Squirming stairs, studied promenading, Othello’s flaming minister, rabbit hutches, telescopes, soft awe, fruitless olive trees, thick-furred women, vicoli, silent spuming seas, serrated boots
& the old eternal black widows of Italy.
Out of the station at Camogli and down a curving road, to turn suddenly into what seems a private road—in Italy how many streets like that, seeming to lead up to heaven, but the gateway always closed—and by a river filthy with refuse, hemmed by concrete banks and shorings but still deeply dark and heavy with mossy, damp greenery. Then, up and up the pegging steps of a salita, in and out of farmers’ holdings. There is a Gothic waywardness in the steps twisting and coiling upwards. And then, at the top of the valley, bristling woods, tufty as a dog’s tail, savage, unrazored, virginal, and so thin and weak and wintry. Even in the sun they hint of snow and cloud and the north.
The houses rest sunning themselves as the sun falls across the valley, little pastel-coloured blocks and each private, holding itself square and firm and separate as it faces the sunshine. Yes, but I’m in the shadowy green olive trees, crooked, dark—drab, even—although from under the leaves just the finest hint of silver, like the aspen when the wind comes. And there are orange nylon nets stretched out under the trees like hammocks, but catching leaves, for there are no olives. Above, the farmhouses brace themselves on the steep slopes, for there must be their own height again in the depth of their foundations. Like a great root, a corner falls sheer to the terrace below. And there, high above, a little square window, almost a concession.
On the side of the hill there was the fresher desolation of old pillboxes and gun stations, all solid and perfect and horribly unmoveable, staring down over the cove of rocks with the sea swishing white and furious about the edges, endlessly and pointlessly.
Then, suddenly, a cluster of houses and a flat piazza trapping the sun after all the strain and shadow of the squirming stairs. This is San Rocco, and there the chiesa and the semicircular marble steps to the little, little door in the massive flatness of the face. This blast of whiteness is seen in the Renaissance marble-faced churches, and there too is the entrance to the secret place, the dark hole leading to the moist, cool darkness, and the guiding candles burning endlessly, and the spangles of coloured glass warmly blotching the floor. There is the soft awe of gilt statues and dim dimensions and the unapproachable white lace of the altar. And then the weird surprise, too, as the finger touches, element to element, skin to skin, the pure coldness of the little pool of holy water. And then, the cruel bracing of oneself to enter the furnace of the day and be blinded.
However, in the piazza there is another world. After the dogged pushing of the steps, ease and slowness, the piazza life of Italy: couples look out to sea or use the telescopes or sit for a while using up their time. And the promenading begins. There must be a road; how else could they come, thick-furred women and the men in their stiff-card, starchy overcoats and those thin leather shoes peeping from their trousers? And then that dawdling, preening, irritating walking. I say we shall have no more promenading! So, I peered over the little park rail at the drop through the bushes, the dark, slightly gleaming bushes, to the wash of the sea, the grand curve of the bay, Camogli, Recco, Nervi and a hint of Genoa in the smoky haze of late January. And sounding up, very thin, the tinny ring of the chiesa in Camogli, like a pail being struck by stones.
So I walked priggish through the furs and coiffured hair—men and women—and imagined the smell of wrapping paper. But they are still coming along the lane through the tight houses, past the woman, the old eternal black widow of Italy, obliviously attending to her rabbit hutches, and others sitting, oblivious too, in the weak sun. But there was sun, and so the outdoor sitting life begins again.
The houses rest sunning themselves as the sun falls across the valley, little pastel-coloured blocks and each private, holding itself square and firm and separate as it faces the sunshine.
Then the vicolo became a track. The dummies had become fewer but some were caught and were picking their way, the men arming the women, all apologies and regrets at the pockmarked road and dirt, so high up in the rocks and bushes above the sea. There were brave hikers on the same track, sharp blue anoraks and serrated boots. But they were almost dummies too, with their neat, buckled backpacks, tutt’ a posto. A group of the promenaders drew on their cigarettes and were amused by an old marble washing table and spring half hidden in a grotto, by a tiny footbridge. How they cheered the signora who went unsteadily in her high boots on the damp overflow to drink.
