Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cinque Terre - Geneva (Pt. XVI)

Note to readers: This is the sixteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XV here.

A long day that started in a hotel in Naples, had seen me trekking along rural country roads and through the ruins of an ancient civilization, sprinting through a furious Mediterranean inundation, and negotiating the chaos of Rome's train station, ended in a quiet room in La Spezia. Someone told me that my destination, Cinque Terre, was but a mere 20 minutes further on, if I could endure. But I was here, in La Spezia, the hotel was before me, and judging by the looks I drew from passers-by, I surmised that my mien reflected the thousand-yard stare of the walking dead. A room. A shower. Crash.

Next morning, I arose late. I walked across the street to the train station and caught the train to Cinque Terre (CHINK-wah TER-rah). "The five lands," consisting of five Italian hamlets in the Liguira region.

Terraced orchards and vineyards
Although it was late October, the tourists were still thick. Rumors of a lack of accommodations abounded, causing me to rent the first room I was able to find, in the eastern most of the five villages, Riomaggiore. It was a cold, austere room with no hot water situated halfway up the steep paved street that led from the train platform. What did I care? After all this time, sleeping on trains, in hotel bars, a room was a room. I was glad to be in Cinque Terre.

Italian hamlet nestled in the coastal slopes
These five villages, accessible only by rail, or by sea, or by foot, are cut into terraces on the cliffs above the Mediterranean. West to east:  Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore.  In addition to the rail that ran from one to the next via long, dark tunnels, with trains running in either direction every half hour or so, there was a foot path that meandered through the slopes from Riomaggiore all the way to Monterosso.

Along the trail
I hiked along the footpath; saw the waves beating at the base of the rocky cliffs. Italians shook their heads and muttered at the mari tempestosi. I was not sure what to think about that. I'm from Oregon, my friends. These little ripples here on your Mediterranean wouldn't even register on the coastline of my home. When you stand on the beach in Oregon and see the colossi roaring in from the mighty (and misnamed) Pacific, you really do feel small, insignificant. This? This is a child's tantrum by comparison. But I mean no disrespect, miei amici. This little paradise you have cut into the hills is peaceful and beyond beautiful.

Mari tempestosi
 The trail was closed in places. There had been rain and there were concerns about mudslides. Very well. I hiked those portions that were open, and hopped the train where necessary. Although I was looking, and I made several failed attempts, I did not find anyone in Cinque Terre with whom to share the experience. Many tourists, even Americans, but they were all in their own cliques and, although friendly enough, had no particular desire to bring in an outsider. These were mostly travelers fresh in from the airport in Rome or Milan. Not Eurail backpackers. Fair enough.

Hiking along the Mediterranean
After a good, long day hiking, and an excellent repast of gnocchi and salad, I retired to my cold room with the cold water. Now, returned the anxious thoughts of future, past, and the significance of my own existence. What was it I had come to find here in Europe? Was I any closer to finding it? What awaited me on my return to America? To rainy, familiar Oregon? I still had no answers.

I spent one more day in Cinque Terre, writing postcards, hanging out. But now it was time to leave Italy for Switzerland. Next day, I caught the train out. Arrivederci, Italia.


Riding the train to Milan, I met a young man from Romania. This fellow spoke English well enough, and decided apparently, that I was worthy of hearing his life story. A troubled fellow, this young man. He was in love with a young woman whom he had met in a brothel. He referred to her as his "girlfriend." He professed his love to her, offered to take her away from it all. She was reluctant, leaving him in a state of anxiety. But he seemed fully prepared to accept the role of tragic hero. Well, had I been ten or fifteen years younger, I would have recognized his nobility. Now, having had a failed love affair or two of my own, I could only manage a sympathetic smile. You'll learn, my friend. We all do.

The plan was to go to Interlaken, high in the Swiss Alps. But the notoriously unreliable Italian rail system caused a change in plans. Trains run late. I missed a connection in Milan and faced an eight-hour wait or the option of a 45-minute layover before the train left for Geneva. I chose the latter.

The ride up through the lap of the Italian and Swiss Alps was spectacular: high, green pastures, with spotted cows grazing on lush grass. Darkness descended too quickly, hiding it all in the black shroud of approaching winter.

Odile was on the train, too. Odile (open-minded, open-faced) lived in Geneva. Of course I noticed her. She was beautiful, unpretentious, and out-going. Like most Swiss, she spoke English, German, Swiss, French, and Italian. She was socially and politically aware and very, very smart. We chatted away the hours riding the rails through the alpine darkness and made plans to meet for dinner next day.

On arrival in Geneva I got a bed in the local hostel. There was the usual throng of Eurail travelers, including a family from Australia: a man and woman and their two young children. When asked about Geneva and things to see, they didn't have much to say. "There's not much here," said the woman. "We're leaving tomorrow."


The next day, I wandered around Geneva. I found one mildly interesting museum dealing with the Reformation: interesting only because of the hand-scribed books with the illuminated pages scrawled by monks some time in the dark period that came in the wake of Rome's fall.

 The UN Office in Geneva (UNOG) is here. It is the largest UN office outside New York. The huge bureaucracy spreads its numbing tendrils out into the city, moderating, lulling, inviting oblivion. Not much to see really.

The lake, Lake Geneva, was glorious, with its alpine backdrop. And the people were friendly, especially the Spanish restaurateur who gave me a complimentary glass of grappa. Do not gulp! Strong stuff. They say it is made from the residue of wine grapes: stems and leaves and such. I gamely finished the glass. Gracias, amigo. No, no más, gracias.

That evening, Odile did indeed come to the hostel and from there we went to a seedy bar where she showed me Geneva's sordid underside. We drank with prostitutes and ruffians. I dined on fondue and enjoyed the atmosphere.

But Geneva, I decided, had little to offer me. In the morning, I caught the train out. Alas, my camera stayed behind, victim of my negligence. Here's hoping that some Eurail traveler found it and made good use of it. On to France!

To be continued...


fred said...

Hey nice article!

I have a mashup full of nice pictures about cinque terre..if you want to check

Calamity said...

I was really happy to meet you too !
99, I can't believe it...