Tuesday, December 09, 2008

from Italy: a matter of luck

I cannot think of a day in my life that illustrated so in-you-face boldly how, in the end, your lot is often made great or not so great because of dumb luck.

It had it all, this day, really, it had it all – frustration, beauty, brilliance, kindness, adventure, local food, color, camaraderie, huge drama and – a sun that set perfectly over the Ligurian Sea. [Reader beware: long post ahead!] Not much of it was of my doing. The best of plans could not have anticipated many of its components. Really, it was a day when luck took the ball and ran wildly ahead. We just tried to keep up.

It is an early morning for us. Our b&b, the Villa Margherita, is charming (I care about that) and quiet (Ed cares about that) and full of Italians enjoying a holiday – all wonderful…

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…but we could not connect to the Internet. And it’s important that I log in – there’s Ocean, sure, but there are also work projects that need my attention and, I like to keep an eye out for daughter news.

And so even though I have known for a while that weather-wise, this will be far and away the very best of all days this week – not one to be wasted, still, I needed to find a place to log on. I groaned to signora at the b&b that it is the only beautiful day for us and she shook her head. Do not complain. The weather last month? It made your hair stand on end. Two days decent, twenty eight crazy. (At least this is what I think she said; my Italian is 64% accurate.)

Levanto, it turns out, is a pretty little town. Here, just to give you a feel for it:

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And it’s big enough so that I do find an Internet cafĂ© and Ed finds a place to buy a cell phone card. A lucky break. Frustration overcome. By ten, we leave my small suitcase at the b&b, hoist our backpacks and set out.

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The trail is easy to find. And it is a brilliant morning! Someone wrote that a hike along the Cinque Terre should start from the north and continue along the coast south. Great advice. The light and views are perfect this way. Particularly if you got yourself a day where the sky is so piercing and blue that you can see all the way to the Alps up North.

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It’s a tough walk to Monterossa. The climb is hard and the descent is slippery. I trip once and almost bang my camera (yes, the new one!) on a rock. I`am reminded to take care. It's hard to keep your eyes on the path when the views are stunning, enhanced by the traveling sun.

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Three hours of strenuous climbing and we are in the next village – Monterosso. We are ready for a break, for food, for an undisturbed few minutes in the warm air. Salads, anchoives swimming in lemon juice and olive oil, followed by a macchiato and a Ligurian lemon cake.

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We mean to stop for only twenty minutes, but you know how it is – the lunch, on the terrace of a seaside enoteca, is so dazzling and leisurely and so full of people watching that we hardly notice the time. It’s two in the afternoon before we’re stretching for the next haul.

And now we have to make choices. There are only three hours left of walking light. The plan is to reach a village way too many kilometers away. And we hear that at least part of the trail is washed out, requiring a detour.

This is what I love about hiking the Cinque Terre. It doesn’t matter! You can’t get to your destination? Hop on the local train and make up the distance! We decide to make it to Vernazza before sunset and from there, we’ll catch the 5:30 to Manarolo (where I found a tiny, two room b&b, with WiFi!).

We set out. I’d been poo-pooing this part of the trail astouristy,” less remote. It is, indeed, the preferred hike – right along the coast (initially I had wanted to stay on the higher, less traveled path, the one we had picked up in Levanto).

I ate my hat on this day. For one thing, the scenery is absolutely mind numbingly beautiful.

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The sun keeps us company, moving now, unfortunately, rather swiftly to the west, but offering colors to compensate for its fleetingness.

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The climb is huge and I quickly take back all that I said about it being baby stuff. And the path is disconcertingly narrow. I would have had great trouble with it (I have vertigo issues), but the drop is not severe – there are many olive trees and pines and vines and Ligurian bushes of beautiful fragrance to catch you before you crashed to the sea below.

We are sweating one hour into the hike. The temps are in the fifties, but the sun is warm. I’m loving the fact that a sweater is almost too much and that my winter jacket is buried in my backpack.

But we are bothered by the constant buzz of a helicopter. I’m thinking it’s a private one. No, it’s going back and forth. It’s a patrol. Truly, my thoughts run to terrorism, that’s how sensitive we are on this issue. Or is it a fire? But it’s so damp from last month’s rains! On the last stretch we were crawling down wet rocks, concerned that we weren’t gripping the surface.

And suddenly we know. There has been an accident on the trail. A woman slipped off into the ravine. Caught by the bushes, she has now been hauled back up to the narrow path, crying in pain. (I’m thinking – crying is good; at least one leg looks broken, but a broken leg is not a heart attack or a cracked skull.) A half a dozen rescue workers are all around her. We are on a path that is impossibly difficult to navigate (and we are upwards of an hour away from either end) and yet, they rush from both sides, and from above. But they cannot carry her back. They tell us to wait. The helicopter is going to attempt to pick her up.

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It is an amazing feat. I am shaking, terrified for her, for them. But they know their stuff. She is packed, IV and all, into a bag and a rescue worker, literally strapped to her, or the bag that is her, is pulled by a rope dangled from the helicopter. The brush is in a torrent of wind from the spinning blade. The rescue team is focused on one thing – getting her up and out of there.

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And they succeed.

I’m crying for her, for their courage, for the care they took, for the care she didn’t take. But they are tears of relief.

We hike on, exchanging greetings of amazement with others who were stalled because of the accident.

And eventually, we Vernazza. One more cliff to circumnavigate and we'll be there,

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… just as the sun sets over the sea.

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We have a few minutes before our train. We stroll to the harbor, where fishermen are casting around, waiting for luck to kick in.

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It is dark now. We ride for ten minutes and we are there, in Manarola, where the cliff is littered with holiday lights, and the high school band is playing a festival of songs.

And dinner? Where can we eat well? Go to Da Billy, our super nice hosts at the eco friendly, tiny Da Paulin b&b tell us.

We’re in a small dining room, with three other tables occupied. We’re at a loss as to what’s good and so we point to what everyone else seems to be ordering – today’s special. Inky pasta with seafood. We throw in grilled vegetables. And a bottle of local white. Like the Veneto wines, these Ligurian wines are pale and light and 100% enjoyable.

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The food comes, and slowly the conversation in the room grows larger, so that first one, then two, then all tables are engaged. The father and son (owners) join in and the place is now exploding with laughter. I can only catch strands of it, and sometimes I ask for a translation, and they are happy to try, but really, it is inconsequential: it is about the owl outside, the Sicilian wife, the weather in November (all rain), and so on.

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We’ve long finished. The husband of one nudges his wife to get going. They have a train to catch back to Lake Cuomo. The others are all local. They are in no hurry. The owners pour us grappa and then limoncello, on the house, because, well, because you like it when people in your place are having such a good time.

We leave late. The air is cold, so cold. I have my winter coat and still I am in a hurry to get to our b&b.

I’m ready for the rains to begin. I feel I've taken up my share of the beautiful and sublime. I’m okay with a turn at the wet skies.