Thursday, September 27, 2018


A visitor with a special interest in religion could easily spend a week or more exploring the Cinque Terre's many Catholic churches, oratories, sanctuaries, cemeteries, and shrines. (An oratory—from the Latin orare, to pray—is a sort of chapel associated with a confraternity. Confraternities arose during the Counter-Reformation, and were essentially religious/civic organisations dedicated to good works.) We made no special effort to visit spiritual sites, but did collect a few photos along the way, presented here.

Saturday-evening services at Chiesa di Sant' Andrea. Fegina, Monterosso.

Chiesa di Santa Margherita di Antiochia. If it looks familiar, that's because it's already appeared in several photos from Vernazza. Can we help that it's both ridiculously photogenic and prominently located? Built in 1318.

If you're going to tag a church, you might as well stay on-topic. This is from the foundation of Santa Margherita, down by the harbour.

Oratorio di Santa Caterina. Largo Taragio, Corniglia. Eighteenth century—practically brand-new!

Oratorio dei Neri (Oratory of the Blacks). Centro Storico, Monterosso. Sixteenth century. There were two confraternities in Monterosso, known as the Whites and the Blacks. The Blacks arranged for funerals, cared for widows and orphans, and prayed for lost souls. Their symbol is appropriate to their focus on end-of-life care: a skull-and-crossbones combined with an hourglass. Memento mori.

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista. Centro Storico, Monterosso. The second church built in Monterosso, circa 1307, and decidedly Gothic in design.

Marvin at the tiny Capella di Santa Marta, in Vernazza. Peace indeed, mate.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Two wheels and three

Of course, there are ways of getting around the Cinque Terre besides boats and trains.

Bicycles, for instance.

And scooters.

But my favourite vehicle in the Cinque Terre may be the motorcycle-engined three-wheelers by Piaggio. A lot of the work that gets done here gets done by these little "trike trucks".

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Il treno

The unification of Italy was a process, not an event, but when the Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, one of the tasks that the new government of Victor Emanuel embarked upon was the expansion and connection of the new nation's railway network. By 1870, railroads had reached from Milan to Levanto, the next town up the coast from Monterosso, and from Florence (Firenze) by way of Pisa to La Spezia, down the coast from Riomaggiore, and work had already begun on the Cinque Terre coast in between. Owing to the rough Appenine terrain, crews had to tunnel through miles of rock; the line was completed at enormous cost in both money and lives. (Two parallel lines, actually, with trains running in both directions.)

[Most of this stonework and masonry dates back to the 1860s and 1870s. Note the yellow-legged gulls ("king gulls") below.]

[A view from the sea. From inside the train, you get a few seconds of scenic Mediterranean glare before plunging back into the darkness of the tunnel.]

The coming of the railroad to the Cinque Terre ended, to a certain extent, its isolation from the rest of Italy, and facilitated travel between its component villages. It remains the easiest way to travel between villages, far less susceptible to the vagaries of weather than the alternatives of boat or shoe leather, and we relied on it to get both to and around the Five Lands. Even when we weren't riding, we noted the regional trains dropping off another group of tourists, the fast intercity trains passing through without stopping, their comings and goings an informal way of noting the time as we passed our days, and their modernity in odd harmony with the medieval villages.

While in-country, we rode both the national railway, Trenitalia, and regional line Trenord. Assuming these to be typical of Italian rail travel as a whole, I offer these general observations: Rolling stock is incredibly varied, with some equipment dating (based on appearances, at any rate) back to the 1950s or 1960s, and some of very recent manufacture; each individual train seems to be comprised of matching engines and carriages, but the next train down the line is likely to be entirely different from the first. Seemingly the only unifying feature is that all rolling stock, new as well as old, has been tagged by graffitists. Stations, and especially railway sidings, are apt to be weedy and a bit run-down looking, with most buildings bearing their own graffiti. (Stations in the Cinque Terre, probably because they lie within the national park, tend to be neater.) But first impressions, in this case, are deceiving. The trains are comfortable—all of our carriages were air-conditioned, and we had no complaints even when riding economy—and seem to run on time. Personnel both aboard the trains and at the stations were friendly and helpful, and I look back fondly on our journeys as an integral part of our holiday. (We certainly had more favourable impression of Trenitalia than of British Airways!)

The End.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Il calcio

Il calcio, a.k.a. football or soccer, is of almost universal interest in Italy. If you're attempting to make small talk and have already moved past the weather (fa molto caldo, "it's very hot", was enough said while we were there), il campionato is probably a good second choice.

So when I stopped to watch a night game at Monterosso's small enclosed pitch*, I was not overly surprised to be greeted/accosted by a friendly local, an older gentleman who enthusiastically attempted to engage me in a conversation about the present match, either not realising or not caring that I was in no way qualified to have such a conversation. I eventually did gather, before my informant had his shirt sleeve tugged and was pulled away by his granddaughter to buy some gelato, that Monterosso was in blue, that I should keep an eye on number 7 (he was, in fact, quite good), that there was another photographer around somewhere from one of the newspapers, and that one of the ladies seated on the wall immediately to our right was the president of something, possibly of the visiting team, which I believe was from La Spezia. Or maybe the photographer was from La Spezia. Someone was certainly from La Spezia.

