POSTCARD FROM THE RIVIERA
Attempting to avoid an anaerobic existence, starved for the oxygen of travel and the company of friends, we once again set off for a holiday away from the quotidian tasks of our working lives. There is one thing you learn early on as a physician. You have to begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand – and melting like a snowflake.
Three items influenced the choice for our trip. We found an incredible deal to some of the choicest spots on the French and Italian Riviera (less than the cost of a week in Hawaii, as meals, transportation and sightseeing were all included.) This in turn, made it easy to persuade a number of friends to coordinate their schedules with ours so that they could accompany us on the trip. (Given the time commitments of our lives, sometimes this is the only way we are able to get together.) Last, but not least, my son and his wife were able to join us for the French half of our tour, as their home in Paris is but a five-hour train ride to Nice on the TGV.
Lufthansa provides a direct flight from the West Coast to Munich, accompanied by their better than average service, a choice of 15 movies, to which we provided our own noise reduction headphones, making the 11 ½ hour flight almost bearable. Coach seats still place chiropractic challenges on our bodies, but fortunately we are still young enough to know we will quickly recover. From Munich, it’s only an hour by turboprop to Pisa, and 45-minute bus ride from Pisa’s airport to the Hotel Luna in Marina di Massa. With the nine-hour time difference, it’s almost 11 PM by the time we check in. Italians eat late, and we are promised a cold buffet upon arrival. True to their word, there is a nice selection of antipastos laid out for us, and we eat our fill. But wait…now they bring out a plate of pasta too good to pass up. This is followed by a full meat and vegetable entrée, and some dolce (dessert) to finish off the meal, and us as well. So, our American friends, some of whom have never been to Italy before, are introduced to the gustatory side of la dolce vita.
The following morning greets us with bright sunshine, a breakfast of rolls, cold cuts and cheeses, croissants and cappuccinos, then a short bus ride to La Spezia, a port city that is the home of the Italian navy, and from where we catch our train to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre consists of five small seaside villages located along 18 kilometers of steep, marble precipices plunging down to crashing foam below. Blue greens fading to spare shades of azure and then to turquoise, sapphire, and cerulean waters lined by rose-colored marble shores create an image that makes this area unforgettable. There are extensive networks of paths connecting the villages, the most famous of which is the “Via dell’ Amore”, carved out of the rock above the sea that joins Manarola and Riomaggiore. Legend has it that the path was made by the townspeople so that two lovers from the separated villages could meet for a lover’s tryst.
The train ride Monterosso to Vernazza provides more scenic panoramas, as well as an unexpected adventure for the group. As we are all boarding the train, I notice a group of four young girls crowding on with us, then stepping back off the train. Dave in our group yells at his wife to check her purse. In a few seconds, four of the group realize they are missing their wallets, at which point we all pile off the train, and manage to grab and subdue the four young gypsies, one whom, about 16 years old, is clearly pregnant. The stationmaster calls for the police. The girls try to brazen it out, protesting their innocence, but as they see the police arriving, they reluctantly produce the four missing wallets, knowing they are more likely to get off if they are not found with them in their possession. These types of incidents are very common in big cities, but according to our Italian guide, Giuseppe, have never occurred in his 32 years of escort experience in small towns.
Vernazza has one of those picture postcard harbors lined with shuttered centuries old buildings in pastel hues, a jetty of rose colored marble boulders, and small, brightly painted fishing boats bobbing in clear water. Terraced hillsides provide the perfect backdrop for a leisurely lunch of mortadella, local cheeses and a crisp baguette that we proceed to consume sitting on a comfortable bench, watching local life swirl by us. We always try to travel in the spring or fall, for not only is the weather better, but the crowds of tourists have yet to arrive, and fares are always more reasonable.
The white Cinque Terre wine is quite good, and pesto sauce is said to have been invented in the area. And as anyone who has ever been to Italy will tell you, you have never tasted ice cream until you have tried a gelato, a lighter but more flavorful delight from the inventors of this most marvelous treat.
Evening finds us back in Marina di Massa, just in time for the first of our evening cocktail parties. These parties are an old tradition of our group trips. Prior to departure, Fran, our travel agent, distribute bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and wine for each member of troop to carry with them, leaving her to purchase only the necessary mixer on arrival. This provides room in everyone’s suitcase for any souvenirs they might purchase, and the parties give time for all of us to be together, exchange experiences from the preceding day, and allow those who don’t know each other to get better acquainted. Cocktails are followed by another five course dinner, even better than the one served on our arrival. Those of us who still have energy left stroll after dinner through town and walk along the waterfront, while the rest dive into bed to recharge their batteries for the next day to come.