Limencello, hangovers, daily gelato and dips in the sea, a first holiday with
a best friend creates memories that bond you for life
Surrounded by sugar crystals from a bag of sweets and an empty bottle of Limoncello in the shape of Italy, my best friend Maddi and I woke up on our last morning in Florence with hangovers from somewhere deeper than hell and a train to catch in an hour. We had just spent the past two days walking around the city soaking in the sunshine on our vitamin D starved bodies, sourcing the city’s best pasta and trying to find old Prada in vintage stores. Before we’d set off on our two-week Italian adventure, we’d set a rule that every meal, including breakfast, must be finished with gelato – to make every day feel like our birthdays.
The whole point of this trip was to swim in the sea and to look out at the villages of Cinque Terre in Italy. I was writing my dissertation at university and utterly uninspired by life and Maddi – an actress – was just finishing a run on the West End, we were both so unsure of everything. All we knew is that we both needed to get out of London for a little bit. It was Cinque Terre’s five little towns scattered on the Ligurian coast that were the thing of dreams for us. It’s just an hour and a bit on the train from Florence but with our heads pounding and our pores sweating out all of that lemon scented liquor it could have been another planet. We made it to the train though, with much grunting between us. That right there is the joy of travelling with your best friend, nonverbal communication is essential. With very large salami sandwiches on our laps and little bottles of Orangina, our hangovers started to wear off as we glimpsed hints of sunlight on blue water out of the train windows.
The air smells sweeter on the coast and as the train rattled alongside the cliffs it came to a halt at the first town in Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore. We’d booked a bedroom that looked okay enough on the internet, it was cheap, and well it was cheap, and that was our priority. What we didn’t factor in was where it was. Like all of the towns in Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore was precariously balanced on the sides of the cliff face, which means everything is a steep hike upwards. With our bodies battered by booze, we felt every single step up to the very top of the town, hauling our luggage and taking sanity breaks every five minutes. But the view from the top and the room that awaited us was worth every ‘please Maddi I can’t do this, leave me here to die’ comment I cried out. At the top of the town, there is the most stunning church built in 1340 and a view over the bay below that is the stuff of sonnets and songs. Our room was in a little apartment block and had a terrace covered in bougainvillea and jasmine that looked over the sea and the old train tracks. We decided the best way to stave off our permeating headaches was to go for a swim in the bay.
Our days for the next week had a real schedule: swim, breakfast, gelato, read, swim, lunch, gelato, read, swim, snack, swim, spritz, dinner, gelato, sleep and repeat. We’d wake up and stumble down the thousand steps on the cliff face to the shore to swim, then to the bakery for coffee and a pastry, then an obligatory gelato (we favoured fruit flavours in the morning) then we’d pack a bag and jump on the train to the next town in Cinque Terre to explore. We went in that order each day, first we got the train to Manarola where we found our favourite swimming spot. While I curled up on a hot rock that fitted the curve of my back, Maddi climbed the high rocks and jumped off with Italian teenage boys cheering her on. When we finally felt hungry we’d throw on something over our swimsuits and choose a tratoria to lunch in. Always huge plate of pasta each and always accompanied by a very cold bottle of cheap white wine. The Ligurian coast is famous for olive oil and with our free bread on the table we’d drench each piece in the greeny gold liquid. In between meals we’d snack on paper cones of fried seafood. Our fingers would get greasy with oil and lemon until we jumped back in the ocean to wash it all off and start again.
To end our days, Maddi would braid my hair before we went to sleep (which back then was long and brown, and not the blonde bob which has become my failsafe) and we would talk about how we’d like to live our lives. We were just twenty then. But we felt so much older, spending our own money, planning our own days and not having to check in with anyone else but each other. It was the trip I think we really fell in love as friends.Realising that this is a person I can never live without. Travelling with someone lets you really see them and all the rhythms of who they are.
We’d left London stressed and unsure of everything but in the warm light of those Italian afternoons all we could really imagine of our future lives was perfection. We really had no idea what was to come and the things we’d both go through together and apart. At twenty, I don’t think we grasped what it meant to grow up. The ways in which you have to actually work and fight to keep the good people in your life around and supported. Looking at those photos now, I wish I could whisper some wisdom into our ears to help protect us from the heartbreaks, hardships and generally difficult days yet to come. We’ve both lost loved ones, lost love, lost jobs, homes and countries, but we’ve been there by every means of communication. But this trip was before it all, just at the start of our friendship, a little bit of blissful naivety. We were giddy with the excitement of getting to start everyday just how we wanted to.
It’s the same feeling we both still have even now on the days when we eat ice cream, kiss the men we love and giggle down the phone to each other. It’s about trusting that despite hard days, good things aren’t far away. Now that Maddi lives in Brooklyn and I’m in London when we chat and are in need of a bit of cheering up - we think of Enzo.
It was our last day and we had found our favourite bar in the fourth village along, Vernazza. It’s a little wine bar right on the water where all the old Italian men drink and play cards. We’d come back every night just before sunset and drink icy white wine while we watched the sun go down. We made friends with the men there and speaking in broken Italian and English and hand gestures we talked. “Come meet me here tomorrow” said one of the best dressed men in the bar who we’d been chatting to all evening. “I have a boat, I’ll take you both to see the most beautiful thing in world”. “Tomorrow it is” said Maddi always more adventurous than me.
The next day we met Enzo by the bay and hopped into his little rickety row boat. As he tied a t-shirt around his head, started to smoke and started rowing. At almost seventy he rowed us out far along the coast line until we came to the opening of a cave. “It’s called La Luna” he said, “like the moon”. He told me to stand up at the end of the boat and with my hands pushing against the ceiling of the cave, we pulled the boat inside. In the dark, with just Enzo’s cigarette light and the faint glint of sunlight outside in the air, we could see what he meant by the moon. Everything inside the cave was twinkling with an otherworldly blue glow. The white sand at the bottom of the cave was bright and beamed up through the turquoise sea – it was breathtaking. “Thank you,” I said to Enzo but I think I was really saying it to Maddi. He rowed us around a while longer and we jumped off the boat and he told us stories of his life in Liguria. The day finished with negronis on his balcony and pesto made with bruised basil and thick olive oil. It really was as perfect as it seems, and while we might not find Enzo next time we go back, I know that I’ll always have the pasta, the sea and Maddi with me.