A typical day from my recent trip: I wake up to the distant bonging of church bells announcing seven o'clock. The soporific sound of the sea shushes me back to sleep. The murmur of a middle-aged tour group wafts up from the street, growing louder as they shuffle past en masse toward the seafront. I doze on. Eight o'clock and the bells toll once more, gently nudging me back to awareness. Someone is brewing delicious smelling coffee in the kitchen. Just before nine, the fish man winds his way down the main street in his van - the only traffic in the small seaside town of Manorola - talking all the while into his loudspeaker. I imagine he is saying something like "Fresh fish! Everybody come and buy my fresh fish! My fish are the best fish for miles! Queue here for fish!", but it sounds far more romantic in his native Italian.
I open the shutters out onto the main street to be greeted by a view of rows of tall houses painted in shades of terracotta, ochre and pink with uniformly spaced windows shuttered against the bright morning sunshine. The air smells divine, fresh with sea and rock; sweetened by the profusion of fragrant star jasmine flowers draped over every wall.
After a slow start to the day, we will head out to explore a couple of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terra. The walks range from an easy (and suitably romantic) 20 minute stroll along the cliffs of the Via Dell'Amore between Manarola and Riomaggiore; and a steep, sweaty, leg-trembling 1.5 hour trek between Vernazza and Monterosso. At the first town we reach, we will typically stop for coffee and (if you are the permanently hungry kind like me) an olive oil-soaked mozzarella, basil and tomato foccacia bursting with vibrant flavours. If the sun is out, our walk might be followed by a swim in the salty, bouyant Med, during which we try not to stare openly at the smooth, tanned locals as we walk by in bikini bods that haven't seen the sun in a long, long time.
There will definitely be gelato at some point. At €1.50 for two flavours, it would be rude not to.
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On our third day, we do a 3.5 hour trek from Monterosso to Levanto, from which you are supposed to get a fantastic view of all five villages after you clamber up the first very steep section:
Never mind. We are thrilled to have made it, and it is a gorgeous walk from here on - the sparkling turquoise Med on the one side; wildflowers, ferns and pine trees on the other. It is so unbelievably quiet, so peaceful. All I can hear is my own heavy breathing, the footsteps of the girls in front of me, birdsong in the trees, and the very distant rushing of the waves below. We barely see signs of another soul, apart from one very remote vineyard halfway between the two towns where a crudely drawn sign out front declares: "Here you can drink home wine". No, grazie signore! I need all my energy for this walk, if I'm going to make it to Levanto and the pompelmo rosso e cioccolato gelato that awaits me there.
Back at our adopted home, there are apricots and cherries begging to be picked - they practically fall into your hands as soon as you touch them. They are slightly tart, but I prefer them that way. Every time we see a police man for the rest of our trip, one of the other girls tells me that he is after me for my fruit-pilfering. Non potrei aiutarlo, signor polizia!
This is surely the most beautiful, poetic, wonderful country in the world; with the best coffee and the most mouth-watering cuisine. I feel lucky. I feel content. La dolce vita, è per me.