Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are known to anyone who watches Rick Steves’ shows on PBS. His publicity of this region has probably spoiled it for any residents who want privacy and quiet in their daily lives. However, I am forever grateful to him for bringing these towns to light because it has some of the most memorable scenery and panoramas of any place on earth.

We arrived in Manarola after driving through a pretty heavy downpour over the most tortuous roads imaginable. The twists and turns we went through while going up the mountains outside of La Spezia were challenging to our driver Brian, who admirably maneuvered our van Big Bertha through the gauntlet. We arrived at the outskirts of the village, only to find gates closing the road off to traffic. I plead our case to the woman at the check point and she said we could go on down this narrow little road, but we had only 20 minutes to off-load our bags and get back out of there or we would be fined. They are not friendly to vehicles in the CT, nor should they be. Life here is predominantly based on foot traffic because of the abundant hiking trails and the narrow twisty streets.

We found our meeting point with no problem (there is only one street in town!), we took out the bags we needed and Brian and Mike drove the van back up to the general parking area. Unfortunately, as we waited there with our bags, I was unable to get in touch with our landlady. Her home phone remained unanswered and her cell phone went automatically to voice mail. After 20 minutes or so I began to get agitated and worried that we would be homeless! I finally managed to reach our rental agency and they directed me to the steepest set of stairs imaginable, above the Tabacchi we were standing right in front of! From there we were able to meet up with our landlady’s son who helped us tote our bags up to our apartment, Il Baluardo.

We had to walk up a very steep hill, dragging the bags behind us, then maneuver down a steep set of stairs, turn left into a little alley and there was our home sweet home. It was totally worth the trek! What an amazing view this little apartment has! Our lodging is on the bottom floor and consists of a small bedroom, a medium sized kitchen and a little bathroom. Brian and Vikki’s apartment is upstairs and has a big bedroom but a smaller kitchen and bathroom.

We sit every morning and every evening on our terrace and look out over the Ligurian Sea. As the sun sinks down into the water, the sky turns pink and blue and the lights over the surrounding hills sparkle in the gloaming. Our neighbor hangs her laundry out on her rooftop next door to us, and I asked her if she ever tires of the view. She said regardless of the season, there is always something new to see and love. She said that sometimes she doesn’t even notice what is around her, but then she talks to someone like me who has never seen such beauty and she stops to look again, to appreciate the gifts she has been given.

Life here must be hard, with very few conveniences and many difficulties surrounding day to day survival. I don’t know that I would want to have this be my permanent home. But for the few days that we are here, I am reveling in the views, the people, the food and the peace that comes at the end of a long day of trekking through the surrounding towns. We are blessed!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moments (part two)

You never know what might happen during your travels. Small inconveniences can lead to big surprises and unexpected treasures can lurk behind every corner. Today, as we were wending our way through Parma, we had an amazing moment.
We had been through a very busy day; starting with a tour of a balsamic vinegar factory, then moving on to a prosciutto di Parma enterprise where a lovely lunch was waiting for us, and on to our agriturismo in Parma. As lovely as the day was, it came with no small amount of stress, due mainly to some difficulties finding our way through this beautiful region. Our GPS was having issues and my GoogleMaps directions weren't panning out quite as nicely as we would have liked. We found ourselves in each of these destinations by a little luck and some help from friendly strangers.
So, when it came time to take a leisurely stroll through the historic center of Parma, we were expecting only good things. Fate had another plan for us, and once again we had to fly by the seat of our pants, just to find a parking spot. Our mega-van was too tall for all of the underground garages so we just kept driving along on the "variante", the ring-road that encircles the old city center. We finally found a spot in an above-ground lot, but it was about a mile away from where we had planned to focus our visit. This was where serendipity and luck went our way.
We wended our way down to the Piazza di San Giovanni Evangelista and went in the church of the same name. There was a school group of middle school students there, sort of listening to their teacher explain the various frescoes on the ceiling while an ancient priest stood by. After the students left, the illumination of the ceiling paintings ended and we were left in the dark. I approached the priest and asked him how we could turn the lights back on, and he showed me the light box where I could insert a euro coin. As we did that, the priest motioned for us to follow him. He took us to the first illumination and explained the painting, its artist and its meaning. The lighting finished too quickly, so he called us up on the altar and turned on the master light switch so we could have time to view all the art work. Then the magic began.
He took us from one spot to another, behind the altar, into the choir and explained everything there, from the intaglio woodworking on the choir chairs to the way the Gregorian chants were performed. He showed us examples of vandalism and missing parts of chairs that had "flown away". He told us the story of the dome, done by Correggio, and how it was a joke on the congregants. The dome shows an interpretation of Christ coming down to bring Saint John the Evangelist into heaven, the last of the disciples to be "called home". John is crouching beneath a cloud, looking up at the Christ figure as He descends to earth. The joke is that no one can see the figure of John from the body of the church. Since the priests were the ones who paid for the art to be done, they had Correggio place John's figure in such a way so that he could only be seen from the altar.
So, there we were, on the altar, getting a priest's view of the dome of this amazing building and seeing the secrets shared by this wonderful old man. He must have been at least 80, but he was obviously so in love with his church that he was happy to share his anecdotes and memories with this group of Americans.
If we had not had our parking misfortunes, if we had not had our difficulties finding our various sites, we would not have had this once in a lifetime experience. Kismet, it what you will. I call it wonderful.


