lapping the tawny shore.

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It was a spectacular hike—three hours of hard walking with views as beautiful as we’ve seen.

When we got to San Fruttuoso we poked our head into one of the chapels but didn’t pay for the full show. Instead, we went down to the stone beach and swam and lay in the sun for the hour until we caught a boat back to Camogli.

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The two food-writer comedians in the movie “The Trip to Italy” visit San Fruttuoso.  The place is better known for something we didn’t see.

Offshore is a statue of Christ in 50-feet of water.  It is a memorial to people who’ve died diving.  It was placed in 1954 near where the first Italian to use scuba gear, Dario Gonzatti, died in 1947.  It can sometimes be seen from the surface.  This is a model of it in the abbey.

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Flushed with a sense of accomplishment, we went prowling for the right place to eat that night when we got back to Genoa. We found it.  It was a restaurant called “the Cardamom” (reason not obvious) near the hotel we’d moved to after the tour ended.

It had a couple of bright but stuffy rooms and an outdoor seating area, all below street level. We decided to eat “al fresco,” which in Italy now means “with smoke.”

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Just about everyone at the outdoor tables smoked. And they smoked the old-fashioned way, with cigarettes between courses. We didn’t mind this.  In fact we had moments of hilarity as we commented on our off-island identity.

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We got the last available table. It took us a while to get waited on. Nobody left when they finished eating.  And more people arrived.

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It turned out Thursday was live-music night at the Cardamom.  Tonight it was going to be the blues. The band, Snake Oil Ltd., was a local one and featured a singer who’d been in a better-known group called Big Fat Mama. (All of this from our waiter, who also smoked).

They started playing about quarter of eleven. They were pretty good. We actually went inside and danced.

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Dancing to a man dressed like Jake Blues and singing Buddy Guy—it was a scene designed to ease us out of Italy and get us on our way home.

The mysterious Nuragi

We spent our last day in Sardinia sightseeing, not paddling. The main destination was an archaeological site in an area called Arzachena once inhabited by the Nuragi people.

I had never heard of the Nuragic Civilization. As described by our guide, the chief archaeologist of the site, the Nuragi inhabited a pre-Christian island Eden, a Thousand Year Reich of peace and prosperity in the Western Mediterranean, a model of egalitarianism and possibly even democracy a world apart from the war and autocracy to the east. (See the Old Testament for the latter.)

I suspect much of that is exaggeration and Sardinian chauvinism.  The guide, Mauro, was intensely proud of what his region was and is.  But given his credentials, some of it must be true.

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The Nuragic Civilization existed from 1700 to 500 BCE, beginning in the Bronze Age and ending in the Iron Age. It’s distinctive architectural feature is the nuraghe, a conical building with a small flat, or sometimes bluntly rounded, top.  It is made of native  granite. There is no mortar. The stone is laid in overlapping courses, which distributes the weight laterally as well as downward.

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From the inside the structure tapers upward in a classic beehive shape. It is finished with a capstone that is not—as with an arch’s keystone—essential for the building’s stability. Some nuraghes had two storeys—one beehive super on top of another.

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The purpose of a nuraghe wasn’t clear from the tour, or at least not to me. Mauro went to lengths to say they weren’t castles. There wasn’t enough room in them to house the village’s people, and there aren’t obvious features for armaments.

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At least part of their purpose was to mark settlements, link communities visibly, a provide a sense of cultural unity.

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A pamphlet published in 2003 (before much of the recent excavation) and sold at the ticket shop said that while their precise use isn’t clear, archaeologists agree they “were buildings of a civil and military nature, destined in particular for the control and defence of the land and the resources on it.”

The people who built them were indigenous Sardinians, or at least not known to be immigrants. (Except for East Africans, we’re all immigrants). DNA from Nuragic skeletons suggests modern Sardinians descended from them, our guide said.

About 8,000 nuraghes survive, although few are complete. Many are in complexes with three or four others. (The largest, found only four years ago, has 15 towers).   In many, a large central tower is attached to smaller satellite ones, like the ones at the corners of forts separated by walls, except that here there are no walls.

Nuraghes exist only in Sardinia (mostly in the north) and in southern Corsica.  They bear some resemblance to smaller  round-topped, dry-stone buildings in France (bories), and in Scotland and Ireland.

