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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 6 of 18: 9/28/06 Lausanne to Liguria

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Santa Margherita Ligure

Our return train journey carried us back along the shores of Lake Geneva where enormous villas and spectacular sailing yachts gave us some inkling of what “real” wealth was like, generations of wealth. Something Americans may always find foreign. We are the land of the world’s nouveaux riche. I’m sure the estates along Lake Geneva could not be bought for any amount of money. Pretty impressive view too. On this side of the lake there was the broad valley, filled with vineyards, and on that side of the lake there were the Alps, like the Rocky Mountains had hiked over to dip their toes in the crystal blue water. As we left the shoreline we turned toward Brig once more to rejoin our original track through the mountains. Looking out the train window I foolishly tried to capture the mountains in pixels but also managed to always capture a telephone pole instead. Pointless. So I just sat back to enjoy the panorama. Fall had been mild by Swiss standards, but the purple mountains were craggy and treeless and sometimes covered with snow. The sky was electric blue and the vineyards were still soft green. We never did see any indication of the tension Jacqueline warned us about between the Moslems and the Christians. I hope she'll get to visit her granddaughter in Boston.

When we stopped again at Lake Maggiore in northern Italy a raucous group of 8 - 10 uniformed high school children got on board. Even the girls were wearing neck ties and everyone had a cute little backpack. They were laughing and teasing and completely assured of their centrality to all creation. They could have been any adolescent shopping mall group. They commandeered the center of the car, lounging in seats on both sides and filling the aisle as well. You could tell they were off the clock because their shirt tails were mostly un-tucked and their neckties were loosened. I can’t remember the etiquette of those long-gone days, but I think it was typical for girls to sit in the seats and thereby attract a swarm of guys to the aisles where, pushing and shoving for prime real estate, each guy tried to strut his stuff. In this new world it was the young men who sat in apparent disdain, ignoring the young women who preened in the aisles. The feigned boredom was still a ruse, of course, but whereas women were the scarce commodity in the sixties, it is evidently now the men who’ve made themselves scarce. And they feign boredom with this new reality? Makes me wish I was young again. At each little town kids got off the cool school bus.

We savvy world travelers now knew our way around Milano Centrale and found the train for Santa Margherita easily. The stretch between Milan and the western coast is Italy’s Kansas. Instead of wheat they have rice and corn. When we hit Genoa we made a sharp left turn and headed south along the coast toward the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. But there are a lot more than just five. There seems to be hundreds of little villages taped to and separated by the luxuriant mountains along the coast. It was the railroad tunnels drilled from one to another that finally connected them like beads on a necklace. This 19th century innovation hasn’t yet completely overcome the historic isolation and subtle regional variations between little towns not five miles apart. Nevertheless there are also some recurring patterns. In all cases there is an “upper town” and a “lower town.” The lower town was once dominated by fishing but now by tourism. The upper town is the ritzy section. And right along the tracks you find the apartment houses where the people who work on the boats, or in the shops, or who clean the villas live. And the space available between the mountains for the train station is often so limited some passengers (but not those in first class!) have to disembark in the tunnels and walk towards the light. Santa Margherita was just such a little jewel. The train station was tiny, perched on a flat ribbon of land not 50 yards wide etched into the side of the mountain - just wide enough for two train tracks, the station, and a narrow service road. The parking lot for the station was about the size of a pack of playing cards and cluttered with vespas and yellow taxis.

You know how the image that you have in your mind of a place or a person is seldom like the real thing? Well, that is doubly true of Santa Margherita for me. Years ago we were introduced to the movie Enchanted April, about a group of four women who rent a seaside villa near the Cinque Terre. When Georgia, doing our trip research, told me that the movie had been filmed at Castle Brown in nearby Portofino, I knew we had to visit Liguria.

She printed out maps of the city with all the landmarks clearly indicated. We would be staying at the Oasi Regina Pacis, a convent in the upper town, #6 Via Dei Pellerano. As the train pulled away, leaving us awestruck on the platform I tried to orient myself on the map. Just over the railroad tracks, not 35 feet inland we could see a 15 foot restraining wall partially covered by enormous blue morning glories. Along the top of the wall, parallel to the tracks, we could tell there was a narrow street with driveways leading up to magnificent villas. To our left about seventy-five yards away we could see where that little street crossed over the railroad tracks on a spindly bridge then came down on our side to form the station’s access road. Looking to the right we saw nothing but the mountainside RIGHT THERE. The tunnel itself was closer than a pitcher is to home plate. No going that way. In 10 steps we were through the station and on the seaward side of the building. From the curb, looking out over the vespas and taxicabs, I could tell the station was also built on the top of a restraining wall. At the edge of the road the red tile roofs and green treetops of the lower town immediately began.

