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Vacation Memories : When Father and Son Shared a Walk Along the Steep Cliffs of Life

Vacation Memories

September 13, 1987|WILLIAM C. BRISICK | Brisick is a Westlake Village free-lance writer

He always stayed a little ahead of me, Kevin did. He had reversed the roles of childhood when I'd have to walk slowly to let him catch up--and sometimes end up carrying him. But he was 23 now; his stride had lengthened, mine had shortened, and that is the way of life.

I'm tempted to say he walked with a determined stride, but that wouldn't be true. No, there was a slight swagger about his movements, from a few years back. When he had his triumphs in school life, sports and music, he stopped taking things all that seriously. Now he preferred life's ironies, its shadings, rather than the black and white; he'd learned to approach life on a slant rather than hit it head-on.

It was he who had suggested we take "a long hike" from Riomaggiore, the southernmost city of the Cinque Terre, the "five lands" along Italy's Ligurian coast. The other towns heading north on the mile-long stretch include Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.

We'd arrived in Riomaggiore in late afternoon; it was a remote stop, but not unlike the many we'd chosen on our four-week rental car meanderings.

Through Five Countries

With Kevin and my 14-year-old daughter, Jenny, I'd poked about in five countries--big cities, small towns, unforgettable mountains and valleys, planning only a day at a time, our leisurely drives punctuated by the sounds of the many cassette tapes they'd brought along, Kevin's favorite Beatles songs among them.

Something about Riomaggiore must have struck a chord with Kevin--the cliffs and mountains that isolate the town from its neighbors, the terraced slopes filled with grape arbors, the houses piled up around a postage-stamp harbor, the precipitously steep walks that call for slow and carefully placed steps.

We had come to the end of the road: Either turn around and drive back to busier places like the port of La Spezia or try to find a place to stay. Jenny was thirsty, so I set out in search of aqua minerale and lodgings.

We found both. The guest house came at the end of a narrow path flanked by fruit trees--peaches, apricots, and, of course, the all-encompassing grapes that soon would convert to the fine wines of the Cinque Terre.

Our room overlooked the sea; on the balcony we heard the waves settling against the rocks, and on lines conveniently hung we put out our clothes, freshly washed.

"We should do our hike in the morning, Kev," I said. Jenny was pressing for a shopping visit in the village, and by then it was after five. He agreed. Later we drank the wine I had bought from our proprietor after he'd decanted it from gallon jugs, and later still we walked to the village below and had a leisurely dinner of calamari.

We went to bed early, the rhythm of the surf gentle in our ears.

A 'Walk of Love'

At 7 the next morning we were out, leaving behind a contentedly sleeping Jenny. The sun sat low, the air was cool, and Riomaggiore's shuttered houses looked pale in the morning light.

We walked past the railroad station. Local trains, we knew, served the towns of the Cinque Terre quite efficiently. But we sought a higher adventure, the Via dell'Amore, or "Walk of Love" that connects Riomaggiore with its neighbor, Manarola.

The route, paved with stones, is wide and flat, carved as it was out of the cliffs. Manarola was only half an hour away, and I was about to remark how easy our hike was when the trail virtually disappeared, losing itself in narrow, steep, foliage-shrouded steps.

It was our entree to Manarola. Our only guide was the faint blue-and-white flags painted at various points along the way.

We made it to the top and walked briefly through the town. We saw the boats strewn halfway up the street and the lines of wash (just like ours) hanging from the windows above. Then we decided to go on to Corniglia--remote, forbidding, on its own promontory, the sun's glint reflecting off of its church, its stack of houses.

It was remote. And far off. Along the way the coastline softened a bit, producing some small, rocky beaches that were not easy to get to. Now and then we walked by a trail, barely seen, that led to a beach house, its roof just visible down the slope. We passed sleeping backpackers and maintained a respectful silence. Finally, Corniglia, smallest of the five villages, loomed ahead, a cluster of white and beige against the green hills.

I remarked to Kevin about the cars parked along the road leading down to the train station. How did they get there? From what I'd read, no roads led to Corniglia, the most difficult of the Cinque Terre towns to reach either by land or sea. But 14th-Century Italian author Boccaccio had once praised its wines, and, still without breakfast, we needed to find a cafe.

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