Le Cinque Terre

My final jewellery project in Morley College required me to put together a mood board for inspiration. So I collected images which resonated with me for whatever reason, be it their colours, use of line, or composition. I pasted them into my sketchbook, which has travelled with me from London to Italy, and didn’t think much more about them. Little did I realise that one of those images would, years later, take me to Le Cinque Terre, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Detail of mood board. Riomaggiore shown in the centre image.

The mood board I created ended up having a few recurring themes: bright colours and earthy tones, which echoed the appearance of patinated copper; lots of lines, some running off in chaotic crackled patterns, and others cutting their way precisely across a surface; and finally, an overall sense of time passing, and that not necessarily being a bad thing. Once my mood board was composed, I knew what colours, shapes and patterns I wanted to reference, and I ended up making a copper necklace, etched with acid and oxidised to give a subdued, multicoloured finish. It was a piece which combined straight lines with spontaneous ones, and made use of controlled decomposition to achieve the surface texture I wanted. I loved the final result, and feel that it marked the moment that I moved from dabbling in jewellery making to actually designing it.

I kept the images which inspired the mood board on Pinterest, and revisited them a few weeks ago, only to discover that one of the photographs I’d collected is of an Italian seaside village – beautiful Riomaggiore. Further research revealed that this Mediterranean gem is an easily achievable train journey from Florence. So we made our way there for a brief stay, and fell in love with this tiny fishing village, clinging defiantly to the rocky cliffs, and seeming to rejoice in this achievement with buildings painted so cheerfully you cannot help but smile. Riomaggiore is one of the five picturesque villages which makes up Le Cinque Terre, the others being Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. All of the villages rise to impressive heights out of the rock, and from a distance the narrow, vertical buildings resemble colourful, upended shoe boxes with little windows and doors cut out. You needn’t visit here if you dislike climbing steps, and I can’t imagine any of the residents require the services of a gym. There are hiking routes of varying degrees of difficulty and a train line which connect the five villages, so you can choose how much exertion to inflict upon yourself.

We arrived in torrential rain, so the hiking option was denied to us on our first day. The trails were all closed for safety reasons. We wandered around Riomaggiore, not quite knowing what to do, passing other aimless tourists in the same boat. It’s a small village so we felt like we recognised a lot of people by the end of the day! We climbed hundreds of steps and admired the mist rolling over the hills behind the village and the peaceful Mediterranean stretching out in the opposite direction. A roaring cascade of water could be heard throughout our walk, and little rivulets and waterfalls seemed to emerge from natural and man-made edifices everywhere. I pondered the name, Riomaggiore, and thought to myself that there must be a major river here somewhere. Ollie discovered the source of the omnipresent sound of roaring water, near the top of the town – a churning silt-filled torrent, swelled from the recent downpours. But it disappeared under the street for the entire length of the village, and didn’t emerge again until it met the sea at the harbour! The mystery of the invisible river was solved and the sound of it underfoot had guided us steeply downhill to the prettiest fishing harbour imaginable. The rain abated and we stood admiring the views in every direction.

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A narrow, roped walkway to the left caught our attention and we followed it to a hidden rocky beach. The sun beamed down on our little cove and the sense that we were on the edge of the world seemed to bring out the child in everyone there. It momentarily felt as if we were all shipwrecked together on this little stretch of rocks, and were not unhappy in the least. There were little towers of smooth stones dotted around the beach, stacked by visitors who may or may not have heard of the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Children scuttled around collecting stones which appealed to their particular tastes. A little girl beside us had a clear penchant for rust, pink and quartz streaked stones. Before I new it I was beach-combing myself, looking for stones that only had one, thin line of quartz running through them. I brought them back to the big slab of stone where Ollie was relaxing and arranged them, not in a stack, but in another way that Goldsworthy might approve of. A man in his sixties was sitting not far from us, working on his own temporary artwork. It seems we humans can’t help searching for order in chaos. Three hours passed unnoticed and we only left our rocky refuge because the encroaching tide decided we should. I can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed. We were too tired to eat a big dinner so spent the evening nestled comfortably on our balcony, enjoying local wine and nibbles, while watching the stars and listening to the soporific hum of the hidden river. Insomnia didn’t stand a chance.

