We arrived late. We had ridden the sleek German trains through the Alps and into Italy, arriving at the coast as the sun set. Rolling past palatial villages and dilapidated “social housing” alike, we took in our first glimpses of the Mediterranean sea. It was flat and calm here, and gave no indication of the sweeping natural drama I was soon to witness.
We arrived at the train station too late for the regional train, so got a cab to Il Borgo di Campi, just outside Riomaggiore. Our cabbie whipped through the hills at speeds fit for James Bond, and I hung my head out the window like a dog and drank deep of the sea air. A mist had crept in and clung to the valley, so there was no hint of the sea beyond the scent. As we climbed higher and higher, I could only imagine what views I’d be met with upon waking.
We stumbled down 200 stairs to our apartmenti, a small stucco studio clinging perilously to the the edge of a cliff. We slept with the soft lilt of the waves in our ears, and awoke to the Ligurian Sea.
Thus began our inevitable seduction by the siren of this land, the soul of nature at her most devastating.
As far as my own inner landscape was concerned, I did not bring a wholly rose colored view of the world to the occasion. Ferguson, MO, had erupted in a wave of protests over police violence just days before, and was met with an alarmingly militant response by police. The growing police state in America is a concern that eats away at me with increasing frequency, and it weighed heavily on my mind as we entered this phase of our adventure. It seemed irreverent to try and tune it out, yet I desperately wanted to give myself wholly to the experience of Italy, for it isn’t often we are able to afford ourselves such a majestic experience.
Conflicted, I carried with me a mix of melancholy and wonder as we embarked on our first explorations.
We chose to hike into the town of Riomaggiore. We took the Telegrafo up to the No. 3 trail. This was about a two hour hike for us, and some of it was very steep. It was also breathtakingly beautiful. One of the things Cinque Terre is known for is its many hiking trails along the coast. As we took in these sights and smells, this region became a part of us, and began to wash away all that was not part of its grandeur.
We are part of the soul of nature. This belief is at the core of my entire understanding and experience of spirituality. We not only dwell in her, but she also dwells within us. To walk along the coastal trails of Cinque Terre these 6 days has changed me, has brought a fresh nuance to the poetry in my soul, has deepened my capacity for beauty. Do I sound like a mush head? Perhaps. It would take a far more stoic soul than I to resist the romantic allure of this stretch of sea.
Some of the charms this particular trail held for us were the many votives to Mother Mary that were ensconced along the walls as we approached the town. I’m just going to say it: I like religion. I know it is not fashionable to be enamored of something so ‘quaint and outdated’ as religion – after all, are we not modern people, fully equipped with the faculties for rational thought? Surely I risk my membership in that most venerated of social orders, that of the pragmatic and educated Western thinker, to admit to such a provincial predilection. A certain bitter cynicism is, after all, required to maintain my place among the serious adults of the world.
Except that for me, scientific materialism has never held the be-all and end-all of answers to everything in the universe.
This is not to say that I think religion has the answers. I don’t. In fact, I think religion is often laughably bereft of any answers at all. What I do appreciate about religion, however, is the human striving to understand mysteries that lie beyond the reach of scientific knowledge. Religion itself is not God, but a structure that we have created to help grapple with that sense of moreness that lies at the edge of perception. It is this yearning toward something, that which beckons from the deepest reaches of our being, exquisite in its vulnerability, yet insistent in its promise to fulfill some part of our humanity as yet untouched, that keeps me enchanted with religion.
As a Goddess gal, I was particularly pleased to see how very well represented Mother Mary was here in Cinque Terre!
We entered Riomaggiore invigorated. The weather was perfect; just overcast enough to keep the sun from being overbearing, and with the remnants of the morning mist lingering in the air and on our skin. We had a “fruits of the sea” laden lunch. We roamed the town, with its twisting cobblestone alleyways and lazy cats draped over windows and walls, with the zeal of children, our imaginations utterly swept clean of the modern world.
It was wonderful.
Eventually the sun came out, and I walked right down the harbor and into the sea fully dressed.
It was a glorious day, full of physical exertion, astonishingly beautiful nature, new sights and smells, delicious food, and all manner of old world wonder. We returned to Il Borgo Di Campi at night to a delicious meal at the villa’s restaurant, and I fell asleep again to the sounds of the sea.
The next day, I was utterly empty. That stillness one hopes for as the fruit of meditation, but is only rarely granted (if you’re me), was mine this day. It was delicious. And so very needed! The 5 lands of the Cinque Terre are themselves pretty remote. Il Borgo Di Campi is part of a tiny hamlet well outside of Riomaggiore, and it was very quiet. Being a city girl, to achieve this level of quiet is the mythic equivalent of riding a unicorn. There were virtually no other sounds except the rhythm of the sea and an occasional bird.
But it wasn’t just outside that was quiet. Allowing my soul to open to this environment, allowing it to flow through me and attune me to its rhythms, created a stillness within that I rarely possess but frequently long for. My mind ceased its chatter, its worry, its angst and uncertainty, and was utterly present.
We stayed on the property this entire day, just being with the quietude within and without. Meditating, reading, writing, lounging, listening.
The weight of the world will still be there when we return, and I will always ponder whether there is more I can do for the world, but one thing that remains true for me is this; we need these times of stillness. Far from being mere escapism, these times replenish us and reinvigorate us so that when we return to the world, we can be our most effective. We must return to the Well from time to time, to remember that there is beauty in this world, and that it is worth fighting for. When we return to the Well, we bring ourselves back to the world fully charged. These moments allow me to hear the deepest parts of myself, that aspect that is at the heart of what I think of as true religion, that pure presence that allows us to experience that something, that glimpse of eternity that graces us so rarely yet fortifies us so thoroughly. For this day, I was granted the gift of dwelling within this world view, and it was a sacrament.
I was so grateful to have this stillness, to have this monk-like existence in our little studio cottage on the cliffside of Cinque Terre. I could have easily spent another day here, if not several, but it was not meant to be. For the next day it was on to Monterosso and a quite different experience indeed.