ON THE ITALIAN RIVIERA, A DIFFERENT LIFE AWAITS
Learn more about Mediterranean cruises
In Monterosso, the most westerly of the Cinque Terre villages, I walk along the beach, smiling as I pass by my two favorite focaccerias — because, really, how can you choose a favorite between Focacceria Antonio and Il Fornaio di Monterosso? (This morning I went to both.) I admire the familiar salmon-colored building that’s covered in the trompe l’oeil "bricks" that decorate villas all over this Ligurian coast. I’m thinking that there’s not much left to discover in this town that I know so well and love so deeply. With a spiaggia (beach) like this — a breathtaking crescent divided into half moons by a wedge-shaped rock, which is itself dramatically cleaved in two — it would be greedy to expect more. But I continue on this late afternoon, because walking in the sun feels so good and the air off the Mediterranean is so cool and soft. A hang glider is enjoying the day too; the gentle breeze lifts his brilliant blue sails way above me.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, there he is. At the far end of the beach is a colossus: an enormous statue of an impossibly muscled Roman god — he must be more than 40 feet tall — seemingly carved right out of the cliff face. He cuts quite a Romantic figure, heavy with nostalgia. He is armless. He is sitting on the outcropping with his head bowed in great effort, a wooden ledge weighing down his massive shoulders. Under the ledge is a huge doorway-like opening to the sky. The statue’s face is rugged, his calves striated and straining, and his rib cage is herringboned with the kind of diamond-shaped serratus muscles that sometimes appear on antiquities and in anatomical drawings, almost never on humans.
I’ve been to Cinque Terre so many times and yet no one has ever mentioned this spectacular oddity to me; I’ve never seen the statue mentioned in an article or in a guidebook. I walk to the nearest beach bar to ask the owner about it. Claudio is readying for the lunch crowd as I approach:
"Buon giorno, signore, parli ingles?"
"A little," he says, warily.
I point over my shoulder. "This statue, what is the name of it?"
"Ah, Gigante!" Claudio says, suddenly animated. Then he slaps his chest to show me that his blue T-shirt says Il Gigante. He named his bar in honor of the statue.
That’s Italy. Walk a little farther, see just a little bit more. There’s always something else that’s utterly extraordinary that to Italians is just part of their daily beauty. ("Daily beauty" — isn’t that the phrase that Shakespeare’s Iago used to describe the Italian captain Cassio, in Othello?) They are not jaded about it, but they know they are born to it. The feeling of daily beauty is nearly tangible here, especially here; this is the coastline that entranced the great Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, after all.
I find a table at Il Gigante and order up a storm for a trivial amount of euros: tuna bruschetta and a plate of cured meat and cheeses, topped off by a gelato affogato al cioccolato (gelato drowned in liquid chocolate). Between bites, I research the giant of Monterosso on my phone and learn that this statue of Neptune was built more than a century ago by Arrigo Minerbi, the noted sculptor who also crafted the doors of the Duomo in Milan.
Sated, I walk on the beach towards Il Gigante. The sun behind the statue creates a perfect silhouette in the sand. I raise my camera and realize I’m in the pool of light created by the clifftop doorway 90 feet up. But then in Italy, I always feel like I’m standing in the light.
The sun-splashed Italian Riviera is divided by the city of Genoa. To the west, toward the French border, is the Riviera di Ponente (the coast of the setting sun); to the east, toward Tuscany, is the Riviera di Levante (the coast of the rising sun). The latter includes Cinque Terre: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. But to be sure, even though I’m not on the Ponente side, I experience my share of setting suns.
In fact, Manarola’s sunsets over the Mediterranean are so famous that the town bathed in golden dusk has launched a thousand calendars and even graced the cover of Jess Walter’s recent Italy novel, Beautiful Ruins. The book, which takes place in 1962, is about a lovely young actress who flees the film set of Cleopatra in Rome to hide out from her lover. The village she chooses, called Porto Vergogna in the novel, is fiction. But Manarola, with its dense patchwork of pastel facades perched over a cliff, captures the imaginary town’s romantic spirit.
