La Dolce Vita
****I FIXED SOME ERRORS FROM LAST NIGHTS POST–the WordPress app crashed so glitched things…here goes again!
Sorry a few days passed, just no chance to catch up here. Will try to do it justice now.
So enjoyed my day in Lucca and went off to the Cinque Terre for a day, by train yet again. You’d think by now I’d have gotten the groove of ticketing, etc here. Ha!
I’m an uptight traveler — I get totally anxious having to figure out unfamiliar modes of transportation & I’m sure I come across as a complete half-wit to the locals as I frantically try to make connections. Trenitalia does a good job of enhancing my neuroses by offering incomplete directions, inoperable signage, and providing little in the form of human interaction if one needs to figure out why the ticket says to lucca but nowhere is there a train to lucca on any sign board. Obviously I need to know the end destination, but there are so many small tracts of rail connection so many areas here that it takes a while to figure out if I’m boarding a train at La Spezia and need to stop at Lucca, on *that* line then my train is for Firenze. Of course there are other nearby lines also stopping in Lucca, local trains, but that’s a whole nother story. So basically when the ticket fails to provide basic information like train numbers, well, I sorta freak out with 30 seconds to make my connection, having no clue what track I need to race to. I am hoping I will better acclimate but instead I seem to plod along, just maniacally seeking my next train, not wanting to be stuck in a small, unfamiliar town at 10 pm knowing not what to do. I told you, I’d make a lousy vagrant.
To a certain degree this can get to me while walking, too, with many legs of the journey now 30+ km/day, which I know with my massive pack us too much distance to successfully cover. I have no clue if there will be a town at which I can stop midway, which also arouses that damned anxiety. I know before I left I told myself if I got stuck having to sleep outside somewhere I could deal with it but in truth, I have NO desire to do that, especially in unfamiliar territory.
And I am for certain a transportation weenie…I’m sure my girls remember the time several years ago when we arrived in Paris in advance of Scott & kyle, who’d remained in Germany for another World Cup match. We were staying in some stratospherically-removed exurb of the city (it said it was in Paris but was about as much Paris as Gainesville is Washington, DC, and I was tasked with getting me & my two fairly young girls into the city central. I was paralyzed with inadequacy, and if I recall correctly my 9-year old figured out the damned trains while I stammered and fought panic during rush hour. Sadly, I could no sooner interpret the Parisian subway system then I could have read a dissertation in Slovakian. I choose to attribute this to my discalculia (I swear I have this, it’s sort of the dyslexia of math, and I assume by extension it includes failure to figure out maps etc. I’m sticking with that story…).
At any rate, as I tried to get my tickets for the Cinque Terre at the stazione, I had maybe 15 minutes but the queue for the ticket person was 15 deep. The self-service machines were broken (all but one) and I kept vacillating between the line and the remaining ticket machine. I saw a Dutch woman with whom I’d eaten the night before — I was trying to get a table outside at a restaurant but they were full and she offered for me to join her. Really sweet woman, so interesting, travels everywhere by herself, about 28 yrs old, and very venturesome. So I watched her do her ticket on the machine, however she was doing the most expensive route to the Cinque Terre. I knew because I’d researched online the night before that I could get to the CT for about 8 euro, but that it could cost as much as 50+ euro if I took other trains. So I wanted to be sure I didn’t do that. I decided to get on the machine after her, and naturally you click for it to be in English but all of the warnings that pop up as you try to get your ticket are in Italian. So every train I try to include in my route is rejected with a confusing explanation in Italian. Meanwhile I have a posse of pissed off commuters and tourists piling up behind me, wanting to get their tickets in time, and I am trying to save myself 40+ euro by doing it myself. Argh. Finally I played idiot tourist and went to the front of the line I had been in for a while for the ticket person and begged to have someone let me in, at which point I was able to get my ticket for the price I’d hoped for. With probably 15 people wanting to kill me.
