travel notebook, portovenere: alone in italia, day five

acs_0767By the fifth day of my trip, I am exhausted, and sleep so late I barely have enough time to get ready and leave my room before the lockout hours of 10:30 to 2. It’s raining pretty hard, but I’ve missed the shuttle, so I have my coffee and put on a rain jacket, with a loose plan to walk from the village where the hostel is located–Biassa–down to La Spezia, where I can take the train. It should take an hour and a half to walk those same (traumatizing) hairpin curves and is, quite frankly, a dumb idea.

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Luckily I am saved from myself. Downstairs, I’m greeted with a ciao and a question from a guy I recognize vaguely: the shuttle driver from the first day. He asks if I’m going to La Spezia because he’s heading that way, and he’s just about to leave. His name is Andrea and he’s from La Spezia and has been working at the hostel for just a month. He’s 25.

He speaks in English, punctuated with allora, and I do my best to answer in my rough Italian, which gives me a very clear picture of what I need to work on or learn. I make a mental list: past tense of ‘to see,’ ‘andare’ conjugations in the future, the word ‘before…’

The great thing about speaking to someone my age, who’s not trying to impress upon me a detailed grammar lesson, is the language improvisation muscles I’m able to flex.

My Italian tutor, Gianluca, is a great teacher who provides interesting cultural materials–we read Italian fairytales or articles that discuss the surprising success of Campari in the US–but sometimes I wish we could just have a conversation about Cinque Terre, for example. Or that I could learn how much is that, or, ATM or, can I please have the check, none of which, surprisingly, I know how to say. I may search an everyday conversation kind of partner to bolster the grammar workout I get in my lessons.

Andrea finds parking and then asks me what I’m doing today. The truth, and my typical travel strategy, is I have no idea.

I try to stay as unplanned as possible, and once again, it proves a success. Andrea asks if maybe I’ll go to Portovenere, or rather tells me I will, in that direct European way: allora, you’ll go to Portovenere today.

I’ve got my rain jacket and sneakers, I’m up for anything. Perchè no. 

My other motto: listen to locals. acs_0745

We walk through La Spezia’s morning market where Andrea tells me he used to work- He greets his mamma who is buying cheese. We visit three tobacco shops before we find one still stocked with bus tickets to Portovenere.

“We have coffee now?” He shows me to a Sicilian bar where we continue a conversation in an Italian-flavored English patois. I have a bad habit, I’ve learned. If I don’t know a word in Italian (very likely at this point), I automatically substitute the French equivalent. The problem with that is, most of the people I’m talking with speak much more English than they do French. The result is a garbled mélange of tre languages that does more to impede communication than anything else.

Andrea shows me to the bus stop and I’m on my way to Portovenere, which I know nothing about. The drive is once again nauseating. I observe passengers and concentrate on not throwing up. There’s a little French boy seated next to me, so excited he can’t sit still. He makes me smile, reminding me of my second-grade students from last year.

Portovenere is calm. That’s my first impression. Fresh air. Cinque Terre emptied of the selfie sticks and waiting lines for photo ops. A slight drizzle falls and boats creak in the port.

I enter a striped marble church on a cliff. Inside, a single candle is burning. Outside, through the narrow windows, the sea is stormy.

It is an atmosphere ripe for a Romantic poet, an impression validated when I come to “Grotta Byron.” Engraved over a door made of stones, it is written This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron/ It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici. It must have been a seriously demanding swim to merit recognition like that, in marble, no less. Apparently, the “daring” poet would “defy” the waves in order to visit friend and muse Shelley, who was living in the village San Terenzo.

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The black, stratified rock of the promontory is slick with rain, and I edge down it carefully. Yellow flowers spill over the rocks and the air once again smells of honeysuckle or jasmine. I surprise a seagull in his nest and he squawks at me, loudly, just once.

Staring out at the sea is a woman, gathering her dress in her hands, frozen in an expression of quiet resignation. She’s not real, but she could be. She seems to breathe, almost, and the rain falls down her carved cheeks like teardrops. She sits like someone too hopeless to take shelter from the storm. What’s the point?

