As the train slowed into the Riomaggiore station Harman and I were met with a sudden wave of energy and inspiration. This was it. We’d made it this far, so we might as well make the final village as memorable as possible. But to the best of my memory, when we first arrived I felt more a sense of slight disappointment than anything. The sun was getting low and the faded paint of the cliffside just wasn’t as vibrant as I had anticipated. To my knowledge, there isn’t a dedicated place to get a landscape view of the village itself like the one in Manarola unless you happen to find yourself on a boat just outside of the harbour, and if there is we didn’t find it. And we left our boat back at the hostel.
Riomaggiore was just as crowded as the other villages, albeit with the waves of tourists beginning to leave almost as fast as the daylight. When we began walking around, everything just kind of felt slow, as if we had just missed something or had shown up after the parade and were now left to help sweep up the confetti. I couldn’t quite put a name on it, but something about it all just felt empty. Even I was beginning to have enough of my overly-romantic view of things that day; Melodrama can be exhausting, what can I say. As Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself,” so maybe I was a little bit over myself – whoever I thought that was in the first place, or whomever I was trying to be.
But still, we walked on in hopes of finding one last bit of enchantment on the Ligurian Coast. Luckily, all that was standing between us and what we were searching for was a flight of about 500 winding concrete steps, the ones that aren’t evenly spaced apart, either.
I don’t remember how we found the steps and I don’t remember where they began, we were simply wandering around when we noticed we happened to be going up. We came to multiple points where you can break off and meander through the homes of the people who live there, or take a stroll through some shops and backyard gardens. But once you began your ascent you couldn’t help but be both intimidated and fueled by the sight of a few hundred steps at what feels like a 75-degree angle. After about ten minutes of continuous climbing, you finally reach an unassuming road/cutback that leads you deeper into that part of the village. Through heaving breaths, I smiled, turning around to see the beautiful landscape behind us. Monte Everest! But my excitement was only temporary as it is a false summit, and there were still about half of the steps (all of which looked even steeper than the last) standing between us and one of the most spectacular views we’d find on our entire trip. So we huffed and we puffed and we carried on, slowly. Very slowly.
The steps continue to wind and curve high into the atmosphere, weaving you through the lives of those people who didn’t mind (or even enjoyed) the trek. Whether the people who live there own cars or just never left the house, or if they are just used to the hike up & down as a part of their daily world is beyond me. But the walk certainly expelled any thought other than some variation of just lower your head, you’re almost there from my mind. Maybe part of even the most difficult of journies was just finding your way home, no matter how many steps there were to take.
But with our hearts nearly pounding out of our chests like some cheesy 90’s cartoon animation and with the sweat in our shirts penetrating the bags on our backs, we reached the top and were deposited somewhere along the side of a long, winding road, right into an aptly placed vantage point to watch the sun descend over the sea. On the other side of the street was a local cemetery decorated with an abundance of red, yellow, and purple flowers adorning each of the countless headstones. To me, it resembled something of a mausoleum, because there is another staircase that runs to the uppermost floor of the structure. Not a bad place to end up, I guess.
At the vantage point, there is another set of staircases that loops down and into the various vineyards and farmland belonging to the surrounding homes. Running directly alongside the staircase is something of walled garden which, if you aren’t especially afraid of heights, you can walk out onto for a truly one-of-a-kind image. Sitting atop the walled garden with my feet dangling some thirty feet above the stone and dirt of Italy, the sun began taking its final bow for the evening, a curtain of orange clouds slowly dropping down to cover the stage.
By that point in our trip, our week-or-so in Europe had begun to feel like whiplash. We couldn’t decide where to look or where to go, we began to get distracted by the possibility of a hundred other plans and places within our proximity, and most of all, at least from my perspective, it was all beginning to feel a bit overpowering. Not just our ‘new country every few days’ thing, but the fact that the sun was nearly setting on that trip of ours, itself – the one that we had planned for months and each dreamed about for years.
But sitting in the veil of the setting Riomagiorre sun, still spectacularly out of breath and on the edge of absolute exhaustion, I struggled to feel anything other than a sense of clarity. Nothing else mattered, maybe nothing else would ever matter after sitting there, I thought, or maybe everything after that would matter just a little bit more than usual. But only time would reveal that answer to me, and only if I took the necessary steps, myself.
Eventually, I felt like I was hogging the view, so I retreated carefully back along the twelve-inch wide brick wall to the base of the vantage point to give Harman some unobstructed views of his own. From one side of the road to the next, I made my way to that community cemetery/mausoleum and up the evenly-spaced steps to the top. Maybe whoever built that staircase decided to give the dead a break after making their way up the first 500.
There are a few platforms that diverge into the different levels of the structure, but I continued to the top, from which you are met with another incredible view of the village below you. And it is here that I felt the world slow down for just a moment, for I was entirely alone in the shadow of a giant cross that was erected to watch over the entrance of the building. I am someone who has long associated himself with spirituality instead of traditional religion. Energy and intuition and instinct have always meant more to me than simple words in an old book. But whether out of ceremony or tradition or my upbringing as a half-assed Catholic, I decided to take a knee. Now I could write the thoughts that were firmly planted in my mind at that moment, but they’re not important to the story; It was a span of sixty seconds that simply granted me permission to be still, something that I struggle with on a daily basis. We had hiked to what, on some level, seemed to be a little corner of heaven.
I then made my way back to Harman and, after reviewing the time-lapse footage of the sunset on his iPhone, we descended those same inconquerable steps that would lead us back to the train station and La Spezia. Why is it that the way back always goes so much faster than the way there? We sat on the train in a web of friendly silence thanks to an almost crippling hunger and, on my end, the most paralyzing desire to pee that I have ever felt in my life.
When we made it the hostel we were still anticipating a night in Portovenere, but unfortunately, when we found our prospective party we realized that they were all still impressively hungover from the night before. Too much cheap wine, one of them whimpered. It was about nine o’clock and the group was already going to bed, none of which remembered our names or making the plans in the first place. Harman and I, foolish for breathing in that drunken elixir; Those hollow words whispered into our ears and empty touches on each of our shoulders. But you live, learn, forget, and forgive, and at that moment we were too damn hungry to get hung up on women we’d probably never speak to again – especially ones who hadn’t bothered to remember our faces, so we began roaming around the surrounding few blocks in desperate need of anything to eat.
It was a busy night for all the restaurants in the area, but after grabbing a glass of wine at one of the nearby bars (thanks to a complimentary drink ticket you receive upon arrival at the Manin, a nice touch) and hovering around long enough, we were somehow offered a riservato table under the awning at Il Trattico, which delivered on their reputation for outstanding pizza. It was now well past midnight, and after our quick but delicious dinner, we trekked back to the hostel reluctantly, conscious of both the weight under our eyes and the fact that it was our last night in Italy. But in truth, we both just wanted to get to bed in anticipation of the all-day FlixBus to Luzerne the following morning, and you can never say a proper goodbye if you’re too tired. So we dragged ourselves to our rooms and collapsed accordingly, dreading the alarm that was set to go off at eight a.m.