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Fortunately the remainder of our stay in Le Cinque Terre wasn’t a washout. We were lucky enough to climb from the street steps of Vernazza, right up through the hiking trails cutting through the tiered vineyards and lemon tree groves above. Every breather we took on our steep ascent afforded an opportunity to gasp repeatedly at the marriage of natural and man-made beauty below. It just never stopped. We didn’t reach a point where the visual impact dwindled. We descended after a decent period of upward momentum because we were beginning to wilt from the heat.

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There were three more villages to see but we knew we wouldn’t have time for all of them. A moment of inattention at the station landed us on a train travelling in the wrong direction, so we went to Monterosso instead of Montarola. No harm done. It had a long sandy beach and more of a resort feel in the new town area beside the station. The flat, wide open spaces were a stark contrast to the vertical stone staircases of Vernazza and Riomaggiore, and gave our legs a break from climbing. A giant dilapidated statue of Neptune, dating from 1910, could be seen straddling the rocky outcrop at the end of the beach, holding the remains of a dance floor on his shoulders. World War II and the sea have not been kind to him or the villa which adjoined the dance floor. We walked the length of the beach promenade and headed through a long tunnel into the old town. Once again we were winding our way through narrow streets, multicoloured buildings and steep steps. There were thriving little restaurants and shops aplenty, brimming with customers at every turn, making it clear that Monterosso is the biggest and busiest of the five Cinque Terre villages.

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We were drawn into the 16th-century Oratory of the Confraternita dei Neri (Confraternity of the Blacks) by the skull and crossbones over the entrance, framed by the ominous words Mortis et Orationis (Death and Prayers). Inside we were greeted with more decorative reminders of mortality in the form of additional skulls and crossbones, a couple of skeletons grinning down from the frieze above and a roof fresco portraying a ship caught in a storm at sea. The church smelled of damp plaster and its deterioration was sadly evident. This place would once have been of key importance when the village relied on fishing rather than tourism for its survival. The Confraternity, who got their name from their black robes, would have helped the families of dead fishermen and buried the bodies recovered from the sea. The place reminded me of the resilience of coastal communities, and brought to mind a summer I spent working in the Irish seaside village of Ballycotton in East Cork. The wives and mothers of the local fishermen would pray for the safe return of their men every time they went to sea, and regarded the coastguard service with almost religious reverence.

After such a gloomy interior, I spotted an architectural feature in the street outside which prompted a good laugh, and clearly reveals the reverence Italians have for their grapevines. A mature grapevine emerged from a deliberately made hole in the front wall of a building, and made it’s way up over the second floor and onto the roof garden! I had no idea grapevines could reach such heights, but was more amazed that it had been accommodated in what I assume was an extension to the original building. I suppose having your favourite grapes is more important than keeping out the weather! After a gentle stroll around the rest of the old town, the sky began to darken and we made our way back to the train station. We had neither the time nor the leg power to see the villages of Corniglia or Montarola on this trip, so I suppose we will have to return again some day.

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On our journey back to Florence we admired the bountiful Italian countryside and passed the mountains at Carrara which appeared to be clinging to a significant dusting of snow. Art fans will know that it was not wintry showers that had adorned the peaks but white marble. The raw material for Rome’s Pantheon came from there, as did that for innumerable architectural and sculptural pieces since, including those by Michelangelo and numerous Renaissance artists. Some day when we return this way to visit Corniglia and Montarola, we may have to take a detour to Carrara and see the quarries which gave birth to the famous stone used all over Florence, Italy and the wider world. It is impossible not to be inspired by this incredibly beautiful country!

Marble in the mountains at Carrara.
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