I think the most magical thing I saw in all of my time in Italy were the five towns of Cinque Terre. This was planned about as last-minute as possible, but I’m so happy it all worked out. Cinque Terre is the place where my mind goes when I start to reminisce sappy and happy about the whole summer. It was two days and it was absolutely magic. That’s the only word. Magic.
We woke up early on a Saturday morning and took the train to Monterosso, which is the town with the main stretch of beach. Pink flowered trees against pink buildings, colorful lines of umbrellas, the prettiest clear blue water the color of seaglass, big dramatic cliffs and rocks in the sea, the enveloping smell of fried seafood served with lemons in paper cones. It all smelled like the sea. Not the ocean. Every time I said “the ocean” while recapping my trip, my host mom and the little girls I was au pairing always said “the sea! it’s the SEA!” Having not grown up anywhere near an ocean OR a sea, I seemed to think they were somewhat interchangeable. Not the case. From the second I walked out of the train station in Monterosso, I was charmed and amazed. We ate lunch in this magical little tucked-away garden area, where we were surrounded by all kinds of flowers but we could still see the sea right in front of us. I had pesto pizza and Prosecco. Pesto is the specialty of the Ligurian region, so I had it a lot that weekend. I used to be addicted to pesto, so much so that I made myself unable to consume it for years. Ligurian pesto is something entirely different. So smooth, so pungent, so garlicky! It was so fabulous, and I’m committed to making pesto that would make a Ligurian proud. It’s all about the ingredients, the component parts. I’ll try my best, but my basil is not grown in that special Italian soil. Afterwards, it was gelato time. After a month, I had settled on my perfect combination–stracciatella (what is basically a milk-flavored gelato with chocolate shavings) and raspberry. It was one combination I found where the fruit flavor didn’t taste strange with a non-fruit flavor. It was enough chocolate to satiate me but not enough to make the fruit flavor taste weird. I later found out it was my host daughter/sister’s favorite combination as well.
After lunch, we went to the beach. It had been forever since I had been on a beach, and I was so happy. It was cloudy basically all weekend, which turned out to be good because it cut down on the number of people everywhere and it wasn’t so miserably hot. I laid on the expensive linen souvenir blanket I bought because I forgot to pack a towel in my tiny backpack, listened to the waves crash, and got incredibly depressed and upset reading the classic light beach read of A Little Life. Had to put that down because it was distressing me so much. The sun came out for a bit and I fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on getting in the water since I’m not the biggest fan of swimming in open waters, but there came a point where I was just so sweaty and it looked so inviting. So I swam and I’m glad I did. It felt amazing and it was so salty and it felt so free just trying to float, trying to wade myself backwards. I was so happy in that moment. None of it felt real. That feeling came over me so many times during this summer—this stuff doesn’t happen to me, I don’t get to climb over the Adriatic Sea and look at pastel clusters of Italian houses. That’s other people. That has never gotten to be me. I felt very lucky and very disbelieving.
That night, we took the train to Manarola and walked up the side of this cliff to a beautiful bar we had heard lots about. The views were unreal. Not real at all. There were no words but magic magic magic. We got to the top and the bar was closed but we mooched off their view and said we would go the next day. We sat on a bench on the side of the cliff and took it in for a while.
Corniglia was my favorite town of the whole bunch. We took a rickety little bus up to the top of the cliff to get to the center of the town and I was so nervous. The town was so adorable—little colorful alleys with tiny precious shops, baskets of lemons, trattorias, rainbow paper lanterns. I was smitten. I was obsessed. We had lemon basil gelato at 10:30 in the morning. After a thorough exploration of Corniglia, we took the train back to Manarola to go to Nessun Dorma, the bar/restaurant on the cliff. We were first in line but some boneheads cut us. I had pesto bruschetta and a lemoncino spritz overlooking…everything. Have I ever felt more famous?! The answer is no. Of course I haven’t. We did make it to every town but Corniglia, Monterosso, and Manarola were the highlights.
My only souvenirs from the weekend (the only souvenirs I need) were trofie pasta and a jar of Genovese pesto, which is the base for one of the region’s signature dishes, trofie al pesto. It’s composed of trofie pasta (a shape of which I had never heard!), pesto, baby potatoes, and green beans. I made it (minus the vegetables—sorry we didn’t have them in the house!!) and had it for lunch for several days. I would eat outside, on the table overlooking the mountains in my favorite garden, and I felt grateful for beauty and for life and for pasta and for everything that led me to the space I occupied in that very second.