The setting: Cinque Terre Park, Italy.
The setting: Cinque Terre National Park on the Italian Riviera.
The hotel: La Torretta in Manarola—an especially enticing place to stay.
The goal: Hiking trails between Riomaggiore to the south and Monterosso to the north.
The desire: Outdoor time with my husband.
The reality: Sharing him and our breathtaking location with four lovely USA college gals studying in Italy for a semester.
I’m not sure now who initiated the first smile, greeting, or tidbit that launched our sporadic conversation. Could have been them, could have been us. But for the multi-hours of the hike from Manarola up, over and down to Corniglia, we played hopscotch back and forth with Kristin, Stephanie, Allie and Emily. They made the hardness of the hiking easy, sharing their delightful, youth-filled exuberance with us.
The trek from Manarola vertically through the wine terraces and olive groves to Volastra is anything but easy. There are a few flat, smooth places, but most of the trail is steep and narrow with various sizes of rocks to be navigated. Once you reach the sort of mid-way point at Volastra, you get a brief respite to look around, if you’re stout enough—the young ladies were, we weren’t—you can have a glass of crisp white wine before continuing your hike to Corniglia or turning around and returning downhill to Manarola.
We learned they were escaping from college for the weekend and didn’t seem the least bit interested in the three fit young men who scooted across the hills ahead of us and were soon lost to sight. Kristin is studying occupational therapy and wants to work with kids—in response to my statement when we revealed Burt & Muggins, ‘The first rule of getting old is not to.” She said working with kids will keep her having fun.
Allie was the super photographer. Later that evening, waiting for the sun to do a spectacular spread on the wavy surface of the Ligurian sea to light the horizon with rosy hues from side to side, I watched her. On the boulders below us, in the tricky Manarola harbor, she bent down, laid out, crawled around, and turned every which way getting shots. I’d love to see the pictures she ended up with because her perspective was entirely different from ours.
Stephanie was quieter, but what a bright, quick smile she shared! This woman was constantly immersed in the moment, enjoying each sight before her, each friend she was with, every unique thing happening. She fell once and even my non-maternal heart wanted to run to her to see what I could fix. But they had it under control and she bounced upright, swearing it was no big deal and she was fine.
Emily had large, soul-filled eyes and looked like she might have, maybe, could have, perhaps, had a better afternoon sipping wine by the seashore. But she was a trooper as she hiked on with the trio and never complained about the heat or the difficulty of walking in boots meant for lighter treks.
To the best of our knowledge, these four gals came from different states to study together in Italy and have now formed a bond that will hold them together for years—perhaps physically, but always in their memories. They shared the remarkable landscape that is the Cinque Terre. From my first trip there with my sister Jackie in 2007 to this one with Alex, the place and the people leave impressions that never fade. Setting impacts us whether we are aware of it or not. When my feet first step from the train in one of the five villages of the Cinque Terre or anywhere in Pembrokeshire, Wales, my heart slows down. Any anxiety that has built up from travel or has otherwise followed me from the states to this place, this wonderful special place, lifts and I sigh in sheer contentment.
Chance encounters happen with people and with geography. The moments can be experienced over a shared morning coffee or an evening glass of wine while watching the sunset in a new sea. On the trip with Jackie, we met a tall woman, Afina from Australia, hiking the park alone. She was on the cusp of beginning a new job in London and was spending a week traveling in Liguria and Tuscany. As she stood there, telling us about waiting in line for several hours to see the David statue at the Galleria dell’Accademia, the sheer joy in her voice was exhilarating, as was the reassurance that he is worth whatever it takes to see him.
Five years later, on my honeymoon in Florence, we would stand before David and I felt Afina’s presence and gave a silent thank you to my brief interaction with her because she enticed me to see this work of art. Michelangelo’s 14’ marble tribute to Bible hero David is nearly beyond comprehension in its beauty—without Afina’s assurance that he was worthwhile, I may not have felt compelled to see him.
When I meet unique people like these gals (“unique” and “like” are funny to use in the same sentence, eh?), I want to hold on tight and preserve the time we had, reluctant to part with the now. That desire is how I’ve made and kept friends in the many cities—states—I’ve lived in and why I miss the ones I’ve lost contact with. It’s only years later when I chance upon a photo of a person or I re-read in my travel journal about meeting them that I realize even without staying in contact, I have kept these people in my life.
So “chance” encounter or an opportunity to remind myself that God ebbs and flows people into and out of the circle of our lives for reasons? Some connections are meant to last for years and some for afternoons in quaint Italian towns. What I do know is that I will remember these delightful teens and the joy they provided, reminiscing about April hikes for a long, long time.
Read: Adventures in Italy