Mauro said there are three reasons the structures are still standing.  First, Sardinia has been largely peaceful for the last 4,000 years. Second, the island isn’t earthquake-prone. Third, the prevailing wind from Corsica has buried many of the buildings in fine sand, rendering them protected and invisible.

The one we visited was covered except for its top until 1989. An open hole down into the structure was thought to be a place where prisoners might be thrown. As a consequence the spot, popular for picnics, was called “la Prisgiona.”

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The top storey of the nuraghe was dismantled in 1820 when the Savoy family, from the mainland, took control of the island. Under its administration, people were instructed to delineate farm plots; before that the land was held communally. The inhabitants cannibalized the towers for stones for walls and boundary markers.

The excavation, which had just ended for the season, had slowly uncovered the tower.  A bunch of surrounding structures, nearly all round, were thought to have been workshops or mercantile establishments. A well 30-feet deep contained 16 vases, 2 copper rings and 2 bronze rings—apparently left there as some kind of offering. About 500 to 800 people lived in the settlement, occupying farther flung dwellings. The footprints of some have been found.

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One of the more interesting structures, common to nearly all settlements, was a “meeting house.” It had a bench circumscribing the inside wall, and a built-in stone table in the middle.  Found in the house here were 12 cups, a vase and a serving spoon. Mauro said archaeologists believe the meeting houses were places of decision-making, and that the lack of preferred seating or a throne suggests a political structure built on consensus and equality.

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The Nuragi apparently had no written language. Only a few words survive. One of them is “Sardinia.” Another place name dating from their time is Olbia (where our overnight ferry came and went from), which means “city of the loving God” in proto-Hebrew. There are a few other words that have similar origins. At one point Mauro wrote a Hebrew word in the dirt and pronounced it.

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He said there was evidence that Nuragic Civilization spread to other places, too. In 2006, a proto-Sardinian structure and artifacts were found 12 miles south of Haifa, Israel.

The Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Romans eventually brought war to Sardinia, ending the lotus-eating era of the Nuragis.  What exactly happened to them isn’t known.

Sardinia

We entered the harbor in Olbia, in the northeast of Sardinia, soon after sunrise. The water was still and decorated with hundreds of buoys marking lines where clams and mussels were growing.

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We went for a brief paddle on a place called the Bay of the Saracens. The name telegraphed the variety of ethnicities that have attacked, colonized or sojourned here. The outing was short, as are most on this trip, and it featured, as they all do, a meal that added half again to the calories we’d expended.

The water was 78 degrees and clear, with grass beds and submerged boulders, an occasional sea cucumber and clam, and a fair number of small fish.

The coast is comprised of pink granite sculpted smooth by water and wind, and folded into strata so that looks like dough that has risen not quite enough to bake.  It is as pink as the Stonington granite of Maine, but without the latter’s complexity and gray highlights. It has a weathered surface and lacks the polish that brings out the subtleties of its color.

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What it gains, in exchange, is a variety of Henry Moore-like shapes. These are not only dramatic curvilinear forms but also huge voids—smooth, deep and mysterious of origin. As we paddled along we commented on what we saw—seals, dogs, bread loaves, hobbit houses, bee hives, faces.

The Sardinians have noticed this too. At the top of one of the jagged mountains is a proboscis of stone called “the Bear,” which it resembles from a certain angle.

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We always paddle close to the shore. This is the concession to taking people in their 70s and 80s on these trips, and to the changeability of conditions. It also provides a chance to perform low-rent navigational maneuvers, steering through the boulders and passages that line the shore.

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Enrico is good at keeping the group in control with a light hand. There have been a few moments with swells coming abeam, or following seas, but they didn’t last long. Everyone has handled the conditions well. And we never paddled long enough to get people really tired.

There was always a beach with azure water (if the sun was out) to get to in not a lot of time. And food.

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On one of our outings, Enrico gave me a rolling lesson, the second I’ve gotten. (Bob Baugh gave me the first). I was rolling from the starboard side this time. Didn’t quite make it—it was a short lesson—but got some practice tips I will pursue on my own.

We had three outings, each amounting to no more than half a day, while we were here. There was always good swimming. On the last one we were hoping to land at a beach that has come to be known as “Tahiti” because of the color of its water. (It has an Italian name Cala Coticcio.) It was full of vacationers—on both of its parts—and we thoughtfully didn’t bigfoot it with nine kayaks.

