a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy

i had been in genoa for a couple days doing nothing when i finally received an email from dave, written in a brief and rushed manner:

“finally got rebooked.  boarding now from germany, see you in a couple hours.”

a few hours later i was wandering around the empty streets of genoa trying to find my friend dave before he got too lost and i couldn’t find him.  i rounded a corner and saw him standing underneath the facade of a large university building, squinting at the signs in italian, searching for any kind of english or guidance as to where he should be going.

“need some help, gringo?!”  i called out as i approached.  he spun around and looked at me and burst into laughter.  i gave him a big hug, grabbed his bag and walked him to the hostel, where the hostel manager, a thin, lively man named carlo, was giving a few of the guests a little lesson on how to prepare noodles in italy.  we got dave checked in and situated in the dorm room and hurried back down to be a part of the action.

carlo’s kitchen

there were a couple of tall, skinny hippies from seattle with dreadlocks and covered in tattoos, a younger guy named noel from portland, a german couple, and another couple girls that weren’t really interested in interacting with anyone else.  carlo and one of his staff, a friendly girl with dark hair and eyes and a pleasant smile.  i had made friends with noel the previous day and we had picked up some items to share a primitive pasta dinner together and save some money.  once we had started cooking, carlo had stuck his head in the kitchen and just couldn’t help himself.  he started contributing little bits of wisdom, then spices and ingredients, and eventually he had just taken over, giving noel and me a full-on crash course in italian pasta preparation.  dave had arrived just in time.

we all sat down to dinner and the conversations began to fly.  carlo entertained us with funny stories about running the hostel and the strange types of guests he’d had during the 8 months they had been open.  we all particularly enjoyed his tale of how he’d sent a common room full of younger guests and students into a panic one day when he had walked in and noticed everyone glued to their cellphones and not a single person interacting with another.  he poured two pitchers of cold beer, slammed them down on the table in the center of the room and then announced loudly that he would be shutting down the wifi in ten minutes.  time to make some friends, he had proclaimed.

“you should have seen their faces!”  he guffawed, “they were all looking around at each other so scared!”

a little woodford among friends
a little woodford among friends

after awhile, when the food had run out and we were down to our last drops of wine, dave proudly reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle of woodford reserve.  knowing that i had been missing quality american bourbon during my time in europe (usually places will just have jack daniels or johnny walker for whiskey, unless it’s an upscale whisky bar, but then you have to pay premium for it) dave had smuggled some of my favorite spirit in his checked luggage.  the night would continue with us sharing the goodness of the american south with our newfound friends.

the next day we got up late and left the hostel, thanking carlo once again for his generosity and hospitality.  the plan was to hop a train to monterroso and hike the cinque terre trail.  as we packed our bags, noel had politely interrupted.

“hey would you guys mind at all if i joined you?  i was planning on heading there too.”

“yeah man!  grab your stuff, let’s go!”

we crossed our fingers all the way to the station and were relieved to hear that the transit strike was now over.  all trains, planes, cabs, and buses had resumed their normal service.  we hopped a train and were on our way.

about 4 weeks prior to this day, i had received an email from dave.  dave was my roommate in college. he was one of those guys that, if we hadn’t been assigned the same living space, we probably never would have been friends.  we were just too different.  where dave was goofy and cheerful, i was serious and brooding.  where dave liked to interact with people and ask questions, i thought i knew everything and judged people if they didn’t line up to my lofty standards.  where dave wanted to spend time out and about with people, i was content to stay inside and play guitar all day everyday.  or depending on the phase, video games.  he also loved third eye blind and would loudly play their music over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until it was impossible for me to enjoy any of their songs ever again. i’m still not sure if i’ve forgiven him for that yet.

dave & i and the rest of our roommates/neighbors during my freshman year... at chuck e. cheese
dave & i and the rest of our roommates/neighbors during my freshman year… at chuck e. cheese

but we became fast friends, and over the years we got into plenty of shenanigans all over the country together.  taking spur of the moment roadtrips to places like new york, or going to concerts together (even a third eye blind concert once), or simple things like late night drives in the arkansas backroads smoking cigarettes over long conversations about girls, the bond of our friendship turned those differences into things to be appreciated rather than loathed. and despite the fact we’ve always lived at least a thousand miles away from each other since college, we’ve always done a patchwork job of keeping in touch. so once he had seen my instagram feed start leaking out images of iconic places in europe, he had assumed that i was simply on a vacation.  but when the images hadn’t stopped 2 months later, he wanted in on the action.  he had 3 weeks of vacation time during the holidays, and he wanted to join me.  dave had always been a little flaky, so i had put little to no stock in the idea that he might actually follow through and buy a ticket (plus i was just about to venture into morocco, so i was a little preoccupied), so i had told him to meet me in italy and we would go from there.  sure enough, a month later, i was in italy with my college roommate.

