Sunday, 1 May 2016

Liberation Day with Garibaldi and everyone else.

Monday 25th April, 2016

Camping La Sfinge runs a free shuttle bus to Deiva Marina Station It's an excellent service, present yourself at the office, the pleasant receptionist makes a call and a couple of minutes later the owner appears and whisks you off to the station in the site minibus. On your your return, phone his mobile and in five minutes he's back in the station car park to pick you up. So, given Deiva Marina is only three stops down from Montorosso the nearest Cinque Terre village, visiting the famous coastline should be a doddle. 

Italy however, rarely does 'doddle', and today was no exception. Three types of trains stop at Deiva Marina, the express from Genoa to La Spezia, a local service linking the main towns between Sestri Levante and La Spezia, and a Cinque Terre shuttle that transports tourists every half an hour back and forth between the beauteous villages. There is no simple method of knowing which type train is arriving at any particular platform, leading to much milling about, pidgin multilingualism, mild panic and bewilderment. The information about trains kindly printed out for us by the receptionist bore no resemblance to the timetables on the platform, which in turn only approximated the actual arrivals, mainly because punctuality for Trenitalia is any service which arrives between ten minutes early and twenty minutes late. What this means is that simply arriving at a Cinque Terre village station seems an achievement in itself, a little moment of triumph which transforms gormless tourist into into intrepid traveller just by getting there.

Tannoy  DING DONG "The rain arriving at Platform 1 is  yesterday's delayed express from Nowhere in Particular, terminating at Somewhere Else at no time soon...."
In fact what greeted us at Montorosso was neither the gormless nor the intrepid, but a crowd of jolly Italians out to enjoy the holiday under blue skies and bright sunshine - many a bella figura stretched out on the beach, much gelato consumption and restaurants and cafés packed with family groups. In England menu perusal is a rather quiet, studied affair, here a matter of loud, lively debate.

As we entered the crowded square we could here the town band. The tune was quick-paced, and played with engaging energy and utter tunelessness, attempting to competing somewhat unsuccessfully with the general hubbub, and the town clock which seemed to strike noon for an inordinately long time. By the time we reached the centre of the square the music had stopped. The musicians were standing about below a statue of Garibaldi chatting to some well dressed people, including a couple in magnificent uniforms worthy of an admiral; they were probably the deputy municipal police constable and the head traffic warden. Sadly, I think we had missed a little Liberation Day ceremony. It probably takes place in Montorusso every year on the 25th April at seventeen o'clock.

Garibaldi - and strawberry and cream architecture - the magic of Italia
The alternative Montorosso band - no uniforms, faster tempo...
Montorosso is not the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre villages, but it has steeply winding streets, pastel colour-washed houses, a requisite clock tower, all sequestered in a pine forested bay with a blue Med backdrop, quite enough to provoke a Riviera response even in a curmudgeon like me. A string of old fishing towns and villages stretch from here in an arc for three hundred miles along the coast to Marseilles. Even though a sprawl of more modern developments now connects them, coast road traffic crawls along the old Via Aurelia parallel to the busy railway, and high above, the autostrada leaps deep ravines on stilts then burrows through pine covered hillsides - none of this has entirely destroyed the charm of the place. Partly, I think, because The Riviera has forever become enmeshed in images of 'la dolce vita' and the 'le bon vivant'. 

Sunny coloured houses,
sandy bay, wooded hills, turquoise sea - the irresistible Riviera
Sitting in a quayside cafe or shady village square it is easy to imagine Audrey on a nearby table people watching, secreted behind her enormous sunglasses, long cigarette holder strategically poised. Stretched out on the beach a row of bikini clad blonds motionlessly worked on their tans, evoking a vision of womanhood whose style reaches back to Bardot and Lollobrigida. It is a spellbinding place tempting hardheaded northerners into the fanciful. Why does that oldish chap reading newspaper in the corner seem familiar? I am sure I have seen that pensive, piercing gaze somewhere before and his squat labourers' physique and stripy sailor tee shirt... Audrey glances at him, "Hey," she asks, "how's the pottery classes going Pablo?" 

Over the past 200 years the Ligurian and French Riviera has attracted the attention some of Europe's most significant creative minds - moving east to west by genius - Shelley, Byron, Pound, Hemingway, Nietzsche, Maugham, Fitzgerald, Matisse, Leger, Picasso, Greene, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Le Corbusier. It is impossible to visit the place without thinking of how it inspired these great minds and changed our cultural outlook - it is literally an inspiring landscape.

Our plan for the day was not so high minded. Walk an hour or so along the famous footpath that connects the Cinque Terre villages. It seemed simple enough but was stymied by two things. Firstly due to the steep terrain north of a La Spezia the coast here is much less developed than most parts of the Mediterranean. In fact it's so hilly that the railway that connects the five villages runs mostly through tunnels and only surfaces briefly at each station where you get a brief glimpse of the sea. The locality promises a pristine coastline, consequently it is completely overrun with people seeking the authentic Mediterranean emboldened by photographs from Lonely Planet, and a list of best places for pizza gleaned from Trip Advisor.

Queue here for the coastal path.
The famous coastal walk was so crowded that a queue had formed at the access point and human traffic jams formed at each bend in the vertiginous path. We probably would have given up anyway, but it soon became obvious that the steep, uneven steps up the cliffs were simply too demanding for our ageing knee joints. I remembered how 15 years ago Matthew and I had scrambled 12 kilometres along an ill-defined coastal path in The Desert d'Agriate in Corsica. It's not great when you are confronted by the ageing process head-on, but I guess it's something we are going to have to reconcile ourselves to; getting younger is not an option.

The path zigzags upwards through  terraced vineyards by the coast
The uneven steps were too much for our creaking knees
"Let's head back down....
but not this way!"
Plan B, tomorrow lets take the  boat.
We watched a shuttle boat cast off and head-up the coast. Gill checked the fare, it was not too expensive. Tomorrow, we promised ourselves, let's take a boat trip to Vernazza, walking is for the un-arthritic young! Time to return to Deiva Marina, the return journey was no less bewildering than our experience earlier. Before we summoned the shuttle bus we took a stroll around Deiva Marina. It is a pleasant little resort with a new half-built promenade. Completing the work, judging from the weeds growing in the building site, may be destined to become one of Italy's many long term 'works in progress'.

Deiva Marina is in a lovely position, but because its modern, much less crowded - even on a public holiday.

Blue sea and sunshine turns the mundane into the photogenic.
I don't know why, but I have an odd liking for 60s seaside apartment blocks.

The designers of the new promenade had gone for  sleek white neo-modernist minimalism, which I liked, but probably not as much as the local Banksi wannabees - it's  graffiti waiting to happen.

White raw concrete, blue sky, bluer sea - ah, the beautiful south.

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