THE CINQUE TERRE, ITALY. JUNE 2015
Six Ladies, Five Towns, Four Trains, Three Fish Suppers, Two Ferries and One Epic Adventure!
Cast of Characters
Charlotte – American. Blonde. Classy. Teaches Special Ed. A mature woman who comes across as icy cool with looks and a facial expression to match. However, this camouflages a personality that is soft as mush and at times extremely fragile. Can be competitive. Athletic. Has a phenomenal wardrobe. Eats chicken, burgers and pommes, but only in company.The rest of the time she doesn’t eat anything at all. Intelligent, quick and witty.
Alana – American in her 30s.Sassy. Tells it how it is. Teaches English and Drama. On tour, she takes on the ‘role’ of Charlotte’s daughter, routinely asking her to intervene with ‘Dad’. Likes to be in charge but this stems from a desire to ensure everyone experiences the best. A caring and reflective young woman, at times she is insecure in some of her relationships and occasionally vulnerable with it. Intelligent, quick and witty.
Teddy (short for Theodore) – English. Listens to ‘The Archers’ and ‘Farming Today’. Growing old disgracefully. Has a shock of short, spiky blonde hair. Stylish in an artistic, original way. Has a very dry sense of humour which can come across as sardonic. In charge of CAS. Extremely intelligent, speaks fluent German. One of the kindest, warmest women you could possibly hope to know and with an inner strength that exudes calmness.
Sandra P – Scottish. Very Scottish. You can hear her approaching from 200 metres before you see her! Her accent becomes even more Scottish after a certain amount of Prosecco. A talented artist who can turn a bit of material into a fabulous outfit. Sandra knows how to look good and does so. I have absolutely no idea what her age is. Warm hearted, kind and generous.
Lizzie – Dutch in her 30s. Has moved around the world a lot. Beautiful, sensitive and vulnerable. Kind and loving. Has many talents and strengths but lacks confidence in some situations. Speaks several languages and despite first impressions, knows how to kick arse when pushed. Not to be under estimated.
Beth – my daughter. Referred to in this journal.
Danny – my Grandson. Referred to in this journal.
6 Ladies, 5 Towns, 4 trains, 3 fish suppers, 2 ferries and one epic adventure……
Our long week-end began with a night train from Munich. 6 of us, 6 couchettes, 1 compartment.
After consuming enough fizzy fermented grape juice to make a noticeable difference to our carbon footprint, and several games of ‘Never Have I ever’ we arrived at Bologna for a 2 hour stopover at 4am. Alana and I always keen to go sight-seeing, toddled off, leaving the others with the baggage on the platform.
As the sun rose whimsically on the grey streets, we checked out the Roman remains, a nearby church and, in passing, the local transvestites in a Doner kebab shop. The kind of things you see near a train station in the middle of the night……
The Cinque Terre National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site comprised of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomagiorre. These little villages are nestled into a rugged piece of coastline in Liguria – a little known section of the Italian Riviera. I had wanted to visit this area for many years, not least because it has inspired artists of all kinds for centuries, including Byron, Shelley and DH Lawrence. Like the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, it is difficult to get too, decidedly off the beaten track, and you really have to want to get there.
We had been planning the trip for some time and quickly made the transition from German to Italian trains, negotiating the different ticket machines in a jiffy (thank God for the Euro – remember when it used to be Lire?!) Bologna took us to Parma which took us, via “Phut Phut train” to Monterosso al Mare, our host town. We emerged from the station just before 10am and even at this time of the morning, it was very hot.
Too early for check in, we slumbered down to the beach and found breakfast overlooking the sea.
Aaaaaaah! Not only was this place beautiful, it was cheap! As we settled down to eat and drink, tiredness crept in and the enthusiastic chatter of the journey subsided. We breathed in the sea air and enjoyed the silence. No need for conversation. Fueled up, we split up and did our own thing. I went for a swim. Charlotte, Teddy, Sandra and Liz went shopping and Alana went exploring.
