Alcuin, from temporalities at rest,
Sought grace within him, given from afar;
Noting how sunsets worked around to west;
Watching, at spring’s approach, that beckoning star;
And hearing, while one thrush sang through the rain,
Youth, which his soul in Paradise might regain.
-from Awareness of Alcuin, by Siegfried Sassoon
Eighty-six kilometres by the winding coast road from Genoa or a mere twenty by the tunnels and elevated viaducts of the impressive autostrada lies the unpretentious Ligurian seaside town of Levanto. It slumbers on the Mediterranean shore, its grey sandy beach framed by hills, and faces the westering evening sun, whose fiery departures daily draw tourist and local alike to do it silent homage.
It was in Levanto that the Quarringtons, American professors of literature both, met the Italian girl whom husband Ralph named ‘Anna of the Five Towns’ in a self-conscious allusion to Arnold Bennett, an English novelist no longer fashionable. Her name really was Anna, but Levanto is not one of the colourful clifftop-perched coastal towns known collectively as the ‘Cinque Terre,’ so beloved of foreign tourists. It is better described as a commuters’ dormitory for canny visitors to the Five Towns themselves, where accommodation at reasonable prices can be found near the station, from which inexpensive fast trains can be caught to Monterosso al Mare, the first of the Cinque Terre, a mere five-minute ride south, where prices are higher and tourists more numerous. The Quarringtons had planned on driving to Monterosso itself, but a stomach ache put paid to this plan-- of such banalities are stories made-- and they settled on Levanto, and were directed by the tourist bureau to Casa Stefania on Via Canzo, where they met Anna.
It was an inauspicious meeting. Leaving their luggage in their small room, and insisting on leaving a deposit over the protestations of the proprietress, the Quarringtons went in search of antacid and il treno. Finding both eventually, they settled down to enjoy their train ride in a bright blue double-decker carriage filled with other pilgrims.
They admired the coastal scenery from the train, as it rushed to Monterosso, then in short bursts of speed to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore in turn, quickly disgorging and taking on crowds of foreign, predominantly German and American, tourists of all ages, bewildered by the clamour and confusion that is the curse of all popular destinations. At Riomaggiore, they searched for curios and Ligurian artifacts, deflated to discover items that had promised to be of local provenance were inevitably made in China. They photographed the ramshackle pink, yellow, and blue tenements that cling tenaciously to the cliffside near the crowded harbour where they had supper at an open-air trattoria before heading home. On the second day, they took the train to Monterosso and walked the public footpath above the sea to Vernazza, like two elderly mountain goats, as Ralph said to his perspiring wife Marian, as they carefully picked their uncertain way over the rocky uneven trail for two hours, at one point breathlessly ascending more than a hundred steep steps cut into the rock, stepping aside for younger, better-equipped climbers accompanied by their cheery American guides. It was a via dolorosa for Ralph and Marian really, with the risk of a twisted ankle, the sun beating down upon their unprotected heads and backs, and the murmuring surf below a constant reminder of the danger of a fall. Yet Vernazza’s picture-postcard harbour, seen from above at noon, deep blue in the sunshine beside the yellow fourteenth-century chiesa of Santa Margarita, more than made up for the discomfort.