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Instead, we returned to a beach we had passed on the way out that had a only few people on it. Above it, half a mile up a stony path, was a fort.

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It was billed as a Napoleonic fort but had a history that both pre- and post-dated that. We climbed past a large cistern, a roofless church, a watchtower, a barracks—these were all guesses—until we got to the front gate.

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Curiously, the word “opera” was on one of the two pillars bordering the portal. On the other was a word that was hard to figure out.

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In between was a chasm with two iron struts spanning it. One could have inched across. But luckily there was a path that went to a breach in the wall.

 

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That got us into the fort, which was empty and only somewhat defaced with graffiti. We climbed up to the top level, which had great views and steady wind from the west—the Mistral. We looked down on the cove where we’d beached and saw two catamarans there but none of our companions.

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Nevertheless, Ellen got on the most prominent parapet and formed a Y with her arms to display herself, and us.

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The fort had what appeared to be a miniature rail line that could move the big guns (which, with all armament, were gone).

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There were bee-hive ceilinged magazines similar to the ones still visible at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore. There were passageways that needed exploring. But there wasn’t enough time.

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We are staying on an island called La Maddelana—the Magdalene. It is separate from the island Sardinia, but a big place with an active tourist trade. It was also the site—or was supposed to be—of a G8 conference in 2009. The Berlusconi government spend $400 million euros—much of it raked off in graft and sweetheart deals, according to Enrico—and the site clearly wasn’t going to be ready for the meeting.

An earthquake in the central Italy city of L’Aquila intervened. In a gesture of face-saving solidarity, Berlusconi decided to change the venue to L’Aquila. The 27,000 square meters of buildings and 90,000 square meters of land at the G8 site in La Maddelena has never been used.

We paddled one day on an island called Caprera, which refers to goats (of which we saw none). It is a stony island where Giuseppi Garibaldi—who Enrico, a man of the left, calls “the Italian Che Guevara”—was exiled there, died there and is buried there. There is a Garibaldi museum, which unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit.

We did, however, have time for many good meals.

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They included a pasta dish whose main ingredients were dried and grated mullet roe, and clams. It was billed as a celebration of umami. Which it was.

We had fried mussels, anchovies, shrimp, moray eel, calamari, sea bass, three kinds of Pecorino, smoked ricotta, a dessert consisting of a huge single ravioli filled with soft cheese, fried and drizzled with honey and lemon juice, lots of wine and limoncello, and a mahogany colored liqueur, slightly bitter, called mirto, made from myrtle leaves.

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By the time we had left, one of the couples on the trip had given the piratical Enrico a tee-shirt with the caption: “No Mirto, No Party.”

He had it on when we got on the boat to go back to Genoa.

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In and out of town

It’s not exactly high season in Cinque Terre. But it is far from off season. (Enrico says there are only 30 permanent winter residents of Corniglia, the smallest of the five villages. When he comes in January, he said,  “It is so beautiful it makes you cry.”)

At the moment, the guest population consists mostly of couples with pre-school children, and retired people with money to spare and, in some cases, insufficient “situational awareness.”  The latter would include me.

I lost my wallet a couple of days ago. I’d like to say my pocket was picked by a Ligurian Houdini, but I think absent-mindedness and a natural inclination to lose things were the main drivers. (Readers of the Scotland postings might recall my close calls there in the entry “Lost and Found.”)

Ellen, Jim and I were at a gelato emporium, probably a good place for marks.  I had paid for the ice cream and was having a hard time picking two coins and two bills off the change tray on the counter while holding a bag of unnecessary objects in my left hand. Where the wallet was is unknown to my memory. All I know is that about 15 minutes later I sensed its absence.

I rummaged through the bags—I actually had two of them; we’d just come ashore from the boats—and it wasn’t there. I returned to the gelato shop and it wasn’t there either. Nor was it in 15 trash cans I rooted through.

So I was pretty much resigned to losing 50 euros, 70 dollars and, more distressingly, two credit cards, my license, a childhood’s worth of wallet pics of Will, various notes and quotes, and a collection of irreplaceable worthless scraps of paper.  I got statements of sympathy from the group, which I paired with self-recriminations and knew what I’d be thinking about most of the afternoon.

