Standing at a bus stop on a street I don’t know the name of in La Spezia (a town I'd never been to), I turn to Nicola.
‘How the hell would you know what do to if you were a tourist?’
He shrugs. ‘Taxi?’ he says, and laughs.
He’s probably right. We got off the train at La Spezia, hoping to get a bus connection to Portovenere, which translates to Port Venus. The bus ticket machine is something I’ve never encountered before in Italy and for a moment I am excited - technology! Usually I buy bus tickets either on board, which generally irritates the drivers, or at a tabaccheria, which are marked by a black sign with a big capital T in the middle in white. Tobacco and salt were historically government-controlled resources and stores needed licenses to sell them, which is why the standardised signs read ‘sali e tabacchi’. I digress: the machine was out of order so after soliciting some advice from a lady waiting for the bus we set off to find a tabaccheria, get our bus tickets as well as vague instructions from the owner that include ‘turn right at the fountain’ and eventually find our way to the stop to wait for the bus to get us to the start point for our day’s hike. This is why these days start at 6am.
It’s less than five days since I arrived back in Italy. I was obviously incredibly excited, but also a little bit nervous about coming back. Last time I was here I put myself under insane amounts of pressure to speak perfectly, to look perfect, act the part (not sure what part, exactly…); at times I felt like a pinball in a machine and treated everything like a self-imposed test.
Those were the best months of my life so far and the memories of that summer I will hold in my heart forever: still they were challenging. Nicola and I often say we jumped into the fire together and it holds true. We walked the Cape to Cape together just five weeks after meeting. We lived together from that point until he went to fulfil a lifelong dream of driving around the sunburnt country that’s our part-time home. We’ve lived with my parents; his parents, in tiny spaces, with financial and logistical and emotional and practical challenges, not the least of which is not having the same native language.
The fourteen weeks I spent back in Australia was the third period of time we’ve been forced apart, and for me were definitely the most challenging. But now I’m back I feel I’ve had the chance to recalibrate; to take on board all of last year's lessons, and to just take a load off. I feel cooler, calmer, better and way more relaxed. I walked into the main bar in town on Saturday night and the owner, having not seen me for a few months, said: 'hi Megan' (Gale - she was big in Italy in the 90s thanks to her Vodafone campaign). Instead of being shy or nervous, I'm just taking it in my stride.
I've settled (nearly) immediately into the slow, steady rhythm of life. I know now that it can’t be fought or tamed, and that it’s better to go with it instead of fight it. That, and it has myriad merits compared with our frantic goal-oriented lives in Oz. Within days I’ve seen nearly all our family and friends. I’ve realised I know more Italian than I thought, and instead of panicking when I go to speak, I stop to consider my words a bit more. I am thrilled beyond all measure and expectation to again wake up and to go to sleep with the man I love, and I can finally say I feel peaceful and at home here. It is concurrently a joy and a relief.
Having reached Portovenere we have a coffee and a wander through the UNESCO heritage-listed townsite. N grumbles a bit at the €2 price tag on the cappuccino but to be honest in a place like this I expected to pay more. The bathrooms are good and the staff are friendly. That’s enough for me.
The comune (local government area) of Portovenere is made up of three villages: Le Grazie, Fezzano, and Porto Venere itself (yup, the spelling of the town name is different). The area, alongside its famous neighbour the Cinque Terre, was granted its world heritage status in 1997. Portovenere makes up part of the Gulf of La Spezia, nicknamed the Gulf of Poets for the presence of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in the 1800s. Byron reportedly used to swim across the often tempestuous waters to see his mate and fellow poet who lived in San Terenzo in nearby Lerici. Shelley died in the gulf in 1822 when his boat overturned.
The wander through to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, is nothing short of spectacular. You quite literally feel like you're on top of the world. While only May, the trail was already jam-packed with hikers of all ages. It’s definitely not an easy trot in the park. For my first walk up a big hill (nope, there’s nothing in WA that comes close) since last year, I didn’t go too badly, but there were times heading out of Porto Venere where I was scrambling on rocks, and wouldn’t have wanted to put a foot wrong for fear of falling down a few hundred metres into the gulf itself. If you're familiar with the Sentiero Azzurro, this is more difficult.
The sunsets from here would be glorious: our lunch spot (the ‘I’m not eating focaccia till the wedding’ rule flew out the window that day when we packed our backpacks with freshly-baked fare from the bakery next door that morning) in a quiet street in Campiglia afforded a view of the Ligurian Sea that blended seamlessly into the horizon.
Wildflowers of all colours and persuasions are already abundant, especially between Telegrafo and Riomaggiore. The downhill portion (which is uphill, if you tackle the trail north to south) is steep too, but made of steps rather than rocks, and once you reach Riomaggiore you'll find the bustle of the Cinque Terre is real, even outside peak season.
All up, it’s a 13.4km trek that takes an average of about six hours. We started around 10:30am and finished just after 4pm, going at a pretty leisurely pace. We tick-tacked with an older group of hikers who were both fiercely fit (they beat us there, just, but we’re talking people in their 50s and 60s) and organised – we passed them on their picnic lunch break and although I was envious of their salads and meats and cheeses at first, I pretty quickly realised I’d be struggling to move again if I ate that much.
When I arrived back in Australia and saw the Indian Ocean for the first time in months, I was gobsmacked. Surely it wasn’t that blue every day. I went back the next day, and the next, until I realised what I probably should have cottoned on to much earlier – it really was that colour, day after sun-drenched day. I was equally dumbstruck on this trail: wildflowers, sweeping sea views, endless blue skies...and a walking companion who is a qualified guide to ease me back into la dolce vita.
This swing between Italy and Australia that we’ve put ourselves on means at times we might not feel at home in any one place. But I reckon there’ll be times we feel completely at home in two places as well, and I hope that we can have the flexibility, compassion and generosity with one another, with our families, our friends, and our vastly different but equally breathtaking environments (hello, Western Australia and Tuscany!) to be fully appreciative and conscious of what we’ve been given, and what we have to give. And that’s a lot.
Photos: Nicola Merciadri (except that one of him which I took :) )