Sunday, July 1, 2007

June 27th, 28th, 29th: Veni Vedi Vino

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: We skipped Genova. We didn't miss it, we just looked at eachother as we were pulling into the station and said "How excited are you about Genova?" Sometimes the best decisions are made that way, and this certianly was one of them. By the time we pulled into Monterosso, the northmost of the five cities, the train was so swamped with tourists that we decided to just wait on the train and get off where they didn't. So what did we do? Rode the train one more stop to Vernazza and said "Huh, I really want to see what Vernazza looks like, let's get off here." And that we did, joining the 5:00 running of the tourists. *sigh* Moooooooooooo. Might as well just admit it, dig out your camera and go along. Vernazza is beautiful, there's no denying it. The Cinque Terre have a sort of otherworldly charm to them.

It kinda feels like Disneyland. They're old, but remarkably well taken care of (especially for Italy! [Jab at Italy #1]) and they represent so much of what's lacking in American city design. The cities really do have a character and liveliness that comes from more than just the vibrant paint and fluttering laundry. Perhaps that's why the American tourists come here in droves, to get what they've been missing in the subdivisions and strip malls. I certianly enjoyed it.

After strolling somewhat confusedly through Vernazza, soaking in the warm salt air,the cool smell of old stones, and the thoroughly Italian ambiance, we set to finding housing armed with one of the few Italian words we knew: "Pensione?"[/Pen-see-oh-nay/], meaning, roughly, a place to sleep for the night. Well, soon enough we learned another one: "Complete!" [/Com-PLET-ay/] meaning, roughly, "I've got enough darn tourists for tonight, go bug someone else." Some people would be discouraged by this. Some people would be smart, go back to the train, and find lodging in another city. Then there's us. We thought "Why wait for the next train? The Cinque Terre are walkable, we've got our house on our back, let's do it!" So we headed into the hills south of Vernazza, bound for Corniglia. Sure, people thought we were crazy. One well meaning Canadian told us "You're nuts. If you knew, you'd turn back." .

Well, we are nuts. But you'd have to be nuts to backpack through the New Mexico high desert in July or to climb all 14,492 feet of Mount Whitney, too. We could have taken the train and saved a lot of sweat and time but I'll tell you this: When we pulled into Corniglia at 6:30 to a bell chorus from the chapel, streaming sweat and caked in trail dust, we felt like conquerers.

But where to stay? We wandered a bit, soaking in the sights but increasingly anxious as the sun sat ever lower over the tiled roofs. Well, confusion is an international expression and soon enough a woman came up to us rattling away in Italian. Seeing our blank looks she sighed and said "Pensione." Well, to be sure, we followed her. Simone (for that was her name) and Angelo, her young son, led us all over the small town, when finally she guessed it: Mama. Well, she presented us to mama with that one magic word and we were off the the races again, Mama in her flowered mumu dragging us down an alley to a nondescript door. Inside was a pleasant one room flat with a single bed and a lovely, all tile shit/shower/shave bathroom. We were planning on going for a nice dinner but between the anxiety of using the railpass for the first time, finding trains, making connections, and the exertion of the overland route to Cornigla, we just passed out. Not even the cacaphony of church bells, the gelato shops loud grinding, or the drunken italians signing late into the night could do much more than cause me to roll over and fall asleep again. The church bells mark the hour and half hour all night, sleeping tourists be damned. It's fine taste of what the area was like long ago.

With plenty of sleep I rose early the next morning for a great constitutional; it felt kind of like camping, when you come into the campsite late in the evening and it's all a blur, then you finally have a chance to explore it by daylight the next morning. Corniglia is my favorite of the five cities, perched aloof on a hill, small and beachless, almost seeming to say "Move along tourists, there's nothing to see here." After packing our things and paying Mama, who came by promptly at 10:00 to collect, we stepped across the street to a cafe for breakfast. Some of you have heard the crack about an Italian breakfast being "A cup of coffe, a cigarette, and the view." Well, that's not far off, but Patrick and I wanted something a bit more filling and a bit less carcinigenic. Not knowing what the local breakfast of choice was, we let the menu be our guide: Orange juice? Bacon and eggs? An outrageous 2.50 Euros and 5.50 Euros, respectively. (About $11) Cappucino and brioche (croissant) were more like it, and with it we enjoyed the view as the sun rose over Cinque Terre.

From Corniglia we moved to the southmost of the five, Riomaggiore. After securing housing we turned our attention to an early lunch; Italian breakfasts don't stick to your ribs. (I gloss over the details of "securing housing" because I'm getting a bit tired of the process. Both Patrick and I are interested in lengthening the time at each place to give us a little more "at home" time and to reduce the amount of time dedicated to finding housing.) We found a pizza place and took our pizza with us, looking for a suitable spot to eat. 10 minutes later we ran out of stairs, found a bench, and muched. The bench we found just so happened to be at the beginning of the "Via del Amore," right by the church of something something del Amore. (Probably Notre Dame de l'Amore. They're all Notre Dame de Something.) According to local legend, the cities of Cinque Terre were so isolated that intermarriage became a problem. In response, the villagers cut a road between Riomaggiore and Manarola, the next town. They called it the "Via del Amore" and placed a chapel conveniently on it. As far as I can tell this is the first example of a drive-through wedding chapel. [As to that story, the Italians would say "Se non e vero, e ben trabato." Even if it isn't true, it's a good story.] Reading signs and placards was a delight. Italian is close enough to English, French, and Spanish that attentive reading can decipher a great deal. Since I know so little I treasure every word that I pick up, applying it immediately and squeezing maximum value out of each new phrase.
By way of symmetry we climbed a second hill that afternoon, this one much higher and to the south of town, to see what was once the Madonna de Monte Nero. After two long hikes in the midday sun we headed for a swim on the very rocky Riomaggiore beach and returned to the room in time to get ready for the big event: Dinner at the Ristorante Belvedere in Monterosso. Patrick heard about the Belvedere in epic prose from a couple on the train who RAVED about the house special. Call it cioppino, bouillibaise italiano, or bucket of boat trash it all adds up to the same thing, and we WANTED some.

