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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 7 of 18: 9/28/06 Santa Margherita

photo by

Oasi Regina Pacis

Georgia quickly gave up trying to pull her carry on. She decided that I’d be happier pulling both of them, “It’ll help you balance,” she said levelly. “Many thanks” I said gratefully. “Don’t mention it,” she mouthed wordlessly. After a few shuffle-thumps I gave up trying to wheel the bags and bent to carry them “stoopedly.”

Every five minutes or so, I had to sit on the bags and lean against one of the walls. Except for the sweat dripping in my eyes and the mosquitoes buzzing me it was very peaceful. It wasn’t easy determining which way to go as we came to little intersections with other goat paths. It was definitely a case of “If you have to ask you’ll never find it.” After about 30 minutes of tugging and lugging two-wheeled anchors up a cliff we came to a straight stretch of simple stairs climbing up out of the lower rain forest. A stone post had the number 6 affixed to it. “Oh my God, take me now,” I thought. “This way!” chirruped my unencumbered sweetie and pointed up the steps of purgatory.

She arrived at the gate several minutes before I did but was afraid to push the button on the little speaker box. By this time it was getting dark. We pushed the button and announced to some disembodied voice that we were the Zeiglers. “Sono Zeiglers.” The door clicked and buzzed at us. Entering the gate it was clear we were coming in at the top of the property. We could just see another foot path up above. Inside the fence there was a short flight of stairs down to a level patio. It overlooked a wonderful garden and also served as the entrance to the whitewashed convent which rose above us in three or four stories like a small flat-roofed hotel. The biggest tree was an enormous palm tree. There were also some lovely pines. So much for my crumbling red brick convent on the square surrounded by live oaks.

Suor Bianca met us on the veranda. She was very short, about 5-foot nothing, and she launched into a wonderful lilting welcoming speech, completely in Italian. I asked if she spoke any English. She didn’t. I asked if anyone at the convent spoke any English. She said that there wasn’t anyone. With lots of back and forth it became apparent that the thing uppermost on her mind was whether or not we would be taking supper with them. They were getting ready to serve. “Solo colazione,” “Only breakfast,” I replied, and pantomimed that I really needed to go lie down and rest somewhere. It was definitely getting dark now and I was sopping wet. She finally relented and showed us to our villa.

I say “villa” because our little whitewashed detached cottage was so lovely and overlooked the garden. It had two single beds pushed together, a desk, a wardrobe, separate bathroom with a pencil-thin enclosed shower, and a lovely crucifix on the wall. The typical shuttered windows were modified slightly to slide into place instead of swinging open, and the view out the window was amazingly tranquil. Outside our window we had a small balcony-like veranda of our own complete with picnic table and chairs.

Georgia oohed and ahhed and started unpacking our bags. I heard the shower calling me. Undressing was more like peeling the skin off a grape. But when I wedged myself into the shower and turned on the needle-like spray it felt wonderful. In 15 minutes I was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt (wouldn’t have done that in Switzerland!) and I felt so much better. We took off down the winding path among the orange and fig trees and flower beds. There was even a large pomegranate bush. The gate was located right at the start of that purgatorial stairway where I hoped God would lift me up out of my misery. There was no call box there, but now Suor Bianca had given us a key to let ourselves back in. Paradise is much more attractive when you have a key.

We needed to find a drugstore. Cousin Lisa had shared her cold with me and I could feel myself starting to fade. Georgia had packed some antihistamines and I took two, but my mouth felt like the Russian Horse Cavalry had slept therein. I really needed some gargle to kill the taste. Because we didn’t have any euros we also needed a bank. We found the drugstore first and the druggist showed us where the Bancomat was located. They aren’t hard to use in Italy since you can always choose English as one of the languages. If you warn your bank beforehand those debit cards are, by far, the most economical way to get Euros. We returned to the same drugstore and had the druggist show us where the mouthwash is kept. You’d think it would be obvious, but oh no Fairfax! When you can’t read the language you can’t really be sure whether the smiling lady on the label is excited about her fresh breath or her sparklingly clean undies. Or perhaps she’s excited about getting the window crystal clear. I really didn’t want to gargle with Italian Clorox or Windex. Afterward I wasn’t so sure. Italian mouthwash tastes like aspartamine-flavored chlorophyll but I sure hoped it was in there killing those germs.

I couldn’t face the prospect of pounding up the mountain without any fortification whatsoever so we went to the gelateria next door. I thought a gelato would kill the taste of the mouthwash. Georgia had Malaga (rum raisin), and I stuck with your basic lemon. Oh, Italy, Italy! La dolce vita! Then we waddled next door for a couple of nice dark birras to gargle for good measure. It couldn’t hurt. In fact, it was just what the doctor ordered after antihistamines, aspartamine, chlorophyll, and gelato. I felt no pain whatsoever as we stumbled up and over the spindly bridge and I have no recollection at all, of the stairway to heaven. Georgia says I was singing.

