Two hours later, I sat bolt upright. Where was that loud, unspeakably bad music coming from? Squinting blearily out the window, I saw large numbers of cheerful men on the street directly below our room, crooning Italian love songs with woozy abandon. It seemed our hotel’s bar-restaurant was the hangout of choice for the entire adult male population of Manarola. The off-key harmonizing and celebratory bottle-smashing continued until 2 a.m., while I tossed sleeplessly to a mocking chant in my head: a small and quiet inn on the sea.
The next morning, Dan and I faced each other at the breakfast table, grim-faced. “We slept better in Rome,” my husband said, attempting to lighten the mood with a little irony.
“Ha, ha,” I replied.
Mustering our last reserves of can-do spirit, we paged through our Fodor’s and decided to take a recommended hike. It looked like a good bet: we’d trek several miles into the next village via a hilltop trail flanked on one side by olive groves and on the other by the sunlit Mediterranean. Since we’d purposely taken this vacation well in advance of tourist season, we expected the only companions we’d have on the trail would be the occasional stray dog or hawk overhead.
We’d covered about a hundred leisurely yards when suddenly a strange stomping sound began to echo behind us. Turning, we witnessed hundreds of Italians spilling out of the local train station and heading directly for the trail. There were elderly men in full hiking regalia, teenagers wearing cutoff jeans and little else, irritable parents shepherding masses of children, youngish women with complicated haircuts and expensive tracksuits. It looked like an all-out, all-Italy fire drill.
“It’s Sunday,” Dan said quietly, but it took me a minute to comprehend. Sunday was everybody’s day off, and Italians wanted to enjoy a day in the country as much as we did. What had we been thinking?
Grimly, we joined the horde of day-trippers and fought our way along the trail, dodging elbows and hip bones as chattering, three-abreast walkers jostled past. Dan seemed to be coping, but I was teetering on the edge of overload. Just how much noise, nudging, and general human tumult was a body supposed to absorb? How had this longed-for vacation with my husband devolved into such a series of disappointments? I tromped along the path in sullen silence.
Then, as we rounded a bend, I saw it. On the edge of the trail was a small cactus in full bloom, with masses of yellow flowers peeking up from its spiny leaves.
“Look!” I cried to Dan, and together we admired the miracle of tender, buttery petals emerging from this sharp, unwelcoming plant. Then I spied something equally arresting: on one of the cactus’s broad leaves, jaggedly carved with a penknife, were the words Mirna e Tino per sempre.
“Mirna and Tino forever!” I sang out. Dan and I looked at each other. In the same instant, we began to laugh.
There was something bizarrely funny, and somehow humbling, about traveling 4,000 miles to sample the splendors of the northwest Mediterranean coast only to find a quintessential symbol of urban blight—graffiti—on a plant. All at once, my rose-strewn, tranquility-drenched fantasies of rural Italy seemed ridiculous. I saw that I’d defined myself as somehow special, entitled to a vacation swathed in layers of calm and unspoiled beauty. Suddenly, I saw Manarola for what it was: a tiny, struggling fishing village populated by ordinary people trying to make their own lives work, not mine. Manarola would offer me what it had—no more, no less.
As Dan and I continued up the trail, I felt something uncoil inside me. Meanwhile, my can-do husband was hatching a plan. “Why don’t we just chuck this hike from hell,” he proposed, “and then go out later, when everybody else is eating dinner?”
Ambling about town that evening after a luxurious nap, we found ourselves at the bottom of a skinny, zigzagging road, pitched so steeply up a hillside that not a single soul was on it. Without a word, we started up. Twenty minutes later, breathless, we found ourselves on the rooftop of Manarola itself.