Thursday, January 31, 2013

The first trail!

Hike up to punta mesco, semaforo
I am many things.  I'm a fast reader.  I'm a pretty good home cook.  I'm remarkably good with public transportation and maps.  I possess an utterly useless wealth of knowledge of obscure foods and spices.
This part required my hands.
One thing I am not, as I've mentioned several times before, is athletic.  Adventurous.  I never have been.  Where others may see a great workout and sweeping views, I see slow and impossible ambulance response times, killer bees, wild impaling boar, broken ankles and sudden heart attacks.

I'm a little clumsy and more then a little bit of a worrier, so I've had a long standing battle with the famous trails of the Cinque Terre.  It's mortifying.  The Via Dell'Amore, a paved, wide, flat 30 minute walkway that is more of a street then a hiking trail, is the only one I mustered the courage to putter through.  People visiting ask me all the time for recommendations, hike times, preferences, and after a while of muttering my way of of answering, I did what all good nerdy people do.

I googled it.


Instead of hiking any of the 30 or so trails that lace the region, I went online and spend hours reading other people's descriptions, looking at their photos and studying maps.  I became a fantastic liar to the point where people were asking me for information over the course of several days on return visits to the Cantina.  I could almost feel the hot sun on my face climbing a dusty old mule path, high above menacing rocks and crashing waves below, through old terraced vineyards that ran through the hills.  It became something of an odd joke, that people were taking my hiking advice considering I'd never actually mustered up the courage to do one myself.  Older folks with hip replacements, dads with children strapped to their backs, even women in low heels - I was constantly reminded of my own paranoia in the face of all of these people seemingly so carefree, so happy to climb up a mountain with no guardrail.

Then it happened.  The Via Dell'Amore that I'd done several times was damaged by a freak rockslide in October this year that sadly sent some Australian tourists to the hospital.  My faithful, easy little stroller friendly path was closed and that was it for me.  If I could get hurt there, it could happen anywhere.  It was time to do some hiking and see for myself.

Don't.  Look.  Down.
We decided to go up to Punta Mesco, which is the majestic mountain that hugs the right side of Monterosso, sloping up behind the famous giant that guards the last stretch of beach in the new part of town.  Manuel assured me that he did this part all the time as a kid, and my anxiety eased as we started up a paved road, then steep stone stairs.

About 15 minutes later, using my hands to help me feel my way up layered stone seemingly tilting out of the mountain, I glared at him.  Going up wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done, but it also wasn't the hardest.  It was quicker then I thought as well, as the hour I'd read about took us only about 30 minutes.  Oddly enough, I wasn't at all bothered about the height.  Once we got up, I finally looked out across the sea to the other villages on a crystal clear, warm, cloudless January day, and down at my own little village, snuggled into the nook underneath the shadow of the mountain.

It was more then worth it.

We had a short picnic lunch on top of the semaforo, which is a small structure built onto a high point of the mountain that was used as a stop light of sorts (semaforo means stoplight) to herald ships into the stretch of Ligurian Sea.  Also home to the moss covered, sun glinting ruins of a sanctuary to Saint Anthony, it was a beautiful spot to stop and bask in the endless blue in front of us and smile into the January sun.

The last part winds through the woods into Levanto.
Bolstered by my confidence in the hike up, instead of heading directly down, we decided to go further and hike all the way to the next village, Levanto.  I'd read that the hardest part was getting up to the semafaro, so I figured that the reset of it couldn't be any worse.  We packed up the remainder of our panini and fruit and with a deep breath, we headed onward.

Almost 2 hours later, I arrived happily safe and sound in Levanto.  We walked up and down the mountain with an incredible, breathtaking view (quite literally breathtaking if you were bold enough to look down - I didn't want to press my luck so far), and I wasn't hyperventilating of anything other then physical exertion.  The trail, though quite narrow in parts, had enough space from the edge for me to feel like I wouldn't fall into the crashing sea below, and though some parts of the path were covered in wet stones (it rained the day before), it wasn't incredibly difficult.  The rest of the time I was concentrating too much to really feel anxiety about the incredible height, and the other parts I was just looking out to the sea and sky in awe.

Friendly trail cat.

I felt comforted by the later learned fact that in January, the trails haven't been "put together" yet for the coming season, and were still a little rough.  Not that they ever get to Disneyland theme park status - though I now understand it's not as petrifying as I thought, it's definitely something to respect and take seriously.  You are still on the side of the mountain.  Don't wear low heels.  No matter who you are, hiking a mountain trail, especially for a novice, is something you want to take care doing.

Having said that, I was rewarded with a whole bunch of self-pride and even more great pictures.  As we climbed down into Levanto, the sky filled up with clouds.  We timed it perfectly.  Though I already thought where I lived was pretty amazing, this pretty much did it for me.  It's an incredibly special, unique, beautiful thing to live in a place laced with these old trails.

Sometimes, it's hard to see the small changes in my personality that have happened in the past few years here.  I never would have done this years ago - in fact, on my first trip to Monterosso eight years ago, I didn't.  I flatly refused.  We all change everyday, and aside from the obvious (like learning a foreign language), the smaller, more subtile changes may not be so easy to see.