[Two Monterosso players defending against a free kick.]

God only knows what else I missed, but content wasn't the point. It was enough that I was a sports fan, that I was (however temporarily) in Monterosso and therefore for the boys in blue, and that I was evidently worth including. Viv' il calcio!

[Monterosso's keeper.]

*My first real exposure to soccer, incidentally, was watching the Baltimore Blast in the Major Indoor Soccer League—one of the team's stars, Nick Mangione, was the older brother of a classmate—and I've always preferred small-pitch soccer to the full-field version.

[Piazza transformed into an informal soccer pitch in Corniglia. The wall on which the goal is painted is the back wall of the Oratory of Santa Caterina.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alcuni ucelli (a few birds)

I'll be honest: I didn't see a tremendous number of birds in northern Italy, even if we include the train ride from Milan as well as the Cinque Terre proper. (Come to think of it, all I remember from the train is stock doves and little egrets, both in abundance.) I photographed even fewer. The Cinque Terre is known more as a migration route than a birding destination in its own right; the combination of steep terrain and a large body of water in such close proximity make it roughly equivalent to Hawk Ridge near Duluth, Minnesota, but in reverse: Hawk Ridge concentrates southbound raptors in the autumn, while the Cinque Terre does the same for northbound migrants in the spring.

I might have done better if I'd made an effort to be up at or before dawn; the unrelenting heat limited bird activity, and therefore apparent bird diversity, for most of the day. Many of the birds I did manage to see were familiar already. Several, in fact, intentional or inadvertent imports, live in my neighbourhood: house sparrows (a.k.a. English sparrows), rock doves (common pigeons), and Eurasian collared doves.

And now, having hopefully lowered expectations to an appropriate level, here are a few bird photos I did manage to get:

Swallows (noticeable mainly by looking for their shadows) on the wall of a house in Corniglia. These are Hirundo rustica, the same Holarctic species we call barn swallow here in the States.

Collared dove, Streptopelia decaocto. The specific epithet, I've just learned, comes from an old Greek myth in which a servant complains about her pay of 18 coins (presumably drachmae) per year and is transformed by the gods into a dove whose mournful call can still be heard. The Greeks may have had another dove in mind, though; while the collared dove's original range may have stretched as far west as Turkey, it was probably not found elsewhere in the Mediterranean until the 20th century. Its sudden and rapid expansion in Europe has since been replicated here in North America; in all likelihood, there is a collared dove on my neighbour's TV aerial right now.

Rock dove, Columba livia. Along with collared doves, the most common and easily-observed bird in the Cinque Terre, where they come in both ancestral "blue bar" and derived, highly variable "city pigeon" plumages. I sometimes try to make a distinction between rock doves and pigeons, but here, where the same birds strutting through the piazzas or hustling for fallen bits of street food on the Via Roma may also be living on sheer cliffs over the turquoise Ligurian Sea, the distinction breaks down.

They're hard to see for such a boldly-patterned bird, but there are two hooded crows (Corvus corone cornix) on these rocks. Honestly, the hoodies are so obscure I shouldn't include this picture in a bird post, but I like the composition and overall feel, so you can play "where's Waldo" if you're so inclined.

Less obscure: yellow-legged gull, Larus cachinnans. Similar to, and sometimes classified as a subspecies of, the herring gull (L. argentatus). Our boat captain, Alessandro, called these "king gulls", which also seems apt.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Coastal defenses

The peaceful-looking villages of the Cinque Terre were not always so, and Monterosso wasn't always "al Mare". The oldest part of Centro Storico, the "old town" section of the oldest village in the Cinque Terre, is now a cemetery but was originally a castle, high on the back side of a hill, with no view of the sea.

The villages, as previously noted, date to the early medieval period, roughly a thousand years ago, which is to say they date to the period when the Roman Empire had collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in the Mediterranean. Pirates, predominantly but perhaps not exclusively Saracens, were a real threat, and as the villages of the Cinque Terre prospered and grew, each village built and maintained a castle to defend against pirate raids and to warn, via signal fire, the neighbouring villages. Even so, residents (especially women and children) were occasionally spirited away by pirates, sold into slavery and usually never heard from again.

Defense is one reason for Corniglia's location; unlike the other villages, it still sits well above the sea. And the threat lasted long enough for Monterosso, as it became Monterosso al Mare, to build a second castle closer to the sea. (Unlike the original, it still stands in good condition.)

[The "new" castle in old Monterosso.]

[Vernazza's castle.]

*   *   *

Much more recently, in the Second World War, Monterosso at least was marred by the addition of a couple of gun emplacements by the German occupiers. (Mussolini's Italy was allied to the Germans, but there was an active resistance movement in Liguria, and memorial markers in the villages list the names of local men who died while serving with the partisans.) I don't believe these positions saw much actual combat, but they remain an ugly reminder of the conflict.

[This emplacement is close by Monterosso's castle, overlooking the busy harbour where tourists now disembark.]

[Second gun emplacement, a bit harder to reach.]