When we checked into the hotel—we were in Monterosso al Mare, the most eastern (upcoast) of the villages—and told Enrico and Daniele of this event, they immediately went into the village, stopping at the gelato shop and then working their way west.

When they got to the train station Daniele went into the tourist’s bureau on the first floor. He asked if they had found a wallet, and before the sentence was out of his mouth the person behind the counter had said my name. The wallet had just been turned in. Daniele emerged onto the sidewalk holding it in front of him for Enrico to see like a just-hooked mullet.

Needless to say, I was very grateful. Very. And I hadn’t cancelled the credit cards in the preceding hour, so I was back in business (or whatever) immediately.

So enough of that.  I’m lucky.  And I’m glad I carried the bags for the old couple in Genoa.

We spent the night in Monterosso, our last in Cinque Terre, before taking the overnight ferry to Sardinia. The town has two parts—old and new–separated by a rocky point you can walk around on a path or through in a tunnel.

We’d paddled from Corniglia, stopping in Vernazza, the village in between, before getting to Monterosso. The distance was not great. But we hugged the shore at the guides’ request, which stretched it out a bit.

One of the things we passed was a Genoese watchtower. Round and stone (of course), the towers are symbols of Genoa’s reach, seen throughout the Mediterranean, from Morocco to Syria, even at the Bosporus, Enrico said.

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At one end of the harbor in Monterosso is a villa with a rocky promontory in front of it. Like a figurehead of a ship, carved into the rock is the slumped body of a man. He is missing his arms and a leg; his abdominal muscles are well-preserved, however. I would have guessed he was Prometheus chained to the cliff, but he is apparently supposed to be Neptune. The sculpture was commissioned by a big Mussolini supporter who owned the villa. It combines the Fascist idealization of the body and fascination with mythology. Or so we were told.

We had a number of hours to kill before the evening activities, so Ellen, Jim and I walked the next village down the coast, Vernazza, where we had stopped for coffee a couple of hours earlier. The route was one of the old cliffside paths, the only terrestrial connection between the villages for centuries.

The path was narrow and very steep in places. On the flat part it went along a series of terraces that had had been turned over from agriculture to transportation. There were places where you could inspect the stone walls up close. One seemed to be made out of hewn logs; only when I tapped them did I realize that it, too, was all stone.

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We passed by walkers of many nationalities. This woman is crossing a stone bridge (with mortared, not dry, construction) over one of the many watercourses down the hillside.

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We also encountered a man who had a shack on a long stone staircase, where he was selling lemonade, the lemon-flavored liqueur known as limoncello, and wine. All were from his production from the terraces. I suspect terrace agriculture is now limited to niche marketing, with this man, gnome-like, in his very own niche.

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We bought three glasses of lemonade, and then I bought two small bottles of limoncello. He asked us where we were from, and when we told him he pointed out a small American flag at the back of the shack.

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“When the Russians see this and the Muslims see this they hate it. They ask, ‘Why do you have that thing there?’ he said, puckering his face as if he’d just eaten one of his lemons. “Why do I keep this? Because the Americans saved Italy in 1944! They gave us our freedom back.” Although he couldn’t have been old enough to remember this, he spoke with the fervor of a witness.

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He mentioned the name of an Italian city where there is an American military cemetery.  “There are 10,000 Marines there.”

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Then he added: “And if it wasn’t for what they did after the war we’d all be Communists!” He grabbed the cloth of the flag while keeping the stick socketed in the wall and shook it like a dish towel.

At one place in the walk we came to a terrace with a monorail track and its car parked behind a fence. This is the one concession to mechanization on the terraces of Cinque Terre. It looks like a private roller coaster, with a motor in front and space behind the seats for boxes of grapes, olives and lemons.

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The system looked frail in the extreme, but I’m sure anything is better than carrying stuff up and down on your back.

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It took about an hour and a half to get to Vernazza, longer than we expected. We descended into town with a good view from above, walked to the train station, bought tickets and took the seven-minute ride back to Monterosso.

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Cinque Terre

Our group is 11, most of them Canadians, which is the nationality of Grant Thompson, the owner and cofounder of Tofino Expeditions.  He is leading the trip along with Enrico Carrossino, the Italian guide.