Sometimes, it takes climbing up a mountain to really figure out how far you have come.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Coming home from a long vacation home (does that make any sense?) is exhausting, especially when you do not have a clothes dryer, and it is raining.
Good morning, rainy Monterosso!

The piazza in Pignone.  You can't even see the mountains above, the fog is so thick.

After making the completely out of character decision to leave the laundry where it was until a sunny day, we got together with Manu's whole extended family to eat Sunday lunch together, an affair that stretches into early supper time.  On a rainy, grey day we packed ourselves into our car and headed to the little village of Pignone (not pronounced pig-none, but pee-gnoooooh-nay), which sits nestled in the mountains above the village.  Several sharp, foggy turns later, the view of the sea faded into the woods, and the rain was pouring down the mountains in waterfalls.  As we all observed the cascading water, our car started to remark that the drainage had never been this bad, and Manuel's grandmother noted quietly that when people criticize the landslide and flood of last year as the neglect of formerly terraced vineyards and farm land, this area has always been woods, from top to bottom.  This area was also very heavily damaged on October 25th.  I'm quite sure they have the same quiet anxiety we do.

A hazy, foggy view from a little garden.

Clouds settled upon mountain peaks.

Behind the altar, a reminder of the end of life - what you are, I once was, what I am, you will become.

Pignone, she noted, is rich with the cuisine of the land, and remembers coming up here to trade salt that they had dried from the sea water with the local beans and, of course, potatoes, Pignone's most famous vegetable.  Seriously.  I had been reading patate di Pignone on the menu at the Ristorante and the Cantina for months before it ever occurred to me to ask what type of potato a "pignone" was, when I was laughingly informed it was actually a place (and our neighbor at that).  They even have shirts that they sell - I (heart) patata di Pignone.  Besides the potatoes of Pignone, the village is renown for sausage production (the sausages of Pignone are found even in the "artisinal" section of the mega-supermarket in La Spezia), salumi and other products decidedly land-based, as opposed to the constant emphasis placed on the sea spread out below us.  As I always try to remind people, the sea might be the most obvious thing when you look down, but when you look up to the hills and mountains climbing up past the beach, it's clear that there is another very strong influence on the cuisine of this area.

We arrived in the village on a day where the clouds seemed to have settled perfectly nestled in the valleys and nooks between mountains.  The remainders of a recent snowfall melted into the rainwater, and steam came up from century-old stone streets, leaving an eerily appropriate haze about the little village.  The medieval village (from about 1000 AD) is laced with old stone arches and facades dotted with wooden shutters on closed windows, sturdy doors opening up to a winding street accesorized by old barrels, waterpumps and mortars that now hold flowers, brightly out of place on a colorless day.  The bustling metropolis of 600 seemed to be hiding indoors, as we were the only ones strolling around.  It was fairy-tale charming, a little creepy, and completely appropriate.  As we walked over a bridge, I half expected a shriveled troll to pop his head out.  I was enchanted.

We headed over to the old church, and I was not at all surprised to see the priest closing the doors, then less surprised when he saw us and happily reopened them, explaining in intricate detail the history of the parish.  It seemed immediately like a village where people want to tell you stories of things long ago.  In fact, I would have been disappointed if there wasn't a priest there full of history, happy to spend his afternoon sharing his knowledge with someone who wanted to listen.  He took us on a tour, of sorts, telling us about the artwork that was in every corner of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta.  It was a patchwork of art from various centuries, things held on to for hundreds of years, belying a proud people that held on to the things that shaped their village culture.  He showed us an incredible collection of vestments in the rooms of the Church behind the altar that were the opposite of the grey day in the mountains - their colors were vivid even after so many years.  As we thanked him and left, he walked away smiling, and as we drove back down into our own little village, I was smiling too.

Pignone is a little piece of Liguria not many get to see, as Manuel's mom reminded me of how fortunate we are in the Cinque Terre to have the train.  With the ferrovia, our area completely changed, and Pignone provides a stark contrast to that, hugged in the mountains, in the woods, and more then a little off the tourist path.  They have a festival of gli orti every year, where they celebrate the things that they harvest from their land, opening up gardens, little farms and cantinas in the village up to show off their culinary traditions to the smart visitors who get in their cars and fill the streets of a village that is during the summer, bathed in sun.  With a car, an empty stomach and an afternoon free, it makes an interesting trip to really appreciate the cuisine of the mountains, and a little village full of history. 

And potatoes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Where I've been part 2

After a crazy holiday season, we cashed in my flyer miles (thank you again, Delta) and flew free to San Francisco for New Year's Eve and then arrived just in time for the arrival of Manuel's family from Monterosso for their first visit to America.  They stayed with us in the city for a week, then flew back leaving us the last few days here to say our goodbyes and hopelessly try and cram 2 months into an already overweight suitcase.

In a week, life in Liguria will resume as normal with some changes planned in 2013.  A presto!