Due to the insistence of Miss Elizabeth Gager, I feel obligated to update my readers on my activities of the past week. I apologize for the tardiness, but Internet access has been infrequent and unreliable.
First, my position. I am in Valencia relaxing on Amy's sofa, after a somewhat circuitous journey. Three days ago, I boarded a train from Cinque Terre toward Nice. I was supposed to take the express from Genova to Nice, but it wasn't running. I had to take three regional trains from Genova to Ventremiglia, then Ventremiglia to Monte Carlo, then Monte Carlo to Nice, as a result of which the journey took several hours longer than it should. When I finally arrived in Nice, I discovered the reason for my transportation problems. It turned out that there was a major railway strike in France to protest the tyrannical fascist government decision to raise the retirement age for railway workers from 58.5 to 60 (yeah, I know, cry me a river). The strike ended just as I got into Nice, but the rails were fouled up for days and I was told that there was no way I could get to Barcelona by Friday. In fact, no trains out of Nice were traveling much further than Marseilles and I met a German girl at my hostel who claim that it took her nine hours to get to Nice from Lyon. Panicked, I could think of one thing and one thing only: get me out of France. I decided that the fastest way to get to Spain was to go backwards into Italy and then catch a flight from Bergamo airport to Valencia. This worked out fairly well, except for one little hitch. I've been fighting a sinus infection since Venice (I blame the bad weather and general scuzziness of the place). If you ever feel the urge to fly with a sinus infection, don't. The pain is not worth it. I arrived in Valencia feeling like my head was filled with urethane foam and thumbtacks. My ears were so clogged that I could barely hear and while my friends there were all gung ho to enjoy a wild night on the town, all I could hope to do was crash. I'm feeling a bit better now after a good long sleep and I'm excited since it's apparently possible to buy antibiotics over-the-counter in Spain. Awesome.
Over the past few days I've been privilege to so much beauty that I hardly know how to take it all in. Walking to my hostel from my train station in Firenze, I passed the titanic Florentine Duomo looming like a distant mountain. While I've certainly seen my share of impressive old churches (St. Vitus in Praha, St. Marco in Venice), I have to give the Duomo in Firenze props for scale. Yes, the Cathedral of Milan is technically larger, but it's all spires. It doesn't radiate bigness in the same way as Firenze.
In the taxonomy of old Italian city-states, if Venezia was all about trade, Firenze was all about culture. Even today, Firenze is THE renaissance city, with an impressive array of museums showcasing some of the most well-known works in human history. After a two-hour queue and a €10 fee, I had the pleasure of walking the halls of the Uffizi, home of some of Firenze's greatest treasures. Again, the thing that struck me the most was this sense of belittling scale. Bottacelli's The Birth of Venus, which we're all quite familiar with is actually quite huge, with Venus herself a life-sized woman. I suppose we're so used to seeing this work on a computer screen or on the back of a postcard that we lose the perspective that we get when we're actually in a room with the thing.
Of course, all this bigness and culture-saturation got me thinking about the whole point of a Duomo or a Milan Cathedral or a St. Vitus. Ostensibly, of course, they're churches, but they were also meant to showcase the wealth and cultural aplomb of a state. St. Marco's says "Venezia is rich," the Duomo says "Firenze is also rich and we have a proper Duke unlike the Venetians with their silly republic," St. Vitus says "hey Protestants, what have you got? we're the real church." Four years of oblique exposure to Anabaptist ideas cause a reflexive reaction that these grandiose churches are the product of a disastrous marriage of church and state, but tell that to any Italian catholic and expect to be called a Protestant Philistine.
I think what really impressed me about Firenze was how art and beauty always outlive their own goals. The Medicis are long dead, but the artistic revival they helped bring about lives on in the buttresses and colonnades of the city they once ruled. A lot of those massive churches in Praha built to awe the Protestants into the Catholic fold became concert halls. With time, art can become divorced from political or religious motivations and becomes beauty for beauty's sake. Of course the art junkies know all the history and scandals behind a painting or a sculpture or a big building, but the rest of us can appreciate it as a snapshot of human potential.
Cinque Terre: the Five Lands. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that "peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." If the man is right (and he frequently is) then Amy's suggestion that I visit Cinque Terre was the Tango de la Muerte. These five sun-drenched towns, nestled like jewels in the rugged Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Genova showcase some of Italy's most stunning natural beauty. There are very few motor vehicles and the villages are not accessible by car from the outside (although the trains and boats are quite reliable). I had the privilege of visiting during gorgeous weather, so I decided to do a bit of a pilgrimage to all five towns in a single day. I checked into my hostel at Riomaggiore at the easternmost end and immediately jumped on a train to Monterosso on the westernmost end.