We are not a young group. The youngest clients (or are we “sports”?) are a couple from the Peninsula south of San Francisco, each 55. A couple from Vancouver are in their sixties. Four women, all friends, from various parts of British Columbia, are in their late sixties or early seventies.

Ruth, Jan, Anyes, and Marnie

Ruth, Jan, Anyes, and Marnie

And then there’s Ellen, Jim and me.

Grant is 60, tanned with a shaved head; a body double for Yul Brynner. He was an art major in college who got into the marketing end of outdoor gear afterward, while spending much of his time rock climbing and, eventually, kayaking.

When I covered the World AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1998 I spent a couple of days beforehand in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, writing a curtain-raiser story. I took an afternoon off and went on a kayak tour of the local coast, with a short walk in the redwood rain forest. The company was Tofino Expeditions—Grant’s company.

Eventually Grant decided he wanted to offer long overseas trip, not just short local ones. Her bought the company name from his partner and moved to Oregon when he married an American physician. He now runs kayak trips in Canada, Italy, Croatia, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Vietnam.

Enrico, 45, is an ace kayaker, white-water specialist who has cobbled together an interesting career. An Italian, he lives in Lugano, Switzerland.   He teaches canoe and kayak skills for the Swiss national sporting center two months in the spring. He has his own outfitting company that specializes in getting disabled people on the water. He also guides custom trips on Swiss lakes and on the Italian coast for the able-bodied. He helps organize and guide several of Tofino’s trips each year. He has two-year-old identical twin boys—Marco and Andrea—who he’s now away from longer than he would like.

Enrico is endlessly enthusiastic, ready to talk about kayaking and Italian history at the slightest nudge.

Enrico and Grant

Enrico and Grant

Daniele is 51. He is a childhood friend of Enrico who worked in a factory making air conditioning systems for railroad cars until he was laid off a few years ago. He now works various jobs, including this one. Both he and Enrico are charismatic in an unselfconscious way—friendly, entertaining, authoritative.

Daniele

Daniele

The Cinque Terra coast is largely unprotected. Headlands stick out like stubby antlers between the five villages. But basically it’s open sea right from the shore. It would seem to be a risky place to run kayak trips for septugenarians. But Enrico says there has never been a capsizing (although there have been cancelled days for hazardous conditions).

On my first day, however, the conditions were just about perfect.

We had breakfast at 7.30 in the morning and then suited- and skirted-up at the base of the path. (Corniglia is the only one of the five villages without a harbor). We paddled south, most of us in doubles, although Ellen and I were each in singles. The water was calm and deep blue—a color you never see off New England.

Seeing Cinque Terre from the water makes one thing clear one thing: titanic forces created the land we are viewing. The rock is sedimentary, with clear strata but also intrusions. In some places it is slanted at 45 degrees, in other places nearly parallel with the sea, and in others folded like a sheet of filo dough.

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In a few places it is vertical, rotated 90 degrees from how it was laid down eons ago. In one place it was folded to face the water, so that it looked like a smooth wall, no strata evident.

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We paddled close to the shore, which featured man’s efforts over many centuries. High on the slopes were terraces separated by dry stone walls. Once the entire coast was sculpted in a way that would hold its own against any Asian terracing.

But the entire coast is now a study in entropy.

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There are places where the terraces are distinct and the plantings they support bright with new growth. There are terraces where the lemon trees and olive trees and grape vines are are recognizable, but whether they are cultivated isn’t clear. There are places where the walls have tumbled, the terracing has begun to return to a perilous slant, and the hand of current man invisible. And there are places where the effort of generations is no longer visible from half a mile distance, although underfoot, with remnants of walls and cultivated plants holding on against the vines, human effort would undoubtedly be evident.

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Enrico said that in the 15 miles between the first and the fifth villages there were stone walls equaling the length of the Great Wall in China.

Farther down the slope was a path connecting the towns. The one between Corniglia and Manarola, the next village down the coast, was Via dell’ Amore—The Lovers’ Way.  A big favorite, one might imagine, but now closed, and probably forever, Enrico said.

A landslide had taken out three foot bridges a decade earlier. Two million euro-worth of reconstruction—three new bridges and trail improvements—were made before it opened again two years ago. The day after the rededication a flash rainstorm and slide took out one of the new bridges. Three Australian women on the trail were grievously injured. The path is now a wandering place for the ghosts of lovers only.