The sea was heavenly and, swimming out towards the breakwater, I could see down the coastline. Steamy and hazy, the blues and greens were mesmerising. Treading water and turning round, I could see St Francis and his dog perched high above the town and the old fort, calling out to sea. This moment of isolation was rejuvenating.
Out of the water and back in the real world, I sauntered through the streets. Busy in places but, off the beaten track, quite, quite empty the bougainvillea, magnolia and
mimosa were in full glorious bloom. Back at the hotel, we checked in and familiarized ourselves with our base. I cannot recommend this 3* little gem highly enough. Hotel Margherita it’s called – get there fast. Nothing was too much trouble for these people who, amongst other things made fabulous cakes for breakfast; cleared up a massive puddle of water in my room after my ‘camel’ leaked and gave us drinks – “On the house Signoras” – on our last night. We had a drink on the veranda and thence inside for a snooze.
After the day trippers have gone, Monterosso takes on a sedentary air. Our first fish supper was in a no frills, unpretentious ‘tent’ (like a marquee). The food, mostly, was
served ‘bog standard’ in the stainless steel dishes it was cooked in and it tasted divine. Straight from the sea. Spaghetti, swordfish and capers for me.
After this we headed up a big hill to the posh Hotel for a night cap. Conversation became a little heated as the subject of plastic surgery, botox et al reared its ugly head (hah – get it??!!). We don’t often fall out in our views but there was some disagreement tonight. However, it was not long before the beauty of our surroundings hushed the atmosphere.
Overlooking the beach, the views from this hotel as the stars came out, coupled with the lights of Monterosso gradually lighting up was impossibly romantic and quintessentially Italian. It was like a film set. I’m going to come back here one day with the next Mr Halliday. Not my brother.
The next day, saw us get ready for the main purpose of our trip – our big hike along the Cinque Terre route. The trail connecting the 5 towns is called the Sentiero Azzurro. It’s a path that has been well trodden over the centuries – by donkeys, farmers, smugglers and saints.
The villages originate in the late Middle Ages, and have seen invasion by pirates and Turks. Three years ago it suffered terrible floods and the tourist trade, on which the area now depends, has taken a hit, not least because some of the hiking routes are still closed. I first came across the area by reading Rick Steves. Charlotte, (who has been to the CT many times), refers to this travel writer as “ Rick Douche-bag Steves” not only for having single handedly opened the area to tourists (“Not travellers!”) but also for living in Seattle! (her home town).
Before we set off, Charlotte and I attempted to get our ‘camels’ to work (water bags you put inside your ruck sack). We had bought these a couple of weeks before specifically for this trip. They held 3 litres and were not cheap. Charlotte was struggling with her sucking technique – nothing was coming out! I couldn’t secure the clip at the top – nothing was staying in! We swapped techniques. Eventually, I managed to secure mine and got it lodged securely through all the right holes– only to find, 20 minutes later, that it had leaked all over EVERYTHING! So much for preparation……..
We set off and, for the first stage to Vernazza, I adopted a leisurely pace and soaked up the peaceful atmosphere of the morning. And the smells. And the butterflies. And the amazing vegetation and flowers. And the birdsong and the sound of distant church bells (and occasional boat engine). In places, lover’s graffiti was scratched into cacti and on branches and here and there, there were a few ‘love padlocks’– their keys thrown into the sea.
The scent of Jasmine and lemons was intoxicating and, with sections of this path still in shade it was a pleasant walk, despite being incredibly steep.
It wasn’t long before I had been left behind as the rest of the gang sped off – just a tiny bit competitive in my view but that was ok. I was able to meet other travellers and to chat to them – a group of women from Australia; a man from South Carolina; a German couple who,
having told me that I should be wearing a hat, promptly got it out for me from my ruck sack. This hat, also a recent purchase cost a whacking 30 euros. At the time of purchase, Charlotte gave me lots of reasons why it was a good one but I reckon I look like a twat in it and it blows off with the slightest breeze. Nevertheless, as I plodded on gradually realizing that my broken toe had not yet fully healed the hat did, keep the sun off my neck, for which much relief.
