It was July on the northern coast of Italy, a geographic region along the Ligurian seashore known for pasta with pesto, tourist sites like Cinque Terre and Portofino, and a general sense that time is moving a bit more slowly than usual. Reaching almost to France and the rocky, umbrella-dotted beaches of Nice, Liguria is the front pull tab at the top of the leather boot of Italy. We were there for a handful of days, partly for work (my wife Lindsey is a photographer and was photographing a wedding) and partly for a holiday that would take us on a few trains and planes through the south of France, Paris, and then back home to Charleston, South Carolina. The first day in Italy we spent languidly, wearing off the jetlag and acclimating to the sweltering heat that was not so very different from the blanket of humidity and sweat of a lowcountry summer back home. The next day, we took the ferry from Santa Margherita down to San Fruttuoso, a cove that harbors a tenth-century stone abbey that is now a museum overlooking a small beach crowded with beach chairs and a couple of restaurants tucked into the steep sides of the stone cliffs. We were anxious to find two open chairs we could rent for the afternoon, as every blog post I had read about visiting the beach stressed that it fills up early in the day during the summer. We exited the ferry and were lucky to find seats, and the small bar above sold us a bottle of cold bottle of Pigato, a white wine made with a local variety of grapes, to go along with the focaccia, a jar of tuna in olive oil, and a peach that we had brought along. We had our picnic lunch and swam in the surprisingly cold water.
Our trip to San Fruttuoso had been so pleasant that I decided to go back again the next day on my own, when Lindsey would be working. Online, I found a description of a hike from the dock at Portofino all the way up into the mountains and around to the abbey and the tiny beach. I set off after a late breakfast of focaccia and a cappuccino (in Liguria, they dip the focaccia into the cappuccino) and barely caught the ferry in time. It was a strange feeling, being alone in a foreign country, even surrounded by tourists. At Portofino, I walked off the boat and into a long line of people outside of a bakery, where I waited to buy a snack for the hike and a bottle of water. Later, I would regret not buying more water. I passed the fancy shops as I started to make my way uphill, and found the church that I had read about in the directions to the hike. Soon, I couldn’t see the town below or the sea beyond - I was on a dusty trail surrounded by olive trees and grapevines. It seemed like it hadn’t rained in months. I passed a farmer working under the hood of a tiny tractor, who gave me a puzzled look. After a few minutes I understood why, when the path I was on ran into a locked gate. Somewhere, I had gotten off track, so I made my way back down, past the farmer to the last turn. Luckily, I saw an Italian hiker with trekking poles and tall boots coming down the hill ahead. The level of equipment he was using seemed ominous; I was in a t-shirt and swim shorts, with white flat-bottomed tennis shoes that were starting to burn a blister into the top of my toe. With a lot of waving of hands, he directed me up the hill towards San Fruttuoso. I walked uphill for what felt like an hour, and drank my water bottle almost immediately. It had to have been almost 90 degrees, and I had already sweat through my shirt. The path took me into the woods, through a hot forest of green, and suddenly opened to the first view of water I had seen in a while. The cool air from the sea hit me in the face, but it was too steep to see the bottom of the cliff. When the trail started heading downhill, I began to jog, trading the idea of conserving my energy for the promise of cool water ahead. My mouth was dry, and all I could imagine was the condensation dripping from a cold glass of beer from the beach bar. The way down seemed to take forever, but eventually I stumbled out onto a long set of stone steps carved from the rock, and plopped onto the small pebbles of the beach. I must have looked like a mess. I headed straight for the bar and asked the owner for a beer, anything cold. She popped the cap on a bottle called Ichnusa, a Sardinian beer she said was her favorite. I sat at a little table in the shade, took off my wet shirt and looked out at the sea, trying not to drink the beer in one rude gulp. When I finished, I dug into my backpack for my wallet and pulled out my credit card. The waiter that had brought my check silently pointed to a sign at the entrance of the bar: “Credit Card Machine Broken, Cash Only”. I scrambled through my backpack, finding nothing, and tried to explain my predicament with the handful of Italian words I knew. At the other end of the patio, I heard someone say “It’s okay!” in a German accent. A middle-aged couple waved me over, holding a five-Euro bill in the air. I felt a wave of relief, and thanked them heartily, telling them I would pass on the favor. I spent the next two hours alternating between floating in the salty water and drying out on a little towel I had brought, tucked in beside the hundred other people whose towels and chairs were all almost touching each other on the teeny beach. When the ferry back to Santa Margherita rolled back into the harbor, I decided to forego the hike back up the hill and buy myself a ticket.