Closest to the water is the railroad. It was built during the 20 years of Mussolini’s reign. It is hard to imagine the labor it required. Most of the line in Cinque Terre is tunnel; two villages are connected entirely by tunnel. The removal of the stone required to build the tunnels is the obverse equivalent of the piling of the stone required in the terraces above it.  Enrico said it is one of the few products of the Fascist era that Italians are still proud of.

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We paddled east—down coast—to Manarola, and then on to Riomaggiore, where Enrico made a dinner reservation for the group, shouting from the water to a man on a veranda of white umbrellas.

Riomaggiore is the down-coast border Cinque Terre. We paddled back to Manarola and made landfall. The stone road up from the quay was lined with parked boats.

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Most were gozzo, the traditional wooden row boats, lapstrake and double-ended like Penobscot dories but beamier, and with a prominent bowsprit where you can tie a line or hang a life ring. Most have added transoms for outboards on the stern. Although the fish we are eating is touted as local we haven’t seen anything that appears to be a commercial fishery. The people in these boats had fishing rods only.

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Enrico disappeared and reappeared 15 minutes later with fried local sardines, calamari, bresaulo (which is a kind of beef prosciutto), cheese, bread and french fries. We had not done remotely enough exercise to warrant such a meal, but that seems to be the way of things on Tofino Expeditions. This is a food tour as much as a paddling trip.

After lunch we had an hour or so to explore. Ellen and I went up hill to where the road led to footpaths into the terraces. We climbed to some that were under extremely laissez-faire cultivation. Some of the terraces had stone bunkers, their purpose unclear.

 

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We had a good view of Manarola.

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We made our way back to Corniglia over the indigo water. For dinner we took the train back to Riomaggiore to claim our reservation.

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To kill some time five of us walked to the top of the town, where there was the remains of an old fort and a piazza with a cross and a view up the coast.

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At the very top was a parking lot; where the road to it went was unclear. A man there was guarding boxes of green grapes. A younger man, whom we’d passed on the walk up, was carrying the boxes down the stone road to a room we’d peeked into where a man was preparing to crush the grapes.

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Earlier in the day we’d seen large photographs in Manarola of people carrying baskets of grapes down the stone paths and stairs from the terraces in the 1940s and 50s.

We had a great dinner, of course.  We took the train back to Corniglia.  Ellen was dressed as if she were a member of the family of Saltimbanques.

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Italy, by kayak

There’s no getting around it.  Sometimes one person’s misfortune can produce another person’s vacation.  (I won’t say good fortune.)  That’s what happened to me.

Bob M, my cousin-by-marriage–it’s a relationship of love, not blood–suffered a partial retinal detachment about five weeks ago.  This frightening event forced him and his wife to cancel their plan to go on a guided kayak tour of the Ligurian Coast and Sardinia, in Italy.  Bob’s treatment prohibited air travel and his arc of recovery after surgery was uncertain.

He can now fly safely, and I am happy to report his eyesight is improving and the treatment appears successful.  Nevertheless, he and his wife decided a while ago to cancel the trip.  They made the decision too late to get a refund.  They looked around for a couple to take their place.  Not finding one, they offered a place to me.  This was a generous and entirely unexpected gift, for which I am very grateful.  So I’m taking in the sights for three.

Getting here, however, proved more difficult than expected, which given my travel karma should not have been unexpected.

I took the light rail from the bottom of the hill to Penn Station, where I planned to take a train to the airport.  The next one leaving was a pricy Acela, so I took a cab instead.  The entrance to the airport from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was blocked by a police car.  The cab driver exited onto Interstate 95 North, drove almost back to the city before using an “Official Use Only” crossover to head south again.  We got to the airport by a different approach; it was $15 more than the Acela fare.

The route was Baltimore-Atlanta-Paris-Genoa.  The first leg was uneventful.  But after boarding the flight to Paris in Atlanta we sat on the runway for an hour.  The pilot eventually got on the intercom and apologetically said the aircraft wasn’t mechanically ready to fly to Europe.  The groans were notably low decibel.  People don’t mind getting off an airplane they’re told it may not make it to the destination.

Another plane was found–does every airport have a hangar of spares?–and took off at three in the morning.  That was too late for me to make the connection in Paris to Genoa, so I wasn’t on it.  The next available flight was at four in the afternoon.  So I would miss the gathering of the group–that much as certain.