The views on every section of the path, were stunning.
I caught up with the others (or they waited for me, one of the two!) as we approached Vernazza. Here, the cut of the path allowed many different vistas of this pretty little town. The pineapple topped church, with more than a hint of Moorish influence, demanded centre-stage with a medieval castle perched high as the backdrop. We strolled through this pretty village soaking up the rich colours, all slightly darker than Monterosso. The water here was so green and so inviting, I desperately wanted a swim, but we were here to hike and so, after a quick lunch stop we continued on the trail.
In his account, Mr Steves describes the first section from Monterosso to Vernazza as very hard and the second section, from Vernazza to Corniglia as ‘hard’. Rick? You’re wrong. Try ‘f*ck#@g hard’. Only mad dogs and English men go out in the mid-day sun so I can only blame myself for the stupid decision to carry on along that stretch of the route, in temperatures beyond 85 degrees on a path with no shade.
I really should have stayed in Vernazza for that swim. I soon discovered my new hiking boots were too small as they began to squish in on my ever expanding feet and swollen toe. This slowed me down considerably and falling behind again, eventually I succumbed to the heat. I dreamily noticed the olive groves, fig trees and wild garlic pass by as I increasingly felt sick, feverish and dizzy. The beauty and the pain together created some surreal moments! I staggered into Corniglia where the others were waiting and downed a bottle of water in about 30 seconds flat. We sat in the garden of a lovely restaurant with views over the town and the bay whilst I recovered somewhat.
Slightly down at heel, Corniglia was no less beautiful than the other towns but we learnt that the path from here was closed. It made sense to take the train back toMonterosso where I crashed out. Lesson learned. We were all a little subdued that evening – the others had also been affected by the sun – but we still managed to find another gorgeous fish restaurant and to make the most of what the Ligurian sea had to offer.
On our last day, Alana departed for some solo exploring in Porto Venere, a town just beyond the Cinque Terre. The rest of us headed along the coast from Monterosso on a boat which docked, briefly at each of the 5 villages. This journey offered us a different perspective of the Cinque Terre and it was intriguing to see the route we had covered yesterday from the water.
After about 25 minutes, we approached Riomagiorre and surely one of the most dramatic landings by sea that I have ever experienced. This stunning town built, it seems, into rock, suddenly appears in its own cove, looming above what initially seem like quite dangerous rocks. But clearly the ferry men knew what they are doing and we disembarked without too many hassles.
In Romaggiore, we toured the back streets, high above the main tourist area.Like Monterosso, there was hardly anyone there on this holiday weekend! We found a café and sat down for a chat. You know, one of THOSE chats. The kind of chat when you realise how privileged you are to be an international school teacher and how happy it makes you to work and play with others of your ilk. Sandra P filled us in on her adopted country, Malta; on independence from the UK in (only) 1975 and how for years, only English had been taught in schools (the snob factor….) Now?
Maltese is being reclaimed as a language and finding its way back into local life once more. Charlotte regaled us with stories from the various embassies in the area that she had either visited or worked at, when she was based in Rome. She waxed lyrical on various international incidents (some of which she nearly caused herself!).Lizzie filled us in on the politics and history of St Martin and the Dutch Antilles. Teddy chatted about her work in India and the Kathakali performance she had seen. I shared my experiences of productions from around the world in original dialects. We talked ‘language’, we talked ‘national identity’, we talked ‘culture and communication’…..the usual kind of thing. For a couple of hours these fascinating women and I brought our individual backgrounds, differences and traditions to the fore and explored that which we have in common – shared values and beliefs – through some fascinating global stories.
After this, I made a quick visit to the church did a bit of shopping then we all headed back to the boat, narrowly avoiding a minor fracas by cutting ahead of the Japanese tour party and by patrolling the waiting queue: ”Hey” Charlotte yelled at anyone trying to sneak past us – “The line starts back there……” So much for the language of diplomacy!