It is a spectacular spot. Manarola may not have Monterosso’s sandy beach; but it is kissed by a clear, aquamarine cove — a sheltered and irregular body of water that assumes a serpentine shape, as it is interrupted by rock outcroppings that jut and bend this way and that. These rocky arms make for safe, protected swimming, and I explore narrow openings, gentle waves, brightly colored fish. Local kids leap from rocks, then climb back up on rope ladders. Fishermen lower their little wooden boats into the shallowest part of the cove, then row their way out toward the dropping sun.
It is something of a pilgrimage to walk away from Manarola, following the stone path that clings to the hillside, in order to be ready, camera in hand, to look back at the town as it changes color with the light. As the afternoon wears on, the hues become ever more vivid, like the colors in the coni (cones) of gelato you see everywhere: lemon, mango, strawberry. It is said that the fishermen painted their homes in such brilliant fashion so they could pick them out as they approached Manarola from the sea.
There’s a staircase above this viewpoint, marked with ceramic sign, Via dei Bambini, so I follow it up to find a little horseshoe-shaped park. The shift in perspective is subtle but unmistakable; Manarola — actually, every Cinque Terre village — is such a living composition of architectural art and landscape and seascape that it invites you to move, just a few feet to the right or left, up or down, to register even miniscule changes. On this stunning, discreet terrace of a park, a nonchalant memorial statue called Donna Dell’uva is holding grape vines in each hand.
That’s inspiration enough for me to head up into the town to Aristide, one of my favorite Cinque Terre spots. I order up a bottle of white to accompany my gnocchi that is brushed to such a perfect shine with the local pesto that it brings to mind a plate of jewels. It tastes even better than it looks.
Ah, the pesto of Cinque Terre. Along with focaccia, pesto — which was created in this region — is ubiquitous. Trofie al pesto is a staple on every menu, and Gambero Rosso, right on Piazza Marconi, the main square in Vernazza, offers up an exemplary bowl of it. The trofie itself — a short, twisted pasta — is Ligurian, from Genoa. Sometimes it’s served with potatoes, sometimes with green beans, but here it’s pure; just add a little parmigiano.
Tiny Vernazza, devoid of cars, is a little pocket of culinary curation. The village is named for its local wine, after all, and the hillsides are ringed with steeply terraced vineyards known for their white varietals. The seaside piazza is filled with outdoor seating that spills out from the restaurants — there’s barely enough space among the tables for the groups of fishermen to haul their boats to the water. (The sea bass must be caught — it’s to be my dinner.) I think a postcarb climb is in order, so I set off toward the first narrow staircase I see. Rising above the town, I look up between the rose-colored stucco walls and the green shutters to catch a sliver of blue sky.
Vernazza turns into a maze. At one point it deposits me back on the main "street" (pedestrians only, remember), which gently slopes toward the sea and boasts storefronts selling tomatoes on the vine, gelato artigianale (artisanal), and limoncello in decorative glass bottles. So I climb back up and keep going, up above the yellow octagonal bell tower of Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, up high enough to see the way the village envelops its emerald cove. Beneath me, the improbably narrow stone stairways that lead to farmhouses are nearly overgrown with shiny leaves and vines.
Hiking is a key part of experiencing Cinque Terre — there are paths between the villages, paths above the villages, and so many opportunities for just aimless wandering — but for me, a hike had better end with a swim. Vernazza has an active little port, with passenger boats arriving from and going to Monterosso and Manarola, but at the far end of the town, between rock formations dramatically scored by the waves, there’s a place to jump in undisturbed. As I lie on my back, I realize that I am directly beneath my corner table at Ristorante Belforte, the 50-year-old Vernazza institution perched on the cliff.
The startling thing about Italy is that the proprietors of "view" restaurants that could easily rest on their locations wouldn’t dream of serving up less than a stellar meal — that’s where the family-run aspect kicks in. Tonight there will be sardines and grilled octopus and whole fresh caught bass, my favorite waiter Andrea will sing and crack jokes as usual, and my aperol spritz will catch the last rays of sun in its joyful orange color.
But for now I’m content to simply float as a boat emblazoned with the words Golfi dei Poeti speeds away. In the Gulf of the Poets, daily beauty is everywhere: in the sea, in the cheerfully jumbled villages, in the bubbly aperitifs, and in the gelato. In Liguria, you can’t quite help yourself: Every day you become a little more of a romantic.