Elegance & Cliff Jumping – Villa San Donnino & Cinque Terre

Italy is a beautiful country. There’s an immense wealth of natural beauty that has been relatively unmolested by modernity. It doesn’t have the perfectly manicured elegance of France; the gorgeous sites of Rome are marred by exhaust, the buildings of Cinque Terre have broken stucco, and the winding streets of Bologna covered in layers of spray painted declarations–something to the effect of “down with the patriarchy,” one reads.


Dusty pottery by the attic window at Villa San Donnino.

It’s not as if Italians let their cities and towns become dilapidated beyond repair. Simply, they let their cities be. They don’t force grid-like urban designs on their cities, much to the dismay of many a traveler without a sharp sense of direction and a good map. Although it’s chaotic and a bit of a nightmare to drive, this centuries old, laissez-faire urban planning paradoxically gives Italian cities an uncomplicated, organic beauty.


The alleys of Vernazza. 

Bologna is lined with a series of porticos, providing much needed shade when wandering about on a warm summer day, but there is little to no stylistic consistency between one set of arches and pillars and the next: a Byzantine marble set is followed by a brown-painted cement Corinthian set. The little towns of Cinque Terre are undoubtedly quaint. The crooked alleys are a mere breath between the pastel buildings, each one painted as if it were a flavor–fragola, melone, frutti di bosco–and stacked on the cliff as might be the gelato cone of an overeager tourist. I inch down a rather steep staircase, afraid that if I go too fast, I’ll run right off the cliff the same way I end up with melted sorbetto all over my hands and clothes.


Dead mouse.

Underneath all that effortless beauty, there’s something volatile. There’s a stereotype that Italian machinery, though beautiful to behold, can be temperamental. There’s something incredibly exciting about that sense of unpredictability. It gives the inanimate a sense of life and humanity that doesn’t exist in a totally reliable piece of machinery. Let’s be honest, when dealing with a malfunctioning printer or coffee machine, most of us have probably tried reasoning with it: “Why are you doing this to me?” “Seriously? You pick today of all days.” When something works a little too perfectly, it’s all business. You don’t say thank you to a printer every time it does its job correctly.


The view from the Monterosso-Vernazza hike.

There’s a similar phenomenon in Italy’s architecture. The cities and towns are alive. The wear and tear, when coupled with vibrant architecture and color, imbues the static buildings with vitality. Perhaps the easy elegance conveys a more attractive lifestyle than perfectly logical, overworked urban design.


The Marina of Riomaggiore.

Maybe it was something in the salty air of Cinque Terre, but I wanted to be a little reckless. We saw the local boys jumping off the cliffs and I snapped the photo below. I didn’t think much of it at the time, except that they were very brave. The next day, my brother mentions that he wants to jump from the same spot. I hadn’t really thought about it much beforehand since I assumed it wasn’t a possibility. I immediately added that I wanted to do it, too. After much difficulty climbing the lowest point of the cliff (where the three guys are standing), due to the many sharp barnacles and slick algae coating the surface, I jumped from there as a warm up. Soon after I scaled the rest of the cliff, following my brother up the rocks.


The cliff jumpers of Riomaggiore.

I quickly realized that the boys we saw jumping the other day were both excellent climbers and much taller than I was. About 3/4 of the way up I got a bit stuck and had to hoist myself backwards up section of the cliff, forcing myself to see how far up I had climbed. Mistake, obviously. It was clear, however, that the safest way down was to jump. The formation of the cliff made the two land exits unrealistic options: 1.) climb down the cliff the way I came, blindly looking for footholds I wasn’t sure I could reach 2.) walk across the spine of the cliff. I managed to talk my brother through his own hesitation and watched him jump. When my time came, I couldn’t get my body to just do it, right away. My brain was screaming “GO! GO! GO!” but my legs wouldn’t move. After a questionably appropriate amount of drama, I jumped.


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