I arrive in Monterosso Al Mare, the northernmost of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre, and the one that Rick Steves rates as having the best nightlife. Which is probably true, although "nightlife" is a relative term. It should also be remembered that I am traveling in the offseason, edging almost into the closed-off season: appearantly a number of hotels and bars close for the months of December and January. I was a little concerned about finding a place to stay while there. While I didn't envision having to sleep on the beach, I woke up Friday morning in Siena with a vague anxiety about finding lodging in Monterosso.
This concern wasn't helped by the fact the town's Tourist Info office was closed. I had my guidbook and used that, searching for a hotel. I wandered into town and saw a giant banner strung across the town square. Some sort of festival, commemorating the 20th anniversary of something or other, was scheduled for that weekend. The banner had a picture of a stag on it, and someone had gone around town putting Viking hats with horns on all the town statues. I feared the festival was going to be something Nordic. If figured this would make my lodging search even more difficult. However, the festival was not what I thought it was (more on that later) and I found a room in the first hotel I stopped at. When I told the owner what I wanted, it seemed to take him a moment to remember that he does indeed run a hotel.
I wandered Monterosso and its beach, which didn't take long, because none of the towns of Cinque Terre are what you would call big. Most of them are homes and hotels surrounding a townsquare dotted with the sort of shops and services needed by villagers and tourists. A few minutes and you've "done" the town. However, this adds to the charm of the place, and induces a desire to aimlessly wander the same small area. When I got back to the main square, the festival was in full swing. I still don't know what it was commemorating, but it consisted of the older men in the town roasting chestnuts over a fire and drinking locally produced wine. Many of them were wearing Viking helmets. The ladies of the town sat on nearby benches, talking with each other, eating walnuts and shaking their heads when one of the gentlemen would get particularly boisterous.
I bought a bag of walnuts and asked about a glass of wine. The man I spoke to, who spoke no English, made it plain that there were two problems with selling me a glass of wine. One, it wasn't entirely legal and a local policeman was standing nearby, and two, even worse, they were out of cups. But he waved his hands to me to let me know everything would be alright and went off to find some more cups. When he returned, having solved the second problem, we both agreed to just ignore the first problem, as the policeman had wandered away.
So I stood in the townsquare near the fire, enjoying both it's warmth and the smell of the mixture of burning wood and crisp November sea air. I had never had roasted chestnuts before, despite how good Nat King Cole makes them sound in "The Christmas Song." They are delicious.
Someone had added Viking horns to the man on a nearby "Men At Work" sign. I finished my wine, saved some chestnuts for the next day's hike, and wandered off to find something more substantial for dinner. I ended up eating a very good fusilli dish on the large balcony of a nearby restaurant. About halfway through my meal, I heard the sound of a large group of drunk men "singing." Sure enough, the men from the festival marched by, carrying signs and banners. I later saw them comandeering a large table at a local restaurant, still in their Viking helmets.
Sometimes not knowing the language adds to fun.