Disappointed by the tourist hoardes enjoying Italy's Cinque Terre, Tishani Doshi sets off to Levanto in Liguria for a more authentic experience.
Beyond Italy's Five Lands, long-isolated Levanto is rising
There are some friends you can trust, and others you can't. Especially when it comes to questions of travel. Here I was in a farm in Tuscany in mid-June, complete with honeybees and olive trees meals al fresco and walks in the woods. It was all too beautiful. So how could I not trust my friend's suggestion to rent a room from a friend of his in the mythical Cinque Terre, where I was heading next?
Four trains and a very rubbery panino later, I arrived in Vernazza - the jewel in Cinque Terre's tiara. My room turned out to be a windowless cement box nestled at the end of a narrow alley costing €60 (Dh314) a night. This was the least of Vernazza's tarnishing. I had barely stepped out of my box when I collided into a stream of walkers uniformly dressed from head to toe like soldiers of the Patagonia army - fierce, retired, 60-somethings dressed in Patagonia shorts, jackets, visors, shirts and Yerba packs. Forget about the famed Gothic church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia and the Genoese lookout towers. If you want to get anywhere in Vernazza you'd have to do battle first with the throngs of silver tigers armed with walking poles, ready to take on the high altitude treks overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, and anyone who happened to be in their way.
It was a shame, really. I had been looking forward to discovering the Cinque Terre - the "five lands" that form part of Italy's most rugged coastline, isolated and inaccessible for centuries until a railway was completed in 1874. This austere landscape of rock and sea inspired Eugenio Montale to write a poem I'd read and loved many years ago - The Lemons. At the time, I didn't know that Montale had written it in Monterosso - part of the Cinque Terre - where he spent a lot of time. But his image of lemons as "trumpets of gold" has never left me.
Literary types have always found the Cinque Terre inviting. Cesare Pavese and Salvatore Quasimodo favoured Bocca di Magra in the 1940s and '50s. DH Lawrence knocked about in Portovenere. Percy Bysshe Shelley set sail from the Bay of Lerici and capsized farther up the coast, his body washing up on the shores of Viareggio. And Lord Byron is immortalised in an annual swimming competition called the Byron's Cup in the aptly named Golfo dei Poeti.
Everything I'd read about the Cinque Terre evoked poetry: hamlets clinging like dazzling pearls to hilltops, vertigo-inducing sights and delicious focaccia bread. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the most lasting impression was the whiff of the sewer being repaired in the main square of Vernazza - a miniscule piece of land locked into a claustrophobic bay. What with the smell, the silver tigers and the ridiculously overpriced restaurants, I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Luckily, I received an invitation to a town nearby from another friend who was on the set of a film he'd written. Faster than I could say arrivederci, I settled my bill and hopped onto the quaint, panoramic train that links the harbour towns along the coast. Within 15 minutes of cutting through the Apennines - plunging into the darkness of its tunnels and then suddenly being thrust into the glorious life-giving light and views of blue sea and sky - I finally arrived in Levanto. Around 20km north of Vernazza, the town of 6,000 inhabitants is not one of the five lands that make up the Cinque Terre but it is part of the province of La Spezia and the Cinque Terre National Park.
Few people got off at the semi-deserted train station. I looked around, still frazzled by Vernazza. No pension fund warriors here. No overpriced cafes. No stench in the air. Instead, there was a salty breeze wafting in from the coast, indicating that things might just be getting better. By the end of the day I would have discovered the joys of gattafin and cream of sage and been proposed marriage on the beach by an Italian ice-cream maker called Lino. But for the moment, I was content to walk down the steps and meander along the wide boulevards filled with strollers, families and Levantesi going about their business. The peach- and ochre-coloured houses with trompe l'oeil decorations, bicyclists droning by lazily and piazzas dotted with cafes all gave me the feeling of having landed in a better-kept Havana.
All I'd been told was to find the Little Siren Beach by the casino. However, no one in Levanto seemed to know where the casino was, except an old-timer sitting on a wooden chair on the sidewalk who, at 5pm, was evidently having his first conversation of the day. With my broken Italian and somewhat better ability to interpret gestures, I followed the shimmering glare of the sea until I finally arrived at the beach.
Around me Havana slowly morphed into Brazil. There were lush mountains on both sides of the coast, several rows of colourful umbrellas (unused but waiting for summer guests), and a wide sweep of sandy beach speckled with wooden shacks. At the end of all this stood the casino. Beyond were a row of dark windswept pine trees and, beyond the trees, the cameras and light panes of the film crew. As I walked towards the set I spotted a flock of surfers hitting the waves. Later, I'd find out that Levanto is one of the few beaches in Italy good for surfing; the waves aren't huge but decent enough to get your kicks.
As I approached the set, an old man came up to me and started flirting. I thought he was one of the actors, so I tried not to be too rude. He turned out to be Lino the ice-cream man, whose ice-cream cart was being used on the set. "Don't be worried," he said in Italian. "It's just that you remind me what it is to be young again." Then he proposed marriage, which I politely declined. Instead, I agreed to take a picture with him and accepted an offering of a gelato alla nocciola, hazelnut gelato.
When the set wrapped up for the day, my friend and I walked to the furthest end of Levanto's beach to a cove where a few families were sunning themselves like seals on rocks. We stripped down to our bathing suits and went for a long, cold and refreshing swim. Bobbing there, in the waters of the Ligurian Sea, looking at the town of Levanto and its long arc of colour, I felt that rare moment in the traveller's life, of belonging. It is usually a fleeting moment, caught mid-air between states and places, and it is a moment of such clarity, such brightness that, when it arrives, you can only close your eyes and give thanks to the decisions that brought you to this particular moment.
Finally, I had arrived in a place that matched up to the myth in my mind. It is every traveller's dilemma: of being a tourist but not wanting to be perceived as such, of understanding what life must be like if you lived there, rather than just passing through. In other words, the dilemma of finding a true place among the deluge of tourist traps.
For the next few days in Levanto, I did nothing much. My friend and I swam, read and played chess in the bars on the beach. We discovered a shop that sold every imaginable type of pesto possible and we gorged ourselves on gattafin - a close cousin of the Indian samosa. We spent an evening in Camper's Restaurant (literally, a restaurant in camping grounds), listening to stories of how Levanto used to be a place for barefoot leftists. I bought linen pants in a Chinese market and walked around the cobbled streets of the town seeing nothing in particular but thinking how nice it was to be there. It was an aimless, lovely, magical time, and I was very sad to leave.
On my journey back to Venice, I avoided Tuscany and instead travelled north, up towards Genova, Voghera and the Langhe, up to Milan. The train was an old-fashioned model with private compartments seating six people per carriage - an arrangement that is highly conducive to conversations and shared lunches. It reminded me of the many train journeys I had made back home in India. Something about the slowness of a train plugging its way across the heart of a country, through its changing landscapes, allows you to reflect on the place you've left behind and the place you are arriving in - a most civilised way of travelling.
When I got home I went back to that Montale poem about lemons, which begins: "As for me, I love the roads that shrivel/ into parched, weed-cluttered/ ditches where boys/ catch a skinny eel or two in a puddle;/ the paths that follow the banks and sidle/ down between clumps of cane/ and put you down in the lemon groves, among the trees."
This is the beauty of travel. Montale might have been writing about Monterosso, but for me, it will always be Levanto.
If you go...
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Milan cost from Dh3,920, including taxes
The stay Double rooms at Hotel Nazionale (www.nazionale.it/en/) in Levanto cost from €100 (Dh524) per night, including taxes