Jottings from Jacquelin

Musings on travel adventures.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Italy Jot #4, September

Because I didn't have a place to stay in Milan in September, I went on vacation--the homeless take to the roads!

Since everyone thinks living in Europe is like being on vacation anyway, I've entitled this trip: "The Vacation from My Vacation." I must admit I started out rather reluctantly. I never went on vacation before because I had no place to live! But, as it turned out, the trip was absolutely magnificent.

I started out on the coast of Liguria, stopping in little towns--first Camogli, a cutesy-poo fishing village, and then Santa Margherita Ligure, a beautiful waterfront town. I then went down the coast and stayed in Levanto, right on the beach. From this point on, the kind of luck I have when I travel (that I wish I had all the time) started kicking in.

The next day, I did the “Cinque Terre" on foot. These are five, seaside towns linked by a cliff-side trail that sort of looks like Big Sur in California. The views from this rather strenuous trail are breathtaking.

Five minutes into the hike, I came to a locked, chain link gate that blocked the rest of the trail. A large sign said: “Caution. Do Not Proceed. Dangerous Road Ahead.” As I stood there considering the options to get around it--climbing up sheer rock face on one side or stepping off the cliff edge while hanging on to the gate for dear life--a very lively Italian couple in their early 5Os arrived on the scene. They were avid hikers and, after a few minutes of discussion, we chose the cliff hanging option to get past the gate. After this bonding experience, we spent the rest of the day together going from town to town.

As far as l was concerned, the “dangerous road ahead” was the safest part of the trip. The path was wide and there was a safety fence and sometimes a stone wall on the cliff side. The rest of the trail--not considered dangerous--was absolutely hair raising.

The path was just a stone ledge, not more than a foot wide. The views out to sea were truly spectacular but I spent most of the time looking at my feet for fear of falling off the edge. The trail zigzagged back and forth and up and down the 400-foot‑high cliff.

Each segment, between towns, took about an hour and a half to two hours. Maybe these towns wouldn't have seemed so special on the open road. But after risking life and limb to reach them, they appeared awfully quaint and charming!

The next day, I headed off to the legendary island of Elba. On the train, a little 92-year-old man sat down next to me. He kept talking to me in his Elba dialect. Even though my Italian was pretty good by then, I told him I couldn’t understand what he was saying. “You look smart, so just keep listening; you’ll figure it out,” was his reply. Since he was from Elba, he guided me through the train-to-ferry process and insisted I come to his part of the island. (In fairy tales, the good witch often appears in another form such as an old hag. Thinking he might be a good witch in disguise, I went along.)

He found me this wonderful, inexpensive place to stay right by the beach. I had a room with a balcony and shared a large communal kitchen and bathroom with other guests, making things very convivial. The next day, he had a taxi driver friend take us for a tour of the island. This was quite nice but when I refused to go back to his place, he became decidedly unpleasant. Not a good witch in disguise after all, just a horny old goat!

The next day, a Dutch woman who had been living in Italy for 30 years, took a room where I was staying. She made and shared delicious vegetarian meals and showed me how to get to a beautiful secluded beach. We walked through a forest and edged our way down a cliff to reach this stunning, deserted cove which is where I spent the rest of the week. Otherwise, I would have been very disappointed about going to Elba--the island isn't all that gorgeous and it's completely overrun by tourists. No wonder Napoleon was chomping at the bit to get out of there!

The Dutch woman, Bianca, had first come to Elba with her Italian fiancé when she was 17 years old. On that trip, he drowned in the surf. She comes every year to pay homage to his memory. But, she wasn’t sad; wistful perhaps and very aware of life’s many unusual events. After a week of shared meals and memories, she invited me back to her knockout country house in the middle of a fig tree orchard on a hilltop in Vinci, near Florence. Over the weekend, with a bunch of her friends, we made a side trip to Urbino. It’s a walled town and considered by many to be the most beautiful in all of Italy. In keeping with my travel luck, we were standing in the middle of town trying to decide where to eat lunch when a friend of Bianca’s came by. This delightful man invited us back to his spectacular apartment and served us lunch on his terrace.

Afterwards, I continued on to Pisa somewhat reluctantly, because I thought it was going to be too touristy. But, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Even to a jaded New Yorker, the leaning tower is an impressive sight. In fact, the whole piazza with its gleaming white buildings and glistening, green grass is dazzling. Thousands of years ago, Pisa was a seaside town. Depending on how the wind is blowing, you can still get a whiff of salt air.

On the train from Pisa to Lucca, I met an American woman who works here as an Italian English translator. She invited me to have lunch with her and her children the next day and took me on a guided tour of Lucca. (Travel luck.)

From Lucca, I went to Bologna. The next leg of my trip was totally inspired by that song from “Kiss Me Kate”--Ravenna, Padua, Montagnana, Mantua and on to Verona.

After all this touring, I decided I didn't want to see another church, museum or palazzo. All I wanted to do was sit and stare at nature, so I went up to Riva the farthest point on Lake Garda and spent a week detoxing from sightseeing. Riva del Garda is so beautiful, right at the foothills of the Dolomites. After a week of sitting, looking out at the lake all day, I decided I was sufficiently recovered and headed back to Milan and my new apartment.

Where I live now, is right in the heart of downtown, a five-minute walk from The Duomo. I liked my old neighborhood and the other apartment better, but freelancers can't be choosers, so here I am.