From time to time, a ferry ride can lead to a serendipitous day, which was my experience in Italy, once. Even at the time, we realized it was easily the best happenstance among all the terrific times we shared on three, week-long Mediterranean cruises on the WindSurf, a small sailing ship that Bob especially loved (because the captain refused to turn on the engine unless or until there was virtually NO wind on the sea.)
We arrived in Porto Venere, a town with which I was completely unfamiliar and where we decided to just play it by ear for a day on shore. When we arrived at the dock, I noticed the names of the five teeny towns that are perched along the steep cliffs of the Cinque Terre –Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza—posted on a sign that seemed to lead to a ferryboat terminal. I was familiar with the names and had learned that they were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only because when I took a trip on the Orient Express from Venice to London, we had passed through these exquisite points of land perched atop the Mediterranean. My colleague who had visited there insisted that these tiny villages were among the most beautiful and romantic places in the world.
We bought round-trip ferry tickets and climbed aboard the ferry, where we sat near an exquisite, fantasy-provoking, Italian man who told us that he lived in Portofino and was taking his (aged) father out for the day; we managed to mention New York and though I was sputtering a bit of Italian and Spanish, we really didn’t have a language in common.
At the first stop, Bob and I walked to the front of the ferry and mounted the narrow gang plank that the crew had pushed out from the bow until it was long enough to reach and rest (precariously) on a rock. Once on land, we followed a few others and climbed steps carved into the rocks, forever, it seemed, (I can’t possibly know how many steps) up to a teeny tiny town. We wandered a bit in Riomaggiore, and then followed a skinny, curvaceous seafront path that curved along the outer edge of the cliff leading to the next town. It was actually a difficult walk because small aggressive groups of people—and I did recognize their language—pushed through people to the extent that it wouldn’t have been a shock if someone they shoved had landed over the edge and on the rocks below us.
When we arrived at Vernazza, we heard someone yelling, “Hey, New York, andiamo,” and we looked up to see our new-found ferry-friend calling down from high above us, at the edge of a terrace of a tower topping a medieval castle. Somehow, his father, who I had thought to be aged, had climbed all that distance to the top. We joined them and their friends and shared a three-hour lunch, drinking local wines and eating seafood and pasta dishes at Belforte, in a castle built in the 1500’s. In spite of the difficulty of speaking part-Italian/part-Spanish and part- English, we had a great afternoon. During lunch, we called our daughter, the Italophile and told her where we were and asked what wine she’d like us to buy. Who knew that Vernazza was her favorite!
Our new friends escorted us to their wine shop, where the proprietor was charming and presented me with a cluster of melon-sized oranges with stems attached and which scented our cabin for the rest of the voyage.
Ah, ferry travel!