Meanwhile Danielle, the Dutch girl, was on some of my trains and I was sorely tempted to just get the transfer with her onto the luxurious train rather than the non air-conditioned local, but I didn’t want to get busted and fined fine is steep). Stupid of me, as I learned eventually that there is a network of illegal immigrants here in Italy now who travel with a stockpile of crap they sell on the beaches of the Mediterranean — carvings from Africa, useless nonsense from SE Asia, that, weirdly , apparently, Italians will buy on the beach (I asked a local woman and she shrugged — I couldn’t imagine why a tourist would go to Italy to buy a carved wooden african man on a motorcycle or giant wooden carved hand — but she said the Italians scoop it up b/c it’s cheap). So anyhow, these illegals ride the trains for free, basically staying one step ahead of the ticket man on the train, they are constantly on the watch and on the move as he enters a car, they move to another one. As he goes down the aisle, they take the steps to the 2nd floor if there is one. It’s fascinating to watch. Of course the woman complaining to me about this also warned me how unsafe I was in Italy alone…Sigh…She was definitely a doomsdayer.
I enjoyed the Cinque Terre but it was rushed. Plus parts of it felt frightening overrun with tourists, which puts me off even though I am one. After not being around many people, it’s overwhelming to be around loud Americans (even though I can be one too) being embarrassingly loud Americans…And all of the shops selling so much junk. Too much. By the time I found one of the villages that was more laid back, it was time to depart. But I put my feet in the Mediterranean for a minute, and I got to take ferries from village to village, enjoying the exquisite weather. Kendall told me of the perfect dessert place to go to away from the crowds in one of the towns, so I made a point of going there and it was a great choice, had a fabulous mid-day meal of panna cotte and fresh fruit. Awesome…And he insisted I try his iced coffee which was scary good — a coffee milkshake basically, made with fresh cream. SO good. As I was racing (quite literally) to catch my train, out of breath, with about 12 seconds before the train was to depart, I’d sort of regretted not staying the night up there, but only so many things you can squeeze in. It’s a very beautiful place and would be gorgeous to hike (because the hiking is ALL views, unlike the VF). I was cockily glad my trains had all been on time when my last train was late. It was hard to hear the announcement (and to understand it) b/c all of the Italians were talking above it, so that’s when I asked the Italian woman nearby what was going on. She was the complainer — perfectly nice but just ragging on everything. So that last train was delayed a while, so we sat by the track inhaling 2nd-hand smoke (still so many smokers in Europe! I thought that had gotten better! Now it seems many roll their own).
One thing that is sort of ironic is how hard it is to plan to do the hiking without internet. My hotel in Lucca had lame internet that worked impulsively. It’s hard to go online and figure out where to stay the next night and to book it. So that was making me nuts. That said, the night manager was very kind and offered to drive me one town over to pick up the VF again — I didn’t want to start at Lucca because apparently that leg was mostly on roads, leaving city areas tend to be industrial and busy roads. So I thought leaving from Altopascio would be better, and my buddy said he’d drop me there on his way home in the morning. I decided because these legs of the walk were substantially longer, I’d need to unload some of my stuff I’d brought for the colder weather in Switzerland, so I ambitiously stopped at the post office. Ha!
Don’t ever be fooled by the cool, contemporary look of Postitaliane: they are a model of bureaucratic inefficiency. You take a ticket, and depending on the service you desire, you wait in line and wait til your number comes up. Much like DMV, and we all know how that works. So while I was one back in line, 30 minutes later and probably 10 people called before me later, I finally drummed up the courage to question this to one of the women at the desk. I think she realized what a messed up system it is, so finally she shrugged and decided to help me, rolling her eyes frequently (I’m pretty sure not even at me). The only other line that was designated for packages had a woman who I presume was having a lifetime of documents somehow processed, as it took an eternity as I waited for her.
The paperwork was staggering. She was displeased that I put the “sender” address as my previous hotel — normally I’d have put myself and my home address, but I wrongfully assumed that would be wrong. So she then had to remove that stick and replace it, which took another 10 minutes. No scratching anything out! I had to sign in I think quintuplicate. My post office lady clearly enjoyed power-stamping each document with her fist-sized stamp.
So then I was finally on my way, some 45 essential minutes later (essential because the later start meant the heat of the day was on me already).
As I stopped at the library to ask how to get to the VF, there were two young French women asking directions to the VF. They were wisely sharing backpack duties — one carried a heavy one, the other one a daypack. I didn’t even bother to ask to join them, as I knew they’d be there before I was even halfway there.
Leaving Altopascio was precisely what I expected leaving Lucca would be: just ugly, industrial, dreary. I assumed it wouldn’t last long. Meanwhile, I was at a busy traffic circle not 15 minutes into my walk when I rolled ankle on some crumbled pavement and nearly face-planted as the weight of my backpack threw me my forward. It really terrified me as had there been a car there at that very minute I’d likely have been hit by it. Sheesh. Not confidence-instilling. And I must have looked like a sight, hurtling toward the ground with cars zooming by everywhere.
