Wednesday, December 10, 2008

from Italy: waiting for rain, waiting for trains

Overnight, the skies have changed.

024 copy

It is supposed to rain, starting this Tuesday evening. Not small rain. Heavy rain. The kind that makes trails impassable. The kind that chills you even before your clothes are soaked.

So I said—let’s hike until we can’t anymore, and then let’s go to Florence.

In another life, at another time, Florence used to be my most favorite city. In my eyes, it had everything: history, art, food, style and you could cross it, back and forth and still have time for an aperitif at the Boboli Gardens. There, you could write your crappy scribbles and take surreptitious glances at the best view in the world. Bliss.

Now, I know cities aren’t Ed’s thing, but I thought that maybe Florence could at least fall into the category of "okay." I can manipulate our path a little: stick to the pedestrian stuff. Avoid stores. Avoid crowds. Avoid shopping for anything. I had reason to hope: Ed did like Venice some years back and one could easily label Venice as one big, crowded shopping mall.

But Venice had boats and quiet alleys. Florence? Let me not begin at the end. Let me go back to the morning.

It was a cold night and our eco friendly Cinque Terre b&b economized on heat. By shutting it off during most hours of the day and night. I was up at 4, working on Ocean matters and answering emails and I felt the chill.

The shower across the hall was also eco friendly in that it produced only warm-ish water. That’s when I decided when the rains came, we would leave.

But the rains weren’t due until late that day and so we packed our packs and headed for the trails.

The first one, from Manarola to Riomaggiore was everything I feared yesterday’s would be. Paved, railed, short. A wimpy walk. The kind of place where people go to do this:

028 copy

There were some very nice, even dramatic at times, water and cliff views, sure…

034 copy

… but basically – yawn. We wanted challenge and so at Riomaggiore, we decided to head up the mountains.

The Italians do mountain trails straight up. None of this easy on the legs switchback stuff. You go up until you cannot go anymore. You pause, get psyched, and force yourself to continue.

053 copy

My pack -- toting clothes, a winter coat, camera stuff and the computer is, as usual, too full. Meanwhile, I’m watching the sky. It doesn’t look good. Then it doesn’t look bad.

049 copy

Then it looks really awful. Still, we push ourselves. There’s something about getting almost to the top that’s very unsatisfying. It’s like saving for dessert and then finding out that the cook has gone for the day and you have to make do with the meat course as your final plate. So I try to ignore the possibility of a very wet ending and we keep going.

Finally we are at a point where I can make a case that it is indeed a summit. There can be many summits! This is one of them. There is an old monastery, there are views to the north, to the west and to the south. Summit! Now let’s please turn back. But Ed wants to sit down and munch on stale bread from yesterday’s breakfast. Ed likes the contemplative moment on a hike. I give him six minutes to look out at the coast line and chomp on bread. I feel you can accomplish a lot of contemplation in six minutes.

058 copy

We head back down. Forest turns into terraced vineyards, then olive groves and finally gardens with oranges and lemons.

038 copy

The rain holds off, but it’s plenty slippery and so we descend slowly. Coats off because of the climb. Coats on because of the cool air and slow pace. Off. On. And then they stay on.

I’m feeling cold by the time we are back at Riomaggiore. We pick a café/cioccolatteria and settle in to wait for the late afternoon train (to Florence, via Pisa).

069 copy

We’re getting ready to stand on the platform when Ed tells me he’s hungry. Can you wait until Florence (three hours away)? Yes. But couldn’t we stop at a store for bread and cheese for the train ride? Maybe with a tomato? And some brined artichokes and olives? And a small bottle of wine? (Ed is very good at saying the coaxing words.)

073 copy

075 copy

Train rides increase the appetite. Besides, food warms you and I need that internal fire. The cioccolateria had kept the door open and so I never really heated up. It’s the way Italians deal with the café smoking ban. The men keep their drink inside and they move back and forth between their smoke and their beverage, keeping the conversation going on both ends. It’s quite an accomplishment.