After a swim and a bit more relaxing, we had our third and final dinner. Sandra P and I shared a fish platter as a starter which had no less than 10 fish dishes to sample! The size of tapas, this included stuffed mackerel, octopus that melted in your mouth and fresh anchovies….followed by a seafood risotto to die for…
After dinner, Alana and I snuck off to a bar for one of our late night conversations. And a bit of flirting practice. But Monterosso was so quiet it would have been more appropriate to order an ovaltine or drinking chocolate and it was not long before we joined the others to sleep.
Earlier, we had discovered, just in time it would seem, that there was a train strike in Liguria timed for the Sunday we were departing. This meant completely re jigging our departure schedule so that we could be back at work fresh as daisies on Monday morning. How awful it would have been had we needed to spend another night! So, dutifully, we caught the first train of our return journey at 07.35.
But this journey proved to be rather epic – in more ways than one……….
At Milan (where we had to wait for 4 hours), we noticed a large number of police. From our stationary and delayed train, we noticed a lot of running. Police, running. But we didn’t really take that much notice of it. Changing at Verona we got on the Deutsche Bahn Munich train where there was a holiday atmosphere on board. Packed with bags and people, we were fortunate to have reserved seats. Many stood at the end of the carriage. A beautiful young black woman with her gorgeous baby strapped to her back walked by, looking for a seat. We gossiped. We joked. Alana did her marking. We played ‘Taboo’ (American version) and had each other in stitches, raucously filling the carriage with laughter as the rest of the passengers became silent. I could see that the young mother had found a seat near us. She nursed her baby, then played and gurgled with him. He lovingly stretched out his hand to try and touch the cloth she dangled in front of him, giggling. I have seen Beth and Danny do this a thousand times when he was the same age.
Another stop. Near the border. Yet more police on the platform and now – walking through the train. Checking us, checking our seats very closely. Burly guys with guns, batons, tape for your wrists and protective gloves on – what was going on? Lizzie reminded us about the G7 summit in Munich that day. They were probably checking for bombs. It seemed a reasonable explanation. The train got going again but did not stop at a couple of stations. Rather, it slowed down and we were able to see, on the platforms, scores of heavily armed police with flak jackets. Our unease and curiosity mounted.
And then, quite suddenly the train braked hard and we came to a sudden stop in the middle of a tunnel. In one of the mountains in the Brenner Pass. Silence. A Command was made over the speaker in German – ‘STAY ON THE TRAIN DO NOT GET OFF’ – there was no translation in English (unusual). We were scared. Everyone in the carriage was scared. No one was speaking. Eventually the train began to move slowly, very slowly until it reached Brenner, the station where lorries leave their containers. The containers from big ships.
And then, on our train, the police walked back in the other direction firmly leading a number of black migrants. Dirty, in rags and visually drooping, they were led along the corridor right next to us. The police saw my beautiful young woman, baby asleep in her arms. I call her ‘my’ young woman because even now, I cannot get the image of her face out of my mind. She didn’t even try to protest. They allowed her to walk to the luggage rack where she picked up a packet of nappies. She then followed them meekly to God knows where. I don’t think there was a person on that train who was not shocked, disturbed and deeply affected by what they saw.
At the Hauptbahnhof in Munich, as we were getting off and heading for the S Bahn home, I saw other migrants with police on the platform by Starbucks. They’d obviously been stowing away somewhere on our train but where? I just hope there was no one wandering through that tunnel……
Got back to my flat at midnight.
The Sting in the Tale
On Monday, I caught up with the news via good old Radio 4. I had a ‘Proud to be British’ moment when I heard, live from Katanga that the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulwark had, over the last 24 hours picked up 24 migrant boats from the Mediterranean containing thousands of people, heading for Italy. Most of them were now in Sicily. These people were from all over the world: Pakistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Syria and included men who had been stabbed, shot and tortured, women who’d been raped and other women who were literally in the process of giving birth (ffs).