gettin domean hour later we were on the ground in the northernmost city of cinque terre, monterroso al mare, which means “red mountain by the sea.” the largest of the 5 cities of cinque terre, it also appeared to be the most modernly-developed, and despite the cloudy overlay above us, the water still shone a turquoise hue at us.  after a few minutes of admiring the beautiful ocean, we turned south and headed further into the city.  it wasn’t long before i began scratching my head, puzzled.  there was something off, not right about this place.

“man.  there are no people anywhere in this city.  it’s a ghost town” i remarked aloud.
“yeah, i was just gonna say that,” dave agreed.

“i guess it is pretty close to christmas…” noel added.  we didn’t really have a plan for cinque terre.  we knew there were trails leading hikers from one town to the next, and we knew we weren’t allowed to camp, so we had simply assumed that we would just walk til we got tired and then ask locals where we could find a hostel.  suddenly that plan didn’t seem so great when there were no locals present to consult with.

as we were wandering up and down the cobbled streets, dave managed to locate a tiny pizza spot serving mammoth sized beers.  we took our loads off and cooled down with the frosty beverages.  we used the wifi to locate a place to sleep for the night in town and found out from the owner that there was indeed a bar where younger people would be hanging out that night, so we collectively decided to see if we could meet some locals.

the weight
the monterroso giant

it took us a moment to locate the place, as it was built into the side of what looked to be an old world war II fortified embattlement.  we had been pacing back and forth searching, not realizing that we were walking around on top of it on the cliffside all along.  we went in and it was apparent that we were too early for the festivities, so we ordered a beer and waited.  about 45 minutes later, music started blaring loudly and cheesy dance lighting started spinning around the room, reminding me of old roller rinks in america in the 1980s.  not long after that, people began spilling into the bar, drinking and talking loudly, smoking cigarettes just outside the front door.  the place was packed, and not a single tourist was to be seen… except us.  but there was something that didn’t seem right about the place.  dave was the first to speak.

“anybody else notice how young everybody is in here?  i mean young. like i don’t think these kids would be able to drink in the US..”

“yeah, i’m noticing that too.  i don’t see one person in here that’s our age.  even the bartender looks like a kid!”  i called back over the music.

noel just laughed, “i’m going out for a smoke,” and downed his beer.  “i’m coming with you,” dave replied and followed suit.  i still had half my drink, and wasn’t in the mood for chugging beers.

secured10 minutes later i went outside to find dave and noel bumming cigarettes and conversing with a couple guys and their girlfriends on the stairs.  dave informed me that everyone at the bar were all university students that were home from the christmas break, and that all these people had grown up in the area.  that made sense, but it didn’t really make us want to stay longer.  10 minutes later we were back at our rented apartment, fast asleep.

the next day we got up early and located the trail to the neighboring city of vernazza.  we had been told by our host the previous night that we would be needing a park pass in order to walk the trails of cinque terre, but after arriving at what appeared to be the ticket vendor, we couldn’t find anyone operating the desk, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around.  being on a somewhat tight budget, noel and i agreed we should just walk the trail and play dumb if anyone caught us.  dave, not really on a strict budget, didn’t really care and was up for anything.  we hit the trail and started walking.

10873619_10155146714380602_262932997596298176_oas we walked, we got a chance to learn more about noel.  he was an interesting guy, and one that didn’t mind sharing any story that he felt relevant to whatever topic we were on.  and he had no shortage of stories.  noel had wanted desperately to travel, but had always found himself scratching together cash just to pay the bills, with nothing left over at the end of the month.  one day he heard some friends hatching a plans to go backpack through europe.  noel couldn’t help himself.  he edged his way into the conversation and secured himself an invite to join, provided he could find a way to scrape the money together.  a couple months later, 4 guys had flown to scandinavia to start their trip on a shoestring budget, filming everything along the way and hoping to make a documentary in the process.  noel regaled us with tales of sleeping on the ground in sleeping bags in public parks and under bridges all across europe, never receiving as much as a fine, in fact sometimes police had been impressed with their stories and bought them coffee. eventually they had split up, as noel had prioritized a few destinations that hadn’t been important to the others, so noel had come to italy alone, where we had met him. i remember being jealous of noel’s trip.  he and his friends had done what i had done, but they had taken it to the extreme.  i wondered if i could do what they had been doing.  but that thought passed through my mind as quickly as it had entered, as i felt the weight of my 70 liter pack on my back.  i was 31 years old, there’s no way i wasn’t sleeping in a bed on my trek through europe.  i admired noel for his resolve though.

