It took two days for my system to reboot in Lucca, but soon enough my Merrels were laced tight and I was ready to hit the road again.
Over breakfast at the hostel, I was joined by two females from Holland and Poland who I made some brief conversation with. Ms. Holland, being fond of spontaneity, decided in about two minutes to hop on the same train as me to the Cinque Terre. Ms. Poland chose to go the next day. I learned a bit of Dutch and we shared our favorite jokes, but the real fun began on board our second train.
Climbing on board, we noticed that 98% of the seats were occupied by boy and girl scouts sporting merit badges, duffel bags, and in the train we decided to take the standing room in, two beautiful acoustic guitars.
Brief aside: There are two things absent from me on this trip that I dream about daily. 1.) Nellie Hillner. 2.) My guitar. Continuing on…
I heard the sound of “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows sung with precious Italian accents and could remain stagnant no longer. I marched to the back of the railcar where the melodies radiated from and joined in the songfest. Our spontaneous setlist included an array of Disney favorites, House of the Rising Sun, Let It Be, tidbits from Mama Mia, Wonderwall, and Elton John’s Your Song. The scouts gave their salutes, and hopped off at some spot where they disappeared into the woods to go do who knows what. My itch for an acoustic sing-song session was finally itched and I felt like a new man. It was like a miniature Young Life Club. I’m sure the two Asian and British couples at the other end of the car would’ve tipped us had we had our guitar cases open.
Then we arrived at the Cinque Terre, “The land of a billion dreams.”
The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK-weh TEH-ray) doesn’t actually have an official slogan, but if it did, it’d probably be the aforementioned quote. Cinque Terre directly translated means “Epitome of Picturesque.” That’s a lie, it means “Five Towns.” The five towns that stick to the mountainous coastline like beautifully painted barnacles are, in order of appearance from South to North, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
Like the islands of Greece, the second hand on the clock just ticks slower in this unique collection of paradi (“paradise” pluralized). Along the coast, daily life constantly has the soft background music coming from the collision of waves against rocks. Outdoor seating far outweighs indoor, and in the morning and early evening one can look in shaded street corners and find groups of local elderly men meeting in the “usual spot,” sitting, watching the sun make its rise and descent, and conversing with one another as if the hoards of sunburned tourists around them didn’t exist. I remember what my bicycle guide, Encyclobike, said to me in Florence. He told me about the Italian’s emphasis on lifestyle. He said one of the things he’s noticed most about his time in Italy was the time many people intentionally designated out of their day to spend time with each other, usually outside, away from work or any other attention magnet. It’s beautiful.
I spent the late afternoon floating around in the Mediterranean off the rocky coast of Riomaggiore. I savored a slow dinner of Pesto Pasta, and hit the hay.
My first full day in the area, I decided to make the hike that connects the towns to one another. It was no walk in the park. (That was a joke. The Cinque Terre is actually considered an Italian National Park. Just laugh.) What made it fairly difficult was that, because I had to split my nights up at different hostels, I had nowhere to store my pack which meant I carried it on me for the majority of the hike. Leg work out – check. The humidity was also unusually high, which meant that my sweat was up to par with Ted Striker from Airplane in the scene where he’s trying to land the aircraft. The hike was a blast and the views were stunning.
That afternoon was filled with more swimming and some cheap dinner and drinks with some new friends from the hostel.
Full day number two in the land of a billion dreams was slow and peacefully exhilarating. Manarola was the only town not explored on the previous day’s hike, so I took the morning slow, caught the train to Manarola, and strolled around the back streets of pastel-colored hotels and apartments and found a few secluded overlooks reserved only for curious explorers. I got a snack of fried squid and shrimp and ended the afternoon watching daredevils cliff jump into Manarola’s natural swimming hole.
That night I joined two female hostel mates from Ireland and Canada to a local restaurant raved about in my guidebook, Trattoria del Billy, and the restaurant surpassed the hype of the book by a few hundred lightyears. The daily special was a lobster pasta. When I asked if the lobster was fresh, the server brought a live lobster to the table saying “fresh enough?”
The meal that followed was the best I’ve yet thus far on my trip. The oil and thick balsamic vinegar was the best my tongue has ever come into contact with. The sauce that glazed the noodles and the lobster was sensational, and the local wine washed everything down wonderfully. And of course, after hearing the word “tiramisu,” I succumbed to the waiter’s invitation and moaned in enjoyment of every bite.
With three days to kill before my hostel reservation in Switzerland, I trained to Nice for a day and a half and soaked in a whole lotta rays on the popular pebbly beach in the south of France. I also strolled around the famous flower and fruit market of Nice and hiked around an old castle.
Now time for another brief aside of comic relief. Feel free to skip this section. But if you want to laugh, continue reading. I stopped by a free modern art museum while in Nice and saw some interesting things. I assume no one reading this will get offended when I say that I don’t quite understand most “modern art.” It’s visually appealing, but very, very different from the art at, say, the Vatican Museums. I grabbed a free hand out that guided me through the museum hoping it would help me understand the three artists that the temporary exhibit highlighted. I began chuckling so uncontrollably I had to hide my face. Mind you, this is given to art laymen like myself and many other “average Joe” visitors. If you can understand this, please tell me what it means. Read slow. This is actually real:
“Linguistic polysemy and the slipperiness of meaning confer a ‘fundamentally ambiguous message’ onto these works, creating a potentiality, a new field of possibilities that appeals to our every sense and leads to a recreation, a poieses. The untranslatable work of art aspires to uncover the mystery of the world through travel, creative imagination, the universe of correspondances and poetry. The world of our three thaumaturgists works like a fiction, a mythology, in which they seem to create themselves in the manner of millennia-old forms from the natural world. Inhabited by animist philosphy subservient to ceremonial protocol, they are the manifestation of a (formal and intellectual) creation-in-process, in which the work of the hand disappears, as it does in a miraculous or holy image. The phenomena of apparition, emergence, formation, and birth allow for the momentary, instantaneous capturing of the world’s primordial energy…”
Now, some very exciting news. A band I’ve been fanatically enraptured by since March, Vintage Trouble, is touring in the UK in August. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me, and I searched online to find a ticket I was willing to pay anything for, and found nothing but dozens of “Sold Out” banners. Devastated, I emailed the band directly on their website and asked them about any opportunities to be put on a waiting list or buy a ticket from a third party. This is the response I got:
Thanks so much for the kind words and support. We are heavily oversold for that date and normally couldn’t do this, but we still have a tiny few guest spots open. However, we do love the backpacking stateside spirit and so we have added your name to the guest list for Brighton. All you have to do is just show your ID at the door to get in.
All we ask is that you come ready to party, play the record loud, and spread the VT gospel with as many people as possible. :-)”
I thanked them, and rewrote my itinerary to be in Brighton, England on August 15th. Oh, the joy that live music brings to my spirit, whether it be on an Italian train with scouts of on stage with soulful rock band.
Ciao Italy. My two weeks with you were great. Hello Switzerland.