The eastern slice of the Italian Riviera is called the "Coast of the Rising Sun" but on this particular morning, the sun had forsaken Levanto.
Instead, rain beat down on the shutters of my room in the Hotel Europa, washing away any plan I had of roaming the steep hills surrounding this small village about 45 miles southeast of Genoa.The pitter-patter thus allowed my thoughts to wander back to the day before, when the afternoon sun - uninhibited by any cloud or threat of rain - soaked the dishwater-blond beach. Children frolicked with the tide, colorful inflatable flotation devices attached securely to their arms. Nearby, two women were taking a solar bath au natural. A slight but even wind attracted sailboarders onto the bay, which was also being conquered by yet another wave of happy tourists in a sightseeing boat . . .
But my recollections were soon interrupted by the feedback of an electric guitar. From his room beneath mine, the hotelkeeper's son played encore after encore of the same monotonous riff. I got out of there quickly and began looking for a bargain on an umbrella.\ Because the storm had come slowly from the Mediterranean to the south it lasted the greater part of the day. My rain-soaked hike took me first to the medieval Church of Sant'Andrea, which sports a Renaissance face-lift. An ancient cobblestone road starting behind the church leads up to a castle that once guarded the Levanto aristocracy from danger in the Middle Ages, although now it's difficult to imagine anything other than peace in a place as beautiful as this.
Further southeast of town begins a trail that leads to Monterosso, the first village of the Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands," a rugged stretch of coastline where steep mountains have dramatic encounters with picturesque coves, around which can be found tiny settlements inhabited by fishermen and grape growers.
A historian of the 1500s described the Five Lands as a "steep and rocky district where it is not only difficult for goats to climb but even for birds to fly . . . In certain places men must let themselves down with ropes to gather the grapes from which such perfect wine is made."
As I looked at the map at the trailhead, my thoughts began drifting backward in time again, to when I hiked the Five Lands along the trail known as the Via Dell'Amore.
Monterosso is the most populated - and most popular with tourists - of the Five Lands. Its beach sits in a sleepy inlet that is guarded by a castle on a cliff to the north.
Taking the roller-coaster trail southeastward, I marveled at the thousands of terraces on the hillsides that rise abruptly from the sea. The terraces were started back in ancient Roman times, when settlers realized the area enjoyed an abundance of sun and protection from alpine winds but lacked level planting fields. So laborers over the ensuing centuries built the terraces and hauled soil to fill them in. Today, the vineyards produce a sweetly scented grape that's used to make the renowned sciacchetra wine.
Past the vineyards and an occasional house sprouting up from the terraces, I walked until I came to Vernazza, a village with a miniature harbor sheltered on one side by the hills, on another by a 14th-century church and on another side by the main part of the town. Beyond Vernazza is Corniglia, which sits on top of a ridge 100 meters above the water.
My favorite of the Five Lands is Manarola, a fishing village without a harbor. After the catch, fisherman must place their small, brightly colored skiffs on wooden rollers and then haul the boats up a steep, winding ramp to a dry dock, away from the pounding waves.
The last of the Five Lands (or the first, depending on which direction you're coming from), is Riomaggiore, similar to Manarola but with a small beach that serves as a friendly accommodation to the weary hiker . . .
Back in Levanto, the rain starts to come down hard again, forcing my retreat past the deserted beaches, past the verdant city park, back to town. Later in the day, when the threat of rain lessened, I hiked to the north of Levanto, through a series of tunnels now closed to automobile traffic.
An elevated peninsula lured me off the road. I climbed onto it as far as I could and sat down on a cliff to enjoy the view. The emerald sea, some 80 feet below, lapped at the steep, rocky shore. Below to my left, two fishermen sat on a large rock in the middle of a beach. Beyond them was Levanto, a whiff of smoke drifting seaward over the rooftops, smoke from the fires of farmers burning excess vegetation.
In the distance to the north and west, thunder rumbled its warning but I was not going to be scared off, not until dark anyway. I stayed to admire the plants and yellow wildflowers, living precariously in the sparse, gray-black, stony soil of the cliff. The clouds to the west had thinned and there was a soft, soft glow of orange as the sun headed to America.
In a few days, I, too, would be going the same way. But I vowed to return again someday to Levanto and the Five Lands. Rain or shine.
Getting there: The safest, least expensive and most relaxing way to get to Levanto is by train. From Milan, it's about a three-hour ride to Levanto, via Genoa. Be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the train so you can enjoy the Riviera - when you're not going through a tunnel, that is. If you're traveling by car, the autostrada parallels the Riviera. Take the "Legnaro" exit.
Where to stay: The dozen or so hotels in Levanto are reasonable, ranging in double-occupancy price from $35 a night to $150 (or more, depending on whether you want room and board). If there's no room at the inn, other hotels can be found in neighboring coastal villages, minutes away by train.