Part Two of reflections on recent Italian travels. (For Part One: go to Florence)
After bustling Florence came a seaside getaway to Vernazza, one of five small villages that make up the Cinque Terre area on the Ligurian coast. A lush, green coast made of steep hills that plunge abruptly into the deep blue sea below. In between the villages, terraced vineyards and olive groves.
Part of the impetus for traveling to Italy was to visit my sweet wifey-love, C. Though our friendship is only a little over two years old in this space-time continuum, she is so much more than a friend. She is my family, she is a piece of me, she is my person is this lifetime. Wifey-love had moved to Italy to train as a chef. And on a sunny Tuesday, after four months and one week apart, I got off a train, scanned the platform, and was greeted by that life-infusing smile. There were hugs, laughter, and many a “OMG, I can’t believe you’re here.” From there we took another train to Vernazza. Wifey-love had found us an incredible apartment with a balcony overlooking the harbor. Below, colorful umbrellas on restaurant patios, kids playing fuzz ball, and old men sat on benches, their hands moving in unison with their lips. Floating in the air, the mouth-watering smell of freshly baked focaccia.
The next day, with oversized totes on our shoulders and focaccia in our bellies, we set out on the hiking path that links Vernazza to Corniglia, the next village over. Wifey-love had read about this private beach in her guide book and also in the New York Times that can be accessed via an old rail tunnel. We hiked; we stopped for pictures; we sweated. After some time, I saw a sign. It was a raggedy piece of white plastic, with a Sharpie-drawn arrow pointing to an overgrown trail and the words “Guvano beach.” Also written was “only 20 min.” There was no rail tunnel in sight – but aren’t we to follow the road less traveled? We started down the steep path, giggling at our adventurous spirit. Pretty quickly we were struggling to find the trail, fighting off prickly bramble, and slipping repeatedly on wet muddy rocks. Then there was blood, throwing of my tote bag down below in a desperate attempt to improve my already precarious sense of balance, and several slips and falls (by yours truly). Then there was only wifey-love’s strong hand applied to my belly to stop me from taking a serious tumble down the hill. There was more blood, a sense of being utterly lost, and attempts to use bamboo as walking sticks – there was enough bamboo on that hillside to make it look like the Cambodian jungle. There was also talk of turning around, followed by defeated glances at the steep path behind us, followed by forceful utterance of the word “adventure” despite the sea seemingly a lifetime away down below. After what seemed like an hour but was probably exactly 20 minutes, the ground leveled, the angry bramble disappeared, and the sea was at eye level. But the path had split into multiple trails and there was no beach or rail tunnel in sight.
Out of nowhere, a man appeared. Unlike us, he was wearing hiking boots, a hat, and had a backpack strapped tightly to his back. He said he walks these trails everyday, from one village to the next. Everyday. He spoke English. We explained our predicament. He said he’d walk us to the beach. Then he asked: “did you come down the path from the main trail?” We said yes, adding nothing more since our bloodied limbs and muddied bags already told the whole story. He replied: “oh, you came down the easy path.” Wifey-love and I exchanged uneasy glances. We asked about the rail tunnel route. He walked us to the entrance of the tunnel, which leads straight into the village of Corniglia, he told us. It used to be a train tunnel, but had been abandoned for years. “10-15 min walk” he said, “but there is no lights. Completely dark.” To prove his point, he walked us down the first few hundred yards, the bright daylight fading quickly with each step. He had a flashlight. We had bathing suits and sunscreen and diet Cokes. But we had an iPhone! We were saved! He then walked us to the 2 nearby beaches, Guvano beach and another one further down; both quasi deserted, both nearly impossible to access, with ladders in various states of disrepair affixed to the bedrock. We chose Guvano beach; it was our goal after all. We thanked our guide profusely and parted ways.
The beach was full of grey pebbles and older Italian men with no tan lines – no swim wear helping. The water was cold but the sun was fierce. The craving for gelato grew stronger by the minute; it would be our reward for making it through the tunnel. I came up with idea of playing music while walking to banish our fears. In my case, fear of rats and other creatures that go bump in the night. We saw our guide from earlier, sunning himself near the edge of the tunnel while conversing with another man. We waved goodbye. We stepped into the tunnel, iPhone on, holding on to each other and to the tunnel wall. Soon after we lost our last shred of daylight, we saw a flashlight in the distance. I felt better – other crazy tourists like us. Even though the light seemed far away at first, it was upon us quickly. It was a young couple, the girl looking paler than her white flowing dress. We told them the beach was only 5 min away. They told us the other end was “kinda close” and that they were “no mole people” in the tunnel. We pushed on. Suddenly, a light appeared behind us. It quickly caught up to us, unnervingly so, lighting the narrow ledge in front of us. It seemed intent on catching up with us. I felt wifey-love squeeze my hand – or was it me squeezing hers? “It’s me,” a voice boomed, “I want to show you the way.” It was our guide. He had come to show us the path. It’s normal for random strangers follow girls in pitch dark tunnels, right? Right? He continued to walk behind us. Wifey-loved peppered him with questions – she later told me she has learned on CSI that serial killers are less likely to act if they see the humanity in their victims. He told of us he had been in the Navy for 44 years. He was retired now, but he loved to walk, so he hiked the paths of Cinque Terre every day. He asked nothing of us. When we reached the end of the tunnel, he pointed to an old neon light dangling from the ceiling. “This used to be a well-kept path, with a man who turned to the lights on. Lots of people used to walk the tunnel. It hasn’t been lit in some time now.” I think it was at that time that wifey-love said “well, the NYT article was from 2007.” He showed us the uphill path to Corniglia as he set for the trail that hugged the coastline. We parted, our hearts swollen with gratitude. Wifey-loved asked for his name. “Antonio.” More like San Antonio to us.
A few days after leaving Cinque Terre, back in the perceived safety of an urban cocoon, I came across this picture.
Wifey-love and I went on an incredible adventure. No map, no prep, no problem. If I hadn’t seen the sign, we would have avoided a few scares and many scars. We wouldn’t have met San Antonio. The true adventure was forging a bond with this man who appeared out of thin air, sharing stories and trusting implicitly. We never asked him why he walked these trails every day; it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the three of us walked a common path for a handful of hours. We forever tied a little piece of ourselves with San Antonio. I’d like to think that he did the same with us.
Because nothing in this life is meaningful unless shared with the people who grace it.