The Indian Ocean beating at the foothills of the Himalayas, with five pretty villages nestling among them, peering down at the waves below. That’s the closest parallel I can draw, and if you could picture that, you would get an idea of the breathtaking landscape of Cinque Terre, in northwestern Italy. For 15 minutes the train pulls through a tunnel, the occasional blink-of-an-eye patch-patch of sunlight interspersing its rattle through the darkness. Then slowly, it rolls to a halt on a narrow, bright stretch carved out of a cliff overlooking a vast spread of turquoise sea. The train disappears into the tunnel ahead, leaving me behind, mesmerised, transfixed in existential solitude between hill and sea, between two dark tunnels on either side of a sunlit railway platform. Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages of Cinque Terre, literally ‘Five Lands’, where the mighty mountains stand against the relentless, ever-rising waves of the Mediterranean.
I follow fellow backpackers down the subway tunnel leading to a point where Riomaggiore half-reveals itself. A narrow, paved street winds through the village, loud Italian mammas gossip at their thresholds, tourists bargain with dorm owners, nubile girls serve wine at pavement restaurants. As late as the 1960s the Cinque Terre wasn’t on the tourist map; today, it’s a hotspot for tourists with attitude, who don’t want the Rome-Venice-Florence rigmarole. Riomaggiore and its four cousins—Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso—are living stories of a toiling people, rooted in their land and their traditions. Rome speaks of a grand past; the Cinque Terre of some of those who paid the cost.
Painted in wine
They call him Maestro, and he tells the story of the Cinque Terre with his brush. Silvio Benedetto, painter, sculptor and theatre director, came to the Cinque Terre from Argentina in the 1950s and made it his home. His two giant murals of peasants at work, painted in vibrant colours, blaze from the walls near the railway platform. They tell the story of how local peasants sweated to create the high stone walls and terraces that prevent erosion and keep the soil fertile. I hear of Benedetto from a focaccia vendor in Manarola, and, not sure whether he’s speaking of someone from the past, I ask, “Is he alive?” “Till last week he was, I saw him in the market,” I am told, in easy badinage. Living with the people of the Cinque Terre, Benedetto tells me, when I meet him, is an essential part of his creativity, and his works are a celebration of their rustic toil. They aren’t for the grand galleries. One of his paintings was made in tribute to the peasant women who make Cinque Terre’s famous wine. It shows a woman carrying a heavy basket of grapes. Benedetto donated it to the women’s wine-making cooperative, and it adorns a dark winery wall, far from any eye. But the women have shown how much they value his tribute: every bottle of Cinque Terre red wine has Benedetto’s basket-bearing woman printed on the label.
Fill ’em up
The mamma’s boy syndrome, corruption in high places, warmth for guests—the similarities between the Indian and Italian ways of life could fill bulky CBI closure reports. Italian hospitality is comparable to Rajasthan’s jeemna: a guest can’t get away without being overstuffed; refusing would be considered an insult. In Italy, similarly, it’s all about food, wine and more food and wine. And there is no respite till the host is satisfied the guest has had more than his fill. Benedetto gives me and my wife a taste of his version of padharo mhare des when we meet him over what he calls “yum-yum”. I am barely through with my plate of anchovies when another plateful arrives. I tell him about Rajasthani force-feeding, and he has a belly-laugh. “Just think I’m from Rajasthan,” he says, and calls for some pasta with Genovese sauce and tomato bruschetta.
The sweet spot
The best way to explore the Cinque Terre is to hit the Via dell’amore or the Lovers’ Trail, linking all five villages—from Riomaggiore, past vineyards and olive orchards, down to Monterosso’s pretty, shingled beach with its sun-bathers. On my way up, I notice a helicopter ferrying a heavy object dangling from it by rope. I’m reminded of a shot from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which he includes a chopper similarly ferrying a huge statue of Christ from one point to another without losing sight of his artistes performing on terra firma. Looking for affordable accommodation later in Riomaggiore, we are to find ourselves directed to a dorm called La Dolce Vita, the walls of its reception postered with black-and-whites of locations where the film was shot.
Sharing a small dorm with some gorgeous girls can be sweet but tortuous—especially if one of those girls happens to be your wife.
Former Outlook correspondent Rajesh Joshi is with the BBC Hindi service; E-mail your diarist: rajesh1joshi AT gmail.com