It shouldn’t have been such a surprise – after all it’s deep winter and we’re in Europe. Okay, not the Alps but pretty close, we’re on the northern Italian coast and the locals tell us it’s rare for it to snow. Our bones told us otherwise and so did our eyes. The ice on the trail and the evidence of our warm breath in the freezing air. Our warm, waterproof gloves; the polo tech scarves; our bulky ‘doona’ jackets. The piercing through of our chests as we climbed the steep, cobbled, dimly lit road to our tiny apartment, hidden amongst many, on the side of the mountain. We were a walking ad for Main Peak. Not bad for Sandgropers – West Aussies – more at home wearing T-shirts, shorts, hats and Havaianas and kicking sand after we’d observed the sunscreen ritual.
But we’re a long way from Cottesloe Beach. For a glorious three days we’ve trekked the high trail of the beautiful Cinque Terre – the five towns of Liguria featured on travel shows. One of the must-go places for those who have done pretty much the rest of the world: the singlets, thongs, incensed offerings, humidity and BinTangs of Bali; the après ski designer clothes and snow tans of upmarket ski resorts; the Inside Passage to Alaska; the tunnels of Vietnam; the Great Wall of China.
There are endless destinations to entertain those of us experiencing the luxury of boredom when our bellies are full, our homes and lives humming with the sounds of Apple and our cafes luring us with the blessed aroma of the humble yet mighty brown bean’s creative manifestations: cappuccino, macchiato, latte, skinny, soy, short, long.
And here we are in Italy, so cold we can hardly breathe. Locals don’t linger over coffee – they drink espressos and they’re off. All that remains is steam rising from chunky Segafredo cups. We do the same, downing the coffee like we’re in some skulling competition.
Then wrapping up to brace against the cold, so padded we look like astronauts, no agility in our movements but eagerness in our steps. These cliff-top mountain villages offer spectacular views of the Ligurian waters they hug. The high trail wound around terraced olive groves, ancient churches and humble dwellings – even a cemetery jutting out over the deep blue expanse. We walk cautiously, it’s often slippery, steep and narrow. Chunky hiking boots seem out of place in the delicate beauty they disturb with every footfall. There’s lots of green. The grass, undergrowth, bushes, trees and terraced orchards. There are browns in the paths, pebbles, rocks and cliffs. Then there’s the ice – pure white. Not snow the locals tell us, but soft shavings the sun eventually melts.
As minutes become hours our walking has taken on a gentle rhythm and our talking has been gradually silenced by the beauty before us. It’s different from our hardy gum trees with their reassuring eucalyptus scent and wattle with spectacular yellow displays. This is delicate, we’re not familiar with these trees, perhaps they’re some kind of fir. Whatever they are the landscape has a freshness for us, there’s an energy from novelty and the excitement that comes with holidays. This is our “Ahhh” moment.
It’s all here: the sea, the mountains, the trees, crisp air, and ice underfoot. And we are here. It’s a family holiday as close to those northern hemisphere Christmas cards as we’ve ever been … we feel warm inside, it’s the warmth of contentment and togetherness.
All too quickly we are on the move again. There is talk of imminent snow, perhaps when we get to Paris. We board the train and make our way to our small, comfortable compartment, just the four of us: Mum, Dad and the two girls.
We settle into the train’s rhythm as it leaves the villages of the Cinque Terre. We agree these three days have been the highlight of the trip so far. Definitely worth returning, perhaps in spring to experience a different season. And then it happens – noiselessly and without fanfare – it begins to snow.
As the train hurtles on and on, the snow piles up. It falls effortlessly. Relentlessly. Hours pass, still it snows and we are mesmerised. We arrive in Paris at midnight. Gare De Lyon is buzzing with trains, station guards, lights and the hum of people going about jobs and travel plans in the middle of a cold winter’s night. It’s a huge station, undercover of course. We gather our bags and head out in search of our hotel. And it’s magic. The ground is covered in crisp snow and lights are shining – soft and beautiful. There’s a gentleness about this scene. Not harsh and loud.
Then I witness a miraculous scene. A perfectly-formed hexagonal snowflake drifts onto my daughter’s long auburn hair, carelessly piled in a bun on the top of her head, and it all happens as we walk under a street light – tall, majestic and practical. It’s magic.
© Terry Finch 2021