On a mid-May morning with a sky so clear that the silhouette of the French Alps could be seen in the distance, we eased away from the harbor of Monterosso into the cobalt blue of the
Ligurian Sea. Cliff-edge trails, that my husband and I had hiked the day before, look like mere threads, precariously, stringing together the villages of the Cinque Terre. Large, cushioned deck mats allowed us to recline and relax while Prosecco was poured into stemmed glassware for the toast to our journey. "Salute!" This is how life should be.
Angelo is a skilled captain with a fine voice who sometimes accompanies his recordings of favorite arias and melodies. He, his boat and the sea all move as one as he guides the craft into the harbor towns of Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola. Each is unique and charmed. Guests have time to explore on their own or with the enjoyable company of Alessandro, his assistant, who has lived and studied in the United States. (He's seen more of California than I have.)
As we traveled along the coastline, Angelo and Alessandro, share the history of the
Cinque Terre with their guests: a couple from the Champagne region of France and two couples from the United States. With pride and respect in the telling we learn of centuries of gravity-defying struggles, improbable achievement and the self-sufficiency that has sustained and preserved the five storybook villages.
Lunch, a feast - one of the best meals of my life: Porticciolo in Manarola, I thank you. At a round table in the quiet of the restaurant, platters of perfectly prepared seafood and pasta were passed and served by Angelo and Allesandro. Eight strangers - some shy and quiet, others gregarious - have their wine glasses filled and refilled. Fresh-from-the-sea calamari and octopus. Anchovies - filleted, then marinated in lemon juice, squeezed from lemons picked from the trees of their own courtyards and hillsides, or, salted in another gift from the sea - are delicate, sublime. (Twenty-six days since that amazing lunch. I think of those anchovies every day. They seem not to be even distant relatives of those things we take out of roll-top cans.) Mussels arrive in a warm, subtle marinara. Shells are closed, but worry not. These shells have already been opened, filled with savory herbs and breadcrumbs, tied shut, again, and simmered in marinara to meld the flavors of land and sea. This dish is a metaphor for the Cinque Terre. Angelo explains the ancient, specialty of the region, testaroli. It is served with pesto, sans garlic, I think. Testaroli may be the precursor of pasta, tender to the fork and satisfying. We buy a disc from a local shop to take home. Just before dessert, Angelo accepts a call from his daughter. She has done well on her exam. I see a man who loves his family and his life on the sea.
We resume our journey along the coast in a gentle breeze. For the first time I understand the color of lapis lazuli. Angelo explains the purity of these waters as we look into their blue, crystalline depths. I am sad that our journey is about to end. I consider asking if there might be room for us on the sunset tour later that day.
On our return we are greeted by Angelo's wife, Paula - warm, gracious, a transplanted American. Throughout our reservation process via email the month before, Paula made everything easy and worry-free. A deposit was handled through PayPal. Upon arriving for our stay in Monterosso, we made phone contact with Paula for the exact location. Again, it was easy. She takes care of everything.
Before we said goodbye, Angelo invited us to join him at a café, nearby, for hot espresso with a large dollop of silky vanilla gelato. So satisfying and delicious, partaking of this afternoon delight should be required by law.
I was the only guest who wanted to swim. Allesandro deemed the water "too cold". With my snorkel and mask still dry in my backpack, Paula explained access to a public beach - all within sight of her front steps. (I swim off the coast of New England in late September. It felt fine to me in the waning afternoon sun.) A pebble beach with a scattering of young families on blankets and a few sunbathers. No awful smokers or radios. An abundance of beautiful sea glass and ovals of terracotta tiles have been worn smooth by the sea. Small gems just waiting to be discovered. The clear water had a gradual slope with no tricky currents on that pre-season day in May.
To: Paula, Angelo and Alessandro: Mille grazie. May you and your families always go in health and return in health.
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