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If Italy were an over-the-knee boot, Riomaggiore would be where the top edge rests on the thigh. It’s the southernmost of the five villages forming Cinque Terre, or “five lands,” hugging the Italian Riviera.
I first heard of Cinque Terre when, out of college, I was teaching English in Madrid. Fellow Americans ventured there with oversized backpacks and brought back postcards of picturesque seaside villages. At the time, I wanted to avoid what I saw as the beaten path and instead spent my monthly stipend on trips to places like Prague, where I could sit in moody cafes and brood over a Kafka paperback with a bowl of goulash.
Cinque Terre had never beckoned me. But when Guillaume and I got married in Mallorca, where his parents live, we decided our honeymoon would be a road trip from Barcelona to Venice. In a mostly unsuccessful attempt to go analog, we purchased a parachute-sized foldable map at a rest stop somewhere in Cataluña. Studying our route, I realized Cinque Terre wasn’t too far off course.
I asked Guillaume if he wanted to check it out. “Why not?” he replied, repeating what became the anthem for that trip. I booked the last available guesthouse online.
We’re opposite in many respects—he enjoys daily company and casual drop-ins, I prefer socializing in small doses. He can watch Netflix all night, I fall asleep just after the credits. But when traveling, Guillaume and I are acutely compatible. We find common ground as under-planners and under-packers with a surplus of optimism. It doesn’t always work out—there are plenty of sad buffet lunches and entirely forgettable stops in our wake. But we usually figure out how to make best of it—flipping the proverbial mattress. That, or we mutually agree when it’s time to move on.
On the tail-end of a morning in early July, we parked our rental car at the top of a steep slope descending into Riomaggiore. We made our way down the main street and into a village that seemed to have escaped the passage of time. Like opening a big Crayola pack, the buildings were a spectrum of hard-to-find colors, like cornflower, mint, and coral, with deep green shutters blocking out the already strong sun.
Produce shops along the main street seduced pedestrians with bright basil, unbruised peaches, and bite-sized strawberries. In patches of shade, I saw nonnas in their house dresses and slippers fanning themselves—the same nonnas who I’d later observe at the market, casually inserting themselves at the front of the line. Foreigners like myself quickly noted the local hierarchy.
It was as undeniably charming as the postcards I had seen a decade earlier.
While Guillaume looked for a bathroom, I followed an older woman from the rental office to what would be our home for the night. I quickly spent the two words of Italian I know—hello and thank you—leaving me broke for small talk but she didn’t seem to mind. We trudged silently to the foot of the hill and under a bridge. On the other side was a marina with a brigade of small motorboats. We followed a path along the coast until my lady innkeeper stopped in front of an emerald green door and wrestled out of her pocket a cartoonishly large key—one you might imagine belonged to a treasure chest in the lost city of Atlantis.
The apartment was simple—a jumble of mismatched furniture and a boxy bed with a floral comforter and two limp pillows. There was a windowless, walnut-sized sitting room between the kitchenette and the bedroom, in case we felt like entertaining guests who didn’t care for air or sunlight. But the bedroom had a terrace and once I stepped outside, I was—I continued to be—speechless. All of Riomaggiore, with its colorful houses stacked against rocky cliffs, was ours for the night.
“It’s beautiful,” I told my taciturn host. “Bellissima!” I suppose it was unremarkable to her, similar to when foreigners visit my native upstate New York and blubber about a wild deer crossing the street, while I’m behind the steering wheel wondering why Bambi has a death wish. She nodded and turned to let herself out, leaving the medieval key on the countertop.
I retraced my steps at a fast clip, along the sea, under the bridge and back up the slope, practically breathless by the time I found Guillaume. He was seated outside of a bar, at a small glass table adorned with a jar of wildflowers and two ruby red Negronis. He stood to hand me one: “I love it here,” he said. Still panting, I nodded—I did, too.
Later in the afternoon, after another round of Negronis, I sat on our terrace and scribbled in my journal:
Everyone is happy and excited to be here and explore. There are tourists but there are also old Italian people who cut lines like it’s nothing. I love them, too.
Then I fell asleep atop our waxy comforter with the sound of the sea lapping in the distance.
Before sunset, Guillaume stopped by the marina to see about renting a motorboat. The guys in charge were sea-faring types—bronzed shoulders, loose top knots, and torsos strapped in by weathered fanny packs—who hopped from boat to boat like limber young cats. I envied Guillaume’s ability to chat with them so effortlessly. He was raised speaking French, Spanish, and Mallorcan, and picks up foreign languages like lyrics to a Katy Perry song.
We contribute the gifts that come naturally, I suppose. For my part, I focus my efforts on deciding how and where we will feed ourselves.
For our first dinner in Riomaggiore, I chose based on proximity to the sea. It was a small restaurant perched above the marina, with salmon-hued walls and nautical sconces casting a golden glow. Today, I can close my eyes and still feel the warm, salty air rushing in through the wide-open windows. I can feel the sensation of lightness, like one of the Prosecco bubbles dancing in my glass. It’s the kind of "alive" you only experience when the weight of daily life is peeled away, leaving your senses raw and unusually attuned. The bad flavors never taste worse; but the good ones are extraordinary.
