Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Melissa Hayes
As I inwardly curse my way up another flight of stone stairs, it seems even my thoughts are laboured and short of breath. I’m clammy, I’m cranky, and the word “chafe” has suddenly taking on a whole new personalised meaning…
… Welcome to the Cinque Terre.
Flashback to four weeks earlier. I’d been sifting through a ridiculously large pile of glossy travel magazines which I’d neurotically collected and hoarded during my phase of pre-trip over-excitement (at one point having been compared to an obsessive-compulsive squirrel on steroids), when I came across an article depicting this World Heritage listed destination. It described the five, neighbouring villages which comprised the Cinque Terre as possessing uneclipsed beauty: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Each village, it explained, clung stubbornly to the rugged, unforgiving cliffs of the north-west Italian coastline and was linked to its neighbours by a series of walking trails. The headline was without adornment, just three simple words – “The Romantic Road”.
I was sold.
Upon arriving at Riomaggiore, the beginning of the Cinque Terre walking trail, it was difficult not to be overcome by the landscape’s scenic splendour. Our train emerged from the veiled darkness of the underground tunnels into a flash of pure, bright sunlight.
Walking from Riomaggiore to Manarola, I followed a spellbinding path as it wove its way through a rainbow palette – on my left, a sheer cliff face of light yellow dropped away to disappear into the swirling, iridescent waves of the turquoise Ligurian sea; on my right the green-carpeted cliff wall stretched up and away towards the distant blue skyline, peppered in a myriad of colour that was the local, Mediterranean flora. Strolling along the flat, stone paths with a crisp sea breeze at my back, around each bend I was confronted with a spectacular view of the naked Italian coastline jutting boldly and unapologetically into the ocean – discernable by the individual clusters of brightly coloured buildings which, like so many multi-coloured barnacles, clung fiercely but haphazardly to the cliffs at uneven intervals.
Sounds perfect, right?
Well, for the first few kilometres, I thought so also. Unfortunately, about a third of the way through the walk, I discovered that some bright spark with an evidently twisted sense of humour had decided to incorporate hundreds of stairs, narrow pathways and steep inclines into my “relaxing stroll”. And making matters worse, the heavens suddenly and unpredictably opened up and erupted in a prolonged cascade of atmospheric tears. So all of a sudden the “Romantic Road” seemed to have come to an abrupt end and instead, I found myself labouring along “Nightmare on Elm Street”: trudging up slippery rock faces, being overtaken by couples three times my age and by children half my size, tramping through mud, squeezing along tiny ledges, and despite the rain, sweltering in the midday humidity.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I certainly didn’t harbour any misguided illusions when I woke up this morning that today’s 11km walk would be all about clear skies, tall, dark, Italian hiking guides and sipping mocha-frocca-happy-frappy-cocktails on the beach. I accepted that the weather can be inconvenient (calmly noting my various, water-logged cavities and the increasing transparency of my white singlet); I recognised that treks can be uncomfortable (as for the fourth time my blistered, Havianna-clad feet slipped out from under me and I rear-ended myself in ankle-deep mud); I even bravely acknowledged the necessity of making sacrifices when travelling (after three weeks without a washing machine, I was down to my last pair of underwear of the “never-meant-to-see-the-light-of-day, high-cut, parachute-size variety”, which, after 4km of trekking was so far lodged up unspeakable places that I wasn’t even sure I’d ever be able to retrieve them)! All this I could deal with. However, as soon there was any mention of a hill, incline, slant, slope, rise, step or gradient, then my non-existent leg muscles protest, my internal organs start to shut down, and you’ve pretty much got a full-body strike on your hands.
Which leads me to my current predicament – sitting on a rock on the side of a path in the middle of the Cinque Terre, waiting for three things:
1. The rain to stop and the steep inclines to miraculously disappear.
2. The chafing to settle down.
3. The rather large, shirtless, hairy European man standing in front of me to either pull his pants up, or kindly remove his buttocks cleavage from my direct line of vision as this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I read about the Cinque Terre’s “unique, unparalleled scenery”. I’m fairly certain that “plumber’s crack” looks universal no matter what country you are in!
But as I sit there, wallowing alone in my Western, creature-comfort-based self-pity, I see someone powering his way up the path to where I’m sitting. As he gets closer, I can make it out to be a short, elderly, and obviously quite Italian gentleman. He stops to say hello. We chat for a while, and he tells me he and his family have lived in the Cinque Terre region for generations – in his sixty seven years he has never had any desire to leave. Every day he walks the Cinque Terre paths. Every, single day. And it was in the midst of this rather unremarkable, non-descript conversation that this gentleman said something which I truly believe will be burned into my consciousness forever. As he got up to leave, I asked him why he chose to live here and undertake this walk each day. He turned towards me, and with the simplest smile on his lined, weather-beaten face, he said five words:
I choose Paradise for life.
I will never forget that. I choose Paradise for life. How simply, how beautifully, how poignantly can a person encapsulate their appreciation of the world, their pure love of living and untouched belief in the “here and now”, then in those five, unembellished words: I choose Paradise for life. From that point onwards, I clammed up about my complaints.
Looking back, I view my time in the Cinque Terre as being the highlight of my brief European holiday. Not because of its breathtaking scenery, not because of its wonderful people, not because of its comic elements – but because on a warm, rainy day in July, an unknown man on a mountain shared some of the most beautiful words of wisdom that I’d ever been privileged to received: Choose Paradise for Life.