2000s Archive

Morning in Manarola

Originally Published August 2000
William Least Heat-Moon had seen photographs of Italy’s Cinque Terre. But he had to go there to believe it.

We travel to some places even before we know where on the globe they are, or that they even exist. Images arise in our childhood imaginings, scenes that can express longings for a world more fantastic than the one we inhabit. But still, we understand such demesnes are impossible because logic says hills can’t be so steep, towns can’t look like castles, and, above all, sooner or later we learn that every place must answer to time and the devil. Fantasy or not, some of those realms remain, lying in wait until they find a chance to become real travels. I think, although I’m not certain, that’s how I came to be sitting one September morning in a sidewalk café in Manarola, Italy, in a region named Le Cinque Terre—the Five Lands.

These five villages—a more accurate term today—are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. They lie along the exact edge of that northern thrust of the Mediterranean called the Ligurian Sea. Some 80 miles due south, French Corsica points its finger of a peninsula directly at them as if to call the attention of the world. If ever a place seemed marked by topography for notice, it is the Five Lands.

Yet the opposite has happened over the past thousand years. Even the Romans, known for extending empire anywhere they could reach by foot or boat, little heeded this piece of coast, choosing instead to build their great interterritorial Aurelian Way on the easier eastern side of the low—if rather rugged—mountains that trap the villages between rock and sea in a surround all but impossible for plow and hearth. Such a difficult steepness may serve birds and beasts, but humans? We’re made for life reasonably horizontal.

Over the years, a belief grew that what ancient Rome ignored, no one else should care about either. In that neglect the villages slipped through the centuries to arrive in ours as places from another time: gifts, if not quite in plain view from the interior, then at least so from the sea, to which they belong as Venice does to its lagoon or Perugia to its hill. Such isolation gave reprieve from the ruinous turmoil that has swept Europe since the Romans themselves let their empire fall into less dominant hands. Indeed, in the last world war, the people of the Cinque Terre could watch Allied bombers on the way to blast the harbor at Genoa, 42 miles northwestward from Monterosso, and smear the one at La Spezia, only three miles from Riomaggiore. (The name Manarola may derive from the Manes, Roman spirits of the friendly dead who—properly honored with lentils, bread, wine, oil—might bring protection, health, and longevity.)

The villages, survivors though they be, are not ancient by Mediterranean standards; rather, they are expressions of the late Middle Ages heavily doctored by the 19th century. In Manarola, where I sat that morning in front of a beverage to ward off the drizzle—caffè corretto, espresso “corrected” with a dollop of grappa—I couldn’t visualize Augustus Caesar walking down the street, but I could imagine Dante on a visit from his Florence not far over the mountains, or Shelley and Byron in search of some bit of the poetically picturesque.

Manarola, like its four sisters, shouldn’t be here at all, not if the founders had really followed common sense and looked logically at the landscape, because there is no space for a hamlet any more than there’s room for vineyards and olive groves on the declivitous and stony hills that come right to the sea like a door to a jamb. To solve the problems of a terrain that runs more up and down than otherwise, Manarolans took to a cleft—you can’t call it a valley—cradling a strong mountain stream, and topped it with narrow pavement while leaving access to the darkened water below that now murmurs under their feet like Manes from the netherworld.

Being denied a lateral landscape, builders chiseled niches into the cliffs in order to stack up shops and rooms in such a way that Manarola, were you to turn it on its side, would cover about as much space horizontally as vertically. The slender, twisted lanes seem to rest more atop each other than lie side by side in proper street fashion, so that someone looking out a rear fourth-floor window can peer directly into the eyes of a stroller on the very next via. It is such architecture in an unexpected location that gives all the villages an aura from a child’s dream.

Then, too, there’s the way the hamlets challenge the sea by setting foundations right against it as a pugilist does his nose to an opponent. These abrupt stone rises of dwellings suggest more a complex of castles than a village. Of all the reasons tourists come to see the Five Lands, the primary one is the peculiar, ocean-beset buildings painted in warm Mediterranean colors. Here the Riviera ends, and life is not about beaches but tiny harbors; it’s not about tanning lotion and sand but olive oil and cobbles banging back and forth against old walls as if the waves wanted them down.

Some time ago, after seeing photographs of the Cinque Terre, I decided to discover whether such a place could truly exist. Although I arrived with several other travelers, I set out alone most mornings to walk the narrow and often slippery coastal path, which in places hangs precipitously above the hard surf. I would arrive in a village by lunchtime, eat, then walk farther before catching a local train back to an old villa turned into a hotel in Camogli, a settlement rightly called a town. (While one may find a few lodgings in the Cinque villages, it takes but a handful of tourists to fill them.)

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