the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

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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travel notebook: (not so) alone in italia, day three

I’d rather not think about how little sleep I’ve gotten in the last few days. But as my lids lower–once again–of their own volition, it’s getting hard to ignore.

I’ve been turning in at a decent hour, but like a little girl stuck in the cheerful purgatory of the night before Christmas, I’ve been finding it extremely hard to get to sleep.

That’s why I’m just a little behind on these trip notes.

Monday was magical.

Great splashes of color. Turquoise waves crashing against cliffs. Sprightly flowers in unlikely places. Saltwater smell. Heady jasmine. Church bells.

More of the same, in other words. Not that I’ve gotten used to it. Au contraire.

Yesterday I was again bombarded by beauty.

It was a day of seaside cocktails, ambitious hikes, new freckles, and megawatt American smiles–spent among charming company.

But back to the beginning: a morning started the right way, with bread and butter and €1,20 cappuccino at the hostel.

At Ostello Tramonti, I’ve got a room with a view and a feeling they’ll have to drag me outta here. I read in the garden for awhile as I waited for Victor to arrive. Just back from a business trip, he made the four-hour drive at 7am on Monday to profite from the last two days of this long holiday weekend.

We met in France and both live close enough to the Italian border that an extended date in Cinque Terre was possible on a whim.

I was pretty excited about that (exhibit 1 in evidence for not being able to sleep).

Victor picked me up around 11 and we drove to Manarola, one of the closer villages. I had my eye on a stunning spot for lunch, but it was crazy busy, so we walked around and took some pictures amidst the scads of people doing the same. (Funny how this is so annoying until you’re the one doing it. Oops). img_4919-1

We then took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the furthest village out and the only one I didn’t get to on Sunday. Monterosso was unique in that in featured great swaths of sandy beach: by far the best swimming spot I’ve seen here.

After pasta and aperol spritzes with a view, I changed out of my dress and sandals and into a more practical walking outfit. Our objective for the day, in addition to eat a lot of pizza, was to make the fairly challenging hike from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia.

Along the way, I spotted two of my roommates from Tramonti. It was refreshing to see familiar faces amidst the stampede of strangers. The world felt really small for a minute.

The hike was just as sweaty as I figured, and just as rewarding as I’d hoped. We had just what we needed according to a sign I saw: water, good shoes, spirit of adventure, compliance.

We crossed hillsides with tiny vineyards, scrambled up stone steps and down muddy bridges, scratched our hands on cacti, and craned our necks for views of the next village to come. In Vernazza, we made up lost calories with a great slice of pesto pizza.

In Corniglia, we stopped for some of Rick Steves’ favorite gelato. Though he may be too tragically acquainted with khaki shorts, I must admit: the man’s got taste. The local basil gelato flavor was dream-about-it good.

It was getting late by then so we battled the bafflingly unorganized train station for a ticket back to Manarola. I still haven’t seen a train here that’s been less than 7 minutes late and crammed stomach-to-backpack with tourists. Ours was half an hour late just to inch a few hundred meters down the rails. Unfortunately, we were at one of the stretches of trails closed for maintenance.

Happily for my mental wellbeing, having someone next to me with whom to exchange eye rolls on the train platform made all the difference.

Back in the car, we saw the sunset on the road. We changed and had dinner in La Spezia.

I yearned to bottle this sunshine, these colors, this rosy happiness.

I have realized it’s hard to write about happiness without bowing to cliches and hyperbole. Since I do my best to battle idealism, sometimes I just avoid the subject of happiness altogether.

“The perfect day”

But what if it really was? I do think we get a few of those every once and awhile. Days we remove the glasses and the world is still tinted rose.

(More pictures to come at a time when I don’t have to hold up my eyelids with clothespins)

A presto, ciao.

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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