For 21 days, Rick and I are tour members on one of his own tours: the Best of Europe. We’re trying to combine vacation with quality control and research. And it’s going great! Join us as we traipse from the Netherlands to Germany, Austria to Italy, and Switzerland to France with a terrific tour guide and 26 wonderful fellow tour members.
Rio Maggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso: better known as the Cinque Terre or Five Lands. They’ve been a long-time favorite of Rick’s, and when we come here on a tour, it’s all about embracing our inner Italian, learning to relax, and just being in the moment. Whether you want to hike from one town to the next and the next and the next (if the trails aren’t temporarily closed), putter around on a stand-up paddle board in the Ligurian Sea, or just catch some zzzz’s under a Mediterranean sun on a rough, sandy beach, here you can take a vacation from your vacation.
And on our typical 21-day Europe tour, we spend a little time with the group getting to know our town (ours is Monterosso), enjoy dinner together, and then have the entire next day free to do as each of us pleases.
Missing the good ol’ days, Rick took on the role of tour guide for our Monterossa orientation, and he was dynamite. I’m not just saying that. He really is a pro, a natural, and an all-star at this. It’s been about 15 years since he last led a tour, and it was a real joy to see him so at ease in the role that launched Europe Through the Back Door. Our tour members were all a-smile as he led us from the new town to the old, explaining the pirate history of the Cinque Terre, pointing out World War II bunkers, and teaching people how and where to catch the train and boat for Ligurian Coast adventures the next day. And every person who recognized him as we walked through the town (and there were many) could be heard saying, “I want to be on that tour!”
Dinner was a banquet of seafood, simmered for hours in an amphora or large clay pot with red wine and herbs. It’s so immense that one vessel can easily feed four people, and everyone in our group wanted to try it. Even the most seafood-averse among us couldn’t resist the cornucopia of the sea, sampling marine delights like cuttlefish, lobster, octopus, mussels, clams, and swordfish.
Besides the amphora, the trofie pasta with pesto that preceded it, and the free-flowing schiaccetra (Ligurian sweet wine) that followed, we filled ourselves with great company and barrels of laughter all night long. We would have felt bad about disrupting our fellow diners, but we were having too good of a time to worry about that.
Some headed back to get a good night’s rest before early starts to go hiking. But several of us wandered down to the main square take in some local ambience. It was the Festival of the Lemons, and that meant party-time in “downtown” Monterosso. Residents gathered with their friends, family, and neighbors to drink the local limoncino (the lemon liqueur known as limoncello in other parts of Italy) and to dance the night away. And you know what they say: When in Monterosso…
From Michael Jackson to Miley Cyrus and Italian pop to German trance, we danced like we knew what we were doing. Locals and fellow tourists cheered us on, and we had the time of our lives. Schiaccetra and limoncino either loosen up your limbs enough to make you dance well or loosen your mind enough to make you think you dance well. I’ve never felt more part of the local scene on this trip than on this magical night in Monterosso.
The next day, Rick and I laid low as much as we possibly could for as long as we possibly could. We slept in until 9:15 (absolutely unheard of when Rick is working), lingered over breakfast, napped, and did a little bit of writing before heading out to Vernazza by train in the afternoon. It was the most luxuriously lazy day I’d had in such a long time, and it was heavenly.
We found a quiet perch where we could escape the waves of tourists that were constantly bombarding this tiny town of 2,000. Respite can certainly be an indulgence, but when you can be alone (with your favorite travel partner) with sapphire blue waters, warm caressing winds, jagged coastline views, and a cool glass of schiaccetra, it’s worth every penny.
Our respite didn’t last long. Rick had to meet with two Danish photographers hired by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) to do a photo shoot to accompany an upcoming feature in their monthly publication. With Danish efficiency and heartiness, we climbed way above the town to get just the right background of the iconic view of crayola-colored houses, the Ligurian Sea, and the happy harbor. That was a logical and ideal background choice.
The second one: not so much. AARP wanted to cover up the picture-perfect–and I mean perfect–view with a white backdrop, covering everything beautiful in the background. We thought about it and concluded that they must want the ability to Photoshop Rick into any background of their choosing. But it certainly makes you wonder why you’d come all the way to the Cinque Terre to do a film shoot and completely ignore the view that people travel thousands of miles to see.
Back in Monterosso, we treated ourselves to a fancy schmancy dinner at Micky’s. We let Micky (the chef) surprise us with his favorite tasty bites. While we prefer to dine family-style, we each got individual portions. Seven of them. One can only eat so many appetizers before one literally bursts, but to refuse the chef–especially after you’ve asked him to surprise you with his favorites–is just bad form.
I’m not even sure what we were eating, but I know everything was meant to be devoured first by the eyes and then by the palette. Tied up in neat little packages and plated with such precise symmetry, I could imagine rulers and tweezers as part of the chef’s kitchen tool kit.
Even the flavors had their own beautifully symmetrical balance of salty, sweet, tart, and tangy. I wanted so badly to be able to keep consuming these masterful creations, but we had to say basta after the pasta. Too much of a good thing can ruin things, and knowing when to say “enough”–especially when you’re on vacation–is the smart way to keep your travel moments magical.