Wednesday, July 24, 2013

No. 316 – Home By the Sea / Second Home By the Sea

Performer: Genesis
Songwriters: Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford
Original Release: Genesis
Year: 1983
Definitive Version: Again, anything live. The one from Live at Wembley Stadium, 1987, is the one I have on my iTunes.

“Scenes of unimportance, like photos in a frame, things that go to make up a life.”

No other song nails the entirety of this here blog like this one does. So, Home By the Sea … Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s the name of this song. It’s all one song, and as far as I know, the band never has played only the first part of the song without the second. The original listing, I’m certain, was a decision made by the record company, with or without the band’s input, to break up an 11-minute song for radio play.

Whatever, this song was a huge basketball song my sophomore year at Wabash, and at the time this here blog got under way, I was going to write about some facet of that season when I got to this song. Events from a year ago changed that.

Last fall, when Laurie and I went to Italy, the last leg of our three-cornered vacation was spent in Cinque Terre, an area of five towns joined by foot paths on the cliffs and shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed in Vernazza, which is the fourth of the five towns, going south to north.

When we finally arrived Monday after a one-day delay in Florence (story to come), we hiked down the main street—the only street, really—to the restaurant where we met the woman with whom we rented our room. She led us to the house, and when I saw the stairs going up, I knew I was in trouble.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Vernazza is built on the side of a rocky isthmus. It’s like Venice in the sense that almost all traffic is on foot. The difference is that Vernazza is mostly vertical. Maybe it’s just me, but it always seemed as though the only direction was up.

I counted later, and we took 192 stair steps from the square to our apartment, and it was almost an unbroken climb with only a brief section of landing or walkway. Guess who carried the suitcases?

Actually, the worst part was when we got to the house at the top of the rock. Inside was a spiral staircase almost too narrow for our suitcases. Somehow I was able to manipulate the bags enough in the dark—before Laurie found the light switch around the corner—and got them to our door.

The house was divided into two types of rooms—those that had private bathrooms and those that didn’t. We paid the extra for a private bathroom, and I felt sorry for the saps—folks roughly my age—who didn’t and whom we’d see occasionally lined up in the hall to go into the communal bathroom.

Anyway, the whole point of being in Cinque Terre was to hike the trails that connected the five towns, so Laurie and I grabbed some sandwiches on freshly made foccacia for lunch and started on the path to Monterosso, the fifth town. Our journey began with 200 steps—straight up. Geez, is there anywhere here where the terrain is at least relatively flat?

We ate our sandwiches on a bench overlooking the harbor and the entire town. Even though it was overcast and a little cool, it was an incredible view, like no other place I’d ever been. Then the gray skies opened up. We got soaked.

After the rain stopped, we didn’t get far before we realized that the trail was a little slippery, so we turned around and confined ourselves to wandering Vernazza and hiking the beginnings of the trail south to Corniglia. We learned from a worker at a gelato stand that the trails were all closed anyway, victims of the landslides that ripped apart the area and particularly Vernazza the year before. Only the path to Corniglia was open—at your own risk—and only on a sunny day.

We decided to give it a shot the next day as long as the weather held out, and we finished our first day with wine and pieces of foccacia at a table by the harbor. We had a perfect view of the spectacular sunset—a huge payoff that augured well for the next day.

The next day, however, we awoke to the sound of rain amid the crashing waves outside our window. When I looked out, I saw the ground was wet and the sky completely gray, with more rain coming. Great. Laurie got up, and I told her not to look out the window. She looked and had the same reaction I did … except I noticed something. It appeared the rain was farther away than when I looked. Maybe …

Sure enough, by the time we dressed and headed out the door, the sky cleared up. In fact, it was completely blue to the West. We bought some foccacia for breakfast and got some water in anticipation of the hike. By the time we started up the path to Corniglia, the weather was spectacular—shorts weather with only a few puffy white clouds in sight. The view was even more spectacular.

The first mile on the stone walkway seemed dry despite the early-morning rain. The path was literally on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. I wasn’t freaked out, because enough trees and other vegetation seemed to afford a break to any fall.

That isn’t to say that the path wasn’t a bit treacherous. At one point, a small landslide had knocked over some of the stone walling that formed the walkway. We were about a half-mile in, and our choices were to climb over or turn back. We climbed over. We had already seen people coming the other direction, and if they were able to traverse the landslide, so could we.

We felt justified in our decision to continue, although at one point soon afterward, we heard a “thump, thump, thump” around a corner, which freaked us out. I peaked around and saw a few large rocks that just had fallen onto the path. Let’s keep moving.

After awhile, we were overwhelmed by the scent of honeysuckle that grew along the path, and the walkway flattened out. Around a corner, we finally could see Corniglia not far in the distance. At about the same time, we came upon a house seemingly smack in the middle of nowhere that was smack in the middle of the walkway. As we hiked through, a genial Italian invited us inside—we never got his name—to take in the view from his balcony. All I can say is if I ever had a view like that, I’d never leave home.

Before long, we no longer were on the edge of a cliff but hiking through an olive grove that had huge pieces of cheesecloth-like plastic to catch the olives before they fell to the ground. The last of the 4-mile hike was pretty easy, and we arrived in Corniglia, another scenic town built on a cliff. We had lunch—fantastic frutti di mare that we shared—in a square served by a no-nonsense German. (I know, that’s redundant.)

From there, we took the commuter rail to Riomaggiore, but when we arrived and began another hike, we found that the walkway from there to Manarola was closed, and I mean closed as in a locked gate blocking the entrance. Rats.

So what choice did we have? We got back on the train and went back to Vernazza to watch another sunset from our perfect spot in the town square. I climbed back up the start of the trail to Monterosso to take more pictures as Laurie journaled. When I joined her, she announced that she had a new favorite place in the whole world—Vernazza.

The final day we spent just in Vernazza before we had to take the train to Milan for our flight home. We had lunch at Belforte, which provided us with a great view of the sea from the tip of the rock that held up Vernazza. We sat on the patio with a large group of loud American wives on vacation with what I imagined to be their gay male friend.

We were grateful when they finally left and we could hear the ocean—not to mention ourselves think. (Did I say they were loud?) But the best part happened when the host came out and spied my Italian translation book. He picked it up and thumbed through a few pages. I was expecting a quiz, but all he said as he eyed us suspiciously was, “So … Canadian or Australian?” I laughed, remembering my Eddie Izzard, saying, “Canadian, of course!” Actually, I thought his remark was a huge compliment, that Laurie and I were cool. (Apparently, Italians aren’t too fond of the English, either.)

Our final dinner was one of my favorites of the whole trip—foccacia, sausage, proscuitto, cheese and wine out of paper bags that we bought in Vernazza and enjoyed on the train. We sat in a car that was empty except for us for nearly the entire four-hour ride.

As we began our long trek back to sweet home Chicago, Laurie and I agreed that we had to come back—to Vernazza. Italy had been incredible, topping Mexico as my favorite vacation I’ve ever taken, but Laurie said she wanted to do just a week just in Cinque Terre, as soon as possible. We’re eying 2014.

Laurie called where we stayed our home by the sea, with the Genesis song in mind, so now, Vernazza is all I’ll ever think of when I hear this song.

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