With the final steps into Vernazza I was truly famished. I vowed to never again attempt a 2.5 mile hike having only a cappuccino and pastry in my stomach. I was arriving into the second village of Cinque Terre (the five villages) along the Ligurian Coast in Italy. The day before I had traveled on the train from Florence, and was glued to the window as we entered tunnels and came back roaring into the sunlight, revealing pastel-colored homes built into cliffs along the sea. In February there were no crowds, no tourists, and no… vacancy?!
Our Cinque Terre experience hadn’t gotten off to the best start. It was difficult to notice the charming cafes when innkeeper after innkeeper seemed to have no interest in renting a room. Negotiation on prices was nonexistent, it was as if each hotel owner in the village had made a pact not to go below a certain price. After literal hours of searching, we stumbled upon a quaint guesthouse that offered a modest room at an affordable rate. With that task taken care of, I could finally open my eyes to the sights and sounds of the village: an old man with an easel painting in the street, the smell of fresh-baked focaccia bread, and families lingering outside of a bar with an aperitivo in hand. I took an immediate liking to Monterosso.
The following morning, after the aforementioned pastry and cappuccino, we set out for the next village of Vernazza. Each bend of the cliff face revealed an even more striking view of the glimmering ocean or inland to the fragrant lemon groves. In February, the trails were practically abandoned and the temperature was perfect for hiking. I stepped over streams, photographed flowers I’d never seen before, and felt a pang of awkwardness as the trail led right past a kitchen window of a small mountain cottage.
A couple hours later, Vernazza came into view. The village sits on a peninsula, wrapping around a bay. I imagined what it must be like in the summer, full of families and suntanned bathers, but in February, the beach was silent except for boats bobbing in the waves. The trail continued descending down towards the town, eventually joining the town, and finished right in the main street of Vernazza. I remember pausing to take it all in, realizing my hunger, and simultaneously catching the scent of something delicious (more focaccia?) and hearing guitar music. This all led me straight to the door of the Blue Marlin.
Massimo was leaning on the bar. Looking up from his magazine, he greeted us in that warm, hand-gesture filled way that only an Italian can pull off, and whisked us to a table. He had two menus under his arm, but said there was no reason to hand them out. What did we like? Everything here was fresh. Perhaps we would like his recommendation? We needed fuel for the hike. We should stop and rest before we continued. Did we like bruschetta?
Yes, (maybe my hunger was speaking?) I like bruschetta, and some of that rosemary-scented focaccia stuffed with ham and cheese, and maybe dessert afterwards? He put in our order and went to the CD player. Thumbing his albums the way I would thumb my bookshelf, he finally settled on some Portuguese faro music. He was in the mood for angst. He had an album to suit every mood. And many albums for making love.
With that he pressed play and pulled up a chair at our table. I am a master of body language, and yours is saying, ‘no men’, is that what you mean to display? I didn’t know I was being so transparent. Yes, I replied, I’ve started seeing someone recently. He’s wonderful. Massimo paused before his reply, as if measuring his next words carefully. You know you are in Italy, correct?
With a laugh he brought over our lunch and let us eat and enjoy our own conversation. As he delivered our dessert, his mood must have changed, and Spanish guitar played over the speakers. What mood was this? I asked Massimo, once again, leaning on the bar. I’m thinking about regrets. The woman wiping the bar next to him (who I later learned to be his wife) had a smile on her face.
After our lunch (and a stop at one of the strangest toilets in Italy – FYI – a hole in the floor) we set back out onto the hiking trail that connects Vernazza to the next village of Corniglia. Massimo made us vow (if we broke our vow it would break his heart!) that we would return that night via the train for cocktails, and first have dinner across the street at the trattoria that offered ravioli in a sauce of candied pecans. We said yes, it would be our pleasure to return, and set out on the next 2.5 mile hike.
We did return for a cocktail, and Massimo greeted us as his oldest friends. The music was livelier, Italian, the type that made you want to dance. I remember leaving that night for the last train back to Monterosso thinking that I wondered what the Blue Marlin would be like in the summer, how it would be to swim in the bay, to spent an entire holiday in this coastal Italian village. As I write, I wonder if Massimo is leaning on the bar, welcoming more visitors, providing memories as vivid as Vernazza itself.