Other news included coverage of Obama, Cameron et al at the G7 summit in Munich.
So there I was, thinking I’d be writing just another ‘holiday journal’ only to face a dilemma. In the mind of this English and Drama teacher, these events were linked. Should I express my thoughts on the matter? Would anyone actually care about or want to read my opinions? Or should I just stick to the shallow, superficial stuff and entertain everyone? How could I possibly come back from the weekend I have just had, hear this news and say nothing? What kind of person would that make me? Well it’s taken a little while but I think I’ve finally found a voice. Thus, with a deep breath…….
The G7 summit was held in a gorgeous hotel near Garmisch. We go ski-ing and hiking there sometimes and there’s a beautiful lake, the Eibsee, not far away that is an old favourite.
Schloss Elmau is where the great and the good go for the ultimate in spa experiences. Surrounded by mountains, it’s quite isolated. Now, we know that Bavaria paid 130 million and the Federal Republic 80 million euros towards this global gig. Germany’s association of tax payers has estimated that the real cost was over 360 million euros. This was for a conference lasting one and a half days. 25,000 police were involved from all over Germany. They trained for this event for over a year.
The media coverage of this extravaganza, in both the UK and Germany was almost as facile as the event itself. I searched in vain for meaningful rhetoric but there was very little available. Even ‘The Guardian’ and Eddie Mare on ‘PM’ gave a surprising amount of coverage to Obama’s breakfast – what kind of bier and sausages he had. (Yeh they drink bier for breakfast here – get over it). Attention was also given to Cameron’s little local difficulty back home.
The semantics of what he did/didn’t say on the Andrew Marr interview and whether or not he really would sack any of his cabinet if they didn’t back him on the referendum. I heard less and less of HMS Bulwark and the migrants and could only speculate as to what had become of them.
I also wondered whether or not it would have been easier/cheaper to hold the G7 summit on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean. They’d probably all fit, I should think? Easy access if you have a helicopter or two. Maybe they were afraid they might bump into a migrant boat….?
I waited patiently for some relevant political news from this Global gathering. I wanted some kind of acknowledgement that there are now so many Global concerns and threats to every nation from e-bola, through migration to terrorism that, globally, we need to completely re think our political paradigm. We need a political mind shift (for any ex TOK students who don’t know what paradigm means!) Not wishing to appear churlish, let me make it clear that I’m very happy they discussed climate change, the Greek bail-out and the Ukraine, but hey guys!! Sorry, but it’s just not enough! For 320 million euros I want a cherry on the top!
The migration issue is real and is happening NOW and not just in Syria and Turkey and the Ukraine but in beautiful, well ordered, clean and efficient Munich where even the most civilized, educated and well dressed women are coming face to face with it – literally on their local trains. Migration is not a new problem but Globalisation is relatively new (I’m thinking post 1945). Britain, and other economically developed nations have got rich off the back of our poorer brothers and we have created the problem of global economic disparity. We can’t just cherry pick the good bits of economic development and discard the ugly bi-products when it suits us. Can we? How can we say, to the developing countries,
“Yes, please have our Vodafones*/ McDonalds*/ Nike*/ Nescafe*/HSBC*/Clarins*/Tescos* in every major town from Mombassa to Kuala Lumpur but if you’re a victim of rape/torture/war/famine we don’t want you anywhere near our shores, thank you very much”
So maybe, there are some people from these countries who want to better themselves, who are not refugees and who are in search of a better standard of living for their families? Economic migrants. Well, why wouldn’t they want to better themselves? In today’s world, we cannot be surprised if sections of our global community assume that political borders are as flexible as economic borders have become and try to find work in a different country. After all, they’ve seen what the good life looks like on the internet and on the satellite televisions that we have so generously made available, and now they want some of it for themselves. Obvs. That particular genii is well out of the bottle…..
