by Karen Misuraca
After weeks of playing tourist and dodging crowds and molto rapiddo Italian drivers in Rome, my husband and I turned our rented Alpha Romeo towards the sea and a string of quiet villages between Portofino and Pisa known as Le Cinque Terre. Friends described it as a kind of Mediterranean Shangri-La. Indeed, these remote Riviera towns — accessible mainly by foot, boat, and rickety train — seemed the perfect antidote for tourist-weary but intrepid travelers.
We started off in the port town of La Spezia and holding our own in end-of-day traffic, emerged onto the winding road to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the "Five Lands" — the other villages being Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. As the road climbed higher and traffic thinned, a stunning view of the coastline unfolded. Arriving at the top of Riomaggiore, we looked down on tall, narrow houses wedged between steep hills covered with vineyards and olive trees. Arriving at the top of Riomaggiore, we looked down on tall, narrow houses wedged between steep hills covered with vineyards and olive trees.
The one main street dropped abruptly down to the sea and a minuscule jetty. There were no signs of automobiles, except for a surprisingly modern garage on the roadside. The sun was setting fast and we hurried down the cobbled street into a canyon of color, between stucco houses washed in faded tones of coral, pale gold and a watery blue-green. Vivid magenta waves of bougainvillea careened off the balconies and window boxes overflowed with red geraniums. Could it be so picturesque, so postcard-perfect? Bright blue fishing dories piled with nets were lined up at the edge of the stone jetty, and a few old men sat smoking. Looking north, we could see miles of misty coastline interrupted by high, craggy promontories plunging into the Ligurian Sea like the scaly claws of a giant creature of the deep. The stone-paved terrace where we stood watching the sunset turned out to be the trailhead of "La Via dell'Amore" — the fabled "Lovers' Pathway" connecting the Five Lands, where we planned to hike the next day.
Turning back in the fading light, we wandered through Riomaggiore, stopping at signs for rooms, and having no luck, walked back up to the main road and got the last room at the Villa Argentina, a fine little hotel with a town and sea view. Our bathtub was huge, life was good.
Under a full moon on the patio of a restaurant near the hotel, we devoured frittatas di asparagi — small omelets with wild asparagus and potatoes — and frittelles di bianchetti — rice-based, sweet fritters. Our waiter brought glasses of sciacchetra, a sweet, golden, locally-produced dessert wine, and he advised that we set off early on our hike, against the heat.