Where am I? On a cliffside of the Mediterranean between Genoa and Pisa called Cinque Terre, Five Towns, not to be confused with Five Towns, Long Island (Lawrence, Inwood, Cedarhurst, East Rockaway,and, uh, one other). These are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and each is more picturesque than the last. The entire rocky coast is sculpted for cultivating grapevines and olive trees, and for hiking between the towns. Where the land is wild, prickly pear and euphorbia and thyme and palm and oak fill in. Everywhere you look, it's a picture postcard.
A quaint local custom: in Vernazza, the main piazza doubles as a marina. Yes, boats are parked in the piazza for the winter. The cats nap in them, the men idly coil rope as they talk, and stage mock fights with the oars. One foccaccia place has a Mercury outboard motor propped outside the door. In Riomaggiore, boats line the main street on the way down to the marina. Manarola has a shelf on the rock that acts as a high-rise marina, with a crane to launch the boats, lowering them some hundred feet down into the water.
Another quaint local custom: the houses have stones on the roofs, held in place with gobs of concrete. I finally asked why, and the answer was the wind: the wind off the sea blows so hard that if they didn't place weights on their roofs, their houses would blow away.
Yet another quaint custom: people hike the trails using ski poles. I thought this was funny until I found a stick on the beach and made an improvised ski pole for myself. The trails are breathtaking, in every sense. There are such gorgeous views that you can stop and gaze while catching your breath. And though it's a surprise to find that it costs more to walk between, say, Vernazza and Corniglia than it does to take the train (trail, 5 euros; train, 1.40), somebody built and maintains these trails, which are actually a national park, and it was death-defying work, right?
Yesterday I took the train to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages. I went down to the marina and followed a trail cut into the rock to a beach of big smooth stones with the sea crashing over them: a chuckle-stone beach, rumbling in the surf. Then I took a path up to a nature preserve at Torre Guardiola. I am afraid I'll forget what this was like: the yellow blossoms of the euphorbia, with tiny orange centers, huge yellow snapdragons, the scent of mountain laurel, the purple thyme, wild chrysanthemums, stone steps carved into the cliff, the sea a constant foaming roar below, the silhouette of the next headland setting off a vertical spectrum of blues, from the zenith of deep sky blue to the pale horizon, against the turquoise band of the sea striated with aquamarine depths. Gulls, buoys, a boat, the rocks graven by wind and water, and the little villages piled amid the cliffs--tall narrow houses painted yellow and orange.
It's nice to stay in one town long enough to get to know the local cats, and see where the spaniel lives, and recognize the waiter at your favorite restaurant having a coffee at the bar on his day off. The girl in the tobacco shop has been helpful, too. I didn't bring enough to read, and she had some things on the shelf: I narrowed my choice to "French Women Don't Get Fat" and an Italian translation of Nick Hornby's "About a Boy." But I have plenty to occupy me with the newspapers and the Italian election. Everyone was expecting Berlusconi to win, for the third time, but the big news was that the Communist Party, the Arcobaleno, or Rainbow Party--the left--lost its place in Parliament. Berlusconi is called Il Cavaliere here. With all his plastic surgery, he looks straight out of the wax museum.
I am sorry I'm missing the Pope's visit to the United States, but not that sorry. The Italian coverage of it is pretty amusing. I hear he is going to Yonkers, and that the Popemobile, or Papamobile (five syllables), will not be allowed to drive over the playing field at Yankee Stadium; I guess some things are more than sacred. One writer calls the U.S. the "free market of God." Another painstakingly describes what turns out to be a bobblehead of the Pope, going for $12.95 and sure to be a collectible. Today is the Pope's birthday. I found myself studying his shoes in a full-length picture in the paper. I have heard that the Pope wears Prada.
Speaking of shoe leather, in Vernazza today a priest is going door to door, blessing people's houses. I saw him in the piazza, and then again on the way back up to my hotel. It is ninety-eight steps to my hotel room, though I don't suppose anyone will feel sorry for me. I don't. Once I'm up there, I have a view of the sea, and the sea fills my ears, too--waves sloshing against a promontory. I have seen tourist boats passing, and I hope to get on one of them before the week is out, but so far the sea has been too rough for the boats to dock in Vernazza.