Dressing for the occasion we suaved our way into town and felt like consumate gentlemen of the world when we strolled in without reservations (neat trick; come early), ordered in (halting) Italian and sat sipping Sicilian syrah wating for the culinary parade to begin. And what a parade. I tell you, Italian food is a beautiful thing, but on their home court it's incredible. We stood in bliss at the crossroads of Pesto street and Avenue Frutti di Mare. When the main event finally arrived it was everything we'd hoped for: a tureen-come-bucket filled to the brim with all manner of fish, shellfish, octopus, and a few things I couldn't name..

Messy work, and my shirt still shows it, but a few stains weren't going to dent our gusto. By the time we finished the sun had gone down, the moon had come up, and long ago somebody left with the cup. Nothing like being on vactation time on Italian time. A gigantic Italian feast calls for gelato, and a full moon over an Italian city calls for a stroll. We had both, and managed to catch a concert of Gregorian chant in the bargain. Man, what a *day*. (If you didn't get the "Going the Distance" quip of 2 lines ago, don't worry about it.)

We left Cinque Terre the next morning as the weekend tourists arrived, deciding to seek out "Dullsdorf"; a concept we learned from our friend Rick. Dullsdorf is that town that no one goes to, where there are few tourists, plenty of open rooms, and a chance to take a breather. We found dullsdorf in Genova, which we wisely skipped the first time. It couldn't have been duller. I won't give it any time here because it is thoroughly forgettable, other than to say that we got our first taste of a Hosteling International hostel, which matched perfectly the character of the city. The hostel was adequately clean, orderly, and about as inspiring as a high school cafeteria. Bah. It did what was needful. The one bright spot of Genova was the happy outcome of getting purposefully lost in a strange city. In a back alley of Genova we stumbled upon a knot of grey-haired old Italians playing petanque! After watching for awhile we were noticed and, much to my delighted, invited in. I did my best to make it known that I knew how to play and even managed to score a set of balls for Patrick and I. We played and watched for an hour or more, awash in rapidfire Italian as these good old boys laughed, fought, swore, and threw solid metal bocce with stunning accuracy. Salute and ciao, Lucciano, Giorgio, Luigi, Bruno etc! (Those were actually their names, I kid you not.)

Eager to get out of Genova, in case whatever it had was catching, we headed for the train station early and caught the train here to Kandersteg. Just about the time I was getting a pile of useful words in Italian we crossed the border into Switzerland and had to start all over. Robert, we coulda used you a few times today, among other things to calm down the Swiss border cops with the German accents and German Shepard who were trying to figure out if there was monkey business with the two nearly identical passports.

Switzerland has greeted us with a terrific and terrible mountain storm, complete with thunder rolling through the alps and occasional lightning. I'm planning on nosing around, talking to other scouts, and getting a nice night in bed, listening to the rain and enjoying the sight of mountains through my window. You've probably heard enough from me for one night, but I would love to hear from you. And don't worry, we're calling Mom tonight.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Seems like a year's worth of experiences in a week! You sounded great today! So tell me-how does one actually consume an octopus? The photos are just beautiful. Keep them coming! Much love, Mom

Krystal said...

Now that sounds like the right way to travel. Yay for being nuts and hiking to the city, for gelato under a full moon, and for officially being gentleman of the world.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are having a great time and the pictures are terrific.
You will have to fill me in on details of the game the Italian men were playing. Judy said you sounded great today, sorry I was out when you called. One week down and 5 to go! Hope you can catch up of some rest before you head out again. Take care...PSP

warbler5 said...

You are learning the advantage of hitting many's just planning for your next trip! On your next trip, you will likely find a place to stay, stay a few days until you are ready to move on...then, do the same in the next village!
I have eaten many types of shellfish, but I must admit that having those octopus suckers staring back did not look appetizing....although I LOVE calimari! I hope it was tasty!!!
Cheers, Dee

Fidus Aelius said...

Dang, Gentlemen, I tip my hats to your stamina. Though I'm unfamiliar with Bocce, I would have loved to see a bunch of genial and lively italians have at it. Best of continued luck to you. Onward to the chocolate and watches!

Kristen said...

My heart smiles thinking that you guys are getting out of this trip precisely what you were hoping for!

And I'm trying my best not to be ridiculously jealous of you having tremendous fun over there. I mean afterall, I get to wake up to drive to Fairfield tomorrow/today at 5:45. Who's lucky! *sigh* :( Sounds fun over there!

Lisa said...

you guys make me smile! and laugh out loud. my poor roomies are starting to ignore me when i laugh, because if they ask i read to them... i think it's a good thing!