Signore Lucarelli closes his eyes as he moves his hands in time, directing a steady rhythm to the imaginary orchestra that sits before him. The first movement of Mozart’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’ thunders from inside the house, filling the evening air with a passionate crescendo. One by one, the stars are twinkling awake in the night sky above us, creating a vast celestial blanket that only ever reveals itself outside urban life.
Birds natter to each other as the evening breeze swishes idly through the trees of the dense woodland surrounding us. Seated beside Signore Lucarelli at the dinner table, I smile at the contented expression etched into his face. My friend, Allegra, grins at me across the table. “This all must seem so Italian to you,” she laughs, watching as her father conducts his phantom musicians.
It does, but in the most whimsical way possible. The Lucarelli house is perched on the hillside just above the village of Framura, on the northwest coast of Italy. Surrounded by a lush garden of olive trees, hydrangea, rosemary bushes and a colourful melange of flowers, the peaceful abode – painted the salmon pink typical to the region of Liguria – is a picture of solitude, looking out onto a vast stretch of the Mediterranean. The moon is a perfectly formed crescent. “It’s included in the price of your stay,” Signore Lucarelli winks, referring to the marvel that lights up the sky.
We are enjoying dinner outside, bathed in moonlight. On the table in front of us is a delectable spread of pasta with fresh pesto, baked tomatoes with rosemary (cooked with olive oil the Lucarellis made themselves from the olive trees surrounding us) and beautiful local cheeses, known as Caciotta, accompanied by a Sicilian white wine. Dessert is fresh peaches so juicy it’s almost impossible not to slurp. It’s easy to fall asleep later that night, sated by natural beauty and sumptuous yet simple cuisine.
The next morning, as we wait on the platform at the tiny Framura train station, the heatwave that has blossomed over the past few days is in its element. It’s only 10:00 am and already Allegra and I are drenched in sweat, sighing with relief when the noisy but welcome breeze of a passing train provides momentary respite. When our train arrives, the air-conditioning appears to be on vacation with the rest of Italy, and we are left to swelter for the 10-minute journey to Monterosso al Mare, the first of the five villages that cascade down the hillside to compose Cinque Terre.
We take refuge on the shaded terrace of one of Monterosso’s restaurants, refuelling with a coffee and a fresh slice of focaccia while planning our journey for the day. I lean back in my chair and take in the architecture of the petite village, its buildings drenched in dusky pastels that offset the aquamarine sea shimmering in the morning sun.
From Monterosso, we board a small boat that will sail us past the next three villages to Cinque Terre’s other bookend, Riomaggiore. The landscape that eases past us as we glide through the Mediterranean defies logic, appearing to be precariously balanced upon hilltops and sheer cliffs. And yet, at the same time, it seems so harmonious, as if nature and architecture are incongruously one.
Our plan is to walk back through the villages, exploring each endearing laneway and charming crevice before ending the day with a swim at the beach. All good intentions; but seeing that we have chosen the hottest day of the year to embark on this journey, our priorities begin to waver. Our thoughts wander from the charms of Cinque Terre’s winsome architecture to the tantalising blue sea that laps at its feet. By the time we reach Vernazza, the final stop before returning to Monterosso, the only thing preventing us from bounding into the water is the lure of fresh gelato.
We practically leap from the train when it pulls into Framura, skipping down the steps to the beach that lies alongside the station. It’s 7:00 pm and the sun still beams in the sky, quietly pleased with its effort for the day. When we plunge into the heavenly chill of the water, I half expect to see steam emanating from our parched skin. Floating languidly for the next hour, I make a mental note to one day to return to Cinque Terre when autumn breezes will be plenty.
Weary yet content, we cram into the tiny bus that winds up the serpentine road of Framura, dropping locals off along the way. When it finally reaches the top of the hill, we are the sole sardines left in what was once a tin full to the brim. As the sun retires gracefully into the horizon – stopping only briefly to flood the sky with a spectrum of oranges and pinks – the bells of Framura’s sole church begin to ring, echoing ‘Ave Maria’ joyously across the landscape. They fall to silence just as we reach the Lucarelli’s gate, but as we navigate our way through the wild garden towards the house, the silence is broken. I smile as I see Signore Lucarelli raise his baton, as his imaginary orchestra once again comes to life.