The First Land: Monterosso al Mare
A golden beach greets me as I step off the train in Monterosso. The air is rich with the sounds of playing children, gentle surf, and suntanned vendors selling beer or gelato. The main street is shaded with the arches of whitewashed buildings while the aromas of pesto and tomato waft from the sidewalk cafes. This is the largest and liveliest of the Cinque Terre, sprawled out lazily on its gentle sand beach under the auspices of a ruined castle. I don't tarry here for long. I immediately set out on the seaside path through naked cliff faces and shady olive groves. I stop at one point a little ways out of town to take a dip in the sparkling blue Mediterranean. The water is warm and dense, giving me keen sense of my own buoyancy. I swim into a narrow sea cave, carved into the jagged cliffs by eons of waves and tempests. The sounds of the sea are muted in this tight passage. It is the kind of cave you imagine would contain the hydra or some sort of dark mythical monster. I'm not Hercules, so I stroke back to the safety of land, refreshed and content to press on with my journey. The path takes me up rough-hewn stone steps that seem to stretch on endlessly. Eventually, I get to a nice flat stretch along the spine of a ridge with vineyards on my left and the sea on my right. It's a hot day, so every time I come upon a spring or waterfall, I splash some on my face. It's cave-cool and while I'm tempted to fill my bottle with it, I decided to pass on the Giadara. I have been traveling for about an hour when Vernazza finally peeks from behind an outcrop.
The Second Land: Vernazza. I descend rapidly down a crumbling staircase into this tidy town at the base of a cliff. Land is at a premium here, so the builders of the town maximized the use of vertical space. The town girdles a small central square near a sheltered cove. I take a good long drink of the crystal clear water from the public fountain, then treat myself to a much-deserved gelato. After the wide expanses of Monterosso, Vernazza seems small and hidden. Its skyline is dominated by a baroque bell-tower from the church at the crest of the hill. When I leave town, it quickly shrinks from view behind the rocks. The next town, Corniglia, looks deceptively close, but it's a long and arduous hike to get there. The landscape is typical dry Mediterranean, filled with prickly shrubs and trees. Cacti, invasive no doubt, are prominent as are aloe vera plants with their fat leaves. Every rock seems to hide a different sort of lizard. I saw lots of skinks and iguanas. There were magpies and other birds, but no mammals to speak of.
The Third Land: Corniglia. After the liveliness of the last two towns, the high streets of Corniglia seem fairly deserted. It's about 5pm so most people are probably inside on siesta. There is no beach here, since it sits high on a promontory overlooking the sea from three sides. I am hot and exhausted after the hike from Vernazza, so I search for a cafe where I can sit and enjoy a beer. I must have been a real sight stumbling into that town in my leather shoes, bicycle shorts, and cherry red Virgin Atlantic socks. I end up sitting next to a very nice couple from Phoenix enjoying a lazy afternoon of beer and olives under the cafe veranda. There is a boombox somewhere oozing out some laconic Tom Petty hits, making the scene all the more sleepy. The Americans prove such good company that I stay much longer than I planned, which was probably for the best since I needed a good stretch out of the sun. I descend a very long staircase to leave Corniglia, which makes me very glad I decided to travel east rather than west. From the bottom of the stairs onward, the trail is flat.
The Fourth Land: Manarola. I get into Mararola around dinnertime after a long but comparatively leisurely stroll. The town is built on two sides of a narrow valley ending in a rocky harbor. The harbor is deep enough for kids to do dives and cannonballs into. I learn that Manarola is known for it's unique wine, made from overripe grapes and it's distinct dialect. How a postage stamp town of maybe a few-hundred (in the off-season) can maintain its own dialect baffles me. It's an easy twenty-minute walk back to Riomaggiore from here along the well-kept Via dell'amore. There's some great graffiti on this walk, which offers an unparalleled vista of the sun setting on the wine-colored Mediterranean.
The Fifth Land: Riomaggiore. I stumble back into my hilltop hostel ready to crash. I force myself to take a cold shower in the antique tub and then head back into town to grab some food. I end up watching the Australia-Serbia match in an outdoor patio crammed with energetic Aussies. My adrenaline still flowing, I convinced a Canadian girl to come with me back towards Mararola. The Via dell'amore is even more stunning by moonlight. I ended the night on the balcony of my hostel with €2 red wine watching the tide come in.