vernazza's viewwe had been walking for two hours when we rounded a turn on the coastal path, built into the side of the seaside cliffs, when suddenly we could see vernazza.  perhaps the most picturesque of the five cities, it sat nestled in a little cove between the ocean and the steep mountains behind it.  sharp pastel reds and yellows and pinks glowed out at us while a small barrier reached out into the ocean, creating a small crescent harbor with boats anchored to the side.  we stood in awe for 10 minutes just staring at this hidden coastline gem, wondering if it really was real.  we descended into town for coffee and croissants before eventually continuing on along the trail.  i had wanted to stay in the town longer, but rain clouds were approaching from offshore, and we still didn’t know where we were sleeping that night.

vernazzathe path between vernazza and corniglia, the third town in cinque terre, had begun to get notably more difficult, and i began talking less frequently in order to conserve energy and air.  i was getting tired.  i was thankful that curious dave was along to pick up the slack in conversational duty.  i was ready for wine.

the approach into corniglia wasn’t as dramatic as vernazza, but we were still excited to see it.  the sun was going down and we were running out of daylight.  none of us had working cellphones that we could arrange accommodations through, so we simply started knocking on doors. we had probably knocked on a dozen different doors that had appeared to be hostel entrances, but nobody answered at any of them.  the towns were all empty.  tourist season was over and residents and business owners had returned to other parts of italy be with family during christmas.  suddenly a window above us somewhere slid open and an old lady started yelling down to us in italian.  unsure if we were in trouble, i did my best to innocently communicate that we needed somewhere to sleep.  she left the window and a few moments later a younger woman leaned cornigliaout and translated for us that everything was closed in the city, but that we might get lucky if we went around the corner and a few blocks down, where another bed & breakfast owner was still in town and might be willing to negotiate with us, despite the fact that she was closed as well.  we were in luck.  the woman answered the door, she had clearly not been expecting anyone, as her hair was mussed, her apron dirty and not fastened properly, and her eyes looked like she has fallen asleep on accident.

“yes you can stay here.  but heat is no working now and water for shower is cold.  50 euro each.”  she said in broken english.  that was a ridiculous price, but what could i do?  she had us in a corner and she knew it.  everything was closed and it was now night time.  i smiled politely, acknowledging that she had all the leverage in the situation, and then i countered.

“i’m sorry miss, we are poor travelers, we cannot afford that. we just paid 15 euros each in genova…”  i trailed off, hoping for a little mercy.
“30 euros each, that is lowest price.”

“deal.”  noel looked at me, silently begging me to try to bargain down a little more, but i was done.  i didn’t want to push it, and i was eager to kick back and enjoy the ghost town.  the old lady directed us to a restaurant around the corner that she promised would be the only place in town open.

cornigliait sure was, and the woman running the restaurant was literally running the entire restaurant by herself.  she had not been expecting anyone, but she was extremely pleased when we walked in.  we each ordered a big plate of pasta and shared a bottle of wine.  the food was delicious.

during dinner, dave couldn’t stop talking about how everyone he saw smoking was using their own hand-rolled cigarettes.
“you never see that in the US!  it’s so cool! i want to learn how to do that.” he exclaimed.

“true, it is pretty cool.  but dave.  you don’t smoke” i replied skeptically.