I spent the night in an airport hotel that seemed about a county away.  The flight took off on time the next day, headed to Rome, not Paris.  Soon it was time to sleep again.

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In Rome we disgorged and unaccountably had to go through security (where could we have picked up scissors and bombs?) before going to passport control.  I had only an hour to make my connection, and I didn’t.  So caught the noon flight to Genoa, caught a cab to Principe train station and found myself here.

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I carried an elderly couple’s bags up the stairs to the platform.  This proved to be a  valuable deposit in the karma bank.

I changed trains at Sestre Levante and got on the local to the Cinque Terre as the door shut behind me.  The stations weren’t announced and there was no route diagram in the train car.  Luckily, I didn’t fall asleep.  I managed to get off at Corniglia, the third of the five villages.

The station is on the edge of a steep slope; there’s nothing below it but stone and water.  The sun was bright and tourists were arriving and departing, many with trekking poles.  A sign announcing Corniglia (and the rest of Cinque Terre) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site said the village was 350 steps up the hill and also accessible by a 2-euro van.  I chose the latter.

The van deposited me a hundred yards from a hotel and restaurant where I was greeted by Daniele Ratto, the trip’s driver, humper of luggage, interpreter of local ways.

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This was the view.

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Corniglia has a small square with a large church and bell tower.  There’s also a chapel, also with bells, and another church at the top of the ridge a half-mile or so up.  The entire village is in an unlikely place, as (we will soon see) are its four sisters.  It’s on a slope of dense vegetation, scrubby trees, granite ledge, friable rock and thin soil.  The grade is so steep that it would require clambering on all fours in many places.  Building houses and farming would seem very far down the list of recommended activities.

But of course that’s what makes it such an amazing place.

A road–really an alley, navigable only by three-wheel delivery trucks–went off the square into the town.  The houses are like ones I’ve seen in other old European cities but that I’ve never seen in an American one.  It is hard to determine where one begins and the other ends; they appear to be part of one big simultaneously built structure that was then subdivided.  Undoubtedly that’s now how it happened.  But it has a mysterious unity and permanence, almost as if it had been excavated from the rock itself.

I’d love to get inside one, and I’d love to know how water, sewerage, electricity and gas were added.  But the only views possible are the clothing, wine and gelato emporiums that line the road.

The group was out on the water. They started from Monterosso, two towns to the north and were heading to Corniglia. All the outings are day trips. The nights are spent in hotels, and the meals (except for an occasional picnic) are taken in restaurants. Some of the expeditions of Tofino Expeditions are camping trips.  But not this one.

I put my stuff in the hotel room and walked into town. I took a stairway off the alley and climbed it until it leveled off into a passageway between front doors and the gates to back yards. The end of the summer vegetable season was on display in the back gardens—plum tomatoes hanging from staked vines, tan crookneck squash, greens.

The path led to a cemetery of crypts made of concrete, faced with marble and stacked eight high. Many had photographs of the deceased in oval brass frames. The earliest birth dates were from the 1830s. One that caught my eye was Gaetano Andreani Castagneto (1841-1932) who was (in Italian) “a veteran of the war of secession of the United States,” as well as a “capo squadron della MUSN.” No mention of which side he was on, but if MUSN referred to the Marines of the U.S. Navy, then it was the Union.

There was no obvious clustering of deaths during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19.

I walked back down to the main alley. As I was heading deeper into town I looked up and saw Jim Bean and behind him, Ellen, my sister, who were coming up from the landing and swimming spot at the foot of the slope, hundreds of feet down. They suggested I go for a swim.

I took the suggestion. The ancient stone path descended in switchbacks, protected in places by modern handrails. It’s hard to imagine carrying anything up it, although undoubtedly hundreds of years of the Corniglia’s contents arrived exactly that way, on head, back and beast.

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The town is separated by a swale from an equally steep slope with remnants of dry stone walls and the terraces they created barely visible

Daniele, my new friend, had given me the single room with the best view—a bit of the square, the headland across the swale, the sea.

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Although the town—and all of Cinque Terre—is crawling with tourists, it gets quiet early. Maybe that’s the effect of wine meeting age.  When the church bell rang once at one o’clock in the morning I stuck my head out the window and looked at the square.

It was empty. I listened for another sound and heard nothing.

 

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