This is one of the pieces I wrote for my Creative Non-fiction course. Actually, I took this walk and wrote the bones of the piece in my journal on this day, 13 years ago. I’ve revised it a few times since. It’s nice to have a memory to revisit and polish.
July 6, 1999, early morning.
I sit in the hills above Vernazza.
I woke at dawn wanting to go outside and see the light. I dressed, grabbed my journal, a purple pen, a sweatshirt, and slipped out of the room, leaving Matt dreaming. It was cloudy, almost cold. Glancing up at closed green shutters and bare washing lines strung across the alley, I descended the steps of the narrow passageway down to the street. Later those shutters would be flung open, and from the windows women would reel out freshly laundered clothes, waving like bright flags in the breeze. But at the day’s sleepy beginning, the air was quiet and still.
Four black kittens played at the bottom of the steps, chasing each other around empty café tables. The sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement signalled a few early morning travellers heading for the train station. Shop owners and barkeeps greeted each other as they sprayed down the sidewalks and piazzas or brought last night’s trash to the curbs. The back door to a bakery was open, inside I saw a young man kneading dough.
I headed towards the train station where a trailhead caught my eye when we arrived yesterday. Not part of the Sentiero Azzurro trail along the coast that leads north to Monterosso and south to Corniglia, this pathway snaked instead into the hills above the village.
As I walked the trail, I noticed an old woman in front of me with a box balanced on her head. I wonder what was in her box. Laundry? Bread? Flowers? She was stooped and round, her arms moving easily by her sides. Each step patiently took her up the hillside. She was in no hurry, years of experience reassured her that she would make it up the hill with just the right number of steps, in just the right amount of time. Those same years taught her how to carry the box so effortlessly. A study in balance. Around the cemetery, she disappeared. I don’t know if she slipped through a gate, stopped at the cemetery, or has continued ahead of me, hidden by bends in the rising road.
Down in the village, this road started as dark asphalt. As it slowly sloped, it became broken and narrower, gradually crumbling into a gravel track. I wonder how old this road is. In some places it is wide enough for a cart, in others just a shadowy footpath. Lower down, at every switchback it seemed there was a small shrine with a statue of a saint. Many had fresh wildflowers collected and laid in front. Others had cards or candles at the saint’s feet. I am sitting on a patch of yellowed grass gone to seed near one of these shrines. But this one appears deserted; the paint is faded and the weeds grow high, tickling the saint’s chipped stone robes in the breeze.
I wonder if she feels neglected. Does she envy her well-loved, lower-dwelling sisters who boast bright paint, fresh flowers, and jars of stout candles? Or does she harbour the solitude, preferring to fade and relish the worship of a lonely traveller who comes far and looks hard, offering only a prayerful presence?
From here I can see the piazza where we lingered over limoncello last night watching the sun sink west while the day’s heat and colors softened into evening. I look down on the castle that juts out into the sea, simultaneously protecting and overlooking its village. Beyond the harbor, I can see the larger patterns of waves in the sea. The slopes are terraced with grape vines and olive groves all the way up the hills, and there is a small monorail for bringing down the harvest. Somehow the vintners cultivate this land without taming it. Wildness and vineyards mingle like first cousins.
The scent of grasses burnt to straw by the summer sun smells like sweetened heat. Bells in the rounded tawny tower that stands between me and the castle sing that it is seven am. Somewhere below me, a few Italian words burble up through the leaves. Shifting slightly, I spy two men. Perhaps a father and his grown son, looking at their vines, discussing the day and the harvest, making guesses, comparing theories. Farther away, more bells ring.
Someone is walking up the path. It is the woman with the basket. She passes me, murmuring a quiet ‘Buon Giorno.’ I nod and smile in return. I hear her steady breathing as she passes me and listen to her footsteps fading while she continues up the hill
I will head back down into the village soon. I’ll wake Matt and we’ll find pastries and coffee for breakfast. Perhaps we will wander along the Sentiero Azzurro to one of the other villages of the Cinque Terre, enjoying beaches and ice cream in Monterosso. But first, I sit. There are still no people walking the breakwall or dotting the café tables down below. Raising my gaze, I look beyond the brightly coloured village clinging to the rocks, the sheltering harbor, the cheerful boats. This morning’s horizon is not a sharp line between blue sky and blue-black sea, just a hazy dissolving of water into mist into cloud.
I long to hold on to the steadiness and stillness that walked me up the hill. I want to be able to close my eyes and recall this scene after I descend the hill, and even later, after we fly back to our busy lives. I want this morning to stay with me the way waves linger in your blood long after you leave the ocean.
A barking dog nearby breaks my reverie.
Before I leave, I look at the saint. We exchange a silent blessing.
I begin my descent.