So, the walk was I think about 24 km long. I’m going to mix my km and miles because my pedometer is set to miles so it’s how I quantify my distance. Easily the first 5 miles of the walk was on stinking hot miserable pavement with cars flying by. Even though it became less populated, it was just ugly. Broken glass strewed the roadside, litter, etc. It was entirely unpleasant. For those who live in Charlottesville, it was akin to walking along Route 250 from Boars Head in Ivy to Keswick. Just mile upon mile of nothing great to look at and cars and exhaust and trucks and no shoulder on the road and HEAT. Suffice it to say I was getting bitchy. Thank goodness there was no one with whom to get bitchy with. But yeah, the f-bomb was being muttered sporadically by my evil bitchy alter ego.
Meanwhile the directions were frustrating, trying to discern when we’d get off of that road. There was some turn onto an “unmade” road — define, please! — and FINALLY I see what appears to be a damned unmade road, complete with a sign for the Via Francigena! Hurray! So I take it. This is ostensibly on the original VF, from 1000 years ago, an old Roman road. So what do I know of old Roman roads? I followed the sign. So I’m walking and walking and walking. It’s definitely not a road, it seems pretty unmade to me. And then all of a sudden, it just stops. Not only that, but there is a vague VF sign pointing kind of the way I came but almost off to another direction.
So I’m wondering where the hell I am to go. So I follow the way it could be going, which seems counterintuitive, directionally. But who knew? Maybe it took a path way into the woods? But as I walked and the paths became more and more small and diverging in different directions, I had NO idea what I was to do. I was already a good 40 minutes into this route when I finally took some path headed toward a farm (a not very scenic one with mean barking dogs) and finally found a little old woman with few teeth and less English in her repertoire, who conveyed to me I should’ve just stayed on the road. Stupido me!
Alas, when I was up north I had this fabulous app called Pocket Earth, on which we thought we’d loaded the entire VF (thanks to Scott for that as I was failing miserably in that attempt). But for some reason it didn’t load some parts of it, so while I was up north I could track immediately if I’d gone off-piste, now I’m on my own. Technology does exist to help those like me not get lost, but the other part of that was the GPS tracking that we had access to turned out to be not for Macs, so by the time we finally got the right waypoints to download, it wasn’t working and I had to get to the airport, so that was that! I do have a guidebook but it has some terminology with which I’m simply not familiary (“turn off on white road” — um, WTH is a white road? It is DEFINITELY not white, by the way). So it can throw me off. Plus I truly suck at reading maps and directions.
As I navigated the ugly road, I realized the fragrant Swiss cow dung aroma had given way to the stench of Italian dog shit, which was everywhere. Trekking along the lovely glass-strewn road. Yeah i was not digging that LOL. Still not seeing animals but seeing more dead birds. I think now they’re too slow to escape the path of oncoming fast drivers. I was definitely not feeling the love for that walk.
After my wrong turn, my meltdown ensued, so it would take an act of god to rectify my attitude. I truly wanted to make limoncella out of lemonade (sorry, stupid pun while in Italy). I finally found the ancient roman road, which sounded far more charming than it was. it paralleled an easy-to-walk white gravel road, but that was marked with a big slash sign, do not use. So on the cobblestones I walked, but they were very hard to navigate without wrenching an ankle, so it was slow-going. It still wasn’t scenic, but at least off-road. For the next many miles it simply alternated between roads to off-road but not pretty — more like fire roads, and washed-out stream beds, or where you’d take your four-wheeler if you wanted to go get muddy and trash the place. Absolutely no view, nothing. Mostly no shade, so blazing hot (my thermometer on my compass said 95 degrees but it could be broken at that temperature as there is somehow a crack in it). The flora that was roadside was just nothing beautiful — mostly scrubby, weedy. I’m sure my naturalist friends would find a host of wonderful finds there, but to me it all looked like weeds.
After a few hours, voila, I encountered the French girls, who still had no interest in talking to me (in the morning the same). They’d discovered wild blackberries along the side of a very busy road and were picking away. I think they resented I did so as well — they wouldn’t talk to me even when I addressed them in french! They then just started walking again. As I picked berries all happy for the berries till I looked to my left and there, nestled in the brambles, a dirty diaper. Ahhhh, wilderness.