Soon, though, just me, and the track finding and re-finding itself, struggling to go straight, but always losing. Very desolate, and me with only the punti rossi as a guide. On the side of the hill there was the fresher desolation of old pillboxes and gun stations, all solid and perfect and horribly unmoveable, staring down over the cove of rocks with the sea swishing white and furious about the edges, endlessly and pointlessly. Incredibly, just a slight distance out, the slightest, there was the quiet, pastel-blue sea, marvellous. But there below, the swashing, spuming waves thumping dully in the rocks.
I took the lower path, but there was a higher, unknown pass, up and away among the rounded, doughy cliffs where no-one goes. And I thought, in a kind of transposition, of Beowulf and the Wayfarer braving the baked and splintered knife-edge rocks under the white sun. But without warning, a great hallo-oo-oo from high, high up. And there they were, the hikers, jaunty and shouting, little moving bits in the jumble of rocks and scrub. Two had already reached the hollow of the high pass, standing like sentries. But I dropped and dropped, falling heavily on my heels and plodding down the track.
There were still more and more bays, useless, lonely and scrubby, full of nature’s rubbish and a sloshing dark sea. So that, really, what was I doing there, crawling between heaven and earth? And with that it was a physical shock to see, suddenly, pleasure boats with red canvas tops tripping round a headland and disappearing calmly past another. It seemed impossible, but it was late evening, the imperceptible gradation to duskiness. And then, in minutes, early night, and I was truly benighted.
Like a great root, a corner falls sheer to the terrace below. And there, high above, a little square window, almost a concession.
But, yes, there were spangles of light, just a few by the thin phosphorescence of the horizon. And I was just a little grateful, except that to be walking along in the warm, cooling air on the cliff path by the warm silver sea like silk was enough to make any worry of danger hover butterfly-like to the edges of the thoughts. It’s like that, the Italian mondo, touching the senses to life—initially—but then, like a drug, dilating them. There was this and that, and a daydream or two, and only the Archangel Gabriel and pure innocence kept me from tripping into a ravine. One would think nothing of it—on the way down!
Then, a few straggling pins of light. Surely they weren’t Portofino? But the road to Portofino, that must be there. So I came to the top of a headland and could see more and more lights, but still too few, shining on trees inconsequently. And so there, nearby, was a village.
The evening had faded and I started down a zigging rough track to the hillside garden plots. Such a long stumble, half-running and falling. A donkey was scared and screeched a long, very hoarse bray into the smooth darkness. He stood, fidgeting slightly, somewhere under the olives and bushes, scuffling the leaves. I couldn’t see him, but he was there, submerged, living slowly in the night. And there was the village, absolutely dead to the world. So I stepped softly into this velvet silence and was afraid, slightly, of my secret, thief-in-the-night entry. Suddenly, I was on a small sea wall, with steps going down to the sea and its slow, reptilian swishing and slopping in the harbour. The lamps picked out a bit of a wall, a railing, a boat. And away from that thin lighting, very, very dark. There were voices, chattery, cheerful voices, behind an iron-and-glass gate, and a sign to a tomb, and a bar. But the gate was locked. I daren’t rattle it open, not after my body seemed almost washed away into the night, after the near snuffing of the donkey, after the fine, clean stars. My mind would break up.
This blast of whiteness is seen in the Renaissance marble-faced churches, and there too is the entrance to the secret place, the dark hole leading to the moist, cool darkness, and the guiding candles burning endlessly, and the spangles of coloured glass warmly blotching the floor.
So I went back, waking a dog or two, and walked a little along, anywhere. This weird little human habitation with the silence of a factory closed at night! I walked on a bit quite lost and came up slap against the church in a tiny piazza, nothing more, really, than a tiny backyard. Eccomi! So I stopped a bit to think about the whole village, all tight walls and cramped arches under which lanes shot away. There were little windows above, yellow-lighted, but absolutely silent like the candle-enclosing caskets of a Madonna shrine, sealed and glowing. Through the other openings, the bolt tunnels of lanes and the slits between the houses, the slushing sea making everything deader, hardly human. The pulse of the village was like a lizard, slowed and slowed and its blood colder and colder with each wave.
