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  • Maria Smith

Vernazza: A Coastal Village Experience

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Going to Cinque Terre was like traveling in time. We departed Rome on a northbound train, watching as the compact landscape of city buildings dispersed into the Italian countryside. Since late August, my classmates and I lived in the metropolitan Trieste, a Northeast neighborhood in Rome, right off the busy Via Nomentana. It was now November, and while we had ventured off for short stays in Florence and Pompeii, this was the first time we journeyed to the more remote Ligurian coast.

Cinque Terre, which translates as “five lands,” are five coastal towns linked by footpaths along the Italian Riviera. Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare are unique because they are traffic-free and recognized by UNESCO World Heritage Centre as a National Park and Protected Marine Area. For these reasons, Cinque Terre offers the most authentic Italian experience for travelers who want to escape the busy and tourist laden cities.

By late afternoon, we arrived in Vernazza, checked into our hotel, and then spent a few hours exploring the village. I opted to take some time to myself and found my way to the harbor. It felt good to stretch my legs after the five-hour train ride.

Brightly painted dinghies lined the quay in reds, blues, and yellows. The air smelled the way you’d expect a fishing village to smell, like seaweed and fish, although it wasn’t overpowering, and I much preferred it to the car exhaust and sewer that proliferated some parts of Rome. I found a rock along the port’s outer edge and sat down to take in the swelling sea that sent waves crashing into the cliff beside me. The sky was overcast and threatened rain. I journaled until I lost track of time.

For dinner, my friends agreed on a small ristorante that promised seafood on the little sign outside. We weren’t fluent by any means, but our three months of Italian language classes and frequent food outings had cemented “pesce,” among many other Italian dishes, to memory. Since we were in an authentic maritime village, seafood was the most logical choice.

Trattoria Da Piva was small, quaint, and decorated with framed pictures of the owner, his travels, and fishing excursions. From the photos, we saw the same bearded smile reflected in young and old versions. Aside from our party of four, there was one couple and one woman dining alone. The couple spoke to each other with strongly enunciated conviction, almost as if they were debating politics or arguing which was better, white sauce or marinara. Their language was reminiscent of Northern Europe. Norwegian? Icelandic? We weren’t sure.

The woman in the corner was much older than the couple and had wild gray hair tied up in a red scarf. In front of her was a book, propped against the table near a sauce streaked plate. She had an eccentric look like she had tarot cards in her purse and a hundred stories to tell.

My friends and I shared seafood risotto, ravioli, and my new weakness, tiramisu. Sometime during our meal, the owner sat down at an empty table, guitar in hand, and played several songs one would expect to hear in Vernazza. The man had white hair flecked with silver streaks and the same wide smile displayed in all of the photos. He began to sing in Italian, revealing a remarkable tenor voice.

He finished his last song and then asked, in English, if anyone else could play guitar. I shrugged, but it was too late. My friends had already pointed me out, and before I knew it, the man placed his old guitar in my hands. All eyes in the restaurant were on me.

I nervously strummed a few chords and somehow settled into the progression for “Amazing Grace,” the first song that popped into my head. My friends recognized the tune and came to my rescue, singing the hymn alongside me. By the time I reached the chorus, everyone in the restaurant was singing. It was one of those moments that felt like it belonged on television, but here we were, an unlikely mix of travelers singing “Amazing Grace” with our beautiful blend of dialects.

Singing “Amazing Grace” was our initiation into Vernazza—we remained at Trattoria Da Piva long after our song ended, getting to know our new friends. The debating couple, we learned, was a business executive and his wife, an opera singer from Sweden who had come to honeymoon on the Ligurian coast. The older woman, a professor from Arizona, was spending her sabbatical in Italy while sampling Italy’s fine cuisine. We told jokes, shared stories, and sang more songs.

The night came to an end when Piva gave us a private tour of his cellar. Hunkered in the small excavation, surrounded by jars and bottles of preserved food and drink, Piva’s friend passed us each a small glass of his homemade limoncello. We sipped the lemony delight as our new friends offered us parting suggestions of Italy’s must-sees.

“Go to Venice!” the professor urged.

“Tuscany is beautiful,” the Swedish couple added.

We placed our empty glasses on the table, exchanged our final well-wishes, and took the moonlit path back to our hotel.

We only had one more day in Vernazza, and we made the most of it—exploring the terraced hillsides, snapping pictures of decorative portals, drinking cappuccino, and hiking to an overlook for an awe-inspiring view of the village, the Belforte Castle, and the sparkling Ligurian sea.

I left Vernazza with renewed energy and a tinge of grief that more communities don’t rise and rest with the sun. Although it’s been over ten years since that surreal visit—whenever I visit the sea, smell the aroma of coffee and baking pizza, or hear a choir sing Amazing Grace, I think of Vernazza and the sweet memory of lives shared.

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