“Right there, husband… Look at the pink house, no the other pink house, the one with the lounge on the roof deck. Right. Then move your eye up the side of the cliff, right where I’m pointing. I think … could it be?”
We are standing on the tower of Castello Doria, high above a spectacular scene of Mediterranean seas and bright-coloured houses built onto the side of a mountain of vineyards and farms. Looking down at where we began our upward hike, the main town square, I can see the restaurants where we’ve eaten over the last few days, enjoying simple feasts of focaccia, octopus, veal, gelato, and copious amounts of wine. Up there, just off to the left, I can make out the steeple of the church, where Dueane and I found ourselves one random evening. And there is the steep path that connects this town to the others along this coast. Around the harbour, I can see pasty Europeans sunning themselves on the large flat rocks and the pebbly beach that hasn’t yet enticed me, coming as I do from the land of pink sand.
This is Vernazza, one of the five medieval villages of Cinque Terre. For four days we’ve explored the implausible beauty of this historic region. And then, scanning this paradise, I’ve seen a sight even more beautiful, more idyllic than all the others combined. Grabbing Dueane’s face and guiding his eyes, he soon sees what I have and welps with glee.
It’s a bar.
We quickly grab our little map and start yelling questions at each other. What is that place? Do you think they have food too? How do we get there? Can you imagine the view? What if it’s private? Yes, but how do we get there?
At this stage we’ve taken the requisite 400 pictures at the top of this thousand year old castle and seeing the tables and umbrellas perched high above the sea, my mind becomes focused on one goal. Must. Find. It.
It is our last night here, and I am now obsessed, believing for some reason that our entire experience will be void if it cannot be capped off with a visit to this obscure and unknown eatery.
‘We have to find it husband. It’s our last chance.’
Used as he is to my tendency towards drama, and also having zero navigational ability, he merely takes a deep breath and says, ‘Lead the way baby.’
I have no idea where to begin.
Just the other night, we’d found that it is very possible to get lost in the cobblestoned, winding alleys. This pedestrianized village appears to have just been built haphazardly on top of itself, with stone stairs branching off from its one street, and taking you up into neighbourhoods of homes, galleries, a church, this castle, and (I was convinced) the best bar in all of Italy.
That night, having climbed an inordinate amount of those stone steps, we found ourselves at the church and a mini opera. I guess in Italy, voices that bring tears to your eyes and a pianist whose fingers fly across the keys are a dime a dozen. All I know is that Dueane and I clutched each other and my shoulders began trembling. There were 8 of us in a small room of folding chairs and I will never forget a note.
Two hours into our first night, a bartender mentioned that there was a festival two towns over, and so we hopped onto a train and found ourselves alongside thousands of people, random parade floats, flowing wine, 80s music, and porchetta sandwiches. After a few hours, we followed a crowd through a checkpoint, walked into a stone tunnel and down some stairs, and emerged at the largest beach party I’ve ever seen. That night ended with us realizing at 3am, with exhaustion having fully set in, that the train back wasn’t until 5.
The other towns seemed enticing. And so did stone steps. Another set of them had an arrow that said, ‘To Levanto’ and across the path, ‘To Corniglia’. Cinque Terre is a series of five towns (Italian 101), all linked by paths across the hillside. We wanted to do a few of the hikes.
The path between Riomaggiore and Manarola is called ‘Via Del Amore’, the Lover’s Walk, based on the story that young couples living in separate villages would use this path to meet each other. There’s a fence where travelers place padlocks with their lovers’ initials. Of course, I’d bought one and already etched KW + DD.
We planned to do the Lover’s Walk later on in the week but first, would walk from Vernazza to Corniglia. Various websites said the hike would take us around 90 minutes. Not for the faint of heart it said.
‘Are we faint of heart, Dueane?’ He confirmed that we were not.
Cut to 2 hours (90 minutes, fuh who???) of, yes, the most beautiful views, but also a steep, rocky terrain with makeshift stairs that I was tackling in Keds and sweaty, skinny jeans. While we weren’t faint of heart, we were certainly faint of fitness. Once that walk was conquered we regrettably agreed that, alas, the Lovers Walk nor any other was to be. We would instead spend our time sampling wine and food.
So, it’s not quite accurate to say I didn’t know where to begin, as it was obvious it would start with steps.
And so we began.
The climb took us up hundreds of stone steps, past gorgeous paint-peeling doors with giant iron knockers, cats sunning themselves on corners of old roofs, and a small tucked away art studio. When the stairs ended, the dusty trail began. We skirted around flower bushes and twisted our ankles on pebbles.
‘We aren’t going to make it,’ I huffed.
‘Keep going,’ Dueane puffed.
‘What if it’s not worth it? What if this is the wrong way? What if it’s closed?’ My
confidence dipped in direct proportion to the higher we were above sea level.
‘It’s fine. It’s an adventure,’ Dueane assured me, before sharing his true feelings. ‘It has to be open though. And they better take cards.’
‘I’m sure they do!’
Thirty minutes later, I’m drinking a glass of chilled rosé, quietly staring out at the horizon, having snagged one of the only four tables at this restaurant that has been built right into the hillside. The following day, we would load on our rucksacks and board several trains to join a huge group of friends in Siena for a wedding. But that night, it would just be us, reveling in our amazing discovery. Sharing plates of pasta, veal, and fish. Guzzling up two bottles of wine and sipping limoncello made from the lemon trees in their garden. All while watching boats sail across water reflecting the golden evening sun.
Or it would be us… once Dueane returned from walking back to the square. He’d angrily stomped down the hill, casting aggravated backward glances at me, and glaring at the sign taped to the cash register.
“No carte de credito.”
It was almost perfect.