Catching Magic – How a 2016 vacation became the setting of my 2021 manuscript

In 2016, I sat on the rocks in Vernazza’s harbor and told my husband, “I don’t even know how I’d describe this place to someone. It’d have to be a book.”

In 2021, I wrote the manuscript for a story that wasn’t yet in my head on that 2016 trip but aimed to capture and celebrate the magic we had found for a week in the Cinque Terre.

The Ligurian Coast of Italy is on the northern Mediterranean Sea. It’s here that the foothills of the Italian Alps spill down to the water’s edge, and along the rocky cliffs perch five quintessential Italian villages. The birthplace of pesto and focaccia bread, there is no better place to discover and enjoy the simple pleasures of small-town Italian life. And it was there, I discovered something of who I was and what I cared about. I found myself in Vernazza.

For six days we lived everything that was right about the Cinque Terre. We slept late, waking to the smells of salt air and morning life in the harbor drifting through the open windows of the apartment we rented up some crooked walkway that wound drunkenly off the main road. We ate gelato at all hours of the day, from small paper cups and hand-rolled cones. The best flavor? Basil. Though I wouldn’t trust anyone in the States to perfect the flavor profile in quite the same way! We picked fresh fruit from the carts on market day and watched as perfect, paper-thin slices of prosciutto were shaved away and wrapped in brown paper for our afternoon picnics on the rocks of the harbor.

I ate the best meal of my life in Vernazza, a three-course affair on our one year wedding anniversary that featured the best of the local “fruits of the sea,” a plate of handcrafted squid ink pasta, and some house-made dessert concoction of sorbet and limoncello that cannot be replicated at home in our blender despite numerous attempts. We took hours to eat, talking and laughing and looking out at the perfect sunset over the coastline and wondering that not once were we asked to leave our table, nor brought the check, nor asked if we were finished. It was assumed that we’d sit there well into the night, and we did!

Each day we hiked from village to village taking in spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, vineyards that seemed impossibly cut into the cliffside, olive groves accessible only by cable carts, miles of hand-stacked stone walls.  Each night we returned to Vernazza for late dinners, bottles of wine, cones of gelato, and always to some new local or fellow traveling friend we’d meet and share a bench, or table, or rock with for a passing hour.

Vernazza was a place the likes of which I’d never been, and spending the week there showed me things I’d never known I needed. The slower pace, the later dinners, the slow sipping of wine while enjoying its complexities, the constant expression of hospitality, the simplicity of days untouched from the chaos of fast-paced, modern life. Vernazza was unapologetically its own, and I was unapologetically myself in it.

The defining moment of our trip came on the final day when we realized we hadn’t paid our landlord. Unable to communicate with the 80-year-old Italian woman who owned the building, we decided that if a method of payment didn’t become clear by our checkout time, we’d leave the money with the keys on the kitchen table, and email an explanation to the English-speaking liaison who had helped to make the arrangements online. As I went to take our laundry off the line spanning the alleyway, I noticed a small basket hanging from a rope down the side of the building from an apartment two floors above. In the bottom was a note, a handwritten invoice for our stay in the apartment, and a clothespin to attach our money to the receipt. American skepticism aside, we counted out the Euros, attached them to the invoice, leaned out the window, and put our payment in the basket. Some minutes later, the basket disappeared up the wall and into the windows above, and our account was settled. It was beautifully innocent and earnest, free of distrust, and I was instantly heartbroken that we were leaving a place where hanging three hundred Euro out a window in a basket was safe and normal, to return to the complications of our modern lifestyle.

Florence was artsy and romantic, Rome was bold and historic, but Vernazza was something else entirely. It felt out of the reach of time, out of the reach of stress, out of every pressure, influence, and worry that might color my normal daily routine.

At the end of every vacation, I long to go home. There’s something about my own space, and my own bed, that needles against the thrill of travel so that, no matter how spectacular the vacation, it feels good to get back on the plane and return to the known comforts of the place I left. It is perhaps this reason it’s said that home is where the heart is. I love my family, and my friends, and my house, and my job, and my daily routine far too much to think about leaving any of it permanently. 

Yet, when I return to this place I love it’s often with a bit of sadness for having left the places I’ve been. Is it possible that, while home is where the heart is, along the way in our travels we leave behind…or perhaps find…little bits of the soul?

I miss Vernazza, not the way I miss home at the end of a vacation, but in a way that calls to me when life gets craziest and makes me ache for pure simplicity. When we returned to Northern Italy in 2018, I would have derailed the whole itinerary if it would have allowed us to go back to the Cinque Terre.

With Covid travel restrictions and life, in general, making international travel unlikely in the foreseeable future, the Cinque Terre is, for now, just a pleasant daydream on a cold, Minnesota day. And so, that daydream took on a life of its own, blossoming into the backdrop of a story that couldn’t be set anywhere else. It was a place that I had wanted to see, but I didn’t know it would be a place I needed to be. It has the same impact on my characters, and if I’ve captured even an ounce of its magic, I hope it will have the same effect on my future readers.

To experience it is to know, home may always be where the heart is, but part of the soul will always belong to Vernazza.

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