9/29/06, Friday: To Sarzana.

Next morning we’d planned to rise early for the train trip to La Spezia but somehow couldn’t make it. When the sisters rang the bell for Mass at 8am we thought it was the breakfast bell so I rolled out of bed and went to fetch coffee. I caught Suor Bianca just as she was about to go up to the chapel. She invited us to Mass but I declined, promising that we’d be there in the morning, “a domani,” and just carried some coffee back to the room. Georgia was now finished with her shower and we strolled back to the dining room as we heard the sisters finishing Mass.

On our table there was a bottle of water, basket of bread, jelly, and a nice thick slice of crusty aged cheese. I don’t know what kind it was but it tasted like a soft brick of pure aged butter. There was real butter too in case you needed more fat in your diet. Mmmmm.

We’d obviously missed the early train to La Spezia so after breakfast we moseyed down the stairway to the spindly bridge. Evidently there must be “mountain legs” akin to “sea legs” because our nearly vertical climb (okay, not quite “nearly vertical”) didn’t seem to bother either of us that much this morning. Hiking in Switzerland is good practice for the Cinque Terre I guess.

We were on our way to La Spezia because I’d made an appointment to visit with Henrry (sic) Lopez, a stained glass artist in Sarzana. I’d admired his work on the web and we’d corresponded via email for a few months. I wanted to meet him in person and see the work up close.

Traveling on the local trains and buses is so much fun! So much more enjoyable than the typical tours where you view the local life out bus windows. They make me feel like I’m traveling through a game preserve instead of a real place where real people have real lives. No danger of viewing the locals out these train windows: they were absolutely filthy; you couldn’t see anything through them! And my eyes were getting so watery from the cold that even two antihistamines couldn’t dry me up. I could tell it was going to be a two hanky day.

La Spezia is both a town and a region of Italy south of the Cinque Terre. Sarzana is in La Spezia. Georgia thought it was a suburb of the city, when in fact it was another city in the region. So when we arrived at the train station she said we could walk up the hill to the glass shop. I was dumbfounded. Luckily this was one time I’d actually checked out maps online and I knew that Sarzana was about 30 kilometers inland. Because Georgia is always right in these kind of situations (I get lost in elevators) she refused to believe me until the tobacconist sold me bus tickets. She decided that maybe I was right but she was pretty sure it was going to be a very short ride.

About 30 minutes into the hour-long bus ride she gave up the idea that we could have walked. And boy was the bus crowded. We started with a basically empty bus and I took a picture. I kept taking pictures as the bus got more and more crowded. Georgia thought I was trying to get surreptitious pictures of this redhead sitting at the front. The fact that she was in all the photos is purely coincidental. The fact that one of the pictures is a close-up of her elegant boredom is just a result of the fact that it was a new camera and I was having trouble figuring out how to use the zoom. I swear it.

Did I already say that I LOVE traveling with local people on local routes, trying to catch snatches of everyday conversations, studying the faces, marveling at the views the locals take completely for granted. And those faces! Wonderful Roman noses, elegant shoes, (and occasional flaming red hair). Tons of students again with their little book bags and happy chatter. There were little buttons on the bus that you’d push to indicate you wanted off. Bing! Then “Permesso, Permesso,” “Excuse me,” as you try to worm your way through the crush toward an exit. As before, I was touched to see people surrendering their seats to pregnant ladies and mothers with small children. I guess seats don’t need to be labeled “handicapped” for naturally generous people. I doubt there will be labeled handicapped sections in that other Heaven either.

Sarzano was the last stop on our line so we didn’t have to fight any crowd to get off. The bus station shared a parking lot with the train station. Standing in the lot it was impossible to locate ourselves on the little map we had. We knew which general direction to go (because we knew we needed to head away from the train tracks) but after that, there was no telling. I have never, in my life, seen a little city with as many crossing and criss-crossing streets. We tried to ask two local ladies which way to go and nearly occasioned a fistfight between them. After listening to them argue for five minutes or so I retrieved my little map and we stole quietly away leaving them to sort out their differences alone.

We intersected with a main thoroughfare and followed it uphill, figuring that any Italian city-center was always going to be built uphill. We soon came to a piazzale with a roundabout joining five or six other streets. We walked from one to another clueless as to which way we should go. Georgia saw a menu affixed to one of the walls and I took a digital picture of a prominent road sign so that when we got hopelessly lost we could show the picture to a passerby to find our way back to this point. I figured we could find the bus station again from here.

Then, on the advice of the menu affixed to the wall, we entered the narrow gate and walked down the winding pathway to Enotecha la Corte for little bit of something while we decided how to proceed.

(to be continued)

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