I couldn’t just stand in that tight piazza and I couldn’t choose where to walk, so I bolted down one of the entries, still as lost as on the hillside. It was pure luck seeing a sign, a little bit of painted, bent metal pointing in the darkness that this was the way, not that, to Portofino. I was thankful, even though it pointed to nothing, to an archway under a house and a small beaching for boats. Well, there was nothing else, so I went on. Somewhere farther along, up a staircase, under an arch, I could hear foggy voices rising and talking, but I braved myself and walked up, clattering a little as a warning. There was a little group of two elderly fishermen and an old woman, the perpetual black old woman, sitting under a street lamp in the night air—just their voices, intimate, relaxed, casually soft in their street-room, and the sea, nothing else. I had to climb up the stairs to them, and, of course, the conversation stopped. I sprang on guard and walked stiffly up to them, but hating, hating bitterly, the intrusion and their peering faces. Past them, or before them, or through them, I didn’t know where I could walk. But somewhere there was a path: that, at least, I knew. My mind set insect-like, my body froze. For a moment I loathed every bit of their square.
The woman slurred out a “buona sera” as much a challenge as politeness, the first tentative sounding-out of her curiosity. But for all my stiffness, they wouldn’t let me go.
There were little windows above, yellow-lighted, but absolutely silent like the candle-enclosing caskets of a Madonna shrine, sealed and glowing. Through the other openings, the bolt tunnels of lanes and the slits between the houses, the slushing sea making everything deader, hardly human.
“Portofino?” came the voice of one of the men.
And the man got up and explained the punti rossi, the footpath markings, and waved me on—“Avanti! Avanti!”—as I sneaked a look backwards. By now I was as starchy as the dummies and went on with asinine stubbornness into the deep shadows of the hill where I could just see, like a smudge, the black steps. But it was asinine. I could hardly see my hands! And so I went back to face them. But they had gone. Without a light it was impossible, absolutely, to go on. Well, here was a little woodshed and a door to a house with a Yale key dangling from the lock and the roar of a television, so I knocked, many times, against the blast of the television.
A woman came to the door; in the rear, her husband. In sparrow-Italian—I couldn’t coo—I asked for a light. The woman—the boss, I should say—fixed herself in the door to hear my plea. Behind, the husband, listening. Without a word, she set about a fair bit of rummaging and came out with two torches, but no batteries. Then, ecco, two wax torches, like tapering altar candles, and she lit one. I held the brand in my hand. And there was Othello’s flaming minister. It did flare, smokily. She warned me of the danger to the dry pines—a big one, of course—and I marched like Siegfried up into the mass of black trees. The light blinded me in the complete darkness among the pines and rocks until I found how to hold it behind me, as the knack is.
But, yes, there were spangles of light, just a few by the thin phosphorescence of the horizon. And I was just a little grateful, except that to be walking along in the warm, cooling air on the cliff path by the warm silver sea like silk was enough to make any worry of danger hover butterfly-like to the edges of the thoughts.
“And if I quench yon flaming minister?”
Well, my light would certainly have been put out. I couldn’t have seen by the sharp, bright stars above cutting through the trees. And I wasn’t the only wildlife around, to be sure. And the woodbirds were sleeping; even Siegfried had a woodbird. There was only me in my globe of light and in the utter darkness the sea sounding deep below.
But here I am writing, as luck has it. And Portofino, the Pearl of the Riviera, as the brochures say, was almost as lonely at seven o’clock in the Italian winter as San Fruttuoso. The spick restaurants were closed and a foreigner dropping silently and suddenly onto the harbour side from a vicolo was nothing. And again that weird absence of sound, except the slushing sea between the boats, but here in a place decked for holiday. It seemed in that damp, early morning that even here I was at the very end of the world, where the world of the nation-state of Italy begins its every day.
Peter De Ville now lives in the UK, though he has lived and worked in Italy. He writes poetry and prose, mainly short stories, and has been published widely in British, other European and American magazines—including The New Welsh Review, PN Review, The Rialto, Chapman, Poetry Salzburg Review, Critical Survey, Poetry and Audience, Orbis, The Wolf, Seam, Staple, Smiths Knoll, The New Writer and Decanto—and in anthologies and Internet magazines. He also writes literary reviews. He has poetry collections, Open Eye and Taking the pH (Tuba Press UK), and twenty-five poems, Ciao Marco Martial (Shoestring Press UK), inspired by reading the Latin poet. He has been awarded fellowships in poetry by the Hawthornden Literary Foundation (USA/Scotland) and by the Bogliasco Cultural Foundation (New York/Italy).
Lead image: Luca Carrà