We wait for the train.

You have to come to love waiting at the binario (train track) in Italy. Of the half dozen trains we’ve taken on this trip not one arrived at the time it was supposed to. Just don’t set your watch by their coming and going and you’ll be fine. And if the sign outside says Pisa, get off, even if the arrival time is fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Signs matter. And even more -- the kind words of strangers matter. They say Pisa – believe it. And, they say this is the binario for Firenze, even though the sign says it’s for Napoli – believe it.

The last stretch from Pisa to Florence is crowded. We have seats because I am Polish enough to figure out how to find seats, but it really is packed. And here’s this small exchange that to me, is so revealing about how Europeans approach Americans. For we clearly are American, what with our English books and American shoes. A little into the ride Ed whispers to me – I think I should let that woman sit. He nods toward a woman who is maybe a notch older than I am. He taps her, offers his seat. She looks surprised, then grateful. The two women in seats across from us engage her in conversation. They nod at Ed, smile at me, ask me where we’re traveling from. Cinque Terre. Really? We are from there!

Oh, you’ll say there’s nothing to this little scene. You’ll say I’m putting too much emphasis on one small exchange. Maybe. But here’s the thing: sometimes I listen to our leaders (on all sides of the political spectrum) proclaim that we are the greatest nation in the world and I think how this must sound to all who are not American. Because when you travel, and you are American and you show even the teensiest bit of humility – people are surprised. And relieved.

In Florence, I am keenly aware of my shoes. Hiking shoes. Not beautiful, sophisticated, stylish Florentine leather shoes. I tell Ed the story of when I first took my very young daughters to Florence and how, at the end of the trip, during dinner (at the very place where Ed and I eat dinner) they gave me a pen from Florence – as a thank you for a trip well planned. I suggest how boots make a perfect gift, if you’re in that mode. We both know that buying Italian leather boots, even fairly inexpensive leather boots (95 Euros! I know where to find them!), is not really an Ed thing, but there is amusement value in pushing my case for this nonetheless.

We walk through areas normally so congested, that you can’t frame a photo without including half the world from all sides of the ocean in it. Not so in early December. And the lights! This is Florence now:

094 copy

Along the river, the street lamps seem especially luminescent. Though maybe this is what I want to see -- a city that doesn't give in to the darkness of the season.

111 copy

At the best gelateria in the world (I mean it: Gelateria Neri, on the street by that name), we buy predinner ice-cream – fruits of the forest and pistachio. Christmas colors.

098 copy

We eat dinner at the Cinghiale Bianco, on the "wrong" side of the Arno.

On a typical evening, the place is so crowded that people sit outside on the steps waiting for a table. Empty tonight. The waitress tells us it’s the slowest day they’ve had since she started working there. The economy? – I ask. Oh no. People eat out in Italy especially when times are tough. It’s the time of year, the weather, the day after a holiday. (Yesterday was a holiday? Yes… Which one? I don’t really know the name – some religious day).

123 copy

Hearty winter vegetable soup, dumplings, and wonderful fried artichokes. With a local Chianti. We stroll back to a café bakery we had admired earlier. Still open. Good. We buy four little pastries and head back.

131 copy

132 copy

There is something extremely beautiful about visiting a city when it’s napping, buried somewhere, hiding from the cold. When you have kids, vacations are necessarily pushed to the summer. Is it really that different? I think the price of our hotel room says it all. We’re staying now in a lovely little place (the Albergotto). It’s central, it’s old but fresh. The room (the cheapest one) has a maximum allowable charge of 335 Euros. We are paying 100 per night, which includes a copious breakfast buffet and taxes. We run into other Italians. They can do this, they can be here when the rates are low. In the summer, they’re in the country or by the sea. But now, they stroll the empty streets of Florence. Friends and lovers. It’s their place really. To enjoy without the madness of a summer crowd.

133 copy