Going It Alone in Cinque Terre

Neurotic Steve. Simpatico Steve. Who will win?

By Steve Burgess 29 Jun 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Solo travelers must make do. Having no one to squabble with, you end up squabbling with yourself.

Sometimes the brain of the neurotic must make a sow's purse out of a silk ear, manufacturing unhappiness against all odds. It's not easy to avoid joy when the requisite sunsets and enchanting vistas are all in place. Other times though, crankiness comes easy.

I'm on the cliff trail in Cinque Terre, Italy, the increasingly popular cluster of aggressively picturesque villages on the Ligurian coast. It's crowded, and I don't like crowds. Perfect.

Cinque Terre, the collective name given to the five settlements of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, lost its "undiscovered" status long ago. A long, stunning cliffside walkway links the villages, along with a commuter train line that carries weary hikers back to their chosen base. Once home to fleets of fishing boats, Cinque Terre has morphed into a five-installment seaside resort with an adorable fishing theme. Nowadays the fish walk the streets and buy jars of pesto.

And it is just my luck to have arrived here on some sort of European mega-weekend, a Thursday holiday that blends into an extra-long break, commonly celebrated by flocking to resort towns like Cinque Terre. So I find myself walking the cliffs between Manarola and Corniglia in a solid line of foot traffic, soaking up all the charm of a two-hour wait on the Stanley Park Causeway. A row of American teenagers on the narrow path is like a line of semis on a two-lane highway-impossible to pass. At least the semis don't go on about Kirsten's weight and what Krystle said to, like, Whitney. Damn, that sun is hot.

'Story of my wife'

All of this fun has been a relatively recent development here. Only a couple of decades ago it was still farming and fishing and no welcome mat for you, stranger. "Twenty years ago they didn't like people around here," says Isabella, a Brazilian import who runs a knick-knack store in Monterosso. "Then they figured out they could make money. But Ligurian people"-she makes a face-"they are not friendly."

Gilberto would surely beg to differ. Holding forth at the sidewalk patio of the Castan Caffe, he appears to be the unofficial mayor of Riomaggiore, the busy town that bookends the string to the south. Gilberto, a potbellied giant who somewhat resembles the actor M. Emmett Walsh, has spent his life in Cinque Terre, except for the times he spent working aboard ships. As he buses patio tables, he sings to himself: "The story of my wife…"

"A happy story?" I ask.

"Oh yes!" Gilberto says. "She's in Massachusetts."

Gilberto has the invaluable ability to chat and flirt in many languages. "I don't work," he assures me. "I'm retired. Ah, the story of my wiiifffe…."

But there is evidence for Isabella's assertion as well. In one specialty shop I pick up two bottles of olive oil and turn to the proprietor, a grizzled Hemingway figure who sits behind the counter eyeing a TV where Samuel L. Jackson is speaking dubbed Italian. "Are these the same?" I ask the man.

He does not look away from the TV. "Nothing is the same when things are different," he mutters.

"Oh. Well-are these two bottles of olive oil the same?"

He glances over. "Yes," he says.

In search of peace

Even back at the Castan Caffe trouble can arise if you try to pull a fast one, or are French. A French couple on the patio have plunked themselves down and started eating their own food. Gilberto's sister descends on them with a storm of invective, driving them out like moneychangers from the Temple. She turns to me, a solid paying customer, and spreads her arms in amazement. "Franchesi!" she spits out, followed by a lengthy peroration in Italian which seems to be about the crimes and surpassing arrogance of the French in general and these two in particular. I nod furiously, and for the rest of my visit we are great pals.

Back on the trail it's the old story of trying to find some room and a little peace. Walking into the main street of Manarola in the heat of the afternoon, the din of conversation from sidewalk patios is equivalent to a crowded ballroom or public swimming pool. Corniglia, the third town along the line, is about the same.

It doesn't seem to bother the cats, at least. Strays are everywhere in Cinque Terre, including cups and t-shirts. They are the unofficial mascots of the area and roam the hillsides, congregating at special feeding islands maintained by hikers' donations.

It's approaching six when I pass through Corniglia and pick up the trail for Vernazza. Here the trek becomes a little more arduous and even more beautiful, stone steps and winding paths through orchards and vineyards with the blue Mediterranean below.

Alone at last

Now the blessed miracle begins. Just as the hot sun lowers, the trail magically clears. I am almost alone as I rise and fall along the hillside trail, stopping frequently to look back at the cliffs that drop to the sea and the little yachts bobbing in the coves. Ah, the rich-spared the difficulty of all this strenuous hillside beauty.

A little spider crosses my path. She's hard to miss, done up in black and red velvet like a cheap hooker. How she sneaks up on anything I can't imagine-probably just winks at her prey and shows off a few legs.

About 40 minutes past Corniglia I walk past a lone bar perched by the trail. Moments later I stop, calculating in my head the position of the bar on the hill and the resulting view it must command. Worth a visit, I figure.

Sure enough, Bar Il Gabbiano may be the humblest piece of heaven on Cinque or any other Terre. With a can of Schweppes tonic to slake a well-earned thirst I am completely alone beside a window that opens up to a vista a seagull would envy-steep cliffs, perched village, and the Mediterranean etched with boat tracks heading over the horizon. Two euros for the soda.

There is more to come at Vernazza. The fourth town of the five is perhaps the postcard vendors' choice, a peninsula clustered with ochre townhouses, crowned by a stone tower. And on the hill that overlooks this wondrous village there is a restaurant called La Torre. Here I spend the time stretching from sunset to twilight in the company of other festive diners, swapping trail stories and samples from each other's plates. The octopus and potatoes with peas and olive oil are sublime.

And thus is neurosis driven from the battlefield in disgrace. It's Cinque Terre, in a rout.

Tyee columnist Steve Burgess drops the occasional postcard from his travels in Europe. Here's the stack so far:

This Barcelona Place is Great!

Stalked, The Casbah

Burgess in Tangier: Fresh Prey

Burgess in Rolling Purgatory

Granada, End of the Hippie Trail

Tapas? Tricked Ya!

Burgess Skips Town Again  [Tyee]

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