There are moments in everyone’s life that define who we are, that mark changes in how we see ourselves and the world….moments we never forget. Some moments are personal: the first time we feel a baby move in our belly, the pain felt after losing a loved one, the crushing numbness as we watched the Twin Towers crumble. Other moments come to us in small bits, appreciated only after they are gone: jumping into a pool of cool water after mowing the lawn on a hot July day, dipping into the first strawberry shortcake of the season, crunching leaves under foot as we hike through the woods in October.

Travel moments are some of my favorites. Unforgettable? Seeing the Eiffel Tower surge into view after climbing the stairs at the Trocadero metro stop. Glancing out the window of the plane as we start our descent into Cairo, only to see the pyramids illuminated and majestic. Weeping uncontrollably at my first sight of the Sistine Chapel, as my teenage daughters rolled their eyes wondering why their mother was so weird. In my defense, I must say that seeing the Sistine Chapel was more challenging than one may think. My first time in the Vatican, my husband wore shorts, and he was not allowed access to the Chapel. My second time in the Vatican, Pope Paul VI had the nerve to die, and those Cardinals took up residence there to vote in Pope John Paul I. So when I finally made it through the gauntlet of the thousands of tourists wending their way through the Vatican Museums and entered the chapel itself, twenty years after my first attempt, I was unable to contain myself. I apologize for being a hopeless nerd.

Today, I had a moment. I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. They don’t make it easy to see. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Automatic redial on your phone is a necessity, because the line is almost always busy. There is a very small window of opportunity to pick up the tickets. Twenty minutes before the appointed time of your visit, you had best be at the box office to get those babies because if you miss your deadline they are gone for good. Then there is the series of chambers you go through to “dehumidify” yourselves. This mural is so delicate, so very fragile, that it must be protected from the very breath we exhale.

Everyone knows this iconic work of art. It has survived the ravages of time, bombing raids by the American military during World War II, and the Italian government. It has been recreated in every medium, from laundry lint to being painted on a grain of rice. It has inspired conspiracy theories, novels, and plays. It moves the faithful and the atheist alike. It defines western culture as no other work of art can.

And so, today I stood before this miracle of one man’s inspiration and again I wept, overcome at my insignificance and awed at the power of the human mind. I had a moment.

Back in the saddle again!

Well folks, here we are again. We are in Italy, beginning chapter 3 of retirement abroad. After a long and incredibly cold and snowy winter, we headed to JFK on April 21 ready to hop the pond and get back to life in Europe.
It was sad leaving friends and family but we know that more friends and family await us in Cervinara. I am already missing my girls, their fellas, and their dogs.....but Skype and email help to keep us in touch. Marta and Dan will be joining us for a few days in May before they begin their own odyssey through Italy. Maria and Josh are in the throes of moving to Washington D.C. because Maria is starting her new job at the Smithsonian. We were hoping they might be able to join us for a bit, but I guess it's not a good idea to ask for time off from a job you haven't started yet!
The last couple of weeks were a whirlwind of preparation, visiting friends and saying our good-byes. We had our wonderful friends from France staying with us as well. It was such fun having Gael, Fabienne, Solenn and Elea use our house as home base as they visited all the sites that New England has to offer. It was a pretty chaotic few days but so much fun.
We are traveling right now, rather than going directly to Cervinara....enjoying Spring weather and fewer crowds. Our best buds, Brian and Vikki and their son Kris are with us as we visit some of the lovely spots in northern Italy. I hope that some of you will find my musings interesting or that they might inspire you to indulge in more travels too. While the angst and pain that come with airports and economy class conditions aren't fun, they are the necessary evils we must endure to see the world. Totally worth it!