I think she is waiting for a lover who will never return, lost to the sea. Mourning, perhaps with just the faintest glimmer of hope: maybe

There is no plaque, no dedication, no direction to listen to Section 6 on your audioguide, and I am charmed by this, by this sad, solid, nameless woman in the same color as the sea.

acs_0701 I start down some stone steps, almost missing the sweet scene of pink petals swept to the ground by the rain. Next to them is the tiniest snail.

I think: that looks like poetry, before remembering the specific piece it brings to mind. Ezra Pound’s one-sentence Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough

Famished, I eat at what seems to be the only restaurant still serving. I have trofie (a pasta specific to Liguria) with pesto. I am firmly in basil country here. As noted, they’ve even found ways to include the herb in really delicious gelato.

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I continue my walk, and when some bored waiters see me with my camera they shout in English, “hey! Take our picture!” So I do.

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in pisa: the quirk no one could correct ((not so) alone in italia, day four)

“Pisa is shit.”

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This is how the Italian at the hostel’s front desk responds when I tell him where I went yesterday.

I blink. “Oh. Um, why?”

He tells me it’s a nothing city. Nothing to do; a village on the map because of a big tower, not worth going out of your way.

I appreciate the honesty of Damiano’s opinion. Stuffy hotel concierge he is not. And I can see what he means. Pisa is quite small, lost somewhere after miles and miles of highway. It’s not a place to build your trip around, but a worthy stop on the way somewhere else.

And I wouldn’t call it shit.

Yesterday featured gray, gloomy skies. I left the hostel and met Victor in the car. We had no plan.

J’ai une chose à te proposer, he said.

“I have something to propose to you.” (French syntax thrills me still).

“Would you like to go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” He had the route marked on Maps. “It could be originale. We’re actually really close.”

Delighted, of course I said pourquoi pas. Our proximity to Pisa was not something I had considered. The location, within Italy, of the city that houses the “world’s most famous tower” (their distinction), had never crossed my mind, truth be told. It could have been on the other side of the country for all I knew.

But here we were, just an hour and a half away.

After a lot of highway, we park in Pisa and immediately buy an umbrella from a guy hawking them in the lot. I’m already shivering, dressed for Cinque Terre sun. My dress, so nice for the beach, now looks like optimism or stubborn ignorance. Vabbè.

The streets remind me of streets in Florence, all mustard yellows, dark greens and browns, rows of windows with neat shutters. I wonder if these colors are a regional thing, or just an Italian thing. I haven’t seen enough Italy yet to know.

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We walk down a long shopping street to the river, crossing occasional proud churches, looming reminders of the past. My favorite is a paradox of lacy white marble.

We find a quirky gift shop–salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Vespas–and Victor buys me a mug with a Pisa tower as the handle. I can’t remember the last time I got a souvenir so unabashedly obvious, so I HEART NEW YORK. This mug is anything but demure. Its unjaded tourism appeals to me.

img_5146 We eat at a place named for Danté, outside near a heat lamp. We have Campari spritzes (way too bitter for this American), Tuscan cheese and jam on a bed of super-peppery arugula, and finally, pizzas that we can barely finish.

Then (it feels late but isn’t, so gray) we hunt down the tower. It hides pretty well for such a big structure. You can’t see it from everywhere in town, as we had lazily imagined.

Around a corner, there’s a peek. Then there it is, the tall clumsy structure that put Pisa on the map.

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Speckled with cold rain, we take absolutely no time to learn about the history or climb the steps to the top in the bitter wind.

“Wow, it’s pretty,” and “it really does lean” are some of my scintillating observations.

Not every trip has to be educational.

Victor and I amuse ourselves by watching hordes of people trying to ‘hold up the tower’ in what is now perhaps the most unoriginal travel photo op in the world.

Not everyone is a natural. An American woman sighs and snaps, “Jim! Move to the left! No!”

Finally he gets it right, arms craned towards the sky, squinting from the effort. “Oooh,” the woman crows. “That’s good.”

I snicker, but then Victor makes me recreate this photo. It’s as lame as I expected, my hands far from “touching” the tower.

“Well,” Victor says. “It looks like it’s falling and you’re ready to catch it.”