I did laugh at myself thinking about those French girls: they just looked like they were “la la la la la” out for a stroll, hadn’t broken a sweat, and I was in slog mode, with that song, what’s it from, with the laborers chanting “Oh, eee, oh, oh eee oh.” Lugging all that stuff and schvitzing my arse off and feeling immensely cranky, that was indeed my theme song…I was almost hoping a wild boar would jump out of the woods & put me out of my misery (boar eats me versus the other way around, as I’ve been yearning for a Tuscan specialty, pappardelle a la cianghale, a wild boar dish). Meanwhile I fear there are permanent divots in shoulders from hauling my pack at this point. I’m stooped, I swear it! Stooped over like Strega Nona from that Tommy DiPaoli children’s book LOL (she was a creepy old witch with a wart on her nose).
Sometimes the path goes through a town or village. Some towns are cheerful, vibrant, welcoming, while others seem deeply downtrodden (as if I’d chosen to walk through Scranton, Pennsylvania).
I finally reached a point after 10 miles that I’d hit my limit. I still had like 6-7 miles to go at least, not including a huge climb to the top of the hilltop town of San Miniato once I got that, which at that point would’ve been in 2014. So I made the executive decision to find a taxi at the next town. Doesn’t it figure, as I’m approaching the next town it finally looks pretty, there are hints of scenery and vistas etc. I cross a busy road, see I have a huge climb uphill, so then look to my right and see this industrial park that has a contemporary pizzeria at the front of it. I decide to wend my way the 100 yards or so over there, and see on the other side of the building a group of tourists with bright green shirts on and I’d hoped to go beg a ride off of them, but they disappeared before I got there. So I try to enter the pizzeria but it’s closed. Sigh…So I have to climb this steep hill, intent on calling a cab in the next village (which at least was a sweet little village, not one of the grim ones). FINALLY I get an overpriced cab, and the drive alone was 25 minutes, so thank you Jesus I didn’t walk it (it would have taken HOURS), and he takes me to my overpriced hotel (I was unable to reach anyone by phone at the convent after trying for two days), but wow, that hotel was a drink of water in the dessert. Meanwhile, who do I encounter but the greenshirted folks, who turned out to be a group of Brazilian women who’d walked the Camino in Spain and now were walking Lucca to Rome. They, too, lamented the route was miserable, and far too long (apparently different with the Camino), and they’d been trying to get a cab at the pizzeria as well! They ended up going into some industrial place and calling from some office. Now they have the smart plan — they have a travel company transporting their bags from place to place, so they are just walking. I could totally do 30 km a day without lugging 16 pounds of stuff on my back. Plus their travel company has them booked into really nice hotels each night, also not a bad thing when you’re hot, sweaty, and needing comfort.
San Miniano is a delightful hilltop village, just beautiful, palazzos everywhere, very majestic with amazing views. I unfortunately wasted too much time there trying to plan logistics for the next several days, which I had to do with internet (calling to reserve overnight stays, places I was seeking on the internet, so I’m sort of a slave to when I can find WiFi. What did they do 1000 years ago without it?! LOL).
Last night I went to a small restaurant down the hill and was tacked onto a table with a middle aged couple on date. E-harmonia, perhaps? (sorry, trying for bad Italian word play). They were yakking away, laughing at each others jokes, heavy flirtation occurring right under my nose. He (his name is Giovanni) was multo expressivo, with very gravelly voice that got very high when giggly. She was totally Italiana hot, though her eyes might have used a little tuck ;-). As if I can talk… They were leaning into each other big time, their hand gestures very receptive. Ahhh, amore, the international language. I love being a snoop, in any language.
I’m in tartuffo (truffle) country, and the smell assaults your nostrils the minute you step into a restaurant (I’m dining at Osteria L’Upapa–love that word, I think maybe it means woodpecker?). So it took getting used to that aroma as I’m not a truffle fan. To think thus town hosts a weeks-long white truffle festival — blech! Ah, but I got my cinghiale al pappardelle, was multo buono.
So after my yesterday fiasco I decided to reevaulate my mission here. So much of the VF seems to be on roads, and I’m not loving that from a safety perspective and also from a hot pavement ratcheting the temperature up another ten degrees perspective. I’d hoped for a lot of beautiful views like in Switzerland but much of the walking offers nothing of the sort, at least yet. I know I run the risk of missing some beautiful legs of the walk right now, but I decided instead to divert, getting over to San Gimignano and then to Siena, and then spend a few days in Florence.