“yeah but so what?  i’m on vacation.” he shrugged.  noel and i laughed.

the next morning, dave had located a small tobacco shop where he had purchased a bag of cheap tobacco and rolling papers.

it was then that we realized that the remaining segments of the coastal trail was closed.  we would have to take up along the much more difficult mountain paths if we wanted to walk to the 4th town, of manarola.

further down the path“well it isn’t a journey if it isn’t a little difficult!” noel said cheerfully as we located a path up above the town and began our steep ascent into the mountains.  an hour later i was out of breath and my legs were burning with exhaustion as my back strained under the weight of my backpack.  we took a break in a shaded area while i adjusted some straps to shift the load of my pack off my shoulders and onto my hips.
“dude, you’ve gotta come see this!”  dave and noel called out to me.  i found them around a corner near a metal railing on a cliffside, looking out over the angry ocean directly below us.  to the north we could see the tip of corniglia, and further down the coast we could barely make out the beginnings of manarola, tucked into the side of the mountain and covered by a light fog.  we threw our backpacks back on and hurried along the trail.

dive into manarolawe arrived in manarola just in time for an early lunch.  manarola was much livelier than any of the other towns we had been in.  we finally had options for food, as there were a number of places open, but we settled on a tiny cafe that had delicious sandwiches, which we took down to the edge of the tiny port that serviced the small town.  the sun had managed to poke through the clouds, lighting up all the old buildings and providing me a theater of color while a soundtrack of ebbing ocean tides played along.

layersit is said that the colorful buildings in cinque terre are due to local fishermen’s desire at the time to be able to mark and see their homes from the ocean while they fished. they wanted to keep tabs on their wives while they worked.  how very italian.  the five towns of cinque terre are famous because they are so well preserved in the way that “old italy” used to look hundreds of years ago. the villages had all begun to grow to obsoletion and were all but forgotten when, in the late 19th century, a railway was built connecting the 5 towns together and to genoa, la spezia, and the rest of the country.  prior to that, the only way to get around was via the numerous mountainside footpaths that wind around and connect each of the towns.  in fact, to this day it is difficult to reach any of the towns by car, due to lack of room for parking or driving in the towns.
“shit!”  i glanced over my shoulder to see dave nearby, trying to handroll his cigarettes, with miserable results.  i looked over at noel and we started laughing.  dave didn’t noticed.  he was completely focused on his new mission.

manarola_italyi gave dave another 10 minutes to practice before urging us back onto the path.  it was mid-day and we had one more city to see before we needed to also get to florence, rent a car, and then drive to chianti, in the tuscany region.

after we had been walking along the high mountain path for about 30 minutes, noel pulled me aside and asked if he could interview me for his documentary.

“uhh… sure.  what do you want to ask me?”  i asked, uncertain.  i wasn’t sure what i could really add of value.

he pointed the camera and hit record.  “well how about you tell me why it was so hard to do what you did, quitting your job and traveling, and why more people in america don’t do that?”

i don’t even really remember what i said next, but it must have been what he wanted to hear, because 10 minutes later he turned the camera off and high-fived me.

locked in“dude!  that was perfect! you wouldn’t believe how many people i’ve met on this trip that have talked about that stuff, but as soon as i put a camera on them, their mind goes completely blank!”  he rejoiced.

“really?  i don’t even feel like i said anything that great.”  i shrugged.

“no man, you touched on a lot of key things there, and i didn’t even really need to pry it out of you.  i can tell you’ve been traveling long enough to figure some things out.”  he said with a big smile, and then turned and started walking back down the path.

that was encouraging.  it was only a few days earlier that i had been questioning so much about myself, including whether or not the whole trip was accomplishing for me what i had initially intended.  apparently it was, in some fashion.

contemplative davewe arrived in riomaggiore finally, but we were travel weary and i was already too aware of the time left in the day.  we walked down the sleepy main street, taking our last looks around at the signature colorful buildings of cinque terre and then made for the train station.  we said our goodbyes to noel and wished him luck.  i had a feeling i hadn’t seen the end of that kid.

“alright dave.  you ready to go get fat and drunk?!”  i asked excitedly, already knowing the answer.

“i’m always ready to get fat and drunk!”  he laughed and jumped through the opening doors of the train.  we watched the last view of cinque terre fade from view as the train pulled away from the platform and rumbled into a dark tunnel in the side of the mountain.

the edge


this week’s summer jam is one that’s been out for a couple months, but it just hits the right chords every time i hear it, so it’s earned it’s place on the summer playlist.  coming from brooklyn based artist twin shadow, “to the top” features an anthemic 80s power-pop style chorus that makes you want to douse yourself in hairspray and go stand outside a girl’s house with a boombox held overhead (say anything john cusack style) blaring this song until she comes outside and realizes she’s supposed to be with you the rest of her life.  in retrospect, that seems like it would be something you could get a restraining order for these days.  chalk that up to one more thing from the 80s that just wouldn’t fly anymore.   enjoy…

and for those following along at home, here’s the new summer/winter playlist…

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