It was a balcony that saved us in the Cinque Terre. During our stay in Vernazza, one of five coastal villages strung pearl-like along the cliffs abutting the Legurian Sea, we could sit on our apartment balcony and escape the crowds. In Rome, people are absorbed by the spaces of a large city. In the country, people often define your experience, and too many can spoil it. But when you have a balcony, you can breathe.
In La Spiza we transferred from the upholstered national train to the utilitarian regional train that pin-balls between the 12 kilometer stretch of the Cinque Terre coastal region. Almost everyone arrives by train because cars are banned in town and to park above town means a mightly long decent. The story I told myself before we arrived was that, given the uneven and hilly terrain, the Cinque Terre would be visited by well-conditioned, unobtrusive travelers. I was disobliged of this notion as soon as the doors of our train opened to the platform. Before we could get one foot down the step a flood of tank-topped, sweaty humans fought against us to get onto the train. Z disappeared somewhere between the platform and the gap and C became frantic trying to spot a 3-footer in a sea of giants. Who were these people? What the hell was this place?
I had to stand limp for several minutes with my retrieved child's hand while letting a sea of humanity pass by me and down the long stairway leading to the town center. A few years ago, catastrophic mud slides wiped out major sections of the coastal walking paths that connect the five towns, so the the only reasonable way to visit them all in one day now is by train. Apparently, this quest for village ticking leads to unabashed disregarded for the basic human courtesy of letting passengers off a train before climbing on. Do I sound like I've been living in England for awhile now?
Once composed, we climbed 25 high-rising stairs then another 50 feet of stone walkway to our Air B&B apartment which looked out over the sea, the church clock tower and the swarms of day-trippers. Fortunately, there are a finite number of hotels and rentals available in a 900 year-old town built into the crack of a coastline, so by the time it got dark at 9:30, all was quiet and you could reasonably swing a 5 year-old in circles without hitting anybody.
During the day, we walked. C managed to hike most of the open sections of trails and was proud to say he'd had an espresso in all five towns. With the help of chocolate cookies, Z walked with us (and 3000 other people) over the 3.5km, 3 hour, cheek-puffing trail from Vernazza to Montesoro. There we ate fresh anchovies (a far cry from a Ceaser salad) and blood-red bruchetta. I returned via the trail in half the time it took to get there and C & Z skipped stones and took a water taxi back to our home base.
By 5:00 the crowds were at their peak and we'd retreat to the balcony, most often with a bottle of white wine from grapes grown on the flanks of the nearby hills. Our Seattle friends were with us again and there was just room enough for four chairs on the balcony if someone balanced a foot on the pot of geraniums. Z would lounge on the bed playing Angry Birds and we would read or talk or just marvel at the view. Had we been driven inside by poor weather, we would have been forced to play Bananagrams and complain about the exorbitant price we were paying for what was essentially two queen beds with a wall down the middle.
But the sun shone. The sea was quintessential aquamarine. Waves foamed against the rocky shore like a bubble bath. The hillsides were terraced with basil and grapes. The passageways were graced with bright flowers and lounging cats. White linens fluttered from lines strung across the pedestrian paths. From a distance, the sight of these old towns, with their buildings overlapping like the pipes of a church organ, was every bit as lovely as any Greek Santorini.
Around 8pm, as the sun was still taking it's summer time to reach the horizon, we would venture out again for a meal. First we would hit the focaccia take-out where Z would order a slice as big as his head, always the margarita, and we would relax at a cafe on the plaza, always eating the anchovies and pasta.
Darkness came slowly, the sea rocked. We lit tea lights and sat on the balcony again, licking our limoncello and basil gelato, marveling at the transformation of this town from din to dreamy. As that parotid-puckering icy lusciousness filled my mouth, I thanked the gods again for the balcony.
So in Vernazza I decided to always carry a mental balcony with me. In a crowded, chaotic place, my balcony would allow me to rise above the fray: above the shoulder-rubbing masses, the cheap toy hawkers, and the urine-soaked corners. I could sit on that balcony and appreciate why all these people had to be here and why I was here: Because the Cinque Terre is beautiful.
P.S. I've decided to reduce my post frequency to every other week. Recently, I attended a writing workshop and have some new projects I want to devote more time to. I hope the new schedule will continue to please and inform while I create some new literary doosies on the side. Stay tuned...