Of course, Italy has far more than five towns, but the specific five towns in northern Italy known as the Cinque Terre form a geographical and cultural unit along the mountainous coastal area which is a continuation of the French Riviera and shares many features with it. The tree-covered mountains sweep down to the sea, where villages and small towns once engaged in fishing and sea-faring, but today are focused mainly on tourism.
The train line which connects the coastal towns goes through endless tunnels, with occasional brief exits into bursts of daylight and the sight of the sea. We visited two of the towns by boarding the train at Riomaggiore, where we had to park our rental car at the top of the hill and walk down to the station. Together with the throng of tourists, we boarded the train there and alighted at Monterosso, where there is a fine promenade with cafes, restaurants and opportunities to taste some good ice-cream. On our return trip to Riomaggiore we found ourselves facing the long uphill walk to our car. That was not easy and taught us not to repeat the experience.
The region is served by a network of narrow, winding roads, meaning that driving around to view the various sights or find a place to eat involves moments of stomach-turning anxiety for someone like me, who is scared of heights and fearful at every turn and twist in the road. Our situation was not helped by the insistence of our Waze application to speak to us in Italian. My knowledge of the language is very limited, though I could work out phrases meaning ‘at the roundabout (rotunda) take the first exit (prima uscitta),’ but the result was not always satisfactory (i.e., we didn’t always get to where we wanted to go). A phone call to our computer wizz son in Israel resolved the problem, and after that we were able to be guided in English. Our AirB&B near the village of Volastra was a spacious farm-house, with two large rooms, a large kitchen and a terrace with a view of the sea. On the day the rain kept us in the house we were able to watch Italian TV with its French-language Arte channel, and saw two films dubbed into French (The Pink Panther and Die Brucke), as well as various travel documentaries (also in French).
Our trip also involved short stays in larger towns in the region, starting in Milan with its magnificent cathedral and Brera Museum with the masterful painting by Caravaggio of The Supper at Emmaus. We also visited Genoa, once a major port and still a significant sea-going presence in Italy, and we ended our trip with a brief stay in Parma, home of the famous Parmesan cheese. It so happened that there was a performance of Leoncavallo’s short opera Pagliacci that evening, and there were still some tickets to be had. So for our farewell to Italy we were treated to a wonderful performance of the tragic opera, with a colourful stage filled with constant action by actors, singers, dancers, acrobats and clowns, reproducing the production as originally staged by Franco Zeffirelli. What a magnificent show that was!
We were impressed by the cleanliness of the towns we visited, even in Genoa, where everyone seems to have a dog on a leash. What a pity that here in Israel we cannot emulate a similar standard of public responsibility.