It was obvious that we needed to follow the access road up and over the tracks then back along the top of the wall past the driveways to find our street up to the convent. I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye: ancient soft red-brick building on a tree-lined street with an even more ancient church just across the plaza. The seaward side of the plaza would face the ocean and we could stand there in the evenings to watch the ships sail in and sail away again. Couldn’t wait.

But something was obviously wrong with either my mental map or the paper thing I was holding in my hand. The one in my hand showed a main road at the top of what we could now tell was that restraining wall, but not a single lane, alley-sized, asphalt-covered foot path! I’m not sure a car could actually get by us should we meet one on the apex of the spindly bridge. To say that Georgia was nervous about walking up and over that gangplank would be somewhat of an understatement. We stood on the “entrance ramp” for some moments trying to see if there was any other possible alternative. We certainly couldn’t go south of the station unless we lassoed a mountain goat, and the access road heading north only presented two alternatives. Either we went up and over the “bridge” or we followed the road as it seemed to transform itself into a sidewalk winding down toward the bay. Our way had to be up. So we screwed our courage to the sticking point, made sure we had a good grip on the rolling carry-ons (if they got away from us I’m pretty sure they’d ski jump all the way to the ocean), and started up.

We did meet a car, but evidently we were not the first pedestrians they’d seen on this footpath and it eased by without crushing our feet. Now we were uphill from the station and able to see the water above the tops of the downhill palm trees. Oh my Lord! Wonderful! What glory! The sun and the water really are just a different color than they are in Kentucky. My gene-pool may be in Switzerland, but my heart is definitely in Italy.

Unfortunately, I think I left my ability to draw a deep breath in Switzerland as well. The street we were on wasn’t any wider than the gated driveways that issued onto it and after we traversed the top of the wall facing the station we made a hard left turn (because of that MOUNTAIN I told you about). High up on the wall we saw the sign “Via Dei Pellerano.” There was only a broad stairway going up and up and up, then switching back to go up some more out of sight. Georgia said that was evidently the way we wanted to go. I knew she was wrong. The street we were on must be Via Dei Pellerano. She couldn’t see the picture I had in my head. That goat track didn’t lead up to any tree-lined street. It must be a private sidewalk leading up to one of the villas, so I left Georgia with the bags and trotted up the stairs. No kidding. I trotted UP the stairs. I knew I was going to be coming right back down and we’d continue our trek up the road until we found the right street.

At the top of stairs where it switched back I found a gate and a cherubic elderly woman who smiled pleasantly at me. “Dove Suare . . .” I hesitated not knowing how to finish the sentence. “Suare?” (Sisters?) she interrupted. “Si,” I replied gratefully. She smiled beatifically and pointed up the goat track. Beatifically? Or was it diabolically? The walk kept going steadily up until it hit another turn and the stairs disappeared from view. I had a really bad feeling about this whole situation. “Gratzie,” I said without enthusiasm. “Prego,” she chirped.

I started slowly down the shallow stairs to retrieve Georgia and the carry-ons. The pathway at the top of the stairs was about a meter wide, and each “step” varied between the width of your foot to a meter or meter and a half. It varied just enough to keep you from establishing any kind of rhythm. You may encounter a short step and traverse it in one pace, or maybe hit a wide one and have to take two or even three steps before stepping up again. Sometimes you’d have to step up on your left foot, and sometimes on your right foot. And sometimes the steps were smooth and level, and sometimes they were rough and broken. Sometimes the walls on either side were so tall and the overhanging magnolia and fig trees were so low you had the feeling you were entering a cave, especially now that evening was coming on. I noticed that the mosquitoes loved the evening and the trees too, and the decaying leaves underfoot made a great slippy-slide. The fact that my eyes smarted from perspiration and my glasses would darken in the sun before we plunged into each cave didn’t help me secure my footing either.

Up, up, up, we went.

(to be continued)

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