Larger than life manmade objects fascinate me: the pyramids, Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Statue of Liberty, temples of Abu Simbel and Petra, and the Duomo. Of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes is high on my list of architectural/engineering curiosities. In Greece, my parents commissioned an artist to hammer a bronze likeness of him and it hung over the fireplace in my childhood home. In college I painted him as a powerful man with hands on his hips, straddling an inlet of water. No one mentioned to me that his ancestor resided in Monterossa al Mare, rough translation, “red mountain at the sea.” Yet there he is, the Monterossa Giant, holding up the side of the mountain as if to save it from falling into the sea.
I knew nothing of the coastal area called Cinque Terre (five lands) other than people either seemed excited when you said you were going there or their eyes glazed over as if capturing a glimpse from their past. I didn’t even associate the area with being on the west coast of the Italian Riviera, as clearly indicated on a map. All I had ever heard about “5 Terre”, as you sometimes see it referenced, was that it had mountains and hiking. Needless to say, mountains and hiking had little interest to me. I did, however, want to see the marble hills of Carrara and the train from Florence to 5 Terre went right by, making the several hour trip worthwhile.
Monterossa al Mare has the longest white sand beach of the string of five mediterranean seaside hamlets. Some of the students wore swimsuits under their traveling clothes and ran to the water before even checking into the hotel. That also did not interest me. What did interest me were the colors and the shapes that surrounded me while walking the road along the shore. Sometimes the closed umbrellas stood in a long row at silent attention and sometimes they opened in a symphony of color. I was mesmerized by the blue, and the expanse of one blue meeting the expanse of another blue at the horizon where the sky leaned down to embrace the water.
After several weeks of painterly cloud filled skies, grey and green marble facades, and the muted stone of the Florentine buildings, the brilliant hues of the seaside jolted my color pallet like water sprinkled onto a frying pan to test the heat. In Florence, most of the color was closed away inside museums and churches – such familiar colors that you could call them by paint tube names. Here color was readily accessible, and went unnoticed as an accepted part of daily life. On the coast, color saturates the outside and flows from primary to secondary to tertiary, all living in harmony. A tunnel connects the old medieval section, where an internet café contains both a full suit of armor and computers, with the newer side where the big man watches over throngs of tourists on the beach. It’s an easy 20 minute walk on the beach road, wandering through all the colors of the city, from one end to the other. Outdoor cafes, gelato stands, paddle boats, lots of white legs and sun burns, fresh mussels, sea bass, musicians playing guitars and accordions in the tunnel, surprise downpours of rain, and sand that travels home with you, is all part of the enriching experience sans hiking.
I realized only after we left that no one ever mentioned the statue’s origin, or the curious shapes of the closed umbrellas as they poked out of the sand, or the boats at rest on the calm water. It was as if these visual pleasures were simply expected. But to me, there is something very special about each of the five precious Italian charms on the coastal bracelet called 5 Terre. I will treat them with independent respect as the glint comes to my eye when someone mentions hiking in Cinque Terre, and I’ll remember the train's first stop, Monterossa al Mare, “red mountain at the sea” to some – color pallet of the Mediterranean to me.