And in any case, isn’t economic mobility a political aspiration that many on Cameron’s back benches aspire too? Isn’t that what Thatcher was all about? When Norman Tebbit famously said,
“ My Dad got on his bike to find a job*” how far ahead was he thinking? How fast did he think the world would change? These days Tebbit’s Dad might have taken an Easy-jet flight to find a job, rather than a bike. Maybe he’d have taken a bit of hand luggage, if he was lucky. Or maybe he’d only have room for a pack of nappies…..
I fear that, the developed nations fully embrace all the benefits of globalization and capitalize on the profits but resort to Island Mentality whenever we are asked to go a little bit out of our comfort zone and return the favour. We will supply aid from our miniscule aid budget (Derrrr – 360 million euros for a 1 ½ day summit?! ) and crisis manage migration, but will not invest money or serious political thought to reinvent outdated political models so that practical, relevant solutions can be created. We need to be responsible enough to find a solution to the devastating features of Globalisation. A shared, global solution. And soon.
Which brings me to the most obvious question – how? Well I’m no expert, but it’s not by isolating ourselves as nations, sticking our fingers in our ears and going “Bleh, bleh, bleh….not listening!!!” that’s for sure. It has to be through working together. When I hear politicians from London saying that Brussels does not represent the views of the ordinary people I want to weep with laughter. Does the House of Lords represent the views of ordinary people any better? Parliament? Seriously? Have you guys taken a look at yourselves in the mirror recently? Do you know you’re wearing wigs and shaking pointy sticks around? Most member states of the EU are agreed that change to its format and re-negotiation are necessary but I worry about the rhetoric coming from the Cameron camp and I greatly fear that the UK electorate, who recently voted him back in will, given the choice, vote the UK out of the EU so that we can do things our own way – in splendid isolation.
Change is good. Change is something the International Community knows a bit about. Yes, it can be scary because it’s about risk. The risk of stepping into the unknown, of having to compromise your own views and opinions in order to listen and respect the opinions of others. Maybe you have to change your views and become a little more tolerant of others. Like the culture shock when travelling from the Lizard in Cornwall to London or from Monterosso to Rome or from England to Munich – some things are scary and different and sometimes the unknown and untested freaks the hell out of us but with a bit of effort and good will (and sometimes a lot of patience), this is when we grow – as individuals and as nations.
As we consider how the EU should be reformed we must aknowledge that of course each country wants to retain their own language, customs, traditions and identity. Such differences are part of what makes us who we are. No one wants Cadgwith to be like Camden or, even like St Keverne, and Monterosso will never be Parma or Milan. And ask Müncheners to adopt the cultural identity of Berlin and you’ll have a riot on your hands. That’s not what the EU is about.
But the world is changing. And we need to change with it.
Aren’t I the lucky one? I have a job. I am an economic migrant but because I’m not black, I get called an ex pat and have many privileges as a result. But I will never forget arriving, terrified, lonely and isolated in a very cold Munich back in February 2009. In a new land to earn money for my family, because neither my husband nor I could get a job at home. Now, I have money, I have my freedom. Best of all I have a UK passport. I have a nation. Even better, I have 2 nations.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’, MacMorris, an Irishman gets all stressed out when he thinks his country is being mocked:
“Of my nation? What ish my nation?
Ish a villain and a basterd and a knave and a rascal.
What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?”
His Welsh friend, Fluellen tells him to take a chill pill and to be a little more respectful to people from other nations:
“Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is meant, Captain MacMorris, peradventure I shall think you do not use me with that affability as, in discretion, you ought to use me, look you, being as good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of war and in the derivation of my birth and in other particularities.”
I would like to see Cameron and his global buddies sit around a table and share some prosecco in the sun. I would like to hear him bring the uniqueness of my nation’s culture, history and traditions to the fore and I would like him to listen to the other global leaders as they do the same. Then I would like to see him, Obama, Merkel et al put their differences aside and explore that which our countries have in common – our SHARED values and beliefs from all over the globe. They could make a list! And after they have recognized our common humanity, I would like them to create some realistic, workable policies that reflect the real world we live in. Maybe then, they can begin their journey, moving forward together……