During that trip, we would stop in several cities in Italy and commit a number of errors: in Modena, we made the mistake of going on a Sunday; in Bologna, we made the mistake of not staying longer; and in Venice, we made the mistake of going in the height of tourist season. If we did one thing right, it was visiting Riomaggiore—and in the homey incandescence of a hastily chosen restaurant, ordering the pasta special.
I once had a chef friend who said he was unimpressed by Italian food. Pasta, he said, it’s just flour and water.
This dish proved that those humble ingredients can be elevated to something sublime. The noodles were short and dense, no bigger than the fleshy portion of my pointer finger, with a celestial light and buttery sauce clinging to their delicately ridges. On top of the pasta sat a small mound of raw, rosy tuna, so fresh it could well have been fished by one of our sun-kissed boat friends, just outside. In a rare collision of sensual pleasure and gratitude, I was mindful to appreciate every last bite.
The next day, we rented a motorboat and set out on the choppy, open sea. In my pasta-induced euphoria, I had sipped too much prosecco and spent most of the two hours trying to keep my motion sickness at bay. Afterward, I sat on our terrace, happy to be on firm ground, and journaled about our dinner. I had forgotten the names of our dishes, but the intoxicating flavors still lingered — I wrote that I had eaten the most unforgettable pasta in Italy. There was no way we could leave Riomaggiore yet.
Our guesthouse wasn’t available for a second night, so we gathered our belongings and moved to a minimally furnished Airbnb. The views weren’t breathtaking but the room was clean and had a small Nespresso machine with complimentary dark chocolates.
That night, we claimed the same outdoor table at our favorite bar. Negronis seemed too cloying, so we ordered Aperol spritzes instead. They were effervescent and refreshing and we were happy that we stayed. The bartender remembered our names and we were beginning to feel like regulars. He told us about his American partner and how she moved from Chicago to join him in Riomaggiore. A while later, she stopped by with their two curly-haired children. We ordered another round.
“How much do you think a house costs here?” Guillaume wondered, as we let ourselves imagine what life might look like if we moved to Riomaggiore.
The bartender invited us to a bonfire party on the beach and since we were now close friends and soon-to-be neighbors, we accepted. We switched back to Negronis and nursed them at the bar while waiting for his shift to finish.
Guillaume and I stayed at the beach party for hours. We told the bartender and his partner about our idea to move to Riomaggiore. More people arrived and we joined different groups, taking sips from wine bottles circling around the fire. The air smelled of saltwater and hashish. A stereo boomed electronic music. A guy slapped a drum squeezed between his knees.
At some point, I realized the sky had changed from pitch black to dusty purple. Our bartender was nowhere in sight. Suddenly everyone around us seemed very young—I felt very old and out of place. “Let’s go home,” I whispered to Guillaume, and we slinked away without saying goodbye.
We woke up hungover and filled with the anxiety of realizing that the magic had run its course. It was time to leave Riomaggiore. Guillaume dragged our suitcase back up the slope and I trudged slowly behind him. The air was hot. The sunlight hurt my eyes. The colors were bright and garish. I stopped at a bakery to buy a puffy square of pizza and carried it with me on wax paper. I picked off a basil leaf, threw it on the sidewalk, then took a bite. Not even you can make me feel better, I told the still-warm slice.
There’s an Italian proverb: L’ospite è come il pesce: dopo tre giorni puzza. More or less: Guests are like fish—they smell after three days. Sometimes, the same can be said for being a guest. When you arrive, everything is fresh and exciting: the fruit never smelled so sweet; the colors never looked so enchanting; the pasta never tasted so good. When you stay too long, the sights become familiar, flaws seep out, and the same things you loved lose their charm. But looking back, your memories retain the same radiant sheen. Even if you drink too many Negronis and overstay your welcome, you can’t help but walk away dreaming of the next time you’ll return.
Until recently, I took it for granted that we could always go back to Riomaggiore.
In the past few months, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought Italy—and most of the world— to its knees. I keep thinking about the people and the food and how they manage to win over even the most skeptical of travelers; and, with the care and heritage found only in the motherland, how they convince you that even the humblest ingredients, like flour and water, can have extraordinary potential.
Back in Paris, I’ve tried to recreate that unforgettable pasta dish. Research into the mystery noodle has led to a couple of possibilities—trofie or cavatelli. I asked my friend Davide, a Puglia-native and itinerant Michelin-star chef who taught me to love farfalle, and he suggested it might be gnochetti. But none of those noodles seem quite right. I find myself butting up against an immovable door. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe it’s a creation of that small kitchen in Riomaggiore, by a chef following not a pasta recipe but muscle memory and decades, if not centuries, of tradition.
In my tiny kitchen, I make do with trofie or cavetlli, cooked until it’s barely al dente and drained but for a cup of pasta water. I stir in a few pats of high-quality butter and a touch of extra virgin olive oil. Then I top it with the freshest fish I can find—though these days, I’ve been settling for frozen.
It’s always delicious but never quite as good as I remember. I can only hope that time will bring the opportunity to taste it once again, as a guest in Italy. And that I—that we—might have more chances to stumble into the kinds of experiences only accessible far from home, including places we were once too obtuse to look for them.
Where are you dreaming of traveling to? Tell us in the comments below.
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