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acs_0760-1At home, I learn that the word “Pisa” comes from the Greek for “marshy land.” 12th-century architects apparently disregarded the area’s mushy subsoil while constructing this tall, heavy belltower meant to crown the “Field of Miracles,” where the city would display the treasures freshly stolen from Sicily.

In a case of pride before folly, one side of the tower began to sink during construction of the second story. It was too late to go back, so the builders continued with some trepidation. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the tower kept its stubborn lean, and baffled builders halted work for close to a century.

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I learn too that Mussolini hated Pisa’s leaning tower, considering it, in no uncertain terms, a disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. His plan to fix the tower backfired, as the grout and mortar introduced to straighten out the lean only caused the structure to sink more heavily into the ground–its awkward angle even more pronounced.

Learning this makes me appreciate the structure even more. Already I admired its stacks of columns, graceful and impractical as a wedding cake. Now there’s an emotional appeal. Sweet little underdog with a quirk no one could correct. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Source: Walks of Italy

a vision in pink: the mediterranean villa fit for a baroness

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Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

acs_0491 In 1905, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, heiress to a banking fortune, was so wealthy, restless, and enamored with the color pink that she oversaw the construction of a bubblegum mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

A native Parisienne, Béatrice warmed her new summer home with splashes of her favorite color. It was everywhere: from the eye-catching exterior paint to the marble columns to the roses in the nine surrounding gardens. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was a veritable island of pink: 17 acres of la vie en rose. acs_0496

Béatrice filled her winter home with art from her personal collections and established a small private zoo, featuring such exotic specimens as mongoose, gazelles, and–naturally–pink flamingos.

The villa sat on a cape, so Béatrice could enjoy a view of the sea from almost any window. The nine gardens were themed in a display of worldly botanical abundance, from Spanish to Florentine to Japanese. No less than thirty gardeners worked to maintain the property. They dressed as sailors to further the comforting illusion of the villa and gardens as adrift on a lazy sea. In fact, Béatrice called the property the “Ile de France,” also the name of a grand ship on which she had traveled.

Béatrice knew how to throw a party. And like the classiest of hosts, she was inconspicuous, though the poet Andre de Fouquières wryly described her fêtes as  “generous.” He noted one particular image that stuck with him: that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova dancing in the gardens to Chopin nocturnes, “bathed in moonlight.”

On my visit to the villa, it was tempting for me, a mere peasant, to dream myself into this world. Baroness Béatrice’s pink confection of a house brought to mind the Barbie Dream House I had as a little girl. Complete with a working elevator, it was magic itself. And here I was in the South of France twenty years later, staring at a much bigger pink house, this one a delight to my grown-up heart.

img_2748There were no flamingos and I didn’t spy a single gazelle, but there was a fountain choreographed to elegant classical music. There was a café with a garden view, where you could linger over tea and a luscious tarte aux fraises.

I imagine living with so many choices, so much power. I imagine hosting parties lit only by the moon and tiny candles placed in the garden. I imagine swans in the fountain. Shimmering necklaces that lay heavy across my collarbone. Piles of exotic fruit topped with fresh chantilly. A treasured white mare brought by sea.

But I must keep my feet on the ground. On my feet, anyway, are heavy Vans hi-tops. They clomp on the aging wood floors, floors that squeak and tilt just a bit. They slap inelegantly on marble patterned with pink and white diamonds. I walk through intimate rooms where people once slept, now open to me and my camera and my sneakers. The rooms are still furnished with mirrors and bedding and vases of fresh flowers and might have seen all kinds of human emotion: joy or strife or simple boredom–a world-weary party guest staring bleakly out the window. There was life here. What are my Vans doing stomping through this early 20th-century glamour? Suddenly it looked so strange and anachronistic that I laughed.

Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in La Père Lachaise in Paris. She bequeathed her property, all of it, to the Institut de France for the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and wished her home to be reopened as a museum. “It is my wish that as much as possible the museum keeps its current appearance as a salon.”

Would she have been pleased? Here there is dust, there, a chip in the paint. The villa remains grand, but the subtle decay is undeniable. Slowly going the way of all things.

Exploring places where people have lived tends to make me consider mortality.

A palace or villa or château that has outlived its owners does a much better job bringing the dead to life than does a graveyard, with its sober finality. These empty spaces evoke a bittersweet melancholy.

