snowglobe city: alone in italia, day seven

In my last full day on the Ligurian coast, I found myself far from the crowds, in a village one could reasonably conclude was populated only by renderings of the Madonna and electric green lizards like flashes of light.

Maybe it’s Cinque Terre, maybe it’s Italy, maybe it’s luck, but my time here has brought a lot of getting lost in the best way. There have been no blisters or tears or sleeping in train stations, but rather a lot of unexpected, unplanned beauty in a place that seems to hold no wrong turns, only choices. Left or right: pick your pleasure.

Once again I had woken to a day where nothing was expected of me and where I expected nothing. Bliss. After lazy bread and butter breakfast in the common room of the hostel, with my dear view of the church belltower in Biassa, I went downstairs to write. Tired of typing out blog posts on my iPhone while lying in a bunk bed, I had since migrated to the computer near the front entry. It was a distracting but fun place to work that led to several good conversations.

I wasn’t long into it before Damiano asked what I planned to do that day. To my cheerful “nothing,” he suggested I take the train in La Spezia past the Cinque Terre villages to Levanto, where I could rent a bike and ride along the coastline.

I had missed the morning shuttle, so Andrea again gave me a ride down to La Spezia, right to the train station.

In Levanto, the air felt purely tropical. I followed the signs into town and found a bike rental place without trouble. For five euros, a cheery purple bike with a basket was mine until 6 pm. To find the trail, I followed some tourists on bikes until I saw the signs for myself. Levanto to Bonassola to Framura.

The trail is a renovated railway tunnel, which means it is cavelike and agreeably flat. The long stretches of dark and chill would be suddenly broken by openings in the rock every two or three minutes of cycling. They left me blinking in the sunlight and relishing the 15 degree temperature jump. acs_0859I followed the trail to the end, which didn’t take long as it’s only about 5km. I parked my bike overlooking a small port and started walking. I was at the end of the line, in Framura, which I later learned is a town composed of five separate villages. I took some steep stairs for about ten minutes and found myself in one of the five.

It was so quiet I could hear the brush of lizards through leaves, laundry flapping on lines, my own footsteps. The loudest noise was a stream that seemed to originate far above me and end near the sea. Other than my presence, there were no signs of modernity. A village preserved in amber, emptied of inhabitants and immune to the passage of time. A snowglobe city. Madonna stared at me from fountains and above doorways, and besides her ancient gaze, I felt completely unobserved.  acs_0876I crossed a church that I found unspeakably lovely, more so for how it hid in these hills, something so pure and sad about that. Time had barely sullied its facade–marble striped white and lavender–though vines wound up its bell tower. The area smelled of moss. Had the heavy wooden doors been unlocked, I might well have entered Narnia.

Attached to its side was the cheerful anachronism of a basketball hoop, a suggestion of life and play despite the quiet. acs_0849

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acs_0875acs_0877 After a good twenty minutes of enjoying the silence (à la Depeche Mode), I cycled back to Bonnassola and Levanto, where signs of modernity were rather more abundant. I ate really good arancini and accidentally asked the boulanger in Italian: what are you doing. (A whole new language to make weird and startling errors in, and boy am I excited about that.)

I braved the Cinque Terre crowds one last time, bidding adieu to my favorite of the villages, Manarola, with a final souvenir. img_5732

Maman + Lyon: our trip begins

In February, my mom came to visit me in France for a whole two weeks. My dad had told me about his plans months before and I could hardly keep it a secret, but waited to let Mom find out on Christmas day.

We started off our trip in Lyon. Mom has heard a lot about it from my travels, but had never gotten to see it for herself. I strongly prefer this city to Paris, having been to both recently. I made the mistake of going to Paris during prime tourist time (Christmas) and it was enough to put me off for awhile. Lines for the vestiaire, lines for the bathroom, lines for my favorite bookstore. Crowded cafés revealing disappointingly average bowls of onion soup: another tourist trap. 45 minutes on the metro.

Paris is better if you know how to plan, and honestly that’s not my strong suit. Lyon feels a little more sacred, unspoiled by the over-commercialization of the romance of France (a place that becomes decidedly less romantic when it seems like half the world is there). Lyon is colorful, lively, warm, the stomach of France.

Mary and I went to Lyon a day before my mom flew in and got settled in at the AirBnb. In typical AirBnb fashion, this required codes and keys and the finding of a surreptitious flowerpot. Once inside, it was spacious and cool with big windows providing a view of the Saone river. By far our greatest AirBnb success.Lyon river view

We met my mom at the airport the next day and we spent a fun couple of days around le Vieux Lyon, mostly, eating and biking around.

I took mom to Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a big covered market now dedicated to the famous French chef (whose face can be spotted across the street, painted onto the side of a building). Paul Bocuse and the halles that bear his name are dedicated to the highest-quality ingredients. C’est où les produits sont roi (where the products are king. Things really do sound better in French, don’t they).

Mom was craving a croissant so we bought a few and then we bought a box of macarons from Sève, my absolute favorites after the famous Ladurée in Paris. macarons boiteVanilla bean, peach apricot, rose. The lady was patient, her gloved hand hovering over the pastry case as Mary and I scrambled to decide which flavors to order, each one individually. Deux roses. Non, quatre. Cinq, c’est bon.

Macarons are one of the few patisseries that taste as good as they look. They don’t look good for long, though, because they don’t last long. Delicate, ephemeral. If it sounds like I could write poetry about these little cookies, well. I have.

We got around almost exclusively by bike, and it was dreamy, although Mom may have a slightly different opinion. Me, anyway, I was flying. Lyon has a really nice, user-friendly bike system, and the bikes are big, with comfortable seats, baskets, lights, and working brakes. I had forgotten what it felt like to coast down a hill and feel adrenaline instead of terror.

One day we biked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we pedaled leisurely around the zoo and visited the botanical gardens.

We ate dinner almost exclusively in bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurants, and Mom had such Lyonnais and French classics as boeuf bourguignon and salade lyonnaise. img_8326-1Our unanimous favorite, though, was a place called Les Lyonnais.img_8346-1 We sat at communal wooden tables and ordered classic food a bit more originale (interesting, different), than other places we’d tried. The place has personality, largely due to the servers, one of whom, sixtyish, has huge black framed glasses and a white beard, always making droll, ironic comments in French (and a little English). He’s the kind of guy who’s always smirking, but you can tell he loves his job.

The menu itself has a sense of humor, promising such delights as the “Unforgettable Onion Loaf.”

Besides bouchon fare, we ate fair number of brioche aux pralines and tried fun ice cream at a popular shop. I had mascarpone and sheep’s milk yogurt flavors. Technically it was a little too cold to be eating ice cream cones outside, but I was also wearing four-inch clogs and riding a bike over cobblestones, so what do I know about practicality.

We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts just in time to see the last days of the Matisse exhibit. This was a real treat for me. I’ve gone to a lot of art museums this year, (including contemporary art museums in like five major cities), and I’m always on the hunt for the kinds of bold colors that Matisse prizes. So to have all this in one place was major eye candy.

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After a fun couple of days, we headed to the South of France, where we attended the cheesiest festival of all time.

To be continued, in other words.