Like sea lions sprawled on sacrificial slabs of stone, a carpet of oiled-up Italians, unfurled on the fishhook-shaped harbor of Vernazza, sunned themselves on rocks.
They were all seduced by the hedonistic pleasures of la vita pigra, or the lazy life.
I first heard of this local phrase from Giacomo, a geriatric landlord with a toothy grin and thick glasses, when we exchanged a set of iron keys for a swollen wad of cash (the better part of 300 euros, to be exact).
I was in Florence (three hours away via high-speed bus or rapida) at the end of May—and the Tuscan capital, suddenly teeming with tourists, turned moist.
The promise of an idle holiday at the Cinque Terre, a quintet of fishing towns at the rugged end of the Italian Riviera, had lured us into Vernazza, described by one friend as “la più bella delle cinque sorelle” (“the prettiest among its five sisters”).
Peering out the shuttered green window of Giacomo’s fourth-floor affittacamere (room for rent) at Piazza Marconi, a beachfront plaza choked with fishing boats and boardwalk cafés, it was easy to understand why the half-naked holiday-makers below me were hexed by the lethargic spirit of this cliff-hugging village.
There were no museums and must-visit monuments in sight, or motorinis tearing through the streets with murderous, purposeful honks.
There were only mellow hills honeycombed with olive groves, lemon trees and grapevines; the muffled din of diners feasting on homemade focaccia and risotto con frutti di mare; and the warm tongue of the turquoise sea, licking swimmers with the salt of the Mediterranean.
With just over 500 residents, the thousand-year-old Vernazza, famous for its vino bianco (white wine) since the bacchanalian orgies of Caesar, is an amusing case study of small-town Liguria, where doppelgangers lurk at every turn.
Train station managers moonlight as mixologists. Gelateria waiters double as guitar-strumming troubadours. And as I serendipitously discovered, that leathery old lemon farmer, his hands as callused as the orchards he cultivates, might just be your bespectacled landlord.
If the waters and the wine don’t stir your wanderlust, there is hiking, preferably with a pair of Alpenstock walking sticks that every task-oriented German trekker, with his well-worn boots and weathered backpack, seems to carry.
For much of Cinque Terre’s isolated history, hiking was the only way to travel between its five hamlets, linked by centuries-old coastal trails and panoramic mule tracks that slither through the terraced vineyards.
The entire 12-mile footpath, marked by white-and-red paint and littered with pine shrubs, mauve wildflowers and mountain streams, can be trekked in a single day, depending on how much you dawdle.
For those less inclined to break a sweat, there is an easy stretch: Via dell’Amore (Lovers’ Lane), a relatively flat and paved portion of the Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail) that joins the towns of Riomaggiore and Manarola, where amorous graffiti festoons the tunnel walls like Renaissance frescos.
Since 2006, star-crossed Italian lovers, inspired by a best-selling teen novel, “Ho voglia di te” (“I Want You”), have been scribbling their names on a single padlock, attaching it to the trail’s railings, and tossing the key into the pounding waves beneath, thus securing their eternal bond.
When rain threatens to wreak havoc on the hills, the locals shepherd themselves indoors, into the cappuccino-scented trattorias along Via Roma, Vernazza’s main drag, lined with small shops peddling the fruits of their labor: wedges of sharp pecorino cheese and jars of pesto alla genovese (nearby Genoa was pesto’s birthplace).
Tucked into an inconspicuous carugi (alley) is the unpretentious Ristorante Incadase da Piva, where chef-owner Piva will personally serve up a sampling of regional fare: trofie al pesto (hand-rolled potato noodles that cling perfectly to the green sauce’s crushed garlic, basil and pine nuts) and a plate of anchovies, freshly plucked from the Ligurian sea and seasoned with basil and lemon.
Here, meals are always paired with a carafe of the town’s famed white wine (vino delle Cinque Terre) and finished with a chilled shot of limoncello, an after-dinner liqueur made from the rind of Sorrento lemon peels.
It wasn’t always like this. Until the 1950s, busy Via Roma was still the bed of a river stream that coursed crystalline through the town and trickled all the way down to the seafront.
In those days, a series of Venetian-style bridges connected Vernazza’s two halves, the sunny sciuiu on the left, and on the right, luvegu, swept under the dark shadows of Castello Doria.
Lording over the town like a courtly medieval lion, the castle—carved out of the rocky promontory in the 1500s—is a silent reminder of the strife that once plagued Cinque Terre’s placid waters.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, it served as a protective lookout point for North African pirates—Saracen and Barbary buccaneers who plundered the coast for slave girls and silver, booty and bounty.
That summer, however, as I stood on its stone tower and surveyed the pastel town suspended in time, there was no trace of that terror.
There were only happy fishermen hauling up their boats to the quay; single-masted sloops, their white sails taut in the wind, moving serenely out to the sea; and oily locals, in complete surrender to la vita pigra, sunning themselves on rocks like sea lions.