Look at these treasures, stored where “moth and rust doth corrupt,” already succumbing. Look at the owners–gone. Look what they took with them–none of it.

I am again struck by what terrible predictors physical possessions are for happiness.

Who was this eccentric woman, really? Was she happy? What did she long for? Did she know love? Did she find truth?

History remembers her…is that a solace?

History remembers her, of course, because of her father’s wealth, because of La Banque de France. Because she had the whimsy and the means to build a pretty pink house on the sea. acs_0510Some other facts: she was married at 19 to a friend of her father’s, much older than she. Her husband gave her a disease that left her unable to have children, and his serious gambling addiction threatened the marriage until it broke, culminating in divorce in 1904.

We love to glamorize the wealthy and dead, as if fine clothes and cakes work to redeem suffering.

 


Further reading:

Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild: creator and collector

Rothschild Family Archive

Tour the Villa with Exploring Provence

sweet serendipity in the eagle’s nest of the côte d’azur

Anyone who visits me gets to see Èze.

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A vigorous, hour-long climb up and around a mountain rewards the casual hiker with a brilliant view of the Mediterranean from a postcard-perfect village.

 

I’ll break my rule and describe this hike as “breathtaking”–but only because you will not be able to breathe once you reach the top, I guarantee it. This hike is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for people wearing Birkenstocks and swimsuits (not that I would know anything about that).

 

The trail takes you from Èze-sur-Mer–the part of Èze located on a stretch of coastline, accessible by train–to Èze Village, a medieval town perched high on a mountain. The trail is called Nietzsche’s Footpath, and the writer apparently found inspiration and peace on this very trail. Nietzsche wasn’t the first to frequent this trail: that honor probably belongs to hoofed creatures. Le Chemin de Nietzsche was originally a path for goats.

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If the views are fit for praises, the climb itself could only have been named for a nihilist. My last visit had my calves aching badly enough to wake me in the night two days later. And I only made the descent.

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The trail is rocky, an ankle-sprain warning zone. It’s easy to imagine a goatherd leading his animals up the mountain for cheese-making purposes. It feels wild and real, and the effort makes the payoff so sweet. After perhaps 50 minutes of hard work, you turn a corner and can see the village above, its cheery yellow clocktower like a welcome.

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I spared my parents (and Dad’s year-old knee replacement) from making the trek in the snow when they visited, but typically I consider Èze one of the most worthy day trips when visiting the coast.

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Last Friday was forecast to be beautiful, so I woke up with a goal: getting to Èze to visit the botanical garden at the top. I hadn’t seen the garden on my previous visits, instead choosing to save a few euros. Then I realized the garden is the only place you can get the full panoramic view from the village that calls itself “the Eagle’s Nest of the Côte d’Azur.” It was 4 euros to enter, the price of a cappuccino in Cannes. Suffice it to say: it was worth it. acs_0454

I wandered around with my camera for awhile and saw a girl around my age doing the same thing. She appeared to be alone too. We smiled at each other. I made another loop around the garden and noticed her again, speaking in English to another girl who appeared to be alone. Just for fun, I went up and introduced myself and asked them how they found themselves in Èze.

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Erika, originally from Japan, currently living in Kenya, was traveling alone on a Julia-Roberts-style solo voyage. Clarisse recently left her home in Brazil to spend a few months in Aix-en-Provence learning French.

We would travel together for the rest of the day, and my quietly spontaneous trip to Èze would morph into a fun, frenzied journey to three different cities (one of them a country, if we’re being specific). We would be climbing up a hill to a pink mansion, running to catch trains, eating gelato in Monaco, and falling asleep over a late dinner of pizza. I wouldn’t get home until after midnight.

If each of us started the day like something out of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we would end it more like the Cheetah Girls.

 

(But of course, I didn’t know any of that yet.)

 

How easily we might have missed each other! One minute, one hour, one delayed train. You can’t force serendipity: that’s what makes it so sweet. But you can improve your chances.

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I say: do what you want to do, alone or not. Take the train, take the hike, buy the ticket, and don’t be afraid to talk to strangers.

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Even if you don’t have company, you just might find some.

attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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