Alas, what I didn’t realize is that once I got myself this far into Tuscany, mass transit is non-existent. Which means my ONLY way out was by taxi. Argh. So I took a very very expensive taxi to San Gimignano, which was a very good decision.
Along the road I could see that a lot of the VF continued on roads, attesting to my decision being right for me, as I just wasn’t loving that part of it. I was amused to see a sign before some town boasting their Festival di cacciatore (bunny stew festival) — sorry Kendall! The bunny in the sign looked so happy! He clearly didn’t know his fate…
My taxi driver’s ringtone was Tom Jones singing “Its Not Unusual”, which is sorta retro, I kept hearing it each time he got a call.
When I arrived in San Gimignano, I was at first dismayed by the onslaught of tourists, galore. But once I started wandering and going up side streets, I had a great day. This is a lovely town, very beautiful, and if you look you can find this awesome park that takes you to the top of the walled village and it’s a fabulous view of Chianti, the region I’m now. So I’m totally happy with my choice. I just have zero interest in dodging speeding cars in busy roads for eight hours a day. So after a few days in Florence to recharge my battery, I’ll aim to try to rejoin the the VF somewhere here in Tuscany. And I’m so happy that Scott’s going to meet me for the last week, and we’ll walk a few days on it and then go to Rome. So while I’m not adhering to my original plan per se, I’m totally comfortable with this choice. Perhaps since I’m a writer, I realize that when the story’s not going in the direction you’d hoped, sometimes you have to change the narrative. I have enjoyed many parts of the walk so far, and hope to enjoy many more over the next few weeks, but have to be realistic about my goals and about how best to achieve them. I realize there is no way I’ll make 30 km/day, which means it would be double the time I’d have to take on the VF, with no mid-way stopping points. And my 3 liters of water runs out at about 8 miles. So I’m just making this up as I go along. In florence I hope to just tuck into quiet places and find time to write, also revisit some places I love there as well. I’ll be staying at a hostel so that should be interesting. It promises to be a quiet hostel and not aimed at 18-year olds (please!), so hopefully it’ll be ok. But me and 3 strangers in co-ed room. Honestly. How old am I? ;-)
I found this tiny restaurant when I first got into town — totally off the beaten path, which often bodes well. The woman at my b&b then suggested it when I asked for a good local place. It’s as big as a sneeze, rather cozy, but smells divine, plus more like local prices, so looking forward to it!
On tonights menu (but not for me): ox tongue. That’s on a lot of menus. I must clearly be missing out, but choose to remain in that state…I loved the owner of tonight’s restaurant, had that classically Italian way of speaking English: Today’s-ah-specials-ah-beef-grillata-ah-with-ah-vegetables-ah-no tomate-ah.
After dinner I walked back up to the piazza — San Gimignano has gorgeous architecture, with fortress-like palazzos at every turn and beautiful and imposing towering arches and crenallated walls–you feel as if you are protected within the castle walls. Just missing a moat!
I hung out on the steps reading while a very annoying flautist played music, accompanied by a karaoke version of We Are the Champions. Someone should arrest him for disturbing the peace. He’s definitely reached point of diminishing returns, audience-wise, and should call it a night & spare those of ya seeking quietude on the piazza. Ha! My bad. People actually clapped when he finished. Go figure. He reminds me of when those people pull out the Peruvian pan pipes in public venues to try to draw some cash.
Allora, I am off to bed. Had a lovely day in San Gimignano and go by bus (not foot as it would be 3 long days at great distance) to Siena before heading to Florence for the weekend. Will try to pick up the VF next week again…Ciao ciao!
***update: spent nice day in Siena but when I realized my hotel room smelled like urine I decided to hop thesis to Florence this evening so here I am in another great city! Staying at a hostel (I’m no doubt the granny of the group) but its actually quite nice. Though sharing room with six others…tomorrow through mondsy coed even. Should be interesting…
Categories: Accidentally on Purpose, Anywhere But Here, Books, Chick Lit, I'm Not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship, Jenny Gardiner, memoir, Naked Man on Main Street, road trip, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, Slim to None, Via Francigena, Where the Heart Is, Winging It: A Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me, women, women's fiction